THE LOWEST RUNG
Together with The Hand on the Latch, St. Luke's Summer and The Understudy
Author of "Red Pottage"
London John Murray, Albemarle Street, W. 1908
Copyright, 1908, in the United States of America
TO HOWARD STURGIS
THE LOWEST RUNG 33
THE HAND ON THE LATCH 82
SAINT LUKE'S SUMMER 107
THE UNDERSTUDY 156
I have been writing books for five-and-twenty years, novels of which I believe myself to be the author, in spite of the fact that I have been assured over and over again that they are not my own work. When I have on several occasions ventured to claim them, I have seldom been believed, which seems the more odd as, when others have claimed them, they have been believed at once. Before I put my name to them they were invariably considered to be, and reviewed as, the work of a man; and for years after I had put my name to them various men have been mentioned to me as the real author.
I remember once, when I was very young and shy, how at one of my first London dinner-parties a charming elderly man discussed one of my earliest books with such appreciation that I at last remarked that I had written it myself. If I had looked for a surprised flash of delight at the fact that so much talent was palpitating in white muslin beside him, I was doomed to be disappointed. He gravely and gently said, "I know that to be untrue," and the conversation was turned to other subjects.
One man did indeed actually announce himself to be the author of "Red Pottage," in the presence of a large number of people, including the late Mr. William Sharp, who related the occurrence to me. But the incident ended uncomfortably for the claimant, which one would have thought he might have foreseen.
But whether my books are mine or not, still whenever one of them appears the same thing happens. I am pressed to own that such-and-such a character "is taken from So-and-so." I have not yet yielded to these exhortations to confession, partly, no doubt, because it would be very awkward for me afterwards if I owned that thirty different persons were the one and only original of "So-and-so."
My character for uprightness (if I ever had one) has never survived my tacit, or in some cases emphatic, refusal to be squeezed through the "clefts of confession."
It is perhaps impossible for those who do not write fiction to form any conception how easily an erroneous idea gains credence that some one has been "put in a book"; or, if the idea has once been entertained, how impossible it is to eradicate it.
Looking back over a string of incidents of this kind in my own personal experience, covering the last five-and-twenty years, I feel doubtful whether I shall be believed if I instance some of them. They seem now, after the lapse of years, frankly incredible, and yet they were real enough to give me not a little pain at the time. It is the fashion nowadays, if one says anything about oneself, to preface it by the pontifical remark that what one writes is penned for the sake of others, to save them, to cheer them, etc., etc. This, of course, now I come to think of it, must be my reason also for my lapse into autobiography. I see now that I only do it out of tenderness for the next generation. Therefore, young writers of the future, now on the playing-fields of Eton, take notice that my heart yearns over you. If, later on, you are harrowed as I have been harrowed, remember
J'ai passe par la.
Observe the prints of my goloshes on the steep ascent, and take courage. And if you are perturbed, as I have been perturbed, let me whisper to you the exhortation of the bankrupt to the terrestrial globe:
Never you mind. Roll on.
When I first took a pen into my youthful hand, I lived in a very secluded part of the Midlands, and perhaps, my little world being what it was, it was inevitable that the originals of my characters, especially the tiresome ones, should be immediately identified with the kindly neighbours within a five-mile radius of my paternal Rectory. Five miles was about the utmost our little pony could do. It was therefore obviously impossible that I could be acquainted with any one beyond that distance. And from first to last, from that day to this, no one leading a secluded life has been so fatuous as to believe that my characters were evolved out of my inner consciousness. "After all, you must own you took them from some one," is a phrase which has long lost its novelty for me. I remember even now my shocked astonishment when a furious neighbour walked up to me and said, "We all recognised Mrs. Alwynn at once as Mrs. ——, and we all say it is not in the least like her."
It was not, indeed. There was no shadow of resemblance. Did Mrs. ——, who had been so kind to me from a child, ever hear that report, I wonder? It gave me many a miserable hour, just when I was expanding in the sunshine of my first favourable reviews.
When I was still quite a beginner, Mrs. Clifford published her beautiful and touching book, "Aunt Anne."
There was, I am willing to believe—it is my duty to believe something—a faint resemblance between her "Aunt Anne" and an old great-aunt of mine, "Aunt Anna Maria," long since dead, whom I had only seen once or twice when I was a small child.
The fact that I could not have known my departed relation did not prevent two of my cousins, elderly maiden ladies who had had that privilege, from writing to me in great indignation at my having ventured to travesty my old aunt. They had found me out (I am always being found out), and the vials of their wrath were poured out over me.
In my whilom ignorance, in my lamblike innocence of the darker side of human nature, I actually thought that a disclaimer would settle the matter.
When has a disclaimer ever been of any use? When has it ever achieved anything except to add untruthfulness to my other crimes? Why have I ever written one, after that first disastrous essay, in which I civilly pointed out that not I, but Mrs. Clifford, the well-known writer, was the author of "Aunt Anne?"
They replied at once to say that this was untrue, because I, and I alone, could have written it.
I showed my father the letter.
The two infuriated ladies were attached to my father, and had known him for many years as a clergyman and a rural dean of unblemished character. He wrote to them himself to assure them that they had made a mistake, that I was not the author of the obnoxious work.
But the only effect his letter had on their minds was a pained uprootal of their respect and long affection for him. And they both died some years later, and (presumably) went up to heaven, convinced of my guilt, in spite of the unscrupulous parental ruridiaconal effort to whitewash me.
Long afterwards I mentioned this incident to Mrs. Clifford, but it did not cause her surprise. She had had her own experiences. She told me that when "Aunt Anne" appeared, she had many letters from persons with whom she was unacquainted, reproaching her for having portrayed their aunt.
The reverse of the medal ought perhaps to be mentioned. So primitive was the circle in which my youth was passed that an adverse review, if seen by one of the community, was at once put down to a disaffected and totally uneducated person in our village.
A witty but unfavourable criticism in Punch of my first story was always believed by two ladies in the parish to have been penned by one of the village tradesmen. It was in vain I assured them that the person in question could not by any possibility be on the staff of Punch. They only shook their heads, and repeated mysteriously that they "had reasons for knowing he had written it."
When we moved to London, I hoped I might fare better. But evidently I had been born under an unlucky star. The "Aunt Anne" incident proved to be only the first playful ripple which heralded the incoming of the
Breakers of the boundless deep.
After the publication of "Red Pottage" a storm burst respecting one of the characters—Mr. Gresley—which even now I have not forgotten. The personal note was struck once more with vigour, but this time by the clerical arm. I was denounced by name from a London pulpit. A Church newspaper which shall be nameless suggested that my portrait of Mr. Gresley was merely a piece of spite on my part, as I had probably been jilted by a clergyman. I will not pretend that the turmoil gave me unmixed pain. If it had, I should have been without literary vanity. But when a witty bishop wrote to me that he had enjoined on his clergy the study of Mr. Gresley as a Lenten penance, it was not possible for me to remain permanently depressed.
The character was the outcome of long, close observation of large numbers of clergymen, but not of one particular parson. Why, then, was it so exactly like individual clergymen that I received excited or enthusiastic letters from the parishioners of I dare not say how many parishes, affirming that their vicar (whom I had never beheld), and he alone, could have been the prototype of Mr. Gresley? I was frequently implored to go down and "see for myself." Their most adorable platitudes were chronicled and sent up to me, till I wrung my hands because it was too late to insert them in "Red Pottage." For they all fitted Mr. Gresley like a glove, and I should certainly have used them if it had been possible. For, as has been well said, "There is no copyright in platitudes." They are part of our goodly heritage. And though people like Mr. Gresley and my academic prig Wentworth have in one sense made a particular field of platitude their own, by exercising themselves continually upon it, nevertheless we cannot allow them to warn us off as trespassers, or permit them to annex or enclose common land, the property and birthright of the race.
Young men fresh from public schools also informed me that Mr. Gresley was the facsimile of their tutor, and of no one else. I was at that time unacquainted with any schoolmasters, being cut off from social advantages. But that fact did me no good. The dispassionate statement of it had no more effect on my young friends than my father's denial had on my elderly relations.
I am ashamed to say that once again, as in the case of "Aunt Anne," I endeavoured to exculpate myself in order to pacify two old maiden ladies. Why is it always the acutely unmarried who are made miserable by my books? Is it because—odious thought, avaunt!—married persons do not open them? These two ladies did not, indeed, think that I had been "paying out" some particular clergyman, as suggested in their favourite paper, The Guardian, but they were shocked by the profanity of the book. Soon afterwards the Bishop of Stepney (now Bishop of London) preached on "Red Pottage" in St. Paul's. I sent them a newspaper which reprinted the sermon verbatim, with a note saying that I trusted this expression of opinion on the part of their idolised preacher might mitigate their condemnation of the book.
But when have my attempts at making an effect ever come off? My firework never lights up properly like that of others! It only splutters and goes out. I received in due course a dignified answer that they had both been deeply distressed by my information, as it would prevent them ever going to hear the Bishop of Stepney again.
