A Title on the Market
THEY were in a particularly argumentive mood this evening, the group of three seated around a corner table in a snug little club up three flights of stairs ; which explains why the matter was ever carried so far. No point could be raised, no matter how insignificant, without a snappy rejoinder or a biting commentary. Accordingly when Bert Dean, son "of “Croesus” Dean, hazarded the remark that “wealth was a handicap,” the rest of the company fell upon him with one accord.
“Now, I know what I’ve needed in my business all along,” remarked Arthur Renton. “An active, every-day-in-theweek handicap.”
“Lead me to the biggest handicap you can find!” declaimed AÍ. Tarrell, with a dramatic gesture. “Load me down with millstones of money! Hamper me with the fetters of financial backing! I’m tired of doing business without any handicaps. I’m willing to be crippled, overburdened, ground down under the bulkiest, heaviest handicap that can be loaded into one bundle.”
“You fellows don’t know what it is not to be able to do what you like,” said Dean, in a nettled tone. “You’ve been able to map out your own careers. You’ve had liberty.”
“If this is liberty,” said Tarrell, “lock me up at once in the deepest dungeon of the prison of pelf. Liberty! With forty-eight dollars in the bank and tailors’ bills in the pocket of the overcoat I’ve paid five down on!”
“Shut up, Tarrell,” growled Dean. “Give me a chance to explain what I mean. There’s only one thing in this world I was cut out for. I was meant for the stage. But would the governor
hear of me trying out? Not such as you could notice! He threatened to cut me off with a shilling. And so here I am, doing nothing at all and spending the old man’s money!”
“Why not stage some amateur theatricals?” suggested Renton. “You could have the fun without any of the hard work that the professional has to meet. Don’t see that wealth is any real handicap to you.”
“You would make a bum actor anyway,” added Tarrell.
Dean fell into a sulky silence and the matter dropped. The conversation soon veered around to another theme.
“I heard to-day that this English peer, Lord Leevering, had sailed for home,” announced Tarrell. “He came over to find a Canadian heiress, but went back just as single and poorer than ever.” “Glad of it,” said Renton, emphatically. “He may be alright personally, but the idea of a girl marrying a man just for his title is repugnant. We’re too democratic ift Canada for that sort of thing.”
In an instant they were at it again, hammer and tongs.
“Democracy!” scoffed Dean. “It’s a meaningless word, a mere nothing, a plausible platitude. Didn’t the mesozoic maid always fall for the cave man who could trace his descent back most direct to old B. A. Boon, Esq.? And two hundred years from now the little worldlings will have eyes only for the male of the species bearing the name of the coal baron or the trust magnate of to-day.” “You’re dead wrong,” declared Renton. “For one girl who would put blue blood ahead of other considerations, there are a thousand who would listen to
the dictates of true love-”
“Hark to him, Renton the confirmed bachelor, discoursing on feminine motives,” put in Tarrell. “Personally I agree with Dean. Most women are willing to accept any kind of a man if a title goes with him.”
“Then why did Lord Leevering go home without a wife?” asked Renton.
Dean sprang up at this juncture as though struck with a sudden idea. Whatever the idea was it seemed to afford him a lot of amusement. He thumped Renton on the back in sheer exuberance and then called loudly for the waiter.
“The.best in the house,” he ordered. “We’re going to drink to the greatest little thought I ever evolved. I’ve got the idea for a badly needed holiday. You see I’ve been working too hard at doing nothing recently. You two don’t know what hard work it is to do nothing at all. The old man won’t hear to me engaging in anything but his rotten old railroading, for which I’m about as well fitted as a Papuan native for bridge whist. I need something to do for a change. I thought for a time of taking a holiday digging ditches and then I considered going as a stoker on a steamboat. But now I’ve got the real simón pure scheme for a strenuous time. I’m going to kill two birds with one stone. Or to put it another way I’m going to carry conviction to the obtuse mind of Renton on two points at one crack.”
