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- The Prodigal Judge - 1/77 -


THE PRODIGAL JUDGE BY VAUGHAN KESTER

CHAPTER I

THE BOY AT THE BARONY

The Quintards had not prospered on the barren lands of the pine woods whither they had emigrated to escape the malaria of the low coast, but this no longer mattered, for the last of his name and race, old General Quintard, was dead in the great house his father had built almost a century before and the thin acres of the Barony, where he had made his last stand against age and poverty, were to claim him, now that he had given up the struggle in their midst. The two or three old slaves about the place, stricken with a sense of the futility of the fight their master had made, mourned for him and for themselves, but of his own blood and class none was present.

Shy dwellers from the pine woods, lanky jeans-clad men and sunbonneted women, who were gathering for the burial of the famous man of their neighborhood, grouped themselves about the lawn which had long since sunk to the uses of a pasture lot. Singly or by twos and threes they stole up the steps and across the wide porch to the open door. On the right of the long hall another door stood open, and who wished could enter the drawing-room, with its splendid green and gold paper, and the wonderful fireplace with the Dutch tiles that graphically depicted the story of Jonah and the whale.

Here the general lay in state. The slaves had dressed their old master in the uniform he had worn as a colonel of the continental line, but the thin shoulders of the wasted figure no longer filled the buff and blue coat. The high-bred face, once proud and masterful no doubt, as became the face of a Quintard, spoke of more than age and poverty--it was infinitely sorrowful. Yet there was something harsh and unforgiving in the lines death had fixed there, which might have been taken as the visible impress of that mystery, the bitterness of which had misshaped the dead man's nature; but the resolute lips had closed for ever on their secret, and the broken spirit had gone perhaps to learn how poor a thing its pride had been.

Though he had lived continuously at the Barony for almost a quarter of a century, there was none among his neighbors who could say he had looked on that thin, aquiline face in all that time. Yet they had known much of him, for the gossip of the slaves, who had been his only friends in those years he had chosen to deny himself to other friends, had gone far and wide over the county.

That notable man of business, Jonathan Crenshaw--and this superiority was especially evident when the business chanced to be his own--was closeted in the library with a stranger to whom rumor fixed the name of Bladen, supposing him to be the legal representative of certain remote connections of the old general's.

Crenshaw sat before the flat-topped mahogany desk in the center of the room with several well-thumbed account-books open before him. Bladen, in riding dress, stood by the window.

"I suppose you will buy in the property when it comes up for sale?" the latter was saying.

Mr. Crenshaw had already made it plain that General Quintard's creditors would have lean pickings at the Barony, intimating that he himself was the chiefest of these and the one to suffer most grievously in pocket. Further than this, Mr. Bladen saw that the old house was a ruin, scarcely habitable, and that the thin acres, though they were many and a royal grant, were of the slightest value. Crenshaw nodded his acquiescence to the lawyer's conjecture touching the ultimate fate of the Barony.

"I reckon, sir, I'll want to protect myself, but if there are any of his own kin who have a fancy to the place I'll put no obstacle in their way."

"Who are the other creditors?" asked Bladen.

"There ain't none, sir; they just got tired waiting on him, and when they began to sue and get judgment the old general would send me word to settle with them, and their claims passed into my hands. I was in too deep to draw out. But for the last ten years his dealings were all with me; I furnished the supplies for the place here. It didn't amount to much, as there was only him and the darkies, and the account ran on from year to year."

"He lived entirely alone, saw no one, I understand," said Bladen.

"Alone with his two or three old slaves--yes, sir. He wouldn't even see me; Joe, his old nigger, would fetch orders for this or that. Once or twice I rode out to see him, but I wa'n't even allowed inside that door; the message I got was that he couldn't be disturbed, and the last time I come he sent me word that if I annoyed him again he would be forced to terminate our business relations. That was pretty strong talk, wa'n't it, when you consider that I could have sold the roof from over his head and the land from under his feet? Oh, well, I just put it down to childishness." There was a brief pause, then Crenshaw spoke again. "I reckon, sir, if you know anything about the old general's private affairs you don't feel no call to speak on that point?" he observed, and with evident regret. He had hoped that Bladen would clear up the mystery, for certainly it must have been some sinister tragedy that had cost the general his grip on life and for twenty years and more had made of him a recluse, so that the faces of his friends had become as the faces of strangers.

