Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter XII
"If you're in no great hurry to go to New York," said the pedler, "I should like to have you stay with me for a day or two. I live about twenty-five miles from here, straight ahead, so it will be on your way. I always manage to get home by Saturday night if it is any way possible. It doesn't seem comfortable to be away Sunday. As to-day is Friday, I shall get there to-morrow. So you can lie over a day and rest yourself."
Paul felt grateful for this unexpected invitation. It lifted quite a load from his mind, since, as the day declined, certain anxious thoughts as to where he should find shelter, had obtruded themselves. Even now, the same trouble would be experienced on Monday night, but it is the characteristic of youth to pay little regard to anticipated difficulties as long as the present is provided for.
It must not be supposed that the pedler neglected his business on account of his companion. On the road he had been traveling the houses were few and far between. He had, therefore, but few calls to make. Paul remarked, however, that when he did call he seldom failed to sell something.
"Yes," said Mr. Stubbs, on being interrogated, "I make it a p'int to sell something, if it's no more than a tin dipper. I find some hard cases sometimes, and sometimes I have to give it up altogether. I can't quite come up to a friend of mine, Daniel Watson, who used to be in the same line of business. I never knew him to stop at a place without selling something. He had a good deal of judgment, Daniel had, and knew just when to use `soft sodder,' and when not to. On the road that he traveled there lived a widow woman, who had the reputation of being as ugly, cross- grained a critter as ever lived. People used to say that it was enough to turn milk sour for her even to look at it. Well, it so happened that Daniel had never called there. One night he was boasting that he never called at a house without driving a bargain, when one of the company asked him, with a laugh, if he had ever sold the widow anything.
"Why, no," said Daniel, "I never called there; but I've no doubt I could."
"What'll you bet of it?"
"I'm not a betting man," said Daniel, "but I feel so sure of it that I don't mind risking five dollars."
"The next morning Daniel drove leisurely up to the widow's door and knocked. She had a great aversion to pedlers, and declared they were cheats, every one of them. She was busy sweeping when Daniel knocked. She came to the door in a dreadful hurry, hoping it might be an old widower in the neighborhood that she was trying to catch. When she saw how much she was mistaken she looked as black as a thundercloud.
"Want any tin ware to-day, ma'am?" inquired Daniel, noways discomposed.
"No, sir," snapped she.
"Got all kinds,--warranted the best in the market. Couldn't I sell you something?"
"Not a single thing," said she, preparing to shut the door; but Daniel, knowing all would then be lost, stepped in before she could shut it quite to, and began to name over some of the articles he had in his wagon.
"You may talk till doomsday," said the widow, as mad as could be, "and it won't do a particle of good. Now, you've got your answer, and you'd better leave the house before you are driven out."
"Brooms, brushes, lamps----"
"Here the widow, who had been trying to keep in her anger, couldn't hold out any longer. She seized the broom she had been sweeping with, and brought it down with a tremendous whack upon Daniel's back. You can imagine how hard it was, when I tell you that the force of the blow snapped the broom in the middle. You might have thought Daniel would resent it, but he didn't appear to notice it, though it must have hurt him awful. He picked up the pieces, and handing them, with a polite bow, to the widow, said, "Now, ma'am, I'm sure you need a new broom. I've got some capital ones out in the cart."
"The widow seemed kind of overpowered by his coolness. She hardly knew what to say or what to think. However, she had broken her old broom, that was certain, and must have a new one; so when Daniel ran out and brought in a bundle of them, she picked out one and paid for it without saying a word; only, when Daniel asked if he might have the pleasure of calling again, she looked a little queer, and told him that if he considered it a pleasure, she had no objection."
"And did he call again?"
"Yes, whenever he went that way. The widow was always very polite to him after that, and, though she had a mortal dislike to pedlers in general, she was always ready to trade with him. Daniel used to say that he gained his bet and the widow's custom at ONE BLOW."
