Story type: Literature
Albert Lohr was studying the motion of the ropes and lamps, and listening to the rumble of the wheels and the roar of the ferocious wind against the pane of glass that his head touched. It was the midnight train from Marion rushing toward Warsaw like some savage thing unchained, creaking, shrieking, and clattering through the wild storm which possessed the whole Mississippi Valley.
Albert lost sight of the lamps at last, and began to wonder what his future would be. “First I must go through the university at Madison; then I’ll study law, go into politics, and perhaps some time I may go to Washington.”
In imagination he saw that wonderful city. As a Western boy, Boston to him was historic, New York was the great metropolis, but Washington was the great American city, and political greatness the only fame.
The car was nearly empty: save here and there the wide-awake Western drummer, and a woman with four fretful children, the train was as deserted as it was frightfully cold. The engine shrieked warningly at intervals, the train rumbled hollowly over short bridges and across pikes, swung round the hills, and plunged with wild warnings past little towns hid in the snow, with only here and there a light shining dimly.
One of the drummers now and then rose up from his cramped bed on the seats, and swore cordially at the railway company for not heating the cars. The woman with the children inquired for the tenth time, “Is the next station Lodi?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is,” snarled the drummer, as he jerked viciously at the strap on his valise; “and darned glad I am, too, I can tell yeh! I’ll be stiff as a car-pin if I stay in this infernal ice-chest another hour. I wonder what the company think–“
At Lodi several people got on, among them a fat man with a pretty daughter, who appeared to be abnormally wide awake–considering the time of night. She saw Albert for the same reason that he saw her–they were both young and good-looking.
The student began his musings again, modified by this girl’s face. He had left out the feminine element; obviously he must recapitulate. He’d study law, yes; but that would not prevent going to sociables and church fairs. And at these fairs the chances were good for a meeting with a girl. Her father must be influential–county judge or district attorney. Marriage would open new avenues–
He was roused by the sound of his own name.
“Is Albert Lohr in this car?” shouted the brakeman, coming in, enveloped in a cloud of fine snow.
“Yes, here!” called Albert.
“Here’s a telegram for you.”
Albert snatched the envelope with a sudden fear of disaster at home; but it was dated “Tyre”:
“Get off at Tyre. I’ll be there.
“Well, now, that’s fun!” said Albert, looking at the brakeman. “When do we reach there?”
“Well, by thunder! A pretty time o’ night!”
The brakeman grinned sympathetically. “Any answer?” he asked, at length.
“No; that is, none that will do the matter justice.”
“Hartley friend o’ yours?”
“Yes; know him?”
“Yes; he boarded where I did in Warsaw.”
When he came back again, the brakeman said to Albert, in a hesitating way:
“Ain’t going t’ stop off long, I s’pose?”
“May an’ may not; depends on Hartley. Why?”
“Well, I’ve got an aunt there that keeps boarders, and I kind o’ like t’ send her one when I can. If you should happen to stay a few days, go an’ see her. She sets up first-class grub, an’ it wouldn’t kill anybody, anyhow, if you went up an’ called.”
“Course not. If I stay long enough to make it pay I’ll look her up sure. I’m no Vanderbilt. I can’t afford to stop at two-dollar-a-day hotels.”
The brakeman sat down opposite, encouraged by Albert’s smile.
“Y’ see, my division ends at Warsaw, and I run back and forth here every other day, but I don’t get much chance to see them, and I ain’t worth a cuss f’r letter-writin’. Y’ see, she’s only aunt by marriage, but I like her; an’ I guess she’s got about all she can stand up under, an’ so I like t’ help her a little when I can. The old man died owning nothing but the house, an’ that left the old lady t’ rustle f’r her livin’. Dummed if she ain’t sandy as old Sand. They’re gitt’n’ along purty–“
The whistle blew for brakes, and, seizing his lantern, the brakeman slammed out on the platform.
“Tough night for twisting brakes,” suggested Albert, when he came in again.
“Yes–on the freight.”
“Good heavens! I should say so. They don’t run freight such nights as this?”
“Don’t they? Well, I guess they don’t stop for a storm like this if they’s any money to be made by sending her through. Many’s the night I’ve broke all night on top of the old wooden cars, when the wind was sharp enough to shear the hair off a cast-iron mule–woo-o-o! There’s where you need grit, old man,” he ended, dropping into familiar speech.
“Yes; or need a job awful bad.”
The brakeman was struck with this idea. “There’s where you’re right. A fellow don’t take that kind of a job for the fun of it. Not much! He takes it because he’s got to. That’s as sure’s you’re a foot high. I tell you, a feller’s got t’ rustle these days if he gits any kind of a job–“
“Toot, too-o-o-o-t, toot!”
The station passed, the brakeman did not return, perhaps because he found some other listener, perhaps because he was afraid of boring this pleasant young fellow.
Albert shuddered with a sympathetic pain as he thought of the heroic fellows on the tops of icy cars, with hands straining at frosty brakes, the wind cutting their faces like a sand-blast. Oh, those tireless hands at the wheel and throttle!–
He looked at his watch; it was two o’clock; the next station was Tyre. As he began to get his things together, the brakeman again addressed him:
“Oh, I forgot to say that the old lady’s name is Welsh–Mrs. Robert Welsh. Say I sent yeh, and it’ll be all right.”
“Sure! I’ll try her in the morning–that is, if I find out I’m going to stay.”
Albert clutched his valise, and pulled his cap firmly down on his head.
“Here goes!” he muttered.
“Hold y’r breath!” shouted the brakeman. Albert swung himself to the platform before the station–a platform of planks along which the snow was streaming like water.
“Good-night!” shouted the brakeman.
“All-l abo-o-o-ard!” called the conductor somewhere in the storm. The brakeman swung his lantern, the train drew off into the blinding whirl, and its lights were soon lost in the clouds of snow.
No more desolate place could well be imagined. A level plain, apparently bare of houses, swept by a ferocious wind; a dingy little den called a station–no other shelter in sight; no sign of life save the dull glare of two windows to the left, alternately lost and found in the storm.
Albert’s heart contracted with a sudden fear; the outlook was appalling.
“Where’s the town?” he asked of a dimly seen figure with a lantern–a man evidently locking the station door, his only refuge.
“Over there,” was the surly reply.
“‘Bout a mile.”
“That’s what I said–a mile.”
“Well, I’ll be blanked!”
“Well, y’ better be doing something besides standing here, ‘r y’ ‘ll freeze t’ death. I’d go over to the Arteeshun House an’ go t’ bed if I was in your fix.”
“Well, where is the Artesian House?”
“See them lights?”
“I see them lights.”
“Well, they’re it.”
“Oh, wouldn’t your grammar make Old Grammaticuss curl up, though!”
“What say?” queried the man bending his head toward Albert, his form being almost lost in the snow that streamed against them both.
“I said I guessed I’d try it,” grinned the youth, invisibly.
“Well, I would if I was in your fix. Keep right close after me; they’s some ditches here, and the foot-bridges are none too wide.”
“The Artesian is owned by the railway, eh?”
“And you’re the clerk?”
“Yup; nice little scheme, ain’t it?”
“Well, it’ll do,” replied Albert.
The man laughed without looking around.
In the little bar-room, lighted by a vilely smelling kerosene lamp, the clerk, hitherto a shadow and a voice, came to light as a middle-aged man with a sullen face slightly belied by a sly twinkle in his eyes.
“This beats all the winters I ever did see. It don’t do nawthin’ but blow, blow. Want to go to bed, I s’pose. Well, come along.”
He took up one of the absurd little lamps and tried to get more light out of it.
“Dummed if a white bean wouldn’t be better.”
“Spit on it!” suggested Albert.
“I’d throw the whole business out o’ the window for a cent!” growled the man.
“Here’s y’r cent,” said the boy.
“You’re mighty frisky f’r a feller gitt’n’ off’n a midnight train,” replied the man, as he tramped along a narrow hallway. He spoke in a voice loud enough to awaken every sleeper in the house.
“Have t’ be, or there’d be a pair of us.”
“You’ll laugh out o’ the other side o’ y’r mouth when you saw away on one o’ the bell-collar steaks this house puts up,” ended the clerk, as he put the lamp down.
“Sufficient unto the morn is the evil thereof,’” called Albert after him.
He was awakened the next morning by the cooks pounding steak down in the kitchen and wrangling over some division of duty. It was a vile place at any time, but on a morning like this it was appalling. The water was frozen, the floor like ice, the seven-by-nine glass frosted so that he couldn’t see to comb his hair.
“All that got me out of bed,” he remarked to the clerk, “was the thought of leaving.”
The breakfast was incredibly bad–so much worse than he expected that Albert was forced to admit he had never seen its like. He fled from the place without a glance behind, and took passage in an omnibus for the town, a mile away. It was terribly cold, the thermometer registering twenty below zero; but the sun was very brilliant, and the air still.
