The contents of the will created general astonishment. There was not one in the room who didn't know the devotion of Mrs. Manning to her son Frank, yet, while speaking of him affectionately, she had treated him, as they considered, most cruelly. Why should she have left such a dangerous power in her husband's hands?
And how was Mr. Manning affected?
He summoned to his face an expression of bewilderment and surprise, and, feeling that all eyes were fixed upon, him, he turned toward the lawyer.
"Mr. Ferret," he said, "I need hardly say that this will surprises me very much, as I see that it does the friends who are present. Are you sure that there is no codicil?"
"I have been unable to discover any, Mr. Manning," said the lawyer, gravely, as he scanned the face of the widower keenly.
Mr. Manning applied his handkerchief to his eyes, and seemed overcome by emotion.
"I knew my dear wife's confidence in me," he said, in a tremulous voice, "but I was not prepared for such a striking manifestation of it."
"Nor I," said Mr. Ferret, dryly.
"Knowing her strong attachment to Frank," paused Mr. Manning, "I feel the full extent and significance of that confidence when she leaves him so unreservedly to my care and guidance. I hope that I may be found worthy of the trust."
"I hope so, sir," said Mr. Ferret, who, sharp lawyer as he was, doubted whether all was right, and was willing that Mr. Manning should be made aware of his feeling. "It is certainly a remarkable proviso, considering the affection which your wife entertained for her son."
"Precisely, Mr. Ferret. It shows how much confidence the dear departed felt in me."
"So far as I can see, the boy is left wholly dependent upon you."
"He shall not regret it!" said Mr. Manning, fervently. "I consecrate my life to this sacred trust."
"You acquiesce in the arrangement, then, Mr. Manning?"
"I cannot do otherwise, can I?"
"There is nothing to prevent your settling the property, or any part of it, on the natural heir, Mr. Manning. You must pardon me for saying that it would have been wiser had your wife so stipulated by will."
"I cannot consent to reverse, or in any way annul, the last wishes of my dear wife," said Mr. Manning, hastily. "It was her arrangement solely, and I hold it sacred. She has put upon me a serious responsibility, from which I shrink, indeed, but which I cannot decline. I will do all in my power to carry out the wishes of my late wife."
Mr. Ferret shrugged his shoulders.
"I am not surprised at your decision, sir," he said, coldly. "Few men would resist the temptation. My duty is discharged with the reading of the will, and I will bid you good-afternoon!"
Mr. Manning was a crafty man. He knew that the strange will would be discussed, and he thought it best that the discussion should come at once, that it might be the sooner finished.
Deborah, faithful old servant, was in a blaze of indignation.
She went up quickly to Frank, and said:
"It's a shame, Mr. Frank, so it is!"
"If my mother made that will, it is all right," said Frank, gravely.
"But she didn't, Mr. Frank! I know she would never do such a thing. She loved you as the apple of her eye, and she would not cheat you out of your rightful inheritance."
"No more she would, Mr. Frank," said the coachman, chiming in.
"I don't know what to think," said Frank. "It has surprised me very much."
"Surprised you!" exclaimed Deborah. "You may well say that. You might have knocked me down with a feather when I heard the property left away from you. Depend upon it, that man knows all about it."
"You mean Mr. Manning?"
"To be sure I mean him! Oh, he's managed artfully! I say that for him. He's got it all into his own hands, and you haven't a cent."
"If it was my mother's will I wouldn't complain of that, Deborah. It was hers to do with as she liked, and I know, at any rate, that she loved me."
"There's one thing surprises me," said Richard Green. "If so be as the will isn't genuine, how does it happen that you and I come in for a legacy, Deborah?"
"It's meant for a blind," answered Deborah. "Oh, he's the artfulest man!"
"You may be right, Deborah. I must say the will sounded all right."
"Maybe it was copied from the mistress' will."
This conversation took place in one corner of the room.
It ceased as Mr. Ferret advanced toward the disinherited boy.
"Frank," said he, in a tone of sympathy, "I am very sorry for the provisions of the will."
"So am I, sir," answered our hero. "It isn't pleasant to be dependent on Mr. Manning."
"Particularly when the whole estate should be yours."
"I wouldn't have minded if half had been left to him, provided I had been left independent of him."
"I appreciate your feelings, Frank. I knew your father, and I am proud to say that he was my friend. I knew your mother well, and I esteemed her highly. I hope you will let me regard myself as your friend also."
"Thank you, Mr. Ferret!" said Frank. "I am likely to need a friend. I shall remember your kind proposal. I want to ask you one question."
"Ask, and I shall answer."
"Did my mother consult with you about making this will?"
"Did she ever say anything that would lead you to think she would leave the property as it is left in this will?"
"Not a word."
"Was there another will?"
"Yes. I wrote her will at her direction more than a year ago. This will is dated only three months since, and, of course, takes precedence of it, even if the other is in existence."
"Can you tell me what were the provisions of the other will?"
"A legacy of ten thousand dollars was left to Mr. Manning, and the rest of the estate to you, except the small legacies, which were all larger than in the will I have read. For instance, Deborah and Richard Green were each put down for five hundred dollars."
"So they suffer as well as I?"
"Have you any idea, Mr. Ferret, of the value of the estate which falls into Mr. Manning's hands?"
"I have some idea, because I have talked with your mother on the subject. This estate is worth fifty thousand dollars at least, and there are fully fifty thousand dollars in money and bonds. The legacies do not altogether exceed one thousand dollars, and therefore it may be said that your stepfather has fallen heir to one hundred thousand dollars."
"I suppose there is nothing I can do, Mr. Ferret?"
"Not unless you can show that this will which I have read is not a genuine document. That would be difficult."
"Did you notice my mother's signature?"
"Yes. I am not an expert, but I cannot detect any difference greater than maybe existed between two signatures of the same person."
"Then I suppose there is nothing to be done at present. I expect to have a hard time with Mr. Manning, Mr. Ferret."
"How has he treated you in the past, Frank?" asked the lawyer.
"I have had nothing to complain of; but then he was not master of the estate. Now it is difficult, and I think his treatment of me will be different."
"You may be right. You remember what I said, Frank?"
"That I should regard you as a friend? I won't forget it, Mr. Ferret."
One by one the company left the house, and Frank was alone.
Left alone and unsustained by sympathy, he felt more bitterly than before the totally unexpected change in his circumstances.
Up to the last hour he had regarded himself as the heir of the estate. Now he was only a dependent of a man whom he heartily disliked.
Could it be that this misfortune had come to him through the agency of his mother?
"I will not believe it!" he exclaimed, energetically.
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