"CAN'T walk! Who says I can't walk? I'm—all right! Good-night, chaps!"
A man came staggering over the threshold of a cheap, gaudily-painted saloon, shaking impatiently from his shoulder a hand which sought to restrain him. On the pavement he paused, steadying himself carefully, and looked up and down the broad, empty street, fringed with its rows of unimposing, irregularly-built, wooden houses. The electric lights had been extinguished hours ago. The tall posts, rudely shaped, and with the unstripped bark hanging down from them in many places, stood out gaunt and bare in the cold morning twilight. The whole place had the unfinished look of a frontier town. It was very ugly.
Balancing himself first on one foot and then on the other, the man felt carefully through all his pockets. His face grew blacker as his search continued unsuccessfully. At last he gave it up.
"Not a nickel," he muttered savagely. "Who cares? I don't want one of their nasty cheap beds! Pine needles are softer and sweeter, too! Pooh! what a breeze!"
He straightened himself carefully, and stepping from the high sidewalk, made his way down the broad street. He walked with the curious deliberation and slight unsteadiness of a partially drunken man. Nevertheless, he made way, and very soon he was in the open country. The wooden houses and stores stopped abruptly. The road narrowed; on either side was a rough wooden fence, and before him a high hill. He climbed it doggedly. At the summit he paused to take breath, leaning against the fence with half-closed eyes. His head had commenced to swim a little. He took off his cap again, and the breeze, colder here, and with a certain winter sting in it, revived him. Presently he climbed over a gate on his left hand, and plunged into a plantation of fir trees. Choosing a spot where the fallen needles were thickest and softest on the ground, he curled himself up and slept.
It was broad daylight when he awoke. A faint stream of sunlight had found its way somehow on to the brown pine cone-strewn ground, and above the sky was blue, dotted all over with little fleecy, white clouds. The morning air was sharp and cold. A breath of white frost lay upon the drooping boughs, and away outside like a thin veil of bespangled gossamer upon the open country. The man stood up, stretched himself with a little shiver and hastened out into the sunlight.
As he stood there on the fringe of the plantation, a curious sound from the rude, half-built town below reached his ears. From a wooden shed on the outskirts of the place came the persistent noisy clanging of a single bell. Ding! Ding! Ding! There was no variation, no second note. The man looked downwards curiously. Was it Sunday, then he wondered? Somehow he had lost count of days down in the depths in which he was dwelling. The broad street was full of a thin crowd of people. A buggy came down the road as he lounged against the gate, and the man who was driving passed him a brief salutation. He gazed idly after them. Two girls were sitting at the back laughing and giggling. They looked pleasantly at the man, for though he was shabby he was handsome, and he had not the air of a tramp. As he returned their gaze carelessly, his heart gave a great leap. One of them had a small piece of holly with red berries stuck in the bosom of her jacket. Like a flash he knew what it all meant. It was Christmas Day.
He turned abruptly back into the plantation, and threw himself face downwards on the spot where he had slept. His eyeballs were burning—soon the hot tears forced themselves out—his thin frame was shaken with sobs! He lay there for an hour or more. When he rose up he was very pale, but there was a new light in his eyes—the light of purpose!
"I am going to see her," he murmured; "I have been a beast, but she loved me once. What—if she were to forgive!"
His whole frame trembled with excitement. Nervously he clasped and unclasped his hands. Then his face darkened. He was looking downward into the settlement.
"What a fool I am!" he cried. "I was drunk last night, drunk the night before! I wonder," he said slowly, "what devil it is that tempts men to pluck up and throw away all the little good that was in us! I was a gentleman once! A few hours ago I was a drunken sot!"
He looked steadily down the hill. Without flinching he recalled the events of the last night. He saw himself in the cheap saloon, foul with tobacco smoke, and reeking with bad odours—they consort on equal terms with men beneath contempt—himself muddled, inarticulate, his brain and fancy soddened with drink. A look of unutterable disgust crept into his face.
