LEWIS CRAWFORD'S MOTHER.
IT is not to be
imagined that garrulous Mrs Milne had not told her first-floor
lodger that there was a new arrival in the attic. In fact,
according to Mrs Milne's own belief, she had told Miss Kerr
"everything" about Miss Olrig—her narration, after the manner of too
many biographies, just happening to miss all the vital points!
Miss Kerr had been duly informed that Miss Olrig came from
"Kelso," that she was a "captain's" orphan daughter, that she had
been commended to Mrs Milne's judicious attentions by that Kelso
kinswoman—the thriving shopkeeper on whom Miss Kerr "had so kindly
called,"—because Miss Olrig's "connections" were very particular
people, who would not have liked her to live in a house which nobody
knew anything about. That Miss Olrig had "high" introductions
which had got her a good place in the telegraph office, and that in
Mrs Milne's opinion—which was seldom mistaken, mind you!—Miss Olrig
had too pretty a face and too fine a way of carrying herself not
soon to have a home of her own, though, of course, Mrs Milne would
be the last person to put such rubbish into a girl's head.
Miss Kerr oh-ed and ah-ed. She heard every word, and
her alert memory recorded all, though she listened but absently.
The recital did not impress her favourably. Certainly it did
not suggest the old dame and the young girl in a lonely hut on a
hill, the story of whose goodness to a forlorn wanderer she had
declared did her more good than any sermon. Rather it conjured
up a picture of "a genteel young lady," with military or naval
connections, reared in the narrow proprieties and prejudices of
parsimonious provincial circles, one in whose eyes the greatest
horror would be "anything menial," and who would be quite ready to
accept favours and aid from people whom she was equally ready to
despise. Miss Clementine Kerr had known many such young
ladies, had suffered often from their airs and aptlessness, and had
had the right "to speak her mind" to a few of them. She could
easily conjure up the insipidly fine features and mincing manners
which would win Mrs Milne's admiration. Miss Kerr had often
observed that that worthy woman was most ready to accept the
superiority of those who treated her markedly as an inferior.
And yet how wrong was Miss Kerr in this case! She
forgot to allow for what one may call the "personal equation" of her
landlady's mind, which compelled her to conventionalise whatever she
admired. Had Mrs Milne gone out into the wilderness to visit
John the Baptist, she would have returned to Jerusalem describing
him as "a gentleman attired in rich furs," and "preferring a
vegetarian diet." So in the present instance she translated
skipper into "captain," and a stern old grandmother into fastidious
"connections." It was Mrs Milne's own idea of "putting a good
face on things," "setting one's best foot foremost," and so forth.
It was a habit which made her praises more to be deprecated than her
blame. Almost the only persons on whom she never tried this
fine art of descriptive starching and stiffening were Miss
Clementine Kerr herself and "the girls" in the kitchen, because in
these cases long use and wont had bred a familiarity which, in minds
of Mrs Milne's stamp, is incompatible with wholehearted admiration.
Poor fagged little woman, she had had plenty of disappointment in
life, and perhaps it argued a little for an ever-springing faith and
hope, as well as a great deal for fickleness and shallowness, that
she was always ready to accept the last comer as the most
satisfactory person she had yet encountered.
Anyhow, her description of "Miss Olrig" did not attract
Clementina Kerr to seek any acquaintance with the girl whose step
she heard on the stairs. Miss Kerr was not one of those fussy
and eager philanthropists who hurry to throw the beams of their
"influence" on everybody who happens to come within their reach,
forgetful that if sunshine itself is not good for all plants at
every stage of their growth, still less is the glaring bull's eye of
rash interference likely to be of universal benefit to tender souls
in every stage of development!
But if Clementina Kerr saw no reason why she should at once
rush into personal relations with the young stranger Miss, she did
not forget the little duties which one owes to one's neighbours,
absolutely as such. The newspaper which enlivened her
breakfast-table was punctually sent up to cheer Mary Olrig's
tea-time. Two or three magazines were also proffered with
"Miss Kerr's compliments," and duly returned with "Miss Olrig's
thanks." And when Mrs Milne was arranging some fresh plants in
Miss Kerr's window, Clementina suggested that one or two might be
taken up to the attic.
Yet during the sad and dreary days which followed Mary's
receipt of those two momentous letters from Tweedside, the girl
clung to the thought of Miss Kerr's mere presence in the house, and
found a strange sense of security therein. Here was another
woman who had already lived through long years of lonely and
strenuous struggle, who still kept her head bravely above water,
whose step was still light and alert, and her voice clear and
ringing, if sometimes a little sharp. Mary knew that Miss Kerr
wrote and received many letters, that, besides the shabby pupils,
she had a few visitors who seemed to go away with lingering and
reluctance. Once, through an open door, she caught a glimpse
of Miss Kerr's apartment, which, with its photograph frames, its
heaps of books and papers, and its easel, seemed to her most richly
home-like. There must have been romance somewhere at the root
of such a life, though it might now lie out of sight beneath this
fruitage of "camaraderie" and honourable independence.
Nothing else could have helped Mary as did the silent
suggestions of this visible bit of one woman's existence.
Mary's soul was distracted with questions which must get answered
within itself, shy with strange yearnings which it could not
comprehend—torn with vague terrors which it would not acknowledge.
No self-conscious act or word of help could have approached it just
then without inflicting a wound.
God knows these sensitive souls and preserves them by
shutting them up for awhile in impenetrable reserves where only He
can reach them, feeding them with food convenient for them, though
to other eyes it may seem scant and hard and bitter.
Clementina Kerr would have been astonished to think that such
a life as hers could give encouragement and strength to any human
soul. We fail to realise that it is always what we are, rather
than what we have or enjoy, which is subtly significant to our
fellows. Also, that the blessings we have may be very real and
true blessings, even though our own soul is conscious of growing
pains which shoot beyond their limits. And Clementina, Kerr
would have been the first to acknowledge the high value and great
joy (in every case but her own) of a life of honourable
independence, with power to render counsel and help to others.
But before those days Clementina Kerr had already thrown
herself heart and soul into the strange bit of helpfulness which it
seemed to her God had put straight into her hand on her homeward
journey from the North. Be sure she would not do her duty to
His tasks in any spirit less entire and strenuous than that in which
she had vainly striven to serve her kinsfolk or (not quite so
vainly) to earn her own bread. She had always scoffed in her
curt, caustic way at the "philanthropy" which is made subservient to
every personal mood or weakness, or social requirement—a
philanthropy which is, in short, the piteous resort of the idlest
hours of the idlest people.
She had not found it difficult to follow up her acquaintance
with Lewis Crawford. Before their strange railway journey
together had come to an end, the young man had a curious feeling as
if he had always known this plain, elderly woman, with the quick
manner and the kind heart. He seemed to recognise her, as,
after all, one cannot help thinking we shall recognise our guardian
angels when they are finally made visible to our eyes. He did
not tell her very much, poor fellow—in some ways he had not much to
tell—but he felt as if she knew all about such things beforehand.
To lay out our little pain or trouble to specialist or expert, who
knows just where and how it hurts, who asks no needless questions,
and who often sees comfort where we could not, is, as we all know,
very different from what it is to reveal a misery to the prying or
indifferent eyes of ignorance, whose questions are rude and whose
hands are rough.
A wronged, helpless, pitiful mother—a father somehow not on
the scene—and for the mother's sake gradually arousing something
like hatred in their child's heart—a daily struggle for bread, under
conditions which, by sapping health, hope, and heart, must involve a
final swamping at last—these might be elements too commonplace to be
tragic in common eyes, which can watch so wistfully the woes of wild
young aristocrats or the bulletins of regal health. But
Clementina Kerr knew what such things mean to those on whom they
press. Having gathered this information, and obtained a rather
reluctant permission to visit "Mrs Crawford," she did not delay a
single day in paying her promised call. She felt that some
imminent distress impending over this sad household must have goaded
Lewis to his wild journey. A penury which was ready to risk
character and almost life to spare a railway fare, could have but
little in hand wherewith to satisfy the needs of daily life!
Clementina Kerr knew all about these urgencies, because she
had been under them herself, though there were those who had known
her all her life long who would have found this hard to believe.
For a few visiting cards, a well preserved glove, and, above all, a
reputation for slight eccentricity, have carried many an one round
narrow precipices of bitter need! At polite dinner-tables, or
mingling in fashionable salons, some are to be found, not there from
love or from choice, but with hearts breaking with care and terror,
ready to envy the houseless street singer whose shrill wail
penetrates through the classical music within. For the street
singer is at least breathing without a mask, a free creature in his
own proper element.
Clementina knew all about these things! Even art
critics had sometimes given complimentary notice to the "reserve of
power" in the expression of certain faces in some of her
pictures—faces generally of poor folk or elderly women or worn men.
Such power has been always heavily paid for!
Miss Kerr had to look for the Crawfords in a district within
easy walking distance of her own abode. It was a region where
she had not been for a long time, but which she had once known very
well, the squalid hunting-ground of saints and sinners of all
nations,—those of whom the world is not worthy and those who are not
worthy of the world! A land of curious foreign names, of
strange industries and heterogeneous wares. A place where
sallow men of courtly bearing go to and fro making paltry domestic
purchases, where windows are often screened by table covers roughly
pinned across, where outer doors swing ajar day and night, to suit
the necessities imposed by need or vice, perhaps by both.
There might be a heartsick patriot in the attics, a theatrical
dresser in the second floor, a prostitute in the "drawing-room"
flat, an "artist in hair" in the parlours, and a dealer in old
clothes in the area. For was not this the Soho of a few years
ago, when all Europe was in that state of upheaval which fostered so
many beautiful hopes and engendered so many dire disappointments.
Miss Kerr knew her way well enough. She went down one
of the older and wider streets of the district, a street rich in old
wrought-iron and decayed torch holders, and redolent, to antiquarian
knowledge, of all sorts of historical and social interests.
Then, with just a moment's hesitation at a point where two or three
streets intersect each other, she crossed and went down a paved
footway, flanked with meaner houses, most of which were shops of a
shabby second-hand description. Miss Kerr went through this
passage, which was quite busy, full of people hurrying to and fro,
for it opened into a broader street, in which use and wont had
established an open-air market for the rudest necessities of the
poorest life. There needy housewives, worn by hardship out of
all form and comeliness, cheerfully oblivious of all they could not
afford, snatched the most pleasurable excitement of their lives in
cheapening bargains which were at least within their hopes; while
here and there among the crowd loomed the spare, buttoned-in form of
some grand-faced man, or the half-veiled sweet countenance of some
soft-voiced woman, whose very presence conjured up the blue reaches
of the Roman Campagna or the dark towers of Warsaw.
Glancing up at the numbers on the houses in the little
passage, Miss Kerr found the house where the Crawfords lived.
Its low shop, so low that Clementine Kerr felt almost tall enough to
look in at the casement above it, bore the name of one Bernski, who,
having probably been bred to no trade, made a futile attempt at
buying and selling in all. Its passage door, so light and
cracked as to be quite useless to shut out either cold or intrusion,
yielded to the lightest pressure of Clementine's hand.
She found entrance into the narrowest of passages, lit
half-way up the creaking stairs by a small window with two cracked
panes. But both the little passage and the creaking stairs,
bare of paint or any covering, were wonderfully clean, at least for
that place. On the window sill stood a pot of musk, triumphant
in adverse circumstances; but even its strong perfume could not
overcome that mysterious odour of poverty, which Miss Kerr
remembered having heard a stockbroker's wife describe as "the
peculiar smell of those houses whose wretched inmates have the
abominable habit of spreading their day clothing over their beds at
There were two little doors on the first landing and one
stood open, revealing a tall old man with a long white beard quietly
stirring something in a pot over a small fire. He turned at
the sound of Clementine Kerr's footsteps, and there was a wistful
benevolence in his aspect which made her loth to pass him without a
"Is this where Mrs Crawford and her son live? On the
floor above, I believe, sir?" she said.
The old man made a stately obeisance. "Yes," he
answered, "the door above this. He was not sure if the young
signor was at home—he was out so much—such a diligent youth—but the
madre was sure to be at home. The signora would find her very
weak, very nervous; but," and he looked at her searchingly, "the
signora would not flurry her—the signora would be very patient."
Clementine thanked him and ascended to the door he had
indicated. Long afterwards she remembered that, as she went
upstairs, her mind was crossed by one of those curious visions,
which many of us have experienced, so inexplicable, so causeless!
It was a suddenly revived memory of a place she had casually seen
during her Northern sojourn. She did not recollect where it
was, though it rose on her mind's eye now—a rough old stone mansion,
partly in ruins, with a brilliant flower garden and a greenhouse
nestling at its side and a green sward sloping down from it to a
Mindful of the Italian's mild warning, Miss Kerr gave a rap
so gentle that she scarcely thought to be heard, but a low voice
faintly invited her to "come in."
