HOW MRS. RITCHIE DEMANDED HER PROPERTY

Toby Clark was inexpressibly shocked when one morning he learned that
his dear friend and patron had been found dead in his bed. At once the
lame boy hobbled over to the Ferguson home, a comfortable house at the
far end of Riverdale, to find Mrs. Ferguson prostrated with grief, and
Janet, the only daughter, weeping miserably and rejecting all attempts
to comfort her. So he crept back to town, mounted the stairs to the
homely law offices over the post office and sat down to try to realize
that the kindly face he loved would never brighten its dingy gray walls
again.

All the morning and till past noon Toby sat in the silent place,
where every object reflected the personality of his departed master,
bemoaning his loss and living over in memory the happy days that were
past. Early in the afternoon steps sounded on the stairs. A key turned
in the outer door and Will Chandler, the postmaster, entered the
office, accompanied by a stranger.

Toby knew that Chandler, who owned the building, usually kept Judge
Ferguson’s office key. Whenever the old judge, who was absent-minded
at times, changed his trousers at home he would forget to change the
contents of the pockets. So, to avoid being obliged to return home for
his key on such occasions, he was accustomed to leave it in Chandler’s
keeping, where it might be conveniently found when needed. Of late
years the judge had seldom required the key to the outer door, for Toby
Clark was always on hand and had the offices swept, dusted and aired
long before his master arrived. Mr. Chandler was a reliable man and as
fully trusted by Mr. Ferguson as was Toby.

“Oh, you’re here, eh?” exclaimed the postmaster, in surprise, as his
eyes fell upon the boy.

Toby nodded his reply, staring vacantly.

“The Fergusons have been inquiring for you,” continued Chandler. “I
believe Janet wants you at the house.”

Toby slowly rose and balanced himself on his crutch. Then he cast a
hesitating glance at the stranger.

“You’ll lock up, sir, when you go away?” he asked.

“Of course,” replied Will Chandler. “I only came to show this
gentleman, Mr. Holbrook, the offices. He’s a lawyer and has been in
town for several days, trying to find a suitable place to locate. As
poor Ferguson will not need these rooms hereafter I shall rent them to
Mr. Holbrook–if they suit him.”

The stranger stepped forward. He was a young man, not more than
twenty-five years of age, handsome and prepossessing in appearance.
He had a dark moustache and dark, expressive eyes, and his face was
cheery and pleasant to look at. In the matter of dress Mr. Holbrook was
something of a dandy, but neat and immaculate as was his apparel there
was little cause to criticise the young man’s taste.

“The rooms need brightening a bit,” he said, glancing around him, “but
the fact that Judge Ferguson has occupied them for so long renders them
invaluable to a young lawyer just starting in business. The ‘good will’
is worth a lot to me, as successor to so prominent an attorney. If you
will accept the same rent the judge paid you, Mr. Chandler, we will
call it a bargain.”

The postmaster nodded.

“It’s a fair rental,” said he; but Toby waited to hear no more. The
daughter of his old master wanted him and he hastened to obey her
summons, leaving Chandler and Mr. Holbrook in the office.

Janet was pacing up and down the sitting room, red-eyed and extremely
nervous. In an easy-chair sat an elderly woman in black, stony-faced
and calm, whom Toby at once recognized as Mrs. Ritchie, who owned a
large plantation between Riverdale and Bayport. She was one of Judge
Ferguson’s oldest clients and the lawyer had for years attended to all
of the eccentric old creature’s business affairs.

“This woman,” said Janet, her voice trembling with indignation, “has
come to annoy us about some papers.”

Mrs. Ritchie turned her stolid glare upon the clerk.

“You’re Toby Clark,” she said. “I know you. You’re the judge’s office
boy. I want all the papers and funds belonging to me, and I want ’em
now. They’re in the office, somewhere, in a tin box painted blue,
with my name on the end of it. The Fergusons are responsible for my
property, I know, but some of those papers are precious. The money
could be replaced, but not the documents, and that’s why I want ’em
now. Understand? Now!”

Toby was puzzled.

“I remember the blue box marked ‘Ritchie,’ ma’am,” said he, “but I
don’t know what’s in it.”

“All my money’s in it–hard cash,” she retorted, “and all my valuable
papers besides. I could trust the judge with ’em better than I could
trust myself; but I won’t trust anyone else. Now he’s gone I must take
charge of the stuff myself. I want that box.”

