"The Daughter-In-Law" Peterson's Magazine, vol. 53, Feb. 1868, pp. 121-32.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "THE SECOND LIFE," ETC., ETC.
One of the oddest cases I remember, in my later practice, was that of Ben Pickett Moore, of which, I believe, I have not told you. I give the full name, as we usually did, for Ben belonged to one of those interminable Virginia family connections, in which it is necessary for a man to hold on constantly to his three names to preserve his identity at all. There were eight families of Moores in the one county neighborhood, and a Benjamin in each. Ben Pickett had another name, I remember, Sledgehammer, gained at school, I suppose, as most apt soubriquets are; the fellow deserved it, if a certain sturdy, heavy strength of body and mind could entitle him to it; downright with his word or his blow; square-built, outspoken, generous.
When I knew him first, I liked the boy in spite of a certain rough, boorish manner when with men. That was only the self-conceit of youth, I saw, and would wear off. With women, his old mother especially, he was curiously gentle; his eye, too, pleased me, it was a clear, deep blue—an earnest, reasonable, stern eye, yet capable of great tenderness.
I knew him to be a dull student, and remember thinking how injudicious his mother was in trying to force him through the usual classical course. He had an aptitude for trading; and if he had but a year or two given him in which to sow his wild oats, and a firm, unseen hand over him in the sowing, would at last be a thorough comfort and help to her.
This is not the way exactly, however, to talk to a woman; so beyond a few careless hints I did not attempt it. Ben Pickett's father had been my college chum; for this reason, therefore, I kept an attentive eye on the affairs of his widow. Besides, I liked her individually. The estate was large, but so hampered with debts and mortgages that, until Ben's majority, it yielded the barest, support for the two. What it would be worth then was difficult to conjecture—much of it consisting of tracts in Iowa, and what is now Kansas, bought by the old man on speculation, and whose ultimate value depended, of course, on the tide of emigration.
The widow's house was in Fauquier county, but a few miles distant from my own—a small brick dwelling, compassed by a few acres, the produce of which, with some good paying stock in an insurance company, were for many years her sole dependence. The management of the estate (in which, by-the-by, the widow had claim to only an annuity when it was freed from debt) was in the hands of a man named Halleck, Ben's guardian. I believe this man to have been entirely honest, and anxious to deal justly with both boy and mother; but in his treatment of the former he was ignorant and harsh.
When I was first consulted with regard to the clearing off the mortgages on the Kansas property, I found Ben driven to the point of an open revolt. He was about sixteen, then, a boy, as I said, of as good material as ever a useful, God-serving man was moulded from, But, unfortunately, there was no moulder. The more Ben's strong instincts and intolerant will swayed him to pursuits for which nature had fitted him, and the stiffer his boyish self-conceit made him, the more fiercely he was reined and bitted and jerked back into the beaten path. I foresaw the end clearly enough. Ben was stronger than either his mother or Halleck—every irritation, every day's battle was making him more resolute for the final struggle. I tried to interfere, but with no effect. The widow sighed and shook her head, and betook herself, like too many parents, to studying some doctrinal theology instead of the nature of her boy; and Halleck grinned coarsely, and reminded me that nobody's children were so well raised as those who never had them; so I said no more. I tried the boy; he was approachable by a few words of common sense, I found; and there was not wanting a rough sense in what he said—his face hot, the veins swollen in his forehead.
“I know, Mr. Page; but I’m not going to the devil as you think. I respect myself, mother—Well,” wiping his forehead and choking, “no man ever had a better mother; but she don’t understand me—that’s what is wrong. As for that Halleck, he’s an ignorant, canting scoundrel. You needn’t shake your head—I know him. At any rate, he’ll not force me into being what I’m not fit for—I belong to myself.”
That was all I could get from him; but I saw his sullen determination was reaching its height.
One thing only restrained him in his outbreaks of passion, this was the presence of a young girl, an orphan cousin, whom his mother had taken years before to rear and educate. I fancied that, perhaps, the boy-and-girl-liking which the two youngsters had, naturally, for each other, would tame Ben down; but I reckoned too far on it. Jane was a quiet, fair-haired, submissive little thing; I used to see her sewing sometimes in Mrs. Moore's room, dressed in brown, but knew little more of her. I do not much affect women who are submissive, and dress in brown. She was but little more than a child, then.
I saw Halleck's daughter there once or twice, and retained a more distinct remembrance of her than of the other. She was a lank, bony child, some twelve years old, with sallow skin, and an Indian cast of countenance; the Dahcotah eye, too, oddly enough, black, shining. Yet even then there was a kind of gaudy beauty about her—even the ugliness was defiant, and attracted closer examination. She came on a visit to the Moores, and was another cause of irritation to Ben.
"What does he send that prying child of his here for?" he broke out to me in a fresh heat. "She's as hypocritical as her father—and he's the blackest scoundrel in Fauquier. You'll find that out, I'll wager." However, I think Ben Pickett judged that man harshly. I believe him to have been honest.
I must pass briefly over this part of my story. Matters went on from bad to worse, until, as might have been expected, Ben was missing one morning, and never returned, taking with him only his own horse, and a few dollars. It was about the time when Texas was the Eldorado for all runaways from the upper States; so we traced Ben to New Orleans, and concluded he had gone on with the others—scape-graces from justice or fortune.
Pine brought me the news at breakfast. "Dat Halleck done worrit young mars' off 't last. Him'll come right side up, dat's sure." For Ben was a favorite with all the servants in the county, who counted him as a gentleman of the pure blood, though he had nothing but kind words to give them. Halleck, on the contrary, was an interloper, a new-comer, who was making his money, as they were quick-witted enough to see, off of the careless negligence of the old county families. The house-servants had little to employ their minds outside of family gossip, and very little could be kept from them of that.
I had my horse saddled, and rode over to the widow's. It was a dull, rainy morning; Halleck was there before me, blaming the boy violently; and, as might have been expected, rousing the mother with every word more hotly against himself. The little meek woman had more life in her than I had ever given her credit for, though it took this shock to waken it.
