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Chapter 7

VII.

The place was the Common, where his trouble had begun. He looked back to the beginning, and could see that it was his own fault. To be sure, you might say that if a fellow came along and offered to pay you fifty cents for changing a ten-dollar bill, you had a right to take it; but there was a voice in Lemuel's heart which warned him that greed to another's hurt was sin, and that if you took too much for a thing from a necessitous person, you oppressed and robbed him. You could make it appear otherwise, but you could not really change the nature of the act. He owned this with a sigh, and he owned himself justly punished. He was still on those terms of personal understanding with the eternal spirit of right which most of us lose later in life, when we have so often seemed to see the effect fail to follow the cause, both in the case of our own misdeeds and the misdeeds of others.

He sat down on a bench, and he sat there all day, except when he went to drink from the tin cup dangling by the chain from the nearest fountain. His good breakfast kept him from being hungry for a while, but he was as aimless and as hopeless as ever, and as destitute. He would have gone home now if he had had the money; he was afraid they would be getting anxious about him there, though he had not made any particular promises about the time of returning. He had dropped a postal card into a box as soon as he reached Boston, to tell of his safe arrival, and they would not expect him to write again.

There were only two ways for him to get home: to turn tramp and walk back, or to go to that Mr. Sewell and borrow the money to pay his passage. To walk home would add intolerably to the public shame he must suffer, and the thought of going to Mr. Sewell was, even in the secret which it would remain between him and the minister, a pang so cruel to his pride that he recoiled from it instantly. He said to himself he would stand it one day more; something might happen, and if nothing happened, he should think of it again. In the meantime he thought of other things: of that girl, among the rest, and how she looked at the different times. As nearly as he could make out, she seemed to be a very fashionable girl; at any rate, she was dressed fashionably, and she was nice-looking. He did not know whether she had behaved very sensibly, but he presumed she was some excited.

Toward dark, when Lemuel was reconciling himself to another night's sleep in the open air, a policeman sauntered along the mall, and as he drew nearer the boy recognised his friendly captor. He dropped his head, but it was too late. The officer knew him, and stopped before him.

"Well," he said, "hard at it, I see."

Lemuel made no answer, but he was aware of a friendly look in the officer's face, mixed with fatherly severity.

"I was in hopes you had started back to Willoughby Pastures before this. You don't want to get into the habit of settin' round on the Common, much. First thing you know you can't quit it. Where you goin' to put up to-night?" "I don't know," murmured Lemuel.

"Got no friends in town you can go to?"

"No."

"Well, now, look here! Do you think you could find your way back to the station?"

"I guess so," said Lemuel, looking up at the officer questioningly.

"Well, when you get tired of this, you come round, and we'll provide a bed for you. And you get back home to-morrow, quick as you can."

"Thank you," said Lemuel. He was helpless against the advice and its unjust implication, but he could not say anything.

"Get out o' Boston, anyway, wherever you go or don't go," continued the officer. "It's a bad place."

He walked on, and left Lemuel to himself again. He thought bitterly that no one knew better than himself how luridly wicked Boston was, and that there was probably not a soul in it more helplessly anxious to get out of it. He thought it hard to be talked to as if it were his fault; as if he wished to become a vagrant and a beggar. He sat there an hour or two longer, and then he took the officer's advice so far as concerned his going to the station for a bed, swallowing his pride as he must. He must do that, or he must go to Mr. Sewell. It was easier to accept humiliation at the hands of strangers. He found his way there with some difficulty, and slinking in at the front door, he waited at the threshold of the captain's room while he and two or three officers disposed of a respectably dressed man, whom a policeman was holding up by the collar of his coat. They were searching his pockets and taking away his money, his keys, and his pencil and penknife, which the captain sealed up in a large envelope, and put into his desk.

"There! take him and lock him up. He's pretty well loaded," said the captain.

Then he looked up and saw Lemuel. "Hello! Can't keep away, eh?" he demanded jocosely. "Well, we've heard about you. I told you the judge would make it all right. What's wanted? Bed? Well, here!" The captain filled up a blank which he took from a pigeon-hole, and gave it to Lemuel. "I guess that'll fix you out for the night. And tomorrow you put back to Willoughby Pastures tight as you can get there. You're on the wrong track now. First thing you know you'll be a professional tramp, and then you won't be worth the powder to blow you. I use plain talk with you because you're a beginner. I wouldn't waste my breath on that fellow behind you."

Lemuel looked round, and almost touched with his a face that shone fiery red through the rusty growth of a week's beard, and recoiled from a figure that was fouler as to shirt and coat and trousers than anything the boy had seen; though the tramps used to swarm through Willoughby Pastures before the Selectmen began to lock them up in the town poorhouse and set them to breaking stone. There was no ferocity in the loathsome face; it was a vagrant swine that looked from it, no worse in its present mood than greedy and sleepy.

"Bed?" demanded the captain, writing another blank. "Never been here before, I suppose?" he continued with good-natured irony. "I don't seem to remember you."

The captain laughed, and the tramp returned a husky "Thank you, sir," and took himself off into the street.

Then the captain came to Lemuel's help. "You follow him," he said, "and you'll come to a bed by and by."

He went out, and, since he could do no better, did as he was bid. He had hardly ever seen a drunken man at Willoughby Pastures, where the prohibition law was strictly enforced; there was no such person as a thief in the whole community, and the tramps were gone long ago. Yet here was he, famed at home for the rectitude of his life and the loftiness of his aims, consorting with drunkards and thieves and tramps, and warned against what he was doing by a policeman, as if he was doing it of his own will. It was very strange business. If it was all a punishment for taking that fellow's half-dollar, it was pretty heavy punishment. He was not going to say that it was unjust, but he would say it was hard. His spirit was now so bruised and broken that he hardly knew what to think.

He followed the tramp as far off as he could and still keep him in sight, and he sometimes thought he had lost him, in the streets that climbed and crooked beyond the Common towards the quarter whither they were going; but he reappeared, slouching and shambling rapidly on, in the glare of some electric lights that stamped the ground with shadows thick and black as if cut in velvet or burnt into the surface. Here and there some girl brushed against the boy, and gave him a joking or jeering word; her face flashed into light for a moment, and then vanished in the darkness she passed into. It was that hot October, and the night was close and still; on the steps of some of the houses groups of fat, weary women were sitting, and children were playing on the sidewalks, using the lamp-posts for goal or tag. The tramp ahead of Lemuel issued upon a brilliantly lighted little square, with a great many horse-cars coming and going in it; a church with stores on the ground floor, and fronting it on one side a row of handsome old stone houses with iron fences, and on another a great hotel, with a high-pillared portico, where men sat talking and smoking.

People were waiting on the sidewalk to take the cars; a druggist's window threw its mellow lights into the street; from open cellar- ways came the sound of banjos and violins. At one of these cellar doors his guide lingered so long that Lemuel thought he should have to find the way beyond for himself. But the tramp suddenly commanded himself from the music, the light, and the smell of strong drink, which Lemuel caught a whiff of as he followed, and turning a corner led the way to the side of a lofty building in a dark street, where they met other like shapes tending toward it from different directions.

William Dean Howells