THE BEGGAR MAN
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE WOMAN HATER
THE BEGGAR MAN
THE ONE WHO FORGOT
THE PHANTOM LOVER
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
THE MASTER MAN
THE SECOND HONEYMOON
THE WINDS OF THE WORLD
THE LITTL'ST LOVER
THE UPHILL ROAD
THE BLACK SHEEP
RICHARD CHATTERTON, V.C.
THE REMEMBERED KISS
A BACHELOR HUSBAND
HODDER AND STOUGHTON LIMITED LONDON
THE BEGGAR MAN
RUBY M. AYRES
"THE ONE WHO FORGOT," "THE MASTER MAN"
HODDER AND STOUGHTON
PAGE CHAPTER I 9
CHAPTER II 24
CHAPTER III 43
CHAPTER IV 55
CHAPTER V 79
CHAPTER VI 93
CHAPTER VII 115
CHAPTER VIII 147
CHAPTER IX 162
CHAPTER X 178
CHAPTER XI 193
CHAPTER XII 209
CHAPTER XIII 234
She was small and slight, with timid, brown eyes and soft, fair hair and a certain daintiness of person that singled her out for attention in spite of the shabbiness of her clothes.
The first morning she put in an appearance at the factory the other girls marked her down as being a little different from themselves; a little less rough and capable of looking after her own interests, a little more refined, and ready to shrink from jest and laughter.
They crowded round her to stare with interest, in which there was mingled a faint suspicion. A volley of questions greeted her from all sides.
"What's your name?" "Where do you come from?" "Who took you on?"
She shrank back a little from their good-natured inquisition. She answered their questions at random—nervously.
"My name's Faith Ledley.... I live in Poplar.... I just applied, and the manager said he'd give me a trial."
She could feel the something hostile in the air, and her brown eyes darkened with anxiety. She felt herself so small and alone in this crowd of muscular, cheery young women.
One of them, who seemed a sort of leader amongst the others, took a little step towards her.
"What are you—a machinist?"
"Oh!" The elder girl's rather bold blue eyes seemed to take stock of the younger one; then she said, with a note of greater friendliness:
"Oh, well, come on. You can sit next to me if you like."
Faith took courage.
"What is your name?" she asked diffidently.
The elder girl laughed. "They call me Peg," she said, and with sudden impulse she held out her work-roughened hand. "Come on," she said again, with an unconscious note of imperiousness in her voice, and Faith obeyed.
That was Faith's initiation into the workings of Heeler's blouse factory. It was the beginning, also, of a lifelong friendship between herself and Peg Fraser.
During the day Peg asked many questions.
"Have you got a father and mother?"
"A mother—she's delicate."
"Oh! Any brothers and sisters?"
"Two little sisters."
"Do you keep them?"
Faith smiled. "Oh, no! I help—we take lodgers."
"Oh." For a moment Peg was silent, treadling away busily at her machine, and Faith stole a timid glance at her.
Peg was handsome in a bold sort of way. She had jet black hair and a high colour, blue eyes, a little hard in expression, and a fine figure.
She was a power to reckon with in the room in which she worked, as Faith was quick to discover. Even the forewoman, who was thin-lipped and shrewish, seemed a little afraid of her. Presently she asked another question:
"What was your father?"
Faith flushed sensitively. "He was a gentleman," she said proudly.
Peg's blue eyes opened wide and for a moment she stopped work. Then:
"My father was a night-watchman," she said dryly. She snapped off a thread with a vicious little gesture. "He was a drunken brute," she added vehemently. "We were all glad when he died. Were you glad when yours died?"
Faith's eyes clouded with tears. "No," she said; "it was like the end of everything."
Peg paused again to regard her with curiosity. She had never met a girl quite like this one before. "What did he die of?" she asked blankly after a moment.
It was Faith's turn now to stop work; she looked up with a sudden flush in her pale face.
"He was ruined," she said. "Someone took all his money, and it killed him."
"Oh," said Peg, thoughtfully. "Like a novelette. I suppose your mother was a lady," she added with a touch of sarcasm.
Faith answered simply enough: "She was in a shop at Clapham when father married her, and his people never forgave him."
"You mean because they were swells?"
"Yes, I suppose so; I've never seen any of them."
"It's like a novelette again," said Peg, and fell upon her machine with renewed energy.
It was some moments before she next spoke.
"It licks me why you've come here. You'll loathe it like poison before you've been here a week. The noise of the machines gets on your nerves and makes you want to scream. Miss Dell gets on your nerves, too." She nodded in the direction of the thin-lipped forewoman. "You'll hate her, and you'll hate the sight of things like these and all the rich, hateful people who buy them."
She caught up a dainty silk blouse from the table beside her and shook it contemptuously.
"Do you know Scammel?"
"Scammel?" Faith echoed the name blankly. "No; who is he?"
"He owns this place," Peg explained. "There's no Heeler in it really—it's just a name. It's Scammel we're all swotting to make money for," she added. "And I hate him——"
"You seem to hate a lot of things and people," Faith said timidly.
"So would you if you knew as much as I do," was the sharp retort.
Faith pushed the soft hair back from her forehead; she was beginning to feel unutterably fagged. "I don't think I could hate anyone very much," she said, "except the man who ruined father," she added slowly.
Peg said "Humph!" and for some moments they worked silently. Then Faith asked again: "What is he like?"
"Who? Scammel? Oh, big and ugly."
"Does he ever come here?"
"Bless your heart, no! He's a millionaire with a house in Park-lane or somewhere, and a yacht, and a place on the river, and a Rolls-Royce, and no end more...." She was drawing entirely on her imagination. "I saw him once when he brought two ladies round the works—dressed-up creatures they were, too! One of them spoke to me. I nearly told her to mind her own business and not try the district visitor stunt on me."
Faith caught her breath. "You wouldn't dare!" she said aghast.
Peg laughed. "Wouldn't I! I'm not afraid of anybody or anything."
Faith could well believe her, and from that moment the friendship between the two girls was finally cemented. In a hundred small ways Peg proved herself nobly. She helped Faith through the long, weary days, taking extra work upon her own capable shoulders to save the younger girl; shielding her many times from the petty disagreeablenesses of the room and the sharp tongue of Miss Dell.
"You're not fit for a life like this," Peg said once angrily. "Why doesn't your mother send you somewhere better?"
Faith gave a little wavering smile. "It's not so easy now to get work," she said.
Her little face had grown pale and peaked during the last week, and there were shadows beneath her soft brown eyes.
"I should go sick if I were you," Peg advised one morning.
"It's no worse for me than it is for the rest of you," Faith answered. But in her heart she knew that she could not stand it much longer. Sometimes she felt as if she could not breathe in the hot, noisy room.
Then one night, going home, she fainted.
One moment she had been quite well, walking with hurried, eager steps through the sun-baked streets, and the next the pavement seemed to rise up to her face, and she knew no more....
"If only someone of you would get some water instead of standing staring ... here—let me come!"
She struggled back to consciousness to the sound of a man's impatient voice, and then she felt herself gently raised by a strong arm and something was held to her lips.
She turned her head protestingly. "Don't ... don't ... I'm all right...." And then quite suddenly she burst into tears—tears of sheer weakness that would not be checked.
Ashamed, she covered her face with her trembling hands; and then she felt herself lifted and carried and set down gently against softly padded cushions.
She looked up with scared eyes. She was lying back in the luxurious seat of a motor-car and a man with a big, burly figure was standing at its door, his face turned from her, talking to a policeman.
"All right, constable, I'll see her home," she heard him say. She saw the policeman salute and stand back, and the next moment the car was moving slowly away from the kerb.
Faith sat up with a frightened gasp, the colour coming back to her white cheeks.
"Where are you taking me? Oh, I'd much rather walk."
The big man was sitting opposite to her now, and his eyes were kind as they noted her distress.
"It's all right," he said cheerily. "You're not fit to walk. Just tell me where you live and I'll drive you straight home. Feel better?"
"Yes." She began a trembling apology. "It was the sun, I suppose; it's been so hot all day."
"Do you work in the city?"
"Oh, that place!" There was a note of disparagement in the man's voice. "Now tell me where you live?" he said again.
She told him reluctantly. Poplar and its poor surroundings seemed so terribly far removed from this man and the magnificence of the car in which they were driving.
He repeated her directions to the chauffeur and the car quickened its speed.
Faith was feeling almost herself again. The air beat on her pale cheeks and stirred the soft hair on her forehead. She stole a shy glance at the man opposite to her.
Not very young—quite forty, she decided—not very good-looking. Big and burly, a little clumsy in build, the fastidious might have said, but strong and manly, with a square jaw that spoke of strength and determination, and humorous grey eyes set rather deeply in his brown face. His soft hat was worn with a rather Colonial tilt.