Over the wine he explained his plan. “I’m going to pick out some town and go there disguised as a lord. I’ll make love to all the heiresses in the place—the more the merrier—and show Renton here that a title is the surest way to the affections of the feminine heart. And at the same time I’ll demonstrate to the pair of you that I’m a Barrett, a Booth, and an Irving rolled into one, but kept off the boards only by the handicap of wealth imposed by an obstinate parent.”
“You’ve convinced me on one point already, ’ said Renton. “You’re a natural born chump, Dean.”
“Say, Dean,” put in Tarrell. “If you really mean to go ahead with it, try it out in my home town, will you? I owe the place a grudge.”
Vanefair was a democratic town. Everybody acknowledged that, par-
ticularly the members of the best families who frequently took part in church bazaars, contributed liberally to charities and so forth. There were a few disgruntled individuals who sought to impugn the fair name of Vanefair and spoke of it as a centre of social snobbery ; but they were mostly people who had endeavored to break into the “holy of holies,” the inner shrine of Vanefair society, and had failed. Tarrell was one of those who refused to bear tribute to the deep seated democracy of his home town, but Vanefair remembered him quite well as an irrepressible and cynical young man who had scoffed openly at everything and everybody.
Still it was not to be wondered at that all Vanefair felt a sense of pleasurable excitement and anticipation, particularly the members of the aforementioned best families, when it became known that a member of the British peerage, one Lord Leevering, had arrived in town. Vanefair had seen a cabinet minister or two, a famous musician, and the welterweight champion of America, but never before had a real lord come within its environs.
When the news first got around that a pompous stranger with a haughty air, a budding young mustache, and a most unmistakable old country suit of clothes had arrived at the Elite Hotel, and had signed the register with a flourish, “Gower, Lord of Leevering,” that hostelry was besieged with curious townsfolk. The crush became so great finally that Sim Lemoine, the clerk, decided something would have to be done. He walked out to the front entrance
“All coming in stick to the right!” he announced. “Them as has paid their quarter and got their money’s worth, stick to the left going out. Get your tickets here, gentlemen. The only real, live lord in captivity! Here you, where’s your ticket?”
The individual addressed smiled sheepishly and sidled through into the lobby. Sim projected his rather bulky form into the doorway and blocked all further egress.
“What’s he look like, Sim?” asked a friend in the crowd.
“Pretty much the same as any of us,” replied the loquacious clerk, “except for his height. Say, shorty, he’s only nicely started where you leave off. And as for chest, he’d make a pouter pigeon look round-shouldered.”
At this point he was interrupted by ‘ the return of the curious native whose j entrance he had questioned a moment bej fore. “Didn’t see him,” complained the latter. “He’d gone to take a bath.”
“Then I suppose you want a rain check,” said Sim. “Here now, clear out, the whole lot of you. Positively the last performance to-day.”
Lord Leevering had a busy time of it after he emerged from his tub. First he gave audience to two reporters from the local papers and explained that his presence in Vanefair was quite accidental. He had found himself with a couple of days not filled in and an acquaintance in Toronto had recommended that he see Vanefair.
Thea he .played « game oí billiards with one of the young bloods of the town, and displayed an almost unbelievable degree of proficiency, beating the local man, who had quite a reputation, into a cocked hat. Finally he accompanied his opponent to the local club and was introduced all around.
That night he dined with Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus Hempstead, the former a wealthy soap manufacturer, the latter leader of the inmost inner circle of Vanefair society.
It is not exaggerating to say that the town literally lost its head over the longlegged peer. He was induced to continue his stay and was dined and feted on every hand. More dances and dinners were crammed into the short space of one week than had ever been known in a whole season before. He enjoyed himself immensely and the fact that the younger element of Vanefair masculinity showed its detestation of him quite as openly as the ladies, old and young, showed their favor, added considerably to his enjoyemnt of the situation.
“Guess the time’s ripe for the test,” he said to himself finally, as he sat in the diminutive smoking room of the Elite, his long legs stretched out comfortably.
