Mrs. Warren bustled out quite an hour earlier than usual. She did not go far on this occasion. She seemed a little anxious, and once or twice, to Connie's amazement, dodged down a back street as though she were afraid. Her red face turned quite pale when she did this, and she clutched Connie's arm and said in a faltering voice:
"I'm tuk with a stitch in my side! Oh, my poor, dear young lydy, I'm afeered as I won't be able to take yer for a long walk this blessed morning."
But when Connie, later on, inquired after the stitch, she was told to mind her own business, and she began to think that Mrs. Warren had pretended.
They reached Waterloo at quite an early hour, and there they took third-class tickets to a part of the country about thirty miles from London. It took them over an hour to get down, and during that time Connie sat by the window wrapped in contemplation. For the first time she saw green grass and hills and running water, and although it was midwinter she saw trees which seemed to her too magnificent and glorious for words. Her eyes shone with happiness, and she almost forgot Mrs. Warren's existence. At last they reached the little wayside station to which Mrs. Warren had taken tickets. They got out, and walked down a winding country lane.
"Is this real, real country?" asked Connie.
"Yus—too real for me."
"Oh ma'am, it's bootiful! But I dunna see the flowers."
"Flowers don't grow in the winter, silly."
"Don't they? I thought for sure I'd see 'em a-blowin' and a-growin'. Yer said so—yer mind."
"Well, so yer wull, come springtime, ef ye're a good gel. Now, I want to talk wid yer wery serious-like."
"Oh ma'am, don't!" said poor Connie.
"None o' yer 'dont's' wid me! You ha' got to be very thankful to me for all I'm a-doin' for yer—feedin yer, and cockerin' yer up, and makin' a fuss o' yer, and brushing out yer 'air, and giving yer blue ties, and boots, and gloves."
"Oh ma'am, yes," said Connie; "and I'm wery much obleeged—I am, truly—but I'd rayther a sight rayther, go 'ome to father; I would, ma'am."
"Wot little gels 'ud like isn't wot little gels 'ull get," said Mrs. Warren. "You come to me of yer own free will, and 'avin' come, yer'll stay. Ef yer makes a fuss, or lets out to anybody that yer don't like it, I've a little room in my house—a room widdout no light and no winder, and so far away from any other room that yer might scream yerself sick and no one 'ud 'ear. Into that room yer goes ef yer makes trouble. And now, listen."
Mrs. Warren gripped Connie's arm so tight that the poor child had to suppress a scream.
"I know wot ye're been saying to Agnes—a-grumblin' and a-grumblin' to Agnes, instead o' down on yer knees and thankin' the Almighty that yer've found Mammy Warren. I know all about it: Yer'll stop that—d'yer 'ear—d'yer 'ear?"
"Yus, ma'am," said Connie.
"Do yer, promise?"
"Yus, ma'am," said the poor child again.
"I'll see as yer keeps it—yer little good-for-nothing beggar maid as I'm a-pamperin' of! Don't I work for yer, and toil for yer? And am I to have naught but grumbles for my pains? Yer won't like that room—an' it's there!"
"I won't grumble," said Connie, terrified, and not daring to do anything but propitiate her tyrant.
Mrs. Warren's manner altered.
"Wull," she said, "I ha' brought yer down all this long way to 'ave a plain talk, and I guess we 'ave 'ad it. You please me, and I'll do my dooty by you; but don't please me, and there ain't a gel in the whole of Lunnon'll be more misrubble than you. Don't think as yer'll git aw'y, for yer won't—no, not a bit o' it. And now I've something else to say. There's a young boy as we're goin' to see to-day. 'Is name is Ronald; he's a special friend o' mine. I ha' had that boy a-wisiting o' me afore now, but he were took bad with a sort of fever. My word! din't I nurse him—the best o' good things didn't I give 'im! But his narves went wrong, and I sent him into the country for change of hair. He's all right now. He's a very purty boy, same as you're a purty gel, and I'm goin' to bring him back to be a companion for yer."
"Yus," said Mrs. Warren. "Yer'll like that, won't yer?"
"Oh yus, ma'am."
"Wull, now—we'll be calling at the cottage in a few minutes, and wot I want yer to do is to have a talk with that yer boy. Ye're to tell him as I'm wonnerful good; ye're to tell him the sort o' things I does for yer. The poor boy—he got a notion in his head w'en he had the fever—that I—I—Mammy Warren—wor cruel to him. You tell him as there ain't a word o' truth in it, for a kinder or more motherly body never lived. Ef yer don't tell him that, I'll soon find out; an' there's the room without winders an' without light real 'andy. Now—do yer promise?"
These words were accompanied by a violent shake.
"Do yer promise?"
"Yus, I promise," said Connie, turning white.
Mrs. Warren had an extraordinary capacity for changing her voice and manner, even the expression of her face. While she had been extracting two promises from poor Connie, she looked like the most awful, wicked old woman that the worst parts of London could produce; but when on two points Connie had faithfully promised to yield to her wishes, she immediately altered her tactics, and became as genial and affectionate and pleasant as she had been the reverse a few minutes back.
"I believes yer," she said, "and you're a real nice child, and there won't be any one in the 'ole of Lunnun 'appier than you as long as yer take the part of poor old Mammy Warren. Now then, yere's the cottage, and soon we'll see the little man. He'll be a nice companion for yer, Connie, and yer'll like that, won't you?"
"Oh yes, ma'am," said Connie.
She was not a London child for nothing. She had known a good deal of its ups and downs, although nothing quite so terrible as her present position had ever entered into her mind. But she saw clearly enough that the only chance of deliverance for her, and perhaps for the poor little boy, was to carry out Mammy Warren's injunctions and to keep her promise to the letter. Accordingly, when Mrs. Warren's knock at the cottage door was answered by a kind-looking, pale-faced woman, Connie raised her bright blue eyes to the woman's face and listened with deep interest when Mrs. Warren inquired how the poor little boy was.
"Is it Ronald?" said the woman, whose name was Mrs. Cricket. "He's ever so much better; he's taken kindly to his food, and is out in the woods now at the back of the house playing all by himself."
"In the woods is he, now?" said Mrs. Warren. "Well, I ha' come to fetch him 'ome."
"Oh ma'am, I don't think he's as strong as all that."
"I ha' come to fetch him 'ome by the wishes of his parients," said Mrs. Warren. "I suppose," she added, "there's no doubt in yer moind that I 'ave come from the parients of the boy?"
"Oh no, ma'am—none, o' course. Will you come in, and I'll fetch him?"
"Is he quite right in the 'ead now?" said Mrs. Warren as she and Connie followed Mrs. Cricket into the cottage.
"He's better," said that good woman.
"No talk o' dark rooms and nasty nightmares and cruel old women? All those things quite forgot?" asked Mrs. Warren.
"He ain't spoke o' them lately."
"Well then, he's cured; he's quite fit to come 'ome. This young lydy is a r'lation o' hisn. I ha' brought her down to see 'im, and we'll all travel back to town together.—You might go and find him, my dear," said Mrs. Warren, turning to Connie, and meanwhile putting her finger to her lips when Mrs. Cricket's back was turned in order to enjoin silence on the girl.
"You run out into the woods, my purty, and find the dear little boy and bring him back here as fast as yer like."
"Yes, missy," said Mrs. Cricket, opening the back door of the cottage, "you run out, straight up that path, and you'll find little Ronald."
Connie obeyed. She was glad to be alone in order to collect her thoughts. A wild idea of running away even now presented itself to her. But looking back, she perceived that Mrs. Warren had seated herself by the kitchen window and had her bold eyes fixed on her retreating little figure. No chance of running away. She must trust to luck, and for the present she must carry out Mrs. Warren's instructions.
Presently she came up to the object of her search—an exceedingly pretty, dark-haired boy of about ten years of age. His face was pale, his features regular, his eyes very large, brown, and soft, like rich brown velvet. He did not pay much attention to Connie, but went on laying out a pile of horse-chestnuts which he had gathered in rows on the ground.
"Be your name Ronald?" said Connie, coming up to him.
He looked at her, then sprang to his feet, and politely took off his little cap.
"Yes, my name is Ronald Harvey."
"I ha' come to fetch yer," said Connie.
"What for?" asked the boy.
"It's Mammy Warren," said Connie in a low tone.
"What?" asked the child.
His face, always pale, now turned ghastly white.
"She's such a nice woman," said Connie.
She sat down by Ronald.
"Show me these purty balls," she said. "Wot be they?"
"Chestnuts," said the boy. "Did you ever see them before? That was not true what you said about—about——"
"Yus," said Connie, "it is true. I'm a little gel stayin' with her now, and you—I want you to come back with me. She's real, real kind is Mammy Warren."
The boy put his hand up to his forehead.
"You seem a nice girl," he said, "and you look like—like a lady, only you don't talk the way ladies talk. I'm a gentleman. My father was an officer in the army, and my darling mother died, and—and something happened—I don't know what—but I was very, very, very ill. There was an awful time first, and there seemed to be a woman called Mammy Warren mixed up in the time and——"
"Oh, you had fever," said Connie, "and you—you pictured things to yourself in the fever. But 'tain't true," she added earnestly. "I'm wid her, an' she's real, real, wonnerful kind."
"You wouldn't tell a lie, would you, girl?" said the boy.
Connie bit her lip hard.
"No," she said then in a choked voice.
"I wonder if it's true," said the boy. "It seems to me it was much more than the fever, but I can't—I can't quite remember."
"She is very kind," echoed Connie.
"Children, come along in," said a cheerful voice at that moment; and Connie, raising her eyes, saw the sturdy form of Mrs. Warren advancing up the path to meet her.
"She was terrible cruel in my time," said Ronald, glancing at the same figure. "I don't want to go back."
"Oh, do—do come back, for my sake!" whispered Connie.
He turned and looked into the beautiful little face.
"Boys have to be good," he said then, "and—and brave. My father was a very brave man." Then he struggled to his feet.
"Well, Ronald," said Mrs. Warren, "and 'ow may yer be, my dear little boy? This is Connie, a cousin o' yourn. Wot playmates you two wull be! Ye're both comin' back with me to my nice 'ome this wery arfternoon. And now Mrs. Cricket 'as got a meal for us all and then yer little things'll be packed, Ronald, and I'll carry 'em—for in course yer nurse ought to carry yer clothes, my boy. We'll get off to the train as fast as ever we can arter we've had our meal. Now, children, foller me back to the cottage."
Mrs. Warren sailed on in front. Connie and Ronald followed after, hand in hand. There was quite a splendid color in Connie's pale cheeks now, for all of a sudden she saw a reason for her present life. She had got to protect Ronald, who was so much younger than herself. She would protect him with her very life if necessary.