She found herself in one of two tiny chambers, opening into
each other, very bare, and looking barer for the freshness of their
whitewashed ceilings and walls. This one had a wide low window
which ran nearly all along one side, and its sill was crammed with
bright red pots filled with musk, creeping jenny, nettle geraniums,
and other humble and hardy plants. Among them stood a wicker
cage with a feathered occupant who gave an interrogative whistle as
the door opened. About the room were set two or three wooden
chairs of the commonest description, save that they were gaudily
painted in red, blue, and yellow, in a style which fashion had not
then introduced. A low couch or bed stood near the window
covered with a coarse scarlet blanket. A woman who had been
reclining thereon rose up feebly to receive the visitor.
This woman could not have been forty years old. Lewis
Crawford's mother must have been the merest girl when her son was
born. A woman of tall, willowy figure, arrayed in a plain,
clinging gown of some black stuff, its sombreness relieved only by a
big necklace of coloured stones, which lay loose on her shoulders
like a garland. On her head, masses of black hair slackly
braided in a huge knot behind. A face of that delicate
brown-yellow tint we see on some rare autumn leaves; big startled
black eyes. A foreign woman certainly, and one who had surely
come much farther than any of the European refugees who lived all
The startled expression of the beautiful eyes changed to that
of pathetic trust and satisfaction when Clementine introduced
herself. "Ah, she had heard of Miss Kerr. She had to
bless her for her goodness to the child. O, why had the child
gone that terrible journey! What if he had never come back to
her? He had never given her one sorrow—not one—except that he
had to be away so often and she never knew when—at night time even!"
"Work has to be done when it can be done, you know," said
Miss Clementine in her crisp, practical manner. The poor
woman's changeful face instantly recalled the Italian's warning, for
it clouded over, and the soft lip quivered as if tears were very
near. A woman, clearly, to whom it would be quite easy to lie
down and die beside her darling—the daughter of some race to whom
submission came naturally—but who might not readily rise to
comprehension of other kinds of suffering or sacrifice imposed by
the fierce struggle for existence.
"You have been very ill, I fear," said Miss Clementine in her
gentlest tones. "You were lying down when I came in—will you
lie down again?—or otherwise I shall go away at once."
The invalid obeyed without a protest. "Her child would
be so sorry if Miss Kerr went away before he came home," she
murmured in her musical yet monotonous tones. "He had been
expecting her to come, but he was called out to work. She, his
mother, wished him not to go, but to wait for Miss Kerr. He
said that would never do, and he went, though he was very tired."
And Clementine, hearing this, felt the more that help and
kindness would be well bestowed on one who would not let pass a bit
of common duty in expectation of any unearned good fortune.
"They wanted to get her away into the country," Mrs Crawford
went on in her dreamy tones. "Yes, it was in hopes of doing
something towards this that the child had taken the terrible
journey. She did not understand what he had hoped—some special
piece of work she supposed. But what did it matter that he
failed? It could not do her any good to leave him. She
was not very ill, she thought, only always tired; she could sleep
most of the day as well as the night, surely that must be good?
It had not been so always; for years she had slept very little, and
had worked for the child. He said it was his turn now.
She had made ornaments of bead and shell-work—especially shell-work.
It had been very poorly paid. It was mostly bought by ladies
as curiosities for their stalls at charity bazaars. She had
learned to do it in her own country. Yes, she belonged to
Tahiti. O lately she had dreamed so often of the great
mountain rising behind the bay. The child was not born there.
No, and she had lived in Australia a while before she came to this
country. The child was not born there either, but on the high
seas between Australia and Great Britain. Sometimes she was
sorry she had ever come to this country—it was cold and dull and
grey. And the people were so strong and never at rest.
Nobody had ever been unkind to her; nay, no, she would never believe
it! And something always gave a little help. But she
liked living best just where they were now, because the people were
used to foreigners, and did not stare so much. She had always
liked to live among foreigners, it made her feel lonely. The
doctor downstairs was very kind to her, except that he had
frightened the child about her. Yes, he was a doctor, and had
quarrelled with the Pope. The child knew all about it, and
took his side; she could not understand such things herself, not
now. She had not always been so stupid, or she could not have
brought up the child, though he was so clever that he learned
without teaching. A schoolmaster used to let him come to his
school for nothing, because he was so clever, and set such an
example! When that schoolmaster died, he left a case full of
books to the child. O, she wished he did not have to go out to
work at nights!"
Clementine Kerr, the cynical and keen, had already hold of
the poor woman's hand, stroking it as if it had been a baby's.
She thought she could guess it all, without any impertinent
inquisition—the innocent half barbaric girlhood—the unconscious
trust—the devoted following—the utter inability to realise or accept
desertion. Then under dire necessity, the gradual cultivation
of new mental and moral qualities, the aroused energies, their
quickening bringing only pain, pain, ever more pain. The life
of utter isolation of body, mind, and heart, every form of emotion
resolving itself into one passionate flame of maternal love.
The strain of strange surroundings, of unfamiliar tongues, of ways
of thought and feeling utterly incomprehensible. "Should I
keep my reason if I were suddenly propelled upon the planet
Jupiter?" cogitated crisp Clementina. "And the changed to her
can scarcely have been less! Is it any wonder that at last,
when there is no longer any need to slave and agonise for 'the
child,' nothing remains for her to do but 'to go to sleep.' I
think she has done marvellously well! If one has wrought the
work and borne the burden of twenty days in one day, who has right
to blame though one be weary and dim in the twilight? She has
lived out the force of twenty lives in one life!"
"I know this law copying your son does must be done just when
it is wanted," said Clementine aloud. "Would not it be better
if he got some regular work with regular pay and went to it daily?"
"Ah, yes," sighed the poor mother; "he had such a place once,
but something went wrong with the master and he was thrown out—his
last week's work was not even paid. And then there was
nothing! Nothing for weeks. It was very bad! It is
only lately he has cleared off the debts we ran into. He said
we must depend no more on one man, we were too poor for that.
He gets this other work from many, from one here and one there.
He says he would have found it hard to get a clerk's situation where
he could have earned in wage as much as he can now make in the
course of the year. Sometimes this work is very little, but
sometimes he is very busy and does not stop for hours and
hours—thirty—forty. He said it must be, because he must get
money for her. She did not know! What did she want?
She wanted nothing but himself."
Poor, wounded soul, daring to faint now her own share of the
battle was done! The strange lethargy was stealing over her
again. Miss Clementine's eyes grew misty, and her voice was
very soft as she rose up, saying―
"I will leave a note for your son, asking him to come and see
me in his first leisure hour after to-morrow."
She wrote a brief line, and then turned to say good-bye.
A strange glow had come suddenly upon the dark face, a strong light
into the dark eyes; Clementine felt that the mother's heart said to
her own (though, perhaps, the exhausted brain could scarcely follow
"I am going to sleep soon. Take the child and keep it
for me. I am too tired, and the way that he must go grows
harder. But you are strong."
There was no need of words; for these two women, who had both
been through the furnace fires of suffering, the curse of Babel was
abolished—that terrible Babel curse which makes even the same words
have myriad meanings! Their parting was absolutely silent, but
they kissed each other, though Clementine was no kissing woman and
was in the habit of adroitly using the edge of her hat or bonnet to
parry the volunteered pecks of intrusive female acquaintances.
Going downstairs the Italian doctor advanced from his room to
meet her. He shook his head significantly.
"Is she very ill, do you think, sir?" Miss Kerr inquired.
"There is no hope," he said quietly; "it is brain trouble.
It is but a question of longer or shorter time, more or less
Clementine stood still, bitterly sad for the sufferer whom
she had seen for the first time scarcely half-an-hour before.
Some hands do lay such strange hold on our hearts!
"Does her son know?" she whispered.
"He knows," answered the Italian; "he has known for weeks."
"And oh, how can he bear it?" Miss Kerr asked.
"Signora, who can answer that? We can all bear a great
deal when we must."
Clementine looked up at the noble old face with her quick
"You will tell him I have been here," she said; "I have asked
him to come to see me. He must not leave her at nights now."
"Daily bread, signora," said the Italian with his sad
"It must be managed somehow—I must try—it must be done," she
"The signora will manage anything that is not impossible,"
said the old man, and, stranger as he was, his words had such a ring
of sincerity that the hot blood flushed into Clementine's face, as
it will flush into even elderly faces at unexpected words of
"You have been kind to them—she told me so," said she.
The Italian shrugged his shoulders. "The lad is a fine
lad," he said courteously, changing the subject. "It is hard
to believe that his father was a villain."
"We have God for our father beyond our earthly parents," said
Clementina, with a slightly hard sound in her voice. She had
often said that to herself for her own sake.
The Italian bowed. The Pope, or Papa, calling himself
God's vice-regent on earth, had not behaved in a very fatherly way
to him. He could not help associating the Pope and God
together, with dogmas, dungeons, executions, and exile, and
naturally felt, therefore, that any claim to Divine descent was of
dubious advantage. But he would neither contradict a signora
nor discuss with a woman whom he felt to be good, though he would
have poured forth a torrent of contemptuous invective on the head of
a priest uttering the same words.
"She," and he motioned upwards with his head, "will not
believe the man was a villain. He was a young Englishman, and
he saw her in Tahiti, and persuaded her to think herself his wife
according to native ideas. He took her with him to Australia,
and left her there, when she could speak scarcely any English; went
away and never came back, nor sent a word. She thought she had
a clue to his English home, and people got her to sell some things
she had, and cheated her, and encouraged her to start for this
country. Her child was born at sea."
"She told me that," said Clementina.
"But, of course, her clue utterly failed her," the Italian
went on. His speech was fluent, foreign only in its musical
inflection and occasional hesitancy. "Who knows how she fared
at first? She never speaks of those early days. Only she
did not die—she nor the child."
"Have you heard the father's name asked Clementina.
"The same as the son's—Lewis Crawford," answered the Italian.
"Was it she or the young man who told you all this?" Miss
"It was she," he replied; "the lad has never breathed one
word on the subject. He is a proud spirit, a high heart."
"Well," said Clementina, "I must go now. I shall see
you again. It is a blessing to know they have such a friend in
"We are all poor together—it is a great bond," he answered;
and as he watched her energetic little figure bustling off, this man
of wide experience thought to himself—"Surely better than a fortune
is it for these folks that such a woman as that has found them out.
What manages these wonderful happenings—these compensations?
Some would say (I think this woman would) that it is 'the good God.'
If it is, I salute Him!"
Clementina went straight off to the office of her trusty old
friend, the lawyer.
MISS CLEMENTINA'S PROGRAMME.
CLEMENTINA had some
distance to go before she reached her good lawyer's sanctum in one
of the minor streets about Lincoln's Inn; but she did not think of
hiring any conveyance. Her dictum, "Exercise is good for
wholesome people—why should I refuse to use my legs because I can
afford a cab?" had become so much part of her mind that she now
always acted upon it as instinctively she adhered to many other
healthy economies. These might seem to the common eyes but the
natural "meanness" of a "poor old maid who had had to earn her own
bread." But had the common mind known of her sixty thousand
pounds, the common eyes would have opened wider and the common voice
would have whispered "miser" or "madcap." And we hope that by
this time our reader knows that by the "common mind" we do not mean
the simple ignorance of poor serving-maids and mill girls, we mean
rather the wilful idiocy of those women of the average monied class,
who lay all climes and all industries under contribution to the
vulgar luxury of their useless existence, and go jigging on in their
senseless dance of "pleasure," unwarned even by those spectres of
bankruptcy, dipsomania, fraud, and shame, which already darken too
near many of their own loveless and repining homes.
The lawyer was promptly in attendance on his client. He
was a good, honest man, but of that type whose goodness and honesty
never over-pass the grooves which custom has laid down. A
woman like Clementine Kerr, who would insist on paying certain
relatives' debts when the law could not demand it of her, and would
not recommend other impecunious relatives into positions of which
she did not believe them to be worthy, had always struck him as a
moral wonder, about which his mind was divided as to whether it was
a moral monster or a moral miracle. Perhaps it is not being
too hard on human nature to say that she did not become a less
interesting person when she came into possession of sixty thousand
pounds, left the fortune lying in the three per cents., and had not
as yet touched even the dividends thereon.
The busy man of business had often felt it to be his absolute
duty to urge Miss Kerr "to put that money into circulation."
He had tried to stimulate her into immediate action by suggesting
the "good that she might do," especially if she allowed him to
invest it thoroughly well, since that would give her the larger sums
to devote to sundry philanthropic schemes which he spread temptingly
before her. But she had steadily demurred.
"I am not too sure that I have not done much more harm than
good with such trifling sums of my own as I have already had to
dispense," she said. "I am not going to do a heap of mischief
rather than do nothing for a time. Much of your boasted
philanthropy seems to me like doing good that evil may go on, like
clipping off the tops of weeds while the roots remain in the ground.
I will wait."
This was Miss Kerr's first visit to the worthy man after her
return from her Northern holiday, and he went into her presence with
high hopes that "something had brought her to her senses at last."
