The Gift Diffused.
A small man sat in a small parlour, partitioned off from a small shop by a small screen, pasted all over with small scraps of newspapers. In company with the small man, was almost any amount of small children you may please to name—at least it seemed so; they made, in that very limited sphere of action, such an imposing effect, in point of numbers.
Of these small fry, two had, by some strong machinery, been got into bed in a corner, where they might have reposed snugly enough in the sleep of innocence, but for a constitutional propensity to keep awake, and also to scuffle in and out of bed. The immediate occasion of these predatory dashes at the waking world, was the construction of an oyster-shell wall in a corner, by two other youths of tender age; on which fortification the two in bed made harassing descents (like those accursed Picts and Scots who beleaguer the early historical studies of most young Britons), and then withdrew to their own territory.
In addition to the stir attendant on these inroads, and the retorts of the invaded, who pursued hotly, and made lunges at the bed-clothes under which the marauders took refuge, another little boy, in another little bed, contributed his mite of confusion to the family stock, by casting his boots upon the waters; in other words, by launching these and several small objects, inoffensive in themselves, though of a hard substance considered as missiles, at the disturbers of his repose,—who were not slow to return these compliments.
Besides which, another little boy—the biggest there, but still little—was tottering to and fro, bent on one side, and considerably affected in his knees by the weight of a large baby, which he was supposed by a fiction that obtains sometimes in sanguine families, to be hushing to sleep. But oh! the inexhaustible regions of contemplation and watchfulness into which this baby’s eyes were then only beginning to compose themselves to stare, over his unconscious shoulder!
It was a very Moloch of a baby, on whose insatiate altar the whole existence of this particular young brother was offered up a daily sacrifice. Its personality may be said to have consisted in its never being quiet, in any one place, for five consecutive minutes, and never going to sleep when required. “Tetterby’s baby” was as well known in the neighbourhood as the postman or the pot-boy. It roved from door-step to door-step, in the arms of little Johnny Tetterby, and lagged heavily at the rear of troops of juveniles who followed the Tumblers or the Monkey, and came up, all on one side, a little too late for everything that was attractive, from Monday morning until Saturday night. Wherever childhood congregated to play, there was little Moloch making Johnny fag and toil. Wherever Johnny desired to stay, little Moloch became fractious, and would not remain. Whenever Johnny wanted to go out, Moloch was asleep, and must be watched. Whenever Johnny wanted to stay at home, Moloch was awake, and must be taken out. Yet Johnny was verily persuaded that it was a faultless baby, without its peer in the realm of England, and was quite content to catch meek glimpses of things in general from behind its skirts, or over its limp flapping bonnet, and to go staggering about with it like a very little porter with a very large parcel, which was not directed to anybody, and could never be delivered anywhere.
The small man who sat in the small parlour, making fruitless attempts to read his newspaper peaceably in the midst of this disturbance, was the father of the family, and the chief of the firm described in the inscription over the little shop front, by the name and title of A. Tetterby and Co., Newsmen. Indeed, strictly speaking, he was the only personage answering to that designation, as Co. was a mere poetical abstraction, altogether baseless and impersonal.
Tetterby’s was the corner shop in Jerusalem Buildings. There was a good show of literature in the window, chiefly consisting of picture-newspapers out of date, and serial pirates, and footpads. Walking-sticks, likewise, and marbles, were included in the stock in trade. It had once extended into the light confectionery line; but it would seem that those elegancies of life were not in demand about Jerusalem Buildings, for nothing connected with that branch of commerce remained in the window, except a sort of small glass lantern containing a languishing mass of bull’s-eyes, which had melted in the summer and congealed in the winter until all hope of ever getting them out, or of eating them without eating the lantern too, was gone for ever. Tetterby’s had tried its hand at several things. It had once made a feeble little dart at the toy business; for, in another lantern, there was a heap of minute wax dolls, all sticking together upside down, in the direst confusion, with their feet on one another’s heads, and a precipitate of broken arms and legs at the bottom. It had made a move in the millinery direction, which a few dry, wiry bonnet-shapes remained in a corner of the window to attest. It had fancied that a living might lie hidden in the tobacco trade, and had stuck up a representation of a native of each of the three integral portions of the British Empire, in the act of consuming that fragrant weed; with a poetic legend attached, importing that united in one cause they sat and joked, one chewed tobacco, one took snuff, one smoked: but nothing seemed to have come of it—except flies. Time had been when it had put a forlorn trust in imitative jewellery, for in one pane of glass there was a card of cheap seals, and another of pencil-cases, and a mysterious black amulet of inscrutable intention, labelled ninepence. But, to that hour, Jerusalem Buildings had bought none of them. In short, Tetterby’s had tried so hard to get a livelihood out of Jerusalem Buildings in one way or other, and appeared to have done so indifferently in all, that the best position in the firm was too evidently Co.’s; Co., as a bodiless creation, being untroubled with the vulgar inconveniences of hunger and thirst, being chargeable neither to the poor’s-rates nor the assessed taxes, and having no young family to provide for.
Tetterby himself, however, in his little parlour, as already mentioned, having the presence of a young family impressed upon his mind in a manner too clamorous to be disregarded, or to comport with the quiet perusal of a newspaper, laid down his paper, wheeled, in his distraction, a few times round the parlour, like an undecided carrier-pigeon, made an ineffectual rush at one or two flying little figures in bed-gowns that skimmed past him, and then, bearing suddenly down upon the only unoffending member of the family, boxed the ears of little Moloch’s nurse.
“You bad boy!” said Mr. Tetterby, “haven’t you any feeling for your poor father after the fatigues and anxieties of a hard winter’s day, since five o’clock in the morning, but must you wither his rest, and corrode his latest intelligence, with your wicious tricks? Isn’t it enough, sir, that your brother ’Dolphus is toiling and moiling in the fog and cold, and you rolling in the lap of luxury with a—with a baby, and everything you can wish for,” said Mr. Tetterby, heaping this up as a great climax of blessings, “but must you make a wilderness of home, and maniacs of your parents? Must you, Johnny? Hey?” At each interrogation, Mr. Tetterby made a feint of boxing his ears again, but thought better of it, and held his hand.
“Oh, father!” whimpered Johnny, “when I wasn’t doing anything, I’m sure, but taking such care of Sally, and getting her to sleep. Oh, father!”
“I wish my little woman would come home!” said Mr. Tetterby, relenting and repenting, “I only wish my little woman would come home! I ain’t fit to deal with ’em. They make my head go round, and get the better of me. Oh, Johnny! Isn’t it enough that your dear mother has provided you with that sweet sister?” indicating Moloch; “isn’t it enough that you were seven boys before without a ray of gal, and that your dear mother went through what she did go through, on purpose that you might all of you have a little sister, but must you so behave yourself as to make my head swim?”
Softening more and more, as his own tender feelings and those of his injured son were worked on, Mr. Tetterby concluded by embracing him, and immediately breaking away to catch one of the real delinquents. A reasonably good start occurring, he succeeded, after a short but smart run, and some rather severe cross-country work under and over the bedsteads, and in and out among the intricacies of the chairs, in capturing this infant, whom he condignly punished, and bore to bed. This example had a powerful, and apparently, mesmeric influence on him of the boots, who instantly fell into a deep sleep, though he had been, but a moment before, broad awake, and in the highest possible feather. Nor was it lost upon the two young architects, who retired to bed, in an adjoining closet, with great privacy and speed. The comrade of the Intercepted One also shrinking into his nest with similar discretion, Mr. Tetterby, when he paused for breath, found himself unexpectedly in a scene of peace.
“My little woman herself,” said Mr. Tetterby, wiping his flushed face, “could hardly have done it better! I only wish my little woman had had it to do, I do indeed!”
Mr. Tetterby sought upon his screen for a passage appropriate to be impressed upon his children’s minds on the occasion, and read the following.
“‘It is an undoubted fact that all remarkable men have had remarkable mothers, and have respected them in after life as their best friends.’ Think of your own remarkable mother, my boys,” said Mr. Tetterby, “and know her value while she is still among you!”
He sat down again in his chair by the fire, and composed himself, cross-legged, over his newspaper.
“Let anybody, I don’t care who it is, get out of bed again,” said Tetterby, as a general proclamation, delivered in a very soft-hearted manner, “and astonishment will be the portion of that respected contemporary!”—which expression Mr. Tetterby selected from his screen. “Johnny, my child, take care of your only sister, Sally; for she’s the brightest gem that ever sparkled on your early brow.”
Johnny sat down on a little stool, and devotedly crushed himself beneath the weight of Moloch.
