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B. L. (Benjamin Leopold) Farjeon.

The Duchess of Rosemary Lane online

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"But I have set my heart upon it, and Charlie has too! I am always
talking to him of you, and he sent me up now especially to bring you,
or to ask if he may come and see you. 'Perhaps she'll take a bit of a
walk with us,' said Charlie. It has left off snowing - - "

Mrs. Lenoir shuddered.

"Has it been snowing?"

"Oh, for a couple of hours! The ground looks beautiful; but everything
is beautiful now." Lizzie looked towards the window. "Ah, you didn't
see the snow because the blind was down. Do come, Mrs. Lenoir."

"No, Lizzie, you must not try to persuade me; it is useless."

"But you are so much alone - you never go anywhere! And this is the
first time you have allowed me to come into your room. You are
unhappy, I know, and you don't deserve to be. Let me love you, Mrs.
Lenoir."

"Lizzie, I must live as I have always lived. It is my fate."

"Has it been so all your life? When you were my age, were you the same
as you are now? Ah, no; I can read faces, and yours has answered me. I
wish I could comfort you."

"It is not in your power. Life for me contains only one possible
comfort, only one possible joy; but so remote, so unlikely ever to
come, that I fear I shall die without meeting it. Leave me now; I have
a great deal of work to get through to-night."

Lizzie, perceiving that further persuasion would be useless, turned to
leave the room. As she did so, her eyes fell upon the picture of the
girl-woman hanging over the mantelshelf. With a cry of delight she
stepped close to it.

"How beautiful! Is it your portrait, Mrs. Lenoir, when you were a
girl? Ah, yes, it is like you."

"It is not my portrait, Lizzie."

"Whose then? Do you know her? But of course you do. What lovely eyes
and hair! It is a face I could never forget if I had once seen it. Who
is she?"

The expression of hopeless love in Mrs. Lenoir's eyes as she gazed
upon the picture was pitiful to see.

"It is a portrait painted from a heart's memory, Lizzie."

"Painted by you?"

"Yes."

"How beautifully it is done! I always knew you were a lady. And I've
been told you can speak languages. I was a little girl when I heard
the story of a poor foreigner dying in this street, who gave you, in a
foreign language, his dying message to his friends abroad. That is
true, is it not, Mrs. Lenoir?"

"It is quite true. It would have been better for me had I been poor
and ignorant, and had I not been what you suppose me to have been - a
lady. Lizzie, if you love me, leave me!"

"Mrs. Lenoir, is there no hope of happiness for you?"

"Have I not already told you? I have a hope, a wild, unreasoning hope,
springing from the bitterest sorrow that ever fell to woman's lot.
Apart from that, my only desire is to live and die in peace. And now,
Lizzie, goodnight."

Constrained to leave, Lizzie took her departure, saddened by the
sadness of this woman of sorrow; but the impress of another's grief
soon fades from the heart in which happiness reigns, and, within a few
minutes, the girl, in the company of her lover, was again rapt in the
contemplation of her own bright dreams.