"And so you are safely back again, Miss Kerr," he said,
rubbing his hands. "And where are you staying now?"
"In the old place," she replied.
"O—h! I thought you contemplated going somewhere else.
I remember you always thought the old locality rather dull and the
house somewhat cramped, though they might suit you well enough
once—for a time," his lowered voice taking a sympathetic inflection.
"I did think of changing—I know I said so," answered
Clementina. "The street is dull, the house is cramped, but the
landlady is obliging and kindly. She served me well when I
could pay her very little and was forced to work her rather hardly.
I could not feel the same towards any new person. It's ill
making one's first changes from the ground of merely material
advantages. The body won't thrive if you take out the heart."
"Well, well," said the lawyer, his hopes beginning to sink.
Miss Kerr went on, with great deliberation: "Have I not often
heard you say that many people come to your offices with cases of
wrong and injustice which cannot be taken up, simply because the
sufferers have no money in hand, while much time and labour would
have to be expended before any right could be done, and in the
intricacies of your beautiful law one can be never absolutely
certain of the triumph of moral right?"
"I have said so," the lawyer admitted, wondering a little.
"It is the peculiar misfortune of a poor man's poor practice that it
is particularly open to these distressing appeals. And what is
he to do?" he added. Was she about to endow him for the
service of unfortunate plaintiffs? Or was she about to attack
him for his low view of the functions of his profession? Both
ideas rushed across his mind.
"You could manage to do more in this direction if you had
another clerk?" questioned Miss Clementine.
"Yes," the lawyer acknowledged. "Yes, certainly.
Only the clerk would require a salary," and he sagely shook his
"I know a young gentleman (Miss Clementine looked very
straight at the lawyer as she said those words) who I think might be
glad to receive the training that such a position would give him.
I will pay you eighty pounds a year for his salary, and I will
undertake to pay the outgoing expenses of such reasonable cases as
his help may enable you to take up. You will get the advantage
of any legitimate profit that may ultimately accrue from such cases.
I should wish him to devote to these all the time that they may
require for investigation and so on, but at other times I should
desire you to keep him busy with your own work. You could make
him useful. He is a skilled law copyist already."
"Has he any other qualifications?" asked the lawyer. He
foresaw that the arrangement might be really helpful to himself.
If in no other way, still the appearance of an additional clerk in
his office would have a wholesome aspect of increased prosperity!
"He knows London well. He knows life well. He has
had a deep and varied experience of things, though he is only a lad,
not much over twenty," said Miss Clementine.
"Youth is a fault which mends every day, and he is not at all
too old to be articled to the profession?" he suggested, with an
"We shall see about that," answered the lady, "when we see
how the present arrangement works. But remember, I am not
quite sure yet that it may meet his own views, though I think there
is little doubt about that. And recollect, he is to be your
clerk, in your service. I am not to appear at all in the
matter. My possession of a certain little bit of money is to
be as much a professional secret from this new clerk of yours—if he
comes—as from any of your clients."
"It shall be as you wish," the lawyer assured her. "You
have not yet told me his name."
"His name is Lewis Crawford," said Miss Clementina. "I
shall have an interview with him to-morrow, and if he and his mother
agree, I suppose you can receive him at once?"
The lawyer cordially assented, and with a few civil
platitudes about Miss Kerr's recent journeyings, the interview
ended. But as the gentleman closed the door behind his client
he returned to his desk, cogitating within himself.
"Lewis Crawford? I have surely come across that name
before! But where and when did I hear it?"
CLEMENTINA KERR'S CONSIDERATIONS.
Clementina Kerr found that Lewis Crawford needed no convincing of
the advantages of the opening she had found for him. Indeed,
the young man felt that she had conferred on him a benefit for which
he would owe her a life long debt, little though he dreamed that her
share in it was anything beyond a prompt exertion of her influence
with an old professional friend who chanced to have a vacancy in his
Clementine had had plenty of experiences which made her aware
of considerable significance in young Crawford's brief, simple
thanks, given with a light in his eyes and a tremor on his lips.
She had often received gushes of gratitude, and knew exactly their
value, or rather, want of value. Lewis Crawford did not say to
Miss Kerr, "Now I shall be able the sooner to repay what I owe you."
But Clementina was not disappointed in this, for she read the
thought in his face. Of course, she cared for repayment for
his own sake only. Clementina had long since learned to expect
any repayment only from those who say very little about it, till
they bring it to one in their hand, and then generally reinforce it
by such overflowing measure of love or largesse, or both, that one
shamefacedly understands what the poet meant when he wrote of "the
gratitude of men" that had "often left him mourning." She had
come across one or two such instances in the days when repayment had
been practically very important to her, and when in her arid desert
of bitter family experience the well-springing of honest gratitude
had been even more important still. She knew that the honesty
and the kindliness of those two or three had kept her heart open
when it was ready to close with disappointment and disgust.
They had not been people who could come very far into her life.
One was an old charwoman, who could scarcely read or write; another,
a Scotch labourer on his deathbed; and the third, a young teacher
who soon emigrated to New Zealand. Miss Kerr had often felt
that if she had been offered King Solomon's choice she would have
asked that she might get, not wealth, or power, or even wisdom, but
a chance of serving some true and gentle nature, which would not
spurn or bite the hand held out to help it, and which, if Fate
placed it within her sphere, might be allowed to linger there
awhile. It was an old longing of Clementina's. Years ago
it had got into her prayers. But she had given it up for some
time now, and had resolutely restrained her lips and striven to
school her heart to that one petition, which is so small, because
after all it is the seed of all things good—"Thy will be done."
Assured that young Crawford had no suspicion that the help
she had rendered him was of that nature which the world, who can
only reckon by its own coinage, calls "a real obligation," she found
it quite easy to proffer to his mother those little gifts and
kindnesses which might pass naturally enough from a lonely and
fairly prosperous working woman to another who was an invalid and a
Lewis was now absent from his mother for about seven hours
daily, but he could return punctually in the gloaming, to that poor
soul's great delight. Clementina Kerr constantly walked over
in the afternoons, seldom going empty-handed, though her gifts were
of the simplest nature—now a flower, now a few bananas, then the
loan of a lamp of her own, giving more light than the one in the
Crawfords' own possession, or of a reclining chair of peculiarly
comfortable construction. Even when she resolved to provide a
light, warm, cheery dressing-gown for the sick woman, she went about
the matter with the wisdom of the serpent. By that time—it was
not so very long—she had been made free of the Crawfords' tiny
wardrobe, with whose manifold darnings and repairings the poor
foreign mother's weary fingers could no longer cope. There she
found a few yards of thin, coarse Turkey red cotton which had
already been washed once or twice. Next day she brought down
on her arm a gorgeous old Paisley shawl, once the property of a
forgotten great-aunt. "With their own Turkey red for a lining,
this would make such a comfortable garment, and it was such a
blessing to get old-fashioned things put out of the way into some
use. It would be much nicer with a little wadding, and cotton
wadding was very cheap." She actually let Lewis Crawford go to
a shop and get some, and pay for it himself!
She made up the garment in Mrs Crawford's own room, and
showed her work to Lewis himself with great pride—did he not know
exactly what it had cost—just the few pence he had paid for the
wadding! It was a genuine pride in her, with her own nobly
thrifty ways, quite different from the insolent exultation of the
rich vulgarian who boasts of the cheapness of her gifts and
charities, never reckoning in their cost the reckless "cabbing" with
which she collects her bargains! And though Lewis knew that
whenever Miss Kerr came she made his mother take a quantity of jelly
out of a little pot she carried in her bag and never left behind
her, he fancied this was only some wholesome home-made nourishment,
and never dreamed it was a costly viand, almost sufficient to
sustain the invalid's strength without any other food.
Clementina Kerr felt that a giver should put more of himself
into his gift than the hand with which he opens a full purse, not
filled by his own labour. Also, she had a curious feeling,
partly personal pride, but partly protest against the undue
usurpation of the power of "benevolence" on the part of mere wealth.
She wanted to feel she could still have done something had she
remained in the position which she accepted as truly her own—the
position she herself had made as a hard-working and not too
So she forewent two or three little personal luxuries which
she had promised herself out of that income "of her very own," her
own savings, far within which she was resolved always to keep her
personal expenditure. Her winter cloak would serve another
season. There were one or two costly books for which she could
wait a little. Nay, as she was about to enter a mercer's shop
to buy herself a new pair of gloves, she paused, went home, and
mended her old ones.
This may seem ridiculous to other people. It seemed a
little queer even to Clementina herself. She enquired very
carefully into her own heart to see whether the feeling did spring
wholly from a personal pride, in which case she would have promptly
thwarted it; but she could not honestly convict it. It seemed
rather an instinctive clinging to the neighbourly joy of simple
sharing—an instinctive recognition that this kept her relations with
the Crawfords right. Why! if she had availed herself of the
prerogatives of wealth she could never have known these people.
She would not have encountered Lewis, except, perhaps, as she might
have looked from a first-class carriage and seen him dragged
ignominiously forth as a common felon. It is only those who
live with the poor and as the poor, who can ever know all the
truth—for good or for evil—about them. It is only such, with
their own manifold struggles and self-denials, who should venture to
give advice or reproof. If one has just bought a half-guinea
box of chocolate creams, how should one dare to cavil at the
hardworking washerwoman's surreptitious glass of gin, or the honest
serving-maid's foolish furtive feather! Yet how well a kindly
warning might come from a gentlewoman who limits her own afternoon
tea, and buys her dresses with a strict view to pure beauty and good
service. Must rich people use their riches to choke up their
own lives? Must they, because they are rich, surrender the
very virtues and habits which tend to bring out all that is most
original and picturesque in human character? Cannot they keep
their wealth apart from themselves, a small treasury of God upon
which they can draw with their own hands as the poor themselves can
draw upon His great treasuries by their faith?
It is a curious fact that those who have once lived in the
region of clever contrivances, triumphant economies, and all the
urgent innocent little realities of life, can never be quite happy
in any atmosphere less bracing! Better these, even with their
too frequent companion Care, than any amount of ease, assurance, and
luxury without them. Sometimes the restless rich man does not
know what he misses. He may prate vaguely about "rural
retirement," envy "a peaceful cottage," and talk of cultivating
one's own fields, yet he goes out and buys himself another Turkey
carpet or a case of costly wine, or hires an additional servant!
Clementina knew all that is meant in that proverb of Solomon:
"Much food is in the tillage of the poor." She knew how much
healthy life and skill, and honest wit and joy can be got out of
every shilling. Is there any law of Nature why twenty times as
much should not be got out of twenty shillings? why a million times
as much should not be got out of a million shillings? It is
not every rich person who has had the training which entitles him to
ask these searching questions, but from those to whom God has given
it, He will certainly require effort towards the solution of these
Clementina's mind was full of their consideration during
those wan autumn days, when she went so often to and fro between her
own apartments and the Crawfords' lodging.
That yoke which we know is good to be borne in youth, she had
borne not only in youth, but till she was nigh fifty years old.
She had held her own will under, seeking nothing but to
fulfil duty after duty imposed on her by hard circumstances, bred of
the wrong-thinking and wrong-doing of others. Of course, amid
these stern conditions, her will, pruned and often cut down to its
very root, had grown strong and vigorous. Now, at last, she
found herself set free from the hard bondage in which she had been
made to serve—free to do, no longer what was best "under the
circumstances," but what seemed right in the sight of God.
She had earned money for those who would earn none for
themselves, she had picked up each burden as everybody else threw it
down, she had scattered pearls of counsel and suggestion before
those who had trampled them under foot. At best she had sown
good seed on unreclaimed ground, whereon the thorns of this world's
cares and riches and pleasures had soon sprung up and choked it.
Poor Clementina! In sleep she dreamed sometimes of
voices, which, professing gratitude one day, had given only gibe and
taunt on the next. And in those dreams the gratitude and the
gibes mingled in so strange a juxtaposition that it might have
startled even the insane souls from whom they had originally issued.
With a passionate love of justice, the strongest passion in
her, as it ever must be in those with whom Love, divine and human,
reigns supreme—her lot had been thrown among those who knew no law
but their own lusts, who held their balances crooked, could not see
the thing that is equal, and hit out wildly at aught that strove to
rectify their vision.
Sentimental women, themselves deeply injured by any chance
domestic ruffle of their own luxury, had often wondered at her
"hardness," because she did not glorify herself by a cheap verbal
forgiveness for unrepentant sinners who had wrecked lives for whom
she would have poured forth her heart's blood. Clementina, had
learned to shrink from the ordinary woman of society—almost, she
feared, to hate her, as a thing at the root of many of society's
Among it all she had had her own exquisite love story.
Her ideal of love had always been so high that she scarcely
understood how specially exquisite that story was, till advancing
life gave her insight into the coarse materialism and fleeting
delights which make up much that passes for love. Yet now that
she fully realised what God had vouchsafed to her in her lovely
romance, there remained for her human heart this pang, that had the
world been worthy of it, it need not have passed so soon out of
sight in the grave. There were summer days when the slant of a
sunbeam among the trees would startle tears into Clementina's eyes,
bright and keen as they remained.