At lunch that day all Vanefair was discussing a choice morsel of gossip. It had progressed through various stages of exaggeration from its original form as discreetly given out by Lord Leevering himself, but the facts in the main were as follows. The peer had reached a crisis in his affairs. He had visited Can-
ada with the sole purpose of finding an heiress, the trip being financed by his creditors, who had decided to risk a little more in the hope of getting back the sums previously advanced. But here he had been three months in the country and was as far away from affluent matrimony as he had been when he started out; and the creditors were getting anxious. They had given him two weeks more and if he remained single and insolvent at the end of that time, they would foreclose on his estates. And so, ran the story, to avoid being engulfed in the waves of financial ruin, he was prepared to grasp at the first matrimonial straw that offered. In other words, he would agree to marry anyone who would come forward and offer to pay his debts.
The pseudo-peer had concocted the story with great care and was rather proud of it. It had been set in circulation through the medium of scraps of information dropped discreetly here and there; all that is needed to insure complete circulation of any information in towns of a certain size. Having thus baited his hook, he sat back and waited.
He did not have very long to wait. About two o’clock a visitor was announced in the person of Mr. Maynard Howelson, one of the wealthiest men in Vanefair. Maynard Howelson was a stout, pompous, old gentleman. But on the present occasion his usual air of bumptious self-confidence was lacking. He even seemed a little nervous as he shook hands.
“I might as well come to the point,” he said, after they had discussed indif-
ferent topics for a few minutes. “There is a matter of—er-—personal import I wanted to see you about. I trust you will not take offence at my repeating something I heard concerning you to-day.”
He then retailed substantially the story that the peer had himself set in circulation that morning.
“It is true,” said the latter, nodding his head at the conclusion of the narrative. “I am indeed in an unfortunate position. Unless I can redeem my fortunes by marriage, my ancestral estates will be seized. But what can I do? How can I go about finding the remedy? I am a beggar, sir, or next door to one. How can I approach any of Canada’s lovely daughters with a proposal of marriage when the involved condition of affairs is so well known?”
“Just what we thought,” said Howelson, plunging eagerly at the opening thus afforded. “You are unable to take the initiative on account of the—er—peculiar circumstances of the case. May I ask, if you have—well, settled on any course yet?”
“No,” said the impecunious peer, winking solemnly at the wall. “I can possibly describe my position best by saying that I am open to propositions.”
“We have noticed, Mrs. Howelson and I, that you have seemed to like the society of our daughter,” pursued Howelson. “Now under the circumstances, a matter of this kind can only be arranged by both parties going half way. You are in need of money. Win my daughter’s consent and I’ll see to the financial part of it. I have no real grounds for giving
a definite opinion, but I have every hope i that she could be induced to consent.”
The younger man felt the corners of his mouth twitch. “Your kindness overi whelms me,” he said. “It is more than I ' would ever have dared hope.”
“Of course, you know the fickleness of the fair sex,” said Howelson, who was getting back his confidence now that the ice was broken. “I cannot speak for Julia. But a young fellow with your face and figure, my lord, should find the means to break down any opposition in that quarter. I leave that to you. Now, as to the amount oí your indebtedness.” “Something over seventy thousand,” stated the peer coolly.
“Seventy thousand dollars!” cried Howelson, startled at the amount. “Pounds,” corrected the other.
“It’s a tremendous sum,” said Howelson, after a pause, “a colossal fortune.” “Oh, quite paltry compared with what some others in my station owe,” asserted Leevering. “And by the way, there is another matter. You see it’s this way. My creditors and I have been disappointed on several occasions when we thought everything was going to be settled. If I don’t have something definite for them this time, I’m afraid they’ll go ahead and foreclose. So the only thing we can do is to have some written proof to be presented to a confidential agent of theirs at Toronto—an assurance of financial assistance.”
Howelson thought hard and long. “It might be done,” he said at last. The younger man led him to a writing table, and after due consideration, the following notice was drawn up and signed :
This is to certify that Lord Leevering, of Manderton, England, being a suitor for the hand of my daughter, Julia Howelson, will receive from me, on the occasion of their approaching nuptials, the sum of three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
(Signed) MAYNARD HOWELSON.
