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The next evening was Saturday, and, as he usually left the office
earlier on that day, it occurred to him, as he walked home, that it
was about the time his fair neighbor would be leaving the theatre,
and that it was possible he might meet her.

At the front door, however, he found Roberts, who returned his
greeting with a certain awkwardness which struck him as singular.
When he reached the niche on the landing he found his candle was
gone, but he proceeded on, groping his way up the stairs, with an
odd conviction that both these incidents pointed to the fact that
the woman had just returned or was expected.

He had also a strange feeling--which may have been owing to the
darkness--that some one was hidden on the landing or on the stairs
where he would pass. This was further accented by a faint odor of
patchouli, as, with his hand on the rail, he turned the corner of
the third landing, and he was convinced that if he had put out his
other hand it would have come in contact with his mysterious
neighbor. But a certain instinct of respect for her secret, which
she was even now guarding in the darkness, withheld him, and he
passed on quickly to his own floor.

Here it was lighter; the moon shot a beam of silver across the
passage from an unshuttered window as he passed. He reached his
room door, entered, but instead of lighting the gas and shutting
the door, stood with it half open, listening in the darkness.

His suspicions were verified; there was a slight rustling noise,
and a figure which had evidently followed him appeared at the end
of the passage. It was that of a woman habited in a grayish dress
and cloak of the same color; but as she passed across the band of
moonlight he had a distinct view of her anxious, worried face. It
was a face no longer young; it was worn with illness, but still
replete with a delicacy and faded beauty so inconsistent with her
avowed profession that he felt a sudden pang of pain and doubt.
The next moment she had vanished in her room, leaving the same
faint perfume behind her. He closed his door softly, lit the gas,
and sat down in a state of perplexity. That swift glimpse of her
face and figure had made her story improbable to the point of
absurdity, or possibly to the extreme of pathos!

It seemed incredible that a woman of that quality should be forced
to accept a vocation at once so low, so distasteful, and so
unremunerative. With her evident antecedents, had she no friends
but this common Western night watchman of a bank? Had Roberts
deceived him? Was his whole story a fabrication, and was there
some complicity between the two? What was it? He knit his brows.

Mr. Breeze had that overpowering knowledge of the world which only
comes with the experience of twenty-five, and to this he superadded
the active imagination of a newspaper man. A plot to rob the bank?
These mysterious absences, that luggage which he doubted not was
empty and intended for spoil! But why encumber herself with the
two children? Here his common sense and instinct of the ludicrous
returned and he smiled.

But he could not believe in the ballet dancer! He wondered,
indeed, how any manager could have accepted the grim satire of that
pale, worried face among the fairies, that sad refinement amid
their vacant smiles and rouged checks. And then, growing sad
again, he comforted himself with the reflection that at least the
children were not alone that night, and so went to sleep.

For some days he had no further meeting with his neighbors. The
disturbed state of the city--for the Vigilance Committee were still
in session--obliged the daily press to issue "extras," and his work
at the office increased.

It was not until Sunday again that he was able to be at home.
Needless to say that his solitary little companions were duly
installed there, while he sat at work with his proofs on the table
before him.

The stillness of the empty house was only broken by the habitually
subdued voices of the children at their play, when suddenly the
harsh stroke of a distant bell came through the open window. But
it was no Sabbath bell, and Mr. Breeze knew it. It was the tocsin
of the Vigilance Committee, summoning the members to assemble at
their quarters for a capture, a trial, or an execution of some
wrongdoer. To him it was equally a summons to the office--to
distasteful news and excitement.

He threw his proofs aside in disgust, laid down his pen, seized his
hat, and paused a moment to look round for his playmates. But they
were gone! He went into the hall, looked into the open door of
their room, but they were not there. He tried the door of the
second room, but it was locked.

Satisfied that they had stolen downstairs in their eagerness to
know what the bell meant, he hurried down also, met Roberts in the
passage,--a singularly unusual circumstance at that hour,--called
to him to look after the runaways, and hurried to his office.

Here he found the staff collected, excitedly discussing the news.
One of the Vigilance Committee prisoners, a notorious bully and
ruffian, detained as a criminal and a witness, had committed
suicide in his cell. Fortunately this was all reportorial work,
and the services of Mr. Breeze were not required. He hurried back,
relieved, to his room.

When he reached his landing, breathlessly, he heard the same quick
rustle he had heard that memorable evening, and was quite satisfied
that he saw a figure glide swiftly out of the open door of his
room. It was no doubt his neighbor, who had been seeking her
children, and as he heard their voices as he passed, his uneasiness
and suspicions were removed.

He sat down again to his scattered papers and proofs, finished his
work, and took it to the office on his way to dinner. He returned
early, in the hope that he might meet his neighbor again, and had
quite settled his mind that he was justified in offering a civil
"Good-evening" to her, in spite of his previous respectful ignoring
of her presence. She must certainly have become aware by this time
of his attention to her children and consideration for herself, and
could not mistake his motives. But he was disappointed, although
he came up softly; he found the floor in darkness and silence on
his return, and he had to be content with lighting his gas and
settling down to work again.

A near church clock had struck ten when he was startled by the
sound of an unfamiliar and uncertain step in the hall, followed by
a tap at his door. Breeze jumped to his feet, and was astonished
to find Dick, the "printer's devil," standing on the threshold with
a roll of proofs in his hand.

"How did you get here?" he asked testily.

"They told me at the restaurant they reckoned you lived yere, and
the night watchman at the door headed me straight up. When he knew
whar I kem from he wanted to know what the news was, but I told him
he'd better buy an extra and see."

"Well, what did you come for?" said the editor impatiently.

"The foreman said it was important, and he wanted to know afore he
went to press ef this yer correction was YOURS?"

He went to the table, unrolled the proofs, and, taking out the
slip, pointed to a marked paragraph. "The foreman says the
reporter who brought the news allows he got it straight first-hand!
But ef you've corrected it, he reckons you know best."

Breeze saw at a glance that the paragraph alluded to was not of his
own writing, but one of several news items furnished by reporters.
These had been "set up" in the same "galley," and consequently
appeared in the same proof-slip. He was about to say curtly that
neither the matter nor the correction was his, when something odd
in the correction of the item struck him. It read as follows:--

"It appears that the notorious 'Jim Bodine,' who is in hiding and
badly wanted by the Vigilance Committee, has been tempted lately
into a renewal of his old recklessness. He was seen in Sacramento
Street the other night by two separate witnesses, one of whom
followed him, but he escaped in some friendly doorway."

The words "in Sacramento Street" were stricken out and replaced by
the correction "on the Saucelito shore," and the words "friendly
doorway " were changed to "friendly dinghy." The correction was
not his, nor the handwriting, which was further disguised by being
an imitation of print. A strange idea seized him.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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