The driver pulled up before a very ambitious wooden hotel entitled “The Eldorado,” and Albert dashed in at the door and up to the stove, with both hands covering his ears.
As he stood there, frantic with pain, kicking his toes and rubbing his hands, he heard a chuckle–a slow, sly, insulting chuckle–turned, and saw Hartley standing in the doorway, visibly exulting over his misery.
“Hello, Bert! that you?”
“What’s left of me. Say, you’re a good one, you are? Why didn’t you telegraph me at Marion? A deuce of a night I’ve had of it!”
“Do ye good,” laughed Hartley, a tall, alert, handsome fellow nearly thirty years of age.
After a short and vigorous “blowing up,” Albert asked: “Well, now, what’s the meaning of all this, anyhow? Why this change from Racine?”
“Well, you see, I got wind of another fellow going to work this county for a Life of Logan, and thinks I, ‘By jinks! I’d better drop in ahead of him with Blaine’s Twenty Tears.’ I telegraphed f’r territory, got it, and telegraphed to stop you.”
“You did it. When did you come down?”
“Last night, six o’clock.”
Albert was getting warmer and better-natured.
“Well, I’m here; what are you going t’ do with me?”
“I’ll use you some way. First thing is to find a boarding-place where we can work in a couple o’ books on the bill.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, but I’m going to look up a place a brakeman gave me a pointer on.”
“All right; here goes!”
Scarcely any one was stirring on the streets. The wind was pitilessly cold, though not strong. The snow under their feet cried out with a note like glass and steel. The windows of the stores were thick with frost, and Albert shivered with a sense of homelessness. He had never experienced anything like this before. “I don’t want much of this,” he muttered, through his scarf.
Mrs. Welsh lived in a large frame house standing on the edge of a bank, and as the young men waited at the door they could look down on the meadow-land, where the river lay blue and hard as steel.
A pale little girl, ten or twelve years of age, opened the door.
“Is this where Mrs. Welsh lives?”
“Will you ask her to come here a moment?”
“Yes, sir,” piped the little one. “Won’t you come in and sit down by the fire?” she added, with a quaint air of hospitality.
The room was the usual village sitting-room. A cylinder heater full of wood stood at one side of it. A rag carpet, much faded, covered the floor. The paper on the wall was like striped candy, and the chairs were nondescript; but everything was clean–worn more with brushing than with use.
A slim woman of fifty, with hollow eyes and a patient smile, came in, wiping her hands on her apron.
“How d’ye do? Did you want to see me?”
“Yes,” said Hartley, smiling. “The fact is, we’re book agents, and looking for a place to board.”
“Well–a–I–yes, I keep boarders.”
“I was sent here by a brakeman on the midnight express,” put in Bert,
“Oh, Tom,” said the woman, her face clearing. “Tom’s always sending us people. Why, yes; I’ve got room for you, I guess–this room here.” She pushed open a folding door leading into what had been her parlor.
“You can have this.”
“And the price?”
“Eight dollars f’r the two of us. All right; we’ll be with you a week or two if we have luck.”
Mrs. Welsh smiled. “Excuse me, won’t you? I’ve got to be at my baking; make y’rselves at home.”
Bert remarked how much she looked like his own mother in the back. She had the same tired droop in the shoulders, the same colorless dress, characterless with much washing.
“Certainly. I feel at home already,” replied Bert. “Now, Jim,” he said, after she left the room, “I’m going t’ stay right here while you go and order our trunks around–just t’ pay you off f’r last night.”
“All right,” said Hartley cheerily, going out.
After getting warm, Bert returned to the sitting-room, and sat down at the parlor organ and played a gospel hymn or two from the Moody and Sankey hymnal. He was in the midst of the chorus of Let Your Lower Lights, etc., when a young woman entered the room. She had a whisk-broom in her hand, and stood a picture of gentle surprise. Bert wheeled about on his stool.
“I thought it was Stella,” she began.
“I’m a book agent,” Bert explained. “I might as well out with it. There are two of us. Come here to board.”
“Oh!” said the girl, with some relief. She was very fair and very slight, almost frail. Her eyes were of the sunniest blue, her face pale and somewhat thin, but her lips showed scarlet, and her teeth were fine. Bert liked her and smiled.
“A book agent is the next thing to a burglar, I know; but still–“
“Oh, I didn’t mean that, but I was surprised. When did you come?”
“Just a few moments ago. Am I in your way?” he inquired, with elaborate solicitude.
“Oh no! Please go on. You play very well. It is seldom young men play at all.”
“I had to at college; the other fellows all wanted to sing. You play, of course.”
“When I have time.” She sighed. There was a weary droop in her voice; she seemed aware of it, and said more brightly:
“You mean Madison, I suppose?”
“Yes; I’m in my second year.”
“I went there two years. Then I had to quit and come home to help mother.”
“Did you? That’s why I’m out here on this infernal book business–to get money to go on with.”
She looked at him with interest now, noticing his fine eyes and waving brown hair.
“It’s dreadful, isn’t it? But you’ve got a hope to go back. I haven’t.” She ended with a sigh, a far-off expression in her eyes. “It almost killed me to give it up. I don’t s’pose I’d know any of the scholars you know. Even the teachers are not the same. Oh, yes–Sarah Shaw; I think she’s back for the normal course.”
“Oh yes!” exclaimed Bert, “I know Sarah. We boarded on the same street; used t’ go home together after class. An awful nice girl, too.”
“She’s a worker. She teaches school. I can’t do that, for mother needs me at home.” There was another pause, broken by the little girl, who called:
“Maud, mamma wants you.”
Maud rose and went out, with a tired smile on her face that emphasized her resemblance to her mother. Bert couldn’t forget that smile, and he was still thinking about the girl, and what her life must be, when Hartley came in.
“By jinks! It’s snifty, as dad used to say. You can’t draw a long breath through your nostrils without freezing y’r nose solid as a bottle,” he announced, throwing off his coat. “By-the-way, I’ve just found out why you was so anxious to get into this house. Another case o’ girl, hey?”
Bert blushed; he couldn’t help it, notwithstanding his innocence in this case. “I didn’t know it myself till about ten minutes ago,” he protested.
Hartley winked prodigiously.
“Don’t tell me! Is she pretty?”
The girl returned at this moment with an armful of wood.
“Let me put it in,” cried Hartley, springing up. “Excuse me. My name is Hartley, book agent: Blaine’s Twenty Years, plain cloth, sprinkled edges, three dollars; half calf, three fifty. This is my friend Mr. Lohr, of Marion; German extraction, soph at the university.”
The girl bowed and smiled, and pushed by him toward the door of the parlor. Hartley followed her in, and Bert could hear them rattling away at the stove.
“Won’t you sit down and play for us?” asked Hartley, after they returned to the sitting-room. The persuasive music of the book agent was in his fine voice.
“Oh no! It’s nearly dinner-time, and I must help about the table.”
“Now make yourselves at home,” said Mrs. Welsh, appearing at the door leading to the kitchen; “if you want anything, just let me know.”
“All right. We will,” replied Hartley.
By the time the dinner-bell rang they were feeling at home in their new quarters. At the table they met the usual group of village boarders: the Brann brothers, newsdealers; old man Troutt, who ran the livery-stable–and smelled of it; and a small, dark, and wizened woman who kept the millinery store. The others, who came in late, were clerks in the stores near by.
Maud served the dinner, while Stella and her mother waited upon the table. Albert admired the hands of the girl, which no amount of work could quite rob of their essential shapeliness. She was not more than twenty, he decided, but she looked older, so wistful was her face.
“They’s one thing ag’in’ yeh,” Troutt, the liveryman, remarked to Hartley: “we’ve jest been worked for one o’ the goldingedest schemes you ever see! ‘Bout six munce ago s’m’ fellers come all through here claimin’ t’ be after information about the county and the leadin’ citizens; wanted t’ write a history, an’ wanted all the pitchers of the leading men, old settlers, an’ so on. You paid ten dollars, an’ you had a book an’ your pitcher in it.”
“I know the scheme,” grinned Hartley.
“Wal, sir, I s’pose them fellers roped in every man in this town. I don’t s’pose they got out with a cent less’n one thousand dollars. An’ when the book come–wal!” Here he stopped to roar. “I don’t s’pose you ever see a madder lot o’ men in your life. In the first place, they got the names and the pitchers mixed so that I was Judge Ricker, an’ Judge Ricker was ol’ man Daggett. Didn’t the judge swear–oh, it was awful!”
“I should say so.”
“An the pitchers that wa’n’t mixed was so goldinged black you couldn’t tell ’em from niggers. You know how kind o’ lily-livered Lawyer Ransom is? Wal, he looked like ol’ black Joe; he was the maddest man of the hull bi’lin’. He throwed the book in the fire, and tromped around like a blind bull.”