“Ah, what a gift that baby is to you, Johnny!” said his father, “and how thankful you ought to be! ‘It is not generally known, Johnny,’” he was now referring to the screen again, “‘but it is a fact ascertained, by accurate calculations, that the following immense percentage of babies never attain to two years old; that is to say—’”
“Oh, don’t, father, please!” cried Johnny. “I can’t bear it, when I think of Sally.”
Mr. Tetterby desisting, Johnny, with a profound sense of his trust, wiped his eyes, and hushed his sister.
“Your brother ’Dolphus,” said his father, poking the fire, “is late to-night, Johnny, and will come home like a lump of ice. What’s got your precious mother?”
“Here’s mother, and ’Dolphus too, father!” exclaimed Johnny, “I think.”
“You’re right!” returned his father, listening. “Yes, that’s the footstep of my little woman.”
The process of induction, by which Mr. Tetterby had come to the conclusion that his wife was a little woman, was his own secret. She would have made two editions of himself, very easily. Considered as an individual, she was rather remarkable for being robust and portly; but considered with reference to her husband, her dimensions became magnificent. Nor did they assume a less imposing proportion, when studied with reference to the size of her seven sons, who were but diminutive. In the case of Sally, however, Mrs. Tetterby had asserted herself, at last; as nobody knew better than the victim Johnny, who weighed and measured that exacting idol every hour in the day.
Mrs. Tetterby, who had been marketing, and carried a basket, threw back her bonnet and shawl, and sitting down, fatigued, commanded Johnny to bring his sweet charge to her straightway, for a kiss. Johnny having complied, and gone back to his stool, and again crushed himself, Master Adolphus Tetterby, who had by this time unwound his torso out of a prismatic comforter, apparently interminable, requested the same favour. Johnny having again complied, and again gone back to his stool, and again crushed himself, Mr. Tetterby, struck by a sudden thought, preferred the same claim on his own parental part. The satisfaction of this third desire completely exhausted the sacrifice, who had hardly breath enough left to get back to his stool, crush himself again, and pant at his relations.
“Whatever you do, Johnny,” said Mrs. Tetterby, shaking her head, “take care of her, or never look your mother in the face again.”
“Nor your brother,” said Adolphus.
“Nor your father, Johnny,” added Mr. Tetterby.
Johnny, much affected by this conditional renunciation of him, looked down at Moloch’s eyes to see that they were all right, so far, and skilfully patted her back (which was uppermost), and rocked her with his foot.
“Are you wet, ’Dolphus, my boy?” said his father. “Come and take my chair, and dry yourself.”
“No, father, thank’ee,” said Adolphus, smoothing himself down with his hands. “I an’t very wet, I don’t think. Does my face shine much, father?”
“Well, it does look waxy, my boy,” returned Mr. Tetterby.
“It’s the weather, father,” said Adolphus, polishing his cheeks on the worn sleeve of his jacket. “What with rain, and sleet, and wind, and snow, and fog, my face gets quite brought out into a rash sometimes. And shines, it does—oh, don’t it, though!”
Master Adolphus was also in the newspaper line of life, being employed, by a more thriving firm than his father and Co., to vend newspapers at a railway station, where his chubby little person, like a shabbily-disguised Cupid, and his shrill little voice (he was not much more than ten years old), were as well known as the hoarse panting of the locomotives, running in and out. His juvenility might have been at some loss for a harmless outlet, in this early application to traffic, but for a fortunate discovery he made of a means of entertaining himself, and of dividing the long day into stages of interest, without neglecting business. This ingenious invention, remarkable, like many great discoveries, for its simplicity, consisted in varying the first vowel in the word “paper,” and substituting, in its stead, at different periods of the day, all the other vowels in grammatical succession. Thus, before daylight in the winter-time, he went to and fro, in his little oilskin cap and cape, and his big comforter, piercing the heavy air with his cry of “Morn-ing Pa-per!” which, about an hour before noon, changed to “Morn-ing Pepper!” which, at about two, changed to “Morn-ing Pip-per!” which in a couple of hours changed to “Morn-ing Pop-per!” and so declined with the sun into “Eve-ning Pup-per!” to the great relief and comfort of this young gentleman’s spirits.
Mrs. Tetterby, his lady-mother, who had been sitting with her bonnet and shawl thrown back, as aforesaid, thoughtfully turning her wedding-ring round and round upon her finger, now rose, and divesting herself of her out-of-door attire, began to lay the cloth for supper.
“Ah, dear me, dear me, dear me!” said Mrs. Tetterby. “That’s the way the world goes!”
“Which is the way the world goes, my dear?” asked Mr. Tetterby, looking round.
“Oh, nothing,” said Mrs. Tetterby.
Mr. Tetterby elevated his eyebrows, folded his newspaper afresh, and carried his eyes up it, and down it, and across it, but was wandering in his attention, and not reading it.
Mrs. Tetterby, at the same time, laid the cloth, but rather as if she were punishing the table than preparing the family supper; hitting it unnecessarily hard with the knives and forks, slapping it with the plates, dinting it with the salt-cellar, and coming heavily down upon it with the loaf.
“Ah, dear me, dear me, dear me!” said Mrs. Tetterby. “That’s the way the world goes!”
“My duck,” returned her husband, looking round again, “you said that before. Which is the way the world goes?”
“Oh, nothing!” said Mrs. Tetterby.
“Sophia!” remonstrated her husband, “you said that before, too.”
“Well, I’ll say it again if you like,” returned Mrs. Tetterby. “Oh nothing—there! And again if you like, oh nothing—there! And again if you like, oh nothing—now then!”
Mr. Tetterby brought his eye to bear upon the partner of his bosom, and said, in mild astonishment:
“My little woman, what has put you out?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” she retorted. “Don’t ask me. Who said I was put out at all? I never did.”
Mr. Tetterby gave up the perusal of his newspaper as a bad job, and, taking a slow walk across the room, with his hands behind him, and his shoulders raised—his gait according perfectly with the resignation of his manner—addressed himself to his two eldest offspring.
“Your supper will be ready in a minute, ’Dolphus,” said Mr. Tetterby. “Your mother has been out in the wet, to the cook’s shop, to buy it. It was very good of your mother so to do. You shall get some supper too, very soon, Johnny. Your mother’s pleased with you, my man, for being so attentive to your precious sister.”
Mrs. Tetterby, without any remark, but with a decided subsidence of her animosity towards the table, finished her preparations, and took, from her ample basket, a substantial slab of hot pease pudding wrapped in paper, and a basin covered with a saucer, which, on being uncovered, sent forth an odour so agreeable, that the three pair of eyes in the two beds opened wide and fixed themselves upon the banquet. Mr. Tetterby, without regarding this tacit invitation to be seated, stood repeating slowly, “Yes, yes, your supper will be ready in a minute, ’Dolphus—your mother went out in the wet, to the cook’s shop, to buy it. It was very good of your mother so to do”—until Mrs. Tetterby, who had been exhibiting sundry tokens of contrition behind him, caught him round the neck, and wept.
“Oh, Dolphus!” said Mrs. Tetterby, “how could I go and behave so?”
This reconciliation affected Adolphus the younger and Johnny to that degree, that they both, as with one accord, raised a dismal cry, which had the effect of immediately shutting up the round eyes in the beds, and utterly routing the two remaining little Tetterbys, just then stealing in from the adjoining closet to see what was going on in the eating way.
“I am sure, ’Dolphus,” sobbed Mrs. Tetterby, “coming home, I had no more idea than a child unborn—”
Mr. Tetterby seemed to dislike this figure of speech, and observed, “Say than the baby, my dear.”
“—Had no more idea than the baby,” said Mrs. Tetterby.—“Johnny, don’t look at me, but look at her, or she’ll fall out of your lap and be killed, and then you’ll die in agonies of a broken heart, and serve you right.—No more idea I hadn’t than that darling, of being cross when I came home; but somehow, ’Dolphus—” Mrs. Tetterby paused, and again turned her wedding-ring round and round upon her finger.
“I see!” said Mr. Tetterby. “I understand! My little woman was put out. Hard times, and hard weather, and hard work, make it trying now and then. I see, bless your soul! No wonder! Dolf, my man,” continued Mr. Tetterby, exploring the basin with a fork, “here’s your mother been and bought, at the cook’s shop, besides pease pudding, a whole knuckle of a lovely roast leg of pork, with lots of crackling left upon it, and with seasoning gravy and mustard quite unlimited. Hand in your plate, my boy, and begin while it’s simmering.”
Master Adolphus, needing no second summons, received his portion with eyes rendered moist by appetite, and withdrawing to his particular stool, fell upon his supper tooth and nail. Johnny was not forgotten, but received his rations on bread, lest he should, in a flush of gravy, trickle any on the baby. He was required, for similar reasons, to keep his pudding, when not on active service, in his pocket.
