The boarder who had eloped was a student at the theological seminary, and he had really gone to visit his family, so that he had a fairly good conscience in giving this color to the fact that he was leaving the place permanently because he could not bear it any longer. It was a shade of deceit to connive with his room-mate for the custody of his carpet-bag and the few socks and collars and the one shirt and summer coat which did not visibly affect its lankness when gathered into it from his share of the bureau-drawers; but he did not know what else to do, and he trusted to a final forgiveness when all the facts were considered by a merciful providence. His board was fully paid, and he had suffered long. He argued with his room-mate that he could do no good by remaining, and that he would have stayed if he could have believed there was any use. Besides, the food was undermining his health, and the room with that broken window had given him a cold already. He had a right to go, and it was his duty to himself and the friends who were helping him through the seminary not to get sick.
He did not feel that he had convinced his room-mate, who took charge of his carpet-bag and now sat with it between his feet waiting the signal of the fugitive's surreptitious return for it. He was a vague-looking young man, presently in charge of the "Local and Literary" column of the one daily paper of the place, and he had just explained to the two other boarders who were watching with him for the event that he was not certain whether it was the supper, or the anxiety of the situation, or just what it was that was now affecting his digestion.
The fellow-boarders, who sat on the edge of the bed, in default of the one unbroken chair which their host kept for himself, as easier than a mattress to get up from suddenly, did not take sides for or against him in his theories of his discomfort. One of them glanced at the broken window.
"How do you glaze that in the daytime? You can't use the bolster then?"
"I'm not in, much, in the daytime."
It was a medical student who had spoken, but he was now silent, and the other said, after they had listened to the twitter of a piano in the parlor under the room, "That girl's playing will be the death of me."
"Not if her mother's cooking isn't," the medical student, whose name was Wallace, observed with a professional effect.
"Why don't you prescribe something for it?" the law student suggested.
"Which?" Wallace returned.
"I don't believe anything could cure the playing. I must have meant the cooking."
"You're a promising young jurist, Blakeley. What makes you think I could cure the cooking?"
"Oh, I just wondered. The sick one gets paler every day. I wonder what ails her."
"She's not my patient."
"Oh! Hippocratic oath. Rather fine of you, Wallace. But if she's not your patient—"
"Listen!" their host interrupted, sharply. After a joint silence he added: "No. It must have been the sleet."
"Well, Briggs," the law student said, "if it must have been the sleet, what mustn't it have been?"
"Oh!" Briggs explained, "I thought it was Phillips. He was to throw a handful of gravel at the window."
"And then you were to run down with his bag and help him to make his escape from a friendless widow. Well, I don't know that I blame him. If I didn't owe two weeks' board, I'd leave myself—though I hope I shouldn't sneak away. And if Mrs. Betterson didn't owe Wallace, here, two weeks' board, we'd walk off together arm-in-arm at high noon. I can't understand how he ever came to advance her the money."
Wallace rose from the bed, and kicked each leg out to dislodge the tight trousers of the middle eighteen-fifties which had caught on the tops of his high boots. "You're a tonguey fellow, Blakeley. But you'll find, as you live long, that there are several things you can't explain."
"I'll tell you what," Blakeley said. "We'll get Mrs. Betterson to take your loan for my debt, and we'll go at once."
"You can propose something like that before the justice of the peace in your first pettifogging case."
"I believe Wallace likes to stay. And yet he must know from his anatomical studies, better than the animals themselves, what cuts of meat the old lady gives us. I shouldn't be so fastidious about the cuts, if she didn't treat them all with pork gravy. Well, I mustn't be too hard on a lone widow that I owe board to. I don't suppose his diet had anything to do with the deep damnation of the late Betterson's taking off. Does that stove of yours smoke, Briggs?"
"Not when there isn't a fire in it."