“It wasn’t a success, I take it, then. Why, I should ‘a’ thought they’d ‘a’ nabbed the fellows.”
“Not much! They was too keen for that. They didn’t deliver the books theirselves; they hired Dick Bascom to do it f’r them. ‘Course, Dick wa’n’t t’ blame.”
“No; I never tried it before,” Albert was saying to Maud, at their end of the table. “Hartley offered me a job, and as I needed money, I came. I don’t know what he’s going to do with me, now I’m here.”
Albert did not go out after dinner with Hartley; it was too cold. He had brought his books with him, planning to keep up with his class, if possible, and was deep in “Caesar” when a timid knock came upon the door.
“Come!” he called, student fashion,
Maud entered, her face aglow.
“How natural that sounds!” she said.
Albert sprang up to take the wood from her arms. “I wish you’d let me do that,” he said, pleadingly, as she refused his aid.
“I wasn’t sure you were in. Were you reading?”
“Caesar,” he replied, holding up the book. “I am conditioned on Latin. I’m going over the ‘Commentaries’ again.”
“I thought I knew the book,” she laughed.
“You read Latin?”
“Yes, a little–Vergil.”
“Maybe you can help me out on these oratia obliqua. They bother me yet. I hate these ‘Caesar saids.’ I like Vergil better.”
She stood at his shoulder while he pointed out the knotty passage. She read it easily, and he thanked her. It was amazing how well acquainted they felt after this.
The wind roared outside in the bare maples, and the fire boomed in its pent place within, but these young people had forgotten time and place. The girl sank into a chair almost unconsciously as they talked of Madison–a great city to them–of the Capitol building, of the splendid campus, of the lakes, and the gay sailing there in summer and ice-boating in winter.
“Oh, it makes me homesick!” cried the girl, with a deep sigh. “It was the happiest, sunniest time of all my life. Oh, those walks and talks! Those recitations in the dear, chalky old rooms! Oh, how I would like to go back over that hollow door-stone again!”
She broke off, with tears in her eyes, and he was obliged to cough two or three times before he could break the silence.
“I know just how you feel. The first spring when I went back on the farm it seemed as if I couldn’t stand it. I thought I’d go crazy. The days seemed forty-eight hours long. It was so lonesome, and so dreary on rainy days! But of course I expected to go back; that’s what kept me up. I don’t think I could have stood it if I hadn’t had hope.”
“I’ve given it up now,” she said, plaintively; “it’s no use hoping.”
“Why don’t you teach?” he asked, deeply affected by her voice and manner.
“I did teach here for a year, but I couldn’t endure the strain; I’m not very strong, and the boys were so rude. If I could teach in a seminary–teach Latin and English–I should be happy, I think. But I can’t leave mother now.”
She was a wholly different girl in Albert’s eyes as she said this. Her cheap dress, her check apron, could not hide the pure intellectual flame of her spirit. Her large, blue eyes were deep with thought, and the pale face, lighted by the glow of the fire, was as lovely as a rose. Almost before he knew it, he was telling her of his life.
“I don’t see how I endured it as long as I did,” he went on. “It was nothing but work, work, and dust or mud the whole year round; farm-life, especially on a dairy farm, is slavery.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “that is true. Father was a carpenter, and I’ve always lived here; but we have people who are farmers, and I know how it is with them.”
“Why, when I think of it now it makes me crawl! To think of getting up in the morning before daylight, and going out to the barn to do chores, to get ready to go into the field to work! Working, wasting y’r life on dirt. Waiting and tending on cows seven hundred times a year. Goin’ round and round in a circle, and never getting out. You needn’t talk to me of the poetry of a farmer’s life.”
“It’s just the same for us women,” she corroborated. “Think of us going around the house day after day, and doing just the same things over an’ over, year after year! That’s the whole of most women’s lives. Dishwashing almost drives me crazy.”
“I know it,” said Albert; “but somebody has t’ do it. And if a fellow’s folks are workin’ hard, why, of course he can’t lay around and study. They’re not to blame. I don’t know that anybody’s to blame.”
“I don’t suppose anybody is, but it makes me sad to see mother going around as she does, day after day. She won’t let me do as much as I would.” The girl looked at her slender hands. “You see, I’m not very strong. It makes my heart ache to see her going around in that quiet, patient way; she’s so good.”
“I know, I know! I’ve felt just like that about my mother and father, too.”
There was a long pause, full of deep feeling, and then the girl continued in a low, hesitating voice:
“Mother’s had an awful hard time since father died. We had to go to keeping boarders, which was hard–very hard for mother.” The boy felt a sympathetic lump in his throat as the girl went on again: “But she doesn’t complain, and she didn’t want me to come home from school; but of course I couldn’t do anything else.”
It didn’t occur to either of them that any other course was open, nor that there was any special heroism or self-sacrifice in the act; it was simply right.
“Well, I’m not going to drudge all my life,” said Albert, at last. “I know it’s kind o’ selfish, but I can’t live on a farm. I’ve made up my mind to study law and enter the bar. Lawyers manage to get hold of enough to live on decently, and that’s more than you can say of the farmers. And they live in town, where something is going on once in a while, anyway.”
In the pause which followed, footsteps were heard on the walk outside, and the girl sprang up with a beautiful blush.
“My stars! I didn’t think–I forgot–I must go.”
Hartley burst into the room shortly after she left it, in his usual breeze.
“Hul-lo! Still at the Latin, hey?”
“Yes,” said Bert, with ease. “How goes it?”
“Oh, I’m whooping ‘er up! I’m getting started in great shape. Been up to the court-house and roped in three of the county officials. In these small towns the big man is the politician or the clergyman. I’ve nailed the politicians through the ear; now you must go for the ministers to head the list–that’s your lay-out.”
“How ‘m I t’ do it?” asked Bert, in an anxious tone. “I can’t sell books if they don’t want ’em.”
“Why, cert! That’s the trick. Offer a big discount. Say full calf, two fifty; morocco, two ninety. Regular discount to the clergy, ye know. Oh, they’re on to that little racket–no trouble. If you can get a few of these leaders of the flock, the rest will follow like lambs to the slaughter. Tra-la-la–who-o-o-ish, whish!”
Albert laughed at Hartley as he plunged his face into the ice-cold water, puffing and wheezing.
“Jeemimy Crickets! but ain’t that water cold! I worked Rock River this way last month, and made a boomin’ success. If you take hold here in the–“
“Oh, I’m all ready to stand anything short of being kicked out.”
“No danger of that if you’re a real book agent. It’s the snide that gets kicked. You’ve got t’ have some savvy in this, just like any other business.” He stopped in his dressing to say, “We’ve struck a great boarding-place, hey?”
“Looks like it.”
“I begin t’ cotton to the old lady a’ready. Good ‘eal like mother used t’ be ‘fore she broke down. Didn’t the old lady have a time of it raisin’ me? Phewee! Patient! Job wasn’t a patchin’. But the test is goin’ t’ come on the biscuit; if her biscuit comes up t’ mother’s I’m hern till death.”
He broke off to comb his hair, a very nice bit of work in his case.
There was no discernible reason why the little town should have been called Tyre, and yet its name was as characteristically American as its architecture. It had the usual main street lined with low brick or wooden stores–a street which developed into a road running back up a wide, sandy valley away from the river. Being a county town, it had a court-house in a yard near the centre of the town, and a big summer hotel. Curiously shaped and oddly distributed hills rose abruptly out of the valley sand, forming a sort of amphitheatre in which the village lay. These square-topped hills ended at a common level, showing that they were not the result of an upheaval, but were the remains of the original stratification formations left standing after the scooping action of the post-glacial floods had ceased.
Some of them looked like ruined walls of castles ancient as hills, on whose massive tops time had sown sturdy oaks and cedars. They lent a distinct air of romance to the landscape at all times; but when in summer graceful vines clambered over their rugged sides, and underbrush softened their broken lines, it was not at all difficult to imagine them the remains of an unrecorded and very war-like people.
Even now, in winter, with yellow-brown and green cedars standing starkly upon their summits, these towers possessed a distinct charm, and in the early morning when the trees glistened with frost, or at evening when the white light of the sun was softened and violet shadows lay along the snow, the whole valley was a delight to the eye, full of distinct and lasting charm.
In the campaign which Hartley began, Albert did his best, and his best was done unconsciously; for the simplicity of his manner–all unknown to himself–was the most potent factor in securing consideration.
“I’m not a book agent,” he said to one of the clergymen to whom he first appealed; “I’m a student trying to sell a good book and make a little money to help me to complete my course at the university.”
In this way he secured three clergymen to head the list, much to the delight and admiration of Hartley.
“Good! Now corral the alumni of the place. Work the fraternal racket to the bitter end. Oh, say! there’s a sociable to-morrow night; I guess we’d better go, hadn’t we?”
