A TALE OF NEW ENGLAND VILLAGE LIFE
FRANK A. MUNSEY
NEW YORK FRANK A. MUNSEY
COPYRIGHT, 1897 BY FRANK A. MUNSEY
"Well, Dave, it was a close game, but we managed to save ourselves after all their talk," said Tom Martin, referring to a baseball match of the previous day.
"Yes, but thanks to our lucky stars that Fred Worthington was with us. If John Rexford had kept him at the store, as I was afraid, we should have been badly beaten."
"He didn't play the whole game, did he?" asked Tom sarcastically.
"Of course not," retorted Dave Farrington, with some warmth, "but you know very well we should have lost it, if it had not been for him. If he saved us from defeat, why not be fair and give him credit for it? I am sure he would do as much for you if the case were reversed."
"I didn't say anything against him."
"No; but you don't appear to say anything for him."
"Why should I?"
"Well, I can say frankly that his playing was equal to that of some professionals that I have seen. The factory boys couldn't get the hang of his pitching, and the best batters fouled nearly every ball."
"Don't you want some credit for catching?" asked Tom, with a view to turning the conversation from Fred.
"Yes, but——" Here the conversation was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Matthew De Vere, a rather foppishly dressed boy, who showed very clearly by his manner that he considered himself the "swell young man" of the town.
"Oh, boys, I have a bit of good news for you," he cried. "Guess what it is."
"Anything startling?" asked Tom.
"No; but it is something you and Dave will both like."
"Tell us what it is. We give it up, don't we, Dave?"
"Grace Bernard is going to have a party—a birthday party."
"A party?" echoed Dave. "Who told you?"
"My sister Annie just came from Mr. Bernard's and said so."
"When is it to be?" chimed in both boys eagerly.
"Next Thursday evening," answered their informant.
"Well, that strikes me about right," replied Tom, with evident pleasure at the prospect. "How old is Grace, I wonder?"
"She will be sixteen next Thursday," returned Matthew.
"I'm glad some one has life enough to wake us up a little. I'm hungry for a 'racket,'" put in Dave. "The evenings are getting long, and it is too cold to rove about much. Three cheers, I say, for Grace Bernard! I speak for the first waltz with her."
The cheers were given with a will, for the mere mention of a party, the first one of the season, was sufficient to make the boys enthusiastic.
"I wonder who will be invited," said Matthew; and then added, with a scowl, "well, I don't care who is if Fred Worthington only gets left; I hate him. He tries to push himself ahead too much for a fellow in his circumstances, and since he has gone into John Rexford's store he is worse than ever."
"I don't know why he should not be invited as well as any of us," said Dave Farrington. "He is certainly one of the smartest boys in the village, both at his books and at whatever else he undertakes; and the fact that his father is a poor man ought not to be against him;" then, with a sly wink at Tom, he added, "and you may be certain he won't be overlooked, for he and Nellie Dutton are getting to be very good friends, and of course Grace Bernard will ask him on her account, if for no other reason."
Now Matthew liked Nellie Dutton himself, and like most rich boys (his father was a retired sea captain and president of the Mapleton National Bank), could ill bear the deprivation of anything which his fancy craved. Therefore the thought that a poor fellow, like Fred Worthington, might come between him and the object of his fancy was exceedingly disagreeable.
This was one reason why he "hated" Fred; the other was, he could not lord it over him, as he did over most of the Mapleton boys, for Fred had a will of his own, as well as a perfect physical development, which convinced Matthew, bully as he was, that it would not be well to grapple with him.
Dave's remark was a sharp one, and had the effect of bringing the color to Matthew's face, though he strove hard to hide his confusion.
Both boys noticed this, and Tom, who was always ready for fun, even at the expense of a friend, said:
"Yes, I saw Fred walk home with Nellie from Sunday school last week; and it seems to me he has to go up to her father's rather often with goods from the store. I guess the doctor will have quite a bill to pay at Rexford's, unless Fred makes two or three trips up there to carry what he might take in one. But never mind, Matthew, school will soon commence; then you will have the advantage of him, for he will be in the store."
Matthew grew decidedly angry at these remarks, and said somewhat savagely:
"I'll have the advantage of him without waiting for school, now you mark my words."
"How are you going to get it?" asked Tom.
"You just wait and you will see. I don't tell everything I know."
"Fred has a big muscle," suggested Tom, "and they say he can use his hands pretty lively, too."
"There is no need of informing De Vere on that point," remarked Dave, "for it isn't very long since he and Fred gave a little exhibition at school."
"Come, Mat, tell us all about it," said Tom. "I never heard of that before."
"I won't tell you anything," answered De Vere gruffly; "he can't put on airs with me any more; and if he goes to that party and pays any attention to Nellie Dutton, he will get into trouble."
"If Nellie wants his attention she will be pretty sure to have it, for you can't frighten him—he isn't easily scared," remarked Dave, in a way that irritated Matthew.
"I should say not," said Tom, with a sly wink at Dave, "and judging from appearances Nellie is as pleased with his attentions as he is with her company."
But Matthew possessed a good share of conceit, and knowing Nellie to be quite friendly to himself, he imagined that his advantage over Fred would be so great that he could readily monopolize the attention of the young lady in question, and therefore replied with more assurance:
"There is no fear of her bothering with him, for I propose to take up her time pretty well myself;" and then he added in language that was a perfect index to his character, "say, boys, if Worthington should be there, let's make it so uncomfortable for him that he will never show himself again at one of our parties. We can occupy the attention of the girls, so they will leave him alone to slink into the corner and hate himself, while we enjoy the waltz and make fun of him. If you will only do this, I hope he will be there, just to let all see how awkward he is among his betters."
Some other boys here joined the group, and the conversation was broken off. But Dave Farrington took occasion to remark in an undertone to Tom:
"If Mat De Vere and a dozen more just like him should try to keep the girls away from Fred Worthington, they'd find a big contract on their hands; and the one who 'hated himself' would not be Fred, either. Just wait till the party comes off, then look out for fun."
Mapleton is a good type of a New England village, showing everywhere plentiful evidences of thrift and energy.
Of course it has a manufacturing industry of some sort, or it could hardly be a New England village; and the chief building of Mapleton, in this line, is a large woolen factory that employs about three hundred hands. There are also a number of minor industries, together with stores, churches, and school houses. It is not a large town, there being, perhaps, three thousand inhabitants all told.
Among so small a number one might suppose that the people would mingle freely, and that exclusiveness would not thrive. At the time of which I am writing it did not thrive to any great extent; still, it was there, and showed itself principally in the refusal of the "town's people," so called, to associate with the "factory folks."
Exceptions were made, however, in the case of the head officers of the company, and the overseers of certain departments of the mill, who, by virtue of their positions, which brought them in a liberal salary, were graciously welcomed to the homes of the villagers.
These two branches of society had their different "sets." That of the "villagers" was made up, as is usually the case, by the drawing together of the well to do, the influential, and the better educated citizens, while the others were left to form such social connections as their opportunities afforded.
Fred Worthington's parents mingled with the latter class, for they were far from rich. His father was a shoemaker, and earned only a small sum weekly; but through the excellent management of his mother, they had a neat and comfortable home.
During Fred's younger days he thought nothing of these dividing lines of society; but as he had grown to be, as he considered, a young man—and, indeed, he really did possess more of that enviable bearing than most boys at the age of sixteen—he had come to realize that there was such a thing as a social difference between men whose Maker created them equal.
This fact impressed him more forcibly since he found that some of his companions with whom he had grown up, played, and studied side by side in school for years, were now apparently beginning to ignore him.
"Is there any reason for this?" he often asked himself. "Have they suddenly accomplished some great thing, or done some heroic deed which gives them distinction? Or is the trouble with me? If so, where does it lie? Surely I stood among the very first in my class at school—far ahead of Matthew De Vere and his sister, and some of the others who treat me so coolly. I wonder if clerking in a store is disgraceful? I always thought it an honorable thing to be a merchant. Merchants are everywhere among our most influential men.
"I have always kept good company," he reflected, "and never had trouble with any of the boys, except Matthew De Vere, just before I left school, and that wasn't my fault. I taught him a lesson, though, that I think he will remember, and ever since then he has been trying to pay me for it by turning the girls and boys against me; but only a few of them have shown any change.
"I know my father and mother do not belong to the same 'set' as theirs, but that is no reason why they should slight me, and it shall not be. I will work my way up and make them acknowledge me if it takes years to do it. But as long as Nellie Dutton and some others are friendly, I don't care so much."
When Fred heard of the party to be given by Grace Bernard, he was in a feverish state of suspense, wondering whether he would be invited or not. He felt that this was a crisis with him.
He had left school, but he argued that if he were only fortunate enough to attend this party, he would be placed on a good social footing, one that he could maintain as he gradually built himself up in the store; but should luck now go against him, he would be practically separated from many of his school companions, and separation meant disaster to a certain friendship that he prized more highly than all the rest, and which, as he believed, it would not be well to leave uncultivated even for a short time.
"Hello, Fred, got your invitation yet?" asked Dave, a few days before that fixed upon for the party.
"No, I haven't seen anything of it. Have you had yours?"
"Oh, yes; got it yesterday. I don't see where yours is though."
"It looks as if I were to be left out, Dave," replied Fred, with an assumed air of cheerfulness.
"That can't be. There is plenty of time. Don't worry."
This was a little reassuring, and Fred tried to believe it to be so—tried hard—but it looked to him, nevertheless, as if his case were a hopeless one.
For he reflected that the unfed fire soon dies, while that which is kept alive even by the smallest spark may at some time become a glowing blaze. But his fears were all for nothing, as in due time the much looked for invitation arrived.
On the eventful night our hero dressed with care and taste, giving his youthful locks especial attention, as all boys of his age do whenever they go into company, and then hastened to Dave's home to go with him to the party.