THE RETURN TO LONDON.
Mrs. Warren made a very hearty meal. She swallowed down cup after cup of strong coffee, and ate great hunches of thick bread-and-butter, and called out to the children not to shirk their food.
But, try as they would, neither Connie nor Ronald had much appetite. Connie, in spite of herself, could not help casting anxious glances at the little boy, and whenever she did so she found that Mrs. Warren had fixed her with her bold black eyes. It seemed to Connie that Mrs. Warren's eyes said quite as plainly as though her lips had spoken:
"I'll keep my word; there's the room with no winder and no light in it—yer'll find yerself in there ef yer don't look purty sharp."
But notwithstanding the threatening expression of Mrs. Warren's eyes, Connie could not restrain all sign of feeling. Ronald, on the other hand, appeared quite bright. He devoted himself to Connie, helping her in the most gentlemanly way to the good things which Mrs. Cricket had provided.
"The apple jam is very nice," he said. "I watched Mrs. Cricket make it.—Didn't I, Mrs. Cricket?"
"That you did, my little love," said the good woman. "And I give you a little saucer of it all hot and tasty for your tea, didn't I, my little love?"
"Oh yes," replied Ronald; "and didn't I like it, just!"
"Jam's wery bad for little boys," said Mrs. Warren at this juncture. "Jam guvs little boys fever an' shockin' cruel dreams. It's bread-and-butter as little boys should heat, and sometimes bread without butter in case they should turn bilious."
"Oh no, ma'am, begging your pardon," here interrupted Mrs. Cricket; "I haven't found it so with dear little Master Ronald. You tell his parients, please, ma'am, that it's milk as he wants—lots and lots of country milk—and—and a chop now and then, and chicken if it's young and tender. That was 'ow I pulled 'im round.—Wasn't it, Ronald, my dear?"
"Yes," said Ronald in his gentlemanly way. "You were very good indeed, Mrs. Cricket."
"Perhaps," interrupted Mrs. Warren, drawing herself up to her full height, which was by no means great, and pursing her lips, "yer'll 'ave the goodness, Mrs. Cricket, to put on a piece o' paper the exact diet yer like to horder for this yere boy. I'm a busy woman," said Mrs. Warren, "and I can't keep it in my 'ead. It's chuckens an' chops an' new-laid heggs—yer did say new-laid heggs at thruppence each didn't yer, Mrs. Cricket?—an' the richest an' best milk, mostly cream, I take it."
"I said nothing about new-laid eggs," said Mrs. Cricket, who was exceedingly exact and orderly in her mind; "but now, as you 'ave mentioned them, they'd come in very 'andy. But I certain did speak of the other things, and I'll write 'em down ef yer like."
"Do," said Mrs. Warren, "and I'll mention 'em to the child's parients w'en I see 'em."
But at this juncture something startling happened, for Ronald, white as a sheet, rose.
"Has my father come back?" he asked. "Have you heard from him? Are you taking me to him?"
Mrs. Warren gazed full at Ronald, and, quick as thought, she adopted his idea. Here would be a way—a delightful way—of getting the boy back to her dreadful house.
"Now, ain't I good?" she said. "Don't I know wot a dear little boy wants? Yus, my love, ye're soon to be in the harms of yer dear parient."
"But you said both parients," interrupted Mrs. Cricket.
Mrs. Warren put up her finger to her lips. She had got the boy in her arms, and he found himself most unwillingly folded to her ample breast.
"Ain't one enough at a time?" was her most dubious remark. "And now then, Ronald, hurry up with yer things, for Connie and me, we must be hoff. We could leave yer behind, ef yer so wished it, but Lunnun 'ud be a much more convenient place for yer to meet yer father."
"Oh I'll go, I'll go!" said Ronald. "My darling, darling father! Oh, I did think I'd never see him again! And he's quite well, Mrs. Warren?"
"In splendid, splendid health," said Mrs. Warren. "Niver did I lay eyes on so 'andsome a man."
"And I'll see him to-night?" said Ronald.
"Yus—ef ye're quick."
Then Ronald darted into the next room, and Mrs. Cricket followed him, and Connie and Mrs. Warren faced each other. Mrs. Warren began to laugh immoderately.
"Young and tender chuckens," she said, "an' chops an' new-laid heggs an' milk. Wotever's the matter with yer, Connie?"
Connie answered timidly that she though Ronald a dear little boy, and very pretty, and that she hoped that he would soon get strong with the nourishing food that Mrs. Warren was going to give him. But here that worthy woman winked in so mysterious and awful a manner that poor Connie felt as though she had received an electric shock. After a time she spoke again.
"I'm so glad about his father!" she said. "His father was a hofficer in the harmy. Will he really see him to-night, Mrs. Warren?"
"Will the sky fall?" was Mrs. Warren's ambiguous answer. "Once for all, Connie, you ax no questions an' you'll be told no lies."
A very few moments afterwards Ronald came out of the little bedroom, prepared for his journey. Mrs. Cricket cried when she parted with him, but there were no tears in the boy's lovely eyes—he was all smiles and excitement.
"I'll bring my own, own father down to see you, Mrs. Cricket," he said; "maybe not to-morrow, but some day next week. For you've been very good to me, darling Mrs. Cricket."
Then Mrs. Cricket kissed him and cried over him again, and the scene might have been prolonged if Mrs. Warren had not caught the boy roughly by the shoulder and pulled him away.
As they were marching down the tiny path which led from the cottage to the high-road, Mrs. Cricket did venture to say in an anxious voice:
"I s'pose as Major Harvey'll pay me the little money as I spended on the dear child?"
"That he will," said Mrs. Warren. "I'll see him to-night, most like, and I'll be sure to mention the chuckens and the chops."
"Well then, good-bye again, darling," said Mrs. Cricket. Ronald blew a kiss to her, and then, taking Connie's hand, they marched down the high-road in the direction of the railway station, Mrs. Warren trotting by their side, carrying the small bundle which contained Ronald's clothes all tied up neatly in a blue check handkerchief.
"Yer'll be sure to tell yer father wot a good nurse I were to you, Ronald," she remarked as they found themselves alone in a third-class carriage.
"You're quite sure it was only a dream?" said Ronald then very earnestly.
"Wot do yer mean by that, chile?" inquired Mrs. Warren.
"I mean the dark room without any light, and the dreadful person who—who—flogged me, and—the hunger."
"Poor little kid!" said Mrs. Warren. "Didn't he 'ave the fever, and didn't Mammy Warren hold him in her arms, an', big boy that he be, walked up and down the room wid him, and tried to soothe him w'en he said them nasty lies? It wor a dream, my dear. W'y, Connie here can tell yer 'ow good I am to 'er."
"Wery good," said Connie—"so good that there niver were no one better."
She tumbled out the words in desperation, and Mammy Warren gave her a radiant smile, and poked her playfully in the ribs, and said that she was quite the funniest gel she had ever come acrost. After this Connie was quite silent until the little party found themselves at Waterloo.
Here they mounted to the top of a 'bus, and Ronald, trembling with delight, clutched hold of Connie's hand.
"Stoop down," he said; "I want to whisper." Connie bent towards him. "Do you think my father will be waiting for me when we get back to Mrs. Warren's?"
"I don't know," was the only reply poor Connie could manage to give him.
At last the omnibus drive came to an end, and the trio walked the short remaining distance to Mrs. Warren's rooms. Ronald almost tumbled upstairs in his eagerness to get there first.
"Oh, how will he get in? I do hope he's not been waiting and gone away again."
Mrs. Warren opened the door with her latch key. The room was dark, for there was neither fire-light nor gas-light; but soon these deficiencies were supplied, for Mrs. Warren was exceedingly fond of creature comforts.
"I wonder when he'll come," said Ronald. He was standing by the table and looking anxiously with his big brown eyes all round him. "I do wonder when he'll come."
Mrs. Warren made no reply. She began to prepare supper. As she did so there came a knock at the door. Mrs. Warren went to open it. She had an eager conversation with some one who stood without, and then she and Agnes entered the room together. Ronald evidently knew Agnes, for he shrank away from her and regarded her arrival with the reverse of pleasure.
"Wull—and 'ow yer?" said Agnes in a cheerful tone.
She chucked Ronald under the chin and remarked on his healthy appearance.
"Wull," said Mrs. Warren, "yer can't blame the pore child for that, seein' as he 'ave been cockered up on the best food in the land—chuckens and chops, no less."
"Oh, dear me! how shockin' greedy you must be!" said Agnes. "I'm sure, ma'am," she continued, turning to Mrs. Warren, "no one could desire better than wot you 'as to eat."
"I like my own food," said Mrs. Warren, "although it be simplicity itself. There are two red 'errin's for supper to-night, and bread-and-butter and tea, and a little raspberry jam, and ef that ain't enough for anybody's palate, I don't know——"
"My father, when he comes"—began Ronald, but here Mrs. Warren turned to him.
"You're a manly boy, Ronald," she said, "and I know you'll tike wot I 'ave to say in a manly sperrit. Yer father have been called out o' Lunnon, and won't be back for a day or two. He sent a message by Agnes 'ere. He don't know the exact day as he'll be back, but he'll come wery soon."
"Yes," said Agnes, "I seen him."
"Where?" asked Ronald.
"In the street," said Agnes. "He come along 'ere an hour back. Ef you'd been 'ome he might ha' took yer back with him; but w'en he found that you was still in the country he wor that pleased 'is whole face seemed to smile, and he said—said 'e, 'Dear Mammy Warren—I'd like to chuck her under her chin.' Them was his wery words."
"I don't believe my father would say that sort of thing," answered Ronald.
"Oh my!" said Agnes. "Highty-tighty! Don't yer go an' say as I tells lies, young man——"
"An' it's the wery thing he would say," interrupted Mrs. Warren, "for a plainer-spoken, more hagreeable man than the Major niver drew breath."
"He left yer a message," continued Agnes, "an' yer can tike it or leave it—I don't care. Wot he said wor this. You're to obey Mammy Warren, an' be wery grateful to her, an' do jest wot she tells yer until he comes 'ome. He'll be 'ome any day, an' he'll come an' fetch yer then, and the more good yer be to Mammy Warren the better pleased he'll be."
Ronald sat down on a little stool. He had sat on that stool before. He looked with dim eyes across the over-furnished, hot, and terribly ugly room. That vision of delight which had buoyed him up all the way back to London was not to be realized for a few days. He must bear with Mrs. Warren for a few days. It did not enter into his head that the whole story about his father was false from beginning to end. The present disappointment was quite enough for so young a child to bear.
