A VANISHED HAND
Author of "Where the Dew Falls in London," Etc. Etc.
London James Nisbet & Co., Limited 21 Berners Street
Printed by Ballantyne, Hanson & Co. At the Ballantyne Press
I. IN A BACK ROOM II. WHAT WAS WRITTEN III. TAKING COUNSEL IV. MRS. TRYON V. MRS. BEATON VI. HAROLD AND META VII. MRS. PENN VIII. LOOKING AT PICTURES IX. MEETINGS X. LONELINESS XI. MRS. VERDON XII. HIS FIRST VISIT XIII. IN PORTMAN SQUARE XIV. RUSHBROOK XV. WAYNE'S COURT XVI. GOING TO CHURCH XVII. THE PICNIC XVIII. THE ISLAND XIX. CONCLUSION
A VANISHED HAND
IN A BACK ROOM
"For one shall grasp, and one resign, One drink life's rue, and one its wine, And God shall make the balance good." —WHITTIER.
Elsie Kilner had a battle to fight, and it must be fought after her own fashion. It was the kind of battle which is fought every day and every hour; but the battlefield is always a silent place, and there is neither broken weapon nor crimson stain to tell us where the strife has been.
Elsie's battle was fought in a back room in All Saints' Street on an afternoon in March. It was not a gloomy room; although the window looked out upon walls and roofs and chimneys, she had a good clear view of the sky. Some pigeons occupied a little house outside one of the neighbouring windows, and there was a roof covered with red tiles on which they loved to strut and plume their feathers in the sunshine.
To a woman country-born the sight of pigeons and red tiles called up visions of an old home. The memories which came to Elsie in her London room were as fresh and sweet as the breath of early spring flowers.
She could see again the red manor-house among the Sussex hills, and the old green garden which winter could never quite despoil. The cherry-tree spread its boughs close to her window, and seemed to fill the room with the delicate dewy light of its blossoms; the winds came blowing in, sweet and chill, from thymy common and "sheep-trimmed down."
Perhaps she had never seen her home so plainly with her bodily eyes as she saw it now in imagination. Our everyday blessings are too common to be looked at in their true light; but when time and change have put them far away from us we see them in all their beauty.
"It makes me feel desperate," she said half aloud to herself.
She had a dark, delicate face, as changeful as an April sky. It was not a happy face; the dark eyes were restless, the soft lips often quivered. And yet, in spite of sorrow and unrest, and the experiences of nearly nine-and-twenty years, there was an extraordinary freshness, almost girlishness, in her appearance, which did not suffer even from the close proximity of younger women. The mourning dress, fitting closely to her graceful figure, told its own story of recent loss.
In that old manor-house among the Sussex hills her bright youth had been calmly spent. Then came her mother's death, and changes began in the home-life. Her father was growing weak in mind and body. Elsie was the only daughter, and the household cares and anxieties pressed heavily on her heart and brain. When Robert, her brother, suggested, with all possible kindliness, that it would be well if he came with his wife to the Manor and shared her labours, she welcomed the proposal gladly.
So Robert and Bertha arrived, bringing with them their little girl and her governess; and the old peace fled away for ever.
For two miserable years Elsie lived on in that altered home, and saw everything that she had loved sliding gradually out of her hold. Robert introduced many new plans, all for his father's comfort, as he continually declared. Bertha took charge of the household, and the simple habits of the past were given up. Old servants were pronounced incompetent and dismissed; and when Elsie protested against these changes, her brother and his wife dropped the mask of civility.
There is no need to go over all the details of the wretched story. Old Mr. Kilner, growing more feeble every day, suffered himself to be guided entirely by Robert and Bertha, and Elsie soon found that his heart was turned away from her. Then came the end. The will was read, and everything was left to Robert Kilner.
"But Elsie cannot say that she is not provided for," said Bertha to her friends. "Her godmother—old Mrs. Hardie, you know—left her a hundred and fifty a year. Quite a fortune, is it not?"
Turned out of the old home, Elsie had come straight to London, and had sought shelter at a boarding-school where a friend of hers was a teacher. Then, after a careful search of six months, a friend had directed her to this quiet house, and she had gratefully settled here. She welcomed solitude as one who has so many things to think over, that it is indispensable.
There was a letter grasped tightly in her hand, as she stood looking out of the window. It had come from the rector's wife, who had been her mother's friend in happy days gone by. The old lady had written to say that there were wild doings at the Manor, and the country-side was ringing with tales of Robert's extravagance and dissipation. The Kilners had never been wealthy; there was just enough to keep up the old house in quiet comfort, and that was all.
"Robert will soon come to an end of everything," wrote the clergyman's wife with the frankness of long friendship. "We have heard that he was deeply involved before he came to live at the Manor. Bertha is beginning to look sad and worn and crestfallen. People have looked coldly on her since you went away, and if she ever had any influence over her husband, she has lost it now. The air is full of unwholesome rumours. I am glad that you are no longer here, my dear child."
The letter had given Elsie a cruel pleasure—a pleasure which was so hideous that her better self could not endure the sight of it. It was only the darker side of her nature which could entertain this hateful joy for a moment. And so the battle began in her heart on that sunny March afternoon.
There were certain outer influences which seemed to act upon that inward strife. The sky helped her with glimpses of holy blue and faint hints of the coming spring. Even the spire of a church helped her, although it could only point a very little way up into the far heaven. She stood quite still, wrestling silently with that fierce temptation to rejoice over her enemy's downfall.
All Bertha's insulting speeches and unkind actions came back into her mind. It might be impossible to love her, but it was—it must be—possible to be sorry for her blighted life and darkened home. Elsie called up a vision of the dressy, well-to-do Bertha, who had always put herself into a front place, and wondered how she could play the part of a neglected wife, looked down upon by her neighbours and forgotten by the world?
The thought of the crushed woman, who had so little in her interior world to help her, was not without effect. Pity triumphed. Elsie's dark eyes were suddenly dimmed with tears; she was grieved for Bertha and ashamed of herself. The fight was over, and a voice within her seemed to say that it would never have to be so fiercely fought again.
She drew a deep breath of relief as she turned away from the window, putting the letter into her pocket. The tea-tray, with its solitary cup and saucer, was waiting on the table, and Elsie poured out tea, congratulating herself that she was alone. She was not an unsociable woman; but the boarding-school, with all its noisy, merry occupants, had set her longing for solitude. She had felt far too weary and dispirited to enter into the fun and prattle of the girls.
While she drank her tea she glanced round the little room, surveying the decorations which had kept her busy for a day or two. Some relics of her old home-life were gathered here—a quaint oval looking-glass, some bits of ancient china, some photographs, and a goodly number of books. Her little clock ticked cheerfully on the mantelpiece, one or two richly-coloured fans and screens brightened the walls; there was a faint scent of sandal-wood in the air. She had not yet unlocked the handsome desk which stood on a table in the corner, and it occurred to her that she would answer some of her neglected letters that very evening.
Going to the desk, and opening it, she noticed for the first time the table on which it had been placed. It stood in the darkest part of the room, and she had not observed its old-fashioned claw feet and the curiously-wrought brass handles of its drawer. It was not a sham drawer, but a real one, which opened easily with a gentle pull, and appeared at first sight to be quite empty.
"It is large enough to hold a good many of my treasures," thought Elsie, putting in her hand. "And here are some old papers, quite at the back! I will take them out to make room for other things."
The papers were not old nor discoloured by time, although the dust had settled upon them pretty thickly. They looked like pages torn out of a diary, and were covered with writing which struck Elsie with a sense of familiarity. This handwriting, firm, black, legible, was like her own.
"How interesting!" she said to herself. "I have always flattered myself that mine was an uncommon hand. But somebody—a woman evidently—has stolen my e's and b's and g's and y's. I should like to know a little more about her."
She forgot all about the open desk and unanswered letters, and sat down on the edge of the sofa near the window with the papers on her lap. The shadow had vanished from the delicate expressive face; the dark eyes had brightened. Elsie had the happy temperament which is charmed with every little bit of novelty that it can find. She loved, as she had often said, to investigate things, and always caught eagerly at the slightest clue which might lead to a delightful labyrinth of mystery.
The manuscript began abruptly. The first words on which Elsie's glance rested were these: "If I could only be sure that some one would be kind to little Jamie!"
This sentence was written at the top of the first page, and then came a vacant space. Lower down, in the middle of the leaf, the writer had gone on: "What a new life came to me all at once when I met Harold for the first time! The path was so flowery and bright that I had no fear of the turnings of the way. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that we should meet, and walk on together all our lives. No, we did not meet; he overtook me as I was sauntering along, and looked into my face with that look which a man gives the woman who is to belong to him for ever and ever."
Elsie paused in her reading and lifted her gaze thoughtfully to the evening sky. Her face had changed again; the expression of eyes and mouth was wistful and tender.
"No man has ever loved me in that fashion," she mused. "I've had lovers, but I was never meant for them nor they for me. I wonder why this unknown woman had the joy of finding her spirit-mate when such a joy has been denied to me? Are they married? Where is she now? I wish I knew her."
No one who had seen Elsie at that moment would have doubted that she had had lovers. She was very pretty to-day; prettier at twenty-eight than she had been in the days of girlhood. Some new feeling of peace was creeping into her heart and hushing all its turmoil into a sweet rest. Some new interest was beginning to stir in her life; much was quieted within her, and much was wakening. She felt as if she had roused after an uneasy sleep and tasted the first freshness of a fair morning.