My own experience, especially as to "Red Pottage" and "Prisoners," struck me as so direful, I seemed so peculiarly outside the protection of Providence, like the celebrated plot of ground on which "no rain nor no dew never fell," that I consulted several other brother and sister novelists as to how they had fared in this delicate matter. It is not for me to reveal the interesting skeletons concealed in cupboards not my own, but I have almost invariably returned from these interviews cheered, chuckling, and consoled by the comfortable realisation that others had writhed on a hotter gridiron than I.
Georges Sand, when she was accused of lampooning a certain abbe, said that to draw one character of that kind one must know a thousand. She has, I think, put her finger on the truth which is not easy to find—at least, I never found it until I read those words of hers.
It is necessary to know a very large number of persons of a certain kind before one can evolve a type. Each he or she contributes a twig, and the author weaves them into a nest. I have no doubt that I must have taken such a twig from nearly every clergyman I met who had a soupcon of Mr. Gresley in him.
But if an author takes one tiny trait, one saying, one sentiment, direct from a person, there is always the danger that the contributor will recognise the theft, and, if of a self-regarding temperament, will instantly conclude that the whole character is drawn from himself. There is, for instance, no more universal trait, of what has been unkindly called "the old-maid temperament" in either sex, than the assertion that it is always busy. But when such a trait is noted in a book, how many sensitive readers assume that it is a cruel personality. If people could but perceive that what they think to be character in themselves is often only sex, or sexlessness; if they could but believe in the universality of what they hold to be their individuality! And yet how easily they believe in it when it is pleasant to do so, when they write books about themselves, and thousands of grateful readers bombard the gifted authoress with letters to tell her that they also have "felt just like that," and have "been helped" by her exquisite sentiments, which are the exact replicas of their own!
The worst of it is that with the academic or clerical prig, when the mind has long been permitted to run in a deep, platitudinous groove from which it is at last powerless to escape, the resemblance to a prig in fiction is sometimes more than fanciful. It is real. For there is no doubt that prigs have a horrid family likeness to each other, whether in books or in real life. I have sometimes felt as the puzzled mother of some long-lost Tichborne might feel. Each claimant to the estates in turn seems to acquire a look of the original because he is a claimant. Has not this one my lost Willy's eyes? But no! that one has Willy's hands. True, but the last-comer snuffles exactly as my lost Willy snuffled. How many men have begun suddenly and indubitably in my eyes to resemble one of the adored prigs of my novels, merely because they insisted on the likeness themselves.
The most obnoxious accident which has yet befallen me, the most wanton blow below the belt which Fate has ever dealt me, is buried beneath the snows of twenty years. But even now I cannot recall it without a shudder. And if a carping critic ventures to point out that blows below the belt are not often buried beneath snow, then all I can say is that when I have made my meaning clear, I see no reason for a servile conformity to academic rules of composition.
I was writing "Diana Tempest." One of the characters, a very worldly religious young female prig, was much in my mind. I know many such. I may as well mention here that I do not bless the hour on which I first saw the light. I have not found life an ardent feast of tumultuous joy. But I do realise that it has been embellished by the acquaintance of a larger number of delightful prigs than falls to the lot of most. I have much to be thankful for. Having got hold of the character of this lady, I piloted her through courtship and marriage. I gleefully invented all her sayings on these momentous occasions, and described the wedding and the abhorrent bridegroom with great minuteness. In short, I gloated over it.
The book was finished, sold, finally corrected, and in the press when one of the young women who had unconsciously contributed a trait to the character became affianced. She immediately began throwing off with great dignity, as if by clock-work, all the best things which I had evolved out of my own brain and had put into the mouth of my female prig. At first I was delighted with my own cleverness, but gradually I became more and more uneasy, and when I attended the wedding my heart failed me altogether. In "Diana Tempest" I had described the rich, elderly, stout, and gouty bridegroom whom the lady had captured. There he was before my panic-stricken eyes! The wedding was exactly as I had already described it. It took place in London, just as I had said. The remembrance that the book had passed beyond my own control, the irrevocability of certain ghastly sentences, came over me in a flash, together with the certainty that, however earnestly I might deny, swear, take solemn oaths on family Bibles, nothing, nothing, not even a voice from heaven, much less that of a rural dean still on earth, could make my innocence credible.
I may add that no voice from heaven sounded, and that I never made any attempt at self-exculpation, or invited my father to sacrifice himself a second time.
As I heard "The Voice that breathed o'er Eden" and saw the bride of twenty-five advance up the aisle to meet the bridegroom of forty-five awaiting her deeply flushed, in a distorted white waistcoat—I had mercilessly alluded to his white waistcoat as an error of judgment—I gave myself up for lost; and I was lost.
But all this time, while I have been giving a free rein to my autobiographic instincts, the question still remains unanswered, Why is human nature so prone to think it has been travestied that it becomes impervious to reason on the subject the moment the idea has entered the mind? Once lodged, I have never known such an idea dislodged, however fantastic. Why is it that if, like Mrs. Clifford, one has the good fortune to evolve a type, no one can believe it is not an individual? Why does not the outraged friend console himself with the remembrance that if he is one of many others who are feeling equally harrowed, he cannot really be the object of a malignant spite, carefully disguised till then under the apparel of a cheerful friendship?
I think an answer—a partial answer—to the latter question may be found in the fact that balm was never yet poured on a wounded spirit by the assurance that there are thousands of others exactly like itself. We can all endure to be lampooned. (I have even known a man who was deeply disappointed when he was forced to believe that he had not been victimised.) But to be told we are one of a herd! This flesh and blood cannot tolerate. It is unthinkable; a living death. That we who "look before and after," and "whose sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught"; that we, lonely, superb, pining for what is not, misunderstood by our nearest and dearest, who don't know, and never can know
Half the reasons why we smile or sigh
(unless, indeed, we are autobiographists: then they know all the reasons)—that WE should be confused with the vast mob of foolish, sentimental spinsters, or pedantic clerics, or egotistic old bachelors!
Away!—away! The reeling mind stops its ears against these obscene suggestions.
The only alternative which remains is that an unscrupulous novelist has heard of us—nothing more likely—without being actually acquainted with us, and has listened to garbled accounts of us from our so-called friends; or has actually met us at a bazaar or a funeral, though of course he professes to have forgotten the meeting; has been impressed with our subtle personality—nothing more likely—has felt an envious admiration of what we ourselves value but little—our social charm—and has yielded—nothing more likely—to the ignoble temptation of caricaturing qualities which he cannot emulate. Or perhaps he has known us for years, and has shown a mysterious indifference to our society, an impatience of our deeper utterances, which we can now, at last, trace to its true source, a guilty consciousness of premeditated treachery which has led him to strike us in a dastardly manner, which we can indeed afford—being what we are—to forgive, but which we shall never forget. And if an opportunity offers later on, it is possible that an unprejudiced and judicial mind may feel called upon to indicate what it thinks of such conduct.
Perhaps only those whose temperament leads them to believe themselves ridiculed in a book know the rankling smart, the exquisite pain, the sense of treachery of such an experience. It is probably the most offensive slight that can be offered to a sensitive nature.
And if the author realises this, even while he knows himself to be guiltless in the matter, it is probable, if he also is somewhat sensitive—and some authors are—that a great deal of the delight he may derive from a successful novel may be dimmed by the realisation that he has unwittingly pained a stranger, or, worse still, an acquaintance, or, immeasurably worst of all, an old friend.
 One of these unknown correspondents wrote that their vicar had that Sunday begun—he would have said commenced—his sermon with the words, "God is Love, as the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked last week in Westminster Abbey."
 The Guardian, April 11, 1900: "Truth to tell, when I appreciated, with much amusement, the light in which one was expected to regard Mr. Gresley, I came to the conclusion that the authoress was paying out some particular High Church parson, who had perhaps snubbed her or got the better of her, by 'putting him into a book.' The poor, feeble creature is described with appetite, so to speak, and when this is the case (with a lady writer) one is pretty safe in being sure one has come across the personal. Mr. Gresleys certainly exist, but only a woman in a (perhaps wholly justified) tantrum would speak of them as a type of the clergy in general."—THOS. J. BALL.
THE LOWEST RUNG
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung. RUDYARD KIPLING.
The sudden splendour of the afternoon made me lay down my pen, and tempted me afield. It had been a day of storm and great racing cloud-wracks, after a night of hurricane and lashing rain. But in the afternoon the sun had broken through, and I struggled across the water-meadows, the hurrying, turbid water nearly up to the single planks across the ditches, and climbed to the heathery uplands, battling my way inch by inch against a tearing wind.
My art had driven me forth from my warm fireside, as it is her wont to drive her votaries, and the call of my art I have never disobeyed.
For no artist must look at one side of life only. We must study it as a whole, gleaning rich and varied sheaves as we go. My forthcoming book of deep religious experiences, intertwined with descriptions of scenery, needed a little contrast. I had had abundance of summer mornings and dewy evenings, almost too many dewy evenings. And I thought a description of a storm would be in keeping with the chapter on which I was at that moment engaged, in which I dealt with the stress of my own illness of the previous spring, and the mystery of pain, which had necessitated a significant change in my life—a visit to Cromer. The chapter dealing with Cromer, and the insurgent doubts of convalescence, wandering on its poppy-strewn cliffs, as to the beneficence of the Deity, was already done, and one of the finest I had ever written.
But I was dissatisfied with the preceding chapter, and, as usual, went for inspiration to Nature.
