From the Old South clock and the State House bell, chimed the hour of nine. The living world of Boston's mighty metropolis was sinking to its nightly rest; the busy marts were closing; the splendid stores of fashionable resort, behind oaken shutters and iron bars were veiling their wealth of costly merchandise; from the brokers' windows of State and Exchange streets, had been withdrawn to the security of 'Salamanders,' the tempting hoard of golden treasures, whose lavish display had, that day, realized to many a poor starving wretch, the torments of Tantalus; 'Change, itself, had, for, many hours, been void of its restless tide of speculation, and from all parts of the City, the steady current of home-returning pedestrians proclaimed the advancement of the night.
A half hour later, and the streets of the great city would be nearly deserted. But, in the meantime, within the gorgeous interior of one of the most costly stores of which our time-honored promenade of Washington-st. can boast, at the farther extremity of the massive granite structure itself, a gas-light still was burning in unquenched brilliancy; yet was it like a star veiled by a cloud, for, through the ponderous closed shutters of the lofty-storied structure, no ray of that hidden radiance was suffered to penetrate without.-- Fitfully over the bent form of a young man, fitfully over the stained and blotted pages of the ledger before him, flared the gas-light's sickly glare, in bold relief reflecting, despite the shadows and the darkness of the outer night, and the appearance of the merchant's clerk.
Singularly at variance with the luxurious aspect of the store and belongings, seemed in truth the somewhat shabby exterior of the young man; whose thread-bare coat, with its well-worn elbows exhibiting more than one prudent darn, gave such suspicious evidence of having been but too often brushed, as did the neglected hat that encumbered the writing cabinet of the counting-room in which he sat; his back rounding, his head resting between his clasped hands upon the unclosed account-book, so that the face could not be seen--his whole crouching attitude expressive of the most utter physical exhaustion. By his hard and sonorous breathing it was not difficult to tell that the over-tasked laborer had fallen asleep at his task!
It was with a violent start that he suddenly woke.
'Ha! where am I?' was his first unconscious exclamation of confused recollection and surprise.
'How! and have I, indeed, been sleeping?' he repeated, 'sleeping at my post? strange that I should so lose myself! and yet not so strange after all. I have been sadly tasked of late, and nature, though long-enduring, must yield at last. Ah me!' he murmured, 'I am well-nigh worn out, I fear; sixteen hours of the twenty-four spent daily in labor; constant confinement, no recreation, the same eternal round,--alas! what marvel that they should reduce me to this state of bodily prostration? And all this I suffer for a pitiful salary of meager five hundred a-year, that will scarce clothe me decently, and the speaker bitterly surveyed himself as he spoke, in one of the splendid mirrors which beautified, while seeming to double, the extent of the luxurious sales-room beyond.
He had risen erect in the act, and as he took a step or two forward, he beheld, reflected back, a care-worn though noble countenance, and a brow on which anxious thought and trouble had marred much of youthful clearness, while from sadness' own shadows, his dark hazel eyes had borrowed even deeper shade.
An expression almost cynical had marked his last-uttered words, and yet with other thoughts, came also a softened tone, as in a moment he reiterated,--
'All this for five hundred a-year!--all this for that--and yet not for that alone--for HER SAKE, TOO, I should have said, do I endure all that I do. My sister! my sweet sister! the sole being left to care for the poor and friendless clerk. Ah, poor girl! little she knows of all her brother's sad privations for her dear sake--God grant she never may.--My poverty! my poverty! she knows not half its full extent, and still she sees how very poor I am. Alas, this shabby dress, this threadbare garb speak plainer than words. And yet--ha, ha!--
Here he paused abruptly, and with a hollow laugh, as in speaking, his hollow eye glanced first at the costly array of richest goods then from these to his own half-worn out apparel,--
'And yet, why need I so remain? Here are fabrics in thousands, from the richest looms of persia and india; true, my limited income is insufficient to support an orphan sister and indulge in the expensive luxuries of dress; still, I might thus indulge. Ha, ha,--how is it that half your spruce young city clerks out of their meager salaries, contrive to dress so fashionably/--how, how, I say? Plain people wonder, but the SECRET they know not.'
