TAKEN BY SURPRISE.
After that first outburst of grief, Thomas Dawson did not speak much of his trouble, but it was none the less deep for that. In fact, it was so deep, and the wound was such a cruel one, it was almost more than he could bear.
The thought of his dead daughter never left him. Through the day, when he was at work, through the long evenings when he sat silent and sad, gazing into the fire, and through the nights when he lay sleepless, he brooded over the wrongs his daughter's husband had done them all, and was full of remorse for his own hard-heartedness—as he called it now—in not having forgiven her at once when she ran away from her home. And more than all was he haunted by the thought of her lonely death after her cruelly hard life. He pictured her lying in her pauper's grave in an unknown burial-ground, away amongst strangers, unknown, uncared for, unremembered, and these thoughts aged him fast.
Jessie was too young to notice it, but those older saw how he began to stoop, how his feet lagged as he walked, how the colour had faded from his hair and from the bright blue eyes, which had been such a noticeable feature of his face. All the life and fun had gone out of him too; even Jessie could not rouse him.
Patience bore her grief in another way, it was merged to some extent in her anxiety about her husband. With regard to Lizzie she felt less anxiety and pain about her now than she had done when Lizzie had been alive, and living a miserable life with the weak, ne'er-do-well husband who had been the ruin of her happiness and theirs. Trouble left its mark on Patience too, she became gentler and quieter, she seemed to lose some of her strength and spirit, and to lean more and more on her little granddaughter. And Jessie, pleased and proud to be useful, and trusted and able to help, turned to with a will, and by degrees took a great deal on her young shoulders.
She still went to Miss Grace Barley to be taught, for the hours suited them all well, and though her grandmother protested often that it was too much for Miss Grace to do, and declared that Jessie must go to the school along with the others, Miss Grace begged to be allowed to keep her.
"Jessie can repay me by coming and being our maid by and by," she said laughingly—"that is if she wants to go out into service, and you can spare her, Mrs. Dawson."
"I shall have to some day," said Mrs. Dawson, with a sigh and a smile; "she will have to support herself, of course, when she grows up, and it's our duty to see she has the training."
So it became the dream of Jessie's life to be Miss Barley's maid, to live in the "White Cottage," and have the joy and honour of keeping it in the beautiful order in which she had always seen it.
It had been a curious, uncommon education that the child had had, but the results were certainly satisfactory. She could darn and sew beautifully, make and mend, knit and patch, and read and write, cook a little, and do all manner of housework, while she was quite clever in her knowledge of flowers and their ways.
Every Saturday morning she devoted herself to helping her grandmother clean the cottage and prepare for Sunday. It was her task to polish all the knives and forks, to dust the bedrooms and the kitchen. Her grandmother would not let her do the harder work, such as scrubbing the floors or tables, though Jessie often longed to try; but while granny was busy washing the floors, it was Jessie's great delight to mount on a chair and clean the little lattice windows of the kitchen and parlour.
When she was about ten years old her other longings were unexpectedly realized, and the scrubbing fell to her to do too, for one chill autumn morning Mrs. Dawson found herself too unwell to get up. She had been ailing for a week or two. "'Tis the damp and cold got into my bones," she had said, making light of it, "and they'll just have to get out again, that's all. There is nothing like moving about for working it off. If I'd sat still as some folks do, I shouldn't be able to move at all by this time."
But on this morning even she was forced to give in. "I think the cold has touched my liver," she said feebly, "and I don't feel fit for nothing. I'll stay in bed for a bit, that's the best way," and indeed she felt far too unwell to do anything else. Thomas called at the doctor's house on his way to work, and came home early to dinner to hear his report.
"He says it's the yellow jaunders," said Jessie, in an awed voice, looking very grave and alarmed, "and he says I must not be frightened if granny turns orange colour. Do you think she has been eating too many oranges, granp? She had two on Sunday—big ones!"
Granp smiled, in spite of his anxiety. He knew that an attack of jaundice was no trifling illness for a woman of Patience's age, and the next day he did not go to work, but waited to see the doctor himself.
The news in the morning, though, was slightly better, and although Mrs. Dawson had to keep her bed for some time, their greatest anxiety was lifted, and their spirits grew higher and more hopeful.
Jessie now was in her element. She swept and dusted, scrubbed and polished, waited on her grandmother and took care of her grandfather like any little old woman. All day long her busy feet and hands were going, never seeming to tire; and in her joy at seeing her grandmother getting well again, and her grandfather more happy, and in her pleasure in taking care of them both, her spirits kept as bright and gay, and her laugh as infectious and joyous as it was possible for any one's to be.
So things were when that Saturday dawned which, undreamed of, was to change everything for all of them.
It was a fresh bright autumn day, with the sun shining cheerfully, but with just that touch of cold in the air which makes one realize that summer is past and winter not so very far off. In the garden the chrysanthemums were covered with a fine show of buds, and Jessie looked at them eagerly to see if any would be out on the morrow, for the doctor had said that Mrs. Dawson might get up for a little while on Sunday and come down-stairs.
The news put them all in a great bustle. Jessie felt that all her credit depended on everything, indoors and out, being just a little cleaner and trimmer and more orderly than if her grandmother had been about herself. Things had to be got from Norton too, so grandfather took the train thither to do the shopping, and Jessie was left to sweep and scrub and polish to her heart's content. She and granp were up early on that important morning—indeed, there was little likelihood of any one's oversleeping on that day, and so well did they work that by the time Jessie went up to know what her grandmother would like for dinner, the greater part of their tasks were done and grandfather had already started for Norton.
"I don't want anything but a cup of tea and a piece of toast now," said her grandmother in answer to Jessie's question.
"Won't you have some of the jelly Miss Barley brought you?"
"No, child. I feel much more inclined for a cup of tea. If you've got any fire in I'd like a slice of toast, but if you haven't I'll have a piece of dry bread. I dare say you'd like one of the little apple pasties Mrs. Maddock brought over."
Mrs. Maddock was the wife of the farmer who lived a little way from them, along the road to the four turnings.
"Yes, I would," said Jessie, "I am hungry."
"I don't wonder," said her grandmother, smiling, "working as you have been. Why, there won't be anything left for me to do when I get up. Is the kettle nearly boiling?"
"Yes," said Jessie, "it is singing. I'll have to step over to Mrs. Maddock's for the milk, and by the time I come back it will be ready. Will you be all right, granny, while I'm gone? I won't be away more than five minutes."
"Yes, I shall be all right, child; I'll promise not to run away, and I don't suppose any burglar will break in here," she laughed gently.
"Well, I could soon catch you, if you did," laughed Jessie, "but I don't know about a burglar, I would have to run to Mrs. Maddock's again and borrow their dog. Good-bye, granny."
"Put on your hat and coat," granny called after her.
"Oh, need I?" asked Jessie, with just a shade of impatience in her voice.
"Why, yes, child, it is quite chilly, and you have been so hot over your work."
So Jessie stayed a moment in the kitchen to put on her hat and coat— and oh, how glad she was of it before that night was ended—and taking her milk-can in one hand and a penny in the other, away she ran down the garden and out into the road. She stood for a moment and glanced along the road in each direction, just to make sure that there was no one near who would be likely to knock and disturb her grandmother before she got back again, but there was not a living creature in sight, that she could see, so on she ran to the farm. Mrs. Maddock kept her a minute or two to inquire after Mrs. Dawson, and to give her a flower to wear to church the next day, then Jessie hurried away again as fast as her full milk-can would allow her.
The side entrance to the farm, to which Jessie had to go, was a few hundred yards down a lane which branched off the main road. When she came out and down this lane again, a man was standing at the end of it where it emerged on to the high road. He was standing looking down the lane very eagerly at first, but, as Jessie drew nearer, he stepped back a pace or two, and looked nervously first over one shoulder and then over the other, along the high road.
Jessie was ten years old, and accustomed to seeing strange rough-looking men about, so that there seemed no reason why she should feel frightened, but she did, and for a moment almost turned and ran back to the friendly shelter of Mrs. Maddock's dairy. Later on she often wished she had, but then, as she told herself, he would probably have run after her and caught her.
With her heart beating very fast, but trying to look quite calm and unconcerned, she walked sturdily on. As soon as she had got past him, she thought, and had turned the corner, she would race home as fast as her legs could carry her, and if she did spill some milk granny would forgive her when she knew how frightened she had been. But the man evidently did not intend that she should pass him, for as she drew near he stood right in her path, and to prevent any chance of escape he seized her by the wrist.
"I've been looking for you, this long while," he said roughly. "Now don't make a noise," as Jessie screamed "help." "If you're quiet I shan't hurt you, but if you make a noise and bring a crowd round, I'll thrash you to within an inch of your life. Do you hear?"
"Let me go," wailed Jessie, struggling to release her wrist. "I must go home, granny's waiting for me, she is ill."
"And I've been waiting for you longer than 'granny' has. I've been waiting hours. Your grandfather's gone away, isn't he?"
"Yes, to Norton."
"That's all right."
"He'll be home soon," retorted Jessie, in the vain hope of frightening the man. "Oh, do let me go, please! granny is ill, and waiting for me to take her her dinner."
"I've waited longer for my dinner than ever she has. You shall bring me mine instead. In bed, is she?"
"Yes," sobbed Jessie.
"That's all right."
"Oh, would no one ever come," Jessie wondered, looking frantically about her.
The man read her thoughts and actions. "No, it isn't likely there'll be anybody about just yet, they are all to market, or off somewhere. I took care to choose my time well. Is your grandfather coming home by train?"
"Yes," sobbed Jessie. "Oh, please let me go. What do you want? I haven't got any money—"
"It's you I want, yourself, Jessie Lang."
Jessie looked up in surprise, wondering how he knew her name. She had thought him a tramp only, though a particularly horrible one. Now a deeper fear crept into her heart, causing her to feel sick and faint with alarm, and a dread of she hardly knew what.
