Chapter 13. Jack Has a Mystery
"What is the matter? Does your head ache?" asked Jill, one evening in March, observing that Jack sat with his head in his hands, an attitude which, with him, meant either pain or perplexity.
"No; but I'm bothered. I want some money, and I don't see how I can earn it," he answered, tumbling his hair about, and frowning darkly at the fire.
"How much?" and Jill's ready hand went to the pocket where her little purse lay, for she felt rich with several presents lately made her.
"Two seventy-five. No, thank you, I won't borrow."
"What is it for?"
"Why, I thought you told me everything."
"Sorry, but I can't this time. Don't you worry; I shall think of something."
"Couldn't your mother help?"
"Don't wish to ask her."
"Why! can't she know?"
"How queer! Is it a scrape, Jack?" asked Jill, looking as curious as a magpie.
"It is likely to be, if I can't get out of it this week, somehow."
"Well, I don't see how I can help if I'm not to know anything"; and Jill seemed rather hurt.
"You can just stop asking questions, and tell me how a fellow can earn some money. That would help. I've got one dollar, but I must have some more"; and Jack looked worried as he fingered the little gold dollar on his watch-guard.
"Oh, do you mean to use that?"
"Yes, I do; a man must pay his debts if he sells all he has to do it," said Jack sternly.
"Dear me; it must be something very serious." And Jill lay quite still for five minutes, thinking over all the ways in which Jack ever did earn money, for Mrs. Minot liked to have her boys work, and paid them in some way for all they did.
"Is there any wood to saw?" she asked presently, being very anxious to help.
"All done." "Paths to shovel?"
"NO snow. "Lawn to rake, then?"
"Not time for that yet."
"Catalogue of books?"
"Frank got that job."
"Copy those letters for your mother?"
"Take me too long. Must have my money Friday, if possible."
"I don't see what we can do, then. It is too early or too late for everything, and you won't borrow."
"Not of you. No, nor of anyone else, if I can possibly help it. I've promised to do this myself, and I will"; and Jack wagged his head resolutely.
"Couldn't you do something with the printing-press? Do me some cards, and then, perhaps, the other girls will want some," said Jill, as a forlorn hope.
"Just the thing! What a goose I was not to think of it. I'll rig the old machine up at once." And, starting from his seat, Jack dived into the big closet, dragged out the little press, and fell to oiling, dusting, and putting it in order, like one relieved of a great anxiety.
"Give me the types; I'll sort them and set up my name, so you can begin as soon as you are ready. You know what a help I was when we did the programmes. I'm almost sure the girls will want cards, and I know your mother would like some more tags," said Jill, briskly rattling the letters into the different compartments, while Jack inked the rollers and hunted up his big apron, whistling the while with recovered spirits.
A dozen neat cards were soon printed, and Jill insisted on paying six cents for them, as earning was not borrowing. A few odd tags were found and done for Mamma, who immediately ordered four dozen at six cents a dozen, though she was not told why there was such a pressing call for money.
Jack's monthly half-dollar had been spent the first week twenty-five cents for a concert, ten paid a fine for keeping a book too long from the library, ten more to have his knife ground, and five in candy, for he dearly loved sweeties, and was under bonds to Mamma not to spend more than five cents a month on these unwholesome temptations. She never asked the boys what they did with their money, but expected them to keep account in the little books she gave them; and, now and then, they showed the neat pages with pardonable pride, though she often laughed at the queer items.
All that evening Jack & Co. worked busily, for when Frank came in he good-naturedly ordered some pale-pink cards for Annette, and ran to the store to choose the right shade, and buy some packages for the young printer also.
"What do you suppose he is in such a pucker for?" whispered Jill, as she set up the new name, to Frank, who sat close by, with one eye on his book and one on her.
"Oh, some notion. He's a queer chap; but I guess it isn't much of a scrape, or I should know it. He's so good-natured he's always promising to do things for people, and has too much pluck to give up when he finds he can't. Let him alone, and it will all come out soon enough," answered Frank, who laughed at his brother, but loved him none the less for the tender heart that often got the better of his young head.
But for once Frank was mistaken; the mystery did not come out, and Jack worked like a beaver all that week, as orders poured in when Jill and Annette showed their elegant cards; for, as everybody knows, if one girl has a new thing all the rest must, whether it is a bow on the top of her head, a peculiar sort of pencil, or the latest kind of chewing-gum. Little play did the poor fellow get, for every spare minute was spent at the press, and no invitation could tempt him away, so much in earnest was our honest little Franklin about paying his debt. Jill helped all she could, and cheered his labors with her encouragement, remembering how he stayed at home for her.
