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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?"

"Last night."

"Were you all alone here last night?"

"Yes!"

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.

"Woberts."

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.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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