“Alone? No! Take some girls. I’m going to take neighbor Pickett’s daughter; she’s homely as a hedge fence, but I’ll take her for business reasons.”
“Hartley, you’re an infernal fraud!”
“Nothing of the kind–I’m a salesman,” ended Hartley, with a laugh.
After supper the following day, as Albert was still lingering at the table with the girls and Mrs. Welsh, he said to Maud:
“Are you going to the sociable?”
“No; I guess not.”
“Would you go if I asked you?”
“Try me and see!” answered the girl, with a laugh, her color rising.
“All right. Miss Welsh, will you attend the festivity of the evening under my guidance and protection?”
“Yes, thank you; but I must wash the dishes first.”
“I’ll wash the dishes; you go get ready,” said Mrs. Welsh.
Albert felt that he had one of the loveliest girls in the room as he led Maud down the floor of the vestry of the church. Her cheeks were glowing, and her eyes shining with maidenly delight as they took seats at the table to sip a little coffee and nibble a bit of cake.
Maud introduced him to a number of young people who had been students at the university. They received him cordially, and in a very short time he was enjoying himself very well indeed. He was reminded rather disagreeably of his office, however, by seeing Hartley surrounded by a laughing crowd of the more frolicsome young people. He winked at Albert, as much as to say, “Good stroke of business.”
The evening passed away with songs, games, and recitations, and it was nearly eleven o’clock when the young people began to wander off toward home in pairs. Albert and Maud were among the first of the young folks to bid the rest good-night.
The night was clear and keen but perfectly still, and the young people, arm in arm, walked slowly homeward under the bare maples, in delicious companionship. Albert held Maud’s arm close to his side.
“Are you cold?” he asked, in a low voice.
“No, thank you; the night is lovely,” she replied; then added, with a sigh, “I don’t like sociables so well as I used to–they tire me out.”
“We stayed too long.”
“It wasn’t that; I’m getting so they seem kind o’ silly.”
“Well, I feel a little that way myself,” he confessed.
“But there is so little to see here in Tyre at any time–no music, no theatres. I like theatres, don’t you?”
“I can’t go half enough.”
“But nothing worth seeing ever comes into these little towns–and then we’re all so poor, anyway.”
The lamp, turned low, was emitting a terrible odor as they entered the sitting-room.
“My goodness! it’s almost twelve o’clock! Good-night!” She held out her hand.
“Good-night!” he said, taking it, and giving it a cordial pressure which she remembered long.
“Good-night!” she repeated, softly, going up the stairs.
Hartley, who came in a few minutes later, found his partner sitting thoughtfully by the fire, with his coat and shoes off, evidently in deep abstraction.
“Well, I got away at last–much as ever. Great scheme, that sociable, eh? I saw your little girl introducing you right and left.”
“Say, Hartley, I wish you’d leave her out of this thing; I don’t like the way you speak of her when–“
“Phew! You don’t? Oh, all right! I’m mum as an oyster–only keep it up! Get into all the church sociables you can; there’s nothing like it.”
* * * * *
Hartley soon had canvassers out along the country roads, and was working every house in town. The campaign promised to lengthen into a month–perhaps longer. Albert especially became a great favorite. Every one declared there had never been such book agents in the town. “They’re such gentlemanly fellows. They don’t press anybody to buy. They don’t rush about and ‘poke their noses where they’re not wanted.’ They are more like merchants with books to sell.” The only person who failed to see the attraction in them was Ed Brann, who was popularly supposed to be engaged to Maud. He grew daily more sullen and repellent, toward Albert noticeably so.
One evening about six, after coming in from a long walk about town, Albert entered his room without lighting his lamp, lay down on the bed, and fell asleep. He had been out late the night before with Maud at a party, and slumber came almost instantly.
Maud came in shortly, hearing no response to her knock, and after hanging some towels on the rack went out without seeing the sleeper. In the sitting-room she met Ed Brann. He was a stalwart young man with curling black hair, and a heavy face at its best, but set and sullen now. His first words held a menace:
“Say, Maud, I want t’ talk to you.”
“Very well; what is it, Ed?” replied the girl, quietly.
“I want to know how often you’re going to be out till twelve o’clock with this book agent?”
Perhaps it was the derisive inflection on “book agent” that woke Albert. Brann’s tone was brutal–more brutal even than his words, and the girl turned pale and her breath quickened.
“Why, Ed, what’s the matter?”
“Matter is just this: you ain’t got any business goin’ around with that feller with my ring on your finger, that’s all.” He ended with an unmistakable threat in his voice.
“Very well,” said the girl, after a pause, curiously quiet; “then I won’t; here’s your ring.”
The man’s bluster disappeared instantly. Bert could tell by the change in his voice, which was incredibly great, as he pleaded:
“Oh, don’t do that, Maud; I didn’t mean to say that; I was mad–I’m sorry.”
“I’m glad you did it now, so I can know you. Take your ring, Ed; I never ‘ll wear it again.”
Albert had heard all this, but he did not know how the girl looked as she faced the man. In the silence which followed she scornfully passed him and went out into the kitchen. Brann went out and did not return at supper.
Young people of this sort are not self-analysts, and Maud did not examine closely into causes. She was astonished to find herself more indignant than grieved. She broke into an angry wail as she went to her mother’s bosom:
“Why, what’s the matter, Maudie? Tell me. There, there! don’t cry, pet! Who’s been hurtin’ my poor little bird?”
“Ed has; he said–he said–“
“There, there! poor child! Have you been quarrelling again? Never mind; it’ll come out all right.”
“No, it won’t–not the way you mean,” the girl declared. “I’ve given him back his ring, and I’ll never wear it again.”
The mother could not understand with what wounding brutality the man’s tone had fallen upon the girl’s spirit, and Maud could not explain sufficiently to justify herself. Mrs. Welsh consoled herself with the idea that it was only a lover’s quarrel–one of the little jars sure to come when two natures are settling together–and that all would be mended in a day or two.
Albert, being no more of a self-analyst than Maud, simply said, “Served him right,” and dwelt no more upon it for the time.
At supper, however, he was extravagantly gay, and to himself unaccountably so. He joked Troutt till Maud begged him to stop, and after the rest had gone he remained seated at the table, enjoying the indignant color in her face and the flash of her infrequent smile, which it was such a pleasure to provoke. He volunteered to help wash the dishes.
“Thank you, but I’m afraid you’d be more bother than help,” she replied.
“Thank you, but you don’t know me. I ain’t so green as I look by no manner o’ means. I’ve been doing my own housekeeping for four terms.”
“I know all about that,” laughed the girl. “You young men rooming do precious little cooking and no dish-washing at all.”
“That’s a base calumny! I made it a point to wash every dish in the house, except the spider, once a week; had a regular cleaning-up day.”
“And about the spider?”
“I wiped that out nicely with a newspaper every time I wanted to use it.”
“Oh, horrors!–Mother, listen to that!”
“Why, what more could you ask? You wouldn’t have me wipe it six times a day, would you?”
“I wonder it didn’t poison you,” commented Mrs. Welsh.
“Takes more’n that to poison a student,” laughed Albert, as he went out.
The next afternoon he came bursting into the kitchen, where Maud stood with her sleeves rolled up, deep in the dishpan.
“Don’t you want a sleigh-ride?” he asked, boyishly eager.
She looked up with shining eyes.
“Oh, wouldn’t I! Can you get along, mother?”
“Certainly, child. Go on. The air will do you good.”
“W’y, Maud!” said the little girl, “you said you didn’t want to when Ed–“
Mrs. Welsh silenced her, and said:
“Run right along, dear; it’s just the nicest time o’ day. Are there many teams out?”
“They’re just beginning to come out,” said Albert. “I’ll have a cutter around here in about two jiffies; be on hand, sure.”
Troutt was standing in the sunny doorway of his stable when the young fellow dashed up to him.
“Hullo, Uncle Troutt! Harness your fastest nag into your swellest outfit instanter.”
“Aha! Goin’ t’ take y’r girl out, hey?”
“Yes; and I want to do it in style.”
“I guess ol’ Dan’s the horse for you. Gentle as a kitten and as knowin’ as a fox. Drive him with one hand–left hand.” The old man laughed till his long, faded beard flapped up and down and quivered with the stress of his enjoyment of his joke. He ended by hitching a vicious-looking sorrel to a gay, duck-bellied cutter, saying, as he gave up the reins:
“Now, be keerful. Dan’s foxy; he’s all right when he sees you’ve got the reins, but don’t drop ’em.”
“Don’t you worry about me; I grew up with horses,” said the over-confident youth, leaping into the sleigh and gathering up the lines. “Stand aside, my lord, and let the cortege pass. Hoop-la!”
The brute gave a tearing lunge, and was out of the doorway before the old man could utter another word. Albert thrilled with pleasure as he felt the reins stiffen in his hands, and saw the traces swing slack beside the thills.
