I SCHOOL II MOTHER AND CHILD III ANTECEDENTS IV CHRISTMAS IN TWO HOMES V POSSIBILITIES VI AN ADVERTISEMENT VII BETWEEN OLD AND NEW VIII ACADEMICAL IX THE COUSINS X THE WAY OUT XI BY THE WAYSIDE XII RENT DAY XIII A MAN-TRAP XIV NEAR AND FAR XV UP THE RIVER XVI EXAMPLE WITHOUT PRECEPT XVII THE MISSING YEARS XVIII THE ENDERBYS XIX IN THE MEANTIME XX A SUGGESTION XXI DIPLOMACY XXII UNDER-CURRENTS XXIII THE OPPORTUNITY XXIV JUSTICE XXV ART AND MISERY XXVI STRAYING XXVII THE WILL TO LIVE XXVIII SLIMY'S DAY XXIX FREEDOM XXX ELM COURT XXXI NEW PROSPECTS XXXII A VISION OF SIN XXXIII A GARDEN-PARTY XXXIV A LATE REVENGE XXXV HOUSE-WARMING XXXVI NO WAY BUT THIS XXXVII FORBIDDEN XXXVIII ORDERS OF RELEASE
There was strange disorder in Miss Rutherford's schoolroom, wont to be the abode of decorum. True, it was the gathering-time after the dinner-hour, and Miss Rutherford herself was as yet out of sight; but things seemed to be going forward of a somewhat more serious kind than a game of romps among the children. There were screams and sobbings, hysterical cries for help; some of the little girls were crowding round an object in one corner of the room, others appeared to be getting as far away from it as possible, hiding their pale faces in their hands, or looking at one another with terrified eyes. At length one more thoughtful than the rest sped away out of the room, and stood at the bottom of the stairs, calling out her teacher's name as loud as she could. A moment, and Miss Rutherford came hastening down, with alarmed aspect, begging to be told what was the matter. But the summoner had turned and fled at the first sight of the lady's garments. Miss Rutherford darted into the schoolroom, and at once there was quietness, save for half-choked sobs here and there, and a more ominous kind of moaning from the crowded corner.
"Gracious goodness, children, what is it? Who's that lying on the floor? Harriet Smales! What ever has happened?"
The cluster of children had fallen aside, exposing a strange picture. On the ground lay a girl of twelve, her face deadly pale, save in the places where it was dabbled with fresh blood, which still streamed from a gash on the right side of her forehead. Her eyes were half opened; she was just recovering consciousness; a moan came from her at intervals. She had for support the lap and arms of a little girl, perhaps two years younger than herself. Heedless of the flowing blood, this child was pressing her pale cheek against that of the wounded one, whose name she kept murmuring in pitiful accents, mixed with endearing epithets. So unconscious was she of all around, that the falling back of the other children did not cause her to raise her eyes; neither was she aware of Miss Rutherford's first exclamations, nor yet of the question which was next addressed to her by the horrified schoolmistress.
"How did it happen? Some of you run at once for a doctor—Dr. Williams in Grove Road—Oh, quick!—Ida Starr, how did it happen?"
Ida did not move, but seemed to tighten her embrace. The other pupils all looked fearfully hither and thither, but none ventured to speak.
"Ida!" repeated Miss Rutherford, dropping on her knees by the two, and beginning to wipe away some of the blood with her handkerchief. "Speak, child! Has some one gone for the doctor? How was it done?"
The face at length turned upon the questioner was almost as ghastly and red-stained as that it had been pressed against. But it had become self-controlled; the dark eyes looked straight forward with an expression marvellously full of meaning in one so young; the lips did not tremble as they spoke.
"I did it, Miss Rutherford. I have killed Harriet. I, and nobody else."
"You? How, child?"
"I killed her with the slate, Miss Rutherford; this slate, look."
She pointed to a slate without a frame which lay on the floor. There were sums worked on the uppermost side, and the pencil-marks were half obliterated. For a moment the schoolmistress's amazement held her motionless, but fresh and louder moans recalled her to the immediate necessities of the case. She pushed Ida Starr aside, and, with the help of a servant-girl who had by this time appeared in the room, raised the sufferer into a chair, and began to apply what remedies suggested themselves. The surgeon, whom several of the children had hastened to seek, only lived a few yards away, and his assistant was speedily present. Harriet Smales had quite recovered consciousness, and was very soon able to give her own account of the incident. After listening to her, Miss Rutherford turned to the schoolchildren, who were now seated in the usual order on benches, and spoke to them with some degree of calm.
"I am going to take Harriet home. Lucy Wood, you will please to see that order is preserved in my absence; I shall only be away twenty minutes, at the most. Ida Starr, you will go up into my sitting-room, and remain there till I come to you. All take out your copy-books; I shall examine the lines written whilst I am away."
The servant, who had been despatched for a cab, appeared at the door. Harriet Smales was led out. Before leaving the house, Miss Rutherford whispered to the servant an order to occupy herself in the sitting-room, so as to keep Ida Starr in sight.
Miss Rutherford, strict disciplinarian when her nerves were not unstrung, was as good as her promise with regard to the copy-books. She had returned within the twenty minutes, and the first thing she did was to walk along all the benches, making a comment here, a correction there, in another place giving a word of praise. Then she took her place at the raised desk whence she was wont to survey the little room.
There were present thirteen pupils, the oldest of them turned fifteen, the youngest scarcely six. They appeared to be the daughters of respectable people, probably of tradesmen in the neighbourhood. This school was in Lisson Grove, in the north-west of London; a spot not to be pictured from its name by those ignorant of the locality; in point of fact a dingy street, with a mixture of shops and private houses. On the front door was a plate displaying Miss Rutherford's name,—nothing more. That lady herself was middle-aged, grave at all times, kindly, and, be it added, fairly competent as things go in the world of school. The room was rather bare, but the good fire necessitated by the winter season was not wanting, and the plain boarding of the floor showed itself no stranger to scrubbings. A clock hanging on the wall ticked very loudly in the perfect stillness as the schoolmistress took her seat.
She appeared to examine a book for a few moments, then raised her head, looked at the faces before her with a troubled expression, and began to speak.
"I wish to know who can give me any account of the way in which Harriet Smales received her hurt. Stop! Hands only, please. And only those raise their hands who actually saw the blow struck, and overheard all that led to it. You understand, now? One, two, three—seven altogether, that is quite enough. Those seven will wait in the room at four o'clock till the others have all gone. Now I will give the first class their sums."
The afternoon passed Very slowly to teacher and pupils alike. When the clock struck four, work was put away with more than the usual noise and hurry. Miss Rutherford seemed for a time to be on the point of making some new address to the school before the children departed, but eventually she decided to keep silence, and the dismissal was got over as quickly as possible. The seven witnesses remained, solemnly seated at their desks, all anxious-looking.
"Lucy Wood," Miss Rutherford began, when the door was closed and quiet, "you are the eldest. Please tell me all you can of this sad affair."
There was one of the seven faces far more discomposed than the rest, a sweet and spiritual little countenance; it was tear-stained, red-eyed; the eager look, the trembling lips spoke some intimate cause of sympathy. Before the girl addressed had time to begin her answer, this other, one would have said in spite of herself, intervened with an almost agonised question.
"Oh, Miss Rutherford, is Harriet really dead?"
"Hush, hush!" said the lady, with a shocked look. "No, my dear, she is only badly hurt."
"And she really won't die?" pleaded the child, with an instant brightening of look.
"Certainly not, certainly not. Now be quiet, Maud, and let Lucy begin."
Lucy, a sensible and matter-of-fact girl, made a straightforward narration, the facts of which were concurred in by her companions. Harriet Smales, it seemed, had been exercising upon Ida for some days her utmost powers of irritation, teasing her, as Lucy put it, "beyond all bearing." The cause of this was not unknown in the school, and Miss Rutherford remembered the incident from which the malice dated. Harriet had copied a sum in class from Ida's slate—she was always copying from somebody—and the teacher, who had somehow detected her, asked Ida plainly whether such was not the case. Ida made no reply, would not speak, which of course was taken as confirmatory evidence, and the culprit had accordingly received an imposition. Her spleen, thus aroused, Harriet vented upon the other girl, who, she maintained, ought to have stoutly denied the possibility of the alleged deceit, and so have saved her. She gave poor Ida no rest, and her persecution had culminated this afternoon; she began to "call Ida's mother names," the result of which was that the assailed one suddenly snatched up her slate, and, in an uncontrollable fit of passion, struck her tormentor a blow with it upon the forehead.
"What did she call Ida's mother?" inquired Miss Rutherford, all at once changing her look curiously.
"She called her a bad woman."
"Was that all?"
"No, please, Miss Rutherford," put in Maud eagerly. "She said she got her living in the streets. And it isn't true. Ida's mother's a lady, and doesn't sell things in the streets!"
The teacher looked down and was silent.
"I don't think I need ask any more questions," she said presently. "Run away home all of you. What is it, my dear?"
Maud, she was about eleven, and small for her age, had remained behind, and was looking anxiously up into Miss Rutherford's face.
"May I wait for Ida, please," she asked, "and—and walk home with her? We go the same way."
"Not to-night, dear; no, not to-night. Ida Starr is in disgrace. She will not go home just yet. Run away, now, there's a good girl."
Sadly, sadly was the command obeyed, and very slowly did Maud Enderby walk along the streets homeward, ever turning back to see whether perchance Ida might not be behind her.
