Chapter IV. The Voice of Conscience.
 

When the superintendent accepted Captain Rushton's money, he did not intend to act dishonestly. He hailed it as a present relief, though he supposed he should have to repay it some time. His accounts being found correct, he went on with his speculations. In these he met with varying success. But on the whole he found himself no richer, while he was kept in a constant fever of anxiety.

After some months, he met Mrs. Rushton in the street one day.

"Have you heard from your husband, Mrs. Rushton?" he inquired.

"No, Mr. Davis, not yet. I am beginning to feel anxious."

"How long has he been gone?"

"Between seven and eight months."

"The voyage is a long one. There are many ways of accounting for his silence."

"He would send by some passing ship. He has been to Calcutta before, but I have never had to wait so long for a letter."

The superintendent uttered some commonplace phrases of assurance, but in his own heart there sprang up a wicked hope that the Norman would never reach port, and that he might never set eyes on Captain Rushton again. For in that case, he reflected, it would be perfectly safe for him to retain possession of the money with which he had been intrusted. The captain had assured him that neither his wife nor son knew aught of his savings. Who then could detect his crime? However, it was not yet certain that the Norman was lost. He might yet have to repay the money.

Six months more passed, and still no tidings of the ship or its commander. Even the most sanguine now gave her up for lost, including the owners. The superintendent called upon them, ostensibly in behalf of Mrs. Rushton, and learned that they had but slender hopes of her safety. It was a wicked thing to rejoice over such a calamity, but his affairs were now so entangled that a sudden demand for the five thousand dollars would have ruined him. He made up his mind to say nothing of the special deposit, though he knew the loss of it would leave the captain's family in the deepest poverty. To soothe his conscience--for he was wholly destitute of one--he received Robert into the factory, and the boy's wages, as we already know, constituted their main support.

Such was the state of things at the commencement of our story.

When the superintendent reached home in the evening, he was at once assailed by his wife and son, who gave a highly colored account of the insult which Halbert had received from Robert Rushton.

"Did he have any reason for striking you, Halbert?" asked the superintendent.

"No," answered Halbert, unblushingly. "He's an impudent young scoundrel, and puts on as many airs as if he were a prince instead of a beggar."

"He is not a beggar."

"He is a low factory boy, and that is about the same."

"By no means. He earns his living by honest industry."

"It appears to me," put in Mrs. Davis, "that you are taking the part of this boy who has insulted your son in such an outrageous manner."

"How am I doing it? I am only saying he is not a beggar."

"He is far below Halbert in position, and that is the principal thing."

It occurred to the superintendent that should he make restitution Robert Rushton would be quite as well off as his own son, but of course he could not venture to breathe a hint of this to his wife. It was the secret knowledge of the deep wrong which he had done to the Rushtons that now made him unwilling to oppress him further.

"It seems to me," he said, "you are making too much of this matter. It is only a boyish quarrel."

"A boyish quarrel!" retorted Mrs. Davis, indignantly. "You have a singular way of standing by your son, Mr. Davis. A low fellow insults and abuses him, and you exert yourself to mate excuses for him."

"You misapprehend me, my dear."

"Don't 'my dear' me," said the exasperated lady. "I thought you would be as angry as I am, but you seem to take the whole thing very coolly, upon my word!"

Mrs. Davis had a sharp temper and a sharp tongue, and her husband stood considerably in awe of both. He had more than once been compelled to yield to them, and he saw that he must make some concession to order to keep the peace.

"Well, what do you want me to do?" he asked.

"Want you to do! I should think that was plain enough."

"I will send for the boy and reprimand him."

"Reprimand him!" repeated the lady, contemptuously. "And what do you think he will care for that?"

"More than you think, perhaps."

"Stuff and nonsense! He'll be insulting Halbert again to-morrow."

"I am not so sure that Halbert is not in fault in some way."

"Of course, you are ready to side with a stranger against your own son."

"What do you want me to do?" asked the superintendent, submissively.

"Discharge the boy from your employment," said his wife, promptly.

"But how can he and his mother live?--they depend on his wages."

"That is their affair. He ought to have thought of that before he raised his hand against Halbert."

"I cannot do what you wish," said the superintendent, with some firmness, for he felt that it would indeed be a piece of meanness to eject from the factory the boy whom he had already so deeply wronged; "but I will send for young Rushton and require him to apologize to Halbert."

"And if he won't do it?" demanded Halbert.

"Then I will send him away."

"Will you promise that, father?" asked Halbert, eagerly.

"Yes," said Mr. Davis, rather reluctantly.

"All right!" thought Halbert; "I am satisfied; for I know he never will consent to apologize."

Halbert had good reason for this opinion, knowing, as he did, that he had struck the first blow, a circumstance he had carefully concealed from his father. Under the circumstances he knew very well that his father would be called upon to redeem his promise.

The next morning, at the regular hour, our hero went to the factory, and taking his usual place, set to work. An hour passed, and nothing was said to him. He began to think that Halbert, feeling that he was the aggressor, had resolved to let the matter drop.

But he was speedily undeceived.

At a quarter after eight the superintendent made his appearance, and after a brief inspection of the work, retired to his private office. Ten minutes later, the foreman of the room in which he was employed came up to Robert and touched him on the shoulder.

"Mr. Davis wishes to see you in his office," he said.

"Now for it!" thought Robert, as he left his work and made his way, through the deafening clamor of the machinery, to the superintendent's room.