Story type: Literature
The assistant editor of the San Francisco “Daily Informer” was going home. So much of his time was spent in the office of the “Informer” that no one ever cared to know where he passed those six hours of sleep which presumably suggested a domicile. His business appointments outside the office were generally kept at the restaurant where he breakfasted and dined, or of evenings in the lobbies of theatres or the anterooms of public meetings. Yet he had a home and an interval of seclusion of which he was jealously mindful, and it was to this he was going to-night at his usual hour.
His room was in a new building on one of the larger and busier thoroughfares. The lower floor was occupied by a bank, but as it was closed before he came home, and not yet opened when he left, it did not disturb his domestic sensibilities. The same may be said of the next floor, which was devoted to stockbrokers’ and companies offices, and was equally tomb-like and silent when he passed; the floor above that was a desert of empty rooms, which echoed to his footsteps night and morning, with here and there an oasis in the green sign of a mining secretary’s office, with, however, the desolating announcement that it would only be “open for transfers from two to four on Saturdays.” The top floor had been frankly abandoned in an unfinished state by the builder, whose ambition had “o’erleaped itself” in that sanguine era of the city’s growth. There was a smell of plaster and the first coat of paint about it still, but the whole front of the building was occupied by a long room with odd “bull’s-eye” windows looking out through the heavy ornamentations of the cornice over the adjacent roofs.
It had been originally intended for a club-room, but after the ill fortune which attended the letting of the floor below, and possibly because the earthquake-fearing San Franciscans had their doubts of successful hilarity at the top of so tall a building, it remained unfinished, with the two smaller rooms at its side. Its incomplete and lonely grandeur had once struck the editor during a visit of inspection, and the landlord, whom he knew, had offered to make it habitable for him at a nominal rent. It had a lavatory with a marble basin and a tap of cold water. The offer was a novel one, but he accepted it, and fitted up the apartment with some cheap second-hand furniture, quite inconsistent with the carved mantels and decorations, and made a fair sitting-room and bedroom of it. Here, on a Sunday, when its stillness was intensified, and even a passing footstep on the pavement fifty feet below was quite startling, he would sit and work by one of the quaint open windows. In the rainy season, through the filmed panes he sometimes caught a glimpse of the distant, white-capped bay, but never of the street below him.
The lights were out, but, groping his way up to the first landing, he took from a cup-boarded niche in the wall his candlestick and matches and continued the ascent to his room. The humble candlelight flickered on the ostentatious gold letters displayed on the ground-glass doors of opulent companies which he knew were famous, and rooms where millionaires met in secret conclave, but the contrast awakened only his sense of humor. Yet he was always relieved after he had reached his own floor. Possibly its incompleteness and inchoate condition made it seem less lonely than the desolation of the finished and furnished rooms below, and it was only this recollection of past human occupancy that was depressing.
He opened his door, lit the solitary gas jet that only half illuminated the long room, and, it being already past midnight, began to undress himself. This process presently brought him to that corner of his room where his bed stood, when he suddenly stopped, and his sleepy yawn changed to a gape of surprise. For, lying in the bed, its head upon the pillow, and its rigid arms accurately stretched down over the turned-back sheet, was a child’s doll! It was a small doll–a banged and battered doll, that had seen service, but it had evidently been “tucked in” with maternal tenderness, and lay there with its staring eyes turned to the ceiling, the very genius of insomnia!
His first start of surprise was followed by a natural resentment of what might have been an impertinent intrusion on his privacy by some practical-joking adult, for he knew there was no child in the house.
His room was kept in order by the wife of the night watchman employed by the bank, and no one else had a right of access to it. But the woman might have brought a child there and not noticed its disposal of its plaything. He smiled. It might have been worse! It might have been a real baby!
The idea tickled him with a promise of future “copy”–of a story with farcical complications, or even a dramatic ending, in which the baby, adopted by him, should turn out to be somebody’s stolen offspring. He lifted the little image that had suggested these fancies, carefully laid it on his table, went to bed, and presently forgot it all in slumber.
