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in the room which would have fetched a shil-
ling at the pawnbroker's. There was a chair,
but it had no back, and a deal table, one leg
of which, mucla shorter than the others, was
supplemented by a brick. Upon it stood a
mug with wallflowers in it, the only decoration
the apartment could boast. Yet all was scru-
pulously clean down to the bare boards, unre-
lieved by a shred of carpet. I had seen
hundreds of homes before shorn of every com-
fort, but never one so cared for in its last
extremity by hand and eye. Even the brick
on which the table stood was washed, and
resembled one from a child's toy-box.

" That is a good sign, her sleeping, is it not,
sir?" whispered Eebecca, eagerly. We had
entered very softly, and doubtless the ear of
the invalid had only caught the footstep she
expected ; but when her sister spoke, she
answered, in faint, reproachful tones'-


" I am not asleep ; and you have broken your
word, Rebecca."

"It was not my fault, my darling, indeed it
wasn't. Oil ! did I not tell you, doctor, how it
would be?" And the great gaunt woman
wrung her hands distressfully.

" It was not your sister's fault that I am
here," I interposed gently. " She would have
had me believe she had come to consult me on
her own account, but I saw through her. It
was my duty to come, and it will be a pleasure
to me if I can do you any good."

I had caught sight for a moment of the face
of an angel, or rather, as it seemed to me, of
one who was about to join the heavenly choir ;
but even while I was speaking she had put up
both her hands before it. It was a poor pro-
tection, for they were so thin and fragile that
one could almost see through them, but the
gesture was eloquent enough.

"You need not be afraid of the doctor, my


dear ; he is not like any one else," said Rebecca,
soothingly. A compliment evidently addressed
to my profession, and not to myself. " She'll
come round after a bit, sir," she whispered
encouragingly ; " but she has not seen a
stranger not to speak to for years, and your
coming is a terrible trial to her."

I nodded indifferently, as though such shy-
ness was a common trait ; for it is a point of
honour with us doctors never to be surprised,
but to say, "just so," and incline the head at
the angle of assent, when a case is introduced
to us, whether it be mumps or the leprosy.
Moreover, I could have waited patiently for
some time to get a glimpse of that face again.
It was the face of a girl rather than of a young
woman, though, paradoxical as this may seem,
there was little of youth in it. The continu-
ance of some distressing emotion, or possibly
of physical pain, had, as it will do, driven
youth away from it, and instead of " the ver-


meil hue of health," had given it an unnatural
flush, as if autumn had laid its fiery finger on
a leaf of springtime ; but the features were
perfect, and the large blue eyes the most
beautiful I had ever beheld. They had only
expressed shrinking and affright at my pre-
sence, but it was easier to imagine them as the
natural homes of love and tenderness. Around
this picture, the beauty of which had something
unearthly about it, or rather, as it struck my
professional eye, was only to be for a short
time on earth, that gleaming hair made a
golden frame.

A greater contrast to her sister it was not
possible for one woman to be to another.
Presently she seemed to recover herself a little,
and I ventured to put to her a few questions
founded upon what Rebecca had told me. She
answered them very gently, but in so different
a tone that they might well, as in her case,
have had no personal application. This was


a bad sign ; for her disease was consumption,
where, if the patient is not, as usual, sanguine,
or has little interest in the result, the outlook
is gloomy indeed. After recommending several
things, which I simply said should be sent in,
I took my leave. Rebecca followed me out of
the room.

" She does not understand,' 7 she whispered
piteously. " You must not think her ungrate-
ful, sir. Her mind " she hesitated.

" Is fixed on other things than food and
physic," I said, smiling. " It is a common case
with one so ill as she is."

" She is not dying, doctor ? "

The woman's swarthy face grew pale, and
her eyes distended with sheer terror. I had
seen relatives anxious about the fate of their
dear ones, upon grounds the most momentous
spiritual considerations but never one so
moved as this one ; and yet she did not strike
me as being a religious woman. As a rule the


very poor take these matters with philosophy,
as well they may. If there is another world
(which they do not always believe) to which
their invalid is going, it naturally strikes them
that it needs must be an improvement on the
one he is leaving ; and at all events there will
be one less to feed and clothe. But in the case
of Rebecca, her emotion was infinitely deeper
than mere anxiety or regret ; it seemed to
shake the very roots of her being.