It was so new, so delightful, to feel herself at last able to
give forth strength in cheering, in supporting, in inspiring,
instead of in reproof and check and combat. So she trotted to
and fro, "an ugly little old maid," as she called herself, and
perhaps few would have contradicted her. She had a good laugh
once, because, leading an old blind woman across a crowded
thoroughfare, the dame, misled by something in the touch of her hand
and the tone of her voice, always so tender to the old or poor or
broken down, expressed her gratitude in these words―
"Thank you, my pretty dear."
A DOWNHILL PATH.
neighbourhoods in London which might be in a different land from the
sombre and decayed quietude of the district where Miss Clementine
Kerr and Mary Olrig dwelt unwittingly beneath one roof, and almost
in a different world from the struggling poverty and daily tragedy
of dim places such as that where the Crawfords lived.
Yet among many who, from their own point of view, "must" live
among the costly amenities of St James's or Mayfair, are some whose
incomes would be narrow even in Islington or Camberwell. Mr
Robert Bethune might be scarcely one of these, yet it had required a
good deal of family discussion and of Miss Lucy's clever management
to devise how his income could do all that was required of it.
After the expenses of the high-class club to which he "must" belong,
the charges for the decent hack which he "must" have for Rotten Row,
the prices of a fashionable tailor, and the margin which "must" be
left for cabs and stalls at the opera, there was not much left for
the plebeian necessities of food and lodgment!
Miss Lucy had bethought herself of taking counsel with a
certain Highland chieftain, landless now, who lived as a fashionable
bachelor in London, save when he wandered northward in the shooting
season. The McKelvie of that Ilk would not see fifty again,
and was promoted to be the general confidant and adviser of ladies
of similar social status. He talked a little sentiment with
them, inveighed against Radical politics, and while the widows
consulted him over their boys' education, the maiden ladies were
guided by him in the matter of horses and wines.
How he had earned this position of oracle nobody could tell.
He had not even that dear-bought experience of his own blunders,
which qualifies some men for the part of adviser. It was not
he who had lost the lands of the McKelvies, his forefathers had done
that for him: he had not been wild; yet he did not even pretend to
any moral ideals; he had no friends: he had no duties; he was
responsible for nothing; he had done nothing,—except manipulate the
last residue of the McKelvie finances so that his dress coats should
not fail and his club subscription should be sure.
Did Miss Lucy Bethune think such a life a success, that she
should seek its guidance for her brother? Such a question
would never occur to her. The man was the McKelvie, and had
lived as the McKelvie on very narrow means. Rab Bethune was
the future laird of Bethune, and he also had to support that
character on very narrow means. That was enough for Lucy
Bethune, who looked only down that arid vista of life which is
visible between the black boundaries of Pride and Poverty.
The McKelvie had instantly a course to recommend. He
knew a house which would exactly suit Miss Bethune's brother.
It was within five minutes' walk of all the clubs—within five
minutes' walk of St James's Palace itself. The house was kept
by a duke's ex-butler, who had married her grace's maid. Miss
Bethune could understand that everything was quite comme-il-faut.
The McKelvie believed the parlours were disengaged at the time he
was speaking. If Miss Bethune and Mr Rab pleased, the McKelvie
would write at once and make all enquiries.
Lucy Bethune was grateful in her dignified way. The
McKelvie understood so sympathetically and took so much for granted,
that she was spared all painful explicitness about economy. So
Rab Bethune's rooms were duly engaged in Courtly Street, St
James's—an address becoming to a young man in society, who was to be
the confidential secretary of a rising political peer.
What mattered it that Courtly Street was but a narrow
cul-de-sac, opening from a thoroughfare scarcely wider?
Everybody who was anybody knew that cramped rooms even in Courtly
Street were worth as much as a snug villa in Hampstead, aye, even
though those rooms might be over a shop. But Rab was domiciled
in a private house—in truth, the only private house in Courtly
Street—the space whereon it was built having been too small for
anything else, so that it stood between two shops like a thin
gentleman squeezed between two jolly burghers. The shops
themselves were "genteel" shops, the one a dressing-case maker's and
the other a perfumer's. As for Rab Bethune's front view, his
parlour window looked out on a tavern with a very wide frontage,
greatly frequented by gentlemen's servants.
This might not be a very inspiring surrounding, but we all
have to decide what is necessary to our existence, and then to
surrender whatever may be incompatible with such necessity, and Lucy
Bethune had decided—her brother consenting with her—that the "good
address" being his necessity, fresh air and such sentimental
frivolities as sunsets and dawns and trees must be therefore
Rab's landlord and landlady had been highly trained menials,
who knew the exact wage-value of their deeply respectful manners and
courteous tones. They preferred "gentlemen" who were
extravagant and luxurious and exacting, because these were the
qualities which their own skill and sagacity could make most
remunerative to themselves. If one who came within their scope
was not prepared for lavish expenditure in table luxuries or in
toilet et cetera, he was made to feel that he did not know
how things ought to be. There is a great deal of such
influence exercised in the world over the weaker sort, as anybody
who has had any experience of polite servility in any form can fully
Mr Robert Bethune had not been very long away from Tweedside,
and yet, as he entered his Courtly Street parlour, he did not seem
quite the same man who had often so opportunely encountered Lesley
Baird on the green hillside, or so innocently studied old ballads
with her in the brown parlour of Edenhaugh. His complexion was
not so clear, and his lip had a fretful slackness which was new to
Rab Bethune had adopted his sister's moral and social code in
many respects, much in the same way that little children are fond of
professing their parents' politics. In Bethune Towers it was
not very easy to escape the mesh of Lucy's regulations; and while at
Edinburgh University he had lived under the discipline of a
well-regulated establishment, and the influence of punctual classes
and recurring duties. Lucy knew well enough that she had to
keep both her father and brother well in hand, for if ever
circumstances slackened her reins for a day the household pace was
altered. The professor under whose supervision Rab had lived
while at college could have told her the same thing—that while her
brother was not a rebel or a ne'er-do-well, he did not live at the
heart of the wholesome life in which he was placed, but on its
margin, so that its limits were always galling him, and he was ever
ready to lapse through any accidental or permitted breach which
occurred therein. Had Rab ever stayed at home on a lawful
"out" evening? Never. Had he often sought permission for
visits or recreation at prohibited times? Constantly.
Had he ever spent less than his allowance? Never. Had
his allowance ever sufficed to discharge all his bills up to date?
Never. Had he ever failed a pass examination? Never.
Had he ever gained a certificate of greater proficiency?
Never. Were his chosen college friends men superior to
himself—superior mentally or in moral fibre? No; one or two of
them (who were poor) had been somewhat distinguished as students,
but they all, every one, were men who made no secret of views and
habits, which Rab, for himself, professed to abjure and contemn.
To a wise eye such a record signifies that Rab had, as yet,
no character at all, and that nobody need have any very definite
opinion about him, till they should see what happened when he was
brought face to face with some of those sudden, irrevocable
"choosing of the ways," which set us either manifoldly struggling up
the stream or unmistakably drifting down it. This is very far
from saying that he had not already certain good qualities.
Such a girl as Lesley Baird would never have loved a man who had not
the clear promise and possibility of goodness. Lesley herself
would have thought she proved this by feeling sure that she had
grown a better and wiser girl since she had known Rab, not guessing
that any pure love elevates the heart it enters, and has the magic
power of turning even poison into food. Wesley was often
pained to feel that Rab was restive under good ways and good words
which she found helpful to her own soul, but she was sure it was
only the admixture of dross which repelled Rab from the gold.
To take an instance, Miss Lucy had drilled into Rab that
punctuality was an aristocratic—nay, a regal virtue. He knew
all the anecdotes about Wellington and Nelson and the other prompt
warriors and statesmen. The dilatory old laird's example was
against all these precepts, and as Miss Lucy's inborn loyalty
forbade her from calling attention to the fact that her father could
not be called a successful or great man, she elected to clothe him
with a fiction of the virtue she wished to inculcate; and her
excuses for the lair's constant lapses, probably first helped to
teach Rab how to make excuses for himself!
Therefore when Rab came into occupation at Courtly Street, he
announced to the ex-butler that he was a very punctual man, and that
though his engagements might make many of his other arrangements
somewhat irregular, yet he must insist that breakfast be always
punctually served up at half-past eight. The ex-butler
received the order with respectful obedience, and never even asked
that it should be reconsidered, though Rab's punctuality proved to
mean somewhere within an hour after the appointed time! The
punctual arrangement certainly saved trouble in the kitchen, and
Rab, eating heavy toast and drinking lukewarm coffee, was a
triumphant proof to Rab himself that each day's failure must be an
exception to his general rule!
To own the truth, ever since Rab Bethune came to London, he
had lived under the condition which human nature―even the
strongest—always finds most trying to its fibre.
He had been waiting!
Every day he had expected a certain letter; and among the
many which he received, that particular letter never came!
This was actually one reason why he was so punctually
unpunctual. Every morning, lying in bed, he heard the
postman's knock, and knew that if he arose and dressed he could at
once ascertain whether the long looked-for epistle was laid upon his
breakfast table; but he found it the more irresistible temptation to
lie on, conjecturing and day-dreaming, and prolonging the daily hope
which always ended in daily disappointment !
It was a reply letter which he looked for. Then why did
he not write again to his unresponsive correspondent? That is
a resource always open, and to which most of us are sometimes
driven, however much it may hurt our affection—or our vanity.
Why?—Because he had debated within himself twenty times
before he had written his unanswered letter. Because he had
never finally decided within himself that it ought to be
written—come what might. Because after he had posted it, he
had wished it was within his power to recall it—had lost sight of
all the arguments whereby he had goaded himself into sending it—and
had begun to see all sorts of mischievous results from its despatch!
The only result which had never occurred to his mind as a
possibility was the inexplicable dead silence which had really
Now, if that letter had been in itself a mistake (and Rab
felt sure of this now), how could a second one rectify the error?
Yet the withholding of such second letter did not make the first one
as if it had never been!
Besides, since he had written that unanswered letter, he had
heard news which had made its very existence intolerable to him, and
which converted the inscrutable silence into which it had
disappeared into an absolute torture.
Every day as he came down to breakfast and looked through his
correspondence in vain, he said to himself that this was very hard
on a man—the kind of thing that makes a fellow's life run to
waste—and yet just what nobody could foresee! It never
occurred to him to question how far his will and foresight might
have had free play in circumstances preceding the despatch of that
letter, and without which it need never have been written.
Four letters to-day. Not one the desired. One,
manifestly a bill, which he tossed aside; another, a missive in an
eccentric envelope, with a monogram visible in the contortions of a
dancing demon; the third, from his father, the laird; the last
(which he opened first), a card of invitation to an evening assembly
at the house of a young married lady of rank, an acquaintance of
Miss Lucy Bethune's.
Next in order he took his father's letter.
It began, as his father's letters always did, with a grumble
about things in general; but the old laird hastened over this more
briefly than was his habit, and went on―
"I have felt very much harassed of late—only likely, after
all I have just gone through, and you—the only one to whom I can
speak—away from me. Do you remember what you told me of your
suspicion about a certain person's visit to Haldane's cottage?
It is very singular that only a few days after you went away, Lucy,
who, of course, knew nothing—and knows nothing—began to talk about
the Haldane cottage, and to say it should be pulled down: that it
was disgraceful to let an old woman live alone in such a ricketty
place. I could not help entertaining the idea a little
favourably. I never had liked old Jean. She is a woman
of so few words, you do not know when you reach the bottom of that
sort, they are just the folk who say things at the wrong time and to
the wrong people. Why shouldn't she go and live in London with
her granddaughter, as was only natural and proper? But I'd
never have got the thing carried through—you know my way—only Lucy
was so prompt and persistent. She made me go with her and tell
old Jean about it, and the old dame said never a word against it,
but looked me straight in the face and said 'Very good.' It
made me feel as if I was a brute, and I've felt cross with Lucy ever
since. The house is pulled down, but instead of going up to
London, old Mrs Haldane is staying on with the Bairds at
Edenhaugh"—(Rab sprang to his feet and something very like an oath
started from between his teeth)—"It has ended in nothing at
all—except putting me in the wrong and turning everybody against me.
One wonders sometimes"—the old laird broke off that sentence and
began another—"I never would have done what I did (you know what I
mean) but for your sake, though you have given me only hard words
for having done it. As I said to you before you left—it all
came upon me at such unfortunate seasons. The first time, just
after I had married your mother, and I thought nothing at all (was I
bound to ask questions?) might come of it; and the second time, you
were born and your mother was at death's door. Word of it
would have killed her—(poor soul, she died all the same!) And
poverty is a sorer thing to those who have known wealth than to
those who have not. It was for your sake, and really it seemed
as if it might all end in smoke—and now it seems as if it never will
end at all. I'm getting very old, and I don't know what the
next world will be like, but I'm sure I've had no satisfaction out
It was a pitiful letter, the weak outpouring of a broken mind
whose remorse rose only to the level of self-excuse and self-pity.
