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Chapter 25

Hal took off his widow's weeds; and with them he shed the merriment he had worn for the benefit of the men. There came a sudden reaction; he realised that he was tired.

For ten days he had lived in a whirl of excitement, scarcely stopping to sleep. Now he lay back in the car-seat, pale, exhausted; his head ached, and he realised that the sum-total of his North Valley experience was failure. There was left in him no trace of that spirit of adventure with which he had set out upon his "summer course in practical sociology." He had studied his lessons, tried to recite them, and been "flunked." He smiled a bitter smile, recollecting the careless jesting that had been on his lips as he came up that same canyon:

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"He keeps them a-roll, that merry old soul-- The wheels of industree; A-roll and a-roll, for his pipe and his bowl And his college facultee!"

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The train arrived in Pedro, and Hal took a hack at the station and drove to the hotel. He still carried the widow's weeds rolled into a bundle. He might have left them in the train, but the impulse to economy which he had acquired during the last ten weeks had become a habit. He would return them to Mrs. Zamboni. The money he had promised her might better be used to feed her young ones. The two pillows he would leave in the car; the hotel might endure the loss!

Entering the lobby, the first person Hal saw was his brother, and the sight of that patrician face made human by disgust relieved Hal's headache in part. Life was harsh, life was cruel; but here was weary, waiting Edward, that boon of comic relief!

Edward demanded to know where the devil he had been; and Hal answered, "I've been visiting the widows and orphans."

"Oh!" said Edward. "And while I sit in this hole and stew! What's that you've got under your arm?"

Hal looked at the bundle. "It's a souvenir of one of the widows," he said, and unrolled the garments and spread them out before his brother's puzzled eyes. "A lady named Mrs. Swajka gave them to me. They belonged to another lady, Mrs. Zamboni, but she doesn't need them any more."

"What have _you_ got to do with them?"

"It seems that Mrs. Zamboni is going to get married again." Hal lowered his voice, confidentially. "It's a romance, Edward--it may interest you as an illustration of the manners of these foreign races. She met a man on the street, a fine, fine man, she says--and he gave her a lot of money. So she went and bought herself some new clothes, and she wants to give these widow's weeds to the new man. That's the custom in her country, it seems--her sign that she accepts him as a suitor."

Seeing the look of wonderment growing on his brother's face, Hal had to stop for a moment to keep his own face straight. "If that man wasn't serious in his intention, Edward, he'll have trouble, for I know Mrs. Zamboni's emotional nature. She'll follow him about everywhere--"

"Hal, that creature is insane!" And Edward looked about him nervously, as if he thought the Slavish widow might appear suddenly in the hotel lobby to demonstrate her emotional nature.

"No," replied Hal, "it's just one of those differences in national customs." And suddenly Hal's face gave way. He began to laugh; he laughed, perhaps more loudly than good form permitted.

Edward was much annoyed. There were people in the lobby, and they were staring at him. "Cut it out, Hal!" he exclaimed. "Your fool jokes bore me!" But nevertheless, Hal could see uncertainty in his brother's face. Edward recognised those widow's weeds. And how could he be sure about the "national customs" of that grotesque creature who had pinched him in the ribs on the street?

"Cut it out!" he cried again.

Hal, changing his voice suddenly to the Zamboni key, exclaimed: "Mister, I got eight children I got to feed, and I don't got no more man, and I don't find no new man for old woman like me!"

So at last the truth in its full enormity began to dawn upon Edward. His consternation and disgust poured themselves out; and Hal listened, his laughter dying. "Edward," he said, "you don't take me seriously even yet!"

"Good God!" cried the other. "I believe you're really insane!"

"You were up there, Edward! You heard what I said to those poor devils! And you actually thought I'd go off with you and forget about them!"

Edward ignored this. "You're really insane!" he repeated. "You'll get yourself killed, in spite of all I can do!"

But Hal only laughed. "Not a chance of it! You should have seen the tea-party manners of the camp-marshal!"

Upton Sinclair