The large double parlors of Mr. Bernard's house were well filled with girls, about Grace's own age, when the two boys arrived. After the latter had disposed of their coats and hats, and had taken a final look to see that each particular hair was in its proper place, they entered the main parlor rather shyly.
"Good evening, Dave," said Grace. "I'm glad you came early, for nearly all the girls are here, and I hope you will help entertain them; and here is Fred," she added, extending her hand to him. "I am very glad you came. I have hardly spoken with you since you left school, but I see the store life has not taken away your color yet."
If Fred had a good share of color to begin with, it was not lessened by this remark. However, he managed to keep his presence of mind, and replied heartily:
"No, I hope not, but allow me to congratulate you on your birthday, for you are looking your best. I hope you may have many happy returns of the occasion."
Some one else blushed now, and evidently enjoyed the compliment, which Fred had managed very well, as indeed he ought to have done, for he had repeated it to himself at least forty five times that afternoon.
"I didn't know you could say such nice things, Fred, but I don't half believe you mean it," rejoined Grace. "But there is Nellie all alone on the sofa. Come with me and take a seat beside her; you two must entertain each other while I receive Matthew and Tom, and some others who I see have just come in."
"I was afraid something would happen so that you couldn't come," said Nellie, as he took her proffered hand.
"I couldn't very easily stay away," he replied, sitting down beside her.
"Why, how funny! And why not?" she inquired, trying to suppress a blush.
"The evening promised to be such an enjoyable one," he answered; "and yet I hardly dared to anticipate such good fortune as I have met with thus far."
"Oh, Fred, you are learning to flatter, I do believe! I didn't think that of you."
"If flattery is saying what one truly means, then I am flattering you; for if I had arranged my own program, you and I would occupy about the same positions as we do now. It couldn't suit me better, and I only hope you are as well pleased," he added.
"I believe you and Grace arranged this together," she answered evasively, "without saying anything to me. I must scold her;" and she partially covered her face with her fan, which seemed to mean that she was well satisfied.
"I am sure I had nothing to do with the arrangement. I must thank Grace for it, and I hope you won't scold her very hard, as this is her birthday; but before it is too late let me ask you if you will favor me with the first dance?"
"Oh, with pleasure," she replied, but at the same time she wondered if he knew the dance. She had never heard of his dancing, but the first part of the opening one was to be a march, and she knew he could take part in that, even if they had to drop out of the waltz later on.
"Good evening, Nellie," said Matthew, who now came up and extended his hand, adding, with an air of assurance, "I see the music is ready to start, shall we not lead the march?"
"Thank you, but I am already engaged for that," she returned, casting her eyes towards Fred.
"Then you won't march with me?" he asked, flushing with evident anger at the rebuff.
"I must keep my engagement," she replied.
"Keep your engagement with a stick," he rejoined, and walked away with a look of contempt on his face.
The last remark made young Worthington's blood boil, but he had the good sense to take no apparent notice of it, though he fixed it well in his memory for future use.
De Vere seated himself in a remote corner—the place he had expected to see Fred occupy—and looked sullenly on as the march progressed, but evidently with some degree of pleasure at the utter failure he felt sure our hero would make. In this again he was doomed to disappointment; for to his surprise and chagrin he found his rival quite at home in the waltz. He and Nellie were unmistakably the most graceful as well as the best looking couple on the floor.
But Matthew was not the only surprised one present. Dave looked on with amazement, and Nellie hardly seemed to believe her own senses.
"Why, Fred, when did you learn to dance so well?" she asked, as they walked around the room arm in arm. "I never had a better partner."
"Thank you, Nellie, for the compliment," he replied, with a slight blush. "I only hope I managed to get through without exhausting your patience. I was so afraid I should prove very stupid, I know so little about the waltz."
"Oh, no, you were far from stupid, and I never enjoyed a dance more; but I am awfully curious to know where you learned so much without attending dancing school."
"'Never enjoyed a dance more,' and with me, too," thought Fred, with a delight which he could not conceal.
"My cousin from Boston, the young lady who spent the summer at my home, taught me all I know about it," he replied.
"And have you never had any other practice?"
"No, that was all."
"Well, she must have been an excellent teacher, and you as good a scholar as you always were at school."
Presently the music ceased, and Dave, Grace, and others came up and congratulated Fred upon his waltzing, and Nellie on her partner.
The party as a whole was a great success, and passed off gayly. It had no feature to distinguish it from others of its kind in country towns. This particular event has been briefly referred to, because, as a consequence of it, something occurred that most cruelly clouded Fred Worthington's young days, and changed the whole course of his life.
De Vere saw plainly that, in spite of his endeavors to injure Fred, the latter was more of a favorite than himself. He supposed that he had accomplished something of his design before the party took place, but there he found that the result of his malicious endeavors practically extended only as far as his sister.
Indeed, he almost fancied that his thrusts had been turned against himself, for no one seemed to care for him especially. He was very moody and sulky at his disappointment. He had overestimated his strength and importance, as boys of his stamp always do; moreover, he thought Nellie treated him very coolly, and it is just possible that she did, as her time was fully taken up by another person, and the mere absence of attention on her part was sufficient to make Matthew sullen and disagreeable.
This sourness was noticed by all, and they left him to himself, pretty much as he had hoped to see them treat his rival. The tables were fairly turned upon him, as he could not fail to see. But he had intimated that if Fred attended this party, and matters went a certain way, he would have his revenge.
He resolved to carry out this threat, and so passed a great part of the evening in mischievous plotting.
When it was time for the party to break up, notwithstanding the fact that he had behaved so rudely and had not participated in any of the games, or other forms of amusement, he gathered himself together, approached Miss Nellie, and proposed to serve as her escort.
But Nellie answered, with a demure look and a twinkle in her eye, that another young gentleman had kindly offered to do her that favor.
It is said that under certain conditions even a straw may break a camel's back, but this refusal of Nellie's was no straw to Matthew. It was rather a sledge hammer blow, which brought bad temper and made him desperately angry.
He seized his hat, and without further conversation with any one, left the house and strode sullenly down the street. At the first corner he turned up a by path, and then ran across lots to the main street, and entered a drinking saloon.
"Why did you play, then?" the bartender was asking savagely, addressing a rough looking boy, Tim Short by name. "You have owed me for two months, and now here is another game of billiards to charge."
"I thought I should beat," said Tim, with a discouraged and demoralized look.
"That's what you've thought every time, but that don't pay me. I'm going to have my money now. If you don't pay, I will get it from your father; so come, square up, and be quick about it."
"I will settle on pay day."
"No, that won't do; you have promised that before. Either give me something for security or I will see your father tomorrow."
"How much is the whole bill?" asked Matthew.
"One dollar," replied the bartender.
"Here, Tim, is the dollar. I will lend it to you. Pay him and come with me."
Young Short clutched the dollar eagerly, and turned it over to his creditor with evident reluctance.
"Come, Tim," went on Matthew, "let us go home; it is late for us to be out."
The latter looked upon Matthew as his benefactor, and followed him promptly into the street. When the two were quite alone by themselves, De Vere took his companion by the arm and said:
"I'm in luck finding you, Tim. I rushed down to the saloon, but I was afraid you had gone home, it is so late."
"And I'm better off than you to have my bill paid. How is it you are in luck, and paying out money so free?"
"Never mind the money, Tim," De Vere replied nervously. "I want you to do me a favor. Will you?"
"Will I? Well, I should think I would."
"Will you promise never to mention what I say to any one?"
"It would get us both into trouble if you should, Tim."
"But it ain't nothin' so awful bad, is it, Matthew?" asked Tim, with a tremor of alarm in his voice.
"I think I can trust you, Tim," replied De Vere, ignoring his companion's question.
"I know you can, after all you have done for me," replied Tim gratefully.
De Vere drew young Short close to him as they turned into a dark, narrow street.
"Tim," said he, in suppressed agitation, "you know those tall oak trees on the old Booker road?"
"What, them by the cave in the big rock, do you mean?"
"Yes, that's the place."
Young Short commenced to breathe fast with excitement.
"You know, Tim," said De Vere, scarcely above a whisper, "you know the bushes and rock together furnish a good hiding place."
"I should think they would," responded Tim dubiously.
"We've got some work to do there."
"What, not tonight?"
"Yes, as soon as we can get there, or it will be too late."
"Don't you think it's too late now, Matthew?" suggested Tim.
"I tell you to come along," commanded De Vere in anything but a pleasant mood.
"You didn't tell me what you are going there for."
"I have good reasons for going there. I want to get square with a fellow," responded Matthew, with a ring of revenge in his voice.
"But couldn't you do it just as well alone?"
"No, I couldn't."
"Afraid?" queried Tim.
This question did not have a good effect upon Matthew's nerves, but he was too prudent to fly into a passion with Tim at this time.
"Who is this fellow?" asked young Short doggedly, after a little silence.
"Fred Worthington," answered De Vere bitterly. "I'll show him that he can't interfere with me."
"Fred Worthington!" echoed Tim; and he stopped short where he was.
"I think we had better get some good clubs," said De Vere.
"And then we will get the worst of it," replied Tim. "I know Fred Worthington too well to take any chances on him."
"But we will jump out upon him when he is not expecting us," urged Matthew.
It was hard work to screw Tim's courage up to the necessary point, but his sense of obligation to Matthew finally overcame his well founded fears of Fred Worthington's strong arms, and he promised to take part in the disappointed rival's dastardly plot.
The point to which De Vere led his rascally associate was close beside the path along which Fred Worthington would have to pass on his way home from Dr. Dutton's. Although not far beyond the limits of the village, it was a lonely spot, with no houses near by, and the two young highwaymen could not have found a more suitable place to put their cruel design into execution.
Crouching behind the bushes, the cowardly pair lay in wait, each grasping a heavy stick in his hand, ready to dart out and rain revengeful blows upon their innocent victim.