And the speaker sarcastically pursued his soliloquy:
'Yes, the secret of it. A few yards, more or less, in a costly piece of broadcloth, what are they? they probably never would be missed where a business so enormous is carried on, or, if discovered, to whose charge among so many salesmen, could the peculation be laid? yet, thank God! I never stooped to that: I never pleaded the excuse for sinning thus, though who, in truth, is most to blame? what but the grinding spirit of penurious employers is it, after all, that makes dishonesty in those who serve them? When but a dog's compensation is given us, what wonder is it that the clerks of the city cheat and betray their trust? Still, 'tis theft no less, and --- no, no, I would sooner far continue in this poor garb, and know that, at least, the means by which it was first gained I need not blush to own, though I may blush for its poverty.
'That temptation, at any rate, for years I have resisted, and still I will withstand; and yet, I am very, very poor. O, my sister would I could make thee, at least, rich and happy; alas! HOW?'
There was silence, perfect silence, for a few moments, The noble-minded fellow seemed busied in deepest thought; a sudden and bright light came into his thoughtful eye--a warm flush reddened his pale cheek--his whole countenance became, all at once, instinct with life; and from his eager, parted lips, came, breathlessly, a single word--one single word that within the space of three brief months, has gained a power to sway, alike the soul of Ambition and Avarice--to summon its votaries from him and loved ones, near and far, across the untrodden main thousands and thousands of miles away; to re-arouse the drooping hope, and afresh inspire the dying energy; to bewilder event he constitutionally cool and staid with its magic sound, while exciting almost to madness, the less calm and calculating enthusiast. That one word, reader, you have heard it before; it was,--for who is he has heard it not?--
It was uttered, the talismanic word! and then the spirit's sudden light went out, as evanescent in its life as in its birth; and death as instantaneous seemed to follow the new-born hope.
'Folly! sheer folly! Where should I gain the necessary means? who is there to bestow upon the friendless clerk the amount requisite to transport him to that golden land where so many hope to enrich themselves, ere the year be out. I have tried every means, every honorable means--exerted myself in vain.--All, all to no purpose; the friends, the influence, the generous helping hand--I have them not."
Despondently, at the unwelcome assurance, the despairing young man's head sank upon his breast, and he stood the very picture of silent despair.
The, for the last time, in his strange self-communion, her muttered, and this time with looks full of excitement:
"Ha! and yet, what a maddening thought! that when fortune is within my very grasp, when the mere possession of a few hundred dollars is but needed to waft me to that bright land of promise which so suddenly has opened on the view, to boundless riches in certain. prospective,--a man's hands should be hopelessly tied for lack of this pitiful sum, and he still forced to delve on here for the paltry pittance of a livelihood, while in another clime, he might be winning wealth exhaustless for himself and his dear ones. O, torture worst of all."
And fearfully agitated by the thrilling picture he had drawn, that dark picture which has risen, doubtless, before thousands situated thus, a groan escaped from his heaving chest, and his every feature seemed to participate, acutely, in the anguish that convulsed limbs, form nod face.
But at this point it was that his excitement, his grief, his despondency, now at once appeared, and in a startling shape, to have reached their climax. His dark hazel eye lighted up swiftly, as a clouded sky by the tempest lightnings, gleamed with a new and strange meaning.
With a quick, short, determined step, he passed on into the magnificent salesroom; it was but a moment that he was gone; ere it had quite elapsed, with a key taken from a secret depository in the counter, he re-entered the counting-room he had but for an instant left.
It was a heavy iron key, odd in its formation, and with it in his grasp he paused not, halted not, nor hesitated, till, on bent knees, he knelt before a massive Salamander Safe that stood concealed within a hidden recess.
What, ah, what could be his secret purpose.
Let his bloodless face and lips compressed and teeth tightly clenched over that, and that stern look of desperation on one and all, tell, alas, but too intelligibly. Thus seeming, thus appearing, but with unshaking hand, he seeks for the particular knob which alone of all its hundred companions, conceals so cunningly the key-hole of the safe.
It is found ! and the key in the lock inserted; still, none but a practiced hand, would even then have successfully assayed to turn the ponderous wards, or roll back the shrewdly-contrived bolt; but his clerk's duty has made him familiar with the task, though never before coupled with his present purpose.