"I have done with that forever," he said steadily. "That I swear! Fate and I shall have one more tussle together, and it shall be in the old country. If only she could forgive! God! what fools men are!"
Tall and gaunt with the marks of a recent illness, he stood packed closely in amongst a motley crowd in the front row of the gallery. He had waited two hours for his seat, but after all it was worth it. There was a roar of applause—then an intense silence. She was singing! The man looked down at her with dim eyes and a bitter heart.
She was his wife! She had been his faithful and true wife through a very furnace of adversity. And he, weary of the struggle against fate, had left her— left her coldly, deliberately, out of the rankest and most brutal selfishness. He remembered the letter he had left behind—he was going abroad, anywhere out of the meshes of this cursed poverty. If he could he would send her money, but she had better not rely upon it. Life together had been a failure. He meant to make one more effort alone and untrammeled. The brutal, hateful cynicism of his leavetaking had moved him often to wild disgust. After all it has been an impulse many times repented of. If he had succeeded he would have hastened to acknowledge it—pride alone in his constant succession of failures had kept him silent. And now it was too late, too late for anything. She had become famous! He watched her delicately graceful movements, listened to her arch laugh and merry, silvery voice as she moved about the stage the cynosure, as usual, of a crowded theatre. She had once belonged to him—to him, that half-starved and dejected looking man, the consort of costermongers and 'Arrets, of whistling lads and screaming girls. And he loved here still. He had realised it on that Christmas morning a year ago, and if he had found her poor and suffering, he would have taken her into his arms, and turned once more to face the battle of life. Something like this had been his dream, shattered now into a thousand pieces. She had no need of any help of his! She was in another world. Without a doubt she did not belong to him any more. How could he expect it? He had himself cut the bonds. "She was free," he had said; "to go her own way, as he was taking his." Only, as his had led to ruin, so had hers led to fortune!
It was a month ago since he had found her; nearly every night since then his chance earnings during the day had brought him here to the same place to see her. He had gone without food more than once, sooner than be absent. Long before the doors had opened he had taken his place upon the pavement, waiting with a sort of dogged patience which took no heed of time. The habitués of the place had grown to look upon him with a certain amount of wonder. He stood there with his arm round the pillar, without smiling, with white set face, and eyes sometimes curiously bright, hour after hour, night after night. And afterwards—well, that was a secret of his own, but it was a weakness he had struggled against in vain! Every night he made his way stealthily round to the little dark street in which the stage door was situated, and from a shadowy corner, pressed against the wall, he saw her step into the same cab, and drive past him. He had cunningly chosen his place so that a lamp-post from opposite shone into the cab, and unless she were leaning back he could catch a glimpse of her face! On the first night he had come he had trembled so that his limbs had nearly given way beneath him, and his heart had ceased to beat. There were two carriages waiting at the door—one, a livery stable cab; the other a smart brougham, with a pair of dark horses, servants wearing cockades, and a man in evening dress, leaning back, smoking a cigarette. The moments of waiting were like a nightmare to him. Then she came, followed by an elderly woman, plainly dressed, and without a glance at the brougham, entered the cab and drove off. The blood rushed through his veins; he drew a long breath; there were tears even in his eyes. Yet what concern was it of his?
To-night he shrank back into his accustomed corner. There was a little disturbance at the stage-door, and, as the night was dark, he ventured to cross the road to see what it was. A man in evening dress, a little disordered, and face flushed with wine, was quarrelling with the commissionaire who guarded the stage-door. He tried to force his way in, and was summarily ejected. He stood on the edge of the pavement abusing the man, who took no notice. Just then she came out.
The commissionaire vanished for a moment. As she crossed the pavement, the man who had been ejected planted himself in her path. She drew herself up, and tried to pass him. He laid his hand upon her arm, and commenced to speak. Her angry voice reached the ears of the man who crouched back amongst the shadows.
"Let me go at once, sir! How dare you touch me?"