" I do not say your sister is dying, my good
woman," I replied. " My examination of her, as
you know, has been very slight ; but I confess
that her condition impresses me unfavourably.
She seems to be in very low spirits about

" Heaven help her, well she may be," groaned

" And yet she does not seem alarmed as
some do."

"Alarmed? What has she to be afraid of?


It is others, like me, who have to be afraid.
She has done no wrong; if there is a heaven
above, she must needs go there."

" Well, that, after all, is the great thing, and
should give you comfort, for you will meet

I was a young man at the time, with such
platitudes at the tip of my tongue. That they
are all well meant is the best that can be said
of them. When a child is going to school for
the first time, we say " the months will soon
pass ; " when a friend is emigrating for his
health, " in a few years we shall see you again
strong and well/' and since, under these cir-
cumstances, this " vacant chaff well-meant for
grain" is found to be inefficacious, how can it
be otherwise when the separation is complete,
the bourne whither our dear one is bound one
from which there is no return, and our re-
joining him without date, and doubtful ? A
clergyman may say these things ; from his


mouth they may have their effect ; but though
"Never" is a hard word, we have most of us
to bear it. From the doctor, at all events, a
glance of the eye, and a touch of the hand in
token of human sympathy, are, it is my expe-
rience, more welcome to the mother that is
about to be childless, to the wife that is about
to be a widow, than this vague consolation.

" 6 Comfort/ and ' meet again,' " she echoed,
with a sort of contemptuous despair, and
shaking her head, like one with the palsy,
re-entered the sick-room.

The whole situation amazed and perplexed
me. On all other topics the woman was what
one would have expected her to be. Save for a
somewhat exceptional honesty, cleanliness, and
diligence, Rebecca Bent was like other char-
women ; but in all that pertained to her sister,
she was tender and emotional to an extra-
ordinary degree. I made inquiries about them
without eliciting much information. They had


lived in Star Court for nearly three years, but
Rebecca alone was known to their fellow-lodgers.
Her sister had been always a recluse, if not an
invalid ; she had never left the room ; it was
understood that she took in needlework, when
she could obtain employment, which was not
often ; but Rebecca was the bread-winner. She
toiled early and late, but no one had heard a
word of complaint from her. As a general
rule it is not the hardworkers that complain.
It is not that they are resigned to their harsh
fate, whatever cant may have to say about it ;
it is not in human nature to be that ; but there
is often a certain grim reticence about them ; a
not unjustifiable resentment.

This was not the case with Rebecca, however.
She had her reasons (as I afterwards dis-
covered) for liking work for its own sake.
Work preserves us from thinking. She was
quiet in her ways, and kept herself to herself ;
but she had a temper of her own. A neigh-


hour once condoled with her on having a sick
sister to keep. " She didn't seem to help much ;
couldn't she put her own shoulder to the wheel
a little more ? There didn't seem so very much
the matter with her," and so on. Then
Kebecca broke out, and exhibited quite an
unexpected command of language. She im-
pressed upon that neighbour the desirability of
minding her own business in such convincing
terms that nobody ever ventured to sympathize
with her upon the labour question again. But
she had not been popular before, and this
ebullition set society against her. She was for
the future very severely let alone.

Gaunt and grim though she was, for my
part, strange to say, Rebecca interested me, at
least as much as my patient, notwithstanding
her many advantages. Her beauty was of the
kind that is heightened rather than otherwise
by delicacy of constitution ; even disease only
rendered it more exquisite. It reminded me


of the lily of the vale, " whom youth makes so
fair, and passion so frail, that the light of its
tremulous bells is seen through their pavilions
of tender green," so transparent was its
splendour. That she was dying I had now no
doubt, nor could the end be far distant. The
spectacle was very touching, even to a pro-
fessional eye ; but what, I confess, lessened my
sympathy for her was her conduct towards
Eebecca. She seemed to take everything she
did for her as a matter of course. It was quite
true that she gave one the impression of be-
longing to quite another and a higher sphere of
being ; but to see her so self-conscious of it was
deplorable. If she had been a princess she
could hardly have been served, not only with
more devotion, but with more respectful
reverence. I noticed in particular that, though
Eebecca lavished every term of endearment
upon her sister, she never addressed her by her
Christian name, and I only discovered it to be
Lucy by direct inquiry.


