E-text prepared by Lionel G. Sear—A Lifetime Enthusiast of the British Inland Waterway System
Transcriber's note: This was one of the most enjoyable e-texts that I have prepared but also one of the most difficult. Many of the characters use the working class slang and dialect of 100 years ago and the author sticks to this consistently throughout the book. At times there seems to be as many apostrophes as characters! The printers have spaced these out and I hope that I have joined them up acceptably for our purpose.
Chapter X of the original book contained a diagram of a tattoo, and another diagram appeared in Chapter XX. Text has been added to substitute for these diagrams.
By "Q" (A.T. QUILLER-COUCH)
I AT THE SIGN OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN.
II HOW TRUE TILDA CAME TO DOLOROUS GARD
III A KIDNAPPING
IV IN WHICH CHILDE ARTHUR LOSES ONE MOTHER AND GAINS ANOTHER
V TEMPORARY EMBARRASSMENTS OF A THESPIAN
VI MR. MORTIMER'S ADVENTURE
VII IN WHICH MR. HUCKS TAKES A HAND
X THE FOUR DIAMONDS.
XI THE "STRATFORD-ON-AVON"
XIII ADVENTURE OF THE FURRED COLLAR
XIV ADVENTURE OF THE PRIMROSE FETE
XV ADVENTURE OF THE FAT LADY
XVI ADVENTURES OF THE "FOUR ALLS" AND OF THE CELESTIAL CHEMIST
XVII BY WESTON WEIR
XVIII DOWN AVON
XIX THE S.S. EVAN EVANS
XX INISTOW FARM
XXI THE HUNTED STAG
XXII THE VOYAGE
XXIII THE ISLAND
XXIV GLASSON IN CHASE
XXV MISS SALLY BREAKS THE DOORS
XXVI THE RESCUE
AT THE SIGN OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN
"That it may please Thee to preserve all that travel by land or by water . . . all sick persons, and young children."—THE LITANY.
"I love my love with a H'aitch, because he's 'andsome—"
Tilda turned over on her right side—she could do so now without pain— and lifting herself a little, eyed the occupant of the next bed. The other six beds in the ward were empty.
"I 'ate 'im, because—look 'ere, I don't believe you're listenin'?"
The figure in the next bed stirred feebly; the figure of a woman, straight and gaunt under the hospital bedclothes. A tress of her hair had come uncoiled and looped itself across the pillow—reddish auburn hair, streaked with grey. She had been brought in, three nights ago, drenched, bedraggled, chattering in a high fever; a case of acute pneumonia. Her delirium had kept Tilda—who was preternaturally sharp for her nine years—awake and curious during the better part of two night-watches. Thereafter, for a day and a night and half a day, the patient had lain somnolent, breathing hard, at intervals feebly conscious. In one of these intervals her eyes had wandered and found the child; and since then had painfully sought her a dozen times, and found her again and rested on her.
Tilda, meeting that look, had done her best. The code of the show-folk, to whom she belonged, ruled that persons in trouble were to be helped. Moreover, the long whitewashed ward, with its seven oblong windows set high in the wall—the smell of it, the solitude, the silence—bored her inexpressibly. She had lain here three weeks with a hurt thigh-bone bruised, but luckily not splintered, by the kick of a performing pony.
The ward reeked of yellow soap and iodoform. She would have exchanged these odours at the price of her soul—but souls are not vendible, and besides she did not know she possessed one—for the familiar redolences of naphtha and horse-dung and trodden turf. These were far away: they had quite forsaken her, or at best floated idly across her dreams. What held her to fortitude had been the drone and intermittent hoot of a steam-organ many streets away. It belonged to a roundabout, and regularly tuned up towards evening; so distant that Tilda could not distinguish one tune from another; only the thud of its bass mingled with the buzz of a fly on the window and with the hard breathing of the sick woman.
Sick persons must be amused: and Tilda, after trying the patient unsuccessfully with a few jokes from the repertoire of her own favourite clown, had fallen back upon "I love my love"—about the only game known to her that dispensed with physical exertion.
"Sleepin', are you? . . . Well, I'll chance it and go on. I 'ate 'im because he's 'aughty—or 'igh-born, if you like—"
The figure beneath the bedclothes did not stir. Tilda lifted herself an inch higher on the elbow; lifted her voice too as she went on:
"And I'll take 'im to—'OLMNESS—"
She had been watching, expecting some effect. But it scared her when, after a moment, the woman raised herself slowly, steadily, until half-erect from the waist. A ray of the afternoon sun fell slantwise from one of the high windows, and, crossed by it, her eyes blazed like lamps in their sockets.
"—And feed 'im on 'am!" concluded Tilda hurriedly, slipping down within her bedclothes and drawing them tight about her. For the apparition was stretching out a hand. The hand drew nearer.
"It's—it's a name came into my 'ead," quavered the child.
"Who . . . told . . . you?" The fingers of the hand had hooked themselves like a bird's claw.
"Told me yerself. I 'eard you, night before last, when you was talkin' wild. . . . If you try to do me any 'arm, I'll call the Sister."
"You said it. Strike me dead if you didn'!" Tilda fetched a grip on herself; but the hand, its fingers closing on air, drew back and dropped, as though cut off from the galvanising current. She had even presence of mind to note that the other hand—the hand on which the body propped itself, still half-erect, wore a plain ring of gold. "You talked a lot about 'Olmness—and Arthur. 'Oo's Arthur?"
But the patient had fallen back, and lay breathing hard. When she spoke again all the vibration had gone out of her voice.
"Tell them . . . Arthur . . . fetch Arthur . . . ." The words tailed off into a whisper. Still the lips moved as though speech fluttered upon them; but no speech came.
"You just tell me where he is, and maybe we'll fetch 'im," said Tilda encouragingly.
The eyes, which had been fixed on the child's, and with just that look you may note in a dog's eyes when he waits for his master's word, wandered to the table by the bedside, and grew troubled, distressful.
"Which of 'em?" asked Tilda, touching the medicine bottles and glasses there one by one.
But the patient seemed to shake her head, though with a motion scarcely perceptible.
She could talk no more.
Tilda lay back thinking.
"Sister!" she said, twenty minutes later, when the Second Nurse entered the ward. The Second Nurse had charge just now, the matron being away on her August holiday.
"She wants something." Tilda nodded towards the next bed.
"To be sure she does, and I'm going to give it to her." The Second Nurse, composed in all her movements, bent over the medicine table.
"Garn!" retorted Tilda. "It's easy seen you wasn' brought up along with animals. Look at the eyes of her."
"Well?" The Second Nurse, after a long look at the patient, turned to Tilda again.
"You mind my tellin' you about Black Sultan?"
"Of course I do. He was the one with the bearing rein and the white martingale. Miss Montagu rode him."
"Right-O!" Tilda nodded. "Well, they used to come on next turn to mine, which was the Zambra Fambly, as before the Crowned 'eads—only there wasn' no fambly about it, nor yet no 'eads. Me bein' 'andy an' dressed up, with frizzy 'air, they stood me on a tub with a 'oop, makin' believe 'twas for Miss Montagu to jump through; but of course she didn', reely. When she came round to me she'd only smile and touch me playful under the chin; and that made the sixpenny seats say, ''Ow womanly!' or, 'Only think! able to ride like that and so fond of children!' Matter of fact, she 'ad none; and her 'usband, Mike O'Halloran, used to beat her for it sometimes, when he'd had a drop of What-killed-Aunty. He was an Irishman."
"You didn't start to tell me about Mr. O'Halloran."
"No. He wasn' your sort at all; and besides, he's dead. But about Black Sultan—Miss Montagu used to rest 'im, 'alf-way in his turn, while the clown they called Bimbo—but his real name was Ernest Stanley—as't a riddle about a policeman and a red 'errin' in a newspaper. She always rested alongside o' me; and I always stood in the same place, right over a ring-bolt where they made fast one of the stays for the trapeze; and regular as Black Sultan rested, he'd up with his off hind foot and rub the pastern-bone, very soft, on the ring-bolt. So one day I unscrewed an' sneaked it, jus' to see what he'd do. When he felt for it an' missed it, he gave me a look. That's all. An' that's what's the matter with 'er."
"But what can she be missing?" asked the Second Nurse. "She had nothing about her but an old purse, and nothing in the purse but a penny-ha'penny."
"It don't sound much, but we might try it."
"Nonsense!" said the Second Nurse; but later in the evening she brought the purse, and set it on the table where the patient's eyes might rest on it. For aught she could detect, they expressed no thanks, gave no flicker of recognition. But the child had been watching them too, and was quicker—by one-fifth of a second, perhaps.
It was half-past eight, and the sister turned low the single gas-jet. She would retire now to her own room, change her dress for the night-watching, and return in about twenty minutes. The door had no sooner closed upon her than Tilda stretched out a hand. The sick woman watched, panting feebly, making no sign. The purse—a cheap thing, stamped with forget-me-nots, and much worn at the edges where the papier-mache showed through its sham leather—contained a penny and a halfpenny; these, and in an inner stamp-pocket a scrap of paper, folded small, and greasy with handling.
Still peering across in the dim light, Tilda undid the broken folds and scrambled up to her knees on the bed. It cost her a twinge of pain, but only by standing upright on the bed's edge could she reach the gas-bracket to turn the flame higher. This meant pain sharper and more prolonged, yet she managed it, and, with that, clenched her teeth hard to keep down a cry. The child could swear, on occasion, like a trooper; but this was a fancy accomplishment. Just now, when an oath would have come naturally to a man, she felt only a choking in the throat, and swallowed it down with a sob.
On the paper were four lines, written in pencil in a cramped hand; and, alas! though Tilda could read print, she had next to no acquaintance with handwriting.
The words were a blur to her. She stared at them; but what she saw was the gaze of the sick woman, upturned to her from the bed. The scrap of paper hid it, and yet she saw. She must act quickly.
She gave a reassuring nod, turned the gas-jet low, and slid down into bed with the paper clenched in her hand. But as her head touched the pillow she heard a rustling noise, and craned up her neck again. The patient had rolled over on her left side, facing her, fighting for breath.
"Yes, yes," Tilda lied hardily. "To-morrow—Arthur—they shall send for him to-morrow."
"Four," said the sick woman. The word was quite distinct. Another word followed which Tilda could not catch.
"Four o'clock, or may be earlier," she promised.
"L—l—lozenges," the tongue babbled.
Tilda glanced towards the medicine table.
"Diamonds," said the voice with momentary firmness; "four diamonds . . . on his coat . . . his father's . . . his . . . ."
"Four diamonds, yes?" the child repeated.
"Ned did them . . . he told me . . . told me . . . ." But here the voice wavered and trailed off into babble, meaningless as a year-old infant's. Tilda listened hard for a minute, two minutes, then dropped her head back on her pillow as the door-handle rattled. It was the Second Nurse returning for night duty.
Early next morning the doctor came—a thin young man with a stoop, and a crop of sandy hair that stood upright from his forehead. Tilda detested him.
He and the Second Nurse talked apart for quite a long while, and paid no attention to the child, who lay shamming a doze, but with her ears open.
