The story is taken from the on-line version of the bound edition of The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume CCLXIX, July-December 1890, at www.archive.org.
IT was getting late: the last omnibus had gone, and the few remaining pedestrians in the Euston Road were hurrying homeward, anxious to leave that dismal thoroughfare behind. The footsteps, gradually growing fainter, seemed to leave a greater desolation, though one man at least appeared to be in no hurry as he strode listessly along, as if space and time were of one accord to him. A tall, powerful figure, with bronzed features and a long brown beard, betrayed the traveller; and, in spite of the moody expression of face, there was a kindly gleam in the keen grey eyes—the air of one who, though he would have been a determined enemy, would doubtless have proved an equally staunch friend.
A neighbouring clock struck twelve, and Lancelot Graham increased his pace; anything was better than the depressing gloom of this dismal thoroughfare, with its appearance of decayed gentility and desolate grimy pretentiousness. But at this moment a smart pull at the pedestrian's coat-tails caused him to turn round sharply, with all his thoughts upon pickpockets bent But what he saw was the figure of a child barring his path, as if intent upon obstructing further progress.
"I'se lost," said the little one simply; "will you please find me."
Graham bent down, so that his face was on a level with the tiny speaker. They were immediately beneath a gas-lamp, and the astonished man, as he gazed carefully at the child, found her regarding him with eyes of preternatural size and gravity. There was not one particle of fear in the small face, in its frame of bright, sunny hair—nothing but the calm resolute command of one who issues orders and expects them to be obeyed: a child quaintly but none the less handsomely dressed, and evidently well cared for and nourished.
Graham pulled at his beard in some perplexity, and looked round with a faint anticipation of finding a policeman. Like most big men, he had a warm corner in his heart for children, and there was something in the tiny mite's imperiousness which attracted him strangely.
"And whose httle girl are you?" he asked, gravely.
"I'se mamma's, and I'se lost, and please will you find me"
"But I have found you, my dear," Graham responded helplessly, but not without an inward laugh at the childish logic.
"Yes, but you haven't found me prop'ly. I want to be found nice, and taked home to mamma, because I'se so dreffly hungry."
The ingenuous speaker was without doubt the child of a refined mother, as her accent and general air betrayed. It was a nice quandary, nevertheless, for a single man, said Lance Graham to himself, considering the hour and the fact of being a prisoner in the hands of an imperious young lady, who not only insisted upon being found, but made a point of that desirable consummation being conducted in an orthodox manner.
"Well, we will see what we can do for you," said Graham, becoming interested as well as amused. "But you must tell me where you live, little one."
She looked at him with quiet scorn, as if such a question from a man was altogether illogical and absurd. But, out of consideration for such lamentable ignorance, the child vouchsafed the desired information.
"Why"—with widely-open blue eyes—"I live with mamma!"
"This is awful," groaned the questioner. "And where does mamma live?"
"Why, she lives with me; we both live together."
Graham leaned against the lamp-post and laughed outright. To a lonely man in London—and Alexander Selkirk in his solitude was no more excluded from his fellows than a stranger in town—the strange conversation was at once pleasant and piquant. When he recovered himself a little, he asked with becoming and respectful gravity for a little information concerning the joint-author of the little blue-eyed maiden's being.
"He's runned away," she replied with a little extra solemnity. "He runned away just before I became a little girl."
Lance became conscious of approaching symptoms of another fit of laughter, only something in the fearless violet eyes checked the rising mirth.
"He must have been a very bad man, then," he observed.
"He runned away," repeated the child, regarding her new-found friend with reproachful gravity, "and mamma loves him, she does."
"And do you love him too, little one?"
"Yes, I love him too. And when I say my prayers I say, 'Please God, bless dear runaway papa, and bring him home again, for Jesus' sake, amen.'"
Graham, hard cynical man of the world as he was, did not laugh again.
A man must be far gone, indeed, if such simple earnestness and touching belief as this cannot move him to the core. All the warmth and love in his battered heart went out to the child in a moment.
"I do not know what to do with you," he observed. "I do not know who your mamma is, but I must look after you, young lady."
