A Story of the Maine Coast
BY CHARLES CLARK MUNN
Author of "Pocket Island"
ILLUSTRATED BY HELENA HIGGINBOTHAM
BOSTON LEE AND SHEPARD M C M
COPYRIGHT, 1900, BY LEE AND SHEPARD
All rights reserved
Rockwell and Churchill Press BOSTON, U.S.A.
THOSE WHO LOVE TO WANDER OVER GREEN MEADOWS, ALONG MIRTHFUL BROOKS, OR BENEATH FOREST TREES WHERE THE BIRDS DWELL, OR FIND CONTENT ON LONELY SHORES AND MUSIC IN THE OCEAN'S VOICE, This book is respectfully dedicated BY THE AUTHOR
I. A WAIF OF THE SEA
II. UNCLE TERRY
III. TWO ORPHANS
IV. A SPIDER IN HIS DEN
V. WAYS THAT ARE DARK
VI. A PUSH DOWNWARD
VII. A SERMON
VIII. A HELPING HAND
IX. SHARP PRACTICE
X. AMID THE GREEN MOUNTAINS
XI. BY THE FIRESIDE
XII. A COUNTRY SCHOOLMA'AM
XIII. SOUTHPORT ISLAND
XIV. A LEGALIZED PICKPOCKET
XV. THE VALUE OF GOOD EXAMPLE
XVI. SWEET ALICE
XVII. A BY-WAY SCHOOLHOUSE
XVIII. VILLAGE GOSSIP
XIX. PLOTS AND PLANS
XX. A PAIR OF BLUE EYES
XXI. A NEW CLIENT
XXII. UNCLE TERRY'S GUEST
XXIII. A STRANGE STORY
XXIV. A WHISPER OF THE OCEAN
XXV. THE "GYPSY" RETURNS
XXVI. THE MISER IN HIS DEN
XXVII. IN SHADY WOODS
XXVIII. WHERE THE LILIES GROW
XXIX. A FRIEND AT COURT
XXXI. THE GLAD HAND
XXXII. THE DEMNITION GRIND
XXXIII. OLD AND YOUNG
XXXIV. FIRELIGHT FLASHES
XXXV. THE "WIDDER" LEACH
XXXVI. A NAMELESS COVE
XXXVII. AMID FALLING LEAVES
XXXVIII. THE OLD SONGS
XL. "YES OR NO"
XLI. AN HEIRESS
XLII. THE PATHOS OF LIFE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
THE HOME OF UNCLE TERRY
UNCLE TERRY AND TELLY
THE OLD MILL
A STORY OF THE MAINE COAST
A WAIF OF THE SEA
"It's goin' to be a nasty night," said Uncle Terry, coming in from the shed and dumping an armful of wood in the box behind the kitchen stove, "an' the combers is just a-humpin' over White Hoss Ledge, an' the spray's flyin' half way up the lighthouse."
"The Lord-a-massy help any poor soul that goes ashore to-night," responded a portly, white-haired woman beside the stove, as a monster wave made the little dwelling tremble.
Uncle Terry took off his dripping sou'wester and coat, and, hanging them over the wood box, went to the sink and began pumping a basin of water.
"Better have some warm, Silas," said the woman, taking the steaming kettle from the stove and following him; "it's more comfortin'."
When he had washed, and combed his scanty gray locks and beard at a small mirror, he stood for a moment beside the stove. His weather-beaten face that evinced character, so pronounced were its features, wore a smile, and his deep-set gray eyes emitted a twinkle.
"Supper 'most ready, Lissy?" he asked, eyeing a pot on the stove that gave out an appetizing odor. "I'm hungry 'nough to eat a mule with the harness on!"
"'Twill be in a minit," was the reply. "Better go into t'other room where Telly's settin' the table."
Uncle Terry obeyed, and, finding a bright fire burning there, stood back to it, smiling affectionately at a young girl busy beside the table. She had an oval face, a rather thin and delicate nose, small sweet mouth, and eyes that were big, blue, and appealing. A wealth of light hair was coiled on the back of her head, and her form was full and rounded.
"It's blowing hard to-night, father, isn't it?" she observed. "I can feel the waves shake the house." Then, not waiting for an answer, she stepped to a closet, and bringing a short gray coat and felt slippers, pushed an arm-chair to the fire, and placing the slippers beside it, held the coat ready for him to put it on.
"You might as well be comfortable," she added; "you haven't got to go out again, have you?"
The man seated himself, and drawing off his wet boots and putting on his slippers, opened his hands toward the blaze and observed: "You and Lissy's bound to cosset me, so bimeby I won't stir out 'cept the sun shines."
Silas Terry, or Uncle Terry, as everybody on Southport Island called him, was, and for thirty years had been, the keeper of "The Cape" light, situated on the outermost point of the island. To this he added the daily duty of mail carrier to the head of the island, eight miles distant, and there connecting with a small steamer plying between the Maine coast islands and a shore port. He also, in common with other of the islanders, tilled a little land and kept a few traps set for lobsters. He was an honest, kind-hearted, and fairly well-read man, whose odd sayings and quaint phrases were proverbial. With his wife, whom everybody called Aunt Lissy, and adopted daughter Telly, he lived in a neat white house close to the Cape light and, as he put it, "his latch-string was allus out."
Uncle Terry had a history, and not the least interesting episode in it was the entrance into his life of this same fair and blue-eyed girl. Perhaps his own graphic description will best tell the tale:
"It was 'bout the last o' March, nigh onto eighteen year ago, and durin' one o' the worst blows I ever rec'clect since I kep' the light, that one mornin' I spied a vessel hard an' fast on White Hoss Ledge, 'bout half a mile off the pint. It had been snowin' some an' froze on the windows o' the light, so mebbe she didn't see it 'fore she fetched up all standin'. The seas was poundin' her like great guns, an' in her riggin' I could see the poor devils half hid in snow an' ice. Thar wa'n't no hope for 'em, for no dory could 'a' lived a moment in that awful gale, and thar wa'n't no lifeboat here. Lissy an' me made haste to build a fire on the pint, to show the poor critturs we had feelin' for 'em, an' then we just stood an' waited an' watched for 'em to go down. It might 'a' been an hour, there's no tellin', when I saw a big bundle tossin' light, an' comin' ashore. I ran over to the cove where I keep my boats, and grabbed a piece o' rope an' boat hook, and made ready. The Lord must 'a' steered that bundle, for it kept workin' along, headin' for a bit o' beach just by the pint. I had a rope round my waist, an' Lissy held onto the end, an' when the bundle struck I made fast with the boat hook and the next comber tumbled me end over, bundle an' all, up onto the sand. I grabbed at it, an' 'fore the next one come, had it high an' dry out o' the way.
"It's allus been a puzzle to me just why I did it, for I was wet through an' most froze, an' what I'd pulled out looked like a feather bed tied round with a cord, but I out with my knife an' cut the cords, an' thar in the middle o' two feather beds was a box, an' in the box a baby alive an' squallin'!
"I didn't stop to take the rope off my waist, but grabbed the box an' ran for the house with Lissy after me. We had a fire in the stove, an' Lissy warmed a blanket and wrapped the poor thing up an' held it over the stove an' kissed it and took on just as wimmin will. When I see it was safe I cut for the pint, thinkin' to wave my hat an' show 'em we had saved the baby, but a squall o' snow had struck in an' when it let up the vessel was gone. Thar was bits o' wreck cum ashore, pieces o' spars, a boat all stove in, an' the like, an' a wooden shoe. In the box the baby was in was two little blankets, an', tied in a bit o' cloth, two rings an' a locket with two picters in it, an' a paper was pinned to the baby's clothes with furrin writin' on it. It said the baby's name was Etelka Peterson, an' 'To God I commend my child,' an' signed, 'A despairin' mother.' From bits o' the wreck we learned the vessel was from Stockholm, an' named 'Peterson.'
"The paper was sech a heart-techin' appeal, an' as we'd just buried our only child, a six-year-old gal, we was glad to adopt this 'un an' bring her up. In due course o' time I made a report o' the wreck to the Lighthouse Board, an' that we had saved one life, a gal baby, an' give all the facts. Nothin' ever came on't, though, an' we was glad thar didn't. We kep' the little gal, an' she wa'n't long in growin' into our feelin's, an' the older she growed, the more we thought o' her."
Of course the history of Uncle Terry's protegee was known to every resident of the island, and as she grew into girlhood and attended school at the Cape—as the little village a quarter mile back of the point was called—until she matured into a young lady, every one came to feel that, in a way, she belonged to the kindly lighthouse keeper and his wife Melissa.
