The Lowest Rung

Mary Cholmondeley

First published by John Murray, 1908

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Lowest Rung

We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung.

Rudyard Kipling.

The sudden splendour of the afternoon made me lay down my pen, and tempted me afield. It had been a day of storm and great racing cloud-wracks, after a night of hurricane and lashing rain. But in the afternoon the sun had broken through, and I struggled across the water-meadows, the hurrying, turbid water nearly up to the single planks across the ditches, and climbed to the heathery uplands, battling my way inch by inch against a tearing wind.

My art had driven me forth from my warm fireside, as it is her wont to drive her votaries, and the call of my art I have never disobeyed.

For no artist must look at one side of life only. We must study it as a whole, gleaning rich and varied sheaves as we go. My forthcoming book of deep religious experiences, intertwined with descriptions of scenery, needed a little contrast. I had had abundance of summer mornings and dewy evenings, almost too many dewy evenings. And I thought a description of a storm would be in keeping with the chapter on which I was at that moment engaged, in which I dealt with the stress of my own illness of the previous spring, and the mystery of pain, which had necessitated a significant change in my life—a visit to Cromer. The chapter dealing with Cromer, and the insurgent doubts of convalescence, wandering on its poppy-strewn cliffs, as to the beneficence of the Deity, was already done, and one of the finest I had ever written.

But I was dissatisfied with the preceding chapter, and, as usual, went for inspiration to Nature.

It was late by the time I reached the upland, but I was rewarded for my climb.

Far away under the flaring sunset the long lines of tidal river and sea stretched tawny and sinister, like drawn swords in firelight, between the distant woods and cornfields. The death-like stillness and smallness of the low-lying rigid landscape made the contrast with the rushing enormity and turmoil of the heavens almost terrific.

Great clouds shouldered up out of the sea, blotting out the low sun, darkening the already darkened earth, and then towered up the sky, releasing the struggling sun only to extinguish it once more, in a new flying cohort.

I do not know how long I stood there, spellbound, the woman lost in the artist, scribbling frantically in my notebook, when an onslaught of rain brought me to my senses and I looked round for shelter.

Then I became aware that I had not been watching alone. A desolate-looking figure, crouching at a little distance, half hidden by a gorse-bush, was watching too, watching intently. She got up as I turned and came towards me, her uncouth garments whipped against her by the wind.

The rain plunged down upon us, enveloping us both as in a whirlwind.

“There is an empty cottage under the down,” I shouted to her, and I began to run towards it. It was a tumbledown place, but “any port in such a storm.”

“It is not safe,” she shouted back; “the roof is falling in.”

The squall of rain whirled past as suddenly as it had come, leaving me gasping. She seemed to take no notice of it.

“I spent last night there,” she said. “The ceiling came down in the next room. Besides,” she added, “though possibly that may not deter you, there are two policemen there.”

I saw now that it had been the cottage which she had been watching. And sure enough, in a broken shaft of sunshine which straggled out for a moment, I saw two dark figures steal towards the cottage under cover of the wall.

“Why are they there?” I said, gaping at such a strange sight. For I had been many months at Rufford, and I had never seen a policeman.

“They are lying in wait for some one,” she said.

It flashed back across my mind how at luncheon that day the vicar had said that a female convict had escaped from Ipswich gaol, and had been traced to Bealings, and, it was conjectured, was lurking in the neighbourhood of Woodbridge.

I took sudden note of my companion’s peculiar dark bluish clothes and shawl, and the blood rushed to my head. I knew what those garments meant. She pushed back her grizzled hair from her lined, walnut-coloured face, and we looked hard at each other.

There was no fear in her eyes, but a certain curiosity as to what I was going to do.

“If I told you they were not looking for me,” she said, “I could not, under the circumstances, expect you to believe it.”

I am too highly strung for this workaday world. I know it to my cost. The artistic temperament has its penalties. My doctor at Cromer often told me that I vibrated like a harp at the slightest touch. I vibrated now. Indeed, I almost sat down in the sodden track.

But unlike many of my brothers and sisters of the pen, I am capable of impulsive, even quixotic action, and I ought, in justice to myself, to mention here that I had not then read that noble book “The Treasure of Heaven,” in which it will be remembered that a generous-souled woman takes in from the storm, and nurses back to health in her lowly cottage, an aged tramp who turns out to be a millionaire, and leaves her his vast fortune. I did not get the idea of acting as I am about to relate from Marie Corelli, the head of our profession, or indeed from any other writer. But I have so often been accused of taking other people’s plots and ideas and sentiments, that I owe it to myself to make this clear before I go on.

“You poor soul,” I said, “whatever you are, and whatever you’ve done, I will shelter you and help you to escape.”

