Squire Leech lived in a large, square, white house, situated on an eminence some way back from the street. It had bay windows on either side of the front door, a gravel walk, bordered with flowers, leading to the gate, a small summerhouse on the lawn, and altogether was much the handsomest residence in the village. Three years before, the house, or, at all events, the principal rooms, had been newly furnished from the city. No wonder the squire and all the family held up their heads, and regarded themselves as belonging to the aristocracy.
In a back room, used partly as a sitting room, partly as an office, the great man and his new superintendent, Amos Banks, were sitting, the evening previous to Herbert's return home. It may be asked why Squire Leech needed a superintendent. To this I answer that his property, beside the home farm, included two outlying farms, which he preferred to carry on himself rather than let to tenants. Besides, he had stocks and bonds, to which he himself attended. But the farms required more attention than he individually was willing to bestow. Accordingly he employed a competent man, who had the general supervision of them. His former superintendent having emigrated to the West, he had engaged Mr. Banks, who had been recommended to him for the charge. Banks came from a town thirty miles distant, and had never lived in Wrayburn before. He had just entered upon his duties, and was talking over business matters with the squire.
"You will occupy the house on the Ross farm," said Squire Leech. "I think you will find it comfortable. I have always reserved it for my superintendent."
"There is a house on the other farm, I suppose," said Banks.
"Yes; but that is occupied by a family already. I don't rent the farm, that is, except about half an acre of land for a kitchen garden. That I have prepared to cultivate myself."
"Precisely," said the superintendent. "I will tell you why I inquired.
You tell me there will be need of another permanent farm workman. Now
I know an excellent man—in fact, he is a cousin of my own—who would
be glad to accept the place."
"Very well. I have no objection to your engaging him, since you vouch for him."
"Oh, yes; he is a faithful and industrious man, and he will be willing to do work for moderate wages. Indeed, he cares more for a permanent place than high pay. Where he is now, he is liable to be idle for some months in the year."
"Is he a family man?"
"Yes; he has two young children."
"Of course he will move to Wrayburn."
"Yes; if he can get a suitable house. In fact, that was what I was coming at. I thought of your other house, but you say that is already occupied."
"Yes; and the family has occupied it for several years. I should not like to dislodge them."
"Do you know any other small house my cousin could rent?"
Squire Leech reflected.
"The fact is," he said, after a pause, "there has not been much building going on in Wrayburn for several years, and it is hard to find a vacant house."
"I am sorry for that. I am afraid it may interfere with Brown's coming."
"There is one house, I think, that would just suit your cousin," said
Squire Leech, slowly.
"Where is it?"
"It is now occupied by the widow Carter and her son."
"Is she going to move?"
"She wouldn't like to."
"Then how will that help us? Who owns the house?"
"She does; that is, nominally. I hold a mortgage on the place for seven hundred and fifty dollars, which is more than half the market value."
"Then it may eventually fall into your hands?"
"Very probably. Between ourselves, I think it probable that she will fail to be ready with the semi-annual interest, which comes due next week. She is quite poor—has nothing but this property—and has to sew for a living, or braid straw, neither of which pays well."
"Suppose she is not ready with the interest, do you propose to foreclose?"
"I think I shall. I will allow her three or four hundred dollars for her share of the property, and that will be the best thing she can do, in my opinion."
Whether or not it would be the best thing for Mrs. Carter, it certainly wouldn't be a bad speculation for the squire, since the place, as already stated, was worth fully fifteen hundred dollars. How a rich man can deliberately plot to defraud a poor woman of a portion of her small property, you and I, my young reader, may find it hard to understand. Unfortunately there are too many cases in real life where just such things happen, so that there really seems to be a good deal of truth in the old adage that prosperity hardens the heart.
If Mr. Banks had been a just or kind-hearted man, he would not have encouraged his employer in the plan he had just broached; but he was selfish, and thought he saw in it an easy solution of the difficulty which he had met with in securing a house for his cousin. He did not know Mrs. Carter, and felt no particular interest in the question what was to become of her if she was ejected from her house. No doubt she would find a home somewhere. At any rate, it was not his business.
"It seems to me that will be an excellent plan," he said, with satisfaction. "How soon can we find out about it?"
"Next week—Tuesday. It is then that the interest comes due."
"Suppose she is ready to pay the interest, what then?"
"Then I will make her an offer for the place, and represent to her that it will be the better plan for her to part with it, and so escape the payment of interest. She has to pay forty-five dollars a year, and that is a great drain upon one who earns no more than she does."
"I think you said she had a son; does he earn anything? Or perhaps he isn't old enough."
"Yes, he is thirteen or fourteen; still, there isn't much in a small village like this for a boy to do. He is attending school, I believe."
"Then, in one way or another, you think there is a good chance of our obtaining the house," said the superintendent, with satisfaction.
"Yes, I think so."
"How would it do to go around and speak to the widow about it beforehand? I could then write to Brown."
"As to that, she may be very particular to retain the house, and even if she is not provided with the money, succeed in borrowing enough. Now, my idea is to say nothing about it till Tuesday. She may depend upon my waiting a few days. That I shall not do. If the money is not forthcoming I will foreclose at once, without giving her time to arrange for the money."
The superintendent nodded.
"A very shrewd plan, Squire Leech," he said. "By the way, where is the house situated?"
"Only a furlong up the road. It is on the opposite side of the way."
"I think I remember it. There is some land connected with it, isn't there?"
"Nearly an acre. The house is small, but neat. In fact, for a small place, I consider it quite desirable. Tomorrow we will ride by it, and you can take more particular notice."
They did ride by, as we know, and Squire Leech pointed it out to his superintendent. Herbert noticed this, but he did not know that the two men had formed a scheme for turning his mother and himself out of their comfortable home, and defrauding his mother of a considerable portion of the small property which his father had left. Had he known this, it would have filled him with indignation, and he would have felt that even property is no absolute safeguard against the selfish schemes of the mercenary and the rapacious.
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