“Well,” said Toby reflectively, “the box is yours, of course, and
you’re entitled to it. But I’m not sure we have the right to remove
anything from the judge’s office until an inventory has been made
and the will probated. I suppose an administrator or trustee will be
appointed who will deliver your box to you.”

“Shucks!” cried Mrs. Ritchie scornfully; “you’re a fool, Toby Clark.
You can’t tie up my personal property that way.”

“The law, madam–”

“Drat the law! The property’s mine, and I want it now.”

Toby looked helplessly at Janet.

“That’s the way she’s been annoying me all the afternoon,” declared
the girl, stifling a sob. “Can’t you get rid of her, Toby? Give her
anything she wants; only make her go.”

“I’ll go when I get my property,” said Mrs. Ritchie, obstinately
settling herself in the chair.

Toby thought about it.

“I might ask Lawyer Kellogg’s advice,” he said. “He wasn’t Judge
Ferguson’s friend, but he knows the law and could tell us what to do.”

“Kellogg! That fat pig of a pettifogger?” cried the old woman, sniffing
disdainfully. “I wouldn’t believe him on oath.”

“Never mind the law; give her the box, Toby,” implored Janet.

But Toby had a high respect for the law.

“Do you know Mr. Holbrook?” he asked.

“No,” said Janet.

“Who’s Holbrook?” inquired Mrs. Ritchie. “Never heard of him.”

“He is a young lawyer who has just come to Riverdale to practice. I
think Will Chandler has rented him our offices,” explained the boy.

“Is he decent?” asked the old woman.

“I–I think so, ma’am. I’ve never seen him but once, a half hour ago.
But I’m sure he is competent to advise us.”

“Go get him,” commanded Mrs. Ritchie.

“It will be better for you to come with me,” replied Toby, anxious to
relieve Janet of the woman’s disturbing presence. “We will go to the
hotel, and I’ll leave you there while I hunt up Mr. Holbrook. He may be
stopping at the hotel, you know.”

The woman rose deliberately from her chair.

“It’s getting late,” she said. “I want to get my property and drive
home before dark. Come along, boy.”

“Thank you, Toby,” whispered Janet, gratefully, as the two passed out
of the room.

Mrs. Ritchie’s horse was hitched to a post in front of the house. They
climbed into the rickety buggy and she drove into town and to the
rambling old clapboard hotel, which was located on the main street. It
was beginning to grow dusk by this time.

On the hotel porch stood the man they were seeking. Mr. Holbrook was
smoking a cigarette and, with hands thrust deep in his pockets, was
gazing vacantly down the street. Turning his attention to the arrivals
the young lawyer seemed to recognize Toby. When the boy and the woman
approached him he threw away his cigarette and bowed in deference to
Mrs. Ritchie’s sex.

“I am Judge Ferguson’s clerk, sir,” began Toby.

“Yes; I know.”

“And this is Mrs. Ritchie, who employed the judge as her confidential
business agent.”

“I am glad to know you, madam. Step into the hotel parlor, please.
There we may converse with more comfort.”

When they had entered the parlor Toby explained the situation. Mrs.
Ritchie wanted her box of private papers and Toby was not sure he had
the right to give them up without legal authority.

“That is correct,” observed Mr. Holbrook. “You must have an order from
the Probate Court to dispose of any property left by Judge Ferguson.”

“It’s _my_ property!” snapped the woman.

“Very true, madam. We regret that you should be so annoyed. But you can
readily understand that your interests are being safeguarded by the
law. If anyone, without authority, could deliver your box to you, he
might also deliver it to others, in which case you would suffer serious
loss. There will be no difficulty, however, in securing the proper
order from the court; but that will require a few days’ time.”

“There’s money in that box,” said Mrs. Ritchie. “I don’t trust those
swindling banks, so the judge kept all my ready money for me. In that
box are thousands of dollars in cold cash, an’ some government bonds
as good as cash. I need some money to-day. Can’t this boy let me into
the office so I can take what I want out of the box? I’ve got a key, if
Toby Clark will open the cupboard for me. I drove to town to-day for
money to pay off my hands with, and found the judge died las’ night,
without letting me know. A pretty pickle I’ll be in, if the law’s to
keep me from my rightful property!”

“You have no right to touch your box, Mrs. Ritchie. The boy has no
right to allow you in Mr. Ferguson’s offices.”

“Never mind that; no one will know, if we keep our mouths shut.”

Mr. Holbrook smiled but shook his head.

“I am sorry you should be so distressed,” he said gently, “but the
inconvenience is but temporary, I assure you. If you employ me to get
the order from the court I will see that there is no unnecessary delay.”