He was perfectly aware of her scrutiny, and after a moment he asked whimsically:
"Well, what do you make of me?"
Faith flushed to the roots of her hair.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she stammered. "I know it was rude—I didn't mean anything."
The man laughed carelessly. "No need to apologise," he said. "I was only wondering what sort of a chap I appeared to you."
She did not answer, and he went on: "You're thinking that I'm to be envied with this car and all the other things you can imagine I've got stored up at home—eh?"
Faith clasped her hands.
"I think you must be the happiest man in the world," she said fervently.
The man smiled grimly. "Yes, that's what everyone thinks," he said. "And, of course, you would not believe me if I were to tell you that there is no man in the world so poor as I am."
She stared at him with wide eyes of incredulity.
"Why, no!" she breathed.
His eyes softened a little. "Have you got a mother?" he asked abruptly.
"And do you love her?"
"Oh, yes!" said Faith.
"Anyone else—any other people?" he asked.
"Two little sisters," said Faith, and her voice was eager. She loved to speak of her sisters. "They're just the dearest little mites," she urged. "They're twins, just turned six."
The man nodded. "In fact, when you're at home, you're happy, eh?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," said Faith again, earnestly. "If only we'd got a little more money, we'd all be quite, quite happy," she added wistfully.
The man said: "Then it's you who are to be envied, not me!"
She coloured a little. "I don't understand," she said in a whisper.
He laughed. "Do you know the story of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, I don't think so."
"Well, anybody will tell you—I'm no good at explaining things. Ask your mother when you get home, and then remember that I said that you were Queen Cophetua, and I the Beggar Man."
She echoed his last word incredulously. "Beggar Man! How can you be, with all—this?"
"All this—" he answered dryly—"is all I have, and there is no man so poor as he who has only money. Now do you understand?"
The car had turned a corner and was slowing down. "I think this must be your home," he said, and Faith gave a sigh. It had been such a heavenly drive; why did all beautiful things end so soon?
He opened the door of the car and gave her his hand. "Good-bye, Queen Cophetua," he said. His grey eyes rested on her serious little face. "Or perhaps we won't say good-bye, as I hope we shall meet again."
The colour surged to her cheeks; a little ripple of laughter flickered into her brown eyes.
"Oh, good-bye, Beggar Man," she answered, and then caught her breath at her own daring. But the man only laughed, and presently the big car was gliding slowly away down the road.
Faith watched it go before she turned indoors. She felt very much as Cinderella must have done when she got back to the kitchen from the Prince's ball.
Her mother, who had seen the car drive away, met her in the narrow hall; she was a sweet-looking woman with tired eyes and a perpetual cough.
"Well, little girl?" she said, and there was a world of anxiety in her voice.
Faith kissed her, and explained: "I fainted—it was so hot—and he brought me home in his car." Her eyes fell for some reason which she could not understand. "He was very kind," she added.
"And you don't know who he is?" her mother asked anxiously.
Faith shook her head. "He didn't tell me, but ... mother—who was King Cophetua?"
They were in the little sitting-room now, where tea was laid ready, and the twins sitting up to table.
Mrs. Ledley was busying herself with the teapot. She answered absently that King Cophetua was only a man in a story, a king who married a beggar maid.
"But it was only a story, Faith," she added earnestly. "One of those stories which couldn't end happily even if it came true."
Perhaps those tired eyes of hers had seen more than one would have imagined; perhaps she guessed the trend of her daughter's thoughts.
Faith went on with her tea, but above the noise and chatter of the twins she seemed to hear the soft purr of the wonderful car that had brought her home, and the voice of its owner who had called himself "the Beggar Man."
He was not very young, he was not very good-looking, but his voice and his eyes had been kind, and he had given Faith her first glimpse of the romance for which her youth had been unconsciously hungering.
When she met Peg in the morning Faith told her what had happened.
Peg listened sceptically; she seemed more impressed with Faith's fainting than with its sequence. "I said you ought to give up and have a holiday," she said bluntly.
Faith was vaguely disappointed. She had been so sure that Peg would see the romance of her adventure. She worked badly that day; her fingers seemed all thumbs.
Twice the forewoman spoke to her sharply, and once Peg said with a faint smile: "You're thinking about that car, aren't you, Faith?"
The girl flushed sensitively, with quick denial.
"Of course not." But she knew that she was.
She looked at herself anxiously in a tiny glass before she started home. For the first time she realized how pale and thin she was, and how poor her clothes. Her heart swelled with a sense of the injustice of life as she trudged along the hot streets.
To-day there was no Beggar Man, no wonderful car gliding up to the kerb to pick her up and carry her the weary way home; such a thing could not happen a second time.
"But it was only a story, Faith...." That was what her mother had said, so perhaps everything wonderful in life was just a story, too—never coming true!
She quickened her steps with a feeling of shame. The day of miracles had passed; fairy princes did not go about the East End of London disguised as big, burly men with kind eyes.
Faith turned a corner sharply and came face to face with "the Beggar Man."...
He pulled up short with a conventional apology, then all at once he smiled.
"I was thinking of you a moment ago. It was just here that we met yesterday, wasn't it?"
"Yes." Faith had flushed like a rose. "I was just thinking of you, too," she said, with courage born of her delight.
He looked at her. "Have you had your tea?" he asked in his abrupt manner.
"No, I'm just going home."
"Then we'll have some tea first; there's a shop just along the road."
Faith followed obediently. He looked younger to-day, she thought, and better-looking! She wished with all her heart that Peg or some of the other girls could see her. They faced one another across a marble-topped table, and the man ordered tea and cakes.
"Are you hungry?" he asked. Faith shook her head; she was too pleased to be hungry.
She kept telling herself that, of course, it must be a dream. Under cover of the table she gave herself a hard pinch to make sure that she was really awake....
"You're not eating anything," the man said, and she awoke with a start to realities.
"How old are you?" he asked, and she told him with fluttering haste, "I'm nineteen."
"Nineteen!" He raised his brows. "I should have said sixteen," he smiled. "How old do you think I am?"
She considered for a moment. "Forty?" she hazarded.
He laughed. "Not quite so bad; I'm six-and-thirty."
"Oh!" She looked at him gravely. "It's not very old," she said kindly.
"Nearly twenty years older than you," he reminded her.
He went on: "I've lived abroad most of my life, and that ages a man, you know. I've slept under the sky for months at a time and never spoken to a living soul for weeks. I've starved and begged." He laughed. "Once I even robbed a man. But I paid him back when I got the money. Are you shocked?" he asked.
"Oh, no!" She thought him the most wonderful person she had ever met.
"Tell me something about yourself," said the Beggar Man abruptly.
She told him the little she knew—how that her father had been "a gentleman"; how his people had cast him off for marrying her mother; how that he had died three years ago, leaving them without a penny.
"And I work at Heeler's," she added.
"Yes, you told me that yesterday. And they treat you—well?"
"Peg says it might be worse. Peg is my best friend and I love her," said Faith fervently.
"Lucky Peg!" said the Beggar Man.
Faith shook her head. "She doesn't think she's lucky," she answered seriously. "She's always saying how unfair things are. She hates rich people and she hates Mr. Scammel, too! She says that she would like to murder him."
"And who is Scammel?" asked the Beggar Man.
"Heeler's belongs to him," she told him. "He's ever so rich, and he's got a house in Park-lane and a place on the river, and a yacht and a car——"
"Anything else?" the man asked amusedly.
"Oh, yes, I expect so. Peg says he makes his money out of us, that he squeezes us dry to make himself rich. I think he must be something like the man who ruined my father," she added.
"Have some more cake?" said the Beggar Man.
"No, thank you."
Faith finished her tea and looked round the room. Hitherto she had only had eyes for her companion. The shop was not very full.
A girl at the next table was staring at her, and the girl in the cash desk by the door was staring, too. Faith flushed. Of course, they were both wondering what she was doing with this man, and once again the consciousness of her own shabbiness overwhelmed her.
"I think it's time I went home," she said, and broke off sharply as the door swung open and Peg Fraser walked into the shop.
Faith hardly knew if she was glad or sorry to be so discovered. She gripped her hands hard.
Peg came slowly down between the tables, her eyes looking to right and left in search of a vacant seat; suddenly they fell upon Faith.
She made a quick little movement towards her; then stopped, staring.
Faith smiled nervously. She did not know why, but her heart seemed to stop beating, when Peg turned on her heel without a word or sign of recognition, and sat down at a table at the far end of the room.
The man had not noticed anything; he turned to ask for his bill. Presently he looked up at Faith.
"We will go, if you really wish it," he said.
"Please." She followed him from the shop, not daring to raise her eyes to where Peg sat. Some strange emotion kept her from doing so.