She sat a little while in silence, thinking about the unknown writer and her Harold. Although she had read only a few lines, she felt drawn towards this woman whom she had never seen. It would have been good to have had her for a friend.
Where was she now? Living somewhere with Harold, perhaps far away in the country. Elsie could fancy the pair coming homeward through ferny lanes in the first shade of the twilight. She pictured the woman, dark-eyed and dark-haired, like herself, and the man tall and fair, with a grave yet gentle face. They had a great deal to say to each other, as those who are one in spirit often have. They answered each other's thoughts; there was the fulness of a calm content in every tone.
And then she turned again to the manuscript.
WHAT WAS WRITTEN
"And Love lives on, and hath a power to bless, When they who loved are hidden in the grave." —LOWELL.
"Every one said that it was a hopeless thing to get engaged to a poor curate," the writer went on, "and I was only a poor teacher, so the folly was not all on one side. We were wonderfully happy in our folly, so happy that we were full of pity for Mr. Worldly Wiseman when he happened to cross our path with his contemptuous smile. Even Harold's sister Ellen, with her cold blue eyes, had no power to chill us in those days. Frigid as Ellen was, I liked her better than James, her husband, who always pretended to be fond of me. He was a man of the 'good fellow' type—burly, and loud of voice. But Jamie, dear little lad, bore no resemblance to his father at all, and was only like his mother in her best moods. Oh, poor little Jamie!
"I am not writing a novel; I am only telling of things that really came to pass.
"We had been engaged nearly twelve months, when an old man died and left Harold L2000. I do not expect any one to understand the gladness which that money gave us. It is enough to say that I began to prepare my wedding clothes, and Harold went hunting for suitable lodgings in all his spare moments. The clothes were finished, and the lodgings found, when a terrible thing happened.
"James had always known all about Harold's affairs. He knew that our money was lying at the bank, waiting till a good investment was decided upon. He pretended to have found a safe investment, and he got the money into his own hands and absconded.
"Ellen confessed afterwards that she had known of her husband's difficulties for many months. She feigned ignorance of his whereabouts, but I always believed that she knew more than she told.
"As I said just now, I am not writing a novel; I am telling things in the plainest way, and in the fewest words. Most people, I daresay, would have survived the loss of L2000, but our hope was taken from us with the money. Harold was not strong. He was the kind of man who needs a wife's love and care, and the thought of our prolonged separation was more than he could endure. He went about his parish work as usual; no one missed a kind word because his heart ached, no good deed was left undone because his hands were tired. And yet, O Harold, how hard it was for you to labour in those days!
"He carried his cross manfully, although he staggered sometimes under its weight. And he bore his great wrong with that mighty patience which he had learnt from his Master.
"It was in the early spring that a sickness broke out among the poorest of his flock, and Harold had but little leisure. One night he was summoned from his bed to visit a dying man who prayed that he would come. And that night, when the bitter east wind smote him and the rain beat upon him, he heard the Master's call to rest.
"Do not think that I am an unhappy woman. I went down with him to the very brink of the river—that river which has been a terror unto many, but had no gloom for him. In those last moments I believe he knew that we should not be parted long; I see now that he had that swift glimpse into the future which is sometimes granted to a departing saint. How can I be unhappy when I am so sure that he is watching for me?
* * * * *
"Ellen sent for me to come to her. She says she has got a death-blow. James has written, telling her that she must never expect to see him again. He has deserted her for some one else, leaving her to struggle on here in poverty with her child. She has now confessed that she knew that James meant to get possession of Harold's money; she was in his confidence from the beginning.
"'We wanted to prevent your marriage with Harold if we could,' she said. 'We never liked you, Meta; but you are avenged. I sent for you to tell you that you are avenged on me.'
"Just for a moment my heart cried out that this was as it should be. Within me there was a struggle, brief and strong. But how could my better nature fail to triumph, helped as I was by Harold's loving influence? Oh, my love in heaven, I will not be conquered by evil; you are on my side—you, and the angels of God!
* * * * *
"It is bitter weather. I sit, up at night to mend and make Jamie's clothes, while he sleeps soundly in my bed. Dear little fellow; it does me good to see his cheeks so rosy and round, and his curly golden head half-buried in the pillow. 'If thine enemy hunger, feed him,' said the Master. It might be hard to feed mine enemy, but it is a labour of love to feed mine enemy's child.
"If I am called away, who will take care of Jamie? My landlady, Mrs. Penn, is a good woman, but one can hardly expect her to take up the burden of a little boy. And yet I think Jamie would be more of a blessing than a burden. He has the sweetest ways I ever knew, and there is a look of Harold in his blue eyes. How the wind howls to-night!
"It is a melancholy November.
* * * * *
"It was a curious thing that I should have a fainting fit in the street. Poor Jamie would not let my hand go when they carried me into a shop. When I came to myself I saw his dear, frightened little face looking up at me. He is not yet four years old—and I am getting weaker and weaker.
"I will write to Harold's old college friend if I can find out his address. It must be somewhere among Harold's papers. Arnold Wayne—ah, I wonder if Arnold Wayne will be good to the boy?
* * * * *
"Last night I had a dream of Christmas. Harold came to me in my dream, and said that I should hear the angels sing on Christmas day. I woke up to find the frosty moonlight shining into the room, and Jamie, half awake, complaining of the cold. I folded him closely in my arms, and we both fell asleep.
* * * * *
"I am very feeble to-day. I must not try to go out of doors. There is a little money in hand. Jamie looks at me and kisses me. Oh, Jamie!"
* * * * *
That was all. The handwriting, so firm at first, was straggling and faint at the close. Twilight was creeping fast into the little back room; the fire was getting low, and Elsie shivered in the chillness.
She knew now that this woman, whom she had almost envied, had passed away from earth. They were together—Harold and Meta—in the home of souls, where love finds its full satisfaction and rest.
Perhaps Elsie's vision of the pair was not as unreal as it might have been supposed to be. The thought came to her, as she sat musing in the twilight, that wherever there was a home there must surely be homeliness. The hope of a home, denied to them on earth, was realised in the eternal life—that life which has no need of marriage because the spiritual union is complete without the earthly tie.
She folded up the manuscript carefully and reverently, and put it back into the drawer of the table. But in doing this she did not put it out of her mind. Where was Jamie now? It seemed to her, that evening, as if the vanished hand of the writer were beckoning her onward to begin the search for the boy.
Meta had been wronged, and had suffered, oh, how deeply! Meta had fought the good fight and had won the victory. And to Elsie, in her loneliness, there came a great longing to take up the love-task which Meta had been suddenly called to resign, and care for Jamie as the dead woman had cared for him.
But how was she to begin her search for the child? She knew him only as Jamie. By some curious oversight Meta had not given any of the surnames of those whose story she had written. There were but two surnames mentioned in the manuscript, Penn and Wayne.
Mrs. Penn was a landlady; Arnold Wayne had been the college friend of Harold.
Elsie moved quietly about her room, busy with many thoughts as she lighted the lamp and shut out the evening sky. It was a beautiful sky, with soft rose tints touching the grey of the gloaming, and a star gleamed faintly above the tall spire. She gave a wistful look at that star before she drew down the window-blind.
"But round me, like a silver bell Rung down the listening sky to tell Of holy help, a sweet voice fell." —WHITTIER.
"I shall consult Miss Saxon," said Elsie to herself. Sunshine was streaming in through the Venetian shutters of her bedroom, and the street was waking up to its busy morning life. The light rested in soft yellow bars upon the wall, and lit up the pretty frilled toilet-cover which Miss Saxon's hands had made. To those hands belonged that good gift of womanly skill which is a blessing to any household. Already Elsie had learnt to rely upon their owner, and believe in her sagacity. If any one could help her in her perplexity, it was surely Miss Saxon.
A spirit of peace seemed to brood over her little sitting-room when she sat down to breakfast. Perhaps the scene of a spiritual victory is destined, ever afterwards, to know an atmosphere of repose.
Out of doors there was the clear blue of the spring sky, the whiteness of snowy clouds floating out of the reach of the smoke, the cheerful light warming the red tiles whereon the pigeons were taking their morning exercise. Altogether the world seemed to wear an encouraging aspect that day.
Miss Saxon had that gentleness of expression and manner which is often sweetest when youth has fled. When Elsie, with her black dress and sad face, had come to the house, she was cheered by a hundred little tokens of thoughtful kindness. The good fairy who had made the frilled toilet-cover was always at work, and her goodwill was manifested in pretty little flounces and furbelows, which gave a sort of old-fashioned grace to the rooms.
A little later Elsie was pouring out the story of her discovery of the manuscript, and Miss Saxon was listening in her quiet fashion. But her first words gave Elsie a chill of disappointment.
"At present I don't see how I can help you, Miss Kilner," she said. "That old table came into the house a few days before you arrived. I happened to see it outside a broker's shop, and thought it would be the very thing I wanted to fill up that corner."
"And the shop—is it near here?" Elsie asked anxiously.
"Very near; but I don't know much about the shopkeepers. The man seemed rather rough, but the woman was decent and civil. We will go and make inquiries."
"I thought that Meta had lived here," Elsie said in a disappointed voice.
"No. Your rooms were occupied for six years by a single gentleman. He had something to do in the City, and seemed to be a confirmed bachelor. But he married at last, and the rooms were vacant till you came to them."
"If Meta had ever lived in this street you would have known something about her, would you not?" Elsie asked.
