Standing thus in the presence of death, the boy had no fear. His only feeling was one of tenderness and of deep sorrow. The man had been so kind to him in life, so very kind. It seemed almost as though the lips might part and speak to him. But he was dead; this was his face, this his body; but he, himself, was not here. Dead! The word struck harshly on his mind and roused him from his reverie. He looked up; the boys had all gone, only the kind-faced woman stood there with a puzzled expression in her eyes. She had chanced to mark the strong resemblance between the face of the dead man and that of the boy who looked upon it; a resemblance so striking that it startled her. In the countenance of Robert Burnham as he had looked in life, one might not have noticed it, but—
"Sometimes, in a dead man's face, To those that watch it more and more, A likeness, hardly seen before, Comes out, to some one of his race."
It was so here. The faces of the dead man and of the living boy were the faces of father and son.
Ralph turned away, at last, from the lifeless presence before him, from the searching eyes of the woman, from the hall with its dim suggestions of something in the long ago, and went out into the street, into the sunlight, into the busy world around him; but from that time forth a shadow rested on his young life that had never darkened it before,—a shadow whose cause he could not fathom and whose gloom he could not dispel.
IN SEARCH OF A MOTHER.
Three months had gone by since the accident at Burnham Shaft. They were summer months, full of sunshine and green landscapes and singing birds and blossoming flowers and all things beautiful. But in the house from which the body of Robert Burnham had been carried to the grave there were still tears and desolation. Not, indeed, as an outward show; Margaret Burnham was very brave, and hid her grief under a calm exterior, but there were times, in the quiet of her own chamber, when loneliness and sorrow came down upon her as a burden too great for her woman's heart to bear. Still, she had her daughter Mildred, and the child's sweet ways and ceaseless chatter and fond devotion charmed her, now and then, into something almost like forgetfulness. She often sighed, and said: "If only Ralph had lived, that I might have both my children with me now!"
One morning, toward the middle of September, Lawyer John H. Sharpman rang the bell at the door of the Burnham mansion, sent his card up to Mrs. Burnham, and seated himself gracefully in an easy-chair by the parlor window to wait for her appearance.
She came soon and greeted him with gracious dignity. He was very courteous to her; he apologized for coming, in this way, without previous announcement, but said that the nature of his errand seemed to render it necessary.
"I am sure no apology is required," she replied; "I shall be pleased to listen to you."
"Then I will proceed directly to the matter in hand. You remember, of course, the Cherry Brook disaster and what occurred there?"
"I shall never forget it," she said.
"I have a strange thing to tell you about that, an almost incredible thing. An old man has visited me at my office, within the last few days, who claims to have saved your child from that wreck, to have taken him to his own home and cared for him, and to know that he is living to-day."
The woman rose from her chair, with a sudden pallor on her face, too greatly startled, for the moment, to reply.
"I beg you to be calm, madam," the lawyer said; "I will try to speak of the matter as gently as possible."
"Ralph!" she exclaimed, "my Ralph! did you say that he is living?"
"So this old man says. I am simply telling you his story. He seems to be very much in earnest, though I am bound to say that his appearance is somewhat against him."
"Who is he? Bring him here! I will question him myself. Bring the child to me also; why did you not bring the child?"
"My dear lady, I beg that you will be calm; if you will allow me I will explain it all, so far as lies in my power."
"But if my boy is living I must see him; I cannot wait! It is cruel to keep him from me!"
Sharpman began to fear that he had injured his cause by presenting the case too strongly. At this rate the lady would soon believe, fully, that her son had been saved and could be restored to her. With such a belief in her mind the success of his scheme would be impossible. It would never do to let her go on in this way; he began to remonstrate.
"But, madam, I am telling to you only what this man has told to me. I have no means of proving his veracity, and his appearance, as I have said, is against him. I have agreed to assist him only in case he is able to establish, beyond question, the boy's identity. Thus far his statements have not been wholly satisfactory."
Mrs. Burnham had grown more calm. The startling suddenness of the proposition that Ralph was living had, for the time being, overmastered her. Now she sank back into her chair, with pale face, controlling her emotion with an effort, trying to give way to reason.
"What does he say?" she asked. "What is this old man's story?"
Sharpman repeated, in substance, old Simon's account of the rescue, giving to it, however, an air of lightness and improbability that it had not had before.
"It is possible," he added, "that the evidence you have of the child's death is sufficient to refute this man's story completely. On what facts do you rest your belief, if I am at liberty to ask?"
"The proofs," she replied, "have seemed to us to be abundant. Neither Mr. Burnham nor myself were in a condition to make personal investigation until some days had elapsed from the time of the accident, and then the wreck had been cleared away. But we learned beyond doubt that there was but one other child in the car, a bright, pretty boy of Ralph's age, travelling with his grandfather, and that this child was saved. No one had seen Ralph after the crash; no article of clothing that he wore has ever been found; there were only a few trinkets, fireproof, that he carried in the pocket of his skirt, discovered in the ashes of the wreck."
The lady put her hands to her eyes as if to shut out the memory of some dread sight.
"And I presume you made diligent inquiry afterward?" questioned the lawyer.
"Oh, yes! of the most searching nature, but no trace could be found of our child's existence. We came to the firm belief, long ago, that he died that night. The most that we have dared to hope is that his sufferings were not great nor prolonged."
"It seems incredible," said Sharpman, "that the child could have been saved and cared for, without your knowledge, through so long a period. But the man appears to be in earnest, his story is a straightforward one, and I feel it to be my duty to examine into it. Of course, his object is to get gain. He wants compensation for his services in the matter of rescuing and caring for the child. He seems also to be very desirous that the boy's rights should be established and maintained, and has asked me to take the matter in hand in that respect as well. Are you prepared to say, definitely, that no evidence would induce you to believe your child to be living?"
"Oh, no! not that. But I should want something very strong in the way of proof. Let this man come and relate his story to me. If it is false, I think I should be able to detect it."
"I advised him to do so, but, aside from his appearance, which is hardly in harmony with these surroundings, I think he would prefer not to hold a personal conference with the boy's friends. I may as well give you my reason for that belief. The old man says that the boy ran away from him two or three years ago, and I have inferred that the flight was due, partially, at least, to unkind treatment on Craft's part. I believe he is now afraid to talk the matter over with you personally, lest you should rebuke him too severely for his conduct toward the child and his failure to take proper care of him. He is anxious that all negotiations should be conducted through his attorney. Rather sensitive, he is, for a man of his general stamp."
"And did the child return to him?" asked the lady, anxiously, not heeding the lawyer's last remark.
"Oh, no! The old man searched the country over for him. He did not find him until this summer."
"And where was he found?"
"Here, in Scranton."
"In Scranton! That is strange. Is the boy here still?"
"Where does he live? who cares for him?"
Sharpman had not intended to give quite so much information, but he could not well evade these questions and at the same time appear to be perfectly honest in the matter, so he answered her frankly:
"He lives with one William Buckley, better known as 'Bachelor Billy.' He works in the screen-room at Burnham Breaker."
"Indeed! by what name is he known?"
"By your son's name—Ralph."
"Ralph, the slate-picker! Do you mean that boy?"
It was Sharpman's turn to be surprised.
"Do you know him?" he asked, quickly.
"I do," she replied. "My husband first told me of him; I have seen him frequently; I have talked with him so lately as yesterday."
"Ah, indeed! I am very glad you know the boy. We can talk more intelligently concerning him."
"Do I understand you, then, to claim that Ralph, the slate-picker, is my son? this boy and no other?"
"That is my client's statement, madam."
The lady leaned back wearily in her chair.
"Then I fear you have come upon a futile errand, Mr. Sharpman," she said.
But, from the lawyer's stand-point, it began to look as if the errand was to be successful. He felt that he could speak a little more strongly now of Ralph's identity with Mrs. Burnham's son without endangering his cause.
"Can you remember," he said, "nothing about the lad's appearance that impressed you—now that you know the claim set up for hi—that impressed you with a sense of his relationship to you?"
"Nothing, sir, nothing whatever. The boy is a bright, frank, manly fellow; I have taken much interest in him from the first. His sorrow at the time of my husband's death touched me very deeply. I have been several times since then to look after his comfort and happiness. I saw and talked with him yesterday, as I have already told you. But he is not my son, sir, he is not my son."
"Pardon me, madam! but you must remember that time works wonders in a child's appearance; from three to eleven is a long stretch."
"I appreciate that fact, but I recall no resemblance whatever. My baby had light, curling hair, large eyes, full round cheeks and chin, a glow of health and happiness in his face. This lad is different, very different. There could not have been so great a change. Oh, no, sir! your client is mistaken; the boy is not my son; I am sure he is not."
Sharpman was rejoiced. Everything was working now exactly according to his plan. He thought it safe to push his scheme more rapidly.
"But my client," he said, "appears to be perfectly sincere in his belief. He will doubtless desire me to institute legal proceedings to recover for the boy his portion of Robert Burnham's estate."