To them she was all that a devoted daughter could be, and when school days were over she became Uncle Terry's almost constant companion. On pleasant days she went with him to attend his traps, and on his daily drive to the head of the island. She was welcome in every house and well beloved by all those simple, kindly people, who felt an unusual interest in her existence. Of tender heart and timid nature, her appealing eyes won the love of young and old. On Sunday evenings she was always one of the small congregation that gathered to hold simple services in the little church at the Cape—a square one-story building that never knew paint or shutters.
Of beaux she hardly knew the meaning, and it must be said the few young men who remained on the island after reaching the age of courtship were neither in garb nor manners such as would attract a girl like Telly.
One special talent she was gifted with and that the ability to draw and paint well. Even as a child at school she would draw pictures on a slate that were surprising, and when older, and she obtained materials, she worked until she became, in a way, quite an artist. As Uncle Terry put it, "Makin' picters comes nat'rl to the gal."
She had never received even the first lessons in that charming art, but for all that every room in the house had dozens of her efforts, large and small, hanging on the walls, and in the oddest frames. Some were of strips of thin board covered with little shells or dried moss, and others of rustic handiwork and mounted with fir cones.
There was but one shadow in her life and that the fact that no one of the relatives she imagined she must have in far-off Sweden ever made any effort to learn the fate of her parents, who she knew had gone down so near her home. The story of her rescue with all its pitiful details was familiar to her and in her room were treasured all the odd bits of wreckage: the locket that contained her parents' pictures; the two rings; the last message of her mother; and even the wooden shoe that had floated ashore. How many times she had looked at those two pictured faces, one a reflection of her own, how many tears she had shed in secret over them, and how, year after year, she wondered if ever in her life some relative would be known to her, no one, not even her foster-parents, ever knew. Neither did they know how many times she had tried to imagine the moment when her despairing mother, with death near, and with prayers and tears, had cast her adrift, hoping that the one little life most dear to that mother might be saved. The fatal reef where those parents had gone down also held for her a weird fascination, and at times the voice of the ocean seemed like the despairing cries of mortals. One picture, and it was her best, was a view of the wreck, as near as Uncle Terry could describe it, with human forms clinging to the ice-clad rigging and tempestuous seas leaping over them. The subject held an uncanny influence over her, and she had spent months on the picture. But this shadow of her life she kept carefully guarded from all.
"I wa'n't consulted 'bout comin' into this world," said Uncle Terry once, "an' I don't 'spect to be 'bout goin' out. I was born on a wayback farm in Connecticut, where the rocks was so thick we used ter round the sheep up once a week an' sharpen thar noses on the grin'stun, so't they could get 'em 'tween the stuns. I walked a mile to school winters, an' stubbed my toes on the farm summers, till I was fourteen, an' then the old man 'greed to give me my time till I was twenty-one if I'ud pay him half I earned. I had a colt an' old busted wagon, an' I took to dickerin'. I bought eggs an' honey an' pelts of all sorts, an' peddled notions an' farmin' tools. When I cum of age I went to the city an' turned trader an' made a little money; got married an' cum down into Maine an' bought a gold mine. I've got it yit! That is, I've got the hole whar I s'posed the mine was. Most o' my money went into it an' stayed thar. Then I got a chance to tend light and ketch lobsters, an' hev stuck to it ever since. I take some comfort livin' and try an' pass it along. The widder Leach calls me a scoffer, but she allus comes to me when she's needin', an' don't allus have to cum, either. My life's been like most everybody else's—a streak o' lean an' a streak o' fat, with lean predominatin'. 'Twas a streak o' fat when I found a good woman an' she said 'yes,' an' a streak o' lean when I was bamboozled by a lawyer into buyin' a gold mine. I've kep' that hole ever since an' paid taxes on't, to prove to myself jest how big a fool a man can be an' live.
"I've never wronged nobody, nor done much prayin', an' when the Almighty calls me I think I'll stand jest as good a chance o' gittin' a harp as those who's done more on't. The worst skinnin' I ever got was done by this ere lawyer who never sot down to meals 'thout askin' a blessin', an' mebbe that's the reason I'm a scoffer. I've observed a good deal since I left the old farm, an' have come to the belief that thar's a sucker born every minit and two ter ketch him. When I was young I took hold o' the big end o' the log an' did the liftin'; but now I take hold o' the little end an' do the gruntin'! Thar's one thing I've larned, and larned it for sartin, an' that is, thar's dum few people in this world that cut a ham in the middle. Most on 'em cut few slices an' cut 'em thin."
Among the Southport islanders Uncle Terry was considered an odd stick, and yet one who would go out of his way to do a good turn to others. He was seldom seen at church, though his wife and Telly usually were. As he once remarked: "It's a good thing for 'em, 'cause it takes up thar mind an' is more sociable, tho' prayin' allus seems to me a good deal like a man tryin' to lift himself by his boot-straps. It keeps him busy, tho', an' it's healthy exercise."
In spite of his investment in a mine, he had been frugal and owned most of the land between the village and the point, and was also joint owner, with two other men, in a small trading-schooner that made semi-monthly trips between the Cape and Boston. She carried fish, clams, lobsters, hay, and potatoes, and fetched an "all sorts" cargo useful to the islanders, from a paper of needles to a hogshead of molasses.
The most pronounced characteristic of Uncle Terry was his unfailing good humor, tinged with a mild sarcasm. He loved his fellow-men, and yet enjoyed puncturing their small conceits, but so droll was his way of doing it that no one felt the sting. To Bascom, who kept the only store, and also post-office, at the Cape, and dearly loved to hear himself talk, Uncle Terry once said: "You've got the greatest gift o' gab I ever heerd, Bascom, and you could 'a' made your fortin in the show business. But if you're ever took with religion, the hull island'll turn infiddle."
And again: when Deacon Oaks, the leader at all prayer-meetings, assured him how great a blessing religion was, and how much he enjoyed divine service, Uncle Terry answered: "Your takin' the lead at meetin's is a blessin' to the rest, for none of 'em has to worry 'bout who's goin' to speak next. They know you're allus ready."
In this connection it must be stated that the spiritual life of Southport was of a primitive description. The small unpainted church at the Cape, above which hung a diminutive bell, was the only place of worship, and to this, every other Sunday, came a minister from the mainland. It was furnished with long wooden settees and a small cottage organ graced the platform, upon which an antique desk did duty as pulpit and a storage place for hymn books. Four wall bracket lamps lighted this room for evening service, and their usually smoky chimneys lent a depressing effect to all exhortation. "Mandy" Oaks presided at the organ and turned gospel hymns into wheezy and rather long-drawn-out melodies. Most of the audience tried to chase the tunes along and imagined they were singing, which, perhaps, is all that is necessary. On the Sundays between the minister's visits only evening services were held, and every Thursday evening a prayer-meeting. It was on these latter occasions that Deacon Oaks was in conspicuous evidence. The Widow Leach, a poor unfortunate woman who had seen better days, and in whose poverty stricken life religion was the only consolation, was also prominent; and her testimony, unvarying in tenor as the tunes played by Mandy, helped to fill out the service.
"It's lucky the widow's sure o' lots o' happiness in the next world," observed Uncle Terry once, "for she ain't gittin' much in this.
"I can't hear Oaks, though, 'thout thinkin' o' Deacon Rogers up in Wolcott, who never mentioned the need o' rain till he'd got his hay in. He was a sly fox, and allus thanked the Lord for sendin' rain nights an' Sundays, so the poor hired men could rest.
"I used to have him held up as a shinin' example, but he opened my eyes arter I began dickerin' by sellin' me a lot o' eggs that had been sot on two weeks, an' the storeman I sold 'em to never trusted me agin. 'Twas a case o' the ungodly sufferin' for the sins o' the righteous that time, which may be a pervarsion o' Scriptur, but the truth, just the same.
"But I got a little comfort finally, for when the Deacon died, by some inadvartance the choir sang, 'Praise God from whom all blessin's flow,' an' I wa'n't the only one who felt that way, either."
In spite of Uncle Terry's mildly flavored shafts of sarcasm, he made no enemies and his kind heart and sterling honesty were respected far and near. He was considered a doubter and skeptic, and though seldom seen at church, as he had originally contributed his share when that edifice was built, his lack of piety was forgiven.
There is a sense of justice underlying all men's minds, and the natural instinct is to judge others by what they are and how they live, rather than by what they profess, and so it was in Uncle Terry's case. He lived truthfully, obeyed his conscience, observed the Golden Rule, wronged no one, and as with many others who do likewise, he had a right to feel that in the final balance his book of life would show a wide margin on the credit side.