“If he keeps this up he’ll do,” he said aloud.
As he turned up at the gate Maud came gayly down the path, muffled to the eyes.
“Oh, what a nice cutter! But the horse–is he gentle?” she asked, as she climbed in.
“As a cow,” Albert replied.–“Git out o’ this, Bones!”
The main street was already filled with wood sleighs, bob-sleds filled with children, and men in light cutters, out for a race. Laughter was on the air, and the jingle-jangle of bells. The sun was dazzling in its brightness, and the gay wraps and scarfs lighted up the scene with flecks of color. Loafers on the sidewalks fired familiar phrases at the teams as they passed:
“Step up, Bones!”
“Let ‘er go, Gallagher!”
“Get there, Eli,” and the like.
But what cared the drivers? If the shouts were insolent they laid them to envy, and if they were pleasant they smiled in reply.
Albert and Maud had made two easy turns up and down the street when a man driving a span of large Black Hawk horses dashed up a side street and whirled in just before them. The man was a superb driver, and sat with the reins held carelessly but securely in his left hand, guiding the team more by his voice than by the bit.
“Hel-lo!” cried Bert; “that looks like Brann.”
“It is,” said Maud.
“Cracky! that’s a fine team–Black Hawks, both of them. I wonder if ol’ sorrel can pass ’em?”
“Oh, please don’t try!” pleaded the girl.
“Because–because I’m afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid something ‘ll happen.”
“Something is sure to happen; I’m goin’ to pass him if old Bones has any git to him.”
“It’ll make him mad.”
“Who mad? Brann?”
“Well, s’pose it does, who cares?”
There were a dozen similar rigs moving up or down the street, and greetings passed from sleigh to sleigh. Everybody except Brann welcomed Albert with sincere pleasure, and exchanged rustic jokes with him. As they slowed up at the upper end of the street and began to turn, a man on the sidewalk said, confidentially:
“Say, cap’, if you handle that old rack o’ bones just right, he’ll distance anything on this road. When you want him to do his best let him have the rein; don’t pull a pound. I used to own ‘im–I know ‘im.”
The old sorrel came round “gauming,” his ugly head thrown up, his great red mouth open, his ears laid back. Brann and the young doctor of the place were turning together, a little farther up the street. The blacks, responding to their driver’s word, came down with flying hoofs, their great glossy breasts flecked with foam, their jaws champing.
“Come on, crow-bait!” yelled Brann, insultingly, as he came down past the doctor, and seemed about to pass Albert and Maud. There was hate in the glare of his eyes.
But he did not pass. The old sorrel seemed to lengthen; to the spectators his nose appeared to be glued to the glossy side of Brann’s off black.
“See them blacks trot!” shouted Albert, in ungrammatical enthusiasm.
“See that old sorrel shake himself!” yelled the loafers.
The doctor came tearing down with a spirited bay, a magnificent stepper. As he drew along so that Bert could catch a glimpse of the mare’s neck, he thrilled with delight. There was the thoroughbred’s lacing of veins; the proud fling of her knees and the swell of her neck showed that she was far from doing her best. There was a wild light in her eyes.
These were the fast teams of the town. All interest was centred in them.
“Clear the track!” yelled the loafers.
“The doc’s good f’r ’em.”
“If she don’t break.”
Albert was pulling at the sorrel heavily, absorbed in seeing, as well as he could for the flung snowballs, the doctor’s mare draw slowly, foot by foot, past the blacks. Suddenly Brann gave a shrill yell and stood up in his sleigh. The gallant little bay broke and fell behind; Brann laughed, the blacks trotted on, their splendid pace unchanged.
“Let the sorrel out!” yelled somebody.
“Let him loose!” yelled Troutt on the corner, quivering with excitement. “Let him go!”
Albert, remembering what the fellow had said, let the reins loose. The old sorrel’s teeth came together with a snap; his head lowered and his tail rose; he shot abreast of the blacks. Maud, frightened into silence, covered her head with the robe to escape the flying snow. The sorrel drew steadily ahead and was passing the blacks when Brann turned.
“Durn y’r old horse!” he yelled through his shut teeth, and laid the whip across the sorrel’s hips. The blacks broke wildly, but, strange to say, the old sorrel increased his speed. Again Brann struck, but the lash fell on Bert’s outstretched wrists. He did not see that the blacks were crowding him to the gutter, but he heard a warning cry.
“Look out, there!”
Before he could turn to look, the cutter seemed to be blown up by a bomb. He rose in the air like a vaulter, and when he fell the light went out.
The next that he heard was a curious soft murmur of voices, out of which a sweet, agonized girl-voice broke:
“Oh, where’s the doctor? He’s dead–oh, he’s dead! Can’t you hurry?”
Next came a quick, authoritative voice, still far away, and a hush followed it; then an imperative order:
“Stand out o’ the way! What do you think you can do by crowding on top of him?”
“Stand back! stand back!” other voices called.
Then he felt something cold on his scalp: they were taking his cap off and putting snow on his head; then the doctor–he knew him now–said:
“Let me take him!”
A dull, throbbing ache came into his head, and as this grew the noise of voices became more distinct, and he could hear sobbing. Then he opened his lids, but the glare of the sunlight struck them shut again; he saw only Maud’s face, agonized, white, and wet with tears, looking down into his.
They raised him a little more, and he again opened his eyes on the circle of hushed and excited men thronging about him. He saw Brann, with wild, scared face, standing in his cutter and peering over the heads of the crowd.
“How do you feel now?” asked the doctor.
“Can you hear us? Albert, do you know me?” called the girl.
His lips moved stiffly, but he smiled a little, and at length whispered slowly, “Yes; I guess–I’m all–right.”
“Put him into my cutter; Maud, get in here, too,” the doctor commanded. The crowd opened as the doctor and Troutt helped the wounded man into the sleigh. The pain in his head grew worse, but Albert’s perception of things sharpened in proportion; he closed his eyes to the sun, but in the shadow of Maud’s breast opened them again and looked up at her. He felt a vague, child-like pleasure in knowing that she was holding him in her arms; he thought of his mother–“how it would frighten her if she knew.”
“Hello!” called a breathless, hearty voice, “what the deuce y’ been doing with my pardner? Bert, old fellow, are you there?” Hartley asked, clinging to the edge of the moving cutter, and peering into his friend’s face. Albert smiled.
“I’m here–what there is left of me,” he replied, faintly.
“Glory! How did it happen?” he asked of the girl.
“I don’t know–I couldn’t see–we ran into a culvert,” replied Maud.
“Weren’t you hurt?”
“Not a bit. I stayed in the cutter.”
Albert groaned, and tried to rise, but the girl gently yet firmly restrained him. Hartley was walking beside the doctor, talking loudly. “It was a devilish thing to do; the scoundrel ought to be jugged!”
Albert tried again to rise. “I’m bleeding yet; I’m soaking you; let me get up!”
The girl shuddered, but remained firm.
“No; we’re ‘most home.”
She felt no shame, but a certain exaltation as she looked into the faces about her. She gazed unrecognizingly upon her nearest girl friends, and they, gazing upon her white face and unresponsive eyes, spoke in awed whispers.
At the gate the crowd gathered and waited with deepest interest. It was enthralling romance to them.
“Ed Brann done it,” said one.
“How?” asked another.
“With the butt end of his whip.”
“That’s a lie! His team ran into Lohr’s rig.”
“Not much; Ed crowded him into the ditch.”
“Cause Bert cut him out with Maud.”
“Come, get out of the way! Don’t stand there gabbing,” yelled Hartley, as he took Albert in his arms and, together with the doctor, lifted him out of the sleigh.
“Goodness sakes alive! Ain’t it terrible! How is he?” asked an old lady, peering at him as he passed.
On the porch stood Mrs. Welsh, supported by Ed Brann.
“She’s all right, I tell you. He ain’t hurt much, either; just stunned a little, that’s all.”
“Maud! child!” cried the mother, as Maud appeared, followed by a bevy of girls.
“I’m all right, mother,” she said, running into the trembling arms outstretched toward her; “but, oh, poor Albert!”
After the wounded man disappeared into the house the crowd dispersed. Brann went off by the way of the alley; he was not prepared to meet the questions of his accusers.
“Now, what in —- you been up to?” was the greeting of his brother, as he re-entered the shop.
“Welting a man on the head with a whip-stock ain’t anything, hey?”
“I didn’t touch him. We was racing, and he run into the culvert.”
“Hank says he saw you strike him.”
“He lies! I was strikin’ the horse to make him break!”
“Oh, yeh was!” sneered the older man. “Well, I hope you understand that this’ll ruin you in this town. If you didn’t strike him, they’ll say you run him into the culvert, ‘n’ every man, woman, ‘n’ child’ll be down on you, and me f’r bein’ related to you. They all know how you feel toward him for cuttin’ you out with Maud Welsh.”