After this Mrs. Warren and Agnes conversed in semi-whispers, and presently they retired into Mrs Warren's bedroom, and Connie and Ronald were alone.
"I am glad yer've come 'ere, Ronald," said Connie.
"Yes," said Ronald. He pressed his little white hand against his forehead.
"You're missing your father, I know," continued Connie, "Somehow I'm a-missing o' mine."
"Have you a father, Connie?" asked the little boy.
"Yus—that I 'ave," said Connie. "Not a great, grand gentleman like yourn, but a father for all that."
"Is your father in London?" asked the boy.
"Oh yes," answered Connie, "and not far from 'ere, nayther."
"Then why aren't you with him?" asked Ronald.
"'Cos I can't be," replied Connie in a low whisper.
"Hush!" said Ronald.
Just then the door opened and Agnes came out. Mrs. Warren followed her. Mrs. Warren wore her usual tight-fitting jacket, but on this occasion Agnes carried a leather bag, which seemed to be stuffed so full that it was with difficulty it could be kept shut.
Mrs. Warren addressed the two children.
"I'm goin' to lock you two in," she said, "an' you'd best go to bed. There's a little bed made up in your room, Connie, for Ronald to sleep in; and as you're a deal older than that sweet little boy, you'll nurse him off to sleep, jest as though he wor your real brother. Arter he's asleep you can go to bed yerself, for there's nothing like early hours for beauty sleep. You yere me, Connie? You know wot to do?"
"Yus," answered Connie. Her voice was almost cheerful. She was so truly glad that Mrs. Warren was going out. When she heard the key turning in the lock, and knew that she and Ronald were locked in all alone, she scarcely seemed to mind, so glad was she of Ronald's company. Neither child spoke to the other until the retreating footsteps of Mrs. Warren and Agnes ceased to sound on the stairs.
Then Connie went up to Ronald, and kneeling down by him put her arms round him and kissed him.
"You're very pretty," said the little boy, "although you don't talk like a lady. But that doesn't matter," he added, "for you've got a lady's heart."
"I love you, Ronald," was Connie's answer.
Ronald now put his own arms round Connie's neck and kissed her once or twice on her peach-like cheek, and then they both sat down on the floor and were happy for a few minutes in each other's company. After that Ronald began to speak. He told Connie about his father and about his mother. He did not cry at all, as most children would have done, when he spoke of those he loved so dearly.
"Mother's dead nearly a year now," he said. "It was waiting for father that killed her. Father went out to a dreadful war in South Africa, and we heard that he was killed. Mother wouldn't believe it; she never did believe it—never—and she taught me not to, and I never did. But, all the same, it killed her."
"And then wot became of you?" asked Connie.
"I was taken here," replied Ronald. "That's three or four months ago now. I remember quite well being out walking with my nurse. She wasn't very nice, my nurse wasn't; but she was—oh, so good and kind compared to—what—what happened afterwards! Darling mother was dead. They had put her body in the grave, and the angels had got her soul. I didn't like to think of the grave, but I did love to remember the angels. The last thing mother said when she was dying was, 'Ronald, when your father comes back, be sure you tell him that I never believed that he was really dead.'"
"I promised her, and then she said again, 'And you'll never believe it either, Ronald.' And I said that I never, never would, if it was a thousand years. And then she kissed me and smiled; and I s'pose the angels took her, for she never spoke any more."
"Well," said Connie, who did not want Ronald to dwell too long on this very sad scene, "tell us 'bout the day you come 'ere."
"Mother was in her grave," said Ronald, "and there was no one who thought very much about me; and my nurse—she was not half as kind as when mother lived. One day she took me for a walk. We went a long, long way, and presently she asked me to wait for her outside one of those awful gin-palaces. She used to go in there sometimes, even when mother was alive. Well, I waited and waited outside, but she never came out. I was not a bit frightened at first, of course, for my father's boy mustn't be a coward, must he, Connie?"
"No," answered Connie.
"But she didn't come out, and it got late, and people began to look at me, and by-and-by Mammy Warren came out of the gin-palace. She was—oh, so red in the face! and I thought I'd never seen so dreadfully stout a woman. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, 'Wotever are you doing here?' And I said, 'I'm waiting for my nurse, Hannah Waters.' And she said, 'Oh, then, you're the little boy!' And I stared at her, and she said, 'Pooh Hannah's took bad, and she's asked me to take you home. Come along at once, my dear.'
"I went with her. I wasn't a bit frightened—I had never been frightened in all my life up to then. But she didn't take me home at all. She brought me to this house. She was very kind to me at first, in a sort of a way, and she told me that my relations had given me to her to look after, and that I was to be her little boy for the present, and must do just what she wanted."
"Well—and wot did she want?" asked Connie, trembling not a little.
"It wasn't so dreadful bad at first," continued Ronald. "She used to take me out every day for long walks, and she made me look very nice; and we went into shops, for she said she wanted to buy things, but I don't think she ever did buy much. I used to be tired sometimes; we walked such a very long way."
"And did she ever make you go a little, tiny bit in front of her?" said Connie.
"Why, yes," replied Ronald. "But I rather liked that, for, you see, I'm a gentleman, and she's not a lady."
"I wonder," said Connie, "ef she spoke of herself as your old nurse."
Ronald began to laugh.
"How clever of you to think of that, Connie! She always did; and whenever she did buy things she said they were for me; and she used to give—oh, tremendous grand addresses of where I lived."
"Portland Mansions, p'r'aps?" said Connie.
"Sometimes that, and sometimes other places; but of course the parcels were never sent there; she always carried them herself."
"And she wore a big, big cloak, with pockets inside?" asked Connie.
"Yes, she did—she did."
"She does just the same with me now," said Connie. "I go out with her every day, and we go into the big shops—into the most crowded parts—and she doesn't buy much. I like that the best part of the day, for all the rest of the time I have to stay here and do nothing."
"And so had I to stay in these rooms and do nothing," said Ronald. "But I won't have to stay long now," he continued, "as my dear, dear father has come home. Oh! I wish darling mother were alive, that she might feel as happy as I do to-night."
"But tell me, Ronald," continued Connie, "how was it yer got the fever?"
"I don't quite remember that part," said the little boy. "All that part was made up of dreams. There was a dreadful dream when I seemed to be quite well, and when I said something before some one, and Mammy Warren turned scarlet; and when I was alone she—she flogged me and put me into a dark, dark room for—oh! it seemed like—for ever. And I had nothing to eat, and I was so frightened—for she said there was a bogy there—that I nearly died. I didn't like to be frightened, for it seemed as though I couldn't be father's own son if I were afraid. But I was afraid, Connie—I was. I'll have to tell darling father about it when I see him; I'm sure he'll forgive me, more particular when he knows the whole thing was only a fever dream—for there's not any room in this house like that, is there, Connie."
"Yes, but there be," thought Connie. But she did not say so aloud.
That night Ronald slept as peacefully as though he were really back again with his father. But Connie lay awake. Anxious as she had been before Ronald's arrival, that state of things was nothing at all to her present anxiety.
The next day was Sunday, and if it had not been for Big Ben the two poor children would have had a most miserable time, for they were shut up in Mrs. Warren's room from morning till night. In vain they begged to be allowed to go out. Mrs. Warren said "No," and in so emphatic a manner that they did not dare to ask her twice.
Agnes did not come at all to the house on Sunday, and Connie and Ronald finally curled themselves up in the deep window-ledge, and Connie talked and told Ronald all about her past life. In particular she told him about Big Ben, and little Giles, and the wonderful, most wonderful "Woice." After that the children had a sort of play together, in which Ronald proved himself to be a most imaginative little person, for he invented many fresh stories with regard to Big Ben, assuring Connie that he was much more than a voice. He would not be at all surprised, he said if Big Ben was not a great angel who came straight down from heaven every hour to comfort the sorrowful people in Westminster. Ronald thought it extremely likely that this wonderful angel knew his own mother, and was on this special Sunday telling him to be a brave boy and keep up his heart, for most certainly he would be safe back with his father before another Sunday came.
"That's what he says," continued Ronald, "and that's what'll happen, you'll see, Connie. And when darling father comes here you shall come away too, for I won't leave you alone with Mammy Warren. She's not a real kind person, is she, Connie?"
"Don't ax me," said Connie. Ronald looked up into her face.
"You can't tell a lie at all well," he said. "You're trying to make me think that Mammy Warren's nice, but you're not doing it well, for I don't believe you."
Then the big clock once again tolled the hour, and Ronald laughed with glee.
"There's no doubt about it now," he said. "Father is coming, and very, very soon. Oh I am glad, and happy!"
During that Sunday the children had very little food, for Mrs. Warren seemed all of a sudden to have changed her tactics. Whether it was the fact that she was really angry at Mrs. Cricket's having fed the boy on chicken and mutton-chops, no one could tell; but all he did have on that eventful Sunday was weak tea, stale bread and butter, and a very little jam.
Towards evening the two poor little creatures were really hungry. By-and-by they clasped each other round the neck, and fell asleep in each other's arms. It was in this condition—curled up near the fire—that Mrs. Warren found them when she got home.
A NEW DEPARTURE.
With Monday morning, however, all things seemed to have altered. Mrs. Warren was up spry and early. She called Connie to come and help her, but she desired Ronald to lie in bed.
"It's a nasty day," she said; "there's sleet falling. We'll go out, of course, for fresh air is good for children, but we must none of us wear our best clothes."
"What do yer mean by that?" said Connie.
"Don't you go and ax me wot I mean; just do wot I tells yer. No dark-blue dress for yer to-day, missy. I ha' got a old gownd as 'ull fit yer fine."
Poor Connie trembled. Mrs. Warren went into her bedroom.
"'Ere, now," she said, "you put it on."
The old gown was certainly not at all nice. Its color was quite indescribable. It was very ragged and torn, too, round the bottom of the skirt. It dragged down in front so as almost to trip poor Connie when she tried to walk, and was several inches too short in the back.
Mrs. Warren desired Connie to take off her dainty shoes and stockings, and gave her some stockings with holes in them, and some very disreputable shoes down at the heel. She made her pin across her chest a little old shawl of an ugly pale pattern, and instead of allowing her to wear her hair in a golden fleece down her back, she plaited it, and tied it into a little bunch at the back of her head. She then put an old bonnet on the child's head—a bonnet which must have once belonged to quite an elderly woman—and tied it with strings in front. Connie felt terribly ashamed of herself.
"I'm all in rags," she said, "jest as though I wor a beggar maid."
