"In that case," said the judge, "I presume you will have nothing further to offer on the part of the plaintiff, Mr. Sharpman?"
"Nothing," replied that gentleman, with an involuntary, smile of satisfaction on his lips.
"Then," said Goodlaw, who was still standing, "I suppose the evidence may be declared closed. I know of no—" He stopped and turned to see what the noise and confusion back by the entrance was about. The eyes of every one else in the room were turned in that direction also. A tipstaff was trying to detain Ralph at the door; he had not recognized him. But the boy broke away from him and hurried down the central aisle to the railing of the bar. In the struggle with the officer he had lost his hat, and his hair was tumbled over his forehead. His face was grimy and streaked with perspiration; his clothes were torn and dusty, and in his hand he still carried his shoes and stockings.
"Mr. Goodlaw!" he exclaimed in a loud whisper as he hastened across the bar, "Mr. Goodlaw, wait a minute! I ain't Robert Burnham's son! I didn't know it till yestaday; but I ain't—I ain't his son!"
The boy dropped, panting, into a chair. Goodlaw looked down on him in astonishment. Old Simon clutched his cane and leaned forward with his eyes flashing fire. Mrs. Burnham, her face pale with surprise and compassion, began to smooth back the hair from the lad's wet forehead. The people back in the court-room had risen to their feet, to look down into the bar, and the constables were trying to restore order.
It all took place in a minute.
Then Ralph began to talk again:—
"Rhymin' Joe said so; he said I was Simon Craft's grandson; he told—"
Sharpman interrupted him. "Come with me, Ralph," he said, "I want to speak with you a minute." He reached out his hand, as if to lead him away; but Goodlaw stepped between them, saying, sternly:—
"He shall not go! The boy shall tell his story unhampered; you shall not crowd it back down his throat in private!"
"I say the boy shall go," replied Sharpman, angrily. "He is my client, and I have a right to consult with him."
This was true. For a moment Goodlaw was at his wit's end. Then, a bright idea came to him.
"Ralph," he said, "take the witness-stand."
Sharpman saw that he was foiled.
He turned to the court, white with passion.
"I protest," he exclaimed, "against this proceeding! It is contrary to both law and courtesy. I demand the privilege of consulting with my client!"
"Counsel has a right to call the boy as a witness," said the judge, dispassionately, "and to put him on the stand at once. Let him be sworn."
Ralph pushed his way up to the witness-stand, and the officer administered the oath. He was a sorry-looking witness indeed.
At any other time or in any other place, his appearance would have been ludicrous. But now no one laughed. The people in the court-room began to whisper, "Hush!" fearing lest the noise of moving bodies might cause them to lose the boy's words.
To Goodlaw it was all a mystery. He did not know how to begin the examination. He started at a venture.
"Are you Robert Burnham's son?"
"No, sir," replied Ralph, firmly. "I ain't."
There was a buzz of excitement in the room. Old Simon sat staring at the boy incredulously. His anger had changed for the moment into wonder. He could not understand the cause of Ralph's action. Sharpman had not told him of the interview with Rhyming Joe—he had not thought it advisable.
"Who are you, then?" inquired Goodlaw.
"I'm Simon Craft's grandson." The excitement in the room ran higher. Craft raised himself on his cane to lean toward Sharpman. "He lies!" whispered the old man, hoarsely; "the boy lies!"
Sharpman paid no attention to him.
"When did you first learn that you are Mr. Craft's grandson?" continued the counsel for the defence.
"Last night," responded Ralph.
"At Mr. Sharpman's office."
The blood rushed suddenly into Sharpman's face. He understood it all now; Ralph had overheard.
"Who told you?" asked Goodlaw.
"No one told me, I heard Rhymin' Joe—"
Sharpman interrupted him.
"I don't know," he said, "if the court please, what this boy is trying to tell nor what wild idea has found lodgement in his brain; but I certainly object to the introduction of such hearsay evidence as counsel seems trying to bring out. Let us at least know whether the responsible plaintiff in this case was present or was a party to this alleged conversation."
"Was Mr. Craft present?" asked Goodlaw of the witness.
"No, sir; I guess not, I didn't hear 'im, any way."
"Did you see him?"
"No, sir; I didn't see 'im. I didn't see either of 'em."
"Where were you?"
"In the room nex' to the street."
"Where did this conversation take place?"
"In the back room."
"Was the door open?"
"Just a little."
"Who were in the back room?"
"Mr. Sharpman an' Rhymin' Joe."
"Who is Rhyming Joe?"
"He's a man I used to know in Philadelphy."
"When you lived with Craft?"
"What was his business?"
"I don't know as anything. He used to bring things to the house sometimes, watches an' things."
"How long have you known Rhyming Joe?"
"Ever since I can remember."
"Was he at Craft's house frequently?"
"Yes, sir; most all the time."
An idea of the true situation of affairs was dawning upon Goodlaw's mind. That Ralph had overheard Rhyming Joe say to Sharpman that the boy was Simon Craft's grandson was evident. But how to get that fact before the jury in the face of the rules of evidence—that was the question. It seemed to him that there should be some way to do it, and he kept on with the examination in order to gain time for thought and to lead up to the point.
"Did Mr. Sharpman know that you were in his office when this conversation took place?"
"No, sir; I guess not."
"Did Rhyming Joe know you were there?"
"No, sir; I don't believe he did."
"From the conversation overheard by you, have you reason to believe that Rhyming Joe is acquainted with the facts relating to your parentage?"
"Yes, sir; he must know."
"And, from hearing that conversation, did you become convinced that you are Simon Craft's grandson and not Robert Burnham's son?"
"Yes, sir, I did. Rhymin' Joe said so, an' he knows."
"Did you see Rhyming Joe last night?"
"No, sir. Only as he passed by me in the dark."
"Have you seen him to-day?"
"No, sir; he promised to go away this mornin'."
"To whom did he make that promise?"
Sharpman was on his feet in an instant, calling on Ralph to stop, and appealing to the court to have the counsel and witness restricted to a line of evidence that was legal and proper. He saw open before him the pit of bribery, and this fearless boy was pushing him dangerously close to the brink of it.
The judge admonished the defendant's attorney to hold the witness within proper bounds and to proceed with the examination.
In the meantime, Goodlaw had been thinking. He felt that it was of the highest importance that this occurrence in Sharpman's office should be made known to the court and the jury, and that without delay. There was but one theory, however, on which he could hope to introduce evidence of all that had taken place there, and he feared that that was not a sound one. But he determined to put on a bold face and make the effort.
"Ralph," he said, calmly, "you may go on now and give the entire conversation as you heard it last night between Mr. Sharpman and Rhyming Joe."
The very boldness of the question brought a smile to Sharpman's face as he arose and objected to the legality of the evidence asked for.
"We contend," said Goodlaw, in support of his offer, "that neither the trustee-plaintiff nor his attorney are persons whom the law recognizes as having any vital interest in this suit. The witness on the stand is the real plaintiff here, his are the interests that are at stake, and if he chooses to give evidence adverse to those interests, evidence relevant to the matter at issue, although it may be hearsay evidence, he has a perfect right to do so. His privilege as a witness is as high as that of any other plaintiff."
But Sharpman was on the alert. He arose to reply.
"Counsel forgets," he said, "or else is ignorant of the fact, that the very object of the appointment of a guardian is because the law considers that a minor is incapable of acting for himself. He has no discretionary power in connection with his estate. He has no more right to go on the witness-stand and give voluntary hearsay evidence which shall be adverse to his own interests than he has to give away any part of his estate which may be under the control of his trustee. A guardian who will allow him to do either of these things without objection will be liable for damages at the hands of his ward when that ward shall have reached his majority. We insist on the rejection of the offer."
The judge sat for a minute in silence, as if weighing the matter carefully. Finally he said:—
"We do not think the testimony is competent, Mr. Goodlaw. Although the point is a new one to us, we are inclined to look upon the law of the case as Mr. Sharpman looks on it. We shall be obliged to refuse your offer. We will seal you a bill of exceptions."
Goodlaw had hardly dared to expect anything else. There was nothing for him to do but to acquiesce in the ruling of the court.
Ralph turned to face him with a question on his lips.
"Mr. Goodlaw," he said, "ain't they goin' to let me tell what I heard Rhymin' Joe say?"
"I am afraid not, Ralph; the court has ruled that conversation out."
"But they won't never know the right of it unless I tell that. I've got to tell it; that's what I come here for."
The judge turned to the witness and spoke to him, not unkindly:—
"Ralph, suppose you refrain from interrogating your counsel, and let him ask questions of you; that is the way we do here."
"Yes, sir, I will," said the boy, innocently, "only it seems too bad 'at I can't tell what Rhymin' Joe said."
The lawyers in the bar were smiling, Sharpman had recovered his apparent good-nature, and Goodlaw began again to interrogate the witness.