In the morning his good-humor and interest in it revived to the extent of writing on a slip of paper, “Good-morning! Thank you–I’ve slept very well,” putting the slip in the doll’s jointed arms, and leaving it in a sitting posture outside his door when he left his room. When he returned late at night it was gone.
But it so chanced that, a few days later, owing to press of work on the “Informer,” he was obliged to forego his usual Sunday holiday out of town, and that morning found him, while the bells were ringing for church, in his room with a pile of manuscript and proof before him. For these were troublous days in San Francisco; the great Vigilance Committee of ’56 was in session, and the offices of the daily papers were thronged with eager seekers of news. Such affairs, indeed, were not in the functions of the assistant editor, nor exactly to his taste; he was neither a partisan of the so-called Law and Order Party, nor yet an enthusiastic admirer of the citizen Revolutionists known as the Vigilance Committee, both extremes being incompatible with his habits of thought. Consequently he was not displeased at this opportunity of doing his work away from the office and the “heady talk” of controversy.
He worked on until the bells ceased and a more than Sabbath stillness fell upon the streets. So quiet was it that once or twice the conversation of passing pedestrians floated up and into his window, as of voices at his elbow.
Presently he heard the sound of a child’s voice singing in subdued tone, as if fearful of being overheard. This time he laid aside his pen–it certainly was no delusion! The sound did not come from the open window, but from some space on a level with his room. Yet there was no contiguous building as high.
He rose and tried to open his door softly, but it creaked, and the singing instantly ceased. There was nothing before him but the bare, empty hall, with its lathed and plastered partitions, and the two smaller rooms, unfinished like his own, on either side of him. Their doors were shut; the one at his right hand was locked, the other yielded to his touch.
For the first moment he saw only the bare walls of the apparently empty room. But a second glance showed him two children–a boy of seven and a girl of five–sitting on the floor, which was further littered by a mattress, pillow, and blanket. There was a cheap tray on one of the trunks containing two soiled plates and cups and fragments of a meal. But there was neither a chair nor table nor any other article of furniture in the room. Yet he was struck by the fact that, in spite of this poverty of surrounding, the children were decently dressed, and the few scattered pieces of luggage in quality bespoke a superior condition.
The children met his astonished stare with an equal wonder and, he fancied, some little fright. The boy’s lips trembled a little as he said apologetically–
“I told Jinny not to sing. But she didn’t make MUCH noise.”
“Mamma said I could play with my dolly. But I fordot and singed,” said the little girl penitently.
“Where’s your mamma?” asked the young man. The fancy of their being near relatives of the night watchman had vanished at the sound of their voices.
“Dorn out,” said the girl.
“When did she go out?”
“Were you all alone here last night?”
Perhaps they saw the look of indignation and pity in the editor’s face, for the boy said quickly–
“She don’t go out EVERY night; last night she went to”–
He stopped suddenly, and both children looked at each other with a half laugh and half cry, and then repeated in hopeless unison, “She’s dorn out.”
“When is she coming back again?”
“To-night. But we won’t make any more noise.”
“Who brings you your food?” continued the editor, looking at the tray.
Evidently Roberts, the night watchman! The editor felt relieved; here was a clue to some explanation. He instantly sat down on the floor between them.
“So that was the dolly that slept in my bed,” he said gayly, taking it up.
God gives helplessness a wonderful intuition of its friends. The children looked up at the face of their grown-up companion, giggled, and then burst into a shrill fit of laughter. He felt that it was the first one they had really indulged in for many days. Nevertheless he said, “Hush!” confidentially; why he scarcely knew, except to intimate to them that he had taken in their situation thoroughly. “Make no noise,” he added softly, “and come into my big room.”
They hung back, however, with frightened yet longing eyes. “Mamma said we mussent do out of this room,” said the girl.
“Not ALONE,” responded the editor quickly, “but with ME, you know; that’s different.”
The logic sufficed them, poor as it was. Their hands slid quite naturally into his. But at the door he stopped, and motioning to the locked door of the other room, asked:–
“And is that mamma’s room, too?”
Their little hands slipped from his and they were silent. Presently the boy, as if acted upon by some occult influence of the girl, said in a half whisper, “Yes.”