The very next moment, the critical moment of his destiny, the daring hand of the merchant's clerk was buried amid piles of silver and gold, and passing over packages of bank notes, or rattling amid bags of glittering coin.
The solid wealth of one of Tri-mount's most opulent merchant-princes, the riches of a life-time's accumulation, lay exposed and within his grasp. The half of all he saw was more than robber's hand could bear away; the fourth of it would have insured to any one a splendid competence; to him who now devoured it with
his eyes, it would have realized his brightest dreams of monied bliss; yet, alas, with crime, with dishonor, only to be bought.
And now, as in silence, in secrecy, unseen by any save God's omniscient eye, over that princely treasure he bent, a fearful thought had roused a fearful struggle in his soul. Should he, the neglected, the down-trodden, the uncared for instrument, whose incessant labors had helped for years to swell these hoarded gains, he who had slaved away, in hard master's service, the best part of his life for a bare subsistence; should he take from that vast accumulation the small amount that necessity required, to open for him Fortune's inviting portals, and fly-fly to that newly-discovered haven of the poor man's hopes, whose signal lights were so brightly shining, a beacon to both the New World and the Old!
He hesitated, he faltered, he paused. The sum itself was trifling in comparison; its entire value, trice-told, would not, as it was have half made up to him the unjust deficits in his miserly remuneration, and, eventful query, was he not authorized in its appropriation!
The act committed, the abstraction of the little needed was secure from discovery a full week at least, for only so often came the periodical reckoning, and by that time would he be far away upon the ocean; long before that day the fortune-bearing ship would sail. With wealth illimitable he could return, make restitution a thousand-fold to heal the scar of conscience, bring joy and happiness to a poor orphan sister, and, to himself, emancipation from a life of servitude.
In lightning-like quickness of transition passed these lightning-like thoughts through his mind; his agitation became feverish, it was no longer passive; and in a perfect delirium of excitement, and when it was withdrawn, a bag, heavy with its glittering weight of gold, was in his grasp.
A hectic flush usurped, with its ruddiness, the habitual pallor of his check--his hand, for the first time, trembled with eagerness--a thrilling tremor shook his whole frame--then, with a rattling clash, the bag, with its contents fell to the floor.
Like the thunder-bolt that, on Calvary's sacred summit, split the temple-veil in twain--like the shock of the judgment-trump itself--to the excited fancy of the half frenzied young man seemed the sharp clang of the falling gold.
The spell was broken, the cling of the chinking coin had lost its long-held magic charm.
"I was mad--mad!" he shrieked, and started to his feet. "Great God, and have my senses quite deserted me? I feel my very reason shaking, my brain reeling within me. Escaped--thank Heaven's own mercy--escaped. What was I, in my wild delirium, about to do? Rob, plunder my employers, betray their confiding trust, cover myself with eternal infamy, aye, and madman that I was, make my idolized sister blush to own me for a brother. But I was insane; for the moment, insane. O, never, never, O my God, while reason is spared, while mind, with mind and sense, remains, will I be criminal. Sooner, a thousand times sooner, would I drag on my present sad and hopeless existence; sooner far remain the miserable slave to the desk and counter that I have been, from my youth up, than degrade, debase myself in my own eyes thus. No, no; not ALL the gold of California could tempt me THUS again."
With the very utterance of those noble words, that sublime and proud resolve, the tempted one felt with joy inexpressible, that he was saved, saved from himself. Still he was fearfully agitated; the abrupt revulsion of feeling had been as powerful as the dangerous emotions which it had dispelled from him forever.
"Air, air," faintly he faltered, for the damp sweat stood in beads of moisture on his forehead, at every pore perspiring, while an icy chill and burning heat swiftly alternated on his flushed and fevered face, the fire of passion over, and physical weakness coming back upon him; "air, air! I must have air and exercise. This is too much for my poor frame and weakened body. The streets, by this time, are deserted--a quiet walk will compose my disordered mind; but, first, back with thee, demon, to thy cell," with a fierce emphasis he said, as, with a nervous limb, he lifted the fatal bag and hurled the jingling coin within the iron safe, with a shudder of abhorrence called forth by the very act.