"That is enough, sir," holding her hand to her head, and motioning Halleck to be silent. "I doubt if the boy be altogether to blame. God knows! I've thought, sometimes, we were taking the part of the Almighty and trying to unmake him."
Halleck started to his feet in a rage.
"Not another word," she cried, bursting into tears. "He's my boy—it's I that suffer the loss. Oh! Ben, Ben! To think that I brought you to this."
Her niece, little Jenny, met me in the hall as I went out. She did not look submissive now, her cheeks were burning scarlet, and her eyes angry and flashing. "If she had talked in that way yesterday he need not have gone."
"So you knew of his going, eh?" lifting up her head by the chin. "Yes, Mr. Page, I did. He couldn't bear everything. I would not have him submit to—"
"So Ben's gone to seek his fortune, like the prince in the fairy-tale, and is coming back in a coach-and-four to carry away his bride—hey, Jenny?"
I had made a sharp guess—the color left her face. "I don't know," she said, frightened and trembling, and ran up the stairs, leaving me laughing at the child's face.
But Ben's going was tragedy enough. He never returned, nor even wrote a line to comfort his mother with the knowledge that he was yet alive.
As years passed, I believe his loss grew heavier for her to bear, more vivid. She was so utterly alone, this woman, with not even pleasant remembrances to keep her company. Her married life had not been a happy one. Ben's birth and youth had been the one bright day of her whole history; and now he had blotted that out, made it the hardest and cruelest to go back to; for she did not, as years went on, pardon herself, but grew more savage in her remorse and anger at her own blindness in being guided by Halleck. The girl, Jenny, was the only comfort she had. She did not marry when she reached womanhood. I do not know, indeed, if she ever had a lover, though she was a delicate, attractive woman, with a mild, appealing face, like one who had suffered a good deal of pain. She had a chronic weakness of one hip, which gave her this look—it made her slightly lame also. I used to ride over there often on Sunday afternoons and take tea with them; and always came away with as rested, cheerful a feeling as if I had been to church. The little shady farm was so quiet and homelike; the old maples in front; the mossy well; the roses; the very chickens strutting about, had such an air of thorough content, as if they were fitted into their proper niche in the world, and meant to stay there. Then Jenny made a comfortable picture herself, to carry away with one, in her dress of soft, delicate colors, (she had doffed the browns.) Did I say she was pretty ? I don't know if she was—I never thought of that when I was with her. She had brown hair, I remember, and dark-blue eyes, and a white arm. But you only felt comforted when you were with her, and quite forgot any rasping worry you might have, and went away refreshed as by a cool, invigorating bath, not thinking of the girl again. I suppose she had this effect because she was so sincere and earnest a person, very simple in her manner, and with little thought of herself.
The widow was the only point in that homestead shifting or changeable. She was nervous, moody. Sometimes, at the tea-table, her thin hands would begin to shake, and her long, pale face be turned constantly to the door, as if expecting some one to enter. Jenny would break in with her low, cheery voice, and never failed to soothe and turn the current of her thought. She never gave Ben up; and, I suppose, seeing me made the remembrance of him more real. I used to think the girl looked pale and sick after these times; but she never complained of being lonely, or anything else. Of course, though, being a woman, she had a woman's natural needs and pain.
Halleck died one or two years after Ben's departure, and I was appointed administrator. His daughter, Laura, went south somewhere to teach.
We heard of poor Ben at last. When the battle of Vera Cruz was fought, Lieut. Benjamin Pickett Moore was reported as severely wounded. However, this might not be our Ben. I kept the paper from the widow, only confiding my fears to the girl. "He was among the foremost. I think it was Ben," she said. The next week's news confirmed her opinion. There was a short paragraph, stating that he was dead; was a gallant officer, etc., from Galveston, formerly of Fauquier County, Va.; and so that was the end of his short story.
The estate, in default of other heirs, came now to Jenny; Mrs. Moore, as I said, having but an annuity in it. By careful nursing, and, I must acknowledge, some sharp practice on my part with other claimants in Iowa, the property had grown until it amounted to about forty thousand dollars, invested in the west. I held it in trust for her.
"It's not a large fortune, as times go," I said to her one day. "But your tastes are simple; and when you marry, it will be sure to keep you out of the danger of wearing little cares— corroding, not strengthening, I think."
"I never have thought of marrying," she said, gravely.
She was not yet of age. As soon as her majority was reached, she intended to put divers little plans into operation, and used to make me her confidant. Her aunt was to be enticed off on a visit, and the house altered and refurnished, so as to surprise her on her return; some adjoining acres purchased, "to give her employment in laying them out. She will have real pleasure in that;" and so on, every plan having for its end some comfort to the widow—never a thought of herself. She brought me one day one or two daguerreotypes and crayon sketches of Ben, from which she wished an oil-painting executed—for his mother desired me to send them to Inman, whom we thought our best portrait-artist then. She put on mourning, as his mother did, for Ben; but, if her loss lay deeper than the widow's, she made no sign.
I began to know Jenny pretty thoroughly now, being her trustee, as I said, and studied her curiously, wondering if the content was real. She had more sound good sense, and impetuous warmth of feeling than I had given her credit for possessing, and at the same time a hearty love of fun and a laugh; but that had been choked down by her forced life of still endurance. Perhaps the same reason would account for a certain reticence about the girl—beyond a given point you could not go; something in her eyes said, "No further!" Was there any want or loss in her life that she must conceal?
However, my idle speculations about the matter were suddenly set aside by somewhat weightier affairs.
Some ten months after the report of Ben's death reached us, I received a summons, one stormy evening, from Mrs. Moore to come to the farm immediately, "on business of importance," the note stated. I confess I did not go with any alacrity. I had just settled myself for an evening's snug enjoyment, with Storrs, an old chum of mine—segars, and dressing-gowns, and news-papers ready, and whiffs from the dining-room of an oyster-supper in preparation. I found the widow alone in the little parlor. She was knitting—it had become a chronic habit with her, knitting—and looked even thinner, more dried-up and bent, than usual, her widow's-cap limper, her dress a rustier black. As she stooped over the everlasting click, click of the needles, I fancied the poor little soul had cried all the sap and juices out of her body; her meek blue eyes were quite leaden to-night, and the skin of her small face red and rasped with tears. My discomfort was nothing to this.
