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B. L. (Benjamin Leopold) Farjeon.

The Duchess of Rosemary Lane online

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"Don't mind me," he said with a coarse laugh, "this is a free
country."

"What do you want here?" demanded Mr. Chester angrily.

"You've got a bedroom to let; I made out the bill in the window - - "

"All right, just you wait a bit." He turned to his wife.

"What's the matter with Sally?"

"She's took ill again. She fainted dead away again this afternoon, all
of a sudden, and Dr. Lyons says she must have strengthening things."

Utterly forgetting her declaration that if her husband killed her she
would not give him the money, Mrs. Chester dragged the fifteen pence
out of her pocket, and flinging it upon the table, cried passionately:

"Take it! and drink the child's life away!"

"Not quite so bad as that, old woman," he said, in a shame-faced tone,
"I've enough to reproach myself with one. Is Sal asleep?"

His question was answered by the pattering of two little bare feet,
and Sally herself appeared from an inner room, which, with the parlour
in which this scene was taking place, formed the domestic
establishment of the Chester family.

"No, father, I'm not asleep," cried Sally, as she ran.

Sally was only five years of age, and was such a mite of a child that
she might have been no age at all. Waking suddenly, she had scrambled
out of bed on hearing her father's voice.

"You parcel of bones!" exclaimed Mr. Chester, with rough tenderness,
lifting the child in his arms. "What have you been up to again?"

"I fainted dead away, father!" replied Sally, gleefully; "dead away!"

The proud tone in which, in her thin shrill voice, she made this
evidently familiar statement respecting herself was very remarkable.

"Why, Sally, you're always at it!"

"Yes, father," said Sally, with a triumphant laugh.

"But," said Mr. Chester, "if you go on fainting away like this, Sally,
one of these days you'll faint so dead away that you'll never come to
again."

This conveyed no terrors to Sally's mind, for she clapped her bony
hands in delight at the idea. She stopped in the midst of her
clapping, and struggling out of her father's arms, ran to the sleeping
child, and gazed earnestly at the pretty face. Following Sally's
movements, Mr. and Mrs. Chester saw for the first time that the man
who had intruded upon them was not alone.

The two children presented a notable contrast. Sally had not a spare
ounce of flesh upon her body; the newcomer was plump, and her limbs
were well proportioned. Sally was dark and sallow; the newcomer was
fair, and despite her weariness, there were roses in her cheeks.
Sally's hair was black, and hung straight in lank disorder about her
forehead; the newcomer's hair was flaxen, and hung about her forehead
in naturally-graceful curls. She was like one of Raphael's angels,
fresh from heaven; Sally was like an elf from dark woods.

Sally gazed upon the sleeping girl in solemn wonder and admiration,
and presently put forward one of her fingers and touched the rosy
cheek - drawing it quickly back, as though it were a presumptuous thing
to do. Again she stretched forth her hand, and played with the flaxen
curls. Then, emboldened by success, Sally wetted her forefinger on her
tongue, and rubbed it softly up and down over the roses in the
sleeping child's face. That, when she looked at her finger after this
operation, there was no red upon it, was evidently a puzzle to Sally.
Her next proceeding was to take the sleeping child's plump hand in her
bony one, and make an examination of the fat little fingers,
separating them one by one, and curiously comparing them with her own.
While thus employed Sally happened to glance up at the man, and,
meeting his eyes, her arm stole round the sleeping child's neck. The
next moment Sally was sitting on the floor, nursing the new little
girl on her lap.

Sally had had her dreams, as all children have - bright dreams of
flowers, and gardens, and light, and colour, and beautiful shapes - of
dolls with pink faces and spangled silk dresses - but never, in her
wildest fancies, had she compassed the possession of such a lovely
doll as this she now nursed in her lap. She had never seen anything so
sweetly exquisite, and she sat in her thin night-dress, poor wan
little elf, rocking her new treasure, and fondling it in purest
delight.

Mrs. Chester gazed at the children, and her tender heart began to
bleed. That this strange child should be so beautiful, and rosy, and
plump, and her child so forlorn-looking, and pale, and thin, smote her
with keenest pain.

"Get up from the cold floor, Sally!" she cried; "you'll catch your
death setting there with nothing on!"

Sally staggered to her feet, with the little stranger in her arms.

"Mercy take the child!" cried Mrs. Chester, still more crossly.
"You'll let her fall! Here, give her to me!"