The evening was a memorable one for Fred. His enjoyment had been far greater than he anticipated; and what a boy of sixteen will not anticipate is not worth considering.
It seemed to him, as he left Grace Bernard's with a proud step and lightsome heart, that he had been blue over the society question for nothing, for, in fact, had he at this time possessed no friend save the single one whose arm now rested upon his own, he would have been fully satisfied. Perchance, in his boyish imaginings, he was more happy than he could ever be in after years, even though his brightest dreams should become a living reality.
And it is but just to Fred to say that his fair companion, as they walked leisurely toward her home, was almost if not quite as happy as himself.
This was the first time they had ever been out together in the evening, and as he somewhat timidly pressed her arm closely to his side, he felt all the pride of a hero in performing such delightful, if not dangerous, escort duty. But indeed there was danger enough awaiting him, though it lay in ambush, and he had not considered the possibility of its existence.
The distance to Nellie's home was not great, but it may reasonably be suspected that the time occupied in traversing it was somewhat prolonged. Under similar circumstances, with such delightful company, the reader himself would perhaps have used every honorable device to consume as many minutes as possible before parting with his fair associate. I shall not criticise such a course, but will be just frank enough to say that this is exactly what Fred did do.
Of course, by way of conversation, it was natural to discuss the evening party and those present. Young De Vere very justly came in for a degree of censure.
"What could have been the trouble with Matthew?" asked Nellie, clinging closely to Fred as they passed a lonesome lane.
"I'd rather not discuss him," replied the latter.
"Why not? Is he such a friend of yours that you will say nothing against him? Surely you can give no excuse for his acting as he did tonight."
"Well, you are partially right."
"In what way?"
"So far as this—that I dislike to speak against any one."
"I thought it could not be you were so friendly that you wished to shield him."
"No, for he is very unfriendly towards me. Didn't you notice that when he asked you to waltz with him?"
"Yes, but you did not hear his remark about you, I hope."
"Oh, yes, I heard it—he probably wanted me to hear it—but I could not notice it there."
"It was hateful and mean in him," replied Nellie sympathetically; "and he was as rude as he could be all the evening."
Fred had too much spirit to take kindly to being insulted, but Nellie's warm hearted manner of sympathizing with him, and her criticism of his rival, made him almost wish De Vere were again present to make some insolent remark, that he might have the pleasure of hearing Nellie still further champion his cause.
"But you did not tell me what made him so uncivil," continued Nellie.
"Do you know?"
"I suppose he was vexed."
"I should think he must have been very much piqued to act as he did."
"Yes, it would seem so."
"But what could have caused it, I wonder?" asked Nellie, with much innocence.
"Do you really want me to tell you?"
"Why, to be sure I do."
"Couldn't you guess?"
"I know I could not."
"Not if you were to try very hard?"
"You should be more egotistical, then."
"Why, what do you mean, Fred?"
"I mean that what made him unhappy was just the thing that made me happy, and gave me the pleasantest evening of my life," replied Fred, tightening the pressure slightly on his companion's arm.
"I cannot see how this affects me, or proves, as you say, that I should be more egotistical," replied Miss Nellie, continuing, with feminine perversity, to feign innocence and ignorance, that she might keep Fred longer on a topic at once so flattering and delightful.
"Then I will be plainer—very plain—and say that you were the cause yourself."
If the night had been a light one, Fred would have seen a bewildering blush cover the face of his companion. As it was, he guessed the truth, and realized that the effect of his words was altogether gratifying to Nellie's pride—it could hardly be anything more sentimental than pride.
But now they were at her home—all too soon as it seemed to Fred—and her father and mother had heard them come up the steps; so the "good night" must be brief.
Nellie extended her hand, with its graceful, tapering fingers, to him, and thanked him very prettily for his attention during the evening, and for escorting her safely home. In return, Fred gave her hand a slight pressure from the impulse of his honest, manly heart, that meant a thousand thanks for the pleasure she had given him, which would be a gratifying recollection for weeks and months to come.
While Fred was enjoying the latter part of his evening so thoroughly, Matthew was miserable in his anger, as he and his confederate remained crouched under the shadow of the bushes, chafing at our hero's failure to appear.
Every minute seemed ten to him, there in the cold night wind, as he meditated upon the events of the past few hours, and imagined his rival enjoying the pleasure of escorting Nellie home. The more he thought upon the matter the more vividly he pictured the situation, and the greater the contrast seemed to be between his own position and that of the boy he hated.
And as he dwelt upon this picture, and thought, and thought rightly, that Fred was prolonging the time in reaching Dr. Dutton's house, his anger became more bitter against his intended victim, for being kept there so long in the frosty night.
It was indeed a galling situation for Matthew, and right well he deserved to be placed in it. He was on a wicked errand—an errand for which he should have suffered a severe punishment. Still the time went on, and the cold grew more intense, until their teeth chattered, and their fingers were benumbed; yet Fred did not appear.
Matthew was so bent on revenge that he hated to give up his evil project; but he had waited so long, looked, listened, and hoped, and no sound of footsteps could he hear, that now he broke out angrily:
"Worthington isn't coming, after all—the sneak!"
"Don't believe he is," shivered Tim, who was evidently very anxious to get out of his contract.
"But he must come this way," continued Matthew.
"He might go to the other road and cut across the grove."
"Why should he do that when it is so much farther? Listen, do you hear it? There is a step now!" exclaimed De Vere, clutching his club tightly.
"Sure as I'm alive, there he comes," said Tim, pointing to an approaching object just growing visible.
"Let him get nearly opposite us before striking. Ah, now I'll get square with him—the tramp! I'll teach him better than to interfere with me," continued Matthew, swinging his club as if raining imaginary blows upon the head of his victim.
"I should think so," observed Tim.
"He will think so, too, in about a minute. He will wish he had not crossed my path."
"Where shall I hit him?"
"Hit him on the leg so he can't run."
"He might get my club if he has the use of his arms, and then it would be all day with us," put in Tim, with a hint at caution.
"Don't you worry. I'll fix him quick enough so he won't bother us with his arms," replied De Vere, in a savage tone.
"How will you do it?"
"Hush, now is the time!" returned Matthew, darting from his hiding place.
"Stop, you villain!"
The words suddenly rang out upon the night in a powerful voice. They struck terror to the heart of the highwayman, whose club was raised high in the air, ready to descend upon his victim.
The sudden appearance of a strong man before him, as if by magic, the disappointment, the danger and the surprise, almost paralyzed Matthew with fear, and he dropped his club and fled, like the coward that he was.
But not so fortunate in escaping was young Tim Short, for before he had time to realize the unexpected situation his club fell heavily upon the leg of the man that he had taken for Fred Worthington.
Though he heard the command to stop, and did actually break the force of his blow in consequence, nevertheless he struck so hard that Jacob Simmons, for that was the name of the new comer, thought for a time that his leg was broken. Notwithstanding this, he made sure of his assailant, and held him in an iron grasp.
Jacob was fairly taken aback at first as the two boys rushed out upon him, but Tim's well aimed club speedily brought him to his senses, and aroused his temper as well. He consequently fell upon his assailant like a madman, and choked him till he cried piteously for quarter.
"What does this mean?" demanded Jacob angrily, at the same time enforcing his demand by shaking his prisoner as a terrier might shake a rat.
"I do—don—don't know," replied the boy, as he, with much difficulty, forced breath enough through the grasp of the strong man's hand around his throat to speak at all.
"Don't, eh?" echoed Mr. Simmons, with another shake, given, probably, with the view of bringing Tim back to his senses.
"It was a mistake—oh, don't; you will cho—choke me to death."
"Well, then, tell me all about this business, and why you assaulted me in this outrageous manner."
"We didn't know it was you. We thought——"
"The truth, mind you, now."
"I am telling the truth, and I say we thought you were some one else."
"It was a plot, then, to rob and murder some one else?"
"No, it wasn't, and I didn't have anything to do with the plot. Matthew hired me to——"
"Matthew who?" interrupted Jacob, whose anger was giving place, to some extent, to his interest in the affair.
"Matthew De Vere."
"Matthew De Vere!" exclaimed Mr. Simmons, with intense surprise, giving vent to a low whistle. "His father rich, proud, a banker," continued the wily Jacob, easing his grasp upon the throat of Tim. "And he, Matthew De Vere, is the villain who raised his club to hit me on the head—to murder me, perhaps?"
Young Short caught at the idea of freeing himself by implicating Matthew, so he replied:
"Yes, he was the fellow, but when he saw his mistake he dusted out, for it wasn't you he wanted."
"Of course you would plead innocent—all outlaws do—and try to throw the blame on some one else; but you can't get away now. I shall have you arrested and locked up for an attempt at robbery and murder."
"Oh, don't—don't!" pleaded Tim, with tears and bitter anguish.
"Come along. I'll have to put you in safe keeping, where you will not get a chance to try this game of murder again right away."
"Please don't! Oh, don't, Mr. Simmons! I will tell you all I know about it, and do anything—work all my life for you if you will only let me go."
"Let you go, after this affair? Yes, I will let you go—go to the sheriff! Come along, I say."
"It's all Matthew's fault—wanting to lick Fred Worthington."
"Do you expect me to believe such a story? It's a fine yarn to try and clear yourself when you are the one that almost broke my leg with your club."
"He told me to hit you——"
"Told you to hit me?"
"I mean to hit Fred, for he was waiting for him—said he wanted to get square with him."
"Then, according to your own story, you hired yourself to Matthew De Vere to come here and waylay an innocent boy, and beat him with clubs, and perhaps murder him."
"Yes; but I didn't think of it in that way or I wouldn't have come. Matthew hired me."
"So much the worse, if you would sell yourself to do such a wicked deed. You are as guilty as he, and it is my duty to hand you over to the State."