"I've a fancy that yer shall wear these 'ere clothes to-day," said Mrs. Warren. "Yer've been a fine lydy too long; yer'll be a beggar maid to-day. W'en I tell yer wot to do in the street, yer'll do it. You can sing, I take it. Now then, you learn the words."
Mrs. Warren planted down before Connie the well-known words of "Home, Sweet Home."
"I know this without learning it," said the girl.
"An' you 'as a good woice, I take it."
"Middlin'," replied Connie.
"Wull, sing it for me now."
Connie struck up the familiar words, and so frightened was she that in real desperation she acquitted herself fairly well.
"You'll take a treble, an' the little boy 'ull do likewise, and I'll take a fine, deep second. Ah! I know 'ow to sing," said Mrs. Warren.
"You won't take little Ronald out on a dreadful sort o' day like this," said Connie.
"Wen I want yer adwice I'll ax fur it," said Mrs. Warren, with most withering sarcasm.
Poor Connie felt her heart suddenly fit to burst. What new and dreadful departure was this? Mrs. Warren now brought Ronald into the front room, and there she arrayed him in garments of the poorest type, allowing his little thin legs to be quite bare, and his very thin arms to show through his ragged jacket. She posed, however, a little red cap on the midst of his curly dark hair; and this cap most wonderfully became the child, so that few people could pass him in the street without noticing the sweetness of his angelic face. Then Mrs. Warren prepared herself for the part she was to take. She went into her bedroom for the purpose, and returned looking so exactly like a stout old beggar woman that the children would scarcely have known her. She had covered her left eye with a patch, and now only looked out on the world with her right one. Her hair was knotted untidily under a frowsy old bonnet, and a very thin shawl was bound across her ample breast.
"We'll do fine, I take it," she said to the children. "I am your mother, my dears; you'll both 'old me by the 'and. Purtier little lambs couldn't be seen than the two of yez. And ef poor, ugly Mammy Warren 'ave made herself still uglier for yer sweet sakes, 'oo can but love 'er for the ennoblin' deed? Wull, come along now, children; but first I'll build up the fire, for we'll be 'ungry arter this 'ere job."
The fire was built up to Mrs. Warren's satisfaction, and the three went downstairs. Ronald was quite speechless with shame—to go out like this, to disgrace his brave father and his darling mother in this sort of fashion, was pure torture to the boy; but Connie, in the thought of him and the fear that he would take cold, almost forgot her own misery.
The three did not go anywhere by 'bus that day, but hurried down side alleys and back streets until they got into the region of Piccadilly. The children had not the least idea where they were. Suddenly, however, they came to a pause outside a large hotel, and there Mrs. Warren struck up the first note of "Home, Sweet Home."
She had timed everything well. The policeman was at the other end of his beat, and she would not be molested for quite ten minutes. The quavering, ugly notes of the old woman were well subdued, and Connie had a really fine voice, and it rose high on the bitter air in sweet, childish appeal and confidence. Ronald, too, was struck with a sudden thought. That hotel was a sort of place where father used to live when he was alive. Who could tell if his father himself might not have returned, and might not be there, and might not hear him if he sang loud enough and sweet enough?
The voice of the boy and the voice of the girl blended together, and Mrs. Warren skilfully dropped hers so as not to spoil the harmony. The people in the hotel were attracted by the sweet notes, and crowded to the windows. Then Connie's face of purest beauty—Connie's face rendered all the more pathetic by the old bonnet and the dreadful, tattered dress—and Ronald with his head thrown back, his red cap held in his hand, the white snow falling in flakes on his rich dark hair, made between them a picture which would melt the hardest heart. Sixpences and even shillings were showered from the windows, and as the last note of "Home, Sweet Home" died away Mrs. Warren pocketed quite a considerable harvest.
She and the children then moved on and did likewise before several other large buildings, but they were not so successful again as they had been with their first attempt. The police came back sooner than they were expected. Ronald began to cough, too, and Connie's face looked blue with cold. Mrs. Warren, however, was not disappointed. She spoke encouragingly and protectingly to the children.
"Come 'ome, loveys," she said; "come 'ome, my little dears."
They did get home—or, rather, they got back to the dreadful house where they were imprisoned—late in the afternoon, Ronald almost speechless with cold and fatigue, Connie trembling also, and aching in every limb.
But now unwonted comforts awaited them. Mrs. Warren had no idea of killing off these sources of wealth. She put Ronald into a hot bath, and rubbed his limbs until they glowed, and then moved his little bed in front of the fire and got him into it. Connie was also rubbed and dried and desired to dispense with her beggar's toilet.
Afterwards there was quite a good dinner of roast pork with crackling and apple sauce, and dreadful as their position was, both the poor children enjoyed this meal as they had never enjoyed food before.
Thus a few days went by, the children going out every morning with Mrs. Warren sometimes as beggar children, but sometimes again as children of the well-to-do. These two programmes formed the most interesting part of their little lives. For the rest of the day they sat huddled up together, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, while each day a bigger and bigger ache came into Ronald's heart. Why, oh why did not his father come to fetch him?
But as all things come to an end, so the children's life in Mrs. Warren's dreadful attics came to an abrupt conclusion.
One day, just as they were dressed to go out, there came a hurried knock at the door. It seemed to Connie, who was very sharp and observant, that Mrs. Warren did not much like the sound. She went to the door and, before opening it, called out, "Who's there?"
"Agnes," was the reply; whereupon Mrs. Warren opened the door a few inches, and Agnes squeezed in, immediately locking the door behind her. She whispered something into Mrs. Warren's ear, which caused that good woman to turn deadly white and stagger against the wall.
"Yer've no time to faint, ma'am," said Agnes. "'Ere—let me slap yer on the back."
She gave two resounding whacks on Mrs. Warren's stout back, which caused that woman to heave a couple of profound sighs and then to recover her presence of mind.
She and Agnes then retired into her bedroom, where drawers were hastily opened, and much commotion was heard by the two prettily dressed and waiting children. In another minute or two Agnes came out alone.
"Wull," she said, "and 'ow be you, Connie?"
"I am all right," said Connie. "Where's Mammy Warren?"
"She's tuk bad, and won't want yer to go out a-walkin' with her to-day. Oh my! oh my! how spry we be! It 'minds me o' the old song, 'As Willikins were a-walkin' wid his Dinah one day.'"
"Agnes," said Connie, "I'm certain sure as there's some'ut wrong."
"Be yer now?" said Agnes. "Wull then, ye're mistook. Wot could be wrong? Ye're a very queer and suspicious gel, Connie Harris—the most suspicious as I hever see'd. Ye're just for all the world the most selfish gel as could be found in the whole o' Lunnun. Pore Mammy Warren was told of the sudden death of her sister, and that's all the sympathy you guvs her. Wery different she behaves to you and Ronald. 'Hagnes,' says she, 'tike those pore children for a run,' says she, 'and bring them 'ome safe in time for dinner,' says she, 'an' give 'em some roast mutton for dinner, poor darlin's,' says Mammy Warren; and then she falls to cryin', and 'Oh, my sister!' she says, and 'Oh, poor Georgina!' she sobs. Now then, the pair of yer—out we goes, and I'll go wid yer."
Quick as thought Agnes accomplished her purpose, and the two prettily dressed children—Connie with her hair down her back, Ronald looking like a little prince—found themselves in the street. But if the two children thought that they had the slightest chance of running away they were terribly mistaken, for Agnes proved even a sharper taskmistress than Mrs. Warren. She seemed to Connie to have suddenly got quite old and very cruel and determined. She walked the children here, and she walked them there. They peered into shop windows and got into crowds, but they did no shopping that morning. Connie was rather glad of that, and now she was so accustomed to being stared at that she hardly took any notice; while as to Ronald, his sweet brown eyes looked full up into the face of every gentleman who passed, in the faint hope of discovering his father again.
It seemed to Connie that they were out longer than usual; but at last they did come back. Then, to their great surprise, they found the door of Mammy Warren's sitting-room wide opened.
"My word! 'ow can this 'ave 'appened?" said Agnes.
They all went in, and Agnes went straight to the bedroom. She came out presently, wearing a very grave face, and told the children that she greatly feared poor Mammy Warren had gone off her head with grief—that there wasn't a sign of her in the bedroom, nor anywhere in the house.
"And she's took her things, too," said Agnes. "Wull, now—wull, I must go and search for her. Yer dinner's in the oven, children, and I'll come back to see 'ow yer be sometime to-night, p'rhaps."
"Wull Mammy Warren come back to-night?" asked Connie.
"I don't know—maybe the poor soul is in the river by now. She wor took wery bad, thinkin' of her sister, Georgina. I'll lock yer in, of course, children, and yer can eat yer dinner and think o' yer mercies."
When Agnes went out the two children stared at each other.
"Connie," said Ronald, "I wish you'd tell me the real, real truth."
But Connie was trembling very much. "Don't yer ax me," she said. She suddenly burst into tears. "I am so dreadfully frightened," she cried. "I don't think I ever wor so frightened in all my life before. You're not half so frightened as I am, Ronald."
"Of course not," said Ronald, "for I am a boy, you see, and I'll be a man by-and-by. Besides, I have to think of father—father would have gone through anything. Once he was in a shipwreck. The ship was really wrecked, and a great many of the passengers were drowned. Father told me all about it, but it was from a friend of father's that I learned afterwards how splendid he was, saving—oh, heaps of people! It was that night," continued Ronald, sitting down by the fire as he spoke, his eyes glowing with a great thought, and his little face all lit up by the fire-light—"it was that night that he first found out how much he loved mother; for mother was in a great big Atlantic liner, and it was father who saved her life. Afterwards they were married to each other, and afterwards I came to them—God sent me, you know."
"Yus," said Connie.
She dried her eyes.
"Go on talking, Ronald," she said. "I never met a boy like you. I thought there were no one like Giles, but it seems to me some'ow that you're a bit better—you're so wonnerful, wonnerful brave, and 'ave such a cunnin' way of talkin'. I s'pose that's 'cos you—you're a little gen'leman, Ronald."
Ronald made no answer to this. After a minute he said:
"There's no thanks to me to be brave—that is, when I'm brave it's all on account of father, and 'Like father, like son.' Mother used to teach me that proverb when I was very small. Shall I tell you other things that father did?"
"Oh yus, please," said Connie.
"He saved some people once in a great big fire. No one else had courage to go in, but he wasn't afraid of anything. And another time he saved a man on the field of battle. He got his V. C. for that."
"Wotever's a V. C.?" inquired Connie.
"Oh," said Ronald, "don't you even know that? How very ignorant you are, dear Connie. A V. C.—why, it's better to be a Victoria Cross man than to be the greatest noble in the land. Even the King couldn't be more than a Victoria Cross man."
