When the heavy bolt was shot back and the door opened cautiously by the constable, Ben was seen standing at a distance, showing no disposition to attempt anything desperate. The widow was there, bearing in her hands a large dish covered by a napkin, snowy white, though somewhat frayed. Her broad, kindly face was softened with sympathy and sorrow.
“Oh, my poor boy!” she said. “I’ve brung y’u something to eat to keep y’u from starvin’, for these heathen ’round here don’t seem to have no thought about that. I’ve brung the best I had in the house, which, goodness knows, is poor enough – cold beans left over from Sunday, an’ bread an’ butter an’ doughnuts an’ a piece of blueb’ry pie. I’ll fetch y’u a warm supper by and by, for I bought a piece of lamb to stew a-purpose, an’ Sadie is tendin’ it. You must be awful hongry, an’ I know cold beans won’t hurt your deejeshun, though they alwus sot monstrous hard on Joel’s stummick. You jest keep up your pucker, Ben, an’ don’t lose courage; for you’ve got some friends left, an’ they’re goin’ to do everything they can for y’u. I wisht the constable would let me in to see y’u, but he says no, an’ so I can’t come.”
Ben had advanced slowly toward the door, closely watched by the suspicious eye of Abel Hubbard. He had fought back his emotions until once more he seemed to be the stolid, indifferent fellow who had won so little sympathy when he first appeared in Oakdale. Nevertheless, there was a catch in his voice as he took the dish and sought to express his gratitude. The door closed upon him, and he was again alone.
He had eaten some of the beans and one of the doughnuts when Hubbard reopened the door on a crack and thrust in a pitcher of water, which he left standing upon the floor.
The time passed with leaden feet. He had ceased trying to understand; he waited dumbly. Far away a bell clanged, sending a slight shudder through him; it was the academy bell, telling that mid-afternoon intermission was over. Doubtless his schoolmates knew all about it by this time; they had heard of his arrest and imprisonment in the lockup, and they had told one another what they thought of it. Hayden was rejoicing and his friends were satisfied, while probably still others had said they knew all along it would come to something like this. It was the darkest hour of Ben Stone’s life.
He did not think wholly of himself, however; indeed, his thoughts dwelt far more upon his helpless blind brother, whom he had promised to stand by and to protect, but from whom he had been ruthlessly and unfeelingly separated. His soul was heavy and faint with the weight laid upon it, when again there were voices at the door and again the lock grated harshly.
Roger Eliot entered, followed by a smooth-faced, middle-aged man; and the constable, stepping inside, relocked the door and stood grimly on guard.
Ben had risen. His eyes met those of Roger squarely, and in a moment the latter rushed forward with his hand outstretched.
“Stone, old fellow,” said Eliot, “this is tough luck.”
Their hands met, and there was strength and reassurance in the grip Roger gave.
“I didn’t hear what had happened to you until intermission time, Stone,” said the football captain apologetically; “if I had, you’d seen me before this.
The lawyer likewise took the hand of the accused boy, looking earnestly into his face. “Mr. Eliot,” he said, “seems to think there must be some mistake. He is unwilling to believe you are guilty, my lad.”
Ben’s face, which had been quite pale, flushed deeply; for, of a sudden, his heart sent the blood leaping through his body. So Urian Eliot did not believe him a thief! Roger had faith in him and was ready to stand by him! After a moment he spoke with strange calmness:
“I am not guilty.”
“I knew it!” cried Roger. “I would have staked my life on it.”
“As your counsel,” said the lawyer, “I have come to talk the matter over with you, that I may prepare to defend you when the trial is called at ten o’clock to-morrow. I shall ask you some questions, and you must answer them frankly, fully and truthfully.”
“You shall have a truthful answer to every question you ask, sir.”
“I suppose you know the circumstances which have led to your arrest?”
“I only know that I am charged with robbery. I have been told nothing more.”
“Then you may not be aware that two lockers at the gymnasium were broken open, that of Roger and of Bernard Hayden.”
“I know nothing about it, sir.”
“They were broken open and pilfered while football practice was in progress last night. Roger’s watch and some money belonging to him were taken; Hayden likewise lost a watch, two rings and some money. These watches, the rings and a part of the money were found after you had disappeared, concealed beneath the straw tick of the bed in your room. That is the evidence against you, and to most people it must seem decidedly convincing.”
“I never touched any of those stolen articles, sir. I did not hide them in my room. If I had stolen them why did I leave them there when I ran away?”
“That’s it!” cried Roger. “The very question I asked.”
“But why did you run away?” interrogated the lawyer, watching Ben intently.
