Under Sealed Orders by H. A. Cody
Chapter II. To the Lowest Bidder
There was an unusually large number of people gathered in front of Thomas Marshall's store one morning about the last of May. Women were there as well as men, and all were talking and laughing in a most pleasant way. The cause of this excitement was explained by a notice tacked on the store door.
"The Board, Lodging, and Clothing of David Findley, Pauper, will be let to the lowest bidder for a period of one year, on Wednesday, May 30th inst., at Thomas Marshall's store, Chutes Corner, at 10 o'clock A. M.
This notice had been posted there for about two weeks, and had attracted the attention of all the people in the parish. It was out of the ordinary for such a sale to take place at this season of the year. Hitherto, it had occurred at the last of December. But this was an exceptional case, and one in which all were keenly interested.
"I hear he is stark crazy," Mrs. Munson was saying to a neighbour, Peter McQueen, "and that he has a funny notion in his head."
"Should say so," McQueen replied. "Any man who has lived as he has for months must be pretty well off his base. Why, he didn't have a scrap of food in the house when he was found by Jim Trask one morning the last of April. Jim has been keeping him ever since."
"Isn't he able to work?" Mrs. Munson inquired.
"Seems not. I guess he's a scholar or something like that, and did some book-keeping in the city until he drifted this way. He must have had a little money to live as long as he has. He's always been a mystery to me."
"And to everybody else, I guess."
"Yes, so it appears. But it's a great pity that we've got to be burdened with the likes of him. Our taxes are heavy enough now without having to take care of this strange pauper. We've got too many on our hands already for our good."
"But do you know anything about that queer notion of his, Pete?" Mrs. Munson asked.
"Ho, ho, I've heard about it, and I guess it's true all right. He's in love with Break Neck Falls, and makes regular trips there every day, and sometimes at night. Jim followed him once, and saw him standing upon that high rock right by the falls. He kept waving his hands and shouting to the water, though Jim could not make out what he was saying. He has some writing on a piece of paper which he keeps very close. He has told, though, that his plan will do wonderful things for the city and the whole surrounding country. He once said that we don't know what a valuable thing we have right in our midst. I guess we've lived here longer than he has, and should know a thing or two. It is not necessary for a half-cracked old man to come and tell us of our possessions. But, say, here he is now, coming along in Jim Trask's farm waggon."
As the team drew near, all eyes were turned in its direction, for the first glimpse of "Crazy David," as he was generally called. There was no difficulty about seeing him for he was sitting by Jim's side on the rough board seat. He looked much older and careworn than the night he had awakened from his dream, and found his wood-box, cupboard, and pocket-book empty. He had sat huddled on the seat for most of the way up the road, but when near the store he lifted his eyes and fixed them curiously upon the people before him. There was something pathetically appealing in the expression upon his face. He seemed like a man trying to recall something to his mind. He appeared strangely out of place in that rough farm waggon. Even his almost ragged clothes could not hide the dignity of his bearing as he straightened himself up and tried to assume the appearance of a gentleman. The people saw this effort on his part, and several wondered and spoke about it afterwards.
At first the old man did not seem to realise the purpose of the gathering. But when he saw the auctioneer mount a box alongside of him and call for bids, the truth of the entire situation dawned upon him. He was to be sold as a pauper to the lowest bidder, so he heard the auctioneer say. For an instant a deep feeling of anger stirred within his bosom, and he lifted his head as if to say something. But seeing the eyes of all fixed upon him, he desisted.
"What am I offered for the keep of this old man?" the auctioneer cried. "The lowest bid gets him."
"Two hundred dollars," came from a man not far off.
"Two hundred dollars!" and the auctioneer turned fiercely upon him. "You're out for a bargain, Joe Tippits. Why, he's worth that to any man for a year's work. He'll be able to do many an odd job. Come, you can do better than that."
"One seventy-five," came from another.
"Too much," the auctioneer cried. "The parish can't stand that."
"One fifty, then."
"That's better, Joe. Try again. You're a long way off yet."
"I'll take the critter fer one hundred dollars, and not a cent less."
At these emphatic words all turned and stared hard at the speaker. A perceptible shiver passed through the bystanders, while several muttered protests were heard.
"Oh, I hope he won't get him, anyway," Mrs. Munson whispered to a neighbour. "Jim Goban isn't a fit man to look after a snake, and if he gets Crazy David in his clutches may God have mercy upon the poor old man."
"One hundred dollars I am offered," again the voice of the auctioneer rang out. "Can any one do better than that? One hundred dollars. Going at one hundred dollars. I shan't dwell. One--hundred--dollars--and--sold to Jim Goban for one hundred dollars."
This inhuman traffic did not seriously affect the people who had gathered for the auction. When it was over, they quickly dispersed, to discuss with one another about the life Jim Goban would lead Crazy David. It was an incident of only a passing moment, and mattered little more to them than if it had been a horse or a cow which had been sold instead of a poor feeble old man.
It was the custom which had been going on for years, and it was the only way they could see out of the difficult problem of dealing with paupers.
When Jim Goban reached home with his purchase, dinner was ready. There were five young Gobans who stared curiously upon David as he took his seat at the table. Mrs. Goban was a thin-face, tired looking woman who deferred to her husband in everything. There was nothing else for her to do, as she had found out shortly after their marriage what a brute he was.
David was pleased at the presence of the children and he often turned his eyes upon them.
"Nice children," he at length remarked, speaking for the first time since his arrival.
"So ye think they're nice, do ye?" Jim queried, leaning over and looking the old man in the eyes.
"Why, yes," David replied, shrinking back somewhat from the coarse face. "All children are nice to me, but yours are especially fine ones. What nice hair they have, and such beautiful eyes. I suppose the oldest go to school."