There might have been more pork on the knucklebone,—which knucklebone the carver at the cook’s shop had assuredly not forgotten in carving for previous customers—but there was no stint of seasoning, and that is an accessory dreamily suggesting pork, and pleasantly cheating the sense of taste. The pease pudding, too, the gravy and mustard, like the Eastern rose in respect of the nightingale, if they were not absolutely pork, had lived near it; so, upon the whole, there was the flavour of a middle-sized pig. It was irresistible to the Tetterbys in bed, who, though professing to slumber peacefully, crawled out when unseen by their parents, and silently appealed to their brothers for any gastronomic token of fraternal affection. They, not hard of heart, presenting scraps in return, it resulted that a party of light skirmishers in nightgowns were careering about the parlour all through supper, which harassed Mr. Tetterby exceedingly, and once or twice imposed upon him the necessity of a charge, before which these guerilla troops retired in all directions and in great confusion.
Mrs. Tetterby did not enjoy her supper. There seemed to be something on Mrs. Tetterby’s mind. At one time she laughed without reason, and at another time she cried without reason, and at last she laughed and cried together in a manner so very unreasonable that her husband was confounded.
“My little woman,” said Mr. Tetterby, “if the world goes that way, it appears to go the wrong way, and to choke you.”
“Give me a drop of water,” said Mrs. Tetterby, struggling with herself, “and don’t speak to me for the present, or take any notice of me. Don’t do it!”
Mr. Tetterby having administered the water, turned suddenly on the unlucky Johnny (who was full of sympathy), and demanded why he was wallowing there, in gluttony and idleness, instead of coming forward with the baby, that the sight of her might revive his mother. Johnny immediately approached, borne down by its weight; but Mrs. Tetterby holding out her hand to signify that she was not in a condition to bear that trying appeal to her feelings, he was interdicted from advancing another inch, on pain of perpetual hatred from all his dearest connections; and accordingly retired to his stool again, and crushed himself as before.
After a pause, Mrs. Tetterby said she was better now, and began to laugh.
“My little woman,” said her husband, dubiously, “are you quite sure you’re better? Or are you, Sophia, about to break out in a fresh direction?”
“No, ’Dolphus, no,” replied his wife. “I’m quite myself.” With that, settling her hair, and pressing the palms of her hands upon her eyes, she laughed again.
“What a wicked fool I was, to think so for a moment!” said Mrs. Tetterby. “Come nearer, ’Dolphus, and let me ease my mind, and tell you what I mean. Let me tell you all about it.”
Mr. Tetterby bringing his chair closer, Mrs. Tetterby laughed again, gave him a hug, and wiped her eyes.
“You know, Dolphus, my dear,” said Mrs. Tetterby, “that when I was single, I might have given myself away in several directions. At one time, four after me at once; two of them were sons of Mars.”
“We’re all sons of Ma’s, my dear,” said Mr. Tetterby, “jointly with Pa’s.”
“I don’t mean that,” replied his wife, “I mean soldiers—serjeants.”
“Oh!” said Mr. Tetterby.
“Well, ’Dolphus, I’m sure I never think of such things now, to regret them; and I’m sure I’ve got as good a husband, and would do as much to prove that I was fond of him, as—”
“As any little woman in the world,” said Mr. Tetterby. “Very good. Very good.”
If Mr. Tetterby had been ten feet high, he could not have expressed a gentler consideration for Mrs. Tetterby’s fairy-like stature; and if Mrs. Tetterby had been two feet high, she could not have felt it more appropriately her due.
“But you see, ’Dolphus,” said Mrs. Tetterby, “this being Christmas-time, when all people who can, make holiday, and when all people who have got money, like to spend some, I did, somehow, get a little out of sorts when I was in the streets just now. There were so many things to be sold—such delicious things to eat, such fine things to look at, such delightful things to have—and there was so much calculating and calculating necessary, before I durst lay out a sixpence for the commonest thing; and the basket was so large, and wanted so much in it; and my stock of money was so small, and would go such a little way;—you hate me, don’t you, ’Dolphus?”
“Not quite,” said Mr. Tetterby, “as yet.”
“Well! I’ll tell you the whole truth,” pursued his wife, penitently, “and then perhaps you will. I felt all this, so much, when I was trudging about in the cold, and when I saw a lot of other calculating faces and large baskets trudging about, too, that I began to think whether I mightn’t have done better, and been happier, if—I—hadn’t—” the wedding-ring went round again, and Mrs. Tetterby shook her downcast head as she turned it.
“I see,” said her husband quietly; “if you hadn’t married at all, or if you had married somebody else?”
“Yes,” sobbed Mrs. Tetterby. “That’s really what I thought. Do you hate me now, ’Dolphus?”
“Why no,” said Mr. Tetterby. “I don’t find that I do, as yet.”
Mrs. Tetterby gave him a thankful kiss, and went on.
“I begin to hope you won’t, now, ’Dolphus, though I’m afraid I haven’t told you the worst. I can’t think what came over me. I don’t know whether I was ill, or mad, or what I was, but I couldn’t call up anything that seemed to bind us to each other, or to reconcile me to my fortune. All the pleasures and enjoyments we had ever had—they seemed so poor and insignificant, I hated them. I could have trodden on them. And I could think of nothing else, except our being poor, and the number of mouths there were at home.”
“Well, well, my dear,” said Mr. Tetterby, shaking her hand encouragingly, “that’s truth, after all. We are poor, and there are a number of mouths at home here.”
“Ah! but, Dolf, Dolf!” cried his wife, laying her hands upon his neck, “my good, kind, patient fellow, when I had been at home a very little while—how different! Oh, Dolf, dear, how different it was! I felt as if there was a rush of recollection on me, all at once, that softened my hard heart, and filled it up till it was bursting. All our struggles for a livelihood, all our cares and wants since we have been married, all the times of sickness, all the hours of watching, we have ever had, by one another, or by the children, seemed to speak to me, and say that they had made us one, and that I never might have been, or could have been, or would have been, any other than the wife and mother I am. Then, the cheap enjoyments that I could have trodden on so cruelly, got to be so precious to me—Oh so priceless, and dear!—that I couldn’t bear to think how much I had wronged them; and I said, and say again a hundred times, how could I ever behave so, ’Dolphus, how could I ever have the heart to do it!”
The good woman, quite carried away by her honest tenderness and remorse, was weeping with all her heart, when she started up with a scream, and ran behind her husband. Her cry was so terrified, that the children started from their sleep and from their beds, and clung about her. Nor did her gaze belie her voice, as she pointed to a pale man in a black cloak who had come into the room.
“Look at that man! Look there! What does he want?”
“My dear,” returned her husband, “I’ll ask him if you’ll let me go. What’s the matter! How you shake!”
“I saw him in the street, when I was out just now. He looked at me, and stood near me. I am afraid of him.”
“Afraid of him! Why?”
“I don’t know why—I—stop! husband!” for he was going towards the stranger.
She had one hand pressed upon her forehead, and one upon her breast; and there was a peculiar fluttering all over her, and a hurried unsteady motion of her eyes, as if she had lost something.
“Are you ill, my dear?”
“What is it that is going from me again?” she muttered, in a low voice. “What is this that is going away?”
Then she abruptly answered: “Ill? No, I am quite well,” and stood looking vacantly at the floor.
Her husband, who had not been altogether free from the infection of her fear at first, and whom the present strangeness of her manner did not tend to reassure, addressed himself to the pale visitor in the black cloak, who stood still, and whose eyes were bent upon the ground.
“What may be your pleasure, sir,” he asked, “with us?”
“I fear that my coming in unperceived,” returned the visitor, “has alarmed you; but you were talking and did not hear me.”
“My little woman says—perhaps you heard her say it,” returned Mr. Tetterby, “that it’s not the first time you have alarmed her to-night.”
“I am sorry for it. I remember to have observed her, for a few moments only, in the street. I had no intention of frightening her.”
As he raised his eyes in speaking, she raised hers. It was extraordinary to see what dread she had of him, and with what dread he observed it—and yet how narrowly and closely.
“My name,” he said, “is Redlaw. I come from the old college hard by. A young gentleman who is a student there, lodges in your house, does he not?”
“Mr. Denham?” said Tetterby.
It was a natural action, and so slight as to be hardly noticeable; but the little man, before speaking again, passed his hand across his forehead, and looked quickly round the room, as though he were sensible of some change in its atmosphere. The Chemist, instantly transferring to him the look of dread he had directed towards the wife, stepped back, and his face turned paler.