"Still, I don't understand," said Connie.
"It's an honor," said Ronald, "that's given for a very, very brave deed. Father had it; when he comes back he'll show you his Victoria Cross; then you'll know."
"Do yer think as he'll come soon?" asked Connie.
"He may come to-day," said Ronald—"or he may not," he added, with a profound sigh.
The little boy had been talking with great excitement, but now the color faded from his cheeks and he coughed a little. He had coughed more or less since that dreadful day when Mrs. Warren had taken him out in the snowstorm. He was always rather a delicate child, and after his bad fever he was not fit to encounter such misery and hardship.
"Connie," he said after a time, "it's the worst of all dreadful things, isn't it, to pretend that you are what you aren't?"
"What do yer mean by that?" asked Connie.
"Well, it's this way. You praise me for being brave. I am not brave always; I am very frightened sometimes. I am very terribly frightened now, dear Connie."
"Oh Ronald!" said Connie, "if you're frightened hall's hup."
"Let me tell you," said Ronald. He laid his little, thin hand on the girl's arm. "It's about father. Do you think, Connie, that Mammy Warren could have invented that story about him?"
"I dunno," said Connie.
"But what do you think, Connie? Tell me just what you think."
"Tell me what you think, Ronald."
"I am afraid to think," said the child. "At first I believed it, just as though father had spoken himself to me. I thought for sure and certain he'd be waiting for me here. I didn't think for a single moment that he'd be the sort of father that would come and stand outside in the landing and go away again just because I wasn't here. For, you see, I am his own little boy; I am all he has got. I know father so well, I don't believe he could do that kind of thing."
"Oh, but you can't say," answered Connie. "Certain sure, it seemed as though Agnes spoke the truth."
"I thought that too; only father's a very refined sort of man, and he'd never, never chuck Mrs. Warren under the chin."
"Agnes might have invented that part," said poor Connie. But in her heart of hearts she had long ago given up all hope of Ronald's father coming to fetch him.
"She might," said Ronald; "that is quite true; and he might have had to go to the country—perhaps to rescue some one in great danger. He is the sort who are always doing that. That's quite, quite likely, for it would be in keeping with father's way. And he'd like me, of course, to be unselfish, and never to make a fuss—he hated boys who made a fuss. Oh yes, I did believe it; and on Saturday night and on Sunday, when Big Ben talked to us, it seemed that it was mother telling me that father would soon be with me. But a whole week has gone and he hasn't come. Why, it's Saturday night again, Connie. I've been back again in this house for a whole week now, and father has never, never come."
"Maybe he'll come to-night," said Connie.
"I don't think so; somehow I'd sort of feel it in my bones if he was coming back."
"What do yer mean by that?" said Connie.
"Oh, I'd be springy-like and jumpy about. But I'm not. I feel—oh, so lazy and so—so tired! and a little bit—yes, a greatbit—frightened—terribly frightened."
"You must cheer up, Ronald," said Connie. Then she added, "I wish we could get out o' this. I wish I could pick the lock and get aw'y."
"Oh, I wish you could, Connie," said the child. "Couldn't you try?"
"I'm a'most afeered to go into Mammy Warren's room," said Connie; "for ef she did come back and see me any time, she'd punish me awful; but p'r'aps I might find tools for picking the lock in her room."
"Oh, do let's try!" said Ronald.
Connie half-rose, then sat down again.
"It's me that's the coward now," she said.
"Oh, how so, Connie?"
"'Cos," said Connie, "there's that dark room with no winder—'tain't a dream, Ronald."
"I thought it wasn't," said Ronald, turning white.
"No—it's there," said Connie, "and I'm afeered o' it."
Ronald sat very still for a minute then. He was thinking hard. He was only a little boy of ten years old, but he was a very plucky one. He looked at Connie, who although a little older than he, was very slight and small for her age.
"Connie," he said, "if you and I are ever to make our escape we must not be frightened. Even the dark closet won't frighten me now. I am going into Mrs. Warren's room."
"Oh Ronald! Are you? Dare you?"
"Yes, I dare. Father did worse things than that—why should I be afraid?"
"You'd win the V. C., Ronald, wouldn't you, now?"
"Not for such a little, little thing. But perhaps some day," he said; and his eyes looked very bright. "Connie, if we can unpick the lock and get the door open, where shall we go?"
"We'll go," said Connie in a brisk voice, "back to Father John as fast as ever we can."
"Father John," said Ronald—"who is he?"
"I told you, Ronnie—I told you about him."
"I forgot for a minute," said Ronald. "You mean the street preacher."
"Yus," said Connie. "'E'll save us. There's no fear o' Mammy Warren getting to us ever again ef he takes us in 'and."
"The only thing I'm afraid of is this," he said—"that if it's true about father, he may come here and find me gone."
"Let's leave a note for him," said Connie then. "Let's put it on the table. If Mammy Warren should come back she'll find the note, but that won't do any harm, for she knows Father John, and she's awful afeered of him, 'cos she said as much, so she'd never follow us there."
"The very thing!" said Ronald. "Let's get some paper. Will you write the note, Connie?"
The children poked round in the sitting-room, and found a sheet of very thin paper, and an old pen, and a penny bottle of ink. Ronald dictated, and Connie wrote:
"DEAR FATHER,—I've waited here for a week. I am trying to be very brave. Connie's an awful nice girl. We've picked the lock here, father, and we've gone to Father John, in Adam Street. Please come quick, for your little boy is so very hungry for you. Come quick, darling father.—Your little waiting boy, RONALD."
"That'll bring him," said Ronald. "We'll put it on the table."
Connie had written her letter badly, and there were several blots; but still a feat was accomplished. Her cheeks were bright with excitement now.
"What shall I put outside?" she asked—"on the envelope, I mean."
Ronald thought for a minute; then he said in a slow and impressive voice:
"To Major Harvey, V. C., from Ronald."
"Nobody can mistake who it's meant for," said Ronald.
"Here's a bit of sealing-wax," said Connie. "Let's seal it."
They did so, Connie stamping the seal with a penny thimble which she took out of her pocket.
"And now," said Ronald, pulling himself up, "all is ready, and I am going into Mammy Warren's room to try and find tools for picking the lock."
"I'm a-goin' with yer," said Connie.
"Oh Connie, that is brave of you."
"No," said Connie, "it 'ud be real cowardly to let yer go alone."
Hand in hand the two children crossed the ugly sitting-room, and opened the door which led into that mysterious apartment known as Mammy Warren's room. It certainly was a very strange-looking place. There was no bed to be seen anywhere, which in itself was surprising. But Connie explained to Ronald that the huge wooden wardrobe was doubtless a press-bed which let down at night.
"She'd keep all kinds of things at the back of the bed," said the practical Connie, who had seen several similar arrangements in the houses of the poor.
This room, however, although ugly and dark—very dark—seemed to be suspiciously bare. The children had turned on the gas—for evening had already arrived—and they could see with great distinctness.
Mammy Warren owned the upper part of this tenement-house, and no one ever came up the creaking stairs except to visit her. The children therefore knew that if there was a footstep they would be in danger. Connie, however, assured Ronald that she could put out the light and be innocently seated by the fire if Mammy Warren did arrive unexpectedly.
All was silence, however, on the creaking stairs, and they were able to resume their search. The chest of drawers stood with all its drawers open and each one of them empty. No sort of tool could the children find. The yellow and black silk dress had disappeared, but the disreputable old beggar's clothes hung on the peg behind the door. There was also a very ancient bonnet, which was hung by its strings over the dress. Otherwise there was not a scrap of anything whatever in the room except the press bedstead, which the children could not possibly open, and the empty chest of drawers.
"But here," said Connie, "is a door. P'rhaps it's a cupboard door."
"Let's try if it will open," said Ronald.
He turned the handle. The door shot back with a spring, and the boy's face turned pale.
"The dark closet!" said Connie. "The dark, dark room without a winder!"
Ronald caught hold of Connie's hand and squeezed it tightly. After a minute he said in a husky voice:
Connie shut the mysterious closet door. The children turned out the gas in Mammy Warren's bedroom, and went back to the sitting-room. Here they crouched down, pale and trembling, before the fire.
"Don't, Ronnie—don't," said Connie.
"Hold me very tight, Connie," said the little boy.
She did so, pressing him to her heart and kissing his little face. After a minute tears came to his eyes, and he said in a sturdy tone:
"Now I am better. It was wrong of me to be so frightened."
"Hark—there's the Woice!" said Connie.
They sat very still while Big Ben proclaimed the hour of nine.
"What does he say?" asked Ronald, turning round and looking at Connie.
"I know," said Connie, a light on her pretty face. "Father John preached on it once. I know wot Big Ben's a-sayin' of to-night."
"Tell me," said Ronald.
"He that shall endure," said Connie. "Yes, Connie," repeated Ronald—"'He that shall endure'——"
"To the end," said Connie, "shall be saved," she added.
"Oh Connie!" cried the boy. "Do you really, really think so?"
"Father John says it, and Father John couldn't tell a lie," continued the girl. "He says that is one of God's promises, and God never made a mistake. 'He that shall endure to the end—shall be saved.'"
"Then," said Ronald, "if we endure we shall be saved."
"Yes," replied Connie.
"You're not frightened, then?"
"Not after that," said Connie.
"How can you tell that was what Big Ben said?"
"'Eard him," said Connie.
She unclasped Ronald's arms from her neck and stood up.
"I'm better," she said; "I'm not frightened no more. Sometimes it's 'ard to endure—Father John says it is. But ''E that shall endure to the end'—to the end—he made a great p'int o' that—'shall be saved.'"
"Then we'll be saved," said Ronald.
"Yus," answered Connie.
She looked down at the little boy. The boy was gazing into the fire and smiling. Connie put on some fresh lumps of coal, and the fire broke into a cheerful blaze. It did not matter at all to the good coal whether it burned out its heart in an attic or a palace; wherever it was put to do its duty, it did it. Now gay little flames and cheerful bursts of bubbling gas rendered even the hideous room bright.
"W'y, it's long past tea!" said Connie. "I'll put on the kettle and we'll have our tea, Ronald. Maybe Aggie'll be back in a minute, and maybe she'd like a cup o' tea."
Connie put on the kettle, and then went to the cupboard to get out the provisions. These were exceedingly short. There was little more than a heel of very stale bread, and no butter, and only a scrape of jam; but there was a little tea in the bottom of the tea-canister, and a little coarse brown sugar in a cup.
Connie laid the table quite cheerfully.
