The Golden House

Author: Charles Dudley Warner


The place that Rodney Henderson occupied in the mind of the public was shown by the attention the newspapers paid to his death. All the great newspapers in all the cities of importance published long and minute biographies of him, with pictorial illustrations, and day after day characteristic anecdotes of his remarkable career. Nor was there, it is believed, a newspaper in the United States, secular, religious, or special, that did not comment upon his life. This was the more remarkable in that he was not a public man in the common use of the word: he had never interested himself in politics, or in public affairs, municipal or State or national; he had devoted himself entirely to building up his private fortune. If this is the duty of a citizen, he had discharged it with singleness of purpose; but no other duty of the citizen had he undertaken, if we except his private charities. And yet no public man of his day excited more popular interest or was the subject of more newspaper comment.

And these comments were nearly all respectful, and most of them kindly. There was some justice in this, for Henderson had been doing what everybody else was trying to do, usually without his good-fortune. If he was more successful than others in trying to get rich, surely a great deal of admiration was mingled with the envy of his career. To be sure, some journals were very severe upon his methods, and some revived the old stories of his unscrupulousness in transactions which had laid him open to criminal prosecution, from the effects of which he was only saved by uncommon adroitness and, some said, by legal technicalities. His career also was denounced by some as wholly vicious in its effect upon the youth of the republic, and as lowering the tone of public morals. And yet it was remembered that he had been a frank, open-hearted friend, kind to his family, and generous in contrast with some of his close-fisted contemporaries. There was nothing mean about him; even his rascalities, if you chose to call his transactions by that name, were on a grand scale. To be sure, he would let nothing stand between him and the consummation of his schemes—he was like Napoleon in that—but those who knew him personally liked him. The building up of his colossal fortune—which the newspapers were saying was the largest that had been accumulated in one lifetime in America—had ruined thousands of people, and carried disaster into many peaceful houses, and his sudden death had been a cyclone of destruction for an hour. But it was hardly fair, one journal pointed out, to hold Henderson responsible for his untimely death.

Even Jack Delancy, when the crushing news was brought him at the club, where he sat talking with Major Fairfax, although he saw his own ruin in a flash, said, "It wouldn’t have happened if Henderson had lived."

"Not so soon," replied the Major, hesitatingly.

"Do you mean to say that Henderson and Mavick and Mrs. Henderson would have thrown me over?"

"Why, no, not exactly; but a big machine grinds on regardless, and when the crash comes everybody looks out for himself."

"I think I’ll telegraph to Mavick."

"That wouldn’t do any good now. He couldn’t have stopped the panic. I tell you what, you’d better go down to your brokers and see just how matters stand."

And the two went down to Wall Street. It was after hours, but the brokers’ office was full of excitement. No one knew what was left from the storm, nor what to expect. It was some time before Jack could get speech with one of the young men of the firm.

"How is it?" he asked.

"It’s been a ---- of a time."

"And Henderson?"

"Oh, his estate is all right, so far as we know. He was well out of the Missouris."

"And the Missouri?"

"Bottom dropped out; temporarily, anyway."

"And my account?"

"Wiped out, I am sorry to say. Might come up by-and-by, if you’ve got a lot of money to put up, and wait."

"Then it’s all up," said Jack, turning to the Major. He was very pale. He knew now that his fortune was gone absolutely—house, everything.

Few words were exchanged as they made their way back to the club. And here the Major did a most unusual thing for him. He ordered the drinks. But he did this delicately, apologetically.

"I don’t know as you care for anything, but Wall Street has made me thirsty. Eh?"

"I don’t mind if I do," Jack replied.

And they sat down.

The conversation was not cheerful; it was mainly ejaculatory. After a second glass, Jack said, "I don’t suppose it would do any good, but I should like to see Mavick." And then, showing the drift of his thoughts, "I wonder what Carmen will do?"

"I should say that will depend upon the will," replied the Major.

"She is a good-hearted woman," and Jack’s tone was one of inquiry.

"She hasn’t any, Jack. Not the least bit of a heart. And I believe Henderson found it out. I shall be surprised if his will doesn’t show that he knew it."

A servant came to the corner where they were sitting and handed Jack a telegram.

"What’s this? Mavick? "He tore it open. "No; Edith." He read it with something like a groan, and passed it over to the Major.

What he read was this: "Don’t be cast down, Jack. The boy and I are well. Come. Edith."