It was plainly Mr. Simmons' duty to hand young Short over to the authorities, but when he found that Matthew De Vere was the principal offender, a scheme instantly suggested itself to him—a plan to extort money from the rich banker to keep the affair a secret, and save his family from disgrace. Thus Jacob's regard for the law and justice, which was sincere at first, before he saw an opportunity of turning his knowledge to a money value, was now but an assumed position to draw Tim out, and to hold over his head the power that would frighten him into doing his bidding.
By entertaining this idea of suppressing the knowledge of the crime in order to get the reward Mr. Simmons became, in a sense, a party to the assault upon himself, and morally guilty with the boys, though undoubtedly in a less degree.
However, this did not trouble his conscience, as he was one who lived for money, and he saw here a chance to replenish his pocketbook. He took Tim with him, and, after getting his story in full regarding Matthew's object in waylaying Fred Worthington, gave him a conditional pardon; that is, he agreed to wait a few days before handing him over to the sheriff, to see if he could get Matthew to buy his liberty by paying handsomely to suppress the whole affair. If he did not succeed in this, he assured Tim that he would then be arrested, convicted, and sent to prison.
Mr. Simmons next told his prisoner that Matthew was liable with him, and would be arrested at the same time unless he complied with his proposition, which was that he should be paid five hundred dollars cash for the injuries he had received. If Matthew and his father did not comply with this demand, then he would summon the sheriff at once, have both offenders arrested, and the entire facts made public.
Though five hundred dollars seemed an enormous sum to young Short, he was nevertheless glad to get off temporarily on these conditions. He promised to try to raise this amount through Matthew, or, if he failed in so doing, to secure by some means one hundred dollars to free himself. Jacob had at last very shrewdly, though with seeming reluctance, agreed, if Tim could do no better, to take the one hundred dollars in settlement for the part he played in the assault, provided he would hold himself in readiness to testify against Matthew.
Short readily agreed to this proposition, and looked upon the magnanimous Mr. Simmons as a paragon of liberality, and as his best friend. But before leaving the presence of his benefactor, the latter was careful to note down all the facts touching upon the assault as related by Tim, and made the boy sign the statement.
This was a little precaution probably intended to assist Tim's memory if he should happen to forget some important points.
Jacob never forgot little matters like these when the interest of his friends was to be considered, and in this especial instance he was unusually keen.
Matthew left the scene of the assault very hastily, without even the ordinary civility of saying good night. This, however, was in keeping with his manner of leaving the party, for there he did not so much as thank Miss Grace for her entertainment.
Twice that night he had found walking too slow for his purpose, though his object in the two cases was quite unlike. In the one instance he was on a mission of revenge, and in the other he was animated by a keen desire to avoid the immediate neighborhood of Mr. Jacob Simmons.
He evidently imagined that Jacob's society would not be agreeable to him. Taking this view of the matter, he thought it would be the wise thing for him to come away, and not to press himself upon the man at so late an hour of the night.
He reasoned that there would be no impropriety in such a course, as Mr. Simmons couldn't be lonesome, for Tim was with him, and would probably remain with him for the night at least, so he withdrew from the scene.
We commend Matthew's worldly wisdom, as things turned out, in doing just as he did, for had he remained it is altogether probable that Jacob would have given him also an exhibition of his muscular powers, and Matthew—the gentle youth of fine clothes and haughty manner—wouldn't have taken to it kindly. It wouldn't have been a popular entertainment for him in any sense.
He seemed fully impressed with this idea of the situation, for never had he got over the ground so fast as he did that night. He ran the entire distance to his own home, and even when in his room, with his door locked, he trembled with fear, and cast nervous glances around, as if half expecting to see the angry Mr. Simmons rush in and fall upon him with remorseless blows.
Matthew's evening had been anything but a success. Every move he had made had not only failed to accomplish his purpose, but had actually recoiled upon him. He little imagined, though, to what extent this was the case in his last effort, for his fear was only of immediate bodily punishment.
As time passed, and his door was not burst open, he began to feel safe once more, and as terror ceased to occupy his thoughts, it was replaced by jealousy, and a desire for revenge upon Fred Worthington. He cared little what became of Tim, and gave him hardly a passing thought since he himself was safe from harm. He was not in the mood for sleep, so passed the time in thinking over the events of the evening.
It is a contemptible act of cowardice to lie in wait for a rival, and, taking him thus at a disadvantage, spring upon him and beat him with malicious pleasure. But Matthew would have felt no scruples on this point, for it is just what he had planned to do; and now that he had made of it a miserable failure, he resolved upon a new plot—an entirely different form of revenge, but one, in many respects, much more to be dreaded.
When Fred Worthington's mind finally descended from the clouds, and he began to think once more in a natural way, he at once took in the situation. He knew that Matthew did not like him, and he had seen him leave the party in an angry mood. Knowing him to be so revengeful, he anticipated that trouble of some sort would follow; but he little thought what that trouble would prove to be.
Imagine his surprise, therefore, when the next afternoon Matthew called at the store, in a very gracious mood, to see him and to talk over the previous evening's entertainment. He was very agreeable, and as sociable as if they had never quarreled.
After he had gone, Fred began to feel somewhat guilty, thinking he had unjustly wronged him. He disliked to have trouble with any one, and from the fact that they had not been very good friends of late, and that now De Vere had made the first concessions, Fred felt disposed to use every effort to be on good terms with him.
Matthew was quick to take note of this, and it suited his plans exactly. At first he thought he would speak to Tom Martin about his despicable purpose, and get his assistance. But he knew Dave Farrington would not listen to it, for he had already shown a preference for Fred; so he finally concluded to keep his own counsel, for should the facts at any time become known, as they most probably would, then, if another boy shared his secret, they would count heavily against him.
He lost no opportunity in making friends with Fred, and they now appeared together so much that the other boys could not understand what had brought about such a marked change. It was a matter of remark to the girls as well, for they also knew something of Matthew's hostility to our young hero.
"I am of the opinion that this sudden friendship is for a purpose that Fred little suspects," said Dave Farrington, "for you know the circumstances and remember what Matthew said to us before the party. My idea is that he is the worst boy in the village, and that we have never seen how mean he can be. Fred is a good fellow and is working hard to get ahead, and I am sorry to see him fall in with De Vere. If it wasn't meddling with the affairs of other folks, I would tell him to be on his guard."
"It does seem queer," replied Tom, "that matters should have taken this turn; but I guess nothing will come of it. I know Matthew always wants his own way, though, and is bound to have it, and that is why his actions seem so odd just now."
It had been Fred's custom to stay in the store nights until he got ready to go home, but since he had been under the influence of Matthew he had changed in this respect. Though he firmly intended to do nothing that he would be ashamed of, or that would injure him in any way, yet he was in dangerous company, and, like all others under similar circumstances, was gradually being affected by it.
One night De Vere suggested, as they were passing a drinking saloon—the very one where he had found Tim Short—that they should go in and have a glass of ginger ale. Fred had some conscientious scruples about this, but, lest he should offend his companion, he yielded, saying to himself: "There is nothing intoxicating about it; I don't see any more harm in it than drinking soda. Still I don't like the surroundings."
Having once visited that place of ruin, he hesitated less about going the second time; so when he and Matthew again passed it (and the latter purposely led him that way), Fred, feeling that he was under obligations to his companion for his previous treat, invited him in. This time they lingered a while to watch the billiard playing, and when a table was unoccupied Matthew asked Fred to have a game with him, adding that he would pay the expense.
Fred accepted the proposition and won the game, though he had never played before, while Matthew had had a good deal of experience.
Billiards is a fascinating game, and, from the very fact of its fascination, it is extremely dangerous for boys. It is usually associated with drinking saloons, where the air is filled with evil influences and the fumes of rum and tobacco; and, aside from these degrading surroundings, it is a very expensive game. It is a very common occurrence for one to find himself two or three dollars short for a single evening's entertainment of this sort, and this, too, when no drinking or betting has been done.
Fred, of course, felt elated that he should win the game with an old player, while Matthew chuckled over his own success; for, in purposely allowing his opponent to win, and thereby playing on his conceit, he had scored more points in his own subtle game than he had hoped.
The obstacle that at first appeared to stand in the way of this young scoundrel's accomplishing his purpose seemed to be well nigh surmounted. He had carefully managed his victim, and would soon be paid for all his trouble by the terrible revenge he would enjoy.
There now remained the final act, which he arranged with the bartender, by paying him a certain sum.
It was agreed that De Vere should bring Fred in for a drink, and that they would persuade him to take a glass of lager beer, that should contain a large adulteration of whisky.
Tim Short was taken into the secret with a view to rendering any service that might be required of him.
When the boys next appeared at the saloon, Matthew, with a pompous air, said:
"John, give me a glass of lager; I have got sick of drinking ginger ale. It's nothing but a baby drink, any way. Fred, you'd better try the lager, too. It's ever so much nicer than that slop. Just try it now, and if you don't like it you needn't drink it. See how clear it is! I guess I can beat you at billiards after taking this."
The bartender laughed, and after indorsing all that De Vere had said, added:
"Folks is got about over drinking ginger ale, nowadays. Lager's the proper stuff!"
Fred was a good scholar, but there was a little word of two letters that he had not yet learned how to spell; that is—no.
He drank the beer, and his fate was sealed. He was now a tool in Matthew's hands. On some pretense the young hypocrite excused himself from playing a game of billiards as he had at first proposed, and induced Fred to follow him into the street, knowing it was not safe for him to remain longer in the heated saloon.
It was his first intention to go back to the store, thinking that if Mr. Rexford should see Fred in a tipsy state he would discharge him. But just before reaching the merchant's place of business he stopped, and, taking Fred by the arm, walked quickly up the street.
Tim followed close enough to answer promptly if Matthew should summon him.
The liquor had already begun to have the desired effect. Fred had become talkative and boisterous, and in such a condition that he could be influenced to do almost any absurd thing.