"Why do you want me?" she gasped, trembling, scarcely able to form her words, so furiously was her poor little heart beating.
"Why do I want you? 'Cause I'm your own father, and I've been robbed of you for five years! Natural enough, isn't it, that a man should want his own child to come and look after him?"
"But I've got to look after granny and granp," gasped Jessie, "they are old, and granny's ill, and—and they've taken care of me all this time, and now I've got to take care of them. I'm very sorry, but I can't look after you too."
"Dear me!" muttered the man. "How polite we are! But whether you can or you can't, you've got to! I think it's a pity they haven't brought you up better, and taught you your duty to your father. Well, I can't be wasting any more time here. We've got a long journey before us."
"Oh no, no!" cried Jessie, beside herself with dismay; "don't take me away!—please, please don't make me leave granny!"
"Shut up that noise," interrupted her father roughly. "You've got to learn that I never stand whining and bellowing; and the sooner you learn it the better. Now I did mean to spare you all the trouble of saying 'good-bye,' but on second thoughts I'll go in and explain a bit to the old woman, so hurry along and lead the way. I don't want any nonsense about putting the police on my track to find you and bring you back, so it shall be all open and straight. You are mine by law, and I am going to stick to the law."
Jessie was trembling so, she could scarcely drag her limbs along, but she did her best to obey her father's command, a wild hope springing up in her heart that if once she got within the shelter of home and granny, all would be well.
As she opened the cottage door she heard her grandmother's voice calling down to her. "Why, Jessie, wherever have you been? I was afraid something had happened. The kettle has boiled over and over until the fire must be nearly put out." But she had scarcely finished speaking before Jessie dashed up the stairs and into her room breathless, almost speechless, her face white, and with a look on it that haunted Patience Dawson for many a long day.
"Oh, granny, he's come, father's come, and he's going to take me away! Oh, granny, what shall I do! Save me! save me! don't let him have me! I'm afraid of him!"
But before Mrs. Dawson, in her utter bewilderment and fright, could take in what it all meant, heavy footsteps mounted the stairs quickly, and she saw Harry Lang, the man she so detested and dreaded, standing in the doorway.
"Don't make that row," he shouted roughly to the child, "nice way that to carry on when your dear grandmother is ill! Do you want to make her worse! Be quiet, can't you, and be quick. I've got no time to waste."
Jessie subsided into silence, a little moan alone escaping her as she clung to her grandmother.
"It's simple enough," he went on, turning to Mrs. Dawson, "I want my daughter, and I've come to fetch her. You've had her for five years, and now I want her for five—or fifteen, or fifty," he added, "just as it suits me."
"You can't—you've no right—you deserted her. She is ours."
"That's just where you make a mistake, old lady," he sneered, his face lighting up with an ugly mocking smile. "She is mine, not yours, and I've every right to her. I didn't desert her, and you can't prove I did, and I guess if we went to law about it, it would be you that would be in the dock for stealing her, or receiving stolen goods, so to speak, from her mother, who stole her."
"You knew where she was!" gasped Mrs. Dawson, stunned by this new aspect of affairs. "You knew poor Lizzie had sent her here—you know you did."
"Prove it," he said tauntingly. "That's all! Prove it!" Then suddenly remembering that time was flying, he changed his tone. "Well, anyhow, you can settle all that to your liking later on, I can't stay to argue now. I've married again, and my wife keeps a lodging-house, and wants some one to help her, some one strong and healthy, like Jessie here, and I've come for her. I didn't see the fun of paying a girl, when we could get a better one for nothing; and I came for her to-day because I thought it would be nice and quiet, not too many about, and not too many leave-takings. Now, Jess, say good-bye to your granny, I want to be off before the old man gets back, so as to spare him the pain," with a cruel laugh.
Was there no one to help them! No one to appeal to! Jessie and her grandmother looked at each other despairingly. They could think of no one within a mile or two, except Mrs. Maddock and her little maid, and how could they reach them, and what could they do to help if they did! A deep, hopeless despair settled on both of them.
"If you've anything you wants to bring along with you," said her father curtly, "look sharp and get it. I don't s'pose it's more than I can carry."
Jessie was too stunned to know quite what she was doing. In her room she had a big old-fashioned carpet bag that her grandfather had once given her because she so admired the flowers on its sides, and into this she thrust some of her clothes without in the least realizing what she was doing. When, though, she came to her little shelf of books, to a box Miss Grace had given her, a work-basket her grandfather and grandmother had bought her on her birthday, and a picture which had been Miss Barley's present, she stayed her hand. She would not take any of her treasures to be knocked about perhaps in a busy lodging-house. She would leave them here, they would seem like a link between her and home—for no other place would ever be "home" to her, she knew.
She took her little Prayer-book, the one that had been her mother's, granny had given it to her on her eighth birthday, and she treasured it dearly; it had her mother's name and her own written in it, and that seemed always to draw them nearer and form a little link between.
It was all soon over, and Jessie, without daring to look around her beloved little room again, crept away back to her granny, her eyes blinded with tears.
"Granny, you'll 'tend to my rose for me, won't you," she whispered in a choked voice, "till I come home again, and—and kiss granp for me, and—oh, granny, granny, what shall I do, I can't go away! I can't! I can't! I think I shall die if—"
Perhaps mercifully, her father cut the leave-taking short. No good could be done, not a fraction of their misery lessened by prolonging it, and before Jessie had finished sobbing out her last words, he had picked her up and carried her down-stairs and out of the house.
"This way," he said, when he put her down in the road. "I like seclusion when I take a walk. There's a station I prefer to Springbrook, it's one I used to favour a good bit," with a meaning little laugh, "and if I haven't forgot my way all these years, and they haven't altered the face of the country, the shortest cut to it lies through these very fields, so step out and put your best foot foremost."
THE JOURNEY AND THE ARRIVAL.
Harry Lang's "short cut" to the next station meant a good two hours of heavy walking, sometimes over rough uneven ground, sometimes through a little coppice, or along a quiet lane, all of them unknown to Jessie. For this very reason, perhaps, the way seemed even longer than it really was, but to the poor exhausted child it seemed endless. Her head ached distractingly, her back and legs ached, and her feet had almost refused to do her bidding long before she reached the station.
Her father noticed that she lagged, but it never occurred to him that the real reason was that she was exhausted—at least it did not occur to him until, when they at last reached the refreshment room, Jessie dropped like a stone upon the floor.
"What are you doing?" he snapped crossly, "get up! Can't you see where you are going?"
But Jessie neither saw, nor heard, nor moved. The kindly-faced woman behind the counter first leaned out over it to look at her, then came around.
"Why, she's in a dead faint," she cried, lifting the limp little hand; "has she walked far? She looks dead beat."
Harry Lang muttered something about "just a mile or so," but he did not enlarge on the subject, and he seemed so morose and surly that no one felt drawn to say more to him than they could help. The woman lifted Jessie up, and laid her gently on a couch, but she had bathed her brow and her hands, and held smelling-salts under her nose for quite a long while before she showed any signs of life, and Harry Lang had wished himself miles away, and regretted his day's work many times before Jessie with a deep, deep sigh at last opened her eyes.
For a moment she looked about her uncomprehendingly; then, as realization came to her, the woman bending over her heard her moan despairingly.
"Is she ill?" she asked.
"No," said Harry Lang curtly, "only a bit tired and upset at having to leave the folks that brought her up. Maybe she's hungry; we've walked a good step to get here, and we haven't had a bite of anything. I'm hungry myself, so I dare say she is. Hungry, Jessie?"
"I want to go home, I must—I must. Oh, let me go," moaned Jessie wildly, looking up at him beseechingly; but at sight of his face she shrank back frightened, and the words died on her lips.
"You are going home as fast as I can take you," he said roughly; "if you'd sent word, I dare say they'd have got a special," he added, with a sarcastic laugh.
"I'll give her something to eat," said the woman, without a smile at his joke. "I dare say she'll feel better then. She looks to me dead beat," and she laid Jessie gently back, and went behind the counter and poured her out a basin of soup from some that was being kept hot there. To Jessie, who had had no food since breakfast-time, the soup brought new life. She took it all, and a large slice of bread with it, to the great satisfaction of her new friend, who watched delightedly the colour coming back to the poor little white face.
"Where do you want to get to, to-night?" she asked, turning to Harry Lang.
"Um! The next train that stops here doesn't come in till 10.15. It is a long time for her to wait, and late for her to get home."
"'Tisn't going to kill her," answered Jessie's father shortly. "Everybody has got something to put up with sometimes. She is lucky not to have to walk all the way." He hated to be asked questions, and grew cross at being obliged to answer them.
"It's my opinion she'd never reach the other end if she had to do that," said the woman curtly. Then, turning to Jessie, she said gently, "If you lie back again, dear, maybe you'll be able to sleep, and that will rest you, and help to pass the time too."
Jessie, only too glad to obey, and not to have to move her aching body again, nestled back on the hard cushions, and turning her face away from the light, shut her eyes, and soon was miles away from her present surroundings and her miseries, in a deep dreamless sleep, and she knew nothing more until she was wakened suddenly by a tremendous rumbling and shaking, puffing and roaring, close at hand, which made her start up in a terrible panic of alarm.
For a moment she did not realize where she was or what had happened; her brain was dazed, her eyes full of sleep. Then her father came in, and seizing her by the arm hurried her out of the room and across the platform to the brightly-lighted train drawn up there. He gave her no time for farewells to the kind-hearted woman who had helped her so much, nor did he thank her himself. Poor Jessie could only look back over her shoulder and try to thank her with her eyes and smiles.
"Thank you very much," she called out, her voice sounding very weak and small in the midst of all the uproar; but the gratitude on her face and in her eyes spoke more than words.
"I've thought dozens of times of that poor little child," the woman remarked next day to one of the porters; "the man looked so cruel and horrid, and the child so frightened. I should like to know the truth about them. I am sure he was unkind to her."
