- Chapter I • Introducing Two Boys and a Horse
- Chapter II • John Receives Some Professional Advice
- Chapter III • John’s Troubles Begin
- Chapter IV • Ben Brayton’s Ride
- Chapter V • Ben Is Comforted
- Chapter VI • Open Hostilities
- Chapter VII • Mrs. Oakley Decides What to Do
- Chapter VIII • Mr. Ephraim Huxter
- Chapter IX • More About Mr. Huxter
- Chapter X • How the Matter Was Settled
- Chapter XI • John Consults a Lawyer
- Chapter XII • An Unexpected Journey
- Chapter XIII • John Oakley’s New Home
- Chapter XIV • Mr. Huxter at Home
- Chapter XV • Mrs. Oakley’s Note
- Chapter XVI • Mr. Huxter Makes a Discovery, and So Does John
- Chapter XVII • A New Acquaintance
- Chapter XVIII • An Unexpected Meeting
- Chapter XIX • On the Track
- Chapter XX • Mrs. Oakley Finds the Will
- Chapter XXI • Squire Selwyn’s Call
- Chapter XXII • Mr. Huxter Gets Into Hot Water
- Chapter XXIII • In Which John Takes French Leave
- Chapter XXIV • John Is Pursued
- Chapter XXV • The Value of a Boat
- Chapter XXVI • One Disappointment Follows Another
- Chapter XXVII • John Oakley’s Aunt
- Chapter XXVIII • John Makes a Discovery
- Chapter XXIX • Mr. Hall’s Discomfiture
- Chapter XXX • A Dangerous Acquaintance
- Chapter XXXI • Ben Makes a Discovery
- Chapter XXXII • Mrs. Oakley’s Suspicions
- Chapter XXXIII • A Strange Metamorphosis
- Chapter XXXIV • Conclusion
MY YOUNG FRIENDS,
ISAAC AND GEORGE,
IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED.
“Luck and Pluck” appeared as a serial story in the juvenile department of Ballou’s Magazine for the year 1869, and is therefore already familiar to a very large constituency of young readers. It is now presented in book form, as the first of a series of six volumes, designed to illustrate the truth that a manly spirit is better than the gifts of fortune. Early trial and struggle, as the history of the majority of our successful men abundantly attests, tend to strengthen and invigorate the character.
The author trusts that John Oakley, his young hero, will find many friends, and that his career will not only be followed with interest, but teach a lesson of patient fortitude and resolute endeavor, and a determination to conquer fortune, and compel its smiles. He has no fear that any boy-reader will be induced to imitate Ben Brayton, whose selfishness and meanness are likely to meet a fitting recompense.
New York, Nov. 8, 1869.
“What are you going to do with that horse, Ben Brayton?”
“None of your business!”
“As the horse happens to belong to me, I should think it was considerable of my business.”
“Suppose you prove that it belongs to you,” said Ben, coolly.
“There is no need of proving it. You know it as well as I do.”
“At any rate, it doesn’t belong to you now,” said Ben Brayton.
“I should like to know why not?”
“Because it belongs to me.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“It wasn’t hers to give.”
“You’ll find that the whole property belongs to her. Your father left her everything, and she has given the horse to me. Just stand aside there; I’m going to ride.”
John Oakley’s face flushed with anger, and his eyes flashed. He was a boy of fifteen, not tall, but stout and well-proportioned, and stronger than most boys of his age and size, his strength having been developed by rowing on the river, and playing ball, in both of which he was proficient. Ben Brayton was a year and a half older, and half a head taller; but he was of a slender figure, and, having no taste for vigorous out-of-door amusements, he was not a match in strength for the younger boy. They were not related by blood, but both belonged to the same family, Ben Brayton’s mother having three years since married Squire Oakley, with whom she had lived for a year previous as house-keeper. A week since the squire had died, and when, after the funeral, the will had been read, it was a matter of general astonishment that John, the testator’s only son, was left entirely unprovided for, while the entire property was left to Mrs. Oakley. John, who was of course present at the reading of the will, was considerably disturbed at his disinheritance; not because he cared for the money so much as because it seemed as if his father had slighted him. Not a word, however, had passed between him and his father’s widow on the subject, and things had gone on pretty much as usual, until the day on which our story commences. John had just returned from the village academy, where he was at the head of a class preparing for college, when he saw Ben Brayton, the son of Mrs. Oakley by a former marriage preparing to ride out on a horse which for a year past had been understood to be his exclusive property. Indignant at this, he commenced the conversation recorded at the beginning of this chapter.
“Stand aside there, John Oakley, or I’ll ride over you!”
“Will you, though?” said John, seizing the horse by the bridle. “That’s easier said than done.”
Ben Brayton struck the horse sharply, hoping that John would be frightened and let go; but our hero clung to the bridle, and the horse began to back.
“Let go, I tell you!” exclaimed Ben.
“I won’t!” said John, sturdily.
The horse continued to back, until Ben, who was a coward at heart, becoming alarmed, slid off from his back.
“That’s right,” said John, coolly. “Another time you’d better not meddle with my horse.”
“I’ll meddle with you, and teach you better manners!” exclaimed Ben, a red spot glowing in each of his pale cheeks.
As he spoke, he struck John smartly over the shoulders with the small riding-whip he carried.
John was not quarrelsome. I am glad to bear this testimony to his character, for I have a very poor opinion of quarrelsome boys; but he had a spirit of his own, and was not disposed to submit tamely to a blow. He turned upon Ben instantly, and, snatching the whip from his hand, struck him two blows in return for the one he had received.
“I generally pay my debts with interest, Ben Brayton,” he said, coolly. “You ought to have thought of that before you struck me.”
A look of fierce vindictiveness swept over the olive face of his adversary as he advanced for another contest.
“Stand back there!” exclaimed John, flourishing the whip in a threatening manner. “I’ve paid you up, and I don’t want to strike you again.”
“I’ll make you smart for your impudence!” fumed Ben, trying to get near enough to seize the whip from his hands.
“I didn’t strike first,” said John, “and I shan’t strike again, unless I am obliged to in self-defence.”
“Give me that whip!” screamed Ben, livid with passion.
“You can’t have it.”
“I’ll tell my mother.”
“Go and do it if you like,” said John, a little contemptuously.
“Let go that horse.”
“It’s my own, and I mean to keep it.”
“It is not yours. My mother gave it to me.”
“It wasn’t hers to give.”
John still retained his hold of the saddle, and kept Ben at bay with one hand. He watched his opportunity until Ben had retreated sufficiently far to make it practicable, then, placing his foot in the stirrup, lightly vaulted upon the horse, and, touching him with the whip, he dashed out of the yard. Ben sprang forward to stop him; but he was too late.
“Get off that horse!” he screamed.
“I will when I’ve had my ride,” said John, turning back in his saddle. “Now, Prince, do your best.”
This last remark was of course addressed to the horse, who galloped up the street, John sitting on his back, with easy grace, as firmly as if rooted to the saddle; for John was an admirable horseman, having been in the habit of riding ever since he was ten years old.
Ben Brayton looked after him with a face distorted with rage and envy. He would have given a great deal to ride as well as John; but he was but an indifferent horseman, being deficient in courage, and sitting awkwardly in the saddle. He shook his fist after John’s retreating form, muttering between his teeth, “You shall pay for this impudence, John Oakley, and that before you are twenty-four hours older! I’ll see whether my mother will allow me to be insulted in this way!”
Sure of obtaining sympathy from his mother, he turned his steps towards the house, which he entered.
“Where’s my mother?” he inquired of the servant.
“She’s upstairs in her own room, Mr. Benjamin,” was the answer.
Ben hurried upstairs, and opened the door at the head of the staircase. It was a spacious chamber, covered with a rich carpet, and handsomely furnished. At the time of his mother’s marriage to Squire Oakley, she had induced him to discard the old furniture, and refurnish it to suit her taste. There were some who thought that what had been good enough for the first Mrs. Oakley, who was an elegant and refined lady, ought to have been good enough for one, who, until her second marriage, had been a house-keeper. But, by some means,—certainly not her beauty, for she was by no means handsome,—she had acquired an ascendency over the squire, and he went to considerable expense to gratify her whim.
Mrs. Oakley sat at the window, engaged in needlework. She was tall and thin, with a sallow complexion, and pale, colorless lips. Her eyes were gray and cold. There was a strong personal resemblance between Ben and herself, and there was reason to think that he was like her in his character and disposition as well as in outward appearance. She was dressed in black, for the husband who had just died.
“Why have you not gone out to ride, Ben?” she asked, as her son entered the room.
“Because that young brute prevented me.”
“Whom do you mean?” asked his mother.
“I mean John Oakley, of course.”
“How could he prevent you?”
“He came up just as I was going to start, and told me to get off the horse,—that it was his.”
“And you were coward enough to do it?” said his mother, scornfully.
“No. I told him it was not his any longer; that you had given it to me.”
“What did he say then?”
“That you had no business to give it away, as it was his.”
“Did he say that?” demanded Mrs. Oakley, her gray eyes flashing angrily.
“Yes, he did.”
“Why didn’t you ride off without minding him?”
“Because he took the horse by the bridle, and made him contrary; I didn’t want to be thrown, so I jumped off.”
“Did you have the whip in your hand?”
“Then why didn’t you lay it over his back? That might have taught him better manners.”
“So I did.”
“You did right,” said his mother, with satisfaction; for she had never liked her husband’s son. His frank, brave, generous nature differed too much from her own to lead to any affection between them. She felt that he outshone her own son, and far exceeded him in personal gifts and popularity with the young people of the neighborhood, and it made her angry with him. Besides, she had a suspicion that Ben was deficient in courage, and it pleased her to think that he had on this occasion acted manfully.
“Then I don’t see why you didn’t jump on the horse again and ride away,” she continued.
“Because,” said Ben, reluctantly, “John got the whip away from me.”
“Did he strike you with it?” asked Mrs. Oakley, quickly.
“Yes,” said Ben, vindictively. “He struck me twice, the ruffian! But I’ll be even with him yet!”
“You shall be even with him,” said Mrs. Oakley, pressing her thin lips firmly together. “But I’m ashamed of you for standing still and bearing the insult like a whipped dog.”
“I tried to get at him,” said Ben; “but he kept flourishing the whip, so that I couldn’t get a chance.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s gone to ride.”
“Gone to ride! You let him do it?”
“I couldn’t help it; he was too quick for me. He jumped on the horse before I knew what he was going to do, and dashed out of the yard at full speed.”
“He is an impertinent young rebel!” said Mrs. Oakley, angrily. “I am ashamed of you for letting him get the advantage of you; but I am very angry with him. So he said that I had no business to give you the horse, did he?”
“Yes; he has no more respect for you than for a servant,” said Ben, artfully, knowing well that nothing would be so likely to make his mother angry as this. Having once been in a subordinate position, she was naturally suspicious, and apprehensive that she would not be treated with a proper amount of respect by those around her. It was Ben’s object to incense his mother against John, feeling that in this way he would best promote his own selfish ends.
“So he has no respect for me?” exclaimed Mrs. Oakley, angrily.
“None at all,” said Ben, decisively. “He says you have no right here, nor I either.”
This last statement was an utter fabrication, as Ben well knew; for John, though he had never liked his father’s second wife, had always treated her with the outward respect which propriety required. He was not an impudent nor a disrespectful boy; but he had a proper spirit, and did not choose to be bullied by Ben, whom he would have liked if he had possessed any attractive qualities. It had never entered his mind to grudge him the equal advantages which Squire Oakley, for his mother’s sake, had bestowed upon her son. He knew that his father was a man of property, and that there was enough for both. When, however, Ben manifested a disposition to encroach upon his rights, John felt that the time for forbearance had ceased, and he gave him distinctly to understand that there was a limit beyond which he must not pass. Very soon after Ben first entered the family John gave him a thrashing,—in self-defence, however,—of which he complained to his mother. Though very angry, she feared to diminish her influence with his father by moving much in the matter, and therefore contented herself by cautioning Ben to avoid him as much as possible.
“Some time or other he shall be punished,” she said; “but at present it is most prudent for us to keep quiet and bide our time.”
Now, however, Mrs. Oakley felt that the power was in her own hands. She had no further necessity for veiling her real nature, or refraining from gratifying her resentment. The object for which she had schemed—her husband’s property—was hers, and John Oakley was dependent upon her for everything. If she treated him ungenerously, it would create unfavorable comments in the neighborhood; but for this she did not care. The property was hers by her husband’s will, and no amount of censure would deprive her of it. She would now be able to enrich Ben at John’s expense, and she meant to do it. Henceforth Ben would be elevated to the position of heir, and John must take a subordinate position as a younger son, or, perhaps, to speak still more accurately, as a poor relation with a scanty claim upon her bounty.
“I’ll break that boy’s proud spirit,” she said to herself. “He has been able to triumph over Ben; but he will find that I am rather more difficult to deal with.”
There was an expression of resolution upon her face, and a vicious snapping of the eyes, which boded ill to our hero. Mrs. Oakley undoubtedly had the power to make him uncomfortable, and she meant to do it, unless he would submit meekly to her sway. That this was not very likely may be judged from what we have already seen of him.
Mrs. Oakley’s first act was to bestow on Ben the horse, Prince, which had been given to John a year before by his father. John had been accustomed to take a daily ride on Prince, whom he had come to love. The spirited horse returned his young master’s attachment, and it was hard to tell which enjoyed most the daily gallop, the horse or his rider. To deprive John of Prince was to do him a grievous wrong, since it was, of all his possessions, the one which he most enjoyed. It was the more unjustifiable, since, at the time Prince had been bought for John, Squire Oakley, in a spirit of impartial justice, had offered to buy a horse for Ben also; but Ben, who had long desired to own a gold watch and chain, intimated this desire to his mother, and offered to relinquish the promised horse if the watch and chain might be given him. Squire Oakley had no objection to the substitution, and accordingly the same day that Prince was placed in the stable, subject to John’s control, a valuable gold watch and chain, costing precisely the same amount, was placed in Ben’s hands. Ben was delighted with his new present, and put on many airs in consequence. Now, however, he coveted the horse as well as the watch, and his mother had told him he might have it. But it seemed evident that John would not give up the horse without a struggle. Ben, however, had enlisted his mother as his ally, and felt pretty confident of ultimate victory.
John Oakley had triumphed in his encounter with Ben Brayton, and rode off like a victor. Nevertheless he could not help feeling a little doubtful and anxious about the future. There was no doubt that Ben would complain to his mother, and as it was by her express permission that he had taken the horse, John felt apprehensive that there would be trouble between himself and his stepmother. I have already said, that, though a manly boy, he was not quarrelsome. He preferred to live on good terms with all, not excepting Ben and his mother, although he had no reason to like either of them. But he did not mean to be imposed upon, or to have his just rights encroached upon, if he could help it.
What should he do if Ben persevered in his claim and his mother supported him in it? He could not decide. He felt that he must be guided by circumstances. He could not help remembering how four years before Mrs. Brayton (for that was her name then) answered his father’s advertisement for a house-keeper; how, when he hesitated in his choice, she plead her poverty, and her urgent need of immediate employment; and how, influenced principally by this consideration, he took her in place of another to whom he had been more favorably inclined. How she should have obtained sufficient influence over his father’s mind to induce him to make her his wife after the lapse of a year, John could not understand. He felt instinctively that she was artful and designing, but his own frank, open nature could hardly be expected to fathom hers. He remembered again, how, immediately after the marriage, Ben was sent for, and was at once advanced to a position in the household equal to his own. Ben was at first disposed to be polite, and even subservient to himself, but gradually, emboldened by his mother’s encouragement, became more independent, and even at times defiant. It was not, however, until now that he had actually begun to encroach upon John’s rights, and assume airs of superiority. He had been feeling his way, and waited until it would be safe to show out his real nature.
John had never liked Ben,—nor had anybody else except his mother felt any attachment for him,—but he had not failed to treat him with perfect politeness and courtesy. Though he had plenty of intimations from the servants and others that it was unjust to him that so much expense should be lavished upon Ben, he was of too generous a nature to feel disturbed by it, or to grudge him his share of his father’s bounty.
“There’s enough for both of us,” he always said, to those who tried to stir up his jealousy.
“But suppose your father should divide his property between you? How would you like to see Ben Brayton sharing the estate?”
“If my father chooses to leave his property in that way, I shan’t complain,” said John. “Fortunately there is enough for us both, and half will be enough to provide for me.”
But John had never anticipated such a contingency as Ben and his mother claiming the whole property, and, frank and unsuspicious as he was, he felt that his father would never have left him so entirely dependent upon his stepmother unless improper means had been used to influence his decision. There was a particular reason which he had for thinking thus. It was this: Three days before his father died, he was told by the servant, on entering the house, that the sick man wished to see him. Of course he went up instantly to the chamber where, pale and wasted, Squire Oakley lay stretched out on the bed.
He was stricken by a disease which affected his speech, and prevented him from articulating anything except in a whisper. He beckoned John to the bedside, and signed for him to place his ear close to his mouth. John did so. His father made a great effort to speak, but all that John could make out was, “My will.”
“Your will, father?” he repeated.
The sick man nodded, and tried to speak further. John thought he could distinguish the word “drawer,” but was not certain. He was about to inquire further, when his stepmother entered the room, and looked at him suspiciously.
“Why have you come here to disturb your sick father?” she asked, coldly.
“I did not come here to disturb him,” said John. “I came because he wished to speak to me.”
“Has he spoken to you?” she asked, hastily.
“He tried to, but did not succeed.”
“You should not allow him to make the effort. It can only do him harm. The doctor says he must be kept very quiet. You had better leave the room. He is safest in my care.”
John did leave the room, and though he saw his father afterwards, it was always in his stepmother’s presence, and he had no farther opportunity of communicating with him.
He could not help thinking of this as he rode along, and wondering what it was that his father wished to say. He knew that it must be something of importance, from the evident anxiety which the dying man manifested to speak to him. But whatever it was must remain unknown. His father’s lips were hushed in death, and with such a stepmother John felt himself worse than alone in the world. But he had a religious nature, and had been well trained in the Sunday school, and the thought came to him that whatever trials might be in store for him he had at least one Friend, higher than any earthly friend, to whom he might look for help and protection. Plunged in thought, he had suffered Prince to subside into a walk, when, all at once, he heard his name called.
Looking up, he saw Sam Selwyn, son of Lawyer Selwyn, and a classmate of his at the academy.
“Is that you, Sam?” he said, halting his horse.
“That is my impression,” said Sam, “but I began to think it wasn’t just now, when my best friend seemed to have forgotten me.”
“I was thinking,” said John, “and didn’t notice.”
“Where are you bound?”
“Nowhere in particular. I only came out for a ride.”
“You’re a lucky fellow, John.”
“You forget, Sam, the loss I have just met with;” and John pointed to his black clothes.
“Excuse me, John, you know I sympathize with you in that. But I’m very fond of riding, and never get any chance. You have a horse of your own.”
“Just at present.”
“Just at present! You’re not going to lose him, are you?”
“Sam, I am expecting a little difficulty, and I shall feel better if I advise with some friend about it. You are my best friend in school, and I don’t know but in the world, and I’ve a great mind to tell you.”
“I’ll give you the best advice in my power, John, and won’t charge anything for it either, which is more than my father would. You know he’s a lawyer, and has to be mercenary. Not that I ought to blame him, for that’s the way he finds us all in bread and butter.”
“I’ll turn Prince up that lane and tie him, and then we’ll lie down under a tree, and have a good talk.”
John did as proposed. Prince began to browse, apparently well contented with the arrangement, and the two boys stretched themselves out lazily beneath a wide-spreading chestnut-tree, which screened them from the sun.
“Now fire away,” said Sam, “and I’ll concentrate all my intellect upon your case gratis.”
“I told you that Prince was mine for the present,” commenced John. “I don’t know as I can say even that. This afternoon when I got home I found Ben Brayton just about to mount him.”
“I hope you gave him a piece of your mind.”
“I ordered him off,” said John, quietly, “when he informed me that the horse was his now,—that his mother had given it to him.”
“What did you say?”
“That it was not hers to give. I seized the horse by the bridle, till he became alarmed and slid off. He then came at me with his riding-whip, and struck me.”
“I didn’t think he had pluck enough for that. I hope you gave him as good as he sent.”
“I pulled the whip away from him, and gave him two blows in return. Then watching my opportunity I sprang upon the horse, and here I am.”
“And that is the whole story?”
“And you want my advice?”
“Then I’ll give it. Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, stick to that horse, and defy Ben Brayton to do his worst.”
“It seems to me I’ve heard part of that speech before,” said John, smiling. “As to the advice, I’ll follow it if I can. I’m not afraid of anything Ben Brayton can do; but suppose his mother takes his part?”
“Do you think she will?”
“I am afraid she will.”
“Then defy her too,” said Sam, hastily.
“I don’t know about that,” said John. “I am only a boy of fifteen, and she is my father’s widow. If she chooses to take the horse away, I don’t know that I can do anything.”
“Ben Brayton is a mean rascal. Didn’t he get a gold watch at the same time that you got the horse?”
“Yes; he might have had a horse too, but he preferred the watch and chain. They cost as much as Prince.”
“And now he wants the horse too?”
“So it seems.”
“That’s what I call hoggish. I only wish Ben Brayton would come to school, and sit next to me.”
“What for?” asked John, a little surprised at this remark.
“Wouldn’t I stick pins into him, that’s all. I’d make him yell like—a locomotive,” said Sam, the simile being suggested by the sound of the in-coming train.
“That’s an old trick of yours,” he said, “I remember you served me so once. And yet you profess to be my friend.”
“I didn’t stick it in very far,” said Sam, apologetically; “it didn’t hurt much, did it?”
“Didn’t it though?”
“Well, I didn’t mean to have it. Maybe I miscalculated the distance.”
“It’s all right, if you don’t try it again. And now about the advice.”
“I wouldn’t be imposed upon,” said Sam. “Between you and me I don’t think much of your stepmother.”
“Nor she of you,” said John, slyly. “I heard her say the other day that you were a disgrace to the neighborhood with your mischievous tricks.”
“That is the ‘most unkindest’ cut of all,” said Sam. “I’d shed a few tears if I hadn’t left my handkerchief at home. I have a great mind to tell you something,” he added, more gravely.
“Well?” said John, inquiringly.
“It’s something that concerns you, only I happened to overhear it, which isn’t quite fair and aboveboard, I know. Still I think I had better tell you. You know my father was your father’s lawyer?”
“Well, he as well as everybody else was surprised at the will that left everything to your stepmother, only he had the best reason to be surprised. I was sitting out on our piazza when I heard him tell my mother that only three months ago your father came to his office, and had a will drawn up, leaving all the property to you, except the thirds which your stepmother was entitled to.”
“Only three months ago?” said John, thoughtfully.
“And did he take away the will with him?”
“Yes; he thought at first of leaving it in my father’s charge, but finally decided to keep it himself.”
“What can have become of it? He must have destroyed it since.”
“My father doesn’t think so,” said Sam.
“What does he think?”
“Mind you don’t say a word of what I tell you,” said Sam, lowering his voice. “He thinks that Mrs. Oakley has put it out of the way, in order to get hold of the whole property herself.”
“I can hardly think she would be so wicked,” said John, shocked at the supposition.
“Isn’t it easier to believe that of her, than to believe that your father would deal so unjustly by you?”
“I won’t call it unjustly, even if he has really left her the whole property,” said John. “Still, I was surprised at being left out of the will. Besides,” he added, with a sudden reflection, “there’s something that makes me think that the will you speak of is still in existence.”
“What’s that?” asked Sam.
In reply John gave the particulars of his father’s attempt to communicate with him, and the few words he was able to make out.
“I understand it all now,” said Sam, quickly.
“Then you’re ahead of me.”
“It’s plain as a pike-staff. Your father hid the will, fearing that your stepmother would get hold of it and destroy it. He wanted to tell you where it was. Do you know of any secret drawer in your house?”
John shook his head.
“There must be one somewhere. Now, if you want my advice, I’ll give it. Just hunt secretly for the drawer, wherever you think it may possibly be, and if you find it, and the will in it, just bring it round to my father, and he’ll see that justice is done you. Come, I’m not a lawyer’s son for nothing. What do you say?”
“I shouldn’t wonder if you were right, Sam.”
“You may depend upon it I am. I’m your lawyer, remember, and you are my client. I give advice on the ‘no cure no pay’ system. If it don’t amount to anything I won’t charge you a cent.”
“And if it does?”
“If you get your property by my professional exertions, I trust to your generosity to reward me.”
“All right, Sam.”
“Of course you won’t let your stepmother suspect what you’re after. Otherwise she might get the start of you, and find it herself, and then much good it would do you.”
“I’m glad to think it is still in existence, and that she hasn’t destroyed it.”
“She would if she could, you may depend on that.”
“Well, Sam, I’m much obliged to you for your advice. I think I must be going now.”
“Well, good-by, old fellow. Keep a stiff upper lip, and don’t give up the ship—horsemanship, I mean. I must go round to the office, and see if father doesn’t need a little professional assistance.”
John leaped on Prince’s back, and turned him in the direction of home. The revelation which Sam had made gave a new direction to his thoughts. If his father had really intended to give him a share of the estate, he felt that he ought to have it, and determined to institute a search as cautiously as possible.
Driving into the yard he saw Ben sitting sullenly on the door-step. He eyed John with no very friendly glance.
“Where’ve you been?” he demanded.
“Up the road,” said John, briefly.
“It’s the last time you’ll ride my horse.”
“It’s not your horse.”
“You’ll find out whose horse it is,” muttered Ben.
“I don’t care about disputing with you,” said John, quietly, turning towards the stable.
“My mother wishes to see you at once; do you hear?” said Ben, unpleasantly. “She’s going to make you apologize to me for your impudence.”
“I’ll go in and see her as soon as I have put the horse in the stable,” John answered, quietly.
“I hate that fellow,” muttered Ben, following our hero with lowering eyes; “he puts on too many airs altogether. But my mother’ll fix him.”
After putting Prince in the stable, John went into the house slowly, for he was in no hurry to anticipate what he feared would be an unpleasant interview.
“Where is Mrs. Oakley, Jane?” he asked of a servant whom he met in the hall.
“She’s in the sitting-room, Master John,” said Jane. “She wants to see you immediately.”
“Very well; I’ll go in.”
He heard steps behind him, and, turning, found that Ben was following him.
“He wants to hear me scolded,” thought John. “However, I won’t take any notice.”
Mrs. Oakley was sitting in a rocking-chair. She looked up with a frown as John entered. She had never liked him, but since Ben had declared, falsely, as we know, that John had no more respect for her than a servant, this dislike was greatly increased.
She was inwardly determined to make his life as uncomfortable as possible.
“Well, sir,” she said, “so you have come at last.”
“I came as soon as Ben told me you wished to see me,” said John. “I only waited till I had put my horse into the stable.”
“His horse!” repeated Ben, by way of calling his mother’s attention to the claim to ownership expressed in those words.
“I suppose I ought to consider it lucky that you paid any attention to my words,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“I hope I have not failed in proper respect,” said John.
“It was very respectful in you to ride off with the horse, when I had told Ben he might use it.”
“It was my horse,” said John, firmly. “If Ben wanted it, he might ask me.”
“Ask you, indeed!” repeated Ben, scornfully; “you won’t catch me doing that.”
“It was enough that I told him that he might ride. Didn’t he tell you that?”
“Then what right had you to refuse?”
“The horse is mine,” said John. “It was given me by my father.”
“He allowed you to use it.”
“He gave it to me. At the same time he gave Ben a watch, which he is wearing now. He has no more right to demand my horse than I have to claim his watch.”
“You seem to forget,” said Mrs. Oakley, coldly, “that your father saw fit to leave me his property. The horse forms a part of that property, and belongs to me, and it is for me to say who shall ride on it. Ben, you may ride on the horse to-morrow.”
“Do you hear that?” demanded Ben, triumphantly, looking towards John.
“I suppose,” said John, quietly, “you will order Ben to let me have his watch to-morrow.”
“I shall do no such thing,” said Mrs. Oakley, sharply, “and it is impudent in you to ask such a thing.”
“I don’t see why it isn’t fair,” said John. “It appears to me rather mean in Ben to want both, and leave me neither.”
“That is for me to decide,” said Mrs. Oakley. “There is one thing more I have to speak to you about. My son tells me you were brutal enough to strike him with the whip. Do you deny that?”
“I never deny what’s true.”
“Then you did strike him.”
“Yes, I struck him twice.”
“And you have the impudence to stand there, and say it to my face!”
“You asked me, and I have answered you. I don’t see why that should be called impudent.”
“You glory in your disgraceful action,” said Mrs. Oakley, sharply.
“Did Ben tell you that he struck me first?” asked John.
“I am very glad to hear it. It was what you deserved,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“Then,” said John, firmly, “I gave him what he deserved. You can’t expect me to stand still and be struck without returning it.”
“The only fault I find with Ben is, that he did not strike you more than once,” said Mrs. Oakley, in an excited tone.
John glanced from the mother to her son, who was evidently pleased with the reproaches John was receiving, and said, quietly:—
“I think Ben had better not attempt it.”
“What do you mean by that?” demanded Mrs. Oakley, quickly.
“I don’t want to strike Ben, or injure him in any way,” said John; “but I mean to defend myself if I am attacked.”
And Ben, though he chose to sneer, knew very well that, quietly as John spoke, he was thoroughly in earnest, and would do precisely as he said. He knew very well, too, that, though he was older and taller than John, he would very likely be worsted in an encounter. He preferred, therefore, that his mother should fight his battles for him.
“You hear, mother,” he said. “He defies you. I knew he would. You remember what I told you.”
Mrs. Oakley did remember very well, and the recollection made her angry.
“John Oakley,” she said, “you will find that it won’t do to insult me.”
“I have no wish to insult you, Mrs. Oakley,” said John. “I have not forgotten who you are, and I shall try to treat you accordingly.”
“What do you mean by that?” said Mrs. Oakley, turning pale with rage.
She was misled by the statement Ben had made, and she thought John referred to the fact that she had been his father’s house-keeper,—a point on which she felt sensitive.
“I mean,” said John, a little surprised at this outburst, “that I have not forgotten that you are my father’s widow, and as such are entitled to my respect.”
“Was that what you meant?” asked Mrs. Oakley, suspiciously.
“Certainly,” said John. “What else could I mean?”
Mrs. Oakley turned to Ben, who shrugged his shoulders, intimating that he did not believe it.
“All very fine,” said his mother, “but words are cheap. If you think I am entitled to your respect, you will do as I require. Will you promise this?”
“I would rather not promise,” said John. “If it is anything I ought to do, I will do it.”
“It is something you ought to do,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“What is it?”
“I require you immediately to apologize to my son Benjamin, for the blows you struck him with the whip this afternoon.”
“I cannot do this,” said John, firmly.
“Why can’t you do it?”
“Because I had a good reason for striking him. He ought to apologize to me for striking me first.”
“Catch me doing it!” said Ben, scornfully.
“I have no fault to find with him for striking you,” said Mrs. Oakley. “On the contrary, I think him perfectly justified in doing so. You forced him off the horse after I had given him permission to ride, and I should have been ashamed of him if he had not resisted. I am glad he gave you such a lesson.”
Once more John looked at Ben, and was not surprised to see the smile of triumph that rose to his face as he listened to these words of his mother.
“Well,” said Mrs. Oakley, impatiently, “what have you to say?”
“What can I say? You are determined to find me in the wrong.”
“It is because you are wrong. I demand once more, John Oakley, will you apologize to my son?”
“I will not,” said John, firmly.
“Please to remember that you are left dependent upon me, and that your future comfort will be a good deal affected by the way in which you decide.”
“Whatever happens,” said John, who partly understood the threat, “I refuse to apologize, unless—”
“If Ben will say that he is sorry that he struck me, I will say the same to him.”
“Ben will do nothing of the kind,” said Mrs. Oakley, promptly. “I should be ashamed of him if he did.”
“Catch me apologizing to such a whipper-snapper as you!” muttered Ben.
“Then I have no more to say,” said John.
“But I have,” said Mrs. Oakley, angrily. “You have chosen to defy me to my face, but you will bitterly repent of it. I’ll break your proud spirit for you!”
John certainly did not feel very comfortable as he left the room. He was not afraid of what his stepmother could do, although he knew she could annoy him in many ways, but it was disagreeable to him to feel at variance with any one.
“If my poor father had only lived,” he thought, “how different all would have been!”
But it was useless to wish for this. His father was no longer on earth to protect and shield him from the malice of Ben and his mother. Trials awaited him, but he determined to be true to himself, and to the good principles which he had been taught.
As for Mrs. Oakley, having once resolved to annoy John, she lost no time in beginning her persecutions. She had a small, mean nature, and nothing was too petty for her to stoop to.
John and Ben had been accustomed to occupy bedrooms on the second floor, very prettily furnished, and alike in every respect. It had been the policy of Squire Oakley to treat the two boys precisely alike, although Ben had no claim upon him, except as the son of the woman whom he had married. Now that he was dead, Mrs. Oakley determined that Ben should occupy a superior position, and should be recognized throughout the house as the eldest son and heir. After her unsatisfactory interview with John, just described, in which he had refused to apologize, she summoned Jane, and said:—
“Jane, you may remove John’s clothes from the bedchamber where he has slept to the attic room next to your own.”
“Is Master John going to sleep there?” asked Jane, in amazement.
“And shall I move Master Ben’s things upstairs, also?”
“Of course not,” said Mrs. Oakley, sharply. “What made you think of such a thing?”
“Beg pardon, ma’am; but who is going to have Master John’s room?”
“You ask too many questions, Jane. It is no concern of yours that I am aware of.”
Jane did not venture to reply, but went out muttering:—
“It’s a shame, so it is, to put Master John upstairs in that poor room, while Ben stays downstairs. He’s a young reprobate, so he is, just for all the world, like his mother.”
The fact was, that John was a favorite in the house, and Ben was not. The latter was in the habit of domineering over the servants, and making all the trouble in his power, while John was naturally considerate, and always had a pleasant word for them. However, Mrs. Oakley’s commands must be obeyed, and Jane, much against her will, found herself obliged to remove John’s things to the attic. She found John already in his chamber.
“Excuse me, Master John,” she said, “but I have orders to move your things up to the attic.”
“What!” exclaimed John, in amazement.
Jane repeated her words.
“Did Mrs. Oakley tell you to do that?”
“Yes, Master John, and a shame it is.”
“Is Ben to go up into the attic too?”
“The mistress said no.”
“Wait a minute, Jane; I’ll go and speak to Mrs. Oakley.”
John went downstairs, and found his stepmother in the room where he had left her.
“May I speak to you a moment, Mrs. Oakley?” he said.
“Have you come to apologize for your impertinence to me, and your rudeness to my son?”
“No, I have not,” said John.
“Then I don’t care to speak to you.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Oakley, but Jane tells me that you have ordered her to remove my things to the attic.”
“Is Ben to go into the attic too?”
“No, he is not.”
“Then why are you driving me from my room?”
“You seem to forget that you are only a boy. This house is mine, and I shall make what arrangements I please.”
“The room in the attic is not nearly as good as my present room.”
“It is good enough for you.”
“I am willing to go up there if Ben goes up, but I claim to be treated as well as he.”
“Ben is older than you. Besides, he is respectful and dutiful, while you are impertinent and disobedient. I shall treat you as well as you deserve.”
“Why did you not make this change while my father was alive, Mrs. Oakley?” said John, significantly.
Mrs. Oakley colored, for she understood very well the meaning of this question.
“I do not intend to be catechised by you,” she said, sharply. “I intend to do what I please in my own house, and I shall not submit to have my arrangements questioned.”
“May I ask how my room is going to be used?” said John, who wanted to be sure whether his stepmother had any motive for the change except hostility to himself.
“No, you may not ask,” she said, angrily; “or if you do, you need not expect any answer. And now I will thank you to leave the room, as I have something else to do besides answering impertinent questions.”
There was nothing more to say, and John left the room.
“Well, Master John,” said Jane, who had waited till his return, “what will I do?”
“You may move the things upstairs, Jane,” said John.
“It’s a shame,” said Jane, warmly.
