Chapter II. Punishing a Coward
 

Mrs. Rushton and her son occupied a little cottage, not far from the factory. Behind it were a few square rods of garden, in which Robert raised a few vegetables, working generally before or after his labor in the factory. They lived in a very plain way, but Mrs. Rushton was an excellent manager, and they had never lacked the common comforts of life. The husband and father had followed the sea. Two years before, he left the port of Boston as captain of the ship Norman, bound for Calcutta. Not a word had reached his wife and son since then, and it was generally believed that it had gone to the bottom of the sea. Mrs. Rushton regarded herself as a widow, and Robert, entering the factory, took upon himself the support of the family. He was now able to earn six dollars a week, and this, with his mother's earnings in braiding straw for a hat manufacturer in a neighboring town, supported them, though they were unable to lay up anything. The price of a term at the writing school was so small that Robert thought he could indulge himself in it, feeling that a good handwriting was a valuable acquisition, and might hereafter procure him employment in some business house. For the present, he could not do better than to retain his place in the factory.

Robert was up at six the next morning. He spent half an hour in sawing and splitting wood enough to last his mother through the day, and then entered the kitchen, where breakfast was ready.

"I am a little late this morning, mother," he said. "I must hurry down my breakfast, or I shall be late at the factory, and that will bring twenty-five cents fine."

"It would be a pity to get fined, but you mustn't eat too fast. It is not healthful."

"I've got a pretty good digestion, mother," said Robert, laughing. "Nothing troubles me."

"Still, you mustn't trifle with it. Do you remember, Robert," added his mother, soberly, "it is just two years to-day since your poor father left us for Boston to take command of his ship?"

"So it is, mother; I had forgotten it."

"I little thought then that I should never see him again!" and Mrs. Rushton sighed.

"It is strange we have never heard anything of the ship."

"Not so strange, Robert. It must have gone down when no other vessel was in sight."

"I wish we knew the particulars, mother. Sometimes I think father may have escaped from the ship in a boat, and may be still alive."

"I used to think it possible, Robert; but I have given up all hopes of it. Two years have passed, and if your father were alive, we should have seen him or heard from him ere this."

"I am afraid you are right. There's one thing I can't help thinking of, mother," said Robert, thoughtfully. "How is it that father left no property? He received a good salary, did he not?"

"Yes; he had received a good salary for several years."

"He did not spend the whole of it, did he?"

"No, I am sure he did not. Your father was never extravagant."

"Didn't he ever speak to you on the subject?"

"He was not in the habit of speaking of his business; but just before he went away, I remember him telling me that he had some money invested, and hoped to add more to it during the voyage which proved so fatal to him."

"He didn't tell you how much it was, nor how it was invested?"

"No; that was all he said. Since his death, I have looked everywhere in the house for some papers which would throw light upon it; but I have been able to find nothing. I do not care so much for myself, but I should be glad if you did not have to work so hard."

"Never mind me, mother; I'm young and strong, I can stand work--but it's hard on you."

"I am rich in having a good son, Robert."

"And I in a good mother," said Robert, affectionately. "And, now, to change the subject. I suspect I have incurred the enmity of Halbert Davis."

"How is that?" asked Mrs. Rushton.

"I went home with Hester Paine, last evening, from writing school. Just as she had accepted my escort, Halbert came up, and in a condescending way, informed her that he would see her home."

"What did she say?"

"She told him she was engaged to me. He said, coolly, that he would relieve me of the duty, but I declined his obliging offer. He looked mad enough, I can tell you. He's full of self-conceit, and I suppose he wondered how any one could prefer me to him."

"I am sorry you have incurred his enmity."

"I didn't lose any sleep by it."

"You know his father is the superintendent of the factory."

"Halbert isn't."

"But he may prejudice his father against you, and get you discharged."

"I don't think he would be quite so mean as that. We won't borrow trouble, mother. But time's up, and I must go."

Robert seized his hat and hurried to the mill. He was in his place when the great factory bell stopped ringing on the stroke of seven, and so escaped the fine, which would have cut off one-quarter of a day's pay.

Meanwhile, Halbert Davis had passed an uncomfortable and restless night. He had taken a fancy to Hester Paine, and he had fully determined to escort her home on the previous evening. As she was much sought after among her young companions, it would have gratified his pride to have it known that she had accepted his company. But he had been cut out, and by Robert Rushton--one of his father's factory hands. This made his jealousy more intolerable, and humiliated his pride, and set him to work devising schemes for punishing Robert's presumption. He felt that it was Robert's duty, even though he had been accepted, to retire from the field as soon as his, Halbert's, desire was known. This Robert had expressly declined to do, and Halbert felt very indignant. He made up his mind that he would give Robert a chance to apologize, and if he declined to do so he would do what he could to get him turned out of the factory.

At twelve o'clock the factory bell pealed forth a welcome sound to the hundreds who were busily at work within the great building. It was the dinner hour, and a throng of men, women and children poured out of the great portals and hastened to their homes or boarding houses to dine. Among them was Robert Rushton. As he was walking homeward with his usual quick, alert step, he came upon Halbert Davis, at the corner of the street.

Halbert was dressed carefully, and, as usual, was swinging his cane in his gloved hand. Robert would have passed him with a nod, but Halbert, who was waiting for him, called out:

"I say, you fellow, stop a minute. I want to speak to you."

"Are you addressing me?" asked Robert, with a pride as great as his own.

"Yes."

"Then you had better mend your manners."

"What do you mean?" demanded Halbert, his sallow face slightly flushing.

"My name is Robert Rushton. Call me by either of these names when you speak to me, and don't say 'you fellow.'"

"It seems to me," sneered Halbert, "that you are putting on airs for a factory boy."

"I am a factory boy, I acknowledge, and am not ashamed to acknowledge it. Is this all you have to say to me? If so, I will pass on, as I am in haste."

"I have something else to say to you. You were impudent to me last evening."

"Was I? Tell me how."

"Did you not insist on going home with Hester Paine, when I had offered my escort?"

"What of that?"

"You forget your place."

"My place was at Hester Paine's side, since she had accepted my escort."

"It was very presumptuous in a factory boy like you offering your escort to a young lady like Miss Paine."

"I don't see it," said Robert, independently; "and I don't think it struck Hester in that light. We had a very agreeable walk."

Halbert was provoked and inflamed with jealousy, and the look with which he regarded our hero was by no means friendly.

"You mustn't regard yourself as Miss Paine's equal because she condescended to walk with you," he said. "You had better associate with those of your own class hereafter, and not push yourself in where your company is not agreeable."

"Keep your advice to yourself, Halbert Davis," said Robert, hotly, for he felt the insult conveyed in these words. "If I am a factory boy I don't intend to submit to your impertinence; and I advise you to be careful what you say. As to Miss Hester Paine, I shall not ask your permission to walk with her, but shall do so whenever she chooses to accept my escort. Has she authorized you to speak for her?"

"No; but----"

"Then wait till she does."

Halbert was so incensed that, forgetting Robert's superior strength, evident enough to any one who saw the two, one with his well-knit, vigorous figure, the other slender and small of frame, he raised his cane and struck our hero smartly upon the arm.

In a moment the cane was wrested from his grasp and applied to his own person with a sharp, stinging blow which broke the fragile stick in two.

Casting the pieces upon the ground at his feet, Robert said, coolly:

"Two can play at that game, Halbert Davis. When you want another lesson come to me."

He passed his discomfited antagonist and hastened to the little cottage, where his mother was wondering what made him so much behind time.