Chapter VI. A New Friend
 

Rod was late for school, and received a tardy mark. The teacher also spoke quite sharply, and told him that school opened at nine instead of a quarter after. At any other time Rod would have felt keenly this reprimand. But now it did not trouble him, as he had other things to think about. He was very quiet during the morning, and joined in none of the games. Sammie Dunker left him alone, and for once the small girls and boys had peace.

Rod gave hardly a thought to Tom Dunker's action in frightening him. It was what he had said about the Poor House, and his father and mother which worried him. "What did he mean?" he asked himself over and over again. Why did he say that I should go to the Poor House instead of living with decent people, and that I wouldn't own my parents if I knew them? His brain grew hot as he brooded over these words. Other children had their fathers and mothers with them, and why was it that he had never seen his, and knew nothing about them? Mrs. Royal had told him that his mother was living, and several times she had read her letters to him. But she was a vague person, one he had never seen, and in whom he had no special interest. The Royals, and the people he knew in Hillcrest were of more importance to him than his own mother. But now a desire entered his soul to know something about his parents. Were they bad people? he asked himself. Why did they not come to see him? Were they ashamed to do so? he wondered, and was that what Tom meant?

As noon approached, Rod began to feel hungry. He had eaten very little breakfast, as he had been too much interested in a new family of kittens which had been discovered in the barn. The other scholars who had come some distance would have their dinner, and he could not bear the thought of seeing them eating when he was so hungry. He, therefore, planned to spend the hour by himself down by the river.

As the children flocked out of school, Rod moved with them. But the teacher stopped him, and handed to him a small parcel, neatly tied.

"What's that?" Rod asked, much surprised.

"I do not know," was the reply. "Some one left it here this morning."

Then Rod remembered that he had heard a knock, and the teacher had gone to the door, returning shortly with something in her hand. He had not seen the visitor, and so had soon forgotten all about the incident.

Going back to his scat, he untied the string, and unwrapped the brown paper. Then great was his surprise to find a dainty lunch lying within. There were several slices of choice home-made bread, two pieces of cake, a large wedge of pumpkin-pie, and a fine rosy apple.

For a few moments Rod sat staring at the feast before him. Who could have sent it? he wondered, Then all at once he remembered. It was the apple which solved the problem, and he knew that there was only one tree in the neighbourhood which produced such fruit as that. He had often seen the tree from the road, but had never dared to venture near, as it was too close to Captain Josh's house. He knew now where the lunch had come from, and it made him so excited that for awhile he forgot to eat as he sat there thinking it all over.

When Rod went home from school, Mrs. Royal noticed the crimson mark upon his cheek where the whip had struck him. She asked no questions, however, for she wanted Rod to tell of his own free will how it happened. It was after he was in bed, that the boy looked up inquiringly into Mrs. Royal's face, as she stood by his side before bidding him good-night.

"Grandma," he began, "what is a pauper?"

"Oh, it is a person who has no home, and no money, and has to live upon others," was the reply.

"Am I a pauper, grandma?" and the boy's face flushed.

"You a pauper!" Mrs. Royal exclaimed, as she sat down upon a chair by the side of the bed. "What makes you ask such a question, dear? Whoever put such an idea into your head?"

"Tom Dunker said that I am a pauper."

"He did! When did he tell you that?"

"To-day, just before he hit me with his whip and made the mark upon my cheek."

"Oh!"

It was all that Mrs. Royal could say. She had become suddenly aroused, feeling sure that something of a serious nature had happened that day.

"Why did he call you a pauper, dear?" she at length asked as calmly as possible.

"'Cause I told him I didn't scare his horses, and make them jump. He got mad, and said I was a pauper, and should be in the Poor House instead of living with decent people. And he said that I didn't know who my father and mother are, and that I would be ashamed of them if I did, that's what he said."

Into Mrs. Royal's eyes came an expression of deep concern, mingled with indignation.

"You poor boy," she soothed, taking his little left hand in hers. "You have had great troubles to-day, have you not?"

"But am I a pauper, grandma?" the boy insisted.

"No, you certainly are not, dear."

"And I shouldn't be in the Poor House?"

"No, no. You are just where you should be, with grandad and me."

"And my father and mother are not bad, and I wouldn't be ashamed of them if I saw them?"