The moment Lizzie quitted the room, Mrs. Lenoir turned the key in the
door, so that no other person should enter. The interview had affected
her powerfully, and the endeavour she made to resume her work was
futile; her fingers refused to fulfil their office. Rising from her
seat, she paced the room with uneven steps, with her hands tightly
clasped before her. To and fro, to and fro she walked, casting her
eyes fearsomely towards the window every time she turned to face it.
The curtains were thick, and the night was hidden from her, but she
seemed to see it through the dark folds; it possessed a terrible
fascination for her, against which she vainly struggled. It had been
snowing, Lizzie had said. She had not known it; was it snowing still?
She would not, she dared not look; she clasped her fingers so tightly
that the blood deserted them; she was fearful that if she relaxed her
grasp, they would tear the curtains aside, and reveal what she dreaded
to see. For on this night, when she had been gazing on the face which
was present to her through her dreaming and waking hours, when her
heart had been cruelly stirred by the words which had passed between
Lizzie and herself, the thought of the white and pitiless snow was
more than ever terrifying to her. It brought back to her with terrible
force memories the creation of which had been productive of fatal
results to the peace and happiness of her life. They never recurred to
her without bringing with them visions of snow falling, or of lying
still as death on hill and plain. The familiar faces in these scenes
were few - a man she had loved; a man who loved her; a child - and at
this point, all actual knowledge stopped. What followed was blurred
and indistinct. She had ridden or had walked through the snow for
months, as it seemed; there was no day - it was always night; the white
plains were alive with light; the moon shone in the heavens; the white
sprays flew from the horse's hoofs; through narrow lanes and trackless
fields she rode and rode until a break occurred in the oppressive
monotony. They are in a cottage, she and the man who loved her, and a
sudden faintness comes upon her. Is it a creation of her fancy that
she hears a woman's soft voice singing to her child, or is the sound
really in the cottage? Another thing. Is she looking upon a baby lying
in a cradle, and does she press her lips upon the sleeping infant's
face? Fact and fancy are so strangely commingled - the glare of the
white snow has so dazed her - the air is so thick with shadowy forms
and faces - that she cannot separate the real from the ideal. But it is
true that she is on the road again, and that the horse is plodding
along, throwing the white sprays from his hoofs as before, until
another change comes upon the scene. She and the man are toiling
wearily through the snow, which she now looks upon as her enemy,
toiling wearily, wearily onward, until they reach the gate of a
church, when she feels her senses deserting her. Earth and sky are
merging into one another, and all things are fading from her
sight - all things but the quaint old church with its hooded porch,
which bends compassionately towards her, and offers her a peaceful
sanctuary. This church and the tombstones around it, the very form and
shape of which she sees clearly in the midst of her agony, she has
ever clearly remembered. Even in the death-like trance that falls upon
her, she sees the outline of the church and its approaches. Friendly
hands assist her into the sanctuary of rest. How long does she lie in
peace? How many hours, or days, or weeks pass by, before she sees
strange faces bending over her, before she hears strange voices about
her? What has occurred between the agony of the time that has gone,
and the ineffable rapture that fills her veins as she presses a baby
to her breast? What follows after this? She cannot tell. During the
sad and lonely years that have brought silver streaks into her hair,
she has striven hundreds of times to recall the sequence of events
that culminated with the loss of her treasure. But she strives in
vain. Time and her own weakness have destroyed the record. Long
intervals of illness, during which the snow is always falling and the
moonlight always gleaming; glimpses of heaven in the bright-blue
laughing eyes of a lovely babe - her own child, who lies upon her
breast, pure and beautiful as an angel; then, a terrible darkness; and
loneliness for evermore.

For evermore? Is this truly to be her fate? Can Heaven be so cruel as
to allow her to die without gazing again upon the face of her child?
For a blind faith possesses her that her darling still lives. Against
all reason - in the face of all circumstance. Can she not believe that,
during an illness which almost proved fatal, her child was taken from
her, and died before she recovered? When this was told her, in a
careless way, as though it were a matter so ordinary as to be scarcely
worthy of comment, and when to this were added sharp and bitter words
to the effect that she ought to fall upon her knees, and thank God
that her child was not living to share her shame and disgrace, she
looked with a pitiful smile into the face of her informant, and,
rising without a word, went her way into the world. Into the lonely
world, which henceforth contained no hand that she could clasp in love
or friendship.

Her shame! Yes, truly hers. It held an abiding place in her heart. It
caused her to shrink from the gaze of man, and from the words, more
surely bitter, which she saw trembling on the lips of those who would
address her. Eyes flashed contempt upon her; tongues reviled her;
fingers were pointed at her in scorn and abhorrence. What was there
before her but to fly from these stings and nettles, and hide herself
from the sight of all who chanced to know her? She accepted her lot.
Heart-broken she wandered into the great depths of the city, and lived
her life of silence.

As now she paced the attic, the walls of which had witnessed her long
agony, her thoughts, as at such periods they always did, travelled to
the fatal time which had wrecked her peace and almost destroyed her
reason. She had hitherto suffered without repining, but her spirit
began to rebel against the injustice of the fate which had stripped
her life of joy. Until now there had been nothing of sullenness in her
resignation; she had accepted her hard lot with passive unreasoning
submission; and had flung back no stones, even in thought, in return
for those that were cast at her. But she seemed on this night to have
reached the supreme point of resignation, and some sense of the
heartless wrong which had been inflicted upon her stole into her soul.
But this new feeling did not debar her from the contemplation of the
night outside her room. It was snowing, Lizzie had said. She could not
resist the fascination of the words; they drew her to the window; they
compelled her to pluck the curtain aside. The snow was falling.