“The gentleman’s room,” said Tetterby, “is upstairs, sir. There’s a more convenient private entrance; but as you have come in here, it will save your going out into the cold, if you’ll take this little staircase,” showing one communicating directly with the parlour, “and go up to him that way, if you wish to see him.”
“Yes, I wish to see him,” said the Chemist. “Can you spare a light?”
The watchfulness of his haggard look, and the inexplicable distrust that darkened it, seemed to trouble Mr. Tetterby. He paused; and looking fixedly at him in return, stood for a minute or so, like a man stupefied, or fascinated.
At length he said, “I’ll light you, sir, if you’ll follow me.”
“No,” replied the Chemist, “I don’t wish to be attended, or announced to him. He does not expect me. I would rather go alone. Please to give me the light, if you can spare it, and I’ll find the way.”
In the quickness of his expression of this desire, and in taking the candle from the newsman, he touched him on the breast. Withdrawing his hand hastily, almost as though he had wounded him by accident (for he did not know in what part of himself his new power resided, or how it was communicated, or how the manner of its reception varied in different persons), he turned and ascended the stair.
But when he reached the top, he stopped and looked down. The wife was standing in the same place, twisting her ring round and round upon her finger. The husband, with his head bent forward on his breast, was musing heavily and sullenly. The children, still clustering about the mother, gazed timidly after the visitor, and nestled together when they saw him looking down.
“Come!” said the father, roughly. “There’s enough of this. Get to bed here!”
“The place is inconvenient and small enough,” the mother added, “without you. Get to bed!”
The whole brood, scared and sad, crept away; little Johnny and the baby lagging last. The mother, glancing contemptuously round the sordid room, and tossing from her the fragments of their meal, stopped on the threshold of her task of clearing the table, and sat down, pondering idly and dejectedly. The father betook himself to the chimney-corner, and impatiently raking the small fire together, bent over it as if he would monopolise it all. They did not interchange a word.
The Chemist, paler than before, stole upward like a thief; looking back upon the change below, and dreading equally to go on or return.
“What have I done!” he said, confusedly. “What am I going to do!”
“To be the benefactor of mankind,” he thought he heard a voice reply.
He looked round, but there was nothing there; and a passage now shutting out the little parlour from his view, he went on, directing his eyes before him at the way he went.
“It is only since last night,” he muttered gloomily, “that I have remained shut up, and yet all things are strange to me. I am strange to myself. I am here, as in a dream. What interest have I in this place, or in any place that I can bring to my remembrance? My mind is going blind!”
There was a door before him, and he knocked at it. Being invited, by a voice within, to enter, he complied.
“Is that my kind nurse?” said the voice. “But I need not ask her. There is no one else to come here.”
It spoke cheerfully, though in a languid tone, and attracted his attention to a young man lying on a couch, drawn before the chimney-piece, with the back towards the door. A meagre scanty stove, pinched and hollowed like a sick man’s cheeks, and bricked into the centre of a hearth that it could scarcely warm, contained the fire, to which his face was turned. Being so near the windy house-top, it wasted quickly, and with a busy sound, and the burning ashes dropped down fast.
“They chink when they shoot out here,” said the student, smiling, “so, according to the gossips, they are not coffins, but purses. I shall be well and rich yet, some day, if it please God, and shall live perhaps to love a daughter Milly, in remembrance of the kindest nature and the gentlest heart in the world.”
He put up his hand as if expecting her to take it, but, being weakened, he lay still, with his face resting on his other hand, and did not turn round.
The Chemist glanced about the room;—at the student’s books and papers, piled upon a table in a corner, where they, and his extinguished reading-lamp, now prohibited and put away, told of the attentive hours that had gone before this illness, and perhaps caused it;—at such signs of his old health and freedom, as the out-of-door attire that hung idle on the wall;—at those remembrances of other and less solitary scenes, the little miniatures upon the chimney-piece, and the drawing of home;—at that token of his emulation, perhaps, in some sort, of his personal attachment too, the framed engraving of himself, the looker-on. The time had been, only yesterday, when not one of these objects, in its remotest association of interest with the living figure before him, would have been lost on Redlaw. Now, they were but objects; or, if any gleam of such connexion shot upon him, it perplexed, and not enlightened him, as he stood looking round with a dull wonder.
The student, recalling the thin hand which had remained so long untouched, raised himself on the couch, and turned his head.
“Mr. Redlaw!” he exclaimed, and started up.
Redlaw put out his arm.
“Don’t come nearer to me. I will sit here. Remain you, where you are!”
He sat down on a chair near the door, and having glanced at the young man standing leaning with his hand upon the couch, spoke with his eyes averted towards the ground.
“I heard, by an accident, by what accident is no matter, that one of my class was ill and solitary. I received no other description of him, than that he lived in this street. Beginning my inquiries at the first house in it, I have found him.”
“I have been ill, sir,” returned the student, not merely with a modest hesitation, but with a kind of awe of him, “but am greatly better. An attack of fever—of the brain, I believe—has weakened me, but I am much better. I cannot say I have been solitary, in my illness, or I should forget the ministering hand that has been near me.”
“You are speaking of the keeper’s wife,” said Redlaw.
“Yes.” The student bent his head, as if he rendered her some silent homage.
The Chemist, in whom there was a cold, monotonous apathy, which rendered him more like a marble image on the tomb of the man who had started from his dinner yesterday at the first mention of this student’s case, than the breathing man himself, glanced again at the student leaning with his hand upon the couch, and looked upon the ground, and in the air, as if for light for his blinded mind.
“I remembered your name,” he said, “when it was mentioned to me down stairs, just now; and I recollect your face. We have held but very little personal communication together?”
“You have retired and withdrawn from me, more than any of the rest, I think?”
The student signified assent.
“And why?” said the Chemist; not with the least expression of interest, but with a moody, wayward kind of curiosity. “Why? How comes it that you have sought to keep especially from me, the knowledge of your remaining here, at this season, when all the rest have dispersed, and of your being ill? I want to know why this is?”
The young man, who had heard him with increasing agitation, raised his downcast eyes to his face, and clasping his hands together, cried with sudden earnestness and with trembling lips:
“Mr. Redlaw! You have discovered me. You know my secret!”
“Secret?” said the Chemist, harshly. “I know?”
“Yes! Your manner, so different from the interest and sympathy which endear you to so many hearts, your altered voice, the constraint there is in everything you say, and in your looks,” replied the student, “warn me that you know me. That you would conceal it, even now, is but a proof to me (God knows I need none!) of your natural kindness and of the bar there is between us.”
A vacant and contemptuous laugh, was all his answer.
“But, Mr. Redlaw,” said the student, “as a just man, and a good man, think how innocent I am, except in name and descent, of participation in any wrong inflicted on you or in any sorrow you have borne.”
“Sorrow!” said Redlaw, laughing. “Wrong! What are those to me?”
“For Heaven’s sake,” entreated the shrinking student, “do not let the mere interchange of a few words with me change you like this, sir! Let me pass again from your knowledge and notice. Let me occupy my old reserved and distant place among those whom you instruct. Know me only by the name I have assumed, and not by that of Longford—”
“Longford!” exclaimed the other.
He clasped his head with both his hands, and for a moment turned upon the young man his own intelligent and thoughtful face. But the light passed from it, like the sun-beam of an instant, and it clouded as before.
“The name my mother bears, sir,” faltered the young man, “the name she took, when she might, perhaps, have taken one more honoured. Mr. Redlaw,” hesitating, “I believe I know that history. Where my information halts, my guesses at what is wanting may supply something not remote from the truth. I am the child of a marriage that has not proved itself a well-assorted or a happy one. From infancy, I have heard you spoken of with honour and respect—with something that was almost reverence. I have heard of such devotion, of such fortitude and tenderness, of such rising up against the obstacles which press men down, that my fancy, since I learnt my little lesson from my mother, has shed a lustre on your name. At last, a poor student myself, from whom could I learn but you?”
Redlaw, unmoved, unchanged, and looking at him with a staring frown, answered by no word or sign.
“I cannot say,” pursued the other, “I should try in vain to say, how much it has impressed me, and affected me, to find the gracious traces of the past, in that certain power of winning gratitude and confidence which is associated among us students (among the humblest of us, most) with Mr. Redlaw’s generous name. Our ages and positions are so different, sir, and I am so accustomed to regard you from a distance, that I wonder at my own presumption when I touch, however lightly, on that theme. But to one who—I may say, who felt no common interest in my mother once—it may be something to hear, now that all is past, with what indescribable feelings of affection I have, in my obscurity, regarded him; with what pain and reluctance I have kept aloof from his encouragement, when a word of it would have made me rich; yet how I have felt it fit that I should hold my course, content to know him, and to be unknown. Mr. Redlaw,” said the student, faintly, “what I would have said, I have said ill, for my strength is strange to me as yet; but for anything unworthy in this fraud of mine, forgive me, and for all the rest forget me!”
