Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter XXII
One evening, about a fortnight after his entrance into Smith & Thompson's employment, Paul was putting up the shutters, the business of the day being over. It devolved upon him to open and close the store, and usually he was the last one to go home.
This evening, however, Mr. Nicholas Benton graciously remained behind and assisted Paul in closing the store. This was unusual, and surprised Paul a little. It was soon explained, however.
"Good-night, Nicholas,--I mean, Mr. Benton," said Paul.
"Not quite yet. I want you to walk a little way with me this evening."
"Come, no backing out. I want to confide to you a very important secret."
He looked so mysterious that Paul's curiosity was aroused, and reflecting that it was yet early, he took his companion's proffered arm, and sauntered along by his side.
"What's the secret?" he asked at length, perceiving that Nicholas was silent.
"Wait till we get to a more retired place."
He turned out of Broadway into a side street, where the passers were less numerous.
"I don't think you could guess," said the young man, turning towards our hero.
"I don't think I could."
"And yet," continued Benton, meditatively, "it is possible that you may have noticed something in my appearance just a little unusual, within the last week. Haven't you, now?"
Paul could not say that he had.
Mr. Benton looked a little disappointed.
"Nobody can tell what has been the state of my feelings," he resumed after a pause.
"You ain't sick?" questioned Paul, hastily.
"Nothing of the sort, only my appetite has been a good deal affected. I don't think I have eaten as much in a week as you would in a day," he added, complacently.
"If I felt that way I should think I was going to be sick," said Paul.
"I'll let you into the secret," said Mr. Benton, lowering his voice, and looking carefully about him, to make sure that no one was within hearing distance--"I'M IN LOVE."
This seemed so utterly ludicrous to Paul, that he came very near losing Mr. Benton's friendship forever by bursting into a hearty laugh.
"I didn't think of that," he said.
"It's taken away my appetite, and I haven't been able to sleep nights," continued Mr. Benton, in a cheerful tone. "I feel just as Howard Courtenay did in the great story that's coming out in the Weekly Budget. You've read it, haven't you?"
"I don't think I have," said Paul.
"Then you ought to. It's tiptop. It's rather curious too that the lady looks just as Miranda does, in the same story."
"How is that?"
"Wait a minute, and I'll read the description."
Mr. Benton pulled a paper from his pocket, --the last copy of the Weekly Budget,--and by the light of a street lamp read the following extract to his amused auditor.
"Miranda was just eighteen. Her form was queenly and majestic. Tall and stately, she moved among her handmaidens with a dignity which revealed her superior rank. Her eyes were dark as night. Her luxuriant tresses,-- there, the rest is torn off," said Mr. Benton, in a tone of vexation.
"She is tall, then?" said Paul.
"Yes, just like Miranda."
"Then," said our hero, in some hesitation, "I should think she would not be very well suited to you."
"Why not?" asked Mr. Benton, quickly.
"Because," said Paul, "you're rather short, you know."
"I'm about the medium height," said Mr. Benton, raising himself upon his toes as he spoke.
"Not quite," said Paul, trying not to laugh.
"I'm as tall as Mr. Smith," resumed Mr. Benton, in a tone which warned Paul that this was a forbidden subject. "But you don't ask me who she is."
"I didn't know as you would be willing to tell."
"I shan't tell any one but you. It's Miss Hawkins,--firm of Hawkins & Brewer. That is, her father belongs to the firm, not she. And Paul," here he clutched our hero's arm convulsively, "I've made a declaration of my love, and--and----"
"She has answered my letter."
"Has she?" asked Paul with some curiosity, "What did she say?"
"She has written me to be under her window this evening."
"Why under her window? why didn't she write you to call?"
"Probably she will, but it's more romantic to say, `be under my window.'"
"Well, perhaps it is; only you know I don't know much about such things."
"Of course not, Paul," said Mr. Benton; "you're only a boy, you know."
"Are you going to be under her window, Nich,--I mean Mr. Benton?"
"Of course. Do you think I would miss the appointment? No earthly power could prevent my doing it."
"Then I had better leave you," said Paul, making a movement to go.
"No, I want you to accompany me as far as the door. I feel--a little agitated. I suppose everybody does when they are in love," added Mr. Benton, complacently.
"Well," said Paul, "I will see you to the door, but I can't stay, for they will wonder at home what has become of me."
"Are we anywhere near the house?"
"Yes, it's only in the next street," said Mr. Benton, "O, Paul, how my heart beats! You can't imagine how I feel!"
Mr. Benton gasped for breath, and looked as if he had swallowed a fish bone, which he had some difficulty in getting down.
"You'll know how to understand my feelings sometime, Paul," said Mr. Benton; "when your time comes, I will remember your service of to-night, and I will stand by you."
Paul inwardly hoped that he should never fall in love, if it was likely to affect him in the same way as his companion, but he thought it best not to say so.
By this time they had come in sight of a three-story brick house, with Benjamin Hawkins on the door-plate.
"That's the house," said Mr. Benton, in an agitated whisper.
"Yes, and that window on the left-hand side is the window of her chamber."
"How do you know?"
"She told me in the letter."
"And where are you to stand?"
"Just underneath, as the clock strikes nine. It must be about the time."
At that moment the city clock struck nine.
Mr. Benton left Paul, and crossing the street, took up his position beneath the window of his charmer, beginning to sing, in a thin, piping voice, as preconcerted between them--
"Ever of thee, I'm fo-o-ondly dreaming."
The song was destined never to be finished.
From his post in a doorway opposite, Paul saw the window softly open. He could distinguish a tall female figure, doubtless Miss Hawkins herself. She held in her hand a pitcher of water, which she emptied with well- directed aim full upon the small person of her luckless admirer.
The falling column struck upon his beaver, thence spreading on all sides. His carefully starched collar became instantly as limp as a rag, while his coat suffered severely from the shower.
His tuneful accents died away in dismay.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, jumping at least a yard, and involuntarily shaking himself like a dog, "who did that?"
There was no answer save a low, musical laugh from the window above, which was involuntarily echoed by Paul.
"What do you mean by laughing at me?" demanded Mr. Benton, smarting with mortification, as he strode across the street, trying to dry his hat with the help of his handkerchief, "Is this what you call friendship?"
"Excuse me," gasped Paul, "but I really couldn't help it."
"I don't see anything to laugh at," continued Mr. Benton, in a resentful tone; "because I have been subjected to unmanly persecution, you must laugh at me, instead of extending to me the sympathy of a friend."
"I suppose you won't think of her any more," said Paul, recovering himself.
"Think of her!" exclaimed Mr. Benton, "would you have me tear her from my heart, because her mercenary parent chooses to frown upon our love, and follow me with base persecution."
"Yes, it was he who threw the water upon me. But it shall not avail," the young man continued, folding his arms, and speaking in a tone of resolution, "bolts and bars shall not keep two loving hearts asunder."
"But it wasn't her father," urged Paul, perceiving that Mr. Benton was under a mistake.
"Who was it, then?"
"It was the young lady herself."
"Who threw the water upon me? It is a base slander."
"But I saw her."
"A tall young lady with black hair."
"And was it she who threw the water?" asked Mr. Benton, aghast at this unexpected revelation.
"Then she did it at the command of her proud parent."
Paul did not dispute this, since it seemed to comfort Mr. Benton. It is doubtful, however, whether the young man believed it himself, since he straightway fell into a fit of gloomy abstraction, and made no response when Paul bade him "good-night."