The editor did not question further, but led them into his room. Here they lost the slight restraint they had shown, and began, child fashion, to become questioners themselves.
In a few moments they were in possession of his name, his business, the kind of restaurant he frequented, where he went when he left his room all day, the meaning of those funny slips of paper, and the written manuscripts, and why he was so quiet. But any attempt of his to retaliate by counter questions was met by a sudden reserve so unchildlike and painful to him–as it was evidently to themselves–that he desisted, wisely postponing his inquiries until he could meet Roberts.
He was glad when they fell to playing games with each other quite naturally, yet not entirely forgetting his propinquity, as their occasional furtive glances at his movements showed him. He, too, became presently absorbed in his work, until it was finished and it was time for him to take it to the office of the “Informer.” The wild idea seized him of also taking the children afterwards for a holiday to the Mission Dolores, but he prudently remembered that even this negligent mother of theirs might have some rights over her offspring that he was bound to respect.
He took leave of them gayly, suggesting that the doll be replaced in his bed while he was away, and even assisted in “tucking it up.” But during the afternoon the recollection of these lonely playfellows in the deserted house obtruded itself upon his work and the talk of his companions. Sunday night was his busiest night, and he could not, therefore, hope to get away in time to assure himself of their mother’s return.
It was nearly two in the morning when he returned to his room. He paused for a moment on the threshold to listen for any sound from the adjoining room. But all was hushed.
His intention of speaking to the night watchman was, however, anticipated the next morning by that guardian himself. A tap upon his door while he was dressing caused him to open it somewhat hurriedly in the hope of finding one of the children there, but he met only the embarrassed face of Roberts. Inviting him into the room, the editor continued dressing. Carefully closing the door behind him, the man began, with evident hesitation,–
“I oughter hev told ye suthin’ afore, Mr. Breeze; but I kalkilated, so to speak, that you wouldn’t be bothered one way or another, and so ye hadn’t any call to know that there was folks here”–
“Oh, I see,” interrupted Breeze cheerfully; “you’re speaking of the family next door–the landlord’s new tenants.”
“They ain’t exactly THAT,” said Roberts, still with embarrassment. “The fact is–ye see–the thing points THIS way: they ain’t no right to be here, and it’s as much as my place is worth if it leaks out that they are.”
Mr. Breeze suspended his collar-buttoning, and stared at Roberts.
“You see, sir, they’re mighty poor, and they’ve nowhere else to go–and I reckoned to take ’em in here for a spell and say nothing about it.”
“But the landlord wouldn’t object, surely? I’ll speak to him myself,” said Breeze impulsively.
“Oh, no; don’t!” said Roberts in alarm; “he wouldn’t like it. You see, Mr. Breeze, it’s just this way: the mother, she’s a born lady, and did my old woman a good turn in old times when the family was rich; but now she’s obliged–just to support herself, you know–to take up with what she gets, and she acts in the bally in the theatre, you see, and hez to come in late o’ nights. In them cheap boarding-houses, you know, the folks looks down upon her for that, and won’t hev her, and in the cheap hotels the men are–you know–a darned sight wuss, and that’s how I took her and her kids in here, where no one knows ’em.”
“I see,” nodded the editor sympathetically; “and very good it was of you, my man.”
Roberts looked still more confused, and stammered with a forced laugh, “And–so–I’m just keeping her on here, unbeknownst, until her husband gets”–He stopped suddenly.
“So she has a husband living, then?” said Breeze in surprise.
“In the mines, yes–in the mines!” repeated Roberts with a monotonous deliberation quite distinct from his previous hesitation, “and she’s only waitin’ until he gets money enough–to–to take her away.” He stopped and breathed hard.
“But couldn’t you–couldn’t WE–get her some more furniture? There’s nothing in that room, you know, not a chair or table; and unless the other room is better furnished”–
“Eh? Oh, yes!” said Roberts quickly, yet still with a certain embarrassment; “of course THAT’S better furnished, and she’s quite satisfied, and so are the kids, with anything. And now, Mr. Breeze, I reckon you’ll say nothin’ o’ this, and you’ll never go back on me?”
