During the preparations for the funeral Frank was left pretty much to himself.
Mr. Manning's manner was so soft, and to him had been so deferential, that he did not understand the man. It didn't occur to him that it was assumed for a purpose.
That manner was not yet laid aside. His stepfather offered to comfort him, but Frank listened in silence. Nothing that Mr. Manning could say had the power to lighten his load of grief. So far as words could console him, the sympathy of Deborah and the coachman, both old servants, whom his mother trusted, had more effect, for he knew that it was sincere, and that they were really attached to his mother.
Of Mr. Manning he felt a profound distrust, which no words of his could remove.
Meanwhile, Mr. Manning was looking from an upper window down the fine avenue, and his eye ranged from left to right over the ample estate with a glance of self-complacent triumph.
"All mine at last!" he said to himself, exultingly. "What I have been working for has come to pass. Three years ago I was well-nigh penniless, and now I am a rich man. I shall leave Mark the master of a great fortune. I have played my cards well. No one will suspect anything wrong. My wife and I have lived in harmony. There will be little wonder that she has left all to me. There would be, perhaps, but for the manner in which I have taken care he shall be mentioned in the will—I mean, of course, in the will I have made for her."
He paused, and, touching a spring in the wall, a small door flew open, revealing a shallow recess.
In this recess was a folded paper, tied with a red ribbon.
Mr. Manning opened it, and his eyes glanced rapidly down the page.
"This is the true will," he said to himself. "I wish I could summon courage to burn it. It would be best out of the way. That, if found out, would make me amenable to the law, and I must run no risk. In this secret recess it will never be found. I will replace it, and the document which I have had prepared will take its place, and no one will be the wiser."
On the day after the funeral, the family solicitor and a few intimate friends, who had been invited by Mr. Manning, assembled in the drawing room of the mansion to hear the will read.
Mr. Manning himself notified Frank of the gathering and its object.
He found our hero lying on the bed in his chamber, sad and depressed.
"I don't like to intrude upon your grief, my dear boy," said his stepfather, softly, "but it is necessary. The last will of your dear mother and my beloved wife is about to be read, and your presence is necessary."
"Couldn't it be put off?" asked Frank, sadly. "It seems too soon to think of such things."
"Pardon me, my dear Frank, but it is quite needful that there should be an immediate knowledge of the contents of the will, in order that the right person may look after the business interests of the estate. I assure you that it is the invariable custom to read the will immediately after the funeral."
"If that is the custom, and it is necessary, I have nothing to say. When is the will to be read?"
"At three o'clock, and it is now two."
"Very well, sir; I will come down in time."
"Of course there can't be much doubt as to the contents of the will," pursued Mr. Manning. "You are doubtless the heir, and as you are a minor, I am probably your guardian. Should such be the case, I hope that the relations between us may be altogether friendly."
"I hope so," said Frank, gravely.
At three o'clock the members of the family, with a few outside friends, gathered in the drawing room. The family solicitor, Mr, Ferret, held in his hand what purported to be the last will of Mrs. Manning.
The widowed husband had directed the lawyer to the bureau of the deceased lady as likely to contain her will. It was found without trouble in the topmost drawer.
Deborah and the coachman had speculated as to whether they would be invited to attend at the reading of the will.
Their doubts were set at rest by an invitation from Mr. Manning himself.
"You were so long in the service of my dear wife," he said, "that it is fitting that you be present at the reading of her will, in which it is quite probable that you may be personally interested."
"He is uncommonly polite, I am sure," thought Deborah, disposed for the moment to think more favorably of the man whom she had never been able to like.
"My friends," said the lawyer, after a preliminary cough, "you are assembled to listen to the will of Mrs. Manning, just deceased. The document which I hold in my hand I believe to be such an instrument. I will now open if for the first time."
He untied the ribbon, and began reading the will.
It commenced with the usual formula, and proceeded to a few bequests of trifling amount.
Deborah and Richard Green were each left two hundred dollars, "as a slight acknowledgment of their faithful service."
One or two friends of the family were remembered, but to an inconsiderable extent. Then came the important clause:
"All the rest and residue of the property of which I may die possessed I leave to my beloved husband, James Manning, whose devoted affection has made happy the last years of my life. Having implicit confidence in his good judgment and kindness of heart, I request him to make proper provision for my dear son Frank, whose happiness I earnestly desire. I hope that he will consent to be guided by the wisdom and experience of his stepfather, who, I am sure, will study his interests and counsel him wisely. In my sorrow at parting with my dear son, it is an unspeakable comfort to me to feel that he will have such a guardian and protector."
Frank listened with amazement, which was shared by all present.
Practically, he was disinherited, and left wholly dependent upon his stepfather.
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