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B. L. (Benjamin Leopold) Farjeon.

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and tell me what I want to know."


It is a few hours later, and the snow is still falling. A candle is
alight in the little room in which Nelly restlessly sits or walks. The
paper she bought at the post-office lies unfolded on the table.
Suddenly a moan escapes her lips; an inward pain has forced it from
her. She grasps the table convulsively, and her fingers mechanically
clutch the paper. The pain dies away, and she sits exhausted on her
chair. Listlessly and without purpose she looks at the paper, seeing
at first but a dim confusion of words; but presently something in the
column she is gazing at presents itself to her mind in a coherent
form. She passes her hands across her eyes, to clear the mist from
them, bends eagerly down to the paper, and reads the words that have
attracted her attention. Starting to her feet, with the paper in her
hand, she is hurrying to the door, when it opens from without, and the
stranger who had followed her home appears.

"John!" she cries, with her hand to her heart. "Ah, he has sent you,
then! Thank God! He has sent you!"

"No one has sent me," says the gardener's son, who played his part in
the Spring and Summer of our Prologue. "I am here of my own accord."

"What for?" she asks, shrinkingly, imploringly. It is remarkable in
her that every word she speaks, every movement she makes, implies
fear. She bears the appearance of a hunted animal, in dread of an
unknown, unseen torture. "Why are you here?"

"I come to ask if I can serve you."

"You! You!"

"I - in truth and sincerity. I will not insult you by telling you that
my feelings are unchanged - Good heavens! you are in pain!"

"Don't touch me! Don't come near me!" Two or three minutes pass in
silence. Then the lines about her lips relax, and she speaks again,
with a strange mingling of timidity and recklessness. "Do you know
anything?"

"Much. Enough. Believe me, I wish to know nothing from you."

"And you come to ask me if you can serve me? Meaning it, in truth and
sincerity?"

"Meaning it, in truth and sincerity."

She gazes at him, striving to discover whether his face bears truthful
witness to the evidence of his lips, and, failing, makes a despairing
motion with her hands.

"God help me!" she cries. "I cannot see. I do not know. But I believe
you. I must, or I shall go mad. If you do not mean me to take you
simply at your word, leave me at once without a sign."

"I will stop and serve you."

Her lips quiver at this exhibition of fidelity. Silently she hands him
the paper, and points to the passage which appears to have aroused her
to life. His eyes glitter as he reads the paragraph, which announces
that on this evening Mr. Temple will take the chair at a lecture on
"Man's Duty," to be delivered at a certain institution in a small town
twenty miles away.

"I must go to that place," she says.

"To-night?"

"To-night. I must see him. I must speak to him to-night."

"You are not well; you are not fit to travel. To-morrow - - "

"To-morrow I may not be able to travel. To-morrow will be too late.
What I have said, I must do. You don't know what hangs upon it." Her
lips contract with pain again. "If you leave me alone, and I do not
see him to-night, I - I - - "

Her eyes wander as her tongue refuses to shape the thought which holds
her enthralled with fear and horror.

"A word first," says the gardener's son. "How long is it since you
have seen him?"

"Three months."

"You have written to him?"

"Yes - yes. Ask me nothing more, for God's sake!"

"The place is twenty miles away. It is now six o'clock. In four hours
the lecture will be over. It is snowing hard."

She comes close to his side; she looks straight into his eyes.

"John, your mother is dead."

"Yes."

"I heard of her at Springfield" - she shudders at the name - "and of
your devotion to her. You loved her."

"I loved her."

"You stood at her deathbed."

"I held her in my arms when she died."

"Did she speak to you then?"

"A few words."

"They are sacred to you."

"Ay."

She pauses but for a moment; he looks at her wonderingly.

"John, you loved _me!_" He clenches his hands, and digs his nails into
his palms. "This that I am about to say will live in your mind till
the last hour of your life, with the last words your mother spoke to
you. If you do not take me at once to the place I wish to go to, I
will not live till midnight!"

He sees the deadly resolution in her white face, and he determines to
obey her.

"Remain here till I return," he says. "I will not be gone a quarter of
an hour. Wrap yourself up well, for the wind is enough to freeze one.
Put on a thick veil to keep the snow from your face. I will do as you
wish."

"Ah, you are good! You are good!" she sighs, and for the first time
during the day, for the first time for many days, the tears gush
forth. "God reward you - and pity me!"

