"I should like to learn that very much," said Fan eagerly.
"Very well, you shall learn then. I have been making inquiries, and find that there is a place in Regent Street, where for a moderate premium they do really succeed in teaching girls such things in a short time. I shall take you there to-morrow, and make all arrangements."
Very soon after this conversation Fan commenced her new work of learning dressmaking, going every morning by omnibus to Regent Street, lunching where she worked, and returning to Dawson Place at four o'clock. After the preliminary difficulties, or rather strangeness inseparable from a new occupation, had been got over, she began to find her work very agreeable. It was maintained by the teachers in the establishment she was in that by means of their system even a stupid girl could be taught the mystery of dressmaking in a little while. And Fan was not stupid, although she had an extremely modest opinion of her own abilities, and was not regarded by others as remarkably intelligent; but she was diligent and painstaking, and above everything anxious to please her mistress, who had paid extra money to ensure pains being taken with her. So rapid was her progress, that before the end of January Miss Starbrow bought some inexpensive material, and allowed her to make herself a couple of dresses to wear in the house; and these first efforts resulted so well that a better stuff was got for a walking-dress.
The winter had thus far proved a full and happy one to Fan; in February she was even more fully occupied, and, if possible, happier; for after leaving the establishment in Regent Street, Miss Starbrow sent her to the school of embroidery in South Kensington to take lessons in a new and still more delightful art. But at the end of that month Fan unhappily, and from no fault of her own, fell into serious disgrace. She had gone to the Exhibition Road with a sample of her work on the morning of a bright windy day which promised to be dry; a little later Miss Starbrow also went out. Before noon the weather changed, and a heavy continuous rain began to fall. At one o'clock Miss Starbrow came home in a cab, and as she went into the house it occurred to her to ask the maid if Fan had got very wet or had come in a cab. She knew that Fan had not taken an umbrella.
"No, ma'am; she walked home, but didn't get wet. A young gentleman came with her, and I s'pose he kept her dry with his umbrella."
"A young gentleman—are you quite sure?"
"Yes, ma'am, quite sure," she returned, indignant at having her sacred word doubted. "He was with her on the steps when I opened the door, and shook hands with her just like an old friend when he went away; and she was quite dry."
Miss Starbrow said no more. She knew that the servant, though no friend to Fan, would not have dared to invent a story of this kind, and resolved to say nothing, but to wait for the girl to give her own account of the matter.
Fan said nothing about it. On leaving the school of embroidery, seeing how threatening the sky was, she was hurrying towards the park, when the rain came down, and in a few moments she would have been wet through if help had not come in the shape of an umbrella held over her head by an attentive young stranger. He kept at her side all the way across the Gardens to Dawson Place, and Fan felt grateful for his kindness; she conversed with him during the walk, and at the door she had not refused to shake hands when he offered his. In ordinary circumstances, she would have made haste to tell her mistress all about it, thinking no harm; unfortunately it happened that for some days Miss Starbrow had been in one of her worst moods, and during these sullen irritable periods Fan seldom spoke unless spoken to.
When Miss Starbrow found the girl in her room on going there, she looked keenly and not too kindly at her, and imagined that poor Fan wore a look of guilt on her face, whereas it was nothing but distress at her own continued ill-temper which she saw.
"I shall give her till to-morrow to tell me," thought the lady, "and if she says nothing, I shall conclude that she has made friends out of doors and wishes to keep it from me."
Fan knew nothing of what was passing in the other's mind; she only saw that her mistress was even less gracious to her than she had been, and thought it best to keep out of her sight. For the rest of the day not one word passed between them.
Next morning Fan got ready to go to Kensington, but first came in to her mistress as was her custom. Miss Starbrow was also dressed in readiness to go out; she was sitting apparently waiting to speak to Fan before leaving the house.
"Are you going out, Mary?" said Fan, a little timidly.
"Yes, I am going out," she returned coldly, and then seemed waiting for something more to be said.
"May I go now?" said Fan.
"No," the other returned after some moments. "Change your dress again and stay at home to-day." Presently she added, "You are learning a little too much in Exhibition Road—more, I fancy, than I bargained for."
Fan was silent, not knowing what was meant.
Then Miss Starbrow went out, but first she called the maid and told her to remove Fan's bed and toilet requisites out of her room into the back room.
Greatly distressed and perplexed at the unkind way she had been spoken to, Fan changed her dress and sat down in the cold back room to do some work. After a while she heard a great noise as of furniture being dragged about, and presently Rosie came in with the separate pieces of her dismantled bed.
"What are you doing with my things?" exclaimed Fan in surprise.
"Your things!" retorted Rosie, with scorn. "What your mistress told me to do, you cheeky little beggar! Your things indeed! 'Put a beggar on horseback and he'll ride to the devil,' and that's what Miss Starbrow's beginning to find out at last. And quite time, too! Embroidery! That's what you're going to wear perhaps when you're back in the slums you came from! I thought it wouldn't last!" And Rosie, banging the things about, pounding the mattress with clenched fist, and shaking the pillows like a terrier with a rat, kept up this strain of invective until she had finished her task, and then went off, well pleased to think that the day of her triumph was not perhaps very far distant.
On that day, however, Rosie herself was destined to experience great trouble of mind, and an anxiety about her future even exceeding that of Fan, who was spending the long hours alone in that big, cold, fireless room, grieving in her heart at the great change in her beloved mistress, and dropping many a tear on the embroidery in her hands.
It was about three o'clock, and feeling her fingers quite stiff with cold, she determined to go quietly down to the drawing-room in the hope of finding a fire lighted there so as to warm her hands. Miss Starbrow had not returned, and the house was very still, and after standing a few moments on the landing, anxious not to rouse the maid and draw a fresh volley of abuse on herself, she went softly down the stairs, and opened the drawing-room door. For a moment or two she stood motionless, and then muttering some incoherent apology turned and fled back to her room. For there, very much at his ease, sat Captain Horton, with Rosie on his knees, her arms about his neck, and her lips either touching his or in very close proximity to them.
Rosie slipped from her seat, and the Captain stood up, but the intruder had seen and gone, and their movements were too late.
"The spy! the cat!" snapped Rosie, grown suddenly pale with anger and apprehension.
"It's very fine to abuse the girl," said the Captain; "but it was all through your infernal carelessness. Why didn't you lock the door?"
"Oh, you're going to blame me! That's like a man. Perhaps you're in love with the cat. I s'pose you think she's pretty."
"I'd like to twist her neck, and yours too, for a fool. If any trouble comes you will be to blame."
"Say what you like, I don't care. There'll be trouble enough, you may be sure."
"Do you mean to say that she will dare to tell?"
"Tell! She'll only be too glad of the chance. She'll tell everything to Miss Starbrow, and she hates me and hates you like poison. It would be very funny if she didn't tell."
He walked about the room fuming.
"It will be as bad for you as for me," he said.
"No, it won't. I can get another place, I s'pose."
"Oh, yes; very fine, and be a wretched slavey all your life, if you like that. You know very well that I have promised you two hundred pounds the day I marry your mistress."
"Yes; because I'm not a fool, and you can't help yourself. Don't think I want to marry you. Not me! Keep your love for Miss Starbrow, and much you'll get out of her!"
"You idiot!" he began; but seeing that she was half sobbing he said no more, and continued walking about the room. Presently he came back to her. "It's no use quarrelling," he said. "If anything can be done to get out of this infernal scrape it will only be by our acting together. Since this wretched Fan has been in the house, Miss Starbrow is harder than ever to get on with; and even if Fan holds her tongue about this—"
"She won't hold her tongue."
"But even if she should, we'll never do any good while she has that girl to amuse herself with. You know perfectly well, Rosie, that if there is anyone I really love it is you; but then we've both of us got to do the best we can for ourselves. I shall love you just the same after I am married, and if you still should like me, why then, Rosie, we might be able to enjoy ourselves very well. But if Fan tells at once what she saw just now, then it will be all over with us—with you, at any rate."
"She won't tell at once—not while her mistress is in her tantrums. The little cat keeps out of her way then. Not to-day, and perhaps not to- morrow; and the day after I think Miss Starbrow's going to visit her friends at Croydon. That's what she said; and if she goes, she'll be out all day."
"Oh!" ejaculated the Captain; then rising he carefully closed and locked the door before continuing the conversation. They were both very much interested in it; but when it was at last over, and the Captain took his departure, Rosie did not bounce away as usual with tumbled hair and merry flushed face. She left the drawing-room looking pale and a little scared perhaps, and for the rest of the day was unusually silent and subdued.
To Fan no comfort came that evening, and an hour after supper she went to bed to get warm, without seeing her mistress, who had returned to dinner. Next day she was no better off; she did not venture to ask whether she might go out or not, or even to go to Miss Starbrow's room, but kept to her own cold apartment, working and grieving, and seeing no one except the maid. Rosie came and went, but she was moody, or else afraid to use her tongue, and silent. On the following morning Miss Starbrow left the house at an early hour, and Fan resigned herself to yet another cold solitary day. About eleven o'clock Rosie came running up in no little excitement with a telegram addressed to "Miss Affleck." She took it, wondering a little at the change in the maid's manner, but not thinking much about it, for she had never received a telegram before, and it startled and troubled her to have one thrust into her hand. Rosie stood by, anxiously waiting to hear its contents.
