Through the Earth/Chapter XIV

CHAPTER XIV

IN WHICH OUR HERO COMES UPON THE STAGE

AT half-past ten o'clock there was a knock at the door of the doctor's private office.

"Come in," said Dr. Giles, and there was a tremor in his voice as he uttered these two familiar words.

A boy entered—a young lad with a pleasant face, but evidently belonging to the poorer classes; for while there were no holes in his clothing, it was full of patches of different colors. But, in spite of this, he had an indescribable air of neatness about his person. Evidently he had seen better days.

A shade of disappointment passed over the doctor's face as he gazed searchingly upon the lad.

Mr. Curtis and Flora, at a sign from Dr. Giles, had discreetly retired to an adjoining room, from which, however, they could hear all that passed.

It was the boy who first broke the silence, and it was easy to see, from his brisk, businesslike manner, that he thoroughly knew how to take care of himself.

"Do I understand, sir," he said, going at once to the subject in his mind,—"do I understand that a reward of one hundred pounds is offered to whoever will take passage in the car that is about to be dropped through the earth?"

"Yes, my boy, that is the offer; but you appear somewhat young to try an experiment which so many older heads are afraid to risk."

"I beg of you to let me go, sir," said the boy, earnestly; "for that hundred pounds means life or death to my poor mother."

"What is your name, my boy?" the doctor asked kindly.

"William Swindon, sir."

"Well, William, do you not see what a responsibility I should be taking if I were to allow you, a minor, to go on this trip? Suppose anything should happen to you; could I ever forgive myself for letting you go?"

"I will gladly take the risks," exclaimed William, eagerly. "And pray do not believe that because I am only sixteen I do not know how to take care of myself. On the contrary, I have had more practical experience than many young men of twenty-one."

"You have not always been poor, William. I can see that by your speech and manners."

"No sir; only two years ago we had everything we wanted. In fact, I was destined to become a mechanical engineer, and was studying with that end in view when my father died. Somehow, his partner, in settling up the business, managed to keep everything for himself, and left nothing for us."

"Could n't you sue him?"

"That, unfortunately, is what my mother did; and she spent what little money we had in trying to get the rest back. But the result was, she lost all. Then I was taken from college and sent to work in a shop at very low wages, while mother tried to give private lessons and do sewing at home. Our friends helped us a little at first, but soon became tired of doing so. And then mother fell ill, and we gradually ran into debt.

"The crisis came yesterday. When I went to work in the morning I found my employer had failed, and that thenceforward I was without a position. When our landlord, to whom we owe about ten pounds, heard this, and saw that even the small income we had was thus cut off, he declared he could keep us no longer, and yesterday noon turned us out into the street, although poor mother is yet far from well.

"I should not like to pass through yesterday's experiences again! All the afternoon we tramped about in the hot sun, asking for work, or for lodging on credit; but nothing could we find. Finally, as evening came on, we went to one of the public parks, and passed the night on a bench there. Poor mother! it was the first time in her life she had not a roof to rest under; and although she tried to bear up bravely for my sake, I could hear her sobs as we sat there waiting for the daylight. Ah, thank Heaven, yesterday can never dawn again! I should go wild if it did!"

"Who knows?" said the doctor, smiling inwardly, though his eyes were moist. "Perhaps if yesterday did dawn again, it might be ten times happier than the happiest day you have ever known so far. Besides, how do you know that to-morrow may not be many times worse?"

"Ah, sir, if you would only let me go on this journey, I feel sure that we should never want again. The hundred pounds offered would enable us to pay all our debts, and would, with what I could earn, keep us alive for at least a year. During that time I am certain I could find some good position—one that would enable me to support my mother."

Dr. Giles felt the tears coming to his eyes at this simple tale, and coughed to hide his emotion. Yet still he was hesitating, when Flora, who had been listening to the conversation from the next room with the most intense interest, burst into the doctor's study.

"Oh, doctor," she cried impulsively, "please let him go. I feel sure that if you let him make the trip you will never be sorry for it!"