M. E. (Mary Elizabeth) Braddon.

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Mary. ByM.E.'Braddon,

jJuthor of ''Lady Jludley s Secret," "Miranda,"
"The Green Curtain, etc.





THERE is an hour in the twenty-four that has magic
in it, that makes common things strange and
ugly things beautiful, and London an enchanted city.
It is the hour before sunrise, when a greenish-blue light
creeps slowly over the housetops, and the street lamps
grow dim. Over the river perhaps there is a flush of
rose-colour — the first smile of the new day, but in the
streets there is only this pale herald of the dawn.

That strange light lent a certain artistic beauty to the
decadence of Sanders Street, which once had dignity and
even fashion, but was now a place of tenement houses
and squalid shops — a street that had been slowly wither-
ing for a century, but had been the pink of respectability,
though a little off colour as to fashion, a hundred years ago.

It ma^^ have been a caprice of Austin Sedgwick's which
brought him through Sanders Street on his way to
Tyburnia, after a night spent curiously, the first half
at a smart card-party, and the later hours in the East End,
where this young man varied the monotony of a govern-
ment office and the banalities of modern society by an
occasional descent into nethermost depths, where people
who, having known him first as a queer sort of bloke,
who came prying about, and asking questions, had
gradually learnt to look upon him as a friend and a helper,
and to welcome his appearance among them, and even to
reproach him for not coming oftener, although the money



help he gave was not large or frequent. The men and
women he knew were the poorest of the poor, but even
these had come to understand that he brought them
something better than money.

The street was empty and asleep in that faint light, all
windows closely shut by people who considered fresh air
a noxious thing. Austin looked at the windows and doors
as he passed the silent houses, such noble old doors and
doorways — massive, early Georgian. Before one threshold
where the door was deeply recessed, between Doric pillars,
he came to a sudden stop. For here there was something
more vital than Georgian architecture to consider.

A girl was sitting on the doorstep, fast asleep, with her
head drooping forward upon her knees, and her face
hidden. The hand that hung limp and pale by her side
was small — a lady's hand, Austin thought. She was
not the kind of night-bird he expected to find upon a

" Have you no better place than this to rest in, my
poor girl ? " he asked, in his low serious voice, bending
down to speak to her.

She woke with a start, and looked at him with a coun-
tenance that was tragic in its expression of abject fear.

" No, no," she said. " Let me alone."

" I don't want to distress you. I want to help you
if I can."

Her head had resumed its drooping_attitude. She had
spoken in a drowsy voice, and he thought she was falling
asleep again.

" Have you no home ? " he asked gently.

" No. Can't you let me sleep. I have been walking
about all night. The policeman would not let me sleep.
Why do you worry me ? You are not a policeman."

" I don't mean to be cruel. I will take you to some
shelter, where you can have food and rest. You won't
be allowed to rest here. The first policeman who comes
this way will disturb you."

" I know, I know," she answered, lifting her head
suddenly, wide-awake now.


" Then get up and come with me, and I'll find you a
safe shelter."

" No, no, no ! I won't go with you — I won't go into
any house. There is a safer shelter that I can find for

" You mean that you can throw yourself into the river.
That is what you are thinking."

" How do you know ? "

" Your face tells me your thought. My poor girl, be
reasonable. I am a gentleman, and I try to be a Christian,
Do you think I would deceive you ? "

" I have been deceived — I will never trust anybody
again. I can go to the nearest workhouse. I should be
safe there, I suppose. I will go nowhere with a stranger."

Her speech was the speech of a lady — voice and accent
were refined, and the voice was of a quality that was
more attractive to Austin Sedgwick than her face. And
that had a certain beauty, perceptible under the dis-
advantage of haggard cheeks, and pallid lips.

He talked to her for some time. She stood up to listen
to him, stood facing him with one pale hand grasping the
iron railing. She was tall and slim, and some long familiar
words came into his mind as he looked at her.

" Fashioned so slenderly, young and so fair." Slender
she was assuredly, of a willowy slenderness as she leant
against the railings, faint and wan. And she was young ;
but for the rest there was only the delicate modelling of her
features, and the pathetic expression of grey eyes with
long black lashes, to promise that under happier conditions
she might be beautiful.

He remembered her look just now, and a vision of the
" dark arch and the swift flowing river " came upon him
with a cold thrill. Had he come only in time to save
her from that fate ? For a girl to threaten suicide might
not mean much ; but there was a resolute look in this
girl's face that scared him.

He talked to her seriously, begged her to confide in him.

"I'm afraid you have been feeling the pinch of poverty,"
he said.


" Three days ago I was starving."

" And since then ? "

" I have been fed and cared for."

" By some good friend ? "

" By a she-devil."

The words came almost in a whisper between set teeth.

" Tell me your story."