Rab's lip curled with unfilial contempt as he felt that his father
only regretted his recent high-handed dealings with the Haldanes
because of their apparent futility, and his lurking consciousness
that they might not add to his comfort in another state of
This was the first that Rab had heard of the eviction of old
Mrs Haldane. Lucy had not been so prompt in giving that news
as in reporting Lesley Baird's engagement with Logan of Gowan Brae.
"Poor old father!" said Rab, his soft heart relenting as
there rose before his mind the image of the bent, shabby old figure
of the laird, his rumpled grey head bowed upon his trembling hands,
as he had sat while his son had heaped upon him "hard words."
Somehow he could already understand his father better than he had
been able to do on the terrible evening when the young man got his
first glimpse into an utterly unsuspected skeleton chamber in
Bethune Towers. Since that date Rab's soul had been living in
the atmosphere of an old persistent sin. And whoever finds
that bearable may presently think it wholesome, or at least
comfortable, and then begin to mistrust and misunderstand whatever
he finds incompatible therewith.
Yet it was really too bad that an old widow woman and a young
girl should have to suffer for a contact with the Bethune affairs
which, so far as they were concerned, must have been quite
accidental and perfectly harmless. What could have set Lucy at
work in this direction? Could it be mere coincidence?
And then to think of old Mrs Haldane staying in the Bairds'
And there Rab interrupted his own soliloquy by a fresh train
Was it possible that this friendly alliance might shed a
light on the mysterious silence which had tormented him ever since
he arrived in London? Rab had cursed the hour when he had
allowed himself to send that letter which, unanswered, seemed to
have but betrayed him to no purpose. And yet—and yet—there
might be but some mistake. A sweet face seemed to smile upon
him once more out of the mist of suspicion, and terror, and
self-humiliation which had of late enveloped him. Could that
sweet face be cruel, heartless, false—turned towards one to-day like
a guardian angel's, and turned from one on the morrow, astute and
inscrutable as that of a detective?
How far did considerations like these, and a wild hope of
probing the mystery to his own satisfaction, influence Rab in a
sudden determination to try to see old Mrs Haldane's grand-daughter,
and ascertain (as if the enquiry came from his father) whether there
was anything the Bethune family could do to assuage the bitterness
of the change they had brought on the old lady?
It was a wild scheme; Rab could see that it had risks.
But he argued within himself that if the peace and security of
Bethune Towers were really in danger from this quarter, then at
worst his action could but precipitate hostilities. On the
other hand, if the whole matter was capable of innocent explanation,
it would soften a harshness which evidently weighed on his father's
weary conscience, and (strongest plea in favour of the idea) it
would give him a chance of hearing once more of sweet Lesley Baird
from others than his chill step-sister. At that moment he felt
that he would run any risk in the world could he hope to meet
Lesley's true eyes and hear her deny all truth in that report about
Logan of Gowan Brae.
The scheme, which for a moment seemed but chimerical,
gradually shaped itself into plain possibility. He could see
Miss Olrig at the telegraph office. Nay, he would not call
expressly to see her; he would go to see the marvellous organisation
of the establishment, and would enquire after her, as it were, by
He lingered over his breakfast, working out these plans in
his mind and resolving to put them into execution that very day,
when his landlord knocked at his door, and in a tone of voice which
indicated most respectfully that this was not a correct calling
hour, announced that Mr Richard Fowell wished to see Mr Bethune.
Now Mr Richard Fowell was the writer of the letter stamped
with the dancing demon. Rab suddenly recollected this
document, which had remained unopened and forgotten. He tore
it open hastily and glanced through its contents, with the playful
prefix of "Dear Beth," and the playful signature of "Dicky Bird,"
the writer's pet witticism on his proper name.
The note only invited Rab's company for some occasion which,
on that day, chanced to give holiday to most politicians and their
underlings. Rab promptly decided to refuse. If Dicky
Bird wanted Mr Bethune's company to-day he must annex himself to Mr
Bethune's own doings. Meanwhile, Mr Richard Fowell might be
Mr Richard Fowell appeared. He was still a minor, and
despite his boyish air and his blue eyes, he had a dreary look for
one who always described himself as leading a "jolly life."
That he could call himself "the chum" of the same man who loved
Lesley Baird showed that that man must have two natures so
incongruous that either one of the two must presently fall off, or
the whole life prove but a warped monstrosity.
For Mr Richard Fowell himself it must be pleaded that he was
a rich orphan, with no knowledge of any virtues nobler or warmer
than the chill proprieties of aristocratic schools and first-class
tutors. It was not very surprising that he had found "more go,
you know," among a large circle of medical students who did not
study, and artists who did not paint. As he himself would have
admitted, he "stuck up considerably" to Rab Bethune, because an
earl's secretary with a county name was an undeniably respectable
acquaintance to "sport" to his "governors."
"You've got my letter, Beth," he said, glancing over the
table; "you'll come, won't you? I expected to find you all
trimmed and ready, knowing that you are the famous early bird that
catches the worm." (Confiding Dicky Bird!)
"O, I've been lingering over my breakfast this morning,"
returned Rab, which was true—but, nevertheless, he had been late.
"No, Fowell, I shan't be able to come with you to-day. I want
to go somewhere else, very particularly."
"Quite special," echoed the readily acquiescent minor.
"Well, it can't be helped. But aren't you looking rather
queer? Impudent of me to make remarks, isn't it?"
"Do I look queer?" asked Rab, shaking himself up.
"Well, perhaps so; I've had worrying letters from home."
"What! are you in for it already?" cried the guest eagerly.
"Why, I was thinking of taking you for my mentor and good example.
You must have been going a pace to put up your governor's back so
soon! Ha! ha! You quiet ones are always the worst."
"O, it's nothing of that kind," said Rab, feeling the
treacherous delight of talking out his vexation to one who could not
understand its origin. "It is only an important letter that
does not come. And there are some affairs my father is very
anxious about—little things bother elderly people, you know.
And my sister Lucy is peculiar. They live a hemmed-in life at
Bethune Towers. I have often felt that existence would have
been unendurable there, without the change I had to Edinburgh."
"And yet these Red-Radical-Socialists would like to compel
country gentlemen to live on their own estates!" responded Richard
Fowell. "A likely thing indeed! And some people at the
very other end from the Red-Radicals would bring one to the same
thing with their talk about the duties of one's station and all that
humbug! There's my guardian—an avuncular relation, you know.
A cleric—dean—possible bishop—heavy swell style, don't you
understand? What fun does he get out of life? So he'd
like to spoil mine!"
Rab laughed. "Perhaps the dean does not care for fun,"
"'Richard,' says he," proceeded the minor, mimicking an
austere air and pompous manner; "'Richard, I am deeply grieved to
think of the people with whom you consort. What were you
telling your cousins the other day about a young man who had to wear
his dress coat in the morning because all his other garments were in
pawn? Is that a proper friend for you? Is that a fit
person to discuss with your cousins?' 'Uncle,' returns this
dutiful nephew, 'it is not the religion of Richard Fowell to spurn a
man as a publican and sinner because he is short of the needful.
I would not dream of corrupting my dear lady cousins' pure minds,
but I presume even their select and refined education has allowed
them to read about the great and good Dr Johnson sitting behind his
publisher's screen because his unmentionables were shabby.' I
had him there, you see," commented Dick, relapsing into his natural
manner; "though, faith! my chum Giltspur isn't much like the dingy
dictionary maker, if the worthy dean only knew it! And the old
gentleman actually thought he would show a little fight in that
direction," and Dick returned to his mimicking.
"'My dear Richard,' says the dean, 'we must remember that all
impecuniosity is not caused by devotion to intellectual labours or
by an ideal development of the sublimer virtues. It is often
induced by quite a contrary order of things. If you can assure
me that your friend――'
"'Uncle,' I rejoined, with that quiet dignity which is so
becoming to my style, 'is it your duty as a Christian to institute a
more searching enquiry into the character of a man because you know
he is poor than you would dream of doing if you believed him to be
rich? Do you require all the wealthy men with whom you dine to
be as learned and as pious as Dr Johnson? About my friend
Giltspur I scorn to make any explanation—he is My Friend (with
capitals, you know how, Beth!). But concerning those poor
wretches whose indubitable vices strip the coats from their backs,
ought I to pass them by on the other side, seeing that my famous
forefather who founded our distillery shrewdly foresaw that as fast
as these miserable sinners strip off their coats we should put them
all on? Is a thing lamentable when it costs you a coat, but
laudable when it gives you one? Or may it not be my duty,
uncle, to stop the distillery and pour the spirits down the drain?
That has been done by some."'
And having finished his dramatic interlude, to which he gave
a very fair amount of mimetic force, the minor returned into his own
"Then the uncle groaned and went away, quite shut up.
That's the way to settle these old fogies' preaching. Set them
down to the very bottom of things, and you find they don't mean to
begin to clear away there any more than we do ourselves!"
"There are some people who think whatever isn't humdrum isn't
respectable—as if being respectable is everything! They don't
reflect on what may be wrapped up in respectability." Rab
spoke with bitterness, carrying on his own private line of thought
"What is 'respectable'?" asked his friend with a fine scorn.
"Donkeys are respectable—for even when they kick they generally do
it in moderation.' I don't believe in one half of the world
not knowing how the other half lives. I've pawned lots of
things and I know how it feels to keep dark because of duns.
That's the only way to know life—that's the only way to have
O how true his words were in themselves and how falsely they
came from him! For how can the wilful "scrapes" of the rich
spendthrift teach him aught of the unutterable woe of the honest and
industrious poor man, ready for work but finding none, and parting
from one after another of the cherished treasures of happier days,
each linked with memories of household joy and honour, but now "put
away," according to the pathetic phrase, to sustain the bare life
which (were not such thought a sin), he would far rather lay down.
Nor, on the other hand, can the rich prodigal's shifts and schemes
and "lucky escapes" help him to know what sweet, strange flowers of
hope grow among the unfathomed bogs of black despair—ever the
stranger and the sweeter as the bog grows deeper and blacker, so
that none can guess the sweetness and the wonder of those which he
may grasp who seems to sink at last into utter darkness!
Now Rab had no innate sympathy with young gentlemen who pawn
their diamond rings to extricate themselves out of difficulties they
need never have got into. He had neither the reckless animal
spirits nor that dash of restless romance which, alas, urges many
towards these unprofitable escapades in a world where well-directed
animal spirits and genuine heroism might do so much. Rab's own
dangerous tendencies and temptations were all in the direction of
luxurious ease and security. The consciousness of cramp in the
Bethune revenues had always galled him. If the whole sad truth
must be owned, alongside with his simple true attraction to sweet
Lesley Baird, there was an undertone of regret that she was not a
well-dowered lady or even the daughter of one of the wealthy "trade"
people who were held at such discount in The Towers. Only a
few weeks ago he would have taken occasion to check Richard Fowell's
confidences by some well-turned sentence of highbred sentiment.
Since that time he had learned to live with a secret which was in
flat contradiction to all his old formulas of honour, chivalry, and
dignity. It was perhaps a hopeful sign in Rab that his
self-knowledge at least checked the formulas which had not availed
to avert it. So he kept silence.
"Governors might wait a little before they are in such a
burry to suspect us of making fools of ourselves," pursued his
edifying companion. "If my allowance runs short it isn't
because I've lent it to Giltspur. These poor wretches may hang
on to us in the hope of getting something, but they seldom get much.
The governor is always so afraid of my being 'entangled,' as he
calls it—bring home as Mrs Richard Fowell some barmaid or shop girl,
or such 'inferior person,' as he calls 'em. And, by Jingo!
Beth, what do you think my little cousin Tom told me his sister
Betty said the other day? The Dean was going on about this
'inferior' person, and Betty, she says: 'Papa, I don't think it will
be easy for Richard to find an inferior person, for I suppose you
mean inferior to himself. Would it not be better to say
"poorer"? 'Cheeky, wasn't it? I boxed Tom's ears; but I
couldn't help admiring Betty. I can always see there's
something in that girl—the only one of the lot who is worth her
"The governor may make himself easy about me on that score,"
Richard went on, sagely shaking his little cropped head; "in my wife
I shall take the advice of the goody books and look for qualities
which wear well—preference shares and debentures, and a few hundred
acres in a good hunting county. And, 'pon my word, it's the
way to get the best wife all round. For a woman respects a man
the more if she feels he had some solid ground for his choice of
her, instead of idiotically succumbing to her presumed charm and
magic! They look out for solid charms in us—and I say it only
shows their good sense, the dear little innocent lambs, who are all
as cunning as the cutest of us foxes!"