"I might have known. We have lived here for many years, and have seen many changes. But there is no reason to suppose that she was ever here. We have first to learn where the table came from before we can get any clue that can be followed."
So those two, Miss Saxon and her eager lodger, went out together while the morning was still fresh and bright.
Looking back on that morning afterwards, Elsie remembered that everybody seemed to be seeking something. People were hastening along; women were going to the churches where there were daily services; sisters, in their white caps and black draperies, marshalled a troop of little girls in red cloaks, and seemed to have a world of business on their hands; men stepped on briskly with a preoccupied air. In all there was the great expectant human nature ever urging onward. In all there was the universal life-quest. Many, if they had known what manner of quest it was which had called Elsie forth, would have laughed her to scorn; others would have wondered; some might have wished her God-speed.
Leaving the two churches behind, Miss Saxon led the way into another street in which a perpetual market was held. Here there were hungry faces, sottish faces, sickly faces, and an endless pushing and jostling around the costermongers' barrows. It was a touching thing to see the poor bargaining for flowers—ay, and a hopeful thing, too, to those who can interpret signs aright.
They came at length to an old horse-hair sofa, an iron bedstead, a bath, and two or three hearth-rugs; and behind these articles there was a narrow door, which Elsie entered with some reluctance.
If you are fastidious or superstitious, a broker's shop in a low neighbourhood is hardly the place that you will choose to visit. One does not know what unwholesome associations may be clinging to the chairs and carpets and pillows which hem you in on every side; or one naturally recalls wild stories of haunted banjoes and tambourines, and tables which are said to slide about in an uncanny fashion of their own accord.
Elsie was no weaker-minded than most women, but it must be confessed that she followed her guide through that dark doorway after a moment's hesitation.
There was, however, nothing weird about the aspect of the woman who came forward, with a baby in her arms, to greet Miss Saxon. She was still young and pretty, with that delicate London prettiness which meets one in these crowded thoroughfares at every turn. The baby had a shawl drawn over its bald head, and peered out from its shelter with eyes just beginning to observe the sundry and manifold changes of its little world.
"It is rather more than a fortnight ago since I bought a table here," Miss Saxon began. "It was a very old-fashioned table with brass handles and claw feet. Do you remember it?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do," replied the woman, after a moment's consideration.
"Here is a lady who wishes to know where that table came from. She fancies it belonged to some one in whom she takes an interest," continued Miss Saxon in her quiet voice. "We have come to know if you can tell us anything about it?"
Elsie's heart throbbed fast in the pause that followed. The baby looked at her and gave a faint chuckle, as if it triumphed in the thought that even grown-up people cannot find out all the puzzles of life.
"It came from a house in Dashwood Street," the woman said at last. "They had a regular turn-out of old furniture, and my husband bought a good many things. I'll go and ask him the number of the house."
She disappeared into a gloomy region at the back of the shop, and was lost to sight for a minute or two.
"He says 'twas 132," she said, emerging from the gloom, baby and all.
"We're very much obliged to you," returned Miss Saxon.
"Not at all, ma'am. Glad to have been of use to you."
Elsie came away gaily from the broker's door, in the belief that she was going to walk straight to the goal. But Miss Saxon was less sanguine. Moreover, she had no great faith in the manuscript, and seemed disposed to think that it was written by some one who wanted to make a story.
"It might have been intended for a magazine," she suggested, "and the writer broke off short. We have no proof at all that Meta was a real person."
"I own I have no proof," Elsie admitted frankly. "But I have a feeling that I must seek out Jamie."
"But perhaps Meta is living and taking care of him still, Miss Kilner. People don't always die when they think their end is near. As a matter of fact, the more they think they are going the longer they stay."
"I know she is dead—I feel it," rejoined Elsie, with unshaken conviction. "I am guided by intuition. It seems like a blind leap into the dark, but I must search for Jamie."
Miss Saxon looked kindly into the dark eyes which met hers with such an earnest gaze.
"Something may come of it," she said after a pause. "Well, Miss Kilner, I promised to help you, and I will."
Elsie clasped her hands suddenly. "I can't do without your help," she cried. "Dear Miss Saxon, you are one of the born helpers—some are born hinderers, you know. Oh, how glad I am that I am come to you!"
"I'm glad too," Miss Saxon answered, with quiet warmth. And then they walked away together in silence, across Portland Place and on to Dashwood Street.
No. 132 was a house which looked as if it could never have contained anything so old-fashioned as Elsie's table. It had been smartened up till it looked more like a doll's house than a human habitation. In the windows there were yellow muslin curtains tied with pink sashes, and amber flower-pots holding sham plants of the most verdant hue. The maid who opened the door exactly matched the house. She was like a cheap doll, very smart, very pert, and capped and aproned in the latest style.
In answer to Miss Saxon's question she gave a curt reply.
"No; nobody of the name of Penn had ever lived in that house. Mrs. Dodge was the mistress. She didn't know anything about the name of Penn. Mrs. Dodge took the house about two months ago."
"Please take my card to Mrs. Dodge," said Elsie, in a manner which instantly took effect.
They were invited to walk into a hall which smelt of new oil-cloth, and were solemnly ushered into the room with the green linen plants and yellow blinds. Presently Mrs. Dodge, dressed in harmony with her house, came in with a rustle and a flourish. She was a big woman, with hair so yellow and cheeks so rosy, that she seemed the very person to preside over this gaily-coloured establishment.
At a sign from Miss Saxon, Elsie took the questioning into her own hands. She described the table to begin with.
Mrs. Dodge was bland and civil. She had taken the house of her aunt, an old lady who was getting too infirm to attend to lodgers. It was filled from top to bottom with the most hideous old things, and she had put them all into the broker's hands. She fancied she remembered the table, but could not be certain; there were a good many queer old tables.
No; she had never heard the name of Penn. But she had a young sister who knew all her aunt's friends better than she did. She should be called.
The sister was called, and proved to be a young and smiling copy of Mrs. Dodge. She remembered that she had once seen Mrs. Penn, about two years ago. Mrs. Penn was a small spare woman about fifty. Yes; Mrs. Penn had let lodgings somewhere—she didn't know where—and her aunt had bought some of her furniture. There was an old table with claw-feet, among other things.
"Was the aunt living now?" Elsie asked.
"Oh, yes; she was living at Winchfield," the girl answered. But she was deaf and rather cross, and it was a hard matter to make her understand anything. "Mrs. Tryon, Stone Cottage, Winchfield, near the railway station."
Elsie wrote the address in her note-book, and left Dashwood Street with hope renewed.
"We are getting nearer to the goal," she said brightly. "You see now that Mrs. Penn is a real person."
"And if Mrs. Penn is real, then Meta and Harold and Jamie are real also," Miss Saxon replied. "Yes, I think you have proved that they are not mere phantoms."
"And that is proving a good deal in a world which is fall of uncertainties," Elsie cried. "Don't laugh at me, Miss Saxon; I hear a voice calling me to go on! You cannot hear it, I know, but you must trust to my ears."
"I will trust you," Miss Saxon answered, with an admiring glance at the slight erect figure by her side. Elsie was a little above middle height, and she walked with the step of a woman who has been accustomed to an out-of-door life, as naturally graceful as the swaying of the grasses on a hillside.
All Saints' Street was still warm with the morning sunshine when they came back to their door, and Elsie ran upstairs to her rooms with a light step. Difficulties and trials were to come, but she had made a beginning.
"Just when I seemed about to learn! Where is the thread now? Off again! The old trick! Only I discern— Infinite passion and the pain Of finite hearts that yearn." —BROWNING.
"A Letter will not do," said Elsie to her counsellor. "If Mrs. Tryon is a cross person she won't take the trouble to answer a letter. So I shall go to Winchfield."
"Well, it isn't a long journey," Miss Saxon replied, "and the weather is lovely. A glimpse of the country won't do you any harm."
The glimpse of the country did not do any harm, but it awakened a host of sleeping memories.
When she got out of the train at the quiet station there was the familiar breath of wallflowers in the air. It was a flower which her old father had loved, and she seemed to see him walking along the garden paths, gathering a nosegay for his wife in the early morning. Birds were singing the old blithe songs which they had sung in her childhood; there was a flutter of many wings among the boughs, which as yet were unclothed with green. Country voices came ringing across the fields and over the hedges; country faces, stolid and rosy, met her as she turned slowly into the sunny road leading to the village.
It was not difficult to find Stone Cottage, and, wonderful to relate, it was really built of unadorned grey stone, not of brick. Time had done much to soften the severe aspect of this sturdy habitation; creepers clung to the grey walls—not wholly hiding them, but breaking up the dull uniformity of neutral tint. In the little garden there was such a brave show of jonquils and daffodils that it looked like a golden paradise.
Mrs. Tryon was sitting by the fire in a little room which opened into the kitchen. She was deaf and her sight was dim, but it pleased her to believe that she still kept ears and eyes open to her servant's delinquencies. Years of letting lodgings had developed all the suspicious instincts of her nature; the domestic servant, she argued, was the same all the world over, and always to be regarded with unmitigated distrust. To the last day of her life, Mrs. Tryon would look upon the maid-of-all-work as her natural foe.
The fire was bright; scarlet geraniums made a red glow in flower-pots on the window-sill; a gay china mug, filled with daffodils, stood in the middle of the table; it was no wonder that Elsie received an impression of warmth and gaudy colours when she entered the room. The old woman with the soured face and white hair was the only chilly thing to be seen.