He goes, and returns within the time he named. A light American buggy
is at the door, and the stable-lad is at the horse's head. Nelly is so
weak that the young gardener has to support her as she walks from
the house; he lifts her with ease in his strong arms into the
conveyance - marvelling at her lightness, and loving and pitying her
the more because of it - and mounts by her side. The stable-lad looks
on wistfully.

"There is no room for you, my lad," says the gardener's son. "Stop
here till we return. He can sleep in the house?" He asks this question
of Nelly.

"Oh, yes," she answers, listlessly.

The next moment they are off.

The boy runs after them, keeps them in sight for a little while, but
is compelled at length to stop for rest.

"Never mind," he mutters, when he has recovered his breath. "I know
where they've gone to. I'll follow them the best way I can." And off
he starts, at a more reasonable pace for a human being.

The snow comes down faster and faster, and the gardener's son, with
his head bent to his breast, plies whip and rein. Their road lies
through many winding lanes, lined and dotted with hedges and cottages.
Not a soul is out but themselves, and the home-light gleams from the
cottage windows. Echoes of voices are heard from within some laughing,
some singing, some quarrelling. The gardener's son notices all the
signs as they rattle past; Nelly is indifferent to them. They stop at
a wayside inn, to give the horse breathing time. The gardener's son
urges Nelly to take some refreshment; she refuses, with sad and
fretful impatience, and begrudges the horse its needful rest. They
start again, he striving to keep up her spirits with tender and
cheerful words.

"Another milepost," he says, shaking up the reins, and in a few
minutes proclaims blithely, "and another milepost! That's quick work,
that last mile. What's the matter with the nag?" he cries, as the
beast shies in sudden fright, "It's not a milepost. It's a woman."

The woman, who has been crouching by the roadside, rises, and walks
silently into the gloom. They can see that she is in rags - a sad,
poverty-stricken mortal, too numbed with cold and misery to make an
appeal for charity. This thought is expressed by the young gardener,
who concludes his remarks with, "Poor creature!" Nelly shudders at the
words and the pitying tone in which they are uttered. White are the
roads they traverse, leaving a clear-cut black gash behind them, into
which the soft snow falls gently, as though to heal the wounds
inflicted. White is the night, but Nelly's face bids fair to rival it.
A sigh escapes her bosom, and she sinks back, insensible.

The gardener's son calls to her in alarm, but she does not reply. He
sees a light in a cottage window a short distance off, and he draws up
at the door. Yet even as he lifts Nelly down with gentle care, she
recovers, and asks him with a frightened air why he has stopped.

"You fainted," he explains.

"I am well now," she cries, with feverish eagerness. "Go on - go on!"

He answers, with a determination, that he will not proceed until she
has taken something to sustain her strength - a cup of tea, a little
brandy, anything - and she is compelled to yield. He knocks at the
cottage door. A labourer opens it. The young gardener explains the
nature of his errand, and produces money.

"You are in luck's way," says the labourer. "The missus has just made
herself a cup of tea."

His wife turns her head, with a reproachful look, towards the door,
the opening of which has brought a blast of cold air into the room.
She is kneeling by a cradle at the fireside, and with common, homely
words of love is singing her baby to sleep. Nelly catches her breath
as the song and its meaning fall upon her ears and understanding, and
in an agony of agitation she begs the young gardener to take her away.
The tears stream down her cheeks, and her face is convulsed as she
thus implores him. The soft sweet song of the mother has cut into her
heart with the sharp keenness of cruelly-edged steel.

"Let me go," she cries wildly, "let me go! O my heart, my heart!"

The labourer's wife comes hurriedly forward, still with the mother's
love-light in her eyes. But instead of speaking soothing words to the
girl, she exclaims,

"Lord save us! What brings you out on such a night as this, and where
do you belong to? You ought to be ashamed of yourself" - (this to the
young gardener) - "carrying the poor child about in such a condition!"

"Ay, ay, dame," replies the young gardener, gently, with an observant
glance at Nelly, a glance which brings a troubled look into his own
face; "it _is_ a bitter night - - "

Nelly stops his further speech, and putting her arm about the woman's
neck, whispers to her. The young gardener turns his back upon the
women, and the labourer sits on a chair, with his eyes to the ground.
For a minute or so the men do not stir from the positions they have
assumed; then, as though moved by a common thought, they step softly
from the cottage, and stand in silence outside for many minutes, until
the wife comes to the door, and beckons them in. Nelly is on her knees
by the cradle.