"If you can recover it," she said, calmly, "I shall transfer it to the child most cheerfully. I take it, however, that you must first establish his identity as an heir?"
"And do you think this can be done against my positive testimony?"
"Perhaps not; that remains to be seen. But I do not desire to contemplate such a contingency. My object, my sole object, is to obtain a harmonious settlement of this matter outside of the courts. That is why I am here in person. I had hoped that I might induce you to acknowledge the boy as your son, to agree to set off his interest in his father's estate, and to reimburse my client, to some extent, for his care and services. This is my only wish in the matter, I assure you."
"Why, as to that," she replied, "I am willing to recognize services performed for any one; and if this old man has rescued and cared for the boy, even though he is not my son—I have enough; if the man is in want, I will help him, I will give him money. But wait! did you say he had been cruel to the child? Then I withdraw my offer. I have no pity for the harsh task-masters of young children. Something to eat, to drink, to wear,—I will give him that,—nothing more."
"I am to understand, then, that you positively decline to acknowledge this boy as your son?" asked the lawyer, rising.
"With the evidence that I now have," she said, "I do. I should be glad to assist him; I have it in mind to do so; he is a brave, good boy, and I love him. But I can do nothing more, sir,—nothing more."
"I regret exceedingly, madam, the failure of my visit," said Sharpman, bowing himself toward the door. "I trust, I sincerely trust, that whatever I may find it in my heart and conscience to do in behalf of this boy, through the medium of the courts, will meet with no bitterness of feeling on your part."
"Certainly not," she replied, standing in matronly dignity. "You could do me no greater favor than to prove to me that this boy is Ralph Burnham. If I could believe that he is really my son, I would take him to my heart with inexpressible joy. Without that belief I should be false to my daughter's interest to compel her to share with a stranger not only her father's estate but also her mother's affection."
"Madam, I have the most profound respect for your conscience and your judgment. I trust that no meeting between us will be less pleasant than this one has been. I wish you good-morning!"
Sharpman bowed himself gracefully out, and walked briskly down the street, with a smile on his face. The execution of his scheme had met, thus far, with a success which he had hardly anticipated.
* * * * *
Every one about Burnham Breaker knew Bachelor Billy. No one ever knew any ill of him. He was simple and unlearned, but his heart was very large, and he was honest and manly to the marrow of his bones. He had no ties of family or of kin, but every one who knew him was his friend; every child who saw him smiled up instinctively into his face; he was a brother to all men. Gray spots were coming in his hair, his shoulders were bowed with toil, and his limbs were bent with disease, but the kind look never vanished from his rugged face, and the kind word never faltered on his lips. He went to his task at Burnham Breaker in the early morning, he toiled all day, and came home at night, happy and contented with his lot.
His work was at the head of the shaft, at the very topmost part of the towering breaker. When a mine car came up, loaded with coal, it was his duty to push it to the dump, some forty feet away, to tip it till the load ran out, and then to push it back to the waiting carriage. Michael Maloney had been Billy's assistant here, in other years; but, one day, Michael stepped back, inadvertently, into the open mouth of the shaft, and, three minutes later, his mangled remains were gathered up at the foot. Billy knew that Michael's widow was poor, with a family of small children to care for, so he came and hired from her a part of her cottage to live in, and took his meals with her, and paid her generously. To this house he had taken Ralph. It was not an elegant home, to be sure, but it was a home where no harsh word was spoken from year's end to year's end; and to Ralph, fresh from his dreadful life with Simon Craft, this was much, oh! very much, indeed. The boy was very fond of "Uncle Billy," as he called him, and the days and nights he spent with him were not unhappy ones. But since the day when Mrs. Burnham turned his face to hers, and kissed him on his lips, there had been a longing in his heart for something more; a longing which, at first, he could not quite define, but which grew and crystallized, at last, into a strong desire to merit and possess the fond affection, and to live in the sweet presence, of a kind and loving mother. He had always wanted a mother, ever since he could remember. The thought of one had always brought a picture of perfect happiness to his mind. But never, until now, had that want reached so great proportions. It had come to be the leading motive and ambition of his life. He yearned for mother-love and home affection, with an intensity as passionate, a desire as deep, as ever stirred within the heart of man. He had not revealed his longing to Bachelor Billy. He feared that he might think he was discontented and unhappy, and he would not have hurt his Uncle Billy's feelings for the world. So the summer days went by, and he kept his thought in this matter, as much as possible, to himself.
It had come to be the middle of September. There had been a three days rain, which had so freshened the parched grass and checked the fading of the leaves, that one might readily have thought the summer had returned to bring new foliage and flowers, and to deck the earth for still another season with its covering of green.
But it had cleared off cold.
"It'd be nice to have a fire to-night, Uncle Billy," said Ralph, as the two were walking home together in the twilight, from their day's work at the breaker.
"Wull, lad," was the reply, "ye ha' the wood choppit for it, ye can mak' un oop."
So, after supper, Ralph built a wood fire in the little rude grate, and Billy lighted his clay pipe, and they both drew their chairs up before the comfortable blaze, and watched it while they talked.
It was the first fire of the season, and they enjoyed it. It seemed to bring not only warmth but cheer.
"Ain't this nice, Uncle Billy?" said Ralph, after quite a long silence. "Seems kind o' home-like an' happy, don't it?"
"Ye're richt, lad! Gin a mon has a guid fire to sit to, an' a guid pipe o' 'bacca to pull awa' on, what more wull ye? eh, Ralph!"
"A comfortable room like this to stay in, Uncle Billy," replied the boy, looking around on the four bare walls, the uncarpeted floor, and the rude furniture of the room, all bright and glowing now in the light of the cheerful fire.
"Oh! the room's guid enook, guid enook," responded the man, without removing the pipe from his mouth.
"An' a nice bed, like ours, to sleep in."
"True for ye lad; tired bones rest well in a saft bed."
"An' plenty to eat, too, Uncle Billy; that's a good thing to have."
"Richt again, Ralph! richt again!" exclaimed Billy, enthusiastically, pushing the burning tobacco down in the bowl of his pipe. "An' the Widow Maloney, she do gi' us 'mazin' proper food, now, don't she? D'ye min' that opple pie we had for sooper, lad?"
"Yes, that was good," said Ralph, gazing absently into the fire. "They's only one thing more we need, Uncle Billy, an' that's somebody to love us. Not but what you an' me cares a good deal for each other," added Ralph, apprehensively, as the man puffed vigorously away at his pipe, "but that ain't it. I mean somebody, some woman, you know, 'at'd kiss us an' comfort us an' be nice to us that way."
Billy turned and gazed contemplatively at Ralph. "Been readin' some more o' them love-stories?" he asked, smiling behind a cloud of smoke.
"No, I ain't, an' I don't mean that kind. I mean your mother or your sister or your wife—it'd be jes' like as though you had a wife, you know, Uncle Billy."
Again, the man puffed savagely at his pipe before replying.
"Wull," he said at last, "na doot it'd be comfortin' to have a guid weef to care for ye; but they're an awfu' trooble, Ralph, women is,—an awfu' trooble."
"But you don't know, Uncle Billy; you ain't had no 'xperience."
"No more am I like to have. I'm a gittin' too auld now. I could na get me a weef an' I wanted one. Hoot, lad! think o' your Uncle Billy wi' a weef to look after; it's no' sensiba, no' sensiba," and the man took his pipe from his mouth and indulged in a hearty burst of laughter at the mental vision of himself in matrimonial chains.
"But then," persisted Ralph, "you'd have such a nice home, you know; an' somebody to look glad an' smile an' say nice things to you w'en you come home from work o' nights. Uncle Billy, I'd give a good deal if I had it, jes' to have a home like other boys has, an' mothers an' fathers an' sisters an' all that."
"Wull, lad, I've done the bes' I could for ye, I've—"
"Oh, Uncle Billy!" interrupted the boy, rising and laying his hand on the man's shoulder affectionately, "you know I don't mean that; I don't mean but what you've been awful good to me; jes' as good as any one ever could be; but it's sumpthin' dif'rent from that 'at I mean. I'm thinkin' about a home with pirty things in it, books, an' pictures, an' cushions, the way women fix 'em you know, an'—an' a mother; I want a mother very much; I think it'd be the mos' beautiful thing in the world to have a mother. You've had one, ain't you, Uncle Billy?"
The man's face had taken on a pleased expression when Ralph began with his expostulation, but, as the boy continued, the look changed into one of sadness.
"Yes, lad," he said, "an' a guid mither she waur too. She died an' went to heaven it's mony a year sin', but I still min' the sweet way she had wi' me. Ye're richt, laddie, there's naught like a blessed mither to care for ye—an' ye never had the good o' one yoursel'"—turning and looking at the boy, with an expression of wondering pity on his face, as though that thought had occurred to him now for the first time.
"No, I never had, you know; that's the worst of it. If I could only remember jest the least bit about my mother, it wouldn't seem so bad, but I can't remember nothing, not nothing."
