With tear-blinded eyes Jessie turned and groped her way back into the house to face that hardest of all trials—suspense. Slowly, slowly she dragged herself down to the kitchen to see to the fire, then up the stairs to Miss Patch to tell her the news and wait.
Before long, though, they both crept down to the kitchen, so as to be at hand when needed; but Jessie could not keep still, the suspense was hard to bear, and made her restless. She wandered aimlessly from fire to window and back again. They talked a little, speculating as to what was happening, and what they should hear, and Jessie lit the lamps as soon as the dimness gave her the slightest excuse. A great dread of troubles and changes, and they knew not what else, filled them both.
Fortunately the suspense did not last very long. Before two hours had passed they heard footsteps coming up the path to the house. Jessie knew them, and flew out to meet her mother. Miss Patch stirred the fire into a cheerful blaze, then smiled to herself at the uselessness of her own act. She longed to do so much, yet was able to do so little.
Mrs. Lang came in slowly, heavily; her face was white, her eyes were red.
"He is dead," she gasped, as she dropped heavily into a chair. "He is dead!" and her voice grew high and shrill and quavering.
"Poor soul, poor soul," sighed Miss Patch softly. "Did he suffer much? I hope he was spared that."
"He was never conscious, he—he—had no time to be sorry—to repent, or try to be better. He was struck down in the midst of all his wickedness and folly, with lying and cheating and bad language all about him. His last feeling was passion—and so he died—and I feel that I am as bad as any of them, I never tried to save him," and the poor widow laid her head on her outstretched arms and sobbed uncontrollably.
Miss Patch laid her thin arm around the shaking shoulder. "You did. My dear, you did. When first you knew him you were always trying."
"And then I got tired and gave up, and never tried any more, and we drifted further and further away—and now it is too late. He is dead, dead in all his sinfulness!"
Jessie crept away and up to her own little room. It was dark there and peaceful; the street outside was unusually quiet, awed into silence, for the time, by the tragedy in their midst—for the news had spread like wildfire.
The window was open, and up in the steely blue sky the moon was sailing, large, peaceful, grand. Jessie knelt by the window and gazed up at the sky and the moon, awed and wondering. She was dazed and overcome by all that had happened. Then she buried her face in her hands and prayed that her mother might be comforted.
She tried to think of some good deeds her father had done; but, alas, poor child, she could think of none, though it seemed treacherous to his memory to try, and fail.
Two days later Harry Lang was laid in his grave. Quite a crowd attended his funeral, but only four "mourners," and the chief of those four were the two he had wronged most, his widow and his child. Tom Salter, who had shown himself kind and helpful and full of thought in this terrible time, went to support the widow, and Miss Patch, in spite of her lameness, and pain, and weakness, went too, as a mark of respect to those that were left, and as a companion for poor Jessie.
Everything was done as nicely and carefully as though the dead man had been the best of husbands and fathers; no outward mark of respect was lacking; but, though none spoke it aloud, each one felt, as they returned to the empty house, that there was none of that awful sense of blankness, of loss, of heartrending silence, which usually fills the house that death has visited, the feeling that something is gone which can never, never return. There was, instead, almost a sense of relief, a feeling of peace. They all tried not to feel it, and nothing would have made them admit it, even to themselves; but it was there—one of the most sad and awe-inspiring feelings of that dreadful day.
Tom Salter left them as soon as he had seen them home, and went up to his room to change into his every-day clothes. His young, almost boyish face was very grave and thoughtful. "God help me never to live to leave such a feeling behind me," he thought to himself solemnly.
Life after this should have settled down into the usual groove again, and so Jessie thought, with the difference that a great discomfort and ever-present dread would be gone. Somehow, though, it did not.
Mrs. Lang, looking ill, and worn to a shadow, seemed grave and abstracted, and full of thoughts which she did not share with any one. She was often absent, too, on business of which she did not speak. At first Jessie noticed none of all this, she thought her mother's manner was simply the result of the shock and the trouble she had been through; then, by degrees, it came to her that things were different, that there was something in the air that she could not understand or explain, but she felt that changes were impending.
Often when she looked up she found her mother gazing at her wistfully, it seemed, and questioningly. More than once, too, she drew Jessie on to talk of her old home and her grandparents, and of her longing to see them again; and then one day her mother came to her and asked her if she remembered her grandfather's address!
Jessie knew then that her surmises were correct, and her heart beat fast with wonderment and hopes and fears, and a thousand questions poured through her brain.