"What is it, Mrs. Moore?" I said, as heartily as I could, drawing up to the fire, and unbuttoning my spatterdashes.
She knitted harder, making grimaces to keep back the tears. "I oughtn't to say that it's worse than all before, but it seems so—it seems so to me, Mr. Page. Oh! Ben, Ben! it was enough to lose him! but to think he would have forgotten his mother like this! And Jenny, that he—"
"What is it?" patiently, after she had sobbed and then sniffled herself back to silence.
Without speaking, she drew out a letter from her pocket, and gave it to me. When I had cleaned my spectacles, and got them on, I saw that the letter was post-marked, New Orleans, and that the paper and envelope was broadly bordered with black, the writing, a lady's— delicate, characterless.
The letter, to be brief, purported to be from the widow of Benjamin Pickett Moore—formerly Laura Halleck, the daughter of his guardian. She stated that she had been teaching at Galveston, where Ben had met and married her, some eighteen months before his death; that she had one child—a boy; that she purposed, if the plan met with Mrs. Moore's approbation, to return to Virginia, bringing the child to visit his grandmother, and bringing also the body of her husband. "It was his last request," she said, "that, should he fall in battle, his bones should be gathered to his fathers."
"Very considerate in Ben," I growled, inwardly. "It's a pity he did not use his bones to come home on before he made such an infernal fool of himself." However, I said nothing.
It was a very pretty letter—very pretty. Mrs. Benjamin Pickett Moore was a woman evidently of considerable range of feeling; or, certainly, of aptitude of expression for it.
"Humph!" I said, laying it down.
"She's very true to our Ben, Mr. Page," said his mother, "and his boy. Well," after a pause, "I do want to see Ben's boy, God bless him! But it was a dreadful shock. To think Ben would have done it, and never said a word to the mother that nursed him about it—it's that that hurts."
It was a bitter silence that followed.
"I'd like to see the boy," she began again, with a sigh, as if dismissing some thought that stung deeply. "I'll do as well by it as I did for my own—though he did forget. Do you mind Laury, Mr. Page?"
"I did not think our Ben liked Laury much," meditatively. "But youngsters change their minds. There was Jenny—Ben was promised to Jenny when he went away, Mr. Page, did you know? Said he'd never come back until he was able to marry her."
"Pooh!" I said, impatiently. "The boy was I sixteen years old. Nobody but school-children talk of love at that age."
"Well, I know," submissively. "But Ben did despise Halleck so. It seems so queer about Laury." So the old lady meandered on, while I beat the bars of the grate with the poker, and whistled, trying to keep down my impatience. She seemed to have forgotten, or never to have perceived, that Jenny would again be left penniless; and that the property I had been coddling these many years was to be swept out of my hands by this daughter of Halleck's, and her brat; for I could not, somehow, identify Ben with the business at all. I did not interrupt the old lady, only read the letter over again and I again, with a growing irritated sense of defeat. I had nursed this estate so carefully; and now—I never did like Halleck. There was poor Jenny— Well, you all know how it feels to be thoroughly baffled, and have nobody to abuse for it.
"What do you think, Mr. Page?" said the widow, at last, wondering at my silence.
"I think nothing about it, madam," rising abruptly. "I don't know why you sent for me, in fact. Ben had a right to marry whom he pleased, I suppose; and we can't blame the woman for coming to see what her speculation is worth. Where's Jenny?"
"She's putting up curtains in the library; I don't know what she's fussing at it to-night for," querulously. "Peggy or Lize could have done it. But Laury'll be here most as soon as her letter—did you notice? On Wednesday, likely; Jenny's getting ready. I wonder how Laury'll be to live with?" letting her knitting fall on her knee. "It used to most split my head to hear Ben and her squabbling, day in and out. And now, Mr. Page, I cannot understand it."
I put the poker in its place, and turned off to find Jenny, when the widow stopped me. "She sent a likeness of the boy—Ben, she calls him," I opened the case; the child was apparently about a year old, taken while twisting in the arms of his nurse—a fat, uncouth infant, but with Ben Pickett's square cut of jaw and steady eyes unmistakably marked. "Very like his father," I said. "A remarkable resemblance for so young a child."
"Jenny says not. She thinks it's a sly face; I made her tell me what she thought. She's hardly spoke a word since the letter came."
I found Jenny mounted on a step-ladder, driving tacks and tying strings. She was not fond of work of any sort, but I thought I understood this; she was trying to escape from the unceasing drip, drip of the widow's talk, and maybe from something in herself. She came down when I called her, however, and stood quite silent, the little hammer in her hand.
"What do you think of this, Jenny?"
"I?" in a made, artificial tone. "What should I think, Mr. Pago? It was natural Ben should marry."
"What has that to do with it, child? Don't you see? This boy is his life-heir. Upon my soul, I believe you never thought of that."
"No, I did not," flashing into a sudden heat. "Do you think I care for that? As if money was what I had lost!" dropping the hammer, and pulling at her collar to loosen it. "Why, what have you lost?" Then, biting my lips, I turned suddenly away, remembering how solitary and uncared-for her life had been, without friends or lovers, like those of other women; and that, perhaps, she had been nursing this one story of long ago all this time, none other having come to take its place. I saw her growing pale, but took no notice. She was not of the fainting sort, her pride would conquer any weakness of that kind, I knew. "I'll go home," I said, carelessly, "I can be of no use to-night. When do you expect her?"
"Ben's wife?" She said that with a voice as steady as mine, but with the most goaded eyes I ever saw in a human head. "On Wednesday, I think. I'm making ready for her."
"Day after to-morrow? Well, I'll be over, then, and attend to business. She'll be quick enough to bring that on the carpet, I'll warrant. Good-by."
I was turning away, but I could not go without a kind word to the poor lame thing! If she had been fool enough to go on caring for this fellow all her life, it was no more than might be expected from a woman, and she deserved pity as much as if it were a real loss she had suffered. "I say, Jenny, you had better go to bed. Put up that trumpery. You're worn-out. Tell aunt Peggy to bring you a hot foot-bath, and a soothing-powder, that's a good girl."