With feverish haste, scarce knowing what she was doing, she fastened
her bonnet, flung her shawl over her shoulders, and walked into the
streets. There were but few persons stirring in her neighbourhood; the
public-houses, of course, were full, and the street-vendors were
stamping their feet upon the pavement, more from habit, being in the
presence of snow, than from necessity, for the weather was a long way
from freezing-point; but Mrs. Lenoir paid no heed to the signs about
her. Her thoughts were her companions, to divert her attention from
which would need something more powerful than ordinary sights and
sounds. She did not appear to be conscious of the road she was taking,
nor to care whither she directed her steps. Now and then, a passer-by
paused to gaze after the excited woman, who speeded onwards as though
an enemy were on her track. So fast did she walk that she was soon out
of the narrow labyrinths, and treading the wider thoroughfares, past
the Royal Exchange and Mansion House, through Cheapside and St. Paul's
Churchyard, into the busier life of Fleet Street - to avoid which, or
from some unseen motive, she turned mechanically to the left, and came
on to the Embankment, by the side of the river. Then, for the first
time, she paused, but not for long. The moon was shining, and a long
rippling line of light stretched to the edge of the water, at some
distance from the spot on which she stood, where it lapped with a
dismal sound the stone steps of a landing-place. The waves washed the
rippling light on to the dark slimy stones, and, to her fevered fancy,
the light crept up the stones to the level surface of the pavement,
along which it slowly unwound itself, like a coil, until it touched
her feet. With a shudder, she stepped into this imaginary line of
light, not hurriedly now, but softly on and on, down the steps, until
her shoes were in the water. A man rose like a black shadow from a
tomb, and, with an oath, clutched her arm. She wrenched it from him
with an affrighted cry and fled - so swiftly, that though he who had
saved her hurried after her, he could not reach her side. She ran
along the Embankment till she came to Westminster Bridge, when she
turned her back upon the river, and mingled with the people that were
going towards the Strand.

She had walked at least five miles, but she felt no fatigue. There are
occasions when the weakest bodies are capable of strains that would
break down the strongest organisations, and this frail woman was
upheld by mental forces which supplied her with power to bear. In the
Strand she found her progress impeded. It was eleven o'clock, and the
theatres were pouring out their animated crowds. In one of these
crowds she became ingulfed, and formed a passive unit in the excited
throng, being hustled this way and that, and pushed mercilessly about
by those who were struggling to disentangle themselves. This rough
treatment produced no effect upon her; she submitted in patience, and
in time reached the edge of the crowd. When she arrived at a certain
point, where the people had room to move more freely, two persons, a
man and a woman, passed her, and the voice of the woman fell upon her
ears.

An exclamation of bewildered amazement hung upon Mrs. Lenoir's lips.
It was her own voice she had heard, and she had not spoken. Not the
sad voice which those who knew her were accustomed to hear, but the
glad blithe voice which was hers in her youth, and which she had been
told was sweet as music.

She paused and listened; but only the accustomed Babel of sound
reached her now. She had distinguished but one word - "Love," and she
knew she had not uttered it. Although her nerves were quivering under
the influence of the mystery, she had no choice but to pursue her way,
and she continued walking in the direction of Temple Bar.

Gradually the human throng lessened in numbers. It was spreading
itself towards the home lights through all the windings of the city;
and when Mrs. Lenoir had passed the arch of the time-honoured
obstruction she had room enough and to spare. Now and then she was
overlapped by persons whose gait was more hurried than her own; more
frequently she passed others who were walking at a more reasonable
pace. Approaching a couple who, arm-in-arm, were stepping onwards as
though it were noon instead of near midnight, she heard again the
voice that had startled her.

Her first impulse was to run forward and look upon the face of the
speaker; but she restrained herself, or rather was restrained by the
conflicting passions which agitated her breast; and without removing
her eyes from the forms of the two persons before her, she followed
them with feeble uncertain steps. For the woman's strength was going
from her; she was wearied and exhausted, and she had to struggle now
with nature. It was fortunate for her that the man and the woman she
was following were walking slowly, or she must inevitably have lost
them. And even as it was, she dragged her weary feet after them, as
one in a dream might have done.