“Never mind, Jane,” said John. “I don’t like it much myself, but I dare say it’ll all come out right after a while. I’ll help you with that trunk. It’s rather heavy to carry alone.”
“Thank you, Master John. Ben wouldn’t offer to help if he saw me breakin’ my back under it. It’s easy to see which is the gentleman.”
The room to which John’s things were removed was uncarpeted, the floor being painted yellow. It had been used during Squire Oakley’s life by a boy who was employed to run errands, but who had been dismissed by Mrs. Oakley, who was disposed to be economical and save his wages. The bed was a common cot bedstead, comfortable indeed, but of course quite inferior to the neat French bed in which John had been accustomed to sleep. There was a plain pine table and bureau, in which John stored his things. There was a small cracked mirror, and a wash-stand with the paint rubbed off in spots. Altogether it was hardly suitable for a gentleman’s son to sleep in. John, however, was not proud, and would not have minded if there had not been malice on the part of his stepmother. He had scarcely got moved when a step was heard on the attic stairs, and Ben came up to enjoy the sight of John’s humiliation.
“So you’ve got a new room, John?” he said, smiling maliciously.
“So it seems,” said John, quietly.
“I’m sorry to lose so agreeable a neighbor,” he continued.
“Are you?” said John, looking at him searchingly.
“But you’ll be more at home up here,” said Ben.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean it’s more suitable for you.”
“Ben Brayton,” said John, his eyes flashing, “if you have come up here to insult me, the sooner you go down the better. Your mother has moved me up here, for what reason I don’t know. The only satisfaction I have in the change is, that it removes me further from you.”
“You’re uncommon polite since you’ve moved into this elegant apartment,” said Ben, tauntingly.
“Elegant or not, it is mine, and I want it to myself,” said John. “Leave the room!”
He advanced towards Ben as he spoke. Ben thought a moment of standing his ground, but there was something in John’s eye that looked threatening, and he concluded that it would be the best policy to obey. With a parting taunt he backed out of the chamber, and John was left to himself.
John took his place at the supper-table as usual; but neither Mrs. Oakley nor Ben, though they spoke freely to each other, had a word to say to him. If John had been conscious of deserving such neglect, he would have felt disturbed; but as he felt that all the blame for what had occurred rested with Ben and his mother, he ate with his usual appetite, and did not appear in the least troubled by their silence, nor by the scornful looks which from time to time Mrs. Oakley directed towards him. After supper he went up into his little room, and prepared his lesson in Virgil for the next day. He was at the head of his class, and was resolved to let no troubles at home interfere with his faithful preparation of his lessons.
Ben did not attend school. In fact, he was not very partial to study, and though Squire Oakley had offered to bear his expenses at the academy, and afterwards at college, Ben had persuaded his mother that his health was not firm enough to undertake a long course of study. While, therefore, John was occupied daily for several hours at the academy, Ben had lived like a gentleman of leisure, spending considerable time at the billiard rooms in the village, and in lounging on the hotel piazza. He managed to get through considerable money, but his mother had always kept him well supplied.
Although he did not wish to go to college himself, he did not fancy the idea of John’s going, since this would increase the superiority of the latter over him. He knew very well that a liberal education would give John a certain position and influence which he was not likely to attain, and he determined to prevent his obtaining it. When, therefore, John had gone to school the next morning, Ben attacked his mother on the subject.
“Are you going to send John to college, mother?” he asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I don’t want him to go.”
“He’ll put on no end of airs if he goes, and turn up his nose at me, because I don’t happen to know so much about Latin and Greek, and such rigmarole.”
“I wish you would make up your mind to go to college, Ben,” said his mother, earnestly, for she was very ambitious for her son.
“It’s of no use, mother. I’m seventeen, and it would take three years to get ready, and hard study at that.”
“You have studied Latin already.”
“I don’t remember anything about it. I should have to begin all over again.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Oakley, reluctantly giving up the idea, “you might study law without going to college.”
“I don’t think I should like to be a lawyer. It’s too hard work.”
“You needn’t be, but you could go to the Law School, and study long enough to get a degree. You would make some aristocratic acquaintances, and it would be an honorable profession to belong to.”
“Well,” said Ben, “I don’t know but I’ll enter the Law School in a year, or two. There is no hurry. I suppose you’ll give me enough money so that I won’t have to earn my living? I say, mother, how much property did old Oakley leave?”
Considering the obligations under which Mrs. Oakley was placed to her late husband it might have been supposed that she would reprove Ben for the disrespectful manner in which he spoke of him; but, as may be guessed, she cared nothing for her husband, except for what she could get out of him, and was not in the least disturbed by the manner in which Ben referred to him.
“This house and the land around it,” she said, “are estimated at ten thousand dollars. There are, besides, stocks, bonds, and mortgages to the amount of fifty thousand dollars.”
“Sixty thousand dollars in all!” exclaimed Ben, his eyes sparkling. “You’re quite a rich woman, mother.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Oakley, complacently, “I suppose I am.”
“It’s a little different from when you came here four years ago on a salary of twenty dollars a month. You were pretty hard up, then.”
“Yes, Ben, but we can hold up our heads with anybody now.”
“I say, mother,” said Ben, persuasively, “as I’m your only son, I think you might give me ten thousand dollars right out. You’d have fifty thousand left.”
Mrs. Oakley shook her head.
“You’re too young, Ben,” she said. “Some time or other you shall be well provided for.”
“I’m seventeen,” grumbled Ben. “I’m old enough to look after property.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Ben,” said Mrs. Oakley. “I will give you an allowance of ten dollars a week from now till you are twenty-one. Then, if you behave well, I will make over to you twenty thousand dollars.”
“You might say thirty. You’re not saving a third for John Oakley, are you?”
Mrs. Oakley’s face hardened.
“No,” she said; “he’s been too insolent to me. I suppose I must give him something, but he shall never have a third.”
“Five hundred dollars will be enough for him,” said Ben, with contemptible meanness, considering that but for the accident of his father’s second marriage the whole property—one hundred and twenty times as much—would have gone to John.
“I can’t tell you how much he will get,” said Mrs. Oakley. “It depends on how he behaves. If he had treated us with greater respect, his chances would be a great deal better.”
“He’s a proud upstart!”
“But his pride shall be broken. I’m determined upon that.”
“Then you won’t send him to college? That would make him prouder still. Besides,” added Ben, his habitual meanness suggesting the thought, “it costs a good deal to keep a fellow at college.”
“No,” said Mrs. Oakley, “he shan’t go to college.”
“Good!” said Ben, his eyes sparkling; “that will be a bitter pill for him, for he wants to go.”
“How soon would he be ready?”
“In about a year.”
“You may set your mind at rest on that point. He shan’t go.”
“All right, mother. When are you going to pay me my allowance?” he said, insinuatingly.
Mrs. Oakley took out her purse, and placed a ten-dollar bill in his hand.
“That’s for the first week,” she said.
“Couldn’t you make it fifteen, mother?”
“No, ten must do for the present.”
“Are you going to allow John anything?”
“He doesn’t deserve anything. When he does, I will allow him fifty cents a week.”
Ben strolled over to the billiard rooms, and spent the forenoon playing billiards with another young fellow as idle and unpromising as himself. He then walked over to the hotel, and bought a dozen cigars, one of which he began to smoke. At one o’clock he returned home to dinner. John was not present at this meal. The intermission between morning and afternoon schools at the academy was but an hour, and he had been accustomed to carry his lunch with him. He was not released until four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Well, mother,” said Ben, “how about the horse? Are you going to give up to John?”
“Certainly not; you may consider the horse yours,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“John’ll make a fuss.”
“Let him,” said Mrs. Oakley. “He’ll find that I can make a fuss too.”
“I’ll go out to ride this afternoon,” said Ben, with satisfaction. “I’ll get started just before four o’clock, so as to meet John on his way from school. He’ll look mad enough when he sees me;” and Ben laughed, as he fancied John’s looks.
“It is a very good plan,” said Mrs. Oakley, approvingly. “We’ll see if he dares to interfere with you again.”
The more Ben thought of it, the better he was pleased with this plan. All the academy boys knew that the horse was John’s, and they would now see him upon it. He would be likely to meet many of them, and this would make John’s humiliation the greater. At half-past three he went out to the barn.
“Mike,” he said, to the hostler, “you may saddle Prince. I am going to ride out.”
“Master John’s horse?”
“No, my horse.”
“Your horse, sir? Prince belongs to Master John.”
“How dare you stand there contradicting me?” said Ben, haughtily. “The horse is mine. My mother has given it to me.”
“It’s a shame, then,” said Mike to himself, “for Master John sets a sight by that horse. The old woman’s mighty queer.”
It was lucky for Mike that Mrs. Oakley was not aware of the disrespectful term applied to her in Mike’s thoughts, or he would probably have been discharged at short notice. But the fact was, that none of the servants liked her. Feeling a little doubtful of her own position, she always spoke to them in a haughty tone, as if they were far beneath her, and this, instead of increasing their respect, only diminished it.
Mike saddled Prince, and led him out into the yard.
“You must be careful, Master Ben,” he said. “The horse has got a spirit of his own, and he isn’t used to you.”
Ben was a poor horseman, and he knew it; but he was too proud to admit it to Mike.
“Don’t trouble yourself,” he said, haughtily. “If John can manage him, I can.”
“He’s used to Master John.”
“Well, he’s got to get used to me,” said Ben. “If he don’t behave well it will be the worse for him. You haven’t given me the whip.”
“You’d better not use it much, Master Ben. He won’t stand a whip very well.”
“Keep your advice till it is asked for,” said Ben.
“All right, sir,” said Mike, and handed him the whip. He followed him with his eyes as he rode out of the yard. “He don’t sit like Master John. It wouldn’t take much to throw him off. However, I’ve warned him, and he must have his own way if he breaks his neck.”
Although Ben had spurned Mike’s warning with so much disdain, he thought of it as he rode up the street, and let Prince take his own gait. The truth was, he did not feel very secure in his seat, and did not feel very much confidence in his own horsemanship. Indeed, he would not have cared to ride out this afternoon, but for the anticipated pleasure of mortifying John.
He rode leisurely along, taking the direction of the academy, which was nearly a mile distant. He looked at his watch, and estimated that he would meet the pupils of the academy as they emerged from school.
He was right in his reckoning. At precisely four o’clock there was a bustle about the doors, and with merry shouts the boys poured out into the street. Among them were John Oakley and Sam Selwyn, who, as intimate friends and classmates, generally were found in company. They turned up the street which led by Mr. Selwyn’s office, and in the direction of John Oakley’s home.
“John,” said Sam, suddenly, “I do believe that is Ben Brayton riding on your horse.”
John looked up the street, and saw that Sam was right.
“You are right, Sam,” he said.
“Did you tell him he might ride on it?”
“Then what business has he with it?”
“His mother told him he might take it. She has taken it from me.”
“She’s an old—”
“Don’t call names, Sam. I’ll tell you more about it another time.”
Meanwhile Ben had seen the boys coming from the academy. Among others he recognized John and Sam, and his eyes flashed with anticipated triumph. Hitherto he had been content to let the horse go on at his own rate, but now he thought it was time to make a display. He thought it would annoy John to have him dash by at gallant speed, while he, the rightful owner, was obliged to stand out of the path, unable to interfere. He therefore brought the whip down with considerable emphasis upon Prince’s side. Unfortunately he had not foreseen the consequences of the blow. Prince took the bit between his teeth, and darted forward with reckless speed, while Ben, seeing his mistake too late, pale and terrified, threw his arms around the horse’s neck, and tried to keep his seat.
John started forward, also in alarm, for though he had no reason to like Ben, he did not want him to be hurt, and called “Prince!”
The horse recognized his master’s voice, and stopped suddenly,—so suddenly that Ben was thrown off, and landed in a puddle of standing water in a gully by the side of the road. Prince stopped quietly for his master to come up.
“Are you hurt, Ben?” asked John, hurrying up.
Ben rose from the puddle in sorry plight. He was only a little bruised, but he was drenched from head to foot with dirty water, and patches of yellow mud adhered to his clothes.
“You did this!” he said, furiously to John.
“You are entirely mistaken. I hope you are not hurt,” said John, calmly.
“You frightened the horse on purpose.”
“That’s a lie, Ben,” said Sam, indignantly. “It’s a lie, and you know it.”
“I understand it all. You don’t deceive me,” said Ben, doggedly.
“Will you ride home?” asked John.
Ben refused. In fact, he was afraid to trust himself again on Prince’s back.
“Then I suppose I must.” And John sprang lightly upon the horse’s back, and rode towards home, followed by Ben in his soiled clothes.
Mrs. Oakley, looking from her window, beheld, with wondering anger, John riding into the yard, and her son following in his soiled clothes.
“What’s he been doing to Ben?” she thought, and hurried downstairs in a furious rage.
“What have you been doing to my son, you young reprobate?” demanded Mrs. Oakley of John. Her hands trembled convulsively with passion, as if she would like to get hold of our hero, and avenge Ben’s wrongs by inflicting punishment on the spot.
John was silent.
“Why don’t you speak, you young rascal?” demanded Mrs. Oakley, furiously.
“I am neither a reprobate nor a rascal, Mrs. Oakley,” said John, calmly, “and I do not choose to answer when addressed in that way.”
“Ben,” said Mrs. Oakley, turning to her son, “what has he done to you? How happens it that you come home in such a plight?”
“I was thrown over the horse’s head into a mud-puddle,” said Ben.
“Didn’t he have anything to do with it?” asked Mrs. Oakley, determined to connect John with Ben’s misfortune, if possible.
“He spoke to the horse,” said Ben.
“And then he threw you?”
Ben answered thus, being perfectly willing that his mother should charge his fall upon John, as this would create additional prejudice between them. It was contemptible meanness on his part, but meanness was characteristic of him, and he had no hesitation in stooping to falsehood, direct or indirect, if by so doing he could compass his object.
“It is as I thought,” said Mrs. Oakley, thinking it unnecessary to inquire further. “Of course, as soon as you were thrown, he jumped on the horse and rode home. You’re carrying matters with a high hand, young man; but you’ll find that I’m your match. Get off that horse, directly.”
“That was my intention,” said John. “I am sorry, Mrs. Oakley,” he continued, “that Ben has not seen fit to give you a correct account of what has happened. If he had, it would have been unnecessary for me to speak.”
“It is unnecessary for you to speak now, John Oakley,” said his stepmother, sharply. “Do you mean to charge my son with telling a falsehood? If that is the case, take care what you say.”
“Ben has not told a falsehood, but he is trying to make you believe that I caused his fall.”
“I have no doubt you did.”
“Then you are mistaken. Why didn’t he tell you that when I first saw the horse he was running at great speed, in consequence of Ben’s having imprudently struck him severely with the whip? He is a spirited horse, and won’t stand the whip.”
“He is like you in that, I suppose,” said Mrs. Oakley, sneering.
“He is like me in that,” said John, quietly.
“You would both be better if you had to stand it,” said his stepmother, angrily.
John did not see fit to reply to this.
“Is this true, Ben?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Ben, reluctantly. “I struck the horse; but it was not till John spoke to him that he threw me off.”
“So I supposed,” said Mrs. Oakley, significantly.
“I see, Mrs. Oakley,” said John, “you are determined to find me guilty of causing Ben’s fall. If I could be mean enough to do such a thing, and so risk his life, I should despise myself. Prince was rushing up the street with tremendous speed, and I was frightened at Ben’s danger; I called out to Prince, but he stopped so suddenly that Ben was thrown into the puddle, or he might have been seriously hurt.”
There was so much sincerity in what John said, that Mrs. Oakley, though very much against her will, could hardly help believing him. Determined, however, to make out a case against him, she said:—
“As soon as you saw him off, you jumped on the horse and rode home, leaving him to get home as he could. That was a very generous and noble thing to do!”
“Ask Ben if I did not ask him to ride home,” said John.
Ben, in answer to his mother’s glance, said, rather unwillingly:—
“Yes, he asked me to ride home, but he knew I wouldn’t after being thrown once. I won’t get on the brute’s back again, I promise you.”
Mrs. Oakley was disappointed to find that the case she was trying to make out against John had failed at all points, and that he was cleared even by the testimony of her principal witness.
“You had better come in and change your clothes, Ben,” she said. “I am afraid you will take cold. And do you”—turning to John—”take the horse round to the stable. He’s an ugly brute, and I’ll take care that he doesn’t endanger your life any more.”
John led Prince round to the stable, and delivered him into the hands of Mike.
“Where’s Master Ben?” inquired Mike.
“He got thrown off.”
“I thought how it would be,” said Mike. “He can’t ride no more’n a stick. I told him not to take the whip, but he wouldn’t heed a word I said.”
“That’s how he got thrown. He struck the horse violently, and he was running away with him when he heard my voice and stopped.”
“Did Master Ben get hurt?”
“Not much. He fell into a puddle, and dirtied his clothes.”
“Maybe he’ll be wiser next time.”
“He says he won’t ride Prince again.”
“All the better for you, Master John.”
“I don’t know, Mike,” said John, soberly. “I’m afraid Mrs. Oakley will sell him. She says he is an ugly brute, and she won’t have any more lives endangered.”
“Ugly brute!” repeated Mike, indignantly. “There’s not a bit of ugliness about him. He wants to be treated well, and I’d like to know who don’t. And he’s so attached to you, Master John!”
“Yes, Mike, it’ll be hard to part with him.” And John’s lips quivered as he looked with affection at the noble horse, to which he had become much attached. Besides, it was his father’s gift, and as such had an additional value for him, as, owing to his disinheritance, he had nothing else of value by which he could remember the parent whose loss he was made to feel more and more, as his stepmother’s injustice and harsh treatment, and Ben’s meanness and hostility served daily to increase. It almost seemed to him as if Prince was the only friend he had left, and that he must be parted even from him.
Meanwhile Ben was changing his clothes in his room. The adventure which had just happened to him did not make him feel very pleasant. In the first place, it is rather disagreeable to be thrown violently into a puddle of dirty water, and Ben might be excused for not liking that. Ben’s pride was touched, since it had been demonstrated in the most public manner that he could not manage Prince, while it was well known that John could. Ben knew boys well enough to feel sure that he would be reminded from time to time of his adventure, and he did not like to be laughed at. Why was it that John always seemed to get the better of him? He went out expressly to triumph over John in presence of his schoolmates, and this had been the humiliating result.
“Why was I such a fool as to use the whip?” thought Ben, vexed with himself. “If it had not been for that, it would have been all right.”
But he had used the whip, and it was all wrong. As to using the horse any more, he did not care to do it. To tell the truth, Ben, who, as we know, was not very courageous, was afraid of Prince. He suspected that the horse would remember the blow he had given him, and would be likely to serve him the same trick the next time he mounted him. So he resolved that he would never ride out on Prince again; but he was equally anxious that John should also be prevented from using him. The words that his mother had last used led him to hope that she would agree to sell him, and, what was still more important in his eyes, give him the money resulting from the sale. Under these circumstances the triumph would still be his, and he would enjoy John’s grief for the loss of his horse.
When Ben descended from his chamber, in a clean suit, he found that his mother had taken measures to console him for his mortifying adventure. The tea-table was spread, and two or three delicacies such as he particularly liked were set before his plate. Ben surveyed this with satisfaction, for he was something of a gourmand.
“I thought you might be hungry, Ben,” said his mother; “so I got some of that marmalade that you like so well, and here is some hot mince-pie.”
“That’s just what I like, mother.”
“We will sit down at once. John can come when he gets ready.”
“What are you going to do about that horse, mother?” asked Ben, rather indistinctly, for his mouth was full.
“I did intend to keep him for your use; but if he is likely to play such tricks as he has to-day, I suppose I had better sell him.”
“Yes, mother, sell him. I’ll never mount such a vicious brute again, and I suppose you won’t keep him just for John’s use.”
“Of course not. It costs considerable to keep a horse. Besides, he’d be flinging out that he could manage the horse, and you couldn’t.”
“Of course he would. But the horse is used to him, you know, and that is why he doesn’t find any trouble with him. But you gave me the horse, you know, mother.”
“But you don’t want him.”
“No, I don’t; but I suppose you’ll give me the money you sell him for.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Mrs. Oakley, hesitatingly. “He cost a hundred and fifty dollars. That is too much money for you to have.”
“Why is it?” said Ben.
“I give you ten dollars a week now.”
“Yes; but that goes for small expenses. If I wanted now to buy anything expensive, I couldn’t do it.”
“What is there you want?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Ben; “I haven’t thought, but I should like to have the money.”
Mrs. Oakley still hesitated.
“I know it would make John awful mad,” said Ben, cunningly appealing to his mother’s hatred of our hero, “to think that Prince was sold, and that I had the money. Perhaps it’s that you’re thinking of. But I didn’t suppose you’d be influenced by anything he could say or do.”
“John may be angry or not; it is entirely indifferent to me,” said Mrs. Oakley, falling into the trap laid for her. “I was only thinking whether it would be well for you. I don’t know but I will let you have the money,—that is, I will put it in the savings-bank in your name, and you can let me know when you want to use it, and what for.”
“All right,” said Ben, who determined that when he once got hold of the money he would not consult anybody as to its disposal. “When will you sell it, mother?”
“To-morrow, perhaps. I hear that Mr. Barnes, the livery stable-keeper, has just lost a valuable horse. Perhaps he may like to buy it.”
“He’ll buy it fast enough,” said Ben. “I heard him say the other day that he should like to have Prince. He likes fast horses. How surprised John will be when he comes home, and finds Prince is missing!”
Ben laughed as he fancied John’s anger, and this thought, together with the money which would so soon be placed to his account, quite restored his spirits, somewhat to John’s surprise, who did not understand the reasons which he had for being cheerful.
So Prince’s fate was decided, and a new trial awaited John.
From his early boyhood John had been intended by his father to receive a collegiate education. If he should acquit himself with credit in college, he was afterwards to have his choice of studying a profession, or entering mercantile life. At the age of eleven he commenced Latin at the academy, and two years afterwards Greek, and in these he had advanced so far that in a year he would be qualified to enter college. There were six boys in the preparatory class to which he belonged, among them being Sam Selwyn, his intimate friend, who has already been introduced to the reader. From the first John had stood at the head of the class, both in Latin and Greek, Sam ranking second. Although they were rivals in scholarship, there had never been the shadow of a difference between them arising from this cause. Both were of a generous nature, and were strongly attached to each other, and it had long been understood between them that when admitted to college they would room together.
John had often talked with his father about going to college, and Squire Oakley had strong hopes of John’s maintaining a high position in his college class, and doing him credit at the institution where he had himself graduated. This made it all the more remarkable that John’s interests had been so entirely neglected in the disposition of his property made by his will.
As John was on his way to school, on the morning succeeding Ben’s fall from the horse, he was overtaken by Sam Selwyn.
“How’s your amiable brother this morning, John?” asked Sam.
“Of course. I hope his health hasn’t suffered seriously from his unexpected bath. Poor fellow! he had a pretty good fright.”
“Yes, I don’t think he’ll trouble Prince very soon again.”
“I shan’t soon forget how frightened he looked with both arms around the horse’s neck. I should have felt like laughing, only I was afraid he might come to harm. Now you’ll have Prince to yourself.”
“I don’t know about that, Sam. I rather think, from something Mrs. Oakley said, that she means to sell Prince.”
“Sell your horse!” exclaimed Sam, indignantly.
“She says it isn’t mine. She’s given it to Ben. As Ben don’t dare to use it, I am afraid Prince will have to go,” said John, sadly.
“I wouldn’t stand it!” exclaimed Sam, in excitement. “It’s an imposition.”
“But what can I do?”
“The horse is yours.”
“Not legally, I am afraid. I can’t prove it, and Mrs. Oakley says it was only mine to use.”
“Whether you can prove it or not, the horse is yours, and I say it will be an outrageous thing if it is sold. At any rate you ought to demand the money that is received for it.”
“I’ll tell you what I have made up my mind to do. Mrs. Oakley may say that the horse is expensive to keep, but as Ben received a watch and chain at the same time I got the horse, it is only fair that I should have a watch in place of it, if it is sold.”
“Of course, that is only reasonable.”
“Not that a watch would pay me for the loss of Prince. I’d rather have him than three watches; but it doesn’t cost anything to keep a watch.”
“That’s true; but I hope you’ll be able to keep the horse.”
“So do I,” said John; but he had very little expectation of it.
“Well, there’s hope ahead, old fellow,” said Sam, cheerfully. “Next year we’ll enter college, and then you’ll be out of the way of Master Ben and your kind stepmother, for forty weeks in the year, at any rate.”
“I hope so,” said John, slowly.
“You hope so?” repeated Sam. “You don’t expect Mrs. Oakley will remove to Cambridge, so that you may still be favored with her charming company?”
“I don’t feel sure of going to Cambridge myself,” said John, soberly.
“You don’t mean to say you’re afraid you won’t pass the examination? If you don’t, there’ll be precious little chance for the rest of us.”
“That isn’t what I mean,” said John. “I think I should pass the examination. At any rate I am not afraid of it.”
“What are you afraid of then?” asked Sam, in surprise.
“I am afraid Mrs. Oakley won’t let me go.”
“But your father always meant you to go. She knows that.”
“Yes, she knows it, for father used often to refer to the time when I would be in college, in her presence. But I am afraid that won’t make much difference with her.”
“Has she said anything about it?”
“No, not yet; but it will cost considerable to keep me at Cambridge.”
“Well, your father left a good deal of property.”
“Yes; but it was left to Mrs. Oakley.”
“There’s enough to pay your expenses at college, and maintain Mrs. Oakley and Ben handsomely.”
“I know that, but I am sorry to say that Mrs. Oakley and Ben both dislike me, and it will be reason enough with them to keep me at home because they know I am anxious to go.”
“It’s a burning shame,” said Sam, indignantly, “that such a woman as that should have the control over you. As for Ben Brayton, I always did despise him. He’s a mean fellow, and a coward to boot.”
“I don’t like Ben much,” said John.
“And he returns the compliment.”
“Yes, he has taken a dislike to me, I don’t know why, for I have always treated him well, though I couldn’t like him.”
“I say, John,” said Sam, “if you don’t go to college, it’ll knock all my plans into a cocked hat. You were to room with me, you know.”
“Yes, Sam, I have been looking forward to that a long time.”
“What a jolly time we should have! I shan’t have half so much pleasure in going to college if you don’t go with me. You’re such a good scholar, too, it would be a great pity. But perhaps it may not be so bad as you think. Mrs. Oakley may be only too glad to get rid of you.”
By this time they had reached the door of the academy. The bell sounded, summoning the pupils to their morning exercises, and John and Sam had other things to think of, for a while at least.
At the close of the afternoon John returned home. He went into the house to carry his Virgil and Greek Reader, being accustomed to prepare a part of his lessons out of school. On going out into the yard, he saw Ben lounging lazily against a fence, whittling.
“Are you going out to ride, John?” he asked, in an unusually friendly tone.
“I think I will ride a little way,” said John.
“I got enough of it yesterday,” said Ben.
“You were unlucky. If you had not struck Prince it would have been all right.”
“I don’t care about trying it again. I hope you’ll have a pleasant ride.”
“Thank you,” said John, unsuspiciously.
He went out to the barn, and opened the door that led to the stables. He made his way at once to Prince’s stall, and looked in.
It was empty!
Surprised, but not yet suspecting what had really happened, he called out to Mike, whom he saw outside:—
“Where’s Prince, Mike?”
“Shure, sir, didn’t you know he was sold?”
“This morning, Master John.”
“Who bought him?”
“Mr. Barnes, the man that keeps the livery stable. He was here this morning. He and the mistress came in, and they soon struck a bargain.”
John’s heart swelled with anger and sorrow, but he asked, calmly:—
“Do you know what price Mr. Barnes gave for Prince?”
“Yes, Master John; I heard him say that he would give one hundred and ninety dollars. The mistress wanted two hundred; but she finally let him have Prince at that, and a good bargain it is to him too.”
John left the stable outwardly calm, but much disturbed in mind.
“Mrs. Oakley might at least have let me know what she meant to do,” he said, bitterly. “My poor father’s gift too.”
Ben waited for John’s return with malicious interest. He wanted to witness and enjoy his disappointment.
“I thought you were going to ride?” he said, with a smile of mockery.
“Can you tell me where your mother is?” asked John, coldly.
“She’s in the house, I suppose. Do you want to see her?”
John entered the house without taking any further notice of Ben. He found his stepmother in the sitting-room. She looked up, as he entered, with a glance of satisfaction, for she saw that she had made him unhappy.
“Mike tells me you have sold Prince, Mrs. Oakley,” he commenced.
“Yes. What of it?”
“As he was my horse, I think you might have let me know what you intended to do.”
“Prince was not your horse,” she said, sharply.
“He was my poor father’s gift to me.”
“Nonsense! He merely let you call him yours. The horse was mine.”
“He was as much mine as Ben’s watch is his. Are you going to sell Ben’s watch?”
“No, I am not. If that is all you have to say, you may leave the room.”
“It is not. I will not object to your selling the horse, because it would cost something to keep him; but it is only fair that the money for which he was sold should be given to me, or enough to buy a watch and chain like Ben’s.”
“You are very modest in your expectations, young man,” sneered Mrs. Oakley.
“I’m only asking what is just.”
“You seem to forget whom you are speaking to. If you think you can bully me, you will find yourself entirely mistaken.”
“I am not in the habit of bullying anybody. I only want my rights,” said John.
“Then you’ll have to want. You may as well understand, first as last, John Oakley,”—and his stepmother raised her voice angrily,—”that I am mistress in this house, and owner of this property. You are entirely dependent upon me for the bread you eat and the clothes you wear, and it will be prudent for you to treat me respectfully, if you want any favors. Do you understand that?”
“I understand what you say, Mrs. Oakley,” said John, indignantly. “You seem to have forgotten that every cent of this property belonged to my father, and would now be mine, if my father had not married you. You had better remember that, when you talk about my being dependent upon you, and favor Ben at my expense.”
Mrs. Oakley turned white with rage.
“What do you mean by your impertinence, you young rascal?” she shrieked, rising to her feet, and glaring at John.
“I mean this,” he exclaimed, thoroughly provoked, “that I don’t believe my father ever intended to leave you all his property. I believe there is another will somewhere, and I mean to find it.”
“Leave the room!” exclaimed Mrs. Oakley, in a voice almost inarticulate with rage. “You’ll repent those words, John Oakley. You’re in my power, and I’ll make you feel it.”
John left the room, his anger hot within him. When he reflected coolly upon what had passed, he did repent having spoken about the will. It might set Mrs. Oakley upon the track, and if she found it, he feared that she would have no scruples in destroying it, and then his last chance of obtaining his rights would be gone.
Mrs. Oakley was not only angry, but very much disturbed at the words which John had imprudently uttered. They startled her, because they intimated John’s suspicion of something which she had good reason for knowing to be a fact.
Mrs. Oakley knew that her husband had executed a later will, and, though she did not know where it was, she believed it still to be in existence!
The will under which she inherited bore a date only two months after her marriage with Squire Oakley. She had cunningly influenced him to make it. He did so without proper consideration, and gave the will into her custody. But, though his wife carefully concealed from him her real character, she could not do so entirely. Little things, which came under his observation, led him to believe that she entertained a secret dislike for John, and, only three months before his death, Squire Oakley, to protect John’s interests, made a second will, which superseded the first, and limited his wife to that portion of his property which she could legally claim,—that is, one third.
He did not see fit to apprise his wife of this step. But she was watchful and observant, and something led her to suspect what had been done. She determined to find out secretly, and with this end went to the desk where her husband kept his private papers, one day when she supposed him to be absent, and began to search for the suspected will. After a while she found it, and, spreading it open, began to read:—
“I, Henry Oakley, being of sound mind,” etc.
She had read so far, when a heavy hand was laid upon her shoulder. Turning with a start, she saw her husband, his face dark with anger, looking sternly at her.
“Give me that document, Mrs. Oakley,” he said, abruptly.
She did not dare do otherwise than obey.
“By what right do you come here to pry into my private papers?” he demanded.
“I am your wife,” she said.
“That is true. You are my wife; but that does not authorize your stealing in here like a thief, and secretly examining papers, which would have been shown you if they had been intended for your eyes.”
“Does not that paper relate to me?” she asked, boldly.
“It relates to my property.”
“It is your will.”
“And it makes the one which I hold of no value.”
“So you are secretly plotting against my interests,” she said, angrily. “I suspected as much, and I determined to find out.”
“The will of which you speak never ought to have been made. It disinherits my son, and places him in your power.”
“Could you not trust me to provide for him?” asked Mrs. Oakley.
“I fear not,” said her husband. And her eyes fell before his steady glance. She felt that she was better understood than she had supposed.
“So you have placed me in John’s power,” she said, bitterly.
“I have done nothing of the kind.”
“Have you not left the property to him?”
“You well know that you are entitled by law to one-third of my estate.”
“And he is to have two-thirds?”
“Why should he not? If I had not married a second time he would have had the whole.”
“And my son Ben is left unprovided for?” questioned Mrs. Oakley, in a tone of mingled anger and disappointment.
“Ben has no claim upon me.”
“Poor boy! so he will be penniless.”
“You appear to forget that your share of the property will amount to twenty thousand dollars. He need not suffer, unless his mother should refuse to provide for him.”
But this did not suit Mrs. Oakley’s views. She was not at all reconciled to the thought that John Oakley, whom she disliked, would inherit forty thousand dollars, while she and Ben must live on half that sum. She was fond of money and the position it would bring, and although twenty thousand dollars would once have seemed to her a great fortune, her desires had increased with her prosperity, and she now thought it a hardship that she should be limited to such a trifle. She was by no means reconciled to the thought that Ben must play second fiddle to his rich stepbrother. Still John was young, and if she were his guardian that would be something. So she smoothed her face and said:—
“I suppose you have appointed me John’s guardian?”
Squire Oakley shook his head.
“I have appointed Mr. Selwyn to that position. It is more fitting that a lawyer should have the care of property,” he said.
There was another reason which he did not mention. He thought that John’s interests would be safer in Mr. Selwyn’s hands than in those of his wife.
“This is an insult to me,” said Mrs. Oakley, angry and disappointed. “It will be declaring to the world that you have no confidence in me.”
“Nothing of the kind. Even were you his real mother, there would be nothing strange in my leaving him to the guardianship of another.”
But Mrs. Oakley looked angry, and for days afterwards wore an offended and injured look. She appeared to forget from what poverty and dependence Squire Oakley had delivered her, and how many favors he had lavished upon Ben, who had no claim upon him save in his relationship to her.
Three days afterwards, Squire Oakley asked his wife for the will which she had had in her possession for nearly three years.
“Why do you want it?” she asked.
“Because it is of no value now, since I have made a later will. I wish to destroy it.”
Mrs. Oakley said she would look for it. If she did so, she took care not to look in the right place, for she reported that it was mislaid, and she could not find it.
“It is rather strange that you should have mislaid a document which might have been of such importance,” said Squire Oakley, significantly.
“I am always mislaying things,” said she, forcing a laugh. “I will look again to-morrow.”
But the will was not found, and Squire Oakley drew his own deductions from this fact. Painful as it was to suspect his wife, he feared that his second will would not be safe if she could once get it into her possession. He saw, too late, that he had married a selfish and unscrupulous woman. He determined, therefore, to conceal the document, which so vitally affected his son’s interests, in a hiding-place where it would be safe from Mrs. Oakley’s prying disposition. He did so. But he did not foresee at that time how soon he would be struck with paralysis that would affect his speech, and render it difficult for him to reveal the secret to those who ought to know it. So it happened, however. From the time paralysis attacked him, Mrs. Oakley kept vigilant watch over him, and did all she could to keep John away from his father’s bedside, lest the secret should be revealed to him. Meanwhile, she sought everywhere for the missing will, but couldn’t find it. The most she feared was that it had been placed in the lawyer’s hands for safe-keeping. It ought to have been. Squire Oakley, as he lay on his sick-bed, regretted bitterly that it had not been so disposed of. It would have saved him from much anxiety. John obtained one interview with him, as we know, but his father was unable to impart to him the desired information, and the sudden entrance of Mrs. Oakley destroyed his last chance.
