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B. L. (Benjamin Leopold) Farjeon.

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done, he lay down upon the bed, with a sense of inexpressible relief.

But peace was not for him. Within five minutes the shadows began again
to gather about him, and the same monstrous shape which had previously
threatened him reappeared. Not now in disguise, or veiled. He saw its
limbs, its horrible face and eyes, and its aspect was so appalling
that a smothered shriek of agony broke from his parched lips. Whither
should he fly? How could he escape these terrors? Ah! the door! He
moved towards it, but shrank back immediately at the sound of steps
and muffled voices. The window! but _that_ was blocked up by a
crawling monster, whose thousand limbs were winding and curling
towards him, warning him to approach at his peril. He dared not move a
step in that direction. In what direction, then, could he find a
refuge? In none. He was hemmed in, surrounded by these fearful
enemies; the room was filled with them, and they were waiting for him
outside. In mad desperation he seized a chair and hurled it at the
approaching shapes; with a terrible strength he raised the heavier
furniture, and strove to crush them. In vain. There was no escape for
him. Closer and closer they approached; their hot breath, their
glaring eyes were eating into his soul, were setting his heart on
fire. And at that moment Mr. Chester, who had stopped on his way, to
obtain a lighted candle, opened the door and appeared on the
threshold.

The candle which Mr. Chester held above his head as he opened the door
threw a lurid glow around his fearful form. In a paroxysm of blind
delirium the furious wretch threw himself upon his arch enemy. The
candle fell to the ground and was extinguished. But the madman needed
no light to guide him. He would kill this monster who came to destroy
him; he would squeeze the breath out of him; he would tear him limb
from limb. He raised Mr. Chester in his arms as though he were a reed,
and dashed him on to the bed. He knelt upon him, and struck at him
with wild force, and pressed his hands upon his throat, with murderous
intent. Mr. Chester was as a child in his grasp - powerless to defend
himself, powerless to escape, only able, at intervals, to scream for
help.

The sounds of this terrible struggle aroused the whole house, and
every person leaped from bed, the most courageous among them running
to ascertain the cause of the disturbance. Mrs. Chester was the first
to reach the room. She had no candle, but she saw enough to convince
her that her husband's life was in danger. She threw herself upon the
delirious man, and added her affrighted shrieks to the confusion. The
lodgers came hurrying up, and their candles cast a light upon the
scene.

Then Mrs. Chester saw clearly before her - saw the distorted face of
the man who was striving to strangle her husband - saw in his hand a
tin whistle, with which, deeming it to be a dagger, he was stabbing at
the form writhing in his grasp.

"O God!" she shrieked. "It is Ned - my boy Ned! Ned - Ned! for the love
of God, come off! Are you blind or mad? It is your father you are
killing!"

Her words fell upon heedless ears. So strung to a dangerous tension
was his tortured imagination, that the entreating voices, the lights,
the hands about him striving to frustrate his deadly purpose, were
unheard, unseen, unfelt.

The men grappled with him, but their united efforts were unavailing;
their blows had no more effect upon him than falling rain. Thus the
terrible struggle continued.

"Ned - Ned!" cried Mrs. Chester again, forcing her face between him and
the object of his fury, so that, haply, he might recognise her, "for
gracious God's sake, take your hands away! Your mother is speaking to
you."

The lines in his forehead deepened - the mole on his temple became
suffused with blood - the cruel, frenzied expression on his face grew
darker and stronger. He dashed her aside with a curse, and, had it not
been that one of the bystanders pulled her out of reach of his arm, he
would have left his mark upon her.

But as her son turned from her, the struggle came to an end, without
being brought to this happier pass by the force of either words or
blows. Simply by the appearance of a little child. In this wise:

The conversation that had taken place between husband and wife in Mrs.
Chester's bedroom had awakened Sally and her baby-treasure. Sally did
not move when her father went out of the room, but when, alarmed by
his cries for help, her mother followed him, Sally got out of bed, and
lifted her baby treasure to the ground. Hand in hand, they crept to
the top of the house.

They reached the room in which the struggle was taking place - and
reached it just in time. Another minute, and it might have been
fatally too late.