Rab could not help laughing, but winced a little. These
remarks touched to the quick his own aching longing towards Lesley,
and all the pains and doubts which were gathering round it. Of
course he knew Lesley was a girl of quite another type from those on
whom Dicky Bird was animadverting, and of course the feeling that
had arisen between her and himself was of a kind entirely beyond
Dicky's understanding. Of course! of course! But Rab did
not think deeply enough to know that there is danger lest our
thoughts and feelings presently take tint or taint from the
atmosphere which surrounds them. The whitest lily cannot long
retain all its cool purity if it is left under a smoking chimney.
If Rab had been one of those who search into their own hearts
he would have detected that Lesley's image had already contracted a
smirch from Miss Lucy's report of her engagement to Logan of Gowan
Brae. Had he not, with impatient irritability, said to himself
that though this must be false, yet it came of Lesley's "unfortunate
position." There might be false rumours of matrimonial
engagement about any woman; he had heard enough of them in the
circle of his sister's friends, but then the men were always
eligible foreigners, or bachelors of, rank or fortune; men who might
have all the vices under the sun, but who, according to one of poor
Rab's favourite formulas, "were at least gentlemen." It was a
different story when a girl's name could be connected with such as
the vulgar middle-aged farmer of Gowan Brae, a widower to boot, with
his whisky in the afternoon and his toddy at night, and his talk
about kine and crops.
There was a short silence during which Mr Richard Fowell
looked round him.
"Beth," he said, "it's a sin for you to live in these poky
little rooms (excuse me for speaking plain, it's my nature where
friends are concerned). They are just fit for a duke's
courier. Of course you took them before you knew London?"
"Yes," answered Rab rather stiffly; "I engaged them before I
came up, on the recommendation of McKelvie of McKelvie, that fine
looking old fellow who spoke to me when we were at the opera, you
Dicky Bird laughed knowingly. "Never go to recommended
lodgings, nor drink recommended wine," he said. "I could show
you some fine chambers near Park Lane; you'd have to get your own
furniture, and hire somebody to wait on you—something like a college
gyp, you know. But it would come cheaper in the end; I mean
you'd get more in proportion for your money.
"This is not a good address, Beth. No—Courtly Street
getting shady. It was A1 in the old days, in the McKelvie's
youth, perhaps. But times change. If your special
engagement isn't for the early hours, we might take a look at these
Rab hesitated. He had made up his mind to go to the
Telegraph Office. But he could do that in the afternoon.
And certainly he did not like his present abode. Nay, he hated
it, as we are apt to hate places where we have known nothing but
carking unrest of mind. It could do no harm to go and see
Dicky Bird took him very much "under his wing." As they
walked through the West End streets, comparatively dull and deserted
in this early winter season, he told Rab that if he thought of
renting these chambers he would not find much trouble in furnishing
"You must not look on money invested in furniture as spent,
my dear fellow," he explained in his spurious business-like way,
which had such fascination for unbusiness-like Rab; "there is good
'value received,' you know. If ever you happen to be short of
the sinews of war, furniture is a security ready to your hand.
And I bet your governor will think that furnishing is a nice
domestic taste for you to develop."
Poor Rab's heart gave a leap. Why, this might actually
be a step on his own road towards a life with Lesley! If he
ever married her, they would have to begin in some way like this.
Rab dreamed a dream in Piccadilly. But he awoke to the
remembrance of the rumour concerning farmer Logan, and of the fact
that the expected letter never came.
He was silent and meditative over the survey of the rooms,
which were certainly airy and spacious by comparison with Courtly
Street. Though he came to no conclusion, yet he left his card
with the house agent, that he might have "the first refusal."
And he made an appointment to go with Mr Fowell on some future day
to see a set of furniture which some ally of that gentleman wished
to dispose of.
It was dark afternoon, foggy and muddy, before Rab started
towards the city. Tired and worried and disorganised by a
sense of all sorts of changes and choices, voluntary and
involuntary, impending over him, he was particularly susceptible to
all the rude jars and discords which rioted round him. How
sharp and careworn the people looked. How they rushed, and
hurried, and bawled. What frightful faces were now and then
revealed by a sudden glare of gas light! This was what
struggle for bread meant! He had known all this before—as we
know about a foreign land of which we read or see pictures.
But now he felt as if he was skirting this inhospitable shore and
might at any moment be wrecked upon it.
O, surely it was a terrible thing to want money! He
had, indeed, spoken too harshly to his father.
"If I were to be thrown into this vortex to struggle as these
poor wretches do," he thought, "I might as well go and hang myself
at once, for I could not do it."
Such is the terrible doubt which always besets those who
recognise the intensity of the battle of life, while they remain
outside it. In the horrible conditions into which Luxury and
Greed force the masses, from whom they wring very life that they may
trample it under foot, Luxury and Greed ever find new temptations
and excuses for themselves !
By the time Rab's cab reached Telegraph Court, the obscure
turning from which the huge organisation then worked, he had quite
given up all thoughts of disguising his interview with Mary Olrig as
the mere by-thought of an intelligent and enquiring stranger.
He wanted only a few words with her, and felt ready to risk anything
if he might settle his bewilderments one way or the other.
An attendant of some sort took Rab's message, rather
grudgingly, as if it was outside the duties for which the Telegraph
Company retained his services. Rab was left standing in a
bleak, unfurnished vestibule into which the raw night air found easy
entrance, and which was lit only by one flaring gas-jet.
Of course Rab had seen Mary Olrig many times, in the village
and at church. He had heard of her too from Lesley. He
was sure he would at least have no difficulty in introducing
But this was not the Mary Olrig whom he knew who advanced
towards him down the long, narrow passage up which his messenger had
This was a woman on the edge of middle age, primly dressed,
with old-fashioned ringlets about her face. She made a slight
bow, and asked rather acidly if he was the gentleman who had
enquired for Miss Olrig.
"Miss Olrig is not here to-day," she said; "Miss Olrig has
been absent through indisposition. Our Lady Superintendent has
the impression that Miss Olrig may not return to her appointment
This came to Rab like a blow on the face.
"Do you know Miss Olrig's private address?" he inquired?
"I could write for it to her friends in the country, but that would
involve a day or two's delay, and my business is urgent."
The prim person said she would make enquiries. The
result was that in a few minutes a message boy brought Rab a slip of
paper on which Mary's address was written.
Rab saw at a glance that by making a detour he could take it
in on his return journey to Courtly Street. He felt
desperately determined to get some sort of satisfaction before going
home. The mysterious hint of Miss Olrig's resignation of her
appointment raised all sorts of uneasy feelings, each a
contradiction of the other.
He threw himself into his cab, told the man where to drive,
and soon found himself rattling by the cabman's "short cut" through
a region wholly unknown to him. It was a place of intense
gloom and depression, streets mostly of shabby private houses behind
decayed and dismal gardens, dim lights winking from upper windows,
here and there the flare of a big public-house or the gaunt shadow
of an ancient church. The distance seemed interminable, but at
last the vehicle got into a long road, somewhat enlivened by very
miscellaneous shops mostly built over the dismal gardens in front of
the shabby houses. Rab bestirred himself, for by one or two
landmarks he knew he was approaching his destination.
Suddenly the cab slackened speed and then stopped, checked by
some obstacle in the road. As Rab stretched forward to see
what was the matter, he caught sight of a familiar face moving along
the side walk.
Yes; it was thinner and paler than it used to be, but it was
a face to recognise anywhere—the face of Mary Olrig herself.
She was walking in the direction away from the house to which
Rab was driving. He must speak to her here—at once—or miss her
hopelessly for to-day. He pulled the check string violently.
At that instant he saw she was not alone.
There was a gentleman with her. (That was how Rab's
thought instinctively described the figure at her side.)
For Mary Olrig's companion was a young man, dark in face,
resolute and even distinguished in bearing.
And Rab Bethune had seen him before, and knew who he was!
The cabman had said, "What's your pleasure, sir?" three times
before he shouted it loud enough to rouse Rab from the wild stupor
which his recognition had brought upon him.
"Home—I mean don't go where I told you. Drive straight
to Courtly Street, St James's."
No need now to speak with Mary Olrig to-day—or any other day.
The worst must come to the worst!
MARY OLRIG'S DARK DAYS.
TO Rab Bethune,
with a dismal secret corrupting in his own heart, and tainting every
thought with suspicion, it could never have occurred as possible
that Lewis Crawford and Mary Olrig had met for the first time in
London only an hour or two before he saw them walking together in
Yet this was the simple fact.
During the weeks, growing on into months, since Mary had
entered on her duties in the great city, she had passed through that
experience which more than any other shapes the character and
destiny of the individual undergoing it.
She had been alone with God.
Not merely alone, as any of us may be left, with settled
skies above us and the stream of circumstance flowing gently past
us. But alone with Him in the darkness and the storm—the old
chart of life lost, the familiar landmarks perished, no future haven
in sight, the very richness and delicacy of the gifts with which her
nature was freighted, only serving to imperil it the more in the
rough billows by which it was buffeted.
Hers was a touching enough position if looked at even from
the outside. Mary stood in the wide world with no kindred save
an agèd grandmother, herself dependent on a pittance that would die
with her, and which even now, thrown out of the lowly shelter which
it had hitherto sustained, would do but little without the charity
of kindly neighbours like the Bairds. And Mary was set to toil
for daily bread in engrossing mechanical labour, among unknown and
unchosen companions, with no prospect of change or release—nay,
rather with the fear that change or release might befall her against
To these outward conditions, common, alas, to many thousands,
it must be added that this particular girl was of a deeply loving
and clinging nature, to whom true and tender domesticities and
devotions were all in all, their absence not to be even palliated by
any of the fripperies of dress and flirtation, amusement and
variety, which serve as substitutes with natures of a lower level.
She had gifts of insight and imagination which enabled her to
realise her position and all its possibilities with the graphic
power of a painter and the passion and pathos of a poet. She
had, too, that faculty of generalisation which argues from the
individual to the mass, so that the dumb agony and mystery of the
world's woe were revealed to her in her own suffering, while she had
a noble inability to take refuge in any hope which could not be of
universal application. Further, beneath the reserve of her
manner and the resolution of her character, there throbbed a soul
thrilling and sensitive to every unwary jostle, to every cross wind
of human atmosphere. One realises that here was a poor little
present day version of the great tragedy of humanity, the soul
finely touched and yet tossed out on roughest issue, Prometheus
bound a helpless victim on the cruel rock of antagonistic
O, how Mary loathed the daily surrounding of her life.
Years afterwards it would return to her as a nightmare—the big bare
chamber at the top of the huge house in Telegraph Court, the sun
flaring down through the dusty skylights, the long rows of soiled
wooden desks dotted with machines whose horrid metallic clack went
on relentlessly. There were at least a hundred girls in that
room; some stolidly absorbed in their functions, some only too ready
to turn aside to furtive novel or snatch of chatter.
What visions of green hill sides and purling streams used to
haunt Mary in this place which was so dreadful to her. They
would rise before her like the phantasmagoria haunting the misery of
the sea-sick traveller, or of him who dies of thirst in a desert.
It was days, almost weeks, before she would allow her utter
misery to force itself on her own consciousness. She bent all
her powers to the skill she had to acquire, and took some pride in
mastering it. The kindly lady superintendent never passed her
without an encouraging word, the subordinate supervisors generally
had a compliment attached to their instructions and hints.
Most of the girls were kindly, too, though the eyes of many
were critical of Mary's severely plain dress, which, oddly enough,
is always regarded by smartly attired women as an assumption of
superiority, and is resented accordingly!
But oh, their talk—its frivolity, its inanity—even if there
was nothing worse. Of course there were exceptions, girls who
sat steadily at their machines, and who, when not occupied
therewith, devoted themselves to crochet, or to strips of
embroidery, speaking little beyond casual civilities of salutation.
Some of these girls, Mary learned, were teachers in Sunday or Ragged
schools. She looked at these with respect, with admiration,
yet with a secret terror. Nearly all of them looked so dull,
so de-individualised, so youthless. Yet Mary found that most
of them lived at home, had fathers and mothers, and brothers and
sisters, and such share of household interests as their brief
wearied leisure would permit. But they had entered into their
present way of life quite young, placed in it by forecasting
parents, with only too much reason to dread what the uncertain
future might hold for their little maids. Then, being too
earnest and honest to enter into or approve of the tone of things
around them, they had withdrawn into their own little shells and had
Over how much Mary wondered as she watched them all, sitting
at their machines from nine o'clock till five, or from ten till six,
or from eleven till eight! The regulations allowed this
latitude in the matter of hours, though, except by special favour,
it was expected that each period should be taken in rotation by each
One girl might be stout and stolid, the sort of girl who does
what is given her to do, but does not think much about it, nor about
anything else. On her right might sit a giddy creature, full
of frivolous chatter, and of that light good humour which somehow
resembles those graceful creepers which are so sweet and elegant if
well trimmed and supported, but which are so terribly apt to trail
down and wither in the dust. On her left might be a prim,
conscientious maiden, intent on her duty, but narrow in her
sympathies and interests and in her own self-satisfaction. And
beyond her, again, might be a sweet face, with a sensitive mouth,
and waiting eyes like those of a poor forgotten dog.