"I just asked. Wallace's stove smokes, fire or no fire. It takes advantage of the old lady's indebtedness to him. There seem," he added, philosophically, "to be just two occupations open to widows who have to support themselves: millinery business for young ones, boarding-housing for old ones. It is rather restricted. What do you suppose she puts into the mince-pies? Mince-pies are rather a mystery at the best."
Wallace was walking up and down the room still in some difficulty with his trousers-legs, and kicking out from time to time to dislodge them. "How long should you say Blakeley had been going on?" he asked Briggs.
"You never can tell," Briggs responded. "I think he doesn't know himself."
"Well said, youthful scribe! With such listeners as you two, I could go on forever. Consider yourselves clapped jovially on the back, my gentle Briggs; I can't get up to do it from the hollow of your bed here. As you were saying, the wonder about these elderly widows who keep boarding-houses is the domestic dilapidation they fall into. If they've ever known how to cook a meal or sweep a room or make a bed, these arts desert them in the presence of their boarders. Their only aim in life seems to be preventing the escape of their victims, and they either let them get into debt for their board or borrow money from them. But why do they always have daughters, and just two of them: one beautiful, fashionable, and devoted to the piano; the other willing to work, but pale, pathetic, and incapable of the smallest achievement with the gridiron or the wash-board? It's a thing to make a person want to pay up and leave, even if he's reading law. If Wallace, here, had the spirit of a man, he would collect the money owing him, and—"
"Oh, stop it, Blakeley!" Wallace stormed. "I should think you'd get tired of your talk yourself."
"Well, as you insist—"
Blakeley began again, but Briggs jumped to his feet and caught up Phillips's carpet-bag, and looked wildly around. "It's gravel, this time."
"Well, take your hat, Briggs. It may be a prolonged struggle. But remember that Phillips's cause is just. He's paid his board, and he has a perfect right to leave. She has no right to prevent him. Think of that when the fray is at its worst. But try to get him off quietly, if you can. Deal gently with the erring, while you stand firm for boarders' rights. Remember that Phillips is sneaking off in order to spare her feelings and has come pretty near prevarication in the effort. Have you got your shoes off? No; it's your rubbers on. That's better."
Briggs faltered with the carpet-bag in his hand. "Boys, I don't like this. It feels—clandestine."
"It looks that way, too," Blakeley admitted. "It has an air of conspiracy."
"I've got half a mind to let Phillips come in and get his bag himself."
"It would serve him right, though I don't know why, exactly. He has a right to spare his own feelings if he's sparing hers at the same time. Of course he's afraid she'll plead with him to stay, and he'll have to be inexorable with her; and if I understand the yielding nature of Phillips he doesn't like to be inexorable."
There came another sharp rattle of small pebbles at the window.
"Oh, confound him!" Briggs cried under his breath, and he shuffled out of the room and crept noiselessly down the stairs to the front door. The door creaked a little in opening, and he left it ajar. The current of cold air that swept up to the companions he had left behind at his room door brought them the noise of his rush down the gravel walk to the gate and a noise there as of fugitive steps on the pavement outside.
A weak female tread made itself heard in the hallway, followed by a sharp voice from a door in the rear. "Was it the cat, Jenny?"
"No; the door just seems to have blown open. The catch is broken."
Swift, strong steps advanced with an effect of angry suspicion. "I don't believe it blew open. More likely the cat clawed it open."
The steps which the voice preceded seemed to halt at the open door, as if falling back from it, and Wallace and Blakeley, looking down, saw by the dim flare of the hall lamp the face of Briggs confronting the face of Mrs. Betterson from the outer darkness. They saw the sick girl, whose pallor they could not see, supporting herself by the stairs-post with one hand and pressing the other to her side.
"Oh! It's you, Mr. Briggs," the landlady said, with a note of inculpation. "What made you leave the door open?"
The spectators could not see the swift change in Briggs's face from terror to savage desperation, but they noted it in his voice. "Yes—yes! It's me. I just—I was just— No I won't, either! You'd better know the truth. I was taking Phillips's bag out to him. He was afraid to come in for it, because he didn't want to see you, the confounded coward! He's left."