The grown-up persons were too intently engrossed in the action of the
terrible scene to observe the entrance of the children, and thus it
was that they made their way to the bedside. At this precise moment it
was that Ned, the lovely lad, flung his mother from him with brutal
force, and that his eyes met those of Sally's baby-treasure, who was
gazing upon him with a look of curious terror.

Her white dress, her beautiful face, her blue eyes staring fixedly at
him, her golden hair hanging around her pretty head, produced a
powerful and singular effect upon him.

The horrible shapes by which he had been pursued faded from his sight,
and something sweeter took their place. The dark blood deserted his
face, and the furious fire died out of his soul, leaving him once more
pale, haggard and degraded, and weak as trickling water.

With shaking limbs he fell upon his knees before the baby-child, and
placed his trembling hands upon her shoulders.

'The men and women in the room were spell-bound, not daring to
interpose between him and the child, lest they should awake the savage
spirit within him.

Brief as was this interval, Mr. Chester had been raised from the bed,
and carried from the room. His wife was too intent upon the movements
of her son to follow him.

For a very few moments did the lovely lad remain in his kneeling
position, embracing the child. Utterly exhausted, by drink, by want of
rest, by the terrific excitement of this and previous sleepless
nights, his eyes closed, and with wild shudders he sank fainting to
the ground.

In response to Mrs. Chester's entreaties, the lodgers assisted her to
place him on the bed, and this being done she asked them to go down
for her clothes, and to bring her word how her husband is.

"And take the children away," she said with a wan smile. "I shall stop
with my boy and nurse him. I am not frightened of him. He will not
hurt me. See, the poor lad has no more strength than a baby."

As they left the room with the children, the mother bent over her
degraded son, with love and pity in her heart, and her scalding tears
fell on his white lips and on the lucky mole on his temple which was
to bring sudden wealth and honour to its possessor.




CHAPTER VIII.


Early the next morning, while Mrs. Chester, weary and sad-hearted, was
watching by the bedside of her son, the tongues of the neighbours were
wagging over extravagant accounts of the occurrences of the night. The
early breakfasts were eaten with more than ordinary relish, and a
pleasant animation pervaded the neighbourhood. The pictures that were
drawn by the gossips of the return of the prodigal son, and of the
scenes that took place in the house of the Chesters, culminating with
the frightful struggle, were not drawn in black and white. Colour was
freely and liberally laid on, and the most praiseworthy attention was
paid to detail during the circulation of the various editions. Thus,
Mrs. Smith, who had it from Mrs. Jones, who had it from Mrs.
Weatherall, who had it from Mrs. Chizlet, who had it from Mrs.
Johnson, who had it from Mrs. Ball, who had it from Mrs. Pascoe, who
had it from Mrs. Midge, "who lives in the house, my dear!" happening
to meet Mrs. Phillips, was most careful and precise in her description
of Ned Chester prowling about the house for nights and nights, of his
adventures during the last four years, of the interview between him
and his father, of the father wishing to turn the son out of the
house, of the son refusing to go, of the mother interposing, and
begging on her knees that her husband would not be so cruel to their
only boy, of his flinging her brutally aside, of the commencement of
the struggle and its duration, of the setting fire to the house, and
the mercy it was that the lodgers weren't all burnt in their beds, and
of a hundred other details the truth of which it was next to
impossible to doubt.

On the second day, an entrancing addition was made to these pictures.
It was discovered that there was a child in the house, a mere
baby - "one of the most beautiful little creatures you ever set eyes
on, Mrs. Phillips!" - a child whom none of the neighbours had ever
before seen. Now, whose child was it? Clearly, the child of the
prodigal son. The likeness was so wonderful that there could be no
doubt of it. This at once cleared up a mysterious thread in the
terrible struggle between father and son. For it now came to be said
that when Ned Chester's hand, with a glittering knife in it, was
raised to strike the deadly blow, the child, with its lovely face and
golden hair, had with bold innocence seized her father's hand, and
taken the knife from him. Aroused by the child's beauty to a proper
sense of the dreadful deed he was about to commit, Ned Chester burst
into tears, fell upon his knees, and clasped his baby to his breast.
This was a good domestic touch, and was enthusiastically received.