The staring frown remained on Redlaw’s face, and yielded to no other expression until the student, with these words, advanced towards him, as if to touch his hand, when he drew back and cried to him:
“Don’t come nearer to me!”
The young man stopped, shocked by the eagerness of his recoil, and by the sternness of his repulsion; and he passed his hand, thoughtfully, across his forehead.
“The past is past,” said the Chemist. “It dies like the brutes. Who talks to me of its traces in my life? He raves or lies! What have I to do with your distempered dreams? If you want money, here it is. I came to offer it; and that is all I came for. There can be nothing else that brings me here,” he muttered, holding his head again, with both his hands. “There can be nothing else, and yet—”
He had tossed his purse upon the table. As he fell into this dim cogitation with himself, the student took it up, and held it out to him.
“Take it back, sir,” he said proudly, though not angrily. “I wish you could take from me, with it, the remembrance of your words and offer.”
“You do?” he retorted, with a wild light in his eyes. “You do?”
The Chemist went close to him, for the first time, and took the purse, and turned him by the arm, and looked him in the face.
“There is sorrow and trouble in sickness, is there not?” he demanded, with a laugh.
The wondering student answered, “Yes.”
“In its unrest, in its anxiety, in its suspense, in all its train of physical and mental miseries?” said the Chemist, with a wild unearthly exultation. “All best forgotten, are they not?”
The student did not answer, but again passed his hand, confusedly, across his forehead. Redlaw still held him by the sleeve, when Milly’s voice was heard outside.
“I can see very well now,” she said, “thank you, Dolf. Don’t cry, dear. Father and mother will be comfortable again, to-morrow, and home will be comfortable too. A gentleman with him, is there!”
Redlaw released his hold, as he listened.
“I have feared, from the first moment,” he murmured to himself, “to meet her. There is a steady quality of goodness in her, that I dread to influence. I may be the murderer of what is tenderest and best within her bosom.”
She was knocking at the door.
“Shall I dismiss it as an idle foreboding, or still avoid her?” he muttered, looking uneasily around.
She was knocking at the door again.
“Of all the visitors who could come here,” he said, in a hoarse alarmed voice, turning to his companion, “this is the one I should desire most to avoid. Hide me!”
The student opened a frail door in the wall, communicating where the garret-roof began to slope towards the floor, with a small inner room. Redlaw passed in hastily, and shut it after him.
The student then resumed his place upon the couch, and called to her to enter.
“Dear Mr. Edmund,” said Milly, looking round, “they told me there was a gentleman here.”
“There is no one here but I.”
“There has been some one?”
“Yes, yes, there has been some one.”
She put her little basket on the table, and went up to the back of the couch, as if to take the extended hand—but it was not there. A little surprised, in her quiet way, she leaned over to look at his face, and gently touched him on the brow.
“Are you quite as well to-night? Your head is not so cool as in the afternoon.”
“Tut!” said the student, petulantly, “very little ails me.”
A little more surprise, but no reproach, was expressed in her face, as she withdrew to the other side of the table, and took a small packet of needlework from her basket. But she laid it down again, on second thoughts, and going noiselessly about the room, set everything exactly in its place, and in the neatest order; even to the cushions on the couch, which she touched with so light a hand, that he hardly seemed to know it, as he lay looking at the fire. When all this was done, and she had swept the hearth, she sat down, in her modest little bonnet, to her work, and was quietly busy on it directly.
“It’s the new muslin curtain for the window, Mr. Edmund,” said Milly, stitching away as she talked. “It will look very clean and nice, though it costs very little, and will save your eyes, too, from the light. My William says the room should not be too light just now, when you are recovering so well, or the glare might make you giddy.”
He said nothing; but there was something so fretful and impatient in his change of position, that her quick fingers stopped, and she looked at him anxiously.
“The pillows are not comfortable,” she said, laying down her work and rising. “I will soon put them right.”
“They are very well,” he answered. “Leave them alone, pray. You make so much of everything.”
He raised his head to say this, and looked at her so thanklessly, that, after he had thrown himself down again, she stood timidly pausing. However, she resumed her seat, and her needle, without having directed even a murmuring look towards him, and was soon as busy as before.
“I have been thinking, Mr. Edmund, that you have been often thinking of late, when I have been sitting by, how true the saying is, that adversity is a good teacher. Health will be more precious to you, after this illness, than it has ever been. And years hence, when this time of year comes round, and you remember the days when you lay here sick, alone, that the knowledge of your illness might not afflict those who are dearest to you, your home will be doubly dear and doubly blest. Now, isn’t that a good, true thing?”
She was too intent upon her work, and too earnest in what she said, and too composed and quiet altogether, to be on the watch for any look he might direct towards her in reply; so the shaft of his ungrateful glance fell harmless, and did not wound her.
“Ah!” said Milly, with her pretty head inclining thoughtfully on one side, as she looked down, following her busy fingers with her eyes. “Even on me—and I am very different from you, Mr. Edmund, for I have no learning, and don’t know how to think properly—this view of such things has made a great impression, since you have been lying ill. When I have seen you so touched by the kindness and attention of the poor people down stairs, I have felt that you thought even that experience some repayment for the loss of health, and I have read in your face, as plain as if it was a book, that but for some trouble and sorrow we should never know half the good there is about us.”
His getting up from the couch, interrupted her, or she was going on to say more.
“We needn’t magnify the merit, Mrs. William,” he rejoined slightingly. “The people down stairs will be paid in good time I dare say, for any little extra service they may have rendered me; and perhaps they anticipate no less. I am much obliged to you, too.”
Her fingers stopped, and she looked at him.
“I can’t be made to feel the more obliged by your exaggerating the case,” he said. “I am sensible that you have been interested in me, and I say I am much obliged to you. What more would you have?”
Her work fell on her lap, as she still looked at him walking to and fro with an intolerant air, and stopping now and then.
“I say again, I am much obliged to you. Why weaken my sense of what is your due in obligation, by preferring enormous claims upon me? Trouble, sorrow, affliction, adversity! One might suppose I had been dying a score of deaths here!”
“Do you believe, Mr. Edmund,” she asked, rising and going nearer to him, “that I spoke of the poor people of the house, with any reference to myself? To me?” laying her hand upon her bosom with a simple and innocent smile of astonishment.
“Oh! I think nothing about it, my good creature,” he returned. “I have had an indisposition, which your solicitude—observe! I say solicitude—makes a great deal more of, than it merits; and it’s over, and we can’t perpetuate it.”
He coldly took a book, and sat down at the table.
She watched him for a little while, until her smile was quite gone, and then, returning to where her basket was, said gently:
“Mr. Edmund, would you rather be alone?”
“There is no reason why I should detain you here,” he replied.
“Except—” said Milly, hesitating, and showing her work.
“Oh! the curtain,” he answered, with a supercilious laugh. “That’s not worth staying for.”
She made up the little packet again, and put it in her basket. Then, standing before him with such an air of patient entreaty that he could not choose but look at her, she said:
“If you should want me, I will come back willingly. When you did want me, I was quite happy to come; there was no merit in it. I think you must be afraid, that, now you are getting well, I may be troublesome to you; but I should not have been, indeed. I should have come no longer than your weakness and confinement lasted. You owe me nothing; but it is right that you should deal as justly by me as if I was a lady—even the very lady that you love; and if you suspect me of meanly making much of the little I have tried to do to comfort your sick room, you do yourself more wrong than ever you can do me. That is why I am sorry. That is why I am very sorry.”
If she had been as passionate as she was quiet, as indignant as she was calm, as angry in her look as she was gentle, as loud of tone as she was low and clear, she might have left no sense of her departure in the room, compared with that which fell upon the lonely student when she went away.
He was gazing drearily upon the place where she had been, when Redlaw came out of his concealment, and came to the door.
“When sickness lays its hand on you again,” he said, looking fiercely back at him, “—may it be soon!—Die here! Rot here!”
“What have you done?” returned the other, catching at his cloak. “What change have you wrought in me? What curse have you brought upon me? Give me back myself!”
“Give me back myself!” exclaimed Redlaw like a madman. “I am infected! I am infectious! I am charged with poison for my own mind, and the minds of all mankind. Where I felt interest, compassion, sympathy, I am turning into stone. Selfishness and ingratitude spring up in my blighting footsteps. I am only so much less base than the wretches whom I make so, that in the moment of their transformation I can hate them.”