"We'll toast the bread," she said. "Tea and toast is famous food."
She got an old, bent toasting-fork, and she and Ronald laughed and even joked a little as they browned the stale bread until it was quite crisp and tempting-looking.
"I'd ever so much rather have this tea than a great, big, grand one with Mammy Warren," said Connie.
"Yes, Connie," said the boy; "so would I."
They had no milk with their tea, but that was, after all but a small circumstance. They scraped out the jam-pot and spread its contents on the hot toast, and contrived to enjoy the slender meal to the utmost.
Ronald said nothing about breakfast the next morning; he doubtless did not even give it a thought. But Connie remembered it well, although she took care not to allude to it.
Ten o'clock struck, and still Agnes did not appear. Eleven, twelve—and no sign either of Mammy Warren or the girl.
"Shall we go to bed?" said Ronald.
"Let's bring our beds and lay 'em on the floor," said Connie, "in this room. Some'ow I don't think as Mammy Warren 'ull come back to-night. She wouldn't 'ave tuk all her things ef she meant to come; would she, Ronald?"
"I don't know," said Ronald. He was very sleepy, for the hour was terribly late for so young a child to be awake.
After a little reflection Connie decided only to drag his bed into the front room. She could lie on the floor by his side, wrapped up in a blanket. The fire was built up with the last scrap of coal in the hod, and then Ronald lay down without undressing. Connie begged of him to take off his clothes, but he said to her:
"Maybe father'll come in the middle of the night. I somehow feel as if something must happen to-night, and I don't want not to be ready."
Connie therefore only removed his shoes. She tucked the blankets round him, and said, "Good-night, Ronnie."
"What is that verse?" asked Ronald again. "'He that shall endure to the end'——"
"'Shall be saved,'" finished Connie.
When she came to these words she noticed that little Ronald was sound asleep. Connie changed her mind about lying down. She sat on the floor by the boy's side, laid her head on the pillow close to his, and also dropped asleep.
Big Ben called out the hour but the children slept. Perhaps the Voice spoke to them in their dreams, for they smiled now and then. Doubtless they were far away in those dreams from the dreadful attic, from the influence of a most cruel woman, from hunger and cold. The fire burned to a fine red glow, and then cooled down and grew gray and full of ashes, and eventually went out. For it had burned its heart out trying to help the children; and without a heart, even fire cannot keep alive.
But the two children slept on, although Ronald now stirred uneasily and coughed in his sleep. It seemed to Connie that she also was oppressed by something, as though a great and terrible nightmare were sitting on her chest. Ronald coughed louder and opened his eyes.
"Connie, Connie—where are we?" he cried.
Connie sat up with a stare.
"I be stiff," she began, "and—and cold. Wotever's the hour? Bide a bit, Ronald, and I'll find the matches and turn on the gas."
"What's the matter with the room?" said Ronald.
"I don't know nothing," said Connie.
"My eyes smart," said Ronald, "and I can't breathe."
"I feel queer too," said Connie. "I won't be a second finding out, though. You lie quiet."
She groped about, found a match-box, which still contained a few matches, struck a light, and applied it to the gas, which was at full pressure now, and roared out, making a great flame.
"W'y, the room's full o' smoke," said Connie. "Wottever can it be?"
Ronald sat up in bed, opening his eyes.
"Where does it come from?" he said. "The fire is out."
Just then Big Ben proclaimed the hour of three.
"He that shall endure," thought Connie. "To the end," darted through Ronald's mind; and just then both children heard an unmistakable and awful roar. Was it the roar of human voices or the roar of something else—a devouring and awful element? Connie turned white. Now, if ever, was the time to be brave.
"I'll open the winder and look out," she said.
She sprang towards it and, with a great effort, pushed it half up. The moment she did so, the noise from without came louder, and the noise from within was more deafening.
"Fire! fire!" shouted a multitude of people from below in the street; and "Fire! fire!" cried the frenzied inhabitants of the old tenement-house. Connie and Ronald were on the top story. Connie went back to Ronald.
"The house is on fire, Ronnie!" she said. "But we mustn't be frightened, either of us; we must think of the grand verse, and of what Big Ben said. Big Ben's an angel, you mind; Giles knows all about that."
"Oh yes," said Ronald, his teeth chattering; for the draught from the open window, although it relieved his breathing, made him intensely cold. "It's a beautiful verse, isn't it, Connie?" he continued.
"Yus," said Connie. "Let's get to the winder, Ronnie dear. We'll call out. There are people down in the street. The fire-engines 'ull be on in a minute; we'll be saved, in course."
"Oh, of course," said Ronnie. He staggered to the floor, and put his feet into his shoes. "A good thing I wasn't undressed," he said.
"Yus," said Connie. "Now, let's get to the winder."
The children staggered there. The smoke was getting more dense; the room was filling faster and faster with the horrible, blinding, suffocating thing. But at the window there was relief. Connie put out her head for a minute, and then quickly drew it back.
"There's flames burstin' out o' the winders," she said. "I wish as the firemen 'ud come."
The children clung to one another. Just then, above the roar of the flames and the screams of the people, something else was distinctly audible. The fast approach of horses; the gallant figures of men in brass helmets: the brave firemen—members of the noblest brigade in the world—were on the spot.
"It's hall right," said Connie. "They've come. Don't yer be a bit frightened, Ronnie; we'll soon be out o' this. You ax Giles w'en you see him wot 'e thinks o' firemen. 'Es father were one. Oh, there's no fear now that they've come!"
She pressed close to the window and put out her head and shoulders. Ronald did likewise. The men out in the street were acting promptly. The hose were brought to bear on the increasing flames. But all to no purpose; the house was past saving. Was any one within?
"No," said a woman down in the crowd; "hevery soul is out, even to my last biby—bless him!"
She gave a hysterical cry, and sat down on a neighboring doorstep.
But the firemen of the London Brigade are very careful to ascertain for themselves whether there is any likelihood of loss of life.
"Has any one come down from the top floor?" asked a tall young man. He had a splendid figure—broad, square shoulders, and a light and athletic frame—which showed at once that he was the very best possible sort of fireman.
Just then the flames burst out more brightly than ever, and Connie, with her fair hair surrounding her little face, and Ronald clinging to her hand, were both distinctly seen.
"My God!" cried the firemen, "there are children up there. Put the escape up at once—don't lose an instant—I am going up to them."
"You can't; it's certain death," said one or two. Several other voices were also raised in expostulation. But if any one in that crowd supposed that they were going to turn George Anderson, the bravest fireman in London, from his purpose, they were mistaken.
"That little angel face, and the face of the boy by her side!" he said once or twice under his breath. And then up and up he went—up and up—the children in the burning room (for the flames had broken out behind them now) watching and watching. His fear was that they might fall from their perilous position. But they had both crept out on to the window-ledge.
"Courage, courage!" he shouted to them. "Hold tight—I'll be there in a minute!"
"The window is so hot!" gasped Connie.
"Think—think of the Voice," whispered Ronald.
He closed his eyes. In another minute he would have been beyond all earthly succor, and up in those beautiful realms where angels live, and his mother would meet him. But this was not to be.
In less than an instant a firm hand rescued the two children from their perilous position, and they were brought down to the ground uninjured. Ronald fainted in that descent, but Connie kept her consciousness. They were out of Mammy Warren's awful house. She had a queer sense as though she had been delivered from a worse danger even than fire.
People crowded round, and presently the tall fireman came up.
"What is your name?" he said to Connie.
"Connie," she replied.
"Well, Connie," he answered, "it was the sight of your beautiful face in the window that gave me courage to save yer. Now, do you want to have a shelter for yourself and your little brother to-night?'
"Thank you, sir," said Connie. The man pulled a card—it looked just like a gentleman's visiting card—out of his pocket.
"Will you take that," he said, "to No. 12 Carlyle Terrace? It's just round the corner. Take your little brother with you. There are two bells to the house. Look for the one that has the word 'Night' written under it. It used to be a doctor's house, but there's no doctor there now. My mother will understand—give her that card, and tell her what has happened. Good night."
He turned away. It was some time before Connie and Ronald could get rid of the many neighbors who volunteered help, and who regarded the two pretty children as the hero and heroine of the hour. Offers of a shake-down for the night, of a hasty meal, of a warm fire, came to Connie from all sorts of people. But she had made up her mind to follow out the directions of the tall fireman, and saying that she had friends at No. 12 Carlyle Terrace, she and Ronald soon started off to go to the address the fireman had given them.
They were both too excited to feel the effects of all they had gone through at first, but when they reached the house, and Connie pressed the button of the bell which had the word "Night" written under it, she was trembling exceedingly.
"Why are we coming here?" asked Ronald.
"I dunno," said Connie. "Seems as though a hangel was with us all the time."
"I expect so," answered Ronald in a very weak voice.
"And," continued Connie, "he's a-leadin' of us 'ere."
They had pressed the bell, and quickly—wonderfully quickly—they heard steps running down the stairs; and the door was opened by a tall woman—very tall and very thin—with a beautiful pale face and soft motherly eyes.
"What is it?" she asked. "What is the matter? Oh, my poor little dears! And how you smell of fire! Have you been in a fire?"
"Please, ma'am," said Connie, "be yer the mother o' Mr. George Anderson—the bravest fireman, ma'am? He told me to give yer this card, ma'am."
"I am Mrs. Anderson. Oh, of course, if he's sent you——"
"'E saved us from the fire, ma'am," said Connie.
"Come in, you poor little things," said Mrs Anderson. She drew the children in; she shut the door behind them. It seemed to Connie when that door shut that it shut out sorrow and pain and hunger and cold; for within the house there was warmth—not only warmth for frozen little bodies, but for tired souls.
Mrs. Anderson was one of the most motherly women in London; and George, her son, knew what he was about when he sent the children to her.
Soon they were revived with warm baths and with hot port-wine and water, and very soon afterwards they were both lying in beds covered with linen sheets that felt soft and fine as silk. But Mrs. Anderson sat by them both while they slept, for she did not like the look on the boy's face, and felt very much afraid of the shock for him.
"The little girl can stand more," she said to herself. "She's a beautiful little creature, but she's a child of the people. She has been accustomed to hardships all her life; but with the boy it's different—he's a gentleman by birth. Something very cruel has happened to him, poor little lad! and this seems to be the final straw."
Mrs. Anderson was a very wise woman, and her fears with regard to little Ronald were all too quickly realized. By the morning the boy was in a high state of fever. A doctor was summoned, and Mrs. Anderson herself nursed him day and night. Connie begged to be allowed to remain, and her request was granted.