But where was the mother of the interesting child who had so
providentially arrested the uplifted hand of her father, and saved him
from the commission of a dreadful crime? An answer to this question
was easily found. Ned Chester had married, and had come home with his
child. He had married a lady "with money." First she was a governess;
then the daughter of a sea-captain; then the daughter of a retired
sugar-baker, who had amassed an independence; lastly, she was a
nobleman's daughter, who had fallen in love and had eloped with
handsome Ned. Where, then, was the mother? Dead? Oh, no. The noble
father, after hunting for his daughter for three years, at length
discovered her, and tore her from her husband's arms - this being
distinctly legal according to the Rosemary Lane understanding of the
law as it affected the families of the aristocracy. But Ned Chester,
determined not to be parted from his little girl, had fled with her to
the home of his childhood, which he reached after many perilous
escapes from the pursuing father-in-law. The romance attached to this
imaginative and highly-coloured version rendered it very alluring, and
it was implicitly believed in. Thus the story grew, and passed from
mouth to mouth.

While the gossips were busy with her and hers, Mrs. Chester had her
hands and heart full. Her husband, bruised in body and spirit, lay ill
in hospital, her son, beset by dangerous fancies, lay ill at home. In
these larger responsibilities, the small circumstance of the
non-appearance of the new tenant who had brought a strange child into
her domestic circle scarcely found place in her mind.

The lovely lad, Ned Chester, was in the sorest of straights. What kind
of life he had led during the years he had been absent from home might
readily be guessed from his present condition. It not being safe to
leave him alone, Mrs. Chester was at her wits' end how to manage, but
she found an unexpected and useful ally in the strange child who had
found a place in her poor household. She made the discovery on the
second day of her son's illness, when, with eyes dilated with terror,
he was describing, with wonderful minuteness, two horrible creatures
created by his delirium, which were standing at the foot of his bed.
Mrs. Chester listened to him with a sinking heart.

"There! there!" he cried, rising in his bed, and clutching his
mother's hand with such violence that she moaned with pain. "Do you
not see them? They are coming closer and closer! Give me a knife! Give
me a knife!"

With shuddering shrieks he hid his face in the bedclothes, and during
this interval Sally and her baby-treasure entered the room.

"Go out, child! go out!" exclaimed Mrs. Chester, fearful lest, should
her son see the children, he should do them some violence in his
paroxysm. But Sally's cravings were too strong for obedience. The
breadwinner of the family being no longer able to work, the supplies
ran short, and Sally's need for food for herself and her precious
charge was most pressing. She had come to ask for bread.

Ned Chester raised his wild and haggard face from the pillow, and his
eyes fell upon the form of the strange child. The effect produced upon
him by her appearance during the fateful struggle with his father was
repeated. The terrible look departed from his eyes, the delirious
fancies faded from his imagination.

"They are gone - they are gone!" he sighed, and sinking back upon his
bed again, he gazed with a kind of worship upon the child, and
gradually passed into a more peaceful mood.

Dr. Lyon, an able, sensible, poor doctor, to whom the tide which leads
to fortune had never yet come, regarded her husband's condition as the
more serious of the two.

"Your son will get over it," he said to Mrs. Chester; "with him it is
only a matter of time and nursing. He is playing havoc with his
constitution, but he is young as yet. It is different with your
husband, who is no longer a young man. He has been a heavy drinker all
his life. He has received a shock," continued Dr. Lyon, "which may
lead to a serious result."

These words brought to Mrs. Chester's mind forebodings of fresh
trouble; visions of a coroner's inquest flitted before her, and of her
son arraigned for the murder of his father. She trembled from fear,
but wisely held her tongue; meanwhile it devolved upon Sally to
provide for the material wants of her treasure-baby. She proved equal
to the occasion, and played the part of Little Mother in a manner at
once affectionate and ingenious. Children in Sally Chester's station
of life learn quickly some very strange lessons being from necessity
precocious. Of course she knew her way to the pawnbroker's. She had
noted the superior texture of her baby-treasure's garments, and one by
one they were "put in pawn," and were replaced by such of Sally's
belongings as the Little Mother could conveniently spare. Thus the
little stranger was gradually transformed, until she became in outward
appearance as to the manner born in the locality in which her
childhood was to be passed, and in this way Sally obtained food, and
supported herself and her charge during the illness of her lovely lad
of a brother.