"Get along as quick as you can," whispers the labourer's wife to the
young gardener; "there's little time to lose."

There are tears on her face, and on Nelly's also, as she rises from
her knees.

"God bless you, my dear!" says the woman to the unhappy girl; and when
Nelly and her protector have departed, she turns to her husband, and
kisses his weather-worn face, with a grateful feeling in her breast,
to which she could not have given expression in speech. But words are
not needed at this moment.

In the meanwhile the travellers are speeding onwards.

"Only four miles to go now," says the young gardener, cheerfully;
"keep up your strength."

Nelly nods, and hides her face from her companion. It might make _his_
heart faint to see the suffering depicted there.

It is difficult travelling, for the snow lies nearly a foot thick on
the road, but John works with such good will, and the horse is so
willing a creature, that they make fair progress. On they go, through
wide and narrow spaces, clothed in purest white, and John now begins
to wonder how this night's work will end. The reflection disturbs him,
and he shakes the reins briskly, as though, by doing so, he can shake
off distressing thoughts. Another mile is done, and another, and
another. The young gardener's tongue keeps wagging all the way.

"I see the lights in the town," he says, in a tone of satisfaction,
pointing with his whip.

The words have no sooner passed his lips than the horse twists its
hoof in a hole hidden by the snow, and falls to the ground. John jumps
out hastily, and lifts Nelly from the conveyance. The willing animal,
in obedience to the gardener's urging, strives to rise, and partially
succeeds, but slips down immediately with a groan.

"The horse is lamed," says John; "what shall we do now?"

He looks around for assistance. Not a house nor a human being is near
them, and the town is nearly a mile distant. The lights which they
could see from their elevation in the conveyance are no longer visible
to them. Nelly's hands are tightly clasped as she looks imploringly
into the face of her companion. "Can you walk?" asks John.

The reply comes from lips contracted with pain. "I must."

"I will carry you. I can!"

She shrinks from him, and moans that he must not touch her, and that
she will try to walk. Slowly they plod along through the heavy snow,
he encouraging her by every means in his power. Half an hour passes,
and a church clock strikes ten. The church is quite close to them - a
pretty, old-time place of worship, with many gables and an ancient
porch; and a quaint churchyard adjoining, where hearts are at rest,
and where human passions no longer bring woe and suffering.

Nelly clings to the gate of the church.

"John," she whispers.

"Yes," he answers, bending down to her.

"You have been a good friend to me. Will you continue to do what I
wish?"

She speaks very slowly, with a pause between each word. She feels that
consciousness is departing from her, that her strength has utterly
left her, that she cannot walk another dozen yards. But she has
something to say, and by a supreme effort of will - only to be summoned
in such a bitter crisis as this in her young life - she retains her
senses until it is said.

"I will do as you wish," says John, supporting her fainting form, and
knowing instinctively, as he places his arms about her, that it is
almost death to her that _he_ shall touch her.

"I cannot walk another step. My strength is gone."

"What must I do?"

"Take me to that porch. Lay me there - and leave me."

"Leave you!"

"If you raise me in your arms, I shall die! If you attempt to carry me
into the town, I shall die! If you do not obey me, I shall die, and
think of you as my enemy!"

He listens in awe. He has never heard language like this - he has never
heard a voice like this.

"Lay me in that porch. Then seek a woman with a kind heart, and send
her to me. Then - then - - "

She struggles with nature. With the strength of a death's agony she
fights for another minute of consciousness.

"And then?" he prompts, with his ear close to her lips, for the snow
falls scarcely less lightly than the word; she breathes forth.

"Then," she whispers, "seek _him_, and bring him to my side."

She has finished, and sinks into his arms, where she lies insensible
and motionless, with her white face turned upwards to the sky, and the
soft snow floating down upon it.

Implicitly he obeys her. Swiftly, and with the gentleness of a good
woman, he bears her to the porch, and stripping off his outer coat,
wraps her in it, and lays her within the holy hood of the house of
prayer. Once or twice he speaks to her, but receives no answer; and
once, with a sudden fear upon him, he places his ear to her heart, and
hears with thankfulness its faint beating. He wipes the snow from her
face, and, his task being thus far accomplished, he leaves her to seek
for help.