It was late by the time I reached the upland, but I was rewarded for my climb.
Far away under the flaring sunset the long lines of tidal river and sea stretched tawny and sinister, like drawn swords in firelight, between the distant woods and cornfields. The death-like stillness and smallness of the low-lying rigid landscape made the contrast with the rushing enormity and turmoil of the heavens almost terrific.
Great clouds shouldered up out of the sea, blotting out the low sun, darkening the already darkened earth, and then towered up the sky, releasing the struggling sun only to extinguish it once more, in a new flying cohort.
I do not know how long I stood there, spellbound, the woman lost in the artist, scribbling frantically in my notebook, when an onslaught of rain brought me to my senses and I looked round for shelter.
Then I became aware that I had not been watching alone. A desolate-looking figure, crouching at a little distance, half hidden by a gorse-bush, was watching too, watching intently. She got up as I turned and came towards me, her uncouth garments whipped against her by the wind.
The rain plunged down upon us, enveloping us both as in a whirlwind.
"There is an empty cottage under the down," I shouted to her, and I began to run towards it. It was a tumbledown place, but "any port in such a storm."
"It is not safe," she shouted back; "the roof is falling in."
The squall of rain whirled past as suddenly as it had come, leaving me gasping. She seemed to take no notice of it.
"I spent last night there," she said. "The ceiling came down in the next room. Besides," she added, "though possibly that may not deter you, there are two policemen there."
I saw now that it had been the cottage which she had been watching. And sure enough, in a broken shaft of sunshine which straggled out for a moment, I saw two dark figures steal towards the cottage under cover of the wall.
"Why are they there?" I said, gaping at such a strange sight. For I had been many months at Rufford, and I had never seen a policeman.
"They are lying in wait for some one," she said.
It flashed back across my mind how at luncheon that day the vicar had said that a female convict had escaped from Ipswich gaol, and had been traced to Bealings, and, it was conjectured, was lurking in the neighbourhood of Woodbridge.
I took sudden note of my companion's peculiar dark bluish clothes and shawl, and the blood rushed to my head. I knew what those garments meant. She pushed back her grizzled hair from her lined, walnut-coloured face, and we looked hard at each other.
There was no fear in her eyes, but a certain curiosity as to what I was going to do.
"If I told you they were not looking for me," she said, "I could not, under the circumstances, expect you to believe it."
I am too highly strung for this workaday world. I know it to my cost. The artistic temperament has its penalties. My doctor at Cromer often told me that I vibrated like a harp at the slightest touch. I vibrated now. Indeed, I almost sat down in the sodden track.
But unlike many of my brothers and sisters of the pen, I am capable of impulsive, even quixotic action, and I ought, in justice to myself, to mention here that I had not then read that noble book "The Treasure of Heaven," in which it will be remembered that a generous-souled woman takes in from the storm, and nurses back to health in her lowly cottage, an aged tramp who turns out to be a millionaire, and leaves her his vast fortune. I did not get the idea of acting as I am about to relate from Marie Corelli, the head of our profession, or indeed from any other writer. But I have so often been accused of taking other people's plots and ideas and sentiments, that I owe it to myself to make this clear before I go on.
"You poor soul," I said, "whatever you are, and whatever you've done, I will shelter you and help you to escape."
I felt I really could not take her into the house, so I added, "I have a little stable in the garden, quite private, with nice dry hay in it. Follow me."
I suppose she saw at a glance that she could trust me, for she nodded, and I sped down the hill, she following at a little distance, with the shrieking, denouncing wind behind us. I walked as quickly as I could, but when I got as far as the water-meadows my strength and breath gave way. I was never robust, and always foolishly prone to overtax my small store of strength. I was obliged to stop and lean my head on my arms against a stile.
"There is no need for such hurry," she said tranquilly. She had come up noiselessly behind me. "There is not a soul in sight. Besides, look what you are missing."
She pointed to the familiar fields before me which we had yet to cross, with the Dieben winding through them under his low, red-brick bridges, and beyond the little clustered village with its grey church spire standing shoulder high above the poplars.
The sun had just set and there was no colour in the west, but over all the homely, wind-swept landscape a solemn and unearthly light shone and slowly passed, shone and slowly passed.
"Look up," said my companion, turning a face of flame towards me.
I looked up into the sky, as into an enormous furnace. Gigantic rolling clouds of flame were sweeping before the roaring wind like some vast prairie fire across the firmament. As they passed overhead, the reflection of the lurid light on them was smitten earthwards, and passed with them, making everything it traversed clear as noon—the lion on the swinging sign of the public-house just across the water, the delicate tracery of the church windows, the virginia creeper on my cottage porch.
"I have only seen an afterglow like that once in my life," my companion said, "and that was in Teneriffe."
A few moments more, and the sky paled to grey. The darkness came down with tropical suddenness. I made a movement forwards.
"Shall I not be seen if I follow you through the village in these weird clothes?" she said civilly, as one who hesitates to make a suggestion. "Where is your house?"
"My cot—it is not a house—is just at the end of those trees," I said. "It is the only one close to the park gates. It has virginia creeper over the porch, and a white gate."
"It sounds charming."
"But how on earth are we to get there?" I groaned. "And some one may come along this path at any moment."
The dusk was falling rapidly. Candles were beginning to twinkle in latticed windows. A yellow light from the public-house made an impassable streak across the road. Cheerful voices were coming along the meadow path behind us. What was to be done?
"Go home," she said steadily. "I will find my own way."
"But my servant?"
"Make your mind easy. She will not see me. I shall not ring the bell. Have you a dog?"
"No. My dear little Lindo——"
"It's going to be a black night. I shall be in the porch half an hour after dark."
She went swiftly from me, and as the voices drew near I saw her pick her way noiselessly into one of the great ditches, and stand motionless in the water, obliterated against a pollard willow.
I hurried home. My feet were quite wet, and even my stockings—a thing that had not happened to me for years. I changed at once, and took five drops of camphor on a lump of sugar. It would be extraordinarily inconvenient if I were to take cold, with my tendency to bronchial catarrh. I have no time to be ill in my busy life. Was not "Broodings beside the Dieben" being finished in hot haste for an eager publisher? And had I not promised to give away the Sunday-school prizes at Forlinghorn a fortnight hence?
It was half-past six. My garden boy was pumping in the scullery. He kept his tools in the stable, and it was his duty to lock it up and hang the key on the nail inside the scullery door.
Supposing he forgot to hang it up to-night of all nights! Supposing he took it away with him by mistake! I went into the scullery directly he had gone. I made a pretext of throwing away some flowers, though I had never thought of needing a pretext for going there before. The stable key was on its nail all right. I looked into the kitchen, where my little maid-servant was preparing my evening meal. When her back was turned, I snatched the key from the nail, dropped it noisily on the brick floor, caught it up, withdrew to the parlour, and sank down in my armchair shaking from head to foot. My doctor was right indeed when he said I vibrated like a harp.
The life of contemplation and meditation is more suited to my highly strung nature than that of adventure and intrigue.
My servant brought in the lamp, and I hurriedly sat on the key while she did so. Then she drew the curtains in the little houseplace, locked the outer door, and went back to the kitchen.
There are two doors to my cottage—the front door with the porch leading to the lane, and the back door out of the scullery which opens into my little slip of garden. At the bottom of the garden is a disused stable, utilised by me to store wood in, and old boxes. The gate to the back way to the stable from the lane had been permanently closed till the day should come when I could afford a pony and cart. But in these days novels of not too refined a type are the only form of literature (if they can be called literature) for which the public is eager. It will devour and extol anything, however coarse, which panders to its love of excitement, while grave books dealing with the spiritual side of life, books of thought and culture, are left unheeded on the shelf. Such had been the fate of mine.
The rain had ceased at last, and the wind was falling. My mind kept on making all sorts of uneasy suggestions to me as I sat in my armchair. What was I to do with the—the individual when I had got her safely into the stable, if I ever did get her safely there? How about food, how about dry clothes, how about a light, how about everything? Supposing she overslept herself, and Tommy found her there in the morning when he went for his tools? Supposing my landlord, Mr. Ledbury, who was a magistrate, found out I had harboured a criminal, and gave me notice just when I had repapered the parlour and put in a new back to the kitchen range? Such a calamity was unthinkable. What happened to people who compounded felonies? Was I compounding one? Why was not I sitting down? What was I doing standing in the middle of the parlour with the stable key in my hand, and, as I caught sight of myself in the glass, with my mouth wide open?
I sat down again resolutely, hiding the key under the cushion, and calmer thoughts supervened. After all, it was most improbable, almost impossible, that I should be found out. And once the adventure was safely over, when I had successfully carried it through, what interesting accounts I should be able to give of it at luncheon parties in London in the winter. My brothers would really believe at last that I could act with energy and presence of mind. There was a rooted impression in the minds of my own family that I was a flurried sort of person, easily thrown off my balance, making mountains out of molehills (this was especially irritating to me, as I have always taken a broad, sane view of life), who always twisted my ankle if it could be twisted, or lost my luggage, or caught childish ailments for the second time. Where there is but one gifted member in a large and commonplace family, an absurd idea of this kind is apt to grow from a joke into an idee fixe.