I felt I really could not take her into the house, so I added, “I have a little stable in the garden, quite private, with nice dry hay in it. Follow me.”

I suppose she saw at a glance that she could trust me, for she nodded, and I sped down the hill, she following at a little distance, with the shrieking, denouncing wind behind us. I walked as quickly as I could, but when I got as far as the water-meadows my strength and breath gave way. I was never robust, and always foolishly prone to overtax my small store of strength. I was obliged to stop and lean my head on my arms against a stile.

“There is no need for such hurry,” she said tranquilly. She had come up noiselessly behind me. “There is not a soul in sight. Besides, look what you are missing.”

She pointed to the familiar fields before me which we had yet to cross, with the Dieben winding through them under his low, red-brick bridges, and beyond the little clustered village with its grey church spire standing shoulder high above the poplars.

The sun had just set and there was no colour in the west, but over all the homely, wind-swept landscape a solemn and unearthly light shone and slowly passed, shone and slowly passed.

“Look up,” said my companion, turning a face of flame towards me.

I looked up into the sky, as into an enormous furnace. Gigantic rolling clouds of flame were sweeping before the roaring wind like some vast prairie fire across the firmament. As they passed overhead, the reflection of the lurid light on them was smitten earthwards, and passed with them, making everything it traversed clear as noon—the lion on the swinging sign of the public-house just across the water, the delicate tracery of the church windows, the virginia creeper on my cottage porch.

“I have only seen an afterglow like that once in my life,” my companion said, “and that was in Teneriffe.”

A few moments more, and the sky paled to grey. The darkness came down with tropical suddenness. I made a movement forwards.

“Shall I not be seen if I follow you through the village in these weird clothes?” she said civilly, as one who hesitates to make a suggestion. “Where is your house?”

“My cot—it is not a house—is just at the end of those trees,” I said. “It is the only one close to the park gates. It has virginia creeper over the porch, and a white gate.”

“It sounds charming.”

“But how on earth are we to get there?” I groaned. “And some one may come along this path at any moment.”

The dusk was falling rapidly. Candles were beginning to twinkle in latticed windows. A yellow light from the public-house made an impassable streak across the road. Cheerful voices were coming along the meadow path behind us. What was to be done?

“Go home,” she said steadily. “I will find my own way.”

“But my servant?”

“Make your mind easy. She will not see me. I shall not ring the bell. Have you a dog?”

“No. My dear little Lindo——”

“It’s going to be a black night. I shall be in the porch half an hour after dark.”

She went swiftly from me, and as the voices drew near I saw her pick her way noiselessly into one of the great ditches, and stand motionless in the water, obliterated against a pollard willow.

I hurried home. My feet were quite wet, and even my stockings—a thing that had not happened to me for years. I changed at once, and took five drops of camphor on a lump of sugar. It would be extraordinarily inconvenient if I were to take cold, with my tendency to bronchial catarrh. I have no time to be ill in my busy life. Was not “Broodings beside the Dieben” being finished in hot haste for an eager publisher? And had I not promised to give away the Sunday-school prizes at Forlinghorn a fortnight hence?

It was half-past six. My garden boy was pumping in the scullery. He kept his tools in the stable, and it was his duty to lock it up and hang the key on the nail inside the scullery door.

Supposing he forgot to hang it up to-night of all nights! Supposing he took it away with him by mistake! I went into the scullery directly he had gone. I made a pretext of throwing away some flowers, though I had never thought of needing a pretext for going there before. The stable key was on its nail all right. I looked into the kitchen, where my little maid-servant was preparing my evening meal. When her back was turned, I snatched the key from the nail, dropped it noisily on the brick floor, caught it up, withdrew to the parlour, and sank down in my armchair shaking from head to foot. My doctor was right indeed when he said I vibrated like a harp.

The life of contemplation and meditation is more suited to my highly strung nature than that of adventure and intrigue.

My servant brought in the lamp, and I hurriedly sat on the key while she did so. Then she drew the curtains in the little houseplace, locked the outer door, and went back to the kitchen.

There are two doors to my cottage—the front door with the porch leading to the lane, and the back door out of the scullery which opens into my little slip of garden. At the bottom of the garden is a disused stable, utilised by me to store wood in, and old boxes. The gate to the back way to the stable from the lane had been permanently closed till the day should come when I could afford a pony and cart. But in these days novels of not too refined a type are the only form of literature (if they can be called literature) for which the public is eager. It will devour and extol anything, however coarse, which panders to its love of excitement, while grave books dealing with the spiritual side of life, books of thought and culture, are left unheeded on the shelf. Such had been the fate of mine.