She heard the doctor say—
"She? Oh, move her to the far end of the ward."
The Second Nurse muttered something, and he went on—
"She is well, practically. All she wants now is someone to keep an eye on her, make her lie up for a couple of hours every day, and box her ears if she won't."
"That's me," thought Tilda. "I'm to be moved out of the way because t'other's going to die; and if she's going to die, there's no time to be lost."
She stirred, lifted her head, and piped—
"Hullo, imp! I thought you were sleeping."
"So I was. I sleep 'eaps better now." She drew her hurt leg up and down in the bed. "Doctor, I 'd be all right, certain sure, if you let me out for arf-an-hour. Sister let me sit out for ever so long yestiday, an' while she was dustin' out the men's ward I practised walkin'—all the lenth of the room an' back."
"When I told you never, on any account!" the Sister scolded.
"If I'd only the loan of a crutch!" pleaded Tilda; "an' it couldn' do me no 'arm in this weather."
"Pining for liberty, hey?" said the doctor. (She saw what was passing through his mind, and despised him for it.) "Well, suppose, now, we let you out for just half an hour?"
Tilda clapped her palms together, and her eyes shone. To herself she said: "Kiddin' of me, that's what they are. Want to get me out of the way while they shift the beddin'. Lemme get back my clothes, that's all, an' I'll teach him about pinin' for liberty."
"But," said the doctor severely, lifting a finger, "you're to keep to the pavement mind—just outside, where it's nice and shady. Only so far as the next turning and back; no crossing anywhere or getting in the way of traffic, and only for half an hour. The chimes from St. Barnabas will tell you, if you can't read the clock."
She had learnt to read the time before she was five years old, and had a mind to tell him, but checked herself and merely nodded her head.
"Half an hour, and the pavement only. Is that understood?"
It annoyed her—when, an hour later, she began to dress for the adventure—to find herself weaker than she had at all supposed. Although she forbore to mention it to the Second Nurse, there was an irresponsible funny feeling in her legs. They seemed to belong to her but by fits and starts. But the clothes were hers: the merino skirt a deal too short for her—she had grown almost an inch in her bed-lying— the chip hat, more badly crushed than ever, a scandal of a hat, but still hers. The dear, dear clothes! She held them in both hands and nuzzled into them, inhaling her lost self in the new-old scent of liberty.
When at length her hat was donned, the notion took her to stand by the sick woman's bed to show herself.
Consciousness had drained away deep into the sick woman's eyes. It wavered there darkly, submerged, half-suspended, as you may see the weed waver in a dim seapool. Did a bubble, a gleam, float up from the depths? At any rate, the child nodded bravely.
"Goin' to fetch 'im, don't you fret!"
HOW TRUE TILDA CAME TO DOLOROUS GARD
"Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set. And blew 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.'" BROWNING.
Fifty years before, the Hospital of the Good Samaritan had been the pet "charity" of a residential suburb. Factories and slums had since crowded in upon it, ousting the residents and creeping like a tide over the sites of their gardens and villas. The street kept its ancient width, and a few smoke-blackened trees—lilacs, laburnums, limes, and one copper-beech—still dignified the purlieus. Time, ruthless upon these amenities, had spared, and even enlarged, the hospital.
It stood on the shaded side of the street. Nevertheless, the sunshine, reflected from the facade of mean houses across the way, dazzled Tilda as she crossed the threshold of the great doorway and hopped down the steps. There were five steps, and on the lowest she paused, leaning a moment on her crutch before taking the final plunge into liberty.
Then, while she stood blinking, of a sudden a yellowish brown body bounded at her out of the sun-dazzle, pushed her tottering, danced back, and leapt at her again, springing to lick her face, and uttering sharp, inarticulate noises from a throat bursting with bliss.
"'Dolph! O 'Dolph!"
Tilda sank on the lowest step and stretched out both arms. The dog, rushing between them, fairly bowled her backwards; lit in her lap and twisted his body round ecstatically, thrusting, nuzzling at her bosom, her neck, her face—devouring her with love. In her weakness she caught him around the chest, close behind the forelegs, and hugged him to her. So for a quarter of a minute the two rocked together and struggled.
"'Dolph! O good dog! . . . Did Bill send yer?"
'Dolph, recoiling, shook his neck-ruff and prepared for another spring; but Tilda pushed him back and stood up. "Take me along to him," she commanded, and lifted her face impudently to the clock-face of St. Barnabas above the mean roofs. "Barnabas, are yer? Then give my compliments to the doctor, you Barnabas, an' tell 'im to cheese it." 'Dolph—short for Godolphus—pricked both ears and studied the sky-line. Perceiving nothing there—not even a swallow to be chased—he barked twice (the humbug!) for sign that he understood thoroughly, and at once fell to new capers by way of changing the subject. Tilda became severe. "Look here, Godolphus," she explained, "this is biz-strict biz. You may wag your silly Irish tail, but that don't take me in. Understand? . . . Well, the first thing you 'ave to do is take me to Bill."
Godolphus was dashed; hurt, it may be, in his feelings. Being dumb, he could not plead that for three weeks daily he had kept watch on the hospital door; that, hungry, he had missed his meals for faith, which is the substance of things unseen; that, a few hours ago, having to choose between half-gods assured and whole gods upon trust—an almost desperate trust—he had staked against the odds. Or, it may be, he forgot all this, and only considered what lay ahead for the child. At any rate, his tail, as he led the way, wagged at a sensibly lower angle.
"Bill can read any kind of 'andwriting," said Tilda, half to herself and half to the dog. "What's more, and whatever's the matter, Bill 'elps."
So she promised herself. It did not strike her that 'Dolph—who in an ordinary way should have been bounding ahead and anon bounding back to gyrate on his hind legs and encourage her—preferred to trot ahead some thirty or forty yards and wait for her to overtake him; nor that, when she came up, he avoided her eyes, pretending that here a doorstep, there a grating or water-main absorbed his curiosity. Once or twice, indeed, before trotting off again, he left these objects of interest to run around Tilda's heels and rub against her crutch. But she was busy with her own plans.
So through a zig-zag of four or five dingy streets they came to one she recognised as that leading into the Plain, or open space where the show-people encamped. At its far end 'Dolph halted. His tail still wagged, but his look was sidelong, furtive, uneasy.
Tilda, coming up with him, stood still for a moment, stared, and caught her breath with a little gasp of dismay.
The Plain was empty.
Circus and menagerie, swing-boats, roundabouts, shooting-galleries—all were gone. The whole area lay trampled and bare, with puddles where the steam-engines had stood, and in the puddles bedabbled relics of paper brushes, confetti bags, scraps torn from feminine flounces, twisted leaden tubes of "ladies' tormentors" cast away and half-trodden into the mire; the whole an unscavenged desolation. Her folk—the show-folk—had deserted her and vanished, and she had not a penny in her pocket. It cost Tilda all her pluck to keep what she called a tight upper lip. She uttered no cry, but seated herself on the nearest doorstep— apparently with deliberation, actually not heeding, still less caring, to whom the doorstep belonged.
"Oh, 'Dolph!" she murmured.
To her credit, in the act of appealing to him, she understood the dog's heroism, and again stretched forth her arms. He had been waiting for this—sprang at her, and again was caught and hugged. Again the two forlorn ones rocked in an embrace.
Brief ecstasy! The door behind them was constructed in two portions, of which the upper stood wide, the lower deceptively on the latch. Against this, as she struggled with Godolphus's ardour, Tilda gave a backward lurch. It yielded, flew open, and child and dog together rolled in across the threshold, while a shop-bell jangled madly above them.
"Get out of this—you and your nasty cur!"
Tilda picked up herself and her crutch, and stood eyeing the shopwoman, who, summoned by the bell, had come rushing from an inner room, and in no sweet temper. From the woman she glanced around the shop— a dairy-shop with a marble-topped counter, and upon the counter a pair of scales and a large yellow block of margarine.
"It was a naccident," said Tilda firmly and with composure. "And my dog isn' a nasty cur; it only shows your ignorance. Be quiet, 'Dolph!"
She had to turn and shake her crutch at Godolphus, who, perceiving his mistress's line of action, at once, in his impulsive Irish way, barked defiance at the shopwoman.
But the shopwoman's eyes rested on the crutch, and the sight of it appeared to mollify her.
"My gracious! I do believe you 're the child was hurt at Maggs's Circus and taken to hospital."
"Did you see me?"
"Carried by on a stretcher—and your face the colour of that." The woman pointed to the marble counter-top.
"I was a serious case," said Tilda impressively. "The people at the Good Samaritan couldn' remember admittin' the likes of it. There were complications."
"You don't say!"
"But what's become of Maggs's?"
"Maggs's left a week ago come Tuesday. I know, because they used to buy their milk of me. They were the first a'most, and the last was the Menagerie and Gavel's Roundabouts. They packed up last night. It must be a wearin' life," commented the shopwoman. "But for my part I like the shows, and so I tell Damper—that's my 'usband. They put a bit of colour into the place while they last, besides bein' free-'anded with their money. Light come light go, I reckon; but anyway, it's different from cows. So you suffered from complications, did you?"
"Internal," Tilda assured her in a voice as hollow as she could make it. "I must have spit up a quart of blood, first an' last. An' the medicine I 'ad to take! You wouldn' think it, but the colour was pale 'eliotrope."
"I wonder," said Mrs. Damper sympathetically—"I wonder it stayed in the stomach."
"Wouldn' you fancy a glass o' milk, now?"
"It's very kind of you." Tilda put on her best manners. "And 'ere's 'ealth!" she added before sipping, when the milk was handed to her.
"And the dog—wouldn' 'e like something?"
"Well, since you mention it—but it's givin' you a 'eap of trouble. If you 'ave such a thing as a bun, it don't matter 'ow stale."
"I can do better 'n that." Mrs. Damper dived into the inner room, and re-emerged with a plateful of scraps. "There's always waste with children," she explained, "and I got five. You can't think the load off one's shoulders when they're packed to school at nine o'clock. And that, I dessay," she wound up lucidly, "is what softened me t'ards you. Do you go to school, now?"
"Never did," answered Tilda, taking the plate and laying it before Godolphus, who fell-to voraciously.
"I 'd like to tell that to the attendance officer," said Mrs. Damper in a wistful tone. "But p'r'aps it might get you into trouble?"
"You 're welcome."
"He do give me a lot of worry; and it don't make things easier Damper's threatenin' to knock his 'ead off if ever he catches the man darkenin' our door. Never been to school, aven't you? I 'd like to tell 'im, and that, if there's a law, it ought to be the same for all. But all my children are 'ealthy, and that's one consolation."
"'Ealth's the first thing in life," agreed Tilda. "So they've all cleared out?—the shows, I mean."
"Every one—exceptin' the Theayter."
"Mortimer's?" Tilda limped to the open door. "But I don't see him, neither."
"Mortimer's is up the spout. First of all, there was trouble with the lodgings; and on top of that, last Monday, Mr. Hucks put the bailiffs in. This mornin' he sent half a dozen men, and they took the show to pieces and carried it off to Hucks's yard, where I hear he means to sell it by public auction."
"Who's Mr. Hucks?"