The rest we know. Squire Oakley died; his wife produced the earlier will, which she now had no difficulty in finding, and under that claimed and inherited the whole property. A search was instituted for the late will, under the lawyer’s directions, but it was not found. Mrs. Oakley found herself, to her secret delight, the undisputed mistress of her late husband’s handsome estate. She had hoped that John knew nothing of the later will; but the words to which he gave utterance at the close of the last chapter undeceived her. It was clear that he knew something of it, and he had expressed a determination to find it. That it was somewhere in the house, Mrs. Oakley believed, and, if so, it was very possible that John might stumble upon it. The result would be that she would be compelled to surrender two-thirds of the property, and he would become independent of her. Aside from the large pecuniary loss, she could not bear to think of John’s release from her persecutions. At present, she pleased herself with thinking that he was in her power, and that she could “break his proud spirit,” as she termed it, though, as we have seen, John was disposed to be respectful, and only displayed such a proper spirit as his self-respect demanded.
“If I could only find the will myself,” thought Mrs. Oakley, “there would be no further trouble.”
She did not say to herself, that, should such a discovery be made, it would plainly be her duty to make it known to Squire Selwyn, who had always been her late husband’s lawyer. She did not consider what she should do with it, but we who have obtained a glimpse of her character may easily guess that in her hands it would not have benefited John much.
The point for Mrs. Oakley to consider was how to protect herself against any sudden discovery of John’s. She saw that it would be dangerous for her to have him continue in the house, and she resolved to send him away. Where, she could not at once decide.
Having determined upon this, it occurred to her once more to visit her husband’s desk, and examine it carefully, in the hope of discovering some secret drawer, in which the will might have been concealed.
It was now evening. She lit a lamp, and went to the small room which Squire Oakley had used for reading and writing in, and went at once to the desk. It was old-fashioned, with a variety of small drawers. These she had examined more than once, but she opened them again, in the hope of discovering some false bottom, which had served as a means of concealment. While she was intent upon her search, she heard a slight noise at the door, and, looking up, was startled to find John looking into the room.
“What are you prying into my actions for?” she demanded, sharply, a little embarrassed at being caught thus employed, and especially by John.
“I am not,” said John.
“Why are you here, then?”
“By accident entirely; I was passing through the entry, and, seeing a light in here, I just glanced in.”
“I wanted to find a receipt,” said Mrs. Oakley, thinking it best to offer some plausible explanation. “A bill was presented me for payment that I think has already been paid.”
“Can I assist you?”
“No,” said Mrs. Oakley, coldly. “I shall probably find it soon.”
John was not deceived by this explanation. He felt sure that Mrs. Oakley was searching for the will; but this he kept to himself.
“I must get rid of him at once,” said his stepmother. “Once get him out of the house, and I’ll explore it thoroughly. I shan’t feel safe till the will is found.”
Mrs. Oakley had determined to send John away, This resolution was easily formed, but it was not quite so easy to decide where to send him. There were plenty of boarding-schools where he might be sent, but these would be expensive, and, besides, Mrs. Oakley was of opinion that John knew enough already. He was very much the superior of Ben in scholarship, and for this she was sorry. She would like to have apprenticed him to a trade; but if this was done while Ben lived in idleness, Mr. Selwyn would be sure to remonstrate, and as the will was not yet found she felt in some fear of his opinion.
It was about this time that the stage arrived one afternoon before the gate, and a tall, shabbily dressed man, with a battered valise, descended, and walking up the front path rang the bell.
The servant who answered the summons thought she recognized him as a peddler who had called there about a month before.
“We don’t want anything,” she said, abruptly, nearly shutting the door in the stranger’s face.
“What do you mean?” he demanded, staring at her in surprise. “I want to see your mistress.”
“It’s no use. She won’t take anything of you.”
“What do you mean by your impudence?” he said, angrily.
“Hoity-toity,” said the girl. “You put on airs enough for a peddler; but it’s of no use. You may take your rubbish off somewhere else.”
“Who’s a peddler, I should like to know? If you don’t open that door pretty quick, I’ll tell my sister to dismiss you without a character.”
“Your sister!” repeated the girl, taken by surprise. “What has your sister got to do with me?”
“She gives you a home, and pays you wages, I reckon.”
“Aint you a peddler, then?” demanded the girl, incredulously.
“I am Mrs. Oakley’s brother, and you’d better invite me into the house, if you want to stay in it yourself.”
“Excuse me, sir. I made a mistake. If you’ll walk in I’ll tell Mrs. Oakley you’re here.”
“That’s the first sensible word you’ve spoken. I’ll put my valise here in the entry.”
“Well,” thought the servant, “if that’s Mrs. Oakley’s brother, I don’t think much of her family. I always thought she belonged to a poor set.”
She went upstairs to the front chamber, where her mistress liked to sit, and said:—
“Your brother’s downstairs. He says he would like to see you.”
“My brother!” repeated her mistress, not looking overpleased.
“Yes, he is down in the parlor.”
“Very well, I will go down and see him.”
The ill-dressed stranger was stretched out in a rocking-chair, in an attitude more comfortable than graceful. He was gazing about the room, and noting with much complacency the evidences of comfort and luxury which the handsome furniture exhibited. It was thus that Mrs. Oakley found him.
“How do you do, brother Ephraim?” she said, coldly, advancing, and just giving him the tips of her fingers.
“I’m pretty well,” he answered. “So the old gentleman’s dead, hey?”
“If you mean my husband,” she answered, still with coldness, “you are right.”
“It’s all right about the property, hey? How much is left to you?”
“Whew!” whistled Mr. Ephraim Huxter.—”Well, you have worked your cards well, that’s a fact.”
“I’ll thank you, Ephraim,” said Mrs. Oakley, with dignity, “not to use such low language, or indulge in such insinuations. I did my duty by my husband, and he showed his confidence in me by leaving me his property.”
“Well, perhaps that’s the right way to put it,” said Mr. Huxter. “I’m glad you have feathered your nest so well.”
“I must again request you not to indulge in such language,” said Mrs. Oakley, in tones of displeasure.
Mr. Huxter was evidently perplexed.
“Come, Jane,” said he, “there’s no use in trying to deceive me. You made a good thing of it in marrying old Oakley, and you needn’t pretend to be broken-hearted because he is dead, and has left you his fortune.”
“Hush!” said Mrs. Oakley, closing the door; “what if the servants should hear you talking in this way?”
“Well, there is something in that. That girl of yours that came to the door took me for a peddler. She wasn’t going to let me in.”
Mrs. Oakley glanced at her brother’s soiled linen and stained clothes, and did not express any surprise.
“I brought my valise,” said her brother. “I suppose it’ll be convenient for me to stay a few days.”
Mrs. Oakley assented rather ungraciously,—in truth she did not care much to present such a man as her brother. She felt that it would make it still more difficult to obtain the position which she desired to maintain in the village.
“I thought maybe I could help you in settling up the estate,” said Mr. Huxter.
“I don’t think I shall require any assistance. Mr. Oakley was a good business man, and the task is an easy one,” said his sister, coldly.
“How much does the property amount to?” asked Mr. Huxter,—the property being in his eyes the main thing to be considered.
“I can’t say exactly.”
“Well, you can give a guess.”
But Mrs. Oakley did not care to have her brother understand her exact position as regarded money matters. She saw clearly enough that he was already speculating how to turn her prosperity to his own advantage, and this she was determined he should not do. She would like to have kept him at a distance, but she was already feeling one of the inconveniences of wealth. There are some whose chief enjoyment of wealth arises from the happiness which it enables them to impart to others, and some, in Mrs. Oakley’s position, would have been glad to do something for such of their relatives as were in struggling circumstances; but it was not so with her. She was of a stingy, penurious disposition, and did not mean that her money should benefit any one but Benjamin and herself, except the small sum which she felt obliged to spend on John.
“No, I don’t think I could form any estimate,” she said. “Mr. Oakley has recently died, you know.”
“Has he left as much as fifty thousand?”
“Fifty thousand!” exclaimed Mrs. Oakley; “what are you thinking of?”
“It isn’t much less, I am thinking. At any rate, you’re a rich woman.”
“I am comfortably provided for.”
“I wish I was as comfortably provided for,” said Mr. Huxter. “Seems to me your ideas have risen some, Jane, since you used to live with me, and bind shoes for a living. You and Ben wouldn’t have been very comfortable, I reckon, if I hadn’t helped you once upon a time.”
“As to that,” said Mrs. Oakley, “I worked for my board. It was no great favor on your part.”
“At any rate, you thought yourself lucky to get a home. Now, things are changed considerably. You are a rich woman, and—well, I’m hard up.”
“You always were shiftless, Ephraim,” said Mrs. Oakley, who saw what her brother was coming to.
“Shiftless!” repeated Mr. Huxter, in an injured tone. “I don’t know what you call shiftless. I’ve been a hard-working man; but luck’s never been on my side.”
Mr. Huxter’s nose had a suspicious redness, which seemed to indicate whiskey might have had something to do with his want of luck. This was in fact the case. If he had never made much headway, it was partly, at least, his own fault, as his sister knew well enough. But she knew also that there was very little chance of his amending in that particular, and though she gave him little encouragement by her manner, she felt that she should have to help him at last.
“How are your family?” asked Mrs. Oakley.
“Oh, about as usual. Wife’s always scoldin’ and complainin’, and the children are fractious. I don’t know what makes ‘em behave so. My home aint a very happy one, that’s a fact.”
Mrs. Oakley knew that very well. For more than two years, when left a widow, with Ben on her hands, she had found a home in her brother’s family, which proved so far from agreeable, that she finally determined to leave it, and do as well as she could for herself outside. She had been lucky enough to obtain a situation in Mr. Oakley’s family as house-keeper, and this proved the starting-point of a new and prosperous career. During Mr. Oakley’s life, Mr. Huxter had never been near her. This had been at Mrs. Oakley’s special request. She felt that her brother was not calculated to do her any particular credit, and she had succeeded, though with some difficulty, in keeping him at a distance. She had accomplished this by an occasional present, and the distinct intimation that these would cease unless her brother should respect her wishes. Now that she was a widow, he considered that the prohibition was at an end, and had presented himself unexpectedly, and was by no means welcome.
At this moment Ben, who wished to see his mother, and was not aware of his uncle’s arrival, entered the room, and, observing the shaggy appearance of the visitor, whom apparently he did not recognize, surveyed him with unconcealed contempt.
Mr. Ephraim Huxter, on perceiving Ben, wreathed his homely features into what was intended for a gracious smile, and, rising, took his nephew’s rather unwilling hand.
“So this is Ben,” he said. “Bless me, what a young gentleman he’s grown, to be sure! Don’t you remember me, Ben?”
“No, I don’t,” said Ben, but not truly, for he had recognized his uncle at first sight. Indeed, any one who had ever seen Mr. Huxter would be likely to remember his harsh features and ungainly form.
“It is your Uncle Ephraim,” said his mother.
“Humph!” said Ben, not feeling it necessary to express any pleasure. With his improved fortunes, his pride had developed, and he had come to look upon his mother’s brother as a low person, who was immeasurably his inferior.
“Yes, Ben has become quite a gentleman,” said his uncle, surveying his broadcloth suit, and gold watch-chain ostentatiously displayed over his vest. “But I dare say he hasn’t forgotten when he used to run round in a shirt and overalls, and hoed potatoes at three cents an hour.”
Ben did remember distinctly, and the recollection was far from pleasing; so he thought it best to forget it.
“I don’t remember anything of the kind,” he said, rather roughly.
“I suppose you’d want to be paid better now, ha, ha!” said Mr. Huxter, laughing as if he thought it a capital joke.
“I don’t know anything about hoeing potatoes,” said Ben, haughtily. “I’m not a laborer.”
“No, of course not,” said Mr. Huxter. “You and your mother are now rich; but I hope you won’t look down on your poor uncle and cousins, who have to grub along as well as they can for a living. Things were different once, to be sure. Once my humble home was thrown open to receive you, and I was glad to give you a shelter, though a lowly one, in your hour of need. I shall always be glad to think of that, though my wife and little ones should starve before my face.”
Mr. Huxter deliberately drew from his pocket a red cotton handkerchief, and raised it to his eyes, not to wipe away the tears, for there were none, but to increase the pathos of his remarks. But even with this help they failed to produce the desired effect. Mrs. Oakley remained cool and unaffected, and Ben, turning from his uncle to his mother, said:—
“How soon will supper be ready?”
“You may go and ask Hannah to set the table at once,” said Mrs. Oakley.
Ben left the room with alacrity, without taking further notice of his uncle.
“The young cub! I’d like to flog him!” thought his uncle; but he did not consider it polite to give utterance to this thought. “What a gentlemanly appearance Ben has!” he said, instead.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Oakley, more graciously; for her pride in Ben was her great, and perhaps it might be said, her only weakness, cool and calculating woman as she was. “I think he will do me credit, brother Ephraim.”
“Indeed he will. I am quite proud of him,” said Mr. Huxter, who thought he saw the best way to ingratiate himself with his sister. “I can hardly believe he’s the same little Ben that used to run round the farm barefooted. He don’t like to think of those old times, ha, ha!”
“No,” said Mrs. Oakley; “he has a proud spirit, Benjamin has.”
“That’s all well enough as long as he has money to support it. ‘Poor and proud’ don’t go so well together, sister Jane.”
“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Oakley. “I was once poor, but I never lost my pride. If I had I should have given right up, and made no effort to better myself.”
“I know who you’re thinking of. You’re thinking of me. You think I haven’t got any proper pride. Well, I don’t know as I have. Misfortunes have come thick and fast, and I’ve had a hard row to hoe. Hard work and poverty are enough to take away a man’s pride.”
Mr. Huxter certainly did not look as if he could ever have had much to be proud of; but then, pride and merit do not always go together, and appearances are sometimes deceitful.
“Well,” said Mrs. Oakley, now graciously, “perhaps matters may take a turn with you. I cannot do much, for I have Mr. Oakley’s son to provide for, as well as Benjamin and myself; but I may be able to do something.”
“Thank you, Jane,” said Mr. Huxter, more cheerfully. “I was sure you would not harden your heart against your only brother, and leave his family to suffer, while you were living on the fat of the land.”
“We will talk further this evening, Ephraim,” said Mrs. Oakley. “Excuse me for five minutes, while I go out to the kitchen to see if supper is nearly ready.”
“Certainly, Jane. I don’t mind confessing that I feel rather hungry myself. I didn’t take any dinner at the Half-way House, to-day, for dinner costs money, and with my narrow means I didn’t feel as if I could spare half a dollar.”
“I am glad you mentioned it. I will see that some cold meat be placed on the table. You must require something hearty.”
“It’s my praising Ben that fetched her,” said Mr. Huxter, when, being left to himself, he began to reflect upon the cause of his sister’s sudden and agreeable change of manners. “I shall have to flatter up the young rascal, I expect, though I’d a good deal rather give him a taste of a horsewhip. So he turns up his nose at me, does he? He forgets the time when he’d have been obliged to beg from house to house but for me. Maybe he won’t always be prosperous. The race isn’t always to the strong, nor the battle to the swift.”
Mr. Huxter did not often read the Bible, and was not aware that he had made a trifling mistake in his quotation. His thoughts were turned into a different and more agreeable channel by the reappearance of his sister, and the announcement that supper was ready. He rose with alacrity, and followed Mrs. Oakley into a room in the rear of the parlor, where an abundant and appetizing meal was spread. Mr. Huxter rubbed his hands with satisfaction,—for in his own household the meals were neither abundant nor inviting,—and took his seat at his sister’s table. Ben took the head of the table opposite his mother, and John Oakley sat opposite Mr. Huxter.
“Who is this young man?” asked Mr. Huxter, glancing at John. “I have not had the pleasure of an introduction.”
“That is John Oakley,” said his stepmother, briefly.
“The son of your lamented husband,” said Mr. Huxter.
“Yes. Will you have milk and sugar in your tea?”
“Yes, thank you. I hope you are well, Mr. Oakley.”
“Quite well, thank you, sir,” said John, wondering who was addressing him.
“I am your stepmother’s brother,” continued Mr. Huxter, “and that makes me a sort of relation, you know.”
“Will you help yourself to the toast, Ephraim?” said Mrs. Oakley, in a quick, sharp tone, for she didn’t fancy the idea of her brother’s paying so much attention to John.
“Thank you, Jane. If it is as nice as your tea, I shall want to help myself more than once. But you were always a good house-keeper.”
Mrs. Oakley did not relish this allusion, for she would like to have had everybody forget that she had been a professional house-keeper. She thought her brother was succeeding admirably in making himself disagreeable, and determined that he should not long remain her guest, if she could conveniently get rid of him. But Mr. Huxter had not penetration enough to see that he was displeasing his sister, and continued, his mouth being full of toast:—
“Mr. Oakley must be near your Benjamin’s age, Jane.”
“I’m almost two years older,” said Ben, who had so few points of superiority that he might well claim this.
“Indeed, I shouldn’t have thought it,” said his uncle; “but then Mr. Oakley is very well grown for his age.”
“I don’t know that Ben is deficient in that way,” said Mrs. Oakley, coldly.
“Oh, no, of course not; I didn’t mean to hint such a thing. The boys must be a good deal of company for each other.”
“You’re mistaken there,” said Ben, shortly.
“They are not much together,” said Mrs. Oakley. “John goes to school, but Benjamin has finished his education.”
“Indeed!” said Mr. Huxter; “pray what studies do you pursue, Mr. Oakley?”
“I am studying Latin, Greek, and mathematics,” answered John.
“I want to know! Why, you are quite a scholar! Are you going to college?” asked Mr. Huxter.
“That was what my father intended,” said John.
“Mr. Oakley’s death has interrupted all our plans,” said Mrs. Oakley, coldly, “and we have not had time to form new ones.”
“What are your plans for Benjamin?” asked his uncle. “Do you understand Latin and Greek, too, Ben?”
“No; and I don’t want to,” said Ben. “It’s all nonsense, and won’t do any good.”
“Well, I can’t say as I care much about either myself,” said Mr. Huxter; “only it is fashionable to study them.”
“I don’t care whether it is fashionable or not,” said Ben; “I shan’t waste my time over them.”
“Will you have some more toast, Ephraim?” asked Mrs. Oakley, heartily tired of the conversation.
“Thank you, I believe I will.”
John mentally decided that Mr. Huxter was a singular man, but did not dream that he was likely to have considerable to do with him, and that ere long.
After supper Mrs. Oakley and her brother were left together. Ben had no particular fancy for the society of his uncle, and John had no desire to intrude upon Mrs. Oakley.
“Well, Ephraim,” said Mrs. Oakley, plunging into business at once, “I have been considering what I could do for you.”
“I knew you had a good heart, sister Jane,” said Mr. Huxter, who was disposed to be very complimentary to his sister, now that his interest lay in flattering her. Mrs. Oakley well remembered the time when he treated her in quite a different manner; but though she saw through his change of manner, and thoroughly understood what prompted it, she was well pleased to have it so. It made her feel the power which her wealth had brought her; and there was no woman who enjoyed that better than Mrs. Oakley.
“You mustn’t expect too much,” she continued. “You must remember that there are others who have claims upon me.”
“But your means are large,” said Mr. Huxter, who was resolved to extort as much as possible.
“No doubt you think so; but I am the best judge of what I can afford,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“If I were rich I wouldn’t see you and Ben suffer,” said Mr. Huxter.
“As to that, your health is good, and your family ought not to suffer if I gave you no assistance at all. I don’t think much of a man who can’t support his family.”
“I’ve been a very unlucky man,” said Mr. Huxter. “I’d ought to be independent now, but something or nuther was always happening. There was my best cow, that I could have got fifty dollars for easy, up and died one night.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Three years,” said Mr. Huxter, rather reluctantly.
“It seems to me you’ve had time to get over that loss,” said his sister, not betraying much sympathy in her tone.
“It wouldn’t be much to you, I know; but to a poor man like me it was a great loss,” said Mr. Huxter.
“Well, we won’t say anything about that. I told you that I would help you, and I will. You observed John Oakley at the table?”
“Yes; he looks like a smart fellow.”
“He’s no smarter than Ben that I know of,” said Mrs. Oakley, jealously.
“Of course not; I didn’t suppose he was,” said Mr. Huxter, seeing that he had got on the wrong tack. “Ben is a boy that you may be proud of, sister Jane. He is very genteel in his manners.”
“I mean to bring him up as a gentleman,” said Mrs. Oakley. “I think I shall make a lawyer of him.”
“I hope you will. There’s never been a lawyer in our family. I should be proud to speak of my nephew, Benjamin Brayton, Esq., the famous lawyer.”
“I hope that time will come, brother Ephraim. But I was going to speak of John Oakley. Ben and he don’t agree very well.”
“Don’t they?” asked Mr. Huxter, not so much surprised as he might have been if he had not made Ben’s acquaintance. “I suppose it is John’s fault.”
“Of course it is. He doesn’t treat Ben or myself with proper respect, and of course Ben resents it.”
“He doesn’t seem to realize that Ben is older than himself, and therefore entitled to more privileges. He went so far one day as to strike Ben with a whip.”
“What did Ben do?” asked Mr. Huxter, curiously.
“Oh, of course he struck John,” said Mrs. Oakley, not thinking it necessary to mention that Ben’s blow came first.
“Well,” said Mr. Huxter, “it seems natural for boys to quarrel.”
“I shan’t allow my son to be struck by John Oakley,” said Mrs. Oakley, quickly.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“That is what I am coming to. I think of sending John away somewhere, so that we may live in peace and quiet, and not be disturbed by his quarrelsome disposition.”
“Where do you think of sending him?”
“To your house.”
“To my house?” exclaimed Mr. Huxter, in surprise, for he had not foreseen what was coming.
“I don’t know as he would like the way we live,” said Mr. Huxter, thinking of the “picked-up” dinners to which he was accustomed. “He’s a rich man’s son, and has been used to good living.”
“Don’t trouble yourself about that,” said Mrs. Oakley; “if he has always lived well, he can stand a little poor living now, by way of variety. It is his own fault that I send him away from home.”
Mr. Huxter hardly knew what to think of this arrangement. He had hoped that his sister would settle an annual sum upon him, without any equivalent, or would give him, say a thousand dollars outright. Now she only proposed that he should take a boarder.
“I don’t know what my wife will say,” he remarked. “It will increase her work.”
“Not much. There will only be one extra seat at the table.”
“But we shall have to put ourselves out a little for him.”
“I don’t want you to put yourself out at all,” said Mrs. Oakley, emphatically.
“He’s a rich man’s son.”
“But he’ll be a poor man himself. He will have to earn his living by hard work.”
“I don’t see how that can be. Didn’t his father leave plenty of money?”
“No,” said Mrs. Oakley, determined not to be entrapped into any such acknowledgment; “and if he had, John is no better off for it. You seem to forget that all the money is left to me.”
“That’s a fact,” said Mr. Huxter. “I didn’t think of that. Shan’t you leave any of it to John?”
“That depends upon his behavior,” said Mrs. Oakley. “I make no promises. The property is all mine, and I shall leave it to no one who treats me with disrespect. You see, therefore, that you need feel on no ceremony with him.”
Mr. Huxter did see it. He was a selfish man, who had a great respect for the possessors of wealth merely on the score of their wealth, and he began to look upon John Oakley with quite different eyes now that he had been informed of his true position.
“You’re carrying things with rather a high hand, Jane,” he said.
“I mean to be treated with respect.”
“So John is saucy, is he?”
“He is proud-spirited, and thinks himself justified in looking down upon me, because I was once his father’s house-keeper,” said Mrs. Oakley, in a tone of bitterness; “but I have vowed to subdue his proud spirit, and you will see that I shall do it.”
“I have no doubt you will, Jane. But there is one thing you haven’t mentioned.”
“What is that?”
“How much am I to receive for John Oakley’s board?”
“I will give you six dollars a week, and you know that this is considerably more than any other boarder would pay you.”
“Six dollars a week!” said Mr. Huxter, slowly. “Yes, I suppose that would pay for what he would eat and drink, but I expected you would do something more for me than just to find me a boarder.”
“You will make a pretty good profit out of that, Ephraim.”
“You might do a little more than that for me, Jane.”
“I will tell you what I will do. Besides paying you regularly for his board, I will allow you his labor, and that will be worth considerable.”
“What can he do?”
“He can do what other boys do. You can take him into your shop, and set him to pegging shoes. It won’t hurt him a bit, though it may trouble his pride a little.”
“But will he be willing to go into the shop? He was expecting to go to college.”
“I don’t think much of you if you can’t compel him to do it.”
Mr. Huxter reflected a moment. John’s work would be worth at least five dollars a week, and this, added to the six he would receive from his sister, would certainly pay munificently for John’s board.
“Well, that is a consideration. We’ll call it a bargain,” he admitted.
“Very well; I think you’ll find your account in it,” said Mrs. Oakley, in a tone of satisfaction.
“Couldn’t you pay me a quarter’s board in advance?”
To this Mrs. Oakley assented with some hesitation.
After matters had thus been satisfactorily arranged, Mr. Huxter said:—
“I think, Jane, I will just take a little walk outside, and smoke a pipe. I always do after supper. By the way, when would you like to have young Oakley go?”
“To-morrow!” repeated Mr. Huxter, in some disappointment, for he had confidently hoped to avail himself of his sister’s hospitality for a week at least. “Seems to me, Jane, you’re in something of a hurry.”
“I am. There is a good reason for it, which I am not at liberty to mention,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“Not even to me?”
“Not even to you.”
“Well, I dare say it is all right, but I am tired after my journey, and it don’t give me much time to rest,” said Mr. Huxter, with disappointment.
“Let it be day after to-morrow, then. I don’t want to be inhospitable,” said Mrs. Oakley.
Mr. Huxter thought this concession better than nothing, and, going out on the door-step, smoked his pipe in rather a cheerful frame of mind.
“It’ll be a pretty good speculation,” he reflected; “but I mistrust I’ll have some trouble with young Oakley. But I guess I can manage him. He’ll find me pretty ugly if he goes to oppose me.”
Mr. Huxter was partly right. He was capable of being “pretty ugly” when he thought it safe to be so,—that is, to those who were weaker than himself, and in his power. He fawned upon those who had money or power, and was in the habit of tyrannizing over those who had neither. On the whole, I hardly think John is to be congratulated upon his prospects.
Mrs. Oakley felt very well pleased with the arrangement she had made about John. Her brother lived nearly one hundred miles distant. She would have liked John even further off; but this would remove him from the ability to interfere with her plans. She felt, too, that she would be more comfortable with him out of the house. Until the will was found and destroyed she would not feel safe, and she did not venture to search thoroughly till John was out of the way.
But there was one important question: Would John consent to go? On this point Mrs. Oakley felt doubtful. She knew that it would be a grievous disappointment to him to leave his class at the academy, and all his young friends in the village, not to speak of his natural regret at leaving the house where he had been born, and which had always been his home. Under the circumstances, therefore, she felt that it would be best to use a little stratagem.
Meanwhile John had been thinking earnestly of his position and his duty. He felt that he needed advice, and he determined to call upon Squire Selwyn, who, as I have already said, was his father’s legal adviser and intimate friend. His son Sam, also, was John’s best friend, and thus the families had a double bond of union.
The day succeeding Mr. Huxter’s arrival was Wednesday. On that day the afternoon session at the academy was over an hour earlier than usual, the only exercise being declamation, or, on alternate weeks, the reading of compositions. John thought this would be the most favorable opportunity he would have for consulting Mr. Selwyn.
Squire Selwyn’s office was a small, neat one-story building situated on the main street, not far from the academy building. It was painted white, with green blinds, and had been built expressly for a law office.
Sam and John walked home from school together as usual. When they came to the office John said:—
“I’m going in to see your father, Sam; so I’ll bid you good-afternoon.”
“Got some law business for the governor?”
“Then you better consult me,” said Sam. “I swept out the office for a week once when the office-boy was off on vacation, and you can’t think what a lot of law I picked up in that time.”
“I dare say,” said John, smiling. “I don’t doubt your qualifications, but I think I’ll consult your father this time.”
“All right,” said Sam, more seriously. “I’m glad you’re going to. The fact is, Mrs. Oakley is doing her best to circumvent you, and you must do your best, or she’ll succeed.”
“I’m afraid she will at any rate,” said John.
“I wish you could find that will.”
“So do I.”
“Do you believe in dreams, John?” asked Sam, lowering his voice.
“What makes you ask that?”
“Because I dreamed last night that I found the will. It seemed to me that it was very dark, and I came upon Mrs. Oakley and Ben, each with a lantern in their hand, searching about on the ground for it. I followed them softly, and all at once spied a white paper. Mrs. Oakley saw it at the same time, and reached out for it, but I was too quick, and carried it off in triumph.”
“Is that all?”
“Not quite. When she and Ben saw that I had got it they dropped their lanterns and ran after me, or rather Ben threw his at my head. It was an awful whack. Just then I woke up, and found that I had struck my head against the bedpost.”
“Well,” said John, laughing, “how do you interpret that dream?”
“In this way. I think that the will is going to be found some day, and that I shall be the one to find it.”
“I certainly hope you will. It would make a great change in my circumstances.”
“What’ll you give me if I find it, John?”
“A gold watch,” said John.
“Well, that’s worth working for.”
“You seem to be in earnest about it.”
“There’s many a true word spoken in jest. The time may come when I shall remind you of your promise.”
“I hope it will. You will find that I keep my promises.”
“All right. Well, there’s the squire looking out the window, so I’ll leave you. Good luck!”
John entered the office.
“Good-afternoon, John,” said Squire Selwyn. “How are things going on at home?”
“We are all well,” said John.
“I’m glad to hear it. Won’t you sit down?”
The lawyer was a man of middle height. He had a pleasant face and manner, but his eye was keen and penetrating, and seemed to be reading the person upon whom it rested. He was deservedly popular, for it was always his endeavor to conciliate rather than to foment quarrels, and he more than once succeeded in dissuading a client from a lawsuit which would have put a considerable sum of money into his own pocket. He was a safe legal adviser, and an honest lawyer. He was glad to see John, for he had always been attracted towards him, not only because of his friendship for the father, but because of John’s truthfulness and straightforwardness.
Seeing that John hesitated, he said, by way of encouragement:—
“If there is anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask it. Your father was my friend, and I hope to be regarded by his son in the same light.”
“It is because of that that I have called upon you, Squire Selwyn,” said John. “You know, of course,” he added, after a little hesitation, “how my father left his property?”
“I know how he appears to have left it,” said the lawyer, significantly.
“I would like to ask you a question, Squire Selwyn,” said John; “but of course you will not answer it unless you think proper.”
“Very properly put. Ask your question, and I will decide as to its fitness.”
“It is this: Do you know whether my father made any later will than the one which was found?”
“I have no hesitation in answering your question. He did.”
“How long since was it made?”
“Only three months before he died.”
“I suppose that it disposed of the property differently?”
“It disposed of it as the law would have done if no will had been made. Your stepmother was to have her thirds; the rest of the property would have gone to you. The matter might have been left to the law but for the existence of the former will, which was in Mrs. Oakley’s charge, and which she said that she had mislaid.”
“Who would have been my guardian under the last will, Squire Selwyn?”
“Your father asked me to assume that office, and I consented cheerfully, not only from my friendship for him, but because I have a very good opinion of you,” said Squire Selwyn.
“Thank you, sir,” said John, earnestly.
“Let me add, my young friend,” said the lawyer, kindly, “that I hope you will come to me as freely for advice as if I really filled this office.”
“I will, sir,” said John. “I am so situated that I need a friend to advise me who is older and wiser than myself.”
“Apply to me freely at all times,” said the lawyer, pleased with John’s modest demeanor.
“There is one thing I want to tell you,” said John; “I think my father’s last will is still in existence.”
“What grounds have you for such a belief?” asked Squire Selwyn, regarding him closely.
“I will tell you, sir,” said John.
He then related the particulars of his last interview with his father, and the great effort which the sick man made to communicate something to him.
Squire Selwyn listened attentively.
“Will you repeat the words which you could distinguish?” he said.
“I distinctly heard father say, ‘my will,’ and I thought I heard him say also ‘drawer.’”
“I am glad you told me this,” said the lawyer, thoughtfully. “Did he attempt to say more?”
“There was no chance. Mrs. Oakley entered the chamber, and ordered me out. She said I was disturbing father.”
“Do you think she heard the words which your father uttered?”
“I know she could not, for it was only by placing my ear close to his mouth that I could distinguish the little I did.”
“How did your father seem affected by the interruption?”
“He seemed disappointed.”
“Didn’t you have any further chance to speak with your father?”
“No; Mrs. Oakley would never admit me again.”
The lawyer sat for a moment plunged in thought. At length he said:—
“Have you ever chanced, since your father’s death, to see your stepmother searching the papers he left behind?”
“Tell me when.”
John related the circumstances.
“Did she give any explanation?”
“She said she was looking for a receipt.”
“Didn’t she seem disturbed at your seeing her thus engaged?”
“She seemed angry, and accused me of prying into her actions.”
“What opinion did you form of her object at that time?” asked the lawyer.
“I thought she was looking for the will,” said John, frankly.
“Are your relations with your stepmother pleasant?” asked Squire Selwyn.
“I am sorry to say they are not,” said John. “If they had been, I would not have troubled myself about the will. But I can see that Mrs. Oakley is determined to persecute me, and make my life unhappy, and that she is determined not to carry out any of my father’s plans about my education. She has already taken away my horse, and sold it. She intended to give it to Ben, but he had an unlucky adventure with it one afternoon.”
“I heard of that,” said the lawyer, smiling. “He got thrown, didn’t he?”
“Yes, sir. That cured him of wanting to ride, and so the horse was sold.”
“It was a present to you from your father, was it not?”
“Yes, sir. Ben received at the same time a gold watch, which he still has.”
“That seems hardly fair. One question more: Have you any knowledge of any secret drawer in your father’s desk, or in any article which he used to own?”
“I suppose not. If there had been one, he would hardly have disclosed its whereabouts to a boy. Well, my young friend,” said the lawyer, rising, as if to terminate the interview, “I am glad to have received this call from you. I regard your information as important. It strengthens the conviction which I before entertained, that your father’s last will is in existence somewhere. Out of regard to your interests, as well as to carry out his last wishes, I sincerely hope that it may be found. But I need not tell you that in the present position of affairs the greatest caution is absolutely necessary. I am not prepared to advise you at present, but shall take your case under my most serious consideration.”
John took his cap and books, and Squire Selwyn accompanied him to the door of the office. As they stood on the threshold, an open wagon drove by. Both looked up simultaneously, and an expression of vexation swept over the lawyer’s face as he recognized Mrs. Oakley and her brother. Mrs. Oakley’s eye lighted up as it rested upon John.
“He is getting dangerous,” she thought. “It is well I am going to be rid of him.”
John could not help wondering what inference Mrs. Oakley would draw from seeing him in consultation with the lawyer. He anticipated that it would arouse her suspicions, and lead to his being treated with greater coldness and harshness than ever. It was with considerable surprise, therefore, that on presenting himself at the supper-table he received a very pleasant greeting from his stepmother. She made no allusion to having met him, but, in her conversation with her brother, asked two or three questions of John, in an easy way, as if the relations between them were perfectly cordial. Ben glanced at his mother once or twice in surprise, for she had not seen fit to take him into her confidence, and he did not understand what this sudden cordiality meant. John, who had usually been excluded from any share in the conversation, was not only surprised, but pleased, and hoped that the change would be permanent. His resentment was not lasting, and he was prepared to respond to his stepmother’s advances. Mr. Huxter’s conduct puzzled him a little. That gentleman seemed disposed to be quite affable and social.
“I hope, Mr. Oakley, you and Benjamin will some time favor me with a visit at my humble home. I cannot promise you as good accommodations as you have at home, but I shall be very glad to see you—very.”
“Thank you, sir,” said John.
Ben, who was not remarkable for politeness, did not deign a word in reply to his uncle’s invitation.
In spite of Mr. Huxter’s not very prepossessing exterior John began to think him quite a pleasant man, and felt obliged to him for his invitation, though he felt no particular desire to accept it.
After supper was over, Mr. Huxter turned to John:—
“I am going out on the door-step to smoke my pipe. I suppose you don’t smoke?”
“No, sir,” said John.
“I was going to ask you to join me; but of course you don’t smoke. It isn’t good for boys. Do you smoke, Ben?”