“Oh, don’t bear down on him too hard, Joe. He didn’t mean t’ do any harm,” said Troutt, who had followed Ed down to the store. “I guess the young feller ‘ll come out all right. Just go kind o’ easy till we see how he turns out. If he dies, why, it’ll haf t’ be looked into.”
Ed turned pale and swallowed hastily. “If he should die I’ll be a murderer,” he thought. He acknowledged that hate was in his heart, and he shivered as he remembered the man’s white face with the bright red stream flowing down behind his ear and over his cheek. It almost seemed to him that he had struck him, so close had the accident followed upon the fall of his whip.
Albert sank into a feverish sleep that night, with a vague perception of four figures in the room–Maud, her mother, Hartley, and the young doctor. When he awoke fully in the morning his head felt prodigiously hot and heavy.
It was early dawn, and the lamp was burning brightly. Outside, a man’s feet could be heard on the squealing snow–a sound which told how still and cold it was. A team passed with a jingle of bells.
Albert raised his head and looked about. Hartley was lying on the sofa, rolled up in his overcoat and some extra quilts. He had lain down at last, worn with watching. Albert felt a little weak, and fell back on his pillow, thinking about the strange night he had passed–a night more filled with strange happenings than the afternoon.
As the light grew in the room his mind cleared, and lifting his muscular arm he opened and shut his hand, saying aloud, in his old boyish manner:
“I guess I’m all here.”
“What’s that?” called Hartley, rolling out of bed. “Did you ask for anything?”
“Give me some water, Jim; my mouth is dry as a powder-mill.”
“How yeh feelin’, anyway, pardner?” said Hartley, as he brought the water.
“First-rate, Jim; I guess I’ll be all right.”
“Well, I guess you’d better keep quiet.”
He threw on his coat next, and went out into the kitchen, returning soon with some hot water, with which he began to bathe his partner’s face and hands as tenderly as a woman.
“There; now I guess you’re in shape f’r grub–feel any like grub?–Come in,” he called, in answer to a knock on the door.
Mrs. Welsh entered.
“How is he?” she whispered, anxiously.
“Oh, I’m all right,” replied Albert.
“I’m glad to find you so much better,” she said, going to his bedside. “I’ve hardly slep’, I was so much worried about you. Your breakfast is ready, Mr. Hartley. I’ve got something special for Albert.”
A few minutes later Maud entered with a platter, followed closely by her mother.
The girl came forward timidly, but when Albert turned his eyes on her and called, cheerily, “Good morning!” she flamed out in rosy color and recoiled. She had expected to see him pale, dull-eyed, and with a weak voice, but there was little to indicate invalidism in his firm greeting. She gave place to Mrs. Welsh, who prepared his breakfast. She was smitten dumb by his tone, and hardly dared look at him as he sat propped up in bed.
However, though he was feeling absurdly well, there was a good deal of bravado in his tone and manner, for he ate but little, and soon sank back on the bed.
“I feel better when my head is low,” he explained, in a faint voice.
“Can’t I do something?” asked the girl, her courage reviving as she perceived how ill and faint he really was.
“I guess you better write to his folks,” said Mrs. Welsh.
“No, don’t do that,” he protested, opening his eyes; “it will only worry them, and do me no good. I’ll be all right in a few days. You needn’t waste your time on me; Hartley will wait on me.”
“Don’t mind him,” said Mrs. Welsh. “I’m his mother now, and he’s goin’ to do just as I tell him to–aren’t you, Albert?”
He dropped his eyelids in assent, and went off into a doze. It was all very pleasant to be thus waited upon. Hartley was devotion itself, and the doctor removed his bandages with the care and deliberation of a man with a moderate practice; besides, he considered Albert a personal friend.
Hartley, after the doctor had gone, said with some hesitation:
“Well, now, pard, I ought to go out and see a couple o’ fellows I promised t’ meet this morning.”
“All right, Jim; all right. You go right ahead on business; I’m goin’ t’ sleep, anyway, and I’ll be all right in a day or two.”
“Well, I will; but I’ll run in every hour ‘r two and see if you don’t want something. You’re in good hands, anyway, when I’m gone.”
* * * * *
“Won’t you read to me?” pleaded Albert, one afternoon, when Maud came in with her mother to brush up the room. “It’s getting rather slow business layin’ here like this.”
“Shall I, mother?”
“Why, of course, Maud.”
So Maud got a book, and sat down over by the stove, quite distant from the bed, and read to him from The Lady of the Lake, while the mother, like a piece of tireless machinery, moved about the house at the never-ending succession of petty drudgeries which wear the heart and soul out of so many wives and mothers, making life to them a pilgrimage from stove to pantry, from pantry to cellar, and from cellar to garret–a life that deadens and destroys, coarsens and narrows, till the flesh and bones are warped to the expression of the wronged and cheated soul.
Albert’s selfishness was in a way excusable. He enjoyed beyond measure the sound of the girl’s soft voice and the sight of her graceful head bent over the page. He lay, looking and listening dreamily, till the voice and the sunlit head were lost in a deep, sweet sleep.
The girl sat with closed book, looking at his face as he slept. It was a curious study to her, a young man–this young man, asleep. His brown lashes lay on his cheek as placid as those of a child. As she looked she gained courage to go over softly and peer down on him. How boyish he seemed! How little to be feared! A boy outside uttered a shout, and she hurried away, pale and breathless. As she paused in the door and looked back at the undisturbed sleeper, she smiled, and the pink came back into her thin face.
Albert’s superb young blood began to assert itself, and on the afternoon of the fifth day he was able to sit in his rocking-chair before the fire and read a little, though he professed that his eyes were not strong, in order that Maud should read for him. This she did as often as she could leave her other work, which was “not half often enough,” the invalid grumbled.
“More than you deserve,” she found courage to say.
Hartley let nothing interfere with the book business. “You take it easy,” he repeated. “Don’t you worry–your pay goes on just the same. You’re doing well right where you are. By jinks! biggest piece o’ luck,” he went on, half in earnest. “Why, I can’t turn around without taking an order–fact! Turned in a book on the livery bill, so that’s all fixed. We’ll make a clear hundred dollars out o’ that little bump o’ yours.”
“Little bump! Say, now, that’s–“
“Keep it up–put it on! Don’t hurry about getting well. I don’t need you to canvass, and I guess you enjoy being waited on.” He ended with a sly wink and cough.
Yes, convalescence was delicious, with Maud reading to him, bringing his food, and singing for him; all that marred his peace was the stream of people who came to inquire how he was getting along. The sympathy was largely genuine, as Hartley could attest, but it bored the invalid. He had rather be left in quiet with Walter Scott and Maud. In the light of common day the accident was hurrying to be a dream.
At the end of a week he was quite himself again, though he still had difficulty in wearing his hat. It was not till the second Sunday after the accident that he appeared in the dining-room for the first time, with a large travelling-cap concealing the suggestive bandages. He looked pale and thin, but his eyes danced with joy.
Maud’s eyes dilated with instant solicitude. The rest sprang up in surprise, with shouts of delight, as hearty as brethren.
“Ginger! I’m glad t’ see yeh!” said Troutt, so sincerely that he looked almost winning to the boy. The rest crowded around, shaking hands.
“Oh, I’m on deck again.”
Ed Brann came in a moment later with his brother, and there was a significant little pause–a pause which grew painful till Albert turned and saw Brann, and called out:
“Hello, Ed! How are you? Didn’t know you were here.”
As he held out his hand, Brann, his face purple with shame and embarrassment, lumbered heavily across the room and took it, muttering some poor apology.
“Hope y’ don’t blame me.”
“Of course not–fortunes o’ war. Nobody to blame; just my carelessness.–Yes; I’ll take turkey,” he said to Maud, as he sank into the seat of honor.
The rest laughed, but Brann remained standing near Albert’s chair. He had not finished yet.
“I’m mighty glad you don’t lay it up against me, Lohr; an’ I want to say the doctor’s bill is all right; you un’erstand, it’s all right.”
Albert looked at him a moment in surprise. He understood that this, coming from a man like Brann, meant more than a thousand prayers from a ready apologist. It was a terrible victory, and he was disposed to make it as easy for his rival as he could.
“Oh, all right, Ed; only I’d calculated to cheat him out o’ part of it–I’d planned to turn in a couple o’ Blaine’s Twenty Years on the bill.”
Hartley roared, and the rest joined in, but not even Albert perceived all that it meant. It meant that the young savage had surrendered his claim in favor of the man he had all but killed. The struggle had been prodigious, but he had snatched victory out of defeat; his better nature had conquered.
No one ever gave him credit for it; and when he went West in the spring, people said his passion for Maud had been superficial. In truth, he had loved the girl as sincerely as he had hated his rival. That he could rise out of the barbaric in his love and his hate was heroic.