"Are you aware, Ralph," he asked, "that your testimony here to-day may have the effect of excluding you from all rights in the estate of Robert Burnham?"
"Yes, sir, I know it."
"And do you know that you are probably denying yourself the right to bear one of the most honored names, and to live in one of the most beautiful homes in this community?"
"Yes, sir, I know it all. I wouldn't mind all that so much though if it wasn't for my mother. I've got to give her up now, that's the worst of it; I don't know how I'm goin' to stan' that."
Mrs. Burnham, sitting by her counsel, bent her head above the table and wept silently.
"Was your decision to disclose your knowledge reached with a fair understanding of the probable result of such a disclosure?"
"Yes, sir, it was. I knew what the end of it'd be, an' I had a pirty hard time to bring myself to it, but I done it, an' I'm glad now 'at I did."
"Did you reach this decision alone or did some one help you to it?"
"Well, I'll tell you how that was. All't I decided in the first place was to tell Uncle Billy,—he's the man't I live with. So I told him, an' he said I ought to tell Mrs. Burnham right away. But she wasn't home when I got to her house, so I started right down here; an' they was an accident up on the road, an' the train couldn't go no further, an' so I walked in—I was afraid I wouldn't get here in time 'less I did."
"Your long walk accounts for your dusty and shoeless condition, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir; it was pirty dusty an' hot, an' I had to walk a good ways, an' my shoes hurt me so't I had to take 'em off, an' I didn't have time to put 'em on again after I got here. Besides," continued the boy, looking down apologetically at his bruised and dusty feet, "I hurt my feet a-knockin' 'em against the stones when I was a-runnin', an' they've got swelled up so 'at I don't believe I could git my shoes on now, any way."
Many people in the room besides Mrs. Burnham had tears in their eyes at the conclusion of this simple statement.
Then Ralph grew white about the lips and looked around him uneasily. The judge saw that the lad was faint, and ordered a tipstaff to bring him a glass of water. Ralph drank the water and it refreshed him.
"You may cross-examine the witness," said Goodlaw to the plaintiff's attorney.
Sharpman hardly knew how to begin. But he felt that he must make an effort to break in some way the force of Ralph's testimony. He knew that from a strictly legal point of view, the evidence was of little value, but he feared that the boy's apparent honesty, coupled with his dramatic entrance, would create an impression on the minds of the jury which might carry them to a disastrous verdict. He leaned back in his chair with an assumed calmness, placed the tips of his fingers against each other, and cast his eyes toward the ceiling.
"Ralph," he said, "you considered up to yesterday that Mr. Craft and I were acting in your interest in this case, did you not?"
"Yes, sir; I thought so."
"And you have consulted with us and followed our advice until yesterday, have you not?"
"And last night you came to the conclusion that we were deceiving you?"
"Yes, sir; I did."
"Have you any reason for this opinion aside from the conversation you allege that you heard?"
"I don't know as I have."
"At what hour did you reach my office last evening?"
"I don't know, I guess it must 'a' been after eight o'clock."
"Was it dark?"
"It was jest dark."
"Was there a light in the office when you came in?"
"They was in the back room where you an' Rhymin' Joe were."
"Did you think that I knew when you came into the office?"
"I don't believe you did."
"Why did you not make your presence known?"
"Come, out with it! If you had any reason for playing the spy, let's hear what it was."
"I didn't play the spy. I didn't think o' bein' mean that way, but when I heard Rhymin' Joe tell you 'at I wasn't Robert Burnham's son, I was so s'prised, an' scart-like 'at I couldn't speak."
This was a little more than Sharpman wanted, but he kept on:—
"How long were you under the control of this spirit of muteness?"
"How long was it before the power to speak returned to you?"
"Oh! not till Rhymin' Joe went out, I guess. I felt so bad I didn't want to speak to anybody."
"Did you see this person whom you call Rhyming Joe?"
"Only in the dark."
"Not so as to recognize him by sight?"
"How did you know it was he?"
"By the way he talked."
"How long is it since you have been accustomed to hearing him talk?"
"About three years."
"Did you see me last night?"
"I caught a glimpse of you jest once."
"When you went across the room an' gave Rhymin' Joe the money."
Sharpman flushed angrily. He felt that he was treading on dangerous ground in this line of examination. He went on more cautiously.
"At what time did you leave my office last night?"
"Right after Rhymin' Joe did. I went out to find him."
"Then you went away without letting me know of your presence there, did you?"
"Did you find this Rhyming Joe?"
"No, sir, I couldn't find 'im."
"Now, Ralph, when you left me at the Scranton station on Saturday night, did you go straight home?"
"Did you see any one to talk with except Bachelor Billy that night after you left me?"
"Where did you go on Sunday morning?"
"Uncle Billy an' me went down to the chapel to meetin'."
"From there where did you go?"
"And had your dinner?"
"What did you do after that?"
"Me an' Uncle Billy went up to the breaker."
"Why did you go there?"
"Jest for a walk, an' to see how it looked."
"How long did you stay there?"
"Oh, we hadn't been there more'n fifteen or twenty minutes 'fore Mrs. Burnham's man came for me an' took me to her house."
Sharpman straightened up in his chair. His drag-net had brought up something at last. It might be of value to him and it might not be.
"Ah!" he said, "so you spent a portion of yesterday afternoon at Mrs. Burnham's house, did you?"
"Yes, sir, I did."
"How long did you stay there?"
"Oh! I shouldn't wonder if it was two or three hours."
"Did you see Mrs. Burnham alone?"
"Have a long talk together?"
"Yes, sir, a very nice long talk."
Sharpman thought that if he could only lead the jury, by inference, to the presumption that what had taken place to-day was understood between Ralph and Mrs. Burnham yesterday it would be a strong point, but he knew that he must go cautiously.
"She was very kind to you, wasn't she?"
"Yes, sir; she was lovely. I never had so good a time before in all my life."
"You took dinner with her, I suppose?"
"Have a good dinner?"
"It was splendid."
"Did you eat a good deal?"
"Yes, sir, I think I eat a great deal."
"Had a good many things that were new to you, I presume?"
"Yes, sir, quite a good many."
"Did you think you would like to go there to live?"
"Oh, yes! I did. It's beautiful there, it's very beautiful. You don't know how lovely it is till you get there. I couldn't help bein' happy in a home like that, an' they couldn't be no nicer mother'n Mrs. Burnham is, nor no pirtier little sister. An' everybody was jest as good to me there! Why, you don't know what a—"
The glow suddenly left the boy's face, and the rapture fled from his eyes. In the enthusiasm of his description he had forgotten, for the moment, that it was not all to be his, and when the memory of his loss came back to him, it was like a plunge into outer darkness. He stopped so unexpectedly, and in such apparent mental distress that people stared at him in astonishment, wondering what had happened.
After a moment of silence he spoke again: "But it ain't mine any longer; I can't have any of it now; I've got no right to go there at all any more." The sadness in his broken voice was pitiful. Those who were looking on him saw his under lip tremble and his eyes fill with tears. But it was only for a moment. Then he drew himself up until he sat rigidly in his chair, his little hands were tightly clenched, his lips were set in desperate firmness, every muscle of his face grew tense and hard with sudden resolution. It was a magnificently successful effort of the will to hold back almost overpowering emotion, and to keep both mind and body strong and steady for any ordeal through which he might have yet to pass.
It came upon those who saw it like an electric flash, and in another moment the crowded room was ringing with applause.
GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY.
Sharpman had not seen Ralph's expression and did not know what the noise was all about. He looked around at the audience uneasily, whispered to Craft for a moment, and then announced that he was done with the witness. He was really afraid to carry the examination further; there were too many pit-falls along the way.
Goodlaw, too, was wise enough to ask no additional questions. He did not care to lay grounds for the possible reversal of a judgment in favor of the defendant, by introducing questionable evidence. But he felt that the case, in its present aspect, needed farther investigation, and he moved for a continuance of the cause for two days. He desired, he said, to find the person known as Rhyming Joe, and to produce such other evidence as this new and startling turn of affairs might make necessary.
Craft whispered to Sharpman that the request should be agreed to, saying that he could bring plenty of witnesses to prove that Rhyming Joe was a worthless adventurer, notorious for his habits of lying; and stoutly asserting that the boy was positively Ralph Burnham. But Sharpman's great fear was that if Rhyming Joe should be brought back, the story of the bribery could no longer be hushed; and he therefore opposed the application for a continuance with all his energy.
The court ruled that the reasons presented were not sufficient to warrant the holding of a jury at this stage of the case for so long a time, but intimated that in the event of a verdict for the plaintiff a motion for a new trial might be favorably considered by the court.
"Then we have nothing further to offer," said Goodlaw.
Sharpman resumed his seat with an air of satisfaction, and sat for full five minutes, with his face in his hand, in deep thought.