With the selfish egotism of the habitual
invalid every doctor is familiar ; but with Lucy
Bent it was carried beyond all bounds. I had
supplied her with various little luxuries, and
made arrangements by which, during her illness,
her sister should not be under the necessity of
leaving her; and for this she expressed her-
self though, I have reason to believe, only at
Rebecca's prompting in a few sufficiently
suitable words ; if she had not uttered them
I should have thought little of it. There was
not much- graciousness in Star Court, though,
in this case, where the casket was so fair, one
naturally looked for the jewel ; but the ignoring
of her sister's claim to gratitude, and the cold-
ness as it seemed to me, the studied coldness
of her manner towards her was painful to
witness. She never exchanged a word with
her that was not absolutely necessary. Her
state was such that it was impossible to re-
monstrate with her upon that or any other



subject ; indeed and, so far, this was an excuse
for her she was so wrapt in her own wretched-
ness, so given over to, I know not what of
regretful and despairing memories, that she
seemed to pay no attention even to her own
condition, to "the body that did her such
grievous wrong," or to the soul that was about
to quit it.

Bebecca, on her side, was equally silent ;
dumb as the dog who, treated with indifference
by some morose master, still waits on and
watches him with patient devotion, but it was
easy to see how she longed for a kind word, or
even a loving glance ; and longed in vain. At
last, when the end was very near, I could for-
bear no longer ; it was a clergyman's business,
perhaps, more than mine, but my patient had
declined and with no little vehemence for one
so weak to see a clergyman ; and I took my
courage (for, strange as it may seem, it needed
courage) in both hands, and spoke to her.


" Have you not one word, even of farewell,
Lucy, for the sister who has nursed you so
tenderly ? "

There was a struggle within the panting
bosom, added to the fight for breath, but the
lips moved, and what they formed was the
monosyllable " No ; " in the faint sound I
recognized a distant touch of bitterness.

" I know not what you have suffered," I went
on, " and it may be " (this struck me for the
first time) " even at her hands ; but I know
what she has suffered, and is suffering now for
your sake. Forgive her, if she has done you
wrong, as you yourself hope to be forgiven.
Look at her, it may be for the last time, and
bid her kiss you."

Into the dying eyes, as she turned them on
her sister, there came a look of ineffable
sweetness ; and she feebly stretched her arms
towards her in invitation of an embrace.

Rebecca fell on her knees beside the wretched


bed with a cry in which, for the moment, sorrow
seemed to have been swallowed up in joy. To
have been the witness of what followed would
have been a sacrilege, and I left them together.

It may have been their first and last caress,
for when I entered the room the next morning
it had but one living tenant. The dead girl
lay on the bed with her hands crossed " as if
praying dumbly over her breast." The words
of the poet occurred to me as I looked at her,
but it was that line alone which had any
application to her case. That she had not
fallen, whatever sin she had committed (though
she looked an angel), as Hood's unfortunate had
done, I felt certain. Her story was no common
one of the street and the river. Everything
that loving hands could do had been done for
her, to the very last service.

Eebecca was wonderfully calm and resigned,
and after a few words of sympathy which,
perhaps, had better not have been said, for I


could see they tried her firmness, I spoke of
what was necessary. Of course I took upon
myself all the arrangements of the funeral, but
I had to ask her one question about the death-

" I do not know your sister's married name,"
I said.

" She was never married," was the un-
expected reply.

My eye wandered interrogatively to the wed-
ding-ring upon that delicate finger on which
the needle had left no trace. It had, indeed,
done little work of any kind, but Rebecca only
shook her head.

" Then I will give your sister's maiden name

" She was not my sister, sir ; she was no
relative at all. Put Lester."