Out in the street the sky had grown overcast. Heavy drops were spattering the pavement. "We'd better have a taxicab," the man said.
Faith stood on the kerb while he went in pursuit of a taxicab. It seemed wonderful to her that anybody should have so much money that a taxicab was an ordinary everyday luxury. It was raining steadily by the time they drove away. The man pulled up the window.
"My luck's in," he said abruptly. "I wanted to speak to you and it would not have been possible if we had walked."
His grey eyes searched her wistful face doubtfully, then he went on again:
"I've taken a fancy to you. There's something about you I like. I should be very pleased if with all my money I could do something to make your life happier. I've never seen your mother or the twins, but I should like to see them."
The colour rose slowly to Faith's face. She was sure now that he was joking.
"Of course, you don't mean it!" she said quiveringly.
"Don't mean it? Good heavens!" The man laughed. "I do mean it, every word! When we were having tea just now I did a lot of thinking. I am a man who makes up his mind quickly and sticks to it. Now, look here, I'm going to make you an offer—without sentiment or any nonsense of that sort. I want a wife, and I want a girl who hasn't been spoilt by the tomfoolery of the world. I want a girl I can mould to my own ideas. I'll treat her well and be a good husband to a woman who could fancy me." He paused. "Well, what do you say?"
Faith was staring at him with wide eyes and parted lips. His astounding proposition had robbed her of speech. It was some seconds before she could gasp out, "What do you mean? What do you mean?"
"I mean," said the Beggar Man earnestly, "that I'd like to marry you, if you think you'd care about it."
It was many moments before Faith could find her voice; many moments before she could conquer the conviction that all this was a dream. Then she broke out, unconsciously using the words of Peg Fraser's favourite ejaculation: "It's like a novelette."
She really thought it was; she was breathless with astonishment, dazed with the unexpectedness of it all. The Beggar Man laughed.
"Is it? They always say that truth is stranger than fiction, don't they?" He let down the window of the cab and thrust his head out, calling to the driver:
"Go down the West End—the park—anywhere! I'll let you know when to stop." He sat down again beside Faith. "Well, do you think you'd like to be my wife?" he asked.
Faith shrank away from him, her face flushing.
"I don't know anything about you. You don't know anything about me," she stammered. He smiled.
"That can soon be remedied. My name is Nicholas Forrester, my real name, that is! I've been known by lots of others in my lifetime, but that's neither here nor there. I've got more money than I know what to do with. I'm like the poor devil in 'Brewster's Millions'—everything I touch turns to gold. Have you read 'Brewster's Millions'?"
"I'll tell you the story some day. There isn't time now. But if you marry me you can buy any mortal thing you like, except the moon or Buckingham Palace. Doesn't that attract you?" he asked dryly.
The colour surged back into Faith's pale face. She leaned a little towards him.
"Anything!" she asked.
The man looked faintly disappointed.
"I thought you were going to be different from other women," he said curtly. "Well, what is it you want, diamonds?"
"Diamonds!" She echoed the word blankly. "Oh, no, I was wondering if I could take mother away from Poplar, and send the twins to a nice school. They have to go to the Board School now," she explained. "If I can do that for them, I shan't want anything for myself." She raised apologetic eyes. "It's asking an awful lot, I know," she added.
The Beggar Man laid his hand for a moment on hers. Such a strong, kind hand it was, that instinctively the fear of him that had been in Faith's heart died away.
"It's not asking anything," he said. "We'll send the twins to the finest school in England if you like, and your mother can have a house in the country and anything else she wants—if you'll marry me!"
Faith's cheeks were crimson; her eyes on fire. It never occurred to her for a moment to refuse.
She looked up at him with brown eyes of gratitude unutterable. "I should just love to marry you," she said fervently.
The Beggar Man said "Humph!" For a moment there was a silence, during which he looked at her doubtfully; then:
"What about your mother?" he asked abruptly. "What do you think she will say?"
Faith's face fell a little; in her eagerness and excitement she had forgotten what her mother would say.
"I—I'm afraid she won't quite like it," she said slowly.
She was sure that her mother would not like it. Mrs. Ledley had always been so careful about Faith's choice of friends that the girl knew what an astonishing proposal she would consider this offer of marriage to be.
Mrs. Ledley could be very firm when she chose, and Faith knew well what opposition she would have to encounter.
A sudden idea flashed across her mind.
"But we need not tell her, need we?"
A faint smile crossed his face.
"You mean till we are married?"
There was another queer little silence, then the Beggar Man asked, with sudden change of voice: "Do you often keep things from your mother—like this?"
She shook her head.
"I never have, until now. There's never been anything to keep. Nobody has ever asked me to marry him before, but I thought—she would be so glad afterwards, when I told her how rich you were, and what we could do for her and for the twins."
The Beggar Man looked away from her out of the window. The rain was still falling steadily, but he did not notice it. He was trying to see ahead into the future and wondering ... wondering....
Presently he turned again to the girl beside him.
"Of course," he said abruptly, "I should be a fool to ask you if you've got any ... any personal regard for me! How could you have when we've only met twice."
He waited hopefully it seemed, but Faith did not know how to answer him, and he went on rather ruefully:
"But, all the same, you're willing to marry me without telling your mother till afterwards?"
"Isn't that rather foolish?"
She flushed sensitively.
"I don't know what you mean."
"I mean, that for all you know, I might be the biggest blackguard unhung. I might be wanted by the police—I might be all of a hundred and one unsavoury things. Do you realize that?"
Faith laughed now. She was not in the least afraid that he could be any of these things.
"I think you're the kindest man I've ever met," she said.
"Do you?" He laughed dryly. "But, then, you haven't met many men, I take it."
Another little silence.
"Have you got a mother?" Faith asked shyly.
He turned his head.
"I haven't a relative in the whole world as far as I know. I was born in Australia, and my mother died there, and my father broke his neck when I was fifteen."
"Broke his neck?" echoed Faith, horrified.
"Yes. We had a farm in Australia, twenty-eight miles from a town, and, when he was riding back home one night, the pony caught its foot and threw him." He paused. "I found him lying along the track next morning," he added grimly.
Faith drew a long breath.
"And you were only fifteen! How awful!"
"Yes, it was pretty bad. I know I sat there beside him in the scorching sun and cried for half the day, till someone came along and took me home."
"And—then?" she asked.
"Oh, I've roughed it in thousands of ways since then, and I'm tired of roughing it. That's why I want to get married." His eyes softened as they looked at her. "I think you and I will get on well together," he said.
"Yes," Faith assented. "I think so, too."
"And I'm to fix it up without your mother knowing, is that it?"
"Yes—if you—if you don't mind."
He laughed. "Bless your heart, it's not for me to mind! I'll get a special licence, and we can be married to-morrow."
She caught her breath.
"To-morrow! Oh, it's too soon!"
"Too soon! What is there to wait for?"
"I shall have to tell them at Heeler's, and there's Peg...."
"That friend of yours? Well—tell her afterwards—when you tell your mother."
Faith wavered. She would like to have told Peg, but she answered after a moment: "Oh, very well, but—but not to-morrow!"
"Very well—on Saturday, then—that gives you three days to fix things."
His eyes wandered over her small person.
"Have you got any money?" he demanded.
"I get paid on Saturday—two pounds."
"Two pounds! Good heavens!"—he thrust a hand into his breast pocket, and brought out a bundle of notes. "I'll give you twenty—buy some clothes and make yourself look pretty."
Faith turned from red to white. She drew back when he would have put the money into her hands.
"I can't. Oh, I couldn't," she faltered. "Oh, I should be afraid——"
"Afraid!" He regarded her in amazement, and then, suddenly aware of the tears in her eyes, he added: "Very well—I'll give you ten—is that better? And will that buy a frock?"
She laughed tremulously. "Why, it will buy us all one—me and the twins—and lots of other things besides!"
She gathered up the money with shaking fingers. She was sure that she was dreaming. Even the touch of the crisp banknotes seemed unreal! What would her mother say? What would Peg say? Her head was in a whirl.
"I think I'll drive you back home now," the Beggar Man said, suddenly. "Your mother will be wondering where you are." He spoke to the driver, and the taxi turned about.
The Beggar Man was sitting opposite to Faith now. He kept looking at her in a queer, nervous sort of way. Suddenly he said in his abrupt manner:
"Do you mind if—if I kiss you?"
She raised her brown eyes.
"If you kiss—me!" She echoed the words with fluttering incredulity. "Oh, no, of course not—if you really want to."
"Thank you." He leaned across and kissed her cheek awkwardly.
There was a little silence, then he said, angrily: "Of course, some people would call me an absolute blackguard!"
She looked at him in amazement.
"Why, what do you mean?"
He explained disjointedly.