"He's the man that farms the Plain here—farms it out, I mean," Mrs. Damper explained. "He leases the ground from the Corporation and lets it out for what he can make, and that's a pretty penny. Terrible close-fisted man is Mr. Hucks."
"Oh!" said Tilda, enlightened. "When you talked of farmin', you made me wonder . . .So they're all gone? And Wolverhampton-way, I reckon. That was to be the next move."
"I've often seen myself travellin' in a caravan," said Mrs. Damper dreamily. "Here to-day an' gone to-morrow, and only to stretch out your hand whether 'tis hairpins or a fryin'-pan; though I should never get over travellin' on Sundays." Here, while her eyes rested on the child, of a sudden she came out of her reverie with a sharp exclamation. "Lord's sake! You ain't goin' to tell me they've left you in 'ospital, stranded!"
"That's about it," said Tilda bravely, albeit with a wry little twist of her mouth.
"But what'll you do?"
"Oh, I dunno . . . We'll get along some'ow—eh, 'Dolph? Fact is, I got a job to do, an' no time to lose worryin'. You just read that."
Tilda produced and handed her scrap of paper to Mrs. Damper, who took it, unfolded it, and perused the writing slowly.
"Goin' there?" she inquired at length.
"That depends." Tilda was not to be taken off her guard. "I want you to read what it says."
"Yes, to be sure—I forgot what you said about havin' no schoolin'. Well, it says: 'Arthur Miles, surname Chandon, b. Kingsand, May 1st, 1888. Rev. Dr. Purdie J. Glasson, Holy Innocents' Orphanage, Bursfield, near Birmingham '—leastways, I can't read the last line clear, the paper bein' frayed; but it's bound to be what I've said."
"Why, because that's the address. Holy Innocents, down by the canal— I know it, o' course, and Dr. Glasson. Damper supplied 'em with milk for over six months, an' trouble enough we had to get our money."
"How far is it?"
"Matter of half a mile, I should say—close by the canal. You cross it there by the iron bridge. The tram'll take you down for a penny, only you must mind and get out this side of the bridge, because once you're on the other side it's tuppence. Haven't got a penny? Well,"—Mrs. Damper dived a hand into her till—"I'll give you one. Bein' a mother, I can't bear to see children in trouble."
"Thank you," said Tilda. "It'll come in 'andy; but I ain't in no trouble just yet."
"I 'spose," Mrs. Damper ventured after a pause, "you don't feel like tellin' me what your business might be down at the orphanage? Not that I'm curious.
"I can't." This was perfectly true, for she herself did not know. "You see," she added with a fine air of mystery, "there's others mixed up in this."
Mrs. Damper sighed.
"Well, I mustn' detain you . . . This Arthur Miles Chandon—he's not a friend of yours by any chance?"
"He's a—sort of connection," said Tilda. "You know 'im, p'r'aps?"
"Dear me, no!"
"Oh,"—the child, without intending it, achieved a fine irony— "I thought you seemed interested. Well, so long! and thank you again— there's a tram stoppin' at the corner! Come along, 'Dolph!"
She was not—she had said it truthfully—by any means in trouble just yet. On the contrary, after long deprivation she was tasting life again, and finding it good. The streets of this Bursfield suburb were far from suggestive of the New Jerusalem—a City of which, by the way, Tilda had neither read nor heard. They were, in fact, mean and squalid, begrimed with smoke and imperfectly scavenged. But they were, at least, populous, and to Tilda the faces in the tram and on the pavements wore, each and all, a friendly—almost an angelic—glow. The tram-car rolled along like a celestial chariot trailing clouds of glory, and 'Dolph, running beside it and threading his way in and out between the legs of the passers-by, was a hound of heaven in a coat effluent of gold. Weariness would come, but as yet her body felt no weariness, buoyed upon a spirit a-tiptoe for all adventure.
The tram reached the iron bridge and drew up. She descended, asked the conductor to direct her to Holy Innocents, and was answered with a jerk of the thumb.
It stood, in fact, just beyond the bridge, with a high brick wall that turned off the street at right angles and overhung the towpath of the canal. Although in architecture wholly dissimilar, the building put her in mind of the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, and her spirits sank for a moment. Its facade looked upon the street over a strip of garden crowded with dingy laurels. It contained a depressingly large number of windows, and it seemed to her that they were at once bare and dirty. Also, and simultaneously, it occurred to her that she had no notion what step to take next, nor how, if she rang the bell, to explain herself. She temporised therefore; whistled to 'Dolph, and turned aside down the steps leading to the towpath. She would con the lie of the land before laying siege—the strength of the castle before summoning the defence.
The castle was patently strong—strong enough to excuse any disheartenment. Scarcely a window pierced its narrow butt-end, four stories high, under which the steps wound. It ended just where they met the towpath, and from its angle sprang a brick wall dead-blank, at least twelve feet high, which ran for eighty or ninety yards along the straight line of the path. Across the canal a row of unkempt cottage gardens sloped to the water, the most of them fenced from the brink of it with decayed palings, a few with elder bushes and barbed wire to fill up the gaps, while at least two ended in moraines of old meat tins and shards of crockery. And between these containing banks wound the canal, shallow and waveless, with noisome weeds trailing on its surface afloat amid soot and iridescent patches or pools of tar. In the cottage gardens not a soul was at work, nor, by their appearance, had a soul worked in them for years past. The canal, too, was deserted, save for one long monkey-boat, black as Charon's barge, that lay moored to a post on the towpath, some seventy-odd yards up stream, near where the wall of the Orphanage ended. Beyond this, and over a line of ragged thorns, the bulk of a red-brick Brewery—its roof crowned with a sky-sign—closed the view.
The monkey-boat lay with her stem down-stream, and her after-part—her habitable quarters—covered by a black tarpaulin. A solitary man was at work shovelling coal out of her middle hold into a large metal bucket. As Tilda hobbled towards him he hoisted the full bucket on his shoulders, staggered across the towpath with it, and shot its contents into a manhole under the brick wall. Tilda drew near and came to a halt, watching him.
"Afternoon," said the man, beginning to shovel again.
"Afternoon," responded Tilda.
He was a young man—she could detect this beneath his mask of coal dust. He wore a sack over his shoulders, and a black sou'wester hat with a hind-flap that fell low over his neck. But she liked the look in his eyes, though the rims of them were red and the brows caked with grit. She liked his voice, too. It sounded friendly.
"Is this the Orph'nige? What they call 'Oly Innercents?" she asked.
"That's so," the young coalheaver answered. "Want to get in?"
"I do an' I don't," said Tilda.
"Then take my advice an' don't."
He resumed his shovelling, and Tilda watched him for a while.
"Nice dorg," said he, breaking off and throwing an affable nod towards Godolphus who, having attracted no attention by flinging himself on the grass with a lolling tongue and every appearance of fatigue, was now filling up the time in quest of a flea. "No breed, but he has points. Where did you pick him up?"
"He belongs to a show."
"And," pursued Tilda, "I was wonderin' if you'd look after him while I step inside?"
She threw back her head, and the man whistled.
"You're a trustin' one, I must say!"
"You'd never be mean enough to make off with 'im, an' I won't believe it of you," spoke up Tilda boldly.
"Eh? I wasn' talkin of the dorg," he explained. "I was meanin' the Orph'nage. By all accounts 'tisn' so easy to get in—an' 'tis a sight harder to get out."
"I've got to get in," urged Tilda desperately.
"I've a message for someone inside. His name's Arthur Miles Chandon."
The young coalheaver shook his head.
"I don't know 'im," he said. "I'm new to this job, an' they don't talk to me through the coal-'ole. But you seem a well-plucked one, and what with your crutch—How did you come by it?"
"Kick of a pony."
"Seems to me you've been a good deal mixed up with animals, for your age. What about your pa and ma?"
"Never 'ad none, I thank Gord."
"Eh?" The young man laid down his shovel, lifted the flap of his sou'wester, and scratched the back of his head slowly. "Let me get the hang o' that, now."
"I've seen fathers and mothers," said the sage child, nodding at him; "and them as likes 'em is welcome to 'em."
"Gor-a-mussy!" half-groaned the young man. "If you talk like that, they'll take you in, right enough; but as to your gettin' out—"
"I'll get out, one way or 'nother—you see!" Tilda promised. "All you 'ave to do is to take charge o' this crutch an' look after the dog."
"Oh, I'll look after 'im!"
The child shook a forefinger at 'Dolph, forbidding him to follow her. The dog sank on his haunches, wagging a tail that swept the grasses in perplexed protest, and watched her as she retraced her way along the towpath.
Tilda did not once look back. She was horribly frightened; but she had pledged her word now, and it was irredeemable. From the hurrying traffic of the street she took a final breath of courage, and tugged at the iron bell-pull depending beside the Orphanage gate. A bell clanged close within the house, and the sound of it almost made her jump out of her boots.
"_And with that sound the castle all to-brast; so she took him, and they two fared forth hand in hand." "QUEST OF THE GRAIL."
The front door opened, and a slatternly woman in a soiled print dress came shuffling down the flagged pathway to the gate. She wore cloth boots, and Tilda took note that one of them was burst.
"Go away," said the woman, opening the gate just wide enough to thrust out her head. "We don't give nothing to beggars."
"I could 'a told you that," retorted Tilda. "But as it 'appens, I ain't one." She pointed to a brass letter-plate beside the wicket—it was pierced with a slit, and bore the legend, For Voluntary Donations. "Seems you collect a bit, though. Like it better, I dessay."
"Look here, if you've come with a message, let's 'ave it, an' take yourself off. It's washing-day in the 'ouse, an' I'm busy."
"Ah!" said Tilda politely, "I'm glad I came before you begun. I want"—here she unfolded her scrap of paper and made pretence to read—"I want to see the Reverend Doctor Purdie J. Glasson."
"Then you can't," snapped the woman, and was about to shut the door in her face, but desisted and drew back with a cry as a formidable yellow dog slipped through the opening, past her skirts, and into the garden.
It was 'Dolph, of course. Anxiety for his mistress had been too much for him, and had snapped the bonds of obedience; and knowing full well that he was misbehaving, he had come up furtively, unperceived. But now, having crossed the Rubicon, the rogue must brazen things out— which he did by starting a cat out of one of the dingy laurels, chivvying her some way into the house, and returning to shake himself on the front doorstep and bark in absurd triumph.
"'Dolph! 'Dolph!" called Tilda.
"Belongs to you, does he? Then fetch him out at once! You, and your dogs!"
"I'm fetchin' him fast as I can."
Tilda pushed past her, and advanced sternly to the front doorstep. "'Dolph, come here!" she commanded. 'Dolph barked once again defiantly, then laid himself down on the step in abject contrition, rolling over on his back and lifting all four legs skyward.
Tilda rolled him sideways with a slap, caught him by the scruff of the neck, and began to rate him soundly. But a moment later her grasp relaxed as a door opened within the passage, and at the sound of a footstep she looked up, to see a tall man in black standing over her and towering in the doorway.
