Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter XV
Notwithstanding his singular bedchamber, Paul had a refreshing night's sleep from which he did not awake till the sun had fairly risen, and its rays colored by the medium through which they were reflected, streamed in at the windows and rested in many fantastic lines on the richly carved pulpit and luxurious pews.
Paul sprang to his feet and looked around him in bewilderment.
"Where am I?" he exclaimed in astonishment.
In the momentary confusion of ideas which is apt to follow a sudden awakening, he could not remember where he was, or how he chanced to be there. But in a moment memory came to his aid, and he recalled the events of the preceding day, and saw that he must have been locked up in the church.
"How am I going to get out?" Paul asked himself in dismay.
This was the important question just now. He remembered that the village meeting-house which he had been accustomed to attend was rarely opened except on Sundays. What if this should be the case here? It was Thursday morning, and three days must elapse before his release. This would never do. He must seek some earlier mode of deliverance.
He went first to the windows, but found them so secured that it was impossible for him to get them open. He tried the doors, but found, as he had anticipated, that they were fast. His last resource failing, he was at liberty to follow the dictates of his curiosity.
Finding a small door partly open, he peeped within, and found a flight of steep stairs rising before him. They wound round and round, and seemed almost interminable. At length, after he had become almost weary of ascending, he came to a small window, out of which he looked. At his feet lay the numberless roofs of the city, while not far away his eye rested on thousands of masts. The river sparkled in the sun, and Paul, in spite of his concern, could not help enjoying the scene. The sound of horses and carriages moving along the great thoroughfare below came confusedly to his ears. He leaned forward to look down, but the distance was so much greater than he had thought, that he drew back in alarm.
"What shall I do?" Paul asked himself, rather frightened. "I wonder if I can stand going without food for three days? I suppose nobody would hear me if I should scream as loud as I could."
Paul shouted, but there was so much noise in the streets that nobody probably heard him.
He descended the staircase, and once more found himself in the body of the church. He went up into the pulpit, but there seemed no hope of escape in that direction. There was a door leading out on one side, but this only led to a little room into which the minister retired before service.
It semmed rather odd to Paul to find himself the sole occupant of so large a building. He began to wonder whether it would not have been better for him to stay in the poorhouse, than come to New York to die of starvation.
Just at this moment Paul heard a key rattle in the outer door. Filled with new hope, he ran down the pulpit stairs and out into the porch, just in time to see the entrance of the sexton.
The sexton started in surprise as his eye fell upon Paul standing before him, with his bundle under his arm.
"Where did you come from, and how came you here?" he asked with some suspicion.
"I came in last night, and fell asleep."
"So you passed the night here?"
"What made you come in at all?" inquired the sexton, who knew enough of boys to be curious upon this point.
"I didn't know where else to go," said Paul.
"Where do you live?"
Paul answered with perfect truth, "I don't live anywhere."
"What! Have you no home?" asked the sexton in surprise.
Paul shook his head.
"Where should you have slept if you hadn't come in here?"
"I don't know, I'm sure."
"And I suppose you don't know where you shall sleep to-night?"
Paul signified that he did not.
"I knew there were plenty of such cases," said the sexton, meditatively; "but I never seemed to realize it before."
"How long have you been in New York?" was his next inquiry.
"Not very long," said Paul. "I only got here yesterday."
"Then you don't know anybody in the city?"
"Why did you come here, then?"
"Because I wanted to go somewhere where I could earn a living, and I thought I might find something to do here."
"But suppose you shouldn't find anything to do?"
"I don't know," said Paul, slowly. "I haven't thought much about that."
"Well, my lad," said the sexton, not unkindly, "I can't say your prospects look very bright. You should have good reasons for entering on such an undertaking. I--I don't think you are a bad boy. You don't look like a bad one," he added, half to himself.
"I hope not, sir," said Paul.
"I hope not, too. I was going to say that I wish I could help you to some kind of work. If you will come home with me, you shall be welcome to a dinner, and perhaps I may be able to think of something for you."
Paul gladly prepared to follow his new acquaintance.
"What is your name?" inquired the sexton.
"That sounds like a good name. I suppose you haven't got much money?"
"Only twelve cents."
"Bless me! only twelve cents. Poor boy! you are indeed poor."
"But I can work," said Paul, spiritedly. "I ought to be able to earn my living."
"Yes, yes, that's the way to feel. Heaven helps those who help themselves."
When they were fairly out of the church, Paul had an opportunity of observing his companion's external appearance. He was an elderly man, with harsh features, which would have been forbidding, but for a certain air of benevolence which softened their expression.
As Paul walked along, he related, with less of detail, the story which is already known to the reader. The sexton said little except in the way of questions designed to elicit further particulars, till, at the conclusion he said, "Must tell Hester."
At length they came to a small house, in a respectable but not fashionable quarter of the city. One-half of this was occupied by the sexton. He opened the door and led the way into the sitting-room. It was plainly but neatly furnished, the only ornament being one or two engravings cheaply framed and hung over the mantel-piece. They were by no means gems of art, but then, the sexton did not claim to be a connoisseur, and would probably not have understood the meaning of the word.