“I don’t smoke a pipe,” said Ben, glancing with some disgust at the clay pipe, the bowl of which his uncle was filling.
“I suppose you, being a young gentleman, smoke cigars. They are more aristocratic. But I’m a poor man, and I can’t afford them. Well, if you’ll get your cigar, we’ll have a social smoke together.”
“I’ve got an engagement,” said Ben, not very graciously, and, putting on his hat, he stalked off.
“He’s an impudent puppy,” said Mr. Huxter to himself. “I wish I had the training of him for a little while. But I must put up with his insults, or lose all hope of help from my sister.”
“Come home early, Benjamin,” said his mother.
“Oh, you needn’t sit up for me. You go to bed so precious early it doesn’t give me any evening at all.”
Mrs. Oakley followed him with her eyes a little uneasily. While Mr. Oakley was alive Ben kept pretty straight, for he stood somewhat in awe of his stepfather; but since his death he had shown a disposition to have his own way, and his mother’s wishes weighed very little with him. She could not help feeling that the boy in whom her dearest hopes centred, and for whom she was willing even to wrong another, manifested very little gratitude for her devotion to him. John, whom she charged with lack of respect, treated her at all times much more respectfully than her own son. But Mrs. Oakley was prejudiced, and would not see this. She shut her eyes alike to John’s merits and Ben’s faults, and the latter took his own way, spending the evening in the bar-room and billiard saloon, and learning much that he ought not to have learned.
About half-past nine in the evening, when John was studying his lesson in “Xenophon’s Anabasis,” he heard a low knock at the door. Supposing it to be one of the servants, he said, carelessly, “Come in!”
Looking up, as the door opened, he was not a little surprised at the entrance of his stepmother. With the instincts of a young gentleman, he rose hastily, and, drawing a chair, said:—
“Won’t you sit down, Mrs. Oakley?”
“Thank you, John,” said his stepmother; “I will sit down a moment. You are studying, I suppose.”
“Yes, I was preparing my Greek lesson for to-morrow.”
John tried not to look surprised, but he wondered very much what should have led to a call from Mrs. Oakley, especially at so late an hour.
“You are getting on well in your studies, I have no doubt.”
“Thank you. So my teacher says.”
“I am glad to hear it. I am afraid it will be an interruption for you to be absent from school a few days.”
“Yes, it would be an interruption; but if you wish it, I could try to make it up afterwards.”
“I came to ask a favor of that kind.”
“Does she want me to work on the farm?” thought John, puzzled.
But he was not long kept in doubt.
“My brother, who is now stopping here, leaves for home to-morrow morning,” proceeded Mrs. Oakley. “There’s a little business I want attended to, which makes it desirable that some one should go back with him. I might send Ben, but I don’t think he would answer the purpose. So I have thought of you.”
“Does Mr. Huxter go to-morrow morning?” asked John.
“He has just decided to do so. That, I am aware, gives you but short notice,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“Shall I need to be away long?”
“A few days at least. Have you a carpet-bag?”
“A small one.”
“That will answer. You can put in a couple of shirts, some collars, stockings, and handkerchiefs.”
“How shall I know what to do?”
“My brother will give you all the needful information. And now, good-night. We shall breakfast at six, in order to be in time for the stage.”
“Very well, I will be ready.”
Mrs. Oakley left the room, and went downstairs, leaving John considerably puzzled by what had happened. He was sorry to be kept from school for a few days even, for he was at the head of his class both in Greek and Latin, and would lose his standing temporarily at least. But it was characteristic of him to be obliging, even at the cost of some self-sacrifice, and therefore he had made no opposition to the wishes of his stepmother, though it did occur to him that, as Ben neither attended school nor did anything else except amuse himself, he might have executed his mother’s commission. However, John knew enough of Ben’s disobliging disposition to suspect that he had been applied to and refused, especially as he could see that he had no great affection for his uncle. Of course he could have no suspicion of the trap which Mrs. Oakley had artfully laid for him, and that the few days’ absence were intended by her to extend to months and possibly years.
“If I am going early to-morrow morning,” thought John, “I may as well stop studying and pack my carpet-bag. I wish I had asked Mrs. Oakley where her brother lives.”
John closed his “Anabasis,” and found his carpet-bag. Into it he put whatever he thought would be needed in a week’s absence. He did not suppose he should be away longer than that.
“If it were not so late,” he thought, “I would run over and tell Sam that I am to be away for a few days. He will be surprised when he don’t see me at school.”
But it was too late, for the village clock just then struck ten, and as he must be up early, John felt that the best thing he could do was to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep, to prepare him for the fatigues of the succeeding day.
After a sound and refreshing night’s sleep, John went downstairs the next morning, with his carpet-bag in his hand. The table was spread for breakfast, and Mr. Huxter and Mrs. Oakley had already taken their seats.
“Good-morning, John,” said Mrs. Oakley; “you are just in time. Are you all ready to go?”
“Yes,” said John.
“Then sit down to breakfast, for the stage will be here very soon.”
“So I am to have the pleasure of your company, Mr. Oakley?” said Mr. Huxter. “I did not anticipate that I should so soon receive a visit from you when I invited you yesterday to my humble home.”
“In what town do you live, Mr. Huxter?” asked John.
“Well, folks call it Hardscrabble,” said Mr. Huxter, with a laugh.
“Is it far away?”
“We’ll get there to-night if nothing happens,” said Mr. Huxter.
John did not know whether to conclude that Hardscrabble was, or was not, the real name of the town, but did not like to press the inquiry. He never remembered to have heard of a town bearing that name. However, he would know by evening at any rate. He could not help feeling some curiosity as to Mr. Huxter’s home; but neither that gentleman’s appearance nor description of it led him to form a very high idea of its sumptuousness.
The breakfast was a substantial one, and Mr. Huxter did justice to it. Indeed, he was seldom wanting in a good appetite, especially when the repast was an inviting one.
“I suppose I shan’t see Ben before I go?” said he, leaning back in his chair, and picking his teeth with a fork.
“I am afraid not,” said Mrs. Oakley. “Ben got home rather late last night, and I suppose the poor boy is tired this morning. I think I had better not disturb him.”
“Don’t disturb him on my account,” said his uncle, who did not seem much disappointed by Ben’s absence. “He’d better have his sleep out. But, sister Jane, if I were you I wouldn’t let him stay out so late in the evening.”
“You must remember, Ephraim, he’s a young gentleman now. It won’t do to keep him in leading-strings, just as if he were a boy.”
“I’d keep him in check if he were my boy,” thought Mr. Huxter; but he saw that it would not be best to say so.
“Well, Jane, of course you know best,” he said. “When are you coming to make us a visit?”
“Not very soon, I am afraid. I can’t leave the farm very well. There are too many things which need attending to.”
“There’s the stage,” said John, suddenly.
The rumbling of the wheels was faintly heard up the road. All rose from the table, and prepared to go. Mrs. Oakley brought out a covered basket and handed it to her brother.
“I’ve put some sandwiches in this basket,” she said. “You’ll be hungry by and by, and it will save you the expense of stopping at a hotel for dinner.”
“Very good!” said Mr. Huxter, with satisfaction. “That’s what I meant to speak about, but I forgot it. I begrudge paying for dinner at a tavern. They always charge you about double what it’s worth. Come, Mr. Oakley, are you ready?”
“All ready, sir.”
The rumbling of the stage was now distinctly heard. They opened the front door, and made signals for it to stop. The lumbering vehicle was brought to in front of the gate, and the driver jumped from his elevated perch, and opened the door for the passengers to enter.
“I think I’ll take a seat outside, if it makes no difference to you, Mr. Huxter,” said John.
“Just as you like,” was the reply.
So, while Mr. Huxter got inside, John took a seat beside the driver.
“Where are you going, John?” asked the driver, who knew everybody in the village, and was on intimate terms with all.
“I’m going away with the gentleman who has just got inside,” said John.
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know the name of the place,” said our hero, suspecting that Hardscrabble was only a local appellation.
“Be gone long?”
“Not more than a week.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Oakley watched the receding stage with satisfaction. When it was out of sight, she entered the house.
“Now,” said she, “I’ll look for the will without John Oakley to spy upon me.”
Although John would prefer to have remained at home, in order that his studies might be uninterrupted, he nevertheless could not help deriving enjoyment from the ride on the stage-coach. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was gilding with its beams the fields and brooks, and a beautiful breeze rustled in and out among the leaves of the trees that for some distance lined the road. John, from his elevated perch, had an excellent view of the scenes through which they passed. As they rode by the house of Squire Selwyn, lie hoped to catch sight of his friend Sam; but Sam was nowhere to be seen.
“Sam is lazy this morning,” thought John, disappointed.
But there he did Sam injustice. He had risen early, and with hook and line had gone to the pond to fish. From a distance he caught a glimpse of the stage rumbling along the village street, but it was too far off for him to distinguish the outside passengers. He would have been surprised had he known that among them was his friend John.
Ere long they were beyond the limits of the township. Occasionally the stage stopped to take in a fresh passenger, or to discharge a portion of its living freight. At intervals of a few miles they came to some village tavern, with a broad swinging sign, where the driver would pause to water his horses, or, at longer intervals, to exchange them for a fresh supply. Once or twice John descended to stretch his legs, stiff with long sitting. More than once he observed Mr. Huxter enter the tavern, and come out with his nose a little redder than usual.
“I went in to get a glass of bitters,” he explained to John, whom he encountered at the door on one of these occasions. “I’ll get you some if you want it.”
“Thank you,” said John. “I don’t care for any.”
“Well, you’re young and strong, and don’t need them. When you get to my age, you’ll need a little something to stimulate you.”
John, who rightly conjectured that the glass of “bitters” was only another name for New England rum, could not help thinking that Mr. Huxter would have been quite as well off without it; but this thought he of course kept to himself.
“The old gentleman is rather fond of ‘wetting his whistle,’ isn’t he?” said the driver, familiarly.
“So it seems,” said John, briefly.
He did not care to discuss the conduct of his stepmother’s brother with any one, and therefore confined himself to this remark. At twelve o’clock they had travelled forty miles.
“The stage will stop half an hour for dinner,” said the driver, as he drew up in front of an old-fashioned country tavern.
“This is as far as I go,” said the driver to John. “Do you stop here?”
“No, we go further on.”
“I suppose you’ll be comin’ back this way in a few days?”
“I expect so. By the way, if you see Sam Selwyn to-night, just tell him that I was one of your passengers this morning.”
“John Oakley!” said Mr. Huxter, from below.
“Here, sir,” said John.
“Just get down, and bring that basket with you. We’ll go under the trees and have a bite.”
John followed directions, and the two sat down together, with the basket between them.
“Travelling is hungry work,” said Mr. Huxter. “Let’s see what my sister has put up for us.”
The basket, being uncovered, proved to be full of sandwiches, with a few doughnuts on top. They were all excellent of their kind; for Mrs. Oakley, whatever might be said of her in other respects, was a good house-keeper, and took care that whatever food was prepared in the house should be good.
“Now, Oakley,” said Mr. Huxter, “we needn’t have any ceremony here. Just make yourself at home and pitch in.”
It may be observed that Mr. Huxter was gradually beginning to treat John with greater familiarity. When first introduced, he had addressed him as “Mr. Oakley.” Next it was “John Oakley.” Now it was “Oakley,” without any prefix. John, who had no inordinate sense of his own dignity, was not much disturbed by this, but continued to treat Mr. Huxter with the same outward respect as at first.
Mr. Huxter followed his own recommendations strictly. He did “pitch in,” and with such vigor that he consumed two-thirds of the contents of the basket, while John, whose appetite had also been stimulated by the long ride, was eating the remaining third.
“Well, there aint much left, that’s a fact,” he said, surveying the empty basket. “The ride’s given you a pretty good appetite, Oakley.”
“Pretty good,” said John, smiling at the unexpected inference drawn from the empty basket.
“That’s lucky, for we shan’t get anything more till we get home,” said Mr. Huxter.
“When will that be?” inquired John.
“Somewhere about seven. It’s a long pull; but I guess we can stand it,” said Mr. Huxter.
“I think I can,” said John.
“The old lady won’t be expecting us,” said Mr. Huxter. “I told her I might, maybe, be gone a fortnight.”
“She’ll be glad to see you so soon,” said John, who did not think of anything else to say.
“Umph!” said Mr. Huxter, in a tone which might be interpreted as conveying a little doubt on this point. “I feel a little dry,” he said, rising and stretching himself. “I think I’ll go into the house, and see if I can find a little water.”
When Mr. Huxter reappeared, John inferred from his appearance that, if he had been drinking water, it had been largely mingled with a different beverage. He satisfied his own thirst at the pump, where he drank a deep and refreshing draught of clear cold water, purer and better than any liquid which the art of man has devised.
So the afternoon passed. Twice more Mr. Huxter got out of the stage, and entered a wayside tavern, on the same mysterious errand. Each time he reappeared with his nose redder, and his eyes more inflamed. The liquor which he had drunk made him quarrelsome, and so disagreeable to his fellow-passengers. Finally one of them called to the driver in an authoritative voice to stop, and insisted that Mr. Huxter should travel outside for the remainder of the way. With some difficulty he was induced to make the change, and from that time John had the pleasure of his society.
“Who are you?” asked Mr. Huxter, fixing his eyes upon John with a vacant stare.
“I am John Oakley,” said our hero.
“Oh, yes, I know. You’re the son of old Oakley that my sister Jane married.”
It was painful to John to hear his father spoken of as old Oakley, but he understood Mr. Huxter’s situation, and felt that it would be idle to resent anything said under such circumstances.
“Old Oakley left all his property to Jane,” continued Mr. Huxter, with a drunken laugh. “Oh, she’s a deep one, is Jane! She knows how her bread is buttered.”
John turned away in disgust, and tried not to heed what was said.
“But she’s hard on her poor brother,” whined Mr. Huxter. “She ought to have come down with something handsome.”
His mutterings became incoherent, and John ceased to notice them. At length, about seven o’clock, the stage drove into a small village, of not particularly attractive appearance.
“Well,” said the driver, turning to John, “you’re most home.”
“Am I?” asked John.
“Of course you are. Aint you travelling with him?” indicating Mr. Huxter by a gesture.
“Yes; I’ve come with him on a little business.”
“Then you’re not going to stay?”
“Lucky for you!”
John didn’t inquire why the driver thought it lucky for him. He thought he understood without any explanation.
“Do you go any further?” he asked of the driver.
“To the next town.”
“What is the name of this place?”
“Some folks call it Hardscrabble; but the real name is Jackson.”
“Where does Mr. Huxter live?”
“Up the road apiece. I go right by the gate. I’ll stop and leave you there.”
A little less than a mile further the driver reined up his horses.
“Here you are,” he said. “Now look sharp, for I’m behind time.”
With some difficulty Mr. Huxter, who had now become quite drowsy, was made to understand that he had reached home. With still greater difficulty, he was assisted in safety to the ground, and the stage drove on.
John now for the first time looked about him to see what sort of a place he had reached. He distinguished a two-story house, old-fashioned in appearance, standing a few rods back from the road. It was sadly in need of a fresh coat of paint, as was also the fence which surrounded it. A little distance from the house, at one side, was a small building of one story, liberally supplied with windows, which John afterwards learned to be a shoe-shop. It was Mr. Huxter’s place of business, when he saw fit to work, which was by no means regularly. An old cart, a wood-pile, and some barrels littered up the front yard. A field alongside was overgrown with weeds, and everything indicated shiftlessness and neglect.
John had no difficulty in opening the front gate, for it hung upon one hinge, and was never shut. He supported Mr. Huxter to the door and knocked, for there was no bell. The summons was answered by a girl of ten, in a dirty calico dress and dishevelled hair.
“Mother,” she screamed, shrilly, as she saw who it was, “here’s father come home, and there’s somebody with him!”
At this intimation, a woman came from a back room to the door. She looked thin and careworn, as if the life which she led was not a very happy one.
“Mrs. Huxter, I suppose?” asked John.
“Yes,” said she.
“Your husband does not feel quite well,” said John, expressing in as delicate a manner as possible the fact that something was out of order with Mr. Huxter.
“Who said I wasn’t well?” exclaimed Mr. Huxter, in a rough voice. “Never was better in my life. I say, Polly, can’t you get us something to eat? I’m most starved.”
Mrs. Huxter looked inquiringly at John, whose presence with her husband she did not understand.
“I believe I am to stop here for a day or two,” said John, responding to her look. “My name is John Oakley. I am the stepson of Mr. Huxter’s sister.”
“Oh, yes, I know,” said Mrs. Huxter. “I am afraid we can’t accommodate you very well, Mr. Oakley, but we’ll do our best.”
“What’s good enough for us is good enough for him,” said Mr. Huxter, fiercely. “He’s as poor as we are. Sister Jane’s got all the money. She’s a deep one, is sister Jane.”
“I hope you won’t be offended at what he says, Mr. Oakley,” said Mrs. Huxter, in an apologetic tone. “He don’t mean what he says.”
“Shut up, Mrs. Huxter!” said her husband, who was disposed to be quarrelsome. “Don’t make a fool of yourself, but get supper as soon as you can.”
“We haven’t got any meat in the house,” said Mrs. Huxter, timidly. “You know you only left me a little money.”
“Here’s some money,” said Mr. Huxter, fumbling in his pocket, and producing a five-dollar bill.
Mrs. Huxter took the bill, surprised at its large amount, for she seldom got more than one dollar at a time. Forthwith the girl of ten was sent for some steak at the butcher’s, and in a reasonable time supper was declared to be ready. Meanwhile Mr. Huxter had been to the pump, and by the free use of cold water, applied externally, succeeded in getting the better of his intoxication, and was prepared to do full justice to the meal provided.
By the time supper was over, it was half-past eight. John felt fatigued with his long journey, and asked permission to retire. He was shown to an attic chamber, furnished only with a cot bed and a broken chair. But, rude as were the accommodations, John slept soundly, little dreaming the unwelcome news that awaited him on the morrow.
When John awoke the next morning he found it difficult at first to understand where he was; but recollection soon came to his aid, and he remembered that he was Mr. Huxter’s guest. He rose from the cot-bed, and, going to the window, looked out. The prospect was not a very pleasant one. Just across the street was a pasture, with here and there a gnarled and stunted tree. The immediate neighborhood of Mr. Huxter’s house has already been described.
“I don’t wonder they call it Hardscrabble,” thought John. “I shouldn’t like to live here.”
At this moment Mr. Huxter’s head was thrust in through the open door.
“Come, Oakley,” said he, “it’s time to get up. We don’t want any lazy folks here.”
“I was tired with my ride yesterday, and overslept myself,” said John.
“Well, dress as quick as you can,” said Mr. Huxter, turning to descend the stairs.
“I don’t see any washbowl,” said John, hesitating.
“You can come downstairs and wash, like the rest of us,” said Mr. Huxter. “You needn’t expect us to lug up water for you.”
John did not reply to this rude speech; but he could not avoid being struck by the change in the manner of his host. Mr. Huxter had, when first introduced, treated him with elaborate politeness. Now he treated him with downright rudeness, and as if he possessed some authority over him. John did not understand this, nor did he like it; but as it was only for a few days at the farthest, he resolved not to repay rudeness with rudeness, but to behave with as much respect as circumstances would allow. In the mean time he would ascertain as soon as possible the object of his visit, and so hasten matters as to allow of his return home with as little delay as possible.
Dressing hastily, he went downstairs, and found the breakfast-table spread in the kitchen. Mr. Huxter was seated at the table in his shirt-sleeves.
“Down at last, Oakley,” he said. “Sit right up.”
“I should like to wash first,” said John.
“Well, there’s the sink, and there’s a tin basin,” said Mr. Huxter.
“Wait a minute, Mr. Oakley,” said Mrs. Huxter, “I’ll wash out the basin for you.”
“It’s clean enough,” said her husband.
“No, there’s been some greasy water in it,” said Mrs. Huxter.
“You’re mighty anxious to wait on him,” sneered Mr. Huxter. “You don’t seem to think me of any consequence.”
His wife did not reply. Poor woman! she had a hard time of it. She had always had to contend with poverty; but poverty is not the worst of evils. If her husband had been reasonably kind, she could have borne that without repining, though it subjected her to many privations which she well knew might have been avoided had not her husband been so shiftless and intemperate. But his temper was far from sweet. He was that detestable character, a domestic tyrant, and did all in his power to make his wife uncomfortable and unhappy. She had learned that her best course was to permit his taunts and harsh words to pass unheeded, for at such times reason had no weight with him.
It did not take John long to understand the position of affairs. He saw that Mrs. Huxter was disposed to be polite and kind to him, and he felt grateful. He could not help pitying her for having such a husband.
“Thank you, Mrs. Huxter,” he said, when she had prepared the basin for him.
“I suppose you are accustomed to washing in your own room,” she said.
“Yes,” said John; “but it’s of no consequence. I can wash down here just as well.”
“Of course you can,” said Mr. Huxter. “Come, be spry there, Oakley.”
John washed himself deliberately, not thinking that it was necessary to hurry himself on Mr. Huxter’s account, and sat down to the table.
“You’re an enterprising young man,” said Mr. Huxter. “I’m half through my breakfast, and you’re just ready to begin.”
“He had a long and tiresome journey yesterday,” said Mrs. Huxter. “No wonder he was tired.”
“So had I,” said her husband. “You don’t seem to think I can ever get tired, even when I’ve been working like a dog.”
“What time is it?” asked John.
“Seven is our breakfast-hour at home,” said John, quietly. “As you did not tell me you breakfasted earlier here, you could not expect me to get up sooner than I did.”
“That’s true, Mr. Oakley,” said Mrs. Huxter.
“So you’re siding with him,—are you?” said Mr. Huxter, angrily.
John was far from being a coward. He was disposed to treat every one with courtesy and respect, but expected to be treated in the same way. Mr. Huxter’s manner was so very offensive, and his words so dictatorial, that his anger was excited. He felt that he could not with proper self-respect remain silent longer.
“Mr. Huxter,” he said, fixing his eyes calmly on the face of his host, “you seem to forget that I am your guest, and entitled to be treated with common politeness.”
“Mr. Oakley is quite right,” said Mrs. Huxter. “You have been very rude to him.”
“Do you mean to say I’m not polite?” demanded Huxter, raising his voice.
It was not certain to whom this question was addressed,—to John or his wife. But John, who did not wish to get Mrs. Huxter into trouble on his account, hastened to reply:—
“You can judge for yourself, Mr. Huxter, whether you have treated me as I had a right to expect. I came here with you to oblige your sister, Mrs. Oakley. When the business is over, I shall go back. I suppose it will only occupy a short time. I shall try to make you as little trouble as possible, and if you will let me know the rules of your house I will try to conform to them. To-morrow morning I shall be downstairs in time for breakfast.”
Mr. Huxter would have been angry at these words, but the secret thought that John was in his power moderated his resentment. He laughed in his sleeve at the thought of John’s dismay, when he learned that he was not here on a visit, but to remain for an indefinite period. This fact he had not mentioned even to his wife, who, therefore, could not help wondering what could be John’s business.
“You’ve made quite a speech, Oakley,” said he, sarcastically. “You may think it all right to charge a man with impoliteness in his own house, but for my part I think it cursed impudent.”
“I do not intend to be impudent,” said John.
“I don’t know what you intend, but you are so,” said Huxter.
“I hope you won’t mind what he says,” said Mrs. Huxter, distressed.
“Shut up, Mrs. Huxter! I’d rather you wouldn’t interfere. I’ll have it out with this young man without any help from you.”
“I don’t understand you, Mr. Huxter,” said John, with dignity. “I have tried to treat you with proper respect.”
“Yes, you’ve tried very hard.”
“And I don’t know why you have taken offence. I should like to know how long I am likely to be detained here on the business which has brought me here.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because I think it would be better for both of us that I should go to the hotel, if there is one in the village. I am afraid we are not likely to agree very well, and then I shall not interfere with any of your arrangements.”
“Who do you expect is going to pay your hotel bills?” demanded Mr. Huxter, with a sneer.
“I think there will be no difficulty about that,” said John.
“If you think my sister will pay any such bills you are mistaken.”
“As I came here on business of hers she will probably pay it. If she is unwilling, I will pay it myself.”
“Indeed!” said Mr. Huxter, pricking up his ears. “Where will you get the money?”
“I hope you will not take offence, Mr. Huxter, if I decline to answer that question.”
“Have you got any money with you?”
“I decline answering.”
Mr. Huxter was about to make an angry reply; but a moment’s thought led him to change his purpose. He was anxious to find out how much money John had.
“Have you got money enough to keep you at the hotel a week?”
“Shall I need to remain here a week?” asked John, a little disturbed at the thought of having his studies interrupted for so long a time, especially as there seemed so little prospect of deriving any enjoyment from his visit.
“If I don’t have money enough, I will write to Mrs. Oakley for more,” he said.
“I can tell you beforehand that you won’t get any.”
“We won’t dispute about that,” said John. “I shall be glad to go about this business at once, as I do not wish to be kept away from my studies any longer than is absolutely necessary.”
“I’m thinking, young man,” said Mr. Huxter, “that it will be a good while before you go back to your Latin and Greek.”
“Why so?” said John.
“Read that, and you’ll know,” said Mr. Huxter; and he drew a note from his pocket, and handed it to John.
John opened the note, little suspecting the nature of its contents. It was as follows:—
“John Oakley:—I have made an arrangement with my brother to have you board with him for the present. As you and Benjamin find it so difficult to agree, it will be much better that you should live apart. If you had not treated him so brutally I should not be under the necessity of sending you away from home. I hope you will give my brother no trouble, but will follow his directions. He understands what course I wish him to pursue with you. If he reports favorably of you, I will send for you to return at a proper time.”
“P. S. I will forward your trunk by express, early next week.”
John read this cold and unjust letter with mingled anger and dismay. It was hard to have all the blame of his quarrel with Ben thrown upon him, when Ben had been the aggressor, and he had only contended for his just rights. So he was to be exiled from home on Ben’s account. He could not help thinking how happily his father and he used to live together before the present Mrs. Oakley came to the farm as house-keeper. And now she and her son had taken possession, and he was turned adrift. What would his father have thought, could he have foreseen what would happen so soon after his death!
These thoughts, and others not less disturbing, passed through John’s mind as he read his stepmother’s letter. Mr. Huxter’s eyes were fixed upon his face in cruel exultation, for he imagined the nature of John’s feelings, and enjoyed his sorrow.
“Well, Oakley, what do you say to that?” he demanded.
“I don’t know what to say,” said John.
“No, I presume not. The fact is, you haven’t got anything to say in the matter. My sister is your natural guardian, and she has sent you to me to manage. She says you’re rather a tough subject; but I reckon I can manage you. You’ll find me a little harder to deal with than a woman, I can tell you that.”
John did not reply. Indeed, he hardly knew what Mr. Huxter had been saying. So many thoughts crowded in upon his mind with regard to the sudden change in his position that he paid little attention to what was said.
“Is this the only business on which Mrs. Oakley sent me?” he asked, at length.
“It’s enough, isn’t it?” demanded Mr. Huxter, with a laugh. “So you hadn’t the least idea what was the object of your expedition?”
“No, I had not,” said John, indignantly. “I had no suspicion that it was only a trap.”
“I knew you hadn’t,” said Mr. Huxter, laughing with evident enjoyment. “You were pretty well taken in, hey?”
“I was taken in,” said John, shortly.
“Sister Jane was pretty cute. She knew you’d be making a fuss, if you knew. I told her that once I got you here there wouldn’t be any more trouble. So now you know all about it, and you may as well settle down to staying here.”
Mrs. Huxter, to whom all this was news, listened with earnest attention. She was a good-hearted woman, and she couldn’t help pitying John. She liked her sister-in-law, now Mrs. Oakley, no better than John did, and was very thankful when, after a two years’ residence under her roof, she had obtained a position as house-keeper at a distance. She readily came to the conclusion that John had been harshly and unjustly treated, and she could not forbear expressing her sympathy.
“I did not know you were going to remain with us, Mr. Oakley,” she said. “I’ll try to make you comfortable as long as you stay.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Huxter,” said John, gratefully; for he could understand the kindness which led her to speak.
“You needn’t mister him,” said Mr. Huxter, roughly. “It’s ridiculous to call such a boy ‘Mr.’; it’ll make him put on airs worse than ever.”
“I do not know his first name,” said Mrs. Huxter.
“My name is John,” said our hero.
“Then I will call you so, if you are willing.”
“If he is willing! Don’t make a fool of yourself, Mrs. Huxter. It makes no difference whether he is willing or not.”
“I shall be glad to have you call me John,” said our hero, without regarding Mr. Huxter’s brutal speech.
John rose from the table. He had not eaten much, for Mr. Huxter’s coarseness, and the note from his stepmother, had taken away his appetite.
“Won’t you have something more, John?” asked Mrs. Huxter. “You’ve eaten very little.”
“No, thank you. I don’t feel much appetite this morning.”
He took his hat, and was about to leave the house by the back door which led out of the kitchen.
“Where are you going, Oakley?” demanded Mr. Huxter.
“I am going out for a walk,” said John, shortly.
Mr. Huxter hesitated whether to obey the dictates of the petty tyranny which impelled him to forbid John to go out, but finally decided not to interfere at present. He contented himself, therefore, with saying:—
“I expect you to return within an hour.”
John made no reply, but his manly spirit revolted against such contemptible despotism. He did not recognize Mr. Huxter’s authority, and did not mean to. He resolved to take an independent stand at once, and return when he pleased, and no sooner. I wish it to be distinctly understood that John did not expect, at his present age, to enjoy all the privileges of a grown man. He was always respectful to rightful authority, but he considered that Mr. Huxter’s authority was not rightful, and that his commands ought to have no weight with him. Mr. Huxter did not know the character with which he had to deal. He did not know that John could be as firm under some circumstances, as he was compliant in others. If he had known him better he might have felt less confident of triumphing over him.
When he left the room Huxter turned to his wife, and said, harshly:—
“I’ve got something to say to you, Mrs. Huxter. You needn’t trouble yourself to take that boy’s part. He is a proud-spirited young rascal, and he needs taking down.”
“He seems to me a very good sort of boy,” said his wife.
“That shows what a good judge you are,” said Mr. Huxter, with a sneer. “He’s a young bully, and was all the time fighting with Ben.”
“I always thought Ben inclined to be a bully,” said Mrs. Huxter.
“Well, he is a proud young upstart,” admitted his uncle, who had not forgiven Ben’s disdain. “Got some of the Brayton blood in him. But the other’s just as bad. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. However, wife,” pursued Mr. Huxter, with a change of tone, “it’s likely to be a good thing for us. We’re to have six dollars a week for boarding young Oakley.”
“That’s very good pay. I really think we ought to make him comfortable.”
“He won’t get much favor from me. I promised Jane I’d break his proud spirit, and I’m going to do it. I shall set him to work next week in the shop.”
“Set him to work while we are getting six dollars a week for his board!” exclaimed Mrs. Huxter, in astonishment.
“Yes, that’s what Jane told me to do.”
“But his work alone will more than pay his board.”
“All the better for us.”
“But I don’t think, Mr. Huxter, you have the right to do it.”
“That shows how little you know about it. Isn’t Jane his guardian?”
“Does she agree to the arrangement?”
“Of course she does. She told me I might do it.”
“And she will be willing to pay his board besides?”
“Yes. You see I represented to her that now she was a rich woman she ought to do something for her only brother, and that’s the way she’s going to do it. It’s a good thing for both of us. She gets rid of a troublesome young rascal, and I get handsomely paid for taking charge of him. It’s a very simple arrangement.”
“I can’t seem to think it’s right,” said Mrs. Huxter, slowly.
“Then you’re a fool,” said Mr. Huxter, not very politely.
“I’m afraid there’ll be trouble,” thought Mrs. Huxter, nervously, but she did not reply.
John felt that he was in a difficult situation, and he went out, not so much for a walk, as to gain time to consider what he should do under the circumstances. He guessed without much difficulty the reason which had led to his banishment. Mrs. Oakley did not like him, he was aware, and it was natural that she should take measures to remove him from the house. But John felt that, though this was one reason, it was not the principal reason. He was satisfied that she wished to have him out of the way while she was looking for the will. But since the discovery of the will could only be of advantage to him, and strip her of two-thirds of the property, he was forced to the conclusion that, if she found it, it would be only to destroy it, or put it away where he would never be likely to find it. He was thoroughly convinced of this, but he asked himself in vain what he could do under the circumstances. There he was at a loss. He could not return and force Mrs. Oakley to keep him at home, or if so, he well knew that she would manage to make his position very uncomfortable. Mrs. Oakley certainly had every advantage over him. It would not be prudent, he knew, to reveal his suspicion, for he had no proof to bring forward. What should he do?
Mrs. Oakley meant him to remain with her brother; but he had already seen enough of Mr. Huxter’s petty tyranny and intemperate habits, to decide that he could never be happy or ordinarily comfortable with him. Of the two, Mrs. Oakley seemed preferable. Mrs. Huxter, to be sure, seemed to be a good-hearted woman, but she was a victim of her husband’s tyranny, and her well-meant interference, without doing him any good, would very likely bring her into trouble.
Finding his perplexity only increase, John adopted a sensible resolution. He determined to lay the matter before some one who was older and wiser than himself, and be guided by his advice. He decided to write to Squire Selwyn, his father’s lawyer and friend, who was already well acquainted with all the circumstances of the case, and ask his advice. If he should write at once, he calculated that an answer might reach him by the fourth day, and until then he thought he could endure Mr. Huxter’s disagreeable manners. As to the will, he thought it more than probable that it would never be found, or, if found, it would never do him any good. If Mrs. Oakley would carry out his father’s plans, permit him to continue his studies and go through college, he would then be able to make his own way, and would not trouble himself about the property.
While engaged in these reflections he had been slowly walking up the road towards the village. It was not much of a village, not more than twenty houses in all, including a church, a school-house, the tavern, and a store. Knowing something of the custom in country villages, John rightly concluded that the post-office would be found in the store. He entered therefore, and looked about him. It was a common country store, with a stock of a very miscellaneous assortment of articles, from sugar and dried apples to calico and tape. One corner was appropriated to the use of the post-office. John walked up to the counter and asked:—
“Have you any writing paper and envelopes?”
“Yes,” said the clerk, producing the articles.
John bought two sheets of paper and two envelopes, thinking he might have occasion to write two letters, and then asked when the mail went out.
“It has already gone.”
“When will the next mail go?”
“Will you allow me the use of your ink to write a letter?”
“Certainly. Just step behind the counter.”
John followed directions, and, sitting down at the desk, commenced writing. He thought it better to write here than to do so at Mr. Huxter’s, knowing that the suspicions of the latter would be excited.
It is not necessary for me to transcribe John’s letter. He contented himself with stating plainly the situation in which he found himself, and the manner in which he had already been treated by Mr. Huxter, and wound up by asking Squire Selwyn’s advice. Having concluded the letter, he directed it neatly, and, prepaying the postage, handed it to the clerk.
“All right,” said the latter. “It’ll go to-morrow morning.”
When this matter was disposed of John felt more comfortable. He had transferred the responsibility of deciding what he should do to another in whom he had great confidence, and so felt a burden removed from his own shoulders. He thought he could stand Mr. Huxter’s harsh treatment for a few days. Meanwhile, with the usual elasticity of youth, he began to feel an interest in the new scenes by which he was surrounded. He had never before been so far away from home, and though Jackson was not a very attractive place, it was new, and so had a certain charm for him. About half a mile distant he saw a hill, which, though barren pasture land, would afford him a good view of the village. He determined to climb it, and look about him.
We must now return to Mr. Huxter.
Half an hour or more after John left the house he began to feel thirsty,—not that natural, healthful thirst to which we are all subject, but the artificial, craving thirst of one who has accustomed himself to the drinking of alcoholic mixtures. Thanks to the advanced payment for John’s board which he had received from his sister, he was unusually well supplied with funds, and felt that he need work no more than he chose. After splitting up a little wood, therefore, he turned out of the yard, and walked towards the tavern. He went into the bar-room, and received a cordial greeting from the landlord, of whom he was a pretty steady customer.
“Good-morning, Huxter, where have you kept yourself for two or three days? You haven’t been round to see me.”
