Chapter III
 

"I declare to goodness, if that ain't the third tramp I've chased away from this house to-day! I'll have father get a dog if this keeps up. They do pester a body pretty nigh to death." Mrs. Wilson slammed the kitchen door and returned to her dish-washing. "The ide' of givin' good victuals to them that's able to work--not much I won't--Let 'em do like I do." And the good lady plied her dish-cloth with such energy that her daughter hastily removed the clean plates and saucers from the table to avoid the necessity of drying them again.

"But this man wanted work, didn't he mother?" asked Clara, "And I heard you tell father at dinner that you wanted someone to fix the cowshed and clean up the back yard."

"There you go again," angrily snapped the older woman, resting her wet hands upon her hips and pausing in her labor, the better to emphasize her words; "Allus a criticisin' and a findin' fault--Since you took up with that plagy church there aint been nothin' right."

"Forgive me mother, I didn't think," said the daughter, looking into the wrathful black eyes of her parent.

"Didn't think," whined the woman, "You never think of nothin' but your blamed Young Folks' Society or Sunday School. Your mother an' father and home aint good enough fer your saintship now-a-days. I wish to goodness you'd never heard tell of that preacher; the whole set's a batch of stingy hypocrites." She turned to her dish-washing again with a splash. "An' there's George Udell, he aint going to keep hanging around forever, I can tell you; there's too many that'ud jump at his offer, fer him to allus be a dancin' after you; an' when you git through with your foolishness, you'll find him married and settled down with some other girl, an' what me and your father'll do when we git too old to work, the Lord only knows. If you had half sense you'd take him too quick."

Clara made no reply, but finishing her work in silence, hung up her apron and left the kitchen.

Later, when Mrs. Wilson went into the pleasant little sitting-room, where the flowers in the window would bloom, and the pet canary would sing in spite of the habitual crossness of the mistress of the house, she found her daughter attired for the street.

"Where are you going now?" she asked; "Some more foolishness, I'll be bound; you just take them things off and stay to home; this here weather aint fit fer you to be trapsin round in. You'll catch your death of cold; then I'll have to take care of you. I do believe, Clara Wilson, you are the most ungratefulest girl I ever see."

"But mother, I just must go to the printing office this afternoon. Our society meets to-morrow night and I must look after the printing of the constitution and by-laws."

"What office you goin' to?" asked the mother sharply.

"Why, George's, of course," said Clara; "You know I wouldn't go anywhere else."

"Oh well, get along then; I guess the weather won't hurt you; its clearin' off a little anyway. I'll fix up a bit and you can bring George home to supper." And the old lady grew quite cheerful as she watched the sturdy figure of her daughter making her way down the board walk and through the front gate.

George Udell was a thriving job printer in Boyd City, and stood high in favor of the public generally, and of the Wilson family in particular, as might be gathered from the conversation of Clara's mother. "I tell you," she said, in her high-pitched tones, "George Udell is good enough fer any gal. He don't put on as much style as some, an' aint much of a church man; but when it comes to makin' money he's all there, an' that's the main thing now-a-days."

As for Clara, she was not insensible to the good points in Mr. Udell's character, of which money-making was by no means the most important, for she had known him ever since the time, when as a long, lank, awkward boy, he had brought her picture cards and bits of bright-colored printing. She was a wee bit of a girl then, but somehow, her heart told her that her friend was more honest than most boys, and, as she grew older, in spite of her religious convictions, she had never been forced to change her mind.

But George Udell was not a Christian. Some said he was an infidel; at least he was not a member of any church; and when approached on the subject, always insisted that he did not know what he believed; and that he doubted very much if many church members knew more of their beliefs. Furthermore; he had been heard upon several occasions to make slighting remarks about the church, contrasting its present standing and work with the law of love and helpfulness as laid down by the Master they professed to follow.

True, no one had ever heard him say that he did not believe in Christ or God. But what of that? Had he not said that he did not believe in the church? And was not that enough to mark him as an infidel?

Clara, in spite of her home training, was, as has been shown, a strong church member, a zealous Christian, and an earnest worker for the cause of Christ. Being a practical girl, she admitted that there were many faults in the church of today; and that Christians did not always live up to their professions. But, bless you, you could not expect people to be perfect; and the faults that existed in the church were there because all churches were not the same, which really means, you of course understand-"all churches are not of my denomination." And so, in spite of her regard for the printer, she could not bring herself to link her destiny with one whose eternal future was so insecure, and whose life did not chord with that which was to her, the one great keynote of the universe, the church. And then, too, does not the good book say: "Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers." What could that mean if not, "Do not marry an infidel?"

While Clara was thinking of all these things and making her way through the mud of Boyd City streets, Udell, at the printing office, was having a particularly trying time. To begin with, his one printer had gone off on a spree the Saturday before and failed to return. Then several rush jobs had come in; he had tried in vain to get help; the boy had come late to the office, and, altogether it seemed as though everything had happened that could happen to make things uncomfortable.

Clara arrived on the scene just when the confusion was at its height; the room was littered with scraps of paper and inky cloths; the famous printer's towel was lying on the desk; the stove, with its hearth piled full of ashes, emitted smoke and coal gas freely; and the printer was emptying the vials of his wrath upon the public in general, because all wanted their printing done at the same instant; while the boy, with a comical look of fear upon his ink-stained face, was dodging here and there, striving as best he could to avoid the threatening disaster.

The young girl's coming was like a burst of sunlight. In an instant the storm was past. The boy's face resumed at once its usual expression of lofty indifference; the fire burned freely in the stove; the towel was whisked into its proper corner; and she was greeted with the first smile that had shown on the printer's face that day. "You're just in time," he cried gaily, as he seated her in the cleanest corner of the office.