"It is real good of you to lend a hand, and I'm ever so much obliged," said Jack, as the last order was struck off, and the drawer of the type-box held a pile of shining five and ten cent pieces, with two or three quarters.
"I love to; only it would be nicer if I knew what we were working for," she said demurely, as she scattered type for the last time; and seeing that Jack was both tired and grateful, hoped to get a hint of the secret.
"I want to tell you, dreadfully; but I can't, because I've promised."
"Never!" and Jack looked as firm as a rock.
"Then I shall find out, for I haven't promised."
"See if I don't!"
"You are sharp, but you won't guess this. It's a tremendous secret, and nobody will tell it."
"You'll tell it yourself. You always do."
"I won't tell this. It would be mean."
"Wait and see; I can get anything out of you if I try"; and Jill laughed, knowing her power well, for Jack found it very hard to keep a secret from her.
"Don't try; please don't! It wouldn't be right, and you don't want to make me do a dishonorable thing for your sake, I know."
Jack looked so distressed that Jill promised not to make him tell, though she held herself free to find out in other ways, if she could.
Thus relieved, Jack trudged off to school on Friday with the two dollars and seventy-five cents jingling in his pocket, though the dear gold coin had to be sacrificed to make up the sum. He did his lessons badly that day, was late at recess in the afternoon, and, as soon as school was over, departed in his rubber boots "to take a walk," he said, though the roads were in a bad state with a spring thaw. Nothing was seen of him till after tea-time, when he came limping in, very dirty and tired, but with a reposeful expression, which betrayed that a load was off his mind. Frank was busy about his own affairs and paid little attention to him, but Jill was on tenter-hooks to know where he had been, yet dared not ask the question.
"Merry's brother wants some cards. He liked hers so much he wishes to make his lady-love a present. Here's the name"; and Jill held up the order from Harry Grant, who was to be married in the autumn.
"Must wait till next week. I'm too tired to do a thing to-night, and I hate the sight of that old press," answered Jack, laying himself down upon the rug as if every joint ached.
"What made you take such a long walk? You look as tired as if you'd been ten miles," said Jill, hoping to discover the length of the trip.
"Had to. Four or five miles isn't much, only my leg bothered me"; and Jack gave the ailing member a slap, as if he had found it much in his way that day; for, though he had given up the crutches long ago, he rather missed their support sometimes. Then, with a great yawn, he stretched himself out to bask in the blaze, pillowing his head on his arms.
"Dear old thing, he looks all used up; I won't plague him with talking"; and Jill began to sing, as she often did in the twilight.
By the time the first song ended a gentle snore was heard, and Jack lay fast asleep, worn out with the busy week and the walk, which had been longer and harder than anyone guessed. Jill took up her knitting and worked quietly by firelight, still wondering and guessing what the secret could be; for she had not much to amuse her, and little things were very interesting if connected with her friends. Presently Jack rolled over and began to mutter in his sleep, as he often did when too weary for sound slumber. Jill paid no attention till he uttered a name which made her prick up her ears and listen to the hroken sentences which followed. Only a few words, but she dropped her work, saying to herself,
"I do believe he is talking about the secret. Now I shall find out, and he will tell me himself, as I said he would."
Much pleased, she leaned and listened, but could make no sense of the confused babble about "heavy boots"; "All right, old fellow"; "Jerry's off"; and "The ink is too thick."
The slam of the front door woke Jack, and he pulled himself up, declaring that he believed he had been having a nap.
"I wish you'd have another," said Jill, greatly disappointed at the loss of the intelligence she seemed to be so near getting.
"Floor is too hard for tired bones. Guess I'll go to bed and get rested up for Monday. I've worked like fury this week, so next
I'm going in for fun"; and, little dreaming what hard times were in store for him, Jack went off to enjoy his warm bath and welcome bed, where he was soon sleeping with the serene look of one whose dreams were happy, whose conscience was at rest.
"I have a few words to say to you before you go," said Mr. Acton, pausing with his hand on the bell, Monday afternoon, when the hour came for dismissing school.
The bustle of putting away books and preparing for as rapid a departure as propriety allowed, subsided suddenly, and the boys and girls sat as still as mice, while the hearts of such as had been guilty of any small sins began to beat fast.
"You remember that we had some trouble last winter about keeping the boys away from the saloon, and that a rule was made forbidding any pupil to go to town during recess?" began Mr. Acton, who, being a conscientious man as well as an excellent teacher, felt that he was responsible for the children in school hours, and did his best to aid parents in guarding them from the few temptations which beset them in a country town. A certain attractive little shop, where confectionery, baseballs, stationery, and picture papers were sold, was a favorite loafing place for some of the boys till the rule forbidding it was made, because in the rear of the shop was a beer and billiard saloon. A wise rule, for the picture papers were not always of the best sort; cigars were to be had; idle fellows hung about there, and some of the lads, who wanted to be thought manly, ventured to pass the green baize door "just to look on."