Matthew was bound to make the most of his opportunities, and so he incited him by flattering words to call at Dr. Dutton's house, opposite which they now stood. Fred assented to this, provided Matthew would accompany him. This De Vere readily agreed to do, and he led the intoxicated youth up to the door, and rang the bell sharply.
Presently the door opened, and on stepping in Fred looked about for his companion, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Tim Short made a very wretched attempt to obtain a night's sleep after escaping from captivity, both because the night was well spent before he reached home and because matters of too great importance rested upon his mind to allow him to bury them in slumber.
He reported at the factory at the usual morning hour, but after working a little time complained of being sick, and was released for the remainder of the day. If he was not physically ill, he was doubtless sick at heart, so he speedily sought Matthew, and told him, with more or less ill feeling, of his experience at the hands of Jacob Simmons, and of the latter's demands in settlement (as he called it) for his injuries.
"And you 'squealed' on me?" demanded De Vere, with ill suppressed anger.
"I told him who you were, to save him from choking me to death."
"Is that all you said?"
"He told me to tell the truth or——"
"So you gave him the whole story—you idiot, to tell everything you know!"
"I only wish you had been in my place."
"If I had I wouldn't have been an idiot!" retorted De Vere.
"Oh, you wouldn't have! Some folks are very smart," replied Tim, getting angry.
"I'd have been smart enough for that."
"A lot you would. If he'd had you as he had me, you would have told more than I did, and promised anything he asked."
"I'm not a baby, I want you to understand, to cry if any one looks at me."
"No, you are very brave, to have to get some one to help you to get square with Fred Worthington."
"I was a fool when I got you."
"And I was a fool for having anything to do with you in this business. You will be arrested and sent to prison, and so will I, unless you pay Mr. Simmons the five hundred."
"Arrested! What do you mean?" asked Matthew, turning pale.
"I mean just what I said; if you don't pay him he will come down on us within three days."
"Did he say so?" gasped De Vere.
"Yes, he did. He was going to take me to the sheriff last night, and that's why I told everything."
"Five hundred dollars! I can't get it without asking my father for it."
"Well, ask him then."
"He would find out everything, and would whip me almost to death."
"Better be whipped than go to prison, and have every one know all about it."
"I won't do either."
"How can you avoid it?"
"Five hundred dollars is too much."
"You'd better see Mr. Simmons and fix it with him."
"I don't want to see him."
"You will have to see him or send the money."
The two boys finally called upon Jacob Simmons and entered into negotiations.
"I ought to have more than five hundred," said the latter.
"How can I give it to you if I haven't got it?" asked Matthew.
"Your father is rich, and could give me ten times as much and not miss it."
"Oh, don't tell him. I will pay you what I can."
"If you had the money I would take it and say nothing more to him or any one; but I must have it or hand you over to the sheriff."
Matthew shuddered at this thought. He was in a dilemma, and hardly knew which way to turn.
After a good deal of parley, Mr. Simmons agreed to take three hundred dollars in place of the five originally demanded. This act, however, was not inspired by liberality or a desire to make the penalty less for the boys, but with a feeling that he might get nothing if he were to take the matter to the elder De Vere, as he gathered from Matthew's conversation that the latter would run away from home rather than submit to the severe punishment his father would be sure to give him.
"Three hundred dollars," Jacob argued, "is much better than nothing."
Matthew gave him what cash he had with him—seventeen dollars—and his watch, and signed an agreement to pay the balance within six weeks. He also indorsed the statement that Tim had signed about the assault as being true, and the careful Mr. Simmons replaced it in his large pocketbook for future use if it should at any time be needed.
When Fred found that he was in Dr. Dutton's house, and that Matthew had disappeared and deserted him, he was at a loss to know what to say or what move to make. His mind was far from clear, and his tongue so unwieldy that he could hardly manage it.
He stood silent for a moment, evidently trying to collect his thoughts and make out his situation; then, muttering some half intelligible words, he made a start as if to leave the house.
The doctor, who answered the summons of the bell, was struck nearly dumb by the sight that greeted his eyes. He closed the door, and, taking the youth by the shoulder, supported his unsteady steps to the office.
The fumes of whisky readily indicated the cause of this unfortunate occurrence, but the doctor was at a loss to know why Fred should be in such a state. Was he not one of the most exemplary boys in town, and did he not belong to the school, of which Dr. Dutton himself was superintendent?
Surely something must be wrong, thought the doctor, and he began to question the boy, who on going from the cool air to a warm room had grown so suddenly sick that he looked as if he would faint.
The kind physician laid him gently on a lounge, and gave him such professional treatment as the case demanded.
There is a vast difference between one who has become intoxicated by a single glass and one who has been drinking for hours, and has thereby paralyzed his nerves and deadened his brain. In the former case the liquor can be thrown from the stomach, and the victim soon recovers the powers of his mind; while in the other event it may take several days to restore his customary vigor.
This sickness of Fred's was the very best thing that could have happened to him, for he got rid of the vile poison before it had time to stupefy him to any great extent. Nevertheless the dose was so strong and the shock so great for his stomach that for a time he was extremely sick and weak.
But after lying quietly on the lounge for an hour or so, he regained a little strength.
The doctor ordered his carriage, helped Fred into it and took him home. The latter was still so unnerved that he could hardly walk, but the cool air benefited him so much that when he reached home he managed to get into the house alone, and up to his room without disturbing his parents, who had retired some time before.
The next morning he awoke with a severe headache, and seemed generally out of tune.
The mere thought of what he had done—how he had disgraced himself by going to a public bar, and there drinking to intoxication—caused him the deepest sorrow and regret; but when he fully realized what a severe wound his conduct would inflict upon his mother and father, and how they would grieve over it—when he thought what the people of the town would say, and remembered that he had actually called in this lamentable state at Dr. Dutton's house—the place of all others he would have wished to avoid—he became sick at heart as well as in body, and his tumultuous feelings were only soothed by tears of honest repentance.
However, Fred hurriedly dressed himself, went to the store as usual, and commenced his accustomed labors. He saw at once, by Mr. Rexford's manner, that he did not know what had happened the previous night, and this afforded him a slight temporary relief; still, he knew it was only a question of time before his employer would learn the whole story.
When this took place, what would be the result? Would he lose his situation? He knew that Mr. Rexford was a stern man, having little charity for the faults of others. That his clerk should have been intoxicated the previous night would undoubtedly irritate him greatly.
Fred imagined that every one whom he saw knew of what he had done, and looked upon him with disgust. He felt tempted to leave the village, and never be seen again where he had so disgraced himself. Could he only go to some new place, among strangers, and commence life over again, he might have a better chance to work his way upward; but here this shame would always hang, like a dark cloud, above him.
On reflection, however, he saw that it would be both unmanly and ungrateful to leave his parents.
No; he was the guilty party, and he must stay here, where the unfortunate occurrence had taken place, and here try, by the strictest discipline, and the most watchful care, to regain his former standing among his friends.
As Fred thought over the occurrences of the past few weeks—of Matthew's decided hostility, of his course at the party, and his sudden friendship since that time—of his treachery and meanness the night before, in getting him to call at Dr. Dutton's while intoxicated, and his deception in so suddenly leaving him at the door—he saw clearly that he had been made the victim of De Vere's mean and cruel malice.
Moreover, he did not believe that a single glass of beer would have produced such an effect upon him, and so he strongly suspected the truth—that he had been drugged.
Still, he decided to bear the blame himself, and not throw it upon another, though there might be justice in such a course. He felt confident that the truth would at some time come to light, if he said nothing about it, whereas, should he bring forward his suspicion as an excuse for getting tipsy, the charge would at once be denied, and then he would be less liable to fix the guilt upon the young villain who had made him the plaything of his ill will.
He knew, also, that he was to blame for having visited the iniquitous den at all, and much more for allowing himself to be persuaded to indulge even in what is popularly considered a harmless drink.
He was so absent minded during the day, and showed so clearly in his face that something was troubling him, that keen eyed John Rexford observed it, and wondered what had happened to check the flow of the boy's spirits.
Rexford was a selfish man, and thought that possibly something pertaining to the store had gone wrong. Such an idea was enough to arouse his suspicion, for he was wholly wrapped up in his business. He could not look beyond that, and had no feeling for others—only making an occasional show of it for the sake of policy.
A man who lives in such a way is not half living. He is not broad, intelligent, liberal, and sympathetic, but is narrowed down to a sordid, grasping existence.
I often pity such men, for though they may have wealth in abundance, they know not how to enjoy it. Neither do they possess the faculty of deriving pleasure from kindness and generosity.
They can see no beauty in art or nature, and when they become unfit for pursuing their vocation, they have nothing to look forward to. The life beyond is something to which they have given little thought. They have starved their nobler nature that is nourished on higher things, until it is dwarfed and shriveled, and the baleful results of such an unnatural mode of life are pictured in their countenances.
Fred's most trying ordeal during the day was that of going to Dr. Dutton's house with goods; for if others did not know of what was on his mind, surely the doctor's family did. He knew that he had forfeited the good opinion they had had of him, and he wished to avoid meeting them.
To his surprise Mrs. Dutton greeted him pleasantly, and made no reference whatever to the affair of the previous night. Her motherly nature pitied him sincerely, for she saw plainly written in his face the sorrow that he so keenly felt. Bless the dear soul for her kind, sympathetic heart, and the cheerful, helpful look she gave the boy in the hour of his trial!
This unexpected charity helped Fred not a little; but the conspicuous absence of Miss Nellie, evidently due to a purpose of avoiding him, sent a chill deep into his very heart, which was plainly reflected in his face and exhibited in his demeanor. Fred's regard for her, I think we may safely infer, was much stronger and of a finer type than the ordinary preferences shown by boys of his age; therefore we can understand why he was so deeply affected by her turning away from him as if he were unfit to be her associate.