Every movement made, and every word spoken, by the strange child were,
of course, of the deepest interest to Sally, and were magnified by
Sally's admiring sense. The child could babble but a few words, and of
these "mama" was the principal. That she was conscious of a marked and
inexplicable change in her condition of life was clearly evident, but,
except for a certain wonderingly-mournful manner in which she gazed
around her, fixing her eyes always on one object for full two or three
minutes before removing them to another, and for a habit she had, for
the first few weeks of her sojourn in Rosemary Lane, of sobbing
quietly to herself, there was nothing especially noticeable in her but
her beauty - which was so remarkable as to draw upon her the
affectionate attention of every person who saw her.

By this time Ned Chester had recovered from his delirium, and once
more took his place among the residents of Rosemary Lane, evincing,
for the present, no inclination to play truant again.

He took a strange pleasure in the society of the child, and exhibited
so marked a partiality for her that the impression among the
neighbours that he was her father gained strength. But upon being
questioned on the matter, he denied it distinctly. "She's no child of
mine," he said roughly, and called his mother to prove it. Then the
true story became known - to the displeasure of the Rosemary Lane folk,
who, by a singular process of reasoning, considered themselves injured
because the romance was stripped from the history. Baby's beauty alone
prevented her from being looked upon with disfavour.

As the days went by, Mrs. Chester found it a harder and harder task to
live, and but for the kindness of the neighbours to Sally and the
baby, the children would have often gone to bed with empty stomachs.
Looking about for a friend in her distress, Mrs. Chester consulted Dr.
Lyon, with a vague hope that he might be able to assist her. He
listened patiently and kindly to Mrs. Chester's story.

"Let us look the matter straight in the face," he said, when she had
concluded; "you have no resources - no money, I mean."

"None," she sighed.

"Your husband is in the hospital, and there is no saying how long it
will be before he comes out. I should say that if even he does come
out, which is doubtful, he will be no longer able to work."

There was no cruel delicacy about Dr. Lyon; he knew the class he
ministered for, and he invariably spoke plainly and to the point, and
always with kindness.

Mrs. Chester nodded a mournful assent.

"Your furniture has been seized for rent, and you have no home - to
speak of."

Mrs. Chester nodded again.

"And," he continued, "it is clearly a necessity that you must live.
Listen to this letter."

He read to her a letter from a country union, forty miles from London,
which wanted a matron; residence and rations free; wages 18_l_. per
annum.

"I think I have sufficient influence to obtain the situation for you,"
said Dr. Lyon. "You are a kind woman, and I can recommend you."

Hope lighted up Mrs. Chester's face - for one moment only.

"It's forty miles away," she murmured, and added, "and there's Sally!"

"Upon that," said Dr. Lyon, "I cannot advise you. Go home, and sleep
upon it, and give me your answer the day after to-morrow."

She thanked him' and walked slowly out of his consulting-room, which
was about as large as a pill box; but returned within five minutes to
ask him now much a week eighteen pounds a year would give her.

"Seven shillings," he replied.

Mrs. Chester went home filled with sorrowful contemplation of this sad
crisis in her life. To part from Sally would be like tearing a string
from her heart; but if it was for the child's good! - Yet even if she
could calmly contemplate the separation, where could she place the
child? There was the practical difficulty, in the solution of which
she played no direct part.

So entirely occupied had Sally been with her duties as Little Mother,
that since her first introduction to the reader she had not fainted
dead away, as her wont and seemingly her pleasure were. But while the
conversation between the mother and Dr. Lyon was proceeding, Sally
once more indulged, and swooned off suddenly and unexpectedly. There
were only herself and her baby-charge present, and they were sitting
on the floor in the one room to which Mrs. Chester was now reduced. It
was evening, and dusk, and the baby-child, naturally supposing that
Sally had gone to sleep, crawled close to the insensible form of her
friend and protector, and placing her face upon Sally's breast, fell
asleep also. In this position Mrs. Chester found them when she arrived
home.

Sally did not stir when her mother raised and shook her. Then the
mother, rushing to a despairing conclusion, wrung her hands, and
moaned that her child had died of starvation. What extravagance of
emotion she might have exhibited in her grief it is hard to say; but a
slight movement from the child assured her that she was mistaken in
her impression. She ran hurriedly back to Dr. Lyon, and begged him to
come and see Sally immediately.

"It is only one of the old attacks," he said to the grief-stricken
mother, as they stood together by the poor bed on which the children
were lying, "but brought about now by a different cause. See, she is
sensible now. Sally, what is the matter with you?"