“My dear Mr. Roberts,” said the editor gravely, “from this moment I am not only blind, but deaf to the fact that ANYBODY occupies this floor but myself.”
“I knew you was white all through, Mr. Breeze,” said the night watchman, grasping the young man’s hand with a grip of iron, “and I telled my wife so. I sez, ‘Jest you let me tell him EVERYTHIN’,’ but she”–He stopped again and became confused.
“And she was quite right, I dare say,” said Breeze, with a laugh; “and I do not want to know anything. And that poor woman must never know that I ever knew anything, either. But you may tell your wife that when the mother is away she can bring the little ones in here whenever she likes.”
“Thank ye–thank ye, sir!–and I’ll just run down and tell the old woman now, and won’t intrude upon your dressin’ any longer.”
He grasped Breeze’s hand again, went out and closed the door behind him. It might have been the editor’s fancy, but he thought there was a certain interval of silence outside the door before the night watchman’s heavy tread was heard along the hall again.
For several evenings after this Mr. Breeze paid some attention to the ballet in his usual round of the theatres. Although he had never seen his fair neighbor, he had a vague idea that he might recognize her through some likeness to her children. But in vain. In the opulent charms of certain nymphs, and in the angular austerities of others, he failed equally to discern any of those refinements which might have distinguished the “born lady” of Roberts’s story, or which he himself had seen in her children.
These he did not meet again during the week, as his duties kept him late at the office; but from certain signs in his room he knew that Mrs. Roberts had availed herself of his invitation to bring them in with her, and he regularly found “Jinny’s” doll tucked up in his bed at night, and he as regularly disposed of it outside his door in the morning, with a few sweets, like an offering, tucked under its rigid arms.
But another circumstance touched him more delicately; his room was arranged with greater care than before, and with an occasional exhibition of taste that certainly had not distinguished Mrs. Roberts’s previous ministrations. One evening on his return he found a small bouquet of inexpensive flowers in a glass on his writing-table. He loved flowers too well not to detect that they were quite fresh, and could have been put there only an hour or two before he arrived.
The next evening was Saturday, and, as he usually left the office earlier on that day, it occurred to him, as he walked home, that it was about the time his fair neighbor would be leaving the theatre, and that it was possible he might meet her.
At the front door, however, he found Roberts, who returned his greeting with a certain awkwardness which struck him as singular. When he reached the niche on the landing he found his candle was gone, but he proceeded on, groping his way up the stairs, with an odd conviction that both these incidents pointed to the fact that the woman had just returned or was expected.
He had also a strange feeling–which may have been owing to the darkness–that some one was hidden on the landing or on the stairs where he would pass. This was further accented by a faint odor of patchouli, as, with his hand on the rail, he turned the corner of the third landing, and he was convinced that if he had put out his other hand it would have come in contact with his mysterious neighbor. But a certain instinct of respect for her secret, which she was even now guarding in the darkness, withheld him, and he passed on quickly to his own floor.
Here it was lighter; the moon shot a beam of silver across the passage from an unshuttered window as he passed. He reached his room door, entered, but instead of lighting the gas and shutting the door, stood with it half open, listening in the darkness.
His suspicions were verified; there was a slight rustling noise, and a figure which had evidently followed him appeared at the end of the passage. It was that of a woman habited in a grayish dress and cloak of the same color; but as she passed across the band of moonlight he had a distinct view of her anxious, worried face. It was a face no longer young; it was worn with illness, but still replete with a delicacy and faded beauty so inconsistent with her avowed profession that he felt a sudden pang of pain and doubt. The next moment she had vanished in her room, leaving the same faint perfume behind her. He closed his door softly, lit the gas, and sat down in a state of perplexity. That swift glimpse of her face and figure had made her story improbable to the point of absurdity, or possibly to the extreme of pathos!
It seemed incredible that a woman of that quality should be forced to accept a vocation at once so low, so distasteful, and so unremunerative. With her evident antecedents, had she no friends but this common Western night watchman of a bank? Had Roberts deceived him? Was his whole story a fabrication, and was there some complicity between the two? What was it? He knit his brows.