" No relative ? Then, indeed, Rebecca, you
may say you have done your duty to your


" My duty ! " she answered with bitter scorn ;
and throwing up her great hands. " It was I
who murdered her."

It was not till some days afterwards, when
Lucy had been laid to rest in the cemetery, that
I heard from Eebecca what she believed to be
the story of her crime. It was exaggerated,
emotional, and, I am very sure, represented the
case only as it appeared to a mind full of
remorse and self-reproach.

I prefer, for truth's sake as well as hers, to
give the facts as they would have struck an
unprejudiced observer.

Lucy Lester was the daughter of a trades-
man, well to do, and who had made his money
honestly enough ; but he was a puritan, and of
the strictest sect of the Pharisees. His wife had
died when Lucy was still a child, and she was
brought up in an atmosphere of gloom and
dulness, very unsuited to her character, which
was at once frivolous and egotistic. Her beauty,


of which she was only too conscious, was pro-
nounced by the formal society with which she
mixed, to be a snare (as indeed it proved to be),
and every amusement to which she was natur-
ally inclined was sternly forbidden to her.
Rebecca, who had been her nurse, and when
she grew up become her maid, sympathized
with her young mistress, to whom she was also
genuinely attached, and made common cause
with her against her persecutors, as she called
them, though those included her parent himself.
He was very thrifty, and kept Lucy u short " as
to pin-money, and Rebecca, who, as she told me
(for she spared herself in nothing), " was very
greedy of gain," on a very low scale of wages.
It was a sad and rather sordid story of severity
and repression met by duplicity and intrigue.
What redeemed it was the disinterested though
exaggerated fealty of Rebecca, which would
have borne comparison with that of feudal
times. Except for her singular beauty there


was nothing admirable in Lucy, who indeed
was proud, selfish, and exacting, but in Rebecca's
eyes she was perfection, and a martyr ; fit for a
prince, but with no choice of suitors, save of a
commonplace and unworthy kind, who never
having seen a stage play had no notion of the
desirability of making a friend of the maid of
their mistress.

Presently, however, a lover appeared of quite
another stamp, but unhappily a clandestine lover.
Mr. Power was one of her father's customers, a
gentleman, as was understood, of good position,
who at all events gave large orders which were
punctually paid for, and while calling on Mr.
Lester on business he chanced to catch sight of
Lucy, and became at once enamoured of her
beauty. Without the simplicity which is the
safeguard, of her sex, she was absolutely ignor-
ant of that world with which she panted to
mingle ; the man's air of fashion made as much
way with her as his protestations ; and unfor-


innately the lavishness which a man of his
stamp displays, when bent on such a design,
was taken by Eebecca as a sign of a generous
nature ; without knowing them (as I think) to
be exactly bribes, she took his bribes.

With one word to her master she could pro-
bably have saved his daughter, but she did not
feel she was in danger. Even a word of warn-
ing to Lucy herself might not have been thrown
away, but she did not give it. On the con-
trary, urged by many considerations, dislike of
her master and his surroundings, willingness to
please her darling, and confidence in Power's
professions, she assisted him to elope with her.
I am afraid there was even a time when Lucy
shrank from the audacity of that design, and
but for Rebecca would have abandoned it ; but
it was because she was herself deceived. In-
deed, at the last, when Lucy had lost her head
as well as her heart, and would have risked all
for love, Rebecca stepped in, and insisted upon


being present at the marriage ceremony. It
was a barren precaution though poor Lucy
might afterwards have used it as a weapon of
revenge, if she had had the heart for revenge
for in a few weeks she discovered that he whom
she had believed to be her husband was a
married man. In that brief space she had lost
all ; fortune, friends, and home ; for her father
closed his doors against her ; and the unhappy
girl found herself thrown on her own resources,
which consisted only of a scanty wardrobe and
a few jewels. Then, like a wounded tigress,
she turned upon Eebecca, with " It is you who
have been my ruin."

The fury that might reasonably have been
poured on her deceiver seemed quenched in the
very catastrophe he had caused, as flame deserts
the blackened ruin ; so far as he was concerned
the crime of which she had been the victim was
so overwhelming that in place of indignation
she felt only wretchedness and despair ; too


weak to seek relief in self-destruction, she yet
desired to hide herself from her fellow-creatures,
and especially to be seen no more of men.