Thomas Dawson was sitting in his chair in the garden enjoying the warmth of the October sunshine. The weather was unusually warm for the time of the year, and the little breeze which blew across the garden was very acceptable. The long graceful tendrils of the jessamine rose and fell like soft green waves above his head, a little cloud of dust rose and skidded along the road, to the annoyance of some lazy cows being driven home to the milking.
But Thomas heeded none of these things, he sat with his head sunk on his breast, his eyes staring gloomily before him, his thoughts far away. He had aged ten years and more in the last two. A very slight sound, though from within the house, roused him in an instant and brought him to his feet.
"I'm coming, mother, I'm coming," he called, and went indoors. "I expect it's pretty nigh tea-time, isn't it?" he asked, with affected cheerfulness; "the fire only wants a stir, and the kettle'll boil in no time."
Patience nodded and took up the poker. She was very slow of speech in those days, but it was a grand relief to know that she could speak at all, and break the silence which had held her for weeks and months after the stroke of paralysis which had seized her on that dreadful day when Harry Lang had stolen Jessie from them.
Thomas, coming back from market that night, had found his wife unconscious and helpless, and when at last she had recovered her senses it was long before she could speak and explain something of the terrible happenings of that afternoon; and even now, at the end of two years, her speech was still thick and slow, and her limbs on one side partially helpless.
Thomas spread the cloth on the table, and placed the china on it for her to arrange. The old man waited on his wife like a mother on her child, and nothing could exceed his patient devotion. With her he was always bright and cheery, and only his bowed back and snow-white hair and altogether aged appearance told of his own consuming grief and anxiety.
He cut the bread and butter, and made the tea with all the deftness of a woman. Patience watched him with the tears smarting behind her lids. When he had filled their cups he sat down, facing the window, and looking out along the garden to the little gate. They did not talk much. Thomas's mind had gone back to that morning when he had looked out and seen Daniel Magor at the gate with letters in his hand—that wonderful letter which had so altered and beautified their existence for a time, only to blight them both cruelly.
"I believe it's Miss Grace I see coming in," he said presently, rousing with a start. "She's at the gate, and—yes, she's unfastening it. I'll go and meet her."
On his way through the garden he saw a cat lazily basking on his best wall-flower seedlings, and drove her away; the excitement of it prevented his noticing the expression of Miss Grace's face, the anxious, excited look in her eyes.
"Good-evening, Mr. Dawson," she said, as she came close. "I was at the post office getting my letters, and there was one lying there for you, so I said I would bring it, as it was marked 'Urgent.' It seemed wrong to leave it there until to-morrow, I thought it might be important."
She handed him the envelope, but she did not turn and go. "I think I'll step in and speak to Mrs. Dawson for a moment or so," she said quietly, "just while you look at your letter, then I'll go, that you may talk it over with her."
She felt that her little scheme was rather a clumsy one, but she had a strong conviction that it might be well for her to be there just then. "I will go inside," and she left him standing there in the autumn sunlight staring at the letter he held in his trembling hands. He turned it over several times before he would make up his mind to open it. There was always a dread overshadowing him in those days of what he might have to hear.
Miss Grace had barely got through her first greetings, and declined Patience's offer of a cup of tea "fresh-made," when the door was flung open and Thomas almost fell in. In trouble he would have remembered his wife's affliction, and have hedged her round with every care, but joy was another thing. It was on joy that he had built his hopes of restoring her to her former self—and here it was, in his grasp!
"Mother!—Jessie!—I've heard from her!! Mother, mother, do you hear, there's news of her at last?"
Miss Grace stepped nearer and stood by the poor old woman, laying a firm hand on her shoulder, she could see how she was shaking. "If it is good news, tell her quickly," she said anxiously.
Thomas read the expression of Miss Grace's face, and recovered himself at once. His care for Patience was always his first thought.
"Good! My dear, yes, good as good can be. Better than I ever hoped for. She is well, and she's coming back, to us, mother! do you hear? She is coming back for good. It doesn't seem possible, it doesn't seem as though it can be true, yet it says so on the letter. Hark to it—in't it like the dear child herself speaking?"
The terrified look which had come into Patience's face died away. She could not speak, but she put out one shaking hand and thrust it into that of her husband, and so they read the glad news. It was a curious, excited, incoherent letter, but it told them all they wanted to know, for the time, at any rate.