A stranger visiting Sandgate on a summer afternoon would inevitably conclude the town was asleep. Often not a person would be visible the entire length of its main street, cooled by three rows of maples, one dividing it, and one shading each of the two sidewalks formed of narrow strips of weather-stained marble. Under some of these trees that almost touch branches for half a mile one or two cows might be grazing or taking a siesta while chewing the cud of content. On the vine-hid porch of the village tavern landlord Pell would quite likely be dozing in an arm-chair tilted back, and across the way Mr. Hobbs, who keeps the one general store, would as likely be napping on a counter, his head pillowed upon a pile of calico. A little further up the street and near the one tall-spired white church Mrs. Mears, the village gossip, may be sitting on the veranda of a small house almost hid by luxuriantly growing Norway spruce, and idly rocking while she chats with the widow Sloper, who lives there, and whose mission in life is to cut and fit the best "go to meetin'" gowns of female Sandgate. Both dearly love to talk over all that's going on, and whether this or that village swain is paying especial attention to any one rosy cheeked lass, and if so "what's likely to come on't." Both mean well by this neighborly interest, and especially does Mrs. Sloper, who always advises plaits for stout women, "with middlin' fulness in the bust" for thin ones.
One or two men may be at work haying in the broad meadows west of the village, through which the slow current of a small river twists and turns, or others wielding hoes on a hillside field of corn to the east, but so far as moving life in the village street goes there will be none. On either side of the Sandgate valley two spurs of the Green Mountain Range, forest-clad, stand guard as if to isolate from all the world this peaceful dale, whose dwellers' sole ambition in life may be summed up in—to plow, plant, reap, and go to meeting.
On the north end of this park-like highway, and beyond the last house, it narrows to an ordinary roadway and divides. One fork turns to the right, following up the banks of a winding stream to an old grist-mill with moss-covered wheel and lily-dotted pond above. The other turns to the left, crosses the narrow Sandgate valley, and bears south past the Page place. If it were Sunday, not many years ago, and about eleven in the morning, a stranger passing the church would have heard through the open doors and windows the exquisitely sweet voice of Alice Page, clear as a bell and melodious as a bird's, toying and trilling through "Coronation," or some other easily recognized hymn; and had that stranger awaited the close of service he or she would have seen among the congregation filing out one petite and plump little lady, with flower-like face, sparkling blue eyes, and kiss-inspiring mouth, who would most likely have walked demurely along with her big brother Albert, and turning down a narrow pathway, follow him across the meadows, over a foot-bridge that spans the stream, and up to an old-fashioned elm-shaded house.
This landmark, known far and wide as the Page place, is historic. Built in the time of King George, and one of the first three erected in Sandgate, it has withstood the storms of two centuries and seen many generations of Pages come and go. Additions have been made to it—an ell on one side, larger windows and a wide veranda in front. Inside it is much the same, for the open fireplaces remain in parlor and sitting-room and a tall clock of solemn tick stands in the hall where it stood when Paul Revere took his famous ride.
The last owner, Simeon Page,—or, as he was called, Squire Page,—joined the great majority two years after an enterprising railroad crept up the Sandgate valley. He had bitterly opposed its entrance into the town and it was asserted that chagrin at his defeat hastened his death. His widow, with their two children, Albert and Alice, and a widowed sister, remained and with the aid of hired men managed the farm. But bushes began to choke the pastures and meadows; the outbuildings grew shabby; the house received no paint; and as the children grew up and needs increased, one by one the broad fields were sold. It had been the squire's ambition that his only son should become a professional man, and carrying out his wishes, Albert's mother had pinched and saved, denying herself all luxuries, and given him a collegiate education. He had graduated with honors; read law; been admitted to the bar; and then returned to Sandgate and opened an office. Alice, three years his junior, had been sent to a boarding-school for two years, where she devoted most of her time to music, then came home again as mother's helpmate.
But the years of self-denial were at an end, for one June day that mother laid down her burden and was placed beside her husband in the village cemetery. Then the two orphans found themselves joint heirs to to an old time-worn house, a few acres of meadow, a couple hundred dollars of debts, and—nothing else. No; that is not right, for they both had youth, good health and habits, and good educations.
Albert, who had rather taken charge of matters since his return to Sandgate, kept the debt situation from Alice after his mother's death, feeling she had grief enough to bear without it, but for all that, it troubled him seriously. The income from his practice was scarcely enough to clothe him and not likely to increase, for Sandgate had scant use for a lawyer; and what to do, or which way to turn, he knew not. If it were not for Alice and Aunt Susan he thought it would be easier, but they must be provided for. Alice, who had been his companion, playmate, and confidant since the days of short dresses, he especially cared for, and that feeling was mutual.
So devoted a brother and sister were they that it had kept them from forming other associations, and when Albert had been asked why he did not escort some other young lady to the husking-bees, barn dances, or church sociables, his usual reply was: "Alice is good enough for me, and when she prefers another beau I may, but not till then."
With Alice, though many of the village swains wooed,—she wouldn't. Even Jim Mears, stalwart, and with a hand like a foot, fared no better, and when Albert rallied her once about young Mears she answered: "Oh, Jim's all right. He isn't handsome, but then, he is strong," which delicate sarcasm may be considered a sufficient reflex of her feelings toward others of the would-be attentive young farmers.
But for all that, Alice was counted in on every festive gathering. If it was a barn dance she was always there and never lacked partners, and when the jolly party rode home in a big wagon filled with straw it was her voice that always started "The Quilting Party," or other old-time ballad usually inspired by moonlight. When a strawberry festival was in order at the church she was given a post of honor, and when Christmas decorations were necessary every young man felt it a privilege to obey her orders. At home she was the same winsome little queen, and had no more devoted subject than her brother.
For a month after the funeral he worried a good deal. He knew that bills had been left unpaid through his mother's illness, and that the family were in straitened circumstances. His own law practice so far had yielded scant returns, and what to do and where to turn was a puzzle. He wrote to a former classmate whose father was a prominent merchant in Boston, stating his situation and asking advice. It was two weeks ere he received a reply, and then, though a cordial letter of sympathy, it did not go far toward solving the problem. A week later, however, came a letter from a lawyer in that city by the name of Frye, offering him a position as assistant in his office at a small salary. It was so small that Albert thought it a hopeless task to pay home expenses out of it and leave anything towards their debts. It was more than his present income, however, and yet to accept the offer and leave Aunt Susan and Alice alone seemed hard. On the other hand, to borrow money on what little of the farm was left did not help matters, for when that was gone, what then?
Matters came to a climax one day, and ended his indecision. He had been away from his office all that afternoon, taking a long stroll in the woods to escape his loneliness, and returning at tea time, found a cloud on his sister's face.
"Mr. Hobbs called this afternoon," she said as they sat down to the table, "and asked for you. Said he went to your office, and not finding you in, came here." And then she added with a quiver in her voice, "Oh, Bertie, we owe him over one hundred dollars!"
The trouble was all out now, and Albert looked gloomy. "I don't think any more of him for coming here to dun us," he answered savagely; "he might have waited until he saw me."
"Oh, he was very nice about it," responded Alice, "and begged my pardon for speaking of it. He said there was no hurry, only that he had made out his bill as a matter of form, etc., and we could pay it when convenient."
Albert made no further comment, but when the meal was ended, said: "Come out on the porch, sis, and let us talk matters over." She followed him, feeling there was trouble coming, and drawing her low chair next to his, placed one elbow on his chair arm and covered her face with that hand. For a few moments he remained silent, watching the fireflies beginning their evening dance over the meadow and listening to the distant call of a whippoorwill. Across the valley the village lights were coming in sight, one by one, and a faint odor of new-mown hay came to him. The pathetic little figure at his side unnerved him, however, and he dreaded to say what he must.
"Well, sis," he said at last, "I've kept matters from you as long as I can. We not only owe Hobbs a good deal, but as much more in smaller bills to others, and there is no money to pay them. I've worried about them more than you know, or than I cared to have you. One of two things must be done, either borrow money and pay these bills or I must go away and earn some."
Then the little head beside him sunk slowly to his chair, and as he began stroking it he added, "I've written to Frank Nason, my old college chum, and through him have received a fair offer to go to Boston, and have decided to accept it. I shall leave here as soon as I can get ready."
The trouble was growing serious now, and as he ceased speaking he caught the sound of a suppressed sob. "Don't cry, Alice," he said tenderly, "it can't be helped. Our home must be broken up sometime and it may as well be now as any other. The thing that worries me most is leaving you and Aunt Susan here alone."
Then the sobs increased and the bowed form beside him shook.
"Oh, Bertie," she said at last in a choked voice, "don't leave us here alone. Let us sell the old house, pay the bills, and if you must go away, let us go too."
"No, dear, that is not best," he answered softly. "I can't earn enough at first to do it. You will have to stay here till I can."