Miss Rutherford ascended to her sitting-room. The culprit was standing in a corner with her face to the wall.
"Why do you stand so?" asked the teacher gravely, but not very severely.
"I thought you'd want me to, Miss Rutherford."
"Come here to me, child."
Ida had clearly been crying for a long time, and there was still blood on her face. She seemed to have made up her mind that the punishment awaiting her must be dreadful, and she resolved to bear it humbly. She came up, still holding her hands behind her, and stood with downcast eyes. The hair which hung down over her shoulders was dark brown, her eye-brows strongly marked, the eyes themselves rather deep-set. She wore a pretty plum-coloured dress, with a dainty little apron in front; her whole appearance bespeaking a certain taste and love of elegance in the person who had the care of her.
"You will be glad to hear," said Miss Rutherford, "that Harriet's hurt is not as serious as we feared at first. But she will have to stay at home for some days."
There was no motion, or reply.
"Do you know that I am quite afraid of you, Ida? I had no idea that you were so passionate. Had you no thought what harm you might do when you struck that terrible blow?"
But Ida could not converse; no word was to be got from her.
"You must go home now," went on the schoolmistress after a pause, "and not come back till I send for you. Tell your mother just what you have done, and say that I will write to her about you. You understand what I say, my child?"
The punishment had come upon her. Nothing worse than this had Ida imagined; nay, nothing so bad. She drew in her breath, her fingers wreathed themselves violently together behind her back. She half raised her face, but could not resolve to meet her teacher's eyes. On the permission to go being repeated, she left the room in silence, descended the stairs with the slow steps of an old person, dressed herself mechanically, and went out into the street. Miss Rutherford stood for some time in profound and troubled thought, then sighed as she returned to her usual engagements.
The following day was Saturday, and therefore a half-holiday. After dinner, Miss Rutherford prepared herself for walking, and left home. A quarter of an hour brought her to a little out-of-the-way thoroughfare called Boston Street, close to the west side of Regent's Park, and here she entered a chemist's shop, over which stood the name Smales. A middle-aged man of very haggard and feeble appearance stood behind the counter, and his manner to the lady as she addressed him was painfully subservient. He spoke very little above a whisper, and as though suffering from a severe sore throat, but it was his natural voice.
"She's better, I thank you, madam; much better, I hope and believe; yes, much better."
He repeated his words nervously, rubbing his hands together feverishly the while, and making his eye-brows go up and down in a curious way.
"Might I see her for a few moments?"
"She would be happy, madam, very happy: oh yes, I am sure, very happy If—if you would have the kindness to come round, yes, round here, madam, and—and to excuse our poor sitting-room. Thank you, thank you. Harriet, my dear, Miss Rutherford has had the great, the very great, goodness to visit you—to visit you personally—yes. I will leave you, if—if you please—h'm, yes."
He shuffled away in the same distressingly nervous manner, and closed the door behind him. The schoolmistress found herself in a dark little parlour, which smelt even more of drugs than the shop itself. The window looked out into a dirty back-yard, and was almost concealed with heavy red curtains. As the eyes got accustomed to the dimness, one observed that the floor was covered with very old oil-cloth, and that the articles of furniture were few, only the most indispensable, and all very shabby. Everything seemed to be dusty and musty. The only approach to an ornament was a framed diploma hanging over the mantelpiece, certifying that John Alfred Smales was a duly qualified pharmaceutical chemist. A low fire burned in the grate, and before it, in a chair which would probably have claimed the title of easy, sat the girl Harriet Smales, her head in bandages.
She received Miss Rutherford rather sulkily, and as she moved, groaned in a way which did not seem the genuine utterance of pain. After a few sympathetic remarks, the teacher began to touch upon the real object of her visit.
"I have no intention of blaming you, Harriet; I should not speak of this at all, if it were not necessary. But I must ask you plainly what reason you had for speaking of Ida Starr's mother as they say you did. Why did you say she was a bad woman?"
"It's only what she is," returned Harriet sullenly, and with much inward venom.
"What do you mean by that? Who has told you anything about her?"
Only after some little questioning the fact was elicited that Harriet owed her ideas on the subject to a servant girl in the house, whose name was Sarah.
"What does Sarah say, then?" asked Miss Rutherford.
"She says she isn't respectable, and that she goes about with men, and she's only a common street-woman," answered the girl, speaking evidently with a very clear understanding of what these accusations meant. The schoolmistress looked away with a rather shocked expression, and thought a little before speaking again.
"Well, that's all I wanted to ask you, Harriet," she said. "I won't blame you, but I trust you will do as I wish, and never say such things about any one again, whoever may tell you. It is our duty never to speak ill of others, you know; least of all when we know that to do so will be the cause of much pain and trouble. I hope you will very soon be able to come back again to us. And now I will say good-bye."
In the shop Miss Rutherford renewed to the chemist her sincere regret for what had taken place.
"Of course I cannot risk the recurrence of such a thing," she said. "The child who did it will not return to me, Mr. Smales."
Mr. Smales uttered incoherent excuses, apologies, and thanks, and shufflingly escorted the lady to his shop-door.
Miss Rutherford went home in trouble. She did not doubt the truth of what Harriet Smales had told her, for she herself had already entertained uneasy suspicions, dating indeed from the one interview she had had with Mrs. Starr, when Ida was first brought to the school, and deriving confirmation from a chance meeting in the street only a few days ago. It was only too plain what she must do, and the necessity grieved her. Ida had not shown any especial brilliancy at her books, but the child's character was a remarkable one, and displayed a strength which might eventually operate either for good or for evil. With careful training, it seemed at present very probable that the good would predominate. But the task was not such as the schoolmistress felt able to undertake, bearing in mind the necessity of an irreproachable character for her school if it were to be kept together at all. The disagreeable secret had begun to spread; all the children would relate the events of yesterday in their own homes; to pass the thing over was impossible. She sincerely regretted the step she must take, and to which she would not have felt herself driven by any ill-placed prudery of her own. On Monday morning it must be stated to the girls that Ida Starr had left.
In the meantime, it only remained to write to Mrs. Starr, and make known this determination. Miss Rutherford thought for a little while of going to see Ida's mother, but felt that this would be both painful and useless. It was difficult even to write, desirous as she was of somehow mitigating the harshness of this sentence of expulsion. After half-an-hour spent in efforts to pen a suitable note, she gave up the attempt to write as she would have wished, and announced the necessity she was under in the fewest possible words.
MOTHER AND CHILD
Ida Starr, dismissed by the schoolmistress, ran quickly homewards. She was unusually late, and her mother would be anxious. Still, when she came within sight of the door, she stopped and stood panting. How should she tell of her disgrace? It was not fear that made her shrink from repeating Miss Rutherford's message; nor yet shame, though she would gladly have hidden herself away somewhere in the dark from every eye; her overwhelming concern was for the pain she knew she was going to cause one who had always cherished her with faultless tenderness,—tenderness which it had become her nature to repay with a child's unreflecting devotion.
Her home was in Milton Street. On the front-door was a brass-plate which bore the inscription: "Mrs. Ledward, Dressmaker;" in the window of the ground-floor was a large card announcing that "Apartments" were vacant. The only light was one which appeared in the top storey, and there Ida knew that her mother was waiting for her, with tea ready on the table as usual. Mrs. Starr was seldom at home during the child's dinner-hour, and Ida had not seen her at all to-day. For it was only occasionally that she shared her mother's bedroom; it was the rule for her to sleep with Mrs. Ledward, the landlady, who was a widow and without children. The arrangement had held ever since Ida could remember; when she had become old enough to ask for an explanation of this, among other singularities in their mode of life, she was told that her mother slept badly, and must have the bed to herself.
But the night had come on, and every moment of delay doubtless increased the anxiety she was causing. Ida went up to the door, stood on tiptoe to reach the knocker, and gave her usual two distinct raps. Mrs. Ledward opened the door to her in person; a large woman, with pressed lips and eyes that squinted very badly; attired, however, neatly, and looking as good-natured as a woman who was at once landlady and dressmaker could be expected to look.
"How 's 't you're so late?" she asked, without looking at the child; her eyes, as far as one could guess, fixed upon the houses opposite, her hands in the little pocket on each side of her apron. "Your mother's poorly."
"Oh, then I shall sleep with her to-night?" exclaimed Ida, forgetting her trouble for the moment in this happy foresight.
"Dessay," returned Mrs. Ledward laconically.
Ida left her still standing in the doorway, and ran stairs. The chamber she went into—after knocking and receiving permission to enter, according to the rule which had been impressed upon her—was a tolerably-furnished bedroom, which, with its bright fire, tasteful little lamp, white coverlets and general air of fresh orderliness, made a comfortable appearance. The air was scented, too, with some pleasant odour of a not too pungent kind. But the table lacked one customary feature; no tea was laid as it was wont to be at this hour. The child gazed round in surprise. Her mother was in bed, lying back on raised pillows, and with a restless, half-pettish look on her face.
"Where have you been?" she asked querulously, her voice husky and feeble, as if from a severe cold. "Why are you so late?"
Ida did not answer at once, but went straight to the bed and offered the accustomed kiss. Her mother waved her off.