"I don't want Mrs. Dodge to be sending people here," she said, after hearing Elsie's explanation of her visit. "A light-minded, rollicking woman is my niece Dodge. She'll never make that house pay its expenses—never!"
"You knew Mrs. Penn, I think?" began Elsie, anxious to turn the conversation away from the Dodge subject.
"I used to know her when I was in London."
"Where is she now?" Elsie asked anxiously.
"That I can't tell you. She was never a great friend of mine. I was too busy to make friends. She had part of a house in Soho Square. Some people in business had the first floor. But I think she's gone."
"Did you ever hear her speak of a lady called Meta?" inquired Elsie, in a voice that slightly trembled.
"Meta? No; I've never heard the name. Who was she? An actress, I suppose?"
"Oh, no!" replied Elsie hastily. "She was some one who lived with Mrs. Penn."
"Ah, there was a young lady who occupied one room at the top of the house, and did pictures for the papers and cheap magazines. I never saw her, but Mrs. Penn spoke of her once or twice, and seemed mightily concerned when she died."
"Then Mrs. Penn spoke to you of her death?" Elsie said breathlessly.
"Yes; she was a weak-minded woman, Mrs. Penn was, and allowed herself to be upset by trifles. She said that Miss Somebody was dead—I never could remember names; the name don't matter—and she had called to ask if I wanted any furniture. I said I'd take a couple of small tables and an arm-chair if she'd let me have 'em cheap. I knew she'd got some good, substantial old things."
"And had this furniture been in the young lady's room?" asked Elsie.
"Some of it had, I suppose. She told me that she didn't mean to let the room again; she was going to sleep in it herself," she said, "because it was large and light."
There was a brief pause. The clatter of teacups in the kitchen warned Elsie that she had trespassed on the old woman's patience long enough. A tabby cat, which had been asleep by the fire, got up, stretched itself, and came purring round its mistress's chair.
"Pussy knows it's tea-time," said Mrs. Tryon, bending down to stroke the creature.
Elsie rose to depart.
"One word more," she said, stooping to bring her lips closer to the deaf ear.
Mrs. Tryon glanced up impatiently.
"I never could stand many questions," she muttered.
"Only one more. Did Mrs. Penn ever mention a little boy who lived with the poor young lady?"
"Never," the old woman answered. "And now that's the end of it all, I hope. I shall let my niece, Dodge, know what I think of her for sending folks to trouble me in my old age. Mrs. Penn was no great friend of mine. I never went inside her door more than twice, and I never set eyes on the artist-lady, living or dead. As to the number of her house, it's gone clean out of my mind!"
The interview was ended; and as Elsie went forth again into the afternoon sunshine she felt a chill of disappointment.
She had learnt definitely that Meta had lived and died in Mrs. Penn's house, that the house was in Soho Square, and that was all. There was nothing about Jamie; and it was Jamie, not Meta, who was the object of her search.
The air was fresh and sweet. A little puff of wind blew the scent of hyacinths into her face. A pretty child smiled at her over a cottage gate, its golden curls tossed by the breeze.
Again she thought of Jamie, picturing the rosy face and golden curls, like those which Meta had described. If she could find the boy, she felt, with a sudden heart-throb, that she must hold him fast. No woman's life is complete without a child's presence in it. There are a hundred ways of filling up the void, but only one natural way. Elsie Kilner was nearly nine-and-twenty, and she was hungering, half unconsciously, after a child's love.
She caught a delicious glimpse of woods, just touched with that first shade of green which no artist has ever truthfully rendered. Men can paint summer and autumn, but the promise of the seasons escapes them; it is too subtle for brush or pencil. You may as well try to paint a perfume or a sigh.
And yet, as Elsie thought, walking onward, there is something in these beginnings which is sadder even than the summer's ending. Birth is the herald of decay and death, but decay and death are the sure forerunners of new life.
The afternoon was deepening into evening when she found herself again in All Saints' Street, and Miss Saxon's pleasant face greeted her at the door.
"Any news, Miss Kilner?" was the first question.
"No news of Jamie," Elsie answered sadly. "But I must try to find Mrs. Penn's house in Soho Square."
"Does she live there now?" Miss Saxon asked.
"Mrs. Tryon thinks not. She couldn't remember the number."
"That does not matter," said Miss Saxon cheerfully. "The square is not very large; it will only take a little while to go from door to door."
The last light of the day was shining into Elsie's sitting-room when she went upstairs, and it was a light which seemed to flow in like a golden wave from some unseen ocean of peace.
Had she come into this quiet house to be guided, by a vanished hand, along a path which she knew not? All she was sure of was the influence which had turned her feet out of the old road, so thickly set with thorns. Surely it was a kindly power which had led her away from the contemplation of her own grief and wrongs, and had given her a quest!
Something to do, something to seek and to hope for—this is the greatest blessing which can be conferred on a lonely life.
Elsie lighted her lamp, and wrote a long, cheery letter to the rector's wife in the Sussex village; but not one word did she say about the search for Jamie.
"Guided thus, O friend of mine, Let us walk our little way; Knowing by each beckoning sign That we are not quite astray." —WHITTIER.
It was difficult for Elsie, entering Soho Square for the first time, to realise that it had been one of the most fashionable parts of London till far into the last century. That touch of distinction which still lingers about some of the former haunts of greatness has entirely deserted this old square, and it requires an effort to picture the state of the four ambassadors and the pomp of the nobility who once made it their home. But the garden lacks not that charm of shadowy trees which so often lends a grace to the nooks and corners of the great city, and it is green enough to rest the eyes that are weary with watching the endless march of life.
Elsie made inquiries at a shop in Charles Street, and was fortunate enough to light upon a tradesman who knew something of Mrs. Penn. She had left the neighbourhood, he believed, but he could tell the number of the house she had occupied. It was close by, on the left hand as you entered the square.
As Mrs. Tryon had said, the ground-floor was given up to business, but the upper floors were still let to lodgers. A quiet-looking young widow appeared in answer to Elsie's summons. "No, ma'am, I didn't know Mrs. Penn," she said civilly. "She gave up this house nearly two years ago, and I've only been here six months. It was my sister who took the house after Mrs. Penn."
"Then there is no hope of getting the information I want," sighed Elsie; "unless any of Mrs. Penn's lodgers are here still."
"No, ma'am," said the widow again; "they are all new-comers. I am sorry that I can't help you."
There was a pause; Elsie was hesitating before she made a request. "There is a room at the top of the house which I should like to see," she said with an effort.
"There are three rooms at the very top," the landlady answered. "Two are small, but the front room is a good size."
"It is the largest room which I want to see," Elsie said.
The widow considered for a moment. "It's let to a gentleman who teaches languages and translates foreign books into English," she remarked at last. "He's out now, I think. Will you follow me, ma'am?"
Elsie's heart beat faster. As she ascended flight after flight of stairs she told herself that there was nothing to be learnt by going into the room which Meta had occupied, and yet she had a longing to be there.
They gained the top at last, and as they crossed the threshold of the chamber a dash of rain beat suddenly against the windows. Elsie's hands were clasped together tightly under her cloak. She was thinking of those winter nights when Meta lay here shivering with Jamie by her side; she thought of the lonely hours, when the house was still, and the weary worker had sat up to mend the little garments which should keep the cold from the boy. It was such a meagre tale which Meta had told. But Elsie, with her woman's heart and quick intelligence, could fill in all the details.
The sunshine followed the rain. While she stood musing in silence a light broke through the clouds and shone right into the room. That light brought with it a sudden feeling of Sabbath calm and peace. The wonderful inner consciousness (which seems to be wanting in some natures) received a message of quietness and comfort, and Elsie knew, with quiet certainty, that Meta's sufferings were not worthy to be compared with the bright rest which she had won.
They only stayed for a few minutes upstairs, and then went down in silence. As Elsie, a little tired now, was passing out into the square again the widow suddenly recalled her. "There's an old lady in Wardour Street who used to know Mrs. Penn," she said; "a Mrs. Beaton. She keeps her son's house. You'd find her at No. 127."
In a moment Elsie's weariness was forgotten. The sun was shining; it was still early in the afternoon; her time was all her own. She thanked the civil widow, and turned her steps at once towards Wardour Street.
If she had not been so deeply absorbed in her purpose she must have paused, arrested by the quaint things which were displayed in Beaton's window. It was not, perhaps, more fascinating than other windows in that wonderful street, but it had a great store of delicate ivory carvings and lovely mosaics. Yet Elsie merely gave a passing glance at these treasures, and, passing swiftly into the dim interior of the shop, asked if she could see Mrs. Beaton.
A sallow man, who was young without youthfulness, looked at her with an expression of surprise. She began to explain the object of her visit. "I am in search of a Mrs. Penn," she said frankly. "I have been to the house in Soho Square which she used to occupy, and I was directed here."
"We knew Mrs. Penn," the man answered; "but my mother seldom sees people. However, I'll ask if she can give you any information."
He disappeared, and a pale-faced lad stepped quickly into his place behind the counter. After waiting for a few moments Elsie heard a door close, and he came back. "My mother hasn't heard from Mrs. Penn since she left Soho Square," he said. "She cannot tell you anything about her."
An exclamation of disappointment broke from Elsie's lips; she moved impatiently, turning her face towards the door. The man looked at her keenly, with dark eyes shining through his spectacles.
"If you knew Mrs. Penn," she began, with a quiver of distress in her voice, "you must have known a young lady who lived with her. Her name was Meta."
