Chapter XIX. A Suspicious Character
 

I pass over the route pursued by the travelers from Columbus to Wheeling, in West Virginia, as it possesses no special interest.

But after leaving Wheeling there is quite a change. Those of my readers who are familiar with the Baltimore & Ohio Railway will be able to understand the enjoyment which Herbert derived from the bold and romantic scenery visible from the car windows. Mr. Carroll made him take the seat nearest the window, that he might have a better view, and from time to time Herbert described what he saw to his sightless fellow- traveler.

Northwestern Virginia is very mountainous and the construction of a railway through such a region was a triumph of engineering skill. At times the road makes bold curves, so that the traveler, looking from the car window, can see opposite him, across an intervening gulf, the track over which the train was passing five minutes before. At some places the track is laid on a narrow shelf, midway of the mountain, a steep and rugged ascent on one side, a deep ravine on the other, somewhat like the old diligence road over the Alpine Mt. Cenis. Here and there appear small hamlets, consisting of one-story cabins, with the chimney built alongside, instead of rising from the roof in the usual manner.

How long shall we be in reaching Baltimore, Mr. Carroll? "asked Herbert.

"I believe it takes about twenty-six hours," said the old gentleman. "But I do not mean to go through without stopping."

"I didn't know what your plan was," said Herbert.

"I have been meaning to tell you. Our tickets will allow us to stop anywhere, and resume our journey the next morning, or even stop two or three days, if we like."

"That is convenient."

"Yes. If it had been otherwise, I should have purchased the ticket piecemeal. I cannot endure to travel all night. It fatigues me too much."

"Where shall we stop, then?"

"I have not yet quite made up my mind. We will ride till about eight o'clock, and then stop over at whatever place we chance to have reached."

This arrangement struck Herbert favorably. He was in no particular hurry, and the scenery was so fine, that he feared that he should lose a great deal by traveling at night, when, of course, he could not see anything.

They sat for a while in silence. Then Mr. Carroll inquired, suddenly, "Did you ever fire a pistol, Herbert?"

"Yes, sir," was the surprised reply.

"Then you understand how to use one?"

"Oh, yes, sir. There was a young man in Waverley, the town where I used to live, who owned one, and I sometimes borrowed it to fire at a mark."

"Then I think I will intrust this weapon to your charge," said the old gentleman, drawing from his pocket a handsome pistol, and placing it in Herbert's hand.

"Is it loaded, sir?"

"No, not at present. We will have it loaded before going to bed. I will tell you," he added, in a lower tone, "my reason for going armed. It so happens that I have a large amount of money with me, and, of course, I feel a little concerned about its safety."

"Perhaps it will be well not to say anything more about it at present, sir," suggested Herbert, in a low voice. "You may be heard by someone who would like to take advantage of his discovery."

"No doubt you are right. I will follow your advice."

Herbert would not have thought to give this caution, but, just as Mr. Carroll uttered the words, "I have a large sum of money with me," a man dressed in a rough frieze coat, with black whiskers, and a general appearance, which, to say the least, did not prepossess Herbert in his favor, chanced to walk through the car. Whether he caught the words Herbert could not tell, but he paused a moment, and fixed an unpleasant eye upon the two, as if determined to know them when he should meet them again. There was another suspicious circumstance. It had evidently been his intention to pass through the car, but he paused abruptly, and, turning back, sank into an unoccupied seat a few feet back of that occupied by Mr. Carroll and his young companion.

His attention naturally drawn by this suspicious conduct, Herbert was impelled to glance back once or twice. Each time he met the watchful look of the man fixed upon them, instead of being directed at the scenery outside, as was the case with the other passengers. When he saw that the boy was watching him, he turned his head carelessly, and commenced whistling. But this apparent indifference did not deceive Herbert for a moment.

"I will watch him," thought our hero. "I do not like his looks. If he means mischief, as I think very probable, it is necessary that I should be on my guard against him."

At half-past seven o'clock Mr. Carroll signified his intention of getting out at the next station. "I am beginning to feel tired," he said, "and shall feel the better for a good supper and a night's rest."

"Very well, sir," said Herbert.

It occurred to him that now they would get rid of the man who was watching them so closely.

"If he gets out of the train with us," he thought, "I shall know what it means."

The train slackened its speed, the sound of the whistle was heard, the brakes were applied, and soon the conductor, putting his head in at the door, called out "Oakland!"

"Here we are," said Herbert. "Give me your hand, Mr. Carroll, and I will lead you out."

The old gentleman rose from his seat, and, guided by Herbert, walked to the car door. At the door Herbert turned and looked back.

The man with the black whiskers, who a moment before seemed absorbed in a newspaper, had left his seat, and was but a few feet behind him.

Herbert did not believe that this was an accident. He felt sure that it meant mischief. But he did not on that account feel nervous, or regret that he had assumed a charge which seemed likely to expose him to peril. He had the pistol in his pocket, and that he knew would make him even with the rascal who was following them.

There was a covered carriage waiting outside to convey passengers to the only hotel which the village afforded.

"Shall we take the carriage, Mr. Carroll?" asked Herbert.

"Yes," was the reply.

Herbert assisted him in, and placed himself in a seat opposite.

There were two or three other passengers, but the man with the black whiskers was not to be seen among them.

"I may be mistaken," thought Herbert, who had rather expected to see him. "Perhaps he lives here, and I have been alarming myself without reason. Still, it is always best to be on one's guard."

A ride of half a mile brought them to a small but comfortable-looking inn. Herbert assisted Mr. Carroll to descend, and together they entered the house of entertainment.

"We shall want some supper. Herbert," said Mr. Carroll. "You may order some."

"What shall I order, sir?"

"I should like some tea and toast and some beef-steak. If there is anything that you would prefer, you may order that also."

"No, sir, I should not wish anything better than you have ordered."

"Tell them to get it ready as soon as possible. I feel weary with my day's ride, and shall retire early."

"I feel tired, too." thought Herbert, "but it won't do for me to sleep. I must keep my eyes open, if possible."

Supper was soon served. The toast was well browned, and spread with excellent butter. The steak was juicy and tender, contrary to the usual custom of country inns, and the tea was fragrant and strong. Both the travelers partook heartily, having eaten nothing since noon, with the exception of a little fruit purchased from the car window at one of the stations. Herbert was not usually in the habit of drinking tea at night, but on this particular occasion he wanted to keep awake, and therefore drank two cups, of undiminished strength.

"Now, Herbert," said Mr. Carroll, when they had finished supper, "you may ask the clerk to assign me to a large room with a couple of beds in it. I should prefer to have you in the same room with me."

"Very well, sir."

He rose from the table, and went to the public room, one portion of which was occupied by the office. As he made his way to the desk, he observed the man with black whiskers on a settee at one end of the room. He was smoking a clay pipe. Herbert caught a stealthy glance directed towards himself, but that was all. The man continued smoking, fixing his eyes with apparent interest on a large yellow handbill pasted on the opposite wall, announcing a performance by "The Great American Circus Company" the succeeding evening.

Herbert succeeded in obtaining such a room as he sought, and accompanied by a servant bearing a lamp, went back to the dining-room to accompany Mr. Carroll to it.