The Man of Last Resort/Mrs. Van Bartan/Chapter 1

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MRS. VAN BARTAN


I

All this,” said Randolph Mason, “is the veriest nonsense.”

The younger Mrs. Van Bartan straightened up in her chair and looked sharply at the counsellor. She was a woman of magnificent presence, with a great fleece of yellow hair, fine eyes, and regular, clear-cut features.

“Do you mean that it is not the truth?” she asked.

“Half truth,” responded Mason.

“Then,” said the woman, smiling, “it is only half nonsense.”

“Madam,” said Randolph Mason, “if you desire my aid, you must explain this entire matter. I do not choose to guess riddles.”

“I have told you,” began the young woman, slowly, “that my husband and myself reside with his mother in a certain city of the Virginias; that his father is dead, and, by his will, left his entire property to the elder Mrs. Van Bartan—my mother-in-law; that was all true.”

The counsellor nodded.

“The other part,” she went on, “I was trying to put into a 'hypothetical case'—isn't that what you call it?”

She hesitated for a moment.

“It is hard to tell, and I was only trying to save myself, but I suppose the surgeon is quite useless if the wound is not fully revealed. If you will listen to me I will explain. It is hard to tell, and it hurts, but everything is at stake, and if I lose now I lose everything. It will simply mean that I have made sacrifice after sacrifice for nothing at all. One shrinks from putting one's heart upon a dissecting table where the valves may be pinned back and pried into with the point of a scalpel, and so one struggles with a hurt until it finally aches so bitterly that the expert must be had. Then one goes to the surgeon or the priest or the lawyer, and takes an anæsthetic while he cuts it out.”

“Madam,” said Randolph Mason, “you talk like a diplomat: you say nothing at all.”

The younger Mrs. Van Bartan unbuttoned her coat and threw it back with the air of one who has ultimately decided to keep nothing in reserve.

“I have been married three years,” she began, “my father's name is Summers. In the good days of Virginia our family was wealthy, but of late years we have met with one disaster after another until the family became very poor, and the effort to maintain an appearance of respectability was a nipping struggle indeed.

“About this time the coal industries of West Virginia began to develop, and our city became a manufacturing centre. This brought in many Eastern capitalists, among them Michael Van Bartan, who established great iron mills, out of which he made a vast fortune. Shortly thereafter he died, leaving his widow and one son, Gerald Van Bartan. This woman I have never quite understood. After the death of her husband, she maintained their country place in almost profligate magnificence, but she has always seemed terribly disappointed in her son. He was a good, easy-going fellow, and his mother, an ambitious, restless woman, had great plans for his future. But, failing that, and being a person of shrewd instinct, she set about finding for him an ambitious wife, who would probably be able to succeed where she had failed. But while the mother was striving to select a suitable woman for her purpose, the son paid court to me,—and I married him.”

The young woman paused for a moment, and the lines of her mouth hardened. Then she went on:

“He was not quite the person with whom I had hoped to spend my life, but he had wealth, and we were so miserably poor,—and, I judge after all, one is never permitted to do just what one wishes in this weary world. This marriage was a bitter disappointment to Mrs. Van Bartan, but she was a woman with the resources of an empress. She came at once to me, and, with the kindest and most gracious courtesy, welcomed me as her daughter, and began at once to shower upon me the most substantial evidences of her good will. We were taken to live with her at the country place, and everything was done that a shrewd woman could imagine to bring me completely under her influence, and, through me, to move my husband to the effort which she desired. But it was all an utter failure.

“I appreciated thoroughly the incapacity of Gerald Van Bartan, and said as much to his mother. I went deliberately to her and pointed out how very vain her ambition was, and how certainly it must come to nothing. I said how difficult it was for men to lift themselves even the least bit higher than their fellows; how it required years of labor and self-denial and courage. I reminded her that my husband had not one of the qualities necessary for such work; that he was not industrious, and not ambitious she knew well; that the habits of the man had been formed, and this work could not be now undone.

“Then I blundered like a fool. I said that wealth had caused these habits to become fixed, and that we must accept him as his luxurious life had made him; that if he had been thrown out to struggle with poverty, some qualities might have been developed, but that he had never been forced to feel the necessity for an effort, and consequently he had never called his faculties into use, nor could he now since the necessity did not arise. I begged her to abandon the effort as vexatious and entirely hopeless.

“To all this the elder Mrs. Van Bartan listened attentively and made no comment. When I had finished, she laughed, and said that I had entirely misapprehended her intentions toward her son; that she had no object in life but to make us as happy as it were possible to do, but that one could not tell what conditions might arise, and she had wished simply to put her son in a position to care for himself and me, if it ever should be necessary. Then she stroked my hair, as she might have done to a child, and bade me not worry over trifles. I now congratulated myself that the matter was finally settled, but I was fearfully wrong. I had read this remarkable woman poorly. Although again beaten, she was unconquered, and she determined upon a final desperate move. Perhaps my foolish prattle, furnished the suggestion, but it is rather more probable, I think, that her master mind evolved the plan out of what she considered a desperate condition.”

The woman's face was now grave, and she seemed deeply in earnest.

