Mabel Quiller-Couch.

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"You'll be able to take in another lodger now," he remarked abruptly
to his wife as he ate his supper on the night of his return.
"There's a friend of mine that'll be glad to take the room, and he'll
have his breakfast and supper here with me, just as Tom Salter does."

Mrs. Lang did not speak until he had finished; then, without looking
at him, she answered curtly, "I am not taking any more lodgers."

Her husband looked up in sudden rage and astonishment. He had never
heard his wife speak like that before, and it gave him quite a shock.

"Not - not - " he gasped; "and whose house is this, I'd like to know;
and who, may I ask, is master here?"

"The house belongs to the one that pays the rent. This house is
mine, and I am master here, and mistress too," she answered coldly
but firmly; "and if I did want another lodger, I shouldn't take a
friend of yours; I am going to keep my house respectable, as far as I
can - or give it up."

Harry Lang's voice completely failed him, and he sat silently staring
at his wife in wide-eyed amazement. He had thought he had long ago
killed all the spirit in her, and here she was declaring her
independence in the calmest manner possible, and actually defying
him - and he could find nothing to say or do! Her tone to him, and
the opinion, it was only too evident, she held of him, hurt and
mortified him more than he had ever thought possible; for in his own
opinion he had always been a tremendously fine fellow, very superior
indeed to those poor creatures who went tamely to work, day after
day, and handed their money over to their wives; and he thought every
one else was of the same opinion.

"I - I think trouble or something has turned your brain!" he stuttered
at last, "and you had better look sharp and get it right again, I can
tell you, or I'll know the reason why."

"My brain is all right," said Mary Lang quietly; "trouble has turned
my heart, perhaps, and that isn't likely ever to get right again; but
I don't see that that can matter to you. You never cared for me or
my heart, or how I felt, or how anybody else felt, but yourself."

"I care about Bert Snow coming here to lodge, and he's coming, too!
Do you hear? I told him he could, and I ain't going to be made to
look small - "

"You won't look any smaller," said his wife reassuringly, and he
wondered stupidly exactly what she meant, or if she meant anything.
"You must tell your friend he cannot come here, I haven't got a room
for him. I am not going to have such as he in Charlie's room.
Jessie is to have it, and it's about time, I think, that your
daughter had a bed and a room fit for her to sleep in," she added
scathingly.

Harry Lang did not care in the least whether Jessie had or had not a
bed, or if she slept on the doorstep; but he cared very much about
his friend, and he meant to have his own way. But though he stormed,
and bullied, and even struck his wife, he found her, for the first
time, as firm as adamant, and quite as indifferent to him.
His orders meant nothing to her, and the change in her impressed him
very much.

So Jessie, for the first time since she left Springbrook, had a real
bedroom again, and a place she could call her own. She did not quite
like using it, but she felt that her mother wished it. Mrs. Lang
would have liked to keep the little room always sacred to the memory
of him who had spent most of his little life in it, but rather Jessie
should have it than that it should be desecrated by a betting,
drinking, gambling stranger, who would pollute it, she felt, by his
presence!

So Jessie and her possessions were installed. It was not a long
business, for her belongings were very few. She had not had a penny
or a gift of any kind since she came to London, except a little book
of hymns that Miss Patch had given her, and one of Charlie's
favourite books which he had wished her to have. Her little stock of
clothing had never been added to since she came, until now, when her
stepmother seemed to find pleasure in providing her with a very
thorough outfit of mourning.

Now that she had lost her boy, the one and only joy that was hers,
Mrs. Lang seemed to turn to Jessie with more real affection than she
had ever shown before. Jessie had loved her dead darling, and any
one who had loved him or been good to him had all the grateful
devotion of the poor mother's aching heart.

Charlie's little room was re-papered and painted, his little bed was
put away, and another bought for Jessie, and on the floor was spread
a new rug. Jessie soon grew to take quite a pride in her little
room. She scrubbed the floor every week, and polished the window
until it put to shame most of the windows in the neighbourhood.
Miss Patch gave her a piece of pretty chintz to hang at the back of
her looking-glass, and Tom Salter actually brought her home one day a
china vase to stand on her mantelpiece. Jessie was proud and pleased
sure enough then! and, as time went on, and she grew to miss Charlie
less, she would have been quite happy if she might but have written
to her grandfather and grandmother, or could have had some tidings of
them.

