Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter II
We will precede Ben on his visit to the house of Mr. Prescott.
It was an old weather-beaten house, of one story, about half a mile distant from 'Squire Newcome's residence. The Prescott family had lived here for five years, or ever since they had removed to Wrenville. Until within a year they had lived comfortably, when two blows came in quick succession. The first was the death of Mrs. Prescott, an excellent woman, whose loss was deeply felt by her husband and son. Soon afterwards Mr. Prescott, a carpenter by trade, while at work upon the roof of a high building, fell off, and not only broke his leg badly, but suffered some internal injury of a still more serious nature. He had not been able to do a stroke of work since. After some months it became evident that he would never recover. A year had now passed. During this time his expenses had swallowed up the small amount which he had succeeded in laying up previous to his sickness. It was clear that at his death there would be nothing left. At thirteen years of age Paul would have to begin the world without a penny.
Mr. Prescott lay upon a bed in a small bedroom adjoining the kitchen. Paul, a thoughtful- looking boy sat beside it, ready to answer his call.
There had been silence for some time, when Mr. Prescott called feebly--
"I am here, father," said Paul.
"I am almost gone, Paul, I don't think I shall last through the day."
"O, father," said Paul, sorrowfully, "Don't leave me."
"That is the only grief I have in dying--I must leave you to struggle for yourself, Paul. I shall be able to leave you absolutely nothing."
"Don't think of that, father. I am young and strong--I can earn my living in some way."
"I hoped to live long enough to give you an education. I wanted you to have a fairer start in the world than I had."
"Never mind, father," said Paul, soothingly, "Don't be uneasy about me. God will provide for me."
Again there was a silence, broken only by the difficult breathing of the sick man.
He spoke again.
"There is one thing, Paul, that I want to tell you before I die."
Paul drew closer to the bedside.
"It is something which has troubled me as I lay here. I shall feel easier for speaking of it. You remember that we lived at Cedarville before we came here."
"About two years before we left there, a promising speculation was brought to my notice. An agent of a Lake Superior mine visited our village and represented the mine in so favorable a light that many of my neighbors bought shares, fully expecting to double their money in a year. Among the rest I was attacked with the fever of speculation. I had always been obliged to work hard for a moderate compensation, and had not been able to do much more than support my family. This it seemed to me, afforded an excellent opportunity of laying up a little something which might render me secure in the event of a sudden attack of sickness. I had but about two hundred dollars, however, and from so scanty an investment I could not, of course, expect a large return; accordingly I went to Squire Conant; you remember him, Paul?"
`I went to him and asked a loan of five hundred dollars. After some hesitation he agreed to lend it to me. He was fond of his money and not much given to lending, but it so happened that he had invested in the same speculation, and had a high opinion of it, so he felt pretty safe in advancing me the money. Well, this loan gave me seven hundred dollars, with which I purchased seven shares in the Lake Superior Grand Combination Mining Company. For some months afterwards, I felt like a rich man. I carefully put away my certificate of stock, looking upon it as the beginning of a competence. But at the end of six months the bubble burst--the stock proved to be utterly worthless,--Squire Conant lost five thousand dollars. I lost seven hundred, five hundred being borrowed money. The Squire's loss was much larger, but mine was the more serious, since I lost everything and was plunged into debt, while he had at least forty thousand dollars left.
"Two days after the explosion, Squire Conant came into my shop and asked abruptly when I could pay him the amount I had borrowed. I told him that I could not fix a time. I said that I had been overwhelmed by a result so contrary to my anticipations, but I told him I would not rest till I had done something to satisfy his claim. He was always an unreasonable man, and reproached me bitterly for sinking his money in a useless speculation, as if I could foresee how it would end any better than he."
"Have you ever been able to pay back any part of the five hundred dollars, father?"
"I have paid the interest regularly, and a year ago, just before I met with my accident, I had laid up a hundred and fifty dollars which I had intended to pay the Squire, but when my sickness came I felt obliged to retain it to defray our expenses, being cut off from earning anything"
"Then I suppose you have not been able to pay interest for the last year."
"Have you heard from the Squire lately?"
"Yes, I had a letter only last week. You remember bringing me one postmarked Cedarville?"
"Yes, I wondered at the time who it could be from."
"You will find it on the mantelpiece. I should like to have you get it and read it."
