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The Master of Silence: A Romance, a novel by Irving Bacheller

Chapter 2

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The multitude of legs, engaged by the pair in the service of Valentine, King & Co., were distinguished from each other by a bit of house slang. I was known as "last legs" among my companions for some time after my initiation to the warehouse. At first I was inclined to resent the reduction of my individuality to such a vulgar formula, but as I became inured to hard tasks the sharpness of this indignity wore away.

There was one pair of legs doing service for the firm whose owner became my most valued friend and confidant. In his business capacity he was called "long legs," but his proper name was Philbert Chaffin. He was a tall, slim boy, with blue eyes and light hair, the son of a stage carpenter, who was employed at one of the cheap theatres and who lived within a stone's throw of my lodgings. His language was a unique combination of bad grammar and provincial brogue; but every boy in the warehouse allowed that he was a good fellow. He had spent many an evening with me, and confided to me many a secret which, owing to solemn pledges made at that time, I am not at liberty to divulge, before he invited me to dine and spend an evening with the family. I accepted his invitation gratefully, and the next evening Phil took me over. It was a hearty welcome that I received at the home of the Chaffins. My enjoyment of their simple hospitality would have been perfect but for the embarrassment I felt at the many apologies with which it was offered. Mrs. Chaffin knew as 'ow the tea was not as good as I was used to drinking, but she 'oped it didn't taste "murky." I assured her that it did not taste murky, although a little doubtful as to the exact significance of the word when applied to tea. But in spite of my declaration she insisted that it must taste "murky" to one who was accustomed to better things. The ham was never too good in Liverpool, but she 'oped that it wasn't "reesty." I solemnly declared that it was not "reesty." But Mrs. Chaffin and Mr. Chaffin out of the goodness of their hearts continued to condole with me on the score that such ham tasted and must taste "reesty" to one not used to it. I had no sooner satisfied their misgivings concerning the ham than I was compelled to take issue with them as to the bread, regarding which they entertained a lurking suspicion of staleness. During all of this discussion about the ham, the tea and the bread, I was conscious that a pair of big brown eyes, darkly shaded with long lashes, were staring at me across the table. Whenever I had the courage to glance that way I observed that they had been looking at me intently, and were suddenly averted. These wondering eyes belonged to the only daughter in the family.

"They've all been boys," said Mrs. Chaffin, "since Hetty was born."

I thought it strange that the H in her daughter's name was the only one that the good woman had shown the ability to manage.

"Hetty is the only one of the lot that takes to books," she continued. "The head master told me she will make a good scholar, and dear a me! she does nothing but read books from mornin' till night." While Hetty and her mother removed the dishes we drew our chairs about the fire, and Mr. Chaffin, a blunt, simple-minded man, entertained me with sage observations regarding politics and the weather. He spoke rather loudly, and in a key which, as I learned afterward, he only employed on very special occasions. Presently the youngest lad in the family, who sat on his father's knee, demanded a song. The response was prompt and generous. The selection with which Mr. Chaffin favored us contained upward of forty stanzas, relating the unhappy story of a fair maid and a bold sailor, both of whom met a tragic death, in the last stanza, just before the day set for their marriage. The song being finished, Hetty and her mother drew their chairs up to the fire; Hetty sat next me, and after a severe inward struggle I summoned the courage to ask her a question. She answered me in the fewest words possible, but in a voice so sweet and low that I wondered then and often afterward at its contrast to the other voices I had heard in that house. She wore a home-spun frock and a neat white pinafore, set off with a dainty ribbon tied about her throat.

"She's uncommon still when strangers is here, sir," said Mrs. Chaffin; "but law me! she goes rompitin' about the house like as if she was crazy sometimes, ticklin' her father and tryin' t' snip off his beard with the scissors."

That night was the beginning of happier days for me. When at last I rose to go it was near midnight. I forgot my weariness as I walked to my lodgings, thinking of those simple, honest people and of their kindness to me.

