"Is that the latest style?" inquired James Leech, with a sneer, pointing to a patch on the knee of Herbert Carter's pants.
Herbert's face flushed. He was not ashamed of the patch, for he knew that his mother's poverty made it a necessity. But he felt that it was mean and dishonorable in James Leech, whose father was one of the rich men of Wrayburn, to taunt him with what he could not help. Some boys might have slunk away abashed, but Herbert had pluck and stood his ground.
"It is my style," he answered, firmly, looking James boldly in the face.
"I admire your taste, then," returned James, with a smooth sneer.
"Then, you had better imitate it," retorted Herbert.
"Thank you," said James, in the same insulting tone. "Would you lend me your pants for a pattern? Excuse me, though; perhaps you have no other pair."
"For shame, James!" exclaimed one or two boys who had listened to the colloquy, stirred to indignation by this heartless insult on the part of James Leech to a boy who was deservedly a favorite with them all.
Herbert's fist involuntarily doubled, and James, though he did not know it, ran a narrow chance of getting a good whipping. But our young hero controlled himself, not without some difficulty, and said: "I have one other pair, and these are at your service whenever you require them."
Then turning to the other boys, he said, in a changed tone: "Who's in for a game of ball?"
"I," said one, promptly.
"And I," said another.
Herbert walked away, accompanied by the other boys, leaving James
James looked after him with a scowl. He was sharp enough to see that Herbert, in spite of his patched pants, was a better scholar and a greater favorite than himself. He had intended to humiliate him on the present occasion, but he was forced to acknowledge that he had come off second best from the encounter. He walked moodily away, and took what comfort he could in the thought that he was far superior to a boy who owned but two pairs of pants, and one of them patched. He was foolish enough to feel that a boy or man derived importance from the extent of his wardrobe; and exulted in the personal possession of eight pairs of pants.
This scene occurred at recess. After school was over, Herbert walked home. He was a little thoughtful. There was no disgrace in a patch, as he was sensible enough to be aware. Still, he would have a little preferred not to wear one. That was only natural. In that point, I suppose, my readers will fully agree with him. But he knew very well that his mother, who had been left a widow, had hard work enough to get along as it was, and he had no idea of troubling her on the subject. Besides, he had a better suit for Sundays, neat though plain, and he felt that he ought not to be disturbed by James Leech's insolence.
So thinking, he neared the small house which he called home. It was a small cottage, with something less than an acre of land attached, enough upon which to raise a few vegetables. It belonged to his mother, nominally, but was mortgaged for half its value to Squire Leech, the father of James. The amount of the mortgage, precisely, was seven hundred and fifty dollars. It had cost his father fifteen hundred. When he built it, obtaining half this sum on mortgage, he hoped to pay it up by degrees; but it turned out that, from sickness and other causes, this proved impossible. When, five months before, he had died suddenly, the house, which was all he left, was subject to this incumbrance. Upon this, interest was payable semi-annually at the rate of six per cent. Forty-five dollars a year is not a large sum, but it seemed very large to Mrs. Carter, when added to their necessary expenses for food, clothing and fuel. How it was to be paid she did not exactly see. The same problem had perplexed Herbert, who, like a good son as he was, shared his mother's cares and tried to lighten them. But in a small village like Wrayburn there are not many ways of getting money, at any rate for a boy. There were no manufactories, as in some large villages, and money was a scarce commodity.
Herbert had, however, one source of income. Half a dozen families, living at some distance from the post office, employed him to bring any letters or papers that might come for them, and for this service he received a regular tariff of two cents for each letter, and one cent for each paper. He was not likely to grow rich on this income, but he felt that, though small, it was welcome.
According to custom, Herbert called at the post office on his way home. He found a letter for Deacon Crossleigh, one for Mr. Duncan, two for Dr. Waffit, and papers for each of the two former.
"Ten cents!" he thought with satisfaction. "Well, that is better than nothing, though it won't buy me a new pair of pants."
He was about to leave the office, when the postmaster called after him: "Wait a minute, Herbert; I believe there's a letter for your mother."
Herbert returned, and received a letter bearing the following superscription: "Mrs. Almira Carter, Wrayburn, New York."
"I hope it isn't bad news," said the postmaster. "I see it's edged with black."
"I can't make out where it's from," said Herbert, scanning the postmark critically.
"Nor I," said the postmaster, rubbing his glasses, and taking another look. "The postmark is very indistinct."
"There's an n and a p," said Herbert, after a little examination. "I think it must be Randolph."
"Randolph? So it is, I declare. Have you got any friends or relatives living there?"
"Yes, my mother's Uncle Herbert, for whom I was named, lives there."
"Then he must be dead."
"What makes you think so?"
"The envelope is edged with black. You had better carry it home before you go round with the others."
"Perhaps I had," said Herbert. "I'll run, so as not to keep the others waiting. Deacon Crossleigh is always in a hurry for his paper."
"Yes, the deacon's always in a fidget to know what's going on, particularly when Congress is in session. He takes a wonderful interest in politics."
Herbert ran up the street with a quick step, pausing a minute at his humble home.
"You are out of breath, Herbert. Have you been running?"
"Yes, I've got a letter for you, and I wanted to bring it before I went round with the rest."
"A letter! Where from?" asked the widow, with curiosity, for she held very little intercourse with the world outside of Wrayburn.
"It's postmarked Randolph, as well as I can make out. While you are reading it, I'll run and leave my letters, and be back to hear the news."
In a hurry to do all his errands and get back, Herbert ran all the way. While his eyes were fixed on one of the envelopes, he ran full against James Leech, who was walking up the street with a pompous air.
In the encounter James's hat came off, and he was nearly thrown down.
"What made you run into me?" he demanded, wrath-fully.
"Excuse me, James," said Herbert, recovering himself.
"You did it on purpose," said his enemy, glaring at him angrily.
"That isn't very likely," said Herbert. "I got hit as hard as you did."
"Your hat didn't get knocked off. Pick it up," said James, imperiously, pointing to it as it lay in the path.
"I will, because it is by my fault that it fell," said Herbert, stooping over and picking it up. "You needn't have ordered me to do it."
"The next time take care how you run against a gentleman," said James, arrogantly.
"Take care the next time to speak like a gentleman." said Herbert.
"Good night! I must be off."
"Insolent beggar!" muttered James. "He don't know his place. How dare he speak to me in that way?"
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