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- MARY-'GUSTA - 1/73 -
by Joseph C. Lincoln
On the twentieth day of April in the year 19--, the people--that is, a majority of the grown people of Ostable--were talking of Marcellus Hall and Mary-'Gusta.
A part of this statement is not surprising. The average person, no matter how humble or obscure, is pretty certain to be talked about on the day of his funeral, and Marcellus was to be buried that afternoon. Moreover, Marcellus had been neither humble nor obscure; also, he had been talked about a good deal during the fifty-nine years of his sojourn on this planet. So it is not at all surprising that he should be talked about now, when that sojourn was ended. But for all Ostable--yes, and a large part of South Harniss--to be engaged in speculation concerning the future of Mary-'Gusta was surprising, for, prior to Marcellus's death, very few outside of the Hall household had given her or her future a thought.
On this day, however, whenever or wherever the name of Marcellus Hall was mentioned, after the disposition of Marcellus's own bones had been discussed and those of his family skeleton disinterred and articulated, the conversation, in at least eight cases out of ten, resolved itself into a guessing contest, having as its problem this query:
"What's goin' to become of that child?"
Mr. Bethuel Sparrow, local newsgatherer for the Ostable Enterprise, seated before his desk in the editorial sanctum, was writing an obituary for next week's paper, under the following head:
"A Prominent Citizen Passes Away."
An ordinary man would probably have written "Dies"; but Mr. Sparrow, being a young and very new reporter for a rural weekly, wrote "Passes Away" as more elegant and less shocking to the reader.
It is much more soothing and refined to pass away than to die-- unless one happens to be the person most concerned, in which case, perhaps, it may make little difference.
"The Angel of Death," wrote Mr. Sparrow, "passed through our midst on Tuesday last and called to his reward Captain Marcellus Hall, one of Ostable's most well-known and influential residents."
A slight exaggeration here. Marcellus had lived in Ostable but five years altogether and, during the last three, had taken absolutely no part in town affairs--political, religious or social. However, "influential" is a good word and usual in obituaries, so Bethuel let it stand. He continued:
"Captain Hall's sudden death--"
Erasure of "death" and substitution of "demise."
"--Was a shock to the community at large. It happened on account of--" More erasures and substitutions. "--It was the result of his taking cold owing to exposure during the heavy southeast rains of week before last which developed into pneumonia. He grew rapidly worse and passed away at 3.06 P.M. on Tuesday, leaving a vacancy in our midst which will be hard to fill, if at all. Although Captain Hall had resided in Ostable but a comparatively short period, he was well-known and respected, both as a man and--"
Here, invention failing, Mr. Sparrow called for assistance.
"Hey, Perce," he hailed, addressing his companion, Mr. Percy Clark, who was busy setting type: "What's a good word to use here? I say Marcellus was respected both as a man--and somethin' else."
"Hey?" queried Percy, absently, scanning the eight point case. "What d'ye say?"
"I asked you what would be a good thing to go with 'man'?"
"Hey? I don't know. Woman, I guess."
"Aw, cut it out. Never mind, I got it:
"--As a man and a citizen. Captain Hall was fifty-nine years of age at the time of his demise. He was born in South Harniss and followed the sea until 1871, when he founded the firm of Hall and Company, which was for some years the leading dealer in fresh and salt fish in this section of the state. When the firm--
"I say, Perce! 'Twouldn't do to say Marcellus failed in business, would it? Might seem like hintin' at that stuff about his sister and the rest of it. Might get us into trouble, eh?"
"Humph! I don't know who with. Everybody's talkin' about it, anyway. Up to the boardin' house they've been talking about mighty little else ever since he died."
"I know, but talk's one thing and print's another. I'm goin' to leave it out.
"When the firm went out of business in 1879, Captain Hall followed the sea again, commanding the ships Faraway, Fair Wind, and Treasure Seeker, and the bark Apollo. Later he retired from the sea and has not been active in the same or otherwise since. In 1894 he married Augusta Bangs Lathrop, widow of the late Reverend Charles Lathrop, formerly pastor of the Congregational Church in this town. Captain Hall had been residing in his native town, South Harniss, but after his marriage he took up his residence in Ostable, purchasing the residence formerly owned by Elnathan Phinney on Phinney's Hill, where he lived until his lamented demise. Mrs. Hall passed away in 1896. The sudden removal of Captain Hall from our midst leaves a stepdaughter, Mary Augusta Lathrop, aged seven. The--"
Here Mr. Sparrow's train of thought collided with the obstruction which was derailing many similar trains in Ostable and South Harniss.
"I say, Perce," he observed "what's goin' to become of that kid of Marcellus's--his wife's, I mean? Marcellus didn't have any relations, as far as anybody knows, and neither did his wife. Who's goin' to take care of Mary-'Gusta?"
Percy shook his head. "Don't know," he answered. "That's what all hands are askin'. I presume likely she'll be looked after. Marcellus left plenty of money, didn't he? And kids with money can generally find guardians."
"Yup, I guess that's so. Still, whoever gets her will have their hands full. She's the most old-fashioned, queerest young-one ever I saw."
So much for Mr. Sparrow and his fellow laborer for the Enterprise. Now to listen for a moment to Judge Baxter, who led the legal profession of Ostable; and to Mrs. Baxter who, so common report affirmed, led the Judge. The pair were upstairs in the Baxter house, dressing for the funeral.
"Daniel," declared Mrs. Baxter, "it's the queerest thing I ever heard of. You say they don't know--either of them--and the child herself doesn't know, either."
"That's it, Ophelia. No one knows except myself. Captain Hall read the letter to me and put it in my charge a year ago."
"Well, I must say!"
"Yes, I know, I said it at the time, and I've been saying it to myself ever since. It doesn't mean anything; that is, it is not binding legally, of course. It's absolutely unbusinesslike and unpractical. Simply a letter, asking them, as old friends, to do this thing. Whether they will or not the Almighty only knows."
"Well, Daniel, I must say I shouldn't have thought you, as his lawyer, would have let him do such a thing. Of course, I don't know either of them very well, but, from what little I've heard, I should say they know as much about what they would be supposed to do as--as you do about tying a necktie. For mercy sakes let me fix it! The knot is supposed to be under your chin, not under your ear as if you were going to be hung."
The Judge meekly elevated the chin and his wife pulled the tie into place.
"And so," she said, "they can say yes or no just as they like."
"Yes, it rests entirely with them."
"And suppose they say no, what will become of the child then?"
"I can't tell you. Captain Hall seemed pretty certain they wouldn't say no."
"Humph! There! Now you look a little more presentable. Have you got a clean handkerchief? Well, that's an unexpected miracle; I don't know how you happened to think of it. When are you going to speak with them about it?"
"Today, if they come to the funeral, as I suppose they will."
"I shall be in a fidget until I know whether they say yes or no. And whichever they say I shall keep on fidgeting until I see what happens after that. Poor little Mary-'Gusta! I wonder what WILL become of her."
The Judge shook his head.
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