She looked around for the commissionaire, but his back was turned. She tried unsuccessfully to wrench her arm away. Suddenly a pale, ragged figure, with eyes all ablaze with anger seemed to leap up from the very ground. There was a short angry cry, and the sound of a blow. The man who had been holding her lay on his back, sprawling in the mud. Across the road her rescuer was vanishing amongst the shadows. The woman looked after him with transfixed eyes, as though she had seen a ghost.
"Dick!" she cried, faintly. "Dick!"
But there was no answer. The tall, gaunt figure had vanished completely. With a broad grin on his face, the commissionaire came hurrying up, and opened the door of her cab.
"I am sorry, madam," he said, "but he has gone. I had turned that man out twice, and I thought that he had gone away. I hope that he did not annoy you?"
"He did annoy me," she answered, "but he was punished for it. I wish I could speak to the man who knocked him down. Do you mind crossing the road and seeing if he is about?"
The commissionaire obeyed, and returned in a moment or two, shaking his head.
"I am sorry, madam," he said, "but he has gone! I know the man quite well by sight, though, and there will be no difficulty about rewarding him, if you wish to."
"What is his name?"? she asked.
"I do not know, madam," the man answered. "He must be a very singular person. Every night he comes round from the gallery and stands in that dark corner over the way until the ladies have come out. He never attempts to speak to anyone, though, and he always goes quietly away."
The woman leaned back amongst the cushions and closed her eyes.
"Thank you!" she said. "Good-night!"
"Shall I speak to him for you to-morrow night, Madam?" the man asked. "I might give half a crown it you liked. He looks as though he would be glad of it."
She opened her eyes wide.
"On no account," she said decidedly. "Do not speak to him or offer him any money. Good night!"
He was there again the next evening, in the same place amongst the same throng. Perhaps he had never found the waiting so wearisome. The air was heavy all round with the smell of oranges and cheap scent. The people were talkative and inclined to chaff. It was the holiday season—to-morrow was Christmas Day, and the lads and girls packed in around him were in high good humour. Nutshells and orange peel were more than once flicked across at him, but he took no notice. He stood there like a death's head at the feast of coarse, good humour. Only when she came his face relaxed a little. His eyes softened, the corners of his mouth twitched. Was it perversity, or chance, or what? She had never seemed more charming or more beautiful, and she was playing not to the stalls, or to the pit, but high up to the gods all the time. Once or twice he could almost feel her eyes upon him, and the colour came and went in his poor, thin cheeks with excitement. It was a love song she had been singing, her arms were upraised—straight to him, her eyes seemed to seek his, some familiar note in her voice brought a great lump into his throat.
That last glance—the wave of her white jewelled hand!—ah! he must be going mad! His throat was thick with sobs, his eyes burned with unshed tears. Turning around he forced his way savagely out, receiving many blows and much abuse in patient silence. Then some girl more good-natured and quicker witted than her fellows cried out in a shrill undertone:
"Let the old buffer get out, can't you, chaps? Don't you see he ain't well?"
They let him pass then. Round and round the stone steps he descended until at last he stood in the street. A fine rain was descending. He turned up his coat collar, and hesitated.
"The last time," he said softly to himself. "To-night shall end it. It is like burning torture!"
He did not move for many minutes. The thing which he was debating with himself was whether he should take his usual place in that little dark back street, and see her once more, or whether he should take that song of hers for her farewell, and die while its memory was still thrilling his heart, and ringing in his ears. At last he decided for the latter course. He moved steadily off, crossing the Strand, and going riverwards. Suddenly he changed his mind. He must see her once more. A quarter past eleven struck. There was time if he ran all the way. He turned and hurried blindly back through the throng of pleasure-seekers. At the corner of the little street he was breathless. Perhaps he was too late! No, her cab was still there. He crouched in his corner panting, and waited.
He had run it very fine indeed. In less than a minute she came out Then a strange thing happened. Instead of stepping into her cab, she stood for a moment on the edge of the pavement, and then, heedless of the rain, bare-headed and in satin slippers, she came swiftly across the road, straight to him. He looked wildly up and down! There was no escape! His limbs were powerless. She was standing there before him.