"I think," he said, finally, looking up, "that we shall present nothing in rebuttal. The case, as it now stands, doesn't seem to call for it." He had been considering whether it would be safe and wise for him to go on the witness-stand and deny any portion of Ralph's story. He had reached the conclusion that it would not. The risk was too great.
"Very well," said the judge, taking up his pen, "then the evidence is closed. Mr. Goodlaw, are you ready to go to the jury?"
Goodlaw, who had been, during this time, holding a whispered conversation with Ralph, arose, bowed to the court, and turned to face the jurors. He began his speech by saying that, until the recent testimony given by the boy Ralph had been produced in court, he had not expected to address the jury at all; but that that testimony had so changed the whole tenor of the case as to make a brief argument for the defence an apparent necessity.
Fortified by the knowledge of the story that Rhyming Joe had told, as Ralph had just whispered it to him, Goodlaw was able to dissipate, greatly, the force of the plaintiff's evidence, and to show how Craft's whole story might easily be a cleverly concocted falsehood built upon a foundation of truth. He opened up to the wondering minds of the jurors the probable scheme which had been originated by these two plotters, Craft and Sharpman, to raise up an heir to the estates of Robert Burnham, an heir of whom Craft could be guardian, and a guardian of whom Sharpman could be attorney. He explained how the property and the funds that would thus come into their hands could be so managed as to leave a fortune in the pocket of each of them before they should have done with the estate.
"The scheme was a clever one," he said, "and worked well, and no obstacle stood in the way of these conspirators until a person known as Rhyming Joe came on the scene. This person knew the history of Ralph's parentage and saw through Craft's duplicity; and, in an unguarded moment, the attorney for the plaintiff closed this man's mouth by means which we can only guess at, and sent him forth to hide among the moral and the social wrecks that constitute the flotsam and the jetsam of society. But his words, declaring Simon Craft's bold scheme a fabric built upon a lie, had already struck upon the ears and pierced into the heart of one whose tender conscience would not let him rest with the burden of this knowledge weighing down upon it. What was it that he heard, gentlemen? We can only conjecture. The laws of evidence drop down upon us here and forbid that we should fully know. But that it was a tale that brought conviction to the mind of this brave boy you cannot doubt. It is for no light cause that he comes here to publicly renounce his right and title to the name, the wealth, the high maternal love that yesterday was lying at his feet and smiling in his face. The counsel for the plaintiff tries to throw upon him the mantle of the eavesdropper, but the breath of this boy's lightest word lifts such a covering from him, and reveals his purity of purpose and his agony of mind in listening to the revelation that was made. I do not wonder that he should lose the power to move on hearing it. I do not wonder that he should be compelled, as if by some strange force, to sit and listen quietly to every piercing word. I can well conceive how terrible the shock would be to one who came, as he did, fresh from a home where love had made the hours so sweet to him that he thought them fairer than any he had ever known before. I can well conceive what bitter disappointment and what deep emotion filled his breast. But the struggle that began there then between his boyish sense of honor and his desire for home, for wealth, for fond affection, I cannot fathom that;—it is too deep, too high, too terrible for me to fully understand. I only know that honor was triumphant; that he bade farewell to love, to hope, to home, to the brightest, sweetest things in all this world of beauty, and turned his face manfully, steadfastly, unflinchingly to the right. With the help and counsel of one honest man, he set about to check the progress of a mighty wrong. No disappointment discouraged him, no fear found place in his heart, no distance was too great for him to traverse. He knew that here, to-day, without his presence, injustice would be done, dishonesty would be rewarded, and shameless fraud prevail. It was for him, and him alone, to stop it, and he set out upon his journey hither. The powers of darkness were arrayed against him, fate scowled savagely upon him, disaster blocked his path, the iron horse refused to draw him, but he remained undaunted and determined. He had no time to lose; he left the conquered power of steam behind him, and started out alone through heat and dust to reach the place of justice. With bared, bruised feet and aching limbs and parched tongue he hurried, on, walking, running, as he could, dragging himself at last into the presence of the court at the very moment when the scales of justice were trembling for the downward plunge, and spoke the words that checked the course of legal crime, that placed the chains of hopeless toil upon his own weak limbs, but that gave the world—another hero!
"Gentlemen of the jury, I have labored at the bar of this court for more than thirty years, but I never saw before a specimen of moral courage fit to bear comparison with this; I never in my life before saw such a lofty deed of heroism so magnificently done. And do you think that such a boy as this would lie? Do you think that such a boy as this would say to you one word that did not rise from the deep conviction of an honest heart?
"I leave the case in your hands, gentlemen; you are to choose between selfish greed and honest sacrifice, between the force of cunning craft and the mighty power of truth. See to it that you choose rightly and well."
The rumble of applause from the court-room as Goodlaw resumed his seat was quickly suppressed by the officers, and Sharpman arose to speak. He was calm and courteous, and seemed sanguine of success. But his mind was filled with the darkness of disappointment and the dread of disaster; and his heart was heavy with its bitterness toward those who had blocked his path. He knew that Ralph's testimony ought to bear but lightly on the case, but he feared that it would weigh heavily with the jury, and that his own character would not come out stainless. He hardly hoped to save both case and character, but he determined to make the strongest effort of which he was capable. He reviewed the testimony given by Mrs. Burnham concerning her child and his supposed tragic death; he recalled all the circumstances connected with the railroad accident, and repeated the statements of the witnesses concerning the old man and the child; he gave again the history of Ralph's life, and of Simon Craft's searching and failures and success; he contended, with all the powers of logic and oratory at his command, that Ralph Burnham was saved from the wreck at Cherry Brook, and Was that moment sitting by his mother before the faces and eyes of the court and jury.
"Until to-day," he said, "every one who has heard this evidence, and taken interest in this case, has believed, as I do, that this boy is Robert Burnham's son. The boy's mother believed it, the counsel for the defence believed it, the lad himself believed it, his Honor on the bench, and you, gentlemen in the jury-box, I doubt not, all believed it; indeed it was agreed by all parties that nothing remained to be done but to take your verdict for the plaintiff. But, lo! this child makes his dramatic entrance into the presence of the court, and, under the inspired guidance of defendant's counsel, tells his story of eavesdropping, and when it is done my learned friend has the temerity to ask you to throw away your reason, to dismiss logic from your minds, to trample law under your feet, to scatter the evidence to the four winds of heaven, and to believe what? Why, a boy's silly story of an absurd and palpable lie?
"I did not go upon the witness-stand to contradict this fairy tale; it did not seem to be worth the while.
"Consider it for a moment. This youth says he came to my office last night and found me in the inner room in conversation with another person. I shall not deny that. Supposing it to be true, there was nothing strange or wrong in it, was there? But what does this boy whom my learned friend has lauded to the skies for his manliness and honor do next? Why, according to his own story, he steals into the darkness of the outer office and seats himself to listen to the conversation in the inner room, and hears—what? No good of himself certainly. Eavesdroppers never do hear good of themselves. But he thinks he hears the voice of a person whom no one in this court-room ever heard of or thought of before, nor has seen or heard of since—a person who, I daresay, has existence only in this child's imagination; he thinks he hears this person declare that he, Ralph, is not Robert Burnham's son, and, by way of embellishing his tale, he adds statements which are still more absurd, statements on the strength of which my learned friend hopes to darken in your eyes the character of the counsel for the plaintiff. I trust, gentlemen, that I am too well known at the bar of this court and in this community to have my moral standing swept away by such a flimsy falsehood as you see this to be. And so, to-day, this child comes into court and declares, with solemn asseveration, that the evidence fixing his identity beyond dispute or question is all a lie; and what is this declaration worth? His Honor will tell you, in his charge, I have no doubt, that this boy's statement, founded, as he himself says, on hearsay, is valueless in law, and should have no weight in your minds. But I do not ask you to base your judgment on technicalities of law. I ask you to base it simply on the reasonable evidence in this case.
"What explanation there can be of this lad's conduct, I have not, as yet, been ably, fully, to determine.
"I have tried, in my own mind, to throw the mantle of charity across him. I have tried to think that, coming from an unaccustomed meal, his stomach loaded with rich food, he no sooner sank into the office chair than he fell asleep and dreamed. It is not improbable. The power of dreams is great on children's minds, as all of you may know. But in the face of these developments I can hardly bring myself to accept this theory. There is too much method in the child's madness. It looks more like the outcome of some desperate move on the part of this defence to win the game which they have seen slipping from their control. It looks like a deep-laid plan to rob my aged and honored client of the credit to which he is entitled for rescuing this boy at the risk of his life, for caring for him through poverty and disease, for finding him when his own mother had given him up for dead, and restoring him to the bosom of his family. It looks as though they feared that this old man, already trembling on the brink of the grave, would snatch some comfort for his remaining days out of the pittance that he might hope to collect from this vast estate for services that ought to be beyond price. It looks as though hatred and jealousy were combined in a desperate effort to crush the counsel for the plaintiff. The counsel for the plaintiff can afford to laugh at their animosity toward himself, but he cannot help his indignation at their plot. Now, let us see.
