Chapter VII. Ben's Dinner-Guest.
 

Ben slowly retraced his steps to where he had left his friend, Tom Cooper.

"Well," said the bootblack, "did you see Fitch and Ferguson?"

"Yes," answered Ben soberly; "that is, I saw one of them."

"Did you take the place?"

"No; I found he was too anxious for my fifty dollars, though he offered after a while to take me for thirty."

Tom Cooper laughed derisively.

"I'll do better nor that," he said. "If you'll give me twenty dollars, I'll make you my private secretary, payin' you ten dollars a week."

"How long will you keep me?" asked Ben, smiling.

"Six days," answered Tom. "Then I'll have to sack you without pay, 'cause you don't understand your business."

"Is that the way they manage?" asked Ben.

The bootblack nodded.

Ben looked grave. The disappointment was a serious one, and he felt now how much he had relied upon the promises of Fitch & Ferguson. He had formed no other plans, and it seemed likely that he must return to the country to resume his old life. Yet that seemed impracticable. There was no opening there unless he accepted one of the two offers already made him. But he was neither inclined to enter the employ of Deacon Pitkin, nor to become the valet and servant of Sam Sturgis. He was not quite sure whether he would not prefer to become a bootblack, like his new acquaintance.

"What are you goin' to do?" asked Tom.

"I wish I knew," said Ben earnestly. "What can I do?"

"You might go into my business," suggested Tom.

Ben shook his head.

"I don't think I should like that."

"No more would I if I'd got fifty dollars in my pocket. If I was you I'd go into business."

"What kind of business?"

"Well," said Tom reflectively, "you might buy out an apple or a peanut-stand, and have lots of money left."

"Is there much money to be made that way?" inquired Ben.

"Well, I never knowed anybody get rich in that line. I guess you'd make a livin'."

"That wouldn't satisfy me, Tom. What I want most of all is to go to California."

The bootblack whistled.

"That's off ever so far, isn't it?"

"Yes, it's a long way."

"How do you go?"

"There are three ways," answered Ben, who had made himself familiar with the subject. "The first is to go by land-across the plains. Then there is a line of steamers by way of Panama. The longest way is by a sailing-vessel round Cape Horn."

"What would you do when you got to California?" asked Tom.

"Go to work. I suppose I would go to the mines and dig gold."

"I wish it wasn't so far off. I'd like to go myself. Do you think a feller could work his passage?"

"By blacking boots?"

"Yes."

"I don't believe he could. Sailors don't care much about having their boots blacked."

"How much does it cost to go?"

"I don't know."

"Why don't you go to the office and find out?"

"So I will," said Ben, brightening up at the thought. "Do you know where it is?"

"Yes."

"Will you show me?"

"I would if I'd make enough to buy me some dinner. I only had a five-cent breakfast, and I feel kinder holler."

"I feel hungry myself," said Ben. "If you'll go with me I'll buy you some dinner to pay you for your trouble."

"'Nough said!" remarked Tom briefly, as he shouldered his box. "I'm your man. Come along! Where shall we go first?"

"To an eating-house. We might have to wait at the office."

Tom conducted Ben to a cheap restaurant, not far away, where the two for a moderate sum obtained a plentiful meal. Had either been fastidious, some exception might have been taken to the style in which the dishes were served, but neither was critical. A dapper young clerk, however, who sat opposite Tom, seemed quite disturbed by the presence of the bootblack. As his eye rested on Tom he sniffed contemptuously, and frowned. In truth, our friend Tom might be useful, but in his present apparel he was not fitted to grace a drawing-room. He had no coat, his vest was ragged, and his shirt soiled with spots of blacking. There were spots also upon his freckled face, of which Tom was blissfully unconscious. It didn't trouble him any to have a dirty face. "Dirt is only matter in the wrong place," as a philosopher once remarked. Tom was a philosopher in his own way.

The young clerk pulled out a scented handkerchief, and applied it to his nose, looking at Tom meanwhile.

"What's the matter of yer?" inquired Tom, suspecting the cause of the dandy's discomfort. "Be you sick?"

"It's enough to make one sick to sit at the table with you," answered the clerk.

"Why?"

"You are absolutely filthy. Don't you know any better than to come in where there are gentlemen?"

"I don't see any except him," said Tom, indicating Ben with his glance.

"This is really too much. Here, waiter!"

A waiter answered the summons.

"What is it, sir?"

"Just remove my plate to another table, will you?"

"Is anything the matter, sir?"

"I am not accustomed to associate with bootblacks," said the clerk loftily.

"All right, sir."

"I am really surprised that you admit any of that low class."

"As long as they pay their bills we are willing to receive them."

"I don't believe that boy has got enough to pay for his dinner."

The waiter, at this suggestion, looked at Tom rather suspiciously. After removing the plate of the sensitive customer, he came back to the table where the two boys were seated.

"Have you given your order?" he asked.

"Yes."

"If you haven't got money enough to pay your check you'll be bounced."

"Don't you trouble yourself, old woolly head," said Tom coolly. "My friend pays the bills. He's a banker down in Wall Street, and he's rich enough to buy out your whole place."

"The dinner will be paid for," said Ben, smiling.

"All right, gentlemen," said the waiter, more respectfully. "We'll be glad to see you any time."

"Tom," said Ben, "I'm afraid you don't always tell the truth."

"Why not?"

"You told the waiter I was a Wall Street banker, and rich."

"Oh, what's the odds? You're rich enough to pay for the dinners, and that's all he wants."

"You came near spoiling the appitite of that young man over at the opposite table."

"I'd like to spoil his beauty. He feels too big. I don't like to see a feller put on so many airs. What's the matter of me, I'd like to know?"

"Why, you see, Tom, your face isn't very clean. There are spots of blacking on it."

"A feller can't be always washin' his face. I'll wash it to-morrow mornin' at the lodge. Does it take away your appetite, too?"

"Not a bit," said Ben, laughing. "Nothing but a good dinner will take away that."

"You're the kind of feller I like," said Tom emphatically. "You don't put on no airs."

"I can't afford to," said Ben. "I'm a poor boy myself."

"I wouldn't feel poor if I had fifty dollars," returned Tom.

"I hope you'll have it sometime, and a good deal more."

"So do I. When I'm a rich man, I'll wash my face oftener."

"And put blacking on your boots instead of your face," added Ben.

"It might look better," Tom admitted.

When dinner was over the two boys directed their steps to the California steamship office, on one of the North River piers.