When Albert went to ride again, it was on melting snow, with the slowest horse Troutt had. Maud was happier than she had been since she left school, and fuller of color and singing. She dared not let a golden moment pass now without hearing it ring full, and she dared not think how short this day of happiness might be.
At the end of the fifth week of their stay in Tyre a suspicion of spring was in the wind as it swept the southern exposure of the valley. March was drawing to a close, and there was more than a suggestion of April in the rapidly melting snow which still lay on the hills and under the cedars and tamaracks in the swamps. Patches of green grass, appearing on the sunny side of the road where the snow had melted, led to predictions of spring from the loafers beginning to sun themselves on the salt-barrels and shoe-boxes outside the stores.
A group sitting about the blacksmith shop were discussing it.
“It’s an early seedin’–now mark my words,” said Troutt, as he threw his knife into the soft ground at his feet. “The sun is crossing the line earlier this spring than it did last.”
“Yes; an’ I heard a crow to-day makin’ that kind of a–a spring noise that sort o’–I d’ know what–kind o’ goes all through a feller.”
“And there’s Uncle Sweeney, an’ that settles it; spring’s comin’ sure!” said Troutt, pointing at an old man, much bent, hobbling down the street. “When he gits out the frogs ain’t fur behind.”
“We’ll be gittin’ on to the ground by next Monday,” said Sam Dingley to a crowd who were seated on the newly painted harrows and seeders which Svend & Johnson had got out ready for the spring trade. “Svend & Johnson’s Agricultural Implement Depot” was on the north side of the street, and on a spring day the yard was one of the pleasantest loafing-places that could be imagined, especially if one wished company.
Albert wished to be alone. Something in the touch and tone of this spring afternoon made him restless and inclined to strange thoughts. He took his way out along the road which followed the river-bank, and in the outskirts of the village threw himself down on a bank of grass which the snows had protected, and which had already a tinge of green because of its wealth of sun.
The willows had thrown out their tiny light-green flags, though their roots were under the ice, and some of the hardwood twigs were tinged with red. There was a faint but magical odor of uncovered earth in the air, and the touch of the wind was like a caress from a moist, magnetic hand.
The boy absorbed the light and heat of the sun as some wild thing might. With his hat over his face, his hands folded on his breast, he lay as still as a statue. He did not listen at first, he only felt; but at length he rose on his elbow and listened. The ice cracked and fell along the bank with a long, hollow, booming crash; a crow cawed, and a jay answered it from the willows below. A flight of sparrows passed, twittering innumerably. The boy shuddered with a strange, wistful longing, and a realization of the flight of time.
He could have wept, he could have sung, but he only shuddered and lay silent under the stress of that strange, sweet passion which quickened his heart, deepened his eyes, and made his breath come and go with a quivering sound. Across the dazzling blue arch of the sky the crow flapped, sending down his prophetic, jubilant note; the breeze, as soft and sweet as April, stirred in his hair; the hills, deep in their dusky blue, seemed miles away; and the voices of the care-free skaters on the melting ice of the river below came to the ear subdued to a unity with the scene.
Suddenly a fear seized upon the boy–a horror! Life, life was passing! Life that can be lived only once, and lost, is lost forever! Life, that fatal gift of the Invisible Powers to man–a path, with youth and joy and hope at its eastern gate, and despair, regret, and death at its low western portal!
The boy caught a momentary glimpse of his real significance. “I am only a gnat, a speck in the sun, a youth facing the millions of great and wise and wealthy!” He leaped up in a frenzy. “Oh, I mustn’t stay here! I must get back to my studies. Life is slipping by me, and I am doing nothing, being nothing!”
His face, as pale as death, shone with passionate resolution, and his hands were clinched in silent vow.
But on his way back he met the jocund party of skaters going home from the river, and with the easy shift and change of youth joined in their ringing laughter. The weird power of the wind’s voice was gone, and he sank to the level of the unthinking boy again. However, the problem was only put off, not solved.
That night Hartley said: “Well, pardner, we’re getting ‘most ready to pull out. Someways I always get restless when these warm days begin.” This was as sentimental as Hartley ever got; or, if he ever felt more sentiment, he concealed it carefully.
“I s’pose it must ‘a’ been in spring that those old chaps, on their steeds and in their steel shirts, started out for to rescue some damsel, hey?” he ended, with a grin. “Now, that’s the way I feel–just like striking out for, say, Oshkosh. That little piece of lofty tumbling of yours was a big boom, and no mistake. Why, your share o’ this campaign will be a hundred and twenty dollars sure.”
“More’n I’ve earned,” replied Bert.
“No, it ain’t. You’ve done your duty like a man. Done as much in your way as I have. Now, if you want to try another county with me, say so. I’ll make a thousand dollars this year out o’ this thing.”
“I guess I’ll go back to school.”
“All right; I don’t blame you for wanting to do that.”
“I guess, with what I can earn for father, I can pull through the year. I must get back. I’m awfully obliged to you, Jim.”
“That’ll do on that,” said Hartley, shortly; “you don’t owe me anything. We’ll finish delivery to-morrow, and be ready to pull out on Friday or Sat.”
There was an acute pain in Albert’s breast somewhere; he had not analyzed his case at all, and did not now, but the idea of going affected him strongly. It had been so pleasant, that daily return to a lovely girlish presence.
“Yes, sir,” Hartley was going on, “I’m going to just quietly leave a book on her centre-table. I don’t know as it’ll interest her much, but it’ll show we appreciate the grub, and so on. By jinks! you don’t seem to realize what a worker that woman is! Up five o’clock in the morning–By-the-way, you’ve been going around with the girl a good deal, and she’s introduced you to some first-rate sales; now, if you want to leave her a little something, make it a morocco copy, and charge it to the firm.”
Albeit knew that he meant well, but he couldn’t, somehow, help saying, ironically:
“Thanks, but I guess one copy of Blaine’s Twenty Years will be enough in the house, especially–“
“Well, give her anything you please, and charge it up to the firm. I don’t insist on Blaine; only suggested that because–“
“I guess I can stand the expense of a present.”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t, man! But I want a hand in this thing. Don’t be so turrible keen t’ snap a feller up,” complained Hartley, turning on him. “What the thunder is the matter of you, anyway? I like the girl, and she’s been good to us all round; she tended you like an angel–“
“There, there! That’s enough o’ that,” put in Albert, hastily. “For God’s sake, don’t whang away on that string forever, as if I didn’t know it!”
Hartley stared at him as he turned away.
“Well, by jinks! What is the matter o’ you?”
He was too busy to dwell upon it much, but concluded his partner was homesick.
Albert was beginning to have a vague underconsciousness of his real feeling toward the girl, but he fought off the acknowledgment of it as long as possible. His mind moved in a circle, coming back to the one point ceaselessly–a dreary prospect, in which that slender girl-figure had no place–and each time the prospect grew more intolerably blank, and the pain in his heart more acute and throbbing.
When he faced her that night, after they had returned from a final walk down by the river, he was as far from a solution as ever. He had avoided all reference to their separation, and now he stood as a man might at the parting of the ways, saying: “I will not choose; I cannot choose. I will wait for some sign, some chance thing, to direct me.”
They stood opposite each other, each feeling that there was more to be said: the girl tender, her eyes cast down, holding her hands to the fire; he shivering, but not with cold. He had a vague knowledge of the vast importance of the moment, and he hesitated to speak.
“It’s almost spring again, isn’t it? And you’ve been here”–she paused and looked up with a daring smile–“seems as if you’d been here always.”
It was about half-past eight. Mrs. Welsh was setting her bread in the kitchen; they could hear her moving about. Hartley was down-town finishing up his business. They were almost alone in the house. Albert’s throat grew dry and his limbs trembled. His pause was ominous. The girl’s smile died away as he took a seat without looking at her.
“Well, Maud, I suppose you know–we’re going away to-morrow.”
“Oh, must you? But you’ll come back?”
“I don’t expect to–I don’t see how I can. I may never see you again.”
“Oh, don’t say that!” cried the girl, her face as white as silver, her clasped hands straining.
“I must go–I must!” he muttered, not daring to look upon her face.
“Oh, what can I do–we do–without you! I can’t bear it!”
She stopped, and sank back into a chair, her breath coming heavily from her twitching lips, the unnoticed tears falling from her staring, pitiful, wild, appealing eyes, her hands nervously twisting her gloves.
There was a long silence. Each was undergoing a self-revelation; each was trying to face a future without the other.
“I must go!” he repeated, aimlessly, mechanically. “What can I do here?”
The girl’s heavy breathing deepened into a wild little moaning sound, inexpressibly pitiful, her hungry eyes fixed on his face. She gave way first, and flung herself down upon her knees at his side, her hands seeking his neck.