"Naw. They never saw the inside of a school house."
"You don't say so!" and David looked his astonishment. "Surely there must be a school near here."
"Oh, yes, there's a school all right, but they've never gone. I don't set any store by eddication. What good is it to any one, I'd like to know? Will it help a man to hoe a row of pertaters, or a woman to bake bread? Now, look at me. I've no eddication, an' yit I've got a good place here, an' a bank account. You've got eddication, so I understand, an' what good is it to you? I'm one of the biggest tax-payers in the parish, an' you, why yer nothing but a pauper, the Devil's Poor."
At this cruel reminder David shrank back as from a blow, and never uttered another word during the rest of the meal. The iron was entering into his soul, and he was beginning to understand something of the ignominy he was to endure at this house.
"Now look here," Jim began when they were through with dinner, "I've a big pile of wood out there in the yard, an' I want ye to tote it into the wood-house an' pile it up. I'll show ye where to put it. I'm gittin' mighty little fer yer keep, an' I expect ye to git a hustle on to help pay fer yer grub an' washin'."
"Don't be too hard on him, Jim," Mrs. Goban remarked. "He doesn't look very strong."
"Don't ye worry, Kitty, I'll attend to that. I know a wrinkle or two."
David was accordingly taken to the wood-house and Jim explained to him how and where he was to pile the wood. "Ye needn't kill yerself," he told him in conclusion. "But I want ye to keep busy, fer when that job's through I've got something else on hand. Ye can sit down when ye feel a little tired, but don't sit too long or too often, see?"
For about half an hour David worked patiently at the wood, piling it as neatly as possible. The work was not hard, and he was quite satisfied with his task. He was alone, anyway, and could think about his beloved falls. His hands, however, were soft, and ere long they were bruised and bleeding from the rough sticks. At length a sharp splinter entered his finger, and he sat down upon a stick to pull it out. In trying to do this, it broke off leaving a portion deeply embedded in the flesh, which caused him considerable pain. Not knowing what to do, he sat looking upon the finger in a dejected manner.
"What's the matter? You seem to be in trouble."
At these words David looked quickly around, and saw a young girl standing by his side. Though her dress was old and worn, her face was bright, and her eyes sparkled with interest.
"Here, let me take that splinter out," she ordered, as she sat down by his side, and drawing forth a needle, began to probe into the flesh. "There, I've got it!" she cried in triumph. "My! it's a monster. You'll have to be more careful after this. You should have gloves."
"Thank you very much," David replied. "To whom am I indebted for this kindness?"
"Oh, I'm Betty Bean, that's all."
"And you live here?"
"No. I'm just dying here."
"Dying!" David exclaimed in surprise. "Why, you don't look like a dying person."
"Maybe I don't, but I am. I'm just staying here because I have to. My mother's a widow, and I want to earn some money to help her, and as this was the only place I could get I had to take it."
"So you do not like it, then?"
"Who would like any place where there is such a brute as Jim Goban? My, I'm sorry for you. To think of any man getting into his clutches."
"But surely I won't be any worse off than you are."
"I'm not so sure about that. You see, I'm about boss here, and do and say just what I like."
"Well, I'm the only person Jim can get to work here. All the girls for miles around know what kind of a creature he is, and they wouldn't come for any amount of money. They're scared to death of him. But I'm not, and I tell him right to his face what I think of him, and the way he treats his poor wife. He would like to horsewhip me, but he knows that if I leave no one else would come in my place. But I'm glad now that I am here so I can look after you."
"Look after me!"
"Yes. I guess you'll need me all right. I know who you are, and I'm sorry for you. I'm going to stand between you and Jim Goban. He's scared to death of me, for I'm the only one who dares give him a tongue-lashing, and I do it whenever it is necessary, which is quite often."
"You're a brave girl," and David looked with admiration upon the slight form by his side. "How old are you?"
"Fifteen last March. But one's age is nothing. I've done a woman's work ever since I was ten. I stand up for my rights now, though. When I first came here Jim was bound that I should work all the time. But at last I told him that I was going to have every Saturday afternoon off, especially in summer, so I could go home or out upon the river. Can you row?" she suddenly asked.
"A little," was the reply.
"That's good. Now, look, I'm going to take you out in the boat next Saturday, and you're going to meet somebody there you'll like."
"Somebody I like," David repeated. "Who is it?"
"It's a woman, that's who it is. But I'm not going to tell you her name. She only came here last week, and she is so fond of the water, and spends so much time upon it. Oh, you'll like her when you see her. She's a beauty, with such lovely eyes and dark hair. And she's not a bit stuck up, either. She just talks in a friendly way, and makes you feel easy all over. There, now, I guess you'd better pile some more wood. I have a bit of work to do, and when I'm through I'll come out and give you a hand. I like to be with you. I know we're going to be friends."
The girl rose, and was about to leave. She paused, however, and looked inquiringly into the old man's face.
"Do you smoke?" she asked.
Into David's eyes came an eager expression, which Betty was not slow to see.
"I know you do," she cried, "but you have no tobacco."
"I have a pipe," and David fumbled into a pocket of his coat. "But I haven't had a smoke for weeks, because----"
"I know, I know," the girl hastily replied. "I'll get you some in a jiffy."
She was gone only a short time when she returned, and handed David half a fig of tobacco.
"There, take that," she said. "It's a piece Jim left on the kitchen window-sill."
"But is it right for me to take it?" David asked.
"Sure it's right. Didn't Jim agree to feed and lodge you for one year? You can't live without tobacco. It's a part of your food, see? If Jim says anything about it, I'll soon settle him."
"You are a good girl," David returned, as with trembling hands he hastily whittled off a few slices of tobacco with an old knife, and filled his pipe. "This will put new life into me. I can never repay you for your kindness."