Then the proud spirit that had come to Alice Page from many generations of self-helpful ancestors spoke and she said as she raised her head and brushed away the tears: "If you are to leave me here I shall go to work as well. I can teach school, or do something to help you, and I shall, too!"
Her defiant little speech hurt Albert just a bit and yet he felt proud of her for it. "It may be best for you if you could get a chance to teach," he responded, "and it will help me some, and take up your mind, which is worth a good deal."
But the worst was to come, and the evening before his departure she never forgot. There were some consolations to exchange, however, for she had seen Mr. Mears of the school committee and obtained a position to teach the north district school in Sandgate,—a small by-road schoolhouse, two miles from her home,—and felt a little pride in telling about it; while he had to report that all whom they owed had promised to wait patiently for their dues.
"Mr. Hobbs even offered to lend me money if I needed it," he said after they had talked matters over, "and so, you see, we have a good many friends in Sandgate after all. And now I want you to sing a few of the old songs for me, so that I can have them to think about when I am lonesome and homesick."
But the singing was a failure, for Alice broke down in the middle of the first song and they had to go out and watch the fireflies once more, while she conquered her tears.
"You will write to me every day, won't you, Bertie?" she asked disconsolately, as they waited the next morning for the train that was to separate them. "I shall be so lonesome and blue all the time!"
When he kissed her good-by she could not speak, and the last he saw, as the train bore him away, was that sweet sister's face, trying bravely to smile through its tears, like the sun peeping out of a cloud.
A SPIDER IN HIS DEN
"Thar's a sucker born every minit, an' two ter ketch him."—Uncle Terry.
There are lawyers and lawyers. Not all are legalized pickpockets, and not all are imbued with the sole and noble purpose of serving the ends of justice, whether that service lines their pockets or not. Some, and I may say many of them, contrive to reverse matters and to make justice serve them, and if the ways of justice do not conspire to that end, so much the worse for the blind goddess. Modern justice oft-times means the longest purse and the keenest ability to evade the law, and while an unprincipled lawyer will not exactly throttle the mythological maiden who holds the scales, he will, if necessary, so befog her every sense with evasions, subterfuges, and non-pertinent issues that she might just as well have been born deaf and dumb, and without feeling, as well as blind, for all the use she has of those senses. Not only does modern law service frequently resolve itself into a contest of unscrupulous cunning, but modern law-making is occasionally shaped to serve the ends of the profession, instead of justice. While the majority of lawyers are not rascals in name, a good many are at heart, and with the most, when it comes to the question of justice and a small fee and injustice and a big one,—well, draw your own conclusions, all ye who have been fools enough to seek recourse at law.
Lawyers seem to thrive on the passions and vanities of mankind, and many of them are looking for fools who have money and a grievance. The time-worn sarcasm that "After man came woman, and she has been after him ever since" would be more to the point if "lawyer" were substituted for "woman."
But the world is full of fools who thirst for revenge in law, or seem anxious to find some one to dupe them in other ways and always succeed; so Uncle Terry was more than half right when he said, "Thar's a sucker born every minit, an' two ter ketch him."
Of all the smooth, elusive vultures lurking in the shadow of the temple of justice, or perching upon it, Nicholas Frye, or "Old Nick," as many called him, was the most cunning. Nor did his looks belie the comparison, for he had deep-set, shifty, yellow-gray eyes, a hooked nose, and his thin locks, dyed jet black, formed a ring about his bald poll. He walked with a stoop, as if scanning the ground for evidence or clues, and to add to his marked individuality, when he talked he rubbed his hands together as though washing them with invisible soap. It was not from any sense of cleanliness that he did this, for they had many times been soiled willingly in the most nefarious transactions. A client was to him a victim to be kept in waiting; exasperated in regard to his grievances by all possible means; deluded as to his chances of success in quest of justice; deceived as to its cost; and robbed in every way known to an astute lawyer. He had been the legal adviser of John Nason for many years, and when that busy merchant came to him on behalf of his son, who wanted to find a position for Albert Page, Frye readily promised to give him employment. It was not because he needed him, but because he saw at once that through some friendship for this young sprig of the law, as he intuitively considered Albert to be, he could strengthen his hold upon the father and obtain some secrets that might eventually be used to rob him. In plain words, he thought to use this young country lawyer as a spy. He knew that John Nason felt a keen interest in his only son Frank, and that was another reason for employing that son's friend. He knew also that Frank was given a liberal allowance, spent it rapidly, and most likely would be getting into various scrapes needing a lawyer's efforts to rescue him, and so he would have further pickings in that direction. These were two good reasons for his ostensible acts of kindness, and so he at once sent for Page to come.
When, the morning after his arrival in Boston, Albert presented himself at Frye's office, he found that lawyer busy reading his mail.
"Take a seat, sir," said Frye politely, after Albert had introduced himself, "and excuse me until I go through my letters." And then, for a long half hour, Albert was left to study the bare office walls and peculiar looks of his future employer. Finally Frye turned to him and asked rather abruptly: "Well, Mr. Page, what do you know about law?" at the same time scanning him as if expecting to see hayseed adhering to his garments.
"Not much, perhaps," replied Albert modestly, uncertain of his ground. "I have been in practice only a year at Sandgate, and the few people there do not have much use for a lawyer."
"Then why didn't you stir 'em up a little and bring 'em to see they needed your services?" was Frye's next query. "You will never succeed as a lawyer unless you make business. Did you bring your sheepskin with you?"
"No, sir," answered Page, "I didn't think it necessary, after what I wrote you. I have it in my trunk."
"Well, bring it to-morrow," said Frye. "I make it a rule to take nothing for granted and have everything in writing;" and then he added with a searching look, as if he was about to utter a crusher, "What is your idea of a lawyer's chief object in existence?"
Page was a little nonplussed. "Oh, I suppose," he replied slowly, "to see that laws are properly executed and justice done."
Frye looked at him a full minute without making any further comment, while a sardonic grin gradually drew his lips apart, showing a full set of false teeth, and then, as he began rubbing his hands together, he said:
"It's evident, young man, you have much to learn in your profession. Laws are made for lawyers, and are the tools of our trade. If the world does not see fit to use those tools, it is our business to make them, and as for justice, that is an allegory, useful in addressing a jury, but considered a fable by the judge. Laws are useful to oppose other laws with, and various decisions are only good in so far as they help your case and hinder your opponent's.
"You seem an honest-appearing young man, which is well so far as our relations go, but no further. I want an assistant, and one who is ready and willing to do just as I direct and to ask no questions. Do you think you can fill the bill?"
"I can try," replied Albert quietly, "and as soon as I get used to your methods of procedure here I think I can succeed."
He was a little startled at the peculiar character of his employer, and in a way slightly disgusted, but he was not in a position to cavil or feel squeamish over apparent lack of honesty, and resolved at once to ignore it.
"What do you wish me to do?" he continued after a moment. "I will do the best I can for you and am ready to go to work now."
"You are to be at the office at eight o'clock sharp," replied Frye, "take one hour for lunch, and remain till six." Then he added by way of a spur to his slave's fidelity, "I am paying you seventy-five dollars a month on the recommend of an important client of mine who wanted to humor his son. It was your good luck to have this son's friendship, as he belongs to a wealthy family. He is a spendthrift, of course, but that is no matter, and all the better for us. Take my advice, and cultivate him all you can. It may be the means of bringing us more business. What I say to you I shall expect you to consider a professional secret and I hope you will make good use of your time when with this young friend of yours, and heed well what I have said to you."
That ended the interview and Albert was set at work copying legal documents and at the same time trying to reconcile himself to his new surroundings. That night he wrote to Alice: "I have hired out to a most unmitigated old scoundrel, and yet one of the sharpest lawyers I ever met. He assured me I must lay aside my conscience if I mean to succeed and hinted that he might use me later on as a sort of spy upon Frank, I imagine. He employs a stenographer of uncertain age who comes in and takes dictation and does her work outside. The only stupid thing he has said was to warn me not to flirt with her."
Then he wrote to his friend Frank, telling him where he was located, thanking him for his assistance, and begging him to call at an early date. After that he smoked for an hour in glum silence. His room was small and cheerless, and, in comparison with his home quarters, a mere den. But it was a question of saving, and the luxury of space, even, he could not afford. There is no more lonesome place in the wide world than a great city to one born and bred amid the freedom of the wide fields and extended woodlands as Albert had been, and now that he was shut in by brick walls all day, and imprisoned in one small room at night, with a solitary window opening on an area devoted to ash barrels and garbage, it made him homesick. He was a dreamer by nature and loved the music of running brooks, the rustling of winds in the forest, and the song of birds. The grand old mountains that surrounded Sandgate had been the delight of his boyhood, and to fish in the clear streams that tumbled down through narrow gorges and wound amid wide meadows, or in the lily-dotted mill pond, his pastime. He had the artist's nature in him also, and loved dearly to sketch a pretty bit of natural scenery, a cascade in the brook or a shady grotto in the woods. He loved books, flowers, music, green meadows, shady woods, and fields white with daisies. He had been reared among kind-hearted, honest, God-fearing people who seldom locked their doors at night and who believed in and lived by the Golden Rule. The selfish and distrustful life of a great city, with its arrogance and wealth and vanity of display, was not akin to him, and to put himself at the beck and call of a mercenary and utterly unscrupulous old villain, as he believed Frye to be, was gall and bitterness. For two weeks he worked patiently, hoping each day that the one and only friend the city held for him would call, passing his evenings, as he wrote Alice, "in reading, smoking, and hating myself a little, and Frye a good deal."