The churchyard, with its silent dead, is not outwardly more still than
is the form of this hapless girl; and but for the mystery within her,
hidden mercifully from the knowledge of men, she might have been as
dead as any buried in that ancient place. The soft snow falls and
falls, and vagrant flakes float into the porch, and rest lightly upon
her, like white-winged heralds of love and pity. In the churchyard are
tombs of many designs - some lying low in humility, some rearing their
heads with an arrogance befitting, mayhap, the clay they cover when it
was animated with life. Lies there beneath these records the dust of
any woman's heart, which, when it beat, suffered as Nelly suffers now?
Lie there, in this solemn place, the ashes of any who was wronged as
she is wronged, deserted as she is deserted, wrecked as she is
wrecked? If such there be, mayhap the spirits of the dead look down
pityingly upon this suffering child, and hover about her in sympathy
and love.

Where, when haply she is once more conscious of the terror of her
position, shall she look for succour, for practical pity and love? If
man deserts her, can the angels help her?

Comes the answer so soon? A gentleman approaches the church with
blithe steps. His face is flushed with pleasure, his eyes are bright,
his heart beats high. He has had a triumph to-night. A thousand
persons have listened to his praises, and have indorsed them - proud to
see him, proud to know him, proud to have him among them, proud to add
their tribute to his worth and goodness. He is elate and joyful. The
moon, emerging from a cloud, shines upon his face. It is Mr. Temple.

The light shines also upon the white tombs of the dead, and upon
Nelly's face.

He is not aware of her presence until he is close upon her, and then
he only sees a woman's form lying within the porch.

Animated by an impulse of humanity, he hastens to her; he bends over
her; his hand touches her cheek as he puts aside a curl of brown hair
which the light breeze has blown across her face.

"Good God!" he cries. "It is Nelly!"

Is it pity, or fear, or annoyance, that is expressed in him? No man,
seeking to know, could answer the question at this moment, for a cloud
Obscures the moon, and throws darkness on his face.

He hears voices in the near distance. The speakers are almost upon
him. He starts from his stooping posture with a look of alarm, and
retreats to a safe shelter, where he can see and not be seen.

The voices proceed from two women and two men. One of the men is the
young gardener; the other is a doctor, whom John has brought to the
assistance of the girl he loves.

The doctor kneels by the side of the insensible girl, and raises her
in his arms.

"She lives," he says, almost immediately.

"Thank God!" exclaims John.

Stronger evidence of life is given by Nelly herself. She moans and
writhes in the doctor's arms.

The young gardener has two warm rugs with him. The doctor looks at him
inquiringly.

"You are her husband?"

"No."

The doctor frowns.

"You had best retire, then. Place those wraps here. Stay - you must do
something. Go to my house as quickly as you can, and bring - - No,
there might be some difficulty. I will write what I want."

With Nelly's head still lying on his knee, he takes from his pocket a
book, writes instructions upon a leaf, tears it out and gives it to
the gardener.

"Do not delay," he says. "You and my man must bring the couch and the
blankets at once. There's not a moment to lose."

John darts away, and the doctor beckons the women to him, and whispers
gravely to them.

Mr. Temple, in his retreat, clasps his hands, and listens. For what?
He cannot hear a word that passes between the women and the doctor,
and their forms shut Nelly from his sight. But presently a sound
reaches his ears that makes him tremble. It is a baby's cry. Another
soul is added to the world's many. In the stillness of the beautiful
night, while the snow is falling upon the ancient church and on the
tombs of the dead who worshipped there, a child is born, and the
mother's sharpest physical agony is over.


THE END OF THE PROLOGUE.





Part the First.
THE CHILD.




CHAPTER I.

As in a theatre, after the overture is played, the first thing shown
to the audience is the scene in which the action of the drama
commences, so let our first words be devoted to the locality in which
the story opens.

I doubt whether the pretty shrub from which Rosemary Lane derived its
name was ever seen in the locality, or whether, being seen, it would
have been recognised as a familiar sign. Rosemary has a peculiarly
sweet odour; Rosemary Lane had not. In one sense there was fitness in
the name; for as the flower of rosemary has frequently been used as an
emblem of constancy and fidelity, so in Rosemary Lane, poor and humble
as it was, might be found living proofs of the existence of those
qualities.