"How long are you going to be about it?" she exclaimed. "Let me read it for you."
Fan held it back, and went on perusing it slowly. It was from Miss Starbrow at Twickenham, and said: "Come to me here by train from Westbourne Park Station. Bring two or three dresses and all you will require in my bag. Shall remain here several days. The housekeeper will meet you at Twickenham Station."
She allowed Rosie to read the message, and was told that Twickenham was very near London; that she must take a cab to get quickly to Westbourne Park Station, so as not to keep Miss Starbrow waiting. Then, while Fan changed her dress and got herself ready, the maid selected one of Miss Starbrow's best bags and busied herself in folding up and packing as many of Fan's things as she could cram into it. Then she ran out to call a cab, leaving Fan again studying the telegram and feeling strangely perplexed at being thus suddenly sent for by her mistress, who had gone out of the house without speaking one word to her.
In a few minutes the cab was at the door, and Rosie officiously helped the girl in, handed her the bag, and told her to pay the cabman one shilling. After it started she rushed excitedly into the road and stopped it.
"Oh, I forgot, Miss Fan, leave the telegram, you don't want it any more," she said, coming to the side of the cab.
Fan mechanically pulled the yellow envelope from her pocket and gave it to her without question, and was then driven off. But in her agitation at the sudden summons she had thrust the missive and the cover separately into her pocket, so that Rosie had after all only got the envelope. It was a little matter—a small oversight caused by hurry—but the result was important; in all probability Fan's whole after life would have been different if she had not made that trivial mistake.
She was quickly at the station, and after taking her ticket had only a few minutes to wait for a train; half an hour later she was at Twickenham Station. As soon as the platform was clear of the other passengers who had alighted, a respectably-dressed woman got up from one of the seats and came up to Fan. "You are Miss Affleck," she said, with a furtive glance at the girl's face. "Miss Starbrow sent me to meet you. She is going to stay a few days with friends just outside of Twickenham. Will you please come this way?"
She took the bag from Fan, then led the way not to, but round the village, and at some distance beyond it into a road with trees planted in it and occasional garden-seats. They followed this road for about a quarter of a mile, then left it, and the villas and houses near it, and struck across a wide field. Beyond it, in an open space, they came to an isolated terrace of small red-brick cottages. The cottages seemed newly built and empty, and no person was moving about; nor had any road been made, but the houses stood on the wet clay, full of deep cart-wheel ruts, and strewn with broken bricks and builders' rubbish. In the middle of the row Fan noticed that one of the cottages was inhabited, apparently by very poor people, for as she passed by with her guide, three or four children and a woman, all wretchedly dressed, came out and stared curiously at her. Then, to her surprise, her guide stopped at the last house of the row, and opened the door with a latchkey. The windows were all closed, and from the outside it looked uninhabited, and as they went into the narrow uncarpeted hall Fan began to experience some nervous fears. Why had her mistress, a rich woman, with a luxurious home of her own, come into this miserable suburban cottage? The door of a small square room on the ground-floor was standing open, and looking into it she saw that it contained a couple of chairs and a table, but no other furniture and no carpet.
"Where's Miss Starbrow?" she asked, becoming alarmed.
"Upstairs, waiting for you. This way, please"; and taking Fan by the hand, she attempted to lead her up the narrow uncarpeted stairs. But suddenly, with a cry of terror, the girl snatched herself free and rushed down into the open room, and stood there panting, white and trembling with terror, her eyes dilated, like some wild animal that finds itself caught in a trap.
"What ails you?" said the woman, quickly following her down.
"Captain Horton is there—I saw him looking down!" said Fan, in a terrified whisper. "Oh, please let me out—let me out!"
"Why, what nonsense you are talking, to be sure! There's no Captain Horton here, and what's more, I don't know who Captain Horton is. It was Miss Starbrow you saw waiting for you on the landing."
"No, no, no—let me out! let me out!" was Fan's only reply.
The woman then made a dash at her, but the girl, now wild with fear, sprang quickly from her, and running round the room came to the window at the front, and began madly pulling at the fastenings to open it. There she was seized, but not to be conquered yet, for the sense of the terrible peril she was in gave her an unnatural strength, and struggling still to return to the window, her only way of escape, they presently came violently against it and shattered a pane of glass. At this moment the woman, exerting her whole strength, succeeded in dragging her back to the middle of the room; and Fan, finding that she was being overcome, burst forth in a succession of piercing screams, which had the effect of quickly bringing Captain Horton on to the scene.
"Oh, you've come at last! There—manage her yourself—the wild beast!" cried the woman, flinging the girl from her towards him.
He caught her in his arms. "Will you stop screaming?" he shouted; but Fan only screamed the louder.
"Stop her—stop her quick, or we'll have those people and the police here," cried the woman, running to the window and peering out at the broken pane to see if the noise had attracted their neighbours.
He succeeded in getting one of his hands over her mouth, and still keeping her clasped firmly with the other arm, began drawing her towards the door. But not even yet was she wholly overcome; all the power which had been in her imprisoned arms and hands appeared suddenly to have gone into the muscles of her jaws, and in a moment her sharp teeth had cut his hand to the bone.
"Oh, curse the hell-cat!" he cried; and maddened with rage at the pain, he struck her from him, and her head coming violently in contact with the sharp edge of the table, she was thrown down senseless on the floor. Her forehead was deeply cut, and presently the blood began flowing over her still, white face.
The woman now became terrified in her turn.
"You have killed her!" she cried. "Oh, Captain, you have killed her, and you'll hang for it and make me hang too. Oh God! what's to be done now?"
"Hold your noise, you cursed fool!" exclaimed the other, in a rage. "Get some cold water and dash it over her face."
She obeyed quickly enough, and kneeling down washed the blood from the girl's face and hair, and loosened her dress. But the fear that they would be discovered unnerved her, her hands shook, and she kept on moaning that the girl was dead, that they would be found out and tried for murder.
"She's not dead, I tell you—damn you for a fool!" exclaimed Captain Horton, dashing the blood from his wounded hand and stamping on the floor in a rage.
"She is! she is! There's not a spark of life in her that I can feel! Oh, what shall I do?"
He pushed her roughly aside and felt for the girl's pulse, and placed his hand over her heart, but was perhaps too much agitated himself to feel its feeble pulsations.
"Good God, it can't be!" he said. "A girl can't be killed with a light knock in falling like that. No, no, she'll come to presently and be all right. And we're safe enough—not a soul knows where she is."
"Oh, don't you think that!" returned the woman, again kneeling down and chafing and slapping Fan's palms, and moistening her face. "The people at the other house were all there watching us when I brought the girl in. They're curious about it, and maybe suspect something; and when the policeman comes round you may be sure they'll tell him, and they'll have heard the screams too, and they'll be watching about now. Oh, what a blessed fool I was to have anything to do with it!"
Captain Horton began cursing her again; but just then Fan's bosom moved, she drew a long breath, and presently her eyes opened.
They were watching her with a feeling of intense relief, thinking that they had now escaped from a great and terrible danger. Fan looked up into the face of the woman bent over her, and gazed at her in a dazed kind of way, not yet remembering where she was or what had befallen her. Then she glanced at the man's face, a little distance off, shivered and closed her eyes, and in her stillness and extreme pallor seemed to have become insensible again, although her white lips twitched at intervals.
"Go away, for God's sake! Go to the other room—it kills her to see you!" said the woman, in an excited whisper.
He moved away and slipped out at the door very quietly, but presently called softly to the woman.
"Here, make her swallow a little brandy," he said, giving her a pocket flask.
In about half an hour Fan had recovered so far that she could sit up in a chair; but with her strength her distress and terror came back, and feeling herself powerless she began to cry and beg to be let out.
The woman went to the door and spoke softly to her companion.
"It's all right now; she's getting over it."
"It's all wrong, I tell you," said the other with an oath, and in a tone of concentrated rage. "There are two of your neighbour's boys prying about in front and trying to peer through the window. For heaven's sake get rid of her and let her go as soon as you can."
She was about to return to Fan when he called her back.
"Take her to the station yourself," he said; and proceeded to give her some directions which she promised to obey, after which she came back to Fan, to find her at the window feebly struggling to unfasten the stiff catch.
"Don't you be afraid any more, my dear," she said effusively. "I'll take you back to the station as soon as you're well enough to walk. You've had a fall against the table and hurt yourself a little, but you'll soon be all right."
Fan looked at her and shrunk away as she approached, and then turned her eyes, dilating again with fear, towards the door.
"He's gone, my dear, and won't come near you again, so don't you fear. Sit down quietly and I'll make you a cup of tea, and then you'll be able to walk to the station."