Then, as if eager to shut out even the mere signs of the wealth that had so tempted him, he hurriedly closed the safe door and relocked it, in his impatience to begone, neglecting, however, to withdraw and conceal the key.
"And now, at last, to cool my beating pulse, and find some means to distract me from reflection. Heaven knows, after such a scene, I need it."
And, first carefully securing the store in his absence, not leaving the spot, from sheer force of habit, until, by examination that all was "safe for the night," he turned from the building and strode rapidly down the street; but, despite this circumstance, there was one thing he had forgotten,--the key of the safe.
Fatal omission! but he knew it not; nor once suspected how strangely it was destined to color future events--to what unforeseen results it was to lead.
But having these shortly to develop themselves, we must follow the hero of our first chapter in his course, as with a pace by no means measured, he now takes his way along through the deserted streets of the night-hushed city.
Thus it was that he hurried on, objectless and purposeless, as concerned his destination, anxious only to drown thought in action, till at length it was with something bordering on a start of surprise, that he found himself on Charlestown Bridge.
Beyond, separated from old Boston by the flowing waters of Charles River, Charlestown with its glorious monument, Cambridge, with its proud universities, were seen.
Almost gasping for breath, panting with haste, he bent his uneven steps across the bridge, trusting to the change of scene to work that composure of mind he found it impossible, by the force of will to acquire. But in vain!
The cool river air brought with it no refreshing balm to his burning brow; the soft sighings of the rushing waters bore no soothing music to his ear; a full, unobstructed prospect of the clear blue heavens overhead had no power to tinge, with an emollient cast, his spirits; for there, beyond that rolling river, boldly defined against the sparkling sky, uprose the dark and gloomy towers of Charlestown prison, like the grim, forbidding walls of some fabled giant's castle of old--and sudden and startling over his soul came the though, that but for the fortunate triumph of rectitude, he might have been its branded occupant!
That thought was torture; it was the burning lava poured from the volcano of his mind, thrown into fresh eruption; and now, losing, completely, all control of himself, more needlessly than ever he dashed onward, at a furious pace, that caused more than one belated passer by to turn in wonder and alarm to gaze after him.
Before he was conscious of the fact, he had left Charlestown itself behind and entered the suburbs of Old Cambridge. Only when, recalled to himself by a strange incident, did he discover that he stood within the precincts of the University grounds, the fine old park of Harvard College, with its branching elms and shaded walks.
It was the sound of voices near that had aroused him--voices in loud and impetuous altercation.
Startled at once, his mind, for the first time experiencing the vainly sought distraction, he hurried down and adjoining avenue, guided by his ear, which told him he was rapidly approaching the immediate scene of the contest.
As he drew nearer and nearer, oaths and angry defiances were distinguishable, and in another instant he had emerged upon a scene that fired him at the sight.
Contending, hand-to-hand, with some twenty or more young men in the dress of the university, were half-a-dozen stout fellows whom it was by no means difficult to identity as apprentices, shop-boys and office-lads, the two respective parties engaged in a most determined set-to, waging desperate warfare with Herculean fists, clubs, stones, and bludgeons, or whatever other rude weapons chance supplied.
"Ha! a fight between the students of Harvard and the 'prentice boys!" ejaculated the merchant's clerk, who, in an instant, saw and comprehended all.
"A refuge," he continued, "a refuge I must have from by bitter thoughts, if it be but to mingle in this mad brawl. Yes, by Heaven! I, too, will enter the lists--and, ha! the odds are sadly against the 'prentice lads--it shall be upon the side of the weaker party. Anything to save me from myself and drown the reflections that nearly drive me mad. Have at them, then."
And with the words he dashed into the thickest of the conflict.
Right and left he fought, mixing with this allies. Spite of the odds against them, the apprentices gallantly held their own, while the spirit and resolution which have ever been so oddly characteristic of such contests between the parties.
These famous combats, outvieing the feud between the Capulets and Montagues, between the wild collegians and the rival city boys, growing out of not altogether unnatural feelings of jealousy and envy on one part, and, perhaps, of overbearing arrogance, on the other hand, in the students themselves--though less frequently than formerly, are still proverbial, and of occasional occurrence even now.