"I should think so," she answered, smiling, and glancing curiously about the room; "looks as though you wanted a woman here."

"I do," declared George. "I've always wanted a woman; haven't I told you that often enough?"

"For shame, George Udell. I came here on business," Clara answered with glowing cheeks.

"Well, that's mighty important business for me," Udell answered. "You see--" but Clara interrupted him.

"What's the matter here anyway?" she asked.

"Oh--nothing; only my man is off on a drunken spree, and everybody wants their stuff at the same time. I worked until two o'clock last night; that's why I wasn't at your house; and I must work tonight too. I'm--Yes, there's another;" as the telephone rang. "Hello!--Yes, this is Udell's job office--We have the matter set up and will send you proof as soon as possible--I'm sorry, but we are doing the best we can--Yes--all right--I'll get at it right away--three o'clock--can't possibly get it out before"--bang! He hung up the receiver.

"I tell you this is making me thin. If you had half the influence at headquarters that you profess to have, I wish you'd pray them to send me a printer."

"Why don't you get help?"

"Get help?--Get nothing! I tell you I've prayed, and threatened, and bribed, and promised, as well as the best prayer-meeting church member you've got, and I can't get the sign of an answer. Reckon the wire must be down," he added, a queer shadow of a smile twitching up the corners of his mouth; "Y-e-s," as the phone rang again. "I wish that wire was down."

The girl noted the worn look on his rugged face, and when he had hung up the receiver again, said: "I wish I could help you, George."

"You can, Clara,--you know you can," he answered quickly. "You can give me more help than the ghost of Franklin himself. I don't mind the hard work, and the worry wouldn't amount to anything if only--if only--" he stopped, as Clara shook her head.

"George, you know I have told you again and again--"

"But Clara," he broke in,--"I wouldn't in any way interfere with your church work. I'd even go with you every Sunday, and you could pay the preacher as much as you liked. Don't you see, dear, it couldn't possibly make any difference?"

"You don't understand, George," she answered, "and I can't make you see it; there's no use talking, I can't, until you change your ideas about--"

The door opened and a weary, hungry, unshaven face looked in.--The door opened wider and a figure came shuffling timidly toward the man and girl.

"What do you want?" said Udell, gruffly, a little put out at such an interruption.

"Are you the foreman of this office?" said the newcomer.

"Yes, I'm the boss."

"Do you need any help? I'm a printer."

"You a printer?" exclaimed Udell. "What's the matter?--No,"--he interrupted himself.-"Never mind what the matter is. I don't care if you're wanted for horse stealing. Can you go to work now?" The man nodded. Udell showed him to a case and placed copy before him. "There you are, and the faster you work the better I'll pay you."

Again the other nodded, and without a word caught up a stick and reached for the type.

George turned back to Clara who had risen. "Don't go yet," he said.

"Oh, yes, I must; I have been here too long now; you have so much to do; I only wanted to get that society printing." George handed her the package. "Who is he?" she whispered, with a look toward the newcomer.

"Don't know; some bum I suppose; looks like he had been on a big spree. I only hope I can keep him sober long enough to help me over this rush."

"You're wrong there," said the girl, moving toward the door, "He asked for work at our house early this morning; that man is no drunkard, neither is he a common tramp."

"How do you know?"

"Same as I know you, by the looks," laughed Clara. "Go talk to him and find out. You see your prayer was answered, even if you did pray like a church member. Who knows, perhaps the wire is not down after all," and she was gone.

The printer turned to his work again with a lighter heart for this bit of brightness. Somehow he felt that things would come out all right some day, and he would do the best he could to be patient; and, for Clara's sake, while he could not be all she wished, he would make of himself all that he could.

For a while, he was very busy with some work in the rear of the office; then remembering Clara's strange words about the tramp, he went over to the case where the new man sat perched upon his high stool. The stranger was working rapidly and doing good work. George noticed though, that the hand which held the stick trembled; and that sometimes a letter dropped from the nervous fingers. "What's the matter?" he asked, eyeing him keenly.

The man, without lifting his head, muttered, "Nothing."

"Are you sick?"

A shake of the head was the only answer.

"Been drinking?"

"No." This time the head was lifted and two keen gray eyes, filled with mingled suffering and anger, looked full in the boss's face. "I've been without work for some time and am hungry, that's all." The head bent again over the case and the trembling fingers reached for the type.

"Hungry!--Good God, man!" exclaimed Udell. "Why didn't you say so?"--and turning quickly to the boy he said, "Here, skip down to that restaurant and bring a big hot lunch. Tell 'em to get a hustle on too."

[Illustration: "Here you are; come and fill up."]

The boy fled and George continued talking to himself; "Hungry--and I thought he had been on a spree. I ought to have known better than that. I've been hungry myself--Clara's right; he is no bum printer. Great shade of the immortal Benjamin F! but he's plucky though--and proud--you could see that by the look in his eye when I asked him if he'd been drunk--poor fellow--knows his business too--just the man I've been looking for, I'll bet--Huh--wonder if the wire is down." And then as the boy returned with the basket of hot eatables, he called cheerily, "Here you are; come and fill up; no hungry man in this establishment, rush or no rush." He was answered by a clatter as half a stick full of type dropped from the trembling hand of the stranger. "Thank you," the poor fellow tried to say, as he staggered toward the kind-hearted infidel, and then, as he fell, Dick's outstretched fingers just touched Udell's feet.