But Fan would not be reassured, and continued piteously begging the woman to let her out.
"Very well, you shall go out; only take a little brandy first to give you strength to walk."
Fan thrust the flask away, and then putting her hand to her forehead, cried out:
"Oh, what's this on my head?"
"Only a bit of sticking-plaster where you hit yourself against the table, my dear."
Then she smoothed out Fan's broken hat, and with a wet sponge cleaned the bloodstains from her gown, and finally opening the door and with the bag in her hand, she accompanied the girl out.
Once in the cold keen air Fan began to recover strength and confidence, but she was still too weak to walk fast, and when they had got to the long road where the benches were, she was compelled to sit down and rest for some time.
"Where are you going after I leave you at the station?" asked the woman.
"To London—to Westbourne Park."
"I don't know—I can't think. Oh, please leave me here!"
"No, my dear, I'll see you in your train at the station."
"Perhaps he'll be there," said Fan, in sudden fear.
"Oh no, bless you, he won't be there. He didn't mean any harm, don't you believe it. We were only going to shut you up in the house just for a few days because Miss Starbrow wanted us to."
"Why, yes; didn't you get her telegram telling you to come to Twickenham to her, and that I'd meet you at the station?"
"Yes, I remember. Where is she?"
"The Lord knows, my dear. But it seems she's taken a great hatred to you, and can't abide you, and that's all I know. She came this morning with Captain Horton, and they arranged it all together; and she telegraphed and then went away, and said she hated the very sight of your face; and hoped I'd keep you safe because she never wanted to see you again, and was sorry she ever took you."
"But why—why—what had I done?" moaned Fan, the tears coming to her eyes.
"There's no knowing why, except that she's a cruel, wicked, bad woman. That's all I know about it. Where is the telegram—have you got it?"
Fan put her hand into her pocket and then drew it out again.
"No, I haven't got it; I gave it to Rosie before I left—I remember now she asked me for it when I was in the cab."
"That's all right; it doesn't matter a bit. But tell me, where are you going when you get back to London—back to Miss Starbrow?"
Fan looked at her, puzzled and surprised at the question. "But you say she sent for me to shut me up because she hated me, and never wished to see me again."
"Yes, my dear, that's quite right what I told you. But what are you going to do in London? Where will you go to sleep to-night? Here's your bag you'd forgotten all about; if you go and forget it you'll have no clothes to change; and perhaps you'll lose yourself in London, and when they ask you where you belong, you'll let them take you to Miss Starbrow's house."
The woman in her anxiety was quite voluble; while Fan slowly turned it all over in her mind before replying. "My head is paining so, I was forgetting. But I shan't lose my bag, and I'll find some place to sleep to-night. No, I'll never, never go back to Mary—to Miss Starbrow."
"And you'll be able to take care of yourself?"
"Yes; will you let me go now?"
"Come then, I'll put you in your train with your bag; and don't you go and speak to anyone about what happened here, and then you'll be quite safe. Let Miss Starbrow think you are shut up safe out of her sight, and then she won't trouble herself about you."
"There's no one I can speak to—I have no one," said Fan, mournfully; after which they went on to the station, and she was put into her train with her bag, and about three o'clock in the afternoon arrived at Westbourne Park Station.
There were clothes enough in her bag to last her for some time with those she was wearing, and money in her purse—two or three shillings in small change and the sovereign which had been in her possession for several months. Food and shelter could therefore be had, and she was not a poor girl in rags now, but well dressed, so that she could go without fear or shame to any registry office to seek an engagement. These thoughts passed vaguely through her brain; her head seemed splitting, and she could scarcely stand on her legs when she got out of the train at Westbourne Park. It would be a dreadful thing if she were to fall down in the streets, overcome with faintness, she thought, for then her bag and purse might be stolen from her, or worse still, she might be taken back to the house of her cruel enemy. Clinging to her bag, she walked on as fast as she could seeking for some humble street with rooms to let—some refuge to lie down in and rest her throbbing head. She passed through Colville Gardens, scarcely knowing where she was; but the tall, gloomy, ugly houses there were all too big for her; and she did not know that in some of them were refuges for poor girls—servants and governesses out of place—where for a few shillings a week she might have had board and lodging. Turning aside, she came into the long, narrow, crooked Portobello Road, full of grimy-looking shops, and after walking a little further turned at last into a short street of small houses tenanted by people of the labourer class.
At one of these houses she was shown a small furnished room by a suspicious-looking woman, who asked four-and-sixpence a week for it, including "hot water." Fan agreed to take it for a week at that rent. The poor woman wanted the money, but seemed undecided. Presently she said, "You see, miss, it's like this, you haven't got no box, and ain't dressed like one that lodges in these places, and—and I couldn't let you the room without the money down."
"Oh, I'll pay you now," said Fan; and taking the sovereign from her purse, asked the woman to get change.
"Very well, miss; if you'll go downstairs, I'll put the room straight for you."
"Oh, I must lie down now, my head is aching so," said Fan, feeling that she could no longer stand.
"What ails you—are you going to be ill?"
"No, no; this morning I had a fall and struck my head and hurt it so— look," and taking off her hat, she showed the plaster on her forehead.
That satisfied the woman, who had only been thinking of fever and her own little ones, who were more to her than any stranger, and her manner became kind at once. She imagined that her lodger was a young lady who for some reason had run away from her friends. Smoothing down the coverlet, she went away to get change, closing the door after her, and then, with a sigh of relief, Fan threw herself on to the poor bed.
The pain she was in, and state of exhaustion after the violent emotions and the rough handling she had experienced, prevented her from thinking much of her miserable forlorn condition. She only wished for rest Yet she could not rest, but turned her hot flushed face and throbbing head from side to side, moaning with pain. By-and-by the woman came back with the change and a very big cup of hot tea.
"This'll do your head good," she said. "Better drink it hot, miss; I always say there's nothing like a cup of tea for the headache."
Fan took it gratefully and drank the whole of it, though it was rougher tea than she had been accustomed to of late. And the woman proved a good physician; it had the effect of throwing her into a profuse perspiration, and before she had been alone for many minutes she fell asleep.
She did not wake until past nine o'clock, and found a lighted candle on her table; her poor landlady had been up perhaps more than once to visit her. She felt greatly refreshed; the danger, if there had been any, was over now, but she was still drowsy—so drowsy that she longed to be asleep again; and she only got up to undress and go to bed in a more regular way. The time to think had not come yet; sleep alone seemed sweet to her, and in its loving arms she would lie, for it seemed like one that loved her always, like her poor dead mother who had never turned against her and used her cruelly. Before she closed her heavy eyes the landlady came into her room again to see her, and Fan gave her a shilling to get some tea and bread-and-butter for her breakfast next day.
When Fan awoke, physically well and refreshed by her long slumber, it had been light some time, with such dim light as found entrance through the clouded panes of one small window. The day was gloomy, with a bitterly cold blustering east wind, which made the loose window-sashes rattle in their frames, and blew the pungent smell of city smoke in at every crack. She sat up and looked round at the small cheerless apartment, with no fireplace, and for only furniture the bed she was lying on, one cane- chair over which her clothes were thrown, and a circular iron wash-stand, with yellow stone jug and ewer, and underneath a shelf for the soap dish.
She shivered and dropped her head again on the pillow. Then, for the first time since that terrible experience of the previous day, she began to realise her position, and to wonder greatly why she had been subjected to such cruel treatment. The time had already come of which Mary had once spoken prophetically, when they would be for ever separated, and she would have to go out into the world unaided and fight her own battle. But, oh! why had not Mary spoken to her, and told her that she could no longer keep her, and sent her away? For then there would still have been affection and gratitude in her heart for the woman who had done so much for her, and she would have looked forward with hope to a future meeting. Love and hope would have cheered her in her loneliness, and made her strong in her efforts to live. But now all loving ties had been violently sundered, now the separation was eternal. Even as death had divided her from her poor mother, this cruel deed had now put her for all time apart from the one friend she had possessed in the world. What had she done, what had she done to be treated so hardly? Had she not been faithful, loving her mistress with her whole heart? It was little to give in return for so much, but it was her all, and Mary had required nothing more from her. It was not enough; Mary had grown tired of her at last. And not tired only: her loving-kindness had turned to wormwood and gall; the very sight of the girl she had rescued and cared for had become hateful to her, and her unjust hatred and anger had resulted in that cruel outrage. Now she understood the reason of that change in Mary, when she grew silent and stern and repellent before that fatal morning when she went away to carry out her heartless scheme of revenge. But revenge for what? —and Fan could only moan again and again, "What had I done? what had I done?" What had she ever done that she should not be loved and allowed to live in peace and happiness—what had she done to her brutal stepfather, or to Captain Horton and to Rosie, that they should take pleasure in tormenting her?
When the woman came in with the breakfast she found Fan lying sobbing on her pillow.
"Oh, that's wrong to cry so," she said, putting the tray on the table and coming to the bedside. "Don't take on so, my poor young lady. Things'll come right by-and-by. You'll write to your mother and father——"
"I've no mother and father," said Fan, trying to repress her sobs.
