Chapter VIII. The Ghost in the Attic

After working two hours at the woodpile, Herbert was called in to tea. There was no great variety, Abner Holden not being a bountiful provider. But the bread was sweet and good, and the gingerbread fresh. Herbert's two hours of labor had given him a hearty appetite, and he made a good meal. Mrs. Bickford looked on approvingly. She was glad to see that our hero enjoyed his supper.

There was tea on the table, and, after pouring out a cup for Mr. Holden, the housekeeper was about to pour out one for Herbert.

"He don't want any tea," said Abner, noticing the action. "Keep the cup for yourself, Mrs. Bickford."

"What do you mean, Mr. Holden?" asked the housekeeper, in surprise.

"Tea isn't good for a growing boy. A glass of cold water will be best for him."

"I don't agree with you, Mr. Holden," said the housekeeper, decidedly. "Herbert has been hard at work, and needs his tea as much as you or I do."

Therefore, without waiting for his permission, she handed the cup to Herbert, who proceeded to taste it.

Abner Holden frowned, but neither Herbert nor the housekeeper took much notice of it. The latter was somewhat surprised at this new freak on the part of Abner, as he had never tried to deprive any of Herbert's predecessors of tea or coffee. But the fact was, Mr. Holden disliked Herbert, and was disposed to act the petty tyrant over him. He had neither forgotten nor forgiven the boy's spirited defiance when they first met, nor his refusal to surrender into his hands the five dollars which the doctor had given him.

Feeling tired by eight o'clock, Herbert went up to his garret room and undressed himself. An instinct of caution led him to take out the money in his porte-monnaie, and put it in his trunk, which he then locked, and put the key under the sheet, so that no one could get hold of it without awakening him. This precaution proved to be well taken.

Herbert lay down upon the bed, but did not immediately go to sleep. He could not help thinking of his new home, and the new circumstances in which he was placed. He did not feel very well contented, and felt convinced from what he had already seen of Mr. Holden, that he should never like him. Then thoughts of his mother, and of her constant and tender love, and the kind face he would never more see on earth, swept over him, and almost unmanned him. To have had her still alive he would have been content to live on dry bread and water.

He thought, too, of the doctor's family and their kindness. How different it would have been if he might have continued to find a home with them! But when he was tempted to repine, the thought of his mother's Christian instructions came to him, and he was comforted by the reflection, that whatever happened to him was with the knowledge of his Father in heaven, who would not try him above his strength.

Try and trust! That was almost the last advice his mother had given him, as the surest way of winning the best success.

"Yes," he thought, "I will try and trust, and leave the rest with God."

Meanwhile Mr. Holden had not been able to keep out of his head the five dollars which he knew Herbert possessed. He was a mean man, and wished to appropriate it to his own use. Besides this, he was a stubborn man, and our hero's resistance only made him the more determined to triumph over his opposition by fair means or foul. It struck him that it would be a good idea to take advantage of our hero's slumber, and take the money quietly from his pocketbook while he was unconscious.

Accordingly, about eleven o'clock, he went softly up the attic stairs with a candle in his hand, and, with noiseless steps, approached the bed. Herbert's regular breathing assured him that he was asleep. Abner Holden took up his pants and felt for his pocketbook. He found it, and drew it out with exultation.

"Aha!" he thought; "I've got it."

But this brief exultation was succeeded by quick disappointment. The pocketbook proved to be quite empty.

"Curse it!" muttered Abner, "what has the boy done with his money?"

It was at this moment that Herbert, his eyes possibly affected by the light, awoke, and he discovered his employer examining his pocketbook.

His first feeling was indignation, but the sight of Abner Holden's disappointed face amused him, and he determined not to reveal his wakefulness, but to watch, him quietly.

"Perhaps he's got two pocketbooks," thought Abner. But in this he was mistaken.

Next he went to Herbert's trunk, and tried it, but found it locked.

"I wonder where he keeps the key," was his next thought.