Often in these singular collisions, in which gentlemen's sons were found pitting themselves against the grocer's boys and stout apprentices, it happened that the former got the worst of the encounter--for, generally, they were the smaller party--but here, in the present instance, the case was directly the reverse.
It was with a loud shout that the weaker party welcomed the advent of an unexpected friend; while, angry at the interference, the opposing students, with loud reiterated cries of defiance, made a rush upon the new ally of the enemy and the young clerk found himself beset on all sides.
Twice had he been nearly thrown to the ground, by repeated blows form a club in the hand of one of the foremost antagonists; but grappling with their author, he quickly hurled him beneath his feet, and in another moment had felled a second of the students who barred his progress.
The apprentices began to gather courage afresh, and made a yet stouter stand, repeatedly incited to new exertions by the hoarse voice of one of their party who seemed, by common consent, to be their leader in the fray.
Though an ally and leader among them, he was evidently not one of them; for while all the rest were mere boys, comparatively, this personage was a man, at least forty years of age, who, with his Herculean make and coarse garb, seemed to be some stout laborer who had made common cause with the apprentices against their rivals, probably form mutual dislike, and who, from his superior strength and years had tacitly been assigned the leadership.
This man was engaged, at the moment in which he first excited the notice of our lastcomer, in a fierce struggle with one of the most active and determined of the students, who seemed, also, too occupy the position of temporary chief among his own party; and from what the merchant's clerk could perceive, the contest between these two threatened to be more obstinate than was the case with the other belligerents; but before he had time fore further observation, he was forced, self defense, to turn his attention to himself, and almost at the same instant, from some one amid his own little band, contending against such unequal numbers, the sudden cry was raised,--
"The police! the police!"
"'Tis a false alarm!" shouted the students, derisively, "The cowards--they are giving in."
"Cowards in your teeth! we're not afraid, and you know it. Give it to the college upstarts--trounce them well," yelled back the opposite party, indignant at the taunt.
But in the same breath the voice of the leader of the students was heard, shouting to friend and foes,--
"No, no! it is the police!--do you not hear the rattles, down the street yonder?"
"Hark!--yes, we do hear. What's to be done, what's to be done, Harry? Come, you are our captain to-night," cried a dozen of the speaker's party.
"Hist, then! the watchmen are coming--you must fly, all of you! Hark ye, my fine lads, friends and enemies both! we must disperse, every soul of us, if we do not wish to see the inside of the station-house to-morrow, for this night's lark. We'll fight out this quarrel some other time--it was not of our seeking, at all events--but come, brave soldiers of Harvard! let's away!" called out the student, in a clear, manly voice.
All tuned to make good their escape, all save the stout fellow in the laborer's dress, who, with a ferocious oath, had thrown himself suddenly forward upon his late antagonist, at the very instant the young leader of the student band likewise turned to follow the retreat of his companions, and roughly seizing the youth by the throat, the man, by a strong effort, bore him back across his own powerful knee, and dashed his clenched fist, with its full force in the other's exposed face.
The student, half-stunned by the shock, sunk from his assailant's knee, breathless to the earth, and scarcely had his body touched the sod, when the self-same muscular knee was bent upon his breast, as if to hold him down.
What was the startling surprise of the merchant's clerk, when he saw the Herculean laborer kneeling on the panting chest of the prostrate youth, with two powerful hands clutching the student's throat, in the act of strangulation.
The astounded spectator could scare credit his senses, so startled was be by the sight.--But the voice of humanity claimed precedence before all other emotions, and with one swift, determined bound, be gained the side of the prostrate youth.
Not an instant too soon was he! Stretched on the green sward of the park, his eyes glaring and bloodshot, his countenance a purple hue, rapidly verging on the deathly black of suffocation, his tongue protruding from his discolored lips, on which inarticulate sounds vainly struggled for stifled utterance--a helpless object, a ghastly sight, the strangling student lay.
One low cry of horror, one wild burst of indignation, and with uplifted arm, and straining nerve, and heart on fire, the generous succorer had sprung upon the wretch, and, falling, with his concentrated force upon the head of the kneeling man, the whole crushing weight of his body descended, felling the other senseless at the side of this half-suffocated victim.