"Then you'll have brothers and sisters and friends."
"No, I've got no one. I only had one friend, and she's turned against me, and I'm alone. I'm not a young lady; my mother was poorer than you, and I must get something to do to make my living."
This confession was a little shock to the woman, for it spoilt her romance, and the result was that her interest in her young lodger diminished considerably.
"Well, it ain't no use taking on, all the same," she said, in a tone somewhat less deferential and kind than before. "And it's too bad a day for you to go out and look for anything. It's going to snow, I'm thinking; so you'd better have your breakfast in bed and stay in to-day."
Fan took her advice and remained all day in her room, thinking only of the strange thing that had happened to her, of the misery of a life with no one to love. Mary's image remained persistently in her mind, while the bitter wind without made strange noises in the creaking zinc chimney- pots, and rattled the window and hurled furious handfuls of mingled dust and sleet against the panes. And yet she felt no anger in her heart; unspeakable grief and despair precluded anger, and again and again she cried, her whole frame convulsed with sobs, and the tears and sobs exhausted her body but brought no relief to her mind.
Next day there was no wind, though it was still intensely cold, with a dull grey cloud threatening snow over the whole sky; but it was time for her to be up and doing, and she went out to seek for employment. She wandered about in a somewhat aimless way, until, in the Ladbroke Grove Road, she found a servants' registry-office, and went in to apply for a place as nursemaid or nursery-governess. Mary had once told her that she was fit for such a place, and there was nothing else she could think of. A woman in the office took down her name and address, and promised to send for her if she had any applications. She did not know of anyone in need of a nursemaid or nursery-governess. "But you can call again to- morrow and inquire," she added.
On the following day she was advised to wait in the office so as to be on the spot should anyone call to engage a girl. After waiting for some hours the woman began to question her, and finding that she had no knowledge of children, and had never been in service and could give no references, told her brusquely that she was giving a great deal of unnecessary trouble, and that she need not come to the office again, as in the circumstances no lady would think of taking her.
Fan returned to her lodgings very much cast down, and there being no one else to seek counsel from, told her troubles to her landlady. But the poor woman had nothing very hopeful to say, and could only tell Fan of another registry-office in Notting Hill High Street, and advise her to apply there.
This was a larger place, and after her name, address, and other particulars had been taken down in a book, she ventured to ask whether her not having been in a place before, and being without a reference, would make it very difficult for her to get a situation; the woman of the office merely said, "One never knows."
This was not very encouraging, but she was told that she could come every day and sit as long as she liked in the waiting-room. There were always several girls and women there—a row of them sitting chatting together on chairs ranged against the wall—house, parlour, and kitchen-maids out of places; and a few others of a better description, modest-looking, well- dressed young women, who came and stood about for a few minutes and then went away again. Of the girls of this kind Fan alone remained patiently at her post, taking no interest in the conversation of the others, anxious only to avoid their bold inquisitive looks and to keep herself apart from them. Yet their conversation, to anyone wishing to know something of the lights and shadows of downstair life, was instructive and interesting enough.
"Only seven days in your last place!"
"Oh, I say!"
"But what did you leave for?"
"Because she was a beast—my missus was; and what I told her was that it was seven days too much."
"You never did!"
"Oh, I say!"
"And what did she say?"
"Well, it was like this. I was a-doing of my hair in the kitchen with the curling-iron, when down comes Miss Julia. 'Oh, you are frizzing your hair!' she says. 'Yes, miss,' I says, 'have you any objection?' I says. 'Ma won't let you have a fringe,' she says. When I loses my temper, and I says, 'Well, Miss Himperence, you can go and tell your ma that she can find a servant as can do without a fringe.'"
"Oh, I say!" etc., etc., etc.
They also made critical remarks on Fan's appearance, wondering what a "young lady" wanted among servants. She felt no pride at being taken for a lady; she had no feeling and no thought that gave her any pleasure, but only a dull aching at the heart, only the wish in her mind to find something to do and save herself from utter destitution.
For three days she continued to attend at the office, and beyond a short "Good morning" from the woman that kept it each day, not a word was spoken to her. The third day was Saturday, when the office would close early; and after twelve o'clock, seeing that the others were all going, she too left, to spend the time as best she could until the following Monday. The day was windless and bright, and full of the promise of spring. Not feeling hungry she did not return to her lodgings, but went for a short walk in Kensington Gardens. Leaving the Broad Walk, she went into that secluded spot near the old farm-like buildings of Kensington Palace and sat down on one of the seats among the yews and fir trees. The new gate facing Bayswater Hill has changed that spot now, making it more public, but it was very quiet on that day as she sat there by herself. On that beautiful spring morning her heart seemed strangely heavy, and her life more lonely and desolate than ever. The memory of her loss came over her like a bitter flood, and covering her face with her hands she gave free vent to her grief. There was no person near, no one to be attracted by her sobs. But one person was passing at some distance, and glancing in her direction through the trees, saw her, and stopped in her walk. It was Miss Starbrow, and in the figure of the weeping girl she had recognised Fan. Her face darkened, and she walked on, but presently she stopped again, and stood irresolute, swinging the end of her sunshade over the young grass. At length she turned and walked slowly towards the girl, but Fan was sobbing with covered face, and did not hear her steps and rustling dress. For some moments Miss Starbrow continued watching her, a scornful smile on her lips and a strange look in her eyes as of a slightly cruel feeling struggling against compassion. At length she spoke, startling Fan with her voice sounding so close to her.
"Crying? Well, I am glad that your sin has found you out! Glad you have met with some thief cleverer than yourself, who has stolen your booty, I suppose, and left you penniless—a beggar as I found you! I admire your courage in coming here, but you needn't be afraid; I'll have mercy on you. You have punished yourself more than I could punish you; and some day I shall perhaps see you again in rags, starving in the streets, and shall fling a penny to you."
Fan had started at first with an instinctive fear—a vague apprehension that she would be seized and dragged away to be shut up and tortured as Miss Starbrow had desired. But suddenly this feeling gave place to another, to a burning resentment experienced for the first time against this woman who had made her suffer so cruelly, and now came to taunt her and mock at her misery. It suffocated and made her dumb for a time. Then she burst out: "You wicked bad woman! You beast—you beast, how I hate you! Oh, I wish God would strike you dead!"
"How dare you say such things to me, you ungrateful, shameless little thief!"
"You liar—you beast of a liar!" exclaimed Fan, still torn with the rage that possessed her. "Go away, you liar! Leave me, you wicked devil! I hate you! I hate you!"
Miss Starbrow uttered a little scornful laugh. "You would have some reason to hate me if I were to shut you up for six months with hard labour," she answered, turning aside as if about to walk away.
To shut her up for six months! Yes, that was what she had tried to do with the assistance of a strong man and woman. And what other tortures and sufferings had she intended to inflict on her victim! It was too much to be reminded of this. It turned her blood into liquid fire, and maddened her brain; and struggling to find words to speak the rage that overmastered her, suddenly, as if by a miracle, every evil term of reproach, every profane and blasphemous expression of drunken brutish anger she had heard and shuddered at in the old days in Moon Street, flashed back into her mind, and she poured them out in a furious torrent, hurled them at her torturer; and then, exhausted, sunk back into her seat, and covering her face again, sobbed convulsively.
Miss Starbrow's face turned crimson with shame, and she moved two or three steps away; then she turned, and said in cold incisive tones:
"I see, Fan, that you have not forgotten all the nice things you learnt before I took you out of the slums to shelter and feed and clothe you. This will be a lesson to me: I had not thought so meanly of the suffering poor as you make me think. They say that even dogs are grateful to those that feed them. And I did more than feed you, Fan. That's the last word you will ever hear from me."
She was moving away, but Fan, stung by a reproach so cruelly unjust, started to her feet with a cry of passion.
"Yes, I know you gave me these things—oh, I wish I could tear off this dress you gave me! And this is the money you gave me—take it! I hate it!" And drawing her purse from her pocket, she flung it down at Miss Starbrow's feet. Then, searching for something else to fling back to the donor, she drew out that crumpled pink paper which had been all the time in her pocket. "And take this too—the wicked telegram you sent me. It is yours, like the money—take it, you bad, hateful woman!"
Miss Starbrow still remained standing near, watching her, and in spite of her own great anger, she could not help feeling very much astonished at such an outburst of fury from a girl who had always seemed to her so mild-spirited. She touched the crumpled piece of paper with her foot, then glanced back at the girl seated again with bowed head and covered face. What had she meant by a telegram? Curiosity overcame the impulse to walk away, and stooping, she picked up the paper and smoothed it out and read, "From Miss Starbrow, Twickenham. To Miss Affleck, Dawson Place."
She had not been to Twickenham, and had sent no telegram to Fan. Then she read the message and turned the paper over, and read it again and again, glancing at intervals at the girl. Then she went up to her and put her hand on her shoulder. Fan started and shook the hand off, and raised her eyes wet with tears and red with weeping, but still full of anger.