As he spoke—the young man still holding to his cloak—he cast him off, and struck him: then, wildly hurried out into the night air where the wind was blowing, the snow falling, the cloud-drift sweeping on, the moon dimly shining; and where, blowing in the wind, falling with the snow, drifting with the clouds, shining in the moonlight, and heavily looming in the darkness, were the Phantom’s words, “The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will!”
Whither he went, he neither knew nor cared, so that he avoided company. The change he felt within him made the busy streets a desert, and himself a desert, and the multitude around him, in their manifold endurances and ways of life, a mighty waste of sand, which the winds tossed into unintelligible heaps and made a ruinous confusion of. Those traces in his breast which the Phantom had told him would “die out soon,” were not, as yet, so far upon their way to death, but that he understood enough of what he was, and what he made of others, to desire to be alone.
This put it in his mind—he suddenly bethought himself, as he was going along, of the boy who had rushed into his room. And then he recollected, that of those with whom he had communicated since the Phantom’s disappearance, that boy alone had shown no sign of being changed.
Monstrous and odious as the wild thing was to him, he determined to seek it out, and prove if this were really so; and also to seek it with another intention, which came into his thoughts at the same time.
So, resolving with some difficulty where he was, he directed his steps back to the old college, and to that part of it where the general porch was, and where, alone, the pavement was worn by the tread of the students’ feet.
The keeper’s house stood just within the iron gates, forming a part of the chief quadrangle. There was a little cloister outside, and from that sheltered place he knew he could look in at the window of their ordinary room, and see who was within. The iron gates were shut, but his hand was familiar with the fastening, and drawing it back by thrusting in his wrist between the bars, he passed through softly, shut it again, and crept up to the window, crumbling the thin crust of snow with his feet.
The fire, to which he had directed the boy last night, shining brightly through the glass, made an illuminated place upon the ground. Instinctively avoiding this, and going round it, he looked in at the window. At first, he thought that there was no one there, and that the blaze was reddening only the old beams in the ceiling and the dark walls; but peering in more narrowly, he saw the object of his search coiled asleep before it on the floor. He passed quickly to the door, opened it, and went in.
The creature lay in such a fiery heat, that, as the Chemist stooped to rouse him, it scorched his head. So soon as he was touched, the boy, not half awake, clutching his rags together with the instinct of flight upon him, half rolled and half ran into a distant corner of the room, where, heaped upon the ground, he struck his foot out to defend himself.
“Get up!” said the Chemist. “You have not forgotten me?”
“You let me alone!” returned the boy. “This is the woman’s house—not yours.”
The Chemist’s steady eye controlled him somewhat, or inspired him with enough submission to be raised upon his feet, and looked at.
“Who washed them, and put those bandages where they were bruised and cracked?” asked the Chemist, pointing to their altered state.
“The woman did.”
“And is it she who has made you cleaner in the face, too?”
“Yes, the woman.”
Redlaw asked these questions to attract his eyes towards himself, and with the same intent now held him by the chin, and threw his wild hair back, though he loathed to touch him. The boy watched his eyes keenly, as if he thought it needful to his own defence, not knowing what he might do next; and Redlaw could see well that no change came over him.
“Where are they?” he inquired.
“The woman’s out.”
“I know she is. Where is the old man with the white hair, and his son?”
“The woman’s husband, d’ye mean?” inquired the boy.
“Ay. Where are those two?”
“Out. Something’s the matter, somewhere. They were fetched out in a hurry, and told me to stop here.”
“Come with me,” said the Chemist, “and I’ll give you money.”
“Come where? and how much will you give?”
“I’ll give you more shillings than you ever saw, and bring you back soon. Do you know your way to where you came from?”
“You let me go,” returned the boy, suddenly twisting out of his grasp. “I’m not a going to take you there. Let me be, or I’ll heave some fire at you!”
He was down before it, and ready, with his savage little hand, to pluck the burning coals out.
What the Chemist had felt, in observing the effect of his charmed influence stealing over those with whom he came in contact, was not nearly equal to the cold vague terror with which he saw this baby-monster put it at defiance. It chilled his blood to look on the immovable impenetrable thing, in the likeness of a child, with its sharp malignant face turned up to his, and its almost infant hand, ready at the bars.
“Listen, boy!” he said. “You shall take me where you please, so that you take me where the people are very miserable or very wicked. I want to do them good, and not to harm them. You shall have money, as I have told you, and I will bring you back. Get up! Come quickly!” He made a hasty step towards the door, afraid of her returning.
“Will you let me walk by myself, and never hold me, nor yet touch me?” said the boy, slowly withdrawing the hand with which he threatened, and beginning to get up.
“And let me go, before, behind, or anyways I like?”
“Give me some money first, then, and go.”
The Chemist laid a few shillings, one by one, in his extended hand. To count them was beyond the boy’s knowledge, but he said “one,” every time, and avariciously looked at each as it was given, and at the donor. He had nowhere to put them, out of his hand, but in his mouth; and he put them there.
Redlaw then wrote with his pencil on a leaf of his pocket-book, that the boy was with him; and laying it on the table, signed to him to follow. Keeping his rags together, as usual, the boy complied, and went out with his bare head and naked feet into the winter night.
Preferring not to depart by the iron gate by which he had entered, where they were in danger of meeting her whom he so anxiously avoided, the Chemist led the way, through some of those passages among which the boy had lost himself, and by that portion of the building where he lived, to a small door of which he had the key. When they got into the street, he stopped to ask his guide—who instantly retreated from him—if he knew where they were.
The savage thing looked here and there, and at length, nodding his head, pointed in the direction he designed to take. Redlaw going on at once, he followed, something less suspiciously; shifting his money from his mouth into his hand, and back again into his mouth, and stealthily rubbing it bright upon his shreds of dress, as he went along.
Three times, in their progress, they were side by side. Three times they stopped, being side by side. Three times the Chemist glanced down at his face, and shuddered as it forced upon him one reflection.
The first occasion was when they were crossing an old churchyard, and Redlaw stopped among the graves, utterly at a loss how to connect them with any tender, softening, or consolatory thought.
The second was, when the breaking forth of the moon induced him to look up at the Heavens, where he saw her in her glory, surrounded by a host of stars he still knew by the names and histories which human science has appended to them; but where he saw nothing else he had been wont to see, felt nothing he had been wont to feel, in looking up there, on a bright night.
The third was when he stopped to listen to a plaintive strain of music, but could only hear a tune, made manifest to him by the dry mechanism of the instruments and his own ears, with no address to any mystery within him, without a whisper in it of the past, or of the future, powerless upon him as the sound of last year’s running water, or the rushing of last year’s wind.
At each of these three times, he saw with horror that, in spite of the vast intellectual distance between them, and their being unlike each other in all physical respects, the expression on the boy’s face was the expression on his own.
They journeyed on for some time—now through such crowded places, that he often looked over his shoulder thinking he had lost his guide, but generally finding him within his shadow on his other side; now by ways so quiet, that he could have counted his short, quick, naked footsteps coming on behind—until they arrived at a ruinous collection of houses, and the boy touched him and stopped.
“In there!” he said, pointing out one house where there were shattered lights in the windows, and a dim lantern in the doorway, with “Lodgings for Travellers” painted on it.
Redlaw looked about him; from the houses to the waste piece of ground on which the houses stood, or rather did not altogether tumble down, unfenced, undrained, unlighted, and bordered by a sluggish ditch; from that, to the sloping line of arches, part of some neighbouring viaduct or bridge with which it was surrounded, and which lessened gradually towards them, until the last but one was a mere kennel for a dog, the last a plundered little heap of bricks; from that, to the child, close to him, cowering and trembling with the cold, and limping on one little foot, while he coiled the other round his leg to warm it, yet staring at all these things with that frightful likeness of expression so apparent in his face, that Redlaw started from him.
“In there!” said the boy, pointing out the house again. “I’ll wait.”
“Will they let me in?” asked Redlaw.
“Say you’re a doctor,” he answered with a nod. “There’s plenty ill here.”
Looking back on his way to the house-door, Redlaw saw him trail himself upon the dust and crawl within the shelter of the smallest arch, as if he were a rat. He had no pity for the thing, but he was afraid of it; and when it looked out of its den at him, he hurried to the house as a retreat.
“Sorrow, wrong, and trouble,” said the Chemist, with a painful effort at some more distinct remembrance, “at least haunt this place darkly. He can do no harm, who brings forgetfulness of such things here!”
With these words, he pushed the yielding door, and went in.
There was a woman sitting on the stairs, either asleep or forlorn, whose head was bent down on her hands and knees. As it was not easy to pass without treading on her, and as she was perfectly regardless of his near approach, he stopped, and touched her on the shoulder. Looking up, she showed him quite a young face, but one whose bloom and promise were all swept away, as if the haggard winter should unnaturally kill the spring.