"Sit here a moment," said the sexton, pointing to a chair, "I'll go and speak to Hester."
Paul whiled away the time in looking at the pictures in a copy of "The Pilgrim's Progress," which lay on the table.
In the next room sat a woman of perhaps fifty engaged in knitting. It was very easy to see that she could never have possessed the perishable gift of beauty. Hers was one of the faces on which nature has written PLAIN, in unmistakable characters. Yet if the outward features had been a reflex of the soul within, few faces would have been more attractive than that of Hester Cameron. At the feet of the sexton's wife, for such she was, reposed a maltese cat, purring softly by way of showing her contentment. Indeed, she had good reason to be satisfied. In default of children, puss had become a privileged pet, being well fed and carefully shielded from all the perils that beset cat-hood.
"Home so soon?" said Hester inquiringly, as her husband opened the door.
"Yes, Hester, and I have brought company with me," said the sexton.
"Company!" repeated his wife. "Who is it?"
"It is a poor boy, who was accidentally locked up in the church last night."
"And he had to stay there all night?"
"Yes; but perhaps it was lucky for him, for he had no other place to sleep, and not money enough to pay for one."
"Poor child!" said Hester, compassionately. "Is it not terrible to think that any human creature should be without the comforts of a home which even our tabby possesses. It ought to make you thankful that you are so well cared for, Tab."
The cat opened her eyes and winked drowsily at her mistress.
"So you brought the poor boy home, Hugh?"
"Yes, Hester,--I thought we ought not to begrudge a meal to one less favored by fortune than ourselves. You know we should consider ourselves the almoners of God's bounties."
"I knew you would feel so, Hester. And suppose we have the chicken for dinner that I sent in the morning. I begin to have a famous appetite. I think I should enjoy it."
Hester knew perfectly well that it was for Paul's sake, and not for his own, that her husband spoke. But she so far entered into his feelings, that she determined to expend her utmost skill as cook upon the dinner, that Paul might have at least one good meal.
"Now I will bring the boy in," said he. "I am obliged to go to work, but you will find some way to entertain him, I dare say."
"If you will come out (this he said to Paul), I will introduce you to a new friend."
Paul was kindly welcomed by the sexton's wife, who questioned him in a sympathizing tone about his enforced stay in the church. To all her questions Paul answered in a modest yet manly fashion, so as to produce a decidedly favorable impression upon his entertainer.
Our hero was a handsome boy. Just at present he was somewhat thin, not having entirely recovered from the effects of his sickness and poor fare while a member of Mr. Mudge's family; but he was well made, and bade fair to become a stout boy. His manner was free and unembarrassed, and he carried a letter of recommendation in his face. It must be admitted, however that there were two points in which his appearance might have been improved. Both his hands and face had suffered from the dust of travel. His clothes, too, were full of dust.
A single glance told Hester all this, and she resolved to remedy it.
She quietly got some water and a towel, and requested Paul to pull off his jacket, which she dusted while he was performing his ablutions. Then, with the help of a comb to arrange his disordered hair, he seemed quite like a new boy, and felt quite refreshed by the operation.
"Really, it improves him very much," said Hester to herself.
She couldn't help recalling a boy of her own, --the only child she ever had,--who had been accidentally drowned when about the age of Paul.
"If he had only lived," she thought, "how different might have been our lives."
A thought came into her mind, and she looked earnestly at Paul.
"I--yes I will speak to Hugh about it," she said, speaking aloud, unconsciously.
"Did you speak to me?" asked Paul.
"No,--I was thinking of something."
She observed that Paul was looking rather wistfully at a loaf of bread on the table.
"Don't you feel hungry?" she asked, kindly.
"I dare say you have had no breakfast."
"I have eaten nothing since yesterday afternoon."
"Bless my soul! How hungry you must be!" said the good woman, as she bustled about to get a plate of butter and a knife.
She must have been convinced of it by the rapid manner in which the slices of bread and butter disappeared.
At one o'clock the sexton came home. Dinner was laid, and Paul partook of it with an appetite little affected by his lunch of the morning. As he rose from the table, he took his cap, and saying, "Good-by, I thank you very much for your kindness!" he was about to depart.
"Where are you going?" asked the sexton, in surprise.
"I don't know," answered Paul.
"Stop a minute. Hester, I want to speak to you."
They went into the sitting-room together.
"This boy, Hester," he commenced with hesitation.
"He has no home."
"It is a hard lot."
"Do you think we should be the worse off if we offered to share our home with him?"
"It is like your kind heart, Hugh. Let us go and tell him."
"We have been talking of you, Paul," said the sexton. "We have thought, Hester and myself, that as you had no home and we no child, we should all be the gainers by your staying with us. Do you consent?"
"Consent!" echoed Paul in joyful surprise. "How can I ever repay your kindness?"
"If you are the boy we take you for, we shall feel abundantly repaid. Hester, we can give Paul the little bedroom where--where John used to sleep."
His voice faltered a little, for John was the name of his boy, who had been drowned.