A murmur answered the teacher's question, and he continued, "You all know that the rule was broken several times, and I told you the next offender would be publicly reprimanded, as private punishments had no effect. I am sorry to say that the time has come, and the offender is a boy whom I trusted entirely. It grieves me to do this, but I must keep my promise, and hope the example will have a good effect."
Mr. Acton paused, as if he found it hard to go on, and the boys looked at one another with inquiring eyes, for their teacher seldom punished, and when he did, it was a very solemn thing. Several of these anxious glances fell upon Joe, who was very red and sat whittling a pencil as if he dared not lift his eyes.
"He's the chap. Won't he catch it?" whispered Gus to Frank, for both owed him a grudge.
"The boy who broke the rule last Friday, at afternoon recess, will come to the desk," said Mr. Acton in his most impressive manner.
If a thunderbolt had fallen through the roof it would hardly have caused a greater surprise than the sight of Jack Minot walking slowly down the aisle, with a wrathful flash in the eyes he turned on Joe as he passed him.
"Now, Minot, let us have this over as soon as possible, for I do not like it any better than you do, and I am sure there is some mistake. I'm told you went to the shop on Friday. Is it true?" asked Mr. Acton very gently, for he liked Jack and seldom had to correct him in any way.
"Yes, sir"; and Jack looked up as if proud to show that he was not afraid to tell the truth as far as he could.
"To buy somethin?"
"To meet someone?"
"Was it Jerry Shannon?"
No answer, but Jack's fists doubled up of themselves as he shot another fiery glance at Joe, whose face burned as if it scorched him.
"I am told it was; also that you were seen to go into the saloon with him. Did you?" and Mr. Acton looked so sure that it was a mistake that it cost Jack a great effort to say, slowly,
Quite a thrill pervaded the school at this confession, for Jerry was one of the wild fellows the boys all shunned, and to have any dealings with him was considered a very disgraceful thing.
"Did you play?"
"No, sir. I can't."
"I belong to the Lodge"; and Jack stood as erect as any little soldier who ever marched under a temperance banner, and fought for the cause none are too young nor too old to help along.
"I was sure of that. Then what took you there, my boy?"
The question was so kindly put that Jack forgot himself an instant, and blurted out,
"I only went to pay him some money, sir."
"Ah, how much?"
"Two seventy-five," muttered Jack, as red as a cherry at not being able to keep a secret better.
"Too much for a lad like you to owe such a fellow as Jerry. How came it?" And Mr. Acton looked disturbed.
Jack opened his lips to speak, but shut them again, and stood looking down with a little quiver about the mouth that showed how much it cost him to be silent.
"Does anyone beside Jerry know of this?"
"One other fellow," after a pause.
"Yes, I understand"; and Mr. Acton's eye glanced at Joe with a look that seemed to say, "I wish he'd held his tongue."
A queer smile flitted over Jack's face, for Joe was not the "other fellow," and knew very little about it, excepting what he had seen when he was sent on an errand by Mr. Acton on Friday.
"I wish you would explain the matter, John, for I am sure it is better than it seems, and it would be very hard to punish you when you don't deserve it."
"But I do deserve it; I've broken the rule, and I ought to be punished," said Jack, as if a good whipping would be easier to bear than this public cross-examination.
"And you can't explain, or even say you are sorry or ashamed?" asked Mr. Acton, hoping to surprise another fact out of the boy.
"No, sir; I can't; I'm not ashamed; I'm not sorry, and I'd do it again to-morrow if I had to," cried Jack, losing patience, and looking as if he would not bear much more.
A groan from the boys greeted this bare-faced declaration, and Susy quite shivered at the idea of having taken two bites out of the apple of such a hardened desperado.
"Think it over till to-morrow, and perhaps you will change your mind. Remember that this is the last week of the month, and reports are given out next Friday," said Mr. Acton, knowing how much the boy prided himself on always having good ones to show his mother.
Poor Jack turned scarlet and bit his lips to keep them still, for he had forgotten this when he plunged into the affair which was likely to cost him dear. Then the color faded away, the boyish face grew steady, and the honest eyes looked up at his teacher as he said very iow, but all heard him, the room was so still,
"It isn't as bad as it looks, sir, but I can't say any more. No one is to blame but me; and I couldn't help breaking the rule, for Jerry was going away, I had only that time, and I'd promised to pay up, so I did."
Mr. Acton believed every word he said, and regretted that they had not been able to have it out privately, but he, too, must keep his promise and punish the offender, whoever he was.
