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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," said Albert to the clerk, "was the thought
of leaving."

"Got y'r teeth filed?" said the day clerk, with a wink. "Old Collins's
beef will try 'em."

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 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
ears, 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 said: "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 Years."' 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 ye going t'do with me?"

"I'll use you some way; can't tell. 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 the feet cried out with a note
like glass and steel. The windows of the stores were thick with frost,
and Albert gave a shudder of fear, almost as if he were homeless. He had
never experienced anything like it before.

Entering one of the stores, they found a group of men sitting about the
stove, smoking, chatting, and spitting aimlessly into a huge spittoon
made of boards and filled with sawdust. Each man suspended smoking and
talking as the strangers entered.

"Can any of you gentlemen tell us where Mrs. Welsh lives?"

There was a silence; then the clerk behind the counter said:

"I guess so. Two blocks north and three west, next to last house on
left-hand side."

"Clear as a bell!" laughed Hartley, and they pushed out into the cold
again, drawing their mufflers up to their eyes.

"I don't want much of this," muttered Bert through his scarf.

The house was a large frame house standing on the edge of a bank, and as
the young men waited they could look down on the meadow land, where the
river lay blue and still and as hard as iron.

A pale little girl ten, or twelve years of age, let them in.

"Is this where Mrs. Welsh lives?"

"Yes, sir."

"Will you ask her to come here a moment?"

"Yes, sir," piped the little one. "Won't you 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 at one side of it; a rag carpet, much faded, on the floor; a
cabinet organ; a doleful pair of crayon portraits on the wall, one
supposedly a baby--a figure dressed like a child of six months, but with
a face old and cynical enough to be forty-five. The paper on the wall
was of the hideous striped sort, and the chairs were nondescript; but
everything was clean--so clean it looked 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?"

"Four dollars."

"Eight dollars f'r the two of us. All right; we'll be with you a week or
two if we have luck."

The woman smiled and shut the door. Bert thought how much she looked
like his mother in the back--the same tired droop in the shoulders, the
same colorless dress, once blue or brown, now a peculiar drab,
characterless with much washing.

"Excuse me, won't you? I've got to be at my baking; make y'rselves at
home."

"Now, Jim," said Bert, "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
sat down at the 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," said Bert, rising with his best grace; "I might as
well out with it. I'm 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, I think. It is so seldom
young men play."

"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 Marion, 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."

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.
At first I didn't think I could live; but I did." She ended with a sigh,
a far-off expression in her eyes.

There was a pause again. Bert felt that she was no ordinary girl, and
she was quite as strongly drawn to him.

"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; freeze y'r nose solid as a bottle," he
announced, throwing off his coat with an air which seemed to make him an
old resident of the room.

"By the way, I've just found out why you was so anxious to get into this
house, hey?" he said, slapping Bert's knee. "Another case o' girl."

Bert blushed; he couldn't help it, notwithstanding his innocence in this
case. Hartley went on.

"Oh, I know you! A girl in the house; might 'a' known it," Hartley
continued, in a hoarse whisper.

"I didn't know it myself till about ten minutes ago," protested Bert.

Hartley winked prodigiously.

"Don't tell me! Is she pretty?"

"No--that is, _you_ wouldn't call her so."

"Oh, the deuce I wouldn't! Don't you _wish_ I wouldn't? I'd like to see
the girl I wouldn't call pretty, right to her face, too."

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, with the persuasive music of the book agent 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; don't worry. We'll be trouble enough.--Nice
people," said Hartley, as he shut the door of their room and sat down.
"But the girl _ain't_ what I call pretty."

By the time the dinner bell rang they were feeling at home in their new
quarters. At the table they met the other boarders: the Brann brothers,
newsdealers; old man Troutt, who kept 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.

Maud served the dinner, while Stella and her mother waited upon the
table.



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