Chapter VII. The Strange Passenger.
 

Robert, though not a professional fisherman, was not wholly inexperienced. This morning he was quite lucky, catching quite a fine lot of fish--as much, indeed, as his mother and himself would require a week to dispose of. However, he did not intend to carry them all home. It occurred to him that he could sell them at a market store in the village. Otherwise, he would not have cared to go on destroying life for no useful end.

Accordingly, on reaching the shore, he strung the fish and walked homeward, by way of the market. It was rather a heavy tug, for the fish he had caught weighed at least fifty pounds.

Stepping into the store, he attracted the attention of the proprietor.

"That's a fine lot of fish you have there, Robert. What are you going to do with them?"

"I'm going to sell most of them to you, if I can."

"Are they just out of the water?"

"Yes; I have just brought them in."

"What do you want for them?"

"I don't know what is a fair price?"

"I'll give you two cents a pound for as many as you want to sell."

"All right," said our hero, with satisfaction. "I'll carry this one home, and you can weigh the rest."

The rest proved to weigh forty-five pounds. The marketman handed Robert ninety cents, which he pocketed with satisfaction.

"Shall you want some more to-morrow?" he asked.

"Yes, if you can let me have them earlier. But how is it you are not at the factory?"

"I've lost my place."

"That's a pity."

"So I have plenty of time to work for you."

"I may be able to take considerable from you. I'm thinking of running a cart to Brampton every morning, but I must have the fish by eight o'clock, or it'll be too late."

"I'll go out early in the morning, then."

"Very well; bring me what you have at that hour, and we'll strike a trade."

"I've got something to do pretty quick," thought Robert, with satisfaction. "It was a lucky thought asking Will Paine for his boat. I'm sorry he's going away, but it happens just right for me."

Mrs. Rushton was sitting at her work, in rather a disconsolate frame of mind. The more she thought of Robert's losing his place, the more unfortunate it seemed. She could not be expected to be as sanguine and hopeful as our hero, who was blessed with strong hands and a fund of energy and self-reliance which he inherited from his father. His mother, on the other hand, was delicate and nervous, and apt to look on the dark side of things. But, notwithstanding this, she was a good mother, and Robert loved her.

Nothing had been heard for some time but the drowsy ticking of the clock, when a noise was heard at the door, and Robert entered the room, bringing the fish he had reserved.

"You see, mother, we are not likely to starve," he said.

"That's a fine, large fish," said his mother.

"Yes; it'll be enough for two meals. Didn't I tell you, mother, I would find something to do?"

"True, Robert," said his mother, dubiously; "but we shall get tired of fish if we have it every day."

Robert laughed.

"Six days in the week will do for fish, mother," he said. "I think we shall be able to afford something else Sunday."

"Of course, fish is better than nothing," said his mother, who understood him literally; "and I suppose we ought to be thankful to get that."

"You don't look very much pleased at the prospect of fish six times a week," said Robert, laughing again. "On the whole, I think it will be better to say twice."

"But what will we do other days, Robert?"

"What we have always done, mother--eat something else. But I won't keep you longer in suspense. Did you think this was the only fish I caught?"

"Yes, I thought so."

"I sold forty-five pounds on the way to Minturn, at his market store--forty-five pounds, at two cents a pound. What do you think of that?"

"Do you mean that you have earned ninety cents to-day, Robert?"

"Yes; and here's the money."

"That's much better than I expected," said Mrs. Rushton, looking several degrees more I cheerful.

"I don't expect to do as well as that every day, mother, but I don't believe we'll starve. Minturn has engaged me to supply him with fish every day, only some days the fishes won't feel like coming out of the water. Then, I forgot to tell you, I'm to have Will Paine's boat for nothing. He's going to boarding school, and has asked me to take care of it for him."

"You are fortunate, Robert."

"I am hungry, too, mother. Those two sandwiches didn't go a great ways. So, if you can just as well as not have supper earlier, it would suit me."

"I'll put on the teakettle at once, Robert," said his mother, rising. "Would you like some of the fish for supper?"

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble."