"Yes, we knew her," he answered quietly. "Are you a relation of hers?"
"No." Elsie turned to him with a sudden lighting-up of her face. "But she is a great deal to me! And you really knew her?"
"We knew her," he repeated, "while she lived. Her story was a sad one. I thought you were related to her because you are like her."
"Like her?" Elsie echoed. "I must have grown like her through thinking about her so much! But I never saw her in my life."
The man still looked at her, with a glance kind as well as penetrating. "I daresay my mother will be ready to have a chat with you," he said, after a moment's pause. "Excuse me; I will go and speak to her again."
She waited, looking out through the doorway, and feeling that she was nearer the goal than she had ever been before. A strange joy and excitement thrilled her as she heard the shopkeeper returning.
"My mother will be glad to see you, madam," he said.
As he spoke she caught the gleam of firelight in a room at the back of the shop. It was a neat little parlour in which the old lady sat, and she rose to receive her visitor with quiet courtesy. Elsie sat down in an arm-chair, close to the window overlooking a little back-yard, and Mrs. Beaton attentively studied her face as she spoke.
"My son tells me that you want to ask some questions about Mrs. Penn and Miss Neale."
Elsie started slightly.
"Miss Neale?" she repeated. "Ah, that must be Meta."
"Did you not know her as Miss Neale?" the old lady asked.
"I only knew her as Meta. I found a manuscript of hers in the drawer of an old table in my lodgings, and I have been seeking her ever since. That search has brought me to you."
"A manuscript? Did it tell you her story fully? Was it long or short? She had not time to write much, I think, in her last days."
"It was not long; only the outlines of her story were told. The manuscript began with the words, 'If I only knew that some one would be kind to Jamie,' and ever since I read them I have been longing to find Jamie and be kind to him."
Mrs. Beaton had put on her spectacles, and was regarding the speaker with an intent gaze.
"Do you know," she said, after a pause, "that you don't seem a stranger to me? You are like Miss Neale—so much like her that you might pass for her sister. Many a time she has sat where you are sitting now."
"It is as I thought," Elsie murmured. "I have been guided by a vanished hand."
The old lady smiled.
"We are all guided," she said; "but sometimes the guidance is more plainly manifested than usual, or it may be that our perceptions are quickened. You will be disappointed when I tell you that I don't know where Jamie is now. However, you must keep up your heart, and not be discouraged."
"I will not be discouraged," Elsie answered resolutely. "Did Mrs. Penn take the boy away with her?"
"She did. She went away more than a year ago, and she has not fulfilled her promise of writing to me. If I had not been old and rheumatic I would have kept the little fellow myself."
"I wish you had kept him," Elsie said earnestly. "But until he is safe in my own keeping I shall not rest."
"That was spoken like Miss Neale," the old lady remarked. "You are prettier than she was; I am an old woman, and you won't mind my plain speaking. She was not as tall as you are, and her eyes were grey instead of brown, as yours are; but she had your black lashes and eyebrows. She always wore a very peaceful look, a look that comes to some people after great suffering. Your face is more eager than hers."
"Mrs. Beaton," said Elsie, bending forward entreatingly, "I want to hear Meta's story from one who knew her. She has said very little about herself in her manuscript. Won't you begin at once, and tell me all that you know?"
"Yes, my dear, I will tell you," Mrs. Beaton replied. "I have missed her very much. She used to come and talk to me when she had a little time to spare. Hers was a busy life, and it was a life lived for others. She was always going about among the burden-bearers, and trying to lighten the burdens. That was how it was that she met Mr. Waring."
HAROLD AND META
"The dear Lord's best interpreters Are humble human souls; The gospel of a life like hers Is more than books or scrolls. From scheme and creed the light goes out, The saintly fact survives; The blessed Master none can doubt Revealed in holy lives." —WHITIER.
The two women, sitting together in the little parlour behind the shop, seemed to have been drawn to each other by some subtle influence which neither could explain. When Mrs. Beaton proposed that Elsie should take off her cloak and stay long enough to drink a cup of tea, the invitation was accepted at once. And then Elsie told her name, and a little bit of her own history, before she began to listen to the story of Meta.
"There is a resemblance between your life and hers," Mrs. Beaton said thoughtfully. "I remember she once told me that she was alone in the world; parents, brothers, and sisters had all passed away, and the few relations who remained cared nothing about her. Some artist friend, who had helped her to get on, recommended Mrs. Penn as a safe woman to live with. Then, too, that top room was a suitable place to work in; there was plenty of light and air. One day Mrs. Penn brought her here, and asked my son to show her some of our art treasures, and that is how we were acquainted with her first."
"Was she very clever?" Elsie asked.
"I don't know enough of art to answer you; but my son says that she was. Andrew is a judge in such matters, and I have often heard him say that Miss Neale had the true gift. But, although she had been well trained, she lacked a good many of those advantages which help to make artists successful. She could not afford to travel, and she was so poor that she was forced to work below her powers. Still, she was rising steadily in her calling, and increasing her earnings, when she first met Mr. Waring."
"Mr. Waring? Ah, that was Harold," said Elsie.
"Yes, that was Harold. He was the junior curate at St. Lucy's Church in a street close by. In that street there was a young girl dying of consumption who was very lonely, and wanted a good deal of cheering and visiting. I used to see her as often as I could; but when my rheumatism cripples me I am helpless. I soon found out that Miss Neale knew how to comfort the sick, and I asked her to go to the poor girl. She went, and did more good than I had ever done. And it was in that sick-room that Mr. Waring first spoke to her."
Elsie recalled the words in the manuscript, "What a new life came to me all at once when I met Harold for the first time!"
"There are many kinds of love," continued the old woman in her quiet voice, "and it was given to those two to know the best kind of all. They gained strength from each other; they worked as one. In these crowded streets they have left traces of their simple, earnest lives—lives of self-sacrifice and devotion to humanity. They made no noise in the world. Harold Waring was not eloquent; he was not a profound scholar; he said very little about creeds. And yet all sorts of believers and unbelievers trusted this man, and looked up to him, because he was simply an interpreter of Divine love. Harold and Meta lived long enough to reveal their Master's sweetness to the people. And the sweetness lingers with us still."
Mrs. Beaton took off her spectacles and wiped her eyes. Then she looked up at Elsie with a smile, and shook her head over her own weakness. "My tears are for myself—not for them," she said. "I still miss them, and I am too old to go amongst those who miss them even more than I do. I shall never forget Mr. Waring's face when he came to tell me about the legacy. He was tall and fair, with clear eyes that had the blue of heaven in them."
"And Jamie's eyes are like his," interrupted Elsie.
"Yes; that's true. The boy was more like his uncle than his father. I only saw Mr. James Waring once or twice, and I always distrusted him. Well, as I was saying, Harold Waring's face was beautiful with hope and happiness. 'We shall have a home, Mrs. Beaton,' he said; 'we shall have a home!'"
"That hope was never realised!" sighed Elsie.
Mrs. Beaton's look was very bright.
"Don't you think that it is realised now?" she asked. "I have often fancied that it is the want unanswered here which is most fully satisfied hereafter. It makes the new life all the fresher and sweeter, you see. They wanted a home; but home is not a place, it is a state. There can be no home at all if there is not that mystical house, 'not made with hands,' where spirits blend and dwell together for ever."
Just then the parlour-door opened quietly, and Andrew Beaton came into the room. "Mother is giving you some of her notions," he said. "She says that all the joys of heaven must first have had their beginnings in our souls on earth."
"'To him that hath, shall be given,'" the old lady quoted. "Miss Kilner, I'm afraid you find me very wearisome, my dear. You wanted to hear about Meta Neale's life in this world, and I am trying to talk about her life in the next. Forgive a foolish old woman, who sits and dreams over her fire."
It was pleasant to see the look in Andrew's eyes when his mother called herself a foolish old woman. His glance had flatly contradicted her statement before Elsie spoke.
"Mrs. Beaton," she said earnestly, "I like to hear your notions. You have done me good. I have been thinking a great deal too much lately about the things that are temporal. There were no spiritual influences in my Sussex home," she added, with a sigh.
"One ought to look up sometimes," said Andrew; "but one mustn't forget the story of that great artist who was painting the ceiling of a chapel for two years. He got into such a confirmed habit of looking up that it cost him a mighty effort to look down at the common ground he had to walk on."
Mrs. Beaton poured out tea for her son, and smiled at Elsie across the table. It was a humble home at the back of a London shop, but Elsie found here the thought and refinement which she had so often missed in other houses. She remembered the prattle which usually accompanied the clatter of afternoon teacups, and the bits of scandal handed round with the cake.
"I don't think we will dwell too long on the end of Meta's earthly love-story," said Mrs. Beaton, after a pause; "she has told you enough in her manuscript. For nearly a year after Harold Waring died she was living and working among us, and taking care of Jamie. It was in December—just before Christmas—that Mrs. Penn found her by the child's side in her last sleep."
There was another pause. Elsie felt that tears were gathering in her eyes and could not speak. It was well that Andrew broke the silence.
"It is just a year and six months since Mrs. Penn and Jamie went away," he said. "She had grown tired of her house, I think, and the death of Miss Neale preyed upon her mind. Some one came and took house and furniture off her hands. My mother and I have been expecting a letter, but no letter has come."
"I think we ought to bestir ourselves," the old lady remarked. "Mrs. Penn was not quite the right person to have the care of a boy. If I hadn't believed that we should be informed of her movements, I would not have let Jamie go so easily. But the child clung to her very much after Miss Neale's death; no one else could comfort him."