"I'se not a young lady; I'se Nelly. Take me home to mamma."
"But I don't know where she is," said Graham forlornly.
"Then take me home to your mamma."
"Confiding," said Graham, laughing again, "not to say com- placent, only unfortunately I don't happen to have one."
"I dess you're too big," said Nelly, with a little nod, and then, as if the whole matter was comfortably settled, "Carry me."
"Suppose I take you home with me?" Graham observed, having quickly abandoned the idea of proceeding to the nearest police-station, "and then we can look for mamma in the morning. I think you had better come with me," he added, raising the light burden in his arms.
"All right," Nelly replied, clasping him lovingly round the neck, and laying her smooth cheek comfortably against his bronzed face. "I fink that will be very nice. Then you can come and see mamma in the morning, and perhaps she will let you be my new papa."
"What about the other one?" asked Graham.
"Oh, then I can have two," replied the little lady, by no means abashed; "we can play at horses together. Where do you live?"
The speaker put this latter question with great abruptness, as children will when they speak of matters quite foreign to the subject under discussion.
"Not very far from here," Lance replied meekly.
"I'se so glad. I'se dreffly hungry. And I like milk for supper."
Mr. Graham smiled at this broad hint, and dutifully promised that the desired refreshment should be forthcoming at any cost.
The walk, enlivened by quaint questions and scraps of childish philosophy, proved to be a short one, and, indeed, from Euston Road to Upper Bedford Place can scarcely be called a long journey. So Graham carried his tiny acquaintance to his room, and installed her in state before the fire, bidding her remain there quietly while he retired to consult his landlady upon the important question of supper.
Little Nelly's remark was not beside the mark, when she confessed to the alarming extent of her appetite, for the bread and milk disappeared with considerable celerity, nor did the imperturbable young lady disdain a plate of biscuits suggested by Graham as a follower. Once the novelty of the situation had worn off, he began to enjoy ihf pleasant sensation, and to note with something deeper than pleasure his visitor's sage remarks and noticeable absence of anything like shyness. When she had concluded her repast, she climbed upon his knee in great content.
"Tell me a tale," she commanded; "a nice one."
"Yes, my darling, certainly," Graham replied, feeling as if he would have attempted to stand on his head, if she had called for that form of entertainment. "What shall I tell you about?"
"Bears. The very, very long one about the three bears."
"I am afraid I can't remember that," Lance returned meekly. "You see, my education has been neglected. If it had been tigers now—"
"Well," said the imperious Nelly, with a sigh of resignation, and perhaps a little in deprecation of such deplorable ignorance, "I dess the bears will have to wait. Only it must be about a real tiger."
Graham, obedient to this request, proceeded to relate a personal adventure in the simplest language at his command. That he should be so doing did not appear to be the least ludicrous. As if he had been a family man, and the child his own, he told the thrilling story.
"I like tales," said Nelly, when at length the thrilling narrative concluded. "Did you ever see a real lion?"
"Often. And now, isn't it time little girls were in bed?"
"But I don't want to go to bed. And I never go till I'se said my prayers."
"Well, say them now, then."
"When I'se a bit gooder. I'se got a naughty think inside me." When the naughty think's gone, then I'll say my prayers."
"But I want to go to bed myself."
"You can't go till I'se gone," Nelly returned conclusivel<. "Tell me all about lions."
"Don't know anything about lions."
"Then take me home to mamma."
"My dear child," said Graham, with a gravity he was far from feeling, "can't you understand that you must wait till morning. They have made you a nice bed, and it's very late for little girls to be up."
"Let me see it. Carry me."
The imperious tones were growing very drowsy. When at length Graham's rubicund, good-natured landlady called him into the room, he stopped in the doorway in silent admiration of perhaps the prettiest picture he had ever seen. With her face fresh and rosy, her fair golden hair twisted round her head, she stood upon the bed and held out a pair of arms invitingly.
"What, not asleep yet?" he asked, "and nearly morning, too."
The old look of reproach crept into the child's sleepy eyes. "Not till I have said my prayers. Take me on your lap while I say them."