"Surely not, Robert."

The usual supper hour was at five in this country household, but a little after four the table was set, and mother and son sat down to a meal which both enjoyed. The fish proved to be excellent, and Robert enjoyed it the more, first, because he had caught it himself, and next because he felt that his independent stand at the factory, though it had lost him his place, was not likely to subject his mother to the privations he had feared.

"I'll take another piece of fish, mother," said Robert, passing his plate. "I think, on the whole, I shan't be obliged to learn to braid straw."

"No; you can do better at fishing."

"Only," added Robert, with mock seriousness, "we might change work sometimes, mother; I will stay at home and braid straw, and you can go out fishing."

"I am afraid I should make a poor hand at it," said Mrs. Rushton, smiling.

"If Halbert Davis could look in upon us just now, he would be disappointed to find us so cheerful after my losing my place at factory. However, I've disappointed him in another way."

"How is that?"

"He expected Will Paine would lend him his boat while he was gone, but, instead of that, he finds it promised to me."

"I am afraid he is not a very kind-hearted boy."

"That's drawing it altogether too mild, mother. He's the meanest fellow I ever met. However, I won't talk about him any more, or it'll spoil my appetite."

On the next two mornings Robert went out at five o'clock, in order to get home in time for the market-wagon. He met with fair luck, but not as good as on the first day. Taking the two mornings together, he captured and sold seventy pounds of fish, which, as the price remained the same, brought him in a dollar and forty cents. This was not equal to his wages at the factory; still, he had the greater part of the day to himself, only, unfortunately, he had no way of turning his time profitably to account, or, at least, none had thus far occurred to him.

On the morning succeeding he was out of luck. He caught but two fish, and they were so small that he decided not to offer them for sale.

"If I don't do better than this," he reflected, "I shan't make very good wages. The fish seem to be getting afraid of me."

He paddled about, idly, a few rods from the shore, having drawn up his line and hook.

All at once, he heard a voice hailing him from the river bank:

"Boat ahoy!"

"Hallo!" answered Robert, lifting his eyes, and seeing who called him.

"Can you set me across the river?"

"Yes, sir."

"Bring in your boat, then, and I'll jump aboard. I'll pay you for your trouble."

Robert did as requested, with alacrity. He was very glad to earn money in this way, since it seemed he was to have no fish to dispose of. He quickly turned the boat to the shore, and the stranger jumped on board. He was a man of rather more than the average height, with a slight limp in his gait, in a rough suit of clothes, his head being surmounted by a felt hat considerably the worse for wear. There was a scar on one cheek, and, altogether, he was not very prepossessing in his appearance. Robert noted all this in a rapid glance, but it made no particular impression upon him at the moment. He cared very little how the stranger looked, as long as he had money enough to pay his fare.

"It's about a mile across the river, isn't it?" asked the stranger.

"About that here. Where do you want to go?"

"Straight across. There's an old man named Nichols lives on the other side, isn't there?"

"Yes; he lives by himself."

"Somebody told me so. He's rich, isn't he?" asked the stranger, carelessly.

"So people say; but he doesn't show it in his dress or way of living."

"A miser, I suppose?"

"Yes."

"What does he do with his money?"

"I only know what people say."

"And what do they say?"

"That he is afraid to trust banks, and hides his money in the earth."

"That kind of bank don't pay very good interest," said the stranger, laughing.

"No; but it isn't likely to break."

"Here? boy, give me one of the oars. I'm used to rowing, and I'll help you a little."

Robert yielded one of the oars to his companion, who evidently understood rowing quite as well as he professed to. Our hero, though strong-armed, had hard work to keep up with him.

"Look out, boy, or I'll turn you round," he said.

"You are stronger than I am."

"And more used to rowing; but I'll suit myself to you."

A few minutes brought them to the other shore. The passenger jumped ashore, first handing a silver half-dollar to our hero, who was well satisfied with his fee.

Robert sat idly in his boat, and watched his late fare as with rapid steps he left the river bank behind him.

"He's going to the old man's house," decided Robert. "I wonder whether he has any business with him?"