"That is splendid; that is just like her," cried the Major. "I’d be out of this by the first train."

"It is no use," replied Jack gloomily. "I couldn’t ’face Edith now. I couldn’t do it. I wonder how she knew?"

He called back the servant, and penned as reassuring a message as he could, but said that it was impossible to leave town. She must not worry about him. This despatched, they fell again into a talk about the situation. After another glass Jack was firm in his resolution to stay and watch things. It seemed not impossible that something might turn up.

On the third day after, both the Major and Jack attended the funeral at the house. Carmen was not visible. The interment was private. The day following, Jack left his card of condolence at the door; but one day passed, and another and another, and no word of acknowledgment came from the stricken widow. Jack said to himself that it was not natural to expect it. But he did expect it, and without reason, for he should have known that Carmen was not only overwhelmed with the sudden shock of her calamity, but that she would necessarily be busy with affairs that even grief would not permit her to neglect. Jack heard that Mavick had been in the city, and that he went to the Henderson house, but he had not called at the club, and the visit must have been a flying one.

A week passed, and Jack received no message from Carmen. His note offering his services if she needed the services of any one had not been answered.

Carmen was indeed occupied. It could not be otherwise. The state of Henderson’s affairs could not wait upon conventionalities. The day after the funeral Mr. Henderson’s private secretary came to the house, and had a long interview with Mrs. Henderson. He explained to her that the affairs should be immediately investigated, the will proved, and the estate put into the hands of the executors. It would be best for Mrs. Henderson herself to bring his keys down to the office, and to see the opening of his desk and boxes. Meantime it would be well for her to see if there were any papers of importance in the house; probably everything was in the office safe.

The next morning Carmen nerved herself to the task. With his keys in hand she went alone into the library and opened his writing-desk. Everything was in perfect order; letters and papers filed and labeled, and neatly arranged in drawers and pigeonholes. There lay his letterbook as he had last used it, and there lay fresh memoranda of his projects and engagements. She found in one of the drawers some letters of her own, mostly notes, and most of them written before her marriage. In another drawer were some bundles of letters, a little yellow with age, endorsed with the name of "Margaret." She shut the drawer without looking at them. She continued to draw papers from the pigeon-holes and glance at them. Most of them related to closed transactions. At length she drew out one that instantly fixed her attention. It was endorsed, "Last Will and Testament." She looked first at the date at the end—it was quite recent—and then leaned back in her chair and set herself deliberately to read it.

The document was long and full of repetitions and technicalities, but the purport of it was plain. As she read on she was at first astonished, then she was excited to trembling, and felt herself pale and faint; but when she had finished and fully comprehended it her pretty face was distorted with rage. The great bulk of the property was not for her. She sprang up and paced the floor. She came back and took up the document with a motion of tearing it in pieces. No—it would be better to burn it. Of course there must be another will deposited in the safe. Henderson had told her so. It was drawn up shortly after their marriage. It could not be worse for her than this. She lighted the gas-jet by the fireplace, and held the paper in her hand. Then a thought struck her. What if somebody knew of this will, and its execution could be proved! She looked again at the end. It was signed and sealed. There were the names of two witnesses. One was the name of their late butler, who had been long in Henderson’s service, and who had died less than a month ago. The other name was Thomas Mavick. Evidently the will had been signed recently, on some occasion when Mavick was in the house. And Henderson’s lawyer probably knew it also!

She folded the document carefully, put it back in the pigeon-hole, locked the desk, and rang the bell for her carriage. She was ready when the carriage came to the door, and told the coachman to drive to the office of Mr. Sage in Nassau Street. Mr. Sage had been for many years Henderson’s most confidential lawyer.

He received Carmen in his private office, with the subdued respect due to her grief and the sudden tragedy that had overtaken her. He was a man well along in years, a small man, neat in his dress, a little formal and precise in his manner, with a smoothly shaven face and gray eyes, keen, but not unkindly in expression. He had the reputation, which he deserved, for great ability and integrity. After the first salutations and words of condolence were spoken, Carmen said, "I have come to consult you, Mr. Sage, about my husband’s affairs."

"I am quite at your service, madam."

"I wanted to see you before I went to the office with the keys of his safe."

"Perhaps," said Mr. Sage, "I could spare you that trouble."

"Oh no; his secretary thought I had better come myself, if I could."

"Very well," said Mr. Sage.