Stone answered that question without hesitation. In doing so, he went back to the cause of Jerry’s flight from the home of his dead uncle, explaining how the blind lad had been pursued even to Oakdale, and how while purchasing that pair of shoes Ben had learned that a man had arrived in the town and made inquiries for the fugitive.
“They told me the man was at the hotel getting supper,” concluded Ben. “I knew he would have no trouble in finding Jerry after that, and so we lost not a minute in getting away.”
“This clears up that point, which I could not understand,” smiled Roger in great satisfaction. “I knew there must be some other explanation than that Ben had fled to escape arrest. The man arrived at Mrs. Jones’ house while Deputy Sheriff Pickle was searching Ben’s room. He was intensely disappointed when he found he had delayed just long enough to baffle himself.”
“Where is he now – where is he?” asked Stone eagerly.
“He left this morning, after doing a lot of telephoning. I think he fancied he had a clew to the course you had taken. I doubt if he has yet learned of your arrest.”
“He will catch Jerry!” said Ben dejectedly.
“Which doubtless will be the best thing that could happen,” was the lawyer’s opinion. “We must bring the man and your brother back to Oakdale. We’ll need them both at the trial to establish the motive for your flight. It’s really unfortunate that the officers who arrested you didn’t bring Jerry along also.”
“But we’ll find them both – we’ll find Jerry and the man,” declared Roger. “The telephone will do it, and my father’s car will bring them to Oakdale in a hurry.”
“My boy,” urged the lawyer, “tell me your exact movements on leaving the academy yesterday afternoon.”
“I went directly to my room, where I knew Jerry was waiting all alone. I hurried away from the academy without saying a word to anyone. We had a talk, Jerry and I, and I told him I had made up my mind at last to leave school and take him away to some place where I could find work; for what money I had was not enough to support us both while I finished the term at the academy. When we had talked it all over, I took some things Roger had loaned me and left them in the gymnasium, after which I crossed over to the field that I might let Roger know. From the field I came straight back into town and purchased a pair of shoes for Jerry at Mr. Doyle’s store. It was there I heard of the arrival in town of a man who had made inquiries about a blind boy and a little yellow dog. I knew what that meant, and I ran back to Mrs. Jones’, where as soon as possible I made up a bundle of things most needed, fearing every moment that the man would appear. We slipped out of the house and got away on the road to Barville. That’s all I can tell you, sir, and every word is true.”
He had spoken in a convincing manner, and the lawyer nodded his head slowly. “A straightforward statement, my lad; but how that stolen property came to be concealed in your bed is a staggering question.”
“Someone must have placed those things there – some enemy of mine. I have a bitter enemy.”
“He means Bern Hayden,” said Eliot; “but Hayden could not have done it – that’s out of the question. Nevertheless, Bern is determined to push this matter. I have refused to press it, for which Hayden has been pleased to sneer at me.”
“Oh, he thinks he’s got me now!” cried Stone. “He’s glad, and he’ll make me suffer, if he can.”
“We’ll do our best to get this business straightened out and cleared up,” promised the lawyer; “and, in order that we may make all possible haste, I’ll have to telephone right away and try to locate the man who gave his name as Henry Bailey – the man who was trying to catch your brother. Keep up your courage, my boy, and we’ll talk this matter over again when there’s more time to go into the minutest details. You have a loyal friend in Roger, and one in his father, who will stand behind you and fight it out to a finish. If you’re innocent – and since hearing your statement I myself believe you are – we’ll leave no stone unturned to establish that fact.”
“That’s right, old fellow,” assured Roger, his face lighted by that rare smile as he placed his hands on Stone’s shoulders. “A man is never down and out till he loses heart and gives up. I’ve seen you play football, and you’re a good fighter at that; be a good fighter at this, and you’ll win.”
Their hands met again, and once more Eliot’s firm, friendly grip imparted some of his own optimism and strength. They left Ben feeling greatly heartened and encouraged.
“Roger is right,” he said after a time; “the fellow who knows he’s right and quits isn’t worthy to come out on top.”
As night was coming on Mrs. Jones brought a huge steaming bowl of lamb stew, and with it more words of cheer. Ben ate the stew, every bit of it. The window above his prison door he left open to admit air when he finally lay down upon the hard bunk. Occasional sounds from the village drifted in upon him. Once he heard some of the boys calling to one another. He had uttered a prayer for Jerry, and the sleep that came to him at last was full and peaceful, unbroken by dreams.
Nevertheless, he awoke suddenly, fancying that he was dreaming; for to his ears floated the sound of a violin, on which someone was playing the tune that had so moved him as he was beginning his flight from Oakdale, “Home, Sweet Home.” For a few moments he lay listening like one in a trance. Then he leaped up, stumbled against his chair, seized it, felt his way in the darkness to the door, placed the chair and mounted it, till, grasping the iron bars above, he could peer out through the grating.