Graham placed the little one on his knee, listening reverently to the broken medley of words uttered with the deepest solemnity. Yet every word was distinctly uttered, even to the plea for the absent father, till the listener found himself wondering what kind of man this recalcitrant parent might be. Presently Nelly concluded. "And God bless you," she exclaimed lovingly, accompanying her words with a kiss. "And now I will go to sleep."
* * * * *
WHEN Graham woke next morning he did so with a violent pain at his chest, and a general feeling that his beard was being forcibly torn from his chin. It was early yet, but his tiny visitor was abroad. She had established herself upon the bed, where she was engaged in some juvenile amusement, in which the victim's long beard apparently played an important part in the programme. As he opened his eyes the child laughed merrily. "Don't move," she exclaimed peremtorily; "I'se playing horses. You'se the horse, and these is the reins," and giving utterance to these words, she gave a sharp pull at his cherished hirsute appendage, and recommenced her recreation vigorously.
A man may be passionately fond of children, but when it comes to healthy child lying upon his chest, and a pair of lusty little arms tugging at a sensitive portion of his anatomy, the time has arrived when a little admonition becomes almost necessary.
"Nelly, you are hurting me," Graham cried sharply.
She looked in his face a moment, apparently seeking to know if he spoke with a dual meaning, as children ofttimes do. Then, deciding that he spoke the truth, there came an affectionate reaction in his favour.
"Poor, poor!" she said soothingly, rubbing her cheek against his. "Nelly is a naughty girl, and I'se so sorry."
"You are a good little girl to say you are sorry."
"Give me some sweeties then," Nelly answered promptly. "Whenever I tell mamma I'se sorry she says 'good little girl,' and gives me sweeties."
"Presently, perhaps. And now run away while I dress."
Obedient to this request, the child kissed him again, and after one regretful glance at the beard, and a sigh for the vanished equestrian exercise, jumped from the bed and disappeared. Graham was not, however, destined to be left long in peace over his toilet, which was not more than half completed when Nelly returned again, and seating herself in a chair, watched gravely every movement of this deeply interesting ceremony.
"Isn't you going to shave?" she asked reproachfully, as Graham with a smile indicated that his labour was complete.
"I never shave," he answered. "What would you have to play horses with if I did?"
This practical logic seemed to confound Miss Nelly for a moment, but with the pertinacity worthy of a better cause she replied:
"All gentlemans shave. There is one in our house, and I go to him every morning. I like to see him scrape the white stuff off—I'se dreffly hungry."
But by this time Graham had grown quite accustomed to these startling changes in the flow of Miss Nelly's eloquence, though he could not fail to admit the practical drift of the concluding observation.
"Nelly," he asked seriously, when the healthy appetite had been fully appeased. "Let us go to business. Now, what is mamma's name?"
"Nelly, too," the child replied. "Pass the bread and butter please."
"And you do not know where you live?"
"No. But it isn't far from the stason, where the trains are. I can hear them all day when mamma is out."
"Not a particularly good clue in a place like London," reflected the questioner. "What is mamma like?" he asked. "What does she do?"
"She is very beautiful, beautifuller than me, ever so," she answered reverently. "And she goes out at night—And once she look me. There were a lot of people, whole crowds of them, and when mamma came in her beautiful dress they all seemed very glad to see her, I thought."
Evidently an actress, Graham determined—and some clue, though still a very faint one. Still, by the time breakfast was concluded, he had matured his plan of action. He hailed a passing cab, and drove away with the intention in the first place of visiting the nearest police-station in the neighbourhood of the Euston Road, as the most likely place to glean the information of which he was in search.
"Are we going back to mamma?" Nelly asked as they drove away.
"Yes, darling, if we can find her," Graham replied gravely. He began to comprehend how much the involuntary little guest would be missed. "She must have been terribly anxious about you."
"She will cry then," Nelly observed reflectively. "She often cries at night when I am in bed, and says such funny things. Did your mamma cry when she put you to bed?"
"I can't remember," said Graham carelessly. "I dare say she did, I used to be very naughty at times."
"But big people can't be naughty—only little boys and girls; mamma says so, and she is always right."