It had obtained credence originally because I certainly had once in a dreamy moment got my gown shut into the door in an empty railway compartment on the far side. And as the glass was up on the station side I had been unable to attract any one's attention when I wanted to alight, and had had to go on to Portsmouth (where the train stopped for good) before I could make my presence and my predicament known. This trivial incident had never been forgotten by my family—so much so, that I had often regretted the hilarious spirit of pure comedy at my own expense which had prompted me to relate it to them.
Now was the time to show what metal I was made of. My spirits rose as I felt I could rely on myself to be cautious, resourceful, bold. I sat on, outwardly composed, but inwardly excited, straining my ears for a sign that the fugitive was in the porch. I supposed I should presently hear a light tap on my parlour window, which was close to the outer door.
But none came. More than an hour passed. It had long been perfectly dark. What could have happened? Had the poor creature been dogged and waylaid by those two policemen after all? Was it possible that they had seen us standing together at the stile, where she had so inconsiderately joined me for a moment? At last I became so nervous that I went to the outer door, opened it softly, and looked out. She was so near me that I very nearly screamed.
"How long have you been here?" I whispered.
"Close on an hour."
"Why didn't you tap on the window or something? I was waiting to let you in."
"I dared not do that. It might have been the kitchen window for all I knew, and then your servant would have seen me."
"But the kitchen is the other side."
"Indeed! And where is the stable?"
"At the bottom of the garden, away from the road."
"How are we going to get to it?"
"We can only get to it through the garden, now the back way is closed. I closed it because the village children——"
"Had not you better shut the door? If any one passed down the road, they would see it was open."
"It's as dark as pitch."
"Yes, but there's a little light from within. I can see you from outside quite plainly standing in the doorway."
I led her indoors, and locked and bolted the door.
"What is this room?"
"The houseplace. I have my meals here. I live very primitively. My idea is——"
"Then your servant may come in at any moment to lay your supper."
I could not say that she seemed nervous or frightened, but the way she cut me short showed that she was so in reality. I was not offended, for I am the first to make allowance when rudeness is not intentional. I led the way hastily into the parlour.
"She never comes in here," I said reassuringly, "after she has once brought in the lamp. I am supposed to be working, and must not be disturbed."
"I'm not fit to come in," she said.
And in truth she was not. She was caked with mud and dirt from head to foot, an appalling figure in the lamplight. The rain dripped from her hair, her sinister clothing, her whole person. She looked as if she must have hidden in a wet ditch. I gazed horror-struck at my speckless matting and pale Oriental rugs. I had never allowed a child or dog in the house for fear of the matting, except of course my poor Lindo, who had died a few months previously, and whom I had taught to wipe his feet on the mat.
A ghost of a smile twitched her grey mouth.
"Is not that the Times?" she said. "Spread it out four thick, and lay it on the floor."
I did so, and she stepped carefully on to it.
"Now," she said, standing on a great advertisement of a universal history—"now that I am not damaging the furniture, pull yourself together and think. How am I to get to the stable? I can't stop here."
She could not indeed. I felt I might be absolutely powerless to get the muddy footprints out of the matting. And no doubt there were some in the houseplace too.
"If I go through the scullery, I may be seen," she said, the water pattering off her on to the newspaper. "So lucky you take in the Times; it's printed on such thick paper. Where does that window look out?"
She pointed to the window at the farther end of the room.
"On to the garden."
"Capital! Then we can get out through it, of course, without going through the scullery."
I had not thought of that. I opened the window, and she was through it in two cautious strides.
"Now," she said, looking back at me, "I'm comparatively safe for the moment, and so is the matting. But before we do anything more, get a duster—a person like you is sure to have a duster in a drawer. Just so, there it is. Now wipe up the marks of my muddy feet in the room we first came into as well as this, and then see to the paint of the window. I have probably smirched it. Then roll up the Times tight, and put it in the waste-paper basket."
She watched me obey her.
"Having obliterated all traces of crime," she said when I had finished, "suppose we go on to the stable. Let me help you through the window. I will wipe my hands on the grass first. And would not you be wise to put on that little shawl I see on the sofa? It is getting cold."
The window was only a yard from the ground, and I got out somehow, encumbered in my shawl, which a grateful reader had crocheted for me. She had, however, to help me in again directly I was out, for, between us, we had forgotten the stable key, which was underneath the cushion of my armchair.
The rest was plain sailing. We stole down the garden path to the stable, and I unlocked the door and let her in.
"Kindly lock me in and take away the key," she said, vanishing past me into the darkness, and I thought I detected a tone of relief in her brisk, matter-of-fact voice.
"I will bring some food as soon as I can," I whispered. "If I knock three times, you will know it's only me."
"Don't knock at all," she said; "it might be noticed. Why should you knock to go into your own stable?"
"I won't, then. And how about your wet things?"
"That's nothing. I'm accustomed to being wet."
I crawled back to the cottage, and managed to scramble in by the parlour window, only to sink once more into my armchair in a state of collapse. I had always entered so acutely into the joys and sorrows of others, their love affairs, their difficulties, their bereavements (I had in this way led such a full life), that I was surprised at this juncture to find my nervous force so exhausted, until I remembered that ardent natures who give out a great deal in the way of helpfulness and interest are bound to suffer when the reaction comes. The reaction had come for me now. I saw only too plainly the folly I had been guilty of in harbouring a total stranger, the trouble I should probably get into, the difficulty that a nature naturally frank and open to a fault would find in keeping up a deception. I doubted my own powers, everything. The truth was—but I did not realise it till afterwards—that I had missed my tea.
I could hear my servant laying my evening meal in the houseplace. In a few minutes she tapped to tell me it was ready, and I rose mechanically to obey the summons. And then, to my horror, I found I was still in morning dress. For the first time for years I had not dressed for dinner. What would she think if she saw me? But it was too late to change now; I must just go in as I was. My whole life seemed dislocated, torn up by the roots.
There was not much to eat. Half a very small cold chicken, a lettuce, and a little custard pudding, fortunately very nutritious, being made with Eustace Miles's proteid. There were, however, a loaf and butter and plasmon biscuits on the sideboard. I cut up as much as I dared of the chicken, and put it between two very thick slices of buttered bread. Then I crept out again and took it to her. She got up out of the hay, and put out a gnarled brown hand for it.
"I will bring you a cup of coffee later," I said. I was beginning to feel a kind of proprietorship in her. She would have starved but for me.
My servant always left at nine o'clock, to sleep at her father's cottage, just over the way. I have a bell in the roof, which I can ring with a cord in case of fire or thieves.
To-night she was, of course, later than usual, but at last she brought in the coffee, and then I heard her making her rounds, closing the shutters on the ground floor, and locking the front door—at least, trying to do so. I had already locked and bolted it. Then she locked the scullery door on the outside, abstracted the key, and I heard her step on the brick path, and the click of the gate. She was gone.
I always heated the coffee myself over the parlour fire. It was already bubbling on the hob. Directly she had left I went to the kitchen, and got a second cup. I felt much better since I had had supper. And as I took the cup from the shelf the fantastic idea came into my mind to ask my protegee to come in and drink her coffee by the fire in the parlour. I must frankly own it was foolhardy; it was rash, it was even dangerous. But there it is! One cannot help the way one is made, and I am afraid I am not of those who invariably take the coldly prudent course and stick to it.
I turned the idea over in my mind. I could put down sheets of brown paper—I always have a store—from the door to the fire, and an old mackintosh over the worst armchair, which was to be re-covered. Besides, I had not had a good look at her yet, or made out the real woman under the prison garb. That she was a person of education and refinement may appear hardly credible to my readers, but to one like myself, whose metier it is to probe the secrets of my own heart and those of others—to me it was sufficiently obvious from the first moment that, though I had to deal with a criminal, she was a very exceptional one, and belonging to my own class. I went out to the stable, and suggested to her that she should come in.
"How do you know that I am not a man in disguise?" came a voice from the darkness; and it seemed to me, not for the first time, that she was amused at something. "I'm tall enough. Just think how stupendous it would be if, when I was inside and the door really locked, I proved to be a wicked, devastating, burglarious male."
"I wish you would not say things like that," I said. "On your honour, are you a man?"
She hesitated, and then said in a changed voice:
"I am not. I don't know what I am. I was a woman once, just as a derelict was a ship once. But whatever I am, I am not fit to come into a self-respecting house. I am one solid cake of mud."
Something in her reluctance made me the more determined. Besides, one of the truths on which I have insisted most strongly in my "Veil of the Temple" is that if we show full trust and confidence in others, they will prove worthy of that trust. Her coming indoors had now become a matter of principle, and I insisted. I even said I could lend her a dressing-gown and slippers, so that her wet clothes might be dried by the kitchen fire.
She murmured something about a good Samaritan, but still demurred, and asked if I had a bath-room. I said I had.
That decided her. She seemed to have no difficulty in making up her mind. She did not see two sides to things, as I always do myself.
She said that if I liked to allow her to go to the bath-room first, she should be happy to accept my kind invitation for an hour or so. If not, she would stay where she was.