He had hesitated to write Frank in the first place, disliking to ask favors, but it could not be helped, and now he began to feel that his friend meant to ignore him. This humiliating conclusion was growing to a certainty, and Albert feeling more homesick than ever, when one afternoon, while he was as usual hard at work in Frye's office, Frank came in.
"Pray excuse me, old man," remarked that youth briskly, after the first greetings, "for not calling sooner, but I was off on my yacht about the time you came, and then I ran down to New York to take in the cup races. You see, I'm so busy I do not get any time to myself. I want you to come over to the club and lunch with me to-day, and we can talk matters over."
"You will kindly excuse me," replied Albert. "I have a lot of work cut out, and am only allowed one hour for lunch. Can't you come around to my room to-night and have a smoke-talk?"
"Maybe," replied Frank, "and we can go around to the club later. You will meet some good fellows there, and we always make up a game of draw—small limit, you know. Say, old man," he added interestedly, "how do you like Frye?"
As that worthy happened to be out just then, the two friends had a good chance to exchange opinions. Albert's is already known, but, for reasons, he did not care to express it to Frank at this time.
"Frye is a shrewd lawyer, I presume," he answered, "and so far I have no fault to find. He takes good care to see I have work enough, but that is what I am hired for, and I have been rather lonesome, and glad of it."
Then to change the subject he added: "I want to thank you once more, Frank, for getting me the place. Things were in a bad way at home, and I needed it."
"You may thank dad, not me," replied Frank; "I was just going off on a trip when your letter came, and I turned the matter over to him. Frye's his attorney, you see."
"Are you personally well acquainted with Mr. Frye?" asked Albert, having an object in mind.
"No, not at all, except by sight," was the answer. "I believe he is considered a very sharp lawyer, and almost invariably wins his cases. Dad says he has won out many times when the law was all against him, and is not over-scrupulous how he does it. They say he is rich, and a skinflint. He always reminds me of a hungry buzzard."
Albert thought of Burns' apt cynicism just then, and wished that Frye might for one moment see himself as others saw him. He felt tempted to tell Frank just what Frye had said, and what his opinion of him was, but wisely kept it to himself. Had he been a woman, it is doubtful if he would have shown so much discretion, and not every man would.
"Well, I must be going," said Frank, at last. "I've got a date for the mat., this aft., so ta-ta. I'll call round some eve., at your room, and take you up to the club."
When his friend had departed, Albert resumed his rather monotonous copying the gist of a lot of decisions bearing upon a case that Frye had pending just then, and when he went out to lunch, it was, as usual, alone, and to a cheap restaurant.
"It's nice to have a rich father, a yacht, plenty of money and nothing to do but spend it," he said to himself ruefully that night, as he sat in his cheerless room smoking and dwelling upon the picture of a gay life as disclosed by his friend. "But we are not all born to fortune, and perhaps, after all, I might be worse off,"—which, to say the least, is the best way to look at it.
WAYS THAT ARE DARK
With "Old Nick" Frye the eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not get caught," outweighed all the rest. It was not because he especially needed the assistance of Page that he had hired him, although he could serve him in a way; but it was that he could use him as a means to an end in a totally different capacity from copying law reports. John Nason, one of his principal clients, was a wealthy and successful merchant, and both proud and fond of his only son. Frye had heard various stories of the elder Nason, connecting his name with certain good-looking girls that had been or were in his employ, and that vulture, with a keen scent for evil, was only too ready to take advantage of anything, no matter what, so long as it would aid him in his efforts to make the most out of his client. He knew also that Frank was, as the saying goes, "cutting a wide swath." To use the son's friend as a means to reach the son, and through him possibly the father, was considered by Frye a wise stroke of policy.
When, a few days after Frank had called upon Page, the latter chanced to mention it to Frye, he made a note of it at once.
"I am glad," he said cordially, "that your friend has hunted you up. I knew he was away on his yacht when you came, and was going to suggest that you call on him as soon as I knew he was at home. As I told you, cultivate him all you can. He will serve as a door to get you into good society. When did he call?"
"It was one day while you were out," answered Page, "and he invited me to lunch with him at his club."
"Which of course you did?" said Frye.
"No, sir; I knew I shouldn't have time for it during my one hour, and then, you had given me a lot of work to do that day."
A shade of annoyance came over Frye's face.
"Well, that's all right, of course," he said, "but when he calls again take all the time you need if he asks you out, and," with a scrutinizing look at Page, "as I said, cultivate him. It's business. His father is my most valued client, and the more intimate you become with his son the sooner you will have an acquaintance that will be of value to you."
Page could not quite fathom all this, but the more he thought of what Frye had said the more certain he became that kindly regard for his own welfare did not enter into that shrewd schemer's calculations. He was more and more disgusted, also, each day, with his employer's cynical indifference to all sense of honor and honesty, coming to the conclusion that he was no better than a thief at heart.
Beneath Albert's disposition to adapt himself to those he mingled with lay a vein of sterling good sense, fine honor, and the energy of self-sacrifice, if necessary, and Frye's attributes were so obnoxious to him as to be simply repulsive. At college he had never indulged in much "larking," and just why the bond of friendship between himself and the good-natured, self-indulgent, happy-go-lucky classmate, Frank Nason, had been cemented is hard to explain, except upon the theory of the attraction of opposites. When, a few days later, that young man appeared at the office just before closing time, and suggested they "go out for a night's racket," as he phrased it, Albert was not inclined to accept.
"What are you up to?" he said as they walked away from the office, "and what do you mean by a racket? If it's likely to be expensive, count me out; I can't afford it."
"Well," answered Frank lightly, "you are working too hard, and need shaking up, so I thought I'd drop round and do it. We will dine at the club, then go to the Castle Square, where there is a burlesque on and no end of pretty chorus girls. I know two or three of them, and after the show we will take them out to supper; that is all."
"It's all right except the end-up," answered Albert, "and on that I think you had best skip me. As I said, it's a diversion I can't afford. I've no money to spare to buy wine for ballet girls."
"Oh, that's all right," responded Frank cheerfully. "I've asked you out and it's my treat. I'll pay the shot this time."
"I shall pay my share if I go," asserted Albert firmly, "but I would rather omit the after part. We will have the evening together and then you can go and entertain your chorus girls and I'll go to my room."
It was a laudable resolution, but it came hard, for beneath all Albert's good resolves was lurking desire for a little excitement to break the dull monotony of his life. He had been to the theatre only twice since he came to Boston, desiring to save in every way he could, and only the week before had sent Alice one-third of his first month's salary. At the club Frank introduced him to several of his friends and of course they were asked to join them in a social glass, which did not tend to strengthen Albert's resolution. At the theatre the exhilarating music, and the glitter of a stage full of pretty girls in scant drapery, all had their usual effect, and by the time the show was over he found it next to impossible to resist his friend's urging that they go around to the stage door and meet the girls he had invited to sup with them.
"Mind you, let me pay my share," whispered Page, and then he found himself being introduced by his first name to two highly colored queens of the ballet, and all four proceeded at once to a private supper-room. Albert found the girls bright, vivacious, and expressive, so far as a superficial use of slang goes: they ordered the choicest and highest-priced items on the bill of fare; called for champagne and drank it freely; addressed their escorts as "Cully," "Old Sport," and "Old Stocking;" smoked cigarettes; and talked about their "mashes" in other cities in a way that made Albert grateful that he had been introduced by his first name only.
It was not an immoral proceeding, though not exactly proper, and when in the wee small hours they—with a mistaken sense of gallantry—escorted the two actresses (if such they may be termed) to their boarding-place, Page, at least, was glad to be well rid of them. And when he reached his room, it must be said to his credit, he did not feel particularly proud of himself.