"It is acknowledged that the boy Ralph spent the larger part of yesterday afternoon at the house of this defendant, and was fed and flattered till he nearly lost his head in telling of it. That is a strange circumstance, to begin with. How many private consultations he has had with counsel for defence, I know not. Neither do I know what tempting inducements have been held out to him to turn traitor to those who have been his truest friends. These things I can only imagine. But that fine promises have been made to him, that pictures of plenty have been unfolded to his gaze, that the glitter of gold and the sheen of silver have dazzled his young eyes, there can be little doubt. So he has seen visions and dreamed dreams, at will; he has endured terrible temptations, and fought great moral battles, by special request, and has come off more than victor, in the counsel's mind. To-day everything is ready for the carrying-out of their skilful scheme. At the right moment the counsel gives the signal, and the boy darts in, hatless, shoeless, ragged, and dusty, for the occasion, and tragic to the counsel's heart's content, and is put at once upon the stand to tell his made-up tale, and—"
Sharpman heard a slight noise behind him, and some one exclaimed:—
"He has fainted!"
The lawyer stopped in his harangue and turned in time to see Ralph lying in a heap on the floor, just as he had slipped that moment from his chair. The boy had listened to Goodlaw's praises of his conduct with a vague feeling that he was undeserving of so much credit for it. But when Sharpman, advancing in his speech, charged him with having dreamed his story, he was astounded. He thought it was the strangest thing he had ever heard of. For was not Mr. Sharpman there, himself? and did not he know that it was all real and true? He could not understand the lawyer's allegation. Later on, when Sharpman declared boldly that Ralph's statement on the witness-stand was a carefully concocted falsehood, the bluntness of the charge was like a cruel blow, and the boy's sensitive nerves shrank and quivered beneath it; then his lips grew pale, his breath came in gasps, the room went swimming round him, darkness came before his eyes, and his weak body, enfeebled by prolonged fasting and excitement, slipped down to the floor.
The people in the court-room scrambled to their feet again to look over into the bar.
A man who had entered the room in time to hear Sharpman's brutal speech pushed his way through the crowd, and hurried down to the place where Ralph was lying. It was Bachelor Billy.
In a moment he was down on his knees by the boy's side, chafing the small cold hands and wrists, while Mrs. Burnham, kneeling on the other side, was dipping her handkerchief into a glass of water, and bathing the lad's face.
Bachelor Billy turned on his knees and looked up angrily at Sharpman. "Mayhap an' ye've killet 'im," he said, "wi' your traish an' your lees!" Then he rose to his feet and continued: "Can ye no' tell when a lad speaks the truth? Mon! he's as honest as the day is lang! But what's the use o' tellin' ye? ye ken it yoursel'. Ye wull be fause to 'im!"
His lips were white with passion as he knelt again by the side of the unconscious boy.
"Ye're verra gude to the lad, ma'am," he said to Mrs. Burnham, who had raised Ralph's head in her arms and was pressing her wet handkerchief against it; "ye're verra gude, but ma mind is to tak' 'im hame an' ten' till 'im mysel'. He was ower-tired, d'ye see, wi' the trooble an' the toil, an' noo I fear me an they've broke the hert o' 'im."
Then Bachelor Billy, lifting the boy up in his arms, set his face toward the door. The people pressed back and made way for him as he passed up the aisle holding the drooping body very tenderly, looking down at times with great compassion into the white face that lay against his breast; and the eyes that watched his sturdy back until it disappeared from view were wet with sympathetic tears.
When the doors had closed behind him, Sharpman turned again to the jury, with a bitterly sarcastic smile upon his face.
"Another chapter in the made-up tragedy," he said, "performed with marvellous skill as you can see. My learned friend has drilled his people well. He has made consummate actors of them all. And yet he would have you think that one is but an honest fool, and that the other is as innocent as a babe in arms."
Up among the people some one hissed, then some one else joined in, and, before the judge and officers could restore order in the room, the indignant crowd had greeted Sharpman's words with a perfect torrent of groans and hisses. Then the wily lawyer realized that he was making a mistake. He knew that he could not afford to gain the ill-will of the populace, and accordingly he changed the tenor of his speech. He spoke generally of law and justice, and particularly of the weight of evidence in the case at bar. He dwelt with much emphasis on Simon Craft's bravery, self-sacrifice, poverty, toil, and suffering; and, with a burst of oratory that made the walls re-echo with the sound of his resonant voice, he closed his address and resumed his seat.
Then the judge delivered the charge in a calm, dispassionate way. He reviewed the evidence very briefly, warning the jury to reject from their minds all improper declarations of any witness or other person, and directing them to rest their decision only on the legal evidence in the case. He instructed them that although the boy Ralph's declaration that he was not Robert Burnham's son might be regarded by them, yet they must also take into consideration the fact that his opinion was founded partly, if not wholly, on hearsay, and, for that reason, would be of little value to them in making up their decision. Any evidence of the alleged conversation at Mr. Sharpman's office, he said, must be rejected wholly. He warned them to dismiss from their minds all prejudice or sympathy that might have been aroused by the speeches of counsel, or the appearance of witnesses in court, and to take into consideration and decide upon but one question, namely: whether the boy Ralph is or is not the son of the late Robert Burnham: that, laying aside all other questions, matters, and things, they must decide that and that alone, according to the law and the evidence.
When the judge had finished his charge a constable was sworn, and, followed by the twelve jurors, he marched from the court-room.
It was already after six o'clock, so the crier was directed to adjourn the court, and, a few minutes later, the judge, the lawyers, the witnesses, and the spectators had all disappeared, and the room was empty.
A WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS.
Every one expected that the jury would come into court with a verdict at the opening of the session on Tuesday morning. There was much difference of opinion, however, as to what that verdict would be.
But the morning hours went by and the jury still remained in their room. The constable who watched at the door shook his head and smiled when asked about the probability of an early agreement. No one seemed to know just how the jury stood.
Sharpman and his client had been greatly disheartened on Monday night, and had confessed as much to each other; but the longer the jury remained out the more hope they gathered. It was apparent that the verdict would not be rendered under the impulses of the moment; and that the jury were applying the principles of cold law and stern logic to the case, there seemed to be little doubt.
But, as a matter of fact, the jury were doing no such thing.
They believed, to a man, that Ralph had told the truth, and that such an event as he had described had actually taken place in Sharpman's office; and, notwithstanding the judge's charge, they were trying to harmonize Ralph's statement with the evidence of the witnesses who had corroborated Simon Craft's story. This led them into so many difficulties that they finally abandoned the effort, and the questions before them were gradually reduced to just one. That question was not whether Ralph was the son of Robert Burnham; but it was: which would be better for the boy, to decide in favor of the plaintiff or of the defendant. If they found for the plaintiff, they would throw the boy's fortune into the hands of Craft and Sharpman, where they feared the greater part of it would finally remain. If they found for the defendant, they would practically consign the lad to a life of homelessness and toil. It was to discuss and settle this question, therefore, that the jury remained locked up in their room through so many hours.
The day wore on and no verdict was rendered. Sharpman's spirits continued to rise, and Goodlaw feared that his case was lost.
At four o'clock the jury sent in word that they had agreed, and a few minutes later they filed into the court-room. When their verdict had been inspected by the judge it was given to the prothonotary to read. He faced the jury, saying:—
"Gentlemen of the jury, listen to your verdict as the court has it recorded. In the case wherein Simon Craft, guardian of the estate of Ralph Burnham, a minor, is plaintiff, and Margaret Burnham, administrator of the estate of Robert Burnham, deceased, is defendant, you say you find for the defendant, and that the boy Ralph is not the son of Robert Burnham. So say you all?"
The jury nodded assent, and the verdict was filed. That settled it. Craft and Sharpman were beaten.
It was very strange that a solid truth, backed up by abundant and irreproachable evidence, presented under the strict rules of law and the solemn sanction of an oath, should be upset and shattered by a flimsy falsehood told by an unknown adventurer, heard unawares by a listening child, and denied a proper entrance into court. It was strange but it was very true. Yet in that ruin was involved one of the boldest schemes for legal plunder that was ever carried into the courts of Luzerne County.
Sharpman felt that a fortune had slipped from his grasp, and that he had lost it by reason of his own credulity and fear. He saw now the mistake he had made in not defying Rhyming Joe. He knew now that the fellow never would have dared to appear in court as a witness. He felt that he had not only lost his money, but that he had come dangerously near to losing what character he had, also. He knew that it was all due to his own fault, and he was humiliated and angry with himself, and bitter toward every one who had sided with the defendant.
But if Sharpman's disappointment was great, that of his client was tenfold greater.