Once inside the railway carriage, Jessie's father put her to sit in the corner by the window, and seated himself next to her. He was so anxious that no one should speak to her that he even gave up the comfortable corner seat himself, and sat bolt upright beside her, a bit of self-denial which did not improve his temper, which was at no time a sweet one; and when at last Waterloo was reached, it was with no gentle hand that he shook and roused her from the kindly sleep which had fallen on her again, and blotted for the time all her woes from her memory.
With a shock Jessie started to her feet, staring about her with wide, dazed, sleep-filled eyes. "Wake up, can't you? I can't stay here all night while you has your sleep out!"
No one else ever spoke to her in that tone and manner. In a moment poor Jessie's eyes and brain were as wide awake and alert as fear could force them. That dreaded voice would rouse her from the sleep of death almost, she thought. Shaking with cold and dread, she followed him along the lighted platform, and out into the gloom and squalor of the streets.
A heavy rain was coming down in sheets, driven in their faces by a cold, gusty wind. It hit the pavement and splashed up against her cold little legs and ankles until they were soaked through; it beat on her face until she was nearly blinded; and, bewildered by the bright lights, and the deep shadows, and the glitter of the wet streets in the light of the lamps, she would soon have been lost indeed, had her father not caught her by the hand.
On they went, and on and on, an endless distance it seemed to Jessie. Her father never once spoke to her, and she was afraid to speak to him. At last, though, she summoned up courage. "Where are we going, father?"
"Are we nearly there?"
"You'll know in time, so hold your noise."
She "held her noise." At least she did not venture to speak again, and "in time" she did know, but it was a long time first.
Jessie had long been too tired to notice anything that was passing, and when at last they did stop before a house, and went up to the door of it, she was too exhausted to notice the place or the house, or anything about her. She wanted only to be allowed to lie down somewhere, anywhere, and not have to move, or speak, or even think.
When the door was at last opened she saw before her what looked like a black pit, and that was all. Her father must have been able to see more than she, for he swore at some one for keeping him waiting so long, and Jessie supposed it was at an unseen person who had opened the door to them, then he walked quickly ahead, telling Jessie to follow him.
Follow him! How could she, when she could see nothing and did not know where her next step would land her? She did not dare, though, do anything but obey, so, groping blindly, and sliding her feet carefully before her, one at a time, she crept with all the speed she could in direction in which she thought he had gone.
"Mind the stairs," said some one behind her, and at the same moment Jessie's foot went over the top one.
"Harry, you might have helped the child down," said the voice behind her, more tartly, and Jessie guessed it was the door-opener who spoke, and who was following her. Harry Lang muttered something surlily enough, but he did pick up a lamp from somewhere, and held it out for her to see the rest of her way by, and Jessie clambered down the remaining stairs in comparative comfort.
"You'd better give the kid something to eat, and pack her off to bed as soon as you can," he said. "She's pretty well fagged out, and so am I," he added.
Jessie looked round to see to whom he was speaking, and saw standing in the doorway a little thin woman, with a sharp, cross face, and dull, tired eyes, eyes which looked as though they never brightened, or lost their look of weary hopelessness. This was her stepmother. She gave no sign of welcome, no word of comfort to the child, yet, somehow, Jessie's heart went out to her a little. It might have been only that in her terror of her father, she was ready to cling to any one who might stand between her and him.
"There's bread and butter—"
"Bread and butter!" roared her husband, "is that all? Do you mean to say you haven't got anything hot and tasty for me after all I've been through to get this brat here, for nothing in the world but to help you to do nothing all day long—"
"There's plenty for you," she retorted coldly. "I was speaking of the child. I knew you wouldn't want to share yours with her," and Harry Lang, who had stepped threateningly towards her, drew back again, looking rather foolish and very cross. "Where is it?" he snapped.
"In the oven," and she took out a big covered basin and put before him.
Whatever the contents might have been, they smelt very savoury and seemed to please him, but he never offered a mouthful of it to his famishing little daughter, as she stood by, looking at him. A thick slice of bad bread with some butter spread thinly on it was Jessie's fare, and she wished the butter had been omitted altogether, so horrid did it smell and taste.
As soon as he had finished the last mouthful of his supper Harry Lang got up, and without a word to either of them, slouched out of the kitchen and up-stairs to bed. Mrs. Lang began at once to clear a very large old sofa of its untidiness.
"You'll have to sleep here," she said; "the house is so full there isn't room for you anywhere else. Make haste and get your things off. I want to get to bed myself. I've got to be up at five, and it's past one now."
Jessie looked with dismay at the collection of dirty-looking shawls and coats her stepmother was piling on the sofa as "bedclothes," and if she had not been so dead tired, she could never have brought herself to lie down under them. Visions of her own sweet little room and spotless bed rose before her, and overcame her control.
"Is this your bag?"
"Yes," said Jessie tearfully, a sob rising in her throat.
The woman looked at her with dull interest. "You'd better keep your feelings to yourself," she said; "there's no time for any here. Try to go to sleep, and don't think about anything," she added, not unkindly. "You are overtired to-night, you'll feel better to-morrow." She helped Jessie into her rough bed, and tucked the shawl about her, but she did not kiss her. "Now make haste and go to sleep," she said, "for I shall be down very early, and then you'll have to get up," and she walked away, taking the lamp with her.
Jessie shut her eyes and tried to go to sleep, but her nerves were all unstrung, brain and ears were all on the alert, and there seemed to be curious, unaccountable sounds on all sides of her. She had not been alone more than a minute or two before there were strange scraping noises in the kitchen not far from her. "Mice!" thought Jessie, "or beetles."
She was a fairly brave child, but she had a perfect horror of black beetles, and her heart sank at the thought of them. She drew the shawl over her head as well as she could, and wrapped up her arms in it, but still she felt that the beetles were running, running everywhere, over the walls and over her, and she could scarcely refrain from shrieking aloud in her horror. Then came louder and more dreadful sounds, the cries of people quarrelling; they seemed to be in the very house too; Jessie uncovered her head to hear, then covered it quickly again, sick and faint with fear. A drunken man reeled past the house, singing noisily; to Jessie in the kitchen area he seemed horribly near.
She grew more and more frightened with each sound she heard. She was alone in the dark, with dreadful things happening all around her, in a house that she did not even know her way about. She felt sick and faint with terror and horror of the place, and longing for home and all that she had lost.
Then she remembered suddenly that she had not said her prayers. It had all seemed so strange, and her stepmother had hurried her so, that she had never thought of it until now.
"Oh, I can't get out and kneel down," she thought. "I might step on some beetles. I am sure if God sees how dreadful everything is, and how frightened I am, that He will forgive me if I say them here. And she began—
"I trust myself, dear God, to Thee, Keep every evil far from me.
"Does that mean drunken men and beetles," she wondered feverishly, "'I trust myself, dear God, to Thee;' if I do, He will take care of me, for certain," and a ray of comfort crept into her poor little aching heart. "Granp told me so." And for the first time in her life Jessie felt the true meaning of the dear old grandfather's lessons in the garden, or by the kitchen fire.
Hitherto she had been sheltered and loved and guarded, been well clothed, and fed, and cared for. Now, for the first time, she felt the need of some one to turn to, and her prayers meant more than they had ever meant before. They came from her heart, and were real petitions.
"Granp said God loved little children, and always listened to them," and with this comforting thought she at last fell asleep.
THE NEW HOME.
It seemed to Jessie that she was still saying, "Keep every evil far from me," and trying to go to sleep, when a voice said sharply—
"Now then, it's time to wake up! Make haste and get your clothes on, for your father and one of the lodgers will be here wanting their breakfasts presently."
Jessie woke with a great start, and sprang up, struggling with the shawl which was still wrapped about her head. Free of this, she looked about her in a dazed way, trying to rouse herself and collect her wits. It was not yet daylight, of course, and the lighted lamp stood on the table in the midst of the dirty dishes just as it had the night before; her stepmother too—her hair and dress and whole appearance were exactly as they had been the night before, the only difference being that she seemed, if anything, less agreeable.
"Wake up! wake up!" she called sharply again. "I want you to make yourself useful, not to be giving me more trouble. Get on your things, then light the fire as quick as you can—no, I'll light the fire to-day, because your father can't bear to be kept waiting, but I shall look to you to do it other mornings, and to get up without being called, too."
"Yes," said Jessie dutifully, "I hope I shall be able to wake up." She was so sleepy at the moment that she could scarcely stand, or see to get into her garments. She looked around her for a place where she could wash. Cold water would help her to wake up, perhaps. It was really painful to be so terribly sleepy.
"Please, where can I wash?" she asked at last. "I—I can't wake—up; I—I—" and she was asleep again. Her stepmother's sharp voice soon roused her, though.
"A place to wash in!" she snapped crossly. "Why, you must wait until some of them have gone out, then you can go to one of the bedrooms, unless you'd like to wash at the tap, out there," pointing to the scullery; "there's a dipper there you can use."
Jessie gladly accepted the last offer. She was longing to feel the freshness of cold water on her aching head and heavy eyes, and her hot face, and she groped her way out to the scullery.
It was lighted by a candle only, but even so Jessie could see the untidy muddle of everything. The sink by the tap was crowded with pots and pans and dirty dishes, and so was the table and the dirty floor. Where was she to wash, and where was the dipper? She looked around her hopelessly. She was so heavy with sleep she could hardly see, so aching in every limb she could scarcely stand; and the sight of the miserable place, and the close smell of it, made her feel positively sick and ill.
She did not dare, though, trouble her stepmother any further, she had to act for herself; so she looked about her, first of all for the dipper, and presently saw it standing, full of potato peelings, on the floor under the sink. She seized it thankfully, and emptying its contents on to a dirty plate, went to the tap and gave it a good wash out. While she was doing this her eye fell on a piece of soap. At last she managed to draw a dipperful of clean fresh water, and glad enough she was; it felt so delicious, in fact, and she enjoyed it so much, she could not bear to tear herself away from it, until her mother's sharp voice brought her back to her duties again, and the rest of her toilet was finished more hurriedly.