When at length the young student, whose narrow escape from death, in one of its most dreadful forms, we have chronicled, began to recover from the fearful effect of his partial strangulation, he first opened his eyes on the form of the merchant's clerk, supported in his arms.
"Ha! Eugene Lincoln! You here!"
"Harry--Harry Vernon!--my dear, only friend!"
Were the alternate exclamations--first of the young collegian, then of his rescuer, who bent over him.
"This is a strange meeting, Harry," added the last speaker.
"Strange, strange, indeed! By Heaven, I believe the blood-thirsty rascal would have strangled me!"
"He would--he would; and you, in a moment more, have been past all help," was the impressive response.
"Confusion to the rascal! what could have so possessed the man?" ejaculated the young student; "but, I see, he must have been intoxicated."
"Probably--and this unhappy brawl nearly lost you your life to the blind fury of a drunken rioter!"
"I know it, and may thank only your timely assistance, my dear friend," gratefully replied the student.
"O Harry Vernon, will you never learn to tame that wild spirit of yours, and cease to expose yourself to the dangers and follies in which you bold, adventurous nature ever makes you assume the lead, and the boldest yield you the precedence? With your wealth, your talents, your noble spirit, why will you thus heedlessly endanger so much. Be warned, Vernon, my friend, by me--I am older than you, more experienced--I know your warm, impetuous disposition, your native enthusiasm and your high, proud heart," urged the fervent counseller, earnestly--"O, then, beware."
The young collegian caught his faithful friend's hand and wrung it warmly, as he feelingly said,--
"I feel, I appreciate your generous consideration, my dear Vernon. But banish such apprehensions, friend of mine," added gaily the young speaker, with a cheering warmth and frankness in his tones, which had a bold and manly richness in their every mellow accent.
"Harry Vernon is no spoiled child of fortune. He many be a little wild, a little reckless, too, perchance--but he is no profligate. There is full time enough to settle down--the heir to thousands and the boy of eighteen need be in no very pressing haste, my good Lincoln, methinks."
"The heir to thousands! yes, yes," repeated Lincoln, "Providence be praised that it is so, and the best and only friend spared to me, save a dear sister, thus raised above the harrowing curse of want and care," he murmured, as to himself. "Fortunate, indeed, for you--though you may lack the consciousness of its full value--that you were born the heir to a rich family."
The student started slightly as he replied to the remark,--
"I am NOT the heir to a rich family--I mean I am not the BORN heir---"
"How! you are an only child--an only son, are you not?" interrupted the other, with surprise.
"Yes--and yet, not yes, either. There was another child--a brother, but---"
"Ha!--what of him! A brother, do you say?"
"Yes, but a strange circumstance--I know not that I ought to mention it."
He paused, hesitated.
"Hist, Lincoln! hist! I am about to confide to you, my nearest friend and confidant, a secret that I have been bidden never to speak, or at least all I know concerning that secret-"
And the voice of the earnest student sank to a meaning whisper.
"What mean you, Vernon?" demanded Lincoln, with breathless interest in his words and in his tones.
Those of the evidently excited student were yet more deeply impressive, as he replied,--
"This, Lincoln, this--yet, ere I breathe the frail word, remember that with you the secret is to rest. No, Lincoln, no; I am not the only, nor the first-born of the family; one other there was, one whom I can distinctly call to mind, at times, in childhood, as older than myself; but, suddenly and unaccountably, I missed him, strangely my brother had disappeared from his home; of that disappearance I never could gain any explanation--for strangest of all, whenever I sought from my father to learn some cause or reason for his extraordinary event, I was met, not by tears of grief and sad remembrance, but with a seeming start of fearful surprise and a stern order never to dare mention the subject again; never once allude to it, so long as I lived!
"Conceive, Lincoln, conceive of my extremity of bewilderment and wonder, my inextricable perplexity; for never, to this day, have I been able to obtain the merest light concerning that brother's mysterious disappearance."
"Mysterious, inexplicable, indeed! No key to a mystery so strange as this?" was the inquiry.