"No, no; don't kiss me. Can't you see what a sore throat I've got? You might catch it. And I haven't got you any tea," she went on, her face growing to a calmer expression as she gazed at the child "Ain't I a naughty mother? But it serves you half right for being late. Come and kiss me; I don't think it's catching. No, perhaps you'd better not."
But Ida started forward at the granted leave, and kissed her warmly.
"There now," went on the hoarse voice complainingly, "I shouldn't wonder if you catch it, and we shall both be laid up at once. Oh, Ida, I do feel that poorly, I do! It's the draught under the door; what else can it be? I do, I do feel that poorly!"
She began to cry miserably. Ida forgot all about the tale she had to tell; her own eyes overflowed in sympathy. She put her arm under her mother's neck, and pressed cheek to cheek tenderly.
"Oh, how hot you are, mother! Shall I get you a cup of tea, dear? Wouldn't it make your throat better?"
"Perhaps it would; I don't know. Don't go away, not just yet. You'll have to be a mother to me to-night, Ida. I almost feel I could go to sleep, if you held me like that."
She closed her eyes, but only for a moment, then started up anxiously.
"What am I thinking about! Of course you want your tea."
"No, no; indeed I don't, mother."
"Nonsense; of course you do. See, the kettle is on the bob, and I think it's full. Go away; you make me hotter. Let me see you get your tea, and then perhaps it'll make me feel I could drink a cup. There, you've put your hair all out of order; let me smooth it. Don't trouble to lay the cloth; just use the tray; it's in the cupboard."
Ida obeyed, and set about the preparations. Compare her face with that which rested sideways upon the pillows, and the resemblance was as strong as could exist between two people of such different ages: the same rich-brown hair, the same strongly-pencilled eye-brows; the deep-set and very dark eyes, the fine lips, the somewhat prominent jaw-bones, alike in both. The mother was twenty-eight, the daughter ten, yet the face on the pillow was the more childish at present. In the mother's eyes was a helpless look, a gaze of unintelligent misery, such as one could not conceive on Ida's countenance; her lips, too, were weakly parted, and seemed trembling to a sob, whilst sorrow only made the child close hers the firmer. In the one case a pallor not merely of present illness, but that wasting whiteness which is only seen on faces accustomed to borrow artificial hues; in the other, a healthy pearl-tint, the gleamings and gradations of a perfect complexion. The one a child long lost on weary, woful ways, knowing, yet untaught by, the misery of desolation; the other a child still standing upon the misty threshold of unknown lands, looking around for guidance, yet already half feeling that the sole guide and comforter was within.
It was strange that talk which followed between mother and daughter. Lotty Starr (that was the name of the elder child, and it became her much better than any more matronly appellation), would not remain silent, in spite of the efforts it cost her to speak, and her conversation ran on the most trivial topics. Except at occasional moments, she spoke to Ida as to one of her own age, with curious neglect of the relationship between them; at times she gave herself up to the luxury of feeling like an infant dependent on another's care; and cried just for the pleasure of being petted and consoled. Ida had made up her mind to leave her disclosure till the next morning; impossible to grieve her mother with such shocking news when she was so poorly. Yet the little girl with difficulty kept a cheerful countenance; as often as a moment's silence left her to her own reflections she was reminded of the heaviness of heart which made speaking an effort. To bear up under the secret thought of her crime and its consequences required in Ida Starr a courage different alike in quality and degree from that of which children are ordinarily capable. One compensation alone helped her; it was still early in the evening, and she knew there were before her long hours to be spent by her mother's side.
"Do you like me to be with you, mother?" she asked, when a timid question had at length elicited assurance of this joy. "Does it make you feel better?"
"Yes, yes. But it's my throat, and you can't make that better; I only wish you could. But you are a comfort to me, for all that; I don't know what I should do without you. Oh, I sha'n't be able to speak a word soon, I sha'n't!"
"Don't, don't talk, dear. I'll talk instead, and you listen. Don't you think, mother dear, I could—could always sleep with you? I wouldn't disturb you; indeed, indeed I wouldn't! You don't know how quiet I lie. If I'm wakeful ever I seem to have such a lot to think about, and I lie so still and quiet, you can't think. I never wake Mrs. Led ward, indeed. Do let me, mother; just try me!"
Lotty broke out into passionate weeping, wrung her hands, and hid her face in the pillow. Ida was terrified, and exerted every effort to console this strange grief. The outburst only endured a minute or two, however; then a mood of vexed impatience grew out of the anguish and despair, and Lotty pushed away the child fretfully.
"I've often told you, you can't, you mustn't bother me. There, there; you don't mean any harm, but you put me out, bothering me, Ida. Tell me, what do you think about when you lay awake? Don't you think you'd give anything to get off to sleep again? I know I do; I can't bear to think; it makes my head ache so."
"Oh, I like it. Sometimes I think over what I've been reading, in the animal book, and the geography-book; and—and then I begin my wishing-thoughts. And oh, I've such lots of wishing-thoughts, you couldn't believe!"
"And what are the wishing-thoughts about?" inquired the mother, in a matter-of-fact way.
"I often wish I was grown up. I feel tired of being a child; I want to be a woman. Then I should know so much more, and I should be able to understand all the things you tell me I can't now. I don't care for playing at games and going to school."
"You'll be a woman soon enough, Ida," said Lotty, with a quiet sadness unusual in her. "But go on; what else?"
"And then I often wish I was a boy. It must be so much nicer to be a boy. They're stronger than girls, and they know more. Don't you wish I was a boy, mother?"
"Yes, I do, I often do!" exclaimed Lotty. "Boys aren't such a trouble, and they can go out and shift for themselves."
"Oh, but I won't be a trouble to you," exclaimed Ida. "When I'm old enough to leave school—"
She interrupted herself, for the moment she had actually forgotten the misfortune which had come upon her. But her mother did not observe the falling of her countenance, nor yet the incomplete sentence.
"Ida, have I been a bad mother to you?" Lotty sobbed out presently. "If I was to die, would you be sorry?"
"I've done my best, indeed I've done my best for yon! How many mothers like me would have brought you up as I've done? How many, I'd like to know? And some day you'll hate me; oh yes, you will! Some day you'll wish to forget all about me, and you'll never come to see where I'm buried, and you'll get rid of everything that could remind you of me. How I wish I'd never been born!"
Ida had often to comfort her mother in the latter's fits of low spirits, but had never heard such sad words as these before. The poor child could say nothing in reply; the terrible thought that she herself was bringing new woes to be endured almost broke her heart She clung about her mother's neck and wept passionately.
Lotty shortly after took a draught from a bottle which the child reached out of a drawer for her, and lay pretty still till drowsiness came on. Ida undressed and crept to her side. They had a troubled night, and, when the daylight came again, Lotty was no better. Ida rose in anguish of spirit, torturing herself to find a way of telling what must be told. Yet she had another respite; her mother said that, as it was Saturday, she might as well stay away from school and be a little nurse. And the dull day wore through; the confession being still postponed.
But by the last post at night came Miss Rutherford's letter. Ida was still sitting up, and Lotty had fallen into a doze, when the landlady brought the letter upstairs. The child took it in, answered an inquiry about her mother in a whisper, and returned to the bedside. She knew the handwriting on the envelope. The dreaded moment had come.
She must have stood more than a quarter of an hour, motionless, gazing on her mother's face, conscious of nothing but an agonised expectation of seeing the sleeper's eyes open. They did open at length, and quickly saw the letter.
"It's from Miss Rutherford, mother," said Ida, her own voice sounding very strange to herself.
"Oh, is it?" said Lotty, in the hoarse whisper which was all she could command "I suppose she wants to know why you didn't go. Read it to me."
Ida read, and, in reading, suffered as she never did again throughout her life.
"DEAR MRS. STARR,—I am very sorry to have to say that Ida must not return to school. I had better leave the explanation to herself; she is truthful, and will tell you what has compelled me to take this step. I grieve to lose her, but have really no choice.—I am, yours truly,
No tears rose; her voice was as firm as though she had been reading in class; but she was pale and cold as death.
Lotty rose in bed and stared wildly.
"What have you done, child?—what ever have you done? Is—is it anything—about me."
"I hit Harriet Smales with a slate, and covered her all over with blood, and I thought I'd killed her."
She could not meet her mother's eyes; stood with head hung down, and her hands clasped behind her.
"What made you do it?" asked Lotty in amazement.
"I couldn't help it, mother; she—she said you were a bad woman."
Ida had raised her eyes with a look of love and proud confidence. Lotty shrank before her, clutched convulsively at the bed-clothes, then half raised herself and dashed her head with fearful violence against the wall by which the bed stood. She fell back, half stunned, and lay on the pillows, whilst the child, with outstretched hands, gazed horror-struck. But in a moment Ida had her arms around the distraught woman, pressing the dazed head against her breast. Lotty began to utter incoherent self-reproaches, unintelligible to her little comforter; her voice had become the merest whisper; she seemed to have quite exhausted herself. Just now there came a knock at the door, and Ida was relieved to see Mrs. Ledward, whose help she begged. In a few minutes Lotty had come to herself again, and whispered that she wished to speak to the landlady alone. The latter persuaded Ida to go downstairs for a while, and the child, whose tears had begun to flow, left the room, sobbing in anguish.
"Ain't you better then?" asked the woman, with an apparent effort to speak in a sympathetic tone which did not come easily to her.
"I'm very bad," whispered the other, drawing her breath as if in pain.