"My dear sir, I know nothing of General Quintard's private, history. I am even unacquainted with my clients, who are distant cousins, but his nearest kin--they live in South Carolina. I was merely instructed to represent them in the event of his death and to look after their interests."

"That's business," said Crenshaw, nodding.

"All I know is this: General Quintard was a conspicuous man in these parts fifty years ago; that was before my time, Mr. Crenshaw, and I take it, too, it was before yours; he married a Beaufort."

"So he did," said Crenshaw, "and there was one child, a daughter; she married a South Carolinian by the name of Turberville. I remember that, fo' they were married under the gallery in the hall. Great folks, those Turbervilles, rolling rich. My father was manager then fo' the general--that was nearly forty years ago. There was life here then, sir; the place was alive with niggers and the house full of guests from one month's end to another." He drummed on the desktop. "Who'd a thought it wa'n't to last for ever!"

"And what became of the daughter who married Turberville ?"

"Died years ago," said Crenshaw. "She was here the last time about thirty years back. It wa'n't so easy to get about in those days, no roads to speak of and no stages, and besides, the old general wa'n't much here nohow; her going away had sort of broken up his home, I reckon. Then the place stood empty fo' a few years, most of the slaves were sold off, and the fields began to grow up. No one rightly knew, but the general was supposed to be traveling up yonder in the No'th, sir. As I say, things ran along this way quite a while, and then one morning when I went to my store my clerk says, 'There's an old white-headed nigger been waiting round here fo' a word with you, Mr. Crenshaw.' It was Joe, the general's body servant, and when I'd shook hands with him I said, 'When's the master expected back?' You see, I thought Joe had been sent on ahead to open the house, but he says, 'General Quintard's at the Barony now,' and then he says, 'The general's compliments, sir, and will you see that this order is filled?' Well, Mr. Bladen, I and my father had factored the Barony fo' fifteen years and upward, but that was the first time the supplies fo' the general's table had ever been toted here in a meal sack!

"I rode out that very afternoon, but Joe, who was one of your mannerly niggers, met me at the door and says, 'Mr. Crenshaw, the general appreciates this courtesy, but regrets that he is unable to see you, sir.' After that it wa'n't long in getting about that the general was a changed man. Other folks came here to welcome him back and he refused to see them, but the reason of it we never learned. Joe, who probably knew, was one of your close niggers; there was, no getting anything out of him; you could talk with that darky by the hour, sir, and he left you feeling emptier than if he'd kept his mouth shut."

They were interrupted by a knock at the door.

"Come in," said Crenshaw, a trifle impatiently, and in response to his bidding the door opened and a small boy entered the room dragging after him a long rifle. Suddenly overcome by a speechless shyness, he paused on the threshold to stare with round, wondering eyes at the two men. "Well, sonny, what do you want?" asked Mr. Crenshaw indulgently.

The boy opened his mouth, but his courage failed him, and with his courage went the words he would have spoken.

"Who is this?" asked Bladen.

"I'll tell, you presently," said Crenshaw. "Come, speak up, sonny, what do you want?"

"Please, sir, I want this here old spo'tin' rifle," said: the child. "Please, sir, I want to keep it," he added.

"Well, you run along on out of here with your old spo'tin' rifle!" said Crenshaw good-naturedly.

"Please, sir, am I to keep it?"

"Yes, I reckon you may keep it--least I've no objection." Crenshaw glanced at Bladen.

"Oh, by all means," said the latter. Spasms of delight shook the small figure, and with a murmur that was meant for thanks he


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