"My Dearest Granp,
"I have been longing to write all this time and tell you where I am, but I could not, and now father is dead and Charlie, and mother wants to go home to live with her father, and I am coming home to you! Mother told me to write and ask if I may, and I am very well and happy, but, oh, I am longing to see you and granny. I nearly broke my heart at first, but I am coming home again, and I am so happy, only I am sorry, too, to leave here, and the lady who has been so kind to me. She is old and feels very miserable at being left all alone. Good-bye, granp and granny. I shall come as soon as ever I can when I hear from you. Please write soon. Give my love to granny, I hope she'll soon get better,
"From your loving," "Jessie Lang."
It was well that Miss Grace stayed by the old couple, for they both needed her by the time the letter was read.
"She is well, and she must have met with kindness, or she would not be sorry to leave," she said cheerfully. "Now, Mrs. Dawson, we shall have her back with us almost at once, so it behoves us to set about getting everything ready for her," she went on, in her sensible, matter-of-fact way, for she felt that the best thing for both of them was to keep them busy with preparations.
Patience caught her spirit at once. "You must write to-night, Thomas," she said eagerly, "you mustn't delay, for the child is waiting for a word and she mustn't be disappointed, whatever happens. I expect she's pretty nigh broken her heart many a time longing to write to us, and—and—her father wouldn't let her. I can read between the lines. I'm sure 'twas his doings—"
"He is dead now," said Miss Grace softly, "so we will forgive him and put away all hard thoughts of him, and maybe your little flower was taken from you just to brighten a dark corner for the time, and bring happiness to others—perhaps to learn some lesson that will help her in the future."
"Maybe," said Patience, but more gently; "my little blossom," she added softly. "P'raps it was greedy to want to keep her to ourselves always."
Thomas had dropped into a chair by the door. "I've got to write, and I can't," he said solemnly, looking up with a half comic, half wistful look in his blue eyes. "My hands is shaking, and my wits is shaking, and—and—but I must, of course, and I am going to Norton to-night to post it, so as the child can get it in the morning."
"No—excuse me—you are not," said Miss Grace, shaking her head at him, laughing, but decisive. "I have my bicycle. I can go there and back in next to no time. With shaking wits and hands you are not fit! Besides, what would Mrs. Dawson do all the evening without you? No, Mr. Dawson, you write the letter and I will do the rest."
She put paper and pens and ink before him on a little table out in the porch, and she and Patience kept very quiet so that they might not interrupt him; but it was no good, he could not write, he really was too much excited and overcome. So at last Miss Grace wrote a little letter for him, one that brought satisfaction to both of them. It expressed their amazement, their joy and excitement, and sent their dearest love, and some little news of them. "Your granny is stronger and more active than she has been for a long time," she wrote, "and perhaps your coming will make her quite well and able to get about again." She felt she ought to prepare Jessie for some of the change she would see.
"There, that is the business part, as you might call it," she said, placing the letter in an envelope, "but I am sure she will worry if there isn't a word from you, Mr. Dawson. Can you write just a tiny message to slip in with mine?—just to say how glad you are."
"Glad!" cried Thomas; "glad is a poor kind of word for what I feel!" He had recovered a little, and was as gay as a schoolboy just getting ready for the holidays. He pulled a piece of paper towards him, and squaring his elbows, he wrote in large round hand:
"Come home quick to granp, and I'll be there to meet you— same as before." "Your loving grandfather," "T. Dawson."
"I haven't wrote a letter before for nigh 'pon twenty years, I b'lieve," he gasped, mopping his brow and stretching his arms with relief, "and now 'tisn't much of a one. I'm out of practice, but the little maid'll understand," and he chuckled happily as he handed it to Miss Grace. "Yes, she'll understand."
Jessie did understand. When the two letters reached her she danced about the house with glad excitement, then flew to Miss Patch to tell her all about them, and about that first meeting with granp at Springbrook station.
Miss Patch listened and sympathized, and rejoiced, too, and in her calm, sweet old face she showed none of the pain which was filling her own poor heart. She was losing every one she cared for, not finding them. All the little daily habits, and pleasures, and friendlinesses, the trifles that made her life, were being taken from her. In a few days more she would be a stranger among strangers, with no one interested enough to care what became of her, and nothing but her room and her flowers would remain the same. And even for how long that much would be left her she could not know.
She would have the same room still, for Mrs. Lang had handed over the house and everything in it, including the lodgers, to some people who wanted a small lodging-house of the kind; but who they were, or what they would be like, was all unknown to Miss Patch.
If, though, she did not show her own feelings then, Jessie found them out a little later. Going unexpectedly up to Miss Patch's room to present her with a geranium which had been one of her own particular treasures, given her by Tom Salter, she found the poor old head bowed on the table, and the poor thin body shaking with sobs. Jessie, in great distress, dropped her geranium and ran to her.