"Have you ever heard of Arnold Wayne?" Elsie suddenly asked.
"Never," replied both the Beatons at once. "Who was he? Had he anything to do with Miss Neale?"
"I don't think she ever saw him," Elsie replied. "Her manuscript merely says that he was Harold's college friend, and she must search Harold's papers to find his address. It was evident that she felt her own end approaching, and thought that Mr. Wayne might do something for Jamie."
Andrew Beaton caught at the idea at once. "We'll find him out!" he cried. "Mr. Waring was a King's College man. It will be easy enough to learn something about Arnold Wayne there. But we must find Jamie first of all."
"Don't you know where Mrs. Penn went when she left Soho Square?" inquired Elsie.
"Not exactly," Andrew admitted. "Mother, how could we have been so neglectful? We ought to have insisted on having her address!"
"But she had no address to give us," Mrs. Beaton answered, with a troubled look on her kind face. "She said she would go to stay with some friends at Brighton for a month; the sea-air would be good for the boy and herself. They had both fretted themselves quite ill. After leaving Brighton she was thinking of settling at Lee, in Kent. Naturally, I approved of the Brighton plan, as I knew that Jamie needed a change."
Elsie was thoughtful for a moment; then she looked up, with a sudden hope shining in her eyes. "Perhaps we are worrying ourselves without a cause," she said. "It may be that they have not left Brighton, and the child is well and happy there."
"Who can tell?" The words came from Andrew as he rose from his chair and went to a side-table. "I am going to write to Mrs. Penn through the papers." His mother and Elsie watched him as he opened a blotting-book and set about his task at once. There was something firm and business-like in his way of doing things. In a few minutes the notice was written, and he read it aloud to them:—"Mrs. Penn, formerly of — Soho Square, is requested to communicate at once with Andrew Beaton, — Wardour Street, W."
"That will do," said Mrs. Beaton approvingly.
Elsie, too, rose from her seat. The afternoon was wearing away, and Miss Saxon would be getting uneasy at her absence.
"You will come again, my dear?" said the old lady, holding her hand in a lingering clasp.
"I shall be very glad to come," Elsie answered. "It is so long since I have talked with any one so motherly as you are." As she spoke her lips quivered. They both knew that the loss of a mother leaves a void which can only be filled up in heaven, and perhaps the first treasure restored to us there will be the unspeakable gift of a mother's love.
"I have never had a daughter," said Mrs. Beaton, with a slight trembling in her voice. "When Meta Neale came I sometimes caught a glimpse of what a daughter might be."
The room was growing darker, but Elsie felt rather than saw the swift look of pain which swept across Andrew's face. She felt in her mind, magnetically, the feeling that was in his. It came to her all at once—that sudden, strange intuition which reveals to us the deep places in other people's lives.
He, too, had caught a glimpse of what a daughter might have been to his mother. He had seen how lovely his life might have grown if he could have won Meta. But that vision had been sternly put away from him; neither in this life nor the next would she belong to him.
It was worse than a loss, Elsie thought. It was "the devotion to something afar" from his own sphere—a longing for the light of a star that had never shone into his world at all. He was not grieving for a gift given and taken away, but for a treasure which had never for an instant come within his reach. She went away in the gathering dusk with a heart full of sympathy. Had the "vanished hand" guided her into the path of his solitary life that she might shed a ray of brightness there?
Miss Saxon was waiting for her with an anxious face. Some people had called and left cards—friends who had lived once near her old neighbourhood. Elsie felt very little interest in them now; her mind was full of new feelings; she did not care to talk over bygone days. "I don't want to begin visiting," she said. "I am so busy, Miss Saxon! In this life of mine there is so much to do—is there not?"
"I have a boy of five years old, His face is fair and fresh to see, His limbs are cast in beauty's mould, And dearly he loves me." —WORDSWORTH.
Three days went by, and then Elsie bent her steps to Wardour Street again. Andrew Beaton was in his old place behind the counter, but his face did not look any brighter than usual.
"No answer yet, Miss Kilner," he said. "My mother is worried about the matter. She thinks that we have neglected a duty. I am glad you have come. She is too much alone."
Elsie found the old lady sitting dejectedly in her little parlour, but she brightened at the sight of her visitor.
"We have heard nothing," she began. "And yet the notice has been in all the papers. Mrs. Penn was always a newspaper reader; nothing escaped her eyes. I am beginning to fear that she is dead."
"We mustn't imagine evils," Elsie replied.
"But if she is dead, one doesn't know what may have happened to the boy! Mrs. Penn had friends and relatives, but would they be likely to look after him? That's what I have said to Andrew a dozen times at least."
She took off her spectacles with fingers that trembled a little, and put her work into an old-fashioned basket with a crimson lining. Elsie had gentle ways with old people, knowing instinctively how to soothe them with touch and voice. She poured out tea, and hovered round Mrs. Beaton with little attentions which were like caresses.
Andrew, coming in with his quiet step, gave Miss Kilner a look and a word of gratitude.
If you set out to do a good deed, you may do a hundred small kindnesses on the way. Elsie's quest seemed very likely to prove fruitless, but in the seeking she was scattering flowers as she went along. Andrew, who sometimes found his life sadly commonplace, picked up a blossom or two, and wore them thankfully. The street, the shop, and the parlour were all touched and beautified by these little graces which a woman like Elsie bestows spontaneously.
It was a pleasant tea-drinking in the London parlour, although the sun could send in only a slanting beam or two.
They had, all three, talked themselves into a hopeful mood. In their brightened fancy Jamie was already found, and they were beginning to arrange his future destiny. Elsie proceeded to state her views on the education of boys; but, as she had never had any boys to educate, those views were rather vague. Mrs. Beaton expressed a wish that he could be turned into a blue-coat boy; his curly golden head was so pretty that it was almost a sin to cover it with a cap, and he would soon grow used to being without one. Andrew hoped that he wouldn't be spoiled, and made into a milksop, and suggested that he ought to be taught a useful trade as soon as possible.
Elsie had other ideas; she wanted him to be sent to college.
Mrs. Beaton said it would be a shame to set him to work too early; he was only a little more than five years old. Both women thought that Andrew was too severe in his notions about boys.
Andrew thought that many a good lad was spoilt because he had lacked a man's control.
Elsie thought that many a dear little fellow was half-brutalised because he had lacked a woman's influence.
Mrs. Beaton then felt that it was her turn to make a remark, but no one ever heard the words of wisdom which were about to issue from her lips. Quite suddenly, with unusual noise, the parlour door was flung open, and a woman rushed into the room.
Andrew started to his feet. Elsie, who had just taken up the teapot, set it down again upon the table. Mrs. Beaton pushed back her cap-ribbons with both hands, and uttered a little shriek.
"It's Mrs. Penn!" she cried. "Oh, Mrs. Penn, it is you, isn't it? And you're gone clean out of your mind, aren't you? Oh, dear! oh, dear!"
"Yes," answered the intruder distractedly, "it is me. And I'm gone clean out of my mind."
"We don't want you without your mind," said Andrew, grown suddenly discourteous. "If you are mad you ought not to have come. Don't you see that you have given my mother a terrible shock?"
"Don't be unkind, Mr. Beaton!" exclaimed Elsie, in a tone of reproof. "Of course Mrs. Penn has come to bring us some news. Oh, Mrs. Penn," she added, losing dignity and self-control all at once, "do speak one word and tell us what has become of Jamie!"
For a moment it seemed as if Mrs. Penn had no power to comply with this simple request. She stood gaping at them all; then, suddenly flinging up her hands with a despairing gesture, she panted out, "Lost!"
Mrs. Beaton sank back in her chair with eyes closed. Andrew bent over his mother, holding a smelling-bottle to her nostrils, and murmuring reassuring words. Elsie was very pale.
The old lady recovered herself, sat up, and said, rather feebly, that there was nothing the matter. Andrew, somewhat relieved, darted an angry glance at Mrs. Penn.
"Pray sit down, Mrs. Penn," he said, "and let me beg you to be composed. Perhaps a cup of tea may steady your nerves."
Elsie poured out the tea at once, and handed it kindly to the poor shaken woman, whose distress was very genuine.
"The Daily Telegraph told me to come here. That's why I came," she whimpered at last. "But no one seems glad to see me," she added tearfully.
Andrew felt a pang of self-reproach.
"We are very glad," he said promptly. "If I was rude I hope you will pardon me. But mother can't stand a shock, and you came upon us rather suddenly, you see."
"I'm so unhappy," poor Mrs. Penn replied. "I daresay I don't seem a bit like myself. I lost him nine weeks ago."
Elsie gave a little exclamation of dismay. Had the guidance of the vanished hand led only to a disappointment like this?
"I wish you had told us sooner," said Andrew, trying to suppress his indignation.
"The weeks have gone by like a whirlwind, and my head's been in a mist ever since I lost him," Mrs. Penn declared, wiping her eyes.
"Are you sure that your head wasn't in a mist before you lost him?" asked Mrs. Beaton, with unwonted sternness.
Something in the tone of the questioner led Elsie to examine Mrs. Penn with closer attention. She was a woman of sixty, who had evidently been healthy and active in her earlier days, and ought to have been strong and capable still. But there was a redness of the eyes, and a certain pink puffiness of the whole countenance which had a suspicious look.