What remained to her of vitality took the
form of passionate reproach of her late ally and
assistant, and not a word did Rebecca say in
her own defence.

Instead of leaving her young mistress to a
fate only too easy to be foreseen, she devoted
herself with penitence and remorse to smooth
the rough road she must needs travel for the

Effort of her own Lucy never made, and
accepted the other's services not only as her
due, but as but a small instalment of the
obligation she had incurred in having given her
such bad advice. That she had not forgiven
her she made very plain, even (as has been
shown) up to the last moment of her life ; but
Rebecca never thought herself hardly used.

" There was nothing I could do, as you may


believe," she said, " that deserved thanks. It
was owing to me that my poor dear mistress,
so young, so beautiful, so tender, had fallen
into the hands of a villain, and unfit as she was
to bear hardships, was compelled to live upon a
crust. Was it to my credit that these hands
which had taken his bribes, provided the
crust ? "

If Miss Lucy had complained, she said she
could have better borne the consciousness of her
crime ; but, after that first outbreak, she kept
silence, a cold reproachful silence that for years
had chilled the other's very heart. All she
stipulated for was to be alone, not to be spoken
to, not to be seen, and, even when her illness
had become severe, it was only on Rebecca's
promise to obtain professional advice without
the doctor's presence that the sick girl had
permitted her to apply to me.

This was the story of Rebecca's remorse.

I did what I could to reason with the poor


woman, by pointing out how penance atones
for wrong ; but if I had not been so fortunate
as to obtain for her Lucy's death-bed forgive-
ness, she would certainly never have forgiven
herself. As it was, she was in some degree
comforted. I got her a situation in the country
with some friends of mine, where she was
greatly esteemed, and remained for years. She
always took a day or two's holiday in the
summer. No one knew where she spent it,
for she had no friends ; but at the same time,
who ever visited a certain East End cemetery
would have found, on Lucy Lester's grave, fresh




I CAME upon his grave
accidentally a few weeks
ago while taking a short
cut through the ceme-
tery of an unlovely pro-
vincial town. His name
I had forgotten the night
I heard it years ago ;
had flung it away, so to speak, with the hand-
bills he gave me at the same time, but the
wording on the tombstone recalled his story to
me as vividly as if it was a long lost friend


IS IT A MAN? 239

whom I had suddenly struck against. I laughed
at the story when he told it to me, but when
I read it in brief on the tombstone I wondered
why I had laughed.

We only met once, and it was in London
at the theatre. His stall adjoined mine.
When his lips were at rest he was a melancholy
looking little man, but frequently he spoke to
himself, and then all character went out of his
face. For a time he paid no attention to the
acting, but by-and-by he sat up excitedly in
his seat, rubbed his hands nervously on his
trousers, and leaning in my direction, peered,
not at the stage, but at the wings. I heard
him mutter, " Her cue in a moment, and I
don't see her ! " He looked around the house
as if to signal to everybody that something was
about to happen, and then I noticed his feet
begin to beat the floor instinctively, and his
one palm run -to the other. Next moment the
heavy father whispered to the old, and there-

240 IS IT A MAN*

fore comic spinster, " But not a word of this
to my daughter ; here she comes."

The heroine of the piece sailed on to the
stage, with tears for her father and smiles for
the audience, and, as I thought, one quick
glance for my neighbour. His feet pattered
softly on the floor, as a sign to the audience
to cheer, but they were reluctant, and after she
had given them an imploring glance, she
began to speak slowly, as one saying to herself
between her spoken words, " I am still quite
willing to stop if you will applaud me." And
she was applauded, for my neighbour's feet at
last set others a-going, and then she curtseyed
and waited for more, and then we all became
energetic. The little man had been breathing
quick in his excitement, but now he heaved
a great sigh of relief, and whispered to me
in exultation, " What a reception the O'Reilly
has got, sir, and quite spontaneous. The
same thing occurs every night, every night,

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Online LibraryThomas HardyStories in Black and white → online text (page 8 of 13)