She laughed. "I will, presently."
"This news has excited you a little, you see, and—
"Oh, no!" hurriedly. "It's all right. I often wondered if Ben had married. Only Laura It's all right," shutting her mouth firmly, and going back to her work.
"I never knew anything more all wrong," I thought, as I jogged back home; and the more I thought of it, the more dissatisfied and angry I grew at the whole matter. I was not at all sorry when a summons to Warren county called me off the next day, and detained me for a week or two. It was selfish, perhaps; but what good could I have done if I had been there. The first roughnesses and stings of the meeting would be smoothed over before I returned. I was growing old, saving myself from all worry and disquiet, as far as was possible.
I reached home at night, and before morning had heard, from two or three sources, the all-important piece of gossip which, for the past four days, had kept the neighborhood in a ferment; how that "Ben Pickett had left a wife and child, and they had returned, bringing Ben's body back with them; and there had been a funeral, which the whole county had attended; how the Fauquier Guards and the Morgan Rangers had gone in force, burying him with military honors; and Mrs. Wadman's coach had overturned, but nobody was hurt; only her sorrel mare, Pole—didn't I remember?—had its leg broken; and that Mrs. Ben Pickett turned out to be Laury Halleck; and wouldn't the whole of the western lands go to that boy—and how much were they worth?" Storrs first, and afterward Pine, in a more modest fashion.
"They are at the widow's, then—Mrs. Ben and the boy?" I demanded of the latter, as he finished his harangue, and the strapping of my razors at the same time.
"Jes so, Marster John. Sam, he's seen dat boy, and he says he's reglar chip off the old block. Dunno. Haven't bin over yet myself. Goin' to take Miss Jenny a bunch of hot-house flowers dis evenin'. With your permission?" recollecting himself with a lofty bow.
"Certainly, Pine. Take flowers to Miss Jenny whenever you please; and tell Mrs. Moore I shall have the pleasure of calling to-morrow." I could not in decency defer going any longer.
"Well, Pine," I said, as he brought me the bed-room candle that night, "was Miss Jenny well?"
"No, sir; poorly. Was nussin' dat big boy, however, sittin' on de steps. She looks as if dat misery in her back was gittin' wuss. See Miss Laury, Mars' John." "Very well, Pine." I was in no humor for gossip; but something was on the old man's mind, and I knew it was sure to come off, so I might as well submit. "She's 'black an' comely,' as de Holy Book says. Yallow as our mulatto Susy, Mars' John, 'n sharp as de debbil. Um" He placed my slippers, raked down the fire, beginning to speak once or twice, and choking it down. At last: "Well, de boy is like Mars' Ben, um can't deny dat. 'S got de Moore mark, too, trust Pine for seein' to dat. But, Mars' John," facing me suddenly, "why didn't they open dat coffin? What for dey hustle him off for, widout givin' his frens a chance for to identify dat it was Mars' Ben Pickett. I'd hev known him. Dat was Miss Laury's doin'."
"Pshaw, Pine! The coffin was soldered—metallic. He has been dead for months." "Oh!" with a crest-fallen look. "Well, how'd we to know if dat was Mars' Ben dar? Nuffin' but Miss Laury's word for't, 'n de Moore estate d'pendin' on it. I tink of dese tings. Ye see, Mars' John, I know'd dem chillen when dey wus chillen, and a deeper one dan Miss Laury I never know'd; she used to come it over Mars' Ben awful. I know'd 'em all well—used to come ter fish in our creek all der three of 'em."
"Very well, Pine; I'm sleepy now." But, somehow, as I rode over the next morning to the Moore farm, Pine's absurd suspicions would haunt me; and though I laughed at them, I determined to satisfy myself and the law thoroughly before surrendering the property.
It was a sunny, warm morning in August. I met old Jim, his saw over his shoulder, coming down from the wood-yard; gave him my horse, and walked toward the parlor, where I knew I should, most probably, find the ladies. Jenny, in her quiet mourning dress, was in the porch, I had noticed, by-the-way, her mourning for Ben had been as near to a widow's as possible—it was not altered now. She had a big, soggy-faced baby in her lap, which she was trying anxiously to please. She looked worn and haggard.
"So, this is the boy, eh?" I said, chucking it under the chin. "Very like its father."
"I cannot see that," with an eager scrutiny. "I do wish I could see that."
I glanced in through the open door; Mrs. Moore was knitting; and a younger lady, also in black, was seated at her feet in a childlike fashion, with needles in her hand, apparently learning the stitch. I recognized Laura Halleck at once as she looked up. Very sallow, with jet black hair and eyes, and singularly delicate hands and feet! She held out her hand, with a gentle smile, as I approached her.
"I did not think you would remember me, Mr. Page," she said; and then bent over her knitting again. "I'm so glad you see the likeness to Ben," said the old lady, taking the child in her arms as Jenny brought it in. "It's a great comfort to me. I think I will love it very much some day."
"Someday?" I glanced, as I spoke, at Mrs. Ben; but she had not heard, apparently—so would not be hurt. I could see no trace of the old sinister, designing look in her face. It was only very sad and quiet. She seemed, too, indifferent as to whether the likeness to the child's father was apparent or not, which was not business-like, certainly, when so much depended on it.
"Yes, very like Benny when he was this age," said the old widow, holding the child's hand to her withered lips. "And here's the Moore mark, Mr. Page," with a pleased smile. "What is that?" "Don't you know ? A sixth finger on the left hand. Every one of my husband's family have it. A small protuberance outside of the little finger; of course, it is always clipped off immediately, but it leaves a scar. Here's the scar, you see—very deep, too."
"My baby was several weeks old when it was removed, is the reason," said Mrs. Laura, looking up for a moment.
"Jenny can't see the likeness to Ben at all," pursued the old lady. "I wish she could."
"I wish she could," said Mrs. Laura, looking up affectionately in Jenny's face. "You were so fond of Ben—just like a sister."