He felt less so the next morning when he received a letter from Alice which said:
MY DARLING BROTHER: I was so pleased when I received your loving letter and the money you sent. You do not know how it hurts me to feel we owe so much, and I have cried over it more than you will ever know. Last week I received my first month's pay,—thirty dollars,—and I was very proud of it, for it is the first money I ever earned. I took half and put it with the twenty-five you sent and gave it to Mr. Hobbs. I have only six dollars left, for I had to buy some boots and gloves, but that will last me a month, for I've not the heart to spend a penny I am not obliged to, until the debts are paid. I had to buy the boots, because walking four miles a day wears them out very fast.
And he had spent twenty dollars the night before to have a couple of ballet girls talk slang, smoke cigarettes, and call him "Cully"!
When he thought of his sweet and loving sister, with her perfect faith in his manhood, walking four miles a day to earn less than two dollars, while he had been induced to spend in one foolish evening as much as she could earn in two weeks, it was no wonder he did not feel proud of himself.
A PUSH DOWNWARD
"He digged a pit, he digged it deep, He digged it for a brother; But oh, alas! he fell into The pit he digged for another."
Page was a little late at the office the next morning and Frye was there ahead of him.
"I was out with young Nason last evening," he explained, as the old lawyer bade him a rather crusty good morning, "and I overslept."
"Oh, that is all right," responded Frye, in an instantaneously sweetened tone, "I am glad you were, and, as I told you, you are wise to cultivate him. I suppose," he continued with a leer, "that you were buying wine for some of the gay girls?"
Page looked confused. "Well, we went to the theatre, and after that had a late supper," he explained, "and it was after one before I returned to my room."
"I don't care how late you are out, or what you did," said Frye, still eyeing Page, "so long as you were with young Nason and kept out of the lockup. His father pays me a salary to look after his law business, and his son is the pride of his heart. I trust you understand my meaning. If you don't feel like work this morning," he continued suavely, "mount your wheel and take a run out to Winchester and see if that mortgage on the Seaver estate has been satisfied. The exercise and air will do you good."
Page was nonplussed.
"He has some deep-laid plot in his mind," he thought as he looked at Frye, who, having delivered this amazing pat, turned at once to his mail. It was all the more amazing because at the start he had been assured that punctuality and good conduct on his part were obligatory. Now he was to all intents and purposes not only told he might lark it with young Nason all he chose, but even urged to do so. He was glad to escape the office, however, for his head felt full of bees, and thanking his employer for the permission, he quickly left the city behind him. The crisp October air and exercise soon cured his headache, and in a measure drove away some of the self-reproaches at his own foolish conduct of the night before.
The errand at Winchester was attended to, and then, after taking a glass of bromo-seltzer, he headed back for the city, taking another course. By the time he reached town he was faint from hunger, for he had eaten no breakfast. A good dinner restored him to his natural self-possession, and then he went to the office.
For a week he reproached himself every time he thought how much his escapade had cost, and felt too ashamed to answer Alice's letter. When he did he assured that innocent sister that he was saving all he could and should send more money as soon as possible. Frank called twice, and the second time urged him to join the club, to which Page assented.
"It will serve as a place to spend a lonesome evening," he thought. It was a wise step, for it is during lonesome hours, if ever, that one's steps are turned toward evil associations.
Several times Frye had made casual inquiries as to the progress of his intimacy with young Nason, all of which led Page to wonder what his object was and why it concerned him. At last, one day just at closing time, and after he had told the office boy he might go, Frye let a little light into that enigma.
"Sit down a moment, Mr. Page," he remarked, as the latter was preparing to leave; "I have a proposition of an important nature to make to you," and then as he fixed his merciless eyes on his clerk and began to slowly rub his hands together, he continued: "You have been nearly three months in my employ, Mr. Page, and have fulfilled your duties satisfactorily. I think the time has come when I may safely enlarge them a little. As I told you, John Nason pays me a yearly retainer to attend to all his law business. I have reason to feel he is not entirely satisfied to continue that arrangement, and I am forced to find some way to bring a little pressure to bear on him in order that he may see it is for his interest to still retain me. Now I believe John Nason is not entirely happy in his home relations and is leading a double life, and that a certain Miss Maud Vernon, a cashier in his store, receives a share of his attentions. She and a supposed aunt of hers occupy a flat in a block owned by Nason, and while they are never seen in public together, gossip links their names. What I want is for you to find out, through your acquaintance with the Nasons, just what bond there is between the elder Nason and this Miss Vernon, and report to me. I do not intend to use the knowledge for any illegal purpose, but merely as a leverage to retain Nason's business. I am aware that to prosecute your inquiries discreetly by means of your intimacy with young Nason will require more money than I am paying you, and therefore, if I can depend on you to do a little detective work, I shall from now on increase your salary from seventy-five to one hundred and seventy-five dollars. What do you say?"
The first impulse that Page felt was to absolutely refuse, there and then, to have anything to do with Frye's nefarious scheme, but the thought of his situation, the unpaid debt at home, and the certainty that a refusal would mean a loss of his position conquered his pride and kept him silent. For a moment he reflected, trying hard to see a way out of the dilemma; and then said:
"It is rather a hard task you ask, Mr. Frye, for I am not accustomed to the role of detective, but I am in your employ, and as long as I am I will do the best I can for your interests."
It was a temporizing reply, and Frye so construed it at once.
"I must insist, if you accept my offer," he said, "that you give me your promise to do your best to earn the money. It doesn't pay to be too squeamish in this world," he continued, in a soothing tone; "all business is to a certain extent a game of extortion—a question of do the other fellow or he will do you." Then arising, and holding out a skinny hand to grasp Page's, as if to bind the bargain, he added: "I shall expect you to keep faith with me, Mr. Page," and the interview ended.
When Albert entered the dining-room at his boarding-place that night he felt as if his face must show guilt, and when later he met Frank at the club that feeling increased. He was preoccupied and morose, and Frank, noticing his frame of mind, tried to cheer him.
"You look as if you had been given a facer, old man," he said. "What is the matter? Has Frye been calling you down for something?"
Page looked at his friend a moment, and the impulse to make a clean breast of it, and relieve his feelings, was strong, but he did not.
"I do not like Frye," he said instead, "and the more I see of him the less I like him. At times he makes me feel as if he was a snake ready to uncoil and strike. Did you ever notice his eyes, and the way he has of rubbing his hands when talking?"
"I have," was the answer, "and he has the most hideous eyes I ever saw in a human being. They look like a cat's in the dark. Dad told me once he saw Frye look at a witness he was cross-examining in such a way that the poor fellow forgot what his name was, and swore black was white. Those eyes are vicious weapons, they say, and he uses them to the utmost when he wants to scare a witness."
"They make me feel creepy every time I look at them," said Albert, and then, as if anxious to change the subject, he added, "Let's leave here, Frank, and you come with me to my room, where we can have a quiet talk together. I am in the dumps to-night, and want to unbosom my troubles to you."
"What ails you, old man?" asked Frank, after they were seated in Albert's room and were smoking fraternal pipes; "you look as if you had lost your best friend."
"I did, last June, as you know," was the rather sad answer, "and on top of that, I hate myself for one or two things; for instance, the escapade we indulged in the other night, and being Frye's slave, for another."
"I am sorry for the first," responded Frank; "it was my fault that you were coaxed into it. I won't do it again, I assure you. Don't worry over it, my boy. It wasn't anything serious; only just a little after-theatre fun, and hearing those sporty girls talk slang."
"Yes, and spending a lot of money for very poor fun," replied Albert. "I don't think any better of myself for doing it, do you?"
"Oh, I don't think about it one way or the other," answered Frank, "I have so much time to kill, and that's no worse than any other way. We go to the theatre and see those same girls half nude and hear them say just as naughty things as they said to us that night, so what's the harm? We are a little nearer to them, that is all, and pay extra for the privilege."
"Well, of course it's all right, and as you do not think any the less of yourself for doing it, there is no harm," replied Albert, "only I do; and so it is worse for me than for you." Then he added, looking curiously at his friend, "Tell me honestly, Frank, did you enjoy having cigarette smoke puffed in your face, being called 'Cully,' and hearing silly brag about 'mashes,' and how they 'worked' some other fellow? Did it occur to you that those same rouge-finished queens of the ballet would describe us, and how they 'worked' us for a wine supper, to other jays, and that no doubt they have done so to one or a dozen since that night? They were pert and saucy, it is true, and up to date so far as slang goes, but did you really enjoy their society?"
"No, I can't say I did," was the sober answer, "only there was a spice of excitement about it, a sort of novelty. I would not want it every night, however."
"And while I am about it," continued Albert, warming up, "did you notice that those same fairies of the footlights had been so busy putting red paint on their lips and black lead on their eyelashes that they forgot to use a toothbrush, and left their fingernails in mourning? And what is more to the point, was there one word they uttered that you and I could not have fore-stalled long before it fell from their lips? Now you have a mother and sisters who think well of you, no doubt: how would you have felt to have had any one of them peep in that night and see what manner of company you were in? My mother is in her grave, but maybe she could see where I was and with whom I was that evening, and the thought makes me feel mean. I have a sister, one of the purest and sweetest little women God ever blessed the earth with, and not for all that I can earn in one year would I have her know what a foolish thing I did. For two days I was so ashamed of myself I felt miserably."