“It was the plan of Mrs. Van Bartan to convince my husband and myself that future poverty was impending, but just how to make this impression strongly probable, was a matter of great difficulty, and one which she appreciated fully. In order to do this effectually, it was necessary for her, in some manner, apparently to dispose of her property, and at the same time actually to retain it in possession.

“This was a difficult problem, but difficult problems were not appalling to Mrs. Van Bartan, and she finally determined upon this shrewd scheme. She would make a will, leaving her entire estate at her death to the church of which she was a member, and entirely disinheriting my husband. This will could have the effect she desired, and at the same time leave her unhampered in the use of her property, and free to destroy this will or make another at her pleasure. This is now her plan. How I have discovered it is not of importance, since it is a part of her plan in this matter to have me suspect her intention and finally to have me believe that she has decided to cut us off without a dollar. Having determined upon this move, she will carry it through with the skill of a master strategist. She will have the paper drawn by her legal adviser in the presence of witnesses; she will declare her intention to the most substantial people of our city, and will take good care to see that her act is made known through the most reliable sources. There will be no blunder anywhere,—Mrs. Van Rartan does not blunder.”

“Has this will been drafted?” asked Randolph Mason.

“No,” replied the young woman, “but it will be made soon. Mrs. Van Bartan is now preparing public opinion for her act. She is far too wise to hurry.”

“I see no danger in all this,” said Mason, “since it is not this woman's intention to really disinherit her son. Ultimately she will destroy this document or make another.”

“But,” said the young woman, bending forward in her chair, “Mrs. Van Bartan is afflicted with an aortic aneurism, and may drop dead at any moment. This she refuses to believe, and although she has been examined by celebrated specialists, she stoutly asserts that her health is as good as it ever was in her whole life.

“Now suppose she makes this will and dies suddenly without having an opportunity to make another. What then? Her intention will not help us. This will holds, and we are left entirely without a dollar in the world. Now, what am I to do to save us? It is of no use to go to Mrs. Van Bartan. She is an iron woman. She has her plan, and Heaven could not change her in the least. I must do something. It all depends on me, and I don't know which way to turn. You must show me some way; you must do something.”

Randolph Mason turned around in his chair and looked squarely at the young woman.

“Madam,” he said, “you have neglected to tell me the most important matter.”

“Oh, no, sir,” responded the younger Mrs. Van Bartan, “I have told you everything.”

“By no means,” said Mason. “You have said that Mr. Van Bartan is not the man with whom you had hoped to spend your life. Who is that man?”

The young woman looked down at the floor and was silent.

“Well,” she said, “I don't know that I meant quite that. I was meaning, you know, that there were other considerations moving me to this alliance beyond mere affection. I did not say that I loved some one else, did I? Did I say I loved some one else?”

“You evade,” said Mason, bluntly. “It is the weakling's method of confession, and as well the fool's method.”

The blood came into the face of the younger Mrs. Van Bartan, and she looked up resolutely.

“You don't spare me at all,” she said, bitterly. “You pry out everything, even the very heart linings. Suppose I did love some one else, what has that to do with this matter? That is all over and past and gone. Can't I permit it to sleep and be forgotten? Suppose there was another man? Suppose there is now? Must I empty out his heart too? Can't I spare him? Can't I leave him out of this?”

“I am waiting, madam,” said Mason, quietly.

The young woman passed her hand downward over her face, as though to remove something that was clinging to her.

“If you must know,” she said slowly, “his name is Dalton, Robert Dalton, a member of the law firm of Carpenter, Lomax, & Dalton, of our city. He is said to be an able lawyer. He is the elder Mrs. Van Bartan's legal adviser, but I have no right to tell you all this. It is unjust to him. and unjust to me, and unfair to us all.”

“And he still loves you?” said Mason, with the blunt indifference of a surgeon who thrusts his thumb into a wound.

The young woman threw back her head. “You are brutal,” she cried, “to ask such a question, and I should be a fool, a miserable, contemptible fool if I should answer.”

“But you have answered it, madam,” replied Randolph Mason.

The younger Mrs. Van Bartan covered her face with her hands, and began to sob. The counsellor sat and watched her, as an expert might watch an intricate piece of machinery that he was testing. There was no emotion of any sort visible in his face—nothing at all, except the intense interest of the expert.

Presently Mason leaned back in his chair. The result was evidently satisfactory.

“Is this man married?” he asked.

The woman did not answer. She simply pressed her hands tighter against her face. The counsellor waited for a few moments. Then he repeated:

“Is this man married?”

The woman's hands trembled violently. “No,” she sobbed, “and he never will be.”

The lines in the face of Randolph Mason grew deep and resolute as one has seen the lines in the face of a great physician when, in some desperate case, he finally turned from the bedside of the patient in order to write the prescription upon which he had decided.

“Madam,” he said, in a voice that was firm and admitted of no protest, “this man Dalton is perhaps a person of some learning. Since he is your mother-in-law's legal adviser, he will have the matter in his hands. He is under your influence. Could a problem be more simple? You have but to go to him and say what you have said to me. He will know what to do.”

She dropped her hands in astonishment.

“Go to him? Go to him?” she repeated.

“Yes,” said Mason, “and tell him the truth,—and wait.”

“But,” began the younger Mrs. Van Bartan, “how could he help me? What could——

“Madam,” interrupted Mason, rising, “this is your coat, I believe. Permit my clerk to assist you to your carriage.”