"No, not at all. I never heard of your father, so I think he must be dead. But I believe that your mother is a good, noble woman."

"Why doesn't she come to see me, then?"

"I do not know, dear. But she says that she will come some day. She longs to see you, and in every letter she writes she asks so many questions about you. I have read some of them to you. She wrote many when you were very little, and I have kept every one."

"Have you, grandma? I am so glad. Will you read them to me sometimes?"

"Yes, dear, I shall read you one or two every night."

"Oh, that will be so nice. And I am glad that Tom Dunker was wrong. He didn't know about my mother, did he?"

"No, dear."

"Do you think Captain Josh knows, grandma?"

"Why, what makes you think that, Rodney?"

"'Cause he was so kind to me to-day. He took my part, and then brought me such a nice lunch."

"Brought you a lunch!" Mrs. Royal exclaimed, in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you see, when the horses ran over the dinner you gave me this morning it was all knocked out in the road, and I had nothing to eat, so Captain Josh brought me such a nice lunch."

"Did you see him?"

"No, I didn't. But there was a big rosy apple, and I know where it came from. It grew on that tree right by the captain's house."

Mrs. Royal sat very still for some time. She was thinking over what Rod had just told her. Tom Dunker's action troubled her, and she thought how mean it was for him to take revenge on a little child for what her husband had done. But there was compensation, for Captain Josh's kindness interested her greatly. No one had been able to understand the old man, and every one dreaded him. That he had defended Rodney, and then had taken a lunch for him all the way to the schoolhouse was something unusual.

For some time she sat there, and when she at last rose to go downstairs to meet her husband, who had just returned home, Rod was fast asleep. His cares for the present were over, and as Mrs. Royal watched the little curly head lying upon the pillow, she gave a deep sigh as she bent over and kissed him. Must he go through life handicapped? she asked herself, for no fault of his own? Would he always be looked upon as a waif, an ill-starred child, and in the eyes of the world, a pauper?

Parson Dan had come in from a long drive from the outmost portion of his large parish. He was tired and hungry, and enjoyed the supper which was awaiting him. It was then that his wife told him about Rod's experience during the day. The clergyman was deeply interested, and when supper was over, he rose from the table, and instead of taking his pipe, as was his usual habit, he reached for his coat and hat.

"Why, where are you going, Daniel?" his wife asked, in surprise.

"I must see Captain Josh," was the reply. "I want to hear the whole story of to-day's transactions, and to thank him for what he did for our boy. I have never known Rodney to deceive us. But this is such a serious affair, that I must hear the story from some one else who knows."

He was about to open the door when a loud knock sounded on the outside. When it was opened, great was his astonishment to see the very person they had been talking about standing before him.

"Captain Josh! This is a surprise," and the clergyman held out his hand.

"Evenin', parson," was the gruff reply. "Thought I'd make a little call on you and the missus," and he thumped his stick heavily upon the floor as he entered.

Mrs. Royal came quickly forward, shook hands, and offered the visitor a big comfortable chair.

"My, that feels good," the captain exclaimed. "I ain't as young as I used to be, and that walk has puffed me a good deal."

"How would a smoke suit you?" the parson suggested, knowing the captain's fondness for his pipe. "I have some good tobacco here, sent from the city by an old friend of mine."

"He certainly is a good judge of baccy," the captain remarked, after he had filled and lighted his pipe. "A friend like that is worth knowin', eh?" and he slyly winked at Mrs. Royal.

"We have many such friends, I am thankful to say," Mrs. Royal replied, "and we don't have to go to the city for them, either."

"No? Well, I'm real glad to hear that," and the captain blew a big cloud of smoke into the air. "I never made many friends in my life. Guess I was too cranky; at any rate, that's what Betsey says, and I guess she must understand me by this time, ha, ha!"

"You must not judge yourself too harshly, captain," Parson Dan replied. "Anyway, if you don't make many friends, you are able at times to be a friend to others. I wish to thank you for what you did for our little boy to-day."

"So ye've heard all about it, eh?" and the captain fixed his keen eyes upon the parson's face.

"Only partly, captain. Rodney told Mrs. Royal some of the story this evening, and I was just going over to hear it all from you as you entered."

"It was a mean trick that Tom Dunker tried on him to-day," the visitor returned, "and I'm sorry that I didn't give the coward a bigger dose than I did. Oh, how he did squawk when I got both of my hands upon his measly carcass. I guess him and that boy Sammie of his will learn to leave decent people alone after this."