"What shall I do first?" she asked timidly, when she was ready. In her clean pinafore, with her hair well brushed, and her cheeks still glowing from the cold water, she looked so fresh and such a pleasant sight to see, that a ray of something like pleased surprise showed itself for a moment even on Mrs. Lang's tired face.
"Can you wash up two or three of the cups and things without smashing them?" she asked.
"Oh yes," said Jessie, almost reproachfully, "I always do at home." But the mere mention of that name brought the tears to her eyes, and prevented her saying more.
"Well, do that first. You needn't wash more than two cups and plates. I'd better lend you something to put on over your clean apron, or you'll be wanting another before the day is out."
"I've got my overalls here," said Jessie, with pride. "Granny made me two," and she stepped to the old bag and lifted out a dark-blue galateen pinafore which covered her all up to the hem of her frock.
When she came back from washing the dishes she brought the sweeping-brush with her, and, as a matter of course, began to sweep up the littered floor. Mrs. Lang opened her mouth to tell her to stop, then apparently thought better of it, and let her go on. The kitchen swept, Jessie asked for a duster to dust the chairs and other things, which needed it badly enough!
"A duster! Don't bother me about such things. We haven't got any."
Jessie looked nonplussed. "May I have this?" she asked at last, picking up a bit of rag from a pile of things untidily heaped on a chair. Mrs. Lang, though, was gone, and did not hear her. Jessie looked at the rag, and pondered. At last, however, the temptation to wipe off some of the dust became too much for her, and she used it. "I can wash out the rag again," she comforted herself by thinking. "I wonder what I had better do next," for Mrs. Lang had not returned. "I s'pose I'd better sweep out the passage and brush down the steps. Oh, I do want some breakfast!" she added, with a sigh.
While she was sweeping down the steps before the front door, her stepmother came into the kitchen again. The semblance of a smile crossed her face as she looked at the neatly-arranged chairs, and heard the broom going in the distance.
"We're to be kept tidy, now, I s'pose," she muttered, with a laugh. "I wonder how long it'll last. She won't get much encouragement here."
Jessie came into the kitchen with her broom, and found her stepmother frying bacon. It smelt very good, and Jessie was ravenously hungry.
"Does father have to go to work every day as early as this?" she asked.
"Work!" cried Mrs. Lang, with a scornful laugh. "Work! I've never known your father work since he crossed my path! It's the races he's off to; you wouldn't find him get up at this hour for anything else."
Jessie stared wide-eyed. "Doesn't he ever work?" she gasped. "How does he live, then?"
"Well you may ask!" snapped Mrs. Lang bitterly. "He's kept. I do the work, and he finds that more to his taste. I've got the house full of lodgers, and I can tell you it takes me all my time, and more, to look after them. I never get any pleasure, and your father never gets any work, and he thinks that is just as it should be."
Jessie stood for a moment looking very thoughtful. Everything in this house seemed to her wrong. Just as it all used to be in her old home before she went to her grandfather's; but she knew nothing better then, she was too young. Now she was older and better able to understand, for she had had a long and happy experience of what a home could and should be, where each did a share, and thought always of others first. She felt suddenly a great pity for her stepmother, and a liking such as she had not thought possible an hour or so ago. Perhaps she could do something, she thought, to make her less unhappy; at any rate she could help her.
"I will help you," she said, looking up at her with a smile. "It won't be so hard with two of us to see to things."
Mrs. Lang's face softened a little, and a smile actually gleamed in her eyes as she glanced from the frying-pan to Jessie. "Yes, you can help a bit, I expect, you seem to know how to set about things. Did you help your grandmother?"
"Oh yes, a lot," said Jessie, and at the recollection the tears brimmed up in her eyes. "I wonder how she is, and how granp is! Oh, I expect he was in a dreadful way when he came home, and heard what had happened!" and at the thought poor Jessie's tears overflowed, and she sobbed bitterly.
"Hush, don't make that noise," said her stepmother quickly, but not unkindly. "Be quiet, child, your father's coming, and he'll beat you if you go on like that. Oh, it's you, Tom," as a young man lounged heavily into the kitchen, "I thought 'twas Harry."
Tom Salter dropped into a chair by the table with a tired yawn. "Yes, it's me; I'm up, but I ain't awake," he said, with a laugh. "Hullo," as he caught sight of Jessie, "is this the little girl you was telling me about?"
"Yes, this is Jessie."
He looked at Jessie and smiled, and she smiled back. He had a good-tempered face and kind eyes, and she thought she should like him.
"Bit tired, I expect?"
"Yes, thank you, I am," said Jessie shyly.
"Hullo, missis, been having a spring clean?" he asked comically, as he glanced about him. "The place looks so tidy I hardly knew it."
Mrs. Lang looked half annoyed. "New brooms sweep clean," she said shortly, "and two pairs of hands can do what one can't."
"That's true," said the young man soothingly. "I don't know how you ever managed to get through it all by yourself."
Mrs. Lang looked mollified. "It would have been all right if Harry would have lent a hand now and then," she said, "but he won't even clean his own boots, let alone any one else's; while as for bringing in a scuttle of coal, or going an errand, or putting a spade near the garden, he'd think himself disgraced for ever if he did either. Disgraced! He!" with a bitter laugh, and the meaning in her voice should have made her self-satisfied husband feel very small—if anything could have that effect on him.
Just at that moment heavy footsteps were heard approaching and conversation ceased.
"Here's your father coming," said Mrs. Lang in a lowered tone to Jessie. Then, as she stooped down to the oven to get out the dish of bacon for him, "We won't have ours now," she whispered to Jessie; "you and me'll have ours after they're gone, when there's a little peace and quietness," and Jessie, in spite of her hunger, which was making her feel quite sick and faint, felt glad.
"While you are waiting will you run up and talk to Charlie?" she asked kindly, for she saw Jessie's dread of her father, which was only too plainly written on her face.
"Who is Charlie?" Jessie asked, "and where is he? I'd like to go."
"You go up-stairs, and on the second landing from this you'll see four doors, one of the back ones is our bedroom, and the next one is Charlie's. He is my son, you know, he's just about your age, but he's—he's very delicate." Mrs. Lang hesitated a little, and turned her face away from Jessie for a moment. "He's got to lie in bed all the time, it is very dull for him, and he'll be glad to see you, he knows you are come."
The door was banged open and banged shut again. "What's the use of my taking the trouble to get up, in such weather as this, and shave myself, and—and put myself out like this," grumbled the master of the house, entering half dressed, half asleep, and more than half angry. "No horses can run—"
Jessie crept to the door and escaped as swiftly and silently as possible. At the sight of her father all her old terror of him rushed over her again, and she felt she could not face him.
Up the stairs she hurried as fast as the darkness and her own ignorance of the house would let her, then stopped suddenly. She did not know how many landings she had passed, or where to go. She tried to remember, but it was no good. "I'll go on a little further, though," she thought, "it will be better than going back again," and she groped her way carefully up another little flight of stairs. Round the bend of them a light gleamed from a partly open door. She went on further and looked in. The room was empty and very untidy, but there was a light burning in it. It was the one her father had just left. In the dimness she made out a smaller door beside it. Was this Charlie's? She listened for a moment, then a small thin voice called out, "Is anybody there? Who is it? Mother, is that you?"
Jessie stepped over to the door and knocked. "It is me—Jessie," she called back. "Your mother sent me up to see you. May I come in?"
Jessie turned the handle very carefully. She felt painfully shy now that she was actually here, but it was too late to turn back, so she sidled in around the door, wondering very much what she should see, and what she should say.
What she saw was an untidy room with a small bed in it, and a large window just opposite the bed. There were a few fairly good pieces of furniture in it as well, but the whole place looked neglected, untidy and comfortless. Jessie did not notice this so much just at first, though, for the little figure in the bed claimed most of her attention.
Charlie was really of the same age as herself, but he was so thin and worn and helpless, he looked much younger, and his pale little face wore something of the appealing look of a baby.
A great, great pity for him swelled up in Jessie's heart, and drove out most of her shyness. "I am so sorry you are ill," she said sympathetically. "Are you always like it?"
"Yes," said Charlie, looking at her with very shy, but very great interest. "I have been for a long time. I think it is seven years now. I fell backwards off a 'bus and hurt my back."
"Oh, what a dreadful thing!" exclaimed Jessie. "Couldn't a doctor cure you?"
"No. I was in hospital for nearly a year, but mother wanted me; she didn't like my being there, and when they said they couldn't make me well, mother said she would have me come home with her. She wanted me."
"Were you glad?"
"Yes. I was very glad. I wanted mother."
A short pause following, Jessie thought she had better introduce herself. "I am Jessie Lang," she said; "and—and I am come to live here, father says I must. I s'pose for always—to help your mother with the lodgers."
"Are you? How nice! I am so glad," cried Charlie; "then you'll be able to come and talk to me sometimes."
"I am not glad," said Jessie, with a quaver in her voice; "but I should like to come and talk to you as often as I can." Then presently she added, in a conflicting tone, "I don't know what to call your mother. I don't like to say 'Mrs. Lang,' it seems so— so silly and—stuck-up, and I don't like to call her 'mother,' because, you see, she isn't mine at all, really."
"I should," said Charlie decidedly. "I have to call your father 'father,' though I hate to. I don't like him. I hate him—he's— he's unkind to mother!" and the pale face flushed and the sad eyes filled with the strength of other feeling.
"Oh!" exclaimed Jessie, "you ought not to speak like that, I am sure. Why do you ha—why don't you like him?"
