Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X


THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER


Will and his friend offered to attend to the broken window in the old factory for Ralph, and the latter was glad to accept the tendered service.

He gave them the price of glass and putty, and a blunt case knife, told them they would find his rule under the window, and as they departed felt assured they would attend to the matter with promptness and dispatch.

Ralph had something on his mind that he felt he could best carry out alone, and after their departure he left his mother quietly sewing in her rocking chair to watch their placidly slumbering guest.

"The boy is a stranger here, of course," Ralph ruminated. "Where did he come from? I hope I will find something among his belongings that will tell."

They were poor belongings, and now hung across a clothes line in the back yard, drying in the warm sunshine.

The coat and trousers were of coarse material, clumsily patched here and there as if by a novice, and Ralph decided did not bear that certain unmistakable trace that tells of home or motherly care.

In the trousers pocket Ralph found a coil of string, a blunt bladed pocket knife, and a hunk of linen thread with a couple of needles stuck in it—this was all.

The coat contained not a single clew as to the identity of the stranger, not a hint of his regular place of residence, whence he had come or whither he was going.

It held but one object—a letter which the boy when pursued by the depot guardians had shown to Ralph the morning previous, and which at that time with considerable astonishment Ralph had observed bore the superscription: "Mr. John Fairbanks."

He had thought of the letter and wondered at its existence, the possible sender, the singular messenger, a score of times since he had attempted to take it from the dead-head passenger of the 10.15.

Now he held it in his grasp, but Ralph handled it gingerly. The envelope was soaking wet, just as was the coat and the pocket he had taken it from. As he removed it from its resting place he observed that the poor ink of the superscription had run, and the letters of the address were faded and fast disappearing.

To open it with any hope of removing its contents intact in its present condition was clearly impossible. Ralph held it carefully against the sunlight. Its envelope was thin, and he saw dark patches and blurs inside, indicating that the writing there had run also.

"I had better let it dry before I attempt to open it," decided Ralph, and he placed it on a smooth board near the well in the full focus of the bright sunshine.

A good deal hinged on that letter, he told himself. It would at all events settle the identity of his dead father's correspondent, again it would divulge who it was that had sent the letter and the messenger, and thus the unfortunate's friends could be found. It would take a little time to dry out the soggy envelope, and Ralph paced about the garden paths, whistling softly to himself and thinking hard over the queer happenings of the past twenty-four hours.

As he passed the window of the little sitting room, he tiptoed the gravel path up to it and glanced in.

His mother still sat in the rocker, but she had fallen into a slight doze, and her sewing lay idle in her lap. Ralph, transferring his gaze to the armchair where they had so comfortably bestowed the invalid, fairly started with astonishment.

"Why, he isn't there!" breathed Ralph in some alarm, and ran around to the entrance by the kitchen door.

At its threshold Ralph paused, enchained by the unexpected picture there disclosed to his view.

The injured boy stood at the sink. He had found and tied about his waist a work apron belonging to Mrs. Fairbanks. Before him was the dishpan half-full of water, and he had washed and wiped neatly and quickly the dishes from the tray.

He arranged the various articles in their respective drawers and shelves, stood back viewing them with satisfaction, removed the apron, carefully hung it up, and went to the open back door leading into the wood shed.

Ralph's alarm for fear that his guest had wandered off or might do himself a mischief, gave place to pleased interest.

It looked as if the strange boy had been used to some methodical features of domestic life, and habit was fitting him readily and comfortably into the groove in which he found himself.

Ralph decided that he would not startle or disturb the stranger, but would watch to see what he did next.

The boy glanced towards the wood box behind the cook stove. In the hurry of the past twenty-four hours Ralph had not found time to keep it as well filled as usual.

His guest evidently observed this, went into the wood shed, seated himself on the chopping log, and seizing the short handled ax there, began chopping the sawed lengths piled near at hand with a pleased, hearty good will.

Mrs. Fairbanks, disturbed by the sound of chopping, had awakened, and with some trepidation came hurrying from the sitting room, anxiously seeking to learn what had become of their guest.

Ralph motioned her to silence, his finger on his lip, and pointed significantly through the open rear doorway.

A pathetic sympathy crossed the widow's face and the tears came into her eyes. Ralph left her to keep an unobtrusive watch on their guest, and returning to the well, found the envelope he had left there pretty well dried out.

He carefully removed the envelope, and placed it in his pocket. Then he as carefully unfolded the sheet within.

An expression of dismay crossed his face. The inside screed had not been written in ink, but with a soft purple lead pencil. This the rain had affected even more than it had the envelope in which it had been enclosed.

At first sight the missive was an indecipherable blur, but scanning it more closely, Ralph gained some faint hope that he might make out at least a part of its contents.

He had a magnifying glass in his workroom in the attic, and he went there for it. For nearly an hour Ralph pored over the sheet of paper which he held in his hand.

His face was a study as he came downstairs again, and sought his mother.

She sat near the doorway between the kitchen and the sitting room, where she could keep sight of their guest.

The invalid was seated on the door step of the wood shed shelling a pan of peas, as happy and contented a mortal as one would see in a day's journey.

"He is a good boy," said the widow softly to Ralph, "and winsome with his gentle, easy ways. He seems to delight in occupation. What is it, Ralph?" she added, as she noted the serious, preoccupied look on her son's face.

"It is about the letter, mother," explained Ralph. "I told you partly about it. It was certainly directed to father, and some one employed or sent this boy to deliver it."

"Who was it, Ralph?" inquired Mrs. Fairbanks.

"That I can not tell."

"Was it not signed?"

"It was once, but the upper fold and the lower fold of the sheet are a perfect blur. I have been able to make out a few words here and there in the center portion, but they tell nothing coherently."

Mrs. Fairbanks looked disappointed.

"That is unfortunate, Ralph," she said. "I hoped it would give some token of this boy's home or friends. But probably, when he does not return, and no answer comes to that letter, the writer will send another letter by mail."

"The boy may have been only incidentally employed to deliver it," suggested Ralph, "and not particularly known to the sender at all."

"I can not imagine who would be writing to your dead father," said Mrs. Fairbanks thoughtfully. "It can scarcely be of much importance."

"Mother," said Ralph, with an emphasis that impressed the widow, "I am satisfied this letter was of unusual importance—so much so that a special messenger was employed, and that is what puzzles me. A line in it was plainly 'your railroad bonds,' another as plainly refers to 'the mortgage,' the last word heads like 'Farewell,' and there is something that looks very much like: 'to get even with that old schemer, Gasper Farrington.'"

The widow started violently.

"Why, Ralph!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, mother. We may never know more than this. It is all a strange proceeding, but if that poor fellow out yonder could tell all he knows, I believe it would surprise and enlighten us very much, and in a way greatly for our benefit."

"Then we must wait with patience, and hope with courage," said Mrs. Fairbanks calmly.

Ralph felt all that he said. He could not get the letter out of his mind that evening.

They fitted up a little spare room off the dining room for their guest. He went quietly to bed when they led him there, after enjoying a good, supper, never speaking a word, never smiling, but with a pleased nod betokening that he appreciated every little kindness they showed him.

The next morning Ralph Fairbanks went to work at the roundhouse.