But what signified varieties of character and constitution?
For each and for all there was the same task, the intent watching of
the little restless hand of some machine with clock-like face, or
the manipulation of another, which exuded a perennial stream of
paper tape inscribed with cabalistic dots and dashes. For all
that was required of them, there needed to be as little variety in
the girls as in the machines! As in the one so in the
other—there might be a shade of difference in speed or force; but
the stupidest girl or the most worn machine had to be correct, and
the brightest and best could be no more. One of the cleverest
girls was always chosen to work the instrument connected with
Tattersall's, the varied and curious names of horses requiring
quickness of comprehension and correctness of orthography.
There she sat in her wholesome, blooming womanhood, devoting her
best faculties to facilitate the doings of "the turf."
To Mary Olrig there was ever present the question, "Is all
this according to the will of God?" It was not the mere
monotony or drudgery which started the doubt. She had seen
outwardly harder lives of women which had never raised this enquiry
within her. The sight of the women folk of Sutherland
crofters, digging potatoes, shearing their scanty harvests, or
tending their "beasts" in wild wind and snow drift, had only made
her admire their superior physical vigour. So had the
yellow-haired fisherwomen, whom she had seen in Banff or
Aberdeenshire toiling up steep cliffs beneath heavy creels laden
with "halesome farm"' from the sea, or even lending a hand to haul
in a boat in some creek of their fierce coast. But then such
women, however coarsely clad or roughly housed, were all serving
wholesome and everlasting human needs, and living in the light of
heaven and the peace and quiet of nature. Whereas this
ceaseless flashing to and fro of the rise and fall of stocks and
shares, the fluctuation of market prices, the winning and losing of
races, or even the sudden crash of household hopes and joys, seemed
to Mary only a hurrying of human greed, anxiety, and woe into an
ever deadlier crush!
These were questions which probably did not trouble anybody
else in that wide, restless apartment. Mary ever afterwards
remembered a subdued conversation with one of the girls whose face
had attracted her. A tall pretty girl, who was on good terms
with everybody, admitted to civilities by those of the prim, severe
type, yet by no means withdrawing herself from exchanging similar
civilities with others whose style of thought and word made Mary
shrink with dislike and terror.
This girl had told Mary her name and her little history; Kate
Joyce: father, a clerk in a bank, often invalided, might be turned
off any day; would not have a pension, because he had not been long
with his present employers, the "house " which he had served from
his youth up having failed, and cast all its people adrift.
That is to say, all the people who had done its work, had no share
in its speculations, and would not have gained by them had they been
successful. There were others who were not turned
adrift—partners' wives, secured by timely marriage settlements, and
keeping up their domestic establishments as snug and even gorgeous
retreats for their spouses in "misfortune." But this was not
Kate Joyce's own innocent rendering of her family history.
She told Mary that it was often very dull at home: poor
father was so melancholy. They had been really afraid for his
mind when the bank failed. It had altered everything so
completely. There was her brother, he was to be a
schoolmaster, but that had to be stopped. And there was her
sick sister, she was just going off to the seaside, but that had to
be stopped too, and when she died father got it into his head that
if she had been able to go she might have been saved, and then he
became dreadful. Mother said it was well to be Lucy, safe out
of all the wear and care of such a world. For her own part,
Kate thought it was hard to die young, but she believed Lucy would
have died anyhow. Things were hard on mother, because she had
to do all the housework too, now that Lucy was dead and Kate had to
go out to work. They had never kept a servant, but they had
managed very nicely before.
"I suppose it was not easy for Mr Joyce to get another
appointment?" Mary had remarked.
"Easy!" Kate echoed. "Nobody knows how hard such things
are! Of course failures always happen in bad seasons when
nobody wants to engage fresh clerks. Father had managed to
save a little money, about two hundred pounds. He had never
smoked, and was a total abstainer, and they had always lived
thriftily. It must have been very hard for him to take it out
pound by pound for us to live upon. And the rent made such
great holes. But mother always said, what were savings for,
except for a rainy day? Mother took it brightly and was sure
something would turn up in time. But her hair got very white,
and she had not had one grey hair before. Yet what she said
came true—something did turn up. First my brother got a place
as a clerk. Oh, how many letters he had written, and how he
had tramped about! It is worth only forty pounds a year and
has no outlook; but, as mother says, everything helps, and this
gives time for something else to happen. Father said it would
spread out the savings a little further. Then father actually
got a place for himself."
"How happy that must have made you," said Mary, whose
imagination was haunted for days afterwards by the figure of the
blooding, defeated man.
"Oh, Miss Olrig, wasn't he pleased?" Kate echoed, with
earnest simplicity. "The salary was little more than he had
begun with as a young man, but, as he said, old men musn't expect
much unless they're standing in the place where they've always
stood. And then one of father's old firm got me my appointment
here. He actually came to see us himself when he had the good
news—brought his two daughters in the brougham—and there were tears
in his eyes."
"But I thought he had failed," said innocent Mary.
"Yes, so he had," said Kate; "father always thought he was
too venturesome, but, you see, he had been tempted on and on, and he
had made a great deal of money by former speculations which
"But when he failed at last," asked Mary, "did not that mean
he had lost everything? It was his having the brougham which
"Oh, they did put down the carriage and pair for a while,"
said Kate equably; "but they've got them again now. You see he
had a great deal of money settled on his wife and children years
before. He had made a big settlement on his bride when he
married, and he increased it as the children came. Father
always said he was a very kind-hearted man, and mother regularly
says that my getting the situation did not do her so much good as
when he held her hand and said: 'Mrs Joyce, "I have never seen the
righteous forsaken nor His seed begging their bread." That
word holds good, doesn't it?' And mother burst out crying, and
said: 'It does, sir, it does.' It seemed like everything
coming right at the end of a play, and I could not help wishing Lucy
had lived to see it."
"But Mr Joyce is still sometimes melancholy," remarked Mary,
listening, full of reflections.
"Yes, at times," Kate admitted; "because I think he feels
having to work harder for half the salary. But mother always
says, 'Let us be thankful.' Yet father was quite cheerful at
first. I never shall forget how he said grace over the first
meal that was paid for with money earned instead of with money
saved. We had come very near the end of that saved money, I
can tell you, Miss Olrig. Father has said to me that what he
was most grateful for was, that he had been able to keep up his Life
Insurance Premium, for if he had had to live on its surrender value,
he thought he might have gone mad. It is only for a hundred
pounds, but he feels it will be always something for mother."
"And your salary will go on rising," said Mary.
Kate Joyce gave her head a dubious wag: "Not very much," she
said; "I don't know French or German, and I'm not good at very
out-of-the-way words. It will be a long time before I pass a
pound weekly. But that does very well for me, living at home.
If only home was not so far off!"
"You live at――?" said Mary, with an interrogative blank.
"At Camberwell," Kate answered. "I walk all the way
every morning, and I generally allow myself a twopenny lift on my
way home. Even that comes to a shilling a week. And
anything more would take too much gilt off the gingerbread. I
often wonder how long I shall be able to keep on doing this."
"Yes," cried Mary, impulsively speaking out her own haunting
terror; "I constantly wonder how this life will suit us when we are
women of forty!"
Kate stared with her pretty blank blue eyes. "O dear,"
she said in an undertone of dismay, "don't mention such a thing!
One could never look forward to it! One always hopes something
will happen, you know. Why, only last week one of our girls
was married—and well married."
"But how awful to look forward to marriage in that way!"
cried Mary, with an involuntary arching of her neck, as if a snake
had started up in her path.
"All girls expect to get married," said Kate Joyce; "even
girls who can live comfortably at home want to be married."
"I don't know about wanting to be married," returned Mary
Olrig in her proud young maidenhood; "but it would be dreadful to
think of marriage as an escape from an unbearable life. It is
sacrilege to look at it so! Why, one might be actually tempted
to marry somebody one did not love--or to fancy oneself in love
where one was not."
"I like to read about love," said Kate Joyce; "in story books
I skip nearly everything else. But in real life, you know—"
she paused a moment. "If a man is kind and respectable, and
has a good home and a fair income, I think one might easily grow to
like him, and life might get on very comfortably. Don't you
"No," answered Mary, with quite unnecessary emphasis, so that
a girl at a little distance looked up and wondered. "No—and I
shall never rest content in any life in which I could not be quite
content to remain, unless love itself called me out of it!"
"But what is one to do?" asked Kate helplessly. "And
besides, I should not like to be an old maid anywhere."
Mary stood looking drearily out of one of the dismal windows.
"One would wish to love and to be loved," she said; "but that might
be, and yet death might intervene, or duty or misfortune might
hinder marriage, and so leave one, externally, where one was
"Oh no, not long," said Kate with some animation. "A
woman who has had one lover can always get another—have not you
noticed that?" Mary gazed at her in dismay, unable to catch
the drift of her observation, until she went on. "There was a
girl here who had been engaged—oh, such a while. The young man
was abroad, and had had a great struggle. I think be must have
been very fond of her—he wrote so regularly. Once she was just
going out to be married to him when the Company he worked for broke
up and that threw him back. I thought at the time she was more
than sorry—she was downright vexed—and no wonder! for she was close
upon thirty. And all of a sudden a gentleman proposed to her
straight off—ready to marry her in a month's time. He was a
widower—had been twice married—and had six children—but oh! such
a nice house, and a chaise too. She took him. I think
she was quite right."
"What became of the first lover?" asked Mary, feeling a
curious sense of shame at having got into such conversation with a
girl of Kate Joyce's tone of mind.
"I don't know—nobody thought any more of him," said Kate.
"Some of us got a half holiday to go to Miss Bell's wedding.
She looked delicious in her white satin. It was hard to
believe it was the same woman whom we had known in dusty black
alpaca. There is a great deal of good looks in dress."
Mary moved away, quite unable to bear any more. The
most dreadful part was that Kate Joyce's own domestic trials had not
taught her sympathy and pity for all the struggling and
disappointed. Her father's bowed head had not become the
touching type of innocent defeat everywhere. Even her
cheerfulness was not born of sweet content, but only of a dull
Mary scarcely knew what made her feel this little insight so
disheartening; it was only when she thought it over that she asked
herself the question: "If even sorrow fails to teach wisdom and
sympathy, what better teacher remains behind?" And then there
crept into her heart that bitterest fear of all, which always
assails the sensitive and self-mistrustful soul when environed by
those who have succumbed to the very influences least likely to
overcome it: "Shall I, too, grow selfish and self-absorbed?―shall I
cease to thrill with pain only because nerves are dulled? nor care
to thrill with joy, because my highest ideal has become mere
Mary's daily life was full of such episodes as this.
Each meant torture to her soul, only to be likened to the misery the
body would feel if one toiled along a dusty road in glaring
sunshine, facing a rasping wind, and surrounded by a pushing,
yelling crowd, all pressing in a contrary direction to gloat over
some scene of excitement and cruelty from whose horrors oneself is
flying as fast as one can!
One afternoon the big room seemed quieter than usual.
For some reason, comparatively few of the instruments were at work,
and many books were open. Mary had her own. It chanced
to be Shakespeare's works, and she was reading "The Tempest."
As Mary read Miranda's explanation―
"Nor have I seen
More that I may call men, than you, good friend,
And my dear father,"
a young man's face, dark, solemn, resolute, rose in her mind's eye.
Mary often felt a strange restlessness in the knowledge that
this face gazed out somewhere in the London crowds thronging past
It was part of the awfulness of London that anything might be
so near and yet so hopelessly separate.
As she dropped her book on her knee and sat gazing dreamily
before her, she became aware that her next neighbour, at the other
end of a long form, was watching her with friendly eyes, as if she
would be glad to speak. Mary instantly responded by moving
down towards her and making a remark about the weather.
The girl answered briefly but with a pleasant smile.
She was one of the quiet old-fashioned girls, rather stunted in
size, pale-faced, with a bossy forehead and firm lips, and she wore
a coarse brown merino dress brightened only by a linen collar
fastened with a black brooch. Kate Joyce had told Mary that
her name was Rebekah Putnam, and that she spent many of her evenings
teaching in a Ragged School; that she lived at home, and was one of
the elders in a family of twelve.
"If this cold weather keeps up I suppose there will be snow
soon," said Mary.
"I hope not," said the girl, "for it never lasts in London,
and it makes the streets so dangerous, and the thaws are dreadful."
"Is there never ice on the waters in London?" Mary asked
next, remembering the ponds which she had seen in the parks.
"Yes, sometimes," the girl answered; "it seldom lasts long."
"Do you skate?"
The girl shook her head. "There is no chance," she
said; "it would not be nice for girls to go on the public water near
our place. There is a private one, but it has a high
subscription. And it would take a great deal of time—and money
too—to go out to the country places."