The woman was young; joyous health and spirits proclaimed themselves
in the light springy step; and the musical laugh that rang frequently
in the air was like the sound of silver bells. That she was beautiful
could not be doubted: it was the theme of their conversation at the
present moment.

"And you think me very beautiful?"

"You are more than beautiful. You are the most lovely girl in the
world. But if I continue to tell you the same story, I shall make you
the vainest as well as the loveliest."

"Oh, no; I like to hear you. Go on."

"Then there's another danger. Though you know I love you - - "

"Yes."

"And though you have told me you love me - - "

"Yes."

"You do, you little witch?"

"Oh, yes."

"Well, there's the danger of losing you."

"In what way? How?"

"Some one else might see you, and fall in love with you."

"Suppose some one else couldn't help it? This with a delicious silvery
laugh.

"By heavens, you're enough to drive a saint out of his senses!"

"Me?"

"Well, your cool way of saying things."

"But go on about the danger of losing me."

"And _you_ might fall in love with some one else."

"I don't think so," said the girl, with the air of one who was
considering a problem which did not affect her. "I couldn't fall in
love with any man that wasn't a gentleman. And you are one?"

"I hope so."

"That is why I like you. You are a gentleman, you are good-looking and
rich; while I - - "

"You!" It was scarcely an interruption, for the girl paused, as in
curious contemplation of what might follow.

"You! You are fit to be a queen."

"I _am_ a duchess, remember," said the girl, with an arch smile, which
became graver with the words - "I wonder why they called me so?"

"Because they saw you were above them, and better than they."

"Why should they have seen that? What made them see it? I could hardly
speak at the time, and I don't even remember it."

"Nor anything about yourself before you were brought to Rosemary
Lane?" inquired the man anxiously.

"No; nothing that does not seem like a dream."

"One can remember dreams."

"I can't remember mine. But sometimes I have a curious impression upon
me."

"May I hear it?"

"Why not? It is upon me now. It is this: that when I dreamt - before I
remember anything, you know - - "

"Yes."

"That it was always snowing, as it is now."

What subtle vapour affected the fair and beautiful girl - surely
subject to no distempered fancies, glowing as she was with health, and
with pulses beating joyously - that she should suddenly pause and gaze
upon the snow with a troubled air? What subtle vapour affected the wan
and exhausted woman behind her that at the same moment she also should
pause and hold her thin, transparent hand to her eyes, to shut out the
white glare of the snow that troubled her soul? There was a curious
resemblance in their attitudes as they thus stood in silence - the girl
in the light, the woman in the shade.

A gust of wind, if it did not dispel the vapour, stirred the actors in
this scene into motion, and the girl and her lover - for there could be
no doubt of the relation they bore to each other - resumed their walk,
Mrs. Lenoir still following them with steps that grew more feeble
every moment.

Of the conversation between the lovers not a word had reached her. Now
and again she heard the sound of the girl's voice when it was raised
higher than usual, but the words that accompanied it were lost upon
her. She had formed a distinct purpose during the journey, if in her
weak condition of mind and body any purpose she wished to carry out
can be called distinct. She would keep them in sight until the man had
taken his departure, and the girl was alone. Then she would accost the
girl, and look into her face. That was the end of her thought; the
hopes and fears which enthralled and supported her were too wild and
whirring for clear interpretation. And yet it appeared as though she
herself feared to be seen; for once or twice when the man or the girl
looked back, Mrs. Lenoir shrank tremblingly and in pitiable haste into
the obscurity of the deeper shadows of the night.

They were now in the east of London, near Rosemary Lane, and the girl
paused and stopped her companion, with the remark:

"You must not come any further."

This was so far fortunate for Mrs. Lenoir, inasmuch as otherwise she
would have lost sight of those she had followed. Nature had conquered,
and a faintness like the faintness of death was stealing upon her.

The man and the girl were long in bidding each other goodnight. It
was said half-a-dozen times, and still he lingered, loth to leave her.

"Remember," he said, as he stood with his arm around her, "you have
promised not to mention my name to your people."