He searched Herbert's pockets, but the search was in vain.

"Plague take the young rascal!" he muttered, loud enough for Herbert to hear.

Herbert turned in bed, and Abner Holden, fearing that he might wake up, and being on the whole, rather ashamed of his errand, and unwilling to be caught in it, went downstairs.

"Well, he didn't make much," thought our hero. "It's lucky I thought to put the money in my trunk. If he only knew I had fifteen dollars, instead of five, he would be all the more anxious to get hold of it."

"How did you sleep last night, Herbert?" inquired the housekeeper at breakfast.

"Very well, thank you, Mrs. Bickford."

He was resolved not to drop a hint of what had happened, being curious to see if Mr. Holden would make any further attempts to obtain his money. As his employer might possibly find a key that would unlock the trunk, he thought it prudent, during the day, to carry the money about with him.

He hardly knew whether to expect a visit from Abner the next night, but formed a little plan for frightening him if such a visit should take place.

It so happened that he had in his trunk a fish horn which had been given him by someone in Waverley. This he took out of the trunk before retiring and hid it under his pillow. It was about nine o'clock when he went to bed, but by considerable effort he succeeded in keeping awake for an hour or two.

About eleven o'clock, Abner Holden, before going to bed himself, decided to make one more attempt to obtain possession of Herbert's money. He reflected that possibly our hero had only put away his money by chance on the previous evening, and might have neglected to do so on the present occasion. He desired to get possession of it before any part of it was spent, as, judging from what he knew of boys, it would not remain long unexpended.

Once more, therefore, he took his candle, and removing his thick-soled shoes, which might betray him by their sound, crept softly up the steep and narrow staircase.

But Herbert heard him, and moreover was warned of his visit by the light of the candle which he carried. He closed his eyes, and awaited his coming in silent expectation.

Abner Holden looked towards the bed. Herbert's eyes were closed, and his breathing was deep and regular.

"He's sound asleep," thought Abner, with satisfaction.

He set down the candle on a chair beside the bed, and began to examine our hero's pocketbook once more. But it proved to be empty as before. In the pocketbook, however, he found a key, the key, as he supposed, to Herbert's trunk. It was not, however, being only a key which Herbert had picked up one day in the street, and kept. He had put it in his pocket with a view to mislead his employer.

That gentleman uttered a low exclamation of satisfaction when his fingers closed upon the key, never doubting for a moment that it would open the trunk.

Leaving the candle in its place, he rose from his recumbent position, threw the pants on the bed, and went round on the other side, to try the key.

He got down on his knees before the trunk, and had inserted the key in the lock, or rather had made an ineffectual attempt to do so, when suddenly the candle was extinguished, and a horrible blast on the fish horn resounded through the garret.

Now, Abner Holden was not a very courageous man. In fact, he was inclined to superstition. He knew that he was engaged in a dishonorable attempt to rob a boy who was placed in his charge, and there is an old proverb that says "conscience makes cowards of us all." It must be admitted that it was rather calculated to affect the nerves to find one's self suddenly in the dark, and at the same time to hear such a fearful noise proceeding from an unknown quarter.

Abner Holden jumped to his feet in dire dismay, and, without stopping to reflect on the probable cause of this startling interruption, "struck a bee line" for the staircase, and descended quicker, probably, than he had ever done before, narrowly escaping tumbling the entire distance, in his headlong haste.

Herbert had to stuff the bedclothes into his mouth to keep from bursting into a shout of laughter, which would have revealed his agency in producing the mysterious noise.

"I thought I heard a frightful noise last night soon after I went to bed," said Mrs. Bickford, at the breakfast table. "Didn't you hear anything, Mr. Holden?"

"No," said Abner, "I heard nothing. You were probably dreaming."

"Perhaps I was. Didn't you hear anything, Herbert?"

"I sleep pretty sound," said Herbert, quietly.

Abner Holden watched him as he said this, and was evidently more perplexed than ever. But that was the last visit he paid to the garret at night.