“I don’t think my legal adviser would approve of this,” said Howelson, parting with the document reluctantly.
The peer placed the note in an envelope and the envelope in his pocket. “It will serve our purpose, I think,” he said. “Now, if you will excuse me, I will establish communications with my solicitor.”
They shook hands, and, just as soon as the bell-boy could get it to him, the pseudo-peer established communications, by means of a long straw, with something to soothe his nerves. “Julia Howelson!” he groaned. “They couldn’t give her away at a matrimonial fire sale.” He had four more callers that afternoon and, when the last one had departed, he drew five envelopes from his pocket and looked them over almost incredulously.
“Five,” he said. “Who’d have believed it! This town is worse than Tarrell said. It deserves a lesson.”
And then a new idea occurred to him, ! one which caused him to lean back in his chair with an almost beatific smile as he planned out the details.
There were five decidedly uneasy men in Vanefair that night, for each one of
the five had stumbled on the same piece of information at the club. It was being rumored around that Lord Leevering was not a member of the peerage at all. Someone had heard that the real owner of that title had sailed for home three weeks before. The story was discussed with relish in the corners of the club though it had not been put into active circulation.
Maynard Howelson was down to breakfast the next morning before either his wife or daughter appeared. The vague sense of impending trouble which had been the cause of his early rising, vanished with the opening of a letter that he found beside his plate. It contained a note from Lord Leevering with an inclosure. Howelson read the note through twice with marked relief.
“Thank heavens!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got out of this mess easily. Says he is sorry, but events have transpired which compel him to return at once to England. Regrets having to withdraw from the suggested arrangement, and returns my note. H’m! I’m certainly glad to get that back. If anyone heard about this I would never dare show my face in town again.”
And then a gasp of horrified amazement escaped him. He had opened the inclosure to find that it contained a note in the same terms as the one he had himself signed, but with the name of Cyrus Hempstead appended!
“So,” reflected Howelson, “Old Hempstead was trying to marry off that old maid daughter of his. I suppose he has my note. Well, there’s this consolation, anyway. We’re both in the same boat. The pot can’t call the kettle black. But, my stars, why couldn’t it have been anyone else but Cyrus Hempstead!”
He rushed to the telephone and, after a vexatious wait of several minutes’ duration, got Hempstead on the line.
“Good morning, Hempstead,” he said. “Nasty mess, isn’t it? Let’s just exchange without a word either way, and then we can forget that it ever occurred.”
“What are you talking about, anyway?” demanded Hempstead, who was inclined to be short-tempered.
“I have a note here belonging to you,” explained Howelson. “It was inclosed in a letter to me by mistake, so I suppose you got the one intended for me."
“Howelson, of all men, to get that note,” muttered Hempstead at the other end of the line. “He’s read it, of course.” Then aloud, “Much obliged, Howelson. I’ll send up for it right away.” .
“Send mine up at the same time,” suggested the other.
“I didn’t get anything for you,” came the unexpected rejoinder. “I did receive a note by mistake, but it was for another party entirely. Perhaps he has yours.”
“Who in thunder’s the third party to this infernal tangle?” demanded Howelson, his irascibility getting the upper hand.
“Alpheus W. Collins. You—er—didn’t by any chance, inadvertently of course, ascertain the contents of that note of mine?”
“Of course not,” snapped Howelson, ringing off.
In another minute he had Collins on the line. “You have some mail of mine, I guess,” he began abruptly. “Howelson speaking. I’ll send over for it.”
“Hold on. I haven’t anything of yours,” said Collins. “Just the same I’m greatly relieved to hear from you. You must have the one intended for me. I’ve been rather worried about it, and just called up Aaron Frigett. You see I’ve a letter of his here inclosed in one to me by mistake, and I naturally concluded he had the inclosure intended for me. But he had one intended for someone else. I refused to give up his until I got word of my own and he got rather nasty about it.”