"'Cause he's so unkind to mother. He is unkind to me, too, but I don't mind that, I don't see him often; but he's always going on at mother, he makes her miserable, and he—he hits her!" staring at Jessie with wide, horrified eyes. "We were so happy and comfortable before he came, but now everything seems all wrong, and mother is always unhappy, and—and I—I can't bear it."
"Don't cry," said Jessie soothingly. "Did you live here always?"
"Yes, and we had nice lodgers, and a nice house, and we had money enough for what we wanted, but father costs such a lot, and takes nearly all the money mother gets, and he won't give her any of it. He won't work himself, either. All the nice lodgers left because he made such rows in the house, and was always quarrelling; there's only one of them left, that's Miss Patch. She has the attic right at the top of the house. She went up there because it is quieter."
He talked on eagerly in his old-fashioned way, his face flushing with weakness and excitement. It was such a rare treat to him to have any one to talk to, particularly any one of his own age—a sympathetic listener, too.
"Do you know Miss Patch yet?"
"No," said Jessie. "I only came last night very late. I've seen one lodger, a young man. He came down in the kitchen to his breakfast."
"Oh, Tom Salter! You'll like him—I do. I want my breakfast, don't you?"
"Yes," said Jessie, with a deep sigh. "I am very hungry, but— but—your mother said we would wait till father was gone." She hesitated over the term by which she should speak of her stepmother. Charlie noticed it.
"I wish you'd call her 'mother,'" he said gently; "it would make us seem more like brother and sister, and I would love to have a sister. I've wished so often that I'd got one, or had got somebody to talk to, and read and play with me. Mother would like it, too. She isn't really cross, you know. She is only tired and worried. You see, she's got me to look after, and me and father to keep, and ever so many lodgers. I am so glad you're come to help her. I do long to be able to, and I can only give her extra trouble." He spoke with sad earnestness far beyond his age.
A ray of comfort entered Jessie's sad heart. She felt really drawn towards her new stepbrother, and she loved to feel she was being useful.
"Yes, I'll help her," she said as brightly as she could for the weariness which was creeping over her. "I have been, a little, already. Can I help you? I'd love to try and make your room a little bit tidier."
"Does it look untidy?" asked Charlie, feeling somewhat taken aback.
It looked more than untidy, but Jessie was too polite to say so, and as she leaned against the bed she was planning in her mind what she could do to make it nicer for him.
"I wish I could get you some flowers," she said eagerly, "some out of our garden. Oh, we had such lots there, such lovely ones, roses, and violets, jessamine and lilac, and may—oh, all sorts. I had a garden of my own, too. Oh, I'd love to take you to granny's, and let you see it all!"
Charlie was watching her and listening with intense interest. "How sorry you must be to leave it all!" he remarked sympathetically. "I'd love to lie in a garden with flowers, and the bees humming, and no noise of rattling carts and milk-cans. Oh, Jessie!" but to his dismay Jessie buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.
"I can't stay here," she cried, "I can't, I can't! I must go home. I shall die if I don't go home to granp," and she sobbed and sobbed until Charlie was quite frightened.
"Jessie, don't—don't—don't cry like that. I'll ask mother to let you go, if you want to so badly—but I wish you didn't," he sighed, his own lips quivering. "I wish you would stay here. I want you so much, I am so lonely and dull, and—and I hoped you were come to stay."
Jessie's own tears were checked more quickly by the sight of his than they would have been by any other means. She pulled herself together as well as she could. "No—o, don't ask mother," she said in a choked, thick voice, "it is no use, father would make me stay, and it would only make him angry if we asked him, and I—I want to help you, too," she added, quite truthfully. "I shan't mind so much by and by, p'raps. Don't cry, Charlie. Turn round and listen, and I'll tell you more stories. Then, after breakfast, I'll tidy your room."
The violence of Charlie's sobs had quite frightened away and stopped hers, and banished for a time her home-sickness. She put all her thoughts into her coaxing of Charlie, and after a time he raised his head and turned around and faced her, and while he lay back on his pillows, very weary after his excitement, Jessie, the more weary of the two, tried bravely to be cheerful, and to talk brightly, and so Mrs. Lang found them when, a little later, she brought up Charlie's breakfast on a tray.
Mrs. Lang even smiled when she saw the two together, evidently on such good terms, and the happy smile with which Charlie looked up at her delighted her sad heart. He was the apple of her eye, the great love of her life, the only thing in the world she cared for, and to see him happy, to see his dull, cheerless days brightened, gave her more pleasure than anything. She kissed her boy and looked quite kindly at Jessie.
"Your breakfast is ready in the oven," she said, "and I'm sure you must be famished. I am. I thought I should never get the men started off. Now, darling," to Charlie, "will you take your breakfast?" She put down the tray and raised him on his pillow a little. Jessie, accustomed now to invalids, beat up the pillow and placed it behind him.
"Is that right?" she asked.
"Oh yes, that's lovely," said Charlie, with a sigh of pleasure.
Mrs. Lang brought forward the tray. Jessie's eye fell on it with dismay. Trained by Miss Barley in dainty neatness, and by her grandmother in cleanness and care and thoughtfulness, the sight of it shocked her. The black dingy tray was smeared and dirty, the slice of bread rested on it, with no plate between, the knife and fork and cup were dirty too, and all was put down anyhow. Charlie probably was not accustomed to daintiness, but this was enough to check whatever appetite an invalid might have. Jessie longed to take the tray away, and set it according to her own notions, but she said nothing, for instinct told her that her mother's feelings would be hurt if she did, and that it would not be nice for a stranger to come in and begin to alter things according to her own tastes. She made up her mind, though, to try in small ways to make things nicer for the invalid when she got the opportunity.
The opportunity Jessie yearned for came before long. One morning her mother had, unexpectedly, to go out very soon after breakfast.
"Jessie," she said, "I haven't been able to touch Charlie's room, more than to make his bed; you must tidy it while I am out. I shan't be very long, and there won't be anything more to do than just keep in the fire in the kitchen."
Jessie was delighted. As soon as her mother had gone she mounted to Charlie's room laden with brush and dustpan, and a bit of rag for a duster. Charlie looked up in astonishment when she came in, then with delight; he loved to have Jessie doing things for him, she did them so thoroughly and daintily.
"I am going to brush down the cobwebs first," said Jessie, "at least all that I can reach," she added thoughtfully, "so put your head right down under the clothes. I wish I had a dust-sheet, but it can't be helped, I must do without one. Now, steady! I am going to move your bed out from the wall. One, two, three, and be off!" and with a tug of her strong young arms she truckled the bed out into the middle of the room. Charlie was enraptured. He found it impossible to keep his head covered, dust or no dust.
"How funny it looks, and how nice, everything seems different. Jessie, don't you think my bed could stay out here?"
"Well, no," said Jessie, "it would be too much in the way stuck right out in the middle of the room, but I dare say mother wouldn't mind your having it somewhere else for a change. We'll try it, and ask her when she comes in," and Jessie quickly swept a clear space and pushed the bed back against the wall.
"Oh, that is nice!" said Charlie. "If I lie on my side a little I can look out of the window and see the houses opposite, and I haven't got the light shining right in on my eyes as I had before. It was dreadful when my head was aching."
"I thought it must be," said Jessie sympathetically, busily sweeping all the time. There was a great deal to be done, and she was very anxious to have it all looking nice by the time Mrs. Lang returned. She ran down with the bits of carpet and beat them, then she dusted the mantelpiece and the furniture, and arranged everything in the room to what, she thought, was the best advantage. She cleaned the window, too, which was a great improvement to the look of the room.
Charlie was delighted. "Oh, it is nice! It looks like a new room, I feel as if I had gone away for a change. Everything seems different. Jessie, do go and ask Miss Patch to come and see it, will you? She'd love to."
Jessie flew away, willingly enough, and up the stairs until she came to the big attic at the very top of the house, which she knew was Miss Patch's. She had not spoken to Miss Patch yet, but she had heard a good deal about her from Charlie, who seemed very fond indeed of her, and often bemoaned the fact that she lived at the very top of the house now, for he very seldom saw her; she was lame and suffered a good deal, and could not get up and down the steep stairs very well, and he could not go up to her.
As she approached the door Jessie heard a sound of a soft voice singing, and paused a moment to listen, she could not bear to interrupt.
"I may not tell the reason, 'Tis enough for thee to know That I, the Master, am teaching, And give this cup of woe."
The singing ceased for a moment, and Jessie gently knocked at the door.
"Come in," said the same voice brightly; "open the door, please, and come in."
Jessie did as she was bid, and stepped into one of the neatest and cleanest and oddest rooms she had ever seen in her life. The furniture in it was scanty, but what there was was old-fashioned and good, there was a bright rug on the floor, a few pictures on the walls at each end, an old-fashioned wooden bed at one side, a dear little round table before the fire, and a large arm-chair. The room was a large attic which really stretched over the whole of the top of the house, but though it was so large, there was really not very much available space in it, for the sides sloped steeply. Miss Patch had curtained off the sides, and out of the long narrow strip down the middle had formed, in Jessie's opinion, one of the nicest rooms she had ever seen.
The owner of the room looked up at Jessie with a bright smile, a smile which brightened still more when Jessie gave her message.
"Please, Charlie wants to know if you will come down and see his room. I have been tidying it a little, and I moved the bed, and he is so delighted with it he wants you to see it."
"I should like to, very much," said Miss Patch, "but I have rheumatism in my knee to-day, and I can't get up and down stairs very well. Perhaps, though," she added, with sudden thought, "you will help me?"
"Oh yes," said Jessie, advancing further into the room, "I would like to if I can. What shall I do?"
"I will ask you to let me lean on your shoulder a little, that is all, dear. But will you wait just a moment while I finish preparing the potatoes for my dinner?"
"Oh yes. I will wait, and—and—I'd like to help you," said Jessie, half eager, half shy. "Thank you, dear, but I've nearly done, and it isn't worth while for you to wet your hands. Sit down instead and talk to me. I heard that Mrs. Lang was having a little daughter to help her, and I have been hoping I should see you—but I haven't even heard your name yet!"