"What is the meaning of this noise?" demanded the man in black. He was elderly and bald, with small pig-eyes, grey side-whiskers, and for mouth a hard square slit much like that of the collecting-box by the gate. A long pendulous nose came down over it and almost met an upthrust lower jaw. He wore a clerical suit, with a dingy white neck-tie; the skin about his throat hung in deep folds, and the folds were filled with an unpleasing grey stubble.
"If—if you please, sir, I was comin' with a message, an' he started after a cat. I can't break 'im of it."
"Turn him out," said the man in black. He walked to the gate and held it open while Tilda ejected Godolphus into the street. "I never allow dogs on my premises."
"Now tell me your message."
"It's about a—a boy, sir," stammered Tilda, and felt a horrible fear creeping over her now that she approached the crisis. "That is, if you're the Reverend Doctor Glasson."
"I am Doctor Glasson. Well?"
"It's about a boy," harked back poor Tilda. "He's called Arthur Miles Surname Chandon—an' he was born at a place called Kingsand, if that's any 'elp—an' there's somebody wants to see 'im most particular."
Doctor Glasson said it sharply, at the same time turning right about and leading the way towards the house. Tilda followed, while behind her the excluded 'Dolph yapped and flung himself against the gate. But the gate was lined on the inside with wire-netting, and the garden wall was neither to be leapt nor scaled.
In the porch Dr. Glasson stood aside to let the servant precede them into the house, looked after her until she vanished down the length of a dark passage that smelt potently of soapsuds and cabbage-water, and motioned the child to step within. She obeyed, while her terror and the odours of the house together caught her by the throat. But worse was her dismay when, having closed the front door, the Doctor bolted it and slipped a chain on the bolt.
"The first door to the left, if you please." He stepped past her and pushed it open, and she entered, albeit with quaking knees. The room—a large and high one—was furnished barely and like an office—with a red flock wall-paper, a brown linoleum on the floor, and in the centre of the linoleum a bulky roll-top desk and a Windsor chair. Other Windsor chairs stood in array against the walls, and a couple of rosewood bookcases with glass fronts. There was also by the fireplace an armchair covered with American leather, a rag-work hearth-rug, and a large waste-paper basket stuffed with envelopes and circulars. Over the mantelshelf hung a print in an Oxford frame, with the title Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me, and a large stain of damp in the lower left-hand corner. The mantelshelf itself supported a clock, a pair of bronze candlesticks, a movable calendar, a bottle of paste, and a wooden box with For the Little Ones painted on it in black letters.
All this the child took in almost at a glance, and notwithstanding that the room was dark. Yet it had two large windows, and they were curtainless. Its gloom came of the thick coating of dirt on their upper panes, and a couple of wire blinds that cut off all light below.
Doctor Glasson had walked straight to his desk, and stood for a few moments with his back to the child, fingering his papers and apparently engaged in thought. By-and-by he picked up a pair of spectacles, turned, and adjusted them slowly whilst he stared down on her.
"Where did you get this information?"
Tilda's first impulse was to show him her scrap of paper, but she thought better of it. She would keep it back while she could, as a possible trump card. Besides, she feared and distrusted this man with the little eyes. Seen through glasses they were worse than ever.
"He's wanted by someone very particular," she repeated.
"By whom? Speak up, child! Who sent you?"
Heaven knows to what invisible spirits the child appealed. They were certainly disreputable ones, as will be seen; but they heard her prayer, and came to her now in her extremity. Hardly knowing what she did, she opened on this man a pair of eyes seraphically innocent, and asked—
"W'y, haven't you seen my aunt?"
"She promised to call here at twelve-thirty, an' I was to meet her. But"—here Tilda had to keep a tight hold on her voice—"per'aps I'm early?"
"It's close upon one o'clock," said Doctor Glasson, with a glance towards the mantelshelf. "What is your aunt's name, and her business?"
"She's called Brown—Martha Brown—Mrs. Martha Brown, and she keeps a milliner's shop in the Edgeware Road, London," panted Tilda.
"I should have asked, What is her business with me?" Doctor Glasson corrected his question severely.
"I think—I dunno—but I think, sir, she might be wantin' to enter me for a orphlan. My pa, sir, was knocked down an' killed by a motor-car. It was in the early days," pursued Tilda, desperate now and aghast at her own invention. The lies seemed to spring to her lips full grown. "Pa was a stableman, sir, at Buckin'am Palace, and often and often I've 'eard 'im tell mother what'd be the end of 'im. He 'd seen it in a dream. And mother, she was a stewardess in a Sou'-Western boat that got cut in two last year. Maybe you read of it in the papers?"
Tears by this time filled the child's eyes. She was casting about to invent a last dying speech for her mother, when Doctor Glasson interrupted.
"If your aunt wishes to place you here, it might perhaps be managed, for a consideration. Just now we have no room for-er—non-paying children. But you began by asking for Arthur Miles."
"Yes—quite so—Chandon." He picked up a pencil and a half-sheet of paper from the desk, and wrote the name. "Born at Kingsand—I think you said Kingsand? Do you happen to know where Kingsand is? In what county, for instance?"
But Tilda had begun to scent danger again, she hardly knew why, and contented herself with shaking her head.
"Someone wants to see him. Who?"
"She's—an invalid," Tilda admitted.
"Not your aunt?"
"She's a—a friend of my aunt's."
Doctor Glasson pulled out a watch and compared it with the clock on the mantelshelf. While he did so Tilda stole a look up at his face, and more than ever it seemed to her to resemble a double trap—its slit of a mouth constructed to swallow anything that escaped between nose and chin.
"Your aunt is far from punctual. You are sure she means to call?"
"Sure," answered Tilda still hardily. "'Twelve-thirty' was her last words when she left me at the doctor's—my 'ip bein' 'urt, sir, through tumblin' out of a nomnibus, three weeks ago. But you never can depend on 'er to a few minutes up 'an down. She gets into the streets, watchin' the fashions, an' that carries 'er away. P'r'aps, sir, I 'd better go back into the street and 'ave a look for her."
"I think you had better wait here for her," said Doctor Glasson, shutting his lips with a snap. "There are some picture-books in the drawing-room."
He led the way. The drawing-room lay at the back of the house—an apartment even more profoundly depressing than the one she had left. Its one important piece of furniture was a circular table of rosewood standing in the centre of the carpet under a brass gaselier, of which the burnish had perished in patches; and in the centre of the table stood a round-topped glass case containing a stuffed kestrel, with a stuffed lark prostrate under its talons and bleeding vermilion wax. Around this ornament were disposed, as the Doctor had promised, a number of albums and illustrated books, one of which he chose and placed it in her hands, at the same time bringing forward one of a suite of rosewood chairs ranged with their backs to the walls. He motioned her to be seated.
"You shall be told as soon as ever your aunt arrives."
"Yes, sir," said Tilda feebly. For the moment all the fight had gone out of her.
He stood eyeing her, pulling at his bony finger-joints, and seemed on the point of putting some further question, but turned abruptly and left the room.
As the door closed—thank Heaven, at least, he did not bolt this one also!—a dry sob escaped the child. Why had she told that string of falsehoods? She was trapped now—imprisoned in this horrible house, not to be released until this fictitious aunt arrived, which, of course, would be never. The book on her lap lay open at a coloured lithograph of Mazeppa bound upon his steed and in full flight across the Tartar steppes. She knew the story—was it not Mr. Maggs's most thrilling "equestrian finale," and first favourite with the public? At another time she would have examined the picture eagerly. But now it swam before her, unmeaning. She closed the book, threw a glance around the four corners of the room, another at the stuffed kestrel—whose pitiless small eye strangely resembled Doctor Glasson's—and dragged herself to the window.
The lower panes of the window were filled with coloured transparencies representing in series the history of the Prodigal Son. They excluded a great deal of daylight and the whole of the view. Even by standing on tip-toe she could not look over them, and she dared not try to raise the sash.
By-and-by a thought struck her. She went back to her chair, lifted it, carried it to the window and climbed upon it; and this was no small feat or succession of feats, for as yet her thigh pained her, and fear held her half-paralysed.
What she looked upon was an oblong space enclosed by brick walls ten or twelve feet high, and divided by a lower wall—also of brick—into two parallelograms of unequal width. Of these the wider was a gravelled yard, absolutely bare, in extent perhaps an acre; and here, in various knots and groups, were gathered some two dozen children. Alongside of the yard and upon its left—that is to say, as Tilda guessed, between it and the canal—ran a narrower strip of kitchen garden, planted with leeks, cabbages, potatoes, and ending in a kind of shed—part glass-house, part out-house—built in lean-to fashion against the terminal wall, which overtopped it by several feet. The children in the yard could not look into this garden, for the dividing wall reached far above their heads.
Tilda, too, had no eyes for the garden, after a first glance had assured her it was empty. The children engaged all her attention. She had never seen anything like them; and yet they were obviously boys and girls, and in numbers pretty equally divided, What beat her was that they neither ran about nor played at any game, but walked to and fro—to and fro—as though pacing through some form of drill; and yet again they could not be drilling, for their motions were almost inert and quite aimless. Next, to her surprise, she perceived that, on no apparent compulsion, the boys kept with the boys in these separate wandering groups, and the girls with the girls; and further that, when two groups met and passed, no greeting, no nod of recognition, was ever exchanged. At any rate she could detect none. She had heard tell—indeed, it was an article of faith among the show-children with whom she had been brought up—that the sons and daughters of the well-to-do followed weird ways and practised discomfortable habits—attended public worship on Sundays, for instance, walking two and two in stiff raiment. But these children were patently very far from well-to-do. The garments of some hung about them in rags that fell short even of Tilda's easy standard. The spectacle fascinated her. For the moment it chased fear out of her mind. She was only conscious of pity—of pity afflicting and indefinable, far beyond her small understanding, and yet perhaps not wholly unlike that by which the great poet was oppressed as he followed his guide down through the infernal circles and spoke with their inhabitants. The sight did her this good—it drove out for a while, along with fear, all thought of her present situation. She noted that the majority were in twos or threes, but that here and there a child walked solitary, and that the faces of these solitary ones were hard to discern, being bent towards the ground . . .
The door-handle rattled and called her back to terror. She had no time to clamber down from her chair. She was caught.
But it was a woman who entered, the same that had opened the front gate; and she carried a tray with a glass of water on it and a plate of biscuits.
"The Doctor told me as 'ow you might be 'ungry," she explained.
"Thank you," said Tilda. "I—I was lookin' at the view."
For an instant she thought of appealing to this stranger's mercy. The woman's eyes were hard, but not unkind. They scrutinised her closely.
"You take my advice, an' get out o' this quick as you can."
The woman thumped down the tray, and made as if to leave the room with a step decisive as her speech. At the door, however, she hesitated.
"Related to 'im?" she inquired.
"Eh?" Tilda was taken aback. "'Oo's 'im?"
"I 'eard you tell the Doctor you wanted to see 'im."
"An' so I do. But I'm no relation of 'is—on'y a friend."
"I was thinkin' so. Lawful born or come-by-chance, the child's a little gentleman, an' different from the others. Blood al'ays comes out, don't it?"
"I s'pose so."
Tilda, still perched on her chair, glanced out at the children in the yard.