I enjoyed high jinks at the house of the Chaffins at least once a week during the next year of my apprenticeship, near the close of which I began to get ready for a visit to my stepmother in fulfilment of a promise I had made by letter. It had been, on the whole, a happy year to me. I had known many lonely hours, to be sure, but those visits to the little old weather-stained house, in which I found my first friends after leaving home, cheered me from week to week. I knew, too, that Hetty enjoyed those long evenings as much as I did, which meant more to me than I would have dared confess to her. I thought of her a good deal, but it always resulted in the wretched feeling that we were both very young after all. It is not likely that I would have decided to go home for a fortnight, but that I thought it would be pleasant to observe the effect of saying good-by to Hetty. I had no doubt that she would be quite overcome with grief and loneliness after I had gone, and, reckless youth that I was, nothing could have made me more happy than to have known that she really felt grieved on my account. And yet when I called to bid them all good-by, the evening before I started, she betrayed no sign of regret. In fact, she seemed so much happier than usual that I worried about it for weeks, even after I had gone so far away that it seemed doubtful whether we would ever meet again. It did not occur to me that I had been less skilful than she in concealing my emotions, and that she might be merry only because she could perceive that I was sad. Mrs. Chaffin was the only member of the family who seemed to entertain feelings as serious as my own. She had dreamed that I would not come back again, and we all laughed at her then, but when the swift years had revealed some of their secrets, we thought of this prophetic dream with a sadness deeper than any that comes to childish hearts. Hester and Phil walked with me to the gate when I left the house. The radiance of a full moon fell on our faces through the flying clouds. Phil, stupid fellow! had so much to say that I did not get a chance to speak to his sister before she darted back to the house as if pursued. On reaching my lodgings I was surprised to find a gentleman waiting for me.

"Don't know me, eh?" said he, shaking my hand warmly.

He was a tall, portly man, with a kindly face, clean shaven except for a pair of close-cropped, iron-gray side whiskers. I was sure I had seen him before, but couldn't think of his name.

"Earl," said he, handing me a card on which his name and address were printed as follows:

Barrister at Law,
Lincoln's Inn, London.

I remembered distinctly having accompanied my father to his office on one occasion some years before.

"I've come up from London on purpose to see you. Just got here only a few minutes ago," said he, laying off his overcoat. "But upon my word!" he added, surveying me from head to foot, "I didn't expect to find such a big, strapping fellow as you are. Your surroundings are quite as I had supposed they would be. Cramped quarters in a miserable tumble-down back street! I suppose your guardian provided this place for you?"

"I believe so," said I.

"Did you know that your stepmother had married again?" he asked.

"Married!" I exclaimed. "To whom?"

"To Martin Cobb."

"To my guardian?" I asked, in astonishment.

Not heeding my question, he continued:

"You're intending to go home to-morrow, I believe?"

"Yes, sir."

"My boy," said he, "I have an interest in you. I was your father's friend and adviser for many years. I came all this distance to tell you not to go to London. Do not ask me why, I beg you," said he, with an impatient gesture when I attempted to speak. "It would do you no good to learn my reason for making this request. Listen to this--it's important to you: There's an uncle of yours in America, your nearest relative, I believe. Of course you have heard your father speak of him. A most eccentric fellow! but a man of fine ability. He was a graduate of Oxford and a physician of great skill and learning. Thirty-five years ago he went to Canada and finally settled in a large town on one of the great lakes not far from the border. It was Detroit, I believe. Your father told me, shortly before his death, that he had not heard from your uncle for many years. I have written to him twice within a twelvemonth, but have received no reply. I want you to go over and look him up. If you should find that he is dead, there's no harm done, and you can take time to look about for a business opportunity. If you don't like it, come back, but, if you can content yourself there for awhile, you had better do so."

"But, sir, I have no money."

"You are going for me; I shall, therefore, insist upon paying the bills. In the success of the undertaking I have, perhaps, as great an interest as you."

"When do you wish me to start?" I asked.

"To-night. That is to say, I would like you to leave this place at once, go with me to a hotel, and sail by the first steamer that leaves for New York."

Ever since that strange and silent messenger had come to me with my uncle's letter I had been haunted by a desire to go in quest of him. Now that it was possible, I hesitated. What would Hester say on hearing that I had gone to America? It would be very grand to write her from New York that I had been suddenly called abroad on important business. Would she care? Of course she would care, and I was willing to wager a sixpence with myself that she would cry bitterly, too, on receiving the letter. Ah, what a punishment that would be for her coldness and indifference!

Yes, I would go. I began picking up my things and packing them into my box.

"I conclude that you have decided to go," he said.

"Yes, sir. I shall be ready in a moment," I replied.

We were soon rattling over the pavements in a cab that had been waiting at the door.

On arriving at the Northwestern Hotel we were informed that a steamer would leave for New York at five in the morning. We drove at once to the dock and having succeeded in making comfortable arrangements for my passage Mr. Earl went aboard the steamer with me. In a retired corner of the great cabin I confessed to him that there was a girl in Liverpool for whom I had a feeling of extraordinary tenderness.

He laughed heartily and insisted that I should tell him all the particulars.

"You are rather young yet to entertain so serious a passion," said he, as he held my hand for a moment before going ashore. "You will get over it as easily as you got into it."

I sat down, unable to reply or to restrain the tears that came to my eyes as he left me alone. I went to my stateroom at once and to bed. What thoughts came to me as I lay there inviting sleep to turn them into dreams, while the great ship waited for the tide! I tossed about my berth; I prayed; I listened. At length I thought I heard my father's voice mingled with others, and a sound of casting off--but I heard no more. _

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