With little or no show of concern on his account, she moved nearer to the wall to leave him a wider passage.
“What are you?” said Redlaw, pausing, with his hand upon the broken stair-rail.
“What do you think I am?” she answered, showing him her face again.
He looked upon the ruined Temple of God, so lately made, so soon disfigured; and something, which was not compassion—for the springs in which a true compassion for such miseries has its rise, were dried up in his breast—but which was nearer to it, for the moment, than any feeling that had lately struggled into the darkening, but not yet wholly darkened, night of his mind—mingled a touch of softness with his next words.
“I am come here to give relief, if I can,” he said. “Are you thinking of any wrong?”
She frowned at him, and then laughed; and then her laugh prolonged itself into a shivering sigh, as she dropped her head again, and hid her fingers in her hair.
“Are you thinking of a wrong?” he asked once more.
“I am thinking of my life,” she said, with a mometary look at him.
He had a perception that she was one of many, and that he saw the type of thousands, when he saw her, drooping at his feet.
“What are your parents?” he demanded.
“I had a good home once. My father was a gardener, far away, in the country.”
“Is he dead?”
“He’s dead to me. All such things are dead to me. You a gentleman, and not know that!” She raised her eyes again, and laughed at him.
“Girl!” said Redlaw, sternly, “before this death, of all such things, was brought about, was there no wrong done to you? In spite of all that you can do, does no remembrance of wrong cleave to you? Are there not times upon times when it is misery to you?”
So little of what was womanly was left in her appearance, that now, when she burst into tears, he stood amazed. But he was more amazed, and much disquieted, to note that in her awakened recollection of this wrong, the first trace of her old humanity and frozen tenderness appeared to show itself.
He drew a little off, and in doing so, observed that her arms were black, her face cut, and her bosom bruised.
“What brutal hand has hurt you so?” he asked.
“My own. I did it myself!” she answered quickly.
“It is impossible.”
“I’ll swear I did! He didn’t touch me. I did it to myself in a passion, and threw myself down here. He wasn’t near me. He never laid a hand upon me!”
In the white determination of her face, confronting him with this untruth, he saw enough of the last perversion and distortion of good surviving in that miserable breast, to be stricken with remorse that he had ever come near her.
“Sorrow, wrong, and trouble!” he muttered, turning his fearful gaze away. “All that connects her with the state from which she has fallen, has those roots! In the name of God, let me go by!”
Afraid to look at her again, afraid to touch her, afraid to think of having sundered the last thread by which she held upon the mercy of Heaven, he gathered his cloak about him, and glided swiftly up the stairs.
Opposite to him, on the landing, was a door, which stood partly open, and which, as he ascended, a man with a candle in his hand, came forward from within to shut. But this man, on seeing him, drew back, with much emotion in his manner, and, as if by a sudden impulse, mentioned his name aloud.
In the surprise of such a recognition there, he stopped, endeavouring to recollect the wan and startled face. He had no time to consider it, for, to his yet greater amazement, old Philip came out of the room, and took him by the hand.
“Mr. Redlaw,” said the old man, “this is like you, this is like you, sir! you have heard of it, and have come after us to render any help you can. Ah, too late, too late!”
Redlaw, with a bewildered look, submitted to be led into the room. A man lay there, on a truckle-bed, and William Swidger stood at the bedside.
“Too late!” murmured the old man, looking wistfully into the Chemist’s face; and the tears stole down his cheeks.
“That’s what I say, father,” interposed his son in a low voice. “That’s where it is, exactly. To keep as quiet as ever we can while he’s a dozing, is the only thing to do. You’re right, father!”
Redlaw paused at the bedside, and looked down on the figure that was stretched upon the mattress. It was that of a man, who should have been in the vigour of his life, but on whom it was not likely the sun would ever shine again. The vices of his forty or fifty years’ career had so branded him, that, in comparison with their effects upon his face, the heavy hand of Time upon the old man’s face who watched him had been merciful and beautifying.
“Who is this?” asked the Chemist, looking round.
“My son George, Mr. Redlaw,” said the old man, wringing his hands. “My eldest son, George, who was more his mother’s pride than all the rest!”
Redlaw’s eyes wandered from the old man’s grey head, as he laid it down upon the bed, to the person who had recognised him, and who had kept aloof, in the remotest corner of the room. He seemed to be about his own age; and although he knew no such hopeless decay and broken man as he appeared to be, there was something in the turn of his figure, as he stood with his back towards him, and now went out at the door, that made him pass his hand uneasily across his brow.
“William,” he said in a gloomy whisper, “who is that man?”
“Why you see, sir,” returned Mr. William, “that’s what I say, myself. Why should a man ever go and gamble, and the like of that, and let himself down inch by inch till he can’t let himself down any lower!”
“Has he done so?” asked Redlaw, glancing after him with the same uneasy action as before.
“Just exactly that, sir,” returned William Swidger, “as I’m told. He knows a little about medicine, sir, it seems; and having been wayfaring towards London with my unhappy brother that you see here,” Mr. William passed his coat-sleeve across his eyes, “and being lodging up stairs for the night—what I say, you see, is that strange companions come together here sometimes—he looked in to attend upon him, and came for us at his request. What a mournful spectacle, sir! But that’s where it is. It’s enough to kill my father!”
Redlaw looked up, at these words, and, recalling where he was and with whom, and the spell he carried with him—which his surprise had obscured—retired a little, hurriedly, debating with himself whether to shun the house that moment, or remain.
Yielding to a certain sullen doggedness, which it seemed to be a part of his condition to struggle with, he argued for remaining.
“Was it only yesterday,” he said, “when I observed the memory of this old man to be a tissue of sorrow and trouble, and shall I be afraid, to-night, to shake it? Are such remembrances as I can drive away, so precious to this dying man that I need fear for him? No! I’ll stay here.”
But he stayed in fear and trembling none the less for these words; and, shrouded in his black cloak with his face turned from them, stood away from the bedside, listening to what they said, as if he felt himself a demon in the place.
“Father!” murmured the sick man, rallying a little from stupor.
“My boy! My son George!” said old Philip.
“You spoke, just now, of my being mother’s favourite, long ago. It’s a dreadful thing to think now, of long ago!”
“No, no, no;” returned the old man. “Think of it. Don’t say it’s dreadful. It’s not dreadful to me, my son.”
“It cuts you to the heart, father.” For the old man’s tears were falling on him.
“Yes, yes,” said Philip, “so it does; but it does me good. It’s a heavy sorrow to think of that time, but it does me good, George. Oh, think of it too, think of it too, and your heart will be softened more and more! Where’s my son William? William, my boy, your mother loved him dearly to the last, and with her latest breath said, ‘Tell him I forgave him, blessed him, and prayed for him.’ Those were her words to me. I have never forgotten them, and I’m eighty-seven!”
“Father!” said the man upon the bed, “I am dying, I know. I am so far gone, that I can hardly speak, even of what my mind most runs on. Is there any hope for me beyond this bed?”
“There is hope,” returned the old man, “for all who are softened and penitent. There is hope for all such. Oh!” he exclaimed, clasping his hands and looking up, “I was thankful, only yesterday, that I could remember this unhappy son when he was an innocent child. But what a comfort it is, now, to think that even God himself has that remembrance of him!”
Redlaw spread his hands upon his face, and shrank, like a murderer.
“Ah!” feebly moaned the man upon the bed. “The waste since then, the waste of life since then!”
“But he was a child once,” said the old man. “He played with children. Before he lay down on his bed at night, and fell into his guiltless rest, he said his prayers at his poor mother’s knee. I have seen him do it, many a time; and seen her lay his head upon her breast, and kiss him. Sorrowful as it was to her and me, to think of this, when he went so wrong, and when our hopes and plans for him were all broken, this gave him still a hold upon us, that nothing else could have given. Oh, Father, so much better than the fathers upon earth! Oh, Father, so much more afflicted by the errors of Thy children! take this wanderer back! Not as he is, but as he was then, let him cry to Thee, as he has so often seemed to cry to us!”
As the old man lifted up his trembling hands, the son, for whom he made the supplication, laid his sinking head against him for support and comfort, as if he were indeed the child of whom he spoke.
When did man ever tremble, as Redlaw trembled, in the silence that ensued! He knew it must come upon them, knew that it was coming fast.
“My time is very short, my breath is shorter,” said the sick man, supporting himself on one arm, and with the other groping in the air, “and I remember there is something on my mind concerning the man who was here just now, Father and William—wait!—is there really anything in black, out there?”
“Yes, yes, it is real,” said his aged father.
“Is it a man?”
“What I say myself, George,” interposed his brother, bending kindly over him. “It’s Mr. Redlaw.”