"It is Jessie."
"Oh, is it. I am very glad, for I had a dear little pupil once called by that name, and I have been fond of it ever since. She was really, though, christened 'Jessica.'"
"I am only called Jessie. I was christened Jessamine May," explained Jessie seriously. "Grandfather has got a jessamine growing all over the front of his house, and he has ever such beautiful red may-trees in the garden. They were there when mother was a little girl, and she loved them so dearly she called me after them, to keep her in mind of home."
"What a pretty name," said Miss Patch gently, "and what a beautiful thought. You are a little bit of a sweet garden transplanted into the midst of a dingy street to brighten us up, and bring beautiful and fragrant things to our minds. Jessamine and may blossom," she repeated softly; "oh, the picture it calls up, and the sweet fragrance! I seem to see them and to smell them, even here! I am ready now, little Jessamine May; shall we go to Charlie?"
Jessie sprang to her feet. "I think yours is such a pretty room," she said half timidly; and then her eye falling on a rose-bush in Miss Patch's window, all her timidity vanished, and she sprang towards it with a cry of mingled pleasure and pain.
"Oh, you have a rose-bush, too!" she cried eagerly. "I had one at granp's, and I loved it so." The quivering of her lips prevented her saying more, and the tears in her eyes made the rose-bush look all misty and dim.
Miss Patch saw and understood, and it was a very loving hand she laid on Jessie's shoulder. "I know, dear, I know how it feels—and you cannot understand the why and the wherefore of it all now—but you will some day—and in the meantime you are come to be a bit of sweet garden in our midst, to cheer us as your rose cheered you—and we do need some brightness here, little Jessamine May, I can assure you." And, somehow, Jessie felt much of her overwhelming sorrow vanish at the little old lady's words, and as she helped her down the stairs she felt quite cheered and happy again.
Charlie's delight more than repaid Miss Patch for the pain and effort of going down to see him, and whilst they were all looking and admiring, and agreeing what a wonderful improvement it was, and how much more comfortable and spacious the room looked, and in every way desirable, Mrs. Lang returned and came up-stairs to see how her boy had got on in her absence.
Jessie had been rather dreading this moment, for she could not help feeling that she had been taking a great liberty, but Mrs. Lang was too weary and anxious to make troubles of trifles, and anything that pleased her darling was sure to please her too.
So she expressed her approval of their doings and sat down on the foot of Charlie's bed to hear all about it, and all the advantages, and new charms and interests of having his bed in this position.
Miss Patch sat on the ricketty chair and joined in occasionally, but her quick sympathy was aroused by the weariness on Mrs. Lang's face.
"You look tired out," she said kindly.
"I feel so," said Mrs. Lang listlessly. "The wind is almost more than any one can battle with, and the damp seems to get into one's bones. I feel ready to drop—and, oh, I've such a lot to do!"
"Mother," said Jessie eagerly, "shall I make you a cup of tea? I know the kettle is boiling by this time. Don't you think it would do you good?"
Charlie's face lit up again. "Oh do, mother, do, and have it up here, and Miss Patch have one, too, and Jessie, and me."
"Well, I declare!" cried Mrs. Lang, quite taken aback. "What next! I never heard of such a thing! I believe, though, that one would do me good, and I know I'd enjoy it ever so much. Miss Patch would, too, I believe!"
Miss Patch smiled. "I'd enjoy one," she laughed, "if I had to get up in the middle of the night for it."
Without waiting for another word Jessie flew off to the kitchen. This was her chance she felt to do things nicely, so, while the kettle came to the boil, she polished the shabby tray and the tea-cups and spoons. She had no pretty white cloth to lay on the tray, unfortunately, but she had a sheet of white paper that she had saved from a parcel, and she spread this on the tray, then arranged on it the cups and saucers and milk-jug and sugar-basin. She made the tea next and put out some biscuits on a plate.
She could not carry all up at once, so she took the tray first, then came back for the teapot and kettle. A second chair was got from Mrs. Lang's bedroom, and then the sociable little meal was begun.
It did not last long, but half-an-hour, at the longest. Yet it was one of those bright little spots which linger long in the memory and make one glad, though sometimes sad, to look back upon.
"Well, I must get on, my work won't do itself, I guess," sighed Mrs. Lang, at last reluctantly preparing to rise, but Charlie put out his hand to detain her.
"Don't go yet, mother, wait a minute, I want Miss Patch to sing. Miss Patch, you will sing to us, just once, won't you?" he pleaded. "That one you used to sing to me. Oh, do! please! please!"
"But, my dear, my dinner is on cooking, and—and"—Miss Patch's cheeks flushed a delicate pink, she was very shy—"I—I ain't accustomed to singing, except to myself, and—well, I used to sing to you sometimes when you were very little and didn't know what good singing was."
"It was lovely," said Charlie earnestly, "and nobody ever sings to me now," he added wistfully.
Miss Patch's tender heart was touched, and her shyness overcome. "Very well, dear, I will," she agreed bravely, and it was really brave of her, for to do so cost her a great effort. "Perhaps we could choose a hymn we all know, and we could all join in. I am sure we all know 'Safe in the arms of Jesus,' or 'There's a home for little children.' You know them, don't you, Jessamine May?"
"Yes," said Jessie, "granp and I used to sing them on Sunday afternoons."
But when they had begun "There's a home for little children," Miss Patch was soon left to sing it through alone, for Charlie was too exhausted, and after the first line or so Mrs. Lang could not get out another word for the pain at her heart and the lump in her throat, and taking Charlie in her arms she sat with bowed head looking down at him.
"Would it be better—for him," she thought heart-brokenly, "would not that home be better than this—the only one she could give him—and what was to become of him if he lost her?" But she forced the thought away. "And what is to become of me—if I lose him?" she asked herself fiercely—and found no answer.
The last verse was reached, and she felt almost glad, the pain and the pathos were more than she could bear.
"Now, one more," pleaded Charlie's weak voice from the shelter of his mother's arms, and Miss Patch in her thin, sweet voice sang to a plaintive chanting air of her own the beautiful hymn written by Miss M. Betham-Edwards—
"God make my life a little light Within the world to glow; A little flame that burneth bright Wherever I may go."
"God made my life a little flower, That giveth joy to all, Content to bloom in native bower Although its place be small."
"God make my life a little staff, Whereon the weak may rest, That so what health and strength I have May serve my neighbours best."
"It isn't a real tune," she explained shyly, when she had reached the end. "I liked the words so much that I learnt them by heart, and they ran in my head until I found myself singing them to any sort of drone that would fit them."
"I think it is all lovely," said Charlie; "don't you, Jessie?"
"Oh, lovely," breathed Jessie softly. She was too deeply impressed to be able to talk much. "God make my life a little flower," the words repeated themselves again in her brain. "Miss Patch called me a piece of sweet garden. I wonder—" But what Jessie wondered she could not put into words.
In a vague way, that she scarcely as yet understood, it had suddenly come home to her that, perhaps, after all it was for some good purpose that she had been called upon to bear all that she had to bear. Without those sweet, happy years at Springbrook she could never have come as a little piece of sweet garden to this sad corner of the world. Perhaps God had something for her—even a little girl like herself—to do for Him. And she would try her utmost, she determined—yes, her utmost; to do her best in the new life she had been called to, and to make others happier by her presence.
CHARLIE REACHES HOME.
After that exciting morning, Jessie saw Miss Patch always once a day, at least, for she never failed to go up to her room to ask her if she could do any errands, or anything else for her, and very, very glad Miss Patch was, many a time, to be saved the long drag down all the stairs and up again, and the walk through the cold wet streets during the bitter winter months.
Being saved this much exertion, she was able to get down oftener to see Charlie, and both he and Jessie loved these visits of hers. More than once, too, when her husband was away, Mrs. Lang came for a brief spell, and they had tea together again in Charlie's room.
It was on one of the occasions when she was alone with Miss Patch that Jessie told of her Sunday-school in the garden, or by the fireside, with her grandfather. Her tears fell as she told of it, and her deep grief broke out uncontrollably, but Miss Patch did not try to check her story, she let her tell it all, thinking it would be better for her.
"And I've never been to Sunday-school, or to church since," she sobbed. "Father won't let me."
It was to Miss Patch, too, that she sobbed out the story of that dreadful day, and her grief for her grandparents and their suspense. "It would not be so bad," she moaned, "if father would Let me write to them and tell them I am well and—and safe, and—and not so very unhappy; and I wouldn't mind so much if I knew how they were, but granny was ill, and I know granp would feel it dreadfully losing me like that and never knowing what had become of me. They don't know where I am, or if I am alive or dead, and—and it has nearly killed them, I expect!" and her tears choked her.
"Will not your father let you write?" asked Miss Patch in a husky voice. The cruelty of it all made her kind heart ache with pain and indignation.
Jessie shook her pretty head mournfully. "No. He says it would unsettle me, and they would be always worrying round, and he wants peace and quietness—but, oh, Miss Patch, they loved me so, it must have nearly broken their hearts! And—and I love them so, I feel sometimes I can't bear it, I can't, I can't. I feel I must run away and find my way back to them. I am sure "—hopefully—" I could."
Miss Patch laid her thin hand very kindly on Jessie's bowed head. "Don't ever do that, dear! Don't ever set yourself against God's will. You are told in the Bible to obey your God and your earthly father, and God must have sent you here for some good purpose, dear. Perhaps to teach you something we cannot understand yet, perhaps to bring help and happiness to—to others, to your mother, and dear little Charlie there, and—and me.
"God make my life a little staff, Whereon the weak may rest, That so what health and strength I have May serve my neighbours best.
"I think that is what God wants you for, little flower, to help us and bring joy to us in this gloomy corner of the world; and, oh, my dear, you have such chances here. And if you go on trusting and hoping, little Jessamine, trying to hold the faith that never faileth, all will come right. I know it will, I am sure."