"Ay, you've got a bad cold, that's what it is. I'll make you some gruel presently, and put some rum in it. You don't take care of yourself: I told you how it 'ud be when you came in with those wringin' things on, on Thursday night."
"They've found out about me at the school," gasped Lotty, with a despairing look, "and Ida's got sent away."
"She has? Well, never mind, you can find another, I suppose. I can't see myself what she wants with so much schoolin', but I suppose you know best about your own affairs."
"Oh, I feel that bad! If I get over this, I'll give it up—God help me, I will! I'll get my living honest, if there's any way. I never felt so bad as I do now."
"Pooh!" exclaimed the woman. "Wait a bit till you get rid of your sore throat, and you'll think different. Poorly people gets all sorts o' fancies. Keep a bit quiet now, and don't put yourself out so."
"What are we to do? I've only got a few shillings—"
"Well, you'll have money again some time, I suppose. You don't suppose I'll turn you out in the streets? Write to Fred on Monday, and he'll send you something."
They talked till Lotty exhausted herself again, then Ida was allowed to re-enter the room. Mrs. Ledward kept coming and going till her own bed-time, giving what help and comfort she could in her hard, half-indifferent way. Another night passed, and in the morning Lotty seemed a little better. Her throat was not so painful, but she breathed with difficulty, and had a cough. Ida sat holding her mother's hand. It was a sunny morning, and the bells of neighbouring churches began to ring out clearly on the frosty air.
"Ida," said the sick woman, raising herself suddenly, "get me some note-paper and an envelope out of the box; and go and borrow pen and ink, there's a good child."
The materials were procured, and, with a great effort, Lotty managed to arrange herself so as to be able to write. She covered four pages with a sad scrawl, closed the envelope, and was about to direct it, but paused.
"The bells have stopped," she said, listening. "It's half-past eleven. Put on your things, Ida."
The child obeyed, wondering.
"Give me my purse out of the drawer. See, there's a shilling. Now, say this after me: Mr. Abra'm Woodstock, Number—, St. John Street Road."
Ida repeated the address.
"Now, listen, Ida. You put this letter in your pocket; you go down into the Mary'bone road; you ask for a 'bus to the Angel. When you get to the Angel, you ask your way to Number—, St. John Street Road; it isn't far off. Knock at the door, and ask if Mr. Abra'm Woodstock is in. If he is, say you want to see him, and then give him this letter,—into his own hands, and nobody else's. If he isn't in, ask when he will be, and, if it won't be long, wait."
Ida promised, and then, after a long gaze, her mother dropped back again on the pillow, and turned her face away. A cough shook her for a few moments. Ida waited.
"Well, ain't you gone?" asked Lotty faintly.
"Kiss me, mother."
They held each other in a passionate embrace, and then the child went away.
She reached Islington without difficulty, and among the bustling and loitering crowd which obstructs the corner at the Angel, found some one to direct her to the street she sought. She had to walk some distance down St. John Street Road, in the direction of the City, before discovering the house she desired to find. When she reached it, it proved to be a very dingy tenement, the ground-floor apparently used as offices; a much-worn plate on the door exhibited the name of the gentleman to whom her visit was, with his professional description added. Mr. Woodstock was an accountant.
She rang the bell, and a girl appeared. Yes, Mr. Woodstock was at home. Ida was told to enter the passage, and wait.
A door at her right hand as she entered was slightly ajar, and voices could be heard from the other side of it. One of these voices very shortly raised itself in a harsh and angry tone, and Ida could catch what was said.
"Well, Mr. What's-your-name, I suppose I know my own business rather better than you can teach me. It's pretty clear you've been doing your best for some time to set the people against me, and I'm damned if I'll have it! You go to the place on religious pretences, and what your real object may be I don't know; but I do know one thing, and that is, I won't have you hanging about any longer. I'll meet you there myself, and if it's a third-floor window you get pitched out of, well, it won't be my fault. Now I don't want any more talk with you. This is most folks' praying-time; I wonder you're not at it. It's my time for writing letters, and I'd rather have your room than your company. I'm a plain-spoken man, you see, a man of business, and I don't mince matters. To come and dictate to me about the state of my houses and of my tenants ain't a business-like proceeding, and you'll excuse me if I don't take it kindly. There's the door, and good morning to you!"
The door opened, and a young man, looking pale and dismayed, came out quickly, and at once left the house. Behind him came the last speaker. At the sight of the waiting child he stood still, and the expression of his face changed from sour annoyance to annoyed surprise.
"Eh? Well?" he exclaimed, looking closely at Ida, his eye-brows contracting.
"I have a letter for Mr. Abra'm Woodstock, sir."
"Well, give it here. Who's it from?"
"Mrs. Starr, sir."
"Who's Mrs. Starr? Come in here, will you?"
His short and somewhat angry tone was evidently in some degree the result of the interview that had just closed, but also pretty clearly an indication of his general manner to strangers. He let the child pass him, and followed her into the room with the letter in his hand. He did not seem able to remove his eyes from her face. Ida, on her side, did not dare to look up at him. He was a massively built, grey-headed man of something more than sixty. Everything about him expressed strength and determination, power alike of body and mind. His features were large and heavy, but the forehead would have become a man of strong intellect; the eyes were full of astonishing vital force, and the chin was a physiognomical study, so strikingly did its moulding express energy of character. He was clean-shaven, and scarcely a seam or wrinkle anywhere broke the hard, smooth surface of his visage, its complexion clear and rosy as that of a child.
Still regarding Ida, he tore open the envelope. At the sight of the writing he, not exactly started, but moved his head rather suddenly, and again turned his eyes upon the messenger.
"Sit down," he said, pointing to a chair. The room was an uncomfortable office, with no fire. He himself took a seat deliberately at a desk, whence he could watch Ida, and began to read. As he did so, his face remained unmoved, but he looked away occasionally, as if to reflect.
"What's your name?" he asked, when he had finished, beginning, at the same time, to tear the letter into very small pieces, which he threw into a waste-paper basket.
"Ida, sir,—Ida Starr."
"Starr, eh?" He looked at her very keenly, and, still looking, and still tearing up the letter, went on in a hard, unmodulated voice. "Well, Ida Starr, it seems your mother wants to put you in the way of earning your living." The child looked up in fear and astonishment. "You can carry a message? You'll say to your mother that I'll undertake to do what I can for you, on one condition, and that is that she puts you in my hands and never sees you again."
"Oh, I can't leave mother!" burst from the child's lips involuntarily, her horror overcoming her fear of the speaker.
"I didn't ask you if you could," remarked Mr. Woodstock, with something like a sneer, tapping the desk with the fingers of his right hand. "I asked whether you could carry a message. Can you, or not?"
"Yes, I can," stammered Ida.
"Then take that message, and tell your mother it's all I've got to say. Run away."
He rose and stood with his hands behind him, watching her. Ida made what haste she could to the door, and sped out into the street.
It would not have been easy to find another instance of a union of keen intellect and cold heart so singular as that displayed in the character of Abraham Woodstock. The man s life had been strongly consistent from the beginning; from boyhood a powerful will had borne him triumphantly over every difficulty, and in each decisive instance his will had been directed by a shrewd intelligence which knew at once the strength of its own resources and the multiplied weaknesses of the vast majority of men. In the pursuit of his ends he would tolerate no obstacle which his strength would suffice to remove. In boyhood and early manhood the exuberance of his physical power was wont to manifest itself in brutal self-assertion. At school he was the worst kind of bully, his ferociousness tempered by no cowardice. Later on, he learned that a too demonstrative bearing would on many occasions interfere with his success in life; he toned down his love of muscular victory, and only allowed himself an outbreak every now and then, when he felt he could afford the indulgence. Put early into an accountant's office, and losing his father about the same time (the parent, who had a diseased heart, was killed by an outburst of fury to which Abraham gave way on some trivial occasion), he had henceforth to fight his own battle, and showed himself very capable of winning it. In many strange ways he accumulated a little capital, and the development of commercial genius put him at a comparatively early age on the road to fortune. He kept to the business of an accountant, and by degrees added several other distinct callings. He became a lender of money in several shapes, keeping both a loan-office and a pawnbroker's shop. In middle age he frequented the race-course, but, for sufficient reasons, dropped that pursuit entirely before he had turned his fiftieth year. As a youth he had made a good thing of games of skill, but did not pursue them as a means of profit when he no longer needed the resource.
He married at the age of thirty. This, like every other step he took, was well planned; his wife brought him several thousand pounds, being the daughter of a retired publican with whom Woodstock had had business relations.
Two years after his marriage was born his first and only child, a girl whom they called Lotty. Lotty, as she grew up, gradually developed an unfortunate combination of her parents' qualities; she had her mother's weakness of mind, without her mother's moral sense, and from her father she derived an ingrained stubbornness, which had nothing in common with strength of character. Doubly unhappy was it that she lost her mother so early; the loss deprived her of gentle guidance during her youth, and left her without resource against her father's coldness or harshness. The result was that the softer elements of her character unavoidably degenerated and found expression in qualities not at all admirable, whilst her obstinacy grew the ally of the weakness from which she had most to fear.
Lotty was sent to a day-school till the age of thirteen, then had to become her father's housekeeper. Her friends were very few, none of them likely to be of use to her. Left very much to her own control, she made an acquaintance which led to secret intimacy and open disaster. Rather than face her father with such a disclosure, she left home, and threw herself upon the mercy of the man who had assisted her to go astray. He was generous enough to support her for about a year, during which time her child was born. Then his help ceased.