“I’ve been making a visit to my sister,” said Huxter.
“Oh, that’s it. I began to think you had taken the temperance pledge, and given up your old friends.”
“I haven’t come to that yet,” said Mr. Huxter, in a tone which indicated that he considered taking the pledge a very discreditable proceeding.
“No; I thought you’d have too much sense for that. What’ll you have this morning?”
“Give me a glass of something stiff. Let it be extra good, for I’m going to pay up the old score.”
No doubt it was extra good, for Mr. Huxter drank it with evident enjoyment, and immediately ordered another glass. This, too, was drank, and after a little desultory conversation Mr. Huxter left the tavern.
It occurred to him that his stock of tobacco was out, and he went into the store hard by to lay in a fresh supply. While he was paying for it the clerk said:—
“You brought a boy home with you, Mr. Huxter, didn’t you?”
“Yes. How’d you know?”
“I saw him on the stage, and somebody said he got off at your house. Going to stay with you?”
“Yes, I’ve taken charge of him.”
“He seems a good sort of boy.”
“When did you see him?” asked Mr. Huxter.
“This morning. He only went out from here a few minutes ago.”
“Humph!” said Mr. Huxter. “Did he buy anything?”
“Only two sheets of paper and two envelopes.”
A light began to dawn upon Mr. Huxter. John wanted to make trouble by writing home.
“Look here,” said he; “if the boy brings in a letter you needn’t send it. Keep it, and hand it to me.”
The clerk looked surprised. Mr. Huxter, finding some explanation necessary, continued:—
“He’s a very troublesome boy. He’s almost broken his poor mother’s heart,—she’s my sister,—and I’ve agreed to take charge of him for a time. It takes a man to manage him. But it won’t do for him to be writing home and making a fuss. You understand?”
“I shouldn’t have thought him so troublesome. He looks very quiet.”
“You can’t judge from appearances,” said Mr. Huxter, shaking his head. “He don’t show out before folks. So, if any letters are put in directed to Hampton, just keep them, and I’ll look them over. If they’re proper to send, I will let them go.”
“He wrote a letter here this morning.”
“Did he?” asked Mr. Huxter, his eyes sparkling. “The young rascal’s prompt. It’s lucky I came in. He was cunning enough to write here, that I might not know anything about it. Let me see the letter.”
The clerk, not doubting Mr. Huxter’s authority, handed him the letter.
He broke it open hastily, and read it. It is needless to say that John’s description of himself, though moderately expressed, was far from complimentary, and Mr. Huxter’s heart was stirred with indignation.
“The young rascal shall pay for this,” he thought.
“This letter is not fit to send,” he said, aloud. “It would only make trouble. I will take charge of it. The boy needn’t know but it is gone. You may take any letter he brings; but mind you don’t send it till I have seen it.”
“Very well,” said the clerk; but he could not help pitying John, if he was to be under Mr. Huxter’s guardianship. In a small village like Jackson every man’s failings were a matter of general knowledge, and the estimation in which Mr. Huxter was held was not very high.
“Well, I’ve defeated the young rascal,” thought Mr. Huxter, triumphantly, as he left the store. “He’ll find it isn’t so easy to outwit me. If Jane can’t manage him I can, and I intend to. I reckon it’ll be some time he’ll have to wait for an answer to that letter.”
This thought amused Mr. Huxter, so that he partly forgot his vexation at the unflattering description of himself which the letter contained. Having no further business to attend to, he went up the road towards home. The letter he put in one of the side-pockets of the loose coat which he wore. But there was a large hole in his pocket, and without Mr. Huxter’s knowledge the letter slipped through. He kept on his way, not suspecting his loss.
The letter remained unnoticed in the grass by the side of the road, having been wafted there by the wind, until John, on his way home an hour and a half later, happened to catch sight of it. He went to pick it up, not suspecting what it was, and was immeasurably surprised when he found it to be the same letter he had put into the post-office two hours before. How came it there?
John was not long in guessing the truth. Mr. Huxter was determined that he should not communicate with any one in Hampton, and had recalled the letter. No doubt he had given instructions to the postmaster, which would make it impossible for John to post any letters in future in the village.
“I am very glad to know this,” thought John; “I shall know better how to act.”
He put the letter in his pocket, and kept on his way, determined to keep his discovery to himself. He began to see what sort of man he had to deal with.
Twelve o’clock was the dinner hour at Mr. Huxter’s. John and he met once more, but the dispute between them was not renewed. John was deliberating as to what course he should pursue. Mr. Huxter was secretly exulting in having defeated John’s attempt to communicate with his friends, little suspecting that John knew all about it. So on the whole he was pleasanter than usual, and allowed his young guest to eat in peace. Mrs. Huxter was glad to notice this change in his conduct, though she hardly dared to hope that it would continue.
“So you took a walk this morning, Oakley?” said Mr. Huxter.
“Where did you go?”
“I went to the top of the hill behind the tavern.”
“How do you like our village?”
“I can’t tell yet. I haven’t got sufficiently acquainted.”
“You’ll have chance enough before you get through,” said Mr. Huxter, significantly.
John understood this very well; but did not see fit to show that he did so. He did not wish to provoke a quarrel.
“I am going to write to my sister this afternoon,” said Mr. Huxter. “Perhaps you’d like to send a message.”
“Thank you,” said John; “I don’t think of any message just at present.”
“You wouldn’t like to send your love to Ben, would you?” asked Mr. Huxter, jocosely.
“I don’t think I should,” said John, quietly.
“There isn’t much love lost between you two, I reckon.”
“We are not very good friends,” said John, in the same quiet tone.
“I’m sure it’s no wonder,” said Mrs. Huxter; “Ben was always a troublesome, headstrong boy.”
“Let me tell you, Mrs. Huxter,” said her husband, sharply, “it doesn’t look very well in you to run down your own relations.”
Mrs. Huxter thought it prudent not to reply.
“Let me see,” said Mr. Huxter, as they rose from the table, “it’s Friday,—too late in the week to begin anything. You shall have till Monday morning to look about you, and then we’ll see if we can’t find something for you to do.”
Here was a disclosure for John. He had understood that he was to board with Mr. Huxter. Now it appeared that the latter intended to set him to work. Had he any authority for doing so, and what was John’s duty under the circumstances. He wished earnestly that he were able to consult Squire Selwyn without delay, and this reminded him that his letter had not yet gone. It would be useless to leave it again at the village post-office. It must go from some other. John had all the afternoon before him, and if the next town were not too far off, he determined to walk over and post his letter there. Not wishing Mr. Huxter to have any clue to his plans, he decided to obtain the necessary information, not from Mrs. Huxter, though he did not doubt her willingness to give it, but from some other person.
He went out into the road, and began to walk slowly in a direction opposite to that which he had taken in the morning. It was the stage road he knew, and was probably the most direct route to the next town.
Our hero had walked about three-quarters of a mile, when he heard a loud clattering sound behind him. Turning around, he saw a farm-wagon, driven by a boy of about his own age. It was but little past noon, and the walk which might be a long one was sure to be a hot one. As the boy-driver appeared to be alone, and there was plenty of room for another, John hailed him.
“Hallo!” he called out. “Hold on a minute.”
“Whoa!” shouted the boy, and brought his horse to a stop.
“Are you going to the next village?” inquired John.
“To Milbank, you mean?”
“Yes,” said John, who was not quite sure whether he meant it or not, but was willing to take the risk.
“Yes, I’m going there. Don’t you want a ride?”
“That’s just what I was going to ask. I’m willing to pay for it.”
“I don’t want any pay,” said the boy; “I’d rather have company than go alone.”
“How far is Milbank?”
“It’s a pretty good piece,—most five miles.”
John was glad he had not attempted to walk.
“You don’t live round here, do you?” asked John’s new acquaintance.
“I thought I hadn’t seen you. Whereabouts are you stayin’?”
“At Mr. Huxter’s.”
“Is he a relation of yours?” asked the boy, looking at John with interest.
“No, he isn’t,” said John, hastily, unwilling for a moment to have it supposed that there was any such tie between him and his temporary host.
“Are you going to stay long?”
John was not surprised at these questions, for in the country, where he had always lived, it was the rule to be inquisitive about other people’s affairs, and he felt that he ought to make some return for his ride.
“I don’t think I shall,” he said.
He would like to have replied decidedly in the negative; but he felt that he was by no means certain about the length of his stay.
“How do you like Huxter?” asked his new acquaintance, with rather a comical look.
“I’ve seen men I liked better,” said John, smiling.
“Shouldn’t wonder,” said the other. “He gets awful tight sometimes.”
“It is a pity,” said John, “for Mrs. Huxter seems to be a good sort of a woman, and it must be hard on her.”
“It would be hard for any woman to have such a husband. I don’t know Mrs. Huxter much, but I never heard anything against her. I’ve a great mind to tell you,” said the boy, looking at John to judge whether he appeared as if he might be trusted with a secret, “a trick that one or two of the fellows played on Mr. Huxter once when he was drunk. But you’ll be sure not to tell?”
John, whose curiosity was somewhat excited, gave the required promise.
“You see,” continued his informant, “I was walking along with George Sprague one afternoon, when we came across old Huxter lying side of the road as drunk as he could be. George is rather a wild boy, and always up to some mischief or other. That afternoon he happened to have a little red paint, which he had got at the painter’s shop for his father to use. As soon as we saw old Huxter snoring away, George winked to me, and said, ‘Huxter’s nose is red, but I’ve a great mind to make it a little redder. I should like to see how the old fellow will look.’ With that he took out his brush, and touched Huxter’s nose with it lightly, making it as red as a brick. I was afraid he would wake up and chase us, for he’s pretty violent when he’s drunk; but he was too far gone, and never stirred. George took the paint home, and then we came out to see if Huxter had gone home. We found he had, and we afterwards heard how the trick came out.”
“When he got home and went into the kitchen, Mrs. Huxter screamed as soon as she saw him.
“‘What’s the matter with you?’ he growled.
“‘O Mr. Huxter!’ she said, clasping her hands, ‘I knew that drinking would be the ruin of you.’
“‘Then you’re a fool,’ he said. ‘Drinking a little now and then don’t do me any harm; but you’re a woman, and have no more sense than a kitten.’
“‘You don’t believe me, look at your nose,’ said his wife.
“‘What’s the matter with my nose?’ asked old Huxter, a little surprised.
“‘Look at it, and you won’t be surprised at my words.’
“With that Huxter did look, and when he saw his nose glaring red, he was pretty well frightened, I can tell you. He had no more suspicion than his wife that any one had been playing a trick upon him, and he was afraid that his nose would always be so. He got frightened and went to bed, and then asked his wife to go for the doctor.”
“Did the doctor tell him how it was?”
“No; he thought it would do him no harm to be frightened a little; so he lectured him about his habits, but told him that he thought he could cure him this time by using a warm lotion. It was nothing but warm water, with something put in to stain the water and make him think it was something else; but Huxter did not know that, and was very grateful to the doctor for relieving him.
“The fright had such an effect upon him that he didn’t drink anything for a whole week. Then he began again, and got bolder by degrees, till now he’s as bad as ever.”
“How did you find out how the doctor treated the case?”
“Because George Sprague is the doctor’s son. The doctor told all about it at home as a good joke. George heard it all, but never breathed a word to his father about his being the one that painted Huxter’s nose. The doctor didn’t say anything to George, but he looked at him rather queerly, as if he had some suspicion. It was a good joke,—wasn’t it?”
“It would have turned out pretty well if it had stopped Mr. Huxter’s drinking.”
“Nothing will do that. He’s a pretty hard case But you mustn’t say a word about what I’ve been telling you. It would get George and me into trouble.”
“No, I won’t say anything about it.”
“Where do you live?”
“Whereabouts is that? Is it far from here?”
“About eighty miles, I should think. It lies to the north.”
“Is it a pleasant place?”
“I think so; but then I was born there, you know, and perhaps that is the reason I think so.”
“Well, I was born in Jackson, but I don’t think much of it. I guess we’ll move away next spring. Father talks of selling his farm. What is your name?”
“My name is John Oakley.”
“And mine is David Wallace.”
The boys now felt thoroughly acquainted, and chatted together on a variety of subjects, such as interest boys. While they were in the midst of their conversation, they came to a grist-mill.
“I must stop here about ten minutes, to leave my grain,” said David. “The village is a mile further on. If you’ll wait I’ll carry you there afterwards.”
“I don’t want you to go just on my account,” said John.
“I am going there any way,” said David. “There are better stores at Milbank than at home, and mother asked me to buy her two or three things. So you can come as well as not, and ride back too, if you don’t want to stay long.”
“Thank you, David,” said John. “I shall be glad to accept your offer. It’s rather hot walking, and I shan’t want to stop but a few minutes. Shall you go anywhere near the post-office?”
“I’ll just run in there a minute.”
“Have you got anything else to do?”
“You didn’t set out to walk just to go to the Milbank post-office, did you?” asked David, in some surprise.
“I had a letter to mail.”
“Couldn’t you mail it at our post-office?”
“Yes, I could; but it wouldn’t go.”
“I’ve a great mind to tell you. You told me one secret, and I’ll tell you another, but on the same condition,—you won’t tell anybody?”
“I wish I may have my head chopped off if I do,” said David, earnestly.
John felt sure that he could trust his new acquaintance, though they had so recently been brought to the knowledge of each other, and he wanted somebody to confide in. So he gave David Wallace a general idea of his story, not mentioning, however, the will, as he could see no advantage in so doing.
“So Huxter thinks you don’t know anything of his having stopped your letter?”
“I am sure he does not.”
“It’s a good joke on him. He will never think of your coming so far to mail a letter.”
Part of this conversation took place after they had left the mill, and were driving towards Milbank. They were soon in the village. It was a much larger and pleasanter place than Jackson, and much more important also, being the county seat, and therefore having a court-house and a jail. John looked around him with interest, and did not dream how lucky he was in taking this journey on this particular afternoon.
“That is the court-house,” said David Wallace, pointing out a brick building, surmounted by a wooden cupola.
John glanced at the building to which his attention was thus called. He had hardly done so than he started and uttered an exclamation of surprise.
“What’s the matter?” demanded David.
“Won’t you stop the horse?” asked John, hastily. “I want to get out.”
“There’s a man I know. I want to speak to him.”
David stopped the horse, and John sprang to the ground. He hurried to the gateway of the court-house, by which a gentleman was just entering.
“Squire Selwyn!” John called out.
Mr. Selwyn, for it was indeed he, turned in surprise, and could hardly believe his eyes.
“John Oakley!” he exclaimed; “is it really you?”
“How came you here?”
“It is a long story, sir. Can you spare me fifteen minutes? I had written you a letter, and was just about to post it,” said John.
“Yes, I will spare you that time. Come into the court-house with me, and we will find a chance to sit down.”
“One minute, sir, and I will be with you.”
John returned to the wagon, and said to the surprised David:—
“It is the gentleman to whom I was going to post a letter. I am going in to have a talk with him. I won’t trouble you to stop for me, but I can walk home. I am very much obliged to you for bringing me so far.”
“How long will you be?” asked David.
“Half an hour perhaps.”
“I shall be here as long as that. I will go on and do my errands, and stop here on my way back. Then, if you are through, I will take you along. You would find it warm walking.”
“You’re very kind, David.”
“I’d rather have company than not. It makes the time go quicker. So go ahead. It’s all right.”
David started the horse, and John rejoined the lawyer, who had been waiting for him.
“You say you were just going to post me a letter?” said Squire Selwyn.
“Of course you have it with you?”
“Here it is.”
“I will read it. That will be the shortest way of getting at what you wish to consult me about. After I have read it, I will ask any questions that seem needful. But first we will come in.”
They entered the court-house, and went into a room to the left, where they found seats. Squire Selwyn put on his spectacles, and read the letter slowly and deliberately.
“You are in a difficult position, John,” he said, when he had finished reading. “You are very unpleasantly situated, I should judge.”
“And this Mr. Huxter doesn’t seem a very agreeable man to have dealings with?”
“I should be very unhappy if I expected to be obliged to stay with him.”
“You say he is intemperate?”
“He drank several times on his way back in the stage, and the boy with whom I rode over says he has been intemperate for years.”
“Certainly he is not a fit person to have charge of you. Does he know that you have come over here to-day?”
“It is evidently Mrs. Oakley’s intention that you you should not be allowed to communicate with me, or any of your other friends in Hampton. So, no doubt, she has instructed her brother. There must be some motive for this.”
Squire Selwyn looked thoughtfully at John as he said this, perhaps with a view of drawing out John’s opinion.
“I think,” said John, hesitatingly, “that she is going to look for the will.”
“I won’t say whether I agree with you or not,” said Squire Selwyn, cautiously. “It is not best to charge any one with wrong thoughts or intentions too hastily, but it is well to be prepared for what may be done to our disadvantage. Of course it is for your interest that the will should be found, provided the discovery is made public.”
“But would Mrs. Oakley make it public, if found, when it is for her interest to keep it concealed? That is an important question.”
“She can do what she pleases so far as I am concerned. She has sent me away from home, where I shall know nothing that is going on.”
“In one sense you are wholly in the power of your stepmother,” said the lawyer; “but you will have some one to look after your interests. Your father was my friend, and you are my son’s friend. I shall do what I can in your behalf.”
“Thank you, sir,” said John, gratefully. “I felt sure you would, and that is why I wrote to you at once.”
“As soon as I return to Hampton,—and that will be to-morrow,—I will call on Mrs. Oakley, and, without letting her know how I came by the information, will set before her your present position, and demand that she pursue a different course. The result I will communicate to you. How do you wish me to direct any letter I may have occasion to write?”
“To Milbank, if you please, Squire Selwyn. If directed to Jackson, I feel sure that it would fall into Mr. Huxter’s hands.”
“And never reach you. Very likely you are right. Then I will direct to Milbank, and will write at once upon having my interview with Mrs. Oakley.”
“Suppose Mr. Huxter ill-treats me in the mean time?” suggested John. “I think it is his intention to set me to work next week.”
“Did he not say you were boarding with him?”
“That is what Mrs. Oakley said in her letter.”
“Then if he is paid a full price for your board, I do not see that he has any claim upon your services. It is better, however, to avoid cause of quarrel until you hear from me.”
“And if you cannot induce Mrs. Oakley to change her plans?” asked John. “You wouldn’t advise me to stay with Mr. Huxter?”
“Didn’t your father have a married sister?” inquired Squire Selwyn. “I think I have heard so.”
“Yes, sir. Her husband kept a country store in the town of Wilton.”
“That is about fifty miles to the westward. Well, though I don’t in general approve of a boy’s running away, it might be advisable, should your stepmother continue obstinate, and Mr. Huxter seem disposed to abuse you, to leave here, and seek out your aunt. Should you make this change, you would of course immediately communicate with me.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you for the advice. I never thought of that before; but I think it is the best thing I could do.”
“Have you any money, John?” asked Squire Selwyn, putting his hand into his pocket.
“Yes, sir; thank you. I have thirty dollars.”
“Indeed!” said the lawyer, surprised. “Did Mrs. Oakley supply you with so much?”
“No, sir; but when my father was alive he gave me an allowance of a dollar a week pocket-money. I had saved up thirty dollars, thinking I might some time want to make a large purchase,—a row-boat, or something of that kind. When I came away with Mr. Huxter, I thought I had better bring it with me.”
“It is lucky you did so. You may have occasion to use it. Does Mr. Huxter know you have this money?”
“He knows I have some money,” said John, “but probably does not suspect how much.”
“I advise you to take care of it then. Such a man is not to be trusted. If he claims the power of controlling you, he may demand this money.”
“I don’t think he will get it,” said John, resolutely.
“I hope not. You were always a quiet boy; but I have observed that you were not deficient in firmness.”
“I hope you don’t think me obstinate, Squire Selwyn,” said John, smiling.
“No, I don’t think you that.”
“If I find myself in the wrong I am always ready to confess it and give up.”
“That’s right, my lad. It’s a thing that some of us who are much older than you find it hard to do. By the way, I suppose you wonder how I happen to be here so opportunely for you.”
“I have been wondering all the time, but did not like to ask.”
“One of my clients placed some business in my hands relating to property which required me to consult the county records of this county.”
“You didn’t come through by the stage?”
“No, I thought it too long and tedious. So I came by a roundabout way which left me only twenty miles’ staging. I travelled a greater number of miles than you, but in considerably less time. Now, John, is there anything more I can do for you before I set about the particular business which called me here?”
“No, sir, thank you. At least I think of nothing.”
“One thing at least let me say. We don’t know how this affair is coming out. Your stepmother may prove wholly unmanageable, especially as the power is in her hands, as things are at present situated. Should there come a time when you have need of further money, let me know frankly, and I will see what I can do for you.”
“You are very kind indeed, sir,” said John, earnestly.
“I certainly ought to be. When I came to Hampton, a young lawyer and without acquaintances, your father took me by the hand, and placed his business in my hands, and influenced others to do the same. So I consider that he laid the foundation of my present prosperity, and therefore I shall not desert his son while he is in trouble.”
“Thank you, Squire Selwyn,” said John. “I did not know what you just told me; but I did know that my father looked upon you as one of his most valued friends.”
“Well, John, good-by,” said the lawyer, kindly, extending his hand. “Keep up a good heart, and something may turn up which may set matters right. Be sure to keep me apprised of your movements, and rely upon me to do what I can for you in Hampton.”
John left the court-house much encouraged by the friendly words of Squire Selwyn. He felt that he would prove a powerful friend, and his burden of care was diminished now that he had communicated his situation to such a friend.
Just then David Wallace drove up to the gate in his wagon.
“Have you got through your talk?” he asked.
“Jump aboard then, and we’ll be getting home.”
“I’ve been pretty lucky to-day, David,” said John.
“In the first place, in finding my letter by the side of the road. But for that I should have thought it had gone straight. Next in meeting you, and being saved a hot walk; and again in just meeting the very man I wanted most to see.”
“There’s one thing you forgot,” said David, roguishly.
“The affectionate welcome you’ll get from old Huxter when you reach home.”
“I don’t count much on that,” said John, smiling in return.
“I’m glad you’ve overreached the old fellow,” said David.
“He thinks he’s overreached me.”
“I know it. That makes it all the better.”
John reached his temporary home about four o’clock. Mr. Huxter was not at home when he arrived, and remained ignorant of the important interview which had taken place between John and Squire Selwyn.
When the stage which conveyed John and Mr. Huxter was fairly out of sight Mrs. Oakley entered the house with a great feeling of relief. She realized for the first time how she had been constrained by the presence of her stepson. Though he had always been respectful, there was an unuttered reproach in his frank, fearless glance, which made her uncomfortable. It was the tribute which a mean and wicked nature pays to one of greater nobility, though Mrs. Oakley did not acknowledge that. She only felt glad that John was out of the way.
She had been so fearful that something might happen to prevent the success of her plan, that she had been careful not to make Ben acquainted with it. She was apprehensive that Ben would, in his exultation, lead John to suspect what was going on, and so cause him to refuse going. Now that he was fairly off she would tell her son the good news.
Ben came down to breakfast late. He generally had his way now, and was seldom present at the regular breakfast hour. It was different when Squire Oakley was alive; but then many other things were different also.
“Benjamin is delicate,” she said, one morning in presence of the servant. “He needs more sleep than the rest of us.”
“Maybe it’s smoking cigars makes him delicate,” suggested the servant, who did not particularly admire Ben, or care to join his mother in making allowances for him.
Her mistress silenced her with some asperity; but nevertheless took an opportunity to speak to Ben on the subject. But that young gentleman only laughed at her remonstrances.
“It does me good, mother,” he said. “I always feel better after smoking a good cigar.”
“It seems to me you are growing pale,” said Mrs. Oakley, whose heart was full of tenderness where Ben was concerned.
“That’s all nonsense,” said Ben. “I’m not as red as a beet, and I don’t want to be. But as to being pale, I’m healthy enough. Don’t worry yourself.”
With this Mrs. Oakley had to be contented, for Ben, though a coward with his equals, had sense enough to take advantage of his mother’s weak partiality, and take his own way.
When Ben came down to breakfast on the morning of his uncle’s departure, he said in an indifferent tone:—
“Has that man gone?”
“Do you refer to your uncle, Benjamin?” asked Mrs. Oakley, not altogether pleased to hear Mr. Huxter spoken of in that style, though she felt no very warm attachment for him herself.
“I mean Mr. Huxter,” said Ben, carelessly, breaking an egg as he spoke.
“He is your uncle.”
“I don’t mean to call him so. I’m ashamed of the relationship.”
“He is my brother.”
“That’s your misfortune,” said Ben. “All I know is, that I hope he won’t darken our doors again.”
“What have you against him?”
“He’s a coarse, low man. He isn’t a gentleman. You’re a rich woman now, mother. You’d better cut his acquaintance. He won’t do us any credit. You haven’t invited him to come again, I hope.”
“I don’t think he will come again very soon.”
“He’d better not. How can you expect people to forget that you were the late Mr. Oakley’s house-keeper if you show them such a man as that as your brother?”
This argument had weight with Mrs. Oakley. She wanted to be looked upon as a lady, and she acknowledged to herself that Mr. Huxter’s relationship would be no credit to her. He was coarse and low, as Ben said,—not because he was poor. Wealth would have made no difference in him, except that it might have enabled him to dress better. It would not have diminished the redness of his nose, for instance, or refined his manners. Mrs. Oakley, however, made no comment on what Ben had said, but remarked:—
“At any rate, Ben, your uncle has done us a good turn.”
“What is that, mother?” asked Ben.
“John has gone with him.”
“Gone home with him?”
“How long is he going to stay?”
“How’s that? I don’t understand.”
“John was in the way here. You and he could not agree,—not that I blame you for that,—and I did not like him. Therefore I made an arrangement with my brother to have John board with him. I don’t suppose you’ll miss him much.”
“It’ll be a lucky miss,” said Ben, emphatically. “But John’s rather stubborn. How did you get him to go?”
“He doesn’t know he is to stay. I told him I wanted him to go back with your uncle, in order to attend to a little business for me. When he gets there he’ll find out what it is.”
“Won’t he rave, though?” exclaimed Ben, laughing heartily. “He’ll find it a healthy old boarding-house.”
“I wish you wouldn’t use such language, Ben,” said his mother. “It is my great ambition to see you act and talk like a gentleman.”
“So I do, mother. That’s just the way they talk.”
Mrs. Oakley looked rather incredulous.
“I say, mother, is Uncle Huxter going to prepare John for college?”
Mrs. Oakley laughed—heartily for her.
“Your uncle’s shoe-shop will be the only college John will enter,” she said.
“Do you mean that he is to peg shoes?”
“His pride will have a pretty hard fall.”
“I mean that it shall,” said Mrs. Oakley, compressing her thin lips.
“Well, I don’t envy John. Every dog has his day, and he has had his. It’s our turn now. Another cup of coffee, and not so weak as the last.”
“I don’t think such strong coffee is good for you, Benjamin.”
“Oh bother, don’t be a granny,” said Ben, rudely. “Anybody’d think I was a baby.”
This was the way in which Ben addressed his mother, who deserved his gratitude at least, for she was to him a devoted and self-sacrificing mother, however faulty might be her conduct towards John.
At length Ben’s late breakfast was over, and he left the house to resort to his accustomed haunt,—the hotel bar-room and billiard saloon.
“I wish Ben cared more about study, and was more ambitious,” thought Mrs. Oakley, with a half sigh. “If I could only make him feel as I do!”
It would have been fortunate for Ben if he had inherited his mother’s energy and ambition. The ambition was not a noble one; but at least it would have kept him from low haunts and bad associates, which were all he cared about at present. Though all his mother’s worldly plans should succeed, this was the point in which they were likely to fail. Mrs. Oakley’s punishment would come in all probability through the son for whom she was willing to sacrifice justice and duty.
When Ben had left the house, Mrs. Oakley began to concentrate her thoughts upon that which had first led her to determine upon John’s banishment. This was the hidden will. She could not feel assured of her position until that was found. Until now she had not felt at full liberty to search. She had feared that John might come upon her unexpectedly, and divine her object. Now there was no fear of interruption. She could ransack the house from top to bottom, and no one would understand the motive of her search. She had not communicated her intention to Ben. She trusted in his discretion too little to confide to him any secret of importance, for she was a shrewd and prudent woman.
On this particular morning she had a feeling that she had never had before. There was a confidence that she had never before experienced that success awaited her.
“I must and will find it,” she thought. “This is not a large house. Then there are some parts of it that need not be searched. Mr. Oakley would never have hidden his will in the servants’ rooms, nor in the kitchen. Everywhere else I will search. Let me go to work systematically and thoroughly. This time it shall not be my fault if it escapes me.”
There was a small room on the lower floor, where the late Mr. Oakley used to do the most of his writing. This has already been referred to. Here he kept a desk, and this desk more than once had been searched by Mrs. Oakley. She determined to search it once more, but only for form’s sake.
“He did not mean that I should find it,” she thought. “Therefore he did not conceal it where I should be certain to look first.”
So, though she searched the desk, she was not disappointed when this search, like the preceding, resulted in bringing nothing to light.
“It is as I thought,” she said. “Where shall I search next?”
She selected her own bedchamber, though here, for obvious reasons, she had little hopes of finding the missing document.
“He wouldn’t place it under my very eyes,” she said. “Of course I know that. Still I cannot afford to leave a single place unexplored.”
The result justified her anticipations. So room after room was searched, and no clue was obtained.
“He wouldn’t put it under the carpet,” she thought.
Yet the thought seemed worth following up. She got down on her hands and knees, and felt of every square foot of carpeting in the several rooms to see if she could detect beneath the pressure of any paper. In one place there was a rustle, and she eagerly tore up the carpet. But nothing was revealed save a loose piece of newspaper, which by some chance had got underneath. Disappointed, she nailed down the carpet again.
Where else should she look? All at once a luminous idea came to her.
John’s room,—his old room, of course! Why had she never thought of that? John, of course, was the one who would be most benefited by the new will. If by any chance it should be discovered by him, no harm would result. His father would trust John, when he would not have trusted her or Ben. Mrs. Oakley could not help acknowledging to herself that in that he was right. What strengthened her in this view was, that among the articles of furniture was an old desk which had belonged to Squire Oakley’s father. It was battered and defaced by hard usage, and had been at one time banished to the attic. But John, who was accustomed to study in his room, felt that this old desk would be of use to him, and he had asked to have it transferred to his own chamber. There had been no objection to this, and the transfer took place about a year before Squire Oakley’s death. It had stood in John’s room ever since.
When the new idea came to Mrs. Oakley, she thought at once of this old desk as the probable repository of the will. Her eyes sparkled with anticipated triumph.
“I was a fool not to think of this before,” she said. “If the will is anywhere in the house, it is in John’s room, and in that old desk. At last I am on the right track!”
With a hurried step she entered John’s room. Her hands trembled with nervous agitation. She felt that she was on the brink of an important discovery.
Mrs. Oakley commenced her examination of the old desk, thoroughly convinced that if the missing will were in existence at all, it was hidden there.
It was one of those old desks and bureaus combined, which were so common in the days of our grandfathers. In the drawers beneath, John had been accustomed to keep his clothing; in the desk above, writing materials, and some small articles of no particular importance. These he had not had time to remove before his unexpected departure.
Mrs. Oakley turned those over impatiently, and explored every drawer hurriedly. But she did not discover what she had expected to find. This first failure, however, did not surprise her. She did not expect to find the will lying loosely in any of the drawers. But she suspected that some one drawer might have a false bottom, beneath which the important document would prove to be concealed. She therefore carefully examined every drawer with a view to the discovery of such a place of concealment. But to her disappointment she obtained no clue. The drawers seemed honestly made. For the first time Mrs. Oakley began to doubt whether the will were really in existence. She had searched everywhere, and it could not be found.
“I wish I could be sure,” she said to herself. “I would give five hundred dollars this minute to be sure that there was no will. Then I should feel secure in the possession of my money. But to feel that at any moment a paper may turn up depriving me of forty thousand dollars keeps me in constant anxiety.”
She gave up the search for the day, having domestic duties to attend to. She tried to persuade herself that her fears and anxieties were without foundation, but in this she was unsuccessful. She permitted a day to slip by, but on the second day she again visited John’s room. The old desk seemed to have a fascination for her.
This time she turned the desk around, and passed her hand slowly over the back. Just when she was about to relinquish the attempt in despair, success came.
Suddenly beneath her finger a concealed spring was unconsciously touched, and a thin drawer sprang from the recesses of the desk. Mrs. Oakley’s eyes sparkled with the sense of approaching triumph, as she perceived carefully laid away therein a paper compactly folded.
With fingers trembling with nervous agitation she opened it. She had not been deceived. The missing will lay outspread before her! Mrs. Oakley read it carefully.
It was drawn up with the usual formalities, as might have been expected, being the work of a careful lawyer. It revoked all other wills of a previous date, and bequeathed in express terms two-thirds of the entire estate left by the testator to his only son, John. Squire Selwyn was appointed executor, and guardian of said John, should he be under age at the time of his father’s death. The remaining third of the property was willed to Mrs. Jane Oakley, should she survive her husband; otherwise to her son Benjamin in the event of his mother’s previous death.
Such was the substance of Squire Oakley’s last will and testament, now for the first time revealed.
Mrs. Oakley read it with mingled feelings,—partly of indignation with her late husband that he should have made such a will, partly of joy that no one save herself knew of its existence. She held in her hand a document which in John Oakley’s hands would be worth forty thousand dollars if she permitted him to obtain it. But she had no such intention. What should be done with it?
Should she lock it up carefully where it would not be likely to be found? There would be danger of discovery at any moment.
“It must be destroyed,” she said to herself, resolutely. “There is no other way. A single match will make me secure in the possession of the estate.”
Mrs. Oakley knew that it was a criminal act which she had in view; but the chance of detection seemed to be slight. In fact, since no one knew that such a will was in existence, though some might suspect it, there seemed to be no danger at all.
“Yes, it shall be destroyed and at once. There can be no reason for delay,” she said firmly.
She crossed the entry into her own chamber, first closing the secret drawer, and moving the old desk back to its accustomed place. There was a candle on the mantel-piece, which she generally lighted at night. She struck a match, and lighted it now. This done, she approached the will to the flame, and the corner of the document so important to John Oakley caught fire, and the insidious flame began to spread. Mrs. Oakley watched it with exulting eyes, when a sudden step was heard at the door of her chamber, and, turning, she saw Hannah, the servant-girl, standing on the threshold, looking in.
Mrs. Oakley half rose, withdrawing the will from the candle, and demanded harshly:—
“What brought you here?”
“Shall I go out to the garden and get some vegetables for dinner?” asked Hannah.
“Of course you may. You needn’t have come up here to ask,” said her mistress, with irritation.
“I didn’t know whether you would want any,” said Hannah, defending herself. “There was some cold vegetables left from yesterday’s dinner. I thought maybe you’d have them warmed over.”
“Well, if there are enough left you may warm them. I’ll come down just as soon as I can. I have been looking over some old papers of my husband’s,” she explained, rather awkwardly, perceiving that Hannah’s eyes were bent curiously upon the will and the candle, “and burning such as were of no value. Do you know what time it is?”
“Most eleven, by the kitchen clock,” said Hannah.
“Then you had better go down, and hurry about dinner.”
“I can take down the old papers, and put them in the kitchen stove,” suggested Hannah.
“It’s of no consequence,” said Mrs. Oakley, hastily. “I will attend to that myself.”
“Mrs. Oakley seems queer this morning,” thought Hannah, as she turned and descended the stairs to her professional duties in the kitchen. “I wonder what made her jump so when I came in, and what that paper is that she was burning up in the candle.”
Hannah had never heard of the will, and was unacquainted with legal technicalities, and therefore her suspicions were not excited. She only wondered what made Mrs. Oakley seem so queer.
When she went out Mrs. Oakley sat in doubt.
“Hannah came in at a most unlucky moment,” she said to herself, with vexation. “Could she have suspected anything? If she should breathe a word of this, and it should get to that lawyer’s ears, I might get into trouble.”
Mrs. Oakley held the will in her hand irresolutely. Should she follow out her first intention, and burn it? A feeling of apprehension as to the possible consequences of her act prevented her. The flame had gone out, leaving the corner scorched, and slightly burned; but apart from this the will was uninjured.
