Chapter XIII. A Startling Event
 

Though Ben had failed in the main object of his expedition, he returned to Pentonville in excellent spirits. He felt that he had been a favorite of fortune, and with good reason. In one day he had acquired a sum equal to five weeks' wages. Added to the dollar Mr. Crawford had contributed toward his expenses, he had been paid twenty-one dollars, while he had spent a little less than two. It is not every country boy who goes up to the great city who returns with an equal harvest. If Squire Davenport had not threatened to foreclose the mortgage, he would have felt justified in buying a present for his mother. As it was, he feared they would have need of all the money that came in to meet contingencies.

The train reached Pentonville at five o'clock, and about the usual time Ben opened the gate and walked up to the front door of his modest home. He looked so bright and cheerful when he entered her presence that Mrs. Barclay thought be must have found and been kindly received by the cousin whom he had gone up to seek.

"Did you see Mr. Peters?" she asked anxiously.

"No, mother; he is in Europe."

A shadow came over the mother's face. It was like taking from her her last hope.

"I was afraid you would not be repaid for going up to the city," she said.

"I made a pretty good day's work of it, nevertheless, mother. What do you say to this?" and he opened his wallet and showed her a roll of bills.

"Is that Mr. Crawford's money?" she asked.

"No, mother, it is mine, or rather it is yours, for I give it to you."

"Did you find a pocketbook, Ben? If so, the owner may turn up."

"Mother, the money is mine, fairly mine, for it was given me in return for a service I rendered a lady in New York."

"What service could you have possibly rendered, Ben, that merited such liberal payment?" asked his mother in surprise.

Upon this Ben explained, and Mrs. Barclay listened to his story with wonder.

"So you see, mother, I did well to go to the city," said Ben, in conclusion.

"It has turned out so, and I am thankful for your good fortune. But I should have been better pleased if you had seen Mr. Peters and found him willing to help us about the mortgage."

"So would I, mother, but this money is worth having. When supper is over I will go to the store to help out Mr. Crawford and report my purchase of goods. You know the most of our trade is in the evening."

After Ben had gone Mrs. Barclay felt her spirits return as she thought of the large addition to their little stock of money.

"One piece of good fortune may be followed by another," she thought. "Mr. Peters may return from Europe in time to help us. At any rate, we have nearly three months to look about us, and God may send us help."

When the tea dishes were washed and put away Mrs. Barclay sat down to mend a pair of Ben's socks, for in that household it was necessary to make clothing last as long as possible, when she was aroused from her work by a ringing at the bell.

She opened the door to admit Squire Davenport.

"Good-evening," she said rather coldly, for she could not feel friendly to a man who was conspiring to deprive her of her modest home and turn her out upon the sidewalk.

"Good-evening, widow," said the squire.

"Will you walk in?" asked Mrs. Barclay, not over cordially.

"Thank you, I will step in for five minutes. I called to see if you had thought better of my proposal the other evening."

"Your proposal was to take my house from me," said Mrs. Barclay. "How can you suppose I would think better of that?"

"You forget that the house is more mine than yours already, Mrs. Barclay. The sum I have advanced on mortgage is two-thirds of the value of the property."

"I dispute that, sir."

"Let it pass," said the squire, with a wave of the hand. "Call it three-fifths, if you will. Even then the property is more mine than yours. Women don't understand business, or you would see matters in a different light."

"I am a woman, it is true, but I understand very well that you wish to take advantage of me," said the widow, not without excusable bitterness.

"My good lady, you forget that I am ready to cancel the mortgage and pay you three hundred and fifty dollars for the house. Now, three hundred and fifty dollars is a handsome sum--a very handsome sum. You could put it in the savings bank and it would yield you quite a comfortable income."

"Twenty dollars, more or less," said Mrs. Barclay. "Is that what you call a comfortable income? How long do you think it would keep us alive?"

"Added, of course, to your son's wages. Ben is now able to earn good wages."

"He earns four dollars a week, and that is our main dependence."

"I congratulate you. I didn't suppose Mr. Crawford paid such high wages."

"Ben earns every cent of it."

"Very possibly. By the way, what is this that Tom was telling me about Ben being sent to New York to buy goods for the store?"

"It is true, if that is what you mean."

"Bless my soul! It is very strange of Crawford, and I may add, not very judicious."

"I suppose Mr. Crawford is the best judge of that, sir."

"Even if the boy were competent, which is not for a moment to be thought of, it is calculated to foster his self-conceit."

"Ben is not self-conceited," said Mrs. Barclay, ready to resent any slur upon her boy. "He has excellent business capacity, and if he were older I should not need to ask favors of anyone."

"You are a mother, and naturally set an exaggerated estimate upon your son's ability, which, I presume, is respectable, but probably not more. However, let that pass. I did not call to discuss Ben but to inquire whether you had not thought better of the matter we discussed the other evening."

"I never shall, Squire Davenport. When the time comes you can foreclose, if you like, but it will never be done with my consent."

"Ahem! Your consent will not be required."

"And let me tell you, Squire Davenport, if you do this wicked thing, it won't benefit you in the end."

Squire Davenport shrugged his shoulders.

"I am not at all surprised to find you so unreasonable, Mrs. Barclay," he said. "It's the way with women. I should be glad if you would come to look upon the matter in a different light; but I cannot sacrifice my own interests in any event. The law is on my side."

"The law may be on your side, but the law upholds a great deal that is oppressive and cruel."

"A curious set of laws we should have if women made them," said the squire.

"They would not bear so heavily upon the poor as they do now."

"Well, I won't stop to discuss the matter. If you come to entertain different views about the house, send word by Ben, and we will arrange the details without delay. Mr. Kirk is anxious to move his family as soon as possible, and would like to secure the house at once."

"He will have to wait three months at least," said Mrs. Barclay coldly. "For that time, I believe the law protects me."

"You are right there; but at the end of that tine you cannot expect as liberal terms as we are now prepared to offer you."

"Liberal!" repeated the widow, in a meaning tone.

"So I regard it," said the squire stiffly. "Good-evening."

An hour later Mrs. Barclay's reflections were broken in upon by the ominous clang of the engine bell. This is a sound which always excites alarm in a country village.

"Where's the fire?" she asked anxiously, of a boy who was running by the house.

"It's Crawford's store!" was the startling reply. "It's blazin' up like anything. Guess it'll have to go."

"I hope Ben'll keep out of danger," thought Mrs. Barclay, as she hurriedly took her shawl and bonnet and started for the scene of excitement.