"For the present you shall stay with me," said Mrs. Anderson. "I don't know your story, nor the story of this little fellow, but I am determined to save his life if I can."
"I can tell yer something," said Connie. "Little Ronald's a real gent—'e's the son of a hofficer in 'Is Majesty's harmy, an' the hofficer's name is Major Harvey, V. C."
"What?" cried Mrs. Anderson. She started back in amazement. "Why, I knew him and his wife," she said. "I know he was killed in South Africa, and I know his dear wife died about a year ago. Why, I've been looking for this child. Is your story quite true, little girl?"
"Yus, it's quite true," said Connie. "But tell me—do tell me—is his father really dead?"
"I fear so. It is true that his death was not absolutely confirmed; but he has been missing for over two years."
"Ma'am," said Connie, "wot do yer mean by his death not bein' confirmed?"
"I mean this, little girl," said Mrs. Anderson—"that his body was never found."
"Then he ain't dead," said Connie.
"What do you mean?"
"I feel it in my bones," said Connie, "same as Ronald felt it in his bones. 'E ain't dead."
Mrs. Anderson laid her hand on the girl's pretty hair.
"I am getting in a real trained nurse to look after Ronald Harvey," she said. "If he's the son of my old friend, more than ever is he my care now; and you this evening, little Connie, shall tell me your story."
This Connie did. When she had described all that had occurred to her during the last few weeks, Mrs. Anderson was so amazed that she could hardly speak.
"My poor child!" she said. "You can't guess what terrible dangers you've escaped. That dreadful woman was, without doubt, a member of a large gang of burglars. Several have been arrested within the last day or two, and I have no doubt we shall hear of her soon at the police courts."
"Burglars?" said Connie—"burglars? Them be thieves, bean't they?"
"But what could she do with us?" said Connie.
"She used you for her own purposes. While people were looking at you, she was doubtless picking their pockets. Don't think any more about it, dear, only be thankful that you have escaped. And now, don't you feel very anxious about your father and your old friends?"
"Yus," said Connie. "I'd like to go home. I'd like them to know once for all what happened."
"Would you like to go back to-night? You can return to me, you know. I shall be up with Ronald until far into the night."
Connie rose swiftly.
"You're not afraid of the streets, my poor little child?"
"Oh no, ma'am. I'm only quite an ordinary girl. I ha' learnt my lesson," continued Connie. "I were real discontent wid my life at the factory, but I'll be discontent no more."
"You had a sharp lesson," said Mrs. Anderson. "I think God wants you to be a particularly good and a particularly brave woman, or He wouldn't have let you go through so much."
"Yes, ma'am," answered Connie; "and I'll try 'ard to be good and brave."
While Connie was going through such strange adventures in Mammy Warren's attic room, her father, Giles, and Sue, and dear Father John were nearly distracted about her.
Peter Harris was a rough, fierce, unkempt individual. He was fond of drink. He was not at all easily impressed by good things; but, as has been said before, if he had one tender spot in his heart it was for Connie. When he drank he was dreadfully unkind to his child; but in his sober moments there was nothing he would not do for the pretty, motherless girl.
As day after day passed without his seeing her, he got nearly frantic with anxiety. At first he tried to make nothing of her disappearance, saying that the girl had doubtless gone to visit some friends; but when a few days went by and there were no tidings of her, and Sue assured him that she not only never appeared now at the great warehouse in Cheapside where they used to work together, but also that she had been seen last with Agnes Coppenger, and that Agnes Coppenger had also disappeared from her work at the sewing-machine, he began to fear that something bad had happened.
Father John was consulted, and Father John advised the necessity of at once acquainting the police. But although the police did their best, they could get no trace whatever either of Agnes or of Connie.
Thus the days passed, and Connie's friends were very unhappy about her. Her absence had a bad effect on Peter, who, from his state of grief and uneasiness, had taken more and more consolation out of the gin-palace which he was fond of frequenting. Every night now he came home tipsy, and the neighbors were afraid to go near. Soon he began to abuse Connie, to say unkind things about her, and to fly into a passion with any neighbor who mentioned her name.
Giles shed silent tears for his old playmate, and even the voice of Big Ben hardly comforted him, so much did he miss the genial companionship of pretty Connie. But now at last the girl herself was going home. She had no fear. She was full of a wild and yet terrible delight. How often she had longed for her father! Connie had a great deal of imagination, and during the dreadful time spent at Mother Warren's, and in especial since Ronald had come, she began to compare her father with Ronald's, and gradually but surely to forget the cruel and terrible scenes when that father was drunk, and to think of him only in his best moments when he kissed her and petted her and called her his dear little motherless girl.
Oh, he would be glad to see her now! He would rejoice in her company.
Connie quickly found the old house in Adam Street, and ran up the stairs. One or two people recognized her, and said, "Hullo, Con! you back?" but being too busy with their struggle for life, did not show any undue curiosity.
"Is my father in?" asked Connie of one.
The man said, "He be." And then he added, "Yer'd best be careful. He ain't, to say, in his pleasantest mood to-night."
Connie reached the well-known landing. She turned the handle of the door. It was locked. She heard some one moving within. Then a rough voice said:
"Get out o' that!"
"It's me, father!" called Connie back. "It's Connie!"
"Don't want yer—get away!" said the voice.
Connie knelt down and called through the keyhole:
"It's me—I've 'ad a dreadful time—let me in."
"Go 'way—don't want yer—get out o' this!"
"Oh father—father!" called Connie. She began to sob. After all her dreams, after all her longings, after all her cruel trials—to be treated like this, and by her father! It seemed to shake her very belief in fathers, even in the great Father of all.
"Please—please—I'm jest wanting yer awfu' bad!" she pleaded.
Her gentle and moving voice—that voice for which Peter Harris, when sober and in his right mind, so starved to hear again—now acted upon him in quite the opposite direction. He had not taken enough to make him stupid, only enough to rouse his worst passions. He strode across the room, flung the door wide, and lifting Connie from her knees, said to her:
"Listen. You left me without rhyme or reason—not even a word or a thought. I sorrowed for yer till I turned to 'ate yer! Now then, get out o' this. I don't want yer, niver no more. Go down them stairs, unless yer want me to push yer down. Go 'way—and be quick!"
There was a scowl on his angry face, a ferocious look in his eyes. Connie turned quite gently, and without any apparent anger went downstairs.
"Ah!" said a man in the street, "thought yer wouldn't stay long."
"He's wery bad," said Connie. She walked slowly, as though her heart were bleeding, down Adam Street until she came to the house where Father John Atkins lived.
It was a little house, much smaller than its neighbors. Father John's room was on the ground floor. She knocked at the door. There was no answer. She turned the handle: it yielded to her pressure. She went in, sank down on the nearest chair, and covered her face with both her hands.
She was trembling exceedingly. The shock of her father's treatment was far greater than she could well bear in her present weak and over-excited condition. She had gone through—oh, so much—so very much! That awful time with Mammy Warren; her anxiety with regard to little Ronald; and then that final, awful, never-to-be-forgotten day, that night which was surely like no other night that had ever dawned on the world—the noise of the gathering flames, the terrific roar they made through the old building; the shouts of the people down below; the heat, the smoke, the pain, the cruel, cruel fear; and then last but not least—the deliverance!
When that gallant fireman appeared, it seemed to both Connie and Ronald as though the gates of heaven had opened, and they had been taken straight away from the pains of hell into the glories of the blest. But all these things told on the nerves, and when Connie now had been turned away from her father's door, she was absolutely unfit for such treatment.
When she reached Father John's she was as weak and miserable a poor little girl as could found anywhere in London.
"My dear! my dear!" said the kind voice—the sort of voice that always thrilled the hearts of those who listened to him. A hand was laid on the weeping girl's shoulder. "Look up," said the voice again. Then there was a startled cry, an exclamation of the purest pleasure.
"Why Connie—my dear Connie—the good Lord has heard our prayers and has sent you back again!"
"Don't matter," said Connie, sobbing on, quite impervious to the kindness, quite unmoved by the sympathy. "There ain't no Father 'chart 'eaven," she continued. "I don't believe in 'Im no more. There ain't no Father, and no Jesus Christ. Ef there were, my own father wouldn't treat me so bitter cruel."
"Come, Connie," said the preacher, "you know quite well that you don't mean those dreadful words. Sit down now by the cosy fire; sit in my own little chair, and I'll talk to you, my child. Why, Connie, can't you guess that we've been praying for you?"
"Don't matter," whispered Connie again.
The preacher looked at her attentively. He put his kind hand for a minute on her forehead, and then, with that marvellous knowledge which he possessed of the human heart and the human needs, he said nothing for the time being. Connie was not fit to argue, and he knew she was worn-out. He got her to sit in the old arm-chair, and to lay her golden head against a soft cushion, and then he prepared coffee—strong coffee—both for her and himself.
It was late, and he was deadly tired. He had been up all the night before. It was his custom often to spend his nights in this fashion; for, as he was fond of expressing it, the Divine Master seemed to have more work for him to do at night than in the daytime.
"There are plenty of others to help in the daytime," thought Father John, "but in the darkness the sin and the shame are past talking about. If I can lift a burden from one heart, and help one poor suffering soul, surely that is the best night's rest I can attain to."
Last night he had put a drunken woman to bed. He had found her on a doorstep, and had managed, notwithstanding his small stature and slender frame, to drag her upstairs. There her terrified children met him. He managed to get them into a calm state of mind, and then induced them to help him for all they were worth. The great, bulky woman was undressed and put into bed. She slept, and snored loudly, and the children crowded round. He made them also go to bed, and went away, promising to call in the morning.
He did so. The woman was awake, conscious, and bitterly ashamed. He spoke to her as he alone knew how, and, before he left, induced her to go with him to take the pledge. He then gave her a little money out of his slender earnings to get a meal for the children, and spent the rest of the day trying to get fresh employment for her. She had been thrown out of work by her misdemeanors; but Father John was a power, and more than one lady promised to try Mrs. Simpkins once again. The little preacher was, therefore, more tired than his wont. He bent over Connie. She drank her coffee, and, soothed by his presence, became calmer herself.
"Now then," he said, "you will tell me everything. Why did you run away?"
"'Cos I were tired o' machine-work. But, oh, Father John! I niver, niver meant to stay aw'y. I jest thought as I were to get a nice new situation; I niver guessed as it 'ud be a prison." Connie then told her story, with many gaps and pauses.
"You see," said Father John when she had finished, "that when you took the management of your own life into your own hands you did a very dangerous thing. God was guiding you, and you thought you could do without Him. You have been punished."
"Yus," said Connie. "I'll niver be the same again."
