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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; he only shuddered and lay silent
under the stress of that strange, sweet passion that 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 wind, 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 glimpse of his real significance--a gnat, a speck in
the sun: a boy facing the millions of great and wise and wealthy. He
leaped up, clasping his hands.

"Oh, I _must_ work! 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, absolutely shone with his passionate
resolution, and his hands were clinched in a silent, inarticulate
desire.

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
was the unthinking boy again; but the problem was only put off, not
solved.

He had a suspicion of it one night when Hartley said: "Well, pardner,
we're getting 'most ready to pull out. Some way I always get restless
when these warm days begin. Want 'o be moving some way."

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 the Holy Land or to
rescue some damsel, hey?" he ended, with a grin. "Now, that's the way I
feel--just like striking out for, say, Oshkosh. This has been a big
strike here, sure's you live; that little piece of lofty tumbling 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; don't blame you at all."

"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 center 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 'o leave her a little something, make it a morocco copy, and charge
it to the firm."

Albert 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 my own."

"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," said 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. "F'r 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 under-consciousness 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 the 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
skating party down on 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 two paths, saying: "I will not choose; I can
not 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 downtown
finishing up his business.

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."

"Oh, don't say that!" cried the girl, her face as white as silver, her
clasped hands straining.

"I must--I must!" he muttered, not looking at her, not daring to see 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.

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 face down to hers and kissed it, then turned her face to
his breast and laughed and cried. There was a silence; then joy and
confidence came back again.

"I know now what you meant," the girl cried gayly, raising herself and
looking into his face; "you were trying to scare me, and 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 said, 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. All plans were
good and successful now. But the boy unconsciously felt the gravity of
life somehow deepened by his love.

"Why, Maud!" Mrs. Welsh exclaimed, "what is----"

"O 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 they sat down, all three, and had a sweet, intimate talk of an
hour, full of plans and hopes and confidences.

At last he kissed the radiant girl good night and, going into his own
room, sat down by the stove and, watching the flicker of the flames
through the chinks, 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; and all plans included Maud.

To go back to school was out of the question.



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