But Sally, heavy as her burden was, held her precious possession close
to her, and managed to reach the bedroom door, where she stood still
awhile.

Mr. Chester brought affairs to some sort of a climax. He looked at the
silver shilling and the few coppers upon the table, and his hand stole
slowly towards them; but happening to look over his shoulder at Sally,
he swiftly withdrew his hand, and left the money undisturbed. Then he
turned abruptly to the stranger.

"Now, then," said he, "what's _your_ name when you are at home?"

"When I'm at home I'll tell you," replied the stranger. "Let's come to
business. You've got a bedroom to let. What's the rent of it?"

"Three shillings a week. Respectable references, of course?" inquired
Mr. Chester, vaguely.

"Stuff!" exclaimed the stranger, taking some silver pieces from his
pocket. "Here's my reference."

"Not a bad one," said Mr. Chester, "but I shall require two weeks in
advance."

"Here you are," said the stranger, counting out six shillings into Mr.
Chester's hand. "And that's settled."

"Not so fast; you're a stranger to us, and a man's got to be careful
what kind of people he takes into his house. You see, you're not
alone. You bring a little girl with you, and we've got one of our own
already. Now we don't wish to be left with another on our hands that
don't rightly belong to us. Children are no rarity round about in
these parts."

Sally, by this time, had found her burden too heavy for her, and the
baby-child, with her golden curls and perfectly beautiful features,
was now lying on the ground, and Sally was bending over her.

Mrs. Chester, who had thrown a thin shawl over Sally, listened to the
conversation with interest. She was glad to let her room, but she
could not make up her mind as to the character of her new tenant. He
was a tall spare man, with thin yellow whiskers and light-grey eyes.
His hands were somewhat delicately shaped, and his nails were in good
condition, denoting that he was not a common workman, nor one who
gained a livelihood by manual labour. His clothes were shabby, and an
air of shabby refinement pervaded him. Mrs. Chester was puzzled what
to think of him.

"You don't want to be left with her on your hands?" exclaimed the
stranger boisterously. "Not a likely thing that. Why, every hair of
the darling's head is as precious to me as - as - - " Not being able to
find an appropriate simile, he gave it up, and continued - "Look there.
Your little girl seems to have taken a fancy to - to - my little girl.
They'll be company for each other. I warrant, if I tried to take her
upstairs to bed now, Sally would begin to cry."

He was wrong. Sally did not cry as the stranger approached her, but
standing, with flashing eyes before her treasure, she struck at him
viciously with her little fists.

"Didn't I tell you?" inquired the stranger of Mr. Chester, without
ill-humour. "Sally's a game little bird. What do you say to letting
the children sleep together, just for this night? To-morrow we'll make
things straight and comfortable."

"All right," replied Mr. Chester, anxious to be off. "The old woman'll
see to that. You come along with me now, and have a glass at the Royal
George. Goodnight, Sally. Give us a kiss."

He stooped to Sally's face, and kissed her. With her arms round his
neck, she pulled him to his knees, and made him kiss the sleeping
child on the ground. Then, when he raised his face, she kissed him
again, and with her mouth close to his, inhaled his breath, and
exclaimed:

"Oh, shouldn't I like some to drink! I can only smell it now."

"Like some what, Sally?" asked the stranger, as in a shame-faced way,
Mr. Chester turned from his child. "Some gin," answered Sally, with a
smack of her lips.

Mr. Chester rose to his feet, with a rueful look.

"Give me a kiss, too, Sally," said the stranger; "I'm fond of game
little girls."

But Sally was not to be won over, and when the stranger tried to force
the kiss from her, she dug her fingers into his sandy whiskers with
such spiteful intention that he was glad to free himself from her
clutches.

"There, get out!" cried Mrs. Chester. "Can't you see the child don't
want to have anything to do with you? You'll find your bed ready when
you come home, which I expect won't be till you're turned out of the
Royal George. Dick'll show you your room."

She caught up the sleeping child, and taking the candle, retired to
the inner room, driving Sally before her.




CHAPTER III.


"I've enough to reproach myself with one."

These words, spoken by Mr. Chester in the course of his late domestic
difference with his wife, brought with them a feeling of deep remorse.