"Left? And he said he would stay till spring! Didn't he, Jenny?"
"I don't remember—" the girl weakly gasped, but her mother did not heed her in her mounting wrath.
"A great preacher he'll make. What'd he say he left for?"
"He didn't say. Will you let me up-stairs?"
"No, I won't, till you tell me. You know well enough, between you."
"Yes, I do know," Briggs answered, savagely. "He left because he was tired of eating sole-leather for steak, and fire-salt pork, and tar for molasses, and butter strong enough to make your nose curl, and drinking burnt-rye slops for coffee and tea-grounds for tea. And so am I, and so are all of us, and—and— Will you let me go up-stairs now, Mrs. Betterson?"
His voice had risen, not so high but that another voice from the parlor could prevail over it: a false, silly, girl voice, with the twitter of piano-keys as from hands swept over the whole board to help drown the noise of the quarrel in the hall. "Oh yes, I'll sing it again, Mr. Saunders, if you sa-a-a-y."
Then this voice lifted itself in a silly song, and a silence followed the voices in the hall, except for the landlady's saying, brokenly: "Well, all right, Mr. Briggs. You can go up to your room for all me. I've tried to be a mother to you boys, but if this is what I get for it!"
The two at the threshold of Briggs's room retreated within, as he bounded furiously upon them and slammed the door after him. It started open again, from the chronic defect of the catch, but he did not care.
"Well, Briggs, I hope you feel better now," Blakeley began. "You certainly told her the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But I wonder you had the heart to do it before that sick girl."
"I didn't have the heart," Briggs shouted. "But I had the courage, and if you say one word more, Blakeley, I'll throw you out of the room. I'm going to leave! My board's paid if yours isn't."
He went wildly about, catching things down here and there from nails and out of drawers. The tears stood in his eyes. But suddenly he stopped and listened to the sounds from below—the sound of the silly singing in the parlor, and the sound of sobbing in the dining-room, and the sound of vain entreating between the sobs.
"Oh, I don't suppose I'm fit to keep a boarding-house. I never was a good manager; and everybody imposes on me, and everything is so dear, and I don't know what's good from what's bad. Your poor father used to look after all that."
"Well, don't you cry, now, mother! It'll all come right, you'll see. I'm getting so I can go and do the marketing now; and if Minervy would only help a little—"
"No, no!" the mother's voice came anxiously up. "We can get along without her; we always have. I know he likes her, and I want to give her every chance. We can get along. If she was on'y married, once, we could all live—" A note of self-comforting gradually stole into the mother's voice, and the sound of a nose violently blown seemed to note a period in her suffering.
"Oh, mother, I wish I was well!" The girl's voice came with a burst of wild lamenting.
"'Sh, 'sh, deary!" her mother entreated. "He'll hear you, and then—"
"'Hazel Dell'?" the silly voice came from the parlor, with a sound of fright in it. "I can sing it without the music." The piano keys twittered the prelude and the voice sang:
"In the Hazel Dell my Nelly's sleeping,
Nelly loved so long!"
Wallace went forward and shut the door. "It's a shame to overhear them! What are you going to do, you fellows?"
"I'm going to stay," Briggs said, "if it kills me. At least I will till Minervy's married. I don't care what the grub's like. I can always get a bite at the restaurant."
"If anybody will pay up my back board, I'll stay, too," Blakeley followed. "I should like to make a virtue of it, and, as things stand, I can't."
"All right," Wallace said, and he went out and down the stairs. Then from the dining-room below his heavy voice offering encouragement came up, in terms which the others could not make out.
"I'll bet he's making her another advance," Blakeley whispered, as if he might be overheard by Wallace.
"I wish I could have made to do it," Briggs whispered back. "I feel as mean as pursley. Would you like to kick me?"
"I don't see how that would do any good. I may want to borrow money of you, and you can't ask a loan from a man you've kicked. Besides, I think what you said may do her good."
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