Miss Starbrow caught her by the arm. "Tell me what this means—this telegram; when did you get it, and who gave it to you?" she said in such a tone that the girl was compelled to obey.
"You know when you sent it," said Fan.
"I never sent it! Oh, my God, can't you understand what I say? Answer— answer my question!"
"Rosie gave it to me."
"And you went to Twickenham?"
"And what happened?"
"And the woman you sent to meet me—"
"Hush! don't say that. Are you daft? Don't I tell you I never sent it. Tell me, tell me, or you'll drive me mad!"
Fan looked at her in astonishment. Could it be that it had never entered into Mary's heart to do this cruel thing? That raging tempest in her heart was fast subsiding. She began to collect her faculties.
"The woman met me," she continued, "and took me a long way from the station to a little house. She tried to take me upstairs. She said you were waiting for me, but I looked up and saw Captain Horton peeping over the banisters—"
Miss Starbrow clenched her hands and uttered a little cry. Her face had become white, and she turned away from the girl. Presently she sat down, and said in a strangely altered voice, "Tell me, Fan, did you take some jewels from my dressing-table—a brooch and three rings, and some other things?"
"I took nothing except what you—what the telegram said, and Rosie put the things in a bag and got the cab for me."
For a minute or two Miss Starbrow sat in silence, and then got up and said:
"Home with me to Dawson Place." Then she added, "Must I tell you again that I have done nothing to harm you? Do you not understand that it was all a wicked horrible plot to get you away and destroy you, that the telegram was a forgery, that the jewels were taken to make it appear that you had stolen them and run away during my absence from the house?"
Fan rose and followed her, and when they got to the Bayswater Road Miss Starbrow called a cab.
"Where is your bag—where did you sleep last night?" she asked; and when Fan had told her she said, "Tell the man to drive us there," and got in.
In a few minutes they arrived at her lodging, and Fan got out and went in to get her bag. She did not owe anything for rent, having paid in advance, but she gave the woman a shilling.
"I knew I was right," said the woman, who was now all smiles. "Bless you, miss, you ain't fit to make your own living like one of us. Well, I'm real pleased your friends has found you."
Fan got into the cab again, and they proceeded in silence to Dawson Place. A small boy in buttons, who had only been engaged a day or two before, opened the door to them. They went up to the bedroom on the first floor.
"Sit down, Fan, and rest yourself," said Miss Starbrow, closing and locking the door; then after moving about the room in an aimless way for a little while, she came and sat down near the girl. "Before you tell me this dreadful story, Fan," she said, "I wish to ask you one thing more. One day last week when it was raining you came home from Kensington with a young man. Who was he—a friend of yours?"
"A friend of mine! oh no. I was hurrying back in the rain when he came up to me and held his umbrella over my head, and walked to the door with me. It was kind of him, I thought, because he was a stranger, and I had never seen him before."
"It was a small thing, but you usually tell me everything, and you did not tell me this?"
"No, I was waiting to tell you that—and something else, and didn't tell you because you seemed angry with me, and I was afraid to speak to you."
"What was the something else you were going to tell me?"
Fan related the scene she had witnessed in the drawing-room. It had seemed a great thing then, and had disturbed her very much, but now, after all she had recently gone through, it seemed a very trivial matter.
To the other it did not appear so small a matter, to judge from her black looks. She got up and moved about the room again, and then once more sat down beside the girl.
"Now tell me your own story—everything from the moment you got the telegram up to our meeting in the Gardens."
With half-averted face she listened, while the girl again began the interrupted narration, and went on telling everything to the finish, wondering at times why Mary sat so silent with face averted, as if afraid to meet her eyes. But when she finished Mary turned and took her hand.
"Poor Fan," she said, "you have gone through a dreadful experience, and scarcely seem to understand even now what danger you were in. But there will be time enough to talk of all this—to congratulate you on such a fortunate escape; just now I have got to deal with that infamous wretch of a girl who still poisons the house with her presence."
She rose and rung the bell sharply, and when the boy in buttons answered it, she ordered him to send Rosie to her.
"She's gone," said he.
"Gone! what do you mean—when did she go?"
"Just now, ma'am. She came up to speak to you when you came in, and then she got her box down and went away in a cab."
Miss Starbrow then sent for the cook. "What does this mean about Rosie's going?" she demanded of that person. "How came you to let her go without informing me?"
"She came down and said she had had some words with you, and was going to leave because Miss Fan had been took back."
"And the wretch has then got away with my jewellery! What else did she say?"
"Nothing very good, ma'am. I'd rather not tell you."
"Tell me at once when I order you."
"I asked if she was going without her wages and a character, and she said as you had paid her her wages, and she didn't want a character, because she didn't consider the house was respectable."
Miss Starbrow sent her away and closed the door; presently she sat down at some distance from Fan, but spoke no word. Fan was in a low easy-chair near the window, through which the sun was shining very brightly. She looked pale and languid, resting her cheek on her palm and never moving; only at intervals, when Miss Starbrow, with an exclamation of rage, would rise and take a few steps about the room and then drop into her seat again, the girl would raise her eyes and glance at her. All the keen suffering, the strife, the bitterness of heart and anger were over, and the reaction had come. It had all been a mistake; Mary had never dreamt of doing her harm: the whole trouble had been brought about by Captain Horton and Rosie; but she remembered them with a strange indifference; the fire of anger had burnt itself out in her heart and could not be rekindled.
With the other it was different. It had been a great shock to her to discover that the girl she had befriended, and loved as she had never loved anyone of her own sex before, was so false, so unutterably base. For some little time she refused to believe it, and a horrible suspicion of foul play had crossed her mind. But the proofs stared her in the face, and she remembered that Fan had kept that acquaintance she had formed with someone out of doors a secret. On returning to the house in the evening, she was told that shortly after she had gone out for the day a letter was brought addressed to Fan, and, when questioned, she had refused to tell Rosie who it was from. At one o'clock Rosie had gone up with her dinner, and, missing her, had searched for her in all the rooms, and was then amazed to find that most of the girl's clothes had also disappeared. But she did not know that anything else had been taken. Miss Starbrow missed some jewels she had put on her dressing-table, and on a further search it was discovered that other valuables, and one of her best travelling bags, were also gone. The astonishment and indignation displayed by the maid, who exclaimed that she had always considered Fan a sly little hypocrite, helped perhaps to convince her mistress that the girl had taken advantage of her absence to make her escape from the house. Miss Starbrow remembered how confused and guilty she had looked for two or three days before her flight, and came to the conclusion that the young friend out of doors, not being able to see Fan, had kept a watch on the house, and had cunningly arranged it all, and finally sent or left the letter instructing her where to meet him, also probably advising her what to take.
But Miss Starbrow had not been entirely bound up in the girl: she had other affections and interests in life, and great as the shock had been and the succeeding anger, she had recovered her self-possession, and had set herself to banish Fan from her remembrance. She was ashamed to let her servants and friends see how deeply she had been wounded by the little starving wretch she had compassionately rescued from the streets. Outwardly she did not appear much affected; and when Rosie, with well- feigned surprise, asked if the police were not to be employed to trace the stolen articles and arrest the thief, she only laughed carelessly and replied: "No; she has punished herself enough already, and the trinkets have no doubt been sold before now, and could not be traced."
Rosie hurried away to hide the relief she felt, for she had been trembling to think what might happen if some cunning detective were to be employed to make investigations in the house.
Now, however, when Mary began to recover from the amazement caused by Fan's narrative, a dull rage took such complete possession of her that it left no room for any other feeling. The girl sitting there with bent head seemed no more to her than some stranger who had just come in, and about whom she knew and cared nothing. All that Fan had suffered was forgotten: she only thought of herself, of the outrage on her feelings, of the vile treachery of the man who had pretended to love her, whom she had loved and had treated so kindly, helping him with money and in other ways, and forgiving him again and again when he had offended her. She could not rest or sit still when she thought of it, and she thought of it continually and of nothing else. She rose and paced the room, pausing at every step, and turning herself from side to side, like some savage animal, strong and lithe and full of deadly rage, but unable to spring, trapped and shut within iron bars. Her face had changed to a livid white, and looked hard and pitiless, and her eyes had a fixed stony stare like those of a serpent. And at intervals, as she moved about the room, she clenched her hands with such energy that the nails wounded her palms. And from time to time her rage would rise to a kind of frenzy, and find expression in a voice strangely harsh and unnatural, deeper than a man's, and then suddenly rising to a shrill piercing key that startled Fan and made her tremble. Poor Fan! that little burst of transitory anger she had experienced in the Gardens seemed now only a pitifully weak exhibition compared with the black tempest raging in this strong, undisciplined woman's soul.