"What is it? What has happened?" she cried. "Oh, Miss Patch, do tell me," and throwing her warm little arms about her old friend, she began to sob, too.
But Miss Patch's self-control had given way at last, and recover herself she could not. Jessie tried to soothe and coax her, but without effect, and she stood beside her at last hopeless, helpless. Her brain was busy, though, and presently light came to her.
"Miss Patch," she said softly, "is it because we are all going away— and you will be left here alone?" Her own voice quavered at the thought.
One of Miss Patch's arms crept round Jessie and drew her close in an almost convulsive grasp. "Yes," she whispered in a choked voice, "I can't—I can't face it—the loneliness it—it—"
A sudden beautiful idea came to Jessie. "Don't stay!" she cried impulsively, without a thought as to ways, or means, or any of the other practical points, "come home with me, come to Springbrook," she cried excitedly. "Oh, do, do, Miss Patch, do. I want you to see granp and granny, and I want them to know you, and—and, oh, it's lovely there, and you wouldn't be lonely, you'd have me and granp and granny; and—and it wouldn't cost more, I am sure," she added practically, "it is ever such a cheap place to live in; and—and we would find you a nice room, and, oh, the flowers you'd have—" She had to stop at last from sheer want of breath. But by the time she had done Miss Patch had checked her tears and raised her head, and was staring at Jessie with wide, bright, half-frightened eyes, her face flushed and excited.
"I—it—oh no, it can't be; but—but, oh, how heavenly it sounds to a lonely body like me!" she gasped.
"But it can be," cried eager Jessie. "I am sure it can, and it would be lovelier even than it sounds."
"But how could I manage?" gasped Miss Patch, looking dejected again. "Think of my lameness—and there's my furniture."
Jessie looked about her. "There isn't very much of it," she said thoughtfully. "I am sure it isn't enough to stop your coming." And she was right, for, after all, there was but the old-fashioned bed and chest of drawers, a chair or two and a couple of tables, and a few boxes and other trifles. "Would you go if your things got there without any trouble—I mean, without any more trouble than changing houses would be? You see," she added wisely, "if you don't like the new people who are coming, you may have to change, after all, and then you won't have any one to help you."
The look of dread came back into poor Miss Patch's tired eyes. So gloomy a prospect determined her.
"You are right!" she gasped; "it would be terrible—yes. I'll go—I do believe I will. Oh, my! it's a dreadfully big undertaking, but— but I'll go, yes, I will. I will make up my mind; and—and I won't go back from it. I am terribly given to being a coward, Jessie."
Her mind once made up Miss Patch did not swerve again, and from that time her face grew brighter. And after all it was not such a very big undertaking—not nearly as bad as she had feared, for everything seemed to fall out for her in a perfectly marvellous way, and most of her troubles were taken off her shoulders before she had been able to realize them.
A few letters passed between Jessie and Miss Grace, and then between Mrs. Lang and Miss Grace, and then all seemed to come about so smoothly and easily that Miss Patch scarcely realized all that was being accomplished. Mrs. Lang insisted on paying the charges for the furniture being carried to Springbrook. Tom Salter saw to the packing of them all and sending them off by train; and then, oddly enough, Miss Grace Barley found that she had business in London, and would be returning to Springbrook on the very day Jessie and Miss Patch were expected there, and would travel down with them.
So, on the morning of that day, a cab drove up to the dingy house in Fort Street, and Miss Patch, and her eight parcels, and her rosebush was conveyed to the station in state and comfort, and between Jessie and Miss Grace and Tom she was taken to the railway carriage and comfortably ensconced in a corner without any bother as to luggage or ticket-taking or anything.
In fact, she was so excited and bewildered that she quite forgot all about everything. "Well!" she exclaimed, as the train moved off into the strange new country, "I never knew before how delightful and easy travelling could be! It makes me smile now to think how I shrank from it, and the fuss I made!"
Jessie, who was still weeping silently after the parting with her mother and Tom Salter, looked up and smiled sympathetically. The bustle and responsibility of taking care of Miss Patch had helped them all through the last sad leave-takings, but when that strain was over, and they were comfortably settled, and Tom came up to say his last shy good-bye, the realization rushed over her that she should never see the dingy grey house again, nor her stepmother, nor Tom— good, kind, faithful Tom—and it was with tears running down her face that she threw her arms round the good fellow's neck, and kissed him as though he were her own kind big brother. Then, subsiding into her corner sobbing, she left London in grief nearly as great as when she had arrived there two years before.