"You're such a child—and I'm nearly twenty years older than you are. You don't realize what you're doing—marrying me. I may make your life miserable." She smiled serenely.
"You couldn't! How could you? I'm going to be ever so happy." She drew a long breath of rapture. "It's just like a novelette," she said again fervently. The Beggar Man frowned. He let the window down with a run; the rain had almost stopped.
"I think we're quite near your home," he said.
"Perhaps you would rather walk the rest of the way? Or shall I come in and see your mother?"
Faith started up. "Oh, no—I'll walk; I'd much rather."
The taxi stopped and the man got out.
"Well—good-bye. Till to-morrow," he said.
She looked up eagerly.
"Oh, shall I see you again to-morrow?"
"I'll meet you outside Heeler's in the evening."
She looked like a delighted child.
"That will be three days running that I've seen you," she said.
He smiled rather grimly.
"You'll have to see me all day and every day after Saturday," he answered.
"Idling again! That's the third time I've had to speak to you this morning."
Miss Dell's harsh voice woke Faith from the day-dream, into which she had fallen over her machine, and set her hurriedly working again.
That the events of yesterday were unreal she was still convinced. A hundred times since she parted from Nicholas Forrester she had put her hand into the little bag containing the money he had given her, which she wore hidden under her frock. That was real enough, at all events. She was too awed by its possession to think of spending it. It seemed to her ignorance that all the wealth of the world was hers.
"If I have to speak to you again I shall report you to the manager," Miss Dell went on. "We've no time for idlers here, you understand."
Faith said "Yes" meekly enough, but she did not feel meek. Only two more days and she would be free of this place for ever. She would never have to trudge to and fro in the heat of the day any more. She could ride in a taxi or the Beggar Man's car to the end of her life.
She cast a swift glance to the table at which Peg generally worked. It was empty to-day, and her machine covered up.
Peg was ill—so the other girls had told her. Peg was not coming back that week.
Faith felt a little chill of apprehension. She missed Peg sorely, and yet she was glad of her absence. She could not easily forget the strange way in which her friend had behaved last night in the teashop—how she had turned and walked away.
After all, what did it matter? And yet ... she wished she could have taken Peg into her confidence. It was terrible to have nobody in whom she could confide, terrible to have to keep all these wonderful secrets locked up in her own heart.
Last night she had almost told her mother. Mrs. Ledley had looked at her again and again in a puzzled sort of manner, and once she had asked, hesitatingly:
"Is anything the matter, Faith, dear?"
Faith had laughed.
"No; what could be the matter?" and Mrs. Ledley said, slowly: "I only wondered——"
This day seemed interminable. Faith did her work slowly and badly. She knew that Miss Dell had real cause for her frequent complaints. She was thankful when at last it was time to go.
She snatched up her hat and was first out of the factory; she reached the end of the road hot and breathless with her haste.
The Beggar Man was not there.
Faith looked eagerly up and down the road, but there was no sign of him, and a thrill of apprehension touched her heart.
Had it after all been a dream, and was she never to see him again? She walked on slowly.
Perhaps she was too soon—perhaps something had happened to detain him. She looked up and down the street for a clock, but there was not one to be seen. She retraced her steps slowly; he would come! Of course he would come! In a moment she would see him turn the corner—in a moment she would hear his voice....
She tried to think of something else, so that the time would pass more quickly, but she could not concentrate her thoughts.
Supposing he had not been serious! Supposing all her wonderful dreams were never to come to anything after all! Supposing she had still to go on, week in and week out, in Heeler's noisy, stifling factory. A feeling of desperation seized her—she could not bear it—she would die if she never saw him again. She remembered in a panic that she did not know where to find him, that he had never told her where he lived, or given her any address.
She lifted a trembling hand to the notes hidden beneath her frock; they were real enough—and then came another and more cruel thought. Supposing he had given them to her by way of farewell—her heart almost stopped beating.
Such things did happen she knew in novelettes, if not out of them! Peg had told her one lurid story, in which....
"Good afternoon," said the Beggar Man beside her.
Tears of relief started to her eyes. She was so glad to see him she could hardly speak; she stammered out:
"I thought you were not coming any more—I thought you had gone away."
He looked faintly surprised.
"Am I late? I'm sorry. I would have been earlier if I had known you would be here."
Faith smiled, and brushed the tears from her eyes.
"It doesn't matter a bit now you've come," she said. She was quite happy again.
"But I've got something to tell you," said the Beggar Man reluctantly. He looked up and down the street.
"Not a taxi to be seen, of course! Well, we must walk a little way."
But he walked so quickly that Faith had almost to run to keep up with him.
A great many people in the street seemed to know him, she noticed, and a policeman at the corner saluted smartly as they passed.
She felt tremendously proud of the Beggar Man. She wished everyone could know that on Saturday he was going to marry her.
"We'll go in here," Nicholas said suddenly, and led the way into the same teashop where they had sat last night.
He chose the same table and ordered tea. Faith looked round her with excited eyes. There was the same girl in the desk, staring at them curiously, and over there was the table where Peg had sat—empty now! And Faith turned her eyes away with a little thrill of foreboding.
The Beggar Man was speaking.
"It's just this—I've got to go away——"
Faith's eyes dilated. In an instant everything else was forgotten.
"Go away!" she echoed blankly.
"Yes—only on business—to America. I shall be gone seventeen days, and I go to-morrow."
"To-morrow!" Faith felt as if she was drowning. She did not know that she had turned pale to the lips.
He went on speaking quickly.
"I can't take you—I wish I could. You'd want lots of clothes for one thing, and it would take too long to get them, and to explain things to your mother and the rest of the world. But"—he leaned a little nearer to her over the table—"I've got a special licence in my pocket," he said. "Will you marry me before I go?"
Faith put out both hands blindly and grasped the edge of the table before her. For a moment she felt as if she were blind and deaf; then she drew a long breath.
"Marry you—before you go!" she gasped. "To-day?"
The Beggar Man smiled. "Well, there's hardly time to-day, is there? I thought to-morrow morning—early—about nine, if that is not too early for you."
"I have to be at the factory at half-past seven." She uttered the excuse tremblingly, knowing full well that it was no excuse at all.
He made an impatient movement.
"There is no need to consider the factory. You were to have left, anyway. I'll make it right with them."
Faith had been conscious of a feeble sense of resistance, but now, as she met his eyes, all will power seemed to desert her.
"Very well," she said, in a whisper.
The Beggar Man gripped her hand. "Thank you. I hope you will never regret it," he said.
The tears swam into Faith's eyes.
"And—mother?" she faltered.
"You can tell her to-morrow as soon as we're married, if you like," he answered. "Or leave it till I come back, and I'll tell her myself. I shall only be gone a little while, after all. Seventeen days will quickly pass."
"Will they?" She smiled wistfully. To her ignorance, America sounded as if it must be in another world.
"Don't you want any more tea? Very well, then, we'll get along."
They went out into the street together.
"I haven't bought any new clothes," she said timidly. He glanced down at her.
"Never mind—get them while I'm away. What does it matter what clothes you are married in? There will only be me to see you."
He meant the words kindly, but they gave her a little thrill of apprehension. Only him! That was what it would be for the rest of her life—only this man, who, after all, was almost a stranger to her.
She wanted to put her thoughts into words, but glancing up at his grave face she was suddenly afraid, and he went on talking, quite unconscious of her agitation.
"Do you know Victoria Station? But of course you do! Well, if you'll meet me there to-morrow.... No, I'll come and meet you and we'll drive down together. I'll be at the end of your road at half-past eight. Will that do?"
"Yes." Her heart was beating so fast she thought it would choke her.
Yesterday she had been all happiness and excitement at the thought of her marriage. This morning it had still seemed some wonderful dream, but now ... the suddenness of it all made her feel as if someone had asked her to jump off the edge of the world.
"If you don't mind," the Beggar Man said suddenly, "I must leave you now. I've a lot to do this evening. You must let me send you home in a taxi."
"Oh, no, no."
He looked surprised. "Why not? You don't want to walk all that way."
"I'd rather go on a bus if you don't mind."
She felt that she must cling to her old life with might and main for this last evening. After to-morrow—well, she could not help what happened after to-morrow.
The Beggar Man's face softened. She looked so young and appealing, and perhaps he understood better than she imagined what she was feeling.
"Very well," he said gently. "I'll say good-night, then. Half-past eight at the end of your road, and ... thank you!"
Faith looked up quickly.
"Oh, it's for me to say thank you," she said. "You've been so good to me. Nobody could have been so kind."
The Beggar Man flushed.
"I hope you'll always be able to say that," he said awkwardly as he raised his hat and turned away.
Faith went home on top of an omnibus. For the first time that evening she felt that she could breathe freely. The sense of unreality was leaving her, and she began to see things more in their true perspective.