The familiar choice lay before her—home again, the streets, or starvation. Hardship she could not bear; the second alternative she shrank from on account of her child; she determined to face her father. For him she had no affection, and knew that he did not love her; only desperation could drive her back. She came one Sunday evening, found Mr. Woodstock at home, and, without letting the servant say who was come, went up and entered his presence, the child in her arms. Abraham rose and looked at her calmly. Her disappearance had not troubled him, though he had exerted himself to discover why and whither she was gone, and her return did not visibly affect him. She was a rebel against his authority—so he viewed the matter—and consequently quite beyond the range of his sympathies. He listened to all she had to say, beheld unmoved her miserable tears, and, when she became silent, coolly delivered his ultimatum. For her he would procure a situation, whereby she could earn her living, and therewith his relations to her would end; the child he would put into other hands and have it cared for, but Lotty would lose sight of it for ever. The girl hesitated, but the maternal instinct was very strong in her; the little one began to cry, as if fearing separation from its mother; she decided to refuse.
"Then I shall go on the streets!" she exclaimed passionately. "There's nothing else left for me."
"You can go where you please," returned Abraham.
She tried to obtain work, of course fruitlessly. She got into debt with her landlady, and only took the fatal step when at length absolutely turned adrift.
That was not quite ten years gone by; she was then but eighteen. Let her have lost her child, and she would speedily have fallen into the last stages of degradation. But the little one lived. She had called it Ida, a name chosen from some tale in the penny weeklies, which were the solace of her misery. She herself took the name of Starr, also from a page of fiction.
Balancing the good and evil of this life in her dark little mind, Lotty determined that one thing there was for which it was worth while to make sacrifices, one end which she felt strong enough to keep persistently in view. Ida should be brought up "respectably"—it was her own word; she should be kept absolutely free from the contamination of her mother's way of living; nay, should, when the time came, go to school, and have good chances. And at the end of all this was a far-off hope, a dim vision of possibilities, a vague trust that her daughter might perchance prove for her a means of returning to that world of "respectability" from which she was at present so hopelessly shut out. She would keep making efforts to get into an honest livelihood as often as an occasion presented itself; and Ida should always live with "respectable" people, cost what it might.
The last resolution was only adhered to for a few months. Lotty could not do without her little one, and eventually brought it back to her own home. It is not an infrequent thing to find little children living in disorderly houses. In the profession Lotty had chosen there are, as in all professions, grades and differences. She was by no means a vicious girl, she had no love of riot for its own sake; she would greatly have preferred a decent mode of life, had it seemed practicable. Hence she did not associate herself with the rank and file of abandoned women; her resorts were not the crowded centres; her abode was not in the quarters consecrated to her business. In all parts of London there are quiet by-streets of houses given up to lodging-letting, wherein are to be found many landladies, who, good easy souls, trouble little about the private morals of their lodgers, so long as no positive disorder comes about and no public scandal is occasioned. A girl who says that she is occupied in a workroom is never presumed to be able to afford the luxury of strict virtue, and if such a one, on taking a room, says that "she supposes she may have friends come to see her?" the landlady will understand quite well what is meant, and will either accept or refuse her for a lodger as she sees good. To such houses as these Lotty confined herself. After some three or four years of various experiences, she hit upon the abode in Milton Street, and there had dwelt ever since. She got on well with Mrs. Ledward, and had been able to make comfortable arrangements for Ida. The other lodgers in the house were generally very quiet and orderly people, and she herself was quite successful in arranging her affairs so as to create no disturbance. She had her regular clientele; she frequented the roads about Regent's Park and Primrose Hill; and she supported herself and her child.
Ida Starr's bringing up was in no respect inferior to that she would have received in the home of the average London artisan or small tradesman. At five years old she had begun to go to school; Mrs. Ledward's daughter, a girl of seventeen, took her backwards and forwards every day. At this school she remained three years and a half; then her mother took her away, and put her under the care of Miss Rutherford, a better teacher. When at home, she either amused herself in Lotty's room, or, when that was engaged, made herself comfortable with Mrs. Ledward's family, with one or other of whom she generally passed the night. She heard no bad language, saw nothing improper, listened to no worse conversation than any of the other children at Miss Rutherford's. Even at her present age of ten it never occurred to her to inquire how her mother supported herself. The charges brought by Harriet Smales conveyed to her mind no conception of their true meaning; they were to her mere general calumnies of vague application. Her mother "bad," indeed! If so, then what was the meaning of goodness? For poor Lotty's devotion to the child had received its due reward herein, that she was loved as purely and intensely as any most virtuous parent could hope to be; so little regard has nature for social codes, so utterly is she often opposed to all the precepts of respectability. This phrase of Harriet's was the very first breathing against her mother's character that Ida had ever heard. Lotty had invented fables, for the child's amusement, about her own earlier days. The legend was, that her husband had died about a year after marriage. Of course Ida implicitly believed all this. Her mind contained pictures of a beautiful little house just outside London in which her mother had once lived, and her imagination busied itself with the time when they would both live in just that same way. She was going to be a teacher, so it had been decided in confidential chats, and would one day have a school of her own. In such a future Lotty herself really believed. The child seemed to her extraordinarily clover, and in four more years she would be as old as a girl who had assisted with the little ones in the first school she went to. Lotty was ambitious. Offers of Mrs. Ledward to teach Ida dressmaking, she had put aside; it was not good enough.
Yet Ida was not in reality remarkable either for industry or quickness in learning. At both schools she had frequently to be dealt with somewhat severely. Ability she showed from time to time, but in application she was sadly lacking. Books were distasteful to her, more even than to most children; she learned sometimes by listening to the teacher, but seldom the lessons given her to prepare. At home there were no books to tempt her to read for herself; her mother never read, and would not have known how to set about giving her child a love for such occupation, even had she deemed it needful. And yet Ida always seemed to have abundance to think about; she would sit by herself for hours, without any childlike employment, and still not seem weary. When asked what her thoughts ran upon, she could not give very satisfactory answers; she was always rather slow in expressing herself, and never chattered, even to her mother. One queer and most unchildlike habit she had, which, as if thinking it wrong, she only indulged when quite alone; she loved to sit before a looking-glass and gaze into her own face. At such times her little countenance became very sad without any understood reason.
The past summer had been to her a time of happiness, for there had come comparatively little bad weather, and sunshine was like wine to Ida. The proximity of the park was a great advantage. During the weeks of summer holiday, she spent whole days wandering about the large, grassy tracts by herself, rejoicing in the sensation of freedom from task-work. If she were especially in luck, a dog would come and play about her, deserting for a minute its lawful master or mistress, and the child would roll upon the grass in delighted sport. Or she would find out a warm, shady nook quite near to the borders of the Zoological Gardens, and would lie there with ear eager to catch the occasional sounds from the animals within. The roar of the lion thrilled her with an exquisite trembling; the calls of the birds made her laugh with joy. Once, three years ago, her mother had taken her to Hastings for a week, and when she now caught the cry of the captive sea-gulls, it brought back marvellous memories of the ocean flashing in the sun, of the music of breakers, of the fresh smell of the brine.
Now there had come upon her the first great grief. She had caused her mother bitter suffering, and her own heart was filled with a commensurate pain. Had she been a little older she would already have been troubled by another anxiety; for the last two years her mother's health had been falling away; every now and then had come a fit of illness, and at other times Lotty suffered from a depression of spirits which left her no energy to move about. Ida knew that her mother was often unhappy, but naturally could not dwell long on this as soon as each successive occasion had passed away. Indeed, in her heart, she almost welcomed such times, since she was then allowed to sleep upstairs, one of her greatest joys. Lotty was only too well aware of the physical weakness which was gaining upon her. She was mentally troubled, moreover. Ida was growing up; there would come a time, and that very shortly, when it would be necessary either for them to part, or else for herself to change her mode of life. Indeed, she had never from the first quite lost sight of her intention to seek for an honest means of support; and of late years the consciousness of her hopeless position had grown to an ever-recurring trouble. She knew the proposed step was in reality impossible to her, yet she persistently thought and talked of it. To Mrs. Ledward she confided at least once a week, generally when she paid her rent, her settled intention to go and find work of some kind in the course of the next two or three days; till at length this had become a standing joke with the landlady, who laughed merrily as often as the subject was mentioned. Lotty had of late let her thoughts turn to her father, whom she had never seen since their parting. Not with any affection did she think of him, but, in her despairing moments, it seemed to her impossible that he should still refuse aid if she appealed to him for it. Several times of late she had been on the point of putting her conviction to the test. She had passed his house from time to time, and knew that he still lived there. Perhaps the real reason of her hesitation was, not fear of him, but a dread, which she would not confess to herself, lest he should indeed prove obdurate, and so put an end to her last hope. For what would become of her and of Ida if her health absolutely failed? The poor creature shrank from the thought in horror. The hope connected with her father grew more and more strong. But it needed some very decided crisis to bring her to the point of overcoming all the apprehensions which lay in the way of an appeal to the stern old man This crisis had arrived. The illness which was now upon her she felt to be more serious than any she had yet suffered. Suppose she were to die, and Ida to be left alone in the world Even before she heard of the child's dismissal from school she had all but made up her mind to write to her father, and the shock of that event gave her the last impulse. She wrote a letter of pitiful entreaty. Would he help her to some means of earning a living for herself and her child? She could not part from Ida. Perhaps she had not long to live, and to ask her to give up her child would be too cruel. She would do anything, would go into service, perform the hardest and coarsest toil. She told him how Ida had been brought up, and implored his pity for the child, who at all events was innocent.
