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Miss Buffum’s New Boarder
by [?]

I

He was seated near the top end of Miss Buffum’s table when I first saw his good-natured face with its twinkling eyes, high cheekbones and broad, white forehead in strong contrast to the wizened, almost sour, visage of our landlady. Up to the time of his coming every one had avoided that end, or had gradually shifted his seat, gravitating slowly toward the bottom, where the bank clerk, the college professor and I hobnobbed over our soup and boiled mutton.

It was his laugh that attracted my attention–the first that had come from the upper end of the table in the memory of the oldest boarder. Men talk of the first kiss, the first baby, the first bluebird in the spring, but to me, who have suffered and know, the first, sincere, hearty laugh, untrammelled and unlimited, that rings down the hide-bound table of a dismal boarding-house, carries with it a surprise and charm that outclasses them all. The effect on this occasion was like the opening of a window letting in a gust of pure air. Some of the more sensitive shivered at its freshness, and one woman raised her eyeglasses in astonishment, but all the rest craned their heads in the new boarder’s direction, their faces expressing their enjoyment. As for Miss Buffum and the schoolmistress, they so far forgot themselves as to join audibly in the merriment.

What the secret of the man’s power, or why the schoolteacher–who sat on Miss Buffum’s right–should have become suddenly hilarious, or how Miss Buffum herself could be prodded or beguiled into smiles, no one at my end of the table could understand; and yet, as the days went by, it became more and more evident that not only were these two cold, brittle exteriors being slowly thawed out, but that every one else within the sound of his seductive voice was yielding to his influence. Stories that had lain quiet in our minds for months for lack of a willing or appreciative ear, or had been told behind our hands,–small pipings most of them of club and social gossip, now became public property, some being bowled along the table straight at the new boarder, who sent his own rolling back in exchange, his big, sonorous voice filling the room as he replied with accounts of his life in Poland among the peasants; of his experiences in the desert; of a shipwreck off the coast of Ceylon in which he was given up for lost; of a trip he made across the Russian steppes in a sleigh–each adventure ending in some strangely humorous situation which put the table in a roar.

None of these narratives, however, solved the mystery of his identity or of his occupation. All our good landlady knew was that he had driven up in a hack one afternoon, bearing a short letter of introduction from a former lodger–a man who had lived abroad for the previous ten years–introducing Mr. Norvic Bing; that after its perusal she had given him the second-story front room, at that moment empty–a fact that had greatly influenced her–and that he had at once moved in. His trunks–there were two of them–had, she remembered, been covered with foreign labels (and still were)–all of which could be verified by any one who had a right to know and who would take the trouble to inspect his room when he was out, which occurred every day between ten in the morning and six in the afternoon, and more often between six in the afternoon and ten the next morning. The slight additional information she possessed came from the former lodger’s letter, which stated that the bearer, Mr. Norvic Bing, was a native of Denmark, that he was visiting America for the first time, and that, desiring a place where he could live in complete retirement, the writer had recommended Miss Buffum’s house.