She was taking a rash step! Young and ignorant of the world as she was, she knew this, and realized that all she knew of the man whom she was to marry was the little he had chosen to tell her. He might be anything—anyone!
That he had money she was sure, and Peg had often said that with money one could do anything! Money was the golden key to the world; and Faith knew that it would be a golden key, not only for herself, but for her mother and the twins.
They could have everything they wanted! Wonderful visions began to unfurl before her eyes.
It was as if she wilfully held rose-tinted glasses before her eyes excluding the vague shadows that haunted her. She would not look at the dark side of what might be. She would keep her face turned towards the sun.
But when she got home her spirits fell once more. She began to remember that this was the last night of her old life. That after to-morrow she would be quite, quite different. She would be the Beggar Man's wife! She would be Mrs. Nicholas Forrester!
She could hardly eat any supper for the choking lump that would rise in her throat. She knew that from time to time her mother glanced at her with anxious eyes.
"Is anything the matter, Faith?" she asked at last, just as she had asked last night, and Faith answered desperately that her head ached and that she would like to go to bed.
When she was in bed the tears came. This was the first time she had ever had a secret from her mother, and even the thought of the wonderfully happy surprise it would be could not comfort her. She felt like a lost child as she hid her face in the pillow and sobbed.
Faith was married at nine o'clock the following morning. It was raining hard, and as she stood beside the Beggar Man in the dreary registry office she watched the raindrops chasing one another down the window.
The old dream feeling was upon her again, and she could not believe that all this was really happening. The monotonous voice of the man who was marrying them sounded a long way off. The Beggar Man's hand in hers was the only real thing in life, and she clung to it with the desperate feeling that without it she would collapse and fall off the edge of the world.
She wore the same shabby costume in which she had gone each day to the factory, and she had a queer sort of feeling that this was not a bit as she had always imagined a wedding to be. There was no satin frock, no coloured confetti, no wonderful music.
What would Peg think? In her heart Faith was a little afraid of what her friend would think. The clasp of the Beggar Man's hand suddenly relaxed about her own, and she looked up with scared eyes. He was smiling.
"It's all over," he said. "We're married. You've just got to sign your name."
Faith said "Oh!" She blinked her eyes as if she had been asleep.
She had always thought that directly you were married, you felt quite different, but no wonderful metamorphosis had come about so far. She felt just herself, save for a dull sort of nervous headache.
She signed her name on the line pointed out to her and stood aimlessly holding the pen. The man who had married them was filling in a form and the Beggar Man was watching him.
Faith glanced down at her left hand. A brand new gold ring shone on her third finger. She spread her hand out and stared at it.
The registrar folded up his papers and shook hands with the Beggar Man. Then he shook hands with Faith and wished her luck.
Faith said "Thank you." She thought he was very kind. She liked the way he smiled.
Then the Beggar Man spoke to her.
"Well—are you ready?"
Faith started. She had been dreaming again.
"Quite ready," she said, and followed him outside to where a taxi was waiting. Presently they were driving away together.
The Beggar Man sat beside her. After a moment he began to speak rapidly.
"We're going to have some lunch at my flat. I've got a flat in the West End. I shall give it up now we're married, of course, but I thought it would do for the present—just till I come back and we can look round."
"Isn't it rather early for lunch?" Faith asked, helplessly.
"Is it? Well, we can have a glass of wine and some sandwiches. I've got such a little time. My train goes at twelve...." He looked down at her with sudden fire in his eyes. "I wish I had not got to go!" he said, vehemently.
"Do you?" said Faith nervously. She shrank a little from him. "You said you would soon be back," she added.
"I know—but on one's wedding day...." He broke off abruptly as the cab stopped. "Here we are."
He held his hand to her, but she avoided it. Fear was upon her once again.
The flat was on the first floor, and the Beggar Man opened the door with his latch-key.
"I bought some flowers and things," he said helplessly. "But it doesn't look very grand. What is it?"
Faith had given a little cry.
"Oh, but it's lovely! lovely!" She had forgotten her shyness. She was running round the room like a delighted child looking at the pictures and ornaments with which it was filled.
He made her drink a glass of wine and eat some cake, but all the time her eyes were wandering round the room, lost in admiration.
He watched her with a chagrined smile. Surely this was the oddest of wedding days, he thought. A shabby little bride, who had no eyes for her groom, but who sat and stared with rapt attention at such things as chairs and pictures and ornaments.
And the time was flying—flying. He looked impatiently at the clock, and then at the girl who was now his wife. And suddenly it was he who felt shy and tongue-tied.
She met his eyes and flushed, without knowing why, and the Beggar Man rose to his feet and went round the table to where she sat.
"You're my wife now, you know," he said.
"Yes." She drew back a little, her eyes dilating, and he broke out again abruptly: "I wish I'd arranged to take you with me. I was a fool. It could have been managed. Will you come if even now I can take you?"
She gave a little cry of alarm.
"Oh, no, I couldn't. There's mother...."
He turned away with a little harsh laugh.
"I see. Your mother and the twins," he said dryly. "They all come before me, who am only your husband."
She looked at him with puzzled eyes, and, vaguely realizing that in some way he was hurt, she said apologetically:
"But I've known you such a little time."
He echoed her words ironically.
"Yes! You've known me such a little time." Then he laughed, more naturally, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, you're my wife anyway. Nothing can alter that. And when I come back...." he paused.
"Yes," Faith echoed, "when you come back...."
"Then," he said again slowly, "I'll teach you to think more of me than you do either of your mother—or the twins!"
There was the faintest note of fun in his voice though his eyes were grave, and Faith smiled, relieved.
"I love mother best in the whole world," she said seriously.
The Beggar Man nodded.
"Some day you will love me best," he said. He took both her hands, drawing her to her feet. "So, it's good-bye for a little. It's all been such a rush; but I've done the best I can. My lawyers know all about our marriage, and if anything should happen to me you'll be all right. Shawyer will look after you if you want any help. Here's his address." He put an envelope into her hand. "There's some more money, too—enough to keep you going till I'm back."
Faith took the envelope, which felt extravagantly bulky.
"I haven't spent what you gave me yesterday," she reminded him.
"But you soon will," he answered. "Once you start shopping."
There was a little silence, and they looked at one another shyly. Then the Beggar Man said, with an effort:
"Well, it's time I was going. I sent my baggage on last night. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going home."
"I should like you to have stayed here, but ... perhaps it's best for you to go home." He put his hands on her shoulders and drew her gently towards him.
"Good-bye, my little wife."
Faith laid her hand on his chest, as if to hold him away; then suddenly she melted:
"Oh, I hope you'll soon, soon come back," she said, as a child might have done, and she raised her face for his kiss.
They said good-bye in the street with a handshake, just like ordinary friends, and Faith stood looking after the cab that carried him away.
He had gone out of her life as quickly and strangely as he had entered it.
She looked down at her hand, with its new ring, and a shy sort of pride thrilled her. She was his wife! She was a married woman! The tears that had welled to her eyes dried by magic as she walked on, her head held high with childish dignity. She longed for someone in whom to confide, and a sudden thought came to her. It was Saturday, and the girls left Heeler's at twelve. It was still quite early. She would go along and meet Peg.
With confidence born of her new position, she hailed a taxi, trembling at her own audacity as she did so, and told the man where to drive.
This was the beginning of her new and wonderful life. She hardly gave a thought to the Beggar Man. Her mind wandered off to the spending of the money he had given her, to the gifts she would buy for her mother and the twins. The stopping of the cab roused her with a start. She scrambled out, and to her horror discovered that he had taken her right to the door of Heeler's, and that it was twelve o'clock, and the girls were already pouring out from work.
She was crimson with confusion as she paid her fare. She wished the earth would open and swallow her up. Several of the girls came up to stare and speak to her.
"My word! Faith Ledley's going the pace! Someone left you a fortune, Faith? Where have you been? Old Dell was mad when you didn't turn up this morning."
Faith stammered her reply. "I'm not coming back any more. I've left. I want to see Peg. Where's Peg? Oh, there she is!"
She broke through the little group and ran after her friend, calling to her breathlessly.
Peg turned reluctantly. There was a grim sort of look on her handsome face.
"Well, where have you been?" she demanded.
Faith slipped a hand through her arm.
"I've got so much to tell you," she said. "It seems so long since we met. Are you better?"
"Well enough," was the uncompromising reply, and Peg jerked Faith's arm from her. "What have you been doing?" she asked again.
Faith smiled and blushed rosily.
"I've been getting married," she said with sudden boldness.
"Married? A kid like you!" Peg stared. "Well," she said then bluntly, "I only hope he's some decent chap and not like the rotten sort you were having tea with the other day when I saw you."