* * * * *
Half an hour later she was sitting opposite me in the parlour, on the other side of the wood fire, sipping her coffee. I had not put down the brown paper or the mackintosh. It was not necessary. Her close-cropped, curly grey hair, still damp from the bath, was parted, and brushed stiffly back over her ears. It must have been very beautiful hair once. Her thin hands and thinner face and neck looked more like brown parchment than ever, as she sat in the lamplight, my old blue dressing-gown folded negligently round her, and taking picturesque folds which it never did when I was inside it. Those long, gaunt limbs must have been graceful once. Her feet were bare in her slippers—in my slippers, I mean. She looked rather like a well-bred Indian.
It was obvious that she was a lady, but her speech had already told me that. What amazed me most where all amazed me was her self-possession.
I wondered what her impression of me was, as we sat, such a strangely assorted couple, one on each side of the fire. Did I indeed seem to her the quixotic, impetuous, and yet withal dreamy creature which my books show me to be? But I have often been told by those who know me well that I am much more than my books.
"I have not sat by a fire for how many months?" she said, her black eyes on the logs. "Let me see, last time was in a lonely cottage on the Cotswolds. It was a night like this, but colder, and a helpless old couple let me in, and allowed me to dry my clothes, and lie by their fire all night. Very unwise of them, wasn't it? I might have murdered them in their beds."
I began to feel rather uncomfortable.
"You are not undergoing a sentence for murder, are you?" I asked.
She looked at me for a moment, and then said:
"The desperate creature who escaped from gaol three days ago, and who was in for life for the murder of the man she lived with, and whose convict clothes I am wearing—whose clothes, I mean, are at this moment drying before your kitchen fire—is not the same woman who is now drinking your excellent coffee."
"Do you mean to tell me you have never been in prison?"
"Yes, for a year; but I served my time and finished it four years ago."
I wrung my hands. I was deeply disappointed in her. Her transparent duplicity, which could impose on no one, not even so unsuspicious a nature as mine, hurt me to the quick.
"Oh! you poor soul," I said, "don't lie to me. Indeed it isn't necessary. I will do all I can for you. I will help you to get away. I will give you other clothes, and money, and we will bury these—these garments of shame. But don't, for God's sake, don't lie to me."
She looked gravely at me, as if she were measuring me, and seeing, no doubt, that I was not deceived, a dusky red rose for a moment to her face and brow.
"It is not easy to speak the truth to some people," she said, her eyes dropping once more to the fire, "even when they are as compassionate and kind as you are."
"Truthfulness is a habit that may be regained," I said earnestly. "I myself, without half your temptations, was untruthful once."
To associate oneself with the sins of others, to show one's own scar, is not this sometimes the only way to comfort those overborne in the battle of life? Had I not chronicled my own failing in the matter of truthfulness when I foolishly and wickedly took blame on myself for the fault of one dear to me, in my first book, "With Broken Wing"? But I saw as I spoke that she had not read it, and did not realise to what I was alluding. I have so steadily refused to be interviewed that possibly also she had not even yet guessed who I was.
"I am sure—I am quite sure," I went on after a moment, "that there is a great deal of good in you, that you are by nature truthful."
"Am I? I wonder. Perhaps I was so once, in the early, untroubled days. But I have told many lies since then."
She drank her coffee slowly, looking steadfastly into the fire, as if she saw in the wavering flame some reflection of another fire on another hearthstone.
"How good it is!" she said at last, putting her cup down. "How dreadfully good it is—the coffee and the fire, and the quiet room, and to be dry and warm and clean! How good it all is! And how little I thought of them when I had all these things!"
She got up and looked at a water-colour over the low mantelpiece.
"Madeira, isn't it?" she said. "I seem to remember that peculiar effect of the vivid purple of the Bougainvillea against the dim, cloudy purple of the hills behind."
"It is Madeira," I said. "I was there ten years ago. Perhaps you have read my little book, 'Beside the Bougainvillea'?"
"My husband died there," she said, looking fixedly at the drawing. "He died just before sunrise, and when it was over I remember looking out across the sea, past the great English man-of-war in the harbour, to those three little islands—I forget their names—and as the first level rays touched them, the islands and the ship all seemed to melt into half-transparent amethyst in a sea of glass, beneath a sky of glass. How calm the sea was—hardly a ripple! I felt that even he, weak as he was, could walk upon it. It was like daybreak in heaven, not on earth. And his long martyrdom was over. It seemed as if we were both safe home at last."
"Had he been ill long?"
"A long time. He suffered terribly. And I gave him morphia under the doctor's directions. And then, when he was gone—not at first, but after a little bit—I took morphia myself, to numb my own anguish and to get a little sleep. I thought I should go mad if I could not get any sleep. I had better have gone mad. But I took morphia instead, and sealed my own doom. But how can you tell whether I am speaking the truth? Well, it doesn't matter if you don't believe me. I am accustomed to it. I am never believed now. And I don't care if I'm not. I don't deserve to be. But I suppose you can see that I was not always a tramp on the highway. And, at any rate, that is what I am now, and what I shall remain, unless I drift into prison again, which God forbid, for I should suffocate in a cell after the life in the open air which I am accustomed to."
She shivered a little, as if she who seemed devoid of fear quailed at the remembrance of her cell.
"You are wondering how I have fallen so low," she said. "Do you remember Kipling's lines—
"We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung?
"Well, I have known what it is to drop down the ladder of life, clinging convulsively to each rung in turn, losing hold of it, and being caught back by compassionate hands, only to let go of it again; fighting desperately to hold on to the next rung when I was thrust from the one above it; having my hands beaten from each rung, one after another, one after another, sinking lower and lower yet, cling as I would, pray as I would, repent as I would."
"Who beat your hands from the rungs?" I said.
"Morphia," she replied.
There was a long silence.
"Morphia, that was the beginning and the middle and the end of my misfortunes," she said. "What did I do that gradually lost me my friends?—and I had such good friends, even after my best friend my sister died. What did I do that ruined me by inches? In Australia I have heard of evil men taken red-handed being left in the bush with food and water by them, bound to a fallen tree which has been set on fire at one end. And the fire smoulders and smoulders, and travels inch by inch along the trunk, and they watch their slow, inevitable death coming towards them day by day, until it at last destroys them also inch by inch. What had I done that I should find myself bound like those poor wretches? I cannot tell you. Morphia wipes out the memory as surely as drink. I only know that I was in torment. Faces, familiar and strange faces, some compassionate, some indignant, some horror-struck, come back to me sometimes, blurred as by smoke, but I see nothing clearly. I dimly remember fragments of appeals that were made to me, fragments of divine music in cathedrals where I sobbed my heart out. Broken, splintered, devastating memories of promises made in bitter tears, and endless lies and subterfuges to conceal what I could not conceal. For morphia looks out of the eyes of its victim. I knew that, but I thought no one could see it in mine, that I could hide it. And I have one vivid recollection of a quiet room with flowers in it, and latticed windows, but I don't know where it was or how I came there, or who were the people in it who spoke to me. There was a tall woman with grey parted hair in a lilac gown. I can see her now. And I swore before God that I had left off the drug. And some one standing behind me took the little infernal machine out of my pocket, and I was confronted with it. And the tall woman wrung her hands and groaned. How I hated her! And in my madness I accused her of putting it there to ruin me. And some one (a man) said slowly, 'She is impossible!—quite impossible!' That one memory stands out like a little oasis in a desert of mirage and shifting sand, and thirst. I should know the room again if I saw it. There was a window opening into a little paved courtyard with a fountain in it, and doves drinking. But I shall never see it again. And the drug became alive like a fiend, and pushed me lower and lower, down, always down, until I did something dreadful, I don't know now exactly what it was, though the prison chaplain explained it to me. But it was about a cheque, and I was convicted and sent to prison."
"Then you have been in prison twice?" I said, anxious to make it easy for her to be entirely truthful, for I could not doubt the truth of much of this earlier history.
She did not seem to hear me.
"There is no crime," she went on, "however black, that I did not expiate then. If suffering can wash out sins, I washed out mine. I, who thought I had so many enemies, have no enemy. No one has ever injured me. But if I had the cruellest in the world, I would not condemn him, if he were a morphia maniac, to sudden enforced abstinence and prison life. And I could not die. I am very strong by nature. I could neither die nor live. It was months before I saw light, months of hell, consumed in the flame of hell which is thirst. And slowly the power to live came back to me. I was saved in spite of myself. And slowly the power of thought returned to me. I had time to think. My mind drifted and drifted, but I got control of it now and again, and then for longer intervals, as my poor body reasserted itself from the slavery of the drug. And I thought—I thought—I thought. And at last I made up my mind, my fierce, embittered mind. And when I came out of prison, I took to the road. Even then there were those who would have helped me, but I steeled my heart against them. There was a strange woman with a sweet face waiting at the prison door, who spoke kindly to me. But I distrusted her. I distrusted every one. And I did not mean to be helped any more. I had been helped time and time again. To be helped was to be put where I could get morphia, where I had something, if it was only my clothes, which I could sell to get it, where I could steal things to sell to get it. If I had any possessions, I knew that some day—not for a time perhaps, but some day—I should sell it and get morphia somehow. They say you can't buy it, but you can. I always could in the past, and I knew I always should in the future. But on the road, in rags, a tramp, down in the dust, in the safe refuge of the dust—there it was not possible. There I was out of temptation. There I could not be burned in that flame again. That was all I thought of, to creep away where the fire could not reach me. And I felt sure I should not live long. In my ignorance I thought the exposure to all weathers, and privation, and the first frost of winter would bring me my release quickly. But they did not. They gave me new life instead. I came out in spring, and I begged my way to Abinger Forest, and nearly starved there; but I did not mind. Have you ever been in Abinger Forest in the spring when the wortleberry is out? Can the Elysian fields of Asphodel be more beautiful? Perhaps to others they might seem so; but not to me. My first glimpse of hope came to me in the woods at Abinger in a windless, sunny week at Easter. The gipsies gave me food once or twice. And I ate the scraps that the trippers left after their picnics at the top of Leith Hill where the tower is. And I lay in the sun by day and I slept in a stack of bracken by night, and my strained life relaxed. And I, who had become so hard and bitter, saw at last what endless love and compassion had been vainly lavished on me, and I was humbled. I had somehow got it rooted into my warped mind that I had been cruelly treated, betrayed, abandoned by my friends, by every one. I had tried hard to forgive them, but I could not. I saw at last that it was I who had been cruel, I who had betrayed, I who needed forgiveness; and I asked it of the only Friend I had left, the only Friend Who never forsakes us. And peace came back and the deep wound in my life healed. It seemed as if Nature, who had forgotten me for so long, had pity on me, and took me again to her heart. For I had loved her years ago, before my husband died.