Frank sat in stupefied silence at his friend's outburst. "If I had imagined you were going to feel that way, old man," he said at last, "I would never have urged you to go with me. I never will again, I assure you."
"Oh, I am as much to blame as you," observed Albert. "I went willingly, but after it was all over I was sorry I did. I am no prude, I enjoy a little excitement and don't mind a social evening with a few friends, but it doesn't pay to do things you despise yourself for the next day."
"But," put in his friend with a quizzical look, "do you know you are preaching a sermon, and I rather enjoy it, too? It sets me thinking. As for such girls as we wined, I don't care a rap for them. If I could find any other and better amusement, they might go hang for all I care. What you say of them is true enough, and I agree with you they are a profitless lot of trash, but what is a fellow going to do to kill time? I try tennis and golf with fellows and girls in our set, but that is tame sport. I go to 'functions' once in a while, and if I dance twice with a pretty girl who has no dot, mother glares at me, and says I've no family pride. Most of the girls talk silly nonsense that wearies a fellow, and the more passe they are the worse they gush. The only thing I really enjoy that is respectable is yachting, and then I have trouble to find good fellows who have time to go with me. Once in a while I get disgusted with myself, and wish I had to work for a living."
Albert looked surprised. Was it possible that this young and handsome fellow, with dark brown honest eyes, curly black hair, and garb and manner of refinement, who never had known what it was to work, really wanted to earn his own way in the world, just from sheer ennui?
"Frank," he said at last, "you ought to be ashamed to talk so. You have plenty of money, nothing to do but enjoy yourself, and yet you complain! You ought to have a few months of old Frye. It would reconcile you to your lot."
Frank looked sympathetic. "Is he so bad as that?" he said.
"No worse than any other old skinflint who feels he owns you, body and brains," replied Albert, "but I do not want to talk about him to-night. I've got the blues."
"I am sorry, old man," rejoined Frank in a low tone, "I wish I could help you. Maybe I can in the near future."
Albert was silent, while the comparison of his lot with that of his friend passed slowly in review.
"It seems to me you have everything to be thankful for, Frank," he said at last in a dejected tone,—"a kind father, good home, plenty of friends, a nice yacht, all the money you want, and nothing to do. With me it is different. Would it bore you if I unloaded a little of my history? I feel like it to-night."
"Not a bit," answered Frank, "I would really like to hear it. I didn't know much of your home affairs at college, and since you came to Boston I hated to ask you, for fear you would think me impertinent."
"Well," continued Albert, "when we were at college I was a little too proud to let you know I was the only son of a poor widow who was denying herself every luxury to educate me; but it was a fact. After we separated, I tutored some, read law, and was admitted to the bar. I opened an office in my native town and wasted a year waiting for clients, while I read novels, sketched, and fished, to pass the time. Last June my mother died and left my sister and me an old house that has been in the family over a century, a few acres of meadow lands, and maybe two hundred dollars in debts. Then I wrote to you. I was more than grateful for the chance you obtained for me to work for even such a man as Frye. I am paying those debts as fast as I can, and my sister is helping by teaching in a cross-road schoolhouse and walking four miles each day to do it."
"And I coaxed you to go out and spend money on a couple of ballet girls!" responded Frank regretfully. "Say, old man," reaching out his hand and clasping Albert's, "if I had known all this that evening I would have bit my tongue before I asked you to go with me."
"That is all right," replied Albert; "I should have told you that night what I have told you now, but maybe I was a little ashamed to do so."
"I would like to see that brave sister of yours," said Frank after a pause. "From what you tell me, she must be a trump."
Albert made no answer, but going to the mantel he took a framed photograph that stood there and handed it to his friend. It was a picture of a young girl with a face like an artist's dream and eyes like two pansies.
Frank gazed at it long and earnestly. "Your sister, I suppose," he said at last, still looking at the face. "I do not wonder you preached me the sermon you have this evening. You must be proud of her."
When it came time for him to go the two shook hands with a warmer clasp than ever, and when he was gone the little room did not seem quite so cheerless to its occupant as before.
Albert Page had builded wiser than he knew.
A HELPING HAND
"I should like to be excused to-morrow forenoon, Mr. Frye," said Albert a few days later. "Frank has promised to introduce me to his father."
"Certainly," replied Frye, cheerfully, "take the entire day, if you wish, and if you have a good chance try to make the acquaintance of Miss Maud Vernon, a cashier in Mr. Nason's store, or at least take a good look at her. She is the key that will unlock the information I need, and I shall depend upon you to obtain it."
"I will keep my eyes open," replied Albert aloud, mentally resolving that it would not be in the interest of Frye and his sinister plot. The next day he met Frank by appointment, and the two called upon John Nason at his office. Albert was greeted cordially, and, after an exchange of commonplaces, soon found himself being interrogated by a series of questions pertaining to his home and college life, his knowledge of law, and how he liked his present employer, all of which with their answers, not being pertinent to the thread of this narrative, need not be quoted. They were for a purpose, however, as all of John Nason's business questions were, and at their conclusion he said:
"I am glad to have met you, Mr. Page. My son has spoken in the highest terms of you, and what has interested me more, Mr. Frye has also. He does not usually bestow much praise on any one, but is more apt to sneer. After you are a little better acquainted with legal proceedings here, come and see me. I may be able to do something for you. You might," addressing Frank, as if to end the interview, "show Mr. Page over the store now; it may interest him."
After an hour spent walking through the vast human hive, where over one thousand clerks and salesgirls were employed, the two friends returned to their club for lunch.
"Well, what do you think of the old gent?" asked Frank, as he sat down.
"I like him," was the answer; "he talks to the purpose, though, and I fancy his rapid-fire questions were for an object."
"You may be sure they were," replied Frank, "and, what is more, I saw by his expression that you had made a good impression. Do you know what I did the other day? I told him all about our escapade with the two fairies, and repeated all I could recall of the sermon you preached about it."
Albert looked astonished.
"I am sorry you did that," he said; "he must have thought me very weak not to have refused in the first place. What did he say?"
"Oh, not much," replied Frank; "he laughed, and said he guessed the closer I stuck to you, the better I would behave myself."
"Do you make a practice of confessing all your larks to your father?" observed Albert.
"Oh, I don't conceal much," answered Frank laughingly; "he and I are the best of friends, and he is so good to me I haven't the heart to deceive him. I had an object in telling him of our racket, however;" and then after a pause, "I wish you were to be at liberty this afternoon, Bert; I am going to take the 'Gypsy' round to Beverly to her winter quarters and I'd like your company."
"Well, I can go if I've a mind to," answered Albert; "Frye said I might take a day off if I wished."
Frank looked astonished. "Isn't he in danger of heart-failure?" he said; "the old buzzard must be getting stuck on you, I should say."
When the two had boarded the yacht, and while the engineer was getting up steam, Frank showed his guest all over that craft.
"I am surprised at the size of your boat," said Albert; "why, she is large enough for an ocean voyage."
"We may take one in her some day," replied Frank; "stranger things have happened. I believe she cost over eighty thousand dollars, but dad bought her for less than half that at an assignee's sale."
When steam was up they took a run out around Minot's Light and across to Cape Ann, and as the day was a delightful one, Albert enjoyed it immensely.
"I can't imagine a more charming way of spending a summer than to have such a craft as this and a well-chosen party of friends for company, and go where you like. Why, it would seem like a dream of life in an enchanted world to me."
It was late in the afternoon when they ran in past Baker's Island, and at Beverly they went ashore, and leaving the crew to moor the yacht in the stream between the two bridges, returned to Boston.
It was almost Thanksgiving time ere Albert saw Mr. Nason again, and then one day Frank said to him: "I want you to call on dad to-morrow. He wants to see you."
It came as a most agreeable surprise to Albert, and yet, as he entered that magnate's palatial store the next day, he did not dare to allow himself to hope that it would mean anything to him. He took the elevator to the fourth floor, where Mr. Nason's private office was, and with beating heart entered. His greeting was more cordial than before, and Mr. Nason, who, it may be observed, was a man that went about business as a woodcutter chops a tree, said:
"Are you under contract or obligation to remain with Mr. Frye any specified time, Mr. Page?"
"Nothing more than to give him a reasonable notice that I wish to quit," replied Albert; "I am paid so much a month 'for the present,' as he put it when I went there, and I certainly shall leave him as soon as I see any chance of bettering myself."
