Chapter VII. A New Home
 

The door was opened by an elderly woman, rather stout, who acted as Abner Holden's housekeeper. Though decidedly homely, she had a pleasant look, which impressed Herbert favorably. He had feared she might turn out another edition of Mr. Holden, and with two such persons he felt that it would be difficult to get along.

"Come right in," said Mrs. Bickford, for that was her name. "Let me help you with your trunk. You can set it down here for the present."

"Thank you," said Herbert.

"You must be tired," said the housekeeper.

"No, not very," said our hero. "We rode all the way."

"Well, it's tiresome riding, at any rate, when it's such a long distance. You came from Waverley, Mr. Holden tells me."

"Yes."

"And that is more than thirty miles away, isn't it?"

"Yes, I believe so."

"So you've come to help Mr. Holden?" she added, after a pause.

"Yes, I suppose so," said Herbert, rather seriously.

"What is your name?"

"Herbert Mason."

"I hope, Herbert, we shall be able to make you comfortable."

"Thank you," said Herbert, a little more cheerful, as he perceived that he was to have one friend in Mr. Holden's household.

"Has Mr. Holden generally kept a boy?" he asked.

"Yes, he calculates to keep one most of the time."

"Who was the last one?"

"His name was Frank Miles."

"Was he here long?" asked Herbert, in some curiosity.

"Well, no," said the housekeeper, "he did not stay very long."

"How long?"

"He was here 'most a month."

"'Most a month? Didn't he like it?"

"Well, no; he didn't seem to like Mr. Holden much."

Herbert was not much surprised to hear this. He would have thought Frank Miles a singular sort of a boy if he had liked Abner Holden.

"Have any of the boys that have been here liked Mr. Holden?" he asked.

"I can't say as they have," said Mrs. Bickford, frankly; "and somehow they don't seem to stay long."

"Why didn't they like him?"

"Sh!" said the housekeeper, warningly.

Herbert looked round and saw his employer entering the room.

"Well, boy, have you put up the horse?" he asked, abruptly.

"Yes sir."

"Did you give him some hay?"

"Yes, sir."

"And some grain?"

"No, I didn't know where it was kept. If you'll tell me, I'll do it now."

"No, you needn't. He isn't to have any. He's only a hired horse."

Considering that the hired horse had traveled over thirty miles, Herbert thought he was entitled to some oats; but Mr. Holden was a mean man, and decided otherwise.

"Where is Herbert to sleep, Mr. Holden?" asked the housekeeper.

"Up garret."

"There's a small corner bedroom in the second story," suggested Mrs. Bickford, who knew that the garret was not very desirable.

"I guess he won't be too proud to sleep in the garret," said Mr. Holden. "Shall you?" he continued, turning to Herbert.

"Put me where you please," said Herbert, coldly.

"Then it shall be the garret. You can take your trunk up now. Mrs. Bickford will show you the way."

"It's too heavy for you, Herbert," said the housekeeper; "I will help you."

"Oh, he can carry it alone," said Abner Holden. "He isn't a baby."

"I'd rather help him," said the housekeeper, taking one handle of the trunk. "You go first, Herbert, You're young and spry, and can go faster than I."

On the second landing Herbert saw the little bedroom in which the housekeeper wanted to put him. It was plainly furnished, but it was light and cheerful, and he was sorry he was not to have it.

"You could have had that bedroom just as well as not," said Mrs. Bickford. "It's never used. But Mr. Holden's rather contrary, and as hard to turn as a--"

"A mule?" suggested Herbert, laughing.

"It's pretty much so," said the housekeeper, joining in the laugh.

They went up a narrow staircase and emerged into a dark garret, running the whole length of the house without a partition. The beams and rafters were visible, for the sloping sides were not plastered. Herbert felt that he might as well have been in the barn, except that there was a small cot bedstead in the center of the floor.

"It isn't very pleasant," said the housekeeper.

"No," said Herbert, "I don't think it is."

"I declare, it's too bad you should have to sleep here. Mr. Holden isn't very considerate."

"I guess I can stand it," said our hero, "though I should rather be downstairs."

"I'll bring up the trap and set it before you go to bed," said Mrs. Bickford.

"The trap!" repeated Herbert, in surprise.

"Yes, there's rats about, and I suppose you'd rather have a trap than a cat."

"Yes; the cat would be about as bad as the rats."

At this moment Abner Holden's voice was heard at the bottom of the stairs, and Mrs. Bickford hurried down, followed by our hero.

"I thought you were going to stay up there all day," said Mr. Holden. "What were you about up there?"

"That is my business," said Mrs. Bickford, shortly.

The housekeeper was independent in her feelings, and, knowing that she could readily obtain another situation, did not choose to be browbeaten by Mr. Holden. He was quite aware of her value, and the difficulty he would experience in supplying her place, and he put some constraint over himself in the effort not to be rude to her. With Herbert, however, it was different. HE was BOUND to him, and therefore in his power. Abner Holden exulted in this knowledge, and with the instinct of a petty tyrant determined to let Herbert realize his dependence.

"You may go out and saw some wood," he said. "You'll find the saw in the woodshed."

"What wood shall I saw?"

"The wood in the woodpile, stupid."

"Very well, sir," said our hero, quietly.

Herbert thought Mr. Holden was losing no time in setting him to work. However, he had resolved to do his duty, unpleasant as it might be, as long as Abner Holden only exacted what was reasonable, and Herbert was aware that he had a right to require him to go to work at once. Mrs. Bickford, however, said a word in his favor.

"I've got wood enough to last till to-morrow, Mr. Holden," she said.

"Well, what of it?"

"It's likely the boy is tired."

"What's he done to make him tired, I should like to know? Ridden thirty miles, and eaten a good dinner!"

"Which I paid for myself," said Herbert.

"What if you did?" said Abner Holden, turning to him. "I suppose you'll eat supper at my expense, and you'd better do something, first, to earn it."

"That I am willing to do."

"Then go out to the woodpile without any more palavering."

"Mr. Holden," said the housekeeper, seriously, after Herbert had gone out, "if you want to keep that boy, I think you had better be careful how you treat him."

"Why do you say that?" demanded Abner, eying her sharply. "Has he been saying anything to you about me?"

"No."

"Then why did you say that?"

"Because I can see what kind of a boy he is."

"Well, what kind of a boy is he?" asked Abner, with a sneer.

"He is high-spirited, and will work faithfully if he's treated well, but he won't allow himself to be imposed upon."

"How do you know that?"

"I can read it in his face. I have had some experience with boys, and you may depend upon it that I am not mistaken."

"He had better do his duty," blustered Abner, "if he knows what's best for himself."

"He will do his duty," said the housekeeper, firmly, "but there is a duty which you owe to him, as well as he to you."

"Don't I always do my duty by boys, Mrs. Bickford?"

"No, Mr. Holden, I don't think you do. You know very well you can never get a boy to stay with you."

"This boy is bound to me, Mrs. Bickford--legally bound."

"That may be; but if you don't treat him as he ought to be treated, he will run away, take my word for it."

"If he does, he'll be brought back, take my word for that, Mrs. Bickford. I shall treat him as I think he deserves, but as to petting and pampering the young rascal I shall do nothing of the kind."

"I don't think you will," said the housekeeper. "However, I've warned you."

"You seem to take a good deal of interest in the boy," said Abner, sneeringly.

"Yes, I do."

"After half an hour's acquaintance."

"I've known him long enough to see that he's better than the common run of boys, and I hope that he'll stay."

"There's no doubt about that," said Abner Holden, significantly. "He'll have to stay, whether he wants to or not."