"And perhaps you like best to go to the country in the
summer," observed Mary.
"We don't go into the country at all," answered the other.
"The country is so far away. We live quite near here, in a
street behind St Bartholomew's Hospital. Father used to work
for one of the great firms in Aldersgate Street. He was an
engraver, and he was very lame and liked to be near his work.
And we stayed on after his death. It was easiest to stay on.
And we find it is handy for us who go out to work. We are all
within walking distances. And now six of us are doing
something to help mother," she added proudly.
"Of course I have been in the country," she went on.
"When the eldest of us were little, while grandmother lived, we used
to go and stay with her at—Rottingdean that's near Brighton—so we
know the seaside quite well. The little ones don't know more
of it than Southend, where they have gone with their class
excursions; but that gives them an idea of it," she added with prim
"I thought excursions from London were arranged so
conveniently for holidays," said Mary.
Rebekah Putnam smiled. "Quiet people like us can't go
out on public holidays," she replied. "That's why father said
he was not sure that Bank Holidays are such a boon as they seem.
Holiday for everybody at once means holiday for nobody. It is
only crowding and noise and dust, and, I'm sorry to say," she added
severely, "drinking and bad language. Before Bank Holidays
began, father used to ask for a day when work was slack, and take us
all to Hampstead Heath, or Epping Forest, or Greenwich Park."
And the stiff little face softened at the sunny memories. "But
one couldn't go to those places on Bank Holidays. It would be
no pleasure to us."
"But couldn't one get out of the streets to some quiet place
not so popular?" Mary asked.
"One couldn't let one's little brothers and sisters travel in
railway carriages with half-drunken people," Rebekah answered.
"They swear one minute and the next they sing, 'Let us gather at the
river,' and then change the tune to 'The dark girl dressed in blue.'
I don't like having to say such things! They are too horrible
to think of!
"It all comes of that dreadful drink," she went on. "No
real good will be done till that is made the hardest thing for
people to get instead of the easiest. My father was a total
abstainer. All my brothers are so, and mother and we girls, of
Mary sat silent. Her father, though a most temperate
man, had not been a total abstainer. She herself was under no
vow, neither was her grandmother, though Mrs Haldane was a water
drinker by life-long custom. Mary had certainly known cases of
individual misery and individual ruin traceable to strong drink, but
she had never been brought face to face with it as a blot on the
face of society, blurring and staining all around it—like a noxious
winged seed flying from its own foul habitat, to damage even the
most carefully tended garden.
The girl asked the next question with a glance at Mary's
book: "Are you fond of reading? What are you reading just
"The Tempest," Mary replied, fluttering the pages. The
pale face grew grave, the little mouth set rigidly. "That's
Shakespeare, isn't it? A play? I never read such
Mary gazed at her aghast. The girl seemed desirous to
avoid any accusation of self-righteousness.
"I've read pieces of his while I was at school, but those
were historical pieces, selected in 'Enfield's Speaker."'
"He is the grandest writer of our language," Mary exclaimed.
"Ah, I know, I thought some of his lines beautiful, but they
are in plays. When father was on his deathbed he asked us
elder ones to give him our promise never to read novels or plays.
We all promised. Sometimes I've been afraid about one of my
sisters. She speaks as if she had only her promise to hold her
back, and when that's so, even a promise is in danger. I have
no wish. There are plenty of good books to be read without
going on dangerous, ground."
Mary remained mute with astonishment. All these
abnegations and prohibitions affected her as the sight of the
palings and bolts and bars of civilisation might affect one
accustomed to dwell safely in open tents on a boundless prairie.
With the large liberty generally enjoyed by women brought up among
good men, she had herself roamed unchecked over every field of solid
English literature. She knew the minor Elizabethan dramatists
as well as Shakespeare—Fielding, Richardson, Swift, and Sterne, as
well as Scott and Miss Austen, or Steele and Addison. Why, she
had borrowed some of these works from the old parish minister's
And yet, as days passed on, Mary began to understand the
terror which had been before this dying father's eyes as he thought
of his little maidens left behind. She found that there are a
great many "novels" which are not "literature," novels of a type
which had scarcely penetrated to her own retired life, but which had
probably bulked so largely on this man's experience as to involve
the whole class. These were the books which she found lying on
the forms of the big room—books where the chief interest lay in vice
and horror, wherein, to speak paradoxically, all goodness was shown
to be bad, and all badness to be good, wherein there were no
"characters," but only lay figures, draped respectively with youth,
demoniacal beauty, and sensuous charm, or with age, fiendish malice,
There were still other books—and some of these Mary saw were
in dramatic form—which were quickly tucked out of sight, or so
swiftly and secretly bandied from hand to hand among certain
privileged groups, that Mary could only judge of their character by
the base giggles and whisperings which they elicited.
Out of those days Mary brought two convictions.
First, never to contemn or condemn any asceticism without
first computing the forces of evil with which it is surrounded and
against which it opposes itself.
Second, that mere femininity is no synonym for that delicacy
of mind or purity of thought with which it is so often sentimentally
And Mary actually discovered for herself, that, though
nothing would ever make her miscall or vilify the great creative
imaginations from whom she had already derived such pure enjoyment,
yet that there are time and place for everything, and that her
present life was scarcely the occasion for these! There are
times when it seems wiser to leave the imagination and the emotions
in repose. Often through life come seasons when the activity
of those functions only gives poignancy to suffering and loss.
In youth their restlessness may be actually dangerous. It may
be noticed that in those young people in whom they are specially
bright and sensitive, there exists alongside of them a saving
tendency to self-mistrust and self-subjection.
Mary scarcely noticed at the time how her novelists and poets
and essayists gradually sank to the bottom of her box, while A
Kempis's "Imitation of Christ," and S. Francis de Sale's "Devout
Life," and Jeremy Taylor's "Holy Living and Dying," came to lie
constantly beside her desk.
Instinctively, too, she took up that regulation of habit
which in all ages has been the refuge of wholesome souls when sorely
tried and troubled. Her silent morning and evening prayers,
with their simple thanksgivings and thoughts of love for her Father
in Heaven and her friends on earth, seemed no longer to suffice her.
They seemed so apt to sink into wailing introspection, something
which did not ascend to God, but sank down like lead in her own
heart. And so she had recourse to the written words of holy
men, and even preferred to utter them aloud, striving to wreathe her
own thoughts and fears around the buttresses of their faith and
For such as Mary Olrig, such seasons as these do not bring
what most people mean when they talk about "temptation." Her
knowledge of the higher literature had left her in no doubt as to
the evil possibilities of the world she saw about her. Her
acquaintance with the varied histories and experiences of the girls
at work beside her widened her comprehension of the way in which
such evils work. She found that in the world's opinion money
is worth more than human life. That he who ventures to suggest
any rearrangement of property and its rights and duties for the
benefit of the community, is at once branded as a dangerous man and
an outlaw. But that he who makes some "improvement" which
depresses and enslaves the labourer, though it be of doubtful
benefit to anybody, except a few capitalists, is bailed as a public
benefactor. That there is much more tenderness as regards the
interests of the destructive "liquor trade," when it is threatened
in the interests of temperance, than was exercised towards the
worthy old pedagogues and dames of village schools, when new
experiments in education were developed. That a hundred
pounds, if well invested by a "knowing man," will bring him in more
as "interest" than many women can earn by working twelve hours a day
all the year round! And that the most successful productive
labour, even sometimes backed by natural gifts, cannot hope to win
as much of the earth's wealth as the city financier can waste on his
west-end palace or his suburban villa, or on the flounces and
champagne of the women who lounge therein, thinking themselves "very
busy" if they arrange their flowers, plan their toilets, and kiss
the children before they walk out with nurse—those mere pleasures of
life to which, alas! the real labourers cannot attain.
Dangerous reflections these might be for some lonely,
penniless maidens of twenty-one summers! Dangerous, indeed,
for anybody to whom the world's side of the matter presents any
temptation. But the advantages it had to offer were no
attractions for Mary Olrig. It might be able to withhold or
destroy all she craved for, but it could not give her anything she
wanted. Its sumptuous fare, its gorgeous, varying fashions,
the everlasting racket or dull animalism of its entertainments, the
fevered excitement of its ambitions and successes, had no attraction
for one whose only desired luxuries were cleanliness and peace,
whose cravings were for the sweet charities of home, and the joyful
duties of loving service, who knew the magic of the mountains, had
felt the secret of the sea, and whose soul was yearning with
beautiful imaginations and lofty ideals. Such a world might
sully with its foul feet the pure waters of life for which she was
thirsting, but the intoxicating cup of its pleasures could only
excite her loathing.
Through all, Mary had a dim perception that while she still
felt and suffered thus, her loss was not complete. She might
do all she could to suppress imagination and emotion, and restrain
all her yearnings after nature and beauty and service, because they
but intensified the torture of existence under its present
conditions. In herself, she felt these could never quite die.
But her heart asked—What of others, in whom such yearnings were not
so strong by nature or were less developed by circumstance? Or
of others who had lived under such conditions from generation to
generation, so that each generation found less and less to suppress
or restrain, until the unused capacities dropped off, as
evolutionists tell us unused capacities will—only in this case it
was those higher faculties, those which differentiate a man from the
brute and lift his head towards the sky! It might be hard
enough never to see bright skies and fresh hillsides, never to
listen to the singing of free birds or to revel in a sweet silence.
Yet Mary began to understand that it is far worse not to care for
such things, and to find that the shops and the theatres, and the
crowds of worried money makers herding in the streets, are far more
interesting and beautiful and important! The laughter and the
jest around her grew terrible to Mary Olrig, and the blankly
smirking faces seemed sadder to her soul than the hungry despairing
Presently, Mary began to feel that all her nameless
sufferings were beginning to shape themselves into very practical
trouble. Her heart could not for ever pine after the solitudes
of the shores and hills and all the sweet, simple ways of life she
had found there, without her physical frame pining too. The
daughter of the North, with the blood of sea king and Border robber
in her veins, could not thrive without her bracing breezes, her free
exercise, her wholesome food, fresh from the very bosom of mother
Nature. First, she noticed in her looking-glass that the hue
of her face had faded, and thoughtlessly called her pale countenance
the "London colour." Presently she awoke in the morning more
wearied than when she went to sleep, unable to rest, and yet unready
to rise. Then her appetite failed, and her walk to and from
the office seemed to grow twice as long as at first. At last
the click of the instruments and the roar of the highways got into
her dreams, and starting up in causeless terror, she awoke to real
alarm at what was coming upon her.
What would happen if she should sink into an invalid?
There remained now no haven in which to take refuge, nothing at all
but the charity of strangers, however beneficent. O, if she
could only earn bread by some work which could be done in silence
and apart from uncongenial crowds! O, if only the gift which
she felt burning within her would do for her what art had done for
Miss Kerr, that unknown house-mate, the very thought of whose
self-dependent career was always so strengthening and upholding!
When Mary had first come to London she had said to herself
that she would hold her literary dreams in abeyance till she had
made herself mistress of the new realities around her. But
now, sinking in the seething sea of life, she felt ready to grasp at
every straw which might save her. She got out some of the
manuscripts which she had written in the happy vanished days, and
pondered how she could put them into some marketable shape.
At first the self-imposed task seemed to revive her.
The old verses and sketches wakened very poignant memories, but
after a while, as she bent her whole mind upon them, the shadowy
recollections became reality, and all the reality around her was but
a dream. When she roused from her absorption to find herself
sitting in her dim attic, it was with much the same sensation which
she might have experienced had she been able to transport herself
bodily to her dear old places, and then back again, at a moment's
notice. It was like having change of air and scene at a
moment's will. She half thought she had found a panacea for
all her pain.
But how was it, that presently it seemed as if her very
character was so changing that she could not be patient with the
stupid servant girls, nor genial to chattering Mrs Milne, nor civil
to her frivolous fellow-workers; that her power of self-control was
so relaxed that any unexpected sound in the house would make her
shriek, or that tears would fill her eyes at most awkward seasons?
How could she dream that this new agony was the very result of these
mental exercises which had seemed to her such a relief?
Once or twice it crossed her mind that it was strange that
she, who had felt she must not now revel in the imagination and
fancy of others, was yet giving rein to her own. But then it
was not done in any self-indulgence—was it not in hopes of setting
those faculties to earn her bread?
Did ever the victim of any stimulant or narcotic lack the
justification which satisfied himself in his self-destruction?
Long afterwards, people wondered how a woman who had lived the pure
life of Mary Olrig could track so unsparingly the course and
progress of moral disintegration. The secret lay in what she
remembered of herself at this season. For the upright and the
saintly find the serpentine power of evil slithering even among
their graces and their duties, and they must contend with it there,
as lower natures must when it attacks them through their animal
instincts and propensities.
But, also, was there ever soul, lofty or lowly, that lacked a
warning oracle sufficient for its needs, would it only heed it?
Mary found one in a very homely mouthpiece.