After a pause of deliberation, Mrs. Oakley blew out the candle, and, taking the will, opened the upper drawer of her bureau, and deposited it carefully inside. She locked it securely, and, putting the key in her pocket, went downstairs.
Before doing so, however, she went to the closet in which she kept her wardrobe, and, selecting a handsome silk cape, took it down with her.
“Hannah,” she said, “here’s a cape I shall not use again. It doesn’t fit me exactly. If you would like it, it is yours.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said the astonished Hannah, for this was the first present she had ever received from her mistress; “you’re very kind indeed. It is an elegant cape.”
“Yes, it is a nice one. I am glad you like it.”
“The mistress must be crazy,” thought the bewildered Hannah. “I never knew her to do such a thing before, and I’ve lived here three years come October.”
Mrs. Oakley’s door-bell rang, and Hannah answered the summons.
“Is Mrs. Oakley at home?” inquired Squire Selwyn, for it was he.
“Yes, sir. Will you walk in?”
“I think I will. Let her know that I wish to see her, if you please.”
Hannah did as directed.
“Squire Selwyn?” asked Mrs. Oakley. “Where is he?”
“In the parlor.”
“Very well. I will go in at once.”
“Has he found out anything about John, I wonder?” thought Mrs. Oakley.
“Good-morning, sir,” she said, as she entered the lawyer’s presence.
“Good-morning, Mrs. Oakley.”
“Is your family well?”
“Quite well. My son tells me that John has been absent from school for two or three days past.”
“He is not sick, I suppose?”
“You will excuse my questions; but his father and myself were very intimate friends. Is he at home?”
“No, he is not.”
“I suppose you have no objection to telling me where he is?”
“Suppose I have?” said Mrs. Oakley, coolly.
“Then I should think it very strange.”
“You are at liberty to think it very strange,” said Mrs. Oakley, composedly.
“Why should you object to telling me that he went away with your brother, Mr. Huxter, and is now at his house?”
Mrs. Oakley started in surprise. The lawyer was better informed than she supposed.
“If you knew,” she answered, after a slight pause, “why need you inquire?”
“I wished to know whether you had sent him away, intending to keep his destination a secret.”
“I suppose he has written to you.”
“He did write to me; but the letter was suppressed by your brother. May I inquire whether this was by your wish?”
“What you tell me is news to me,” said Mrs. Oakley; “but I have no hesitation in saying that my brother understands my wishes, and will carry them out.”
“I am answered,” said the lawyer. “Is it your intention to permit John to continue his studies preparatory for college?”
“It is not.”
“It was his father’s wish and intention. That wish ought to be sacred with you.”
“I understand my duty.”
“I trust you will do something more than understand it,” said the lawyer, gravely. “I must remonstrate with you on your intentions with regard to John. He is an excellent scholar, and his abilities are superior. It would be a great pity that he should be debarred from the privilege of a college education.”
“You say he is an excellent scholar,” said Mrs. Oakley. “Then, if his education is already so excellent, there is no further need of his studying. He can begin to earn his living.”
“Surely you do not mean what you say. If he were poor, and such a necessity existed, it would be well enough that he should go to work; but you well know that no such necessity exists.”
“I am not going to support him in idleness,” said Mrs. Oakley, coolly.
“As a student in college he would lead far from an idle life,” said the lawyer. “Study is hard work, and college distinction is never won by a lazy student.”
“It may be work, though to my mind it is not; but it brings in no money.”
“Not at first, perhaps, but it prepares the student for remunerative employment in after life.”
“I don’t think much of colleges.”
Though Mrs. Oakley said this, she would have been very glad to have Ben in college, not that she cared so much to have him a scholar, but it would give him a good social standing.
“I don’t know,” said Squire Selwyn, rather sharply, for he was getting out of patience with Mrs. Oakley,—”I don’t know that it matters much what your opinion of colleges is. It was, as you know, the desire and intention of your late husband that John should enter college. It is your moral duty to carry out that intention.”
“I don’t care to be told what is my duty,” said Mrs. Oakley, her eyes flashing.
“Do you propose to be independent of public opinion?”
“Perhaps you mean your opinion?”
“Not mine alone. Let me tell you, Mrs. Oakley, that in defrauding John Oakley of the privileges which his father meant him to enjoy, you are wronging the dead as well as the living,—not John alone, but the dead husband from whom all your money comes.”
“He chose to leave all his money to me,” said Mrs. Oakley, “Probably he thought that I would know how to dispose of it without outside advice.”
“I am not so sure that he did leave his money to you,” said the lawyer, significantly.
Mrs. Oakley flushed. Could he know that the will was found? Involuntarily she put her hand to her pocket, where the will was at that moment lying concealed. But a moment’s reflection satisfied her that Hannah, who had not left the house, could not have had a communication with Squire Selwyn. Besides, there was no probability of Hannah’s suspecting the nature of the document which she had seen in the candle.
“You have not forgotten that there was a will executed three months before Mr. Oakley died,” added Squire Selwyn,—”a will by which John would have come into possession of two-thirds of the estate.”
“I have heard a great deal about that will,” retorted Mrs. Oakley. “Undoubtedly my husband destroyed it, as unjust to me.”
“I don’t see how it was unjust to you. It left the property as the law would have left it.”
“Very well, where is the will? If you will produce it, I shall of course surrender to John all except the third which comes to me.”
“I wish I could produce it.”
“But you can’t,” said Mrs. Oakley, triumphantly, looking the lawyer in the face.
“In my opinion it has never been properly searched for,” said the lawyer. “I have the strongest reason to believe that it exists.”
“May I inquire what is that reason?” asked Mrs. Oakley.
“Mr. Oakley, in his last sickness, spoke to John about the will.”
“What did he say about it?” asked the lady. “This is the first I have heard of it.”
“Unfortunately he was so low that he was unable to declare where it was.”
Mrs. Oakley looked relieved.
“But John heard the words ‘secret drawer.’”
“Then you conclude that the will is still in existence.”
“And where do you think it is?”
“Somewhere in this house,” said Squire Selwyn, emphatically.
“It is strange then that it has not been found,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“I do not think so. If hidden in a secret drawer, it would naturally be difficult to find.”
Mrs. Oakley rapidly made up her mind what to do. She saw that Squire Selwyn was suspicious of her. By a show of fair dealing she could allay those suspicions, and this would be worth while.
“If this will exists,” she said, “it ought to be found.”
“So I think,” said the lawyer, surprised to hear her speak thus.
“And though its discovery would be to my disadvantage, I certainly shall not object to a search. Are you at leisure now to assist me in such a search?”
“I am,” said the lawyer. “I think there is no time like the present.”
“Then let us begin in this very room.”
“It wouldn’t be likely to be here. Still it is best not to slight any possible place of concealment.”
Assisted by Mrs. Oakley, Squire Selwyn commenced a strict search, beginning with the parlor, and proceeding from room to room. He little suspected how near him the document was all the time. Of course the search proved fruitless.
“There is one room which has not yet been searched,” said Mrs. Oakley,—”the only one except the kitchen, in which Mr. Oakley would be hardly likely to conceal it. I mean my own room.”
“There’s no occasion to search there.”
“I would prefer that the search should be thorough. Here are my keys. I would rather have you go up.”
Thus requested, Squire Selwyn complied with the request. He returned from the quest disappointed.
“It is very strange,” he thought. “I am firmly convinced that my friend Oakley left a will in existence. But where is it?”
That question he was unable to answer.
“I cannot find the will,” he said.
“I am glad you have searched,” said Mrs. Oakley. “The fact that I have given you every facility for searching proves that I am perfectly willing that my husband’s will should be carried out.”
“And his wishes as well?”
“What do you refer to?”
“I refer to John’s education.”
“I have made up my mind as to that,” said Mrs. Oakley, briefly.
“Do you consider your brother’s house a suitable home for Mr. Oakley’s son?”
“Why not?” she demanded, sharply.
“Do you think, in setting him to work in a shoe-shop, you are doing as his father wished?”
“I do not know where you got your information, Mr. Selwyn,” said Mrs. Oakley, angrily, “but I must tell you that you are meddling with business that does not concern you. As you were my husband’s lawyer, and drew up the will which you thought in existence, I have asked you to search for it; I have even opened my own chamber to your search. You ought to be satisfied by this time that you are mistaken. In doing this, I have done all that I intend doing. I shall take my own course with John Oakley, who is dependent upon me, and whatever you choose to think or say can have no effect upon me. Good-afternoon, sir.”
Mrs. Oakley swept from the room, and Squire Selwyn left the house, feeling that his visit had not benefited John in the slightest degree. That night he wrote John a letter.
It was Mr. Huxter’s intention to set John to work as soon as possible; but it so happened that the shoe business, in which he was engaged, had been for some time unusually dull, and had not yet revived. To this circumstance our hero was indebted for the comparative freedom which for a few days he was permitted to enjoy. During that time he was waiting anxiously for the expected letter from Squire Selwyn. He wished to know whether his stepmother was resolutely determined upon her present course with regard to himself, before he decided to take the matter into his own hands, and help himself in his own way. Upon one thing he was fully resolved,—not to remain much longer a member of Mr. Huxter’s household.
As the letter was to come to the Milbank post-office, on the fourth afternoon he walked over to that village. This time he was not fortunate enough to meet David Wallace, and therefore had a long and tiresome walk.
“Is there a letter here for John Oakley?” he inquired of the postmaster.
“John Oakley,” said the old official, looking under his glasses. “Do you live round here?”
“I am passing a short time in the neighborhood,” said John.
The postmaster took some time to adjust his spectacles, and a longer time in looking over the letters. John waited anxiously, fearing that he had taken the long walk for nothing. But he was destined to be more fortunate.
“You said your name was John Oakley?” repeated the official, balancing a letter in his hand.
“Yes,” said John, quickly.
“Then here’s a letter for you. It looks like Squire Selwyn’s writing.”
“It is from him,” said John.
“Then you know him?”
“Yes,” said John, mechanically, impatiently tearing open the letter.
“He’s a good lawyer, the squire is,” said the postmaster. “He was here only last week.”
“Yes, I saw him.”
This was the letter which John received:—
“My dear young Friend:—I called upon your stepmother yesterday in the afternoon, hoping to induce her to adopt different measures with regard to yourself. I regret to say that I failed utterly in my mission. She will not permit you to go to college, declaring that you have already a sufficient education. Nor will she remove you from the house of Mr. Huxter, though I represented that he was not a proper person to have the charge of you.
“We had some conversation about the missing will. I was a little surprised by her suggesting that I should search the house for it. I was glad of the opportunity, and proceeded to do so. I made the search as thorough as possible, but discovered nothing. I still believe, however, that the will is in existence, unless it has been destroyed since your father’s death.
“I hardly know what to advise under the circumstances. If you should leave Mr. Huxter, I advise you to seek your aunt at Wilton, and I shall be glad to hear from you when you have arrived there. If you should need money, do not hesitate to apply to me, remembering that I am your father’s friend.”
“Your true friend,
“P. S. I enclose a few lines from Sam.”
There was another sheet inside the envelope, on which John recognized easily Sam’s familiar handwriting. He was very glad to hear from Sam, for whom he felt a warm attachment.
Here is Sam’s letter:—
“Dear John:—I have been missing you awfully. I couldn’t think what had become of you till father told me he had seen you at Milbank. So you are in the spider’s clutches, you poor innocent fly? A nice time you must have of it with old Huxter. I declare I’ve no patience with Mrs. Oakley, when I think of the way she has treated you. I can’t do anything to her; but I’ll take it out in tricks on Ben. By the way, your amiable stepbrother has got a new friend,—a flashy young man from New York, who sports a lot of bogus jewelry, and smokes from ten to a dozen cigars a day, and spends his time in lounging about the billiard and bar room. He isn’t doing Ben any good. They play billiards a good deal, and he tells Ben stories about the city, which I expect will make Ben want to go there. Do you think Mrs. Oakley will let him?
“You’ve no idea how I miss you, old fellow. All the hard parts in Virgil and Xenophon come to me now. I don’t enjoy studying half so much now that you are away. If I were you, I’d give old Huxter the slip some fine morning. I only wish you could come and stay at our house. Wouldn’t it be jolly? I know father would like it; but I suppose people would talk, and Mrs. Oakley would make a fuss.
“Well, it’s time for me to go to studying. Keep up a stiff upper lip, and never say die. Things will be sure to come round. One thing, you must be sure to write to me as soon as you can. Tell me all about how you’re getting along with the monstrum horrendum informe. Of course I mean old Huxter.”
“Your affectionate friend,
John felt much better after reading these letters. He felt that, whatever might be the hardships of his present lot, he had two good friends who sympathized with him. He read over the lawyer’s letter once more. Though he didn’t expressly advise him to leave Mr. Huxter, it was evident that he expected him to do so. John himself had no doubts on that point. He felt that he would be willing anywhere else to work for his living; but to remain in his present position was insupportable. He could feel neither regard nor respect for Mr. Huxter. He witnessed daily with indignation the manner in which he treated his poor wife, whom he sincerely pitied. But it was not his business to interfere between man and wife. No, he could not stay any longer in such a house. To-morrow morning he would rise early, and, before Mr. Huxter woke, bid a silent farewell to Jackson, and start on his journey to Wilton.
When he reached his boarding-place, it was already four o’clock in the afternoon. Mr. Huxter had come home just drunk enough to be ugly. He had inquired of his wife where John was. She couldn’t tell him.
“What business has he to leave the house without permission?” he growled.
“He is old enough for that, surely,” said Mrs. Huxter.
“Shut up, Mrs. Huxter! What do you know about it?” said her husband. “The boy needs a good flogging.”
“I’m sure he’s a very good boy,” said Mrs. Huxter. “He is quite a young gentleman.”
“He is altogether too much of a young gentleman,” said Mr. Huxter. “He puts on too many airs for me.”
“You are not just to him, Mr. Huxter.”
“How many times, Mrs. Huxter, must I request you to mind your own business?” said her husband, coarsely. “Do you know what I am going to do?”
“What?” asked his wife, with apprehension.
“I’m going to cut a stout stick out in the orchard, and give the young gentleman a lesson when he returns. That’s what I’m going to do.”
“Oh don’t, Mr. Huxter!” implored his wife, clasping his arm.
But Mr. Huxter was in one of his ugly fits, and shaking off his wife’s grasp, went out into the orchard, taking out his jack-knife. He returned in a few minutes with a thick stick in his hand, which boded no good to poor John.
Mrs. Huxter turned pale with apprehension, and earnestly hoped John would not return until her husband had forgotten his resolution. But this was not to be. She heard a step upon the threshold, and John entered by the back way. Mr. Huxter tightened the grasp upon his stick, and smiled grimly.
“Where’ve you been, Oakley?” he demanded, abruptly.
“I have been over to Milbank,” said John, quietly, not knowing the intention of the questioner.
“What did you go over to Milbank for?” asked Huxter.
“I didn’t know there was any objection to my going,” said John.
“What business had you to go without asking my leave?”
“I didn’t suppose there was any need of my asking you whether I could go or not.”
“You’re an impudent young rascal!” exclaimed Mr. Huxter.
“What reason have you for calling me that?” asked John, calmly. He saw that Mr. Huxter had been drinking, and did not wish to get into a dispute with him.
“You needn’t think you can put on any of your airs here. I won’t stand it!” vociferated Huxter, gradually working himself up into a rage.
“I don’t want to put on any airs, Mr. Huxter,” said John.
“Do you mean to contradict me?” demanded Huxter, glaring at John.
“You had better go out,” said Mrs. Huxter, in a low voice.
“He shan’t go out! He shall stay,” roared Huxter. “I’ll thank you not to interfere, Mrs. Huxter. I’m going to flog the young jackanape.”
He seized his stick and made a rush at John. Our hero, knowing he could not cope with him, and besides not wishing to get into a fight in the presence of Mrs. Huxter, dodged the angry man. This made Mr. Huxter, whose blood was now up, all the more eager to get hold of him. John, however, succeeded in eluding him once more. This time, however, Mr. Huxter was unlucky. Mrs. Huxter had been washing, and the tub full of quite warm water had been temporarily placed upon the floor of the kitchen. Mr. Huxter, whose motions were not over-steady, slipped, and, falling backward, sat down in the tub.
He gave a yell of pain, and John, taking advantage of the accident, ran out of the door. But Mr. Huxter was in no condition to follow him. The water was not hot enough to scald him; but it certainly made him feel very uncomfortable.
“The young rascal has killed me,” he groaned. “I’m scalded to death, and I suppose you’re glad of it, Mrs. Huxter. You put the tub there on purpose.”
Mr. Huxter took off his clothes and went to bed, swearing at his poor wife, who he declared was in league with John.
“There’s no help for it now,” said John to himself. “I must leave this house to-morrow.”
“To-morrow I will leave Jackson,” thought John, as he undressed himself, and jumped into bed.
His spirits rose as he made this resolution. It had been very irksome to him to feel that he was under the control of such a man as Mr. Huxter,—a man for whom it was impossible for him to feel either respect or regard. Under any circumstances it would have been disagreeable for him to remain, but off from the studies in which he had taken delight, the time passed heavily; he felt that he had no longer an object in life. But the petty persecutions to which he was subjected made it intolerable, and he was satisfied that the accident which had befallen Mr. Huxter would only make matters worse.
Meanwhile Mr. Huxter, on his bed below, cherished thoughts the reverse of agreeable concerning our hero.
“I’ll come up with the young rascal,” he muttered. “He’ll find it’s a bad day’s work he’s done for himself.”
“It wasn’t his fault, Mr. Huxter,” said his wife, who wanted justice done.
“Why isn’t it his fault?” said her husband, looking at her with a frown.
“He didn’t know you would slip into the tub.”
“And I shouldn’t wonder if you put it there, Mrs. Huxter. It was a regular trap.”
“I put it there just for a few minutes. I was going to move it.”
“Yes, after you had accomplished your object, and got me scalded.”
“You ought not to say such things, Mr. Huxter. You know I was innocent of any such intention.”
“Oh, of course nobody was to blame! That’s always the way. But it isn’t much comfort to me.”
“I don’t see how anybody was to blame.”
“Well, I do,” said Mr. Huxter, savagely. “As soon as I get up, I’ll give Oakley such a flogging as he never got before.”
It was a great disappointment to Mr. Huxter that he could not carry out his benevolent design at once; but he felt too uncomfortable for that.
“I wish you had never brought him here,” said Mrs. Huxter. “I am sure he cannot enjoy himself much here.”
“I don’t care whether he enjoys himself or not,” said her husband. “We get six dollars a week for his board,—that’s the main point. And next week, when I set him to work in the shop, we’ll make a pretty good thing out of him.”
“I don’t believe he will be willing to work in the shop. He knows that you get paid for his board.”
“I think I can persuade him with the horsewhip,” said Mr. Huxter, significantly.
At that moment John’s steps were heard as he ascended the attic stairs on his way to bed.
A new thought came to Mr. Huxter about an hour later. He reflected that it was in John’s power to elude his vengeance by escaping, and this he had no intention of permitting.
“Mrs. Huxter,” he said.
“Do you want anything?”
“Yes, I want you to go upstairs, and fasten the door of John Oakley’s chamber.”
“No matter what for. Go and do it, and I will tell you afterwards.”
“He won’t be able to come downstairs in the morning.”
“I don’t mean that he shall. I’ll keep him in his room for twenty-four hours on bread and water. It’ll be a good lesson for him. Come, are you going? If you don’t I’ll get out of bed myself, and go up.”
Mrs. Huxter thought it best to comply with the command accompanied by such a threat. Much against her will, therefore, she went up and secured the door of John’s chamber by a bolt placed upon the outside. She hoped that her husband would forget all about it during the night, so that she might release John before he had learned that he had been a prisoner.
It was about half-past three that John awoke. He did not know what time it was, but conjectured that it might be near four. Though he still felt sleepy, he deemed it advisable to lose no more time, but escape while Mr. Huxter was asleep. He accordingly dressed himself as carefully as he could, in the imperfect light, and went on tiptoe to the door. He tried to open it, but without success. Thinking that the door might stick, he made another attempt. This time he understood the state of things.
“I have been bolted in,” he said to himself. “Can Mr. Huxter have suspected my plan?”
Whether this was or was not the case John was unable to determine.
He sat down on the bed, and reflected what he had better do. Should he give up the attempt, and go to bed again? No; he was resolved not to relinquish his plan while there was any chance of carrying it out.
He went to the window and looked out. If it had been on the second floor the difficulty would have been less, but it was an attic window, and over twenty feet from the ground. There was no ell part beneath; but the distance to the ground was unbroken.
A sudden thought struck John. He turned up the bed, and found that it rested upon an interlacing cord. Why could he not detach this cord, and, fastening it to some fixed object in the chamber, descend with safety to the ground? The plan no sooner occurred to John than he determined to carry it into execution.
The rope proved to be quite long enough for his purpose. He fastened one end securely, and dropped the other over the sill. Looking down, he saw that it nearly reached the ground. He had no fear of trusting himself to it. He had always been good at climbing ropes, and was very strong in the arms.
“After all,” he thought, “this is better than to have gone downstairs. I might have stumbled over something in the dark, and Mr. Huxter would have been roused by the noise.”
He got out of the window, and swung out. He let himself down as noiselessly as possible. In less than a minute he stood upon the ground, under the gray morning sky.
He looked up to Mr. Huxter’s window, but everything was still. Evidently no one had heard him.
“So far, so good,” thought John. “Now I must travel as many miles as possible between now and six o’clock. That will give me a good start if I am pursued.”
John hoped he would meet no one who would recognize him. But in this he was disappointed. He had walked six miles, when he heard his name called from behind. Startled, he looked back hastily, and to his relief discovered that the call came from David Wallace, who had taken him up on his first journey to Milbank.
“Where are you going, John?” asked David. “Don’t you want to ride?”
“Thank you,” said John.
He jumped on board the wagon, and took a seat beside David.
“You are travelling early, David,” he said.
“Just what I was going to say to you,” said David, laughing. “Are you walking for your health?”
“Not exactly,” said John. “I’ve a great mind to tell you. You won’t tell?”
“Then, I’ve left Mr. Huxter without bidding him good-by.”
“Good!” said David. “I don’t blame you a bit. Tell me how it happened.”
David was highly amused at Mr. Huxter’s adventure with the tub.
“I must tell that to George Sprague,” he exclaimed. “It’s a good joke.”
“I’m afraid Mr. Huxter wouldn’t agree with you there.”
“He never does agree with anybody. Now tell me how you managed to walk off.”
John narrated how he found himself locked in, and how he resorted to the expedient of the bed-cord.
“You’re a trump, John!” said David, slapping him on the shoulder. “I didn’t think you had so much spunk.”
“What did you think of me?” asked John, smiling.
“You see you’re such a quiet fellow, you don’t look as if you were up to such things. But what will you do if Mr. Huxter pursues you?”
“I can tell better when the time comes,” said John.
“You wouldn’t go back with him?”
“Not if I could help myself. I don’t feel that he has any right to control me. He isn’t my guardian, and he is the last man, I know, that my father would be willing to trust me with.”
“I wish I could see how he looks when he finds you are gone. If you’d like to send him your love I could go round by the house on my way back.”
“I don’t think I shall need to trouble you, David,” said John.
“Whereabouts are you going?”
“I have an aunt living about fifty miles away. I shall go there for the present.”
“Well, I’m sorry you’re going to leave Jackson. I mean I’m sorry I shan’t see you any more. Can’t you write to me now and then?”
“I would but for one thing,” said John.
“I am afraid the letters would be noticed by the postmaster, and put Mr. Huxter on the track. I don’t want to have any more to do with him.”
“There’s something in that. I didn’t think of it. At any rate I hope we’ll meet again some time.”
“So do I, David. You have been very kind to me, and I shall not forget it. I don’t know what lies before me, but I shall keep up good courage, hoping that things will come out right in the end.”
“That’s the best way. But I am afraid I must bid you good-by here. I turn up that side road. I suppose you are going straight ahead.”
“I wish I could carry you further.”
“It’s been quite a help what I have already ridden.”
“Whoa, Dan!” said David, and the horse stopped.
“Good-by, David,” said John, as he jumped out of the wagon.
“Good-by, John. Then you haven’t any message to send back to Mr. Huxter?”
“Not to him,” said John; “but,” he added, after a moment’s thought, “if you happen to see Mrs. Huxter, just let her know that you saw me, and that I am grateful for all she tried to do for me.”
“You’re sure she won’t tell her husband?”
“No; she acted like a good friend. I would like to have said good-by; but it wouldn’t do.”
“All right, I’ll remember what you say. Good-by, old fellow.”
John estimated that he was now nearly ten miles from his starting-place. The sun was already shining brightly, and it promised to be a fine day. Our hero began to feel hungry. The fresh morning air had given him an appetite.
Mr. Huxter felt better after a night’s rest. In fact, his injuries had not been as serious as he wished Mrs. Huxter to suppose. The truth is, he was a coward, and even a small sickness terrified him. But with the morning, finding himself very little inconvenienced by his mishap of the day previous, his courage returned, and with it his determination to wreak condign vengeance on John.
“How do you feel, Mr. Huxter?” asked his wife.
“I feel like whipping that young scamp, Oakley,” said her husband.
“He has done nothing that deserves punishment, I am sure.”
“Of course, scalding me is a very slight affair, in your opinion; but I happen to think differently,” he said, with a sneer.
He drew on his pantaloons as he spoke, and seizing a leather strap, left the room.
“Oh, dear,” sighed Mrs. Huxter, “I do wish Mr. Huxter wouldn’t be so violent. I don’t see what can have turned him so against that poor boy. I am sure he’s very polite and gentlemanly.”
She wanted to say more, in the hope of dissuading her husband from his harsh resolution, but she dared not. She went to the foot of the attic stairs to listen, fearing that she would hear the sounds of an altercation. She saw Mr. Huxter draw the bolt and enter the chamber, but she was quite unprepared to see him burst forth furiously a minute later, exclaiming in a rage:—
“He’s gone,—the young rascal has escaped.”
“Escaped?” repeated Mrs. Huxter, bewildered, for she could not conceive how John could escape from a third-story room when the door was bolted.
“Ha, are you there?” demanded her husband. “What do you know of this?” he asked, suspiciously.
“Nothing at all,” said Mrs. Huxter. “I don’t see how he could have got away.”
“You’ll see plain enough if you come upstairs,” said her husband. “He got out of the window.”
“Jumped out?” gasped Mrs. Huxter.
“Slid down by the bed-cord, you fool!” said her husband, who was too angry to be polite.
“I declare!” exclaimed Mrs. Huxter, in a tone indicating her surprise.
“Did you advise him to run away?” asked Mr. Huxter.
“Of course not.”
“And did you know nothing of his going? Didn’t he tell you?” he asked, suspiciously.
“Not a word. But I’m glad he’s gone,—I really am.”
“You’re glad we’ve lost six dollars a week, are you?” growled her husband. “You’d like to see us starvin’, I suppose. But you needn’t be in such a hurry to be glad. I’ll have him back yet, and then if he doesn’t get the tallest kind of a flogging, that’ll sicken him of running away forever, my name is not Huxter.”
“You’d better let him go, husband. Don’t go after him.”
“You’ll oblige me by minding your business, Mrs. Huxter. I shall go after him, as soon as I have eaten breakfast.”
Meanwhile John, feeling very hungry, as was stated at the close of the last chapter, determined to get a breakfast at the first inn on the road. He had only to walk a mile further, when he came to a country inn, with its long piazza, and stable-yard alongside. It had a comfortable look, suggestive of good old-fashioned hospitality.
John walked through the front entrance, chancing to meet the landlord.
“Can I have some breakfast?” he asked.
“Are you travelling alone?” asked the landlord, who was a Yankee.
“Well, I guess we can give you some. What would you like?”
“I should like some beefsteak and a couple of eggs.”
“Coffee or tea?”
“How soon will it be ready, sir? I’ve taken a long walk, and am very hungry.”
“You won’t have to wait long. Here, Betty, just get up some breakfast for this young man. Beefsteak, boiled eggs, and coffee. As quick as you can.”
In twenty minutes John was told that breakfast was ready. He was shown into rather a cheerless dining-room, but the meat emitted a savory odor, and he enjoyed the meal better, it seemed to him, than ever before in his life. He rose from the table at length with a sigh of enjoyment. Going into the office he called for his bill.
“Fifty cents,” said the landlord.
John produced a two-dollar bill, and the change was returned to him.
“Not going to stay with us?” said the landlord, interrogatively.
“No,” said John; “I’ve got to travel further.”
“Where may you have come from?”
“From Jackson this morning,” said John.
“Did you walk? It’s a pretty long stretch,—hard upon ten miles.”
“I rode part of the way.”
“And where are you bound?”
John was beginning to tire of this persistent questioning, and would have declined answering, but that he feared this would excite suspicion.
“I am going to Redport,” he answered.
Redport, as he had ascertained, was the next town on the route. He did not think it necessary to mention that he was going considerably further.
“Redport!” repeated the landlord.
“Yes. How far is it?”
“It’s a matter of six miles. Are you going to walk?”
“Yes, unless I find somebody that’s going that way.”
“I’m going over myself this afternoon. If you’ll wait till that time you may go with me.”
“Thank you,” said John; “but I don’t think I will wait. I’ve got pretty good legs, and I shan’t mind the walk.”
“You can get over in two hours easy. Ever been that way before?”
“Well, it’s a straight road. You can’t miss it.”
John left the landlord’s presence with a feeling of relief. He had declined his offer for two reasons: partly because he did not want to wait till afternoon, but principally because the landlord would be sure to ask where he intended to stop in Redport, which would of course embarrass him.
John waited about half an hour, as he did not wish to walk immediately after a hearty meal. Then, having cut a stick from a tree by the roadside, he went on his way.
Twenty minutes after his departure, Mr. Huxter rode up to the inn which he had just left. That gentleman had procured a fast horse from the stable, for the pursuit of the runaway. It was rather extravagant, to be sure; but then Mr. Huxter felt that he must have John back at all hazards. He could not afford to let a boy escape who paid him three hundred dollars a year, besides the work he intended to get out of him. Then again, he thought, by proper representations, he could induce his sister to pay all the expenses attending John’s capture.
“It’s only fair,” he thought, “that Jane should pay for the team, if I give my time.”
So Mr. Huxter sped along the road at a rapid rate. He had taken the right road by chance, and having met a boy who had met John and described his appearance accurately, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was on the track of the fugitive.
Arriving at the tavern, it occurred to him that John might have stopped to rest, if nothing more. He accordingly descended hastily from the carriage, and accosted the landlord, whom he knew slightly.
“Good-morning, Mr. Jones.”
“Good-morning, Mr. Huxter. Going to stop with us?”
“I can’t stop now. Have you seen anything of a boy of about fifteen, rather stout built, who must have passed this way lately?”
“Blue suit?” interrogated the landlord.
“Yes; have you seen him?”
“You don’t mean to say you’re after him?”
“Yes, I do. But have you seen him?”
“Yes, he took breakfast here only an hour ago. Son of yours?”
“No, he was my nephew.”
“Run away, hey?”
“Yes; he’s been acting badly, and I suppose he thought I was going to punish him; so the young rascal took to his heels.”
“Sho! you don’t say so! He paid for his breakfast all right.”
“You can judge how he came by his money,” said Mr. Huxter.
“You don’t say so! Well, he is a bad case,” said the landlord, who concluded, as it was intended he should, that John had stolen the money. “Well, he don’t look like it.”
“Oh, he’s a deep young rascal!” said Mr. Huxter. “You’d think butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth; but he’s a regular scamp. Which road did he take?”
“He said he was going to Redport.”
“What time did he start?”
“Less than half an hour ago. He can’t have got much over a mile. If you keep on, you’ll be sure to overhaul him.”
“I’ll do that with a vengeance,” said Mr. Huxter.
“Thank you for your information, Mr. Jones. I’ll do as much for you some time.”
“All right. Stop on the way back, won’t you?”
“Well, I don’t know but I will. I only took a mouthful of breakfast, I was in such a hurry to pursue this young scamp.”
“Well, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” thought the landlord. “The boy’s running away has brought me two customers. I had no idea he was such a young rascal.”
“I might as well get a good breakfast,” soliloquized Mr. Huxter. “I can charge it to Jane. She can’t expect me to chase John Oakley over hill and dale on an empty stomach!”
Mr. Huxter began to indulge in pleasing anticipations of what he would do to John when he had captured him, forgetting the good old rule, that before cooking a hare you must catch him.
Meanwhile John was plodding along at a moderate pace. He had no idea of the danger that menaced him. He was now ten or eleven miles away from Jackson, and this gave him a feeling of security; not that the distance was so great, but that, of the many directions in which he might have gone, he saw no reason to think that Mr. Huxter would be likely to guess the right one.
On the whole, John felt in very good spirits. It was a bright, pleasant morning in September, with a clear, bracing air, that lent vigor to his steps. He decided to stop in Redport until after dinner, and then inquire his way more particularly. He determined to take the stage or cars, if he found any that ran across to Wilton. The expense would not be any greater, probably, than the cost of the meal and lodging for which, if he walked, he would be obliged to pay at the country inns.
He had got to the bottom of a hill when he heard the clattering of wheels behind him, and was startled by the sound of a voice only too familiar. “Stop, you rascal!”
John looked round, and his heart made a sudden bound when he recognized the well-known face of Mr. Huxter projecting out of a chaise, which was tearing down the hill at furious speed.
“So I’ve caught you, have I?” exclaimed his pursuer, in exultation. “I’ve got an account to settle with you, you young scamp!”
John was no coward, but he knew that in a physical contest, he, a boy of fifteen, would be no match for a man close upon six feet in height. Discretion was evidently the better part of valor. If he could not overcome his antagonist, could he elude him? He darted a quick glance around, in order to understand the situation and form his plans.
He couldn’t keep on, that was evident. To the right, at the distance of a quarter of a mile, he saw a small pond gleaming in the sunlight. It might have been a mile in circumference. Behind it was a belt of woods. It occurred to John that he might find a boat somewhere along the shore. If so, he could paddle across, and Mr. Huxter would be left in the lurch. If he found no boat, his chances would be small. But at any rate this seemed his only feasible plan. Mr. Huxter was already within a few rods, so there was no time to lose. John clambered up on the stone wall.
“Stop, you rascal!” shouted Mr. Huxter, as soon as he saw this movement.
“I’d rather not,” said John, coolly.
“I’ll give you the worst flogging you ever had!” said his pursuer, provoked.
“That’s no inducement,” said John, as he jumped on the other side, and began to run across the field.
“I’ll make him pay for all the trouble he gives me,” said Mr. Huxter, between his teeth.
He stopped the horse, and jumped into the road. He would like to have pursued John at once, but he did not dare to leave the horse loose, fearing that he would not stand. Although chafing at the delay, he felt that prudence required him to secure the horse, which was a valuable one, before setting out after the fugitive. “The more haste the worse speed,” says an old proverb. So it proved in the present instance. Five minutes were consumed in attaching the horse to the branch of a tree. This done, Mr. Huxter jumped over the stone wall, and looked to see how far John had got. Our hero had already reached the shore of the pond, and was running along beside it. Mr. Huxter’s eyes lighted up with exultation.
“I’ll have him yet,” he muttered. “The pond is in my favor.”
He began to run diagonally to the point John was likely to reach. But suddenly John stopped and bent over.
“What’s he doing?” thought the pursuer puzzled.
A moment revealed the mystery. Reaching the top of a little knoll, he saw John jump into a boat, rowing vigorously from shore. He was only just in time. One minute later, and Mr. Huxter stood at the edge of the pond. He was excessively provoked at the boy’s escape.
“Come back here!” he shouted, authoritatively.
“I would rather not,” said John.
He rested on his oars a moment, and looked calmly at his pursuer. There he was, only three rods distant, and yet quite out of reach. Certainly it was very tantalizing. If there had only been another boat! But there was not. The one which John was in was the only one upon the pond. John felt very comfortable. He fully appreciated the advantage he had over his antagonist.
“Come back here, I say!” screamed Mr. Huxter, stamping his foot.
“Why should I?” asked John, calmly.
“Why should you? Because I’m your guardian.”