"When the weather broke, I took to the road, and the road has given me back my health, and much more than health. I can see beauty again now. And there is always beauty in the hedgerow; and wherever the road runs there is beauty. In the open down, beside the tidal rivers with their brown sails creeping among the buttercups, everywhere there is beauty. And I can sleep again now. I learnt how to sleep at Abinger. I had forgotten how it was done without morphia. O God! I can sleep, every night, anywhere. It's worth being a tramp for that alone, to be able to sleep naturally, to know in the daytime that you will have it at night, and then to lie down and feel it stealing over you like the blessing of God. I used to wake myself at first for sheer joy when it was coming. And then to nestle down, and sink into it, down, down into it, till one reaches the great peace. And no more wakings in torment as the drug passes off, waking as in some iron grave, unable to stir hand or foot, unable to beat back the suffocating horror and terror which lies cheek to cheek with us. No more wakings in hell. No more mornings like that. But instead, the cool, sweet waking in the crystal light in the open air. And to see the sun come up, and to lie still against the clean, fragrant haystack and let it warm you! And to watch the quiet, friendly beasts rise up in the long meadows! And to wake hungry, instead of that dreadful, maddening thirst! And to like to eat—how good that is, even if you go fasting half the day! But I never do. The poor will always give you enough to eat. It hurts them to see any one hungry. Yes, I have dropped down the ladder rung by rung, and now I have reached the lowest rung. And it is a good place, the only safe place for wastrels such as I, the only refuge from my enemy. There is peace on the lowest rung. I can do no more harm there, and I have done so much. I was ambitious once, I was admired and clever once; but I found no abiding city anywhere. Temptation lurked everywhere. I was driven like chaff before the wind.... But now I have the road. No one will take the road from me while I live, or the ditch beside it to die in when my time comes. I am provided for at last. I lead a clean life at last."
She sat silent, her dreamy eyes fixed, her thin hands folded one over the other. I looked at her with an aching heart. What strange mixture of truth and lies was all this! But I said nothing. What was the use?
And as we sat silent beside the dying fire the great inequality between us pressed hard upon me: I, by no special virtue of my own, God knows! on one of the uppermost rungs of life. She poor soul—poor soul—on the lowest.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed eleven.
She started slightly, looked at it, and then at me, as if uncertain of her surroundings, and the shrewd, sardonic look came back to her face.
"I am keeping you up," she said, rising. "I think your strong coffee has gone to my head. This outburst of autobiography is a poor return for all your kindness. I had no idea it was so late or that I could be so garrulous, and I must make a very early start to-morrow. Shall I go into the kitchen and put on my own clothes again? They must be quite dry by now."
"Oh! let me help you," I said impulsively. "Let me get you into a Home, or help you to emigrate. Don't go back to this wandering, aimless life. Work for others, interest in others, that is what you need, what I need, what we all need to take us out of ourselves, to make us forget our own misery."
"I have half forgotten mine already," she said. "To-night I remembered it again. But I have long since put it from my mind. I think the moment for a change of clothing in the kitchen has arrived."
She spoke quietly, but as if her last word were final. I found it impossible to continue the subject.
"You will never escape in those clothes," I said. "You haven't the ghost of a chance. If you will come into my room, I will see what I can find for you."
I had been willing to do much more than give her clothes, but I instinctively felt that my appeal to her better feelings had fallen on deaf ears.
She followed me to my bedroom, and I got out all my oldest clothes and spread them before her. But she would have none of them.
"The worst look like an ultra-respectable district visitor," she said, tossing aside one garment after another. It was the more curious that she should say that because my brother-in-law had always said I looked like one, and that my books even had a parochial flavour about them. But then he had never really studied them, or he would have seen their lighter side.
"I had no idea pockets were worn in a little slit in the front seam," said my visitor. "It shows how long it is since I have been 'in the know.' No doubt front pockets came in with the bicycles. No. It is very kind of you. But, except for that old dyed moreen petticoat, the things won't do. I always was particular about dress, and I never was more so than I am at this moment. You don't happen to have an old black ulster with all the buttons off, and a bit of mangy fur dropping off the neck? That's more my style. But of course you haven't."
"I had one once of that kind; it was so bad that I could not even give it away. So I put it in the dog's basket. Lindo used to sleep on it. He loved it, poor dear! It may be there still."
We went downstairs again, and I pulled Lindo's basket out from under the stairs.
The old black wrap was still in it, but it was mildewy and stuck to the basket. It tore as I released it. It reminded me painfully of my lost darling.
"The very thing!" she said, with enthusiasm, as the dilapidated travesty of a coat shook itself free. "Quiet and unobtrusive to the last degree. Parisian in colour and simplicity. And mole colour is so becoming. Can you really spare it? Then with the moreen petticoat I am provided, equipped."
We went back to the kitchen again.
"What will you do with them?" I said, pointing to her convict clothes which had dried perfectly stiff, owing to the amount of mud on them. How such quantities of mud could have got on to them was a mystery to me.
"It certainly does not improve one's clothes, to hide in a wet ditch in a ploughed field," she said meditatively. "I will dispose of them early to-morrow morning. I picked a place as I found my way here."
"Not on my premises?" I said anxiously.
"Of course not. Do you take me for a monster of ingratitude? I'll manage that all right."
I suddenly remembered that she must have food to take with her. I went to the larder, and when I came back I looked at her with renewed amazement.
My dressing-gown and slippers were laid carefully on a chair. The astonishing woman was a tramp once more, squatting on the brick floor, drawing on to her bare feet the shapeless excuses for boots which had been toasting before the fire.
Then she leaned over the hearth, rubbed her hands in the ashes, and passed them gently over her face, her neck, her wrists and ankles. She drew forward and tangled her hair before the kitchen glass. Then she rolled up her convict clothes into a compact bundle, wiped her right hand carefully on the kitchen towel, and held it out to me.
"Remember," I said gravely, taking it in both of mine and pressing it, "if ever you are in need of a friend, you know to whom to apply. Marion Dalrymple, Rufford, will always find me."
I thought I ought not to let her go away without letting her know who I was. But my name seemed to have no especial meaning for her. Perhaps she had lived beyond the pale too long.
"You have indeed been a friend to me," she said. "God bless you, you good Samaritan! May the world go well with you! Good-night, and thank you, and good-bye. If you'll give me the stable key, I'll let myself in. It's a pity you should come out; its raining again. And I'll leave the stable locked when I go. And the key will be in the lavender bush at the door. Good-bye again."
* * * * *
I did not sleep that night, and in the morning I was so tired that I made no attempt to work. I had, of course, stolen out before six to retrieve the stable key from the lavender bush, and hang it on its accustomed nail. I looked into the stable first. My guest had departed.
I spent an idle morning musing on the events of the previous evening, if time thus spent can be called idling. It may seem so to others, but in my own experience these apparently profitless hours are often more fruitful than those spent in belabouring the brain to a forced activity. But then I have always preferred to remain, as the great Molinos advises, a learner rather than a teacher in the school of life. Early in the afternoon, as I was on my way to the post-office, my landlord, Mr. Ledbury, met me. He looked excited, an open telegram in his hand.
"Have you heard about the escaped convict?" he said. "She has been taken. She was traced to Bronsal Heath yesterday, and run to earth this morning at Framlingham."
He turned and walked with me. He was too much taken up with the news to notice how I started and how my colour changed. But indeed I flush and turn pale at nothing. All my life it has been a vexation to me that a chance word or allusion should bring the colour to my cheek.
"Poor soul!" he said. "I could almost wish she had made good her escape. She got out, Heaven alone knows how, to see her child, which she had heard was ill. But the ground she must have covered in the time! She was absolutely dead beat when she was taken. And she was not in her prison clothes. That is so inexplicable. How she got others she alone knows. Some one must have befriended her, and given them to her—some one very poor, for she was miserably clad, and the extraordinary thing is that though she was traced to the deserted cottage on the heath yesterday, and taken at Framlingham to-day, her prison clothes were found hidden in my wood-yard, here in my wood-yard, by Zack when he went to his work. And this place is not on the way to Framlingham. How in the name of fortune could she have hidden her clothes here?"