"You won't see 'im out there. He's in the shed at the end o' the kitchen garden, cleanin' the boots. If you've got anything good to tell 'im, an' 'll promise not to be five minutes, I might give you a run there while the Doctor's finishin' his dinner in his study. Fact is," added this strange woman, "the child likes to be alone, an' sometimes I lets 'im slip away there—when he's good, or the Doctor's been extra 'ard with 'im."
"Beats 'im?" asked Tilda, and suddenly, still erect on her chair and looking down on the woman, felt her courage flowing back full and strong. "He's a beast, then."
"You musn' talk like that," said the woman hurriedly, with a glance back at the half-open door. "Hut he's 'ard if you cross 'im—an' the child's pay bein' be'ind—'and—"
"What's your name?" demanded Tilda.
"Miss or Missis?"
"What's that to you?"
The blood surged into the woman's face, and she eyed the child suspiciously under lowered brows. Tilda slipped down from her chair. She had a sense of standing dangerously on the edge of something evil, forbidden. If only she could scream aloud and rush out—anywhere—into the open air!
"I—I was only wantin' to speak polite," she stammered. "I been impident to yer. But O, Sarah 'Uggins—O, ma'am—'elp me see 'im an' get away, an' I'll bless yer name fur ever and ever! Amen."
"Nip in front o' me," said the woman, "and be quick, then! First turnin' to the right down the stairs, an' don't clatter yer boots."
Tilda obeyed breathlessly, and found herself in a dark stone stairway. It led down steeply to the basement, and here her guide overtook and stepped ahead of her. They passed through two dirty kitchens, through a wash-house littered with damp linen and filled with steam from a copper in the corner, and emerged upon a well-court foetid with sink-water and decaying scraps of vegetables. They had met no one on their way, and it crossed Tilda's mind—but the thought was incredible—that Sarah Huggins served this vast barracks single-handed. A flight of stone steps led up from this area to the railed coping twenty feet aloft, where the sky shone pure and fresh.
"Up there, an' you 're in the garden." Tilda ran, so fast that at the head of the steps she had to clutch at the railing and draw breath.
The garden, too, was deserted. A gravelled path, scarcely four feet wide, ran straight to the end of it, and along this she hurried, not daring to look back, but aware that all the back windows were following her—watching and following her—with horrible curtainless eyes.
The garden, planted for utility, was passably well kept. It contained, in all its parcelled length, not a single flower. At the very end a few currant bushes partially hid the front of the shed and glass-house. They were the one scrap of cover, and when she reached them she had a mind to crouch and hide, if only for a moment, from the staring windows.
Her own eyes, as she passed these bushes, were fastened on the shed. But it seemed that someone else had discovered shelter here; for with a quick, half-guttural cry, like that of a startled animal, a small figure started up, close by her feet, and stood and edged away from her with an arm lifted as if to ward off a blow.
It was a small boy—a boy abominably ragged and with smears of blacking thick on his face, but for all that a good-looking child. Tilda gazed at him, and he gazed back, still without lowering his arm. He was trembling, too.
"Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" said Tilda, lifting the brim of her chip hat and quoting from one of Mr. Maggs's most effective dramatic sketches. But as the boy stared, not taking the allusion, she went on, almost in the same breath, "Is your name Arthur—Arthur Miles?"
It seemed that he did not hear. At any rate he still backed and edged away from her, with eyes distended—she had seen their like in the ring, in beautiful terrified horses, but never in human creatures.
—"Because, if you 're Arthur Miles, I got a message for you."
A tattered book lay on the turf at her feet. She picked it up and held it out to him. For a while he looked at her eyes, and from them to the book, unable to believe. Then, with a noise like a sob, he sprang and snatched it, and hid it with a hug in the breast of his coat.
"I got a message for you," repeated Tilda. "There's someone wants to see you, very bad."
"You go away!" said the boy sullenly. "You don't know. If he catches you, there's no chance."
Tilda had time in her distress to be astonished by his voice. It was pure, distinct, with the tone of a sphere not hers. Yet she recognised it. She had heard celestial beings—ladies and gentlemen in Maggs's three-shilling seats—talk in voices like this boy's.
"I've took a 'eap o' trouble to find yer," she said. "An' now I've done it, all depends on our gettin' out o' this. Ain't there no way? Do try to think a bit!"
The boy shook his head.
"There isn't any way. You let me alone, and clear."
"He can't do worse'n kill us," said Tilda desperately, with a look back at the house. "S'help me, let's try!"
But her spirit quailed.
"He won't kill you. He'll catch you, and keep you here for ever and ever."
"We'll try, all the same."
Tilda shut her teeth and held out a hand—or rather, was beginning to extend it—when a sound arrested her. It came from the door of the glass-house, and as she glanced towards it her heart leapt and stood still.
Yes, it was 'Dolph, dirty, begrimed with coal; 'Dolph fawning towards her, cringing almost on his belly, but wagging his stump of a tail ecstatically. Tilda dashed upon him.
The dog strangled down a bark, and ran back to the glass-house, but paused in the doorway a moment to make sure that she was following. It was all right. Tilda had caught the boy's hand, and was dragging him along. 'Dolph led them through the glass-house and down a flight of four steps to the broken door of a furnace-room. They pushed after him. Behind the furnace a second doorway opened upon a small coal-cellar, through the ceiling of which, in the right-hand corner, poured a circular ray of light. The ray travelled down a moraine of broken coal, so broad at the base that it covered the whole cellar floor, but narrowing upwards and towards the manhole through which the daylight shone.
Down through the manhole, too—O bliss!—came the sound of a man's whistle.
"Ph'ut! Phee-ee—uht! Darn that fool of a dog! Ph'w—"
"For the Lord's sake!" called Tilda, pushing the boy up the coal-shute ahead of her and panting painfully as her feet sank and slid in the black pile.
"Eh? . . . Hullo!" A man's face peered down, shutting off the daylight. "Well, in all my born days—"
He reached down a hand.
"The boy first," gasped Tilda, "—and quick!"
IN WHICH CHILDE ARTHUR LOSES ONE MOTHER AND GAINS ANOTHER.
"But and when they came to Easter Gate, Easter Gate stood wide; 'y' are late, y' are late,' the Porter said; 'This morn my Lady died.'"—OLD BALLAD.
"Well, in all my born days!" said the young coalheaver again, as he landed the pair on the canal bank.
He reached down a hand and drew up 'Dolph by the scruff of his neck. The dog shook himself, and stood with his tail still wagging.
"Shut down the hole," Tilda panted, and catching sight of the iron cover, while the young man hesitated she began to drag at it with her own hands.
"Steady on there!" he interposed. "I got five hundred more to deliver."
"You don't deliver another shovelful till we're out o' this," said Tilda positively, stamping the cover in place and standing upon it for safety. "What's more, if anyone comes an' arsks a question, you ha'n't seen us."
"Neither fur nor feather of ye," said the young man, and grinned.
She cast a look at the boy; another up and down the towing-path.
"Got such a thing as a cake o' soap hereabouts? You wouldn', I suppose—" and here she sighed impatiently.
"I 'ave, though. Always keeps a bit in my trouser pocket." He produced it with pride.
Said Tilda, "I don't know yername, but you're more like a Garden Angel than any I've met yet in your walk o' life. Hand it over, an' keep a look-out while I wash this child's face. I can't take 'im through the streets in this state." She turned upon the boy. "Here, you just kneel down—so—with your face over the water, an' as near as you can manage." He obeyed in silence. He was still trembling. "That's right, on'y take care you don't overbalance." She knelt beside him, dipped both hands in the water, and began to work the soap into a lather. "What's the 'andiest way to the Good Samaritan?" she asked, speaking over her shoulder.
"Meanin' the 'orspital?"
"Yes." She took the boy's passive face between her hands and soaped it briskly. "The 'andiest way, an' the quietest, for choice."
"The 'andiest way," said the young coalheaver, after considering for half a minute, "an' the quietest, is for me to cast off the bow-straps here an' let her drop across stream. You can nip up through the garden yonder—it don't belong to nobody just now. That'll bring you out into a place called Pollard's Row, an' you turn straight off on your right. First turnin' opposite on the right by the 'Royal Oak,' which is a public-'ouse, second turnin' to the left after that, an' you're in Upper Town Street, an' from there to the Good Samaritan it's no more 'n a stone's throw."
Tilda was silent for a few moments whilst she fixed these directions in her mind.
"It do seem," she said graciously while she dried the boy's face with the skirt of her frock, "like as if you 'd dropped 'ere from 'eaven. What we should a-done without you, I can't think."
"You'd best thank that dog o' your'n." The young man bent to cast off his rope. "He broke away from me once, an' I made sure I'd lost 'im. But by-an'-by back he came like a mad thing, an' no need to tell me you was inside there. He was neither to hold nor to bind, an' I do believe if he hadn't thought o' the manhole he'd 'a-broke the wall down, or elst his 'eart."
"When I tell you 'e got me in as well as out—But, good sake, I musn' stand 'ere talkin'! Gimme my crutch, an' shove us across, that's a dear man."
She pushed the boy before her on to the barge. 'Dolph sprang on board at their heels, and the young coalheaver thrust the bows across with his pole. The canal measured but seventeen or eighteen feet from brink to brink, and consequently the boat, which was seventy feet long at least, fell across at a long angle. The garden on the opposite shore was unfenced, or rather, its rotten palings had collapsed with time and the pressure of a rank growth of elder bushes.
"So long, an' th' Lord bless yer!"
Tilda took the boy's hand and jumped ashore.
"Same to you, an' wishin' you luck!" responded the young coalheaver cheerfully. "Look 'ere," he added, "if you get in trouble along o' this, I'm willin' to stand in for my share. Sam Bossom's my name— employ of Hucks, Canal End Basin. If they lag you for this, you just refer 'em to Sam Bossom, employ of Hucks—everyone knows Hucks; an' I'll tell 'em—well, darned if I know what I'll tell 'em, unless that we was all under the influence o' drink."
"You're a white man," responded Tilda, "though you don't look it; but there ain't goin' to be no trouble, not if I can 'elp. If anyone arsks questions, you han't seen us, mind."
"Fur nor feather of ye," he repeated. He watched the pair as they dived through the elder bushes; saw them, still hand in hand, take the path on the left side of the garden, where its party hedge could best screen them from the back windows of the Orphanage; and poled back meditatively.
"Got an 'ead on her shoulders, that child!" On their way up the garden Tilda kept silence. She was busy, in fact, with Sam Bossom's complicated itinerary, repeating it over and over to fix it in her mind. She was fearful, too, lest some inquisitive neighbour, catching sight of them, might stop them and challenge to know their business. The streets once gained, she felt easier—easier indeed with every yard she put between her and that house of horrors. But the streets, too, held their dangers. The bells had rung in the elementary schools; all respectable boys and girls were indoors, deep in the afternoon session, and she had heard of attendance officers, those prowling foes.
At the end of Pollard's Row—a squalid street of tenement houses—she suffered indeed a terrible scare. A benevolent-looking middle-aged lady—a district visitor, in fact—emerging from one of these houses and arrested perhaps at sight of the crutch or of the boy's strange rags, stopped her and asked where she was going.