He had another child, a son, now a man, and a sharp pain shot through
the hearts of husband and wife as the words were uttered. But Mr.
Chester, once more at the Royal George, did his best to drown
uncomfortable reminiscences. His new tenant, who accompanied him to
the gin-palace, scarcely opened his lips except to drink. His manner
of taking his liquor was not attractive; he raised his glass to his
lips with a sly furtive air, and conducted himself throughout in so
objectionable and jarring a spirit, that when, within half-an-hour of
midnight, he said, churlishly: "I think I may as well get home;" Mr.
Chester replied: "All right; you'll not be missed in _this_ company."
Thereupon, the stranger, with another sly watchful look around took
his leave, to everyone's satisfaction.

Within a few moments of his departure, Mr. Chester, in the act of
drinking, suddenly held up his hand. His attitude of attention was
magnetically repeated in the attitudes of the persons around him. As
when a person in the street stands still, and points at nothing in the
sky, he speedily draws about him a throng of interested ones, who all
look up, and point at nothing also.

What had arrested Mr. Chester's attention was the faint sound of music
from without. Only half-a-dozen notes reached his ears, and they were
softly borne to him from a wind instrument.

The glass which he held trembled in his hand, and, had he not placed
it on the counter, would have fallen to the ground.

He walked slowly to the door, and looked out in the street for the
musician. He could not see him, and the sound had died away. Returning
to his companions, he abruptly asked:

"Did any of you observe whether that man" - referring, with a backward
pointing of his thumb, to his new tenant - "had anything in his breast
pocket?"

Two or three answered, No, they had not observed any thing particular;
but one said he thought, now Mr. Chester mentioned it, that the
stranger _did_ have something in his breast pocket.

"Something that stuck out," suggested Mr. Chester vivaciously.

Perceiving that he had made a hit, the man replied that he thought it
_was_ something that stuck out.

"Might have been a stick?" proceeded Mr. Chester.

"Yes, it might have been a stick."

"Or a flute?"

"Yes, it might have been a flute."

"Or," asked Mr. Chester, coming now to his climax, "a penny tin
whistle?"

Yes, the man thought it might decidedly have been penny tin whistle;
which so satisfied Mr. Chester, that he inhaled a long breath of
relief, and asked the man what he would take to drink.




CHAPTER IV.


In the meantime, Mrs. Chester proceeded with her domestic duties. She
commenced to undress the baby-child whom Sally had already adopted as
her own, and she was filled with wonder and curiosity as she noted the
superior order of the child's clothes. The shoes, though dirty and
dusty, were sound; the socks had not a hole in toe or heel - a state of
sock which Sally seldom enjoyed; the frock was of beautiful blue
cashmere, and as her mother handed it to her, Sally pressed her lips
and eyes against the comfortable material, with a sense of great
enjoyment; then came a petticoat, of black merino; then a white
petticoat, with tucks and insertions, which increased Sally's
admiration; then the little petticoat of flannel, not like the flannel
in Sally's petticoat, hard and unsympathetic; this was thick, and
soft, and cosy to the touch - there was real warmth and comfort in it;
then the pretty white stays; and the child lay in Mrs. Chester's lap,
in her chemise, with its delicate edgings of lace round the dimpled
arms and fat little bosom - lay like a rose dipped in milk, as the good
woman afterwards expressed it to neighbouring gossips. The lovely
picture was to Mrs. Chester like sparks of fire upon dry tinder. Soft
lights of memory glowed upon her, lighting up the dark sky; sweet
reminiscences sprang up in her mind and bloomed there like flowers in
an arid soil, and for a few moments she experienced a feeling of
delicious happiness. But soon, in the light of sad reality, the stars
paled in the sky, the flowers faded, and sorrowful tears were welling
from the mother's eyes. Sally did not see them, for her face was
hidden in the sleeping baby's neck, and she was kissing her lovely
treasure with profound and passionate devotion.

"Come now," abruptly said Mrs. Chester, furtively wiping away her
tears, "just you get to bed. I shall be having nice work with you
to-morrow if you've caught cold."

Sally's reply denoted that her thoughts were not on herself.

"Ain't she a beauty, mother? She's ever so much better then the
collerbine that dances in the street. Mother, _she_ didn't come from a
parsley-bed, did she?"

This was in reference to her belief in her own origin, but Mrs.
Chester declined to be led into conversation so Sally wriggled
herself between the bedclothes, and holding out her arms received the
pretty child in them. Supremely happy, she curled herself up, with her
baby-treasure pressed tightly to her bony breast, and was soon fast
asleep.