They were now descending a little hill at the foot of which stood a country tavern. Here Mr. Stubbs declared his intention of spending the night. He drove into the barn, the large door of which stood invitingly open, and unharnessed his horse, taking especial care to rub him down and set before him an ample supply of provender.
"I always take care of Goliah myself," said he. "He's a good friend to me, and it's no more than right that I should take good care of him. Now, we'll go into the house, and see what we can get for supper."
He was surprised to see that Paul hung back, and seemed disinclined to follow.
"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Stubbs, in surprise. "Why don't you come?"
"Because," said Paul, looking embarrassed, "I've got no money."
"Well, I have," said Mr. Stubbs, "and that will answer just as well, so come along, and don't be bashful. I'm about as hungry as a bear, and I guess you are too."
Before many minutes, Paul sat down to a more bountiful repast than he had partaken of for many a day. There were warm biscuits and fresh butter, such as might please the palate of an epicure, while at the other end of the table was a plate of cake, flanked on one side by an apple-pie, on the other by one of pumpkin, with its rich golden hue, such as is to be found in its perfection, only in New England. It will scarcely be doubted that our hungry travellers did full justice to the fare set before them.
When they had finished, they went into the public room, where were engaged some of the village worthies, intent on discussing the news and the political questions of the day. It was a time of considerable political excitement, and this naturally supplied the topic of conversation. In this the pedler joined, for his frequent travel on this route had made him familiarly acquainted with many of those present.
Paul sat in a corner, trying to feel interested in the conversation; but the day had been a long one, and he had undergone an unusual amount of fatigue. Gradually, his drowsiness increased. The many voices fell upon his ears like a lullaby, and in a few minutes he was fast asleep.
Early next morning they were up and on their way. It was the second morning since Paul's departure. Already a sense of freedom gave his spirits unwonted elasticity, and encouraged him to hope for the best. Had his knowledge of the future been greater, his confidence might have been less. But would he have been any happier?
So many miles separated him from his late home, that he supposed himself quite safe from detection. A slight circumstance warned him that he must still be watchful and cautious.
As they were jogging easily along, they heard the noise of wheels at a little distance. Paul looked up. To his great alarms he recognized in the driver of the approaching vehicle, one of the selectmen of Wrenville.
"What's the matter?" asked his companion, noticing his sudden look of apprehension.
Paul quickly communicated the ground of his alarm.
"And you are afraid he will want to carry you back, are you?"
"Not a bit of it. We'll circumvent the old fellow, unless he's sharper than I think he is. You've only got to do as I tell you."
To this Paul quickly agreed.
The selectman was already within a hundred rods. He had not yet apparently noticed the pedler's cart, so that this was in our hero's favor. Mr. Stubbs had already arranged his plan of operations.
"This is what you are to do, Paul," said he, quickly. "Cock your hat on the side of your head, considerably forward, so that he can't see much of your face. Then here's a cigar to stick in your mouth. You can make believe that you are smoking. If you are the sort of boy I reckon you are, he'll never think it's you."
Paul instantly adopted this suggestion.
Slipping his hat to one side in the jaunty manner characteristic of young America, he began to puff very gravely at a cigar the pedler handed him, frequently taking it from his mouth, as he had seen older persons do, to knock away the ashes. Nothwithstanding his alarm, his love of fun made him enjoy this little stratagem, in which he bore his part successfully.
The selectman eyed him intently. Paul began to tremble from fear of discovery, but his apprehensions were speedily dissipated by a remark of the new-comer, "My boy, you are forming a very bad habit."
Paul did not dare to answer lest his voice should betray him. To his relief, the pedler spoke----
"Just what I tell him, sir, but I suppose he thinks he must do as his father does."
By this time the vehicles had passed each other, and the immediate peril was over.
"Now, Paul," said his companion, laughing, "I'll trouble you for that cigar, if you have done with it. The old gentleman's advice was good. If I'd never learned to smoke, I wouldn't begin now."
Our hero was glad to take the cigar from his mouth. The brief time he had held it was sufficient to make him slightly dizzy.