"A sister!" said Jenny, mechanically. She took the baby again, and went out.
I noticed, then, and always afterward, how she clung to the child, and avoided the mother— and thought it, too, an unreasonable prejudice; for I soon became quite prepossessed in favor of Mrs. Laura. She seemed to be a mild, inoffensive thing, with no care for her rights; or, indeed, any thought beyond sitting by the old lady and gently ministering to her—a little lazy, perhaps, but certainly not selfish.
Weeks passed without a question being uttered by her concerning the business part of the affair. She was apparently unconscious that Ben had died worth a dollar more than his lieutenant's pay. However, when I, at last, delicately approached the matter, hinting that certificates of a her marriage, etc., would be requisite to establish the child's claim, she placed them immediately in my hand in remarkably well-arranged and complete order, considering that they had been preserved by a woman.
There was a written certificate, from a clergyman in Galveston, of the marriage of Benjamin P. Moore and Laura Halleck. Other papers, proving the child's birth and baptism; letters from her husband, while in the army, in which frequent reference was made to his mother, Jenny, and even to me. The young dog had a heart, and did not forget old friends. Poor Ben! I felt my eyes dim in reading those letters; and so, every day, grew more accustomed to think of the boy as the dead husband of this sad, quiet woman—and to forget the Ben and Laury Halleck of long ago.
Of course, I knew my duty, and no preference for Jenny would deter me from it. The papers a were brought before the Orphans' Court, and guardians chosen for the boy—his mother was one, and Crawford another. I declined, I hardly know why. Mrs. Moore's annuity was taken cleanly out at once; and the young widow entered into possession of her third, beside the sum allowed to her for the maintenance and care of the child. During the whole proceeding, she remained perfectly passive and acquiescent in whatever we proposed; so, naturally, Crawford and I felt called upon to exert ourselves in seeing that full justice was rendered her.
I was much at the farm-house at this period, and often used to draw her on to talk of Ben. He had traded in wool in Texas, she said, before the war commenced. She had met him in Galveston, and had married him there. There was no outbreak of sorrow when she spoke of him; that made me trust more in the sincerity of her grief. She seemed to be controlling herself. I noticed that Jenny invariably left the room when she begun speaking of her husband; gradually, too, she ceased to notice or pet the boy, as at first; some bitter, unspoken thought, I fancied, was continually on the poor girl's lips.
One day, I remember, after the matter had been finally adjudged by the commissioners, Mrs. Laura came down stairs with a locket, which she silently placed in my hand. "Mother and Jenny saw it last night," she said, after a pause. "It was taken a month before his death."
It was a good likeness of poor Ben. He had altered but little since I saw him, a boy of sixteen. And yet it pained me, someway, to look at it. What alteration there had been was for the worse. The animal nature of the man had grown coarser; the finer soul of the face had sunk out of sight. I looked silently at the down hanging lip, the deadened eye; it was the boy's face, certainly—but what could have brought him to this? Jenny was sitting near me at the table. As I looked up her eye met mine.
"If that is Ben, I know now why he married Laura Halleck," I heard her say. The words came from her irrepressibly in a bitter whisper; then she went on with her work; and that was the only sign the poor girl made during the whole progress of the affair.
I had been a little surprised (so much was I impressed by the affectionate sweetness of Mrs. Laura's manner) that she should have retained possession of the farm-house as part of her dower. She did so, however; but when I hinted how deep the attachment of the old lady was to the place, she had said with a frank smile, "We are one now, Mr. Page. What is mine, is Ben's mother's."
For about a month that seemed to be literally the fact. It was a curiously affectionate devotion she appeared to feel for every one for whom Ben had cherished the slightest regard. At the end of that time the first installment of back moneys due to her was paid; and on the evening of that day, as nearly as I can recollect, Mrs. Laura begun untying the strings of her mask, which it was no longer worth her while to wear.
I found the old lady, on my visit, knitting with a nervous haste that threatened detriment to heel and toe. "It's Laury," she blurted out, after her usual outspoken fashion. "She's had the house filled with architects, and carpenters, and I don't know what not. I'm not used to such doings," wiping her perspiring forehead, "No, Laury, I'm not. I must have quiet. And as for altering the house—"
There was a keen glitter in Mrs. Laura's eyes that I never saw before. "You will have to become used to such doings, my dear madam; s that is, if you still think proper to remain with me. I really," turning to me with a sweet smile, "must have the house thoroughly renovated; it is in such miserable taste. And what is life worth, if one is surrounded by ugliness and disgust continually?"
The old lady, meanwhile, had sat, her spectacles pushed up, staring in dumb perplexity. "If I remain with you, Laury? I don't understand."
The woman blushed; but she had a point to make, and was resolved to reach it. "You understand, mother—Mr. Page will explain to you—that we are both, happily, independent, each of the other. This house, which is mine," with a slight emphasis, "is distasteful to me in its present condition, and, perhaps, might be s just as unpleasant to you when it is renewed. I did not know if then, you would prefer to remain with me, as I said, my words were not clear."
"Laury? This house—where Ben was born?" She put her hands to her head in a dazed sort of way, "Why child, it's my house. I'll be carried out of it to the grave. Why, I came home here on my wedding-day, years before you were born, No, no, Laury! we'll have no changes here. It'll last out my time, and Jenny's."
"Don't distress yourself, mother," with a half-scared, furtive glance at me, "it will not disturb you a great deal. And if it should," setting her face hardly, "you would find boarding a far pleasanter mode of life, after a month's ', trial. A first shock over, you know, like a cold ' bath. But as long as you prefer remaining with me, you are heartily welcome—you must always remember that. As for Jenny—"
"What of Jenny?" sharply. "She's my child better and truer to me than the child I nursed at my bosom was. You'll turn her adrift on the world, will you?" shrilly.
The face of Mrs. Laura grew harder as it returned the old woman's look.
"Then I go with her." Her voice had risen to a pitiful cry.
But Mrs. Laura was calm as before, a little pale, perhaps; but it was evident this was a disagreeable business, which she thought it I better to have done with at once.