Mrs. Chester, after seeing that the children were warmly tucked up,
took Sally's clothes, and commenced the mother's never-ending task
among the poor of stitching and mending. And as she stitched and
patched, the words her husband had spoken, "I've enough to reproach
myself with one," recurred to her, and brought grief and sadness with
them. Her tears fell upon Sally's tattered garments as she dwelt upon
the bright promise of the first years of her married life and the
marring of her most cherished hopes. Absorbed in these contemplations,
she did not notice that the candle was almost at its last gasp;
presently it went out with a sob, leaving Mrs. Chester in darkness.
Wearied with a long day's toil, she closed her eyes; her tear-stained
work fell to the ground; her head sank upon the pillow, and her hand
sought Sally's. As she gained it, and clasped it within her own, she
fell asleep by the children's side. Her sleep was dreamless until
nearly midnight, when a few tremulous notes, played outside the house
on a penny tin whistle, stirred imagination into creative action, and
inspired strangely-contrasted dreams within the minds of mother and
child.


* * * * * *

She had been married for twenty-five years, and had had two
children - one, a boy, a year after her marriage; the other, a girl,
the Sally of this story, twenty years afterwards. Upon her darling
boy, Ned, she lavished all the strength of her love. He was a handsome
child, the very opposite to Sally; full of spirit and mischief; always
craving for pleasure and excitement, always being indulged in his
cravings to the full extent of his mother's means. This unvarying
kindness should have influenced him for good, but he glided into the
wrong track, and at an early age developed a remarkable talent for
appropriation. The father had no time to look after his son's morals,
being himself absorbingly engaged in the cultivation of a talent for
which he, also, had shown early aptitude - a talent for gin-drinking.

The lad was much to be pitied on two special grounds. He had a "gift"
on his thumb, and he was born with a mole on his right temple.

His mother was overjoyed when she saw this mole. It was the luckiest
of omens. For had not seers of old - never mind what seers - declared
that the child that was born with a mole on his right temple would
surely, in the course of his life, arrive at sudden wealth and honour?

Meanwhile, with a dutiful regard for parental example, Ned followed
his father's footsteps to the public-house, and, at a very early age,
was fond of draining pots and glasses.

As Ned grew older, he extended the field of his operations. Thus it
came about that one fine morning the young thief found himself in a
police-court, and was sent to prison as a rogue and a vagabond. There
was no doubt he was both.

When he was released from prison, he did not go home immediately; he
thought it best to wait until his hair grew again.

He wandered about, at fairs chiefly, picking up food anyhow, and
enjoying the life; and by the time he made his appearance again in
Rosemary Lane, his hair was as long as ever, and his mother wept over
him, and killed the fatted calf for her lovely lad. He brought home
with him a new accomplishment in the shape of a tin whistle, upon
which he discoursed the most eloquent music. With this whistle he
charmed and soothed the tender nature of his mother, and the less
impressionable nature of his father, who thoughtlessly helped him in
his downward course by taking him to the public-house, where he
delighted all around him. There he got his fill of drink, from the
customers, and in after days, when the lovely lad's character was
about as bad as his worst enemy could have desired, it caused the
father real remorse to think that he had helped his son to his
undoing. It was this which caused Mr. Chester to utter the words,
"I've enough to reproach myself with one." The reprobate would not
work; all that he would do was to drink, and thieve, and play upon a
tin whistle; and five years ago Ned Chester disappeared from the
neighbourhood of Rosemary Lane, and nothing had since been heard of
him.

But the mother's heart never went from her boy. Not a day passed but
her thoughts dwelt lovingly upon him. He had caused her the bitterest
anguish of her life, and she loved him the more for it.


* * * * * *


This brief digression ended, we return to Mrs. Chester, who lies
asleep by the side of Sally and her baby-treasure. There is no light
in the room, there is no moon in the sky. With trembling fingers, the
man in the street plays upon the keys of his instrument, and pauses in
the middle of a note, and shakes as though an ague were on him. It is
a terrible fit, and lasts for minutes; when it subsides, he looks
around him fearsomely, and sees monstrous shapes in the air coming
towards him. Descending from the dark clouds, uprising from the black
pavement, emerging from the viewless air, with eyes that glower, with
features that threaten, with limbs that appal, they glide upon and
surround him. With hoarse cries and shuddering hands he strives to
beat them off, and staggers to the door of the house in which the
mother and children are sleeping, with smiles upon their lips.