"That being the case, I see no reason why you cannot entertain the proposition I have decided to make you," said the merchant, "which is that you sever your relations with Mr. Frye between now and the first of the year, and then take hold and see what you can do in looking after my legal matters. The fact is, Mr. Page, as I intimated to you a short time ago, I am not entirely satisfied with Mr. Frye. Just why need not be considered now. The only point is, do you feel yourself capable of acting as my attorney and assuming charge of any law business that may arise?"
"Well, so far as my knowledge of the law goes," replied Albert, "I passed a good examination when I was admitted to the bar, I had some practice in Sandgate, and since I've been with Frye I've learned a good deal of the usual procedure here. I think I can do all that is necessary."
"My needs in a legal line are not complicated," continued Mr. Nason; "it is mostly looking up deeds and making transfers, seeing that titles are clear, etc. You will have to watch the custom officers, and there are more or less collections to be made. Occasionally I have to resort to the courts, but try to avoid them as much as possible."
"I think I could attend to all such matters to your satisfaction," said Albert confidently; "they are not hard tasks."
"Very well," replied Mr. Nason. "I have decided, partly at the request of my son and partly from my own estimate of your ability, to give you the trial. I will pay you twenty-five hundred dollars per annum to look after my needs, and you are also at liberty to take such other business as comes to you so long as you do not neglect mine."
"I thank you, Mr. Nason, for this offer," replied Albert, rising and proffering his hand, "and I accept gladly and will devote all my time, if need be, to your service."
"Very good," responded Mr. Nason; "separate yourself from Frye at once, or between now and the new year, and in the meantime I would suggest that you rent a suitable office. There are one or two vacant in a building I own on Water street that will serve very well, and when you are through with Mr. Frye, come and see me. I shall consider you in my employ from now on, and as you may need funds in fitting up your office, I will advance you a little on your salary," and without further comment he turned to his desk and wrote and handed Albert a check for five hundred dollars. "I should prefer," he added hastily, as if to prevent any word of thanks, "that you make no mention whatever of our agreement to Mr. Frye, or in fact to any one, until after January first." Then rising and offering his hand to Albert as if to dismiss him, he added:
"Come out to my house any evening, Mr. Page; we shall be glad to see you, and I am usually at home."
There are moments when our emotions nullify all attempts at speech, and to Albert Page, who before had felt himself alone and almost friendless in a great city, this was such a one.
"Never mind the thanks now," said Mr. Nason, as he saw Albert's agitation; "put your thanks into your work, and in a year we will talk it over."
"And this is the man I had almost hired myself out to spy upon!" said Albert to himself as he left the store.
For a few days after his interview with John Nason Albert tried to find some plausible excuse for leaving Frye. He did not want to make an enemy of him, and more especially now that he was to succeed him as John Nason's legal adviser. He knew that Frye would know he could not easily better himself, and would reason that, unknown and without money in a great city as he was, it would be some unusual opening that would make him turn away from what Frye considered a large salary. Then again, he had promised Mr. Nason not to disclose their agreement to Frye, and more than that, he felt in honor bound not to let Frye even suspect it. It was while perplexed with the situation and trying to solve it that it solved itself in an unexpected way.
Frye was out that day, and Albert was, as he had been for three days, thinking how to escape, when a red-faced and rather bellicose sort of a man came in and inquired for Frye.
"My name is Staples," he said, "and I've got a lawsuit on my hands. I've laid the facts before your partner, I s'pose, but I thought I'd just drop in and give him a few pointers that might help my case."
"What is your case?" asked Albert, a little amused at being taken for Frye's partner.
"Wal, the facts are," replied Staples, "I've had to sue a miserable whelp in self-defence. I live in Lynnfield. It's a small place about ten miles out, and last spring I bought the good will, stock in trade, an' all of a man by the name of Hunt, who was in the meat business. He signed a paper, too, agreein' not to engage in the business in or within ten miles o' Lynnfield for a period o' five years, and a month ago he opened a shop almost 'cross the street from me and is cuttin' my prices right and left, confound him."
"And you are bringing an action for breach of contract?" interposed Albert, thinking to have a little fun at the expense of his caller.
"I'm a-suin' him for ten thousand dollars' damage, if that's what you mean," replied the belligerent Staples. "I won't get it all, but then, as your partner said, we may get more than if we sued for less. Law's a big game of bluff, I reckon."
Albert smiled. "And so you are basing your suit on this signed agreement, are you?" he said; "well, you might as well stop just now, for you have no case in law, though no doubt a good one in justice."
"But the agreement is all signed and witnessed," exclaimed Staples, "and Mr. Frye said I had good reason to bring suit, and I've paid him two hundred dollars on account to do it."
"That may be," said Albert, realizing he had put his foot in it, so to speak, "and perhaps you have other grounds to base a suit for damages on, but as for the agreement this man Hunt signed, it's of no value whatever."
"Then why in thunder did Frye tell me I had a good case, and take my money?" gasped the irate Staples.
"That I can't say," replied Albert, foreseeing the rumpus he had started, "you'd better come to-morrow and have a talk with him. He may have seen some loophole for you to win out through that I do not see, but so far as your agreement goes, it's not worth the paper it's written on."
When the law-thirsty Staples had departed it dawned upon Albert that he had unintentionally paved the way for his own escape from Frye. "I'll stay away to-morrow," he said to himself, "and let Staples get in his work, and then face the inevitable storm that I have started." He had surmised the results accurately, for when, two days later, he purposely reached the office late, Frye did not even bid him good morning.
"Where were you yesterday?" he said curtly, as Albert entered.
"I was availing myself of your express wish that I cultivate young Nason," was the answer. "We went to Beverly to see to the housing-in of his yacht for the winter."
"And what did you say to Mr. Staples the day before, I would like to know?" continued Frye in a sneering tone. "He has retained me for an action for breach of contract, and you have told him he had no grounds for suit. He came in yesterday, mad as a wet hen, and wanted his money back. Are you a fool?"
"Maybe I am," replied Albert, trying hard to keep cool, "but I do not care to be told of it. Mr. Staples explained his case to me, and I inadvertently told him that the agreement he held was of no value in law, which is the truth."
"And what has that to do with it?" said Frye, with biting sarcasm. "I didn't hire you to tell the truth and lose me a paying client. If that is your idea of law practice you had better go back to Sandgate and hoe corn for a living. I knew very well his agreement was of no value, but that was a matter for him to find out, not for us to tell him. You have made a mess of it now, and lost me several hundred dollars in fees."
Albert had remained standing through all this tirade, and looking squarely at his irate employer.
"You need not say any more," he put in, when Frye had paused for breath; "if you will further oblige me with a check for the small balance due me, I will not again upset your plans. You need not," he added, feeling himself blush, "consider that you owe me any part of the increase you recently promised. I do not want it."
It was Frye's turn to be astonished now. That this verdant limb of the law, as he considered Albert to be, could have the manliness to show any resentment at his scourging, and what was more surprising, coolly resign a good position, he could not understand. For a few minutes the two looked at each other, and then Frye, for reasons of his own, weakened first.
"You are foolish," he said, in a modified tone, "to act so hastily. Perhaps I have spoken rather rudely, but you must admit you gave me provocation. Do not throw away a good chance for a few hasty words."
"I do not care to discuss it," answered Albert firmly; "the role of private detective that you want me to assume is not to my taste, anyway, and your words have convinced me we can never get along together. I will not remain longer on any terms."
"And what will you do now?" sneered Frye, a sinister look entering his yellow eyes, "steal or starve?"
"Neither," replied Albert defiantly; "I'll go back to Sandgate and hoe corn first."
Then, as a realizing sense of how much he was in the power of this courageous stripling came to Frye, his arrogance all melted, and as he turned and began to play with a paper-cutter he said meekly:
"Come, Mr. Page, overlook it all. I spoke too hastily, and I apologize."
It was the guilty coward conquering the brute instinct, but it availed not.
"Will you oblige me with the small balance due me to-day," asked Albert, "or shall I call again for it?"
"And if we part company now," muttered Frye, "what am I to expect? Are you to be a friend or an enemy?"
"If you refer to your scheme to blackmail John Nason," replied Albert resolutely, and not mincing words, "I am too ashamed to think I ever listened to your proposals to even speak of it."
It was a hard blow and made Frye wince, for it was the first time he had ever been openly called a villain, but, craven hypocrite that he was, he made no protest. Instead, he silently wrote a check for Albert's due and handed it to him.
"I am much obliged, Mr. Frye. Good morning, sir," said Albert in a chilly tone, and putting on his hat, he left the office.
When the door was closed behind him he turned, shook his fist at it, and muttered: "You miserable old villainous vulture! I am glad I saved one victim from being robbed by you!"