"It is too horrible to be told. I suppose there are
many such women in London — going about like Satan,
seeking whom they may devour. Not like roaring lions,
but like creeping snakes. Loathsome, loathsome, loath-
some ! "

The passion of resentment in her face as she spoke
was dreadful, the sensitive lips trembled, the eyes grew
larger and darker ; so dark, yet there was fire in them.
This young frail creature had a tremendous force of
passion, and could have killed an enemy, he thought.
All this time no tear had fallen from those vindictive

He had hard work to win her confidence, but he had
the divine gift of sympathy, and he won her at last to
believe that he wished her well, and that he was a gentle-
man. Assured of this, she consented to walk a little way
with him. They could not stand and talk on the door-
step any longer — for the dead hours were past, and the
street was alive with the traffic of a new day.

It was a quiet neighbourhood, so they could move freely
and unnoticed in the dull grey streets, and by and by
they came to a poor little coffee-house where a crockery
teapot, some cups and saucers, and a stale egg in the
window indicated the possibility of breakfast.

She consented to go into this dingy place with him, and
dropped half fainting into the nearest chair, where she
sat shivering a little, while he ordered as comfortable a
meal as the place could furnish. Tea, rolls and butter,
with eggs, and a dish of cold ham.

She drank the tea eagerly, but she was not as hungry
as she ought to have been, after walking about all night,
without food. Austin had to coax her to eat, and even


to make a pretence of hunger on his own part — though
the sickly ham and the doubtful egg did not appeal to
a man who was accustomed to be " done for " by a retired
butler and a cook of experience and capacity.

He persuaded her to eat, and he persuaded her to talk
— to talk of that saddest of all subjects, her own history.

Had she any friends ?

No, she was alone in London. Her father had died
two years ago, and her only friend had gone to seek his
fortune in the Argentine Republic.

" Is that your nearest friend, something more than a
friend, the man you are going to marry some day, when
he has made his fortune ? "

" No," she answered in a dull voice, and with a gloomy
face. " We are not engaged — we were once — but that
is over and done with. The tie was broken half a year
ago, when he left England."

" And have you no one in London or near London to
whom you could go for shelter ? "

" No one. But I suppose there is always the work-

Something in her eyes and lips made him think that
in her own mind there was that other resource, and that
she should have said : " There is always the river."

" Even about the workhouse there would be difficulties
— if you are a stranger in London."

" I have lived in Chelsea for the last year."

" And have made no friends there ? "

" No one but my landlady, and our friendship ended
when I left off paying her. I suppose I can get shelter
in the Chelsea Union ? "

" It is not to be thought of — but I know of a house where
you might be safe — and fairly comfortable till there was
some kind of employment found for you — something by
which you could make a living. I suppose that is what
you have thought of. You must want to earn your
bread, as other young women do, hundreds of them in
this great city."

She gave a weary sigh.


" Life is odious," she said. " It seems hardly worth
working for."

" Nonsense. There is always hope. If life is bad to-
day, it may be better to-morrow. How old are you ? "

" I was nineteen last May."

" In the morning of life "

" No, in the deep dark night. I have spent my life as
prodigal sons spend their fortunes — what does age matter ?
My life is gone, wasted in a year. If I had stayed at
home with my father I should have been a girl — but as
it is, I am an old broken-hearted woman. A worthless
creature, useless to myself and everybody else."

" Are you a Christian ? "

" I was once. I am nothing now. Theie was a day
when I wanted God to help me — to save one little life. I
prayed to Him seven days and nights while the life
trembled in the balance — while the flame flickered and
faded. And he would not hear me. I prayed to Christ
the Saviour — Christ who called Lazarus out of the grave,
the God who was once man, and who could love and pity
men. That was what I had been taught. I knew better
after those seven days and nights of endless prayer. I
had done with that fable."

" I am very sorry for you," Austin said softly ; " but
if you will be ruled by me, I think I can put you among
those who will give you a decent shelter, and who will
help you to a happier frame of mind — people whose
mission is to help the helpless. There is a Refuge for
friendless women not far from here, and if you will let
me take you there, I will answer for your comfort and
your safety. You may have to associate with women
of a lower grade than yours — but at the worst it will be
better than the workhouse. And you may stay there
quietly till some kind of employment can be found for
you, if you are not too proud to work."

" Proud," she cried, with a short hard laugh. " Do I
look like a proud woman ? "

" You look and speak Hke a lady."

" My father was a gentleman and a scholar. If I am


to go on living I must earn my_bread somehow-anyhow.
Pride will not stand in my way.

" Cnme then " said Austin cheerfully.

HeriM for ihc breakfast, and tl.cy went out together
and wSlkcd to the next street, where they met a prow hng
cab and on the way Austin tried to learn more of this
;:?e cretture whose pinched face might onee have b«m
beautiful Only nineteen, and with such markmgs from
to pencU of care upon the forehead and round the thm

"■"He had learnt nothing but her name, Mary Smith
She had hesitated for an *-«-' "e'^f^" *™^^" ='"''
^nrnime and the " Smith " sounded like an ahas.

The cib stopped at a decent-looking house m a street
nea the Eu ton Road. The girt looked about her suspi-
dously as she alighted, and then looked at Austm with

'""Yotfr/n'ot setting a trap for me ? ■' she asked. " You

"^. What'dtyolThink I am made of ? " he exclaimed.


in +hi

Online LibraryM. E. (Mary Elizabeth) BraddonMary → online text (page 1 of 28)