Tilda fell back on the truth. It was economical.
"To the 'orspital," she answered, "the Good Samaritan."
Then she blundered.
"It's 'ereabouts, ain't it, ma'am?"
"Not very far," replied the lady; "two or three streets only. Shall I show you the way? I have plenty of time."
"Thank you," said Tilda (she was suffering a reaction, and for a moment it dulled the edge of her wits), "but I know the Good Samaritan, an' they know all about me."
"What's the matter?"
"'Ip trouble, ma'am. I been treated for it there these three weeks."
"That is strange," said the lady. "You have been going there for three weeks, and yet you don't know your way?"
"I been a in-patient. I was took there"—she was about to say "on a stretcher," but checked herself in time—"I was took there in the evenin' after dark. Father couldn' take me by day, in his work-time. An' this is my first turn as day-patient, an' that's why my brother 'ere is let off school to see me along," she wound up with a desperate rush of invention.
"You don't live in my district? What's your father's name?"
"No, ma'am. He's called Porter—Sam Porter, an' he works on the coal-barges. But I wouldn' advise you, I reely wouldn', because father's got opinions, an' can't abide visitors. I've 'eard 'im threaten 'em quite vi'lent."
"But I won't 'ave you say anything 'gainst father," said Tilda, taking her up quickly, "for 'e's the best father in the world, if 'twasn' fur the drink."
The effect of this masterstroke was that the lady gave her a copper and let her go, wishing her a speedy recovery. The gift, although she took it, did not appear to placate Tilda. She hobbled up the next street with quickened pace, now and then muttering angrily.
"Serves me right!" she broke out at length. "Bill—you don't know Bill, but 'e's the wisest man in the 'ole world, an' the kindest, an' the bestest. Bill would 'a-slapped my ear if 'e 'd 'eard me jus' now. Near upon gave the show away, I did, an' all through wantin' to 'ear somebody else tell what I knew a'ready. Never let nobody else make sure for you—that's one o' Bill's sayin's. Take warnin' by me, an' don't you ever forget it, Arthur Miles."
The boy had not spoken all the way. He glanced at her timidly, and she saw that he did not understand. Also it was plain that the streets, with their traffic, puzzled him; at the approach of every passer-by he would halt uncertainly, like a puppy not yet way-wise. By-and-by he said—
"But if that's so, you must be my sister."
"I'm not," said Tilda sharply. "What put it into your 'ead?"
"You told the lady—" he began.
"Eh? So I did. But that was all flam." He could make nothing of this. "I was kiddin' of 'er—tellin' what wasn' true," she explained.
He walked forward a few steps with a frown—not disapproving, but painfully thinking this out.
"And about the Hospital—wasn't that true either?"
"Yes," Tilda nodded. "We're goin' to the 'orspital all right. That's why I came to fetch yer. There's someone wants to see yer, ever so bad."
"I know about the Good Samaritan," announced the boy.
"I bet yer don't," she contradicted.
"He found a man, a traveller, that some thieves had hurt and left by the road. Going down to Jericho, it was; and he poured oil and wine into his wounds."
"Oh, cheese it!" said Tilda. "Oo's a-kiddin' now? An' see 'ere, Arthur Miles—it don't matter with me, a lie up or down; I'm on'y Tilda. But don't you pick up the 'abit, or else you'll annoy me. I can't tell why ezactly, but it don't sit on you."
"Tilda?" The boy caught up her name like an echo. "Tilda what?"
"The Lord knows. Tilda nothin'—Tilda o' Maggs's, if you like, an' nobody's child, anyway."
"But that isn't possible," he said, after thinking a moment. "They called me that sometimes, back—back—"
"At the Orph'nige, eh? 'Oo called you that? The Doctor? No," said Tilda hurriedly, as he halted with a shiver, "don't look be'ind; 'e's not anywhere near. An' as for the Good Samaritan, you're wrong about that, too; for 'ere's the Good Samaritan!"
She pointed at the building, and he stared. He could not comprehend at all, but she had switched him off the current of his deadly fear.
"Now you just wait 'ere by the steps," she commanded, "an' 'Dolph'll wait by you an' see you come to no 'arm. Understand, 'Dolph? I'm goin' inside for a minute—only a minute, mind; but if anybody touches Arthur Miles, you pin 'im!"
'Dolph looked up at his mistress, then at the boy. He wagged his tail, not enthusiastically. He would fain have followed her, but he understood, and would obey.
Tilda went up the steps, and up the stairs. On the landing, as chance would have it, she met the Second Nurse coming out from the ward, with a sheet in one hand and a tray of medicines in the other.
"You extremely naughty child!" began the Second Nurse, but not in the shrill tone nor with quite the stern disapproval the child had expected. "When the doctor told you half an hour exactly, and you have been hours! What have you been doing?"
"Lookin' up the old folks," she answered, and took note first that the medicine bottles were those that had stood on the sick woman's table, and next that the Second Nurse, as she came out, transferred the sheet to her arm and closed the door behind her.
"You must wait here for a moment, now you have come so late. I have had to give you another bed; and now I've to fetch some hot water, but I'll be back in a minute."
"Folks don't make beds up with hot water," thought Tilda.
She watched the nurse down the passage, stepped to the door, and turned the handle softly.
There was no change in the ward except that a tall screen stood by the sick woman's bed. Tilda crept to the screen on tip-toe, and peered around it.
Ten seconds—twenty seconds—passed, and then she drew back and stole out to the landing, closing the door as softly as she had opened it. In the light of the great staircase window her face was pale and serious.
She went down the stairs slowly.
"Seems I made a mistake," she said, speaking as carelessly as she could, but avoiding the boy's eyes. "You wasn' wanted up there, after all."
But he gazed at her, and flung out both arms with a strangling sob.
"You won't take me back! You'll hide me—you won't take me back!"
"Oh, 'ush!" said Tilda. "No, I won't take yer back, an' I'll do my best, but—oh, 'Dolph!"—she brushed the back of her hand across her eyes and turned to the dog with the bravest smile she could contrive— "to think of me bein' a mother, at my time o' life!"
TEMPORARY EMBARRASSMENTS OF A THESPIAN.
"Sinner that I am," said the Showman, "see how you are destroying and ruining my whole livelihood!"—DON QUIXOTE.
Mr. Sam Bossom, having poled back to the towpath, stepped ashore, made fast his bow moorings, stood and watched the two childish figures as they passed up the last slope of the garden out of sight, and proceeded to deliver his remaining hundredweights of coal—first, however, peering down the manhole and listening, to assure himself that all was quiet below.
"If," said he thoughtfully, "a man was to come an' tell me a story like that, I'd call 'im a liar."
Twice or thrice before finishing his job he paused to listen again, but heard nothing. Still in musing mood, he scraped up the loose coal that lay around the manhole, shovelled it in, re-fixed the cover, and tossed his shovel on board. His next business was to fetch a horse from the stables at the Canal End and tow the boat back to her quarters; and having taken another glance around, he set off and up the towpath at a pretty brisk pace. It would be five o'clock before he finished his work: at six he had an engagement, and it would take him some time to wash and titivate.
Canal End Basin lay hard upon three-quarters of a mile up stream, and about half that distance beyond the bend of the Great Brewery—a malodorous pool packed with narrow barges or monkey-boats—a few loading leisurably, the rest moored in tiers awaiting their cargoes. They belonged to many owners, but their type was well nigh uniform. Each measured seventy feet in length, or a trifle over, with a beam of about seven; each was built with rounded bilges, and would carry from twenty-five to thirty tons of cargo; each provided, aft of its hold or cargo-well, a small cabin for the accommodation of its crew by day; and for five-sixths of its length each was black as a gondola of Venice. Only, where the business part of the boat ended and its cabin began, a painted ribbon of curious pattern ornamented the gunwale, and terminated in two pictured stern-panels.
Wharves and storehouses surrounded the basin, or rather enclosed three sides of it, and looked upon the water across a dead avenue (so to speak) of cranes and bollards; buildings of exceedingly various height and construction, some tiled, others roofed with galvanised iron. Almost every one proclaimed on its front, for the information of the stranger, its owner's name and what he traded in; and the stranger, while making his choice between these announcements, had ample time to contrast their diversity of size and style with the sober uniformity that prevailed afloat.
The store and yard of Mr. Christopher Hucks stood at the head of the basin, within a stone's-throw of the Weigh Dock, and but two doors away from the Canal Company's office. It was approached through folding-doors, in one of which a smaller opening had been cut for pedestrians, and through this, on his way to the stables in the rear, Mr. Sam Bossom entered. He entered and halted, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, which, grimed as it was with coal grit, but further inflamed their red rims. In the centre of the yard, which had been empty when he went to work, stood a large yellow caravan; and on the steps of the caravan sat a man—a stranger—peeling potatoes over a bucket.
"Hullo!" said Sam.
The stranger—a long-faced man with a dead complexion, an abundance of dark hair, and a blue chin—nodded gloomily.
"The surprise," he answered, "is mutual. If it comes to that, young man, you are not looking your best either; though doubtless, if washed off, it would reveal a countenance not sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought—thought such as, alas! must be mine—thought which, if acquainted with the poets, you will recognise as lying too deep for tears."
"Governor settin' up in a new line?" asked Sam, slowly contemplating the caravan and a large tarpaulin-covered wagon that stood beside it with shafts resting on the ground.
"If, my friend, you allude to Mr. Christopher Hucks, he is not setting up in any new line, but pursuing a fell career on principles which (I am credibly informed) are habitual to him, and for which I can only hope he will be sorry when he is dead. The food, sir, of Mr. Christopher Hucks is still the bread of destitution; his drink, the tears of widows; and the groans of the temporarily embarrassed supply the music of his unhallowed feast."
"There is a bit o' that about the old man, until you get to know him," assented Sam cheerfully.
"Mr. Christopher Hucks—" began the stranger with slow emphasis, dropping a peeled potato into the bucket and lifting a hand with an open clasp-knife towards heaven.
But here a voice from within the caravan interrupted him.
"I can't find the saucepan."
A lady appeared at the hatch of the doorway above. Her hair hung in disarray over her well-developed shoulders, and recent tears had left their furrows on a painted but not uncomely face.
"I—I—well, to confess the truth, I pawned it, my bud. Dear, every cloud has its silver lining, and meanwhile what shall we say to a simple fry? You have an incomparable knack of frying."
"But where's the dripping?"
Her husband groaned.
"The dripping! The continual dripping! Am I—forgive the bitterness of the question—but am I a stone, love?"
He asked it with a hollow laugh, and at the same time with a glance challenged Sam's approval for his desperate pleasantry.
Sam jerked his thumb to indicate a wooden out-house on the far side of the yard.
"I got a shanty of my own across there, and a few fixin's. If the van's anchored here, an' I can set you up with odds-an'-ends such as a saucepan, you're welcome."