“I don’t think you are, Mr. Huxter.”
“At any rate, you’re under my charge.”
“Suppose I come to the shore, what then?” asked John.
“I’ll give you such a flogging that you won’t dare to run away again.”
“In that case,” said John, smiling, “I think I’d better not come.”
“You’d better come, if you know what is best for yourself.”
“But I don’t think a flogging would be best for me,” said John, smiling again.
Mr. Huxter was excessively angry; but he saw that he was on the wrong tack. It was not easy for him to change it, for he felt too provoked; but he saw that he must do it, or give up the chance of capturing John.
“Well,” he said, after a little pause, “then I’ll pass over the flogging this time. But you must come to shore. I want to go home as soon as I can.”
“I am not going home with you,” said John, composedly.
“Why not, I should like to know?”
“I should never be happy at your house.”
“You’re homesick. That will pass off.”
John shook his head.
“I can’t go back.”
“Come, Oakley,” said Mr. Huxter, changing his tone; “you think I bear malice for the little accident that happened yesterday. I don’t mind confessing that it made me feel ugly when I fell into that tub of hot water. You wouldn’t have liked it yourself, would you?”
“No, I don’t think I should,” said John, smiling in spite of himself, as the image of Mr. Huxter’s downfall rose before him.
“You can’t blame me for feeling mad. But I know it was an accident, and I forgive you. You know it’s your duty to come back.”
“I don’t know about that,” said John.
“Your stepmother made the arrangement for your good, and it’s your duty to obey her.”
“Mrs. Oakley has not treated me as I had a right to expect,” said John. “There was no reason for her sending me away from home.”
“She thought it best for you,” said Mr. Huxter, condescending to reason with the boy, who was beyond his reach.
“She took me from school, though she knew that my father wished me to remain there, and get ready for college.”
“She thinks you know enough already. You know more than Ben.”
“Ben doesn’t care for study. He could have prepared for college if he had wished.”
“Well, perhaps you’re right,” said Mr. Huxter, with wily diplomacy. “I didn’t see it in that light before. If your father wanted you to go to college, it’s all right that you should go. I’ll write to my sister as soon as we get home, and tell her how you feel about it. So just come ashore, and we’ll talk it over as we go home.”
Mr. Huxter’s words were smooth enough, but they did not correspond very well with his tone, when the conference began. John detected his insincerity, and understood very well the cause of his apparent mildness.
“I shall be glad to have you write to Mrs. Oakley,” he said; “but there won’t be any need of my going home with you.”
“How can you find out what she writes me?” asked Mr. Huxter, subduing his wrath.
“If Mrs. Oakley is willing to have me go home and attend the academy, as I have been accustomed to do, she can let Squire Selwyn know it, and he will get word to me.”
“Does he know you are running away?” demanded Mr. Huxter, frowning.
“No, he does not; but I shall tell him.”
“Come, Oakley,” said Mr. Huxter, persuasively, “you know this is all wrong,—your running away, I mean. I don’t want you to stay at my house if you don’t like it, of course, but I don’t like to have it said that you ran away. Just come ashore and go home with me, and to-morrow I’ll take the responsibility of sending you home to my sister. I can write her that I think she hasn’t done the right thing by you. That’s fair, isn’t it?”
John felt that it would be fair; but unfortunately he had no faith in Mr. Huxter’s sincerity. He had seen too much of him for that. He could not help thinking of the spider’s gracious invitation to the fly, and he did not mean to incur the fly’s fate by imitating his folly.
“I don’t think it will be wise for me to go back,” said John.
“I wish I could get at you,” said Mr. Huxter to himself.
“My sister will be very angry when she hears of your running away,” he said, aloud.
“Yes,” said John, “I suppose she will.”
“You must take care not to provoke her. You are dependent upon her.”
“That I am not!” said John, proudly.
“Didn’t your father leave her all the property?”
“So it seems,” said John, wincing.
“Then how can you live without her help?”
“I am old enough to earn my own living,” answered John.
“Come, Oakley, don’t be foolish. What’s the use of working for your living, when, by behaving right, you can have a home without?”
Mr. Huxter seemed to forget that he had intended to set John at work in his shoe-shop as soon as he could obtain a supply of work.
“I am not afraid to work,” said John. “What I dislike is to be dependent. I am not dependent upon Mrs. Oakley, for the property which my father left was partly intended for my benefit, even if it was not willed to me. If Mrs. Oakley intends me to feel dependent, and breaks up all my plans, I will go to work for myself, and make my own way in the world.”
“Very fine talk; but you’ll repent it within a week.”
“No,” said John; “I have made up my mind, and I shall do as I have determined.”
“Then you won’t come ashore?” demanded Mr. Huxter, his tone changing.
“No, I will not,” said John.
“If I ever get hold of you, I’ll make you smart for this,” said Mr. Huxter, now wholly throwing off the mask which for prudential motives he had worn.
“I don’t mean that you shall get hold of me,” said John, coolly. And with a sweep of the oars, he sent the boat further from the shore.
Mr. Huxter was beside himself with rage, but perfectly powerless to do any harm. Nothing is more ludicrous than such a spectacle. He screamed himself hoarse, uttering threats of various kinds to John, who, instead of being frightened, took it all very coolly, dipping his oars tranquilly in the water.
“There’s one way of getting at you,” said Huxter, suddenly picking up a good-sized stone and flinging it at the boat.
If he had been a good marksman the stone might have hit John, for the boat was within range; but it veered aside and struck the water. Admonished of a new danger, John took several rapid strokes, and was quickly free from this peril. Mr. Huxter shook his fist wrathfully at the young boatman, and was considering if there was any way of getting at him, when an unexpected mischance called his attention in another direction. Looking towards the road, he found that his horse had managed to break loose, and was now heading for home.
“Whoa!” he shouted, as he ran towards the retreating vehicle, forgetting that his voice would hardly reach a third of a mile.
Certainly this was not one of Mr. Huxter’s lucky days. John was left master of the situation.
At the close of the last chapter we left John floating at his ease in a row-boat, while his pursuer was compelled, by the sudden departure of his horse, to give up his immediate purpose, and chase the flying animal. It was very much against his will that he left John; but the horse, as he knew, was the best in the stable, and valued at not less than three hundred dollars,—a sum which he would be unable to make up. Besides this, the chaise might be injured.
“Curse my luck!” exclaimed Mr. Huxter, as he glanced back at John, with a baffled look. “Every thing turns against me. But I’ll come back after the young rascal as soon as I catch the horse.”
But, unfortunately for Mr. Huxter, it proved that two legs were no match for four. When he got to the road, the horse was half a mile ahead. In spite of his haste, he was obliged to pause a moment and recover his breath, which the unusual exercise of running had exhausted.
Mr. Huxter was nearly two miles distant from the tavern where he had stopped. His only hope was that the horse would stop or be stopped there. As soon as he recovered his breath, he started for the tavern, therefore. Partly running, partly walking, he at length arrived, tired, heated, and in ill-humor.
Entering the yard, he saw a group of men and boys surrounding the horse and chaise, which had already arrived. Among them was Mr. Jones, the landlord.
“Why, here’s the man himself!” exclaimed the landlord, advancing to meet him. “How came your horse to run away? Were you spilled out?”
“No; I tied him to a tree, and he broke loose and ran away. Has he done any harm?” asked Mr. Huxter, nervously.
“He’s smashed one of the wheels in running against a post,” said a bystander.
“Let me see,” said Mr. Huxter, dolefully.
He found that it was as bad as had been told him. The horse made a short turn into the inn-yard, and managed to bring the chaise into collision with a post. The wheel was pretty well shattered.
“Looks bad,” said the bystander. “It’ll cost something to mend it.”
“It can’t be mended,” said Mr. Jones. “You’ll have to get a new wheel.”
“What’ll it cost?” said Mr. Huxter, with something very like a groan.
“I can’t say exactly. Maybe twenty-five dollars will do it.”
“It might have been worse,” said the bystander, in what was meant to be an encouraging tone.
“It’s bad enough,” said Mr. Huxter, fiercely. “It’s just my cursed luck.”
“Was the carriage yours?” asked the landlord.
“No, I got it from a stable. They’ll charge me about double price.”
“Oh, by the way, did you catch the boy?” asked the landlord, in a tone of interest.
“No,” said Mr. Huxter, with an oath which I will omit. “I had just overtaken him when the cursed horse ran away.”
“Well, you are unlucky,” said Jones. “What are you going to do about it?”
“I suppose I must get the carriage home somehow.”
“You might get a new wheel put on here. There’s an excellent wheelwright in the village. It will cost you less.”
Mr. Huxter finally made an arrangement to this effect, the wheelwright agreeing for twenty-five dollars to put the chaise in repair. This, with the stable charge, made thirty dollars as the expense of Mr. Huxter’s little excursion, which, as we have seen, ended in disappointment. He decided not to continue the pursuit of John, having good reason to doubt whether he would catch him.
There was one question which troubled Mr. Huxter: Would his sister be willing to pay this thirty dollars? If not, it would indeed be a bad morning’s work for him. He lost no time, on getting home, in writing to Mrs. Oakley. His letter is subjoined.
“Dear Sister:—I hope these few lines will find you in good health. This comes to inform you that the young rascal that I took to board to accommodate you has run away, after treating me most shameful. I hired a team to go after him this morning; but the horse ran away and broke the carriage, which will cost me forty dollars to mend. (Mr. Huxter thought if Mrs. Oakley was to pay the bill he might as well add something to it.) As I was on your business, you will expect to pay this, of course. You can send the money in a letter. I will get back John Oakley if I can. He is a young scamp, and I don’t wonder you had trouble with him. When I get him back, I will make him toe the mark, you may be sure of that. Please write to me by return mail, and don’t forget the money. Your brother,”
Mr. Huxter did not have to wait long for an answer; but it proved to be less satisfactory than prompt. It ran as follows:—
“My dear Brother:—Your letter has just reached me. I am surprised that you could not manage to control a boy of fifteen. It seems that he has got the best of you. You need not trouble yourself to get him back. If he chooses to run away and earn his own living, he may, for all I care. He is a young rascal, as you say.
“As to the carriage which you say was damaged to the extent of forty dollars, I do not see how it could have happened, with ordinary care. How did it happen? You ought to have told me in your letter. Nor do I see how you can expect me to pay for the result of your carelessness. But even if I were to do it, you seem to forget that I advanced you seventy-five dollars on John’s board. As he has remained only one week, that being deducted will leave a balance of sixty-nine dollars, or perhaps sixty, after taking out travelling expenses. I could rightfully require this back; but I will not be hard on you. You may pay for the damage done to the carriage (I am surprised that it should amount to forty dollars), and keep the balance as a gift from me. But it will be useless for you to make any further claim on me for a year, at least, as I have large expenses, and charity begins at home. Remember me to your wife.”
“Well, if that isn’t a cold-blooded letter!” said Mr. Huxter, bitterly. “Jane is rich now, and don’t care for the privations of her poor brother. She blames me because the chaise got broken,—just as if I could help it.”
Still Mr. Huxter had no real reason to complain. His sister had agreed to pay for the damage done, and there would be something left out of the money she had paid in advance. But Mr. Huxter, as soon as he had received it, had at once looked upon it as his own, though not yet earned, and to use it seemed as if he were paying the bill out of his own pocket. Then, again, the very decided intimation that he need not look for any more assistance at present was discouraging. Deducting expenses, it would leave him but a small amount to pay him for his journey to Hampton. He resolved not to pay the wheelwright, if he could possibly avoid it, not being very conscientious about paying his debts. But, as Mr. Huxter’s reputation in that way was well known, the wheelwright refused to surrender the chaise till his bill was paid; and the stable-keeper made such a fuss that Mr. Huxter was compelled to pay the bill, though very much against his inclination.
The result of his disappointment was, that he began to drink worse than ever, and poor Mrs. Huxter, for some weeks, had a hard time of it. She was certainly very much to be pitied, as is every poor woman who finds herself yoked for life to a husband wedded to a habit so fatal to all domestic comfort and happiness.
When John found that his enemy had abandoned the siege, he rowed ashore, and watched Mr. Huxter until he became satisfied that it would require a considerable time to catch the horse. He thought that he might venture to pursue his journey, without further fear of molestation. Of the incidents that followed, none are worth recording. It is sufficient to say that on the evening of the second day John entered the town of Wilton.
It was years since he had seen his aunt. She had been confined at home by the cares of a young family, and the distance between Wilton and Hampton seemed formidable. He knew, however, that his uncle, Thomas Berry, kept a small country store, and had done so ever since his marriage. In a country village it is always easy to find the “store,” and John kept up the main road, feeling that it would not be necessary to inquire. He came at length to a meeting-house, and judged that the store would not be far off. In fact, a few rods further he came to a long, two-story building, painted white, with a piazza in front. On a large sign-board over it he read:—
PROVISION AND DRY-GOODS STORE.”
“This must be the place,” thought John. “I think I’ll go into the store first and see uncle.”
He entered, and found himself in a broad room, low-studded, furnished with counters on two sides, and crowded with a motley collection of goods, embracing calicoes and dry goods generally, as well as barrels of molasses and firkins of butter. There chanced to be no customer in at the time. Behind the counter he saw, not his uncle, but a young man, with long, light hair combed behind his ears, not very prepossessing in his appearance,—at least so John thought.
“Is Mr. Berry in?” he asked, walking up to the counter.
“Mr. Berry is dead,” was the unexpected reply.
“Dead!” exclaimed John, in surprise. “How long since he died?”
“A week ago.”
“We never heard of it,” said John, half to himself.
“Are you a relation?” asked the young man.
“He was my uncle.”
“Is your name Oakley?”
“Yes, John Oakley.”
“A letter was sent there, announcing the death.”
This was true; but Mrs. Oakley, who received the letter, had not thought it necessary to send intelligence of its contents to John.
“Didn’t you get it?” continued the other.
“I haven’t been at home for a week or more,” said John. “I suppose that accounts for it. How is my aunt?”
“She is not very well.”
“I think I will go into the house and see her.”
John went around to the door of the house and knocked. A young girl of twelve answered. Though John had not seen her for six years, he concluded that it must be his Cousin Martha.
“How do you do, Cousin Martha?” he said, extending his hand.
“Are you my Cousin John Oakley?” she said, doubtfully.
“Yes. I did not hear till just now of your loss,” said John. “How is your mother?”
“She is not very well. Come in, Cousin John. She will be glad to see you.”
John was ushered into a small sitting-room, where he found his aunt seated in a chair by the window, sewing on a black dress for one of the children.
“Here’s Cousin John, mother,” said Martha.
An expression of pleasure came to Mrs. Berry’s pale face.
“I am very glad to see you, John,” she said. “You were very kind to come. Is your stepmother well?”
“Quite well,” said John. “But I do not come directly from home.”
“Indeed! How does that happen?” asked his aunt.
“It is rather a long story, aunt. I will tell you by and by. But now tell me about yourself. Of what did my uncle die?”
“He exposed himself imprudently in a storm one evening three months since,” said Mrs. Berry. “In consequence of this, he took a severe cold, which finally terminated in a fever. We did not at first suppose him to be in any danger, but he gradually became worse, and a week since he died. It is a terrible loss to me and my poor children.”
Here his aunt put her handkerchief to her face to wipe away the tears that started at the thought of her bereavement.
“Dear aunt, I sympathize with you,” said John, earnestly, taking her hand.
“I know you do, John,” said his aunt. “I don’t know how I can get along alone, with four poor fatherless children to look after.”
“God will help you, aunt. You must look to him,” said John, reverently.
“It is that thought alone that sustains me,” said Mrs. Berry. “But sometimes, when the thought of my bereavement comes upon me, I don’t realize it as I should.”
“I went into the store first,” said John. “I suppose it was my uncle’s assistant that I saw there?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Berry; “it was Mr. Hall.”
“I suppose he manages the store now for you?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Berry, slowly. “But I hardly know that it is right to say that he manages it for me.”
“Why not?” asked John, perplexed by his aunt’s manner, which seemed to him strange.
“I will tell you, John,” said his aunt. “When Mr. Berry died, I thought he owned the stock clear, and had no debts; but day before yesterday Mr. Hall called in, and showed me a note for two thousand dollars, signed by Mr. Berry. I don’t suppose the stock is worth more than three thousand. Of course that makes a very great difference in my circumstances. In fact, it will leave me only a thousand dollars, at the utmost, to support my poor children. I don’t know what I shall do.” And the poor woman, whose nerves had been shaken by her grief, burst into tears.
“Didn’t my uncle own this building, then?” asked John.
“No, he never owned it. He hired it at a low rent from Mr. Mansfield, one of the selectmen, and a rich man.”
“Can’t you keep up the store, aunt? Will not that give income enough to support the family?”
“But for this note, I could. But if I have to pay that, it will leave only a third of the store belonging to me. Then out of the profits I must pay the rent, the wages of a salesman and a boy, before I can get anything for myself. You see, John, there isn’t much prospect.”
“Yes,” said John, thoughtfully. “It doesn’t look very bright. You say, aunt, that uncle never mentioned this note to you?”
“He never mentioned a syllable about it.”
“Did he generally mention his affairs to you?”
“Yes; he wasn’t one of those husbands that keep everything secret from their wives. He always told me how he was getting along.”
“When was the note dated?”
“A year and a half ago.”
“Do you know whether my uncle had any particular use for so large a sum of money at that time?”
“No. That is what puzzles me,” said Mrs. Berry. “If he got the money, I am sure I don’t know what he did with it.”
“Did he extend his business with it, do you think?”
“No, I am sure he did not. His stock is no larger now than it was six years ago. He always calculated to keep it at about the same amount.”
“That seems strange,” said John,—”that we can’t find where the money went to, I mean; especially as it was so large a sum.”
“Yes, John, that is what I think. There’s some mystery about it. I’ve thought and thought, and I can’t tell how it happened.”
“What sort of a man is Mr. Hall?” asked John, after a pause.
“I don’t know anything against him,” said Mrs. Berry.
“I don’t know why it is,” said John, “but I don’t like his looks. I took rather a prejudice against him when I saw him just now.”
“I never liked him,” said his aunt, “though I can’t give any good reason for my dislike. He never treated me in any way of which I could complain.”
“How long has he been in the store?”
“How long is it, Martha?” asked Mrs. Berry, turning to her oldest daughter, who, by the way, was a very pretty girl, with blooming cheeks and dark, sparkling eyes.
“It will be four years in October, mother.”
“Yes, I remember now.”
“He seems quite a young man.”
“I think he is twenty-three.”
“Does he get a large salary?”
“No, only forty dollars a month.”
“Did you know of his having any property when he came here?”
“No; he seemed quite poor.”
“Then I don’t understand where he could have got the two thousand dollars which he says he loaned uncle.”
“I declare, John, you are right,” said Mrs. Berry, looking as if new light was thrown over the matter. “It certainly does look very strange. I wonder I didn’t think of it before; but I have had so much to think of, that I couldn’t think properly of anything. How do you account for it, John?”
“I will tell you, aunt,” said John, quietly. “I think the note is a forgery, and that Mr. Hall means to cheat you out of two-thirds of your property.”
“Do you really believe this, John?” asked Mrs. Berry, in excitement.
“I really do, aunt. I see no other way to account for the existence of the note.”
“But the signature looked like Mr. Berry’s,” said his aunt, doubtfully.
“Did you examine it carefully, aunt?”
“No, I didn’t,” admitted Mrs. Berry.
“I should like to compare it with uncle’s handwriting.”
“I suppose Mr. Hall would think it strange if I should ask him to let me take it.”
“Yes; but he must do it, if he wants the note acknowledged.”
“I have no head for business,” said Mrs. Berry. “A child could cheat me. I wish you could stay with me and look after things.”
“Perhaps I can.”
“But will your mother be willing?”
“I have no mother,” said John.
“Your stepmother, then?”
“I might as well tell you, aunt, that there has been a serious difficulty between Mrs. Oakley and myself, and I have left home.”
“Is it possible, John? Didn’t your stepmother treat you right?”
“I will tell you all about it, aunt, and you shall judge.”
It was a long story, but, as we already know all about it, it is unnecessary to give John’s account. His aunt listened attentively, and sympathized fully with John in the matter.
“You have been badly treated, John,” she said. “I am sure my poor brother would feel badly enough if he could know how Mrs. Oakley has driven you from home. You do not mean to go back?”
“No, aunt,” said John, resolutely. “Until Mrs. Oakley restores me to my former privileges, I shall not go home.”
“Then you must stay here, John,” said his aunt.
“If I can be of any service to you, aunt, I will.”
“You can be of great service to me, John. I do not feel confidence in Mr. Hall, and you know why I cannot be sure that he is not cheating me in the store. I want you to keep an eye upon him.”
“I will go into the store as an assistant,” said John. “That will give me the best opportunity.”
“But you have never been used to work,” said his aunt.
“I must work now. Remember, aunt, Mrs. Oakley holds the property, and I am dependent on my own exertions.”
“It is disgraceful that it should be so, John.”
“But it is so. Perhaps matters may come right by and by; but for the present I must work. I will go into the store, and you shall give me my board.”
“You will earn more than that, John.”
“If we get clear of Mr. Hall’s note, you can do better by me. Until then, let that be the arrangement.”
“You don’t know what a load you have lifted from my mind, John. I am very sorry that you have been driven from home; but I am very glad to have you here. Martha, get ready the back bedroom for John.”
“I begin to feel myself at home already,” said John, brightly.
“Our home is a humble one compared with the one you have left, John,” said his aunt.
“But you are here, aunt, and you seem like my own mother. That will make more than the difference to me.”
“I hope we can make you comfortable, John. Martha, you may set the table for supper, and get John’s room ready afterwards. I think he must be hungry.”
“I am as hungry as a bear, aunt,” said John, smiling.
In the evening Martha went into the store by her mother’s request, and asked Mr. Hall to step in after closing the store.
He did so.
“I believe you wished to see me, Mrs. Berry,” he said.
“Yes, Mr. Hall. Will you sit down?”
“Thank you.” And the young man seated himself, looking furtively at Mrs. Berry, as if to inquire the object of his being summoned.
“Mr. Hall, this is my nephew, John Oakley. I believe you have already met.”
“Yes, he came into the store,” said Mr. Hall, glancing at John.
“He has agreed to remain here for the present, and will assist you in the store.”
Mr. Hall looked as if he was not pleased with this intelligence.
“I do not think that I shall need any assistance,” he said.
“I am surprised to hear that,” said Mrs. Berry. “Certainly you cannot expect to do alone the business which formerly required Mr. Berry and yourself to do.”
“The business is not so large as it was,” said Hall.
“Then you must try to bring it up to where it used to be. You must remember that I have a young family to support, and it will require an effort to do it.”
“That is why I thought it would be better to save the wages of an extra clerk,” said Hall.
“You are considerate, especially as it would require you to work harder yourself. But my nephew knows my circumstances, and does not wish large compensation.”
“Has he any experience in tending store?” asked Hall.
“No,” said John.
“Then I should have to teach you. It would be more trouble than the help I would get.”
“I don’t think you would find me so hard to learn,” said John, quietly. “I have always lived in the country, and know something about the business of a country store. I don’t think I shall be long in learning.”
“I agree with John,” said Mrs. Berry.
“Of course it must be as you say,” said Mr. Hall, appearing dissatisfied; “but I hoped to save you the expense. And I cannot say I think any help necessary; or, if it were, it would be better, with all respect to Mr. Oakley, to take James Sanford, who has had some experience at Trafton.”
“Very well, Mr. Hall,” said John, taking no notice of the opposition, “then I will come in to-morrow morning. What time do you open the store?”
“At six o’clock.”
“Won’t that be rather early for you, John?” asked his aunt.
“You are making me out to be lazy, aunt,” said John.
“There isn’t much business early in the morning,” said Hall. “You need not come till seven.”
“I would rather go early,” said John. “I want to learn the business as soon as I can.”
“Did you wish to speak about anything else, Mrs. Berry?” said Mr. Hall.
“No, Mr. Hall; but you need not be in haste.”
“Thank you; I am feeling rather tired.”
“It seems to me,” said John, when they were alone, “that Mr. Hall did not much want me to enter the store.”
“No; I was surprised at that. It must be very hard for one.”
“I have my thoughts about it,” said John.
“What are they?” asked his aunt.
“I will not say anything now. They may amount to nothing. But I think Mr. Hall is afraid I will find out something, and therefore he objects to my going into the store. I shall keep good watch, and if I find out anything I will let you know.”
“I think you must be tired, John. You can go to bed when you please.”
“Then I think I will go now, particularly as I am to be up by six in the morning.”
“Never mind about to-morrow morning.”
“I had better begin as I am going to hold out, aunt. Good-night.”
John took the lamp and entered his bedchamber with a happier and more home-like feeling than he had had for months. He felt so interested in his aunt’s troubles that he almost forgot that he had any of his own.
In the morning, as the village clock struck six, John stood in front of the store. A minute later, Mr. Hall, who boarded at a little distance, came up. He greeted John coldly, and they entered.
“Now I hope you will make me useful,” said John.
“You may sweep out,” said Hall.
“Where shall I find the broom?”
Hall told him and John commenced. It was new work to him, but he did it well, and then went to work to arrange things a little more neatly. Occasionally he asked information of Mr. Hall, which was ungraciously given. Still John learned rapidly, and in a fortnight had learned as much as many boys in three months.
One day, when Hall was gone to dinner, John chanced to open the stove, in which there had been no fire for the summer months. It was full of papers and letters of various kinds, which had been crowded into it, as a convenient receptacle. It was so full that, on the door being opened, a considerable portion fell on the floor. John began to pick them up, and, in doing so, naturally looked at some of the papers.
All at once he started with excitement as a particular paper caught his attention. He read it eagerly, and his eyes lighted up with pleasure.
“I must show this to my aunt,” he said. “I suspected that note of Mr. Hall’s was a forgery, and now I feel sure of it.”
He carefully deposited the paper in his pocket-book, and, putting back the rest of the papers, shut the stove door, and resumed his place behind the counter, just as Mr. Hall returned from dinner.
He little guessed that John had made a discovery of the utmost consequence to him.
The paper which John had discovered among the rubbish in the stove was a half sheet of foolscap, which was covered with imitations of Mr. Berry’s handwriting, the words occurring being those of the note of hand which Hall had presented for payment. The first attempts were inexact, but those further down, with which pains had evidently been taken, were close copies of Mr. Berry’s usual handwriting. This of course John could not know, not being familiar with his uncle’s hand, but his aunt confirmed it.
“It is clear,” said John, “that Mr. Hall has forged the note which he presented against my uncle’s estate.”
“What a wicked man,” said Mrs. Berry, “to seek to defraud me and my poor fatherless children! I never could have suspected him.”
“It was the love of money, aunt. He thought you would not detect the fraud.”
“I should not but for you, John. How lucky it was you came! Now tell me what I ought to do.”
“Is there a lawyer in the place?” asked John.
“Yes; there is Mr. Bradley.”
“Then, aunt, you had better send for him, and ask his advice.”
“I will do so; I think that will be the best way.”
Mr. Bradley, though a country lawyer, was a man of sound judgment, and quite reliable. When the circumstances were communicated to him, he gave his opinion that John’s suspicions were well founded.
“I should like to see Mr. Hall here,” he said. “Can you not ask him to be present, and bring the note with him?”
“The store closes at nine. I will invite him then, if you can meet him at that hour.”
“That will suit me, Mrs. Berry,” said the lawyer.
Mr. Hall was not surprised at the message he received. He expected that the widow would be troubled about the claim he had presented, and he was prepared to listen to entreaties that payment might be postponed. That his fraud was suspected he did not dream.
When Mr. Hall entered the little sitting-room he was somewhat surprised to see Mr. Bradley, the lawyer; but it occurred to him that Mrs. Berry in her trouble had applied to him to mediate between them.
“Good-evening, Mr. Bradley,” he said.
“Good-evening, Mr. Hall,” said the lawyer, rather coldly.
“It is rather cool this evening,” said Hall, trying to appear at ease.
“I understand,” said Mr. Bradley, not appearing to notice this remark, “that you have a claim against the estate of my late friend, Mr. Berry.”
“And the amount is—”
“Two thousand dollars,” said Hall, promptly.
“So I understood. Did you bring the note with you?”
Hall opened his pocket-book, and produced the note. The lawyer took it, and scanned it closely.
“Do you know what led Mr. Berry to borrow this amount?” asked the lawyer.
“He wanted to put it into his business.”
“Did he extend his business then? He might have done it to a considerable extent with that sum.”
“No, I believe not,” said Hall, hesitating.
“But I thought he borrowed the money with that object.”
“The truth is,” said Hall, after a pause, “he was owing parties in Boston for a considerable portion of his stock, and it was to pay off this sum that he borrowed the money.”
“I suppose you are aware, Mr. Hall, that this claim will sweep away two-thirds of Mr. Berry’s estate?”
“I am sorry,” said Hall, hesitating. “I didn’t know but he left more.”
“Scarcely a thousand dollars will be left to the family. Mrs. Berry will have a very hard time.”
“I won’t be hard upon her,” said Hall. “I don’t need all the money now. I will let half of it, say, stand for a year.”
“But it will have to be paid finally.”
“Yes, I suppose I must have my money.”
“It is rather strange that Mrs. Berry never knew anything of this. Her husband usually told her of his business affairs.”
“She thought so,” said Mr. Hall, significantly,
“Do you mean to imply that he did not?”
“It seems that he did not tell her of this.”
“So it appears, and yet it is a very important matter. By the way, Mr. Hall, it was very creditable to a young man, like yourself, to have saved up so considerable an amount of money. Two thousand dollars is quite a little sum.”
“I did not save it up,—that is, not all of it,” said Hall, perceiving that this would lead to suspicion. In fact, he was beginning to feel rather uneasy under the lawyer’s questioning.
“You did not save it up?”
“Not all of it. I received a legacy a little more than two years since from a relative.”
“You were fortunate. What was the amount of the legacy?”
“Fifteen hundred dollars.”
“And you loaned all this to Mr. Berry?”
“And five hundred dollars more.”
“You never mentioned this legacy at the time.”
“Only to Mr. Berry.”
“Where did your relative live, Mr. Hall?”
“In Worcester,” said Hall, hesitating.
“What relative was it?”
“My aunt,” answered Hall, beginning to feel uncomfortable.
“What was her name?”
“I don’t see why you ask so many questions, Mr. Bradley,” said Hall, beginning to find this catechising embarrassing, especially as he had to make up the answers on the spot.
“Surely you have no objection to answer my question, Mr. Hall?” said the lawyer, looking fixedly at the young man, who changed color.
“It isn’t that,” said Hall; “but it seems unnecessary.”
“You must consider, Mr. Hall, that this claim is a very unexpected one. Mr. Berry never mentioned to any one, so far as I know, that he had borrowed this money of you. Remember, also, that it will reduce Mrs. Berry to poverty, and you will not be surprised that we want to know all the particulars respecting the transaction.”
“I should think the note ought to be sufficient,” said Hall.
“True, the note. Let me examine it once more.” The lawyer scrutinized the note, and, raising his eyes, said:—
“This note is in Mr. Berry’s handwriting, is it?”
“By the way, Mr. Hall, the interest has been paid on this note at regular intervals.”
“Ye—es,” said Hall.
“Every six months,” he answered, more boldly.
“Ah, then I suppose we shall find corresponding entries on Mr. Berry’s books.”
“I suppose so,” said Hall; but he began to feel very uncomfortable.
“So that no interest is due now.”
“About a month’s interest; but never mind about that, I won’t say anything about that,” said Hall, magnanimously.
“You are very considerate, Mr. Hall,” said the lawyer; “but I am sure Mrs. Berry will not accept this favor. She intends to pay you every penny she owes you.”
Mr. Hall brightened up at this intimation. He thought it looked encouraging.
“I don’t want to be hard,” he said. “I don’t care for the trifle of interest due.”
“I repeat that Mrs. Berry means to pay every penny that is justly due, but not one cent that is not so due,” said the lawyer, emphasizing the last words.
“Of course,” said the clerk, nervously; “but why do you say that?”
“Do you wish me to tell you, Mr. Hall?” asked Mr. Bradley, fixing his keen glance upon the young man.
“Then I will tell you. Because I believe this note which I hold in my hand to be a base forgery.”
Hall jumped to his feet in dismay.
“Do you mean to insult me?” he asked, with quivering lips.
“Sit down, Mr. Hall. It is best that this matter should be settled at once. I have made a charge, and it is only fair that I should substantiate it, or try to do so. Did you ever see this sheet of paper?”
So saying, he produced the crumpled half sheet which John found in the stove.
Mr. Hall turned pale.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he faltered; but there was a look upon his face which belied his words.
“I think you do know, Mr. Hall,” said the lawyer. “You must be aware that forgery is a serious matter.”
“Give me back the note,” said Hall.
“Do you admit it to be a forgery?”
“I admit nothing.”
“Mr. Hall, I will hand you the note,” said the lawyer, after a slight pause, “merely reminding you that, if it is what I suppose, the sooner you destroy it the better.”
Hall took the note with nervous haste, and thrust it into the flame of the lamp. In an instant it was consumed.
“You have done wisely, Mr. Hall,” said Mr. Bradley. “I have no further business with you.”
“I shall leave Wilton to-morrow, Mrs. Berry,” said Hall. “I must ask you to get somebody else in my place.”
“I will pay you to-night whatever wages are due you” said the lawyer, “in behalf of Mrs. Berry.”
“But how shall I manage about the store?” asked Mrs. Berry.
“I will take charge of it, aunt,” said John, promptly, “if you will get some one to assist me.”
“Very well, John; but I am afraid it will be too much for you.”
“Never fear, aunt; I haven’t been in the store long, but I’ve learned a good deal about the business.”
Hall was paid, and that was the last that was seen of him. He went away in the stage the next morning, and it is to be hoped that he has found out that honesty is the best policy.
After he had left the room, Mr. Bradley advanced to Mrs. Berry, and, grasping her hand, said, cordially:—
“I congratulate you on the new and improved look of your affairs.”
“It has lifted a great weight from my mind,” said the widow. “Now I feel sure that I shall be able to get along, especially with John’s help. He was the first to suspect Mr. Hall of attempting to cheat me.”
“You ought to be a lawyer, John,” said Mr. Bradley. “You have shown that you have a good head on your shoulders.”
“Perhaps I may be one some time,” said John, smiling.
“If you ever do, my office is open to you. Good-night, Mrs. Berry; we’ve done a good evening’s work.”
The next day John undertook the chief management of his aunt’s store. He engaged James Sanford, who had had some experience in another town, to help him, and things went on smoothly for a few weeks. At the end of that time John received an important letter from Hampton.
While John was attending to his aunt’s interests at Wilton, important events were occurring at Hampton.
It has already been stated that Ben Brayton was accustomed to spend most of his time in lounging at the tavern, or in a billiard saloon close by. It was at the latter place that he had the privilege of forming an acquaintance with Arthur Winchester, a young man from the city of New York (or so he represented). He was dressed in the extreme of the fashion, sported a heavy gold chain, wore a diamond ring, and carried a jaunty cane. I cannot guarantee the genuineness of the gold or the diamond; but there was no one in Hampton who could distinguish them from the real articles.
The appearance of Mr. Arthur Winchester created something of a sensation among the young men of Hampton, or at least that portion who aspired to wear fashionable clothes. Mr. Winchester’s attire was generally regarded as “nobby” in the extreme.
They exhibited an elegance which the highest efforts of the village tailor had never succeeded in reaching. Forthwith the smart young men in Hampton became possessed with the desire to have their clothes made in the same faultless style, and Mr. Winchester was accommodating enough to permit the village tailor to take a pattern from his garments.
Among those who gazed with admiration at the new-comer was Ben Brayton. He was the first, indeed, to order a suit like Mr. Winchester’s, in which, when obtained, he strutted about proudly, arm in arm with the young man himself.
Various circumstances served to strengthen the intimacy between the two. In the first place neither had any weighty occupations to prevent their drinking or playing billiards together, and it chanced after a time that this became a regular business with them.
Ben Brayton was an average player, and appeared nearly equal to his new friend. At all events, in the friendly trials of skill that took place between them, Ben came off victorious perhaps a third of the time.
