The Store Boy by Horatio Alger
Chapter XI. The Madison Avenue Stage
Ben was naturally hopeful, but he had counted more than he was aware on the chance of obtaining assistance from Absalom Peters toward paying off his mother's mortgage. As Mr. Peters was in Europe nothing could be done, and them seemed absolutely no one else to apply to. They had friends, of course, and warm ones, in Pentonville, but none that were able to help them.
"I suppose we must make up our minds to lose the house," thought Ben. "Squire Davenport is selfish and grasping, and there is little chance of turning him."
He walked westward till he reached Madison Avenue. A stage approached, being bound downtown, and, feeling tired, he got in. The fare was but five cents, and he was willing to pay it.
Some half dozen other passengers beside himself were in the stage. Opposite Ben sat a handsomely dressed, somewhat portly lady, of middle age, with a kindly expression. Next her sat a young man, attired fashionably, who had the appearance of belonging to a family of position. There were, besides, an elderly man, of clerical appearance; a nurse with a small child, a business man, intent upon the financial column of a leading paper, and a schoolboy.
Ben regarded his fellow-passengers with interest. In Pentonville he seldom saw a new face. Here all were new. Our young hero was, though be did not know it, an embryo student of human nature. He liked to observe men and women of different classes and speculate upon their probable position and traits. It so happened that his special attention was attracted to the fashionably-attired young man.
"I suppose he belongs to a rich family, and has plenty of money," thought Ben. "It must be pleasant to be born with a gold spoon in your mouth, and know that you are provided for life."
If Ben had been wiser he would have judged differently. To be born to wealth removes all the incentives to action, and checks the spirit of enterprise. A boy or man who finds himself gradually rising in the world, through his own exertions, experiences a satisfaction unknown to one whose fortune is ready-made. However, in Ben's present strait it is no wonder he regarded with envy the supposed young man of fortune.
Our hero was destined to be strangely surprised. His eyes were unusually keen, and enabled him after a while to observe some rather remarkable movements on the part of the young man. Though his eyes were looking elsewhere, Ben could see that his right hand was stealthily insinuating itself into the pocket of the richly-dressed lady at his side.
"Is it possible that he is a pickpocket?" thought Ben, in amazement. "So nicely dressed as he is, too!"
It did not occur to Ben that he dressed well the better to avert suspicion from his real character. Besides, a man who lives at other people's expense can afford to dress well.
"What shall I do?" thought Ben, disturbed in mind. "Ought I not to warn the lady that she is in danger of losing her money?"
While he was hesitating the deed was accomplished. A pearl portemonnaie was adroitly drawn from the lady's pocket and transferred to that of the young man. It was done with incredible swiftness, but Ben's sharp eyes saw it.
The young man yawned, and, turning away from the lady, appeared to be looking out of a window at the head of the coach.
"Why, there is Jack Osborne," he said, half audibly, and, rising, pulled the strap for the driver to stop the stage.
Then was the critical moment for Ben. Was he to allow the thief to escape with the money. Ben hated to get into a disturbance, but he felt that it would be wrong and cowardly to be silent.
"Before you get out," he said, "hand that lady her pocketbook."
The face of the pickpocket changed and he darted a malignant glance at Ben.
"What do you mean, you young scoundrel?" he said.
"You have taken that lady's pocketbook," persisted Ben.
"Do you mean to insult me?"
"I saw you do it."
With a half exclamation of anger, the young man darted to the door. But he was brought to a standstill by the business man, who placed himself in his way.
"Not so fast, young man," he said resolutely.
"Out of the way!" exclaimed the thief, in a rage. "It's all a base lie. I never was so insulted in my life."
"Do you miss your pocketbook, madam?" asked the gentleman, turning to the lady who had been robbed.
"Yes," she answered. "It was in the pocket next to this man."
The thief seeing there was no hope of retaining his booty, drew it from his pocket and flung it into the lady's lap.
"Now, may I go?" he said.
There was no policeman in sight, and at a nod from the lady, the pickpocket was allowed to leave the stage.
"You ought to have had him arrested. He is a dangerous character," said the gentleman who had barred his progress.
"It would have been inconvenient for me to appear against him," said the lady. "I am willing to let him go."
"Well, there is one comfort--if he keeps on he will be hauled up sooner or later," remarked the gentleman. "Would your loss have been a heavy one?" he inquired.
"I had quite a large sum in my pocketbook, over two hundred dollars. But for my young friend opposite," she said, nodding kindly at Ben, "I should have lost it with very small chance of recovery."
"I am glad to have done you a service, madam," said Ben politely.
"I know it is rather imprudent to carry so large sum about with me," continued the lady, but I have a payment to make to a carpenter who has done work in my house, and I thought he might not find it convenient use a check."
"A lady is in more danger than a gentleman," observed the business man, "as she cannot so well hide away her pocketbook. You will need to be careful as you walk along the street."
"I think it will be best to have a neighbor whom I can trust," said the lady. "Would you mind taking this seat at my side?" she continued, addressing Ben.
"I will change with pleasure," said our hero, taking the seat recently vacated by the pickpocket.
"You have sharp eyes, my young friend," said his new acquaintance.
"My eyes are pretty good," said Ben, with a smile.
"They have done me good service to-day. May I know to whom I am indebted for such timely help?"
"My name is Benjamin Barclay."
"Do you live in the city?"
"No, madam. I live in Pentonville, about thirty miles from New York."
"I have heard of the place. Are you proposing to live here?"
"No madam. I came in to-day on a little business of my own, and also to select some goods for a country store in which I am employed."
"You are rather young for such a commission."
"I know the sort of goods Mr. Crawford sells, so it was not very difficult to make the selection."
"At what time do you go back?"
"By the four o'clock train."
"Have you anything to do meanwhile?"
"No, madam," answered Ben, a little surprised.
"Then I should like to have you accompany me to the place where I am to settle my bill. I feel rather timid after my adventure with our late fellow-passenger."
"I shall be very happy to oblige you, madam," said Ben politely.
He had just heard a public clock strike one and he knew, therefore, that he would have plenty of time.