"A friend in need, sir, is a friend indeed," said the stranger impressively; and Sam's face brightened, for he had heard the proverb before, and it promised to bring the conversation, which he had found some difficulty in following, down to safe, familiar ground. "Allow me to introduce you—but excuse me, I have not the pleasure of knowing your name—"
"Delighted! 'Bossom' did you say? B—O—double S—it should have been 'Blossom,' sir, with a slight addition; or, with an equally slight omission—er—'Bosom,' if my Arabella will excuse me. On two hands, Mr. Bossom, you narrowly escape poetry." (Sam looked about him uneasily.) "But, as Browning says, 'The little more and how much it is, the little less and what miles away.' Mine is Mortimer, sir—Stanislas Horatio Mortimer. You have doubtless heard of it?"
"Can't say as I 'ave," Sam confessed.
"Is it possible?" Mr. Mortimer was plainly surprised, not to say hurt. He knit his brows, and for a moment seemed to be pondering darkly. "You hear it, Arabella? But no matter. As I was saying, sir, I desire the pleasure of introducing you to my wife, Mrs. Mortimer, better known to fame, perhaps, as Miss Arabella St. Maur. You see her, Mr. Bossom, as my helpmeet under circumstances which (though temporarily unfavourable) call forth the true woman—naked, in a figurative sense, and unadorned. But her Ophelia, sir, has been favourably, nay enthusiastically, approved by some of the best critics of our day."
This again left Sam gravelled. He had a vague notion that the lady's Ophelia must be some admired part of her anatomy, but contented himself with touching his brow politely and muttering that he was Mrs. Mortimer's to command. The lady, who appeared to be what Sam called to himself a good sort, smiled down on him graciously, and hoped that she and her husband might be favoured with his company at supper.
"It's very kind of you, ma'am," responded Sam; "but 'fact is I han't knocked off work yet. 'Must go now and fetch out th' old hoss for a trifle of haulage; an' when I get back I must clean meself an' shift for night-school—me bein' due early there to fetch up leeway. You see," he explained, "bein' on the move wi' the boats most o' my time, I don't get the same chances as the other fellows. So when I hauls ashore, as we call it, I 'ave to make up lost time."
"A student, I declare!" Mr. Mortimer saluted him. Rising from the steps of the caravan, he rubbed a hand down his trouser-leg and extended it. "Permit me to grasp, sir, the horny palm of self-improvement. A scholar in humble life! and—as your delicacy in this small matter of the saucepan sufficiently attests—one of Nature's gentlemen to boot! I prophesy that you will go far, Mr. Bossom. May I inquire what books you thumb?"
"Thumb?" Sam, his hard hand released, stared at it a moment perplexed. "That ain't the method, sir; not at our school. But I'm gettin' along, and the book is called Lord Macaulay."
"What? Macaulay's Essays?"
"It's called Lays, sir—Lord Macaulay's Lays. The rest of the class chose it, an' I didn' like to cry off, though I 'd not a-flown so high as a lord myself—not to start with."
"The Lays of Ancient Rome? My dear Bossom—my dear Smiles—you'll allow me to dub you Smiles? On Self Help, you know. I like to call my friends by these playful sobriquets, and friends we are going to be, you and I. My dear fellow, I used to know 'em by heart—"
'Lars Porsena of Clusium By the nine gods he swore—'
"—Is that the ticket, hey?"
Mr. Mortimer clapped him on the shoulder. "Dang it!" breathed Sam, "how small the world is!"
"Smiles, we must be friends. Even if, for a paltry trifle of seven pounds fifteen and six, I am condemned by your master (whom you will excuse my terming a miscreant) to eke out the dregs of my worthless existence in this infernal yard—no, my loved Arabella, you will pardon me, but as a practical man I insist on facing the worst—even so I have found a congenial spirit, a co-mate and brother in exile, a Friend in my retreat Whom I can whisper: 'Solitude is sweet.' Pursue, my dear Smiles! You are young: hope sits on your helm and irradiates it. For me, my bark is stranded, my fortunes shipwrecked, my career trickles out in the sands. Nevertheless, take the advice of an Elder Brother, and pursue. By the way"—Mr. Mortimer drew from his breast-pocket the stump of a half-consumed cigar—"I regret that I have not its fellow to offer you; but could you oblige me with a match?"
Sam produced a couple of sulphur matches.
"I thank you." Mr. Mortimer lit and inhaled. "A—ah!" he sighed between two luxurious puffs. "Connoisseurs—epicures—tell me a cigar should never be lit twice. But with tobacco of this quality—the last of the box, alas! All its blooming companions—and, between you and me, smuggled." He winked knowingly.
Just then a hooter from the Great Brewery announced five o'clock. Sam groaned. He had engaged himself to the schoolmaster for an hour's private tuition before the Evening Class opened, and Mr. Mortimer's fascinating talk had destroyed his last chance of keeping that engagement. Even if he dropped work straight away, it would take him a good three-quarters of an hour to clean himself and don his best suit.
He was explaining this to Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer when, his eyes resting on the empty shafts of the wagon, a happy thought occurred to him.
"O' course," he began, "—but there, I don't like to suggest it, sir."
"Say on, my friend."
"Well—I was thinkin' that you, may be, bein' accustomed to hosses—"
"My father," put in Mr. Mortimer, "rode to hounds habitually. A beau ideal, if I may say so, of the Old English squire. It is in the blood."
"I know it's a come-down," Sam owned. "And a shilling at most for overtime—meanin' no offence—"
Mr. Mortimer waved a hand.
"If," said he, "it be a question of my rendering you any small service, I beg, my friend—I command—that all question of pecuniary recompense be left out of the discussion."
Sam, feeling that he had to deal with a noble character, explained that the job was an easy one; merely to lead or ride one of the horses down the hauling-path to where the boat lay, to hitch on the tackle, cast off straps, pull up and ship the two crowbars to which they were made fast, and so take the tiller and steer home. The horse knew his business, and would do the rest.
"And you can't mistake the boat. Duchess of Teck is her name, an' she lies about three ropes' lengths this side of the iron bridge, just as you come abreast o' the brick wall that belongs to the Orph'nage."
"Bring forth the steed," commanded Mr. Mortimer. "Nay, I will accompany you to the stables and fetch him."
"And the saucepan! Don't forget the saucepan!" Mrs. Mortimer called after them in a sprightly voice as they crossed the yard together.
"Ha, the saucepan!" Within the stable doorway Mr. Mortimer stood still and pressed a hand to his brow. "You cannot think, my dear Smiles, how that obligation weighs on me. The expense of a saucepan—what is it? And yet—" He seemed to ponder. Of a sudden his brow cleared. "—Unless, to be sure—that is to say, if you should happen to have a shilling about you?"
"I got no change but 'arf-a-crown, if that's any use," answered the charmed Sam.
"Nothing smaller? Still," suggested Mr. Mortimer quickly, "I could bring back the change."
"It will please Arabella, too. In point of fact, during the whole of our married life I have made it a rule never to absent myself from her side without bringing back some trifling gift. Women—as you will understand one of these days—set a value on these petits soins; and somewhere in the neighbourhood of the iron bridge a tinsmith's should not be hard to find . . . Ah, thanks, my dear fellow—thanks inexpressibly! Absurd of me, of course; but you cannot think what a load you have taken off my mind."
Sam unhitched one of a number of hauling tackles hanging against the wall, and led forth his horse—a sturdy old grey, by name Jubilee. Casting the tackle carelessly on the animal's back, he handed Mr. Mortimer the headstall rope, and left him, to return two minutes later with the saucepan he had promised.
"She must use this one for the time," he explained. "And afterwards yours will come as a surprise."
"It must be so, I suppose," assented Mr. Mortimer, but after a pause, and reluctantly, averting his eyes from the accursed thing.
To spare him, Sam hurried across to deliver it to the lady, who awaited them in the doorway: and thus approaching he became aware that she was making mysterious signals. He glanced behind him. Plainly the signals were not directed at her husband, who had halted to stoop and pass a hand over old Jubilee's near hind pastern, and in a manner almost more than professional. Sam advanced, in some wonder. Mrs. Mortimer reached down a shapely hand for the pan-handle, leaned as she did so, and murmured—
"You will not lend money to Stanislas? He is apt, when the world goes ill with him, to seek distraction, to behave unconventionally. It is not a question of drowning his cares, for the least little drop acting upon his artistic temperament—"
But at this moment her husband, having concluded his inspection of the grey, called out to be given a leg-up, and Sam hurried back to oblige.
"Thank you. Time was, Smiles, when with hand laid lightly on the crupper, I could have vaulted."
Overcome by these reminiscences, Mr. Mortimer let his chin sink, his legs dangle, and rode forward a pace or two in the classical attitude of the Last Survivor from Cabul; but anon looked up with set jaw and resolution in his eye, took a grip with his knees, and challenged—
"Give a man a horse he can ride, Give a man a boat he can sail, And his something or other—I forget the exact expression— On sea nor shore shall fail!"
—"Fling wide the gate, Smiles!" He was now the Dashing Cavalier, life-sized. "Take care of yourself, poppet!"
He gave his bridle-rein a shake (so to speak), turned, blew a kiss to his spouse, dug heel and jogged forth chanting—
"Tirra tirra by the river Sang Sir Lancelot!"
MR. MORTIMER'S ADVENTURE.
"Old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?"—HAMLET
All the way along the canal bank Mr. Mortimer continued to carol. Mercurial man! Like all actors he loved applause, but unlike the most of them he was capable of supplying it when the public failed; and this knack of being his own best audience had lifted him, before now, out of quite a number of Sloughs of Despond and carried him forward singing.
He had left care behind him in Mr. Hucks's yard, and so much of noble melancholy as he kept (for the sake of artistic effect) took a tincture from the sunset bronzing the smoke-laden sky and gilding the unlovely waterway. Like the sunset, Mr. Mortimer's mood was serene and golden. His breast, expanding, heaved off all petty constricting worries, "like Samson his green wythes": they fell from him as he rode, and as he rode he chanted—
"The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves And flamed upon the brazen greaves Of bold Sir Lancelot . . ."
Old Jubilee—if, like John Gilpin's horse, he wondered more and more— was a philosophical beast and knew his business. Abreast of the boat, beside the angle of the Orphanage wall, he halted for his rider to alight, and began to nose for herbage among the nettles. Nor did he betray surprise when Mr. Mortimer, after a glance down the towpath towards the iron bridge and the tram-lights passing there, walked off and left him to browse.
Fifteen minutes passed. The last flush of sunset had died out of the sky, and twilight was deepening rapidly, when Mr. Mortimer came strolling back. Apparently—since he came empty-handed—his search for a saucepan had been unsuccessful. Yet patently the disappointment had not affected his spirits, for at sight of Old Jubilee still cropping in the dusk he stood still and gave utterance to a lively whoop.
The effect of this sobered him. Old Jubilee was not alone. Hurriedly out of the shadow of the Orphanage wall arose a grey-white figure—a woman. It seemed that she had been kneeling there. Now, as Mr. Mortimer advanced, she stood erect, close back against the masonry, waiting for him to pass.
"'S a female," decided Mr. Mortimer, pulling himself together and advancing with a hand over his brow, the better to distinguish the glimmer of her dress. "'S undoubtedly a female. Seems to be looking for something . . ." He approached and lifted his hat. "Command me, madam!"