“Albert, I can’t live without you now! Take me with you! Don’t leave me!”
He stooped suddenly and took her in his arms, raised her, and kissed her hair.
“I didn’t mean it, Maud; I’ll never leave you–never! Don’t cry!”
She drew his head down and kissed his lips, then turned her face to his breast–then joy and confidence came back to her.
“I know now what you meant,” she cried, gayly, raising herself and looking into his face; “you were trying to scare me; trying to make me show how much I–cared for you–first!” There was a soft smile on her lips and a tender light in her eyes. “But I don’t mind it.”
“I guess I didn’t know myself what I meant,” he answered, with a grave smile.
When Mrs. Welsh came in, they were sitting on the sofa, talking in low voices of their future. He was grave and subdued, while she was radiant with love and hope. The future had no terrors for her, but the boy unconsciously felt the gravity of life somehow deepened by the revelation of her love.
“Why, Maud!” Mrs. Welsh exclaimed, “what are you doing?”
“Oh, mother, I’m so happy–just as happy as a bird!” she cried, rushing into her mother’s arms.
“Why, why!–what is it? You’re crying, dear!”
“No, I’m not; I’m laughing–see!”
Mrs. Welsh turned her dim eyes on the girl, who shook the tears from her lashes with the action of a bird shaking water from its wings. She seemed to shake off her trouble at the same moment.
Mrs. Welsh understood perfectly. “I’m very glad, too, dearie,” she said, simply, looking at the young man with motherly love irradiating her worn face. Albert went to her, and she kissed him, while the happy girl put her arms about them both in an ecstatic hug.
“Now you’ve got a son, mother.”
“But I’ve lost a daughter–my first-born.”
“Oh, wait till you hear our plans! He’s going to settle down here–aren’t you, Albert?”
Then she went away and left the young people alone. They had a sweet, intimate talk of an hour, full of plans and hopes and confidences, and then he kissed his radiant love good-night, and, going into his own room, sat down by the stove and there pondered on the change that had come into his life.
Already he sighed with the stress of care, the press of thought, which came upon him. The longing uneasiness of the boy had given place to another unrest–the unrest of the man who must face the world in earnest now, planning for food and shelter. To go back to school was out of the question. To expect help from his father, overworked and burdened with debt, was impossible. He must go to work, and go to work to aid her. A living must be wrung from this town. All the home and all the property Mrs. Welsh had were here, and wherever Maud went the mother must follow.
He was in the midst of his mental turmoil when Hartley came in, humming the Mulligan Guards.
“In the dark, hey?”
“Completely in the dark.”
“Well, light up, light up!”
“I’m trying to.”
“What the deuce do you mean by that tone? What’s been going on here since my absence?”
Albert did not reply, and Hartley shuffled about after a match, lighted the lamp, threw his coat and hat in the corner, and then said:
“Well, I’ve got everything straightened up. Been freezing out old Daggett; the old skeesix has been promisin’ f’r a week, and I just said, ‘Old man, I’ll camp right down with you here till you fork over,’ and he did. By-the-way, everybody I talked with to-day about leaving said, ‘What’s Lohr going to do with that girl?’ I told ’em I didn’t know; do you? It seems you’ve been thicker’n I supposed.”
“I’m going to marry her,” said Albert, calmly, but his voice sounded strained and hoarse.
“What’s that?” yelled Hartley.
“Sh! don’t raise the neighbors. I’m going to marry her.”
“Well, by jinks! When? Say, looky here! Well, I swanny!” exclaimed Hartley, helplessly. “When?”
“Right away; some time this summer–June, maybe.”
Hartley thrust his hands into his trousers pockets, stretched out his legs, and stared at his friend in vast amaze.
“You’re givin’ me guff!”
“I’m in dead earnest.”
“I thought you was going through college all so fast?”
“Well, I’ve made up my mind it isn’t any use to try,” replied Albert, listlessly.
“What y’ goin’ t’ do here, or are y’ goin’ t’ take the girl away with yeh?”
“She can’t leave her mother. We’ll run this boarding-house for the present. I’ll try for the principalship of the school here. Raff is going to resign, they say. If I can’t get that, I’ll go into a law office. Don’t worry about me.”
“But why go into this so quick? Why not put it off fifteen or twenty years?” asked Hartley, trying to get back to cheerful voice.
“What would be the use? At the end of a year I’d be just about as poor as I am now.”
“Can’t y’r father step in and help you?”
“No. There are three boys and two girls, all younger than I, to be looked out for, and he has all he can carry. Besides, she needs me right here and right now, and if I can do anything to make life easier for her I’m going t’ do it. Besides,” he ended, in a peculiar tone, “we don’t feel as if we could live apart much longer.”
“But, great Scott! man, you can’t–“
“Now, hold on, Jim! I’ve thought this thing all over, and I’ve made up my mind. It ain’t any use to go on talking about it. What good would it do me to go to school another year? I’d come out without a dollar, and no more fitted for earning a living for her than I am now! And, besides all that, I couldn’t draw a free breath thinking of her workin’ away here to keep things moving, liable at any minute to break down.”
Hartley gazed at him in despair, and with something like awe. It was a tremendous transformation in the young, ambitious student.
Like most men in America, and especially Western men, he still clung to the idea that a man was entirely responsible for his success or failure in life. He had not admitted that conditions of society might be so adverse that only men of most exceptional endowments, and willing and able to master many of the best and deepest and most sacred of their inspirations and impulses, could succeed.
Of the score of specially promising young fellows who had been with him at school, seventeen had dropped out and down. Most of them had married and gone back to farming, or to earn a precarious living in the small, dull towns where farmers trade and traders farm. Conditions were too adverse; they simply weakened and slipped slowly back into dulness and an ox-like or else a fretful patience. Thinking of these men, and thinking their failure due to themselves alone, Hartley could not endure the idea of his friend adding one more to the list of failures. He sprang up at last.
“Say, Bert, you might just as well hang y’rself, and done with it! Why, it’s suicide! I can’t allow it. I started in at college bravely, and failed because I’d let it go too long. I couldn’t study–couldn’t get down to it; but you–why, old man, I’d bet on you!” He had a tremor in his voice. “I hate like thunder to see you give up your plans. Say, you can’t afford to do this; it’s too much to pay.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“I say it is–and, besides, you’d get over this in a week–“
“Jim!” called Albert, warningly, sharply.
“All right,” said Jim, in the tone of a man who knows it’s all wrong–“all right; but the time ‘ll come when you’ll wish I’d–You ain’t doin’ the girl enough good to make up for the harm you’re doin’ yourself.” He broke off again, and said in a tone of finality: “I’m done. I’m all through, and I c’n see you’re through with Jim Hartley. All right!”
“Darn curious,” he muttered to himself, “that boy should get caught just at this time, and not with some o’ those girls in Marion. Well, it’s none o’ my funeral,” he ended, with a sigh; for it had stirred him to the bottom of his sunny nature, after all. A dozen times, as he lay there beside his equally sleepless companion, he started to say something more in deprecation of the step, but each time stifled the opening word into a groan.
It would not be true to say that love had come to Albert Lohr as a relaxing influence, but it had changed the direction of his energies so radically as to make his whole life seem weaker and lower. As long as his love-dreams went out toward a vague and ideal woman, supposedly higher and grander than himself, he was spurred on to face the terrible sheer escarpment of social eminence; but when he met, by accident, the actual woman who was to inspire his future efforts, the difficulties he faced took on solid reality. His aspirations fell to the earth, their wings clipped, and became, perforce, submissive beasts at the plough. The force that moved so much of his thought was transformed into other energy.
The table was very gay at dinner next day. Maud was standing at the highest point of her girlhood dreams. Her flushed cheeks and shining eyes made her seem almost a child, and Hartley wondered at her, and relented a little in the face of such happiness.
“They’re gay as larks now,” thought Hartley to himself, as he joined in the laughter; “but that won’t help ’em any ten years from now.”
He could hardly speak next day as he shook hands at the station with his friend.
“Good-by, ol’ man; I hope it’ll come out all right, but I’m afraid–But there! I promised not to say anything about it. Good-by till we meet in Congress,” he ended, in a resolute attempt to conceal his dismay.
“Can’t you come to the wedding, Jim? We’ve decided on June. You see, they need a man around the house, so we–You’ll come, won’t you, old fellow? And don’t mind my being a little crusty last night.”
“Oh yes; I’ll come,” Jim said, in a tone which concealed a desire to utter one more protest, but to himself he said:
“That ends him! He’s jumped into a hole and pulled the hole in after him. A man can’t marry a family like that at his age, and pull out of it. He may, but I doubt it. Well, as I remarked before, it’s none o’ my funeral so long as he’s satisfied.”
But he said it with a painful lump in his throat, and he could not bring himself to feel that Albert’s course was right, and felt himself to be somehow culpable in the case.