The colour died from Faith's cheeks, her heartbeats slowed down sickeningly.
"What—what do you mean?" she faltered.
"I mean what I say," said Peg firmly. "I thought better of you, that I did—having tea with him! Where did you pick him up I should like to know?"
Faith tried to answer, but no words would come.
"I suppose you thought I shouldn't recognize him," Peg went on wrathfully, "but I knew him right enough, the mean, selfish brute.... I——"
Faith caught her arm in shaking fingers.
"Peg, do you know who you're talking about?" she gasped. Peg laughed.
"Do I? I should rather say I do! Once seen never forgotten, my dear! I'm talking about the man you were having tea with the other day—Scammel, the brute we're all slaving for to make him rich."
For a moment Faith stared at her friend, then she laughed.
"Well, you're wrong, quite wrong," she said, with a little sigh of relief. "His name isn't Scammel at all—his name is Nicholas Forrester, and so...."
Peg shrugged her shoulders.
"So it may be, for all I know, but he's Scammel, and he owns Heeler's. Ask him, if you don't believe me. He's the man who brought that crowd of women round the factory I told you about—stuck-up crew! He's the man who cut down our overtime money. Ask any of the girls. Ask old Dell, if you don't believe me. He may call himself Forrester, or Jones, or any other old name, for all I care, but he's Scammel right enough, and he's as mean as he is rich," she added violently.
"I don't believe it," said Faith. She was surprised at her own boldness. As a rule, she never dared to contradict Peg, but her heart sprang to the defence of this man whom she had so recently married. He was good and generous. She had had ample proof of it.
Peg began to walk on quickly. There was a sullen look in her handsome eyes. Faith had almost to run to keep pace with her.
"Don't walk so fast," she broke out at last breathlessly. "What's the hurry when I haven't seen you for so long?"
"I've been ill," was the uncompromising reply.
"I know, and I'm ever so sorry. I came up here particularly to see you, Peg—it's unkind to talk to me like this."
Peg slackened her steps a little. She was very fond of Faith, but because she considered her weak and unfit to take care of herself she thought it as well to be angry with her sometimes.
"Oh, well," she said more graciously; "it's no use going for you, I suppose. You're only a kid, after all." She smiled faintly. "What sort of a man have you married? And does your mother know?"
Faith coloured a little. She answered nervously that her mother did not know yet, but that she was going to tell her when she got home.
Peg said "Humph!" and added that she did not think Mrs. Ledley would be particularly pleased.
"Are you ashamed of the man or what?" she demanded bluntly. "He can't be much of a chap not to have wanted to see your mother."
Again Faith rushed eagerly to his defence.
"He did want to. It was my fault that she was not told. It was my suggestion. I wanted to surprise her."
Peg laughed grimly.
"I should say she'll be surprised all right," she said.
"She'll be delighted," Faith maintained. "Why, we shall be ever so rich!"
"Rich!" Peg stared at her companion suspiciously, and the younger girl flushed.
"Mother won't have to work any more," she said proudly. "And we can send the twins to a nice school." She paused. "And he's got a motor-car," she added in an awed voice.
Peg burst into shrill laughter.
"Lord! It's a novelette come true," she said. "Hark at her! You'll be telling me next that he's a second Scammel or something. What did you say his name was?"
"Nicholas Forrester!" said Faith defiantly.
Peg stood stock still, as if she had lost all power of movement. She stared at Faith with horrified eyes.
"Scammel!" she ejaculated.
Faith flushed scarlet.
"He's not Scammel, I tell you!" she said passionately. "How dare you say that he is? I wouldn't believe it—not if everyone in the world told me that he was!"
"You're a little fool!" Peg answered brutally. "I don't know why I trouble about you at all, and that's a fact. You'll probably find that he's married already. What on earth do you think he wants with a wife like you? Why, with all his money he could have anybody he likes. Where is he now, I should like to know?"
"He's gone away—he went to America this morning."
"America!" Peg laughed bitterly. "Yes, and that's where he'll stay. Mark my words, you'll never see him again! Bah! You make me sick!"
She turned abruptly and struck off across the road, leaving Faith alone staring after her tall figure. Then mechanically she began to walk on.
In spite of her brave defence of the Beggar Man, there was very little real confidence in her heart. Peg was generally right, she knew, and the knowledge filled her with terror.
A sudden wild longing for Forrester almost overcame her. How should she get through these seventeen dreadful days till he came back?
Supposing he never came back!
Such things did happen, she knew! In the novelettes, of which Peg devoured about six weekly, it was a common occurrence for the villain of the story to desert his bride at the altar.
Panic closed about her heart. She began to run. All she wanted in the world was to get to her mother and tell her of this dreadful thing that had happened. She reached home white and breathless. The front door was open, and the twins, just back from school, were playing in the narrow passage.
The sight of them and the sound of their voices calmed her. She told herself that she was foolish to have been so easily influenced by what Peg had said. She looked at her new wedding-ring and gained courage.
Of course, they could not be true, all these horrible accusations. How could the Beggar Man be Scammel, when he had told her himself that his name was Forrester! She almost laughed at her panic. He had given her money, and he had kissed her—he had taken her to his beautiful flat and wished her to stay there. He had given her the address of his lawyer and told her to go to him if she were ever in trouble. What more could he have done? She was ashamed of her want of trust in him. It comforted her to remember the firm clasp of his hand and the steadfast look in his eyes.
He was her husband, and they were going to live happily ever after! Before he came back she would make herself into a lady. She walked into the house quite steadily and stooped to kiss the twins.
"We're all going for a ride this afternoon," she told them. "A lovely ride right down into the country."
The twins clung clamouring round her. "In the country! On a bus?" they asked in one voice.
Faith laughed happily.
"No," she said, "we're going to have a taxicab."
Mrs. Ledley, coming from the kitchen, heard the words.
"Faith! You shouldn't promise them such things, when you know it's impossible." She rebuked her daughter wearily. "You've got new shoes to buy out of your money this week, and there's the gas to pay...."
Faith smiled and dimpled. The pendulum had swung the other way now, and she was hugging her secret to her breast delightedly.
"I'm not going back to Heeler's any more," she said.
"Not going back!" Mrs. Ledley stared at her helplessly for a moment; then she burst into tears.
"I knew something had happened," she sobbed. "I knew you hadn't been yourself all this week. What have you done, Faith, that they've sent you away just when you were settling down so nicely?"
"I haven't done anything," said Faith. "At least ... nothing you will mind. And I wasn't sent away. I left on my own account."
Mrs. Ledley went on crying.
She sobbed out that she wished she was dead, that she did not see what was the use of going on living.
Faith went down on her knees beside her and the twins held hands and cried for sympathy.
"There's nothing to cry for, mother," Faith urged, kissing her. "There's only something to be glad about. Such a wonderful thing has happened. It's like a...." Like a novelette, she had been going to add, but she remembered the way the Beggar Man had said that he did not like the expression, and changed it to "a fairy story" instead.
She drew her mother's hands down from her face.
"You'll be able to live happily ever after," she said excitedly. Her eyes shone like stars. "We're going to be rich—all of us. We can go away from London and live in the country. And the twins can go to a lovely school and have really pretty frocks. Oh, smile, darling, smile, and say you're glad!"
Mrs. Ledley looked up.
"I think you must be ill—or dreaming," she said with a sob. "What is the good of talking such nonsense, Faith? How do you think such things can ever come true?"
Faith held out her left hand with its new wedding ring.
"Because I've married a Fairy Prince," she said.
Mrs. Ledley stared at the little ring for a moment in absolute silence, then she broke out tremblingly:
"Faith! It's not true! You're just teasing me! It's just a joke! You couldn't have got married without telling me first! Why, there's nobody who would ask you!" She caught the girl by both shoulders and peered into her face.
"Faith!" she urged again passionately.
Faith laughed tremulously. Somehow she had not expected her news to be received so tragically; her old fears came surging back. Peg's words echoed once more in her ears.
"What do you think he wants with a wife like you? With all his money he could have anybody he likes...."
To drown the insistence of that voice she broke out into hurried explanations.
"It's the man who brought me home in his car that day I was ill. He's ever so rich, and we were married this morning. Oh, mother, don't look like that; it's all right—indeed, it is! You saw him. You saw him drive me up to the gate.... He's so good—so kind; he's going to help us all. He's going to buy you a house in the country and send the twins to school. He's given me ever so much money already—look!"
With shaking hands she dragged the money from her frock and put it into her mother's lap.
"You can have it all—all!" she went on eagerly. "It's for you that I wanted it. Not for myself. Oh, mother, why don't you speak? Why don't you say something?"
