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Chapter 1 The Man-Eater by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The closed door of the bedroom opened. A bent and white-haired old negro walked slowly out, his face buried in a red bandanna and his shrunken shoulders heaving to the sobs he could not control. Down at the negroes' quarters the banjos and the old melodeon were stilled. Even the little piccaninnies sat with hushed voices and tearful mien. In the big front bedroom of the mansion two women knelt beside a bed, their faces buried in the coverlet, weeping. There were tears, too, in the eyes of the old doctor, and even stern old Judge Sperry blew his great beak of a nose with unnecessary vigor as he walked to the window and looked out across the broad acres of his lifetime friend. Jefferson Scott was dead.

That night Scott Taylor, the son of Jefferson Scott's dead sister, arrived from New York. Virginia Scott had met him several times in the past, when a child, he had visited his uncle. She knew but little of his past life, other than that Jefferson Scott had paid on two occasions to keep him out of jail and that of recent years the old man had refused to have any intercourse whatever with his nephew.

Taylor was a couple of years her senior, a rather good looking man, notwithstanding the marks of dissipation that marred his features. He was college bred, suave and distinctly at ease in any company. Had she known less of him Virginia Scott might easily have esteemed him highly, but, knowing what she did, she felt only disgust for him. His coming at this time she looked upon as little less than brazen effrontery, for he had been forbidden the house by Jefferson Scott several years before, nor since then had he once communicated with his uncle. That he had returned now in hope of legacy she knew as well as though he had candidly announced the fact, and it was with difficulty that she accorded him even the scantest courtesy in her greeting.

Judge Sperry, who was searching among Jefferson Scott's papers in the library when Taylor arrived, took one look at him over the tops of his glasses, a look that passed slowly from his face down to his boots, ignoring his proffered hand and returned to his search without a further acknowledgement of the younger man's existence.

Taylor flushed, shrugged his shoulders and turned back to Virginia, but Virginia had left the room. He fidgeted about, his ease of manner a trifle jarred, for a moment or two, and then recovering his poise, addressed Judge Sperry.

"Did my uncle leave a will?" he asked.

"He made a will, sir," snapped the Judge, "about a year ago, sir, in which you were not mentioned, sir. He has made no other, that I know of. If I were you, sir, I should return to New York. There is nothing here for you."

Taylor half smiled.

"I take it you are looking for the will," he said. "Well, I'll just stick around until you find it. If you don't find it I inherit half the property—whether you want me to or not."

Judge Sperry vouchsafed no reply, and presently Taylor left the room, wandered out across the grounds and down the road toward the little village, where, if there were no acquaintances, there was at least something to drink.

Later in the evening, fortified by several Kentucky bourbons, he returned, nor could Virginia's mother bring herself to refuse him the ordinary hospitalities of that old Virginian home, and so he remained, following the body of his uncle to the grave with the other members of the family, the friends and the servants.

And after the funeral he stayed on, watching with as eager eyes as the rest, the further search for the last will and testament of Jefferson Scott, but with hopes diametrically at variance with theirs. Naturally he saw much of Virginia, though not as much as he should have liked to see.

He found that the little girl he had known years before had grown into a beautiful young woman—and while it angered him to realize the contempt in which she held him, he was not so wanting in egotism but that he believed he might win his way eventually into her good graces. For this reason he never reverted to the subject of the will. He did his best to impress upon Virginia and her mother that his one object in remaining thus away from his business was in the hope that he might prove of some service to them now that he upon whom they both had leaned for advice and protection had been taken away from them.

Mrs. Scott was beginning to tolerate him and Virginia to feel sorry for him, yet both could not but look forward with feelings of relief to the meeting of the administrators which was to be held in the library of the Scott house the following morning. They felt that the action then taken would decide their status legally and render the further presence of Scott Taylor unnecessary. That it had been Jefferson Scott's intention that Virginia should inherit his entire estate they both knew, and were equally positive that the administrators would adopt every legal means to carry out the grandfather's expressed wish. Judge Sperry had explained Taylor's legal rights in the event that no will should be discovered, nor was Virginia at all desirous of attempting to reduce the amount that might be legally his.

It was the evening before the meeting. Taylor had gone to town in the afternoon. Mrs. Scott had already retired and Virginia sat reading in the library when Scott Taylor entered. As the girl greeted him civilly her eyes took in his flushed face and unsteady carriage and she saw that he had been drinking more than usually.

Then she let her eyes fall again to her book.

Taylor crossed the room and stood where he could watch her profile. For several moments he did not speak, then he came closer and took a chair directly in front of her.