"Not the slightest. The unaccountable disappearance, the secrecy maintained toward me, the studied silence upon a subject so full of exciting interest to a whole family, and the peremptory interdiction of recurring to that which naturally must call forth such curious and eager inquiry, have at all times excited me almost beyond endurance. And can you wonder, considering everything, that it is so?"
"I only wonder, on the contrary, at your own control over curiosity, the burning curiosity that must torment you. You must be strong in self-command. And yet, it is very strange; why have I never heard one word of all this before?"
"Because of the imperative command. I long questioned with myself whether I should break it to you at all, though we have been bosom friends for years."
"And I--am I the only being to whom you---"
"No--I know what you would ask. There is yet another---"
"And that other is---"
"Ha!" exclaimed Eugene.
"Why do you start?" resumed the student. "To her, also---"
The sentence was not completed. The merchant's clerk had nervously grasped his friend's arm, and, with his lips sternly compressed, was gazing intently into the student's startled face. His voice was husky as he said, while, tremulous with excitement, were his words,--
"My sister--you have seen her, then, once more? Tell me, Henry Vernon, tell me why is it that you thus seek her out? Answer me, truly, Harry."
It was with a look of half wonder that the youth replied,--
"Because--because I LOVE her, Lincoln.--- How can you ask? what else should draw me to her side?"
"Hark, Henry Vernon, hearken to me!-- You are young and heedless--you have the reputation of being wild--perhaps you are dissipated--how do I know but that you now seek---"
"Lincoln--my friend!" remonstrated the boy.
"Nay, hear me! For all that I may know of your habits, you may be--mark me, you MAY be, like so many of the young men who fill our universities, fortune courted sons,--a roue and a libertine."
"One moment hold,--you MAY be such, I say--'tis possible--POSSIBLE, only. Still, 'tis a brother's duty to guard even against that possibility. In seeking my sister's society,--in wealth and station so greatly your inferior, the rich student's object, might well seem to be her ruin and---"
"Stop, sir, you have gone far enough--too far already, sir!" interposed Vernon, abruptly, with a firm and decided air. "In your generous concern for a dear sister, you may presume even too greatly on the forbearance of a friend. I tell you, Eugene Lincoln, you have mistaken me, though it be but by a passing thought. Sooner than wrong in word or act your gentle sister, I would freely, gladly, have surrendered the life one moment since preserved by you. Is this the way that Henry Vernon has learned to show his gratitude--to prove the pure love he feels for one so dear to you? would this be the Henry Vernon you have known so long? And here I tell you, to your face, Eugene, that if any other than you had dared to breathe that dark suspicion, I would have struck him dead at my feet! No, no, Eugene Lincoln you wronged me there."
"I did! indeed I did. I do believe you, from my very heart I do," fervently iterated his companion, convinced by his proud sincerity of manner; "forgive me for the doubts--I should have thought of your noble nature and scouted the fear at once. But, as plainly as yourself have spoken, do I now declare to you that had you one thought of evil toward my cherished Ellen, friendship itself should not have saved you from a brother's vengeance--though that vengeance had forever lost me the only faithful friend I ever knew. But enough--say we are friends once more again?"
"There is my hand on it," replied the frank and open-hearted Vernon, who was not one to decline the honestly proffered reconciliation. "It is forgotten---but hist: there is the sound of feet down the avenue--hush! do you not hear men running? Ha! the watch, the watch!--we had quite forgotten. By Heaven they are upon us!--they are upon us!"
"No, no! there is yet time--we may yet escape pursuit," cried his companion hurriedly.
"True, if we are speedy; but we must be fleet of foot and fly different ways. As for this drunken friend of mine, we must leave him--but what has become of the fellow?--gone, by my faith!"
Turning is surprise, both saw that, taking advantage of the engrossing converse, the fallen man had so far recovered, in the brief interim that had elapsed, so as to rise and steal quietly away, unperceived until now, when, disappearing down a distant walk, they caught a glimpse of his receding figure, staggering and reeling as he went--but whether from the effect of this stunning fall or the remains of intoxication, the two friends neither knew nor halted to inquire.