But month after month went by, and still the same suspense continued.
She did not even know if they were alive or dead.

Lodgers came and went, some pleasant, some very much the reverse;
some kind, some exacting. Jessie worked early and late at school and
at home. The school did not count for much in her life, and she made
no real friends amongst the children. Her earlier delicate training
made her feel she was not one of them; their speech and manners
jarred on her, and having lived most of her life with grown-ups, she
had no knowledge of games, or play, nor any skill in either, and
their tastes did not interest her, nor hers interest them. She would
far rather sit with Miss Patch, and talk or read to her, or be read
to. Miss Patch was teaching her some different kinds of needlework,
and while Jessie worked her teacher would read to her; and those
readings in that peaceful room were Jessie's greatest delight.

Then one day, when they least expected it, came an end to it all, and
all the ordinary everyday life they had lived together in that house
for months past was finished by a violent knocking at the front door.
At least that was the first sign they had of the change that was
impending!

Such a knocking it was! it echoed through the house, and up and down
the street, making them both spring to their feet in dire alarm.
Miss Patch gave a sharp cry and her hand flew to her side.
Jessie's face blanched, and her eyes grew dark with fear.

"Who can it be!" she gasped; "who - what - what can have happened?"
Mrs. Lang was out, gone to the cemetery, so there was no one to
answer the knock but Jessie herself, and realizing it she ran
trembling down the stairs. She had delayed only a moment, but before
she reached the foot of the stairs there came another knock, longer
and louder than the first. Jessie threw herself on the door and
flung it open. A man was standing on the step, evidently trying to
keep himself from making another assault on the door. He seemed
almost beside himself with excitement or fright, or something very
like both.

"Where's your mother?" he demanded impatiently.

"Out," said Jessie shortly, something in the man's manner increased
her alarm until she could scarcely utter a word. "She's - gone - to
the cemetery," she gasped in explanation. "I think - she'll be -
home - soon."

The day was already waning, and the sun going down. She looked out
anxiously, longing to see her mother come into sight. The man gave
an impatient click of his tongue.

"What am I to do?" he demanded testily, gazing anxiously up and down
the street, but as he seemed to be addressing only the air, or
himself, Jessie did not feel obliged or able to make any suggestion.

"Look here," he said, turning quickly round to her, "there has been
an accident, and - and I came to - to - break it to your mother. I know
her and your - your father. I lived here once, and - and I thought it
might be kind to break it to her before the police came for her."

Jessie's heart almost stood still with fright. "The p'lice," she
gasped, "for mother! - oh, what has happened?"

"There's been an accident to your father; there was a bit of a fight
in the train coming home from the races, and - and he got flung
against the door, and it opened - and he fell out."

A low cry of horror broke from Jessie. Instinct told her that the
news was very serious. If her father had not been severely injured -
or worse, the man would not have been so upset.

"Is - is - " she gasped.

"He is taken to the hospital," responded the man quickly, almost as
though he was anxious to check her next question.

"Ah! there is mother!" cried Jessie in a tone of infinite relief, as
she saw her appear at the gate. Mrs. Lang looked very white and very
tired, and an expression of vague fear came into her eyes as they
fell on pale, trembling Jessie, and the stranger, also pale and
evidently greatly agitated. She lived always in a state of dread of
some disaster or disgrace, and instinct told her that one or the
other had come.

The man went down the steps to meet her. Jessie stood waiting at the
door; she would have gone forward too, but that she was shaking so,
she felt she should never get down the steps. So she stood there
supporting herself by the door, and watched her mother's face, and
saw the shocked look that came over it. She could not hear all that
was said, but she caught fragments of sentences, "Come at once" -
"alive when I left." "Searching him for his name and address, but I
knew Harry - and came along to prepare you. He's at St. Mary's."