"I don't know, mother," she said; "Jenny is certainly not the most congenial companion for me. She has taken no pains to become so. I have noticed her behavior, sharply since I came. It will have to alter greatly before I consent to her becoming a permanent inmate of my house."
The widow held her hands tightly to her head again. It was a strange motion, and frightened me.
"You had better retire, madam," I urged. "Give yourself time before you speak of this matter farther. It has been broken suddenly to you."
By degrees I induced her to leave the room, and then returned. Mrs. Laura had risen, and was waiting for me.
Oddly enough, I looked at her then critically, for the first time since her return; but this was the first time I had seen the true woman. There was the old repulsive beauty about her, now that her face was permitted to show her soul—the black eyes lit, and the thin lips scarlet. She was going to brave me—I saw that at once; there was to be no sham work between us.
"I understand, from the tenor of your remarks," I said, "that it is your intention to remove Mrs. Moore and her niece from this house?"
"Yes, Mr. Page," with a smile. "To be honest, it is the best plan for us all. The sort of life I shall lead would be repugnant to their habits. I am young, you know; just beginning life, in fact. I thought it better to be plain about it. I do wish them to go, and soon. I am sorry if my determination has given you offence, Mr. Page."
I'm afraid my old hands were a little unsteady just then, buttoning my coat. "No offence, madam. No one wonders at any creature for sustaining its true character. I only regret you did not assume yours sooner. I will take steps for the removal of Mrs. Moore and her niece."
"Tut, tut! You are so hasty, Mr. Page. Quite a Hotspur in old age. Why you would make us the county-talk, if you were to be so precipitate. I assure you I—"
"And if you wish to consult me further in our business relations," I burst out, "you will find me at my office. It will be impossible for me again to come under this roof."
And so ended my last interview with Mrs. Ben. I heard her laugh as I went down the porch-steps; but I think it was done to irritate me, in which she certainly succeeded.
I had hardly grown cool, or ashamed of my heat, the next day, when Pine, coming mysteriously into the inner office, announced Miss Jenny.
"Well, child?" I said; "you have notice to quit—is that what you have come to tell me? To think old John Page should have been so taken in by that woman!"
Jenny seated herself quietly, and put aside her veil. The last few months had told on her sorely; her face was thinner than I had ever seen it, but her blue eyes were more luminous. "It's the old Moore pluck coming out in her at last," I said to myself; and, upon my soul, it's a better beautifier than resignation. "You look as if you had taken heart o' grace, Jenny," I said, "and were going to give battle, eh?"
"Something like it," with a faint smile.
I shut the door. "Well, I am ready. But there's nothing to be done, Jenny."
"I mean to contest the boy's claim, Mr. Page."
"It's not for the money," her color rising. "God knows it is not for that! But she has gone a step too far; for Ben's mother's sake, it is right I should take this stand."
"But, Jenny, I don't understand. Ben's child is the rightful heir."
"I will enter suit on the ground that this is not his child, and that Laura Halleck never was his wife. I doubted it from the first."
That was because she did not wish it true, I thought. So I said, "Child, child! there's no hope; her papers are conclusive."
"Not to me. There may have been another Ben Pickett Moore; that certificate may have been a forgery. The letters she shows as his are apt imitations of his writing; but they are not his. In style, conception, expression, they are utterly foreign to Ben's habit of thought."
"He might have altered in these many years," I said. "And the likeness of the child to its father—pooh! Jenny, this fancy is untenable. Give it up."
"I will not give it up. If you refuse to help me, some one will," she said, firmly. "I have noticed a thousand discrepancies of statement and errors that escaped you. One trifle, for instance. The boy crawled into my room, the other day, with a locket which he had dragged, by its chain, from his mother's drawers; and in I taking it back to her I could not help seeing the inscription, as the letters were gold, on blue enamel. It was 'Philip Cromlin, to his wife Laura.'"
This looked more to me like business than anything she had yet told me. So I drew my chair up closer, and began to question her in earnest. In a word, therefore, whether because I was logically convinced there was a chance of success, or whether I was blinded by my own wishes, I will not say; but I consented to institute proceedings, on Jenny's behalf, for the recovery of the estate.
"All we can do is to force her proof before a stricter tribunal," I said. "But what if she is what she professes, and yet her proof fails—eh, Jenny?"
"I am not afraid of being unjust. Ben never married Laura Halleck."
So, after all, her chief reason for doubt was belief in Ben's constancy! Oh! woman, woman!
The case was ruled for the next court, a month ahead. I need not say what excitement it produced in the quiet county neighborhood—it was like thunder coming in a clear sky. The tea-tables, the negro-quarters, at last the news-papers, took it up, argued it hotly, always ending by siding with the Moores. Halleck had been unpopular, and his mantle of cunning was easily transferred, by popular opinion, to Laury's shoulders.
Meanwhile, she and her child removed to the village inn until the suit should be decided, becoming objects of public interest every time they put their faces over the threshold. Crawford, as guardian for the child, was forced, unwillingly, to aid in their defence; Fawcett, of Henrico, I think, was her other counsel. Crawford, afterward, told me that he never had met with a more astute, comprehensive mind than that of this woman, or one more remarkable for rapidity of combination. "I used to like to consult with her, simply to study her," he said. "If she had been a man she would have been a most dangerous diplomat."
The time given was but short. However, in it we managed to procure testimony from the military records of the death of Ben in an hospital, to which he was taken, after the battle of Vera Cruz—only to find that such evidence weighed heavily in the widow's favor. In age and personal appearance, the man known as Lieut. Ben Pickett Moore corresponded with our Ben! He had enlisted in Galveston, the captain of his company stated; had been promoted for bravery in the field; had frequently been heard to speak of his family in Virginia, and his wife and child in Galveston. One point only was against her. The nurse, who attended him in the hospital, (whose evidence was forwarded by a local magistrate,) stated that, in his last moments, he refused to answer to the name of Moore, calling himself by another, which she had forgotten. At the time, however, she had attributed this to the delirium which preceded his death.
Storrs took part with me in preparing our attack. We did not intimate to the old widow, or Jenny, how feeble it was; in fact, hardly acknowledged it to each other. "I am so positive we are in the right," said Storrs, "that I feel confident something will turn up. Some lucky hit may suggest itself at the last moment."