“Jumping Jehosophat! Is this a new kind of endlesL chain!” roared the now thoroughly aroused Howelson. “Say, Collins, I haven’t your letter, but I know who has. But I’m not going to tell you where it is until I get word of my own.” After getting the answer twice that the line was busy and once that he must moderate his voice if he expected any further service, Howelson finally secured connection with Aaron Frigett’s residence.
“Howelson speaking,” he began. “Look here, Frigett-”
“Well, don’t snap my head off,” said Frigett in a querulous tone. “I’ve had two or three calls already from men who seemed about fit for an insane asylum. Now, don’t you act as though suffering from a brainstorm too. I suppose it’s about a letter. Well, I haven’t yours.” “Where is it, then?” asked Howelson, mopping his brow.
“Joe Doyle has it,” said Frigett, who had a high-pitched voice that cracked unexpectedly at times. “And it’s my opinion that you’d better get to him before he tells anyone else what that note contains.”
“Confound it, man!” bellowed the baited Howelson. “Do you mean to say that bloated brewer read what was in my note?”
“He must have,” chuckled Frigett. “Anyway he seemed to have a pretty good idea of what it contained.”
There was a pause. Maynard Howelson swallowed hard several times.
“Well, I guess he’s no worse than Collins anyway,” he said finally.
“What’s that?” snapped Frigett. “What about Collins?”
“Oh, nothing. Only he seems to be having a lot of fun over your note. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a bulletin board out by this time.”
“I’ll have the law on him. I’ll teach him to tamper with my mail. It was bad enough when he refused to give it up,
but if he has dared to read it-”
There was an interruption and Howelson thought he heard a crash at the other end of the line. After a moment’s delay, Frigett again spoke. “Little piece of bric-a-brac,” he explained. “I happened to touch it. You can’t draw a deep breath in this house without busting a Botticelli or something. But look here, Howelson, I’m going right over to have this out with Collins and I want you along.”
“Too busy,” said Howelson, grimly, ’’m going down to see Joe Doyle.”
I Howelson was in such a hurry that, , 1 when he stepped up to ring the door' bell at Doyle’s house, he nearly cannonaded into a young fellow who was just leaving. The latter turned around and gazed at him curiously. Howelson did not pay any attention to the stranger, but charged into the house as soon as the door was opened.
“So you’ve started into the publishing business, have you, Doyle?” he began.
“It seems to me it would be safer for you to limit your activities to your hop factory.”
Joe Doyle was a heavily-built, big man ; with a frowning brow and a prominent jaw. He gave Howelson, the benefit of a j strong stare before replying.
“I know what’s worrying you,” he declared. “And just let me warn you to get it off your chest without any gratuitous insults to my occupation. Now then. It’s about your letter, I guess.”
“Yes, that infernal letter,” said Howelson, restraining himself with an effort.
“I have it,” said Doyle. “But we have a few matters to talk over first.”
“You bet we have,” declared Howelson, who had reached boiling point. “Look here, Doyle, I don’t object so much to your indecency in reading that note. That was to be expected of you. But why didn’t you leave it at that instead of blurting it out to that garrulous old fool of a Frigett. It’ll be all over town soon.” “No, it won’t,” said Doyle. “I’ll tell you why. Frigett’s note, which was sent to Alf. Collins was identical with yours —and mine—except for names. “I’ve investigated this little mix-up and have found this much out. All the letters came from the same party and they contained the same proposition. What’s more, Howelson, they were deliberately mixed up!”
“Then we’re all in the same boat,” declared Howelson, with a sense of relief.
“Yes and I’m heartily ashamed of myself, and the crew I’m with,” asserted Doyle. “I won’t try to excuse myself, but I was really nagged into this by the womenfolk. They were plum set on that title. And to think I tried to buy that lanky fool for a son-in-law!”
“How many are there of us in it?” “Five that I know of. There may be more, of course. We’re not the only fools in Vanefair. But do you realize all that this means?”