Mr. Breeze had that overpowering knowledge of the world which only comes with the experience of twenty-five, and to this he superadded the active imagination of a newspaper man. A plot to rob the bank? These mysterious absences, that luggage which he doubted not was empty and intended for spoil! But why encumber herself with the two children? Here his common sense and instinct of the ludicrous returned and he smiled.
But he could not believe in the ballet dancer! He wondered, indeed, how any manager could have accepted the grim satire of that pale, worried face among the fairies, that sad refinement amid their vacant smiles and rouged checks. And then, growing sad again, he comforted himself with the reflection that at least the children were not alone that night, and so went to sleep.
For some days he had no further meeting with his neighbors. The disturbed state of the city–for the Vigilance Committee were still in session–obliged the daily press to issue “extras,” and his work at the office increased.
It was not until Sunday again that he was able to be at home. Needless to say that his solitary little companions were duly installed there, while he sat at work with his proofs on the table before him.
The stillness of the empty house was only broken by the habitually subdued voices of the children at their play, when suddenly the harsh stroke of a distant bell came through the open window. But it was no Sabbath bell, and Mr. Breeze knew it. It was the tocsin of the Vigilance Committee, summoning the members to assemble at their quarters for a capture, a trial, or an execution of some wrongdoer. To him it was equally a summons to the office–to distasteful news and excitement.
He threw his proofs aside in disgust, laid down his pen, seized his hat, and paused a moment to look round for his playmates. But they were gone! He went into the hall, looked into the open door of their room, but they were not there. He tried the door of the second room, but it was locked.
Satisfied that they had stolen downstairs in their eagerness to know what the bell meant, he hurried down also, met Roberts in the passage,–a singularly unusual circumstance at that hour,–called to him to look after the runaways, and hurried to his office.
Here he found the staff collected, excitedly discussing the news. One of the Vigilance Committee prisoners, a notorious bully and ruffian, detained as a criminal and a witness, had committed suicide in his cell. Fortunately this was all reportorial work, and the services of Mr. Breeze were not required. He hurried back, relieved, to his room.
When he reached his landing, breathlessly, he heard the same quick rustle he had heard that memorable evening, and was quite satisfied that he saw a figure glide swiftly out of the open door of his room. It was no doubt his neighbor, who had been seeking her children, and as he heard their voices as he passed, his uneasiness and suspicions were removed.
He sat down again to his scattered papers and proofs, finished his work, and took it to the office on his way to dinner. He returned early, in the hope that he might meet his neighbor again, and had quite settled his mind that he was justified in offering a civil “Good-evening” to her, in spite of his previous respectful ignoring of her presence. She must certainly have become aware by this time of his attention to her children and consideration for herself, and could not mistake his motives. But he was disappointed, although he came up softly; he found the floor in darkness and silence on his return, and he had to be content with lighting his gas and settling down to work again.
A near church clock had struck ten when he was startled by the sound of an unfamiliar and uncertain step in the hall, followed by a tap at his door. Breeze jumped to his feet, and was astonished to find Dick, the “printer’s devil,” standing on the threshold with a roll of proofs in his hand.
“How did you get here?” he asked testily.
“They told me at the restaurant they reckoned you lived yere, and the night watchman at the door headed me straight up. When he knew whar I kem from he wanted to know what the news was, but I told him he’d better buy an extra and see.”
“Well, what did you come for?” said the editor impatiently.
“The foreman said it was important, and he wanted to know afore he went to press ef this yer correction was YOURS?”
He went to the table, unrolled the proofs, and, taking out the slip, pointed to a marked paragraph. “The foreman says the reporter who brought the news allows he got it straight first-hand! But ef you’ve corrected it, he reckons you know best.”
Breeze saw at a glance that the paragraph alluded to was not of his own writing, but one of several news items furnished by reporters. These had been “set up” in the same “galley,” and consequently appeared in the same proof-slip. He was about to say curtly that neither the matter nor the correction was his, when something odd in the correction of the item struck him. It read as follows:–
“It appears that the notorious ‘Jim Bodine,’ who is in hiding and badly wanted by the Vigilance Committee, has been tempted lately into a renewal of his old recklessness. He was seen in Sacramento Street the other night by two separate witnesses, one of whom followed him, but he escaped in some friendly doorway.”