When Ida reached home from her visit to the City, she saw her mother risen and sitting by the fire. Lotty had found the suspense insupportable as she lay still, and, though the pains in her chest grew worse and the feeling of lassitude was gaining upon her, she had half-dressed, and even tried to move about. Just before the child's appearance, she seemed to have sunk into something of a doze on her chair, for, as the door opened, she started and looked about her in doubt.
"Where have you been so long?" she asked impatiently.
"I got back as quickly as I could, mother," said Ida, in some surprise.
"Got back? Is school over?"
"From the—the place you sent me to, mother."
"What am I thinking of!" exclaimed Lotty, starting to consciousness. "Come here, and tell me. Did you see—see him, Ida? Mr. Woodstock, you know."
"Yes, mother," began the child, with pale face, "and he—he said I was to tell you—"
She burst into tears, and flew to her mother's neck.
"Oh, you won't send me away from you, mother dear? I can't go away from you!"
Lotty felt she knew what this meant. Fear and trouble wrought with her physical weakness to drive her almost distracted. She sprang up, caught the child by the shoulders, and shook her as if in anger.
"Tell me, can't you?" she cried, straining her weak voice. "What did he say? Don't be a little fool! Can't the child speak?"
She fell back again, seized with a cough which choked her. Ida stayed her sobbing, and looked on in terror. Her mother motioned constantly to her to proceed.
"The gentleman said," Ida continued, with calm which was the result of extreme self-control, "that he would take me; but that you were never to see me again."
"Did he say anything else about me?" whispered Lotty.
"No, nothing else."
"Go—go and tell him you'll come,—you'll leave me."
Ida stood in anguish, speechless and motionless. All at once her mother seemed to forget what she was saying, and sat still, staring into the fire. Several times she shivered. Her hands lay listlessly on her lap; she breathed with difficulty.
Shortly afterwards, the landlady came into the room. She was alarmed at Lotty's condition. Her attempts to arouse the sick woman to consciousness were only partly successful. She went downstairs again, and returned with another woman, a lodger in the house. These two talked together in low tones. The result of their colloquy was that Mrs. Ledward dressed Lotty as well as she could, whilst the other left the house and returned with a cab.
"We're going to take your mother to the hospital," said Mrs. Ledward to the child. "You wait here till we come back, there's a good girl. Now, hold up a bit, Lotty; try and walk downstairs. That's better, my girl."
Ida was left alone.
CHRISTMAS IN TWO HOMES
When Ida Starr was dismissed from school it wanted but a few days to the vacations. The day which followed her mother's removal to the hospital was Christmas Eve. For two hours on the afternoon of Christmas Day, Ida sat in silence by the bedside in the ward, holding her mother's hand. The patient was not allowed to speak, seemed indeed unable to do so. The child might not even kiss her. The Sister and the nurse looked pityingly at Ida when they passed by, and, when the visitors' time was at an end, and she had to rise and go, the Sister put an orange into her hand, and spoke a few hopeful words.
Night was setting in as she walked homewards; it was cold, and the sky threatened snow. She had only gone a few yards, when there came by a little girl of her own age, walking with some one who looked like a nurse-maid. They were passing; but all at once the child sprang to Ida's side with a cry of recognition. It was little Maud Enderby.
"Where have you been, Ida? Where are you going? Oh, I'm so glad; I wanted so to see you. Miss Rutherford told us you'd left school, and you weren't coming back again. Aren't you really? And sha'n't I see you?"
"I don't know, I think not," said Ida. In her premature trouble she seemed so much older than her friend.
"I told Miss Rutherford you weren't to blame," went on Maud eagerly. "I told her it was Harriet's own fault, and how shockingly she'd behaved to you. I expect you'll come back again after the holidays, don't you?"
Ida shook her head, and said nothing.
"But I shall see you again?" pleaded the little maid. "You know we're always going to be friends, aren't we? Who shall I tell all my dreams to, if I lose you?"
Dreams, in the literal sense of the word. Seldom a week went by, but Maud had some weird vision of the night to recount to her friend, the meaning of which they would together try to puzzle out; for it was an article of faith with both that there were meanings to be discovered, and deep ones.
Ida promised that she would not allow herself to be lost to her friend, and they kissed, and went their several ways.
Throughout the day the door of Mr. Smales's shop had been open, though the shutters were up. But at nightfall it was closed, and the family drew around the tea-table in the parlour which smelt so of drugs. It was their only sitting-room, for as much of the house as could be was let to another family. Besides Mr. Smales and his daughter Harriet, there sat at the table a lad of about thirteen, with a dark, handsome face, which had something of a foreign cast His eyes gleamed at all times with the light of a frank joyousness; he laughed with the unrestraint of a perfectly happy nature. His countenance was capable, too, of a thoughtfulness beyond his years, a gravity which seemed to come of high thoughts or rich imagination. He bore no trace of resemblance to either the chemist or his daughter, yet was their relative. Mr. Smales had had a sister, who at an early age became a public singer, and so far prospered as to gain some little distinction in two or three opera seasons. Whilst thus engaged, she made the acquaintance of an Italian, Casti by name, fell in love with him, and subsequently followed him to Italy. Her courage was rewarded, for there she became the singer's wife. They travelled for two years, during which time a son was born to them. The mother's health failed; she was unable henceforth to travel with her husband, and, after living in Rome for nearly four years, she died there. The boy was shortly brought back to England by his father, and placed in the care of Mr. Smales, on the understanding that a sum of money should be paid yearly for his support and education. From that day to the present nothing more had been heard of Signor Casti, and all the care of his sister's child had fallen upon poor Smales, who was not too well provided with means to support his own small household. However, he had not failed in the duty, and Julian (his name had been Englished) was still going to school at his uncle's expense. It was by this time understood that, on leaving school, he should come into the shop, and there qualify himself for the business of a chemist.
Had it not been for Julian, the back parlour would have seen but little cheerfulness to-night. Mr. Smales himself was always depressed in mind and ailing in body. Life had proved too much for him; the burden of the recurring daylight was beyond his strength. There was plainly no lack of kindliness in his disposition, and this never failed to come strongly into his countenance as often as he looked at Harriet. She was his only child. Her mother had died of consumption early in their married life, and it was his perpetual dread lest he should discover in Harriet a disposition to the same malady.
His fears had but too much stimulus to keep them alive. Harriet had passed through a sickly childhood, and was growing up with a feeble constitution. Body and mind were alike unhealthy. Of all the people who came in contact with her, her father alone was blind to her distorted sense of right, her baseless resentments, her malicious pleasures, her depraved intellect. His affection she repaid with indifference. At present, the only person she appeared to really like was the servant Sarah, a girl of vicious character.
Harriet had suffered more from Ida's blow than had at first appeared likely. The wound would not heal well, and she had had several feverish nights. For her convenience, the couch had been drawn up between the fire and the table; and, reclining here, she every now and then threw out a petulant word in reply to her father's or Julian's well-meant cheerfulness. But for the boy, the gloomy silence would seldom have been broken. He, however, was full to-night of a favourite subject, and kept up a steady flow of bright narrative. At school he was much engaged just now with the history of Rome, and it was his greatest delight to tell the listeners at home the glorious stories which were his latest acquisitions. All to-day he had been reading Plutarch. The enthusiasm with which he spoke of these old heroes and their deeds went beyond mere boyish admiration of valour and delight in bloodshed; he seemed to be strongly sensible of the real features of greatness in these men's lives, and invested his stories with a glow of poetical colour which found little appreciation in either of his hearers.
"And I was born in Rome, wasn't I, uncle?" he exclaimed at last. "I am a Roman; Romanus sum!"
Then he laughed with his wonted bright gleefulness. It was half in jest, but for all that there was a genuine warmth on his cheek, and lustre in his fine eyes.
"Some day I will go to Rome again," he said, "and both of you shall go with me. We shall see the Forum and the Capitol! Sha'n't you shout when you see the Capitol, uncle?"
Poor Smales only smiled sadly and shook his head. It was a long way from Marylebone to Rome; greater still the distance between the boy's mind and that of his uncle.
Sarah took Harriet to bed early. Julian had got hold of his Plutarch again, and read snatches of it aloud every now and then. His uncle paid no heed, was sunk in dull reverie. When they had sat thus for more than an hour, Mr. Smales began to exhibit a wish to talk.
"Put the book away, and draw up to the fire, my boy," he said, with as near an approach to heartiness as he was capable of. "It's Christmas time, and Christmas only comes once a year."
He rubbed his palms together, then began to twist the corners of his handkerchief.
"Well, Julian," he went on, leaning feebly forward to the fire, "a year more school, I suppose, and then—business; what?"
The boy spoke cheerfully, but yet not in the same natural way as before.
"I wish I could afford to make you something better, my lad; you ought to be something better by rights. And I don't well know what you'll find to do in this little shop. The business might be better; yes, might be better. You won't have much practice in dispensing, I'm afraid, unless things improve. It is mostly hair-oil,—and the patent medicines. It's a poor look-out for you, Julian."
There was a silence.