The lucky hit, however, was slow in presenting itself. He came to me three days before the trial.
"Crawford tells me they are going to exhume the body at Mrs. Ben's request. What do you think of that?"
I made no reply.
"They wish us to be present. Simpson and Falls are to be there to identify it, if such a thing be possible; though that is absurd. It is almost a year since he died. Only the cutting off of that sixth finger could be—"
"The deuce take the sixth finger!" It may have been silly and sentimental in me; but the fact that the woman could propose the digging up of her dead husband, and assist, as she did, in the examination, mixed an unutterable disgust with my dislike for her; and after that I threw myself into the prosecution of Jenny's case, as I never had into any other.
The next evening, Storrs and Crawford called ' for me, and we drove into the village to the house of Dr. Falls, where the examination was to be made. Simpson, an old friend of the Moore family, Fawcett, Mrs. Laura, and ourselves, were all who were present. I do not wish to recall that evening minutely; I have a vague sense of horror and disgust even now at its remembrance. One thing is distinct enough, however, and that is, that the young widow was the coolest and most self-possessed of the party; at least, until the coffin was opened, when she shivered, and cried piteously.
"God forgive me if I'm wrong," she sobbed out. "It's for my baby I'm doing it. He shall never be the outcast his father was." There was no acting in this—it was real feeling, I saw.
For the rest, I remember only that the lids were uncovered by the undertaker—the outer box being lead and air-tight. When the inside coffin was lifted out, the lights were held nearer, that we could examine the body through the plate-glass cover. I could not help but start nervously; for if Ben Moore had returned to life to plead the cause of his wife and child, he could not have appeared less dead than now. Whether it was owing to the air-tight coffin, or to any other means of preservation, I do not know; but there was not the slightest sign of decay in any part of the body; the eyes were closed as in a light sleep; the lips slightly parted; even a faint color on the cheeks.
"I have no hesitation," whispered Dr. Falls, "in identifying this as the body of Ben Moore. There is an alteration, certainly; but simply the change from boy to manhood."
Simpson nodded gravely.
"The mark on the hand ?" I suggested.
"It is here," said Crawford, stooping nearer. The hand was somewhat curiously placed, so as to exhibit the scar on the side.
"That is a material point," insisted Storrs. "Mere personal likeness is always doubtful, proof, especially after ten years have elapsed. The scar, left by severing a bone, would be peculiar; could be detected by the bone itself; in fact, I would prefer a closer examination by Dr. Falls."
"Certainly," said Crawford, who was, I believe, as unwilling to be convinced as we. "Unscrew, Jim."
There were but two or three screws in this finer coffin. The undertaker soon had them off, and beckoned to Crawford to assist him in lifting the heavy glass cover. As they did it, there was a sudden, smothered exclamation, a puff of wind, and a faint, gray vapor rising in the air; nothing in the coffin but a heap of dust and the skeleton. The admission of air had destroyed the hollow body.
"All the better for examination," said Falls, coolly, picking up one of the smaller bones. "The small finger, you see, Mr. Page; here is a fragment of the excrescence which they call a sixth finger; more like muscle than bone, eh?"
"Yes. Very well, doctor. I'll go into the house, if you please; the air here is choking."
"You'll be ready to-morrow with your affidavits, gentlemen," said Crawford, to the doctor and Simpson, when we were in the house. "I'm sorry, Page," he continued; "but I think this sixth finger finishes the business. That corpse was poor Ben, without a doubt. But I do wish his money had fallen into other hands. You'd better withdraw the suit before it goes into court. Will you?"
"No," said I, looking at Storrs. Storrs stuck his hands in his pocket thoughtfully. "No, we won't, Charley Crawford. Something may turn up. Don't you remember that Maynard case of identification? No, we'll fight it out."
I never prepared to fight out a case, however, with fainter hopes of success. The case was called for the second day of the term. It had been so advertised in the papers that a curious crowd had assembled from all the neighboring counties to be present. Storrs, also, had caused advertisements to be inserted in the leading New York, New Orleans, and Western papers, asking for information regarding Ben; but without any effect, other than shoals of letters concerning Jim, and John, and Reuben Moores, who had emigrated from Virginia, and who all were willing to hear of anything to their advantage.
I called at the farm-house before nine o'clock, the hour for opening court. The old woman was pacing the floor, her needles clicking wildly. Jenny sat pale, but composed, by the fire.
"Try and soothe her, Mr. Page," she said; "I can do nothing. Mr. Storrs tells me there is no chance; but she shall never miss her home. I'll try and atone to her for all she loses."
I knew the girl would do it, if woman could. As for the old lady, there was no use in speaking to her; her excitement would wear itself out in time. "Let her alone," I said, therefore. "I'll be back in the evening; the case may not come up before noon. I'll keep Pine as a runner to let you know how matters are going. He has Bess saddled purposely." She thanked me, and I left them.
It was a clear, cool day; from every group which I passed I heard the same queries and speculations—the Moore suit evidently was the sole point of interest for the time.
It was not called until about one o'clock; the court-house was fairly jammed before that time, as if for a criminal trial. The oddity of this affair gave it a relish, almost as great as a murder, for the public. Well, it was fair sailing for Crawford and Fawcett. They had it all their own way. Storrs and I had so poor a show of opposing testimony to make, that I, for one, wished heartily we had taken Crawford's advice and withdrawn. However, we remained quiet— so quiet that the impression spread among the people that we were holding back conclusive testimony to the last. Their programme was clear. Of Ben Pickett Moore no trace could be produced until he presented himself in the recruiting-office in New Orleans. From thence his story was patent enough; the marriage, the birth of the child, and, finally, the death of the father; these were all completely established. It now only remained to prove that this person was, in fact, the real Ben Pickett Moore.
The letters, on which Mrs. Laura had laid so much stress in family councils, were of no value in point of law. The writing and habit of thought, as Jenny had said, were totally foreign to Ben; there was no inherent evidence in them to prove them other than forgeries. The case rested, then, on the identification of the body by the surgeon and Simpson. I knew their affidavits to be conclusive on that point.