"My health hasn't been good lately," she said, in her whimpering voice. "No one knows the burden that the boy has been to me, but I couldn't find it in my heart to part with him."
"If you had written to us, as you promised to do, we would have relieved you of the burden," Mrs. Beaton replied.
"I've been going to write hundreds of times, only I'm such a bad letter-writer. And then I've intended to come and see you, but I've put off coming because things always seemed to prevent me. We stayed at Brighton three months; I don't like Brighton. I was glad to get nearer to London."
"Where did you go when you left Brighton?" Andrew inquired.
"We came up to Lee. My niece Maria is married to a market-gardener there, a Mr. Dennett; he's a most respectable man, and he took quite a fancy to Jamie. But Maria has no children, and she doesn't care for boys; they seem to worry her."
"And between you and Maria the poor little fellow was neglected," cried Mrs. Beaton, in a tremor of anger.
"Don't say so; pray, don't say so; it hurts my feelings dreadfully," wailed Mrs. Penn. "I'm sure I paid regularly for him and myself, and he always had enough to eat. But, as Maria has often said, it's a troublesome thing to have a child on your hands."
"How did you lose him?" Mrs. Beaton asked. She steadied her voice as well as she could, but there was an angry light in her kind old eyes.
"I didn't lose him. He lost himself. He must have wandered away somewhere," said this exasperating woman, beginning to cry again. "We went to the police, and did all we could to find him, but we never caught a glimpse of him any more. After wearing myself out for nine weeks, I saw your notice in the Daily Telegraph, and then I thought you must have found him. I came here all in a hurry, with my heart full of hope."
There was nothing more to be extracted from her. It was clear that she had told all she could tell.
Elsie turned to Andrew with a look of distress more eloquent than words. As he met the sorrowful gaze of her beautiful dark eyes, a light seemed suddenly to flash from his, and he spoke out in a resolute tone.
"Don't be afraid that I shall let the grass grow under my feet, Miss Kilner. I shall go to Scotland Yard at once," he said, rising and buttoning his coat.
He merely lingered to ask Mrs. Penn a few rapid questions about the boy's dress and general appearance, and then the door closed behind him, and he was gone.
There was a moment of silence; then Elsie, rising from her chair, went over to Mrs. Beaton and kissed her.
"I am going home now," she whispered. "We won't despair yet. I shall try to be hopeful."
But her attempts at hopefulness were of little avail, and she hurried out of Wardour Street, holding her head down, crying as she went. She walked swiftly, never once slackening her speed till she had gained her own door. And inside the house she seemed to lose all courage and strength and faith, and fell sobbing into Miss Saxon's arms.
"Oh," she said, "it is all in vain! Jamie is lost, utterly lost, and only his angel knows where to find him!"
LOOKING AT PICTURES
"A quiet and weary woman, With all her illusions flown." —A. A. PROCTOR.
About this time, when there was nothing to do but to stand and wait, Elsie occupied herself chiefly with books.
One little bit of literary work (which will live, I suppose, as long as literature endures) particularly engaged her attention in these days. It was "Dream-Children" in the "Essays of Elia."
She had so accustomed herself to the imaginary companionship of Jamie that she found it almost impossible to live without him. At nights she had fallen into a habit of glancing towards that corner of her large bedroom in which his little bed was to stand. There was the golden head burying its fluffy curls in the pillow; there was the dimpled hand lying outside the quilt.
And now the dream was fast fading away into a still fainter dream. Jamie had vanished; it was most likely, she thought, that he was dead; anyhow, it was only a miracle which could ever restore him to those who mourned for him. He had joined that troop of phantom children who come to us in our lonely hours, saying, "We are nothing, less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence and a name."
Meanwhile she lived very much as other people live, and grew prettier every day, gaining beauty in the sad and dreamy peace of her daily life. Calm will work wonders for a woman who has been fretted and worried for years, and this is the reason why some are far more beautiful in their autumn than in their summer or their spring.
The shade of melancholy, which always hung over Elsie now, added a new charm to her face. In her girlhood she had been too eager, too vivid; she had lacked the subtle sweetness of repose. People who met her nowadays invariably noticed her tranquillity: some envied, and all admired it.
She made acquaintances, and went out sometimes, and wherever she went she left an impression. If she was a trifle too indifferent to please everybody, she seldom made an enemy. Women instinctively understood that she did not want to be their rival. Men felt that the gentle unconsciousness, which nullified their pretty speeches, was really the result of preoccupation. She was always gracious, always kind; but no one could ever get very near to her heart.
She went often to sit with Mrs. Beaton in the little parlour behind the shop. Here there was real work to be done—the quiet work of cheering an old woman who had never known a daughter's love. Sometimes the blessing withheld in youth is granted in old age. Mrs. Beaton had received much from Meta, but Meta had been worn with the warfare of a hard life. Elsie had more leisure to give her a daughter's tenderness.
Andrew Beaton had strained every nerve, but had found no trace of the missing boy. He had been to Lee, and had seen Dennett, the green-grocer, and his wife, and had satisfied himself that they were seldom sober enough to attend to anything. Poor Mrs. Penn's habit of intemperance had been strengthened by her connection with these people. Andrew gave up the Dennetts and Mrs. Penn as a hopeless set.
Spring days grew warmer and brighter; shop-windows were gay with all the colours of the rainbow; women moved about in pretty, delicate dresses, looking like animated flowers.
Miss Saxon reminded Elsie that young women ought not to go out habited in black gowns when the white and purple clover blossoms stood thick in the meadows, and the hawthorn shook its fragrant snows over the hedges. So Elsie dressed herself in violet and lilac, and Miss Saxon secretly exulted in seeing the admiring glances which were cast upon her when she went out into the sunshine.
One day Miss Kilner went to the Royal Academy Exhibition with a very old friend.
This old friend was Mr. Lennard, rector of the Sussex village where she was born. He was seventy years of age—hale, rosy, and strong; a suitable escort for the beautiful young woman who wore a bonnet made of heliotrope, and had dark-brown eyes that shone like stars.
She enjoyed the pictures with all her heart, especially those views of cornfields steeped in yellow sunlight, and glimpses of shady woodland which reminded her of her early home. Mr. Lennard, too, enjoyed the pictures, but they did not absorb his whole attention. Now and then he caught sight of familiar faces in the crowd, and then there were hearty greetings and rapid questions and answers.
Sometimes it was the face of an old college friend which caught his eye, and he would almost shout for joy to see it smiling and alive, when he had thought it hidden under the daisies. Sometimes it was a rosy matron whom he had last seen as a bashful bride. And these meetings were so frequent that Elsie had got quite used to his starts and exclamations before they had gone half through the rooms.
When he said, "Bless me, it's—no, it isn't—yes, it is—of course it is!" she was gazing intently at one of those pictures which will always have an attraction for women of her temperament. Long afterwards she could have described the painting accurately, and would never forget it as long as she lived.
Two nuns, one old and the other young, were waiting for admittance outside the door of a convent. They had been out into the world to nurse the sick, and had returned (each laden with her basket) in the glory of a summer morning. The elder woman, weary with her labours, waited with half-closed eyes for the door to open. The younger, pale, but full of irrepressible vitality, stood looking at the rich, warm human life which she had renounced for ever. A young wife, with an infant on her arm, had brought her husband his midday meal, and he had flung down his scythe to kiss her under the trees. Those two faces, browned with the sun, flushed with the bloom of the flower, seemed the natural product of the beautiful earth. You could almost hear the myriad sounds of summer; waters trickling through the moss and roots of the wood, the hum of bees, the birds' joyous songs. The very sunlight seemed to dance for gladness among the leaf-shadows as it played over the grey garb of the Sisters. But you knew that in another moment the door would open and close again, shutting out all these common human joys—kisses and smiles and signs of that everyday bliss which makes a paradise of simple lives.
Now Elsie, in her loneliness, had had her dreams of the convent. But a picture of this kind was a better warning than any sermon which a hot-headed Protestant ever preached. There are natures which can put forth blossoms, pale and sweet, in the air of the cloister, and there are others which can flower only in the atmosphere of the world.
The pity is that the women meant for the world too often fly to the cloister, and the women who would have made admirable nuns—
"Devout and pure, Sober, steadfast, and demure,"
persist in taking upon themselves those duties of wifehood and maternity for which they were never fitted at all.
Elsie had a rich heart, but its outpourings seemed to be thrown back upon herself, and she had sometimes longed to hide her disappointment in seclusion. But the picture spoke to her, as pictures can do. True art can often succeed where divinity fails; the painter preaches more effectually than the parson.
She gazed at the nuns, quite unconscious that she herself made a picture, and that some one was gazing intently at her. Then, slowly realising that Mr. Lennard had found another acquaintance, she turned, and met the earnest look of a pair of deep-blue eyes.
They were uncommon eyes, singularly blue, singularly true. Their owner was a tall man, much bronzed, and not regularly handsome; but he had that knightliness of look and bearing which always wins notice and attracts liking. Although he wore the prosaic garb of the period, there was something about him that suggested Camelot, and Arthur's court; something that recalled Lancelot, and Galahad, and Percivale; something, in short, which appealed to the romantic side of Elsie's nature. So these two young persons looked at each other, but it did not occur to Mr. Lennard that they might possibly like to get acquainted.
Moreover, it was near the luncheon hour, and the rector had promised to take Elsie to a house in Park Lane. He shook hands heartily with the knightly stranger, reminded Elsie of their engagement, and began to make his way through the crowd to the door.