The words “in Sacramento Street” were stricken out and replaced by the correction “on the Saucelito shore,” and the words “friendly doorway” were changed to “friendly dinghy.” The correction was not his, nor the handwriting, which was further disguised by being an imitation of print. A strange idea seized him.
“Has any one seen these proofs since I left them at the office?”
“No, only the foreman, sir.”
He remembered that he had left the proofs lying openly on his table when he was called to the office at the stroke of the alarm bell; he remembered the figure he saw gliding from his room on his return. She had been there alone with the proofs; she only could have tampered with them.
The evident object of the correction was to direct the public attention from Sacramento Street to Saucelito, as the probable whereabouts of this “Jimmy Bodine.” The street below was Sacramento Street, the “friendly doorway” might have been their own.
That she had some knowledge of this Bodine was not more improbable than the ballet story. Her strange absences, the mystery surrounding her, all seemed to testify that she had some connection–perhaps only an innocent one–with these desperate people whom the Vigilance Committee were hunting down. Her attempt to save the man was, after all, no more illegal than their attempt to capture him. True, she might have trusted him, Breeze, without this tampering with his papers; yet perhaps she thought he was certain to discover it–and it was only a silent appeal to his mercy. The corrections were ingenious and natural–it was the act of an intelligent, quick-witted woman.
Mr. Breeze was prompt in acting upon his intuition, whether right or wrong. He took up his pen, wrote on the margin of the proof, “Print as corrected,” said to the boy carelessly, “The corrections are all right,” and dismissed him quickly.
The corrected paragraph which appeared in the “Informer” the next morning seemed to attract little public attention, the greater excitement being the suicide of the imprisoned bully and the effect it might have upon the prosecution of other suspected parties, against whom the dead man had been expected to bear witness.
Mr. Breeze was unable to obtain any information regarding the desperado Bodine’s associates and relations; his correction of the paragraph had made the other members of the staff believe he had secret and superior information regarding the fugitive, and he thus was estopped from asking questions. But he felt himself justified now in demanding fuller information from Roberts at the earliest opportunity.
For this purpose he came home earlier that night, hoping to find the night watchman still on his first beat in the lower halls. But he was disappointed. He was amazed, however, on reaching his own landing, to find the passage piled with new luggage, some of that ruder type of rolled blanket and knapsack known as a “miner’s kit.” He was still more surprised to hear men’s voices and the sound of laughter proceeding from the room that was always locked. A sudden sense of uneasiness and disgust, he knew not why, came over him.
He passed quickly into his room, shut the door sharply, and lit the gas. But he presently heard the door of the locked room open, a man’s voice, slightly elevated by liquor and opposition, saying, “I know what’s due from one gen’leman to ‘nother”–a querulous, objecting voice saying, “Hole on! not now,” and a fainter feminine protest, all of which were followed by a rap on his door.
Breeze opened it to two strangers, one of whom lurched forward unsteadily with outstretched hand. He had a handsome face and figure, and a certain consciousness of it even in the abandon of liquor; he had an aggressive treacherousness of eye which his potations had not subdued. He grasped Breeze’s hand tightly, but dropped it the next moment perfunctorily as he glanced round the room.
“I told them I was bound to come in,” he said, without looking at Breeze, “and say ‘Howdy!’ to the man that’s bin a pal to my women folks and the kids–and acted white all through! I said to Mame, ‘I reckon HE knows who I am, and that I kin be high-toned to them that’s high-toned; kin return shake for shake and shot for shot!’ Aye! that’s me! So I was bound to come in like a gen’leman, sir, and here I am!”
He threw himself in an unproffered chair and stared at Breeze.
“I’m afraid,” said Breeze dryly, “that, nevertheless, I never knew who you were, and that even now I am ignorant whom I am addressing.”