Paul readily found the letter. It was enclosed in a brown envelope, directed in a bold hand to "Mr. John Prescott, Wrenville."
The letter was as follows:--
CEDARVILLE, APRIL 15, 18--, MR. JOHN PRESCOTT:--
SIR: I have been waiting impatiently to hear something about the five hundred dollars in which sum you are indebted to me, on account of a loan which I was fool enough to make you seven years since. I thought you an honest man, but I have found, to my cost, that I was mistaken. For the last year you have even failed to pay interest as stipulated between us. Your intention is evident. I quite understand that you have made up your mind to defraud me of what is rightfully mine. I don't know how you may regard this, but I consider it as bad as highway robbery. I do not hesitate to say that if you had your deserts you would be in the Penitentiary. Let me advise you, if you wish to avoid further trouble, to make no delay in paying a portion of this debt.
Yours, etc. EZEKIEL CONANT.
Paul's face flushed with indignation as he read this bitter and cruel letter.
"Does Squire Conant know that you are sick, father?" he inquired.
"Yes, I wrote him about my accident, telling him at the same time that I regretted it in part on account of the interruption which it must occasion in my payments."
"And knowing this, he wrote such a letter as that," said Paul, indignantly, "what a hard, unfeeling wretch he must be!"
"I suppose it is vexatious to him to be kept out of his money."
"But he has plenty more. He would never miss it if he had given it to you outright."
"That is not the way to look at it, Paul. The money is justly his, and it is a great sorrow to me that I must die without paying it."
"Father," said Paul, after a pause, "will it be any relief to you, if I promise to pay it,-- that is, if I am ever able?"
Mr. Prescott's face brightened.
"That was what I wanted to ask you, Paul. It will be a comfort to me to feel thar there is some hope of the debt being paid at some future day."
"Then don't let it trouble you any longer, father. The debt shall be mine, and I will pay it.
Again a shadow passed over the sick man's face, "Poor boy," he said, "why should I burden your young life with such a load? You will have to struggle hard enough as it is. No, Paul, recall your promise. I don't want to purchase comfort at such a price."
"No, father," said Paul sturdily, "it is too late now. I have made the promise and I mean to stick to it. Besides, it will give me something to live for. I am young--I may have a great many years before me. For thirteen years you have supported me. It is only right that I should make what return I can. I'll keep my promise, father."
"May God help and prosper you, my boy," said Mr. Prescott, solemnly. "You've been a good son; I pray that you may grow up to be a good man. But, my dear, I feel tired. I think I will try to go to sleep."
Paul smoothed the comforter, adjusting it carefully about his father's neck, and going to the door went out in search of some wood to place upon the fire. Their scanty stock of firewood was exhausted, and Paul was obliged to go into the woods near by, to obtain such loose fagots as he might find upon the ground.
He was coming back with his load when his attention was drawn by a whistle. Looking up he discovered Ben Newcome approaching him.
"How are you, Paul?"
"Pretty well, Ben."
"How precious lonesome you must be, mewed up in the house all the time."
"Yes, it is lonesome, but I wouldn't mind that if I thought father would ever get any better."
"How is he this morning?"
"Pretty low; I expect he is asleep. He said he was tired just before I went out."
"I brought over something for you," said Ben, tugging away at his pocket.
Opening a paper he displayed a couple of apple turnovers fried brown.
"I found 'em in the closet," he said.
"Won't Hannah make a precious row when she finds 'em gone?"
"Then I don't know as I ought to take them," said Paul, though, to tell the truth, they looked tempting to him.
"O, nonsense," said Ben; "they don't belong to Hannah. She only likes to scold a little; it does her good."
The two boys sat on the doorstep and talked while Paul ate the turnovers. Ben watched the process with much satisfaction.
"Ain't they prime?" he said.
"First rate," said Paul; `won't you have one?"
"No," said Ben; "you see I thought while I was about it I might as well take four, so I ate two coming along."
In about fifteen minutes Paul went into the house to look at his father. He was lying very quietly upon the bed. Paul drew near and looked at him more closely. There was something in the expression of his father's face which terrified him.
Ben heard his sudden cry of dismay, and hurriedly entered.
Paul pointed to the bed, and said briefly, "Father's dead!"
Ben, who in spite of his mischievous propensities was gifted with a warm heart, sat down beside Paul, and passing his arm round his neck, gave him that silent sympathy which is always so grateful to the grief-stricken heart.