"I hope so. What will she say to her naughty little girl?"
"I know," came the confident reply: "she will look at me as if she is going to beat me, then she will cry, like she does when I ask about papa."
But any further confidences were checked by the arrival of the cab at the police-station. The interview was not however entirely satisfactory. A stern-looking but kindly guardian of the peace, replying to Graham's questions, vouchsafed the information that no less than five people had visited the station during the previous night in search of lost children. It was a common occurrence enough, though usually the children were speedily found. In his perplexity Graham suggested that if the officer saw Miss Nelly he might perchance be able give some information; in answer to which the constable shook his head doubtfully. Directly he saw the child his stolid face lightened.
"Bless me, of course I know her!" he exclaimed. "My wife keeps lodging-house, and this young lady's mother lives in the same street. I can give you the address if you like, sir, or I will take charge of her."
Graham demurred to this proposal for two reasons: first, because he felt a strange reluctance in parting with his tiny friend; and, secondly, he felt some curiosity to see the mother.
The house to which he found himself directed was by no means a striking-looking one, nor by any stretch of imagination could it be called aristocratic. There was about it a general air of pretentious seediness—dingy curtains and windows more or less grimy in contrast to a new red front: a house to be summed up in the expressive expression "shabby-genteel"—such an abode, in fact, as is usually affected by those who have "seen better days." In answer to the bell, and on inquiring for Mrs. Gray, a swarth domestic vouchsafed the information that she was in, coupled with a side-whisper to Miss Nelly conveying the dire intelligence that she would "catch it."
Mrs. Gray was not yet down, Graham discovered, having been out very late the previous night in search of her child. In answer to an invitation, Graham followed the dusky maid up the innumerable stairs leading to Mrs. Gray's room.
He had ample time to note the common hard furniture, the never-failing neutral-tinted Brussels carpet, and the dim-looking glass, termed by courtesy a mirror, above a mantel decorated with those impossible blue shepherdesses, without which no London lodging-house is complete. Some wax flowers under a glass-case and a few play-bills scattered about completed the adornment of an apartment calculated to engender suicidal feehngs in the refined spectator, Graham had time to take in all this; and at the moment when man's natural impatience began to assert itself, a rustle of drapery was heard, and Mrs. Gray entered.
She was tall and fair, in age apparently not more than five-and-twenty years, with a fine open face, its natural sweetness chastened by the presence of some poignant sorrow. As she saw the child, a bright smile illuminated every feature, and she snatched Miss Nelly to her arms, covering her with kisses; indeed, so absorbed was she in this occupation that she failed to note Graham's presence until Nelly pointed in his direction. Then, and not till then, she looked up to him, her eyes filled with tears. His back being to the light, his features were to be seen but indistinctly.
"I have to thank you deeply," she said, and her voice was very pleasant to the listener. "You will pardon a mother's selfishness. All night—"
Graham, at first half-dazed, like a man in a dream, came quickly forward, and with one bound stood by the speaker's side. He had turned towards the light. She could distinguish every feature now.
For a few moments they stood in a kind of dazed fascination, the eyes of each fell upon each other's face. But gradually the dramatic instinct inherent in woman, and carefully trained in her instance, came to Mrs. Gray's assistance. With a little gesture of scorn, she drew her skirts a little closer round her, and as her coldness increased so did Graham's agitation.
"Well, what have you to say to me?" she asked, with quiet scorn. "Have you any excuse to offer after all these years? What! no words, no apology even, for the woman you have wronged so cruelly?"
"I did not wrong you—not intentionally, at least," said Graham, with an effort. "No, there has been no forgetfulness; my memory is as long as yours. It seems only yesterday that I returned from Paris to find my home empty, and proofs, strong as Holy Writ, of your flight."
"And you believed? You actually believed that I— Shall I condescend to explain to you how I received a letter to say you were lying there at the point of death, and that I, in honour bound, came to you—only to find that a scoundrel had deceived us both."
"But I wrote no letter. I—"
"I know you did not—all too late. I know that I was lured to Paris by a vile schemer who called himself your friend. And when I returned, what did I find? That you had gone, never giving me a chance to clear myself. Deceived once, you must needs fancy deceit everywhere."