Matthew De Vere made the most of his opportunity. He felt that he was being revenged now. He took great care to spread the report, and to inform a certain one in particular of the facts concerning Fred. His version of them was a highly colored one; but of course he made no allusion to the adulteration of the liquor. He claimed that he induced Fred to leave the bar room, and intimated that he must have drunk several times before he saw him, "for," he said, "one glass of beer could not have made him tipsy."
By afternoon, the report spread nearly through the town, for, as Milton says:
Evil news rides post, while good news baits.
Dave Farrington and Tom Martin called to see Fred and talk the matter over with him. The latter did not breathe his suspicions of the real cause of the occurrence, but simply told the facts. The boys quickly replied that they considered it a trick of De Vere's, and that this was the mean way he had taken to carry out his threat of "getting the advantage of him."
This conversation confirmed Fred's opinion, and though he felt ashamed of himself, and was bound to suffer for his foolish act, while the guilty party went free, yet he reflected:
"I would rather be in my place than in Matthew's, for I shall learn by this experience not to be influenced by another to do anything without first counting the cost, and seeing whether it is right and best. If it is not, I won't do it for anybody's friendship. This will also teach me to keep away from suspicious places, and to avoid the temptations and corrupting influences of a bar room. De Vere's guilt will work more injury to him, in the long run, than my damaged reputation will to me."
Towards the close of the day Mr. Rexford heard of the previous night's occurrence. He immediately called Fred into the counting room, and sternly, and in an excited manner, questioned him as to the truth of the report.
The latter acknowledged its correctness, and told his story, stating that he drank but one glass of beer, and that that was his first, and would also be his last.
The suspicious merchant was very angry, and disposed to doubt the boy's statement. He said that it was a mystery to him where Fred got the money to spend for such a purpose—intimating that perhaps it came from his own cash drawer. Then, after giving him a sharp lecture, he hinted at discharge, saying that he would have no drinking persons about him.
John Rexford well knew the value of such a boy as Fred, and had no real intention of sending him adrift. But he wished to make the most of his opportunity, and to impress the boy, and the public if possible, with the idea that in keeping him he was doing a very magnanimous act.
So he said that he would overlook this fault, though a grave one, and retain Fred for the present on probation; but he warned the boy that he must keep a sharp lookout, as the first misdeed, or suspicious act on his part, would result in immediate discharge.
The turn of affairs was anything but pleasant to Fred, though better than he had expected. And it was far more satisfactory to him than the previous suspense, when he had not known what his employer would decide to do.
When the day's work was over, Fred went directly home, where he found his father and mother seated before the open fire.
The latter was somewhat worried about her son, for he looked pale and worn, and had eaten hardly anything since the night before; still she knew nothing of the cause of this. His father had received some intimation of what had happened, but had decided to say nothing to his wife about it for the present.
Fred had no intention, however, of keeping his parents in ignorance of his adventure; but taking his seat by the side of his mother, and where he could look both parents in the face, he told them the whole story, going minutely into all of the details.
He also told them of the conversation which had occurred between himself and Rexford.
Both parents listened intently to this statement. The mother at first sobbed bitterly, on hearing from the lips of her own child—on whom her hopes and pride were centered—that he had been in such company and in such a condition.
The father doubtless felt the disgrace quite as keenly, for he was a sensitive, intelligent man and naturally feared that this was but the beginning of a dissipated life. Still, he could hardly look for that from a boy whom he had tried so hard to instruct in what is manly and right, and who had always seemed to profit by his teaching.
But as Fred progressed in his narration, and showed how the lamentable result had been brought about, and that he had been made a victim of De Vere's revenge in consequence of the latter's jealousy, both parents looked upon the whole matter in a very different light. Mr. Worthington was extremely indignant, and expressed his determination to see De Vere's father and demand redress for the despicable course Matthew had taken. He also vowed that he would wage war against that bartender, and drive him out of town.
Fred, however, urged his father not to do either, since he believed it would only make a bad matter worse; adding that he had decided that it would be better for him to say and do nothing about the affair, further than to mention that Matthew was with him. He requested his father to adopt the same course. Mrs. Worthington, too, thought this the better plan, so after some persuasion her husband agreed to accept the situation and wait for time to bring the truth to light.
The wisdom of such a course must be apparent to my readers when they stop to think upon the matter, as did Fred. For, had he charged De Vere with being the cause of his misfortune, and alleged that the bartender had drugged him, both villains would instantly have denied it, and would, doubtless, have thrown the lie upon young Worthington, thus making him appear more at disadvantage than before. Besides, the villagers would be disposed to believe them, as it is well known that every one guilty of a misdemeanor is sure to give some excuse for his action, though excuses usually have but little weight.
On the other hand, a secret becomes burdensome to one after a time. If it is of a trivial nature, and the author finds he is not suspected, he will finally tell it as a joke, contrasting his cunning with the stupidity of his victim; while if it be of a graver sort, it will finally be disclosed, if for no other reason than to unburden the mind.
While both of Fred's parents regretted most deeply what had happened, they felt proud to think that he had told the whole truth, without even waiting to be questioned upon the subject.
If all boys would follow Fred's example in this respect whenever they get into any trouble, they would not only retain the confidence of their parents, but would receive the rewards of a clear conscience and an unburdened heart.
There is something rather peculiar about the fact that troubles of any sort never seem to come singly. This has been noticed by almost every person of wide experience, and the idea is crystallized in the proverb: "It never rains but it pours." The adage certainly held true in Fred's case.
Only a few days after the occurrence related in the preceding chapter, and when Fred had begun to feel a little more at ease in his mind, he was called up sharply one night by his employer, who said to him:
"Fred, what have you done with the twenty dollar bill that was in this drawer?"
"I have seen no such bill there to-day, sir," replied the clerk.
"You have seen no such bill, do you say? I took a new twenty dollar bill of James D. Atwood this afternoon, when he settled his account, and I put it in this drawer," pointing to the open cash drawer before him.
"It seems queer, sir; but I am sure that I have not paid it out or seen it. Didn't you give it to Woodman and Hardy's man when you paid him some money to-day?"
"No!" replied the merchant nervously, "he was here early in the afternoon, before I took the bill. There has been no one to the cash drawer but you and myself—unless you neglected your business and allowed some scoundrel in behind the counter while I was at tea."
Fred flushed up at this intimation that he might have been false to his trust, and replied, with some show of injured feeling:
"Mr. Rexford, if any money has been lost, I am sorry for you; but as I said, I know nothing about it. You say you took in a twenty dollar bill, and that now it is gone. If a mistake has occurred in making change, I don't know why it should be laid to me any more than yourself, for I am as careful as I can be."
"Do you mean to say, young man, that I have made a mistake of this size in making change?"
"I simply say, there must be a mistake somewhere. Have you figured up your cash account to know just how it stands?"
Mr. Rexford had not figured it up, but on discovering that the bill was missing, and noticing that there was little increase in the other money, he jumped to the conclusion that the drawer was twenty dollars short. But on carefully going over his cash and sales accounts, and reckoning the money on hand, he found that there was just eighteen dollars missing.
This discovery only added mystery to the already perplexing matter. It certainly looked now as though some cunning method had been employed to swindle him.
The merchant's brow contracted at the thought, and after a few moments he said, in an excited and angry manner:
"Worthington, you know about that bill, and are trying to deceive me. I can see no way but that you took it during my absence, and in trying to cover up your act put two dollars in the drawer; but, young man, I'd have you know that such tricks can't be played on me!"
The flush that had appeared upon Fred's face was now gone, and in its stead appeared the paleness of anger. He stepped squarely up to his accuser, and said, in a determined tone:
"Do you mean to say that I stole your money? If you mean that, sir, you say what is false, and you shall——"
"No, no; I don't—er—er—I won't say that—but—but be calm and let me see!"
"Do you withdraw your accusation, then?" demanded the youth, whose manner was such that Rexford was glad, for the time being, to retract his statement, or make any admission whatever, for he saw that in the boy's eyes which warned him to adopt a more conciliatory policy and to do it speedily.
He consequently retreated from his position, and assured Fred that he had spoken too hastily in accusing him. He also moved cautiously backward to another part of the store, doubtless feeling that the air would circulate more freely between them if they were some distance apart; then he added:
"But the bill is gone, and as I have not paid it out, I want it accounted for."
"No doubt you do," said Fred. "I should like to know where it is myself. As long as you put it on that ground I will not object, but you shall not charge me squarely with committing a theft."
"No, I won't charge you directly with taking it, but I have my opinion as to where it has gone," rejoined Rexford, with an insinuating air.
Fred knew well what that opinion was; but it was beyond his power to challenge it while unexpressed, and he could not at that time change it by proving his innocence, so he replied:
"Very well, you can think as you like, if that gives you any satisfaction."
"Yes, yes; very good! But I will get my satisfaction, not in thinking, but in acting! You were hired as my clerk, and it was your duty to work for my interest, and look out for this store in my absence. As this bill disappeared while under your charge, I shall hold you responsible for it," said the merchant, as he rubbed his thin, bony hands together.
This made the color again change in Fred's face, which, being noticed by Rexford, influenced him to move a few paces nearer to the door, as he possibly thought it still a little warm for his comfort, while young Worthington exclaimed:
"You will never get a cent of my money for this purpose! Now you just remember that!"
"Not so fast, young man! You forget that I owe you about fifteen dollars, and I'll keep that amount in partial payment for this loss. Don't think you are going to get ahead of me quite so easy!"
"I'm not trying to get ahead of you, but I want my rights and what is due me, and I will have both. I don't more than half believe there was a twenty dollar bill here at all! It is one of your mean tricks to beat me out of my money. It is not much more, sir, than I have seen you do by customers—adulterating goods, giving short weight and measures, and——"
"Stop there! you vil—er—insinuating rascal," yelled the proprietor, in a rage, his limbs and features twitching nervously. "Do you mean to say that I cheat my customers, and——"
"Yes, that is just what I mean," replied Fred firmly.