"And I have loved him—loved that hell-hound! God! shall I ever cease to despise and loathe myself for sinking into such a depth of infamy! Never —never—until his viper head has been crushed under my heel! To strike! to crush! to torture! How?—have I no mind to think? Nothing can I do— nothing—nothing! Are there no means? Ah, how sweet to scorch the skin and make the handsome face loathsome to look at! To burn the eyes up in their sockets—to shut up the soul for ever in thick blackness!... Oh, is there no wise theologian who can prove to me that there is a hell, that he will be chained there and tortured everlastingly! That would satisfy me—to remember it would be sweeter than Heaven."
Suddenly she turned in a kind of fury on Fan, who had risen trembling from her seat. "Sit down!" she said. "Hide your miserable white face from my sight! You could have warned me in time, you could have saved me from this, and you failed to do it! Oh, I could strike you dead with my hand for your imbecile cowardice!... And he will escape me! To blast his name, to hold him up to public scorn and hatred, years of imprisonment in a felon's cell—all, all the suffering we can inflict on such a fiendish wretch seems weak and childish, and could give no comfort to my soul. Oh, it drives me mad to think of it—I shall go mad—I shall go mad!" And shrieking, and with eyes that seemed starting from their sockets, she began madly tearing her hair and clothes.
Fan had risen again, white and trembling at that awful sight; and unable to endure it longer, she sprang to the door, and crying out with terror, flew down to the kitchen. The cook returned with her, and on entering the room they discovered their mistress in a mad fit of hysterics, shrieking with laughter, and tearing her clothes off. The woman was strong, and seeing that prompt action was needed, seized her mistress in her arms and threw her on to the couch, and held her there in spite of her frantic struggles. Assisted by Fan, she then emptied the contents of the toilet jug over her face and naked bosom, half drowning her; and after a while Miss Starbrow ceased her struggles, and sank back gasping and half fainting on the cushion, her eyes closed and her face ghostly white.
"You see," said the cook to Fan, "she never had one before, and she's a strong one, and it's always worse for that sort when it do come. Lor', what a temper she must have been in to take on so!"
Between them they succeeded in undressing and placing her on her bed, where she lay for an hour in a half-conscious state; but later in the day she began to recover, and moved to the couch near the fire, while Fan sat beside her on the carpet, watching the face that looked so strange in its whiteness and languor, and keeping the firelight from the half-closed eyes.
"Oh, Fan, how weak I feel now—so weak!" she murmured. "And a little while ago I felt so strong! If he had been present I could have torn the flesh from his bones. No tiger in the jungle maddened by the hunters has such strength as I felt in me then. And now it has all gone, and he has escaped from me. Let him go. All the kindly feeling I had for him—all the hopes for his future welfare, all my secret plans to aid him—they are dead. But it was all so sudden. Was it to-day, Fan, that I saw you sitting in Kensington Gardens, crying by yourself, or a whole year ago? Poor Fan! poor Fan!"
The girl had hid her face against Mary's knee.
"But why do you cry, my poor girl?"
"Oh, dear Mary, will you ever forgive me?" said Fan, half raising her tearful face.
"Forgive you, Fan! For what?"
"For what I said to-day in the Gardens. Oh, why, why did I say such dreadful things! Oh, I am so—so sorry—I am so sorry!"
"I remember now, but I had forgotten all about it. That was nothing, Fan —less than nothing. It was not you that spoke, but the demon of anger that had possession of you. I forgive you freely for that, poor child, and shall never think of it again. But I shall never be able to feel towards you as I did before. Never, Fan."
"Mary, Mary, what have I done!"
"Nothing, child. It is not anything you have done, or that you have left undone. But I took you into my house and into my heart, and only asked you to love and trust me, and you forgot it all in a moment, and were ready to believe the worst of me. A stranger told you that I had secretly planned your destruction, and you at once believed it. How could you find it in your heart to believe such a thing of me—a thing so horrible, so impossible?"
Fan, with her face hidden, continued crying.
"But don't cry, Fan. You shall not suffer. If you could lose all faith in me, and think me such a demon of wickedness, you are not to blame. You are not what I imagined, but only what nature made you. Where I thought you strong you are weak, and it was my mistake."
Suddenly Fan raised her eyes, wet with tears, and looked fixedly at the other's face; nor did she drop them when Mary's eyes, opening wide and expressing a little surprise at the girl's courage, and a little resentment, returned the look.
"Mary," she said, speaking in a voice which had recovered its firmness, "I loved you so much, and I had never done anything wrong, and—and you said you would always love and trust me because you knew that I was good."
"And you believed what Rosie said about me, and that I was a thief, and had taken your jewels and ran away."
Mary cast down her eyes, and the corners of her mouth twitched as if with a slight smile.
"That is true," she said slowly. "You are right, Fan; you are not so poor as I thought, but can defend yourself with your tongue or your teeth, as occasion requires. Perhaps my sin balances yours after all, and leaves us quits. Perhaps when I get over this trouble I shall love you as much as ever—perhaps more."
"And you are not angry with me now, Mary?"
"No, Fan, I was not angry with you: kiss me if you like. Only I feel very, very tired—tired and sick of my life, and wish I could lie down and sleep and forget everything."
On the very next day Miss Starbrow was herself again apparently, and the old life was resumed just where it had been broken off. But although outwardly things went on in the old way, and her mistress was not unkind, and she had her daily walk, her reading, sewing, and embroidery to fill her time, the girl soon perceived that something very precious to her had been lost in the storm, and she looked and waited in vain for its recovery. In spite of those reassuring well-remembered words Mary had spoken to her, the old tender affection and confidence, which had made their former relations seem so sweet, now seemed lost. Mary was not unkind, but that was all. She did not wish Fan to read to her, or give her any assistance in dressing, or to remain long in her room, but preferred to be left alone. When she spoke, her words and tone were not ungentle, but she no longer wished to talk, and after a few minutes she would send her away; and then Fan, sad at heart, would go to her own room—that large back room where her bed had been allowed to remain, and where she worked silent and solitary, sitting before her own fire.
One day, just as she came in from her morning walk, a letter was left by the postman, and Fan took it up to her mistress, glad always of an excuse to go to her—for now some excuse seemed necessary.
Miss Starbrow, sitting moodily before her fire in her bedroom, took it; but the moment she looked at the writing she started as if a snake had bitten her, and flung the letter into the fire. Then, while watching it blaze up, she suddenly exclaimed:
"I was a fool to burn it before first seeing what was in it!"
Before she finished speaking Fan darted her hand into the flame, and tossing the burning letter on the rug, stamped out the fire with her foot. The envelope and the outer leaf of the letter were black and charred, but the inner leaf, which was the part written on, had not suffered.
"Thanks, Fan; that was clever," said Miss Starbrow, taking it; and then proceeded to read it, holding it far from her face as if her eyesight had suddenly fallen into decay.
Dear Pollie [ran the letter], When I saw that girl back in your house I knew that it would be all over between us. It is a terrible thing for me to lose you in that way, but there is no help for it now; I know that you will not forgive me. But I don't wish you to think of me worse than I deserve. You know as well as I do that since you took Fan into the house you have changed towards me, and that without quite throwing me over you made it as uncomfortable for me as you could. As things did not improve, I became convinced that as long as you had her by you it would continue the same, so I resolved to get her out of the way. I partially succeeded, and she would have been kept safely shut up for a few days, and then sent to a distant part of the country, to be properly taken care of. That is the whole of my offence, and I am very sorry that my plan failed. Nothing more than that was intended; and if you have imagined anything more you have done me an injustice. I am bad enough, I suppose, but not so bad as that; and I hate and always have hated that girl, who has been my greatest enemy, though perhaps unintentionally. That is all I have to say, except that I shall never forget how different it once was—how kind you could be, and how happy you often made me before that miserable creature came between us.
Good-bye for ever,
Miss Starbrow laughed bitterly. "There, Fan, read it," she said. "It is all about you, and you deserve a reward for burning your fingers. Coward and villain! why has he added this infamous lie to his other crimes? It has only made me hate and despise him more than ever. If he had had the courage to confess everything, and even to boast of it, I should not have thought so meanly of him."
The wound was bleeding afresh. Her face had grown pale, and under her black scowling brows her eyes shone as if with the reflected firelight. But it was only the old implacable anger flashing out again.
Fan, after reading the letter for herself, and dropping it with trembling fingers on to the fire, turned to her mistress. Her face had also grown very pale, and her eyes expressed a new and great trouble.
"Why do you look at me like that?" exclaimed Miss Starbrow, seizing her by the arm. "Speak!"
Fan sank down on to her knees, and began stammeringly, "Oh, I can't bear to think—to think—"
"To think what?—Speak, I tell you!"
"Did I come between you?—oh, Mary, are you sorry—"
"Hush!" and Miss Starbrow pushed her angrily from her. "Sorry! Never dare to say such a thing again! Oh, I don't know which is most hateful to me, his villainy or your whining imbecility. Leave me—go to your room, and never come to me unless I call you."