"Puir lad! puir lad! I had na thocht o' that afoor. But, patience, Ralph, patience; mayhap we'll find a mither for ye yet."
"Oh, Uncle Billy! if we could, if we only could! Do you know, sometimes w'en I go down town, an' walk along the street, an' see the ladies there, I look at ev'ry one I meet, an' w'en a real nice beautiful one comes along, I say to myself, 'I wisht that lady was my mother,' an' w'en some other one goes by, I say, 'I wonder if that ain't my mother.' It don't do no good, you know, but it's kind o' comfortin'."
"Puir lad!" repeated Billy, putting his arm around the boy and drawing him up closer to his chair, "Puir lad!"
"You 'member that night I come home a-cryin', an' I couldn't tell w'at the matter was? Well, it wasn't nothin' but that. I come by a house down there in the city, w'ere they had it all lighted up, an' they wasn't no curtains acrost the windows, an' you could look right in. They was a havin' a little party there; they was a father an' a mother an' sisters and brothers an' all; an' they was all a-laughin' an' a-playin' an' jest as happy as they could be. An' they was a boy there 'at wasn't no bigger'n me, an' his mother come an' put her arms aroun' his neck an' kissed him. It didn't seem as though I could stan' it, Uncle Billy, I wanted to go in so bad an' be one of 'em. An' then it begun to rain, an' I had to come away, an' I walked up here in the dark all alone, an' w'en I got here they wasn't nothin' but jest one room, an' nobody but you a-waitin' for me, an'—no! now, Uncle Billy, don't! I don't mean nothin' like that—you've been jest as good to me as you could be; you've been awful good to me, al'ays! but it ain't like, you know; it ain't like havin' a home with your own mother."
"Never min', laddie; never min'; ye s'all have a hame, an' a mither too some day, I mak' na doot,—some day."
There was silence for a time, then Bachelor Billy continued:—
"Gin ye had your choice, lad, what kin' o' a mither would ye choose for yoursel'?"
"Oh! I don't know—yes, I do too!—it's wild, I know it's wild, an' I hadn't ought to think of it; but if I could have jest the mother I want, it'd be—it'd be Mrs. Burnham. There! now, don't laugh, Uncle Billy; I know it's out o' all reason; she's very rich, an' beautiful, an' everything; but if I could be her boy for jest one week—jest one week, Uncle Billy, I'd—well, I'd be willin' to die."
"Ye mak' high choice, Ralph, high choice; but why not? ye're as like to find the mither in high places as in low, an' liker too fra my way o' thinkin'. Choose the bes', lad, choose the bes'!"
"But she's so good to us," continued the boy, "an' she talks so nice to us. You 'member the time I told you 'bout, w'en we breaker boys went down there, all of us, an' she cried kin' o' soft, an' stooped down an' kissed me? I shouldn't never forgit that if I live to be a thousan' years old. An' jes' think of her kissin' me that way ev'ry night,—think of it Uncle Billy! an' ev'ry mornin' too, maybe; wouldn't that be—be—" and Ralph, at a loss for a fitting wor to represent such bliss as that, simply clasped his hands together and gazed wistfully into the fire. After a minute or two he went on: "She 'membered it, too. I was 'fraid she'd never know which boy it was she kissed, they was so many of us there; but she did, you know, an' she's been to see me, an' brought me things, ain't she? an' promised to help me find out about myself jest the same as Mr. Burnham did. Oh dear! I hope she won't die now, like he did—Uncle Billy! oh, Uncle Billy!" as a sudden thought struck in on the boy's mind, "if she was—if Mrs. Burnham was my mother, then Mr. Burnham would 'a' been my father wouldn't he?"
"Na doot, lad, na doot."
"Robert Burnham—would 'a' been—my father. Oh!" The boy drew himself up to his full height and stood gazing into the fire in proud contemplation of such overwhelming happiness and honor.
There was a knock at the door. Ralph went and opened it, and a young man stepped in.
"Ah! good evening!" he said. "Does a man by the name of Buckley live here? William Buckley?"
"That's my name," responded Billy, rising from his chair.
"And are you Ralph?" asked the young man, turning to the boy.
"Yes, sir, that's my name, too," was the quick reply.
"Well, Ralph, can you take a little walk with me this evening, as far as Lawyer Sharpman's office?"
"Wha' for do ye want the lad?" asked Billy, advancing and placing a chair for the stranger to sit in.
"Well, to speak confidentially, I believe it's something about his parentage."
"Who his father an' mother waur?"
"Then he s'all go wi' ye if he like. Ralph, ye can put on the new jacket an' go wi' the mon."
The boy's heart beat tumultuously as he hurried on his best clothes.
At last! at last he was to know. Some one had found him out. He was no longer "nobody's child."
He struggled into his Sunday coat, pulled his cap on his head, and, in less than ten minutes he was out on the road with the messenger, hurrying through the frosty air and the bright moonlight, toward Sharpman's office.
BREAKING THE NEWS.
Simon Craft and Lawyer Sharpman were sitting together in the rear room of the latter's law office. The window-shades were closely drawn, shutting out the mellow light of the full moon, which rested brightly and beautifully on all objects out of doors.
The gas jet, shaded by a powerful reflector, threw a disk of light on the round table beneath it, but the corners of the room were in shadow. It was in a shaded corner that Craft was sitting, resting his folded arms on his cane, while Sharpman, seated carelessly by the table, was toying with a pencil. There were pleased looks on the faces of both men; but old Simon seemed to have grown thinner and feebler during the summer months, and his cough troubled him greatly.
Sharpman was saying: "If we can succeed in managing the boy, now, as well as we have managed the mother, I think we are all right. I somewhat fear the effect of your presence on him, Craft, but he may as well see you to-night as later. You must keep cool, and be gentle; don't let him think you are here for any purpose but his good."
"Oh! you may trust me, Mr. Sharpman," responded the old man, "you may trust me. I shall get into the spirit of the scheme very nicely."
"What kind of a boy is he, any way? Pretty clear-headed?"
"Well, yes, middling; but as obstinate as a mule. When he gets his mind set on a thing, it's no use to try to budge him. I've whipped him till he was black and blue, and it didn't do a penny's worth of good."
"You should have used moral suasion, Craft; that's the way to treat boys. Get their confidence, and then you can handle them. Well, we'll get Ralph's mind fixed on the fact that he is Mrs. Burnham's son, and see how he'll stick to that. Hark! There they come now. Sooner than I expected."
The outer door of the office was opened, and Ralph and the young man entered. The messenger disappeared into the inner room, but after a minute or two he came out and ushered Ralph into the presence of the lawyer. Sharpman arose, greeted the boy pleasantly and shook hands with him, and Ralph thought that lawyers were not such forbidding people after all.
"Do you recognize this gentleman?" said Sharpman, turning, with a wave of his hand, toward old Simon.
The old man was sitting there with his hands crossed on his cane, and with a grim smile on his gaunt face. Ralph looked intently, for a moment, into the shadow, and then, with an exclamation of surprise and fear on his lips, he stepped back toward the door.
"I won't go!" he cried; "don't make me go back with him, sir!" turning his distressed face to the lawyer, as he spoke.
Sharpman advanced and took the boy by the hand and led him to a chair. "Don't be afraid," he said, gently, "there's no cause for alarm. You shall not go back with him. He is not here to take you back, but to establish your identity."
Then a new fear dawned upon Ralph's mind.
"He ain't my grandfather!" he exclaimed. "Simon Craft ain't my grandfather. He wouldn't never 'a' whipped me the way he done if he'd a-been truly my grandfather."
Craft looked up at Sharpman with a little nod. The boy had identified him pretty plainly, and proved the truth of his story to that extent at least.
"Oh, no!" said the lawyer, "oh, no! Mr. Craft is not your grandfather; he doesn't claim to be. He has come here only to do you good. Now, be calm and reasonable, and listen to what we have to tell you, and, my word for it, you will go back to Billy Buckley's to-night with a heart as light as a feather. Now, you'll take my advice, and do that much, won't you?"
"Yes, I will," said Ralph, settling himself into his chair, "I will, if I can only find out about my father 'n' mother. But I won't go back to live with him; I won't never go back there!"
"Oh, no!" replied Sharpman, "we'll find a better home for you than Mr. Craft could ever give you. Now, if you will sit still and listen to us, and take our advice, we will tell you more things about yourself than you have ever thought of knowing. You want to hear them, don't you?"
"Well, yes," replied Ralph, smiling and rapidly regaining his composure; "yes, of course."
"I thought so. Now I want to ask you one or two questions. In the first place, what do you remember about yourself before you went to live with Mr. Craft?"
"I don't remember anything, sir,—not anything."
"Haven't you a faint recollection of having been in a big accident sometime; say, for instance, a railroad disaster?"
"No—I don't think I have. I think I must 'a' dreamed sumpthin' like that once, but I guess it never happened to me, or I'd 'member more about it."
"Well, Ralph, it did happen to you. You were riding in a railroad car with your father and mother, and the train went through a bridge. A good many people were killed, and a good many more were wounded; but you were saved. Do you know how?"