"I am hungry," moaned Sally, "and so is baby. We've only had a slice
of bread between us to-day."

Dr. Lyon looked at the mother's white face, and bit his lips hard.

"Do not leave the children," he said. "I will send in some medicine
in five minutes."

The medicine duly arrived in the shape of a four-pound loaf of bread,
a small pat of butter, a two-ounce packet of tea, and a little sugar.
On the loaf of bread was stuck an apothecary's label, with the written
inscription, "To be taken at once with a cup of hot tea." The mother
burst into tears, and set about preparing the medicine for the
children. But Dr. Lyon had forgotten that to make hot tea a fire was
necessary. Mrs. Chester had no coals. There was nothing of value in
the room, and there was no time to lose. She stood by the cold empty
grate, considering for a moment. Her eyes fell upon her wedding ring.
It was all of the world's goods she had remaining. A melancholy freak
it was that induced her to creep to Sally's side and say:

"Sally, I'm going to make you some nice tea, and good Dr. Lyon has
sent you some nice bread-and-butter."

"Oh," replied Sally, in a whisper, "I'm so glad - so glad! Make haste,
mother, make haste! You don't know how hungry we are."

"I must run out and get some coals, dear child," said the mother.
"You'll lay still, wont you?"

"Yes, mother."

"Kiss this, my dear," said the mother, with a sob, placing the
wedding-ring to Sally's lips.

Sally, without any understanding of her mother's meaning, kissed the
ring, and then kissed her mother, whose tears bathed her neck.

"Don't cry, mother," said Sally; "it ain't your fault."

"Heaven knows it ain't, my sweet," replied the mother; and with a
heart made lighter by Sally's embrace, ran out, and soon returned with
wood and coals.

That night Sally, lying awake, but supposed to be asleep, overheard a
full account of her mother's troubles, as they were related to the
brother who had brought this trouble upon them. Mrs. Chester did not
reproach her boy, being indeed utterly blind to his faults; and she
confided to him only because she yearned for sympathy and counsel. He
was ready enough with both - with heartless sympathy and empty
counsel - devouring a great part of the loaf of bread as he bestowed
them after the fashion of his nature, and greedily drinking the tea
which his mother poured out for him with ready hand and loving heart.

"And you think I had better accept the situation, Ned, if I can get
it?"

"I don't see what else is to be done. _I've_ got nothing."

"I know that, I know that," interrupted the mother tenderly. "Or you
would never see us want."

"Of course I wouldn't," replied the lovely lad, in a whining tone;
"but luck's against me - it's been against me all my life!"

"It'll turn one day, Ned, you see if it won't," said the mother,
gazing, from force of habit, with infatuation, at the mole on his
temple; "and then when you're a rich man you'll take care of your poor
mother, whose heart is almost broken at the thought of parting from
her children, won't you, Ned?"

The piteous words and the more piteous tone in which they were uttered
elicited from the vagabond son nothing but a sulky promise - as
intangible as the air into which it was breathed - that when he was a
rich man, he wouldn't forget the mother that bore him.

"It _must_ be done, then," sighed Mrs. Chester; "there's no help for
it. But where am I to put Sally? Who's to look after her? Eighteen
pounds a year is seven shillings a week. I could give half of that,
three-and-sixpence a week, for her keep. It might be managed that
way."

"Half of eighteen pound," grumbled Ned, "is nine pound. If I had nine
pound, I could make my fortune."

"Whatever I can spare, you shall have, Ned. But Sally comes first.
She's not old enough to look after herself, and she's a girl,
remember."

Which had no other effect upon Ned than to make him wish _he_ was a
girl, for girls always had the best of everything, and he couldn't be
worse off than he was - an unconsciously-uttered truism, of which he
did not see the point. They stopped up talking for an hour longer, and
by midnight the room was quiet and dark. Mrs. Chester did not sleep;
she lay awake all the night, thinking of the sad change in her
fortunes which was about to take place.




CHAPTER IX.


Sally, walking about the streets the next morning, with her baby in
her arms, was aware that a critical change in her prospects was



Online LibraryB. L. (Benjamin Leopold) FarjeonThe Duchess of Rosemary Lane → online text (page 6 of 24)