Mrs. Lang came up to the door to Jessie, holding out her basket and
umbrella for her to take. She dragged her limbs almost like a
paralyzed woman, and her eyes looked dazed. "I'll be back - as soon
as I can," she said; but her lips seemed stiff and scarcely able to
move. "You look after the house." She was turning away, when she
suddenly turned, and stooping, kissed Jessie for the first time in
her life; and Jessie, looking up, flung her arms around her
stepmother's neck and kissed her in return. This new trouble had
brought them very close.

With tear-blinded eyes Jessie turned and groped her way back into the
house to face that hardest of all trials - suspense. Slowly, slowly
she dragged herself down to the kitchen to see to the fire, then up
the stairs to Miss Patch to tell her the news and wait.

Before long, though, they both crept down to the kitchen, so as to be
at hand when needed; but Jessie could not keep still, the suspense
was hard to bear, and made her restless. She wandered aimlessly from
fire to window and back again. They talked a little, speculating as
to what was happening, and what they should hear, and Jessie lit the
lamps as soon as the dimness gave her the slightest excuse. A great
dread of troubles and changes, and they knew not what else, filled
them both.

Fortunately the suspense did not last very long. Before two hours
had passed they heard footsteps coming up the path to the house.
Jessie knew them, and flew out to meet her mother. Miss Patch
stirred the fire into a cheerful blaze, then smiled to herself at the
uselessness of her own act. She longed to do so much, yet was able
to do so little.

Mrs. Lang came in slowly, heavily; her face was white, her eyes were
red.

"He is dead," she gasped, as she dropped heavily into a chair.
"He is dead!" and her voice grew high and shrill and quavering.

"Poor soul, poor soul," sighed Miss Patch softly. "Did he suffer
much? I hope he was spared that."

"He was never conscious, he - he - had no time to be sorry - to repent,
or try to be better. He was struck down in the midst of all his
wickedness and folly, with lying and cheating and bad language all
about him. His last feeling was passion - and so he died - and I feel
that I am as bad as any of them, I never tried to save him," and the
poor widow laid her head on her outstretched arms and sobbed
uncontrollably.

Miss Patch laid her thin arm around the shaking shoulder. "You did.
My dear, you did. When first you knew him you were always trying."

"And then I got tired and gave up, and never tried any more, and we
drifted further and further away - and now it is too late. He is
dead, dead in all his sinfulness!"

Jessie crept away and up to her own little room. It was dark there
and peaceful; the street outside was unusually quiet, awed into
silence, for the time, by the tragedy in their midst - for the news
had spread like wildfire.

The window was open, and up in the steely blue sky the moon was
sailing, large, peaceful, grand. Jessie knelt by the window and
gazed up at the sky and the moon, awed and wondering. She was dazed
and overcome by all that had happened. Then she buried her face in
her hands and prayed that her mother might be comforted.

She tried to think of some good deeds her father had done; but,
alas, poor child, she could think of none, though it seemed
treacherous to his memory to try, and fail.

Two days later Harry Lang was laid in his grave. Quite a crowd
attended his funeral, but only four "mourners," and the chief of
those four were the two he had wronged most, his widow and his child.
Tom Salter, who had shown himself kind and helpful and full of
thought in this terrible time, went to support the widow, and Miss
Patch, in spite of her lameness, and pain, and weakness, went too, as
a mark of respect to those that were left, and as a companion for
poor Jessie.

Everything was done as nicely and carefully as though the dead man
had been the best of husbands and fathers; no outward mark of respect
was lacking; but, though none spoke it aloud, each one felt, as they
returned to the empty house, that there was none of that awful sense
of blankness, of loss, of heartrending silence, which usually fills
the house that death has visited, the feeling that something is gone
which can never, never return. There was, instead, almost a sense of
relief, a feeling of peace. They all tried not to feel it, and
nothing would have made them admit it, even to themselves; but it was
there - one of the most sad and awe-inspiring feelings of that
dreadful day.

Tom Salter left them as soon as he had seen them home, and went up to
his room to change into his every-day clothes. His young, almost
boyish face was very grave and thoughtful. "God help me never to
live to leave such a feeling behind me," he thought to himself
solemnly.

Life after this should have settled down into the usual groove again,
and so Jessie thought, with the difference that a great discomfort
and ever-present dread would be gone. Somehow, though, it did not.