The effect of her beauty upon his drink-excited passions caused him to throw diplomacy and caution to the winds.

"Look here, Virginia," he said, leaning forward toward her unsteadily.

The girl looked up in polite questioning, but there was a warning light in her eye that a more sober man than Scott Taylor would have discerned and heeded.

"Yes?" The rising inflection was accompanied by a raising of the arched brows.

"Why not be friends, Virginia?"

Taylor continued. "We're both of us due for a share of the old man's property. It amounts to a big bunch of coin, but it's mostly in farm lands. It ought not to be cut up. We ought to keep it intact. I got a scheme." He edged his chair closer until their knees all but touched. "We're about the same age. I'm not such a bad sort when you know me, and you're a peach. I always knew it, and this time I've discovered something else—I love you." He was leaning so far forward now that his face was close to hers.

The girl's eyes were wide in astonishment and disgust. She rose slowly and drew herself up to her full height.

"I would not, for the world," she said, "intentionally wound any man who came to me with an avowal of honest love; but I do not believe that you love me, and, further, the manner of your coming to me is an insult."

Taylor had risen and was facing her. If possible she was even more beautiful in anger than in repose. His self-control vanished before the scorn in her eyes and in her voice.

"You can learn to love me," he muttered, and seized her in his arms. Virginia struggled, but he crushed her closer to him until his lips were above hers. With all effort almost superhuman the girl succeeded in covering Taylor's face with her open palm and pushing him from her. Unsteady from drink, the man staggered back against the chair he had left, toppled over it and fell in a heap upon the floor.

When, after an effort, he managed to crawl to his feet, Virginia had disappeared. Taylor sank to the edge of a chair, his face contorted with rage and humiliation. He was not so intoxicated but that he now realized the fool he had made of himself and the ridiculous figure he must have cut reeling drunkenly over the chair. His rage, instead of being directed against himself as it should have been, was all for Virginia. He would make her pay! He would have his revenge. She should be left penniless, if there was any way, straight or crooked, to accomplish it.

And in this pleasant mood Scott Taylor made his unsteady way to bed. It was late when Taylor awoke the following morning. Already the administrators had gathered with Mrs. Scott and Virginia in the library.

It was several minutes before the man could recall to memory the events of the previous evening. As they filtered slowly through his befogged brain a slow flush of anger crept over his face. Then he recalled the meeting that had been scheduled for today. He glanced at his watch. It was already past time. Springing up, he dressed hastily and left his room.

Half way down the stairs he heard voices coming from the library below. He paused to listen. Judge Sperry was speaking.

"Jefferson Scott never intended that that young scalawag should have one cent's worth of his property," he was saying. "He told me upon several occasions that he would not have his money dissipated in riotous living, and by gad, gentlemen, if I have anything to say about it Jefferson Scott's wishes shall be observed," and he pounded the black walnut table with a heavy fist.

"I think," spoke up another voice, "that when the simple proofs necessary to establish legally Miss Virginia's relationship to General Scott have been produced it will be a comparatively simple matter to arrange the thing as he would have wished it."

"Simple proofs necessary to establish legally Miss Virginia's relationship to General Scott!" The words ran through Scott Taylor's brain almost meaninglessly at first, and then slowly a great light broke upon him, his eyes went wide and his lip curled in an ironical smile.

A moment later he entered the library. His manner was easy and confident. He sneered just a little as Virginia deliberately turned her shoulder toward him. A vast silence fell upon the company as he joined them. He was the first to break it.

"I am glad," he said, "that we can now straighten out a few matters that have been causing several of you not a little annoyance." He glanced defiantly at Judge Sperry. "Jefferson Scott, my uncle, died intestate. Under the circumstances, and the law, I inherit—I am the sole heir."

Mrs. Scott and the administrators looked at the young man in surprise—Virginia kept her back toward him. For several seconds there was unbroken silence—the bald effrontery of Taylor's statement had taken even Judge Sperry's breath away—but not for long.

"Sole heir?" shouted the old man presently. "Sole heir? Sole nothing! You don't deserve a penny of your uncle's estate, and you don't get a penny of it, if I can prevent it."

"But you can't prevent it, my friend," Taylor assured him coolly.

"You can't prevent it because, as I just said, I am the sole heir."

"I presume," bellowed the Judge, "that you have more rights here than General Scott's granddaughter?"

"He had no legitimate granddaughter," replied Taylor, the sneering laugh on his lips speaking more truly the purport of his insinuation than even the plain words he had used.

"What? You young scoundrel!" cried Judge Sperry, springing to his feet and taking a step toward Taylor.