“That’s just it,” said the second man, with a querulous protest, which did not, however, conceal his admiring vassalage to his friend; “that’s what I’m allus telling Jim. ‘Jim,’ I says, ‘how is folks to know you’re the man that shot Kernel Baxter, and dropped three o’ them Mariposa Vigilants? They didn’t see you do it! They just look at your fancy style and them mustaches of yours, and allow ye might be death on the girls, but they don’t know ye! An’ this man yere–he’s a scribe in them papers–writes what the boss editor tells him, and lives up yere on the roof, ‘longside yer wife and the children–what’s he knowin’ about YOU?’ Jim’s all right enough,” he continued, in easy confidence to Breeze, “but he’s too fresh ’bout himself.”
Mr. James Bodine accepted this tribute and criticism of his henchman with a complacent laugh, which was not, however, without a certain contempt for the speaker and the man spoken to. His bold, selfish eyes wandered round the room as if in search of some other amusement than his companions offered.
“I reckon this is the room which that hound of a landlord, Rakes, allowed he’d fix up for our poker club–the club that Dan Simmons and me got up, with a few other sports. It was to be a slap-up affair, right under the roof, where there was no chance of the police raiding us. But the cur weakened when the Vigilants started out to make war on any game a gen’leman might hev that wasn’t in their gummy-bag, salt pork trade. Well, it’s gettin’ a long time between drinks, gen’lemen, ain’t it?” He looked round him significantly.
Only the thought of the woman and her children in the next room, and the shame that he believed she was enduring, enabled Breeze to keep his temper or even a show of civility.
“I’m afraid,” he said quietly, “that you’ll find very little here to remind you of the club–not even the whiskey; for I use the room only as a bedroom, and as I am a workingman, and come in late and go out early, I have never found it available for hospitality, even to my intimate friends. I am very glad, however, that the little leisure I have had in it has enabled me to make the floor less lonely for your children.”
Mr. Bodine got up with an affected yawn, turned an embarrassed yet darkening eye on Breeze, and lunged unsteadily to the door. “And as I only happened in to do the reg’lar thing between high-toned gen’lemen, I reckon we kin say ‘Quits.’” He gave a coarse laugh, said “So long,” nodded, stumbled into the passage, and thence into the other room.
His companion watched him pass out with a relieved yet protecting air, and then, closing the door softly, drew nearer to Breeze, and said in husky confidence,–
“Ye ain’t seein’ him at his best, mister! He’s bin drinkin’ too much, and this yer news has upset him.”
“What news?” asked Breeze.
“This yer suicide o’ Irish Jack!”
“Was he his friend?”
“Friend?” ejaculated the man, horrified at the mere suggestion. “Not much! Why, Irish Jack was the only man that could hev hung Jim! Now he’s dead, in course the Vigilants ain’t got no proof agin Jim. Jim wants to face it out now an’ stay here, but his wife and me don’t see it noways! So we are taking advantage o’ the lull agin him to get him off down the coast this very night. That’s why he’s been off his head drinkin’. Ye see, when a man has been for weeks hidin’–part o’ the time in that room and part o’ the time on the wharf, where them Vigilants has been watchin’ every ship that left in order to ketch him, he’s inclined to celebrate his chance o’ getting away”–
“Part of the time in that room?” interrupted Breeze quickly.
“Sartin! Don’t ye see? He allus kem in as you went out–sabe!–and got away before you kem back, his wife all the time just a-hoverin’ between the two places, and keeping watch for him. It was killin’ to her, you see, for she wasn’t brought up to it, whiles Jim didn’t keer–had two revolvers and kalkilated to kill a dozen Vigilants afore he dropped. But that’s over now, and when I’ve got him safe on that ‘plunger’ down at the wharf to-night, and put him aboard the schooner that’s lying off the Heads, he’s all right agin.”
“And Roberts knew all this and was one of his friends?” asked Breeze.
“Roberts knew it, and Roberts’s wife used to be a kind of servant to Jim’s wife in the South, when she was a girl, but I don’t know ez Roberts is his FRIEND!”
“He certainly has shown himself one,” said Breeze.
“Ye-e-s,” said the stranger meditatively, “ye-e-s.” He stopped, opened the door softly, and peeped out, and then closed it again softly. “It’s sing’lar, Mr. Breeze,” he went on in a sudden yet embarrassed burst of confidence, “that Jim thar–a man thet can shoot straight, and hez frequent; a man thet knows every skin game goin’–that THET man Jim,” very slowly, “hezn’t really–got–any friends–‘cept me–and his wife.”