“Come, Ben,” said Winchester, one morning, “this is slow. Suppose we make the games a little more exciting by staking a little on the game.”
“You’re a better player than I am, Winchester,” said Ben.
“Not much. You beat me pretty often. However, I’ll give you twenty points, and stake a dollar on the game.”
“I don’t mind,” said Ben. “A dollar isn’t much.”
The game was played, and, counting the twenty points conceded, Ben came off victorious by five points.
He pocketed the dollar with a sense of elation.
“Will you have another?” he asked.
“Of course I will. I’m bound to have my revenge.”
The second game was played, and likewise terminated in Ben’s favor. He pocketed the second dollar with satisfaction. He had never found billiards so interesting.
“Come, Brayton, this won’t do. I didn’t think you were so good a player. You’ll clean me out at this rate.”
“Oh, I only happened to be lucky,” said Ben, in high good humor. “Shall we try it again?”
Of course they tried it again, and spent nearly the entire day in the same way. Fortune veered about a little, and Ben came out minus three dollars.
“Never mind, Brayton, you’ll get it back to-morrow,” said Winchester, as they parted.
So Ben thought, and the furor of gaming had already taken such possession of him that he got up unusually early, anxious to get at the fascinating game.
So matters went on for a week. They never exceeded one dollar as stakes, and played so even that Ben was only ten dollars behindhand. This he paid from his allowance, and so far from being satiated with the game could hardly restrain his impatience till Monday morning should give him a chance of playing again.
It is perhaps needless to say that Ben had fallen into dangerous company. Mr. Arthur Winchester was really a far superior player, and eventually meant to fleece Ben out of his last dollar. But he did not wish to arouse suspicion of his intentions, and “played off,” as the saying is, and thus had no difficulty in luring Ben on to the point at which he aimed.
At the end of the second week Ben was only five dollars behind.
“You’re gaining upon me,” said Winchester. “You’re improving in your play.”
“Am I?” said Ben, flattered.
“Not a doubt of it. I don’t like to boast, but I am considered a first-class player in the city, and, by Jove, you’re almost even with me.”
Ben listened with gratification to this praise. He didn’t doubt that Winchester was the first-class player he represented, and in fact he was a superior player, but he had never yet put forth his utmost skill. He had only played with Ben, suiting himself to his inferior style of playing.
Gradually Winchester suggested higher play.
“A dollar is nothing,” he said. “Let us make it five.”
“That’s a good deal to lose,” he said.
“That’s true, but isn’t it as much to win? Come, it will make our games more interesting, and you’re as likely to come out ahead as I am.”
“That is true,” thought Ben.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said; “give me twenty-five points, and I’ll do it.”
“Anything for excitement,” said Winchester; “but we’re so nearly matched that you’ll beat me twice out of three times on those odds.”
Ben did beat the first game, and the exultation with which he pocketed the stakes revealed to his experienced opponent that he had the game in his hands.
Towards the middle of the afternoon Ben stood one game ahead. He was flushed and excited by his success.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Winchester; “let’s give up child’s play and have the real thing.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ben.
“Let us stake fifty dollars, and done with it. That’ll be something worth playing for.”
Ben started in surprise. The magnitude of the stake took his breath away.
“I haven’t got the money,” he said.
“Oh, well, you can give me your note. I’ll wait, that is, of course if I win; but I am not so sure of that as I was. You’re a pretty smart player.”
Ben did not hesitate long. He was dazzled by the idea of winning fifty dollars, and his success thus far encouraged him to think that he would.
“Give me thirty points, then,” he said.
“I ought not to; but anything for excitement.”
The game was commenced. Ben led till towards the close of the game, when his opponent improved his play, and came out three points ahead.
“It was a close shave,” he said.
Ben looked uneasy. It was all very agreeable to win a large sum; but to lose was not so comfortable.
“I haven’t got the money,” he said.
“Oh, give me your note, and pay when it’s convenient! In fact, perhaps you need not pay at all. You may win the next game.”
“I don’t know if I had better play,” said Ben, doubtfully.
“Oh, you mustn’t leave off a loser. You must have your revenge. In fact, I’ll make you a good offer. We’ll play for a hundred dollars, and I’ll give you thirty-five points. That’ll square us up, and make me your debtor.”
“Say forty, and I’ll agree.”
“Forty let it be then; but you’ll win.”
Again Winchester permitted Ben to gain in the commencement of the game, but towards the last he took care to make up for lost time by a brilliant play that brought him out victor.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I began to think, the first part of the game, that all was over with me.”
Ben, silly dupe that he was, did not fathom the rascality of his companion.
“I don’t think I played as well as usual,” he said, ruefully.
“No, you didn’t. Perhaps your hand has got a little out, you have played so many hours on a stretch.”
Ben gave Winchester another due-bill for one hundred dollars, wondering how he should be able to meet it. He was rather frightened, and resolved not to play the next day. But when the next day came his resolution evaporated. I need not describe the wiles used by Arthur Winchester. It is enough that at the close of the coming day he held notes signed by Ben for three hundred dollars.
He assured the disturbed Ben that he needn’t trouble himself about the matter; that he didn’t need the money just yet. He would give him time to pay it in, and other things to the same effect. But having come to the conclusion that Ben had been bled as much as he could stand, he called him aside the next morning, and said:—
“I’m sorry to trouble you, my dear Brayton, but I’ve just had a letter recalling me to the city. Could you let me have that money as well as not, say this afternoon?”
“This afternoon!” exclaimed Ben, in dismay. “I don’t see how I can get it at all.”
“Do you mean to repudiate your debts of honor?” said Winchester, sternly.
“No,” said Ben, faltering; “but I’ve got no money.”
“You ought to have made sure of that,” said Winchester, shortly, “before playing with a gentleman. Go to your mother. She is rich.”
“She won’t give me the money.”
“Look here, Brayton,” said Winchester, “I must have that money. I don’t care how you get it. But some way or other it must be got. I hope you understand.”
A bright idea came to Ben.
“You can’t collect my notes,” he said; “I’m under age.”
“Then,” said Winchester, his face darkening with a frown that made Ben shiver, “I demand satisfaction. To-morrow morning, at five o’clock, I will meet you with swords or pistols, as you prefer.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ben, his teeth chattering, for he was an arrant coward.
“What I say! If the law will not give me satisfaction, I will demand the satisfaction of a gentleman. Fight or pay, take your choice; but one or the other you must do.”
The sentence closed with an oath.
“I’ll do my best,” said Ben, terrified. “Of course I mean to pay you.”
“Then you’ll let me have the money to-morrow?”
The two parted, and Ben, thoroughly miserable, went home, trying to devise some means to appease his inexorable creditor, whom he began to wish he had never met.
Ben went home slowly, in a state of great perplexity. He knew his mother too well to think she would pay him three hundred dollars without weighty cause. Should he tell her the scrape he had got into? He felt a natural reluctance to do that, nor was he by any means satisfied that she would pay the money if he did. Then again he was ashamed to admit that he was afraid to fight. He felt convinced that, should he reveal the matter, his mother would bid him take advantage of the legal worthlessness of his notes to Winchester. He would gladly do it, but was afraid, and did not dare to admit it. On the whole, Ben felt decidedly uncomfortable.
“Is mother at home?” he inquired, when he reached home.
“No; she’s gone over to Mrs. Talbot’s to spend the afternoon,” was the reply.
Ben felt relieved by this assurance, though he hardly knew why.
“I wonder whether mother has got as much as three hundred dollars by her,” he thought.
With this thought in his mind he went upstairs, and entered his mother’s chamber.
The first thing he caught sight of when he entered was a little bunch of keys lying on the table. He knew at once that they were his mother’s keys. It was certainly extraordinary that she should on that particular day have left them exposed. She was generally very careful. But it chanced that she had hurried away, and in her haste had forgotten the keys, nor did she think of them while absent.
Under ordinary circumstances Ben would have made no improper use of the keys thus thrown in his way; but, harassed as he was by the importunities of Winchester, it seemed to him a stroke of luck that placed them in his power.
He determined to open the drawers of his mother’s bureau, and see what he could find. If only he could find the sum he wanted he could get out of his present difficulties, and perhaps explain it to his mother afterwards.
Ben, after several trials, succeeded in finding the key that fitted the upper drawer. He examined the contents eagerly. It was of course filled with a variety of articles of apparel, but in one corner Ben found a portemonnaie. He opened it, and discovered a roll of bills, six in number, each of the denomination of twenty dollars.
“One hundred and twenty dollars!” he said. “That’s more than a third of the bill. Perhaps, if I pay that, Winchester’ll wait for the rest.”
It occurred to him, however, that a further search might reveal some more money. If he could get thirty dollars more, for example, that with the other would make one half the sum he owed Winchester, and with that surely the other might be content, for the present at least. The rest of the debt he could arrange to pay out of his weekly allowance, say at the rate of five dollars a week.
Accordingly Ben began to poke about until he found a folded paper. He opened it with curiosity and began to read. His interest deepened, and his excitement increased.
“By Jove,” he said, “if this isn’t the lost will I’ve heard so much talk about. The old lady’s kept it mighty quiet. Wouldn’t John Oakley give something to get hold of it?”
Ben sat down to reflect upon the discovery he had made.
“Mother’s right to keep it quiet,” he said to himself. “She ought to have destroyed it, and I verily believe she has tried,” he continued, as he noticed the scorched appearance of the will. “I wonder she didn’t.”
The next question to consider was, what to do with it. It did not take long to decide. His mother would be very much frightened, and this would give him a hold upon her, by which he might induce her to give him the money he required.
“Yes, I’ll keep it,” he said.
He put the roll of bills into his pocket-book, carefully deposited the will in his side-pocket, and, shutting and locking the bureau-drawer, placed the keys in the same position upon the table in which he had found them, and then left the room.
“A pretty good day’s work!” thought Ben to himself. “I think I’ll go and pay Winchester what money I have, and get him to wait a few days for the rest.”
Ben left the house, and wended his way to the tavern. He found Winchester in the bar-room, smoking a cigar. He looked up inquiringly as Ben entered.
“How are you, Winchester?” said Ben.
“All right,” said the latter, noticing Ben’s changed demeanor, and auguring favorably from it. “Have a cigar?”
“I don’t care if I do,” said Ben.
Winchester handed him one, and the two sat down together.
“Oh, about that money,” said Ben, after a little pause. “I can let you have a part of it now, but I shall have to make you wait a few days for the rest.”
“How much can you pay me now?”
“One hundred and twenty dollars,” said Ben.
“That’s good,” said Winchester, with satisfaction. “The fact is, I’m deuced hard up, and need it.”
“I don’t want to pay you here,” said Ben. “Come out a little way, and I’ll hand it to you.”
“All right. I’d like a walk.”
The two sauntered forth together, and Ben paid over the money.
“You’ll oblige me by not mentioning to anybody that I have paid you any money,” said Ben. “I have a reason for it.”
“I can’t tell you the reason.”
“That’s your affair.”
“Now about the rest.”
“Yes, about the rest.”
“I think I can get it for you in a few days.”
“I can wait a few days to oblige you, but I must go to the city as soon as I can get away. So please hurry up.”
“I’ll do the best I can. This morning,” he added, “I didn’t see how I was going to get the money. My mother wouldn’t look upon it as we do, as a debt of honor; but since then I’ve been lucky enough to get possession of one of her secrets, and I think it will help me.”
“Glad of it,” said Winchester, “for your sake. I don’t care, of course, how you get the money, as long as you do get it. That’s the main thing, you know.”
“Yes, I see.”
“Now what do you say to another little game of billiards?”
“I can’t stake any more money. I’ve lost enough,” said Ben, sensibly.
“Then let it be a friendly game—just a little trial of skill, that’s all.”
To this Ben was not averse, and the two made their way as so often before to the billiard saloon.
In the mean time Mrs. Oakley returned home from her afternoon visit. She had not yet missed her keys, but on going up to her chamber, discovered them lying upon the table.
“How terribly careless I have been!” she said. “I hope they have not been seen.”
Tolerably sure of this, she opened the upper bureau-drawer, and looked for the portemonnaie. It was in the same place. She opened it, and found it empty. Her eyes flashed with indignation.
“Some one has been to the drawer,” she said.
She next thought of the will, and felt for it. It was not there! She turned pale, and with nervous fingers took everything out of the drawer, hoping to find it misplaced. But her search was vain. The will was not to be found.
She sank back into a chair, and exclaimed with passionate regret:—
“Fool that I was! Why did I not make all sure by burning it?”
The sudden disappearance of the will struck Mrs. Oakley with dismay. It threatened her with the loss of two-thirds of her estate. But she was not a woman to bear it in silence. She possessed a fund of energy, and lost no time in seeking to determine the important question, “Who had taken it?”
She descended at once to the kitchen, where she found Hannah setting the table for supper.
“Hannah,” she said, abruptly, “have you been upstairs to my chamber this afternoon?”
“No, ma’am,” said Hannah.
“Think a moment,” said her mistress, sternly; “have you not been up?”
“No, ma’am, I haven’t. I told you so once,” said Hannah, not altogether pleased with the doubt implied by the second question.
“Has any one called here since I went away?” asked Mrs. Oakley.
“Then there has been no one in the house excepting yourself?”
“No one except Master Ben.”
“Ben!” repeated Mrs. Oakley, in a changed voice. “When did Ben come home?”
“About an hour ago,—maybe an hour and a half,” said Hannah.
“He is not here now.”
“Isn’t he, ma’am? I suppose he went out, but I didn’t hear him.”
“You are quite sure no one else has been in the house?” inquired her mistress.
“Certain sure, ma’am.”
Mrs. Oakley went upstairs slowly. A new idea had forced its way into her mind. It must be that Ben had taken both the money and the will. That he should have taken the first didn’t surprise her, for with all her love for her son, she had small confidence in his honesty. No doubt he had got into debt, and so was tempted to appropriate the bills. But why should he have taken the will? That was something she could not understand. For the money she cared little comparatively. But the loss of the will was ruin, if John or his friends found it, or, if not, she would live in perpetual fear of their discovering it.
“If I once get hold of it again,” she said to herself, “I will take care that all danger from that source shall end and forever. Ben will never divulge its existence, of course. He will understand that it affects his interests too nearly.”
She waited in nervous excitement for Ben’s reappearance.
At length his step was heard—never more welcome than now.
Ben entered, feeling rather nervous also.
“Has mother found out?” he thought.
“Good-afternoon, mother,” he said, with apparent unconcern. “Is supper most ready? I’m awful hungry.”
“I want to speak to you a moment, Benjamin,” said his mother. “Will you come upstairs?”
“Now for it,” thought Ben.
“Can’t you speak here just as well?” he said. “I’m tired.”
“I would rather have you come upstairs,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“Just as you say,” said Ben; “but I don’t see why you can’t talk just as well down here.”
Mrs. Oakley led the way to her own chamber. Ben followed, feeling, it must be confessed, not altogether comfortable. This feeling was not diminished when his mother closed the door carefully. She turned and confronted him.
“You have been to my bureau-drawer, Ben,” she said, eying him fixedly.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Ben.
“You came home about two hours ago, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I came home then,” said Ben, knowing that it would be of no use to deny what could be proved by Hannah’s testimony.
“You came up to this chamber, found my keys on the table, and opened the upper drawer of my bureau.”
“Did you see me do it?” asked Ben, feeling confident that he was accused on suspicion merely.
“Doesn’t Hannah pretend that she saw me?”
“Lucky for her she doesn’t. If she did she’d lie,” said Ben, glad to find out so much.
“Do you mean to deny that you came up here?” asked Mrs. Oakley.
“Yes, I do. It seems to me you’re mighty quick in suspecting me,” continued Ben, with an air of injured innocence. “But what’s all the fuss about? Have you missed anything?”
“Yes,” said his mother, “I have met with a serious loss. But, Benjamin, it is very important that I should clearly understand who did or did not take it. Will you assure me upon your honor that you did not take anything from my bureau?”
“Of course I will,” said Ben, who felt that he was in for it, and must stick stoutly to the lie at all hazards. “But you haven’t told me what you lost.”
Mrs. Oakley turned pale with consternation. She had depended upon Ben’s proving the real culprit, in which case she could require restitution, at any rate, of the will.
“I lost a sum of money,” she said,—”a hundred and twenty dollars.”
“Whew!” said Ben. “That was a loss.”
“But that was not all. There was besides a—a document of importance, for which I cared more than the money.”
“I’ve no doubt of it,” thought Ben.
“What was it?” he said aloud.
“What it was is quite immaterial,” said Mrs. Oakley. “It is sufficient to say that it was a document of very great importance. I care little for the money compared with that. If you took it, Ben,” she said, with a sudden final appeal, “I will forgive you, and let you keep the money, if you will restore the—the document.”
There was a look of entreaty in the proud woman’s eyes, as she made this appeal to her son. She waited anxiously for the answer.
But the inducement was not sufficient. The one hundred and twenty dollars were already paid away, and Ben owed one hundred and eighty dollars besides. He knew that Winchester would not remit the debt. There was no chance whatever of that. So Ben determined to keep the rôle of injured innocence which he had assumed in the beginning. His mother would not be able to find him out. It may be thought that this was inconsistent with his plan of raising money out of his mother’s fears by withholding the will. But he had arranged that already. He might find the will,—perhaps in Hannah’s chamber, perhaps elsewhere, he could decide that hereafter; but he resolved not to own up to the theft. In fact, after denying it stoutly, it would have been difficult to do that.
“Look here, mother,” he said, “I am not a thief, and I wish you would not try to make me out one. You’re ready enough to suspect me. Why don’t you suspect Hannah? She was here all the time.”
“I have already spoken to Hannah,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“What did she say?”
“She said she had not been upstairs during my absence.”
“And you believed her,” said Ben, reproachfully. “Do you believe her before me?”
“Yes, I believed her,” said Mrs. Oakley; “and I will tell you why. She might take the money, but she wouldn’t be likely to take the paper.”
“I don’t know about that. She might think it was of importance. She might think you would pay her money to get it back.”
Just then it flashed across Mrs. Oakley’s mind that Hannah had seen the will in her hand on the day that she undertook to burn it. Why had she not thought of that before? It might be that Hannah was more artful than she gave her credit for, and, suspecting the value of the document, had taken it as well as the money.
“I will question Hannah again,” she said. “Come with me, Benjamin.”
They went downstairs together, and Hannah was summoned from the kitchen.
“Hannah,” said Mrs. Oakley, “listen attentively to me.”
“Certainly, ma’am,” said Hannah, wondering what was coming.
“Something was taken from my drawer this afternoon, Hannah,—some money and something else. Do you know anything about it?”
“Sure I don’t, ma’am. I told you once before.”
“If you took it, and will tell me, and restore everything, I will forgive you, and let you keep ten dollars of the money besides.”
“But I didn’t take it, ma’am,” said poor Hannah, earnestly.
“If you don’t,” said Mrs. Oakley, sternly, “I will send for the constable, and have you arrested at once and carried to prison.”
Hannah burst into a piteous howl, and declared that she never stole so much as a pin, and called the Virgin and all the saints to witness that she was innocent.
“Give up the paper you took,” said Mrs. Oakley, “and you may keep twenty dollars of the money.”
But Hannah again declared that she took nothing.
“Stop a minute,” said Ben; “maybe we’re all wrong. When I went out of the house I saw a very suspicious-looking man coming this way.”
“What was his appearance?”
“He had black hair and whiskers,” said Ben, glibly, “and was meanly dressed.”
“Was he coming towards the house?”
“Did such a person come to the house, Hannah?”
“I didn’t see him; but he might have come to the wing door without me knowing it.”
“I’ll bet ten dollars he was the thief,” said Ben.
Mrs. Oakley did not know what to say or think. Both Ben and Hannah stoutly denied the theft, and resisted the most liberal overtures to a confession. It might be the ill-looking man spoken of.
“What’ll you give me if I find the paper, mother?” asked Ben. “I’ll get on the track of the scamp, and get it if I can.”
“I’ll give fifty dollars,” said his mother.
“But you offered a hundred a little while ago.”
“I’ll give you a hundred and twenty then.”
“Promise me two hundred cash down, and I’ll do my best.”
“I’ll give you two hundred dollars when you place the paper in my hands.”
“All right,” said Ben. “If I can find the man, I’ll offer him a little something to begin with. It won’t be of any use to him, you know.”
They sat down to supper. Ben partook heartily, feeling that he had as good as got the two hundred dollars, while Mrs. Oakley was pale and nervous, and had no appetite. How differently she would have felt if she had only known that the lost will was all the while laid snugly away in Ben’s coat-pocket!
Ben decided not to produce the will too soon. It would look suspicious. Besides, the longer it remained missing, the more rejoiced his mother would be to recover it, and so naturally the more ready to pay the reward she had promised. The afternoon of the next day he thought would be quite soon enough to “find” it.
Meanwhile the next morning Ben strolled over to the tavern, thinking he might find Winchester. But that young man had gone out on a fishing excursion, and had left word to that effect with the landlord.
So Ben strolled down to the river. It was a delightful day, and the desire seized him to “go in swimming.” Though he cared little for other athletic exercises, he was fond of swimming, and was quite a fair swimmer.
Now, as Ben’s ill luck would have it, Sam Selwyn chanced to be in the woods quite near by, and saw Ben undress and go into the water. He was not fond of Ben, and he was fond of a practical joke. Besides, he had been for some time wanting to pay off Ben for the share he had in making John’s life uncomfortable. A plan suggested itself to him.
“I’ll do it!” he exclaimed, his eyes twinkling with merriment.
He ran home,—it was but a few steps across lots,—dashed upstairs, and from an upper room took a faded calico dress and hoop-skirt, and, rolling them up, made his way swiftly back to the river. The river’s edge was heavily wooded, and running vines and thick underbrush almost completely concealed the water from the sight. He went to the place where Ben had deposited his clothes, took away his coat, vest, and pantaloons, put the gown and hoop-skirt in their place, and quickly departed. Ben’s clothes he hid away in the hollow trunk of an old tree not more than two rods distant. But in doing so a folded paper slipped out of the coat-pocket. Sam’s attention was drawn towards it, for it looked like the legal papers of which his father had so many in his office. Opening it under an impulse of curiosity, his face instantly glowed with an expression of the most earnest and enthusiastic joy.
“By all my lucky stars!” he exclaimed; “if this isn’t the lost will! This will set John all right. I wonder how that scamp got hold of it!”
Sam put the will in his own inside coat-pocket, and buttoned up his coat to make sure that it was safe. He wanted to go at once and communicate the joyful discovery to his father, but he also wanted to enjoy Ben’s dismay when he found his clothes gone. This he could not forego on any account, and that he might be an unseen witness of all that occurred, he climbed up a large tree whose thick-leaved branches hid him completely.
Hardly had he concealed himself before Ben emerged from the water. He at once proceeded to the spot where he had left his clothing. In ludicrous perplexity he gazed at the remarkable change which had taken place. He lifted the gown and skirt, and found that his shirt, collar, hat, stockings, and shoes were untouched.
He put on his shirt and stockings, and called out, angrily, thinking the author of the trick might be within hearing:—
“I say, bring back my clothes!”
But no reply was made.
“Bring back my clothes, I say!” he called, in louder and more angry accents.
But again this reasonable request fell unheeded. He waited anxiously for a response, but none came.
“Where are you, you scoundrel?” he screamed, in very ill temper.
“Don’t you wish you knew?” thought Sam, as he looked calmly down from a distance upon Ben.
“Perhaps the scamp has hid my clothes somewhere about here,” thought Ben.
He proceeded to search in every direction he could think of. But the hollow tree, rather strangely, did not occur to him and escaped his notice.
His anger and dismay increased as he found his search vain.
“I wish I had the mean, contemptible rascal here!” he exclaimed. “I’d break every bone in his body!”
“I don’t know about that, Ben Brayton,” silently commented Sam, from his secure post of observation.
“What shall I do?” thought Ben, gloomily.
He sat down to consider. His situation was certainly an embarrassing one. Of course he could not go home in his shirt, and the only alternative was to wear the odious gown. It was hard to make up his mind to that. He preferred to wait awhile to see if help would not come from some quarter. Sam began to get tired in his perch.
“Why don’t the fellow dress and go home?” he muttered.
At length Ben made up his mind that it must be done, and, with a hearty anathema on the author of his perplexity, robed himself in the dress. Sam nearly exploded with laughter as he saw Ben arrayed in the gown, which fell lank around him. Ben gazed ruefully at his extraordinary figure, and then at the hoop-skirt. He concluded that he would not look quite so badly with that addition. He therefore fitted it on as well as he could, and adjusted his dress by the help of some pins which he found sticking in the dress.
“I wish I had a hood or something to hide my face,” muttered Ben, dismally. “I might pass for a girl then. Now folks will stare at me as if I was mad, and if any one sees me I shall never hear the last of it.”
Certainly Ben’s black felt hat did not look much in keeping with the faded calico dress, now properly filled out by the hoop-skirt, which swayed from side to side as he walked.
“Oh, it’s too rich!” thought Sam, almost choking with suppressed laughter. “What a sensation he will make in the village!”
Just then Ben’s foot got caught somehow, and he fell sprawling. He gathered himself up with furious energy, and did not observe that there was a conspicuous stain of mud on his dress. He took a roundabout way, so as to remain under cover of the woods as long as he could.
“I must meet Ben, and enjoy his discomfort,” thought Sam.
He scrambled down from the tree, and cautiously made a short cut for the road, unseen by Ben. He posted himself at a place where Ben must emerge. He walked along, apparently absorbed in thought, till he came face to face with Ben, who, very much ashamed of his appearance, was walking as fast as his embarrassing clothing would allow.
“Good gracious, Ben Brayton!” he exclaimed, in affected amazement. “Why, what possesses you to go round in this style?”
“No choice of mine. I couldn’t help it,” said Ben, ruefully. “I went in swimming. Some scamp stole my clothes, and left these traps in their place.”
“Well, upon my word, Ben, really you do cut the queerest figure I ever saw!” said Sam, giving vent to his pent-up mirth.
“I don’t see anything to laugh at,” said Ben, in a most aggrieved tone.
“You would if you could only see yourself,” said Sam,—and he burst out with laughter again.
“Do you mean to insult me?” said Ben, wrathfully.
“Excuse me, Ben; but really I can’t help it. See, there’s Miss Clark coming. If she don’t laugh I’ll forfeit a dollar.”
Miss Clark was one of the prettiest young ladies in the village, and to be seen by her was most humiliating. But there was no dodging it. She met Ben face to face, and, as might be expected, was moved to merriment.
“Good-morning, Miss Clark,” said Ben, sheepishly.
The young lady tried to say good-morning, but only burst into a fresh fit of mirth as she passed along, Sam joining her a few moments afterwards.
Ben walked on very much discomposed. He was still half a mile from home, and it was very probable that he would meet others.
“I’d give fifty dollars to be safe at home,” he groaned.
He had reason to say so. Just then the scholars in the village school were sent out to their morning recess. They espied the strange figure, and instantly, boy-like, started in pursuit.
“Keep your distance!” said Ben, furiously, to his young tormentors.
“Oh my! what a fine young lady I am!” said one.
“How do you do this morning, Miss Brayton?” said another.
“What a becoming dress!” commented another, with much admiration.
Ben tried to give chase to his tormentors, but, as might have been expected, not being accustomed to his attire, tripped, and fell headlong.
Then a shout, long and loud, went up from the boys.
Ben could not stand it. He gathered up his skirts, and ran towards home with all the expedition he was capable of. The old doctor met him, and gazed in wonder at the flying figure, not recognizing Ben in his new costume. He began to speculate whether it might not be an insane person, who had broken from his or her confinement.
Panting for breath, Ben at length brought up at his own door. It was locked, Mrs. Oakley having followed the old adage of “shutting the stable-door after the horse is stolen.” Ben rang a tremendous peal at the door-bell, which was quickly answered by Hannah.
When she saw the strange figure before her, she uttered a loud shriek, and fled with precipitation.
Mrs. Oakley heard the bell and Hannah’s shriek, and came hastily to the head of the stairs.
“What does this ridiculous masquerading mean?” she demanded, sternly.
“It means that I went in swimming, and some rascal stole my clothes and left these,” growled Ben, provoked that he should be blamed for his misfortune.
Then, for the first time, flashed upon Ben the crowning misfortune,—that the lost will was in his coat-pocket. Upon the recovery of that depended his chance of getting the two hundred dollars. He sank into a chair, pale with dismay.
“Are you sick, Ben?” asked his mother, hastily.
“No,” he said; “but I must dress as quick as possible, and go back and find my clothes if I can.”
He dressed in nervous haste, and set out for the woods. This time he espied the hollow tree. There he found his clothes. He felt in the pockets, and found that everything was safe, including his watch and pocket-book.
But the will was gone! Ben instituted a strict and careful search in every conceivable direction, but he found no trace of the lost document.
A letter was at once despatched to John, from Squire Selwyn, requesting his immediate return to Hampton.
Though no reason was assigned for the summons, John of course lost no time in obeying it. On the third day he was set down at the lawyer’s house.
“O John, how glad I am to see you!” said Sam, in his delight flinging both arms around John’s neck, and giving him a warm embrace.
John’s greeting was no less hearty.
“Such news, John!” said Sam.
“It isn’t the will?” inquired John, eagerly.
“But it is, though.”
“Yes, and I found it. Didn’t I tell you so! Don’t you remember my dream?”
“But perhaps it’s all a dream now.”
“Well, if it is, it’s a substantial dream, and father’s got the document locked up in his safe. You’re no longer dependent on Mrs. Oakley, and you can go to college with me, and—you don’t know how glad I am.”
“Yes, I do, Sam,” said John. “You’re just as glad as if it had happened to yourself, and that’s what I expected of you. But you haven’t told me how it was found yet.”
“Oh, it was such fun!” said Sam. “Sit down here, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
It need hardly be said that John was amused by the story of Ben’s ludicrous embarrassment; but he was surprised as well.
“How could Ben have got hold of it? I don’t understand that.”
“Nor I,” said Sam. “But as long as we’ve got it, we won’t trouble ourselves about that.”
It was decided that the next morning Squire Selwyn, accompanied by John, should call on Mrs. Oakley, and make arrangements founded on the new phase of affairs.
Mrs. Oakley had not received intelligence of John’s return, and her surprise was accompanied by a nervous sensation, when Hannah came up to her chamber, and announced that Squire Selwyn was below, and Master John was with him.
“John Oakley?” she demanded, hastily.
Mrs. Oakley entered the parlor with her old haughty step, and coldly bade the lawyer “good-morning.” Of John she took no notice.
“Good-morning, Mrs. Oakley,” said John.
“So you have got back, have you?” she said.
“Yes, he has got home to stay,” said Squire Selwyn, significantly.
“With or without my permission, I suppose,” said Mrs. Oakley.
“I don’t know that he needs anybody’s permission to live in his own house,” said the lawyer.
“His own house!” repeated Mrs. Oakley, in a voice which, despite her efforts, betrayed some nervousness.
“Yes, Mrs. Oakley. My object in calling upon you this morning is to apprise you that the will is found.”
“What will?” she demanded.
“Your late husband’s last will and testament, in which he bequeaths this estate to his son John, here present.”
“Where’s the will?”
“Here,” said the lawyer, producing it.
“Will you let me see it?”
“Excuse me, but it must remain in my possession till it is publicly read.”
“What reason have I for believing this to be a genuine document?” said Mrs. Oakley, harshly. It was foolish thus to contend, and she knew it; but it angered her that by the document she should be stripped of two-thirds of what she had come to look upon as her own.
“I am prepared to swear that it is the will which I drew up for your husband three months before his death.”
“I suppose I am not to ask how it came into your possession?” said Mrs. Oakley. “If it was concealed in this house, some one must have entered illegally, and made a secret search.”
Mrs. Oakley fixed her eyes upon John, feeling satisfied that he had entered the house on the day she left her keys out, and opened the drawer.
“If you think I had anything to do with it, Mrs. Oakley,” said John, “you are mistaken. I only reached Hampton last evening, summoned by Squire Selwyn.”
“I accused you of nothing,” said Mrs. Oakley, but she was greatly surprised.
“As to who found the will, Mrs. Oakley,” said Squire Selwyn, composedly, “I will only suggest that your son Benjamin can probably throw more light on this matter than any one else.”
“Benjamin!” exclaimed Mrs. Oakley, quickly.
“Yes, I have reason to think he can give you all the information you desire.”
Mrs. Oakley compressed her lips closely. Was it possible that Ben had found the will and deliberately carried it to Squire Selwyn? Could he have sold her and his own interests to the enemy? No doubt she argued, Squire Selwyn had bribed him at a heavy price to deliver it up.
“I don’t understand this,” she said. “If Benjamin found the will, he should have brought it to me.”
“As, of course, you would have placed it in my hands, there is no harm done,” said the lawyer, watching keenly the face that showed some discomposure as he spoke. “But you can settle that with Ben. I will merely read you the provisions of the will informally, previous to presenting it for probate.”
To this Mrs. Oakley could make no objection, though she was fully acquainted with the document to be read.
It provided that the home estate, consisting of the family mansion, and lands situated in the town of Hampton, valued together at twenty thousand dollars, should go to John. Of the remaining estate, invested in stocks and bonds, valued at forty thousand dollars, one half was to go to John, and the remaining half to Mrs. Oakley. Squire Selwyn was appointed executor, and guardian of John, until the latter should attain his majority.
“If the will is genuine,”—commenced Mrs. Oakley,—
“You certainly do not question my word to that effect?” said the lawyer, gravely.
“I have no right to stay in this house,” continued Mrs. Oakley.
“I am quite sure John would wish you to exercise your own choice in that matter.”
“I shall not remain a tenant on sufferance,” said Mrs. Oakley, coldly. “Next week Benjamin and I go to the city.”
“You will act your own pleasure, of course,” said Squire Selwyn, rather glad to hear it, if the truth must be told.
Some other matters were discussed and they rose to go. John received no invitation to remain.
“I am afraid I must burden your hospitality, Squire Selwyn,” he said, as they left the house.
“You are a welcome guest, and will always be, John,” said the lawyer. “Sam will be delighted at the arrangement.”
“I don’t know how my aunt will manage without me,” said John. “I was her business manager.”
“It seems to me, John, that your aunt had better sell out her store, and come and keep house for you. You will have a large house, and you are not quite old enough to marry and go to house-keeping.”
“Not quite,” said John, laughing.
“Your aunt will thus be relieved from business anxieties, and you are quite rich enough to provide for her and your cousins.”
“It is an excellent arrangement,” said John. “I’ll write to her at once.”
John did write, and, as might have been expected his aunt was very glad to accept his offer. It was, of course, impossible to doubt the validity of the will, and its provisions were, as soon as practicable, carried into effect. Mrs. Oakley removed to New York with Ben, and established herself at a boarding-house. On some accounts it was an unwise step. Ben, having nothing useful to do, grew dissipated, and contracted debts on all hands. In five years his mother’s twenty thousand dollars had dwindled to a few hundreds, and once more she found herself obliged to exert herself for a support. She opened a boarding-house, by means of which she managed to make a living. As for Ben, who she fondly hoped would grow up a gentleman, he appears to be sinking deeper and deeper every day into worthlessness and dissipation. He has cost his mother many sorrowful hours.
Mr. Huxter is dead. Probably his excesses in drinking hastened his death. His poor wife was left quite destitute. When John heard of her distress, grateful for her sympathy at a time when he stood in need of it, he asked permission to help her. A certain sum is paid her annually by him, by which, with her earnings as a dress-maker,—a trade which she followed before her marriage,—she is able to make a comfortable living for herself and her children.
John returned to his studies, and was admitted to college with Sam, where both took a high rank. They graduated at the last commencement, and are now both studying law.
Squire Bradley, of Wilton, who was much impressed by the skill with which John ferreted out Mr. Hall’s rascality, is anxious to have John enter his office; but Sam, who is unwilling to part with one who from boyhood has been his most intimate friend, insists that John shall enter his father’s office with him, after completing a course at a celebrated Law School where they now are. Probably this arrangement will best suit John. I have no hesitation in predicting for him a noble manhood and an honorable career. In spite of the gifts of Fortune that he possesses, I consider his warm and generous heart, his personal integrity, and his manly character, to be John Oakley’s most valuable Inheritance.