"I'll have you arrested at once. I won't be insulted by such a scamp!"
"Be careful whom you call a scamp!" said Fred, while Rexford again edged off. "I'd like to have you arrest me, for then I could tell things about you and your store that would make a stir in this village! What if some of the folks find out that the XXX St. Louis brand of flour, for which they pay you ten dollars a barrel, is a cheap grade that you bought in plain barrels and stamped yourself? Now do you want to arrest me? If you do there are many other things I can tell, and I wouldn't pass your accounts by either. I know something of what has been going on here—more than you think, perhaps."
These rapid and earnest utterances from young Worthington wrought a complete change in the merchant. They alarmed him, for he saw that the boy had the advantage, and out of policy he must stop matters before they became any worse. So he said, in a humble and subdued tone:
"Fred, it's no use for us to quarrel about this. You know it is not proper for you to go outside and tell your employer's business, and——"
"I know it is not, and I would only do so to defend myself; but when you threaten to keep my money, and to have me arrested, then I will show what kind of a man is trying to take advantage of me."
"Very well, then, if I pay you your money, you will say nothing about the business of this store, I suppose?"
"No, I will say nothing about what I have just mentioned, unless I should be put on trial; then, of course, I should be obliged to testify."
"You will not be put on trial. I take you at your word—your word of honor," added the merchant impressively.
"Yes, my word of honor!" repeated Fred, "and that means that your secrets are safe."
The wily Rexford had now gained his point—Fred's promise—and he quickly changed front and cried:
"Well, there's your money—fifteen dollars—now consider yourself discharged from my employ!"
"'Discharged,' did you say, sir?" ejaculated Fred, utterly taken aback at this sudden turn of events.
"I said 'discharged,'" repeated the merchant, fidgeting about; "you know what the word means, I presume?"
Fred did know what it meant. It meant more than Rexford's narrow spirit could even comprehend. It meant disgrace, perhaps ruin.
Fred took the money, the few bills, the last he would earn in the old store, and stood for a moment turning them over listlessly—evidently not counting them, but as if to aid him in solving the problem that rested heavily upon his mind.
"Isn't the money all right?" asked the merchant, finally.
"Mr. Rexford," said Fred, not noticing the inquiry, "I want you to tell me if I lost my place on account of that missing bill."
"That is exactly why," replied the merchant, "for I have always been satisfied with your work. Had you never got into that drunken scrape, though, I probably should not have thought so much of it, even if I could see no way in which to account for the mystery."
Fred felt it a cruel injustice that he should be discharged and disgraced simply on the suspicion of a crime of which he was, in fact, entirely innocent: still he could see that the merchant had some grounds for his distrust, for when a boy once gets a stain upon his character it is almost impossible to utterly efface it. It may be forgotten for a time, but if any untoward circumstance afterward arises, the remembrance of the old misdeed comes speedily to the surface and combines with later developments to work injury to him. Thus my readers can see the great importance of always doing what is right, thereby keeping their reputations unsullied.
Had Fred not fallen a victim to De Vere's revengeful plot, he would have been saved the shame that caused him so much misery; he would have retained the good opinion of the people of Mapleton; he would not have forfeited a certain very desirable friendship; and he would, in all probability, have held his position with Mr. Rexford, regardless of the mysterious disappearance of the bill.
Our young friend left the store where he had worked hard and faithfully, and where he was gaining an insight into a business, the knowledge of which, he hoped, would some day enable him to become an active and prosperous merchant. But now, alas! he had been discharged and sent away in disgrace.
Fred started for home with a more sorrowful heart than he had ever known before. His last chance of success seemed, for a time, to be gone. The villagers would now lose all faith in him, he would have no friends, and even his father and mother might doubt his honesty. It would be useless for him to try for a situation in another store, when it became known why he was discharged from John Rexford's.
It was not surprising that young Worthington was so cast down, while the shock was fresh upon him, for there seemed now to be no way by which he could build himself up. But in this country there is always a chance for an honest, ambitious, and determined boy to succeed by careful thought, patient endurance, and hard work. Sometimes, to be sure, one can see very little ahead to encourage him to push on and hope to come out victorious. This is the very point at which many fail. They cannot stand up "under fire," but fall back when by sufficient will force they might win a decisive victory in the battle of life.
When Fred reached home, wearing a most dejected look, Mrs. Worthington exclaimed:
"Why, my son, what brings you home so early? I hope you are not ill!"
"No, I'm well enough, mother, but I'm tired of trying to amount to anything."
"What has happened now?" exclaimed the mother, with an alarmed expression on her face.
"I have been discharged by Mr. Rexford, on suspicion of having stolen money from the store."
"Stolen money!" uttered both parents simultaneously, as they grew pale at the terrible thought.
"Yes, that is what I am charged with, though I know nothing about the missing money. That is what makes it so hard to bear."
"Tell me the particulars," said the anxious father; whereupon his son related all that had taken place between himself and the merchant—all save that which related to Rexford's sharp practices, of which he had promised to say nothing.
After the story was finished, all were silent for a time. Both mother and boy looked heart sick, and gazed wistfully into the blaze that burned brightly in the open grate, as if they might discover there the secret of the mystery, while the father sat with knitted brows, studying carefully the statements which Fred had made.
At length he broke the silence, and said:
"My son, you have never deceived me. You came to your mother and me with true manhood, and told us of your first disgrace, while many boys would have tried hard to keep it from their parents. Though I never had reason to suspect you of wrong doing, yet that voluntary act upon your part proved to me that you had the courage to do right and own the truth. Now something has taken place that seems worse than the other; but as you say you are innocent, I believe it, and think that some great mistake has been made. I don't know where it can be, but we must try to clear it up."
Though these were welcome words to Fred, he was much cast down notwithstanding.
"But, father," he replied, "the people will all believe me guilty when they see I am out of the store, and learn the circumstances."
"It is far better for you, my boy, that they should suppose you guilty, when you are conscious of your innocence, than that the whole world should believe you innocent, if you were really guilty."
"Well, I don't see how we can show that I did not take the money."
"Neither do I, at present; but time will straighten this matter, as it does almost everything. Don't expect that we can accomplish much while we are sitting here and talking about it."
"What shall we do, then, father?"
"Wait until we can see how to proceed."
"Well, I don't see any way; and, besides, I am about discouraged, now this is added to the other disgrace; and to think that I am not responsible for either!" exclaimed Fred, with deep emotion.
"I think you were responsible, to a certain extent, for the first," said his father.
"How was I responsible when De Vere led me into it, and had my drink adulterated?"
"You were to be blamed for going to the bar at all. You should not have been influenced by such a fellow as that scamp."
"Yes, I know I didn't do right in that respect, but I had no reason to suppose that such a result would follow."
"One hardly ever does when he is being led on to do some wrong act by a crafty villain."
"Matthew probably would have had his revenge in some other way, if he had not succeeded in his first trial."
"Very true; but had it been in some other form, it might have been shown that he was the guilty party; whereas now it would seem that you were the author of your own misfortune, while the real agent of the occurrence goes unsuspected, and exults in your downfall."
"I thought he wanted to be friends with me, so I tried not to displease him."
"Well, I hope that affair will be a valuable lesson to you. It has certainly proved itself a costly one. You should learn to look at the motives of people, and not trust them too far, simply because they smile upon you once and seem friendly. I don't think that your judgment was very keen, or you would have seen through De Vere's sudden change of manner when you had reason to suppose he would maintain a more hostile attitude than ever."
"Don't be too hard upon him, Samuel," interrupted Mrs. Worthington, who saw that Fred was growing restive under his father's rebukes.
"I am not trying to be hard upon him," replied her husband, "but simply wish to bring this matter before him in a way that will enable him to make the most of this experience. I want to teach him to avoid such errors in the future; for this is an almost fatal mistake in his case, which will follow him for years, and will, so far as I can see, change his whole life's career."
"Why, how is that, father?" inquired Fred, in a half frightened voice.
"It is simply this: your mother and I always intended that you should become a merchant. We instilled that idea into you from a child, and as you grew older, to our satisfaction you showed a decided taste for such a life. At last I got you a place in a store where I thought you could build yourself up, and, in course of time, go into business for yourself. You showed an aptitude for the work, and Mr. Rexford assured me that you were one of the very best clerks that ever worked for him. This, however, was before he was led to suspect you because of the De Vere affair. Now you have been discharged by him on the suspicion of having stolen money from his drawer. Under these circumstances, no one in town would take you into his store as clerk; so you may as well give up, first as last, the idea of becoming a trader."
"Couldn't I get a place in Boston, or somewhere else?"
"I think not; and if you could, I should not be willing to have you go away from home."
"Why not, father? Wouldn't it be better than for me to stay here, where I can get nothing to do?"
"No, my son; you are too young to go away from home, where you would have no one to look after you, and where you would be subject to many evil influences."
"Here every one will think I am a thief, and probably my friends will not speak to me," added Fred, in a more sorrowful tone than ever.
"So much the more reason why you should remain here. Were you to go away now, the people would surely think you guilty. No, no, my son! You must stay here, where circumstances have conspired against you, and show by your life that you are innocent. Then, too, by living here, you can gather evidence that may be of value to you."
"Where can I get any evidence?"
"You can give it, if you can't get it," replied his father, "by going to work tomorrow morning, and thus showing your good intentions."
"There is nothing to do in this dull town that I know of."
"There is always something to be done. But work won't come to you; you must look it up. The important thing with you now is to find something to do; for nothing so injures a boy or man in the sight of others as loafing."
"Can't I be with you in the shop, father?"
"No, I don't want you to learn a shoemaker's trade. If I had been in some other business, I might, perhaps, have been rich now. Shoemaking doesn't afford one much chance to rise, however hard he works. You will have to give up the idea of being a merchant, for the present, at least, and perhaps forever; so I want you to engage in something where your opportunities for advancement will not be limited as mine have been. No matter if you have to commence at the very bottom of the ladder; you can build yourself up by hard and intelligent work."