The woman drew herself yet closer under the shadow.
"Go your way, please!" she answered sharply, with a catch of her breath.
"You mishun'erstand. Allow me iggs—I beg pardon, eggs—plain. Name's Mortimer—Stanislas 'Ratio, of that ilk. A Scotch exshpression." Here he pulled himself together again, and with an air of anxious lucidity laid a precise accent on every syllable. "The name, I flatter myself, should be a guarantee. No reveller, madam, I s'hure you; appearances against me, but no Bacchanal; still lesh—shtill less I should iggs—or, if you prefer it, eggs—plain, gay Lothario. Trust me, ma'am—married man, fifteen years' standing—Arabella—tha's my wife— never a moment's 'neasiness—"
'Two shouls'—you'll excuse me, souls—' with but a single thought, Two hearts that beat ash one.'
"Between you and me, ma'am, we have thoughts of applying for Dunmow flitch. Quaint old custom, Dunmow flitch. Heard of it, I dareshay?"
"I wish you would go about your business."
Mr. Mortimer emitted a tragic laugh.
"I will, madam—I will: if it please you witness to what base uses we may return, Horatio. Allow me first remove mishunderstanding. Preshumed you to be searching for something—hairpin for exshample. Common occurrence with my Arabella. No offensh—merely proffered my shervices . . . The deuce! What's that?"
The woman seemed inclined to run, but stood hesitating.
"You heard it? There! close under the wall—"
Mr. Mortimer stepped forward and peered into the shadow. He was standing close above the manhole, and to the confusion of all his senses he saw the cover of the manhole lift itself up; saw the rim of it rise two, three inches, saw and heard it joggle back into its socket.
"For God's sake go away!" breathed the woman.
"Norrabit of it, ma'am. Something wrong here. Citizen's duty, anything wrong—"
Here the cover lifted itself again. Mr. Mortimer deftly slipped three fingers under its rim, and reaching back with his other hand produced from his pocket the second of Sam's two matches.
"Below there!" he hailed sepulchrally, at the same moment striking the match on the tense seat of his trousers and holding it to the aperture. "Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness . . . Eh? . . . Good Lord!"— he drew back and dropped the match—"it's a clergyman!"
He clapped down the cover in haste, sprang to his feet, and lifting his hat, made her the discreetest of bows. He was sober, now, as a judge.
"A thousand pardons, madam! I have seen nothing—believe me, nothing."
He strode in haste to Old Jubilee's headstall and began to back him towards the boat. The woman gazed at him for a moment in mere astonishment, then stepped quickly to his side.
"I didn' know," she stammered. "You don't look nor talk like a bargee."
Here her voice came to a halt, but in the dusk her eyes appeared to question him.
"Few of us are what we seem, ma'am," Mr. Mortimer sighed. "Bargee for the nonce I am, yet gentleman enough to understand a delicate situation. Your secret is safe with me, and so you may tell your—your friend."
"Then you must a-seen them?" she demanded.
"Them?" echoed Mr. Mortimer.
"No," she went on hurriedly, mistaking his hesitation. "They made you promise, an' I don't want to know. If I knew, he'd force it out o' me, an' then he 'd cut my heart out."
She glanced over her shoulder, and Mr. Mortimer, interpreting the glance, nodded in the direction of the manhole.
"Meanin' his Reverence?" he asked.
"His name's Glasson. The Orph'nage belongs to him. It's a serious thing for him to lose one o' the children, and he's like a madman about it ever since . . ." She broke off and put out a hand to help him with the haulage tackle. "Where are you taking her?"
"Her? The boat? Oh, back to Hucks's—Christopher Hucks, Anchor Wharf, Canal End Basin. 'Anchor,' you'll observe,—supposed emblem of Hope." He laughed bitterly.
"Yes, yes," she nodded. "And quick—quick as ever you can! Here, let me help—" She caught at one of the two crowbars that served for mooring-posts and tugged at it, using all her strength. "He'll be coming around here," she panted, and paused for a moment to listen. "If he catches me talkin', God knows what'll happen!" She tugged again.
"Steady does it," said Mr. Mortimer; and having helped her to draw the bar up, he laid it in the boat as noiselessly as he could and ran to the second. "There's no one coming," he announced. "But see here, if you're in fear of the man, let me have another go at the manhole. He may be down there yet, and if so I'll give him the scare of his life. Yes, ma'am, the scare of his life. You never saw my Hamlet, ma'am? You never heard me hold parley with my father's ghost? Attend!"
Mr. Mortimer stepped to the manhole and struck thrice upon it with his heel.
"Glasson!" he called, in a voice so hollow that it seemed to rumble down through the bowels of earth. "Glasson, forbear!"
"For God's sake—" The woman dragged at his shoulder as he knelt.
"All is discovered, Glasson! Thy house is on fire, thy orphans are flown. Rake not the cellarage for their bones, but see the newspapers. Already, Glasson, the newsboys run about the streets. It spreads, Glasson; may'st hear them call. Like wildfire it spreads. ''Orrible discovery of 'uman remains! A clergyman suspected!'"
Here Mr. Mortimer, warm to his work, let out a laugh so blood-curdling that Old Jubilee bolted the length of his rope.
"The boat!" gasped the woman.
Mr. Mortimer turned and saw the boat glide by the bank like a shadow; heard the thud of Old Jubilee's hoofs, and sprang in pursuit. The woman ran with him.
But the freshest horse cannot bolt far with a 72-feet monkey-boat dragging on his shoulders, and at the end of fifty yards, the towrope holding, Old Jubilee dropped to a jog-trot. The woman caught her breath as Mr. Mortimer jumped aboard and laid hold of the tiller. But still she ran beside panting.
"You won't tell him?"
Mr. Mortimer waved a hand.
"And—and you'll hide 'em—for he's bound to come askin'—you'll hide 'em if you can—"
Mr. Mortimer heard, but could not answer for the moment, the steerage claiming all his attention. When he turned towards the bank she was no longer there. He looked back over his shoulder. She had come to a dead halt and stood watching, her print gown glimmering in the dusk. And so, as the boat rounded the bend by the Brewery, he lost sight of her.
He passed a hand over his brow.
"Mysterious business," he mused; "devilish mysterious. On the face of it looks as if my friend Smiles, not content with self-help in its ordinary forms, has been helping himself to orphans! Must speak to him about it."
He pondered, gazing up the dim waterway, and by-and-by broke into a chuckle.
He chuckled again twenty minutes later, when, having stabled Old Jubilee, he crossed the yard to sup and to season the meal with a relation of his adventure.
"Such an encounter, my poppet!" he announced, groping his way across to the caravan, where his spouse had lit the lamp and stood in the doorway awaiting him. "Smiles—our ingenuous Smiles—has decoyed, has laid me under suspicion; and of what, d'you think? Stealing orphans!"
"Hush!" answered Mrs. Mortimer. "They 're here."
"They? Who? . . . Not the bailiffs? Arabella, don't tell me it's the bailiffs again!"
Mr. Mortimer drew back as though a snake lay coiled on the caravan steps.
"It's not the bailiffs, Stanislas; it's the orphans."
"But—but, my sweet, there must be some mistake. I—er—actually, of course, I have nothing to do with any orphans whatsoever."
"Oh, yes, you have," his wife assured him composedly. "They are inside here, with a yellow dog."
While Mr. Mortimer yet reeled under this news the door of the courtyard rattled and creaked open in the darkness. A lantern showed in the opening, and the bearer of it, catching sight of the lit caravan, approached with quick, determined strides.
"Can you inform me," asked a high clerical voice, "where I can find Mr. Christopher Hucks?"
The stranger held his lantern high, so that its ray fell on his face, and with that Mr. Mortimer groaned and collapsed upon the lowest step, where mercifully his wife's ample shadow spread an aegis over him.
"Mr. Hucks, sir?" Mrs. Mortimer answered the challenge. "I saw him, not twenty minutes ago, step into his private office there to the left, and by the light in the window he's there yet."
"But who is it?" she asked, as the stranger, swinging his lantern, marched straight up to Mr. Hucks's door.
"Good Lord, it's the man himself—Glasson! And he's come for his orphans."
"He shan't have 'em, then," said Mrs. Mortimer.
IN WHICH MR. HUCKS TAKES A HAND.
"A many-sided man."—COLERIDGE ON SHAKESPEARE.
Let Mr. Christopher Hucks introduce himself in his own customary way, that is, by presenting his card of business:—
CHRISTOPHER HUCKS ANCHOR WHARF, CANAL END BASIN, BURSFIELD CANAL CARRIER, LIGHTERMAN, FREIGHTER AND WHARFINGER BOAT BUILDER, COAL AND GENERAL MERCHANT AUCTIONEER, PRACTICAL VALUER, HOUSE AND ESTATE AGENT - FIRE, LIFE, ACCIDENT AND PLATE GLASS INSURAMCES EFFECTED FIRE AND INCOME TAX CLAIMS PREPARED AND ADJUSTED LIVE STOCK INSURED AGAINST DEATH FROM ACCIDENT OR DISEASE SERVANTS REGISTRY OFFICE - AGENT FOR JOHN TAYLOR AND CO.'S PHOSPHATE AND SOLUBLE BONE MANURES COPPERAS, CHARCOAL, ETC., FOR SEWAGE AND OTHER PURPOSES ACIDS AND ANILINES FOR THE TEXTILE TRADES - VALUATIONS FOR PROBATE EMIGRATION AGENT PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS NEGOTIATED WITH CREDITORS - N.B. ALL KINDS OF RIVER AND CANAL CRAFT BUILT OR REPAIRED, PURCHASED, SOLD, OR TO LET. NOTE THE ADDRESS
Mr. Hucks, a widower, would have to be content in death with a shorter epitaph. In life his neighbours and acquaintances knew him as the toughest old sinner in Bursfield; and indeed his office hours (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. nominally—but he was an early riser) allowed him scant leisure to practice the Christian graces. Yet though many had occasion to curse Mr. Hucks, few could bring themselves to hate him. The rogue was so massive, so juicy.
He stood six feet four inches in his office slippers, and measured fifty-two inches in girth of chest. He habitually smoked the strongest shag tobacco, and imbibed cold rum and water at short intervals from morning to night; but these excesses had neither impaired his complexion, which was ruddy, jovial and almost unwrinkled, nor dimmed the delusive twinkle of his eyes. These, under a pair of grey bushy brows, met the world humorously, while they kept watch on it for unconsidered trifles; but never perhaps so humorously as when their owner, having clutched his prey, turned a deaf ear to appeal. For the rest, Mr. Hucks had turned sixty, but without losing his hair, which in colour and habit resembled a badger's; and although he had lived inland all his life, carried about with him in his dress, his gait, his speech an indefinable suggestion of a nautical past. If you tried to fix it, you found yourself narrowed down to explaining it by the blue jersey he wore in lieu of shirt and waistcoat. (He buttoned his braces over it, and tucked its slack inside the waistband of his trousers.) Or, with luck, you might learn that he habitually slept in a hammock, and corroborate this by observing the towzled state of his back hair. But the suggestion was, in fact, far more subtle, pervasive—almost you might call it an aroma.