The Store Boy by Horatio Alger
Chapter III. Mrs. Barclay's Callers
About half-past eight o'clock Mrs. Barclay sat with her work in her hand. Her headache was better, but she did not regret not having accompanied Ben to the Town Hall.
"I am glad Ben is enjoying himself," she thought, "but I would rather stay quietly at home. Poor boy! he works hard enough, and needs recreation now and then."
Just then a knock was heard at the outside door.
"I wonder who it can be?" thought the widow. "I supposed everybody would be at the Town Hall. It may be Mrs. Perkins come to borrow something."
Mrs. Perkins was a neighbor much addicted to borrowing, which was rather disagreeable, but might have been more easily tolerated but that she seldom returned the articles lent.
Mrs. Barclay went to the door and opened it, fully expecting to see her borrowing neighbor. A very different person met her view. The ragged hat, the ill-looking face, the neglected attire, led her to recognize the tramp whom Ben had described to her as having attempted to rob him in the afternoon. Terrified, Mrs. Barclay's first impulse was to shut the door and bolt it. But her unwelcome visitor was too quick for her. Thrusting his foot into the doorway, he interposed an effectual obstacle in the way of shutting the door.
"No, you don't, ma'am!" he said, with as laugh. "I understand your little game. You want to shut me out."
"What do you want?" asked the widow apprehensively.
"What do I want?" returned the tramp. "Well, to begin with, I want something to eat--and drink," he added, after a pause.
"Why don't you go to the tavern?" asked Mrs. Barclay, anxious for him to depart.
"Well, I can't afford it. All the money I've got is a bogus dollar your rogue of a son gave me this afternoon."
"You stole it from him," said the widow indignantly.
"What's the odds if I did. It ain't of no value. Come, haven't you anything to eat in the house? I'm hungry as a wolf."
"And you look like one!" thought Mrs. Barclay, glancing at his unattractive features; but she did not dare to say it.
There seemed no way of refusing, and she was glad to comply with his request, if by so doing she could soon get rid of him.
"Stay here," she said, "and I'll bring you some bread and butter and cold meat."
"Thank you, I'd rather come in," said the tramp, and he pushed his way through the partly open door.
She led the way uneasily into the kitchen just in the rear of the sitting room where she had been seated.
"I wish Ben was here," she said to herself, with sinking heart.
The tramp seated himself at the kitchen table, while Mrs. Barclay, going to the pantry, brought out part of a loaf of bread, and butter, and a few slices of cold beef, which she set before him. Without ceremony he attacked the viands and ate as if half famished. When about half through, he turned to the widow, and asked:
"Haven't you some whisky in the house?"
"I never keep any," answered Mrs. Barclay.
"Rum or gin, then?" I ain't partic'lar. I want something to warm me up."
"I keep no liquor of any kind. I don't approve of drink, or want Ben to touch it."
"Oh, you belong to the cold water army, do you?" said the tramp with a sneer. "Give me some coffee, then."
"I have no fire, and cannot prepare any."
"What have you got, then?" demanded than unwelcome guest impatiently.
"I can give you a glass of excellent well water."
"[illegible] Do you want to choke me?" returned the tramp in disgust.
"Suppose I mix you some molasses and water," suggested the widow, anxious to propitiate her dangerous guest.
"Humph! Well, that will do, if you've got nothing better. Be quick about it, for my throat is parched."
As soon as possible the drink was prepared and set beside his plate. He drained it at a draught, and called for a second glass, which was supplied him. Presently, for all things must have an end, the tramp's appetite seemed to be satisfied. He threw himself back in his chair, stretched his legs, and, with his hands in his pockets, fixed his eyes on the widow.
"I feel better," he said.
"I am glad to hear it," said Mrs. Barclay. "Now, if you'll be kind enough, leave the house, for I expect Ben back before long."
"And you don't want him to get hurt," laughed the tramp. "Well, I do owe him a flogging for a trick he played on me."
"Oh, pray, go away!" said Mrs. Barclay, apprehensively. "I have given you some supper, and that ought to satisfy you."
"I can't go away till I've talked to you a little on business."
"Business! What business can you have with me?"
"More than you think. You are the widow of John Barclay, ain't you?"
"Yes; did you know my husband?"
"Yes; that is, I saw something of him just before he died."
"Can you tell me anything about his last moments?" asked the widow, forgetting the character of her visitor, and only thinking of her husband.
"No, that isn't in my line. I ain't a doctor nor yet a minister. I say, did he leave any money?"
"Not that we have been able to find out. He owned this hone, but left no other property."
"That you know of," said the tramp, significantly.
"Do you know of any?" asked Mrs. Barclay eagerly. "How did you happen to know him?"
"I was the barkeeper in the hotel where he died. It was a small house, not one of your first-class hotels."
"My husband was always careful of his expenses. He did not spend money unnecessarily. With his prudence we all thought he must have some investments, but we could discover none."
"Have you got any money in the house?" asked the tramp, with seeming abruptness.
"Why do you ask?" returned the widow, alarmed. "Surely, you would not rob me?"
"No, I don't want to rob you. I want to sell you something."
"I don't care to buy. It takes all our money for necessary expenses."
"You don't ask what I have to sell."
"No, because I cannot buy it, whatever it may be."
"It is--a secret," said the tramp.
"A secret!" repeated Mrs. Barclay, bewildered.
"Yes, and a secret worth buying. Your husband wasn't so poor as you think. He left stock and papers representing three thousand dollars, and I am the only man who can put you in the way of getting it."
Mrs. Barclay was about to express her surprise, when a loud knock was head at the outer door.
"Who's that?" demanded the tramp quickly. "Is it the boy?"
"No, he would not knock."
"Then, let me get out of this," he said, leaping to his feet. "Isn't there a back door?"
"Yes, there it is."
He hurried to the door, unbolted it, and made his escape into the open beyond the house, just as the knock was repeated.
Confused by what she had heard, and the strange conduct of her visitor, the widow took the lamp and went to the door. To her surprise she found on opening it, two visitors, in one of whom she recognized Squire Davenport, already referred to as holding a mortgage on her house. The other was a short, dark-complexioned man, who looked like a mechanic.
"Excuse me the lateness of my call, Mrs. Barclay," said the squire smoothly. "I come on important business. This is Mr. Kirk, a cousin of my wife."
"Walk in, gentlemen," said Mrs. Barclay.
"This is night of surprises," she thought to herself.