Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter VIII

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Paul Prescott's Charge by Horatio Alger
Chapter VIII: A Friend in Need

Our hero did not stop till he had put a good five miles between himself and the poorhouse. He knew that it would not be long before Mr. Mudge would discover his absence, and the thought of being carried back was doubly distasteful to him now that he had, even for a short time, felt the joy of being his own master. His hurried walk, taken in the fresh morning air, gave him quite a sharp appetite. Luckily he had the means of gratifying it. The night before he had secreted half his supper, knowing that he should need it more the next morning. He thought he might now venture to sit down and eat it.

At a little distance from the road was a spring, doubtless used for cattle, since it was situated at the lower end of a pasture. Close beside and bending over it was a broad, branching oak, which promised a cool and comfortable shelter.

"That's just the place for me," thought Paul, who felt thirsty as well as hungry, "I think I will take breakfast here and rest awhile before I go any farther."

So saying he leaped lightly over the rail fence, and making his way to the place indicated, sat down in the shadow of the tree. Scooping up some water in the hollow of his hand, he drank a deep and refreshing draught. He next proceeded to pull out of his pocket a small package, which proved to contain two small pieces of bread. His long morning walk had given him such an appetite that he was not long in despatching all he had. It is said by some learned physicians, who no doubt understand the matter, that we should always rise from the table with an appetite. Probably Paul had never heard of this rule. Nevertheless, he seemed in a fair way of putting it into practice, for the best of reasons, because he could not help it.

His breakfast, though not the most inviting, being simply unbuttered bread and rather dry at that, seemed more delicious than ever before, but unfortunately there was not enough of it. However, as there seemed likely to be no more forthcoming, he concluded in default of breakfast to lie down under the tree for a few minutes before resuming his walk. Though he could not help wondering vaguely where his dinner was to come from, as that time was several hours distant, he wisely decided not to anticipate trouble till it came.

Lying down under the tree, Paul began to consider what Mr. Mudge would say when he discovered that he had run away.

"He'll have to milk the cows himself," thought Paul. "He won't fancy that much. Won't Mrs. Mudge scold, thought? I'm glad I shan't be within hearing."

"Holloa!"

It was a boy's voice that Paul heard.

Looking up he saw a sedate company of cows entering the pasture single file through an aperture made by letting down the bars. Behind them walked a boy of about his own size, flourishing a stout hickory stick. The cows went directly to the spring from which Paul had already drunk. The young driver looked at our hero with some curiosity, wondering, doubtless, what brought him there so early in the morning. After a little hesitation he said, remarking Paul's bundle, "Where are you traveling?"

"I don't know exactly," said Paul, who was not quite sure whether it would be politic to avow his destination.

"Don't know?" returned the other, evidently surprised.

"Not exactly; I may go to New York."

"New York! That's a great ways off. Do you know the way there?"

"No, but I can find it."

"Are you going all alone?" asked his new acquaintance, who evidently thought Paul had undertaken a very formidable journey.

"Yes."

"Are you going to walk all the way?"

"Yes, unless somebody offers me a ride now and then."

"But why don't you ride in the stage, or in the cars? You would get there a good deal quicker."

"One reason," said Paul, hesitating a little, "is because I have no money to pay for riding."

"Then how do you expect to live? Have you had any breakfast, this morning?"

"I brought some with me, and just got through eating it when you came along."

"And where do you expect to get any dinner?" pursued his questioner, who was evidently not a little puzzled by the answers he received.

"I don't know," returned Paul.

His companion looked not a little confounded at this view of the matter, but presently a bright thought struck him.

"I shouldn't wonder," he said, shrewdly, "if you were running away."

Paul hesitated a moment. He knew that his case must look a little suspicious, thus unexplained, and after a brief pause for reflection determined to take the questioner into his confidence. He did this the more readily because his new acquaintance looked very pleasant.

"You've guessed right," he said; "if you'll promise not to tell anybody, I'll tell you all about it."

This was readily promised, and the boy who gave his name as John Burgess, sat down beside Paul, while he, with the frankness of boyhood, gave a circumstantial account of his father's death, and the ill-treatment he had met with subsequently.

"Do you come from Wrenville?" asked John, interested. "Why, I've got relations there. Perhaps you know my cousin, Ben Newcome."