"Harriet isn't quite well yet, is she?" Smales went on, half to himself.
"No, she looked poorly to-night."
"Julian," began the other, but paused, rubbing his hands more nervously than ever.
"I wonder what 'ud become of her if I—if I died now? You're growing up, and you're a clever lad; you'll soon be able to shift for yourself. But what'll Harriet do? If only she had her health. And I shall have nothing to leave either her or you, Julian,—nothing,—nothing! She'll have to get her living somehow. I must think of some easy business for her, I must. She might be a teacher, but her head isn't strong enough, I fear. Julian—"
"You—you are old enough to understand things, my boy," went on his uncle, with quavering voice. "Suppose, after I'm dead and gone, Harriet should want help. She won't make many friends, I fear, and she'll have bad health. Suppose she was in want of any kind,—you'd stand by her, Julian, wouldn't you? You'd be a friend to her,—always?"
"Indeed I would, uncle!" exclaimed the boy stoutly.
"You promise me that, Julian, this Christmas night?—you promise it?"
"Yes, I promise, uncle. You've always been kind and good to me, and see if I'm not the same to Harriet."
His voice trembled with generous emotion.
"No, I sha'n't see it, my boy," said Smales, shaking his head drearily; "but the promise will be a comfort to me at the end, a comfort to me. You're a good lad, Julian!"
Silence came upon them again.
In the same district, in one of a row of semi-detached houses standing in gardens, lived Ida's little friend, Maud Enderby, with her aunt, Miss Bygrave, a lady of forty-two or forty-three. The rooms were small and dark; the furniture sparse, old-fashioned, and much worn; there were no ornaments in any of the rooms, with the exception of a few pictures representing the saddest incidents in the life of Christ. On entering the front door you were oppressed by the chill, damp atmosphere, and by a certain unnatural stillness. The stairs were not carpeted, but stained a dark colour; a footfall upon them, however light, echoed strangely as if from empty chambers above. There was no sign of lack of repair; perfect order and cleanliness wherever the eye penetrated; yet the general effect was an unspeakable desolation.
Maud Enderby, on reaching home after her meeting with Ida, entered the front parlour, and sat down in silence near the window, where faint daylight yet glimmered. The room was without fire. Over the mantelpiece hung an engraving of the Crucifixion; on the opposite wall were the Agony in the Garden, and an Entombment; all after old masters. The centre table, a few chairs, and a small sideboard were the sole articles of furniture. The table was spread with a white cloth; upon it were a loaf of bread, a pitcher containing milk, two plates, and two glasses.
Maud sat in the cold room for a quarter of an hour; it became quite dark. Then was heard a soft footstep descending the stairs; the door opened, and a lady came in, bearing a lighted lamp, which she stood upon the table. She was tall, very slender, and with a face which a painter might have used to personify the spiritual life. Its outlines were of severe perfection; its expression a confirmed grief, subdued by, and made subordinate to, the consciousness of an inward strength which could convert suffering into triumph. Her garment was black, of the simplest possible design. In looking at Maud, as the child rose from the chair, it was scarcely affection that her eyes expressed, rather a grave compassion. Maud took a seat at the table without speaking; her aunt sat down over against her. In perfect silence they partook of the milk and the bread. Miss Bygrave then cleared the table with her own hands, and took the things out of the room. Maud still kept her place. The child's manner was not at all constrained; she was evidently behaving in her wonted way. Her eyes wandered about the room with rather a dreamy gaze, and, as often as they fell upon her aunt's face, became very serious, though in no degree expressive of fear or even awe.
Miss Bygrave returned, and seated herself near the little girl; then remained thoughtful for some minutes. The breath from their lips was plainly visible on the air. Maud almost shivered now and then, but forced herself to suppress the impulse. Her aunt presently broke the silence, speaking in a low voice, which had nothing of tenderness, but was most impressive in its earnest calm.
"I wish to speak to you before you go upstairs, Maud; to speak of things which you cannot understand fully as yet, but which you are old enough to begin to think about."
Maud was surprised. It was the first time that her aunt had ever addressed her in this serious way. She was used to being all but ignored, though never in a manner which made her feel that she was treated unkindly. There was nothing like confidence between them; only in care for her bodily wants did Miss Bygrave fill the place of the mother whose affection the child had never known. Maud crossed her hands on her lap, and looked up with respectful attention upon her pale sweet little face.
"Do you wonder at all," Miss Bygrave went on, "why we never spend Christmas like your friends do in their homes, with eating and drinking and all sorts of merriment?"
"Yes, aunt, I do."
It was evidently the truth, and given with the simple directness which characterised the child.
"You know what Christmas Day means, Maud?"
"It is the day on which Christ was born."
"And for what purpose did Christ come as a child on earth?"
Maud thought for a moment. She had never had any direct religious teaching; all she knew of these matters was gathered from her regular attendance at church. She replied in a phrase which had rested in her mind, though probably conveying little if any meaning to her.
"He came to make us free from sin."
"And so we should rejoice at His coming. But would it please Him, do you think, to see us showing our joy by indulging in those very sins from which He came to free us?"
Maud looked with puzzled countenance.
"Is it a sin to like cake and sweet things, aunt?"
The gravity of the question brought a smile to Miss Bygrave's close, strong lips.
"Listen, Maud," she said, "and I will tell you what I mean. For you to like such things is no sin, as long as you are still too young to have it explained to you why you should overcome that liking. As I said, you are now old enough to begin to think of more than a child's foolishness, to ask yourself what is the meaning of the life which has been given you, what duties you must set before yourself as you grow up to be a woman. When once these duties have become clear to you, when you understand what the end of life is, and how you should seek to gain it, then many things become sinful which were not so before, and many duties must be performed which previously you were not ready for."
Miss Bygrave spoke with effort, as if she found it difficult to express herself in sufficiently simple phraseology. Speaking, she did not look at the child; and, when the pause came, her eyes were still fixed absently on the picture above the mantelpiece.
"Keep in mind what I shall tell you," she proceeded with growing solemnity, "and some day you will better understand its meaning than you can now. The sin which Christ came to free us from was—fondness for the world, enjoyment of what we call pleasure, desire for happiness on earth. He Himself came to set us the example of one to whom the world was nothing, who could put aside every joy, and make His life a life of sorrows. Even that was not enough. When the time had come, and He had finished His teaching of the disciples whom He chose, He willingly underwent the most cruel of all deaths, to prove that His teaching had been the truth, and to show us that we must face any most dreadful suffering rather than desert what we believe to be right."
She pointed to the crucified figure, and Maud followed the direction of her hand with awed gaze.
"And this," said Miss Bygrave, "is why I think it wrong to make Christmas a time of merriment. In the true Christian, every enjoyment which comes from the body is a sin. If you feel you like this or that, it is a sign that you must renounce it, give it up. If you feel fond of life, you must force yourself to hate it; for life is sin. Life is given to us that we may conquer ourselves. We are placed in the midst of sin that we may struggle against its temptations. There is temptation in the very breath you draw, since you feel a dread if it is checked. You must live so as to be ready at any moment to give up your life with gladness, as a burden which it has been appointed you to bear for a time. There is temptation in the love you feel for those around you; it makes you cling to life; you are tempted to grieve if you lose them, whereas death is the greatest blessing in the gift of God. And just because it is so, we must not snatch at it before our time; it would be a sin to kill ourselves, since that would be to escape from the tasks set us. Many pleasures would seem to be innocent, but even these it is better to renounce, since for that purpose does every pleasure exist. I speak of the pleasures of the world. One joy there is which we may and must pursue, the joy of sacrifice. The more the body suffers, the greater should be the delight of the soul; and the only moment of perfect happiness should be that when the world grows dark around us, and we feel the hand of death upon our hearts."
She was silent, and both sat in the cold room without word or motion.
Christmas passed, and the beginning of the New Year drew nigh. And, one morning, as Mr. Woodstock was glancing up and down the pages of a ledger, a telegram was delivered to him. It was from a hospital in the north-west of London. "Your daughter is dying, and wishes to see you. Please come at once."
Lotty's ailment had declared itself as pneumonia. She was frequently delirious, and the substance of her talk at such times led the attendant Sister to ask her, when reason returned, whether she did not wish any relative to be sent for. Lotty was frightened, but, as long as she was told that there was still hope of recovery, declined to mention any name. The stubborn independence which had supported her through these long years asserted itself again, as a reaction after her fruitless appeal; at moments she felt that she could die with her lips closed, and let what might happen to her child. But when she at length read upon the faces of those about her that her fate hung in the balance, and when she saw the face of little Ida, come there she knew not how, looking upon her from the bedside, then her purpose yielded, and in a whisper she told her father's address, and begged that he might be apprised of her state.
Abraham Woodstock arrived at the hospital, but to no purpose. Lotty had lost her consciousness. He waited for some hours; there was no return of sensibility. When it had been long dark, and he had withdrawn from the ward for a little, he was all at once hastily summoned back. He stood by the bedside, his hands behind his back, his face set in a hard gaze upon the pale features on the pillow. Opposite to him stood the medical man, and a screen placed around the bed shut them off from the rest of the ward. All at once Lotty's eyes opened. It seemed as though she recognised her father, for a look of surprise came to her countenance. Then there was a gasping for breath, a struggle, and the eyes saw no more, for all their staring.