Mrs. Lang, looking ill, and worn to a shadow, seemed grave and
abstracted, and full of thoughts which she did not share with any
one. She was often absent, too, on business of which she did not
speak. At first Jessie noticed none of all this, she thought her
mother's manner was simply the result of the shock and the trouble
she had been through; then, by degrees, it came to her that things
were different, that there was something in the air that she could
not understand or explain, but she felt that changes were impending.

Often when she looked up she found her mother gazing at her
wistfully, it seemed, and questioningly. More than once, too, she
drew Jessie on to talk of her old home and her grandparents, and of
her longing to see them again; and then one day her mother came to
her and asked her if she remembered her grandfather's address!

Jessie knew then that her surmises were correct, and her heart beat
fast with wonderment and hopes and fears, and a thousand questions
poured through her brain.



CHAPTER XII.


SPRINGBROOK AGAIN.

Thomas Dawson was sitting in his chair in the garden enjoying the
warmth of the October sunshine. The weather was unusually warm for
the time of the year, and the little breeze which blew across the
garden was very acceptable. The long graceful tendrils of the
jessamine rose and fell like soft green waves above his head, a
little cloud of dust rose and skidded along the road, to the
annoyance of some lazy cows being driven home to the milking.

But Thomas heeded none of these things, he sat with his head sunk on
his breast, his eyes staring gloomily before him, his thoughts far
away. He had aged ten years and more in the last two. A very slight
sound, though from within the house, roused him in an instant and
brought him to his feet.

"I'm coming, mother, I'm coming," he called, and went indoors.
"I expect it's pretty nigh tea-time, isn't it?" he asked, with
affected cheerfulness; "the fire only wants a stir, and the kettle'll
boil in no time."

Patience nodded and took up the poker. She was very slow of speech
in those days, but it was a grand relief to know that she could speak
at all, and break the silence which had held her for weeks and months
after the stroke of paralysis which had seized her on that dreadful
day when Harry Lang had stolen Jessie from them.

Thomas, coming back from market that night, had found his wife
unconscious and helpless, and when at last she had recovered her
senses it was long before she could speak and explain something of
the terrible happenings of that afternoon; and even now, at the end
of two years, her speech was still thick and slow, and her limbs on
one side partially helpless.

Thomas spread the cloth on the table, and placed the china on it for
her to arrange. The old man waited on his wife like a mother on her
child, and nothing could exceed his patient devotion. With her he
was always bright and cheery, and only his bowed back and snow-white
hair and altogether aged appearance told of his own consuming grief
and anxiety.

He cut the bread and butter, and made the tea with all the deftness
of a woman. Patience watched him with the tears smarting behind her
lids. When he had filled their cups he sat down, facing the window,
and looking out along the garden to the little gate. They did not
talk much. Thomas's mind had gone back to that morning when he had
looked out and seen Daniel Magor at the gate with letters in his
hand - that wonderful letter which had so altered and beautified their
existence for a time, only to blight them both cruelly.

"I believe it's Miss Grace I see coming in," he said presently,
rousing with a start. "She's at the gate, and - yes, she's
unfastening it. I'll go and meet her."

On his way through the garden he saw a cat lazily basking on his best
wall-flower seedlings, and drove her away; the excitement of it
prevented his noticing the expression of Miss Grace's face, the
anxious, excited look in her eyes.

"Good-evening, Mr. Dawson," she said, as she came close. "I was at
the post office getting my letters, and there was one lying there for
you, so I said I would bring it, as it was marked 'Urgent.'
It seemed wrong to leave it there until to-morrow, I thought it might
be important."

She handed him the envelope, but she did not turn and go. "I think
I'll step in and speak to Mrs. Dawson for a moment or so," she said
quietly, "just while you look at your letter, then I'll go, that you
may talk it over with her."

She felt that her little scheme was rather a clumsy one, but she had
a strong conviction that it might be well for her to be there just
then. "I will go inside," and she left him standing there in the
autumn sunlight staring at the letter he held in his trembling hands.
He turned it over several times before he would make up his mind to
open it. There was always a dread overshadowing him in those days of
what he might have to hear.