"She must have wandered here in the dark," I suggested.
"I don't understand it," he said, turning in at his own gate. "But anyhow, the poor thing has been caught."
* * * * *
My story should end here. Indeed, to my mind it does end here. And if I have been persuaded by my family to add a few more lines on the subject, it is sorely against the grain and against my artistic sense. And I am conscious that I have been unwise in allowing myself to be over-ruled by those who have not given their lives to literature as I have done, and who therefore cannot judge as I can when a story should be brought to a close.
I need hardly say that I often thought of my unhappy visitant, often wondered how she was getting on. A year later I was staying with a friend in Ipswich who was a visitor at the prison there, and I remembered how it was to Ipswich she had been brought back, and I asked to see her. My friend knew her, and told me that she had made no further attempt to escape, and that she believed the child was dead. It had been an old promise that she would one day take me over the prison. I claimed it, and begged that I might be allowed to have a few words with that particular inmate. It was not according to the regulations, but my friend was a privileged person. That afternoon I passed with her under that dreary portal, and after walking along interminable white-washed passages, and past how many locked and numbered doors, my friend whispered to a warder, who motioned me to a cell.
A woman was sitting on her bed with her head in her hands.
"You have not forgotten me, I hope," I said gently. It may be weak, but I have never been able to speak ungently to any one in trouble, whatever the cause may be. I have known too much trouble myself.
She raised her head slowly, pushed back her hair, and looked at me.
I had never seen her before.
I could only stare helplessly at her.
"But you are not the woman who escaped last October?" I stammered at last.
"Yes," she said pathetically, "I am. Who else should I be? What do you want with me?"
But I was speechless. It was all so unexpected, so inexplicable. I have often thought since how much stranger fact is than fiction. The more interested one is in life and in one's fellow-creatures the more surprises there are in store for one. With every year I live my sense of wonder increases, and with it my realisation of my own ignorance. As I stared amazedly at her, a change came over her face. She looked at me almost with eagerness.
"You didn't take me for 'er, did you?" she said hurriedly. "'Er as 'elped me. Did you know 'er? She ain't copped, is she? Don't tell me as she's copped too."
"I thought you were her," I said. "I don't know what I thought. I don't understand it."
"She found me on a dirty night," she said, "in a tumbledown cottage. I'd never seen her afore. But she crep' in and found me, and tole me there was a watch kep' for me at Woodbridge. And she changed clothes with me, so as to give me a bit of a chance. Mine was fair stiff with mud, for I'd laid in a wet ditch till night, but they showed the blasted colour for all that. And she give me all she had on her—her clothes, and a bite of bread and bacon, and two pence. And it wasn't as if we was pals. I'd never seen her afore. She stuck at nothing, and she only larfed at the risk, for they'd have shut her up for certain if they'd caught her. She said she'd manage some'ow. And she 'eartened me up, and put me on the road for Wickham, and she said she'd dror away the pursoot by hiding the prison clothes somewhere in the opsit direction where they could be found easy by the first fool."
"She did it," I said.
"And how did she spare 'em? She'd nuthin' but them."
"I gave her some more. If she had been my own sister I could not have done more for her."
"And she worn't caught, wor she?"
"Not that I know of. No, I feel sure she never was. I helped her to get away."
"I was took in spite of all," said the woman, "and by my own silliness. But I seed my little Nan alive fust, and that was all I wanted. And I don't know who she was, nor what she was. She tole me she was a outcast and a tramp and a good-for-nothing. But there's never been anybody yet, be they who they may, as done for me what she done. She'd have give me the skin orf her back if she could 'ave took it orf. And it worn't as if I knowed her. I'd never set eyes on 'er afore, nor never shall again."
I have never seen her again, either.
THE HAND ON THE LATCH
There came a man across the moor, Fell and foul of face was he, He left the path by the cross-roads three, And stood in the shadow of the door.
She stood at her low window with its uneven, wavering glass, and looked out across the prairie. A little snow had fallen, not much, only enough to add a sense of desolation to the boundless plain, the infinite plain outside the four cramped walls of her log hut. The log hut was like a tiny boat moored in some vast, tideless, impassable sea. The immensity of the prairie had crushed her in the earlier years of her married life; but gradually she had become accustomed to it, then reconciled to it, at last almost a part of it. The grey had come early to her thick hair, a certain fixity to the quiet courage of her eyes. Her calm, steadfast face showed that she was not given to depression, but nevertheless this evening, as she stood watching for her husband's return, for the first distant speck of him where the cart-rut vanished into the plain, a sense of impending misfortune enfolded her with the dusk. Was it because the first snow had fallen? Ah me! how much it meant. It was as significant for her as the grey pallor that falls on a sick man's face. It meant the endless winter, the greater isolation instead of the lesser, the powerlessness to move hand or foot in that all-enveloping shroud; the struggle, not for existence—with him beside her that was assured—not for luxury, she had ceased to care for it, though he had not ceased to care for her sake, but for life in any but its narrowest sense. Books, letters, human speech, through the long months these would be almost entirely denied her. The sudden remembrance of the larger needs of life flooded her soul, touching to momentary semblance of movement many things long cherished, but long since dead, like delicate sea-plants beyond high-water mark, that cannot exist between the long droughts when the spring tide does not come. She had known what she was doing when, against the wishes of her family, she of the South had married him of the North, when she left the busy city life she knew, and clave to her husband, following him over the rim of the world, as women will follow while they have feet to follow with. She was his superior in birth, cultivation, refinement, but she had never regretted what she had done. The regrets were his for her, for the poverty to which he had brought her, and to which she had not been accustomed. She had only one regret, if such a thin strip of a word as regret can be used to describe her passionate, controlled desolation, immense as the prairie, because she had no child. Perhaps if they had had children the walls of the log hut in the waste might have closed in on them less rigidly. It might have become more of a home.
Her mind had taken its old mechanical bent, the trend of long habit, as she looked out from that low window. How often she had stood there and thought "If only we might have had a child!" And now, by sheer force of habit, she thought it yet again. And then a slow rapture took possession of her whole being, mounted, mounted till she leaned against the window still faint with joy. She was to have a child after all. She had hardly dared believe it at first; but as time had gone on a vague hope quickly suppressed as unbearable had turned to suspense, suspense had alternated with the fierce despair that precedes certainty. Certainty had come at last, clear and calm and exquisite as dawn. She would have a child in the spring. What was the winter to her now! Nothing but a step towards joy. The world was all broken up and made new. The prairie, its great loneliness, its death-like solitude, were gone out of her life. She was to have a child in the spring. She had not dared to tell her husband till she was sure. But she would tell him this evening, when they were sitting together over the fire.
She stood motionless in the deepening dusk, trying to be calm. And at last in the far distance she saw a speck arise as it were out of a crease in the level earth. Her husband on his horse. How many hundreds of times she had seen him appear over the rim of the world, just as he was appearing now. She lit the lamp and put it in the window. She blew the log fire to a blaze. The firelight danced on the wooden walls, crowded with cheap pictures, and on the few precious daguerreotypes that reminded her she too had brothers and sisters and kin of her own, far away in one of those southern cities where the war was still smouldering grimly on.
Her husband took his horse round and stalled him. Presently he came in. They stood a moment together in silence as their custom was, and she leaned her forehead against his shoulder. Then she busied herself with his supper, and he sat down heavily at the little table.
"Had you any difficulty this time in getting the money together?" she asked.
Her husband was a tax collector.
"None," he said abstractedly; "at least—yes—a little. But I have it all, and the arrears as well. It makes a large sum."
He was evidently thinking of something else. She did not speak again. She saw something was troubling him.
"I heard news to-day at Philip's," he said at last, "which I don't like. If I had heard in time, and if I could have borrowed a fresh horse, I would have ridden straight on to ——. But it was too late in the day to be safe, and you would have been anxious what had become of me if I had been out all night with all this money on me. I shall go to-morrow as soon as it is light."
They discussed the business which took him to the nearest town thirty miles away, where their small savings were invested, somewhat precariously, as it turned out. What was safe, who was safe, while the invisible war between North and South smouldered on and on? It had not come near them, but as an earthquake which is engulfing cities in one part of Europe will rattle a tea-cup without oversetting it on a cottage shelf half a continent away, so the civil war had reached them at last.
"I take a hopeful view," he said, but his face was overcast. "I don't see why we should lose the little we have. It has been hard enough to scrape it together, God knows. Promptitude and joint action with Reynolds will probably save it. But I must be prompt." He still spoke abstractedly, as if even now he were thinking of something else.
He began to take out of the leathern satchel various bags of money.
"Shall I help you to count it?"
She often did so.
They counted the flimsy dirty paper-money together, and put it all back into the various labelled bags.
"It comes right," he said.
Suddenly she said, "But you can't pay it into the bank to-morrow if you go to ——."
"I know," he said looking at her; "that is what I have been thinking of ever since I heard Philip's news. I don't like leaving you with all this money in the house; but I must."