A thin, pale moon was in the sky, and by its light he saw beneath his door the little lad who was drawing that plaintive melody from the old fiddle. At the feet of the player sat a small dog.
“Oh, Jerry,” cried Ben – “Jerry, Jerry!”
The trial of Ben Stone had begun. It was held in the Town Hall, which proved none too large to hold comfortably the surprising number of curious persons who flocked thither; for in any small country town that is somewhat removed from larger places those inhabitants who can spare the time to do so seldom fail to attend such an affair, which provides for their more or less uneventful lives a certain sort of entertainment and a topic out of the ordinary for discussion. On this occasion they had almost completely filled the seats in the hall, staring at the judge, the lawyers, the witnesses and the prisoner, and filling the room with a suppressed hum of comment until called to order.
The clerk had done his part, the case had been stated, and Lawyer Frances, representing the prosecution, had made his opening, telling plainly and concisely what he would attempt to prove. A part of the stolen property – all that had been recovered – together with some other articles in evidence, could be seen on a table at the judge’s elbow. The prisoner sat at one side, with his counsel, Lawyer Marsh, near him. His face was calm; but it was not an attractive face, and more than one, gazing at it, had whispered to a neighbor that he looked like a thief. It is remarkable how quickly most persons may fancy they can perceive criminal indications in the features of any one charged with crime and placed under arrest.
Not far from Ben – as near as they would permit him – sat his blind brother, Jerry; and beside Jerry was seen Henry Bailey, the man from whom the afflicted boy had hidden repeatedly in his flight, after his uncle’s death. Bailey was a harmless, kindly-appearing person, who showed the greatest interest in every move of the trial, and who more than once was seen to speak a few low words in a seemingly reassuring manner into the ear of Jerry Stone. Pilot, the faithful, lay on the floor at Jerry’s side.
Of course Bern Hayden was on hand, and his father also. Bern was with the witnesses, but Mr. Hayden sat back, watching and listening in cold and distant satisfaction. The other witnesses were William Pickle, Roger Eliot, Sleuth Piper, and Spotty Davis, the last mentioned displaying a great deal of uneasiness, which at times amounted almost to fear.
The first person called upon was the deputy sheriff, who, questioned by Lawyer Frances, stated that upon the previous night he was at Stickney’s store shortly after supper, where Bern Hayden found him and told him that there had been a robbery, adding the request that he should at once find Ben Stone, whom Hayden suspected, and search him. In company with Bern, Pickle had gone to the house of Mrs. Jones and obtained admission to the room of the suspected lad, only to discover that the room was empty, and, from indications, that Ben and his brother had made hasty flight.
“Go on, officer,” urged Lawyer Frances. “What did you do then?”
“At young Hayden’s request I searched the place,” said Pickle. “Under the straw tick of the bed I found two watches, two rings, and some money, amounting to purty nigh ten dollars.”
“Are these the watches and the rings?” questioned the lawyer, handing the articles to the witness for inspection.
“Yep,” nodded Pickle positively, “them’s they. I looked them over, and I’m reddy to swear they’re the ones.”
“And the money here – ”
“I wouldn’t swear to that; but they was a five dollar bill, a two dollar bill, and quite a lot of coin.”
“Did you find anything else?”
“Yep; a letter – that is, a sort of a letter, writ in lead pencil and apparently scratched off in a mighty hurry.”
“Is this it?” The sheet on which Ben had written his hasty farewell to Mrs. Jones was taken from the table and handed to the deputy sheriff for inspection.
“Sartin, that’s it,” declared the officer. “I read the most of it, though part was scrawled so that I couldn’t make it out.”
“Your Honor,” said the prosecuting attorney, “the chirography is that of a person writing in great haste, and therefore somewhat difficult to read. I am sure, however, that I can read it; and with your permission I will do so.”
The judge gave consent, and Mr. Frances read the note slowly and distinctly, placing particular emphasis on certain phrases. Listening, Ben Stone was astounded and almost appalled as he realized that to most persons that brief note must sound like a confession of guilt.
Pickle went on to tell how, urged by Bern Hayden and his father, he had set out at once to trace the fugitives, and had finally succeeded, through the discovery of the blind boy’s little dog, in apprehending Ben some miles beyond Barville.