Ralph did not answer the question. His face had suddenly paled.
"Were my father an' mother killed?" he exclaimed.
"No, Ralph, they were not killed. They were injured, but they recovered in good time."
"Are they alive now? where are they?" asked the boy, rising suddenly from his chair.
"Be patient, Ralph! be patient! we will get to that in time. Be seated and answer my question. Do you know how you were saved?"
"No, sir; I don't."
"Well, my boy," said the lawyer, impressively, pointing his finger toward Craft, "there is the man who saved you. He was on the train. He rushed into the wreck at the risk of his life, and drew you from the car window. In another minute it would have been too late. He fell back into the river holding you in his arms, but he saved you from both fire and water. The effort and exposure of that night brought on the illness that has resulted in the permanent loss of his health, and left him in the condition in which you now see him."
Ralph looked earnestly at old Simon, who still sat, quiet and speechless, chuckling to himself, and wishing, in his heart, that he could tell a story as smoothly and impressively as Lawyer Sharpman.
"An' do I owe my life to him?" asked the boy. "Wouldn't I 'a' been saved if he hadn't 'a' saved me?"
"It is not at all probable," replied Sharpman. "The flames had already reached you, and your clothing was on fire when you were drawn from the car."
It was hard for Ralph to believe in any heroic or unselfish conduct on the part of Simon Craft; but as he felt the force of the story, and thought of the horrors of a death by fire, he began to relent toward the old man, and was ready to condone the harsh treatment that he had suffered at his hands.
"I'm sure I'm much obliged to 'im," he said, "I'm much obliged to 'im, even if he did use me very bad afterwards."
"But you must remember, Ralph, that Mr. Craft was very poor, and he was ill and irritable, and your high temper and stubborn ways annoyed him greatly. But he never ceased to have your best interests at heart, and he was in constant search of your parents, in order to restore you to them. Do you remember that he used often to be away from home?"
"Yes, sir, he used to go an' leave me with ole Sally."
"Well, he was away searching for your friends. He continued the search for five years, and at last he found your father and mother. He hurried back to Philadelphia to get you and bring you to your parents, as the best means of breaking to them the glad news; and when he reached his home, what do you suppose he found?"
Ralph smiled sheepishly, and said: "I 'xpect, maybe, I'd run away."
"Yes, my boy, you had. You had left his sheltering roof and his fostering care, without his knowledge or consent. Most men would have left you, then, to struggle on by yourself, as best you could; and would have rewarded your ingratitude by forgetfulness. Not so with Mr. Craft. He swallowed his pain and disappointment, and went out to search for you. He had your welfare too deeply at heart to neglect you, even then. His mind had been too long set on restoring you to loving parents and a happy home. After years of unremitting toil he found you, and is here to-night to act as your best and nearest friend."
Ralph had sat during this recital, with astonishment plainly depicted on his face. He could scarcely believe what he heard. The idea that Simon Craft could be kind or good to any one had never occurred to him before.
"I hope," he said, slowly, "I hope you'll forgive me, Gran'pa Simon, if I've thought wrong of you. I didn't know 'at you was a-doin' all that for me, an' I thought I was a-havin' a pirty hard time with you."
"Well," said Craft, speaking for the first time since Ralph's entrance. "Well, we won't say anything more about your bad behavior; it's all past and gone now, and I'm here to help you, not to scold you. I'm going to put you, now, in the way of getting back into your own home and family, if you'll let me. What do you say?"
"I'm sure that's very good in you, an' of course I'd like it. You couldn't do anything for me 'at I'd like better. I'm sorry if I've ever hurt your feelin's, but—"
"How do you think you would like to belong to a nice family, Ralph?" interrupted Sharpman.
"I think it'd make me very happy, sir."
"And have a home, a beautiful home, with books, pictures, horses, fine clothes, everything that wealth could furnish?"
"That'd be lovely, very lovely; but I don't quite 'xpect that, an' what I want most is a good mother, a real, nice, good mother. Haven't you got one for me? say, haven't you got one?"
The boy had risen to his feet and stood with clasped hands, gazing anxiously at Sharpman.
"Yes, my boy, yes," said the lawyer, "we've found a good mother for you, the best in the city of Scranton, and the sweetest little sister you ever saw. Now what do you think?"
"I think—I think 'at it's most too good to be true. But you wouldn't tell me a lie about it, would you? you wouldn't do that, would you?"
"Oh, no! Ralph; good lawyers never lie, and I'm a good lawyer."
"An' when can I see 'em? Can I go to 'em to-night? I don't b'lieve I can wait,—I don't b'lieve I can!"
"Ralph! Ralph! you promised to be quiet and reasonable. There, be seated and wait till you hear us through. There is something better yet for you to know. Now, who do you suppose your mother is? She lives in Scranton."
Ralph sat, for a moment, in stupid wonder, staring at Sharpman. Then a brilliant thought, borne on by instinct, impulse, strong desire, flashed like a ray of sunlight, into his mind, and he started to his feet again, exclaiming:—
"Mrs. Burnham! it can't be! oh, it can't be! tell me, is it Mrs. Burnham?"
Craft and Sharpman exchanged quick glances of amazement, and the latter said, impressively:—
"Yes, Ralph, Mrs. Burnham is your mother."
The boy stood for another moment, as if lost in thought; then he cried out, suddenly: "And Mr. Burnham, he—he was my—my father!" and he sank back into his chair, with a sudden weakness in his limbs, and a mist before his eyes.
For many minutes no one spoke. Then Ralph asked, quietly,—
"Does—does she know?"
"Now, Ralph," said Sharpman, "now comes the strangest part of the story. Your mother believes you to be dead. She believes that you perished in the accident at Cherry Brook, and has mourned for you ever since the time of that disaster."
"Am I the boy—am I the Ralph she lost?"
"The very one, but we cannot make her think so. I went to her, myself, this morning, and told her that you are alive. I told her who you are, and all about you. She knows you, but she will not believe that you are her son. She wants better evidence than we can give to her, outside of the courts."
"An' won't she never believe it? won't she never take me?"
The boy's voice and look revealed the sudden clashing of his hope.
"Oh, yes, Ralph! in time; I do not doubt that in good time she will recognize you and take you to her home. She has so long believed you to be dead that it is hard for her to overcome the prejudice of that belief."
Then another fear came into the lad's mind.
"Are you sure," he cried out, "that I am her boy? are you sure I'm the right one?"
"Oh, yes!" said the lawyer, assuringly, "oh, yes! there's no mistake about that, there isn't the shadow of a doubt about that. We shall establish your identity beyond question; but we shall have to do it in the courts. When it is once done no one can prevent you from taking the name and the property to which you are entitled and using them as you see fit."
"But my mother!" said Ralph, anxiously, "my mother; she's all I care about; I don't want the property if I can't have her."
"And you shall have her, my boy. Mrs. Burnham said to me this morning, that, until your claim was duly proved in a court of law, she would have no legal right to accept you as her son; but that, when your identity is once established in that way, she will receive you into her home and her heart with much joy."
Ralph looked up with brightening eyes.
"Did she say that?" he exclaimed, "an' will she do it?"
"I have no doubt of it, none whatever."
"Then let's get at it right away," said the boy, impatiently, "it won't take very long, will it?"
"Oh! some little time; several months, may be; may be longer."
Ralph's face fell again.
"I can't wait that long!" he exclaimed; "I'll go to her myself; I'll tell her ev'rything; I'll beg her to take me. Do you think she would? do you?"
"Oh, Ralph! now be reasonable. That would never do. In the first place, it would be useless. She has seen you, she knows you; she says you are not her son; you can't prove it to her. Besides that, she has no legal right to take you as her son until the courts have passed upon the question of your identity. If she should attempt to do so, the other heirs of Robert Burnham would come in and contest your claim, and you would be in a far worse position to maintain your rights than you are now,—oh! far worse. No, you must not go to Mrs. Burnham, you must not go to her at all, until your sonship is fully established. You must keep cool, and wait patiently, or you will destroy every chance you have."
"Well, then, I'll try to; I'll try to wait an' do what you tell me to; what shall I do first?"
"The first thing to be done, Ralph, is to have the court appoint a guardian for you. You can't do anything for yourself, legally, you know, till you are twenty-one years old; and whatever action is taken in your behalf, must be taken by a guardian. It will be his place to establish your identity, to restore you to your mother, and to take care of your property. Now, who would you prefer to have act in that capacity?"
"Well, I don't know; there's Uncle Billy, he's the best friend I've got; wouldn't he do?"
"Do you mean William Buckley, with whom you are living?"
"Why, he would do if he were rich, or had rich friends who would go on his bond. You see, the guardian would have to give a bond to the extent of a great many thousand dollars for the faithful performance of his duties. Could Buckley do that?"
"I'm afraid not, sir. He ain't rich, himself, an' I never heard of his havin' any rich friends."
"Whom else can you think of?"
"Won't Mrs. Burnham do?"