Fan went away, sad at heart, and cried by herself, fearing now that the sweet lost love would never again return to brighten her life. But after this passionate outburst Miss Starbrow was not less kind and gentle than before. Once at least every day she would call Fan to her room and speak a few words to her, and then send her away. The few words would even be cheerfully spoken, but with a fictitious kind of cheerfulness; under it all there was ever a troubled melancholy look; the clouds which had returned after the rain had not yet passed away. To Fan they were very much, those few daily words which served to keep her hope alive, while her heart hungered for the love that was more than food to her.
Even in her sleep this unsatisfied instinct of her nature and perpetual craving made her dreams sad. But not always, for on more than one occasion she had a very strange sweet dream of Mary pressing her lips and whispering some tender assurance to her; and this dream was so vivid, so like reality, that when she woke she seemed to feel still on face and hands the sensation of loving lips and other clasping hands, so that she put out her hands to return the embrace. And one night from that dream she woke very suddenly, and saw a light in the room—the light of a small shaded lamp moving away towards the door, and Mary, in a white wrapper, with her dark hair hanging unbound on her back, was carrying it.
"Mary, Mary!" cried the girl, starting up in bed, and holding out her arms.
The other turned, and for a little while stood looking at her; no ghost nor somnambulist was she in appearance, with those bright wakeful eyes, the curious smile that played about her lips, and the rich colour, perhaps from confusion or shame at being detected, surging back into her lately pale face. She did not refuse the girl's appeal, or try any longer to conceal her feelings. Setting the lamp down she came to the bedside, and taking Fan in her arms, held her in a long close embrace. When she had finished caressing the girl she remained standing for some time silent beside the bed, her eyes cast down as if in thought, and an expression half melancholy but strangely tender and beautiful on her face.
Presently she bent down over the girl again and spoke.
"Don't fret, dearest, if I seem bad-tempered and strange. I love you just the same; I have come here more than once to kiss you when you were asleep. Do you remember how angry you made me when you asked if you had come between that man and me, and if I were sorry? You did come between us, Fan, in a way that his wholly corrupt soul would never understand. But you could not have done me a greater service than that— no, not if you had spilt your heart's blood for me. You have repaid me for all that I have done, or ever can do for you, and have made me your debtor besides for the rest of my life."
That midnight interview with her mistress had thereafter a very bright and beautiful place in Fan's memory, and still thinking of it she would sometimes lie awake for hours, wishing and hoping that Mary would come to her again in one of her tender moods. But it did not happen again; for Mary was not one to recover quickly from such a wound as she had suffered, and she still brooded, wrapped up in her own thoughts, dreaming perhaps of revenge. And in the meantime bitter blustering March wore on to its end, the sun daily gaining power; and then, all at once, it was April, with sunshine and showers; and some heavenly angel passed by and touched the brown old desolate elms in Kensington Gardens with tenderest green; and as by a miracle the baskets of the flower-girls in Westbourne Grove were filled to overflowing with spring flowers—pale primroses that die unmarried; and daffodils that come before the swallow dares, shining like gold; and violets dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes, or Cytherea's breath.
One afternoon, returning from Westbourne Grove, where she had been out to buy flowers for the table, on coming into the hall, Fan was surprised to hear Miss Starbrow in the dining-room talking to a stranger, with a cheerful ring in her voice, which had not been heard for many weeks. She was about to run upstairs to her room, when her mistress called out, "Is that you, Fan? Come in here; I want you."
Miss Starbrow and her visitor were sitting near the window. How changed she looked, with her cheeks so full of rich red colour, and her dark eyes sparkling with happy, almost joyous excitement! But she did not speak when Fan, blushing a little with shyness, advanced into the room and stood before them, her eyes cast down in a pretty confusion. Smiling, she watched the girl's face, then the face of her guest, her eyes bright and mirthful glancing from one to the other. Fan, looking up, saw before her a tall broad-shouldered young man with good features, hair almost black; no beard, but whiskers and moustache, very dark brown; and, in strange contrast, grey-blue eyes. Over these eyes, too light in colour to match the hair, the eyelids drooped a little, giving to them that partially- closed sleepy appearance which is often deceptive. Just now they were studying the girl standing before him with very keen interest. A slender girl, not quite sixteen years old, in a loose and broad-sleeved olive- green dress, and yellow scarf at the neck; brown straw hat trimmed with spring flowers; flowers also in her hand, yellow and white, and ferns, in a great loose bunch; and her golden hair hanging in a braid on her back. But the face must be imagined, white and delicate and indescribably lovely in its tender natural pallor.
"Fan," said Miss Starbrow at last, and speaking with a merry smile, "this is my brother Tom, from Manchester, you have so often heard me speak of. Tom, this is Fan."
"Well," exclaimed Miss Starbrow, after he had shaken hands with Fan and sat down again, "what do you think of my little girl? You have heard all about her, and now you have seen her, and I am waiting to hear your opinion."
"Do you remember the old days at home, Mary, when we were all together? How you do remind me of them now!"
"Oh, bother the old days! You know how I hated them, and I—why don't you answer my question, Tom?"
"That's just it," he returned. "It was always the same: you always wanted an answer before the question was out of your mouth. Now, it was quite different with the rest of us."
"Yes, you were a slow lot. Do you remember Jacob?—it always took him fifteen minutes to say yes or no. There's an animal—I forget what it's called—rhinoceros or something—at the Zoo that always reminds me of him; he was so fearfully ponderous."
"Yes, that's all very well, Mary, but I fancy he's more than doubled the fortune the gov'nor left him; so he has been ponderous to some purpose."
"Has he? how? But what do I care! Tom, you'll drive me crazy—why can't you answer a simple question instead of going off into fifty other things?"
"Well, Mary, if you'll kindly explain which of all the questions you have asked me during the last minute or two, I'll try my best."
She frowned, made an impatient gesture, then laughed.
"Go upstairs and take off your things, Fan," she said. "Well?" she continued, turning to her brother again, and finding his eyes fixed on her face. "Do you tell me, Mary, that this white girl was born and bred in a London slum, that her drunken mother was killed in a street fight, and that she had no other life but that until you picked her up?"
"Can't you say Mon Dieu, Tom? Your north-country expressions sound rather shocking to London ears."
He rose, and coming to her side put his arm about her and kissed her cheek very heartily.
"You were always a good old girl, Mary," he said, "and you are one still, in spite of your vagaries."
"Thank you for your very equivocal compliments," she returned, administering a slight box on his ear. "And now tell me what you think of Fan?"
"I'll tell you presently, if you have not guessed already; but I'd like to know first what you are going to do with her."
"I don't know; I can't bother about it just now. There's plenty of time to think of that. Perhaps I'll make a lady's-maid of her, though it doesn't seem quite the right thing to do."
"No, it doesn't. Don't go and spoil what you have done by any such folly as that."
"Do you want me to make a lady of her—or what?"
"A lady? Well that is a difficult question to answer; but I have heard that sometimes ladies, like poets, are born, not made. At all events, it would not be right, I fancy, to keep the girl here. It might give rise to disagreeable complications, as you always have a parcel of fellows hanging about you."
Her face darkened with a frown.
"Now, Mary, don't get into a tantrum; it is best for us to be frank. And I say frankly that you never did a better thing in your life than when you took this girl into your house, if my judgment is worth anything. My advice is, send her away for a time—for a year or two, say. She is young, and would be better for a little more teaching. There are poor gentlefolks all over the country who are only too glad to take a girl when they can get one, and give her a pleasant home and instruction for a moderate sum. Find out some such place, and give her a year of it at least; and then if you should have her back she would be more of a companion for you, and, if not, she would be better able to earn her own living. Take my advice, Mary, and finish a good work properly."
"A good work! You have nearly spoilt the effect of everything you said by that word. I never have done and never will do good works. It is not my nature, Tom. What I have done for Fan is purely from selfish motives. The fact is I fell in love with the girl, and my reward is in being loved by her and seeing her happy. It would be ridiculous to call that benevolence."
He smiled and shook his head. "You can abuse yourself if you like, Mary; we came from Dissenters, and that's a fashion of theirs—"
"Cant and hypocrisy is a fashion of theirs, if you like," she interrupted. "You are not going the right way about it if you wish me to pay any attention to your advice."
"Come, Mary, don't let us quarrel. I'll agree with you that we are all a lot of selfish beggars; and I'll even confess that I have a selfish motive in advising you to send the girl away to the country for a time."
"What is your motive?" she asked.
"Well, I hate going slap-dash into the middle of a thing without any preface; I like to approach it in my own way."
"Yes, I know; your way of approaching a subject is to walk in a circle round it. But please dash into the middle of it for once."
"Well, then, to tell you the plain truth, I am beginning to think that money-getting is not the only thing in life—"
"What a discovery for a Manchester man to make! The millennium must have dawned at last on your smoky old town!"
He laughed at her words, but refused to go on with the subject.
"I was only teasing you a little," he said. "It gladdens me even to see you put yourself in a temper, Mary—it brings back old times when we were always such good friends, and sometimes had such grand quarrels."
Mary also laughed, and rang the bell for afternoon tea. She was curious to hear about the "selfish motive," but remembered the family failing, and forbore to press him.