Simon Craft was in a most unenviable mood. At times, indeed, he grew fairly desperate. The golden bubble that he had been chasing for eight years had burst and vanished. He had told the truth, he had been honest in his statements, he had sought to do the boy and the boy's mother a great favor, and they had turned against him, and the verdict of the jury had placed upon him the stigma of perjury. This was the burden of his complaint. But aside from this he was filled with bitter regret. If he had only closed his bargain with Robert Burnham on the day it had been made! If he had only made his proposition to Mrs. Burnham as he had intended doing, instead of going into this wild scheme with this visionary lawyer! This was his silent sorrow. His misery was deep and apparent. He had grown to be ten years older in a day. This misfortune, he said, bitterly, was the result of trying to be honest and to do good. This was the reward of virtue, these the wages of charity.
Tired, at last, of railing at abstract principles of right, he turned his attention to those who had been instrumental in his downfall. The judge, the jury, and the attorney for the defence, all came in for a share of his malignant hatred and abuse. For Mrs. Burnham he had only silent contempt. Her honest desire to have right done had been too apparent from the start. The only fault he had to find with her was that she did not come to his rescue when the tide was turning against him. But against Ralph the old man's wrath and indignation were intense.
Had he not saved the child from death? Had he not fed and clothed and cared for him during five years? Had he not rescued him from oblivion, and made every effort to endow him with wealth and position and an honored name? And then, to think that in the very moment when these efforts were about to meet with just success, this boy had turned against him, and brought ruin and disgrace upon him. Oh, it was too much, too much!
If he could only have the lad in his possession for a week, he thought, for a day, for an hour even, he would teach him the cost of turning traitor to his friends. Oh, he would teach him!
Then it occurred to him that perhaps he might get possession of the boy, and permanent possession at that. Had not Ralph sworn that he was Simon Craft's grandson? Had not the jury accepted Ralph's testimony as true? And had not the court ordered judgment to be entered on the jury's verdict? Well, if the court had declared the boy to be his grandson, he was entitled to him, was he not? If the boy was able to earn anything, he was entitled to his earnings, was he not? If he was the child's grandfather, then he had authority to take him, to govern him, to punish him for disobedience—was not that true?
Old Simon rose from his chair and began to walk up and down the room, hammering his cane upon the floor at every step.
The idea was a good one, a very good one, and he resolved to act upon it without delay. He would go the very next day and get the boy and take him to Philadelphia.
But suppose Ralph should refuse to go, and suppose Bachelor Billy, with his strong arms, should stand by to protect the lad from force, what then? Well, there was a law to meet just such a case as that. He knew of an instance where a child had been taken by its grandfather by virtue of a writ of habeas corpus.
He would get such a writ, the sheriff should go with him, they would bring Ralph to court again; and since the law had declared the boy to be Simon Craft's grandson, the law could do nothing else than to place him in Simon Craft's custody. Then the old man went to bed, thinking that in the morning he would get Sharpman to prepare for him the papers that would be necessary to carry his plan into execution.
He derived much pleasure from his dreams that night, for he dreamed of torturing poor Ralph to his heart's content.
When Bachelor Billy left the court-room that Monday evening with his unconscious burden in his arms, he remained only long enough in the court-house square to revive the boy, then he took him to the railway station, and they went together, by the earliest train, to Scranton.
The next morning Ralph felt very weak and miserable, and did not leave the house; and Bachelor Billy came home at noon to see him and to learn what news, if any, had been received from Wilkesbarre. Both he and Ralph expected that a verdict would be rendered for the defendant, in accordance with Ralph's testimony, and neither of them were surprised, therefore, when Andy Gilgallon came up from the city after supper and informed them that the jury had so found. That settled the matter, at any rate. It was a relief to Ralph to know that it was at an end; that he was through with courts and lawyers and judges and juries, and that there need be no further effort on his part to escape from unmerited fortune. The tumult that had raged in his mind through many hours was at last stilled, and that night he slept. He wanted to go back the next morning to his work at the breaker, but Bachelor Billy would not allow him to do so. He still looked very pale and weak, and the anxious man resolved to come home at noon again that day to see to the lad's health.
Indeed, as the morning wore on, Ralph acknowledged to himself that he did not feel so well. His head was very heavy, and there was a bruised feeling over the entire surface of his body. It was a dull day, too; it rained a little now and then, and was cloudy all the morning. He sat indoors the most of the time, reading a little, sleeping a little, and thinking a great deal. The sense of his loss was coming back upon him very strongly. It was not so much the loss of wealth, or of name, or of the power to do other and better things than he had ever done before that grieved him now. But it was that the dear and gentle lady who was to have been his mother, who had verily been a mother to him for one sweet day, was a mother to him no longer. To feel that he was nothing to her now, no more, indeed, than any other ragged, dust-black boy in Burnham Breaker, this was what brought pain and sorrow to his heart, and made the hot tears come into his eyes in spite of his determined effort to hold them back.
He was sitting in his accustomed chair, facing the dying embers of a little wood fire that he had built, for the morning was a chilly one.
Behind him the door was opened and some one entered the room from the street. He thought it was Bachelor Billy, just come from work, and he straightened up in his chair and tried to wipe away the traces of tears from his face before he should turn to give him greeting.
"Is that you, Uncle Billy?" he said; "ain't you home early?"
He was still rubbing industriously at his eyes. Receiving no answer he looked around.
It was not Uncle Billy. It was Simon Craft.
Ralph uttered a cry of surprise and terror, and retreated into a corner of the room. Old Simon, looking at him maliciously from under his bushy brows, gradually extended his thin lips into a wicked smile.
"What!" he exclaimed, "is it possible that you are afraid of your affectionate old grandfather? Why, I thought you desired nothing so much as to go and live with him and be his pet."
The boy's worst fears were realized. Old Simon had come for him.
"I won't go back with you!" he cried. "I won't! I won't!" Then, changing his tone to one of appealing, he continued: "You didn't come for me, did you, gran'pa? you won't make me go back with you, will you?"
"I'm afraid I can't do without you any longer," said Craft, coming nearer and looking Ralph over carefully. "I'm getting old and sick, and your presence will be a great comfort to me in my declining years. Besides, my affection for you is so great that I feel that I couldn't do without you; oh, I couldn't, I couldn't possibly!" And the old man actually chuckled himself into a fit of coughing at his grim sarcasm.
"But I don't want to go," persisted the boy. "I'm very happy here. Uncle Billy's very good to me, an' I'd ruther stay, a good deal ruther."
At the mention of Uncle Billy's name Old Simon's smile vanished and he advanced threateningly toward the boy, striking his cane repeatedly on the floor.
"It don't matter what you want," he said, harshly; "you were crazy to be my grandson; now the law says you are, and the law gives me the right to take you and do what I choose with you. Oh, you've got to go! so get your hat and come along, and don't let's have any more nonsense about it!"
"Gran'pa—Gran'pa Simon!" exclaimed the terrified boy, shrinking still farther away, "I can't go back to Philadelphy, I can't! I couldn't live, I'd die if I went back there! I'd—"
Craft interrupted him: "Well, if you do die, it won't be because you're killed with kindness, I warrant you. You've cheated me out of a living and yourself out of a fortune; you've made your own bed, now you've got to lie in it. Come on, I say! get your hat and come along!"
The old man was working himself into a passion. There was danger in his eyes. Ralph knew it, too, but the thought of going back to live with Simon Craft was such a dreadful one to him that he could not refrain from further pleading.
"I know I belong to you, Gran'pa Simon," he said, "an' I know I've got to mind you; but please don't make me go back to live with you; please don't! I'll do anything else in the world you want me to; I'll give you ev'ry dollar I earn if you'll let me stay here, ev'ry dollar; an' I'll work hard, too, ev'ry day. I'll—I'll give you—I'll give you—
"Well, what'll you give me? Out with it!"
It was a desperate chance; it called for sacrifice, but Ralph felt that he would offer it gladly if he could thereby be saved.
"I'll give you," he said, "all the money I've got saved up."
"How much money have you got saved up?" The light of hatred in the man's eyes gave place, for the time being, to the light of greed.
"About thirty-two dollars."
"Well, give it to me, then, and be quick about it!"
Ralph went to a small closet built into the wall over the chimney, and took from it a little box.
That box contained his accumulated savings. With a large portion of the money he had thought to buy new clothing for himself. He had determined that he would not go to live with Mrs. Burnham, dressed like a beggar. He would have clothes befitting his station in life. Indeed, he and Uncle Billy were to have gone out the day before to make the necessary purchases; but since the change came the matter had not been thought of. Now he should pay it to Simon Craft as the price of his freedom. He was willing and more than willing to do so. He would have given all he ever hoped to earn to save himself from that man's custody, and would have considered it a cheap release.
He took the money from the box,—it was all paper money,—and counted it carefully out into Old Simon's trembling hand. There were just thirty-two dollars.