The rain had ceased at last, and the wind was falling. My mind kept on making all sorts of uneasy suggestions to me as I sat in my armchair. What was I to do with the—the individual when I had got her safely into the stable, if I ever did get her safely there? How about food, how about dry clothes, how about a light, how about everything? Supposing she overslept herself, and Tommy found her there in the morning when he went for his tools? Supposing my landlord, Mr. Ledbury, who was a magistrate, found out I had harboured a criminal, and gave me notice just when I had repapered the parlour and put in a new back to the kitchen range? Such a calamity was unthinkable. What happened to people who compounded felonies? Was I compounding one? Why was not I sitting down? What was I doing standing in the middle of the parlour with the stable key in my hand, and, as I caught sight of myself in the glass, with my mouth wide open?

I sat down again resolutely, hiding the key under the cushion, and calmer thoughts supervened. After all, it was most improbable, almost impossible, that I should be found out. And once the adventure was safely over, when I had successfully carried it through, what interesting accounts I should be able to give of it at luncheon parties in London in the winter. My brothers would really believe at last that I could act with energy and presence of mind. There was a rooted impression in the minds of my own family that I was a flurried sort of person, easily thrown off my balance, making mountains out of molehills (this was especially irritating to me, as I have always taken a broad, sane view of life), who always twisted my ankle if it could be twisted, or lost my luggage, or caught childish ailments for the second time. Where there is but one gifted member in a large and commonplace family, an absurd idea of this kind is apt to grow from a joke into an idèe fixe.

It had obtained credence originally because I certainly had once in a dreamy moment got my gown shut into the door in an empty railway compartment on the far side. And as the glass was up on the station side I had been unable to attract any one’s attention when I wanted to alight, and had had to go on to Portsmouth (where the train stopped for good) before I could make my presence and my predicament known. This trivial incident had never been forgotten by my family—so much so, that I had often regretted the hilarious spirit of pure comedy at my own expense which had prompted me to relate it to them.

Now was the time to show what metal I was made of. My spirits rose as I felt I could rely on myself to be cautious, resourceful, bold. I sat on, outwardly composed, but inwardly excited, straining my ears for a sign that the fugitive was in the porch. I supposed I should presently hear a light tap on my parlour window, which was close to the outer door.

But none came. More than an hour passed. It had long been perfectly dark. What could have happened? Had the poor creature been dogged and waylaid by those two policemen after all? Was it possible that they had seen us standing together at the stile, where she had so inconsiderately joined me for a moment? At last I became so nervous that I went to the outer door, opened it softly, and looked out. She was so near me that I very nearly screamed.

“How long have you been here?” I whispered.

“Close on an hour.”

“Why didn’t you tap on the window or something? I was waiting to let you in.”

“I dared not do that. It might have been the kitchen window for all I knew, and then your servant would have seen me.”

“But the kitchen is the other side.”

“Indeed! And where is the stable?”

“At the bottom of the garden, away from the road.”

“How are we going to get to it?”

“We can only get to it through the garden, now the back way is closed. I closed it because the village children——”

“Had not you better shut the door? If any one passed down the road, they would see it was open.”

“It’s as dark as pitch.”

“Yes, but there’s a little light from within. I can see you from outside quite plainly standing in the doorway.”

I led her indoors, and locked and bolted the door.

“What is this room?”

“The houseplace. I have my meals here. I live very primitively. My idea is——”

“Then your servant may come in at any moment to lay your supper.”

I could not say that she seemed nervous or frightened, but the way she cut me short showed that she was so in reality. I was not offended, for I am the first to make allowance when rudeness is not intentional. I led the way hastily into the parlour.

“She never comes in here,” I said reassuringly, “after she has once brought in the lamp. I am supposed to be working, and must not be disturbed.”

“I’m not fit to come in,” she said.

And in truth she was not. She was caked with mud and dirt from head to foot, an appalling figure in the lamplight. The rain dripped from her hair, her sinister clothing, her whole person. She looked as if she must have hidden in a wet ditch. I gazed horror-struck at my speckless matting and pale Oriental rugs. I had never allowed a child or dog in the house for fear of the matting, except of course my poor Lindo, who had died a few months previously, and whom I had taught to wipe his feet on the mat.

A ghost of a smile twitched her grey mouth.

“Is not that the Times?” she said. “Spread it out four thick, and lay it on the floor.”

I did so, and she stepped carefully on to it.

“Now,” she said, standing on a great advertisement of a universal history—“now that I am not damaging the furniture, pull yourself together and think. How am I to get to the stable? I can’t stop here.”

She could not indeed. I felt I might be absolutely powerless to get the muddy footprints out of the matting. And no doubt there were some in the houseplace too.

“If I go through the scullery, I may be seen,” she said, the water pattering off her on to the newspaper. “So lucky you take in the Times; it’s printed on such thick paper. Where does that window look out?”