CHAPTER V.


The first impression of the dreaming woman is that she and her young
son are in a cart, out for a day's holiday in the country. It is early
morning, and they are in the heart of the country, with its fields,
and hedges, and scent of sweet flowers and fresh-mown hay. The clouds
are bright, and the mother's heart is filled with love and gratitude
as the horse jogs steadily along.

Their pace is slow, but not so slow as that of this white-smocked
carter, sitting on the shaft of his lumbering wagon, which, as it
rumbles onwards, makes noise enough for a dozen. The wagon is in the
middle of the road - as though it were made solely for them to creep
over, and nothing else had any business there - and when at length it
moves aside, it does so in an indolent, reluctant fashion most
tantalising to men and cattle more briskly inclined. Behind them
thunders the mail-coach, and the guard's horn sounds merrily on the
air.

"There comes the mail-coach!" the driver of the cart exclaims, and the
dreamer watches it grow, as it were, out of the distant sky and land,
where Liliputia lies. And now it is upon them, with no suspicion of
Liliputia about it. On it comes, with Hillo! hallo! hi! hi! hi!
heralding and proclaiming itself blithely. Their manner is right and
proper, for are they not - guard, coachman, and horses - kings of the
road? Out of the way, then, everybody and everything, and make room
for their excellencies! Out of the way, you lumbering, white-smocked
carter, and open your sleepy eyes! Out of the way, you pair of young
dreamers, you, who, arm-in-arm so closely, are surely asleep and
dreaming also! She, the first awake, starts in sudden alarm, with
bright blushes now in her pretty, pensive face, and he - glad of the
chance - throws his arm around her, and hurries her to the roadside,
but a yard or two away from the bounding cattle, whose ringing hoofs
play a brisker air upon the roadway than ever Apollo's son played upon
the lyre. Away goes the coach, and the mother holds her lovely lad
aloft in her arms, and in silent wonder, listens to the fading horn,
and watches the coach grow smaller and smaller, until it disappears
entirely from the sight. Onward they go through the dreamy solitudes,
and shadows of green leaves and branches wave about them in
never-ending beauty and variety.

How lovely is the day! The birds are singing, the bees are busy, all
nature is glad. What a morning for a holiday - what a morning for
lovers to walk through shady paths and narrow lanes, over stiles, and
under great spreading branches, whose arms bend down caressingly to
shield them from the sun! What a morning to bring a long courtship to
a sweet conclusion, and to whisper the words that make lads' and
lasses' hearts happier than the thrush that pipes its tremulous notes
above them as they sit!

And now the mother and her child are in a narrow lane, with hedges on
either side, over which they see the ripe corn waving. The mother
sings a song about the days when we went gipsying a long time ago, and
her friend, the driver, joins in the chorus heartily. At its
conclusion, he says, incidentally:

"How about that mole on Neddy's right temple that Jane was telling me
of?" (Jane is his young wife.) "What does it really signify?"

"You ask any fortune-teller," says the mother. "It's the very luckiest
thing that ever can happen. When a child is born with a mole on the
right temple, it is certain sure to arrive at sudden wealth and
honour."

"That's a real piece of good fortune," says the driver. "If _our_
young un's born with a mole on the right temple, it'll be the luckiest
day of our lives."

"I'm sure I hope it will be," says the mother, "and that it'll be in
the right place."

While this conversation is proceeding, the horse has slackened his
pace - and the driver jumps off the cart to pick some sweet
honeysuckle, a piece of which he gives to the mother and the
child - and the heavens are beautifully bright, and fairy ships are
sailing in the clouds - and they go jogging, jogging, jogging on, until
they arrive at their journey's end.

Pulling up at a pretty little cottage, with a pretty little green gate
for its boundary, a pretty little woman runs hastily out, wiping her
hands, which are all over flour, on her apron. This is his Jane, whose
visitors have caught her in the act of making a pudding. The first
embraces over, they go into the kitchen, where the pudding is tied up,
and put into the pot, and is cooked by magic, for the next moment they
are eating their dinner. They pass a happy time within the cottage,
and then the scene fades, and she and her child are in a field,
pelting each other with flowers.

The child grows tired, and the mother makes a nest of fern for her
darling to rest in, at the foot of an old tree, whose branches



Online LibraryB. L. (Benjamin Leopold) FarjeonThe Duchess of Rosemary Lane → online text (page 4 of 24)