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The old city lay dark and cold. A raw wind whipped the street lamps and made the gas flames hiss and flicker like snake tongues. Fingers of shadow leaped over sidewalks, clawing silently upon closely set wooden houses. Stray leaves, brittle and brown, rattled like dry bones along cold stone gutters.
A man, carpetbag in hand, made his way up College Hill, up from the sluggish river basin, battling the steep incline, the wind, and his own desire. He was not big, this man, but the old army coat he wore -- black and misshapen, reaching below his knees -- gave him an odd bulk. His face was pale, his mustache dark, his mouth set in a scowl of contempt. Beneath a broad forehead crowned by a shock of jet black hair, his eyes were deep, dark, and intense.
Sometimes he walked quickly, sometimes slowly. More than once he looked back down the hill, trying to decide if he should return to the warm station and the train he had just left. There were moments he could think of nothing better. But he had traveled all day and was exhausted. What he wanted, what he needed, was a place where he could drink and sleep.
And write. For the man was a writer very much in need of cash. A story would bring money. But of late he had been unable to write. Idea, theme, characters: he lacked them all
Short of breath, he reached Benefit Street. There, he stopped beneath a lamp post and looked south. The porch lamp of the Unitarian Church was glowing, indicating that its doors were open to the homeless. If he had no choice he knew he could sleep there. But his gaze turned north. That was where he wanted to go.
Opening his carpetbag he rummagedthrough clothing, bottles, a notebook, until he found a letter. He read it. Though he himself had written the letter many times, he still found it unsatisfactory. Still, he felt he'd best deliver it before he changed his mind.
More slowly than before, the man walked north along Benefit Street until at last, seeing the house where he intended to leave the letter, Number Eighty-eight, he paused. The door to the dark red building -- ordinary a moment before -- now appeared to him like a gaping, hungry mouth. He felt suddenly that he was looking through the mouth to a graveyard situated just behind.
Despite the bitter cold, he began to sweat. Pain gripped his heart. He felt as if a million needles were pricking him. Against his agony he shut his eyes until, unable to bear it, he turned and fled. Even as he did someone flung himself from the darkness, crashing into him, and all but knocked him to the ground.
Gasping for breath the man attempted to see who had attacked him. Seeing no one, he was seized with terror. A demon had struck. Then he saw: sitting on the pavement, equally stunned, was not a demon, but a boy.
The man drew himself up. "That," he managed to say, "was a vicious blow."
"I didn't see you, sir," Edmund whimpered. "I'm very sorry."
"I should think you would be," the man said as he brushed off his greatcoat. "You could have sent me to the grave. " With a quick step he started off, only to stop. Something about the boy's wretchedness had touched him. And when the boy shivered -- he was wearing little more than a shirt and trousers and even these were ragged -- the man came back.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Edmund was too frightened to say.
"I asked you a question," the man said, his voice turning harsh.
Edmund attempted to reply but gave up. Instead he buried his face in his arms and began to sob.
The man knelt. "What are you doing here at such an ungodly hour?" he demanded. "Why have you nothing warmer to wear? What is the matter?" He drew up Edmund's face. When he saw how dirty, red-eyed and streaked with tears it was, he softened. "Why are you so troubled?" he asked.
"She's gone," Edmund blurted out, trying to knuckle the tears from his eyes.
"Sis?" the man repeated in a shocked whisper.
"My sister," Edmund explained, not noticing the strange look which had come into the man's face.
"I don't know." Edmund began to sob again.
"Your mother? Your father?" the question was asked with new urgency. "Where are they?"
"I don't have a father, sir. Nor a mother."
The man stared fixedly at the boy. "How long," he whispered, "have you been without them?"
"My mum left a year ago," Edmund answered.
"And your father?"
Edmund turned away. "He was lost at sea."
"Then who looks after you?"
"Aunty Pru. And...now she's been gone three days."
"Aunty told us to wait. She said she'd come back after two hours, that since I was the man of the family, it was my job to take care of Sis. But though we waited, sir -- never budged -- Aunty didn't return. It was only when we had no more food that I went out to get some bread. It wasn't far. To the saloon on Wickenden Street. I know I wasn't supposed to leave her, but, sir, there was nothing left. And Sis was beastly hungry. I had to. It had been two days!
"I did lock the door behind me. And I did come right back. But when I did, though the door was still locked, Sis was gone. Ever since, I've been searching for her. All over the city. And, sir, I've tried to get help, but no one would give it!" Edmund burst into tears again.
"How old are you?"
The man stood. "On your feet," he said.