Mrs. Ledley moved suddenly. She pushed the girl almost roughly from her, letting the notes fall unheeded to the ground. She rose to her feet and walked away up the stairs, and Faith heard the key turn in her bedroom door.
She stood there in the narrow hall, all her happiness fallen from her.
What was the reason that nobody was glad? She had hoped such great things from her mother and Peg, and both of them had disappointed her.
The twins had dried their tears and were clamouring round her to know how soon they could start for their promised drive. Faith hardly heard them. She went down on her knees and gathered up the Beggar Man's despised money. She took it into the sitting-room and laid it on the table; then she sat down by the window with a feeling of utter helplessness.
What was the matter with everyone? Why had all her dreams gone so sadly awry?
She thought of Forrester with a very real pang. If only he had been here—if only she had allowed him to see her mother first, as he had wished, all this might have been averted.
When would she see him again? The future loomed before her like a thick shadow, without one ray of sunshine. She wished wildly that she had gone with him at the last moment when he had asked her to. She had never felt so lonely in her life.
It seemed a long time before Mrs. Ledley came downstairs again. She came into the room where Faith sat, and looked at her with hard eyes.
"This man you say you have married?" she asked. "Where is he?"
"He has gone to America," said Faith. "He went this morning; he won't be back for seventeen days."
Then the full pathos of her position overcame her and she broke down into tears.
"I did it for your sake," she sobbed. "I thought you would be so glad. I hated to see you look tired. I hated to see you work so hard, and he promised me he would give you a house in the country and send the twins to school. When he comes back he'll tell you himself."
There was a little silence.
"Faith," said Mrs. Ledley painfully, "do you think he ever will come back?"
Faith's tears were dried in a scorching flush. She raised her little head proudly.
"I know he will," she said.
Mrs. Ledley's face softened. She came over to where the girl sat, and bending, kissed her.
"Tell me all about it," she said.
Faith told her the little she knew—of their first meeting, right down to the strange marriage that morning in the registrar's dingy office, but she carefully kept to herself the things that Peg Fraser had said. They were too preposterous to mention!
She showed the letter for Mr. Shawyer, the lawyer, and Mrs. Ledley's face cleared a little as she took it and read the few lines.
"We will go and see him," she said. "On Monday we will go and see him, Faith, you and I."
Faith looked up eagerly.
"And you will believe in him then, won't you?" she asked. "If Mr. Shawyer tells you that it is all right you will believe in him, won't you?"
Mrs. Ledley took the girl's eager face in her hands.
"Do you love him—very much?" she asked rather sadly.
Faith echoed the words vaguely.
"Love him? Who do you mean?..."
"I mean this man—your husband."
Faith looked away across the room, and there was a little frown between her eyes.
"I don't know," she said hesitatingly. "I don't think I've ever thought about it. He's very kind—nobody has ever been so kind to me before."
Mrs. Ledley gripped the girl's hand.
"Faith, if you don't love him, why did you marry him?" she asked.
Faith raised her brown eyes.
"I told you," she said. "For you and the twins."
John Shawyer looked across his paper-strewn table at Faith's mother and smiled indulgently.
"I really don't think there is any need for you to be so alarmed," he said kindly. "I have known Mr. Forrester for a great many years, and have every reason to believe that he is an honourable man. He came to see me only last Friday and told me all about his romantic marriage. Unfortunately he has had to go to America, as you know. I think at the last it worried him considerably that he had not seen you before he left and been able to explain things. The marriage is perfectly in order, but you can go to the registrar yourself if you would prefer to do so...."
Mrs. Ledley broke in tremblingly.
"It all seems so extraordinary. Mr. Forrester had only seen my daughter three times before he married her, and ... and if he is as rich as you say, surely he would have looked higher for his wife?"
Poor woman! She could remember more than twenty years ago when she had made her own runaway match, the tortures of inquisition through which she had been put by her husband's relatives, and the complete ostracism with which the miserable affair had finally ended.
She had known herself incapable of ascending to his position in the world, and he had loved her well enough to sink into obscurity with her. Was history about to repeat itself in Faith's marriage?
"It is impossible to regulate romance," said Mr. Shawyer; privately he thought that the Beggar Man had shown taste in his choice of a wife. He considered that Faith had a charming face, and he was shrewd enough to see that with a few alterations in clothes the little moth would have no difficulty in spreading her wings and turning into a butterfly.
He was extremely interested in the whole affair. He had always considered Nicholas Forrester unique, and he genuinely admired his pluck in having taken this step.
"I am sure," he went on pleasantly, "that Mr. Forrester would be only too pleased for me to answer any questions you may care to ask. He told me if the occasion arose I was to be perfectly frank—especially in regard to his financial affairs, and...."
Mrs. Ledley interrupted hurriedly.
"It isn't the money I'm thinking of at all. It isn't the money that matters, if he is a good man, and will be kind to my little girl. But I know nothing about him! I only saw him once from the window, when he brought Faith home in his car, and I should not know him again if I saw him. If you could just tell me something about his people—if he has a mother and father living, or what he has been doing all his life...."
Mr. Shawyer cleared his throat and drew his chair closer to the table.
"I shall be only too pleased to answer those questions," he said. "As far as I know, Mr. Forrester is quite without relatives! His mother died when he was a small boy, and for some years he lived in Australia with his father. The father broke his neck in a riding accident, and from that time the son seems to have roughed it all over the world. He must have been born with the gift for making money, as he seems to have made a great deal before he was five and twenty—and spent it!" Mr. Shawyer added with a smile.
"About ten years ago," he went on, "he first came to England on some business deal with which I was concerned, and it proved to be a wonderful success, and I think I am right in saying that from that day he has never looked back. At the present moment I have no doubt that he is one of the richest men in London—he is known everywhere—perhaps I should tell you that he has not always been known under the name of Nicholas Forrester, though it really is his name——"
Faith leaned forward, the colour surging into her face.
"What—what other name, then?" she asked with an effort.
Mr. Shawyer smiled.
"For business purposes," he said gently, as if he were speaking to a child, "he calls himself Ralph Scammel! I know he would not object to your being told, otherwise I should certainly not have mentioned it, I——"
He broke off. Mrs. Ledley had risen to her feet. She was as white as death, and her eyes were like fire as she took a step forward and leaned heavily against the paper-strewn table.
"Scammel!" she said hoarsely. "Ralph Scammel! Is that the man my daughter has married?"
"It is merely an assumed name," Mr. Shawyer said quickly. "For business purposes." Mrs. Ledley was breathing fast. It was with difficulty that she at length found her voice.
"Ralph Scammel is the man who ruined my husband," she said.
Faith had hardly spoken during the whole interview, but now she started up from her chair with a little stifled cry.
Ever since her father's death, though she had never heard the name of the man who had brought about his ruin, she had been encouraged always to think of him with hatred.
Even the twins, in their play, frightened each other with an imaginary bogey of him, whom they called for want of a better name "The Bad Man," and sometimes Mrs. Ledley herself, tired and worried to death, would quiet them and force them to settle down to sleep by telling them that unless they did the "bad man" would come and carry them away.
And now Faith had married him!
She was still child enough to feel a nameless fear of the imaginary bogey, as well as suffocating shame and dread of the thing she had unwittingly done.
After a moment she broke out hysterically:
"It's not true! I won't believe it! You're all against me, all of you! His name is Nicholas Forrester! I tell you his name is Nicholas Forrester!" She broke into violent sobbing.
Mr. Shawyer looked greatly distressed.
"No doubt it is all a misapprehension," he said. "There is some mistake in the name. It is not such a very uncommon name," he suggested. But he knew that it was.
"There is no mistake," Faith's mother insisted flintily. "If my daughter has married that man I will never forgive her to my dying day."
"Mother!" The word came from Faith in a heart-broken cry, and once more Mr. Shawyer rushed gallantly into the breach.
"It is very unjust to my client to take this premature view," he said reprovingly. "Naturally, I know nothing of the circumstances of which you are now speaking, and we can only wait until Mr. Forrester comes home before they are proved or disproved. I speak of him as I have always found him, and I can truthfully say that your daughter will be perfectly safe and happy with him."
But for all notice Mrs. Ledley took he might have spared himself the trouble of speech. Disappointment and sorrow had hardened her, and she could see nothing beyond the fact that her own child had married the man whom she herself most hated in all the world.
Almost before Mr. Shawyer had finished speaking she rose and took up her shabby little handbag.
"There is nothing more we need stay for," she said harshly. "Faith, dry your eyes and come home."
But Faith could only sob on in the bitterness of her heart: "It isn't true—I know it isn't true! And if it is—how did I know—how could I have known?"
Mrs. Ledley looked at her with hard eyes.
"If you had cared for me at all," she said dully, "you would not have married him without my consent. I've been a good mother to you, and this is the reward I get. It was only of yourself you thought when you married him. You never thought of me at all."