"Is that all?" said Craft, folding the bills and putting them into an inside pocket as he spoke.
"Yes, that's all."
"You haven't got any more hidden around the house anywhere, have you? Don't lie to me, now!"
"Oh, no! I've given you ev'ry cent I had, ev'ry single cent."
"Well, then, get your hat and come along."
"Wh—what?" Ralph was staring at the man in astonishment. He thought he had just bought his freedom, and that he need not go.
"Get your hat and come along, I say; and be quick about it? I can't wait here all day."
"Why, home with me, of course. Where would I take you?"
"But I gave you the money to let me stay here with Uncle Billy; you said you would take it for that."
"No, I didn't. I told you to give it to me. The money belongs to me the same as you do. Now, are you coming, or do you want me to help you?"
Ralph's face was white with indignation. He had been willing to do what was right. He thought he had made a fair bargain; but now, this—this was an outrage. His spirit rose against it. The old sense of fearlessness took possession of him. He looked the man squarely in the eyes. His voice was firm and his hands were clenched with resolution. "I will not go with you," he said.
"What's that?" Craft looked down on the boy in astonishment.
"I say I will not go with you," repeated Ralph; "that's all—I won't go."
Then the old man's wrath was let loose.
"You beggar!" he shouted, "how dare you disobey me! I'll teach you!" He raised his cane threateningly as he spoke.
"Hit me," said Ralph, "kill me if you want to; I'd ruther die than go back to live with you."
Old Simon grasped his cane by its foot and raised it above his head. In another instant it would have descended on the body of the unfortunate boy; but in that instant some one seized it from behind, wrenched it from Craft's weak grasp, and flung it into the street.
It was Bachelor Billy; He had entered at the open door unseen. He seized Craft's shoulders and whirled him around till the two men stood face to face.
"Mon!" he exclaimed, "mon! an' yon steck had a-fallen o' the lad's head, I dinna ken what I s'ould 'a' done till ye. Ye're lucky to be auld an' sick, or ye s'ould feel the weight o' ma han' as it is."
But Craft was not subdued. On the contrary his rage grew more fierce. "What's the boy to you?" he shouted, savagely. "You leave us alone. He belongs to me; he shall go with me."
It was a full half-minute before Bachelor Billy's dull mind grasped the situation. Meanwhile he was looking down into Ralph's white face. Then he turned again to Craft.
"Never!" he said, solemnly. "Ye s'all never tak' 'im. I'll see the lad in his grave first." After a moment he continued, "It's no' safe for ye to stay longer wi' us; it's better ye s'ould go."
Then another man entered at the open door. It was the sheriff of Luzerne County. He held the writ of habeas corpus in his hand.
"Why didn't you wait for me," he said, turning angrily to Craft, "instead of coming here to pick a quarrel with these people?"
"That's none of your business," replied the old man. "You've got your writ, now do your duty or I'll—" A fit of coughing attacked him, and he dropped into a chair to give way to it.
The sheriff looked at him contemptuously for a moment, then he turned to Bachelor Billy.
"This miserable old man," he said, "has had a writ of habeas corpus issued, commanding you to produce immediately before the judge at Wilkesbarre the body of the boy Ralph. It is my place to see that the writ is properly executed. There's no help for it, so I think you had better get ready, and we will go as soon as possible." And he handed to Bachelor Billy a copy of the writ.
"I ha' no time to read it," said Billy, "but if the judge says as the lad s'ould gae to court again, he s'all gae. We mus' obey the law. An' I s'all gae wi' 'im. Whaur the lad gae's I s'all gae. I s'all stay by 'im nicht an' day. If the law says he mus' live wi' Seemon Craft, then I s'all live wi' Seemon Craft also. I ha' nursit 'im too long, an' lovit 'im too weel to turn 'im alone into the wolfs den noo."
In a minute or two Craft recovered, but the coughing had left him very weak. He rose unsteadily to his feet and looked around for his cane. He had grown calm. He thought that the game was his at any rate, and that it was of no use for him to lose strength over it. "You'll walk faster than I," he said, "so I'll be going. If I miss this train I can't get started to Philadelphia with the boy before to-morrow." He tottered out into the road, picked up his cane, and trudged on down the hill toward the city.
It was not long before the two men and the boy were ready to go also.
"Keep up your courage, my son," said the sheriff kindly, for the sight of Ralph's face aroused his sympathy. "Keep up your courage; the court has got to pass on this matter yet. You don't have to go with the old man till the judge says so."
"Tak' heart," added Bachelor Billy, "tak' heart, laddie. It's not all ower wi' us yet. I canna thenk as any law'd put a lamb i' the wolf's teeth."
"I don't know," said the sheriff, as they stood on the step for a moment before leaving the house. "I don't know how you'll make it. I suppose, as far as the law's concerned, the old man's on the right track. As near as I can make out, the way the law-suit turned, he has a legal right to the custody of the child and to his earnings. But, if I was the lad, he'd no sooner get me to Philadelphia than I'd give him the slip. You've done it once, Ralph, you can do it again, can't you?"
"I don't know," answered the boy, weakly; "I don't believe I'd try. If I have to go back with him I wouldn't live very long any way, an' it wouldn't pay to run away again. It don't make much difference; I ain't got anybody left now but Uncle Billy, an', if he goes with me, I guess I can stan' it till it's through with."
It was the first time in his life that Ralph had ever spoken in so despondent a way, and Bachelor Billy was alarmed. "Bear up, lad," he said, "bear up. We'll mak' the best o' it; an' they canna do much harm till ye wi' Uncle Billy a-stannin' by."
Mrs. Maloney had come to her door and stood there, looking at the trio in sorrowful surprise.
"Good-by, Mrs. Maloney!" said Ralph going up to her. "It ain't likely I'll ever come back here any more, an' you've been very good to me, Mrs. Maloney, very good indeed, an'—an'—good-by!"
"An' where do ye be goin' Ralphy?"
"Back to Gran'pa Simon's, I s'pose. He's come for me and he's got a right to take me."
The sheriff was looking uneasily at his watch. "Come," he said, "we'll have to hurry to catch the train."
The good woman bent down and kissed the boy tenderly. "Good-by to ye, darlin'," she said, "an' the saints protict ye." Then she burst into tears, and, throwing her apron up before her face, she held it against her eyes and went, backward, into the house.
Ralph laid hold of Bachelor Billy's rough hand affectionately, and they walked rapidly away.
At the bend in the street, the boy turned to look back for the last time upon the cottage which had been his home. A happy home it had been to him, a very happy home indeed. He never knew before how dear the old place was to him. The brow of the hill which they were now descending hid the house at last from sight, and, with tear-blinded eyes, Ralph turned his face again toward the city, toward the misery of the court-room, toward the desolate and dreadful prospect of a life with Simon Craft.
BACK TO THE BREAKER.
It was a dull day in the court-room at Wilkesbarre. The jury trials had all been disposed of, and for the last hour or more the court had been listening to an argument on a rule for a new trial in an ejectment case. It was a very uninteresting matter. Every one had left the court-room with the exception of the court officers, a few lawyers, and a half-dozen spectators who seemed to be there for the purpose of resting on the benches rather than with any desire to hear the proceedings before the court.
The lawyers on both sides had concluded their arguments, and the judge was bundling together the papers in the case and trying to encircle the bulky package with a heavy rubber band.
Then the court-room door was opened, and the sheriff came down the aisle, accompanied by Ralph and Bachelor Billy. A moment later, Simon Craft followed them to the bar. Sharpman, who was sitting inside the railing by a table, looked up with disgust plainly marked on his face as the old man entered and sat down beside him.
He had prepared the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, at Craft's request, and had agreed to appear in his behalf when the writ should be returned. He shared, in some small degree, the old man's desire for revenge on those who had been instrumental in destroying their scheme. But, as the day wore on, the matter took on a slightly different aspect in his mind. In the first place, he doubted whether the court would order Ralph to be returned into Craft's custody. In the next place, he had no love for his client. He had been using him simply as a tool; it was time now to cast him aside since he could be of no further benefit to him. Besides, the old man had come to be annoying and repulsive, and he had no money to pay for legal services. Then, there was still an opportunity to recover some of the personal prestige he had lost in his bitter advocacy of Craft's cause before the jury. In short, he had deliberately resolved to desert his client at the first opportunity.
The sheriff endorsed his return on the writ and filed it.
The judge looked at the papers, and then he called Bachelor Billy before him. "I see," he said, "that you have produced the body of the boy Ralph as you were directed to do. Have you a lawyer?"
"I ha' none," answered the man. "I did na ken as I needit ony."
"We do not think you do, either, as we understand the case. The prothonotary will endorse a simple return on the writ, setting forth the production of the boy, and you may sign it. We think that is all that will be necessary on your part. Now you may be seated."
The judge turned to Sharpman.
"Well, Mr. Sharpman," he said, "what have you to offer on the part of your client?"