"Very well, you will lose your recess for a week, and this month's report will be the first one in which behavior does not get the highest mark. You may go; and I wish it understood that Master Minot is not to be troubled with questions till he chooses to set this matter right."
Then the bell rang, the children trooped out, Mr. Acton went off without another word, and Jack was left alone to put up his books and hide a few tears that would come because Frank turned his eyes away from the imploring look cast upon him as the culprit came down from the platform, a disgraced boy.
Elder brothers are apt to be a little hard on younger ones, so it is not surprising that Frank, who was an eminently proper boy, was much cut up when Jack publicly confessed to dealings with Jerry, leaving it to be supposed that the worst half of the story remained untold. He felt it his duty, therefore, to collar poor Jack when he came out, and talk to him all the way home, like a judge bent on getting at the truth by main force. A kind word would have been very comforting, but the scolding was too much for Jack's temper, so he turned dogged and would not say a word, though Frank threatened not to speak to him for a week.
At tea-time both boys were very silent, one looking grim, the other excited. Frank stared sternly at his brother across the table, and no amount of marmalade sweetened or softened that reproachful look. Jack defiantly crunched his toast, with occasional slashes at the butter, as if he must vent the pent-up emotions which half distracted him. Of course, their mother saw that something was amiss, but did not allude to it, hoping that the cloud would blow over as so many did if left alone. But this one did not, and when both refused cake, this sure sign of unusual perturbation made her anxious to know the cause. As soon as tea was over, Jack retired with gloomy dignity to his own room, and Frank, casting away the paper he had been pretending to read, burst out with the whole story. Mrs. Minot was as much surprised as he, but not angry, because, like most mothers, she was sure that her sons could not do anything very bad.
"I will speak to him; my boy won't refuse to give me some explanation," she said, when Frank had freed his mind with as much warmth as if Jack had broken all the ten commandments.
"He will. You often call me obstinate, but he is as pig-headed as a mule; Joe only knows what he saw, old tell-tale! and Jerry has left town, or I'd have it out of him. Make Jack own up, whether he can or not. Little donkey!" stormed Frank, who hated rowdies and could not forgive his brother for being seen with one.
"My dear, all boys do foolish things sometimes, even the Wisest and best behaved, so don't be hard on the poor child. He has got into trouble, I've no doubt, but it cannot be very bad, and he earned the money to pay for his prank, whatever it was."
Mrs. Minot left the room as she spoke, and Frank cooled down as if her words had been a shower-bath, for he remembered his own costly escapade, and how kindly both his mother and Jack had stood by him on that trying occasion. So, feeling rather remorseful, he went off to talk it over with Gus, leaving Jill in a fever of curiosity, for Merry and Molly had dropped in on their way home to break the blow to her, and Frank declined to discuss it with her, after mildly stating that Jack was "a ninny," in his opinion.
"Well, I know one thing," said Jill confidentially to Snow-ball, when they were left alone together, "if everyone else is scolding him I won't say a word. It's so mean to crow over people when they are down, and I'm sure he hasn't done anything to be ashamed of, though he won't tell."
Snow-ball seemed to agree to this, for he went and sat down by Jack's slippers waiting for him on the hearth, and Jill thought that a very touching proof of affectionate fidelity to the little master who ruled them both.
When he came, it was evident that he had found it harder to refuse his mother than all the rest. But she trusted him in spite of appearances, and that was such a comfort! For poor Jack's heart was very full, and he longed to tell the whole story, but he would not break his promise, and so kept silence bravely. Jill asked no questions, affecting to be anxious for the games they always played together in the evening, but while they played, though the lips were sealed, the bright eyes said as plainly as words, "I trust you," and Jack was very grateful.
It was well he had something to cheer him up at home, for he got little peace at school. He bore the grave looks of Mr. Acton meekly, took the boys' jokes good-naturedly, and withstood the artful teasing of the girls with patient silence. But it was very hard for the social, affectionate fellow to bear the general distrust, for he had been such a favorite he felt the change keenly.
But the thing that tried him most was the knowledge that his report would not be what it usually was. It was always a happy moment when he showed it to his mother, and saw her eye brighten as it fell on the 99 or moo, for she cared more for good behavior than for perfect lessons. Mr. Acton once said that Frank Minot's moral influence in the school was unusual, and Jack never forgot her pride and delight as she told them what Frank himself had not known till then. It was Jack's ambition to have the same said of him, for he was not much of a scholar, and he had tried hard since he went back to school to get good records in that respect at least. Now here was a dreadful downfall, tardy marks, bad company, broken rules, and something too wrong to tell, apparently.
'Well, I deserve a good report, and that's a comfort, though nobody believes it," he said to himself, trying to keep up his spirits, as the slow week went by, and no word from him had cleared up the mystery.