For a long time her thoughts lingered about the home and the life she was leaving, her mother, Charlie, her father, the house, the lodgers, the dingy street, the noise and bustle. How real it all seemed, yet already how far away! Could she ever have been in the midst of it with no thought of ever knowing anything else! How strange life was, and how wonderful! How one short month had changed everything! Here she was, her dream and her longing realized, going home again to Springbrook, to the old happy life, the same friends, the same everything—yet, no, not quite the same, never quite the same, perhaps. She herself was changed, and—she looked at Miss Patch. Their eyes met in a happy, affectionate smile. "No, things were not quite the same, they were better, if anything. She had more now, more in every way."
The train tore on, and the day wore on. The hedges were growing bare now, and the leaves on them were turning red and yellow and brown; but the autumn sun shone, and there were space and air and sunshine all about them. Oh, what a change after the close, narrow streets, the gloom and dinginess, the want of space! Jessie's spirits began to rise. How could she be unhappy in this beautiful world, with home before her, and granp and granny waiting for her, and the cottage, and her own dear little bedroom. "Will my rose be alive, do you think, Miss Grace?" she asked eagerly.
"Yes, dear, your grandfather has cared for it as though it were his most treasured possession, and your little garden, too. He has kept everything as though you might return at any moment, and all must be in readiness. It has been a cruelly long parting for them, and it has told on them," she added. "You must be prepared to find them altered. But," she added more cheerfully, "it rests with you to make them young and happy again, Jessie."
"I will do my very, very best," said Jessie earnestly. "Oh!" she sighed, "how slowly the train goes, aren't we nearly there, Miss Grace?"
"Only a few moments now, dear. This is Crossley, the next station to ours. Don't you recognize any landmarks yet?"
Jessie sprang to the window and remained there, fascinated, enchanted, drinking it all in, trying to realize that all was not a happy dream, but glorious reality. She recognized it all now, and every yard made it more familiar.
The train gave a warning whistle. "Here we are! here we are!" she screamed in a perfect ecstasy of joy. "Oh, Miss Grace, there is the road, and—and here is the platform, and—and I do believe I see granp!"
She drew in her head and shrank back into her corner. "Miss Grace," she pleaded excitedly, "when we stop will you and Miss Patch get out and walk away as if I wasn't here and you had forgotten all about me, and then granp will come to look for me—like he did the first time, will you?"
Her eagerness was so great Miss Grace could not refuse her. "Very well, dear, but"—laughingly—"I must leave all the parcels, too. I can't manage them as well."
"Oh, no, we will bring those. Now," as the train drew up, "please get out!"
She drew forward the curtain and hid behind it. Miss Barley and Miss Patch clambered out and walked away. Half-way down the platform they met Mr. Dawson, he was pale and trembling, but his blue eyes, bright with eagerness, looked for one face and figure only, and saw no other; Miss Patch and Miss Barley passed him quite unobserved; Miss Grace smiled to herself, and they turned to watch.
Along the platform he went, peering eagerly into every carriage. Jessie, in her corner, breathless with excitement, thought he would never come. The time seemed so long, so very long, she began to fear that the train would move on and carry her with it. In her excitement she thrust back the curtain, and leaned forward—and the next minute she was in his arms!
"Not asleep this time, granp!" she cried excitedly, "not asleep this time! Oh, granp! granp!" and she hugged and kissed him again and again.
The guard came in at last, to warn them that the train was about to move, and then there was a hasty gathering up of Miss Patch's eight parcels and her rose, and Jessie's three parcels and her geranium, and at last they all stood together on Springbrook platform, with the sun shining on them, the breeze blowing, the birds singing—and granny at home waiting to welcome them to the new happy life which lay before them.
Miss Grace led Miss Patch out, and they got into a carriage which had been sent from Norton for the purpose, but Jessie and her grandfather begged to walk back, as on that first occasion. He did not carry her now, though he leaned on her instead, and seemed glad of the support. He leaned heavily, too, she noticed, and she realized vaguely that there was one more change than she had thought of. In the past she had leaned all her weight on him, now it was he who would lean on her; and she hoped, with all the strength of her warm little heart, that she might be able to prove herself a real prop and staff to him and the dear granny who loved her so.
"God make my life a little staff, Whereon the weak may rest."
She repeated to herself.
"Here's granny," said granp joyfully, as they reached the garden gate. Run on to her, child! and—and remember—one arm is helpless still. You must be her right arm now, Jessie."
"I will," said Jessie eagerly, and the next moment was at her granny's side.