The evidence, which I have thus so briefly summed up, took several hours in delivering, being retarded by Storrs' quibbling proclivities, And now the day was growing late; the setting-sun threw a red light through the windows; far-off odors of supper came from the village.
"How long will your side take?" said Squire Pool, who was beside me.
"Not more than half an hour."
"Eh? So soon? I'll not go for home, then. They say you have a telling blow for the end?"
Pine had been busy all the afternoon, I should say here, jogging from the court to the farm, carrying bits of paper on which I had scribbled anything I could think of to keep the poor old woman composed. At this moment, glancing out over the heads of the crowd, I saw him tying Bess to a post on the other side of the street, and making his way to me with a subdued air of importance. Everybody knew the gray-headed old negro, and joked with him as he went along; and, somehow, the impression having gone abroad, as I said, that we had some important witness to bring forward, every slight motion of ours was watched keenly by the crowd.
"What is it, Pine?" I whispered, as he came behind me and motioned mysteriously.
"Sure as you live, Mars' John, they're off!"
"Who are off? What do you mean, boy?"
"Miss Laury's off—an' the boy. Took a hack an hour ago; heard it at Simms'. Dunno where they driv. Simms don't know. Took der trunk. It all up wid dem."
"They have gone to the farm-house, most probably, to take possession," I said; and I turned to Storrs to tell him that they had gone.
"Dunno," said Pine, with a downcast look. "Oh! by'm-by, Mars' John, a gem'lem at the Warren Hotel, give me this for you an hour or so ago, and I dun forgot it clean;" and he handed me a scrap of paper. "Dar he is, by de door."
I glanced at the paper, then leaned over to Crawford. "Keep it up for a few minutes, Charley. I'll be ready for you then," said, and went out to attend to this other business.
When I returned, Crawford was closing his evidence. There was a slight pause when he had finished—people waited—Storrs shuffled some papers, his red face growing redder. "Deuce take it!" he muttered, "I never shall learn how to be beaten gracefully."
Squire Pool took snuff, and brushed it off of his mulberry-colored coat. "Well, Mr. Page, what's coming next?" he said.
"We have one witness, whose testimony is all we care to produce," I said, rising, and addressing the court. "Crier, call Benjamin Pickett Moore!"
I like these little dramatic effects in court— they always tell. I had calculated on the sort of shock my announcement would produce; and I knew that when Ben, a great, bronzed, sturdy fellow, in gray clothes, lounged up from the door into the witness-box, two-thirds of the people would be ready to identify him at once.
"By George!" burst out Crawford, leaning over his desk. "Ben, old fellow!"
Dr. Falls, Simpson, all the old neighbors, crowded up, put on their spectacles, "God blessed their souls!" punched Ben in the ribs, and ended by shaking hands with him, and laughing, almost as nervously as he was doing.
"I told you we would make a lucky hit," said Storrs, as he scrambled back over the benches.
"This is not very business-like," said Ben, addressing the judge; "but it is proof of my identity, at least. I have better proof; for, fortunately, I can produce papers in evidence of my whereabouts, since the day I left Fauquier I county. I quitted the country then, and have been in the Brazils, employed as a civil engineer in government service. About two weeks ago I landed in New York, and the clerk of the hotel called my attention to the advertisement in the Herald. I am sorry, gentlemen," he went on, after a pause, perceiving that the floor was yielded to him, "very sorry to spoil so; pretty a case. But I never was in Galveston; and never," with a sort of gulp, "married Miss Laura Halleck. I'll bring the papers I spoke of," to the judge.
"It is not necessary, I think; such universal recognition "
"Lord help us!" said Ben, in his old, rough way, " they swore about that body. I'd rather make all sure."
He hurried over to the hotel, followed by a crowd, and returned with a package of papers, which he threw on the table.
"Mr. Storrs, will you submit these properly to the court?" he said. "I— Well, I want to see my mother," in an undertone. "Until to-day I thought she was dead." Judge McKay nodded.
"Will you come with me, Mr. Page?" continued Ben.
I left the settlement of the matter with Storrs, and, coming down, took his arm, and we walked on together: I, glancing at his burly, six-feet figure, and manly face, and wondering how I ever had confused this face with that other one. It was an honest, frank, generous countenance, with a shade of sternness and sadness in it.
Pine came up on Bess. "D' you want me to ride ahead, Mars' John?"
"You may tell Miss Jenny she has lost; but not another word. So much for your stupidity in not knowing Master Ben."
Pine tried to say something, but could not; he had been so thoroughly discomfited. "I'm not usually so dull, sah," he said, to Ben, at last, with dignity, and rode off.
"What do you think of this?" I said, perceiving how silent and grave Ben was.
"I account for it in this way. I met a certain bully and gambler once in New Orleans, Phil Cromlin by name, who strangely resembled me, even to this point," touching the scar on his left hand. "I think he was a relation, in some distant degree, which may account for that fact, however. I fancy that Laura Halleck; marrying him, and believing me dead, had conceived the idea of making him personate me, after a few years had rendered recognition more difficult. The letters were forgeries, of course."
We were within sight of the house, now. It lay very peacefully, hidden by cedars and willows from the red sunset. felt his arm tremble in mine.
"You are contented to come home, Ben?"
"I was very tired," passing his hand vaguely over his forehead. " Do you know it was Laura Halleck who wrote to me that my mother was dead? How did she discover where I was?"
"You had other friends?" as we stopped out- side of the gate. "She was not the only one who cared for you."
He had his hand on the lock, but he stopped, putting it uncertainly to his throat, and drawing long breaths. A little child could not have been more pale and unnerved than this great, strong man. "She told me," he stammered out, at last, "that Jenny was married."
"No; she is not," I said; and added, "she is opening the wicket. I'll not go in with you, Ben. Good-by."
So it was better, after all, that Jenny believed, and waited.
The Battle of Vera Cruz took place from March 9-29, 1847, during the Mexican-American War.
 Hotspur is the nickname of Sir Henry Percy (1364-1403) and a character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I.