"Oh, no! it might be necessary for the guardian to bring suit against her."
"There ain't anybody else that I can think of," said Ralph, despairingly, after a moment's pause.
"Well, then, I don't know what we shall do. If you can't find some one who is able to qualify for this trust, we may as well stop right here. I guess we've done all we can for the boy, Mr. Craft?"
Craft nodded and smiled. He was enjoying the lawyer's diplomacy with Ralph, exceedingly.
The lad was again in the depths of anxiety. He looked from one to the other of the men with appealing eyes.
"Ain't they some way to fix it, Mr. Sharpman?" he said. "Can't you do sumpthin' for me?"
"Oh! I couldn't be your guardian, my boy, the law wouldn't allow that; and Mr. Craft, here, hasn't money enough. I guess we'll have to give up the idea of restoring you to your mother, and let you go back to work in the breaker again."
"That'd be too bad," said the boy. "Don't do that; I couldn't stan' that—now. Can't you see my mother again, Mr. Sharpman, an' get her to take me—some way?"
"It can't be done, Ralph. There's only one way to fix it, and that is to get a guardian for you. If we can't do that, we may as well give it all up."
The anxiety and disappointment expressed in the lad's face was pitiful to look upon.
Then Craft spoke up.
"Ralph has been very unkind and ungrateful to me," he said, "but I have always been his best friend. I saved his life; and I've spent time and money and lost my health on his account. But I'm willing to do him a favor yet, if he thinks he can appreciate it. I'll act as his guardian and take care of his property for him, if he'll be a good boy and do as we tell him."
"I'll do everything I can," said Ralph, eagerly, "'ceptin' to go back an' live with you; everything—but Mr. Sharpman said you wasn't rich enough."
"No, I ain't," responded the old man; "and I don't know how to get around that difficulty, unless Mr. Sharpman will help me and be my bondsman."
Ralph turned his face pleadingly to Sharpman.
"Oh, now, Craft!" said the lawyer, smiling, and shaking his head, "don't you think you are presuming a little too much on my friendship? If you were the only one to be trusted, why, I might do it; but in this case I would have to depend on the boy as well, and there's no knowing how he would misbehave. According to your own story, he is a wilful, wrong-headed lad, who has already rewarded your kindness to him with base ingratitude. Oh, no! I could trust you, but not him."
"Mr. Sharpman!" pleaded the boy, "Mr. Sharpman, I never meant to be mean or unkind to Gran'pa Simon. I never knew't he saved my life, never. I thought he abused me, I did; I was sure of it; that's the reason I run away from 'im. But, you see, I'm older now; I'd be more reason'ble; I'll do anything you tell me to, Mr. Sharpman,—anything, if you'll only fix it for Gran'pa Simon so's't he can help me get back to my mother."
The lawyer sat for a few moments as if lost in thought. Finally, he raised his head and said:—
"I've a great mind to try you, Ralph. Do you think I can really place full confidence in you?"
"Yes, sir; oh, yes, sir!"
"And will you follow my advice to the letter, and do just what I tell you to do in this matter?"
"Yes, sir; I will."
"Well, then," said Sharpman, turning to Craft, "I think I'll trust the boy, and I'll assist you in your bonds. I know that we both have his interest at heart, and I believe that, together, we can restore his rights to him, and place him in the way of acceptance by his family. Ralph," turning again to the boy, "you ought to be very thankful to have found two such good friends as Mr. Craft and myself."
"Yes, sir, I am. You'll do everything you can for me, won't you? as quick as you can?"
"Oh, yes! Mr. Craft will be your guardian, and I will be his bondsman and lawyer. Now, I think we understand each other, and I guess that's all for to-night."
"When do you want me to come again?"
"Well, I shall want you to go to Wilkesbarre with me in a few days, to have the appointment of guardian made; but I will send for you. In the meantime you will keep on with your work as usual, and say nothing to any person about what we have told you. You'll do that, won't you?"
"Yes, sir, I will. But, Uncle Billy—can't I tell him? he'll be awful glad to know."
"Well, yes, you may tell Billy, but charge him to keep it a profound secret."
"Oh! he will, he will; he'll do anything like that 'at I ask 'im to."
Ralph picked up his cap and turned to go; he hesitated a moment, then he crossed the room to where old Simon still sat, and, standing before him, he said:—
"I'm sorry you're sick, Gran'pa Simon. I never meant to do wrong by you. I'll try to do w'at's right, after this, anyway."
The old man, taken by surprise, had no answer ready; and Sharpman, seeing that the situation was likely to become awkward, stepped forward and said: "Oh! I've no doubt he'll be all we can desire now."
He took the boy's hand, and led him toward the door. "I see my clerk has gone," he said; "are you afraid to go home alone?"
"Oh, no! It's moonlight; an' besides, I've gone home alone lot's o' nights."
"Well, good luck to you! Good-night!"
The office door closed behind the boy, and he went out into the street and turned toward home.
The moon was bright and full, and a delicate mist hung close to the earth. It was a very beautiful night. Ralph thought he had never seen so beautiful a night before. His own footsteps had a musical sound in his ears, as he hurried along, impatient to reach Bachelor Billy, and to tell to him the wonderful news,—news so wonderful that he could scarcely realize or comprehend it. Mr. Sharpman said he would be going back home to-night with a heart as light as a feather. And so he was, was he not? He asked his heart the question, but, somehow, it would not say yes. There was a vague uneasiness within him that he could not quite define. It was not because he doubted that he was Mrs. Burnham's son; he believed that fact implicitly. It was not so much, either, that he could not go to her at once; he could wait for that if the end would only surely bring it. But it seemed to him that he was being set up in a kind of opposition to her; that he was being placed in a position which might lead to an estrangement between them: and that would be a very sad result, indeed, of this effort to establish his identity. But Mr. Sharpman had assured him that Mrs. Burnham approved of the action that was about to be taken in his behalf. Why, then, should he fear? Was it not absurd to cloud his happiness with the dread of something which would never come? Away with doubts! away with fears! he would revel, for to-night at least, in the joy of his new knowledge. Mrs. Burnham was his mother; was not that beautiful, beautiful? Could he, in his wildest flight of fancy or desire, have ever hoped for more than that? But there was something more, and that something was that Robert Burnham was his father. Ah! that was, beyond all question, the highest honor that could ever rest upon a boy,—to be the son of a hero! Ralph threw back his head and shoulders with instinctive, honest pride as this thought filled his mind and heart, and his quick step grew more elastic and more firm as he hurried on along the moonlit path.
He was out beyond the city limits now, climbing the long hill toward home. He could see Burnham Breaker, standing out in majestic proportions, black and clear-cut against the moon-illumined sky. By and by the little mining village came into view, and the row of cottages, in one of which the Widow Maloney lived; and finally the light in Bachelor Billy's window. When Ralph saw this he broke into a run, and sped swiftly along the deserted street, with the whole glad story of his parentage and his prospects crowding to his tongue.
Billy was still sitting by the fire when the boy burst into the room; but he had fallen asleep, and his clay pipe had dropped from his fingers and lay broken on the hearth.
"Uncle Billy! oh, Uncle Billy! what do you think?"
"Why, Ralph, lad, is that yo'? I mus' 'a' been asleep. Whaur ye been, eh?"
"W'y don't you 'member? I went to Lawyer Sharpman's office."
"True for ye, so ye did. I forgot; an' did ye—"
"Oh, Uncle Billy! what do you think? Guess who I am; guess!"
"Why, lad, don't frighten a mon like that. Ye'll wake the neeborhood. Who be ye, then?"
"Guess! guess! Oh, you'd never guess! I'm Ralph Burnham; I'm Mrs. Burnham's son!"
Bachelor Billy's hands dropped lifelessly to his knees, his mouth and eyes came wide open with unfeigned astonishment, and, for the moment, he was speechless. Finally he found breath to exclaim: "Why, Ralph, lad; Ralph, ye're crazy,—or a-jokin'! Don't joke wi' a mon that way, Ralph; it ain't richt!"
"No, but, Uncle Billy, it's true; it's all true! Ain't it splendid?"
"Be ye sure o' that, Ralph? be ye sure o' it?"
"Oh! they ain't no mistake about it; they couldn't be."
"Well, the guid Lord save ye, lad!" and Billy looked the boy over carefully from head to foot, apparently to see if he had undergone any change during his absence. Then he continued: "Coom, sit ye, then; sit ye, an' tell us aboot it a'; how happenit it, eh?"
Again they drew their chairs up before the replenished fire, and Ralph gave a full account of all that had occurred at the lawyer's office.
By virtue of his own faith he inspired Bachelor Billy with equal confidence in the truth of the story; and, by virtue of his own enthusiasm, he kindled a blaze of enthusiasm in the man's heart that glowed with hardly less of brightness than that in his own. Very late that night they sat there, these two, talking of what the future held for Ralph; building bright castles for him, and high hopes, with happiness beyond measure. It was only when the fire burned out and left its charred coals in the iron grate-bars and on the hearth that they went to bed, the one to rest in the dreamless sleep that follows in the path of honest toil, and the other to wake often from his feverish slumber and stare down into the block of moonlight that fell across his bed through the half-curtained window of the room, and wonder whether he had just dreamed it all, or whether he had, indeed, at last, a birthright and a name.