“Indeed?” said Mr. Breeze dryly.
“Sure! Why, you yourself didn’t cotton to him–I could see THET.”
Mr. Breeze felt himself redden slightly, and looked curiously at the man. This vulgar parasite, whom he had set down as a worshiper of sham heroes, undoubtedly did not look like an associate of Bodine’s, and had a certain seriousness that demanded respect. As he looked closer into his wide, round face, seamed with small-pox, he fancied he saw even in its fatuous imbecility something of that haunting devotion he had seen on the refined features of the wife. He said more gently,–
“But one friend like you would seem to be enough.”
“I ain’t what I uster be, Mr. Breeze,” said the man meditatively, “and mebbe ye don’t know who I am. I’m Abe Shuckster, of Shuckster’s Ranch–one of the biggest in Petalumy. I was a rich man until a year ago, when Jim got inter trouble. What with mortgages and interest, payin’ up Jim’s friends and buying off some ez was set agin him, thar ain’t much left, and when I’ve settled that bill for the schooner lying off the Heads there I reckon I’m about played out. But I’ve allus a shanty at Petalumy, and mebbe when things is froze over and Jim gets back–you’ll come and see him–for you ain’t seen him at his best.”
“I suppose his wife and children go with him?” said Breeze.
“No! He’s agin it, and wants them to come later. But that’s all right, for you see she kin go back to their own house at the Mission, now that the Vigilants are givin’ up shadderin’ it. So long, Mr. Breeze! We’re startin’ afore daylight. Sorry you didn’t see Jim in condition.”
He grasped Breeze’s hand warmly and slipped out of the door softly. For an instant Mr. Breeze felt inclined to follow him into the room and make a kinder adieu to the pair, but the reflection that he might embarrass the wife, who, it would seem, had purposely avoided accompanying her husband when he entered, withheld him. And for the last few minutes he had been doubtful if he had any right to pose as her friend. Beside the devotion of the man who had just left him, his own scant kindness to her children seemed ridiculous.
He went to bed, but tossed uneasily until he fancied he heard stealthy footsteps outside his door and in the passage. Even then he thought of getting up, dressing, and going out to bid farewell to the fugitives. But even while he was thinking of it he fell asleep and did not wake until the sun was shining in at his windows.
He sprang to his feet, threw on his dressing-gown, and peered into the passage. Everything was silent. He stepped outside–the light streamed into the hall from the open doors and windows of both rooms–the floor was empty; not a trace of the former occupants remained. He was turning back when his eye fell upon the battered wooden doll set upright against his doorjamb, holding stiffly in its jointed arms a bit of paper folded like a note. Opening it, he found a few lines written in pencil.
God bless you for your kindness to us, and try to forgive me for touching your papers. But I thought that you would detect it, know WHY I did it, and then help us, as you did! Good-by!
Mr. Breeze laid down the paper with a slight accession of color, as if its purport had been ironical. How little had he done compared to the devotion of this delicate woman or the sacrifices of that rough friend! How deserted looked this nest under the eaves, which had so long borne its burden of guilt, innocence, shame, and suffering! For many days afterwards he avoided it except at night, and even then he often found himself lying awake to listen to the lost voices of the children.
But one evening, a fortnight later, he came upon Roberts in the hall. “Well,” said Breeze, with abrupt directness, “did he get away?”
Roberts started, uttered an oath which it is possible the Recording Angel passed to his credit, and said, “Yes, HE got away all right!”
“Why, hasn’t his wife joined him?”
“No. Never, in this world, I reckon; and if anywhere in the next, I don’t want to go there!” said Roberts furiously.
“Is he dead?”
“Dead? That kind don’t die!”
“What do you mean?”
Roberts’s lips writhed, and then, with a strong effort, he said with deliberate distinctness, “I mean–that the hound went off with another woman–that–was–in–that schooner, and left that fool Shuckster adrift in the plunger.”
“And the wife and children?”
“Shuckster sold his shanty at Petaluma to pay their passage to the States. Good-night!”