"Yes, I have promised. But why won't you come and see them? I should
like you to."

"It can't be done, my little bird. You are sensible enough to
understand why a gentleman in my position can't run the danger of
forming intimacies with common persons."

"But I am a common person," said the girl, archly challenging a
contradiction.

"You are a lady, and if you are not, I'll make you one. When you are
away from them, I want you to be well away. You wouldn't like to be
dragged down again."

"No - you are right, I dare say. Poor Sally!"

"Not a word to her, mind. I'll have to bribe you, I see. What do you
say to this?"

He took from his pocket a gold bracelet, shining with bright stones,
and held it up to the light. The girl uttered a cry of pleasure, but
as she clasped the trinket she looked round in affright. Her glad
exclamation was followed by a moan from Mrs. Lenoir, who staggered
forward a few steps and sank, insensible to the ground.

"It's only a drunken woman," said the man. "Good night, my bird."

The girl eluded his embrace and ran to the fainting woman, and knelt
beside her.

"She is not drunk," said the girl; "she looks worn out and tired. See
how white she is. Poor creature! Perhaps she is starving."

Mrs. Lenoir, opening her eyes, saw as in a vision, the face of the
beautiful girl bending over her, and a smile of ineffable sweetness
played about her lips. But the words she strove to utter were
breathed, unspoken, into the air, and she relapsed into insensibility.

"Leave her to me," said the man; "I will take care of her. You musn't
get into trouble: it's past the time you were expected home."

He raised the woman in his arms as he spoke.

"You don't know her?" he said.

"No; I never saw her before," replied the girl "You must promise _me_
now: you'll not leave her in the streets; you'll see her safely home."

"I'll do more; if she's in want, I'll assist her. Now, go; I don't
want to be seen by your - what do you call him? - Mr. Dumbrick, or by
your friend Sally. Good night. She is recovering already. Run
away - and don't forget; to-morrow night, at the same place."

He threw his disengaged arm round the girl and kissed her. The next
moment he and Mrs. Lenoir were alone.




CHAPTER XXIV.


Seth Dumbrick, sitting in the old cellar in which it seemed likely he
would end his days, was the subject of Sally's anxious observance, as
she sat opposite to him, busy with her needle. Sally, in addition to
the performance of her household duties, played no unimportant part in
providing for the domestic necessities of the establishment, and the
seven or eight shillings a week she contrived by hard labour to earn
was an important item to Seth, whose trade had fallen off considerably
during the past few years.

Sally was a full-grown woman now, looking older than her years; but
her nature was unchanged, and her devotion to the Duchess was as
perfect as on the day when the girl was brought, almost an infant, to
her mother's house. That was a happy time in her remembrance of it,
far different from the present, which was full of trouble.

Seth Dumbrick's thoughts, to judge from his manner, were harassing and
perplexing, and the cloud in his face was reflected on Sally's, as now
and again she raised her eyes from her work to observe him. She knew
the groove in which his thoughts were running; it was a familiar one
to both of them, and they could not see a clear way through it. Any
time during the last five or six years it would have been a safe
venture to guess, when they were sitting together, as they were
sitting now, that their thoughts were fixed upon the theme which now
occupied their minds.

Silence had reigned in the cellar for fully half-an-hour, and even
then it was not broken until Seth, rising from his seat, stood for a
few moments before the fire, with his hands clasped at the back of his
neck.

"There is but one way out of it, Sally," said Seth.

Sally instantly gave him her whole attention, and by a sharp glance
indicated that all her wits were at his service.

"There is but one way out of it," he repeated, "and there's danger in
that way. But it's a matter of duty, and it's got to be done.
Supposing there was no duty in it, and no love, it's the only course,
as it seems to me, left open to us."

He spoke slowly and with deliberation, as though, after long inward
communing, he had settled upon a plan, and was determined to carry it
out.

"It's now - ah, how many years ago is it, Sally, since you came into my
cellar and fell into a trance?"

"I can't count 'em, Daddy. It seems a lifetime."

"Sixteen years it is. You were a little brown berry, then, with not an
ounce of flesh on your bones, sharp as a needle, and with a mind ten


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Online LibraryB. L. (Benjamin Leopold) FarjeonThe Duchess of Rosemary Lane → online text (page 19 of 24)