According to his own accounts, Mr. Tom Starbrow was up in town on business; apparently the business was not of a very pressing nature, as most of his time during the next few days was spent at Dawson Place, where he and his sister had endless conversations about old times. Then he would go with Fan to explore Whiteley's, which seemed to require a great deal of exploring; and from these delightful rambles they would return laden with treasures—choice bon-bons, exotic flowers and hot- house grapes at five or six shillings a pound; quaint Japanese knick- knacks; books and pictures, and photographs of celebrated men—great beetle-browed philosophers, and men of blood and thunder; also of women still more celebrated, on and off the stage. Mr. Starbrow would have nothing sent; the whole fun of the thing, he assured Fan, was in carrying all their purchases home themselves; and so, laden with innumerable small parcels, they would return chatting and laughing like the oldest and best of friends, happy and light-hearted as children.
At last one day Mr. Starbrow went back to the old subject. "Mary, my girl," he said, "have you thought over the advice I gave you about this white child of yours?"
"No, certainly not; we were speaking of it when you broke off in the middle of a sentence, if you remember. You can finish the sentence now if you like, but don't be in a hurry."
"Well then, to come at once to the very pith of the whole matter, I think I've been sticking to the mill long enough—for the present. And it may come to pass that some day I shall be married, and then——"
"Your second state will be worse than your first."
"That will be according to how it turns out. I was only going to say that a married man finds it more difficult to do some things."
"To flirt with pretty young girls, for instance?"
"No, no. But I haven't finished yet. I haven't even come to the matter at all."
"Oh, you haven't! How strange!"
He smiled and was silent.
"I hope, Tom, you'll marry a big strong woman."
"Because you want an occasional good shaking."
"You see, my difficulty is this," he began again, without noticing the last speech. "When I tell you what I want, I'm afraid you'll only laugh at me and refuse my request."
"It won't hurt you much, poor old Tom, if I do laugh."
"No, perhaps not—I never thought of that." Then he proceeded to explain that he had made up his mind to spend two or three years in seeing the world, or at all events that portion of it to be found outside of England; and the first year he wished to spend on the Continent. Alone he feared that he would have a miserable time of it; but if his sister would only consent to accompany him, then he thought it would be most enjoyable; for he would have her society, and her experience of travel, and knowledge of German and French, would also smooth the way. "Now, Mary," he concluded—it had taken him half an hour to say this—"don't say No just yet. I know I shall be an awful weight for you to drag about, I'll be so helpless at hotels and stations and such places. But there will perhaps be one advantage to you. I know you spend rather freely, and your income is not too large, and I dare say you have exceeded it a little. Now, if you will give a year to me, and have your house shut up or let in the meantime, there would be a year's income saved to put you straight again."
"That means, Tom, that you would pay all my expenses while we were abroad?"
"Well, sis, I couldn't well take you away from your own life and pleasures and ask you to pay your own. That would be a strangely one- sided proposal to make."
"I must take time to think about it."
"That's a good girl. And, Mary, what would it cost to put this girl with some family where she would have a pleasant home and be taught for a year?"
"About sixty or seventy pounds, I suppose. Then there would be her clothing, and pocket-money, and incidental expenses—altogether a hundred pounds, I dare say."
"And you would let me pay this also?"
"No indeed, Tom. Three or four months would be quite time enough to put me straight; and if I consent to go, it must be understood that there are to be no presents, and nothing except travelling expenses."
"All right, Mary; you haven't consented yet definitely, but it is a great relief that you do not scout the idea, and tell me to go and buy a ticket at Ludgate Circus."
"Well, no, I couldn't well say that, considering that you are the only one of the family who has treated me rightly, and that I care anything about." She laughed a little, and presently continued: "I dare say the others are all well enough in their way; they are all honest men, of course, and someone says, 'An honest man's the noblest work of God.' For my part, I think it His poorest work. Fancy dull, slow old calculating Jacob being the noblest work of the Being that created—what shall I say?—this violet, or—"
"Fan," suggested her brother.
"Yes, Fan if you like. By the way, Tom, before I forget to mention it, I think you are a little in love with Fan."
Tom, taken off his guard, blushed hotly, which would not have mattered if his sister's keen eyes had not been watching his face.
"What nonsense you talk!" he exclaimed a little too warmly. "In love with a child!"
"Yes, I know she's but a lassie yet," replied his sister with a mocking laugh.
It was too much for his Starbrow temper, and taking up his hat he rose and marched angrily out of the room—angry as much with himself as with his sister. But in a moment she was after him, and before he could open the hall door her arms were round his neck.
"Oh, Tom, you foolish fellow, can't you take a little joke good- humouredly?" she said. "I'm afraid our year on the Continent will be a very short one if you are going to be so touchy."
"Then you will consent?" he said, glad to change the subject and be friendly again.
And a day or two later she did finally consent to accompany him. His proposal had come at an opportune moment, when she was heartsore, and restless, and anxious to escape from the painful memories and associations of the past month.
One of her first steps was to advertise in the papers for a home with tuition for a girl under sixteen, in a small family residing in a rural district in the west or south-west of England. The answers were to be addressed to her newspaper agent, who was instructed not to forward them to her in driblets, but deliver them all together.
Mr. Starbrow stayed another week in town, and during that time he went somewhere every day with his sister and Fan; they drove in the Park, went to picture galleries, to morning concerts, and then, if not tired, to a theatre in the evening. It was consequently a very full week to Fan, who now for the first time saw something of the hidden wonders and glories of London. And she was happy; but this novel experience—the sight of all that unimagined wealth of beauty—was even less to her than Mary's perfect affection, which was now no longer capricious, bursting forth at rare intervals like sunshine out of a stormy sky. Then that week in fairyland was over, and Tom Starbrow went back to Manchester to arrange his affairs; but before going he presented Fan with a very beautiful lady's watch and chain, the watch of chased gold with blue enamelled face.
"I do not wish you to forget me, Fan," he said, holding her hand in his, and looking into her young face smilingly, yet with a troubled expression in his eyes, "and there is nothing like a watch to remind you of an absent friend; sometimes it will even repeat his words if you listen attentively to its little ticking language. It is something like the sea- shell that whispers about the ocean waves when you hold it to your ear."
That pretty little speech only served to make the gift seem more precious to Fan; for she was not critical, and it did not sound in the least studied to her. It was delivered, however, when Mary was out of the room; when she returned and saw the watch, after congratulating the girl she threw a laughing and somewhat mocking glance at her brother; for which Tom was prepared, and so he met it bravely, and did not blush or lose his temper.
In due time the answers to the advertisement arrived—in a sack, for they numbered about four hundred.
"Oh, how will you ever be able to read them all!" exclaimed Fan, staring in a kind of dismay at the pile, where Miss Starbrow had emptied them on the carpet.
"I have no such mad intention," said the other with a laugh, and turning them over with her pretty slippered foot. "As a rule people that answer advertisements—especially women—are fools. If you advertise for a piece of old point lace, about a thousand people who have not got such a thing will write to say that they will sell you wax flowers, old books, ostrich feathers, odd numbers of Myra's Journal, or any rubbish they may have by them; I dare say that most of the writers of these letters are just as wide of the mark. Sit here at my feet, Fan; and you shall open the letters for me and read the addresses. No, not that way with your fingers. If you stop to tear them to pieces, like a hungry cat tearing its meat, it will take too long. Use the paper-knife, and open them neatly and quickly."
Fan began her task, and found scores of letters from the suburbs of London and all parts of the kingdom, from Land's End to the north of Scotland; and in nine cases out of ten after reading the address her mistress would say, "Tear it twice across, and throw it into the basket, Fan."
It seemed a pity to Fan to tear them up unread; for some were so long and so beautifully written, with pretty little crests at the top of the page; but Mary knew her own mind, and would not relent so far as even to look at one of these wasted specimens of calligraphic art. In less than an hour's time the whole heap had been disposed of, with the exception of fifteen or twenty letters selected for consideration on account of their addresses. These Miss Starbrow carefully went over, and finally selecting one she read it aloud to Fan. It was from a Mrs. Churton, an elderly lady, residing with her husband, a retired barrister, and her daughter, in their own house at a small place called Eyethorne, in Wiltshire. She offered to take the girl into her house, treat her as her own child, and give her instruction, for seventy pounds a year. The tuition would be undertaken by the daughter, who was well qualified for such a task, and could teach languages—Latin, German, and French were mentioned; also mathematics, geology, history, music, drawing, and a great many other branches of knowledge, both useful and ornamental.
Fan listened to this part of the letter with a look of dismay on her face, which made Miss Starbrow laugh.
"Why, my child, what more can you want?" she said.
"Don't you think it a little too much, Mary?" she returned with some distress, which made the other laugh again.
"Well, my poor girl, you needn't study Greek and archaeology and logarithms unless you feel inclined. But if you ever take a fancy for such subjects it will always be a comfort to know that you may dive down as deeply as you like without knocking your head on the bottom. I mean that you will never get to know too much for Miss Churton, who knows more than all the professors put together."