Jessie lifted a very eager face to her old friend. "Do you really think so?" she asked anxiously.
"I am sure of it, dear; quite sure."
Silence fell on them both for a few moments, then Jessie looked up with a face alight with eagerness. "Miss Patch, couldn't I have a little Sunday-school for Charlie, just like granp had for me? I couldn't teach him, but I could read to him, and learn hymns with him, couldn't I? Don't you think it would be nice?"
"I think it is a beautiful idea," agreed Miss Patch warmly. Then, after a moment, she added, "How would you like it if I had the school, and you both came to me? I could go down to Charlie's room, as a rule, but I do believe that sometimes you might both come up to me. If he were carried up very carefully and laid on my bed I feel sure it would not hurt him, and I think the change of surroundings might even do him good. What do you think of that plan?" and Miss Patch looked nearly as eager as Jessie by the time she had finished speaking.
Jessie had sprung to her feet with excitement. "I think it is perfectly lovely," she cried, "perfectly lovely! Shall we begin next Sunday? Oh, do, please! and may I go down and tell Charlie? He will be so glad. Thank you ever and ever so much," and putting up her hands she drew Miss Patch's thin face down to her own and kissed it warmly.
Charlie was as delighted as Jessie, and the prospect of going up to Miss Patch's room for an hour or so filled him with joyful excitement. Mrs. Lang was pleased, too. Anything that gave Charlie pleasure was sure to give her pleasure, and she was thankful for any means of teaching him and giving him new interests.
No one told Harry Lang about it, for he took no interest in anything they did, and they knew too well that his crooked temper would find delight in putting a stop to any little scheme they made. Tom Salter knew, though, for having met Mrs. Lang one day struggling up the stairs with Charlie in her arms, wrapped in blankets, he insisted on carrying him up for her, every time he went, after that, and when he was asked to stay, he did stay, and listened to Miss Patch reading, and joined in the hymns, and after the first time he came quite often.
Jessie was delighted, she liked Tom Salter, for though he spoke but little, he had often done her a kindness, helping her carry a heavy scuttle of coal up the stairs, or a pail of water; and many a time, of a Saturday night, he cleaned several pairs of the lodgers' boots for her in readiness for Sunday; and many other kindly acts he had done, that meant much to the little over-burthened worker, for Jessie's life was a hard one in those days.
Miss Patch took care of her own room, and required no attention, but there were two lodgers in the front rooms on each landing, and all required meals cooked and carried to their rooms mornings and evenings, their rooms swept and dusted, their boots cleaned, and a hundred little attentions, and to Jessie it seemed as though she spent most of her life on the stairs, on her way up or down, generally carrying heavy trays or a load of some sort.
Then there were the beds to help to make, windows to clean, rooms and stairs to sweep, and numberless other duties. Fortunately, Jessie liked housework, and Mrs. Dawson might well have been proud of her pupil, could she have seen the difference that by degrees crept over the look of the house, both inside and out, as time went on.
The windows were kept bright now, and the sills whitened; the doorsteps, which used to be so dirty and neglected, were now kept swept and whitened, too; and the lodgers appreciated the change, and said so more than once.
So the days and weeks passed by, and the weeks became months, and soon the months had become a whole year. Jessie could not believe it when Charlie first drew her attention to the fact. A whole year!
What could have become of poor granny and granp all this time! She wondered if they ever wept and wept, and longed for her as she did for them. Sometimes, when the wind howled, or some one played sad music in the streets, she felt as though her heart would break with its weight of sad longing.
Fortunately for her, her days were too full and busy to allow of constant repining; and at night she was too weary to lie awake long grieving. Miss Patch had said, "Have faith and trust and all will come right some day," and Jessie did try to have faith, and to trust hopefully, though she worked hard and the fond poor, though her father was neglectful and cruel, and her mother gloomy and reserved.
"God make my life a little flower, That giveth joy to all, Content to bloom in native bower, Although its place be small."
She sang, and she did try hard to be content, and to do what she could, and the result was that in many ways she was happy in spite of all.
She loved Miss Patch, and the lonely little old woman loved her, and helped her over many a stony bit of road. Charlie loved her, and clung to her, too, and her mother, she fancied, was fond of her in her own quiet, cold way. At any rate, she never beat her, as her father did, or scolded and bullied her. But soon after her second year in London had begun a new trouble, and a very heavy one, came to Jessie. Charlie, she was sure, was getting worse.
He was growing thinner, and paler, and feebler, week by week. The first time the truth dawned on her was one Sunday, when he said languidly that he thought he would not go up to Miss Patch's room that afternoon, he was too tired.
Jessie was so astounded that for a second or so she could only stand and stare at him. Then, with a sudden sharp fear at her heart, she flew to his side.
"Aren't you feeling very well?" she asked anxiously, and Charlie shook his head, but with tears in his eyes, tears of weakness and disappointment.
"Shall I ask Miss Patch to come down here?" she asked presently, longing to rouse and cheer him. But he only shook his head again.
"No, thank you, it would be too much trouble for her, and—don't you think it would be nice to stay quiet, just by ourselves, this afternoon?" he asked. "Will you read to me, or tell me about Springbrook?"
"Of course I will, dear," she answered warmly; "but—but I had better go up and tell Miss Patch, hadn't I, or she would think it unkind?"
This, though, was not her only reason for going. She wanted to be alone, away from him for a moment, to try and recover herself, and face this new shock.
"Miss Patch," she cried in a tone of agony, "I believe Charlie is worse, he seems so quiet, and so tired, and—and—Oh, Miss Patch, what shall I do! He must get better, he must, he must."
But the tears came into Miss Patch's eyes too, and she had little comfort to offer. She had long had grave fears, and though she had tried to put them aside, she had never quite succeeded.
But Jessie had to control herself, for Charlie was waiting for her. "When these fogs are gone, and the spring comes, and the sunshine," she said, trying to pluck up hope, "he will be better, I am sure."
"This weather certainly tries the strongest," said Miss Patch, with a sigh. "We will hope for the best, dear. We all of us have our bad days, don't we? Charlie may be much better to-morrow; we must try to keep his spirits up, and make him as cheerful and happy as we can." But Jessie, as she went down the stairs again, wondered how that would be possible when she herself felt so far from being either.
Christmas came and went, and the spring came, but without bringing to Charlie the strength and health that Jessie prayed for so earnestly for him. He never again went up to Miss Patch's room to Sunday-school, so Miss Patch came down to him, and read or sang to him, just as he wished. They had no lessons now, for he could not bear even that slight strain, and, as Miss Patch said, with tears trickling down her worn cheeks—
"What good is my teaching now? He will soon know more than any of us. We can only help and strengthen him for the last hard steps of his journey." And Tom Salter, to whom she spoke, said huskily—
"You'd be a help to anybody, miss; don't 'ee give way now, don't 'ee give way," and all the time he was wiping the back of his hand across his own wet eyes. "'Tisn't his journey that'll be the hardest and stormiest, I'm thinking," added Tom, "'tis those he'll leave behind. Who is going to break it to his mother? She doesn't seem to see it for herself—though how she can help it is past my understanding."
Poor Miss Patch's hands shook, and her tears fell faster. "I can't, I can't," she murmured, "but yet—I suppose I ought—there's nobody else to do it."
It was Charlie himself, though, who saved her that pain. "Mother," he said one evening, when she came to get him ready for the night, "would you be very unhappy if I went away from you?"
"What do you mean?" she cried, in sudden fear. "You—you—"
"Would you, mother?" he persisted.
"Be unhappy! Why, I should break my heart—you are all I have to care for, or live for, or—"
He put his little wasted arm about her neck, and drew her frightened face down to his. "Mother, when I go away you will know I am happy— but Jessie has gone away from her poor old granp and granny, and they don't know—they think she is very unhappy and badly treated, and— and, mother, I want you to try and get father to let Jessie go back to them again, they must be so dreadfully sad about her. I often think about them—I can't help it—and it makes me feel so sad." He was silent for a moment. "I wish I could see them," he added dreamily, "that I could tell them how I love her, and how kind she has been to me, and—and that she isn't so very unhappy."
Mrs. Lang had stood staring down at him speechless, stricken suddenly numb and dumb with an awful overwhelming terror.
"Charlie—you—you ain't feeling ill—worse—are you? What's the matter, dear? Why do you talk so? What do you mean by 'when you go away'?" Her lips could scarcely form the last words, for she knew as well as he could tell her. It had come suddenly to her understanding that he was going a long, long journey—and soon; the last journey, from which there was no returning.
With a heart-broken cry she fell on her knees by the bed. "You ain't going, you shan't! Charlie, you shan't go away from me—you must stay with me till I go too—"
"You will come to me, mother, but I shall go first, and I'll tell God all about how you have had to work, and how hard it has been for you, and He will understand—"
"You can't—you mustn't go! Oh, my dear, my dear, don't leave me."
"Oh, mother, I am so tired, and I—I think I want to go, but I want you to come too. You will, won't you, mother?" and he tried again to draw her face down to his.
"I will try," she promised faintly, and then burst into a passion of heart-broken sobs.
A month later, when in the country the hedges were full of primroses and violets, and pure little daisies, Charlie took the last steps of his painful journey, and reached the "rest" for which he craved.
It was on a Saturday that his brief journey through this life ended, and on the Sunday those whom he had loved—his mother, and Jessie, Miss Patch and Tom Salter—gathered in the little bare, quiet bedroom, with him in the midst of them once more, but so silent now, so very quiet and still.
"I am sure he is with us in spirit, the darling," said Miss Patch softly, as she looked at the worn little face, so peaceful now, and free from the drawn lines of pain they had worn hitherto; and, while they all knelt around his bed, she said a few simple prayers, such as went straight to their sad hearts, and sowed the germs, at least, of comfort there; and while they still knelt, thinking their own sad thoughts, her sweet voice broke softly into song.