Ten days after the evening interview at Sharpman's office, Ralph received a message from the lawyer instructing him to be at the railroad station on the following morning, prepared to go to Wilkesbarre.
So Bachelor Billy went alone that day to the breaker, and Ralph stayed behind to make ready for his journey.
He dressed himself in his best clothes, brushed them carefully, put a little money in his pocket, and, long before the appointed hour, he was at the station, waiting for Sharpman.
The lawyer did not come until it was nearly time for the train to start. He greeted Ralph very pleasantly, and they took a seat together in the car. It was a beautiful autumn morning, and the nature-loving boy enjoyed greatly the changing views from the car window, as the train bore them swiftly on through the picturesque valley of the Lackawanna. After reaching, at Pittston, the junction with the Susquehanna River, the scenery was grander; and, as they passed down through the far-famed Wyoming Valley, Ralph thought he had never before seen anything quite so beautiful. On the whole it was a delightful journey. Sharpman was in excellent spirits and made himself very agreeable indeed. He seemed to enjoy answering the boy's bright questions, and listening to his shrewd remarks and frank opinions. It was not until they were nearing Wilkesbarre that the special object of their trip was mentioned; then the lawyer informed Ralph that they would go directly to court, and instructed him that if the judge should ask him whom he wished for his guardian, Ralph was to reply that he desired the appointment of Simon Craft. That matter being thoroughly understood, they went on to talk of what they should do in the future.
"It will be necessary, eventually," said Sharpman, "to bring a formal suit against Mrs. Burnham, as administrator, to recover your interest in the estate; but, judging from what she has intimated to me, I don't anticipate any serious opposition on her part."
"I'm sorry, though," responded Ralph, "that they's got to be a law-suit. Couldn't we make it so plain to her, some way, 'at I'm her son that we needn't have any suit?"
"I am afraid not. Even though she, herself, were convinced, she would have no right to distribute a portion of the estate to you against the objection of her daughter's guardian. There is no way but to get a judgment of the court in the matter."
"Well, why couldn't she jes' take my part, an' give it to her daughter's guarden, an' then take me home to live with her without any propaty? Wouldn't that do? I'd a good deal ruther do that than have a law-suit. A man hates to go to law with his own mother, you know."
Sharpman smiled and replied: "That would be a very generous offer, indeed; but I am afraid even that would not do. You would have no right to make such an agreement before you are twenty-one years old. Oh, no! we must have a law-suit, there is no other way; but it will be a mere matter of form; you need have no fear concerning it."
The train reached Wilkesbarre, and Ralph and the lawyer went directly from the station to the court-house. There were very few people in the court-room when they entered it, and there seemed to be no especial business before the court. Sharpman went down into the bar and shook hands with several of the attorneys there. The judge was writing busily at his desk. After a few moments he laid his pen aside and read a long opinion he had prepared in the matter of some decedent's estate. Ralph could not understand it at all, and his mind soon wandered to other subjects. After the reading was finished and one or two of the lawyers had made short speeches, there was a pause. Then Sharpman arose, and, drawing a bundle of papers from his pocket, he read to the court from one of them as follows:—
"TO THE HONORABLE, THE JUDGE OF THE ORPHANS' COURT OF LUZERNE COUNTY:—
"The petition of Ralph Burnham, by his next friend Simon Craft, respectfully represents that the petitioner is a minor child of Robert Burnham, late of the city of Scranton in said county, deceased, under the age of fourteen years; that he is resident within the said county and has no guardian to take care of his estate. He therefore prays the court to appoint a guardian for that purpose.
"RALPH BURNHAM. By his next friend, SIMON CRAFT. Dated, Sept. 26, 1867."
"Your Honor will notice that the petition is duly sworn to," said Sharpman, handing the paper to the clerk, who, in turn, handed it to the judge. There was a minute of silence. The lawyers were all staring at Sharpman in astonishment.
Then, the judge spoke.
"Mr. Sharpman, I was not aware that Robert Burnham left more than one child living; a girl, for whom we have already made appointment of a guardian."
"I was not aware of that fact either," rejoined Sharpman, "until very recently; but it is a fact, nevertheless; and we are here now, asking that a way be prepared by which this heir may come into his rightful portion of his father's estate."
"This is a peculiar case," responded the judge; "and I think we should have some other basis than this on which to act; some affidavit of facts."
"I came prepared to meet that objection," said Sharpman. "I will now read, if the court please, a statement of the facts in the case." He unfolded another paper and read a long and detailed account of the wreck, of Ralph's rescue by Simon Craft, of the old man's care and keeping of the boy, of the finding of Ralph's parents, the lad's desertion, the recent discovery of his whereabouts, of Craft's toil and sacrifice in the matter, and of Ralph's desire to be restored to his family. This was signed and sworn to by Simon Craft.
The judge sat for a moment in silence, as if studying the effect of this affidavit.
"Has the mother been notified," he said finally, "that this child is living, and, if so, why does not she appear here to make this application?"
"I will answer that question, your Honor, by reading the following affidavit," replied Sharpman.
"LUZERNE COUNTY, SS.:
"John H. Sharpman, attorney at law of said county, being duly sworn according to law, deposes, and says: that, on the fifteenth day of September, A.D. 1867, he called upon Mrs. Margaret Burnham, the widow of Robert Burnham, late of the city of Scranton, deceased, and administrator of the said Robert Burnham's estate, and informed her of the facts set forth in the foregoing affidavit of Simon Craft. She acknowledged her acquaintance with the boy Ralph, herein mentioned, but refused to acknowledge him as the son of Robert Burnham, or to grant him any legal interest in the estate of the said Robert Burnham. A notice, a copy of which is hereto attached, has been served on the said Margaret Burnham, warning her that application will be made to the Orphans' Court, on this day, at this hour, for the appointment of a guardian for the boy Ralph.
"JOHN H. SHARPMAN. Sworn and subscribed before me, Sept. 26, 1867. ISRAEL DURHAM, Justice of the Peace."
"Does any one appear for Mrs. Burnham in this matter?" inquired the judge, addressing the assembly of lawyers.
An elderly man, short and thick-set, with gray hair and moustache, arose, and said:—
"I have been informed, as Mrs. Burnham's attorney, that such a proceeding as this was in contemplation. I appreciate your Honor's careful scrutiny of the matter before making an appointment; but, so long as we do not recognize the boy as Robert Burnham's son, it would hardly be justifiable for us to interfere in the simple appointment of a guardian for him. Inasmuch, however, as the avowed purpose is to make an attack on the Burnham estates, we shall insist that the guardian enter into a bond of sufficient amount and value to cover any damages which may accrue from any action he may see fit to take."
"Have you prepared a bond, Mr. Sharpman?" inquired the judge.
"We have," replied Sharpman, producing still another paper.
"Mr. Goodlaw," continued the judge, addressing Mrs. Burnham's attorney, "will you look at the bond and see if it is satisfactory to you?"
Mr. Goodlaw took the bond, examined it, and returned it to the clerk. "I have no objection to make to it," he said.
"Then we will approve the bond, Mr. Sharpman, and make the appointment. You have named Simon Craft as guardian. We are wholly unacquainted with him. Have you consulted with the boy in this matter? What does he say?"
"I have brought the boy into court, so that, notwithstanding his legal inability to make choice for himself, your Honor might be satisfied as to his wish in the matter. This is the boy," as Ralph, obedient to the lawyer's summons, came into the bar and stood beside him. The judge scrutinized the lad closely, and the lawyers leaned forward in their chairs, or came nearer for the purpose of better observation. Ralph felt somewhat embarrassed, standing there to be stared at so, but the voice of the judge soon reassured him.
"Ralph," he said, "is this application for a guardian made according to your desire?"
"Yes, sir," replied the boy; "Mr. Sharpman says I ought to have one."
"And whom do you choose for your guardian?"
"Gran'pa Simon, sir."
Sharpman looked annoyed, and whispered something to Ralph.
"I mean Simon Craft," said the boy, correcting himself.
"Is Simon Craft your grandfather?" asked the judge, sternly.
"Oh, no! I guess not. He made me call 'im that. I never had no grandfather; but Mr. Sharpman says that Robert Burnham was my father—and—and he's dead."
The judge looked down at the lad somewhat uncertainly, then he said: "Well, Ralph, that will do; we'll make the appointment, but," turning to Sharpman, "we shall watch this matter closely. We shall see that justice is done to the child in any event."
"It is my earnest wish," responded Sharpman, "that your Honor shall do so. My only object in the matter is to see that this boy, whom I firmly believe to be Robert Burnham's son, is restored to his family and estates, and that this old man, who has saved the lad's life, and has spent and endured much for him through many years, is adequately rewarded in his old age."