Carmen hesitated a moment, and then said, in an inquiring tone, "I suppose the first thing is the will. He told me long ago that his will was made. I suppose it is in the safe. Didn’t you draw it, Mr. Sage?"

"Oh yes," the lawyer replied, leaning back in his chair, "I drew that; a long time ago; shortly after your marriage. And about a year ago I drew another one. Did he ever speak of that?"

"No," Carmen replied, with a steady voice, but trembling inwardly at her narrow escape.

"I wonder," continued Mr. Sage, "if it was ever executed? He took it, and said he would think it over."

"Executed?" queried Carmen, looking up. "How do you mean, before a magistrate?"

"Oh, no; signed and witnessed. It is very simple. The law requires two witnesses; the testator and the witnesses must declare that they sign in the presence of each other. The witnesses prove the will, or, if they are dead, their signatures can be proved. I was one of the witnesses of the first will, and a clerk of Henderson’s, who is still in his office, was the other."

"The last one is probably in the safe if it was executed."

"Probably," the lawyer assented. "If not, you’d better look for it in the house."

"Of course. Whether it exists or not, I want to carry out my husband’s intention," Carmen said, sweetly. "Have you any memorandum of it?"

"I think so, somewhere, but the leading provisions are in my mind. It would astonish the public."

"Why?" asked Carmen.

"Well, the property was greater than any of us supposed, and—perhaps I ought not to speak to you of this now, Mrs. Henderson."

"I think I have a right to know what my husband’s last wishes were," Carmen answered, firmly.

"Well, he had a great scheme. The greater part of his property after the large legacies—" The lawyer saw that Carmen looked pale, and he hesitated a moment, and then said, in a cheery manner: "Oh, I assure you, madam, that this will gave you a great fortune; all the establishment, and a very great fortune. But the residue was in trust for the building and endowment of an Industrial School on the East Side, with a great library and a reading-room, all to be free. It was a great scheme, and carefully worked out."

"I am so glad to know this," said Carmen. "Was there anything else?"

"Only some legacies." And Mr. Sage went on, trying to recall details that his attentive listener already knew. There were legacies to some of his relatives in New Hampshire, and there was a fund, quite a handsome fund, for the poor of the city, called the "Margaret Fund." And there was something also for a relative of the late Mrs. Henderson.

Carmen again expressed her desire to carry out her husband’s wishes in everything, and Mr. Sage was much impressed by her sweet manner. When she had found out all that he knew or remembered of the new will, and arose to go, Mr. Sage said he would accompany her to the office. And Carmen gratefully accepted his escort, saying that she had wished to ask him to go with her, but that she feared to take up so much of his time.

At the office the first will was found, but no other. The lawyer glanced through it, and then handed it to Mrs. Henderson, with the remark, "It leaves you, madam, pretty much everything of which he died possessed." Carmen put it aside. She did not care to read it now. She would go home and search for the other one.

"If no other is found," said Mr. Sage, in bidding her good-morning," this one ought to be proved tomorrow. I may tell you that you and Mr. Hollowell are named as executors."

On her way home Carmen stopped at a telegraph station, and sent a message to Mavick, in Washington, to take an afternoon train and come to New York.

When Carmen reached home she was in a serious but perfectly clear frame of mind. The revelation in the last will of Henderson’s change of mind towards her was mortifying to a certain extent. It was true that his fortune was much increased since the first will was made, and that it justified his benevolent scheme. But he might have consulted her about it. If she had argued the matter with her conscience, she would have told her conscience that she would carry out this new plan in her own way and time. She was master of the situation, and saw before her a future of almost unlimited opportunity and splendor, except for one little obstacle. That obstacle was Mr. Mavick. She believed that she understood him thoroughly, but she could not take the next step until she had seen him. It was true that no one except herself positively knew that a second will now existed, but she did not know how much he might choose to remember.

She was very impatient to see Mr. Mavick. She wandered about the house, restless and feverish. Presently it occurred to her that it would be best to take the will wholly into her own keeping. She unlocked the desk, took it out with a trembling hand, but did not open it again. It was not necessary. A first reading had burned every item of it into her brain. It seemed to be a sort of living thing. She despised herself for being so agitated, and for the furtive feeling that overcame her as she glanced about to be sure that she was alone, and then she ran up stairs to her room and locked the document in her own writing-desk.