Sharpman arose. "If the court please," he responded, "I would respectfully ask to be allowed, at this juncture, to withdraw from the case. I prepared and presented the petition as a matter of duty to a client. I do not conceive it to be my duty to render any further assistance. That client, either through ignorance or deception, has been the means of placing me in a false and unenviable light before the court and before this community, in the suit which has just closed. I have neither the desire nor the opportunity to set myself right in that matter, but I do wish and I have fully determined to wash my hands of the whole affair. From this time forth I shall have nothing to do with it."
Sharpman resumed his seat, while Craft stared at him in astonishment and with growing anger.
He could hardly believe that the man who had led him into this scheme, and whose unpardonable blunder had brought disaster on them both, was now not only deserting him, but heaping ignominy on his head. Every moment was adding to his bitterness and rage.
"Well, Mr. Craft," said the judge, "what have you to offer in this matter? Your attorney seems to have left you to handle the case for yourself; we will hear you."
"My attorney is a rascal," said Craft, white with passion, as he arose. "His part and presence in that trial was a curse on it from the beginning. He wasn't satisfied to ruin me, but he must now seek to disgrace me as well. He is—"
The judge interrupted him:—
"We do not care to hear your opinion of Mr. Sharpman; we have neither the time nor the disposition to listen to it. You caused this defendant to produce before us the body of the boy Ralph. They are both here; what further do you desire?"
"I desire to take the boy home with me. The judgment of this court is that he is my grandson. In the absence of other persons legally entitled to take charge of him, I claim that right. I ask the court to order him into my custody."
The old man resumed his seat, and immediately fell into his customary fit of coughing.
When he had recovered, the judge, who had in the meantime been writing rapidly, said:—
"We cannot agree with you, Mr. Craft, as to the law. Although the presumption may be that the jury based their verdict on the boy's testimony that he is your grandson, yet their verdict does not state that fact specifically, and we have nothing on the record to show it. It would be necessary for you to prove that relation here and now, by new and independent evidence, before we could place the boy in your custody under any circumstances. But we shall save you the trouble of doing so by deciding the matter on other grounds. The court has heard from your own lips, within a few days, that you are, or have been, engaged in a business such as to make thieving and lying a common occurrence in your life. The court has also heard from your own lips that during the time this child was in your custody, you not only treated him inhumanly as regarded his body, but that you put forth every effort to destroy what has since proved itself to be a pure and steadfast soul. A kind providence placed it in the child's power to escape from you, and the same providence led him to the door of a man whose tenderness, whose honor, and whose nobility of character, no matter how humble his station in life, marks him as one eminently worthy to care for the body and to minister to the spirit of a boy like this.
"We feel that to take this lad now from his charge and to place him in yours, would be to do an act so utterly repugnant to justice, to humanity, and to law, that, if done, it ought to drag us from this bench in disgrace. We have marked your petition dismissed; we have ordered you to pay the cost of this proceeding, and we have remanded the boy Ralph to the custody of William Buckley."
Simon Craft said not a word. He rose from his chair, steadied himself for a moment on his cane, then shuffled up the aisle, out at the door and down the hall into the street. Disappointment, anger, bitter hatred, raged in his heart and distorted his face. The weight of years, of disease, of a criminal life, sat heavily upon him as he dragged himself miserably along the crowded thoroughfare, looking neither to the right nor the left, thinking only of the evil burden of his own misfortunes. Now and then some one who recognized him stopped, turned, looked at him scornfully for a moment, and passed on. Then he was lost to view. He was never seen in the city of Wilkesbarre again. He left no friends behind him there. He was first ridiculed, then despised, and then—forgotten.
* * * * *
It was two weeks after this before Ralph was able to return to his work. So much excitement, so much mental distress and bodily fatigue in so short a time, had occasioned a severe shock to his system, and he rallied from it but slowly.
One Monday morning, however, he went back to his accustomed work at the breaker.
He had thought that perhaps he might be ridiculed by the screen-room boys as one who had tried to soar above his fellows and had fallen ignominiously back to the earth. He expected to be greeted with jeering words and with cutting remarks, not so much in the way of malice as of fun. He resolved to take it calmly, however, and to give way to no show of feeling, hoping that thus the boys would soon forget to tease him.
But when he came among them that morning, looking so thin, and pale, and old, there was not a boy in all the waiting crowd who had the heart or hardihood to say an unpleasant word to him or to give utterance to a jest at his expense.
They all spoke kindly to him, and welcomed him back. Some of them did it very awkwardly indeed, and with much embarrassment, but they made him to understand, somehow, that they were glad to see him, and that he still held his place among them as a companion and a friend. It was very good in them, Ralph thought, very good indeed; he could scarcely keep the tears back for gratitude.
He took his accustomed bench in the screen-room, and bent to his task in the old way; but not with the old, light heart and willing fingers. He had thought never to do this again. He had thought that life held for him some higher, brighter, less laborious work. He had thought to gain knowledge, to win fame, to satisfy ambition. But the storm came with its fierce blasts of disappointment and despair, and when it had passed, hope and joy were engulfed in the ruins it left behind it. Henceforth there remained nothing but this, this toilsome bending over streams of flowing coal, to-day, to-morrow, next week, next year. And in the remote future nothing better; nothing but the laborer's pick and shovel, or, at best, the miner's drill and powder-can and fuse. In all the coming years there was not one bright spot to which he could look, this day, with hope. The day itself seemed very long to him, very long indeed and very tiresome. The heat grew burdensome; the black dust filled his throat and lungs, the ceaseless noise became almost unendurable; the stream of coal ran down and down in a dull monotony that made him faint and dizzy, and the bits of blue sky seen from the open windows never yet had seemed to him to be so far and far away.
But the day had an end at last, as all days must have, and Ralph came down from his seat in the dingy castle to walk with Bachelor Billy to their home.
They went by a path that led through green fields, where the light of the setting sun, falling on the grass and daisies, changed them to a golden yellow as one looked on them from the distance.
When they turned the corner of the village street, they were surprised to see horses and a carriage standing in front of Mrs. Maloney's cottage. It was an unaccustomed sight. There was a lady there talking to Mrs. Maloney, and she had a little girl by her side. At the second look, Ralph recognized them as Mrs. Burnham and Mildred. Then the lady descended from her carriage and stood at the door waiting for Bachelor Billy and the boy to come to her. But Ralph, looking down at his black hands and soiled clothing, hesitated and stopped in the middle of the road. He knew that his face, too, was so covered with coal-dust as to be almost unrecognizable. He felt that he ought not to appear before Mrs. Burnham in this guise.
But she saw his embarrassment and called to him.
"I came to see you, Ralph," she said. "I want to talk to you both. May I go into your house and find a chair?"
Both boy and man hurried forward then with kindly greetings, and Bachelor Billy unlocked the door and bade her enter.
She went in and sat in the big rocking-chair, looking pale and weak, while Ralph hurried away to wash the black dust from his face and hands.
"Ye were verra kind, Mistress Burnham," said the man, "to sen' Ralph the gude things to eat when he waur sick. An' the perty roses ye gie'd 'im,—he never tired o' watchin' 'em."
"I should have come myself to see him," she replied, "only that I too have been ill. I thought to send such little delicacies as might tempt his appetite. I knew that he must be quite exhausted after so great a strain upon his nervous system. The excitement wore me out, and I had no such struggle as he had. I am glad he has rallied from the shock."
"He's not ower strang yet; ye ken that by lukin' at 'im; but he's a braw lad, a braw lad."
The lady turned and looked earnestly into Bachelor Billy's face.
"He's the bravest boy," she said, "the very bravest boy I ever knew or heard, of, and the very best. I want him, Billy; I have come here to-night to ask you if I may have him. Son or no son, he is very dear to me, and I feel that I cannot do without him."
For a minute the man was silent. Down deep in his heart there had been a spark of rejoicing at the probability that Ralph would stay with him now indefinitely. He had pushed it as far out of sight as possible, because it was a selfish rejoicing, and he felt that it was not right since it came as a result of the boy's misfortune.
And now suddenly the fear of loss had quenched it entirely, and the dread of being left alone came back upon him in full force.
He bit his lip before replying, to help hold back his mingled feeling of pleasure at the bright prospect opening for Ralph, and of pain for the separation which must follow.
"I dinna ken," he said at last, "how aught could be better for the lad than bein' wi' ye. Ye're ower kin' to think o' it. It'll be hard partin' wi' im, but, if the lad wishes it, he s'all gae. I ha' no claim on 'im only to do what's best for 'im as I ken it. He's a-comin'; he'll speak for 'imsel'."
Ralph came back into the room with face and hands as clean as a hurried washing could make them. "What thenk ye," said Bachelor Billy to him, "that the lady wants for ye to do?"
"I don't know," replied the boy, looking uneasily from one to the other; "but she's been very good to me, an', whatever it is, I'll try to do it."