“Humph!” said the woman, looking at him shrewdly. “Will it cost
anything?”

“Merely my expenses to the city, a slight fee and the court charges.”

“Merely a job to rob me, eh? You want me to pay good money to get hold
of my own property?”

“If you are in a hurry for it. Otherwise, by allowing the law to take
its course, the property will be returned to you without charge.”

She considered this statement, eyeing the young man suspiciously the
while.

“I’ll think it over,” was her final verdict. “To-morrow I’ll drive into
town again. Don’t you blab about what I’ve told you is in that box,
Holbrook. If you’re goin’ to settle in this town you’ll have to learn
to keep your mouth shut, or you’ll get run out in short order. Judge
Ferguson never blabbed and you’ll do well to follow his example. Come,
Toby; I’m goin’ home.”

“By the way,” remarked Mr. Holbrook, addressing the boy in meaning
tones, “you’d better keep out of Mr. Ferguson’s offices until after an
inventory is made by the proper authorities. If you have a key, as I
suspect–for I saw you in the office–get rid of it at once; for, if
anything is missing, you might be held responsible.”

Toby saw the value of this advice.

“I’ll give my key to Mr. Spaythe, at the bank, for safe keeping,” he
said.

“That’s right,” returned the young man, nodding approval.

“Mr. Spaythe was the judge’s best friend and I think he’ll be the
executor, under the terms of the will,” continued Toby, thoughtfully.

“In any event, get rid of the key,” counseled Mr. Holbrook.

“I will, sir.”

When they were standing alone by Mrs. Ritchie’s buggy the woman asked
in a low voice:

“So you’ve got the key, have you?”

“Yes,” said Toby.

“Then we’ll go to the office and get my box, law or no law. I’ll make
it worth your while, Toby Clark, and no one will ever know.”

The boy shook his head, casting a whimsical smile at the unscrupulous
old woman.

“No bribery and corruption for me, ma’am, thank you. I’m somewhat
inclined to be honest, in my humble way. But I couldn’t do it, anyhow,
Mrs. Ritchie, because Judge Ferguson always kept the key to the
cupboard himself, on the same ring that he kept the keys to all the
boxes.”

“Where are his keys, then?”

“At his house, I suppose.”

“Tcha! That impudent girl of his has them, an’ there’s no use asking
her to give ’em up.”

“Not the slightest use, Mrs. Ritchie.”

“Well, I’m going home.”

She got into the buggy and drove away. Toby stood motionless a moment,
thoughtfully leaning on his crutch as he considered what to do.
Spaythe’s Bank was closed, of course, but the boy had an uneasy feeling
that he ought not to keep the key to the office in his possession
overnight. So he walked slowly to Mr. Spaythe’s house and asked to see
the banker, who fortunately was at home.

“I’d like you to take the key to the office, sir, and keep it until
it’s wanted,” he explained.

“Very well,” answered the banker, who knew Toby as the trusted clerk of
his old friend Judge Ferguson.

“There’s another key,” remarked Toby. “It belonged to the judge, but
he always left it in Will Chandler’s care.”

“I have that key also,” said Mr. Spaythe. “Mr. Chandler sent it to
me early this afternoon, by the young lawyer who has rented the
offices–Holbrook, I think his name is.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. Spaythe.”

“I looked in at the offices a while ago and found them in good order,”
continued the banker. Then he looked at Toby as if wondering if he had
better say more, but evidently decided not to. Toby marked the man’s
hesitation and waited.

“Good night, my boy.”

“Good night, Mr. Spaythe.”

Toby hobbled slowly to his lonely shanty on the river bank, prepared
his simple supper, for he had forgotten to eat during this eventful
day, and afterward went to bed. Every moment he grieved over the loss
of his friend. Until after the funeral the boy, seemingly forgotten by
all, kept to his isolated shanty except for a daily pilgrimage to the
Ferguson house to ask Janet if there was anything he could do.

The day following the funeral the judge’s will was read and it was
found that he had left his modest fortune to his wife, in trust for his
only child, Janet. There were no bequests to anyone. Mr. Spaythe was
named sole executor.

Toby was present during the reading of the will, but he was not
surprised that he was not mentioned in it. The boy had never
entertained a thought that his former master would leave him money. The
judge had paid him his wages and been kind to him; that was enough. Now
that the sad strain was over and the man he had known and loved was
laid to rest, Toby Clark returned thoughtfully to his poor home to face
a new era in his life.

The prime necessity, under the new conditions, was employment.

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