Miss Grace had barely got through her first greetings, and declined
Patience's offer of a cup of tea "fresh-made," when the door was
flung open and Thomas almost fell in. In trouble he would have
remembered his wife's affliction, and have hedged her round with
every care, but joy was another thing. It was on joy that he had
built his hopes of restoring her to her former self - and here it was,
in his grasp!

"Mother! - Jessie! - I've heard from her!! Mother, mother, do you
hear, there's news of her at last?"

Miss Grace stepped nearer and stood by the poor old woman, laying a
firm hand on her shoulder, she could see how she was shaking.
"If it is good news, tell her quickly," she said anxiously.

Thomas read the expression of Miss Grace's face, and recovered
himself at once. His care for Patience was always his first thought.

"Good! My dear, yes, good as good can be. Better than I ever hoped
for. She is well, and she's coming back, to _us_, mother! do you
hear? She is coming back for good. It doesn't seem possible, it
doesn't seem as though it can be true, yet it says so on the letter.
Hark to it - in't it like the dear child herself speaking?"

The terrified look which had come into Patience's face died away.
She could not speak, but she put out one shaking hand and thrust it
into that of her husband, and so they read the glad news. It was a
curious, excited, incoherent letter, but it told them all they wanted
to know, for the time, at any rate.

"My Dearest Granp,

"I have been longing to write all this time and tell you where I
am, but I could not, and now father is dead and Charlie, and
mother wants to go home to live with her father, and I am
coming home to you! Mother told me to write and ask if I may,
and I am very well and happy, but, oh, I am longing to see you
and granny. I nearly broke my heart at first, but I am coming
home again, and I am so happy, only I am sorry, too, to leave
here, and the lady who has been so kind to me. She is old and
feels very miserable at being left all alone. Good-bye, granp
and granny. I shall come as soon as ever I can when I hear
from you. Please write soon. Give my love to granny, I hope
she'll soon get better,

"From your loving,"
"Jessie Lang."

It was well that Miss Grace stayed by the old couple, for they both
needed her by the time the letter was read.

"She is well, and she must have met with kindness, or she would not
be sorry to leave," she said cheerfully. "Now, Mrs. Dawson, we shall
have her back with us almost at once, so it behoves us to set about
getting everything ready for her," she went on, in her sensible,
matter-of-fact way, for she felt that the best thing for both of them
was to keep them busy with preparations.

Patience caught her spirit at once. "You must write to-night,
Thomas," she said eagerly, "you mustn't delay, for the child is
waiting for a word and she mustn't be disappointed, whatever happens.
I expect she's pretty nigh broken her heart many a time longing to
write to us, and - and - her father wouldn't let her. I can read
between the lines. I'm sure 'twas his doings - "

"He is dead now," said Miss Grace softly, "so we will forgive him and
put away all hard thoughts of him, and maybe your little flower was
taken from you just to brighten a dark corner for the time, and bring
happiness to others - perhaps to learn some lesson that will help her
in the future."

"Maybe," said Patience, but more gently; "my little blossom," she
added softly. "P'raps it was greedy to want to keep her to ourselves
always."

Thomas had dropped into a chair by the door. "I've got to write, and
I can't," he said solemnly, looking up with a half comic, half
wistful look in his blue eyes. "My hands is shaking, and my wits is
shaking, and - and - but I must, of course, and I am going to Norton
to-night to post it, so as the child can get it in the morning."

"No - excuse me - you are not," said Miss Grace, shaking her head at
him, laughing, but decisive. "I have my bicycle. I can go there and
back in next to no time. With shaking wits and hands you are not
fit! Besides, what would Mrs. Dawson do all the evening without you?
No, Mr. Dawson, you write the letter and I will do the rest."

She put paper and pens and ink before him on a little table out in
the porch, and she and Patience kept very quiet so that they might
not interrupt him; but it was no good, he could not write, he really
was too much excited and overcome. So at last Miss Grace wrote a
little letter for him, one that brought satisfaction to both of them.
It expressed their amazement, their joy and excitement, and sent
their dearest love, and some little news of them. "Your granny is


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Online LibraryMabel Quiller-CouchThe Story of Jessie → online text (page 8 of 9)