"I want you to go home with me, Ralph," said Mrs. Burnham, "and live with me and be my son. I am not sure yet that you are not my child. We shall find that out. With the new light we have we shall make a new search for proofs of your identity, but that may take weeks, perhaps months. In the meantime I cannot do without you. I want you to come to me now, and, whatever the result of this new investigation may be, I want you to stay with me and be my son. Will you come?"
She had taken both the boy's hands and had drawn him to her, and was looking up into his face with tenderness and longing.
Ralph could not speak. He was dumb with the joy of hearing her kindly earnest words. A light of great gladness broke in upon his mind. The world had become bright and beautiful once more. He was not to be without home and love and learning after all. Then came second thoughts, bringing doubt, hesitancy, mental struggling.
Still he was silent, looking out through the open door to the eastern hills, where the sunlight lingered lovingly with golden radiance. On the boy's face the lights and shadows, coming and going, marked the progress of the conflict in his mind.
The lady put her arm around him and drew him closer to her, regardless of his soiled and dusty clothing. She was still looking into his eyes.
"You will come, will you not, Ralph? We want you so much, so very much; do we not, Mildred?" she asked, turning to her little daughter, who stood at the other side of her chair.
"Indeed we do," answered the child. "Mamma wants you an' I want you. I don't have anybody to play wiv me half the time, 'cept Towser; an' yeste'day I asked Towser if he wanted you, an' Towser said 'bow,' an' that means 'yes.'"
"There! you see we all want you, Ralph," said Mrs. Burnham, smiling; "the entire family wants you. Now, you will come, won't you?"
The boy had looked across to the little girl, over to Bachelor Billy, who stood leaning against the mantel, and then down again into the lady's eyes. It was almost pitiful to look into his face and see the strong emotion outlined there, marking the fierceness of the conflict in his mind between a great desire for honest happiness and a stern and manly sense of the right and proper thing for him to do. At last he spoke.
"Mrs. Burnham," he said, in a sharp voice, "I can't, I can't!"
A look of surprise and pain came into the lady's face.
"Why, Ralph!" she exclaimed, "I thought,—I hoped you would be glad to go. We would be very good to you; we would try to make you very happy."
"An' I'll give you half of ev'ry nice thing I have!" spoke out the girl, impetuously.
"I know, I know!" responded Ralph, "it'd be beautiful, just as it was that Sunday I was there; an' I'd like to go,—you don't know how I'd like to,—but I can't! Oh, no! I can't!"
Bachelor Billy was leaning forward, watching the boy intently, surprise and admiration marking his soiled face.
"Then, why will you not come?" persisted the lady. "What reason have you, if we can all be happy?"
Ralph stood for a moment in deep thought.
"I can't tell you," he said, at last. "I don't know just how to explain it, but, some way, after all this that's happened, it don't seem to me as though I'd ought to go, it don't seem to me as though it'd be just right; as though it'd be a-doin' what—what—Oh! I can't tell you. I can't explain it to you so'st you can understand. But I mus'n't go; indeed, I mus'n't!"
At last, however, the lady understood and was silent.
She had not thought before how this proposal, well meant though it was, might jar upon the lad's fine sense of honor and of the fitness of things. She had not realized, until this moment, how a boy, possessing so delicate a nature as Ralph's, might feel to take a position now, to which a court and jury had declared he was not entitled, to which he himself had acknowledged, and to which every one knew he was not entitled.
He had tried to gain the place by virtue of a suit at law, he had called upon the highest power in the land to put him into it, and his effort had not only ended in ignominious failure, but had left him stamped as a lineal descendant of one whose very name had become a by-word and a reproach. How could he now, with the remotest sense of honor or of pride, step into the place that should have been occupied by Robert Burnham's son?
The lady could not urge him any more, knowing what his thought was. She could only say:—
"Yes, Ralph; I understand. I am very, very sorry. I love you just the same, but I cannot ask you now to go with me. I can only hope for a day when we shall know, and the world shall know, that you are my son. You would come to me then, would you not, Ralph?"
"Indeed I would!" he said. "Oh, indeed I would!"
She drew his head down upon her bosom and kissed his lips again and again; then she released him and rose to go. She inquired very tenderly about his health, about his work, about his likes in the way of books and food and clothing; and one could see that, notwithstanding her resolution to leave Ralph with Bachelor Billy, she still had many plans in her mind, for his comfort and happiness. She charged Billy to be very careful of the boy; she kissed him again, and Mildred kissed him, and then they stepped into the carriage and the restless brown horses drew them rapidly away.
THE FIRE IN THE SHAFT.
A boy with Ralph's natural courage and spirit could not remain long despondent. Ambition came back to him with the summer days, and hope found an abiding place in his breast once more. It was not, indeed, the old ambition to be rich and learned and famous, nor the hope that he should yet be surrounded with beauty in a home made bright by a mother's love.
All these things, though they had not faded from his mind, were thought of only as sweet dreams of the past. His future, as he looked out upon it now, did not hold them; yet it was a future that had in it no disappointment, no desolation, no despair. The path before him was a very humble one, indeed, but he resolved to tread it royally. Because the high places and the beautiful things of earth were not for him was no reason why he should sit and mourn his fate in cheerless inactivity. He determined to be up and doing, with the light and energy that he had, looking constantly ahead for more. He knew that in America there is always something better for the very humblest toiler to anticipate, and that, with courage, hope, and high endeavor to assist him, he is sure to reach his goal.
Ralph resolved, at any rate, to do all that lay in his power toward the attainment of useful and honorable manhood. He did not set his mark so very high, but the way to it was rough with obstacles and bordered with daily toil.
His plan was, simply to find better places for himself about the breaker and the mines, as his age and strength would permit, and so to do his work as to gain the confidence of his employers. When he should become old enough, he would be a miner's laborer, then a miner, and perhaps, eventually, he might rise to the position of a mine boss. He would improve his leisure with self study, get what schooling he could, and, finally, as the height of his ambition, he hoped that, some day, he might become a mining engineer; able to sink shafts, to direct headings, to map out the devious courses of the mine, or to build great breakers like the one in which he spent his days.
Having marked out his course he began to follow it. He labored earnestly and with a will. The breaker boss said that no cleaner coal was emptied into the cars at the loading place than that which came down through Ralph's chute.
His plan was successful as it was bound to be, and it was not long before a better place was offered to him. It was that of a driver boy in the mine below the breaker. He accepted it; the wages were much better than those he was now receiving, and it was a long step ahead toward the end he had in view.
But the work was new and strange to him. He did not like it. He did not think, at first, that he ever could like it. It was so dark in the mines, so desolate, so lonely. He grew accustomed to the place, however, as the days went by, and then he began not to mind it so much after all. He had more responsibility here, but the work was not so tiresome and monotonous as it had been in the screen-room, and he could be in motion all the time.
He went down the shaft every morning with a load of miners and laborers, carrying his whip and his dinner-pail, and a lighted lamp fastened to the front of his cap. When he reached the bottom of the shaft he hurried to the inside plane, and up the slope to the stables to get his mule. The mule's name was Jasper. Nobody knew why he had been named Jasper, but when Ralph called him by that name he always came to him. He was a very intelligent animal, but he had an exceedingly bad habit of kicking.
It was Ralph's duty to take the mule from the stable, to fasten him to a trip of empty mine cars, and to make him draw them to the little cluster of chambers at the end of the branch that turned off from the upper-level heading.
This was the farthest point from the shaft in the entire mine. The distance from the head of the plane alone was more than a mile, and it was from the head of the plane that Ralph took the cars. When he reached the end of his route he left one car of his trip at the foot of each chamber in which it was needed, gathered together into a new trip the loaded cars that had been pushed down to the main track for him, and started back with them to the head of the plane.
He usually made from eight to ten round trips a day; stopping at noon, or thereabouts, to eat the dinner with which the Widow Maloney had filled his pail. All the driver boys on that level gathered at the head of the plane to eat their dinners, and, during the noon-hour, the place was alive with shouts and songs and pranks and chattering without limit. These boys were older, stronger, ruder than those in the screen-room; but they were no less human and good-hearted; only one needed to look beneath the rough exterior into their real natures. There were eight of them who took trips in by Ralph's heading, but, for the last half-mile of his route, he was the only driver boy. It was a lonesome half-mile too, with no working chambers along it, and Ralph was always glad when he reached the end of it. There was, usually, plenty of life, though, up in the workings to which he distributed his cars. One could look up from the air-way and see the lights dancing in the darkness at the breast of every chamber. There was always the sharp tap, tap of the drill, the noise of the sledge falling heavily on the huge lumps of coal, sometimes a sudden rush of air against one's face, followed by a dull report and crash that told of the firing of a blast, and now and then a miner's laborer would come running a loaded car down to the heading or go pushing an empty one back up the chamber.