“Of course, I realize the unpleasantness of it.”
“What are we going to do about this make-believe lord?”
“Put him in jail!” snapped Howelson, viciously. “We have enough evidence to convict him a dozen times over.”
“Jail nothing,” said Doyle, scornfully but sadly. “We’re going to pay him a good substantial sum of money to get out of town and keep his mouth shut.” Howelson gasped. A new and decidedly unpleasant phase of the situation had suddenly dawned upon him in vivid colors.
! “You’re right,” he said. “We must I hush this up at any cost.”
“Then,” said Doyle, “there’s the reporter.”
“A reporter from one of the big newspapers left me just before you came in. He knows the whole story from A to Z, and swears he’s going to print it, even to the names. He has some photographs too.”
“We’ll be the laughing stock of the country," groaned Howelson, who had been reduced to a pulpy condition by this time.
“Not if I know it!” affirmed Doyle, his heavy under-jaw shooting out belligerently. “But we’ll certainly have to make a dent in our bank-rolls to square this newspaper chap. I sized him up and, believe me, he’s no piker. But brace up, Howelson, we’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get the three other match-making mammas together and make up a purse between us. Then we’ve got to persuade our erstwhile sonin-law and his newspaper friend to accept it. Let’s divide up the work. You round up the lambs and bring ’em in for the shearing and I’ll locate the two shearers.”
Two nights afterward, Bert Dean dropped into the club and found Renton and Tarrell seated together at a corner table.
“I’m back,” he announced. “And I did it. If I only had time I would give you the story in detail, but I’m too busy working up alibis.”
“You’re in a mess, I hope,” said Renton, cheerfully.
“I’m up to my eye-lashes in trouble!” affirmed Dean. “If I can’t prove that I was somewhere else than where I was all last week the governor may find it necessary to make out a new will. I suppose you two wouldn’t testify that we were all on a fishing trip together last week? No?’?
“No,” said Renton, emphatically.
“I’m running George Washington a close second for the truth-tellers’ belt myself, said Tarrell. “I wouldn’t tell a lie to help myself, let alone you.”
“If it wasn’t that I can’t keep the story bottled up any longer I wouldn’t tell you two anything about it,” declared Dean, indignantly. “But really it’s too good to keep.”
He thereupon launched into an action of his adventures up to the time that he had secured the documents from his five prospective fathers-in-law.
“After getting the documents from each of the five,” he added, “I wrote to them calling the match off and enclosing their notes; only I took care to put each note into the wrong envelope. The result you can imagine. But the crowning proof of my histrionic versatility was still to come. I then got into a new disguise and palmed myself off on them as a reporter. I went around to each one and told them I knew the whole story and was going to publish it. Would you believe it, they offered to buy my silence, jumping their offer from $500 by slow degrees to $10,000? You may snort, Tarrell, but what I’m telling you is the truth. I left them finally with a grand declaration of steadfast adherence to duty, scorning their gold.”
“Then why the need for an alibi?” asked Tarrell.
“There’s a sequel,” said Dean, with momentary gloom. “It got out somehow that the supposed Lord Leevering was none other than the son of ‘Croesus’ Dean. Well, that put a new complexion on the case. I understand that each one of the five has written independently to the governor, claiming that the only way to square the episode is by yours truly doing the honorable thing, i.e., marry the daughter. Unless they agree to go with me to Utah I can’t very well marry them all. So the situation looks a little bad. In fact, it begins to seem as though I might have a few suits for breach of promise on my hands soon. The old man is threatening trouble. And I really think he means it this time.”
“What are you going to do about it?” asked Tarrell.
“I’m going back disguised as the reporter,” affirmed Dean. “I’ll put it up to them that to help out this Dean chap I’ll agree to squelch the story if they, on their part, all agree to write to the old man and say it was all a mistake. In the meantime, I’m trying to scare up a good reliable alibi to convince B. B. Dean, Sr., that his son has been the victim of a conspiracy.”