"I hope, indeed, that you will not be the same. You have gone through marvellous adventures, and but for God Himself you would not now be in the world. It is not only your pain and misery that you have to consider, but you have also to think of the pain and misery you inflicted on others."
"No," said Connie defiantly, "that I won't do. I thought father 'ud care, but he turned me from 'ome."
"He did care, Connie. I never knew any one so distracted. He cared so terribly, and was so sore about you, that he took to drink to drown his pain. In the morning, when he is sober, you will see what a welcome he will give you."
"No," said Connie, shaking her head.
"But I say he will. He will help you, and he will be a father to you. I will take you to him myself in the morning."
Connie did not say anything more. When she had finished her coffee, the preacher suggested that he should take her to Sue and Giles. The girl looked at him wildly. In telling her story, she had never mentioned the name of the lady who had taken her in, nor the name of the brave fireman who had befriended her. But now Father John boldly asked her for these particulars. Her little face flushed and she looked up defiantly.
"I dunnut want to give 'em," she said.
"But I ask you for them, Connie," said the preacher.
Connie could no more withstand Father John's authoritative tone than she could fly. After a minute's pause she did tell what she knew, and Father John wrote Mrs. Anderson's address down in his note-book.
"Now then, Connie," he said, rising, "you're better. Sue and Giles will be so glad to see you once more! Come, dear; let me take you to them."
Connie stood up. There was a curious, wild light in her eyes; but she avoided looking at the street preacher, and he did not observe it. Had he done so he would have been more careful.
The two went out into the street together. It was now getting really late. The distance between the preacher's room and the humble lodgings where Sue and Giles lived was no great way, but to reach the home of the little Giles they had to pass some very ill-favored courts. At one of these Connie suddenly saw a face she knew. She started, trembling, and would have fled on had not a hand been raised to warning lips. The preacher at that instant was stopped by a man who wanted to ask him a question with regard to a child of his whom Father John was trying to find employment for.
Before he knew what had happened, Connie's hand was dragged from his. The girl uttered a slight cry, and the next minute was enveloped in the darkness of one of the worst courts in the whole of London.
"Quiet—quiet!" said a voice. "Don't you let out one sound or you'll niver speak no more. It's me—Agnes. I won't do yer no 'arm ef ye're quiet. Come along with me now."
Connie went, for she could not do anything else. Her feelings were absolutely confused. She did not know at that fearful moment whether she was glad or sorry to be back with Agnes Coppenger again. She only felt a sense of relief at having slipped away from Father John, and at having, as she thought, parted from her own cruel father.
"Oh Agnes!" she whispered, "hide me; and don't—don't take me back to Mammy Warren!"
"Bless yer!" said Agnes, "she's coped by the perlice. Mammy Warren's awaiting her trial in the 'Ouse of Detention; yer won't be worried by her no more."
"W'ere are yer taking me, then, Agnes?"
"'Ome—to my 'ouse, my dear."
"Yer'll promise to let me go in the morning?"
"Safe an' sure I will—that is, ef yer want to go."
Agnes was now walking so fast that Connie had the utmost difficulty in keeping up with her. She seemed all the time to be dodging, getting into shadows, avoiding lights, turning rapidly round corners, making the most marvellous short cuts, until at last—at last—she reached a very tall house, much taller than the one where Mammy Warren had lived. She made a peculiar whistle when she got there. The door was opened by a boy of about Connie's age.
"'Ere we be, Freckles," said Agnes; "and I ha' got the beautiful and saintly Connie back again."
"Hurrah for saintly Connie!" cried Freckles.
The two girls were dragged in by a pair of strong hands, and Connie found herself in utter darkness, descending some slippery stairs—into what depths she had not the slightest idea.
"These are the cellars," said Agnes when at last a door was flung open, and she found herself in a very poorly lit apartment with scarcely any furniture. "You was in hattics before," continued Agnes; "now ye're in the cellars. Yer didn't greatly take to kind Mammy Warren, but perhaps yer'll like Simeon Stylites better. He's a rare good man is Simeon—wery pious too. He sets afore him a saint o' the olden days, an' tries to live accordin'. He ain't in yet, so yer can set down and take things heasy."
Connie sat down.
"I'm that frightened!" she said. Agnes began to laugh.
"Sakes!" she exclaimed, "you ha' no cause. Simeon's a real feeling man, and he's allers kind to pore gels, more particular ef they 'appen to be purty."
Agnes now proceeded to light a fire in a huge, old-fashioned grate. There seemed to be abundance of coal. She built the fire up high, and when it roared up the chimney she desired Connie to draw near.
"You ain't got over yer fright yet," she began.
"Don't talk of it," said Connie.
"I guess as I won't—yer do look piquey. 'Ow's the other kid?"
Agnes laughed and winked. After a minute she said,
"Yer needn't tell me. 'E's with Mrs. Anderson, mother o' the fireman. The fireman—'e's a real 'andsome man—I can tike to that sort myself. The kid's wery bad, he is. Wull, ef he dies it'll be a pity, for he 'ave the makings in 'im of a first-rate perfessional."
"Perfessional?" said Connie.
"Yus—ef he lives 'e'll be one. Simeon Stylites 'ull see to that. You'll be a perfessional, too. There's no use in these 'ere days bein' anything of an amattur; yer must be a perfessional or yer can't earn yer bread."
"I don't understand," said Connie.
"Sakes! you be stupid. It's good to open yer heyes now. Wot do yer think Mammy Warren wanted yer for?"
"I never could tell, only Mrs. Anderson said——"
"Yus—tell us wot she said. She's a torf—let's get 'er idees on the subjeck."
"I won't tell yer," said Connie.
"Oh—that's yer little gime! Wull—I don't keer—I'll tell yer from my p'int o' view. Mammy Warren wanted yer—not for love—don't think no sech thing—but jest 'cos she could make you a sort o' decoy-duck. W'ile she was pickin' up many a good harvest, folks was a-starin' at you; an' w'en the little boy were there too, w'y, they stared all the more. She 'ad the boy first, and he were a fine draw. But he tuk ill, an' then she had to get some sort, an' I told her 'bout you, and 'ow purty you were, an' wot golden 'air you 'ad. 'Her golden 'air was 'angin' down her back,' I sung to her, an' she were tuk with the picter. Then I got yer for her—you knows 'ow. Wull, pore Mammy Warren! she's in quad for the present. But she'll come out agin none the worse; bless yer! they feeds 'em fine in quad now. Many a one as I know goes in reg'lar for the cold weather. You see, we'n yer gets yer lodgin' an' yer food at Government expense, it don't cost yer nothing, an' yer come out none the worse. That's wot Mammy Warren 'ull do. But Simeon Stylites-'e's a man 'oo prides himself on niver 'avin' been tuk yet. He'll teach yer 'ow to be a perfessional. Now then—yer ain't frightened, be yer?"
"No," said Connie. Once again she was the old Connie. She had got over her anguish of despair and grief about her father's conduct. She must get out of this, and the only chance was to let Agnes think that she didn't mind.
"Yer'll make a beautiful perfessional!" said Agnes, looking at her with admiration now. "I could—I could grovel at yer feet—pore me, so plain as I ham an' hall, an' you so wery genteel. There now, 'oo's that a-knockin' at the door?"
Agnes went to the door. She opened it about an inch, and had a long colloquy with some one outside.
"All right, Freckles," she said, "you can go to bed."
She then came back to Connie.
"Simeon ain't returning afore to-morrer," she said. "We'll tike to our beds. Come along with me, Connie."
When Connie had been suddenly dragged with extreme force from the preacher's side, he had darted after her, and would have been knocked down himself, and perhaps killed, if the neighbor who had accosted him had not also gone a step or two into the dark alley and dragged him back by main force.
"You don't go down there, Father John," he said—"not without two or three big men, as big as myself. That you don't—I'll keep you back, Father John by all the strength in my body; for if you go down you'll be killed, and then what use will yer be to the poor little gel?"
Father John acknowledged the justice of this. A crowd of men and women had gathered round, as they always did in those parts at the slightest disturbance. Father John recognized many of them, and soon formed a little body of strong men and women. The policemen also came to their aid. They searched the blind alley, going into every house. In short, they did not leave a stone unturned to recover poor Connie; but, alas! all in vain.
Father John was at least glad that he had not gone to visit Sue and Giles. He could not bear to bring them such terrible tidings as that poor Connie had come home and had been kidnapped again.
"We'll get her," said the policeman. "There are lots of thieves about here; but as we've unearthed that dreadful character, Mother Warren, we'll quickly get the rest of the gang. Don't you be afraid, Father John; the child will be in your hands before the day is out."
Nevertheless, Father John spent a sleepless night, and early—very early—in the morning he started off to visit Peter Harris. Peter had slept all night. In the morning he awoke with a headache, and with a queer feeling that something very bad had happened.
When Father John entered his room he gazed at him with bloodshot eyes.
"Wottever is it?" he said. "I had a dream—I must be mistook, of course, but I thought Connie had come back."
"Well," said Father John very gravely, "and so she did come back."
"Wot?" asked the father. He sat up on the bed where he had thrown himself, and pushed back his rough hair.
"I have some very sad news for you, Harris. Will you wash first and have a bit of breakfast, or shall I tell you now?"
"Get out with you!" said the man. "Will I wash and have a bit o' breakfast? Tell me about my child, an' be quick!"
All the latent tenderness in that fierce heart had reawakened.
"Connie back?" said the man. "Purty little Connie? You don't niver say so! But where be she? Wherever is my little gel?"
"You ask God where she is," said the preacher in a very solemn voice. "She's nowhere to be found. She came here, and you—you turned her away, Peter Harris."
"I did wot?" said Harris.
"You turned her off—yes, she came to me, poor child. You had taken too much and didn't know what you were doing."
The man's face was ghastly pale.
"What do yer mean?" he said.
"You took too much, and you were cruel to your child. She came to me in bitter grief. I did what I could to soothe her; I assured her that I know you well, and that you'd be all right and quite ready to welcome her home in the morning."
"Well, and so I be. Welcome my lass home? There ain't naught I wouldn't do for her; the best that can be got is for my Connie. Oh, my dear, sweet little gel! It's the fatted calf she'll 'ave—the Prodigal didn't have a bigger welcome."
"But she is no prodigal. She was sinned against; she didn't sin. Doubtless she did wrong to be discontented. She was never very strong, perhaps, either in mind or body, and she got under bad influence. She was often afraid to go home, Peter Harris, because of you; for you were so savage to her when you took, as you call it, a drop too much. I'll tell you another time her story, for there is not a moment now to spare; you must get up and help to find her."