In the whirl and roar of Piccadilly he tried to say something about that unexpected meeting, but part of his sentence was lost.
"——since he was a lad. Even now I can scarcely recall his name. My memory begins to play strange tricks. Donald—no—Ronald. Ronald—what? I can't get further than Ronald; my head is a trifle confused to-day. Coming up from the country, you know. That's our 'bus, isn't it? All right."
They went to Park Lane, but not another word was said about Ronald, and on the following day Mr. Lennard returned to Sussex.
The summer advanced; Elsie accepted invitations now and then; but it soon became evident to Miss Saxon that she did not care very much for society.
She took a deep interest in all that concerned the welfare of children. She went to public meetings and heard grand things spoken on their behalf; she learnt what true, large-hearted men, with power, and education, and opportunity, were doing for little ones in the world, and all the while the thought of Jamie lay deep down in her heart. He was never forgotten.
Nor did the Beatons forget him, but every effort to trace him had failed.
They often talked of him with Elsie as they sat, all three, in the little room behind the shop. Some subtle influence always seemed to draw Miss Kilner's steps to Wardour Street, and her presence was welcome there.
"Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it."—A Winter's Tale.
Poor Mrs. Penn had a conscience. It had been lulled to sleep while she lived an unwholesome life with Maria and her husband, and allowed herself to be dominated by them. But the loss of Jamie and the visit to Wardour Street had awakened her better nature and the feelings of a happier time. She recalled Harold Waring's faithful words and Meta Neale's gentle counsels, and remembered all the comfort and help which she had found in Mrs. Beaton's friendship.
So powerfully did good emotions work within her that she suddenly resolved to fly from Maria's companionship. The Dennetts were mortally offended, but what did that matter? She wanted to go back to her old haunts and be helped by the presence of those who could lift her out of miry ways; and Mrs. Beaton and her son took compassion upon the repentant woman, and let her come to live with them. Sometimes they made little excursions into the suburbs, which did them all good. Mrs. Penn became a really useful member of the household, and waited on Mrs. Beaton with careful attention. Andrew, who had been troubled about his mother's increasing feebleness, was no longer afraid to see her go out of doors. Mrs. Penn was by her side, a trustworthy companion nowadays, with a stout arm which could be safely leant upon.
July was gloriously bright, and one day the two women—Mrs. Beaton and Mrs. Penn—had prepared themselves for a trip to Richmond, when Miss Kilner suddenly presented herself.
"One longs to escape from London to-day," she said. "So you are going to Richmond? I have a school-friend who lives down by the river, and I told Miss Saxon that I should go to see her."
"Will you come with us?" Mrs. Beaton asked, brightening.
"Yes," Elsie answered; and the three went off together.
Down by the river there are old houses set deep in leafy gardens; creepers hang drowsily in the delicious air; long aisles open upon terraces bright with flowers. It was in an earthly paradise of this kind that Elsie loitered away a golden afternoon; and then, when the clocks were striking six, she went off to rejoin her companions.
She found them at the appointed meeting-place, and they all walked up from the river-side through a lane opening into the highway of the town. Mrs. Beaton, a little weary, moved slowly, leaning on Mrs. Penn. Elsie, a few steps in the rear, gave herself up to one of those reveries which so often come to us at the close of a summer day. The lights were golden on the river. Some people were singing in a boat, and the voices floated sweetly over the water; it was pleasant melody, but there was a faint tone of sadness in the strain.
An open carriage and pair waited under the overhanging trees in the lane. Leaning back lazily on the cushions was a lady, fair and still young, with a beautiful boy by her side. The child was in high spirits; his laugh rang out clear and fresh as Elsie drew near. He stood up in the carriage in his pretty sailor's suit, and the low sunlight shone into his blooming face and blue eyes. At the sight of him Mrs. Penn stopped short and uttered a little cry.
"It's Jamie!" she exclaimed. "It's really Jamie!"
The boy knew her voice; the laugh died out on his lips in an instant; he looked at her with a gaze half-frightened, half-defiant, and drew closer to the lady's side.
"What is the matter, dear?" they heard her ask.
Before he could reply, before any one could speak again, a terrible thing happened. The horses began to plunge violently, and then, as the drowsy coachman woke with a start, they set off at a mad pace in spite of all his efforts to control them. Down the lane they went at a wild gallop, their thundering hoofs raising a cloud of dust, and the three horror-stricken women caught a swift glimpse of the lady and the child clinging to each other in a despairing embrace.
Scarcely knowing what she was doing, Elsie began to run after the flying carriage at the top of her speed; Mrs. Penn followed her at a slower pace, and poor Mrs. Beaton came panting behind.
Miss Kilner was slight of figure and light of foot, and eagerness seemed to lend her wings. She was still getting over the ground at a rapid rate, when she saw the dust-cloud vanish, and perceived that the carriage had come to a stand-still. Was the danger, then, over? Her heart gave a throb of passionate thankfulness as she pressed on, longing to assure herself that Jamie was safe, and to hold him, for one brief moment even, in her arms.
One or two watermen had come up and gathered round the panting horses. The coachman, white and shaky, was talking and gesticulating; his mistress, looking very fair in her faintness, had been helped out of the carriage by a tall man with a brown face.
Elsie, as she came up breathless to this group, took in two facts at once. Jamie was safe and unhurt, and the brown-faced man was Mr. Lennard's friend Ronald. He looked every inch a knight, as he stood there in his suit of fresh, white flannels, his bronzed face with a summer glow in it, and the dark hair cropped close to his head. The lady, in a silvery voice that faltered once or twice, was pouring out her thanks. Elsie comprehended it all in a moment; it was Ronald who had stopped the horses, and saved, perhaps, two lives.
"I cannot trust them again," the lady said, glancing at the handsome chestnuts with a shudder. "We had better go home in the train."
The boy was holding her hand, and pressing close to the folds of her dainty gown. Elsie came up to them, very pale, with a light in her eyes. Her glance rested on the little lad, and she stretched out her hand to him with an impulsive gesture. "Oh," she said, "it is Jamie Waring, and I have been trying to find him for weeks and weeks! I have no right to claim him, I know; but I have wanted him for such a long, long time. To see him safe and well, after such a weary search——"
She broke off abruptly. The brown man was standing in front of her with his eyes fixed on her face; he was gazing at her so earnestly, sincerely, and wistfully that for an instant she almost lost herself. Jamie's gaze was less sympathetic; he looked puzzled, and kept very close to his protectress.
"I found Jamie with some organ-grinders," said the lady, recovering her composure, and speaking in rather a cold voice. "The organ-woman was beating him, and I stopped my carriage to interfere. They were in a quiet road near Lee, and of course there was no policeman to be seen. I asked the child if he belonged to these people, and he cried, 'No, no!' and clung to me. I saw that he was not dirty and neglected; his clothes were rather poor, but there was nothing of the tramp about him. To make a long story short, I fell in love with you—didn't I, Jamie?—and so I took you home with me and waited for you to be claimed, but no one ever claimed you."
Her fair face softened as she looked down at the child, and her voice grew tender when she spoke to him. He still stood clasping her hand and resting his head against her dress.
"He has no relations," Elsie said. "No one has any right to take him from you."
Mrs. Penn, flushed and half-sobbing, came up at this moment, and she, too, extended her arms to the boy. But at the sight of her he drew himself up to his full height and waved his hand with the majesty of a little king. "Go away!" he said. "Go away home!"
"Oh, Jamie!" she cried; "aren't you glad to see me again?"
"No!" he answered, with another wave of the dimpled hand. "I don't love you a bit! You let Maria beat me. I hate Maria. I won't come with you!"
For a moment no one spoke. The brown man was evidently much amused by the little scene, and looked at the boy with undisguised approval.
"Was this child left in your charge?" the lady asked, addressing Mrs. Penn with cold severity.
"There was no one to take him, madam," the crestfallen woman replied. "He was living with Miss Neale, who was a lodger of mine, and she died, quite suddenly, in my house. His father——"
"His father had deserted him." It was Mrs. Beaton who spoke. She had reached the little group, and having but a poor opinion of her friend's eloquence, she took up the tale herself. "But Jamie Waring is well connected, madam; his uncle was our clergyman, the Reverend Harold Waring, curate of St. Lucy's, in Berwick Street, and——"
"Harold Waring! Why, he was a dear old friend of mine!" Mrs. Beaton was interrupted in her turn, and it was the man in flannels who cut her story short. "If I had only known that Waring had left a nephew alone in the world I should have claimed him," he went on, with a ring of determination in his voice. "My name is Wayne—Arnold Wayne—you may have heard Mr. Waring speak of me?"
"Yes, sir, we have," Mrs. Beaton replied. "Here is Miss Kilner, who found your name in poor Miss Neale's manuscript. Miss Neale, sir, was engaged to be married to Mr. Waring."
"He wrote to tell me of his engagement," said Arnold Wayne, looking at Elsie. "What a complicated business this is! It seems that we each have an interest in this young gentleman," he added, with a smile at the fair lady.
"Mr. Wayne!" exclaimed Jamie's protectress, in her silvery voice. "We were to have met at Rushbrook last October, and you didn't come. I was staying with your cousins the Danforths. I am Mrs. Verdon."
"I'm delighted to meet you at last," he said cordially. "Mary and Lily were always talking about you. Isn't all this extraordinary? There never was anything like it in a three-volume novel!"
Then they both laughed with a comfortable air of old acquaintanceship, and Elsie suddenly had a sense of being left out in the cold.