"Sleep on, beloved, sleep and take thy rest. Lay down thy head upon thy Saviour's breast, We love thee well, but Jesus loves thee best— Good-night!"
The others knelt, rapt, breathless, afraid to move lest they should break the spell and the sweet singing, or lose one of the beautiful words. Through the whole exquisite hymn she continued until the last verse was reached—
"Until we meet again before His throne, Clothed in the spotless robes He gives His own, Until we know, even as we are known;— Good-night!"
Voice and words died away together. Then one by one they rose and, bending over him, kissed him fondly.
"Good-night, little Charlie, 'good-night,' not 'good-bye.'"
When Harry Lang was told that Charlie was dead, he looked shocked for the moment, then, having remarked glibly that "it was all for the best," and "at any rate he wouldn't suffer any more," he told Jessie to make haste and get him some food, and became absorbed in making his own plans for his own comfort.
He hated trouble, and sadness, and discomfort of others' making, and he made up his mind at once to go away out of it for a time, and not return until the funeral, at any rate, was over. So at the end of his meal he announced to Jessie that he had to go away for a week on business. He wouldn't bother her mother by telling her about it now, while she was worn out and trying to rest, but Jessie could tell her by and by.
What he should have done, of course, was to remain at home and relieve his poor stricken wife of all the painful details that necessarily followed the seeing about the little coffin, the grave, and the funeral. But Harry Lang had trained people well for his own purposes. No one ever expected assistance of any kind from him; so, instead of missing him, most people felt his absence as only a great relief. Mrs. Lang and Jessie did so now.
At the end of ten days he came back again, expecting to find not only the funeral a thing of the past, but all feelings of loss and sorrow to be put away out of sight and memory.
"You'll be able to take in another lodger now," he remarked abruptly to his wife as he ate his supper on the night of his return. "There's a friend of mine that'll be glad to take the room, and he'll have his breakfast and supper here with me, just as Tom Salter does."
Mrs. Lang did not speak until he had finished; then, without looking at him, she answered curtly, "I am not taking any more lodgers."
Her husband looked up in sudden rage and astonishment. He had never heard his wife speak like that before, and it gave him quite a shock.
"Not—not—" he gasped; "and whose house is this, I'd like to know; and who, may I ask, is master here?"
"The house belongs to the one that pays the rent. This house is mine, and I am master here, and mistress too," she answered coldly but firmly; "and if I did want another lodger, I shouldn't take a friend of yours; I am going to keep my house respectable, as far as I can—or give it up."
Harry Lang's voice completely failed him, and he sat silently staring at his wife in wide-eyed amazement. He had thought he had long ago killed all the spirit in her, and here she was declaring her independence in the calmest manner possible, and actually defying him—and he could find nothing to say or do! Her tone to him, and the opinion, it was only too evident, she held of him, hurt and mortified him more than he had ever thought possible; for in his own opinion he had always been a tremendously fine fellow, very superior indeed to those poor creatures who went tamely to work, day after day, and handed their money over to their wives; and he thought every one else was of the same opinion.
"I—I think trouble or something has turned your brain!" he stuttered at last, "and you had better look sharp and get it right again, I can tell you, or I'll know the reason why."
"My brain is all right," said Mary Lang quietly; "trouble has turned my heart, perhaps, and that isn't likely ever to get right again; but I don't see that that can matter to you. You never cared for me or my heart, or how I felt, or how anybody else felt, but yourself."
"I care about Bert Snow coming here to lodge, and he's coming, too! Do you hear? I told him he could, and I ain't going to be made to look small—"
"You won't look any smaller," said his wife reassuringly, and he wondered stupidly exactly what she meant, or if she meant anything. "You must tell your friend he cannot come here, I haven't got a room for him. I am not going to have such as he in Charlie's room. Jessie is to have it, and it's about time, I think, that your daughter had a bed and a room fit for her to sleep in," she added scathingly.
Harry Lang did not care in the least whether Jessie had or had not a bed, or if she slept on the doorstep; but he cared very much about his friend, and he meant to have his own way. But though he stormed, and bullied, and even struck his wife, he found her, for the first time, as firm as adamant, and quite as indifferent to him. His orders meant nothing to her, and the change in her impressed him very much.
So Jessie, for the first time since she left Springbrook, had a real bedroom again, and a place she could call her own. She did not quite like using it, but she felt that her mother wished it. Mrs. Lang would have liked to keep the little room always sacred to the memory of him who had spent most of his little life in it, but rather Jessie should have it than that it should be desecrated by a betting, drinking, gambling stranger, who would pollute it, she felt, by his presence!
So Jessie and her possessions were installed. It was not a long business, for her belongings were very few. She had not had a penny or a gift of any kind since she came to London, except a little book of hymns that Miss Patch had given her, and one of Charlie's favourite books which he had wished her to have. Her little stock of clothing had never been added to since she came, until now, when her stepmother seemed to find pleasure in providing her with a very thorough outfit of mourning.
Now that she had lost her boy, the one and only joy that was hers, Mrs. Lang seemed to turn to Jessie with more real affection than she had ever shown before. Jessie had loved her dead darling, and any one who had loved him or been good to him had all the grateful devotion of the poor mother's aching heart.
Charlie's little room was re-papered and painted, his little bed was put away, and another bought for Jessie, and on the floor was spread a new rug. Jessie soon grew to take quite a pride in her little room. She scrubbed the floor every week, and polished the window until it put to shame most of the windows in the neighbourhood. Miss Patch gave her a piece of pretty chintz to hang at the back of her looking-glass, and Tom Salter actually brought her home one day a china vase to stand on her mantelpiece. Jessie was proud and pleased sure enough then! and, as time went on, and she grew to miss Charlie less, she would have been quite happy if she might but have written to her grandfather and grandmother, or could have had some tidings of them.
But month after month went by, and still the same suspense continued. She did not even know if they were alive or dead.
Lodgers came and went, some pleasant, some very much the reverse; some kind, some exacting. Jessie worked early and late at school and at home. The school did not count for much in her life, and she made no real friends amongst the children. Her earlier delicate training made her feel she was not one of them; their speech and manners jarred on her, and having lived most of her life with grown-ups, she had no knowledge of games, or play, nor any skill in either, and their tastes did not interest her, nor hers interest them. She would far rather sit with Miss Patch, and talk or read to her, or be read to. Miss Patch was teaching her some different kinds of needlework, and while Jessie worked her teacher would read to her; and those readings in that peaceful room were Jessie's greatest delight.
Then one day, when they least expected it, came an end to it all, and all the ordinary everyday life they had lived together in that house for months past was finished by a violent knocking at the front door. At least that was the first sign they had of the change that was impending!
Such a knocking it was! it echoed through the house, and up and down the street, making them both spring to their feet in dire alarm. Miss Patch gave a sharp cry and her hand flew to her side. Jessie's face blanched, and her eyes grew dark with fear.
"Who can it be!" she gasped; "who—what—what can have happened?" Mrs. Lang was out, gone to the cemetery, so there was no one to answer the knock but Jessie herself, and realizing it she ran trembling down the stairs. She had delayed only a moment, but before she reached the foot of the stairs there came another knock, longer and louder than the first. Jessie threw herself on the door and flung it open. A man was standing on the step, evidently trying to keep himself from making another assault on the door. He seemed almost beside himself with excitement or fright, or something very like both.
"Where's your mother?" he demanded impatiently.
"Out," said Jessie shortly, something in the man's manner increased her alarm until she could scarcely utter a word. "She's—gone—to the cemetery," she gasped in explanation. "I think—she'll be— home—soon."
The day was already waning, and the sun going down. She looked out anxiously, longing to see her mother come into sight. The man gave an impatient click of his tongue.
"What am I to do?" he demanded testily, gazing anxiously up and down the street, but as he seemed to be addressing only the air, or himself, Jessie did not feel obliged or able to make any suggestion.
"Look here," he said, turning quickly round to her, "there has been an accident, and—and I came to—to—break it to your mother. I know her and your—your father. I lived here once, and—and I thought it might be kind to break it to her before the police came for her."
Jessie's heart almost stood still with fright. "The p'lice," she gasped, "for mother!—oh, what has happened?"
"There's been an accident to your father; there was a bit of a fight in the train coming home from the races, and—and he got flung against the door, and it opened—and he fell out."
A low cry of horror broke from Jessie. Instinct told her that the news was very serious. If her father had not been severely injured— or worse, the man would not have been so upset.
"Is—is—" she gasped.
"He is taken to the hospital," responded the man quickly, almost as though he was anxious to check her next question.
"Ah! there is mother!" cried Jessie in a tone of infinite relief, as she saw her appear at the gate. Mrs. Lang looked very white and very tired, and an expression of vague fear came into her eyes as they fell on pale, trembling Jessie, and the stranger, also pale and evidently greatly agitated. She lived always in a state of dread of some disaster or disgrace, and instinct told her that one or the other had come.
The man went down the steps to meet her. Jessie stood waiting at the door; she would have gone forward too, but that she was shaking so, she felt she should never get down the steps. So she stood there supporting herself by the door, and watched her mother's face, and saw the shocked look that came over it. She could not hear all that was said, but she caught fragments of sentences, "Come at once"— "alive when I left." "Searching him for his name and address, but I knew Harry—and came along to prepare you. He's at St. Mary's."
Mrs. Lang came up to the door to Jessie, holding out her basket and umbrella for her to take. She dragged her limbs almost like a paralyzed woman, and her eyes looked dazed. "I'll be back—as soon as I can," she said; but her lips seemed stiff and scarcely able to move. "You look after the house." She was turning away, when she suddenly turned, and stooping, kissed Jessie for the first time in her life; and Jessie, looking up, flung her arms around her stepmother's neck and kissed her in return. This new trouble had brought them very close.