Mr. Woodstock left the hospital. At the first public-house he reached he entered and drank a glass of whisky. The barman had forgotten the piece of lemon, and was rewarded with an oath considerably stronger than the occasion seemed to warrant. Arrived at certain cross-ways, Mr. Woodstock paused. His eyes were turned downwards; he did not seem dubious of his way, so much as in hesitation as to a choice of directions. He took a few steps hither, then back; began to wend thither, and again turned. When he at length decided, his road brought him to Milton Street, and up to the door on which stood the name of Mrs. Ledward.
He knocked loudly, and the landlady herself opened.
"A Mrs. Starr lived here, I believe?" he asked.
"She does live here, sir, but she's in the orspital at present, I'm sorry to say."
"Is her child at home?"
"She is, sir."
"Let me see her, will you? In some room, if you please."
Mrs. Ledward's squinting eyes took shrewd stock of this gentleman, and, with much politeness, she showed him into her own parlour. Then she summoned Ida from upstairs, and, the door being closed upon the two, she held her ear as closely as possible to the keyhole.
Ida recognised her visitor with a start, and drew back a little. There were both fear and dislike in her face, fear perhaps predominating.
"You remember coming to see me," said Mr. Woodstock, looking down upon the child, and a trifle askance.
"Yes, sir," was Ida's reply.
"I have just been at the hospital. Your mother is dead."
His voice gave way a little between the first and the last letter of the last word. Perhaps the sound was more to his ear than the thought had been to his mind. Perhaps, also, he felt when it was too late that he ought to have made this announcement with something more of preparation. Ida's eyes were fixed upon his face, and seemed expanding as they gazed; her lips had parted; she was the image of sudden dread. He tried to look away from her, but somehow could not. Then two great tears dropped upon her cheeks, and her mouth began to quiver. She put her hands up to her face, and sobbed as a grown woman might have done.
Mr. Woodstock turned away for a minute, and fingered a china ornament on the mantelpiece. He heard the sobs forcibly checked, and, when there was silence, again faced his grandchild.
"You'll be left all alone now, you see," he said, his voice less hard. "I was a friend of your mother's, and I'll do what I can for you. You'd better come with me to my house."
Ida looked at him in surprise, tempered with indignation.
"If you were a friend of mother's," she said, "why did you want to take me away from her and never let her see me again?"
"Well, you've nothing to do with that," said Abraham roughly. "Go and put your things on, and come with me."
"No," replied Ida firmly. "I don't want to go with you."
"What you want has nothing to do with it. You will do as I tell you."
Abraham felt strangely in this interview. It was as though time were repeating itself, and he was once more at issue with his daughter's childish wilfulness.
Ida did not move.
"Why won't you come?" asked Mr. Woodstock sharply.
"I don't want to," was Ida's answer.
"Look here, then," said the other, after a brief consideration. "You have the choice, and you're old enough to see what it means. You can either come with me and be well cared for, or stay here and shift as best you can; now, be sharp and make up your mind."
"I don't wish to go with you, I'll stay here and do my best."
Mr. Woodstock whistled a bar of an air, stepped from the room, and thence out into the streets.
It was not his intention really to go at once. Irritation had made it impossible for him to speak longer with the child; he would walk the length of the street and return to give her one more chance. Distracted in purpose as he had never been in his life before, he reached Marylebone Road; rain was just beginning to fall, and he had no umbrella with him. He stood and looked back. Ida once out of his sight, that impatient tenderness which her face inspired failed before the recollection of her stubbornness. She had matched her will with his, as bad an omen as well could be. What was the child to him, or he to her? He did not feel capable of trying to make her like him; what good in renewing the old conflicts and upsetting the position of freedom he had attained? Doubtless she inherited a fatal disposition. In his mind lurked the foreknowledge that he might come to be fond of this little outcast, but Woodstock was incapable as yet of understanding that love must and will be its own reward. The rain fell heavier, and at this moment an omnibus came up. He hailed it, saying to himself that he would think the matter over and come back on the morrow. The first part of his purpose he fulfilled; but to Milton Street he never returned.
As soon as he had left the house, Mrs. Ledward bounced into the room where Ida stood.
"You little idjot!" she exclaimed. "What do you mean by refusing a offer like that!—Why, the gentleman's your own father."
"My father!" repeated Ida, in scornful astonishment. "My father died when I was a baby. Mother's told me so often."
"If you believe all your mother told you,—Well, well, you have been a little wooden-head. What made you behave like that to him?—Where does he live, eh?"
"I don't know."
"You do know. Why, I heard him say you'd been to see him. And what are you going to do, I'd like to know? You don't expect me to keep you, I s'pose. Tell me at once where the gentleman lives, and let me take you there. The idea of your turning against your own father!"
"He's not my father!" cried Ida passionately. "My father is dead; and now mother's dead, and I'm alone." She turned and went from the room, weeping bitterly.
In a morning newspaper of March 187—, that is to chapter, appeared a singular advertisement.
"WANTED, human companionship. A young man of four-and-twenty wishes to find a congenial associate of about his own age. He is a student of ancient and modern literatures, a free-thinker in religion, a lover of art in all its forms, a hater of conventionalism. Would like to correspond in the first instance. Address O. W., City News Rooms, W.C."
An advertisement which, naturally, might mean much or little, might be the outcome of an idle whim, or the despairing cry of a hungry heart. It could not be expected to elicit many replies; and brought indeed but one.
Behind the counter of a chemist's shop in Oxford Street there served, day after day, a young assistant much observed of female customers. The young man was handsome, and not with that vulgar handsomeness which is fairly common among the better kind of shop-walkers and counter-keepers. He had rather long black hair, which arranged itself in silky ripples about a face of perfectly clear, though rather dark, complexion. When he smiled, as he frequently did, the effect was very pleasant. He spoke, too, with that musical intonation which is always more or less suggestive of musical thought. He did not seem by any means ideally adapted to the place he occupied here, yet filled it without suspicion of constraint or uneasiness: there was nothing in him to make one suppose that he had ever been accustomed to a better sphere of life.
He lived in the house above the shop, and had done so for about two years; previously he had held a like position in a more modest establishment. His bed-room, which had to serve him as sitting-room also during his free hours, gave indications of a taste not ordinarily found in chemists' assistants. On the walls were several engravings of views in Rome, ancient and modern; and there were two bookcases filled with literature which had evidently known the second-hand stall,—most of the Latin poets, a few Italian books, and some English classics. Not a trace anywhere of the habits and predilections not unfairly associated with the youth of the shop, not even a pipe or a cigar-holder. It was while sitting alone here one evening, half musing, half engaged in glancing over the advertisements in a paper two days old, that the assistant had been attracted by the insertion just quoted. He read and re-read it, became more thoughtful, sighed slightly. Then he moved to the table and took some note-paper out of a writing-case. Still he seemed to be in doubt, hesitated in pressing a pen against his thumb-nail, was on the point of putting the note-paper away again. Ultimately, however, he sat down to write. He covered four pages with a letter, which he then proceeded deliberately to correct and alter, till he had cut it down by about half. Then came another period of doubt before he decided to make a fair copy. But it was finally made, and the signature at the foot was: Julian Casti.
He went out at once to the post.
Two days later he received a reply, somewhat longer than his own epistle. The writer was clearly keeping himself in a tentative attitude. Still, he wrote something about his own position and his needs. He was a teacher in a school in South London, living in lodgings, with his evenings mostly unoccupied. His habits, he declared, were Bohemian. Suppose, by way of testing each other's dispositions, they were to interchange views on some book with which both were likely to be acquainted: say, Keats's poems? In conclusion, the "O. W." of the advertisement signed himself Osmond Waymark.
The result was that, a week after, Casti received an invitation to call on Waymark, at the latter's lodgings in Walcot Square, Kennington. He arrived on a Saturday evening, just after eight o'clock. The house he sought proved to be one of very modest appearance; small, apparently not too clean, generally uninviting. But a decent-looking woman opened the door, and said that Mr. Waymark would be found in response to a knock at the first-floor front. The visitor made his way up the dark, narrow stair-case, and knocked as bidden. A firm voice summoned him to enter.
From a seat by a table which was placed as near as possible to a very large fire rose a young man whose age might have been either twenty-three or twenty-six. Most people would have inclined to give him the latter figure. He was rather above the average stature, and showed well-hung limbs, with a habit of holding himself which suggested considerable toughness of sinews; he moved gracefully, and with head well held up. His attire spoke sedentary habits; would have been decidedly shabby, but for its evident adaptation to easy-chair and fireside. The pure linen and general tone of cleanliness were reassuring; the hand, too, which he extended, was soft, delicate, and finely formed. The head was striking, strongly individual, set solidly on a rather long and shapely neck; a fine forehead, irregular nose, rather prominent jaw-bones, lips just a little sensual, but speaking good-humour and intellectual character. A heavy moustache; no beard. Eyes dark, keen, very capable of tenderness, but perhaps more often shrewdly discerning or cynically speculative. One felt that the present expression of genial friendliness was unfamiliar to the face, though it by no means failed in pleasantness. The lips had the look of being frequently gnawed in intense thought or strong feeling. In the cheeks no healthy colour, but an extreme sallowness on all the features. Smiling, he showed imperfect teeth. Altogether, a young man upon whom one felt it difficult to pronounce in the earlier stages of acquaintance; whose intimacy but few men would exert themselves to seek; who in all likelihood was chary of exhibiting his true self save when secure of being understood.