What was that? Oh, it was only the door-bell. But who could it be? Some one from the office, from her lawyer? She could see nobody. In two minutes there was a rap at her door. It was only the servant with a despatch. She took it and opened it without haste.

"Very well, Dobson; no answer. I expect Mr. Mavick on business at ten. I am at home to no one else."

At ten o’clock Mr. Mavick came, and was shown into the library, where Carmen awaited him.

"It was very good of you to come," she said, as she advanced to meet him and gave him her hand in the natural subdued manner that the circumstances called for.

"I took the first train after I received your despatch."

"I am sorry to inconvenience you so," she said, after they were seated, "but you know so much of Mr. Henderson’s affairs that your advice will be needed. His will is to be proved tomorrow."

"Yes?" said Mavick.

"I went to see—Mr. Sage today, and he went with me to the office. The will was in the safe. I did not read it, but Mr. Sage said that it left everything to me except a few legacies."


"He said it should be proved tomorrow, unless a later will turned up."

"Was there a later will?"

"That is what he did not know. He had drawn a new will about a year ago, but he doubted if it had ever been executed. Mr. Henderson was considering it. He thought he had a memorandum of it somewhere, but he remembered the principal features of it."

"Was it a great change from the first?" Mavick asked.

"Yes, considerable. In fact, the greater part of his property, as far as I could make out, was to go to endow a vast training-school, library, and reading-room on the East Side. Of course that would be a fine thing."

"Of course," said Mavick. "And no such will has been found?"

"I’ve looked everywhere," replied Carmen, simply; "all over the house. It should be in that desk if anywhere. We can look again, but I feel pretty sure there is no such document there."

She took in her hand the bunch of keys that lay on the table, as if she were about to rise and unlock the desk. Then she hesitated, and looked Mavick full in the face.

"Do you think, Mr. Mavick, that will was ever executed?"

For a moment they looked steadily at each other, and then he said, deliberately, their eyes squarely meeting, "I do not think it was." And in a moment he added, "He never said anything to me about such a disposition of his property."

Two things were evident to Carmen from this reply. He saw her interests as she saw them, and it was pretty certain that the contents of the will were not made known to him when he witnessed it. She experienced an immense feeling of relief as she arose and unlocked the desk. They sat down before it together, and went over its contents. Mavick made a note of the fresh business memoranda that might be of service next day, since Mrs. Henderson had requested him to attend the proving of the will, and to continue for the present the business relations with her that he had held with Mr. Henderson.

It was late when he left the house, but he took with him a note to Mr. Sage to drop into the box for morning delivery. The note said that she had searched the house, that no second will existed there, and that she had telegraphed to Mr. Mavick, who had much knowledge of Mr. Henderson’s affairs, to meet him in the morning. And she read the note to Mavick before she sealed it.

Before the note could have been dropped into the box, Carmen was in her room, and the note was literally true. No second will existed.

The will was proved, and on the second day its contents were in all the newspapers. But with it went a very exciting story. This was the rumor of another will, and of Henderson’s vast scheme of benevolence. Mr. Sage had been interviewed and Carmen had been interviewed. The memorandum (which was only rough and not wholly legible notes) had been found and sent to Carmen. There was no concealment about it. She gave the reporters all the details, and to every one she said that it was her intention to carry out her husband’s wishes, so far as they could be ascertained from this memorandum, when his affairs had been settled. The thirst of the reporters for information amused even Carmen, who had seen much of this industrious tribe. One of them, to whom she had partially explained the situation, ended by asking her, "Are you going to contest the will?"

"Contest the will?" cried Carmen. "There is nothing to contest."

"I didn’t know," said the young man, whose usual occupation was reporting sports, and who had a dim idea that every big will must be contested.

Necessarily the affair made a great deal of talk. The newspapers discussed it for days, and turned over the scheme in every light, the most saying that it was a noble gift to the city that had been intended, while only one or two doubted if charity institutions of this sort really helped the poor. Regret, of course, was expressed that the second will had never been executed, but with this regret was the confidence that the widow would carry out, eventually, Henderson’s plans.

This revelation modified the opinion in regard to Henderson. He came to be regarded as a public benefactor, and his faithful wife shared the credit of his noble intention.


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Chicago: Charles Dudley Warner, "XX," The Golden House, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Golden House (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023,

MLA: Warner, Charles Dudley. "XX." The Golden House, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Golden House, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Warner, CD, 'XX' in The Golden House, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Golden House, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from