"Is Ben Newcome your cousin? O yes, I know him very well; he's a first-rate fellow."

"He isn't much like his father."

"Not at all. If he was"--

"You wouldn't like him so well. Uncle talks a little too much out of the dictionary, and walks so straight that he bends backward. But I say, Paul, old Mudge deserves to be choked, and Mrs. Mudge should be obliged to swallow a gallon of her own soup. I don't know but that would be worse than choking. I wouldn't have stayed so long if I had been in your place."

"I shouldn't," said Paul, "if it hadn't been for Aunt Lucy."

"Was she an aunt of yours?"

"No, but we used to call her so, She's the best friend I've got, and I don't know but the only one," said Paul, a little sadly.

"No, she isn't," said John, quickly; "I'll be your friend, Paul. Sometime, perhaps, I shall go to New York, myself, and then I will come and see you. Where do you expect to be?"

"I don't know anything about the city," said Paul, "but if you come, I shall be sure to see you somewhere. I wish you were going now."

Neither Paul nor his companion had much idea of the extent of the great metropolis, or they would not have taken it so much as a matter of course that, being in the same place, they should meet each other.

Their conversation was interrupted by the ringing of a bell from a farmhouse within sight.

"That's our breakfast-bell," said John rising from the grass. "It is meant for me. I suppose they wonder what keeps me so long. Won't you come and take breakfast with me, Paul?"

"I guess not," said Paul, who would have been glad to do so had he followed the promptings of his appetite. "I'm afraid your folks would ask me questions, and then it would be found out that I am running away."

"I didn't think of that," returned John, after a pause. "You haven't got any dinner with you?" he said a moment after.

"No."

"Well, I'll tell you what I'll do. Come with me as far as the fence, and lie down there till I've finished breakfast. Then I'll bring something out for you, and maybe I'll walk along a little way with you."

"You are very kind," said Paul, gratefully.

"Oh, nonsense," said John, "that's nothing. Besides, you know we are going to be friends."

"John! breakfast's ready."

"There's Nelson calling me," said John, hurriedly. "I must leave you; there's the fence; lie down there, and I'll be back in a jiffy."

"John, I say, why don't you come?"

"I'm coming. You mustn't think everybody's got such a thundering great appetite as you, Nelson."

"I guess you've got enough to keep you from pining away," said Nelson, good-naturedly, "you're twice as fat as I am."

"That's because I work harder," said John, rather illogically.

The brothers went in to breakfast.

But a few minutes elapsed before John reappeared, bearing under his arm a parcel wrapped up in an old newspaper. He came up panting with the haste he had made.

"It didn't take you long to eat breakfast," said Paul.

"No, I hurried through it; I thought you would get tired of waiting. And now I'll walk along with you a little ways. But wait here's something for you."

So saying he unrolled the newspaper and displayed a loaf of bread, fresh and warm, which looked particularly inviting to Paul, whose scanty breakfast had by no means satisfied his appetite. Besides this, there was a loaf of molasses ginger-bread, with which all who were born in the country, or know anything of New England housekeeping, are familiar.

"There," said John, "I guess that'll be enough for your dinner."

"But how did you get it without having any questions asked?" inquired our hero.

"Oh," said John, "I asked mother for them, and when she asked what I wanted of them, I told her that I'd answer that question to-morrow. You see I wanted to give you a chance to get off out of the way, though mother wouldn't tell, even if she knew."

"All right," said Paul, with satisfaction.

He could not help looking wistfully at the bread, which looked very inviting to one accustomed to poorhouse fare.

"If you wouldn't mind," he said hesitating, "I would like to eat a little of the bread now."

"Mind, of course not," said John, breaking off a liberal slice. "Why didn't I think of that before? Walking must have given you a famous appetite."

John looked on with evident approbation, while Paul ate with great apparent appetite.

"There," said he with a sigh of gratification, as he swallowed the last morsel, "I haven't tasted anything so good for a long time."

"Is it as good as Mrs. Mudge's soup?" asked John, mischievously.

"Almost," returned Paul, smiling.

We must now leave the boys to pursue their way, and return to the dwelling from which our hero had so unceremoniously taken his departure, and from which danger now threatened him.