The judge endorsed the papers and handed them to the clerk, and Sharpman walked up the aisle with Ralph to the door of the court-room.
"I have business," said the lawyer, "which will keep me here the rest of the day. Can you find your way back to the station?"
"Here is something to pay your fare with;" offering a piece of money to the boy.
"I've got enough," said Ralph, declining to accept it, "plenty; I'll get home all right."
"Well, the train will leave at noon. I'll send for you when we want you again. Good-by!"
Ralph went down the steps, out at the door, and across the court-house yard. He was not sure that he struck into the right street to go to the station, there were so many streets radiating from the court-house square. But it did not much matter; there was plenty of time before the train would start, and he thought he would like to walk about a little, and see something of the city. He felt like walking off, too, a feeling of dissatisfaction concerning what had just been done in court. It was too much in the nature of an adverse proceeding to seem quite right to him; he was fearful that, somehow, it would estrange his mother from him. He thought there ought to be some simpler way to restore him to his family, some way in which he and his mother could act jointly and in undoubted harmony. He hoped it would all come out right, though. He did not know what better he could do, at any rate, than to follow the advice of his lawyer; and, besides that, he had promised to obey him implicitly in this matter, and he must keep his promise. He had no thought that he was being used merely as an instrument in the hands of designing men.
It was with this vague feeling of unrest at his heart, and with his mind occupied by uneasy thought, that he walked leisurely down the street of this strange city, paying little attention to his course, or to what was going on around him.
Finally he thought it was time he should have reached the station, or at least made some attempt to find it; so he quickened his steps a little, and looked out ahead of him.
There was a man standing on the next corner, and Ralph stopped and asked him if he was on the right road to get to the station. The man laughed good-naturedly, and told him he was on the right road to get away from it, and advised him to retrace his steps for four blocks, then to go two blocks to the left, and there he would find a street running diagonally across the town, which, if he would follow it, would take him very near to the station. He would have to hurry, too, the man said, if he wanted to catch the noon train.
So Ralph turned back, counting the blocks as he went, turning at the right place, and coming, at last, to the street described. But, instead of one street running diagonally from this point there were two or three; and Ralph did not know which one to follow. He asked a boy, who was passing by with a basket on his shoulder, where the station was, and the boy, bending his neck and looking at him, said,—
"I guess this's the way you want to go, sonny," pointing down one of the streets, as he spoke, and then whistling a merry tune as he trudged on with his burden.
Ralph turned into the street designated, and hurried down it, block after block; but he did not reach the station, nor did he see any place that looked like it. He seemed to be in the suburbs, too, in a locality the surroundings of which impressed him unpleasantly. The buildings were small and dilapidated, there was a good deal of rubbish on the sidewalks and in the streets, a few ragged children were playing in the gutter near by, shivering with cold as they ran about in bare, dirty feet, and a drunken man, leaning against a post on the opposite corner, was talking affectionately to some imaginary person in the vicinity. Ralph thought that this, certainly, was not where he ought to be. He walked more slowly, trying to find some one who would give him reliable directions.
At the corner of the block there was a house that looked somewhat better than its neighbors. It had a show-window projecting a few inches into the street, and in the window was a display of wine-bottles, and a very dirty placard announcing that oysters would be served to customers, in every style. On the ground-glass comprising the upper part of the door, the words "Sample Room" were elaborately lettered. Ralph heard some one talking inside, and, after a moment of hesitation, concluded to go in there and make his inquiry, as the need of finding his way had come to be very pressing. Coming in, as he did, from the street, the room was quite dark to his eyes, and he could not well make out, at first, who were in it. But he soon discovered a man standing, in his shirt-sleeves, behind a bar, and he went up to him and said:—
"Will you please tell me, sir, which is the nearest way to the railroad station?"
"Which station d'ye want to go to, bub?" inquired the man, leaning over the bar to look at him.
"The one you take the train for Scranton from."
"Which train for Scranton d'ye want to take?"
"The one't leaves at noon."
"Why that train goes in just five minutes. You couldn't catch that train now, my little cupid, if you should spread your wings and fly to the station."
It was not the bar-tender who spoke this time; it was a young man who had left his chair by the stove and had come up closer to get a better look at the boy. He was just slipping a silver watch back into his vest pocket. It was a black silk vest, dotted with little red figures. Below the vest, encasing the wearer's legs very tightly, were a pair of much soiled corduroy pantaloons that had once been of a lavender shade. Over the vest was a short, dark, double-breasted sack coat, now unbuttoned. A large gaudy, flowing cravat, and an ill-used silk hat, set well back on the wearer's head, completed this somewhat noticeable costume.
There was a good-natured looking face under the hat though, smooth and freckled; but the eyes were red and heavy, and the tip of the straight nose was of quite a vermilion hue.
"No, my dear boy," he continued,—
"You can't catch it, And I can't fetch it,
"so you may as well take it easy and wait for the next one."
"When does the next one go?" inquired Ralph, looking up at the strange young man, but with his eyes still unaccustomed to the darkness of the room.
"Four o'clock, my cherub; not till four o'clock. Going up on that train myself, and I'll see you right through:—
"Oh, sonny! if you'll wait and go with me, How happy and delighted I should be."
Then the young man did a strange thing; he took hold of Ralph's arm, led him to the window, turned his face to the light and scrutinized it closely.
"Well, I'll be kicked to death by grasshoppers!" he exclaimed, at last, "have I found—do I behold—is this indeed the long lost Ralph?"
The boy had broken away from him, and stood with frightened, wondering face, gazing steadily on the young man, as if trying to call something to memory. Then a light of recognition came into his eyes, and a smile to his lips.
"Why!" he exclaimed, "it's Joe; it's Rhymin' Joe!"
"A happy meeting," said the young man, "and a mutual remembrance. Heart speaks to heart.
"The hand of friendship, ever true, Brings you to me and me to you.
"Mr. Bummerton," turning to the bar-tender, "allow me to introduce my esteemed young friend, Mr. Ralph Craft, the worthy grandson of an old acquaintance."
Mr. Bummerton reached a burly hand over the bar and shook hands cordially with Ralph. "Glad to meet your young friend," he said.
"Well," continued Rhyming Joe, "isn't it strange how and under what circumstances old cronies sometimes meet? I cast my eyes on you and I said to myself, 'that young man has a familiar look to me.' I listened to your voice and I remarked to my inner consciousness, 'that voice lingers somewhere in the depths of of memory.' I turn your face to the light, and lo and behold! I reveal to my astonished gaze the features of my old friend, Ralph.
"No tongue can tell my great delight, At seeing you again to-night.
"Of course it isn't night yet, you know, but the pressing exigencies of rhyme often demand the elimination, as it were, of a small portion of time."
Ralph was glancing uneasily about the room. "Gran'pa Simon ain't anywheres around is he?" he asked, letting his eyes rest, with careful scrutiny, on a drunken man asleep in a chair in a dark corner.
"No, my boy," answered Joe, "he isn't. I haven't seen the dear old saint, for, lo, these many moons. Ah!—let me see! did you not leave the patriarch's sweet home circle, somewhat prematurely, eh?
"Gave the good old man the slip Ere the cup could touch the lip?"
"Yes," said Ralph, "I did. I run away. He didn't use me right."
"No, he didn't, that's so. Come, be seated—tell me about it. Oh! you needn't fear. I'll not give it away. Your affectionate grandpa and I are not on speaking terms. The unpleasant bitterness of our estrangement is sapping the juices of my young life and dragging the roses from my cheeks.
"How sad when lack of faith doth part The tender from the toughened heart!"
Rhyming Joe had drawn two chairs near to the stove, and had playfully forced Ralph into one of them, while he, himself, took the other.
The bar-tender came out from behind his bar and approached the couple.
"Oh, by the way," he asked, "did ye have a ticket for your passage up, or was ye goin' to pay your fare?"
"Oh, no!" said Ralph, "I ain't got any ticket. Mr. Sharpman paid my fare down, but I was goin' to pay it back, myself."
The man stood, for a few minutes, listening to the reminiscences of their Philadelphia life which Ralph and Joe were recalling, then he interrupted again:—
"How'd ye like to have some dinner, me boy? Ain't ye gittin' a little hungry? it's after noon now."
"Well, I am a bit hungry," responded Ralph, "that's a fact. Do you get dinners here for people?"
"Oh, certainly! jest as good a dinner as ye'll git anywhere. Don't charge ye for nothing more'n ye actially eat, neither. Have some?"
"Well, yes," said the boy, "I guess so; I won't have no better chance to get any, 'fore I get home."
"I think," said Rhyming Joe, as the man shuffled away, "that my young friend would like a dish of soup, then a bit of tenderloin, and a little chicken-salad, and some quail on toast, with the vegetables and accessories. For dessert we will have some ices, a few chocolate eclairs and lady-fingers, and a cup of black coffee. You had better bring the iced champagne with the dinner, and don't forget the finger-bowls."