Fred now began to brighten up a little, and after some further conversation with his father and mother, in which they tried to encourage him as much as possible, he said:
"Father, you know I have always had an ambition to be somebody. When I saw that De Vere was trying to turn my friends against me, because I was a poor man's son, I made up my mind that I would push ahead harder than ever; but now"—he spoke with a good deal of determination and force for a boy—"I will succeed if I have to work day and night to accomplish it."
The village of Mapleton had but three manufacturing industries: a lumber mill, where logs were sawed up into various dimensions; a box shop, in which were made wooden boxes of many different sizes and shapes; and a large woolen factory. After leaving home, Fred went directly to the agent of the lumber mill and tried to get a chance to work for him, but in this he was unsuccessful. At the box shop he likewise received no encouragement, for there they needed no help. So there was but one more place left to try—that was the woolen factory, where he might still find a vacancy.
The idea of becoming a factory hand, after having been behind the counter as clerk, was repulsive to him; still he must do something; anything was better than idleness. Consequently he went to the mill, and climbed four long flights of stairs, which took him to the top of the building. Here he opened a large, heavy iron door, and entered the spinning room, down which he passed until he came to the overseer's desk.
The latter—a large, gruff, red faced man—was not there at the time, but on spying Fred he hurriedly came forward and demanded to know the boy's business. On being informed that employment was wanted, he said he needed no help, and indicated by his manner that he wished to be bothered no further.
Young Worthington now dropped down a flight and tried to get work in the card room, but with no success. On the next floor below was the weaving room, and here he soon learned that the overseer considered that he could get along very successfully without his help.
But two more departments—the finishing and the dyeing rooms—remained to be visited, and then the ordeal would be over.
As the boy descended the stairs to the former, he had very little hope of accomplishing his purpose, for thus far he had received no encouragement whatever.
Fred knew the gentleman in charge of the department perfectly well, for he was his Sunday school teacher, and moreover, was the father of his friend Dave; nevertheless he passed down the long hall with many a misgiving, and approaching the overseer timidly, said:
"Good morning, Mr. Farrington."
"Good morning, Fred," said the latter cordially. "What brings you here this morning?"
"I came in, sir," replied Fred, with an evident sense of humiliation, "to see if you could give me work in your department."
"Why, you can't mean it! You have not left the store, I hope?"
"Yes, I do mean that I want a job, and I am sorry to say I got through in the store last night."
"You surprise me! What could have been the trouble?"
Fred knew he was now talking to a large hearted, sympathetic man, and one who had always seemed to take a keen interest in his welfare, so he related the entire incident.
Mr. Farrington watched him closely as he recited what had taken place at the store, and then the kind hearted man expressed, both by words and manner, his regret that matters should have taken such a turn. "My boy, don't look so discouraged," he said. "I will do what I can to help you. Mr. Rexford should not have judged you so hastily; from what you tell me, I can't see that he has any good proof that you are guilty."
"I am certain that I am not guilty, but how can I prove my innocence?"
"Ah, that may be difficult, as it is a mysterious affair. But I believe you have told me the truth, and I shall do all I can to help you in every way."
Our young friend brightened up somewhat at this cheering statement, and with a grateful look, replied:
"You know, Mr. Farrington, I just told you why he so readily suspected me, and he has had no faith in me ever since that time."
"That was an unfortunate occurrence, to be sure, but from what Dave says, I think if the whole truth were known you would be blamed less."
"I am glad you know something of the facts of that affair, and have some charity for me; before coming in here, I began to think that every one had turned against me, and I hardly had courage to ask you for a place, they treated me so in all the upper rooms."
"Did you go up there to try to get work?"
"Why didn't you come to me first?"
"I hardly know, only I didn't feel like asking you for favors under the circumstances, for I couldn't tell what you would think of me since being discharged by Mr. Rexford."
"Well, that is human nature, I suppose, for I have often noticed that when one gets into trouble, instead of going to his friends for advice and assistance, he will seek the aid of those who care nothing for his welfare. I am glad, however, that you did not get work in the other rooms, for then you would not have come to me, and I should not have heard your version of this matter. Moreover, I suspect the feeling that kept you away from me this morning would have influenced you to leave my class at the Sunday school. But now you won't do that, will you?"
"No, I will not. Father and mother would not allow me to, any way."
"You are fortunate in having such parents; but as to coming here to work, I want to see you get something better. You are too smart and ambitious a boy to come into a factory, for such labor, as a rule, makes one stupid and unfits him for anything else."
"I would like something better," replied Fred more cheerfully. "I couldn't bear the thought of always being a common mill hand; still I should be very glad to get even this for a while, rather than lie idle. Isn't there a chance to work up, the same way that you did?"
"Yes, there is a chance, but it is a small one; for I should say that from the great number who enter a factory, not one out of ten thousand ever gets as high as an overseer. Still, you are right in wanting to get to work, and you had better be here than on the street corners; but instead of taking up with this, can't it be shown what became of the missing money? If so, perhaps I can influence Mr. Rexford to take you back. Or, if I couldn't, yet by your showing yourself innocent of his charge you would then be in a fair way of getting a position in some other store, for you were popular with customers, I understand."
"I don't know of any way to account for the missing bill. I never saw it at all."
"You never saw it, and you say there were just eighteen dollars missing?"
Mr. Farrington mused thoughtfully a moment, then muttered to himself, yet audibly: "Eighteen dollars missing!"
Presently he said aloud: "I will think this matter over, and see what I can do for you. Come and see me tomorrow forenoon."
John Rexford cared very little for the interests of others. His humanity was dwarfed and his regard for Fred's feelings or reputation amounted to nothing. In fact, he cherished malice against the boy for getting the better of him in the matter of his dealings with his customers.
That our young friend should have found out so much about his business methods, and should dare to hold the threat of exposure over his head, rankled in the breast of J. Rexford, Esq. With something of a spirit of revenge he took good care to let his suspicions become generally known regarding his former clerk, knowing, as he must, that the injury to him would be almost irreparable.
In consequence of the merchant's free expression of opinion, by noon nearly all of the villagers knew of Fred's discharge and his dishonesty—or rather what they supposed and were willing to accept as his dishonesty.
They further coupled this episode with the bar room occurrence, and at once decided that Worthington was a dissipated young scamp, and whatever good opinions they might have held of him before were straightway forgotten.
Thus was Fred rated by the people of Mapleton, many of whom he met on coming from the mill. As he passed up the street towards his home some of them spoke to him in a strained, unnatural manner, others looked at him in a knowing way, and a few small boys crowded about him, as though he was on exhibition.
Here and there, also, curious feminine heads appeared at the windows, and though Fred walked with his eyes apparently fixed upon the ground, they were turned upward sufficiently to catch glimpses of certain well known forms, and he believed himself the subject of their thoughts and conversation.
Once he raised his head as if by an irresistible impulse, for he was then passing the residence of Dr. Dutton. Why he did so he could not satisfy himself, for he half expected to see Miss Nellie at the window, and he dreaded meeting her eyes; yet there was a strange fascination about the house, and with this sense of dread, strong as it was, he was conscious of a much stronger desire to look on her sweet face, hoping that her eyes might show at least a kindly feeling towards him, if nothing more. But instead of Nellie he saw her mother, who seemed looking directly at him.
"She must have heard everything from the new clerk," thought Fred, and he fancied that in his single hasty glance he saw a look of mingled sympathy and sorrow.
He knew her for a noble, tender hearted woman, one who had shown him many a kindness, and who possessed such delicacy of feeling that she had never referred in his presence to that wretched night when he called there in a state of intoxication.
When our young friend reached home, he was despondent, as you may imagine. He threw himself upon the lounge, and thought over the occurrences of the morning—of his unsuccessful attempt to get work, and of the general attitude of the people—and it seemed to his young and sensitive mind that he could not bear their unjust suspicions.
Then he remembered the kindness of Mr. Farrington, who had promised to assist him in trying to clear his reputation, and expressed a desire to aid him in other ways. The thought made him sincerely thankful that he had been one of Mr. Farrington's scholars in Sunday school, and had thereby gained the friendship of such a man. To have a friend like him at this time was worth everything, for Mr. Farrington was a prominent man and had great influence throughout the village.
Our young friend remained at home the rest of the day. In the evening his friend Dave called.
"Tell me how it all happened, Fred," said he, taking him by the hand with a friendly grasp.
"I suppose you have heard the whole story long before this."
"Yes, but I want to hear your side, and then I shall know the truth."
"Thank you, Dave, for your confidence in me. I only wish others had half as much. Yes, I am through at the old store that I thought so much of."
"But is it possible you were discharged, as I heard at school?"
"Yes, I was discharged," replied Fred sorrowfully. "I tell you, Dave," he continued, "it is pretty hard to be discharged on an unjust suspicion, and to be looked upon in the village as I am tonight."
"It's too bad! I'm sorry for you, Fred, and I think De Vere is the cause of the whole trouble."
"I don't see how he could have been at the bottom of what came up yesterday between Mr. Rexford and me."
"Well, I believe, from what he said, that he was the means of your first trouble, and I can't see why you won't charge him with it, and not let every one think he is so nice and that you are guilty."
"What has he said?" asked Fred eagerly, thinking perhaps Matthew had exultingly told the boys his trick.
"He told Tom Martin that he was glad you showed up as you did, for it gave the people a chance to see what kind of a fellow you were."
"Was that all he said?"
"No; Tom said to him that he supposed he and you were great friends, as he had seen you together so much. De Vere replied that he knew what he was about, and had gained his point. That's all I heard. Isn't that enough?"
"Oh, that doesn't count for anything!" replied Fred, turning the matter off. "But tell me," he continued, "what was said at school about me. You said you heard the report there."