She was silent. She was not frightened for herself, but it was State money, not their own. She was not nervous as he was, but she had always shared with him a certain dread of those bulging bags, and had always been thankful to see him return safe—he never went twice by the same track—after paying the money in. In those wild days, when men went armed, with their lives in their hands, it was not well to be known to have large sums about you.
He looked at the bags, frowning.
"I am not afraid," she said.
"There is no real need to be," he said after a moment. "When I leave to-morrow morning, it will be thought I have gone to pay it in. Still——"
He did not finish his sentence, but she knew what was in his mind: the great loneliness of the prairie. Out in the white night came the short, sharp yap of a wolf.
"I am not afraid," she said again.
"I shall be gone only one night," he said.
"I have often been a night alone."
"I know," he said; "but somehow it's worse leaving you with so much money in the house."
"No one knows it will be there."
"That is true, except that every one knows I have been collecting large sums."
"They will think you have gone to pay it in as usual."
"Yes," he said with an effort.
Then he got up, and went to his tool-box. She watched him open it, seeing him in a new light which encompassed him with even greater love. "If I tell him to-night," she thought, "it will make him still more anxious about leaving me. Perhaps he would refuse to go, and he must go. I will not tell him till he comes back."
The resolution not to speak was like taking hold of a piece of iron in frost. She had not known it would hurt so much. A new tremulousness, sweet and strange, passed over her—not cowardice, not fear, not of the heart nor of the mind, but a sort of emotion of the whole being.
"I will not tell him," she said again.
Her husband got out his tools, took up a plank from the floor, and put the money into a hole beneath it, beside their small valuables, such as they were, in a biscuit tin. Then he replaced the plank, screwed it down, and she drew back a small fur mat over the place. He put away the tools and then came and stood in front of her. He was not conscious of her transfiguration, and she dropped her eyes for fear of showing it.
"I shall start early," he said, "as soon as it is light, and I shall be back before sundown the day after to-morrow. I know it is unreasonable, but I shall go easier in my mind if you will promise me one thing."
"What is it?"
"Not to go out of the house, or to let any one else come in on any pretence whatever, while I am away," he said. "Bar everything, and stay inside."
"I shan't want to go out."
He made an impatient movement.
"Promise me that, come what will, you will let no one in during my absence," he said.
"Swear it, to please me," he said.
"I swear that I will let no one into the house, on any pretext whatever, until you come back," she said, smiling at him.
He sighed and relapsed into his chair, and gave way to the great fatigue that possessed him.
The next morning he started soon after daybreak, but not until he had brought her in sufficient fuel to last several days. There had been more snow in the night, fine snow like salt, but not enough to make travelling difficult. She watched him ride away, and silenced the voice within her which always said as she saw him go, "You will never see him again; you have heard his voice for the last time." Perhaps, after all, the difference between the brave and the cowardly lies in how they deal with that voice. Both hear it. She silenced it instantly. It spoke again, more insistently, "You have heard his voice, felt his kiss, for the last time. He will never see the face of his child." She silenced it again, and went about her work.
The day passed as countless other days had passed. She was accustomed to be much alone. She had work to do, enough and to spare, within the little home which was to become a real home, please God, in the spring. The evening fell almost before she expected it. She locked and barred the doors, and closed the shutters of the windows. She made all secure, as she had done many a time before.
And then, putting aside her work, she took down the newest of her well-worn books, lately sent her from New Orleans, and began to read.
Oui, sans doute, tout meurt: ce monde est un grand reve, Et le peu de bonheur qui nous vient en chemin, Nous n'avons pas plus tot ce roseau dans la main, Que le vent nous l'enleve.
"Que le vent nous l'enleve." She repeated the last words to herself. Ah no! the wind could not take her happiness out of her hand.
A wandering wind had risen at nightfall, and it came softly across the snow, and tried the doors and windows as with a furtive hand. She could hear it coming as from an immense distance, passing with a sigh, returning plaintive, homeless, forlorn, to whisper round the house.
J'ai vu sous le soleil tomber bien d'autres choses Que les feuilles des bois, et l'ecume des eaux, Bien d'autres s'en aller que le parfum des roses Et le chant des oiseaux.
That wind meant more snow. Involuntarily she laid down her book and listened to it.
How like the sound of the wind was to wandering footsteps, slowly drawing near, creeping round the house. She could almost have fancied that a hand touched the shutters, was even now trying to raise the latch of the door.
A moment of intense silence, in which the wind seemed to hold its breath and listen without, while she listened within. And then a low, distinct knock upon the door.
She did not move.
"It is the wind," she said to herself; but she knew it was not.
The knock came again, low, urgent, not to be denied.
She had become very cold. She had supposed fear was an emotion of the mind. She had not reckoned for this slow paralysis of the body.
She managed to creep to the window and unbar the shutter an inch or two. By pressing her face against the extreme corner of the pane she could just discern in the snowlight part of a man's figure, wrapped in a long cloak.
She barred the window once more. She was not surprised. She knew now that she had known it always. She had pretended to herself that the thief would not come; but she was expecting him when he knocked. And he stood there, outside. Presently he would be inside.
He knocked yet again, this time more loudly. What need was there for silence when for miles and miles round there was no ear to hear save that of a chance prairie dog?
She laid hold upon her courage, seeing that it was her only refuge, and went to the door.
"Who is there?" she said through a chink.
A man's voice, low and feeble, replied, "Let me in."
"I cannot let you in."
There was a short silence.
"I pray you, let me in," he said again.
"I have told you I cannot. Who are you?"
"I am a soldier, wounded. I'm trying to get back to my friends at ——." He mentioned a settlement about fifty miles north. "I have missed my way, and I can't drag myself any farther."
Her heart swung violently between suspicion and compassion.
"I am alone in the house," she said. "My husband is away, and he made me promise not to let any one in on any pretence whatever during his absence."
"Then I shall die on your doorstep," said the voice. "I can't drag myself any farther."
There was another silence.
"It is beginning to snow," he said.
"I know," she said, and he heard the trouble in her voice.
"Open the door and look at me," he said, "and see if I can do you any harm."
She opened the door, and stood on the threshold, barring the way. He was leaning against the doorpost with his head against it, as she had often seen her husband lean when he was talking to her on a summer evening. Something in his attitude, so like her husband's, touched her strangely. Supposing he were in need, and pleaded for help in vain!
The man turned his face towards her. It was sunk and hollow, ravaged with pain, an evil-looking face. His right arm was in a sling under his tattered military cloak. He seemed to have made his final effort, and now stood staring dumbly at her.
"My husband will never forgive me," she said, with a sort of sob.
He said nothing more. He seemed at the last point of exhaustion. Through the dim white night a few flakes of snow fell upon his harsh, repellent face and on his bandaged arm.
A sudden wave of pity carried all before it.
She beckoned him into the house, and locked and barred the door. She put him in her husband's chair by the fire. He hardly noticed anything. He seemed stupefied. He sat staring alternately at the fire and at her. When she asked him to which regiment he belonged, he did not answer.
She set before him the supper she had prepared for herself, and chafed his hard, emaciated, dirty hand till the warmth returned to it. Then he ate, with difficulty at first, then with slow voracity, all she had put before him.
A semblance of life returned gradually to him.
"I was pretty near done up when I knocked," he said several times.
She dressed his wound, which did not appear very deep, wrapped it in fresh bandages, and readjusted his sling. He took it all as a matter of course.
She made up a little bed of rugs and blankets for him in the back kitchen. When she came back to the living-room, she found he had dragged himself to his feet, and was looking vacantly at a little picture of President Lincoln on the mantelshelf. She showed him the bed and told him to lie down on it. He obeyed her implicitly, like a child. She left him, and presently heard him cast himself down. A few minutes later she went to the door and listened. His heavy, regular breathing told her he was asleep.
She went back to the kitchen, and sat down by the fire.
Was he really asleep? Was it all feigned, the wound, the story, the exhaustion? Had she been trapped? Oh! what had she done? What had she done?
She seemed like two people. One self, silent, alert, experienced, fearless, knew that she had allowed herself to be deluded, in spite of being warned; knew that her feelings had been played upon, made use of, not even dexterously made use of; knew that she had disobeyed her husband, broken her solemn oath to him, plunged him with herself into disgrace if the money were stolen. And in the eyes of that self it was already stolen. It was still under the plank beneath her feet, but it was already stolen.
The other self, tremulous, inconsequent, full of irresistible tenderness for suffering and weakness even in its uncouthest garb, said incessantly, "I could do no less. If I die for it, still I could do no less. Somebody brought him into the world. Some woman cried for joy and anguish when he was born. He would have died if I had not taken him in. I could do no less."
Through the long hours she sat by the fire, unable to reconcile herself to going upstairs to her own room and to bed.
Once she got up and noiselessly took down her husband's revolver from the mantelshelf, and examined it. He had taken its fellow with him, and apparently, contrary to his custom, he had taken the powder-flask with him too, for it was gone from its nail. The revolvers were always kept loaded, but—by some evil chance—the one that remained was unloaded. She could have sworn she had seen her husband load it two days ago. Why was this numbness creeping over her again? She got out powder and bullets from a small store she had of her own, loaded and primed it, and laid it on the table beside her.