"But I was ruined," cried Graham. "That scoundrel Leslie had disposed of every penny of our partnership money. I must have been mad. I followed him, but we never met till last May; out in California that was. He was dying when I found him; and before he died he told me everything. Nelly, I only did what any other man would have done. Put yourself in my place, and say how you would have acted."
"How would I have acted?" came the scornful reply. "I would have trusted a little. Do you think, if they had come to me and shown me those proofs, I would have believed? Never!"
"Helen, listen to me one moment. I mad then, mad with despair and jealousy, or perhaps I might hesitated. Let us forget the past and its trials, and be again as we were before. I was wrong, and bitterly have I atoned for my hasty judgment. I am rich now."
"You are rich! Who cares for your riches?" Helen Graham answered passionately, conscious that his words had moved her deeply. "What is wealth when there is no love, or which has been killed by doubt? There would always be something between us, some intangible—"
"My dear wife, for the sake of the little one." Graham had touched upon a sympathetic chord, and he continued, " It was no mere coincidence which led me to find her last night Nelly, never at any time during the last four miserable years have I forgotten you. By hard work I have found my lost fortune, but I have not found forgetfulness."
He pointed to the wondering child, who stood regarding the speakers with eyes of deep intense astonishment. The tears rose unbidden to the mother's eyes, but she dashed them passionately away.
"Do you think I have never suffered," she cried, "all this time, with a taint upon me, and the hard struggle I have had to live? As you stand there now you doubt my innocence."
"As Heaven is my witness, no!" Graham answered brokenly. "I am no longer blind."
"I thank you for those words, Lance," came the reply with a certain soft cadence. "I know you loved me once."
"And I do now. I have never ceased to love you."
"Do not interrupt me for a moment. For the sake of your kindness to my child I forgive you. Friends we may be, but nothing more. She is your child as well as mine. I cannot hinder you from seeing her, for the law gives you that power, I know."
"The law! " Lance returned bitterly; "things are come to a fine pass when husband and wife, one in God's sight, can calmly discuss the narrow laws of man's making. In this little while the child has twined herself round my heart more than I dare confess. I cannot come to you as a friend, you know I cannot. I will not take the little one away from you, and there is no middle course for me to adopt."
There was another and more painful silence than the last. All the dramatic scorn had melted from the injured wife's heart, and left nothing but a warm womanly feeling behind. Strive as she would, there was something magnetic in Graham's pleading tones, conjuring up a flood of happy memories from the forgotten past. Graham, throwing all pride to the winds and perfect in his self-abasement, spoke at length, speaking with a quiet tender earnestness, infinitely more dangerous than any wild exhortation could be.
"Nelly, I must have the truth," said he; "I am alone in the world, nay more, for I am beginning to realise what I have lost. If you will look me in the face and tell me that all the old love is dead, I will go away and trouble you no more."
"But as a friend, Lance. Surely if I might—"
Graham beckoned the little Nelly to his side and took her on his knee. "Little sweetheart," he asked, "tell me all you told me last night about your wicked runaway father. Who taught you to say 'God bless dear papa and send him home again,' as you said to me last night?"
"Mamma," said Nelly confidentially, "and she says so too." Graham looked up with a smile. There were tears in his wife's eyes beyond the power of control, and a broken smile upon her face. "Let the little one decide," she said.
Lance leant down and kissed his child with quivering lips. Then with one of her imperious gestures, she pointed to her mother and bade him kiss her too. There was a momentary hesitation, a quick movement on either side, and Helen Graham was sobbing unrestrainedly in her husband's arms.
"As if I could have let you go," she said at length. "Oh, I always knew you would find the truth some day, Lance."
"Yes, thank Heaven," he said gravely. "Providence has been very good to us, darling."
He turned to little Nelly. "Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"Oh yes, yes," she cried, clapping her hands gleefully, "You are my own dear runaway papa. Mamma, you mustn't let him run away any more."
"You will find him if he does," said Helen, with a glorious smile. "but I am not afraid."