"Dick!" she cried, softly, holding out her hands. "Aren't you going to speak to me, dear?"
"Hilda!" he moaned. "Oh, my God! How did you know me?"
"I recognised you last night", she said. "I want you to come home with me, please! Come!"
He caught his breath and shrunk back.
"Don't," he cried. "Don't! Look at me!"
Indeed he was a pitiful object. His clothes were more than ragged. There was a great hole in his boots. She gave a little sob.
"Don't be foolish, and keep me here in the rain, Dick," she said. "I shall wait until you come. I mean it".
He crossed the road by her side, unsteadily, like, a man in a dream. The commissionaire opened the door doubtfully, and regarded him in amazement. Then they drove off.
"Kiss me, Dick!" she said, softly.
But his lips were white and bloodless, and his head had fallen on one side. He had fainted.
When he opened his eyes he was seated in an easy chair before a blazing fire, and his wife was kneeling by his side! He look at her almost in fear! She was holding a glass of brandy in her hand, and she made him swallow some before he spoke. Her hand, white and soft, was in his.
"Hilda, do you mean this?" he whispered. "You have forgiven me. Look what I am! It is my own fault. Oh, you cannot mean it."
"But I do," she answered, smiling at him. "I was very much to blame in those days. They are over and done with. But, my poor, poor Dick," she went on, "what you must have suffered!"
She took some beef-tea from a saucepan on the fire, and made him drink a cupful. The colour came back to his cheeks. She watched him with tears in her eyes.
"I don't believe," she said, "that you have had anything to eat to-day."
"I don't think I have," he admitted. "I had only a shilling, and I wanted that—for the evening."
"For the theatre!" she gasped.
"I have been there every night for a month," he said. "To-night would have been the last. I was nearly desperate. It seemed to me that you looked at me, that you were singing to me. I could not stand it. I had to go out."
She was crying softly, and smiling at the same time.
"I did see you," she said. "I was singing to you. I wanted you to know that I was!"
"I can't realise it", he said slowly. "How can I ever, ever—"
"Don't be foolish." she interrupted. "You see I am not afraid to start again because I know that you must care a little for me, Dick, or you would not have been there every night watching me—and outside—and never once spoken."
"I have loved you always," he said, taking her hand, and looking into her eyes; "nothing but pride kept me away. When I came back just now, it was to see you—before I died." She kissed, him tenderly.
"Silly boy," she whispered. "Tell me! How long have you been in England?"
"Four months," he answered; "nearly three of them In St. Thomas's Hospital."
She pressed his hand.
"Were you very ill?" she asked.
"It was an accident; down in the Addison Road. It was on a Sunday—"
She started up.
"Sunday! Addison Road!" she cried. "Why, there was a little girl and a runaway brougham—"
"Coming down from Queen's Gate," he continued. "I was just in time! I didn't think I was hurt, and I walked away for a street or two—"
He stopped short in amazement. She had rushed from the room. In a moment she was back again. A little, dark-haired girl was in her arms, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. The woman looked from the child to the man eagerly. The child gave a pealing cry, and held out her arms to the man!
"Mamma!" she cried, struggling fiercely. "I want to go to him. It's the nice man who stopped the horses and picked me up! Take me up, please, I want to kiss you."
The man looked at her in bewilderment, but he obeyed. His wife's arms, too, were around him.
"Dick!" she cried; "Oh, Dick, it was you who saved her life, our own little girl! Thank God!"
He was still bewildered.
"She was born four months after you went away," she continued softly. "She has been the one thing I have had in the world to love and to work for! And you saved her life, Dick!"
"Is it Dada?" the little girl asked.
And the woman, who was speechless, nodded her head.
"Has he come for Christmas?" she asked.
"He has come for good," her mother answered gladly. "I do not think that he will ever go away again!"