It was in this locality that our heroine was reared.

Where she came from, whether she had a relative in the world, and what
was her real name, were sealed mysteries to the inhabitants of
Rosemary Lane.

As to where she came from, the hazard of a kind gossip, who said that
the child dropped as it might be from heaven among them, was accepted,
in lieu of a hazard more reasonable.

She must have had at some time, a mother, but whether that mother was
alive or dead, was not known, and there were no means of ascertaining.
Her father, we will, for the present, leave out of the question - as
fathers are frequently willing, and occasionally grateful, to be left.

As to her real name, it mattered little. One was found for her in
Rosemary Lane.

What little else was known concerning her shall be briefly told.




CHAPTER II.


In the year 1848, Europe was convulsed with civil war. Firebrands were
abundant, but not more abundant than the hands ready to use them. Red
was the favourite colour, and blood and fire supplied it freely. The
gutters ran with the stream of the one, and the heavens reflected the
glare of the other.

It was a time of solemn awful tragedies. And because the gutters were
not purified when the blood was cleared away, men despaired who had
grasped at shadows. And because the heavens were bright and fair when
the dreadful glare had died out of them, milder theorists still hoped
that the day would come when their dreams should be realised.

There was to be a monster meeting at Bonner's Fields, and the
inhabitants of Rosemary Lane and the surrounding neighbourhood flocked
to the spot made historically famous by the bishop who played his
ruthless part in the reign of bloody Mary.

Troops were massed to meet the mob, but happily there was little need
for them. Copious and beneficent showers of rain spoilt the bad
promise of the day. Back to their homes went the idlers; for, indeed,
there was little of serious purpose in ninety-nine out of every
hundred who assembled; and the arm of the law came down lightly,
comparatively few persons being arrested.

In the evening Rosemary Lane was exceedingly animated. There was more
light in the Royal George than in all the private houses within a
radius of five hundred yards. This particular gin palace was a grand
stone building, abounding in bright glass and gilt cornices, and it
was situated within a short distance of the residence of Mr. Richard
Chester, who for a sufficient reason, was not at the present moment
one of the throng there assembled. He was at home, beating his wife,
who happened to be possessed of fifteen pence.

He employed all his arts to wheedle the money out of his wife; but she
was firm and would not be wheedled. He even rehearsed a speech on
liberty, which he was burning to deliver at the Royal George. It had
no more effect upon her than if she had been a dummy woman. Mr.
Chester took a strap into his hand and drew it between his palms. Mrs.
Chester held her breath, and bit her lips.

"I must have it, old woman," he said, in a musing tone. "Liberty soars
upon heavenly wings, and cries for - - "

"Gin!" interrupted Mrs. Chester, with scornful emphasis.

He flourished his strap, and brought it down upon her shoulders. The
stroke was neither savage nor vindictive, and seemed to be
administered more in sorrow than in anger. Yet she cried,

"O Dick!"

"Come," he said, persuasively, "the money."

"You may beat me black and blue," she replied "but you'll get no money
out of me to-night."

"Won't I!" exclaimed the tipsy humourist, as he flourished his strap,
and brought it down again. "Take that, and that, and that!"

His wife took that, and that, and that, meekly, so far as her outward
manner denoted. She was really not hurt much, for his blows were
light; but the tears gathered in her eyes, as she asked:

"Do you know why, if you killed me I would not give you the money?"

"Because you're an obstinate woman," he replied, with hand upraised.

"Because I want it for medicine, for Sally."

At this point the door of the room opened, and two persons appeared - a
man, certainly wide awake and a very little girl, certainly almost
fast asleep, holding on to the skirts of his coat. No sooner did the
man pause on the right side of the door, than the child converted
"almost" into "quite." With a bit of his coat tightly clasped in her
little hand, she closed her eyes and went to sleep, using his leg as a
resting place for her head. The one candle which lighted the room
showed dimly the form of the man but the child, being exceedingly
small, was hidden from the Chesters in the shadows which lay upon the
floor.

The intruder, at a glance, recognised the position of affairs.



Online LibraryB. L. (Benjamin Leopold) FarjeonThe Duchess of Rosemary Lane → online text (page 3 of 24)