“Course,” concluded the officer, “we give the feller warnin’ that anything he said might be used as evidence ag’in’ him, and I ruther guess he kept it in mind; for, ’though we talked with him considerable on the way back to Oakdale, he didn’t make no slip-ups, and he pertended all the time not to know nothin’ at all ’bout the robbery. I says to Constable Hubbard, says I, ‘He’s a slick critter, an – ’”
“Never mind that,” interrupted Judge Trueworthy. “Your opinions of the prisoner’s conduct are not desired.”
“’Scuse me, Your Honor,” said William Pickle.
That was all; with a gesture Lawyer Marsh signified that he did not wish to cross-question the officer, and Pickle sat down.
Bern Hayden was called next, and as he rose Ben Stone’s hand involuntarily went up to his mutilated ear, while his pale face became, if possible, a shade more pallid. He kept his eyes unflinchingly on Bern, who, after a single look in his direction, turned his gaze aside.
Bern told his story without hesitation. Chancing to overhear Stone bidding Eliot good-by at the football field, an impulse had led him to leave the field and follow the fellow. Having seen Ben proceed directly into the village, however, he had returned to the field and practiced with the team until it became too dark for further work. With the others he had gone into the gymnasium, where two lockers, his and Eliot’s, had been discovered broken open and rifled. He had lost his watch, two rings, and some money, nearly eight dollars, which he had left in his own locker. He then identified one of the watches and both of the rings as belonging to him, further stating that the money left by him in his locker was a five dollar bill, a two dollar bill, and change which must have amounted to nearly a dollar and a half. Knowing Ben Stone as he did, he had suspected him at once, and therefore he went in search of the deputy sheriff, whom he had some difficulty in finding. He had been on hand when Pickle searched Stone’s room, and had seen the officer uncover the stolen property and take possession of Ben’s note of farewell to Mrs. Jones.
Bern having finished, Lawyer Marsh cross-questioned him.
“Hayden,” said the lawyer, “you were acquainted with Benjamin Stone ere you came here to Oakdale, were you not?”
“You knew him, I believe, in Hilton, his native town?”
“I did, sir.”
“And, if I am not misinformed, you had some trouble with him there, did you not?”
“Was not this trouble of a somewhat serious nature – a personal encounter between you and Stone, which led you to entertain the most intense feelings of animosity toward him?”
“I object, Your Honor,” cried Lawyer Frances. “I can’t see what this has to do with the present case.”
“Your Honor,” beamed Marsh placidly, “I propose to establish that this feeling of animosity which young Hayden entertained toward Stone has a great deal to do with the case. I propose to show a motive on Hayden’s part which might lead him into an effort to injure my client.”
“Go on,” said the judge. “Objection overruled.”
The lawyer repeated the question, and, after a bit of hesitation, Hayden answered:
“We had a fight in Hilton, but even before that I had no use for Stone. He was a cheap, ruffianly fellow, and nobody thought anything of him in that town. His father – ”
“Never mind that,” interrupted Marsh sharply. “Answer my questions, that’s all. You admit a feeling of dislike for Stone?”
“Nobody ever liked him – before he came here; and he wouldn’t have had any friends here if, by accident, he hadn’t – ”
“We’ll cut that out also. Is it not true that on finding Stone in this town you exerted your utmost efforts to turn your schoolmates against him and to force him out of school? Did you not induce your father to go to Principal Richardson of the academy for the purpose of urging him to turn Benjamin Stone out?”
Unable to restrain himself longer, Lemuel Hayden sprang up, crying:
“Look here, I want to know if it’s my son who is on trial.”
“Not yet, sir – not yet,” answered Lawyer Marsh serenely.
The judge rapped sharply for order and requested Mr. Hayden not to interrupt the proceedings.
Having led Bern into acknowledging he had done his best to force Ben out of Oakdale Academy, Lawyer Marsh seemed satisfied. Lawyer Frances, however, was far from it; and immediately, by various questions, he tried to show that Bern, knowing the dangerous and desperate character of Stone, had tried to get him dropped from the school because he did not believe he was a fit person to associate with the academy scholars. At this Lawyer Marsh simply smiled.
Roger Eliot came next, identifying one of the watches as belonging to him, and stating he had lost a little over two dollars in coin, which had been taken from his locker.
These were all the witnesses against the prisoner, and Marsh, after a brief opening address, began by calling those who had been summoned for him. Henry Bailey, the first, was requested to explain his business in Oakdale. Mr. Bailey stated that, following the death of Asher Rand, Jerry Stone, the blind boy, had disappeared ere the funeral could take place or Mr. Rand’s will be read. Bailey had been engaged to learn whence the blind boy had gone and bring him back. In endeavoring to do this he had been led a hard chase, failing more than once by the smallest margin in getting his hands upon the elusive boy, and in the end the pursuit had brought him to Oakdale.