Faith looked up, her face all flushed and quivering.
"It was only of you I thought," she sobbed, "you and the twins. I wanted you to be rich—I wanted them to go to a good school and he promised and I knew he was rich!..."
Mrs. Ledley clenched her hand.
"I would rather die than take a penny of his money," she said passionately. "Money made dishonestly—from the ruin of other men's lives."
Mr. Shawyer made another attempt.
"All this may or may not be true," he said smoothly; "but at any rate no fault can be attached to this child here." He laid a kind hand on Faith's arm. "And if you will forgive my saying so, Mrs. Ledley, it is very cruel to her to speak in this way."
Mrs. Ledley turned and faced him proudly across the table.
"I loved my husband," she said, "and if you think—even for my daughter's sake—I shall ever receive Ralph Scammel into my house, you make a very great mistake! Faith has married him, and she can do as she pleases, of course, but it will mean a choice between her husband and me. That is my last word," and she turned and walked out of the room, leaving Faith sobbing in her chair.
Mr. Shawyer rose to his feet and began pacing the room. He hated scenes, and during his lifetime he had been forced into a great many. He was unutterably relieved when Faith stopped crying and put her handkerchief away. Something of the childishness in her face seemed to have deepened to womanhood as, for a moment, she raised her brown eyes to him.
"And what am I to do now?" she asked.
Mr. Shawyer spread his hands.
"My dear young lady, how can I advise you beyond saying that the only thing to do is to wait until Nicholas Forrester comes home. He is your husband and rightful guardian, and if you love him you know what course to adopt. Even if—if what your mother says is a fact, he has not injured you knowingly, at all events. You say he has been all that is kind and good. Well, that is all that concerns you! A man's past is his own."
It was an easy and comfortable doctrine from his point of view, and he went on:
"After all, he is a business man. I never met a keener! And if in the course of business he unfortunately bettered your father in some transaction, well, how can he be blamed?"
Faith had been listening attentively, but now she broke in vehemently:
"If he is Ralph Scammel, he is a bad man! Peg says so, and Peg is always right!" And then again, with renewed anguish: "Oh, but it can't be true, I know it can't."
"If you have that much faith in him," said Mr. Shawyer quickly, "you must be content to wait till he comes back and ask him yourself. Now, take my advice and go home, and you will find that already your mother has repented of her hasty words."
Faith shook her head.
"I don't think so," she said slowly. She knew her mother well in many ways, and she knew the bitter and relentless hatred with which Mrs. Ledley had always regarded the "bad man," as the twins called him.
He had robbed her of all happiness. He had brought her and her children down to poverty. Faith did not think that her mother would ever relent or forgive.
She went home with dragging steps. Before she entered the house she slipped off her wedding ring and put it into a pocket. She felt more free without it, could almost imagine that the whole thing was nothing more, than a bad dream.
She was afraid to face her mother. She went up to her own little room on the top floor and sat down at the window.
There was not much to be seen from it but roofs and telegraph poles and wires, but the sky was blue beyond them all, and against her will Faith thought of the sea, which she had only seen once, years ago, and of Nicholas Forrester, who was even then being carried away from her across its blueness.
Since he said good-bye to her she had many times wished him back again, but now the thought of him made her shiver. She wished never to see him any more.
In her childishness she somehow fancied that she had only to say she regretted her marriage and give back everything he had ever given her to wipe the episode out of her life. She was thankful now that she had not spent a shilling of his money. She took it all from its hiding place and made a little parcel of it, with her wedding ring, and addressed it to the flat where he had taken her for lunch after their marriage.
He would find it when he came back and understand, she thought. She slipped out and posted it at once, for fear she should be tempted to change her mind by the sight of the twins' shabby frocks and the memory of all she could have bought them with the Beggar Man's money.
Then she went into the kitchen to her mother and held out her trembling bare left hand.
"I've sent it back," she said in a whisper. "And the money—I never want to see him any more."
Mrs. Ledley stared at her helplessly, then something in the girl's face, its immature look and innocent eyes, swept the anger and bitterness from her heart.
She took Faith on to her lap as if she had still been a child, and the two kissed and cried together.
Mrs. Ledley did not believe Faith would ever see the Beggar Man again. She thought she knew only too well the type of man he was. She sobbed out that she was only too thankful to have her daughter safely with her.
"I didn't mean to be hard and cruel," she said over and over again. "It would have broken my heart if he had taken you away from me."
"He wanted me to go and I wouldn't," Faith said. She tried to believe that she was quite happy cuddled into her mother's arms, but she knew that she was not. There was something old and sad in her heart which would never leave her again she knew. She listened apathetically while Mrs. Ledley spoke of her husband.
"You haven't forgotten him, Faith? You haven't so soon forgotten your father? He was so good to you. He loved you all so much. This man ruined him and caused his death. I know that my little girl could not love such a man."
"I wanted you to be rich," Faith whispered brokenly. "I wanted everything for you and the twins."
She sat up with sudden energy, pushing the dark hair from her face. "I hope I never see him again!" she said fiercely. "I hope he never comes home any more!..."
Faith went back to the factory the next day and asked to be taken on again. Miss Dell would like to have refused, but she met Peg's fierce eyes across the room and changed her mind, and Faith was reinstated.
There was not much time for talking that morning. There was a rush of work on hand and hardly a moment to spare, but during the dinner hour Peg asked a storm of questions.
"What has happened? He's not coming back, of course! What a brute! Didn't I always say he was a brute?"
There were moments when she still clung passionately to the hope that there was some mistake—that when he came back he would be able to explain and put matters right. And there were other times when she shrank from the very thought of him, and only wished to be able to forget those few days of delirium.
She would not even confide in Peg. All she would do was to beg her to ask no questions.
"It's all over and done with," she said tremblingly. "You said he would not come back. I hope he never will."
"I said I should not be at all surprised if he didn't," Peg answered. "But, of course, he may do. Sometimes in novelettes the villain of the story turns out to be the hero after all, you know."
Faith did not think it was at all likely in this case, and the days began slowly to creep away.
When a fortnight had gone and the seventeenth day drew near, panic closed about her heart. Supposing he came after all?
She had had no word from him, and she hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry. Perhaps it meant that he never would come back. She wished she could believe this.
At other times, lying awake at night in her little room with its sloping roof, against her will she was forced to remember every word the Beggar Man had said to her, every kindly action that he had done, and there was always a great unanswered question in her mind.
"Why did he marry me if he was bad, as they say he is? He need not have married me. There are heaps of other girls in the world."
Mr. Shawyer wrote and begged her to go and see him, but she neither went nor answered the letter.
She spent as much of her time with Peg as possible, and the elder girl once more resumed her role of friend and protector.
"If you're worrying about that good-for-nothing!" she said to Faith one day in her blunt manner, "you're a little fool. There are as good fish in the sea as any that were caught, my girl, and don't you make any mistake. Let old Scammel stay in America. Jolly good riddance, I say!"
Faith did not answer, but her nerves were tearing her to pieces. Every time a man's voice sounded in the passages of the factory or a door opened suddenly she was sure it was the Beggar Man come back to find and claim her. Every time she heard the sound of a motor coming up the street her heart beat so fast she could hardly breathe. She never knew how she dragged through the seventeenth day, but it passed somehow, and the eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth, and still there was no sign of Nicholas Forrester.
She began to pluck up courage. He would not come now, she was sure. If he had returned to England he had found her wedding ring and the returned money and had understood what she meant. Perhaps even he had repented as much as she, long before he got back home.
Or perhaps he was still abroad! That would be best of all, if she could only be sure that the sea was still dividing them.
Five days after Nicholas was due to return Mrs. Ledley spoke of him.
"He'll never come back, Faith." There was triumphant thankfulness in her voice. "Somehow I felt all along that he would never come back."
Faith could not answer. Though her fear had decreased it was not yet dead, and only last night she had dreamed of the Beggar Man, dreamed that she was on one side of a locked door on which he knocked, knocked ceaselessly. It was early evening, and Faith had come home from work to find Mrs. Ledley dressed to go out.
"You won't be long, mother, will you?" she urged. She dreaded being alone in the house. Though it was early evening, the twins were in bed and asleep, and everything seemed very still.
"I shan't be long," her mother answered, "but I must have a breath of air. The house has stifled me all day. I can't breathe at all sometimes."
Faith watched her down the street and went back indoors.
And Mrs. Ledley had not been gone more than half an hour, when there was a great knocking at the outer door. Shaking in every limb, Faith went to open it. A strange woman stood there, and down at the gate was a little crowd and a policeman. The strange woman put kind arms round the girl's shrinking figure and told her as gently as she could that something terrible had happened, but that she must try to be brave and——