"Don't get excited," said Taylor. "Of course it's unfortunate that it became necessary to touch upon this matter, but I gave Miss Virginia an opportunity to compromise last night, which she refused, and so there is nothing else for me to do but insist upon my rights. It's a very simple matter to rectify if I am not mistaken. All that Mrs. Scott need do is produce her marriage certificate, or the records of the local authorities where her wedding took place. And now, until she can establish the right of her daughter to make any legal claim whatsoever upon the estate of my uncle, I shall have to ask you all to vacate the premises and leave me in possession of what is mine and no one else's."

The administrators turned toward Mrs. Scott. She shook her head sadly.

"You all know, of course, as well as he does, that his charges are as false as they are infamous," she said. "I was married in the heart of Central Africa. Whatever records there were of the ceremony have long since been destroyed, I fear; and I fear also that it may be a difficult thing to legally prove my marriage. Robert Gordon of New York was one of the witnesses. If he still lives I presume an affidavit from him would be sufficient?" She glanced at Judge Sperry.

"It would," he assured her, "and in the mean time I intend to kick this miserable little puppy into the road." And he advanced upon Taylor.

It was Mrs. Scott who stepped in front of the Judge.

"No, my dear friend," she said, "we must not do that. He has, possibly, legal if not moral right upon his side, for until I can prove the legality of my marriage he is in the eyes of the law the sole heir. And in the meantime Virginia and I shall make our preparations and leave here as quickly as possible."

"You will do nothing of the sort," exploded the Judge. "You will stay right here. If you leave it will be a tacit admission of the truth of a lie. I won't hear of your leaving, not for a moment. If any one leaves, this rascally blackleg will be the one to go."

"No," spoke up Virginia. "I shall not leave. The Judge is right."

"As you will," said Taylor. "I can't kick a couple women out of my home if they insist on remaining."

"You'd better not," growled the Judge.

It was not until afternoon that Mrs. Scott found an opportunity to pen a note to Robert Gordon. She had not seen her husband's old friend since that day twenty-one years before that she had waved him farewell from the veranda of the bungalow within the palisade of her mission home. He had stopped in London on his way to America, met and married an English girl, and thereafter for long years had spent much time in England or in travel. It had not been until after the death of his wife that he had returned to New York permanently.

As Mrs. Scott finished the letter an automobile whirled up the driveway and came to a stop before the mansion. Women's voices floated in to her and to Virginia to whom she had been reading the completed letter. The latter walked over to the open doors, where she glanced out, and then, turning to her mother with an "Oh, it's Mrs. Clayton and Charlotte!" ran out to greet visitors.

Mrs. Scott, as thoroughly imbued with Southern hospitality as a native daughter, dropped her letter upon the desk and followed Virginia to the porch, where she found her friends insisting that she and Virginia accompany them on a drive to the village. As it was too warm for wraps neither mother nor daughter returned to the house, and only too glad of an interruption to the sorrows and worries that had recently overwhelmed them, entered the machine of the Clayton's and a moment later were whirling down the road in a cloud of dust.

Scott Taylor, who had been strolling about the plantation, returned to the house shortly after they had left and entering through the French windows of the library, chanced to note the open letter lying on the desk. It required no subjugation of ethical scruples upon his part to pick the letter up and read it.

The letter ran:

My Dear Mr. Gordon:

My husband's father, Jefferson Scott, has just passed away, and as certain legal requirements necessitate a proof of my marriage to Jefferson I am writing to ask that you mail an affidavit to Judge Sperry, of this village, to the effect that you witnessed the ceremony.

My marriage certificate is, I imagine, still in the tin box beneath the hearth of the mission bungalow where father always kept his valuables, but as even it may have been destroyed during the second uprising of the Wakandas I imagine that we shall have to depend entirely upon your affidavit. I understand that the savages left no stone standing upon another, and that every stick or timber was burned. That was eighteen years ago—a year after the massacre in which Jefferson, father and mother were slain, and so it is rather doubtful if anything remains of the certificate.

I am particularly anxious to legally establish the authenticity of my marriage, not so much because of the property which my daughter Virginia will inherit thereby, as from the fact that another heir has questioned my daughter's legitimacy.

I write thus plainly to you because of the love I know that you and Jefferson felt for one another, as well as to impress upon you my urgent need of this affidavit, which you alone can furnish.

Very sincerely,

Ruth Morton Scott

Scottsville, Va.

July 10, 19__.

"H'm," commented Mr. Scott Taylor, with a laugh. "Well, I can let this letter go forward with perfect safety, as I happen to know that Robert Gordon, Esq., died two years ago."

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