“I thought I had dreamed of him. Ask him to come here.”
The Chemist, whiter than the dying man, appeared before him. Obedient to the motion of his hand, he sat upon the bed.
“It has been so ripped up, to-night, sir,” said the sick man, laying his hand upon his heart, with a look in which the mute, imploring agony of his condition was concentrated, “by the sight of my poor old father, and the thought of all the trouble I have been the cause of, and all the wrong and sorrow lying at my door, that—”
Was it the extremity to which he had come, or was it the dawning of another change, that made him stop?
“—that what I can do right, with my mind running on so much, so fast, I’ll try to do. There was another man here. Did you see him?”
Redlaw could not reply by any word; for when he saw that fatal sign he knew so well now, of the wandering hand upon the forehead, his voice died at his lips. But he made some indication of assent.
“He is penniless, hungry, and destitute. He is completely beaten down, and has no resource at all. Look after him! Lose no time! I know he has it in his mind to kill himself.”
It was working. It was on his face. His face was changing, hardening, deepening in all its shades, and losing all its sorrow.
“Don’t you remember? Don’t you know him?” he pursued.
He shut his face out for a moment, with the hand that again wandered over his forehead, and then it lowered on Redlaw, reckless, ruffianly, and callous.
“Why, d-n you!” he said, scowling round, “what have you been doing to me here! I have lived bold, and I mean to die bold. To the Devil with you!”
And so lay down upon his bed, and put his arms up, over his head and ears, as resolute from that time to keep out all access, and to die in his indifference.
If Redlaw had been struck by lightning, it could not have struck him from the bedside with a more tremendous shock. But the old man, who had left the bed while his son was speaking to him, now returning, avoided it quickly likewise, and with abhorrence.
“Where’s my boy William?” said the old man hurriedly. “William, come away from here. We’ll go home.”
“Home, father!” returned William. “Are you going to leave your own son?”
“Where’s my own son?” replied the old man.
“Where? why, there!”
“That’s no son of mine,” said Philip, trembling with resentment. “No such wretch as that, has any claim on me. My children are pleasant to look at, and they wait upon me, and get my meat and drink ready, and are useful to me. I’ve a right to it! I’m eighty-seven!”
“You’re old enough to be no older,” muttered William, looking at him grudgingly, with his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know what good you are, myself. We could have a deal more pleasure without you.”
“My son, Mr. Redlaw!” said the old man. “My son, too! The boy talking to me of my son! Why, what has he ever done to give me any pleasure, I should like to know?”
“I don’t know what you have ever done to give me any pleasure,” said William, sulkily.
“Let me think,” said the old man. “For how many Christmas times running, have I sat in my warm place, and never had to come out in the cold night air; and have made good cheer, without being disturbed by any such uncomfortable, wretched sight as him there? Is it twenty, William?”
“Nigher forty, it seems,” he muttered. “Why, when I look at my father, sir, and come to think of it,” addressing Redlaw, with an impatience and irritation that were quite new, “I’m whipped if I can see anything in him but a calendar of ever so many years of eating and drinking, and making himself comfortable, over and over again.”
“I—I’m eighty-seven,” said the old man, rambling on, childishly and weakly, “and I don’t know as I ever was much put out by anything. I’m not going to begin now, because of what he calls my son. He’s not my son. I’ve had a power of pleasant times. I recollect once—no I don’t—no, it’s broken off. It was something about a game of cricket and a friend of mine, but it’s somehow broken off. I wonder who he was—I suppose I liked him? And I wonder what became of him—I suppose he died? But I don’t know. And I don’t care, neither; I don’t care a bit.”
In his drowsy chuckling, and the shaking of his head, he put his hands into his waistcoat pockets. In one of them he found a bit of holly (left there, probably last night), which he now took out, and looked at.
“Berries, eh?” said the old man. “Ah! It’s a pity they’re not good to eat. I recollect, when I was a little chap about as high as that, and out a walking with—let me see—who was I out a walking with?—no, I don’t remember how that was. I don’t remember as I ever walked with any one particular, or cared for any one, or any one for me. Berries, eh? There’s good cheer when there’s berries. Well; I ought to have my share of it, and to be waited on, and kept warm and comfortable; for I’m eighty-seven, and a poor old man. I’m eigh-ty-seven. Eigh-ty-seven!”
The drivelling, pitiable manner in which, as he repeated this, he nibbled at the leaves, and spat the morsels out; the cold, uninterested eye with which his youngest son (so changed) regarded him; the determined apathy with which his eldest son lay hardened in his sin; impressed themselves no more on Redlaw’s observation,—for he broke his way from the spot to which his feet seemed to have been fixed, and ran out of the house.
His guide came crawling forth from his place of refuge, and was ready for him before he reached the arches.
“Back to the woman’s?” he inquired.
“Back, quickly!” answered Redlaw. “Stop nowhere on the way!”
For a short distance the boy went on before; but their return was more like a flight than a walk, and it was as much as his bare feet could do, to keep pace with the Chemist’s rapid strides. Shrinking from all who passed, shrouded in his cloak, and keeping it drawn closely about him, as though there were mortal contagion in any fluttering touch of his garments, he made no pause until they reached the door by which they had come out. He unlocked it with his key, went in, accompanied by the boy, and hastened through the dark passages to his own chamber.
The boy watched him as he made the door fast, and withdrew behind the table, when he looked round.
“Come!” he said. “Don’t you touch me! You’ve not brought me here to take my money away.”
Redlaw threw some more upon the ground. He flung his body on it immediately, as if to hide it from him, lest the sight of it should tempt him to reclaim it; and not until he saw him seated by his lamp, with his face hidden in his hands, began furtively to pick it up. When he had done so, he crept near the fire, and, sitting down in a great chair before it, took from his breast some broken scraps of food, and fell to munching, and to staring at the blaze, and now and then to glancing at his shillings, which he kept clenched up in a bunch, in one hand.
“And this,” said Redlaw, gazing on him with increased repugnance and fear, “is the only one companion I have left on earth!”
How long it was before he was aroused from his contemplation of this creature, whom he dreaded so—whether half-an-hour, or half the night—he knew not. But the stillness of the room was broken by the boy (whom he had seen listening) starting up, and running towards the door.
“Here’s the woman coming!” he exclaimed.
The Chemist stopped him on his way, at the moment when she knocked.
“Let me go to her, will you?” said the boy.
“Not now,” returned the Chemist. “Stay here. Nobody must pass in or out of the room now. Who’s that?”
“It’s I, sir,” cried Milly. “Pray, sir, let me in!”
“No! not for the world!” he said.
“Mr. Redlaw, Mr. Redlaw, pray, sir, let me in.”
“What is the matter?” he said, holding the boy.
“The miserable man you saw, is worse, and nothing I can say will wake him from his terrible infatuation. William’s father has turned childish in a moment, William himself is changed. The shock has been too sudden for him; I cannot understand him; he is not like himself. Oh, Mr. Redlaw, pray advise me, help me!”
“No! No! No!” he answered.
“Mr. Redlaw! Dear sir! George has been muttering, in his doze, about the man you saw there, who, he fears, will kill himself.”
“Better he should do it, than come near me!”
“He says, in his wandering, that you know him; that he was your friend once, long ago; that he is the ruined father of a student here—my mind misgives me, of the young gentleman who has been ill. What is to be done? How is he to be followed? How is he to be saved? Mr. Redlaw, pray, oh, pray, advise me! Help me!”
All this time he held the boy, who was half-mad to pass him, and let her in.
“Phantoms! Punishers of impious thoughts!” cried Redlaw, gazing round in anguish, “look upon me! From the darkness of my mind, let the glimmering of contrition that I know is there, shine up and show my misery! In the material world as I have long taught, nothing can be spared; no step or atom in the wondrous structure could be lost, without a blank being made in the great universe. I know, now, that it is the same with good and evil, happiness and sorrow, in the memories of men. Pity me! Relieve me!”
There was no response, but her “Help me, help me, let me in!” and the boy’s struggling to get to her.
“Shadow of myself! Spirit of my darker hours!” cried Redlaw, in distraction, “come back, and haunt me day and night, but take this gift away! Or, if it must still rest with me, deprive me of the dreadful power of giving it to others. Undo what I have done. Leave me benighted, but restore the day to those whom I have cursed. As I have spared this woman from the first, and as I never will go forth again, but will die here, with no hand to tend me, save this creature’s who is proof against me,—hear me!”
The only reply still was, the boy struggling to get to her, while he held him back; and the cry, increasing in its energy, “Help! let me in. He was your friend once, how shall he be followed, how shall he be saved? They are all changed, there is no one else to help me, pray, pray, let me in!”