"Why, what about Sammie?" the Royals asked.

"What! haven't ye heard?"

"No, not a word."

"Well, if that doesn't beat all! And Rod never told ye?"

"He said nothing to us about Sammie."

Captain Josh looked first at the clergyman and then at Mrs. Royal with an expression of doubt in his eyes.

"And so ye say he didn't tell ye anything?" he finally blurted out, while his stick came down with a bang upon the carpet. "If any one else had said that I wouldn't believe him. To think of a boy doin' what he did and not rushin' home all excited, and blattin' out his yarn. But, then, I always knew there was extra stuff in that lad. I have had my eyes on him ever since the mornin' I gave him a cow, ho, ho!" and the captain leaned back and laughed heartily as the recollection of the "cow incident" came back to him. "That was my first present," he continued, "but it isn't my last, not by a long jugful, no, sir-ree."

"But what did Rodney do, captain?" the parson enquired. "We are very anxious to hear."

"Do! What did he do, eh? Why, he walked right over Sammie Dunker, that's what he did. Oh, I heard all about it at the store that very night. Sammie has been a regular chip of the old Dunker block ever since he started fer school. He bullied all the little chaps, and had them all scared to a shadder. But when he butted up aginst Rod it was a different proposition, ho, ho! I'd like to have been there."

"Do you mean that Rodney was fighting Sammie Dunker?" the clergyman asked, with a note of severity in his voice. "I am astonished."

"Oh, no, there was no fightin', parson. Sammie didn't fight; that's not the Dunker way. But he hurt little Nancy Garvan, and when Rod told him to stop, he slapped him in the face. Rod then walked into him and gave him two black eyes, a bloody nose, and left him sprawlin' upon the floor. That was all there was about it. Oh, no, there was no fightin'."

"H'm, I see," Parson Dan quietly remarked, while a slight gleam of pride shone in his eyes. He glanced toward his wife, but her head was bent over some sewing she had picked up from the table.

"I've been watchin' that boy of yours fer some time," the captain continued, "and he's the right stuff. I know more about him than ye think. I'd 'a' given my cow to have seen him put that toad into Bella Simpkins' lap, ho, ho, ho! That was the best thing I ever heard, ha, ha, ha!"

"But some of the neighbours think it was sheer badness which made him do it," Mrs. Royal replied.

"I know they do, confound their skins!" the captain roared, springing to his feet in his excitement. "Haven't I heard it on all sides? They twist every blessed thing he does into badness, and then account fer it all by sayin' that he is a pauper. But, by jinks! there isn't an ounce of badness about that boy. I've taken an interest in him simply because--well, mebbe I'm a cranky cuss--and when I see people down on a lad, I like to take his part. And look here, parson, I'm givin' warnin'."

"What warning?" questioned the clergyman, shrinking back from the huge fist which was suddenly thrust toward his face.

"Warnin' to you, parson, not to bury any one I knock out who interferes with that lad of yours. It'll be sich a clear case of suicide that ye won't dare to read the Burial Service over him. Everybody knows now that I've taken that boy under my care, and if any one runs aginst my fists it won't be an accident, but a clear case of self-destruction, and it won't be necessary to hold an inquest."

Both Mr. and Mrs. Royal smiled at the captain's quaint expression of loyalty to Rodney.

"I trust there'll be no more trouble," the clergyman replied. "Come, fill up your pipe again. My city friend would be delighted to know that Rodney's able champion enjoyed the tobacco he sent."

"Well, I don't care if I do," and the captain knocked the cold ashes out of his pipe. "I'll fill up, and then git home. But there is one thing I want to ask ye, and that's what brought me over here to-night. Me and Betsey are pretty lonely at times. We never see a child around the house, and we'd both consider it a special favour if ye'd let yer boy come to see us once in awhile."

"Why, certainly," the parson replied. "I give my consent, and I feel sure that you will, won't you?" and he turned to his wife.

"Yes, captain, I am quite willing for Rodney to go, and it is very thoughtful of you to want him. I hope that he will behave himself."

"No fear of that," the captain eagerly returned. "I've got some fine apples jist waitin' fer him, and several other things to surprise him when he comes. So, good-night, I must be gittin' along."