The young men now realized at once that no time was to be lost, for through the winter-bared branches of the leafless trees, the dark forms of the hurrying police began one by one to appear. Waving his hand to his friend, Vernon darted away in the direction of the neighboring colleges, whither his fugitive fellow students had in the intervening time preceded him; and Lincoln, once more left alone, diverging at right angles from the fast approaching watch, crossed with a fleet foot the grounds of Old Harvard, and leaping the college wall with an agility that conquered the difficulty of the feat, the retreating invader of the university's precincts, had soon distanced the close pursuing police, and completely thrown them off the scent.
Across to Charlestown, over Charlestown Bridge, into Washington street, once more, successively he passed, and in an hour regained at length the store whence he had that night departed, little anticipating the adventure that had befallen him. The well-known chimes of the Old South were just striking the first hour of the morning, as he entered, and, with a slight sigh, re-locked the door.
Wearied and overcome with the varied occurrences of the last few hours, he re-entered the little counting-room, in which we beheld him for the first time, and prepared to commit himself to repose, for by night it was his resting-place and chamber, as well as the scene of his daily toils. Drawing out the ample sofa-bedstead, that habitually served him for a couch, he prepared to retire to hits welcome oblivion of all life's cares and sorrows.
More than once, in his various movements had be passed, unsuspiciously, the ponderous iron safe, with the key so thoughtlessly left in the guarded lock. Could be but once have dreamt how soon the consequences of that unwitting, unconscious negligence, were to manifest themselves, his rest would have been even more uneasy, his slumbers yet more broken than they really were.
He lay, tossing uneasily upon his bed, for nearly half an hour in disquietude. His eyes would close, then re-open, then close again--fickle and changing as a coquette's smile.--And yet the finger of fatigue was heavy upon him. He would have given the world for one hour's unbroken, refreshing rest, but the disturbed state of his chaotic mind forbade it. Gradually, however, a drowsiness stole slowly over him, and sweet slumber began to be less obdurate.
At length he slept, but it was only by fits and starts. Two or three times he opened his heavy eyelids, at close intervals, fancying he heard a noise. This he naturally attributed to an over-excited imagination, unstrung by the events of the past night, and once, only once, his attention was partially caught by a peculiar sound that seemed to strike dully on his ear. But strengthening drowsiness had deadened his senses by this time, and turning over, mechanically, he faced the wall opposite, and again lost himself, through various disturbing noises appeared ever to haunt his restless dreams.
This was of brief continuance, however. He was aroused at last--suddenly aroused--by a strange sensation of chilling cold, as if a flood of outer air had poured in upon his person. The stupor of sleep full upon him, he sluggishly started up in the bed, and with a vacant look gazed wonderingly around. The fresh air completely scattered sleep from his sealed eyelids, however, and left him shivering and shuddering with the same dreamy consciousness of freezing chill, the same icy feeling.
Thoroughly awakened, the succeeding moment heard, clearly and distinctly, a sound that startled him. That startling sound, that icy chill, both seemed to proceed from the wall, the opposite wall toward which the restless sleeper had turned his face.
Between the bed, his anxious vision and the wall, the high desk at which he had been writing, intervened, completely shutting the latter of the three out from his view; for his couch occupied the farther corner of the counting-room, commanding, nevertheless, a full prospect of the extensive sales-room beyond, though so placed as to preclude more than a partial survey of the smaller apartment itself, in consequence of the obstruction to the vision, interposed by the massive escritoir.
The sense of seeing was at fault, for the gas-light had been, of course, extinguished, and the store was in darkness. Abruptly, however, a bright flood of moonlight followed a sharp crash,--whence coming he could not divine, and he looked in eager expectancy about him. Still, strange as it appeared, he saw nothing to surprise; yet thence, from the wall opposite, the current of cold air, the sudden moonlight, the strange, startling sound that he had heard, all seemed to spring. That sound itself, he fancied, was the jingling of precious coin.
And then, at that self-same instant, from the glassy surface of the tell-tale mirror, far down the long sales-room, he saw, reflected back through the store's whole distance, the bent figure of a man kneeling before the safe, with the iron door half open, and one rough hand still on the key which it had turned, while on the golden treasure it no longer guarded, two ruffian eyes looked covetously in!
The whole truth burst upon his mind--the key of the Salamander had been forgotten in the lock--the store had been forced by burglars, and the safe, with its golden thousands, was at their mercy!