Before the last words were out of the speaker's mouth, the bar-tender had disappeared through a door behind the bar, with a wicked smile on his face.
It seemed a long time, to Ralph, before the man came back, but when he did come, he carried in his hands a tray, on which were bowls of oyster soup, very thin, a few crackers, and two little plates of dirty butter. He placed them on a round table at one side of the room, and Ralph and Joe drew up their chairs and began to eat.
The man came again, a few minutes afterward, with bread, and pork, and cabbage, and coffee.
On the whole, it was much better than no dinner, and Ralph's hunger prevented him from being very critical. The warm food seemed to have the effect of making him more communicative, and he was allowing his companion to draw out from him, little by little, as they sat and ate, the whole story of his life since leaving Simon Craft. Rhyming Joe appeared to be deeply interested and very sympathetic.
"Well, you did have a hard time, my dear lad," he said, "out on the road with that circus company. I travelled with a circus company once, myself, in the capacity of special entertainer of country people and inspector of watches and jewelry, but it brings tears to my eyes now, to remember how ungratefully they treated me."
"That's jes' like they did me," said Ralph; "w'en I got sick up there at Scranton, they hadn't no furder use for me, an' they went away an' lef' me there alone."
"That was a sad plight to be in. How did you meet that emergency?"
"I didn't meet it at all. Bachelor Billy, he met it; he foun' me, an' cured me, an' I live with him now, an' work in the breaker."
"Ah, indeed! at work. Laborarium est honorarium, as the Latin poet has it. How often have I wished that it were possible for me to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow; but, alas!—"
"Ain't it?" interrupted Ralph.
"No, my dear boy, it isn't. I have been afflicted, from my youth up, with a chronic disease which the best physicians of both continents have pronounced imminently dangerous to both life and happiness, if physical exercise be immoderately indulged in."
"What is it?" asked Ralph, innocently.
"Indolentia, my dear boy, indolentia; a terrible affliction. But how about Grandpa Simon? Has he discovered your retreat?
"Has the bald, bad eagle of the plain Swooped down upon his prey again?"
"Well, not hardly that," responded Ralph, "but he's foun' me."
"Indeed! And what is his state of mind concerning you now?"
"He ain't my grandfather," said the boy, abruptly.
"Ain't your grandfather! You startle me."
"No, he ain't no relation to me."
"You take my breath away! Who are you, then?"
"I'm Ralph Burnham. I'm Robert Burnham's son."
Ralph had not meant to disclose so much, in this place, to this fellow, but the words came out before he thought. It did not matter much anyway,—every one would soon know it.
"Robert Burnham's son? You don't mean the rich coal proprietor who died at his mine in Scranton last spring?"
"Yes, he's the one I mean. I'm his son."
Rhyming Joe leaned across the table, lifted up the boy's chin, and looked into his eyes. "My dear young friend," he said, "I fear you have fallen into evil ways since you passed out of the range of my beneficent influence. But you should not try to impose so glittering a romance on the verdant credulity of an old acquaintance at the first meeting in many weary years."
"To your faithful friend and true, Tell the truth, whate'er you do."
"Tis true!" asserted Ralph, stoutly. "Gran'pa Simon says so, an' Lawyer Sharpman says so, an' Mrs. Burnham, she—she—she almost believes it, too, I guess."
The bar-tender approached again and asked what else they would have.
"A little something to wash the dinner down with, Bummerton," said Joe, turning again quickly to Ralph.
"Then why don't you live in the Burnham mansion?" he asked, "and leave rude toil for others?"
"'Cause my mother ain't able to reco'nize me yet; she can't do it till the suit's ended. They's other heirs, you know."
"Suit! what suit? are you going to have a suit over it?"
The bar-tender brought a bottle, a pitcher of water, two glasses, and a bowl of sugar.
"Yes," replied the boy, sadly, "I s'pose we've got to. Gran'pa Simon, he's been 'pointed my garden. He ain't so bad a man as he used to be, Gran'pa Simon ain't. He's been sick a good deal lately, I guess."
Rhyming Joe paid no attention to these last remarks, but he seemed to be deeply interested in the law-suit mentioned. He took time to pour some of the contents of the bottle into each glass, then he filled the glasses up with water and stirred a goodly quantity of sugar into the one he pushed toward Ralph.
"What is it?" asked the boy. "Uncle Billy an' me's temperance; we don't drink nothin' much but water."
"Oh!" responded Joe, "this is purely a temperance drink; it's made up from wheat, just the same as you get in your white bread. They have to drink it here in Wilkesbarre, the water is so bad.
"When man and water both are ill, A little wheat-juice fills the bill.
"Try some, you'll find it good."
Ralph was thirsty, and he sipped a little of the mixture; but he did not like it very well, and he drank no more of it.
"Who is going to carry on the suit for you?" continued Rhyming Joe; "have you got a lawyer?"
"Oh, yes! Lawyer Sharpman; he's very smart, too. He's goin' to manage it."
"And when will the trial come off? Perhaps I may be of some assistance to you and to my quondam friend, your sometime grandfather. I would drop all bitterness of feeling, all vain enmity, if I might do the revered patriarch a favor.
"My motto has been, and my motto is yet, That it frequently pays to forgive and forget."
"Oh! I don't know," Ralph replied; "it'll be two or three months yet, anyway, I guess."
Rhyming Joe gazed thoughtfully at the stove.
Bummerton came and began to take away the dishes.
"What's your bill, landlord?" inquired Joe.
"D'ye want the bill for both of ye?"
"Certainly. My young friend here, if I remember rightly, invited me to dine with him. I am his guest, and he foots the bills. See?"
Ralph did not remember to have asked Rhyming Joe to dine with him, but he did not want to appear mean, so he said:—
"Yes, I'll foot the bill; how much is it?" taking out his little leather wallet as he spoke.
"It'll be three dollars," said Bummerton; "a dollar an' a quarter apiece for the dinner, an' a quarter apiece for the drinks."
Ralph looked up in amazement. He had never before heard of a dinner being worth so much money.
"Oh! it's all right," said Joe. "This is rather a high-priced hotel; but they get up everything in first-class style, do you see?
"If in style you drink and eat, Lofty bills you'll have to meet."
"But I ain't got that much money," said Ralph, unstrapping his wallet.
"How much have ye got?" inquired the bar-tender.
"I've only got a dollar'n eighty-two cents."
"Well, you see, sonny," said Bummerton, "that ain't more'n half enough. Ye shouldn't order such a fancy dinner 'nless ye've got money to pay for it."
"But I didn't know it was goin' to cost so much," protested Ralph. "Uncle Billy an' me got jest as good a dinner last Fourth o' July at a place in Scranton, an' it didn't cost both of us but seventy cents. Besides, I don't b'lieve—"
"Look here, Bummerton!" said Joe, rising and leading the bar-tender aside. They whispered together for a few moments and then returned.
"It's all right," said Joe. "You're to pay him what money you have, and he's to charge the remainder on my bill. I'll stand the rest of it for you.
"I'll be that precious 'friend in need,' Who proves himself a friend indeed."
"Then," said Ralph, "I won't have any money left to pay my fare back home."
"Oh, I'll see to that!" exclaimed Joe. "I invited you to ride up with me, didn't I? and of course I'll pay your fare; das verstekt sich; that goes without saying.
"I'll never desert you, oh, never! he spake, We'll stand by each other, asleep or awake."
It was not without much misgiving that Ralph gave the dollar and eighty-two cents to the bar-tender, and returned the empty wallet to his pocket. But Rhyming Joe soon engaged him again in conversation. The young man seemed to be deeply interested in the movement to restore the boy to his family rights and possessions. He asked many questions about it, about Craft, about Sharpman, about Ralph's knowledge of himself; the whole ground, indeed, was gone over carefully from the beginning to the present; even the probabilities of the future were fully discussed.
In the meantime, the liquor in the bottle was steadily diminishing in quantity, as a result of Rhyming Joe's constant attention to it, and Ralph thought he began to detect evidences of intoxication in the speech and conduct of his friend. His nose appeared to be getting redder, his eyelids were drooping, he was sinking lower into his chair, his utterance was growing thick, and his voice had a sleepy tone.
Ralph, too, felt sleepy. The excitement and exercise of the morning, the hearty dinner, the warm, close room, and the fumes of alcohol in the atmosphere, were all having their effect on his senses. He saw, dimly, that Joe's chin was resting on his breast and that his eyes were closed; he heard him mutter in a voice that seemed to come from some distant room:—
"Of all 'e bowls I s-s-smell or see, The wassail bowl's 'e bowl f-f-for me,"
and the next moment both man and boy were fast asleep.
A FRIEND IN NEED.
When Ralph awoke, it was quite dark in the room. He was still sitting at the round table, but Rhyming Joe had disappeared from the other side of it. He looked around the room, and saw that an oil-lamp was burning behind the bar, and that two or three rough-looking men stood there with the bar-tender, talking and drinking. But the young man who had dined with him was nowhere to be seen. Ralph arose, and went over to the bar.