She pointed to the window at the farther end of the room.

“On to the garden.”

“Capital! Then we can get out through it, of course, without going through the scullery.”

I had not thought of that. I opened the window, and she was through it in two cautious strides.

“Now,” she said, looking back at me, “I’m comparatively safe for the moment, and so is the matting. But before we do anything more, get a duster—a person like you is sure to have a duster in a drawer. Just so, there it is. Now wipe up the marks of my muddy feet in the room we first came into as well as this, and then see to the paint of the window. I have probably smirched it. Then roll up the Times tight, and put it in the waste-paper basket.”

She watched me obey her.

“Having obliterated all traces of crime,” she said when I had finished, “suppose we go on to the stable. Let me help you through the window. I will wipe my hands on the grass first. And would not you be wise to put on that little shawl I see on the sofa? It is getting cold.”

The window was only a yard from the ground, and I got out somehow, encumbered in my shawl, which a grateful reader had crocheted for me. She had, however, to help me in again directly I was out, for, between us, we had forgotten the stable key, which was underneath the cushion of my armchair.

The rest was plain sailing. We stole down the garden path to the stable, and I unlocked the door and let her in.

“Kindly lock me in and take away the key,” she said, vanishing past me into the darkness, and I thought I detected a tone of relief in her brisk, matter-of-fact voice.

“I will bring some food as soon as I can,” I whispered. “If I knock three times, you will know it’s only me.”

“Don’t knock at all,” she said; “it might be noticed. Why should you knock to go into your own stable?”

“I won’t, then. And how about your wet things?”

“That’s nothing. I’m accustomed to being wet.”

I crawled back to the cottage, and managed to scramble in by the parlour window, only to sink once more into my armchair in a state of collapse. I had always entered so acutely into the joys and sorrows of others, their love affairs, their difficulties, their bereavements (I had in this way led such a full life), that I was surprised at this juncture to find my nervous force so exhausted, until I remembered that ardent natures who give out a great deal in the way of helpfulness and interest are bound to suffer when the reaction comes. The reaction had come for me now. I saw only too plainly the folly I had been guilty of in harbouring a total stranger, the trouble I should probably get into, the difficulty that a nature naturally frank and open to a fault would find in keeping up a deception. I doubted my own powers, everything. The truth was—but I did not realise it till afterwards—that I had missed my tea.

I could hear my servant laying my evening meal in the houseplace. In a few minutes she tapped to tell me it was ready, and I rose mechanically to obey the summons. And then, to my horror, I found I was still in morning dress. For the first time for years I had not dressed for dinner. What would she think if she saw me? But it was too late to change now; I must just go in as I was. My whole life seemed dislocated, torn up by the roots.

There was not much to eat. Half a very small cold chicken, a lettuce, and a little custard pudding, fortunately very nutritious, being made with Eustace Miles’s proteid. There were, however, a loaf and butter and plasmon biscuits on the sideboard. I cut up as much as I dared of the chicken, and put it between two very thick slices of buttered bread. Then I crept out again and took it to her. She got up out of the hay, and put out a gnarled brown hand for it.

“I will bring you a cup of coffee later,” I said. I was beginning to feel a kind of proprietorship in her. She would have starved but for me.

My servant always left at nine o’clock, to sleep at her father’s cottage, just over the way. I have a bell in the roof, which I can ring with a cord in case of fire or thieves.

To-night she was, of course, later than usual, but at last she brought in the coffee, and then I heard her making her rounds, closing the shutters on the ground floor, and locking the front door—at least, trying to do so. I had already locked and bolted it. Then she locked the scullery door on the outside, abstracted the key, and I heard her step on the brick path, and the click of the gate. She was gone.

I always heated the coffee myself over the parlour fire. It was already bubbling on the hob. Directly she had left I went to the kitchen, and got a second cup. I felt much better since I had had supper. And as I took the cup from the shelf the fantastic idea came into my mind to ask my protégée to come in and drink her coffee by the fire in the parlour. I must frankly own it was foolhardy; it was rash, it was even dangerous. But there it is! One cannot help the way one is made, and I am afraid I am not of those who invariably take the coldly prudent course and stick to it.

I turned the idea over in my mind. I could put down sheets of brown paper—I always have a store—from the door to the fire, and an old mackintosh over the worst armchair, which was to be recovered. Besides, I had not had a good look at her yet, or made out the real woman under the prison garb. That she was a person of education and refinement may appear hardly credible to my readers, but to one like myself, whose métier it is to probe the secrets of my own heart and those of others—to me it was sufficiently obvious from the first moment that, though I had to deal with a criminal, she was a very exceptional one, and belonging to my own class. I went out to the stable, and suggested to her that she should come in.

“How do you know that I am not a man in disguise?” came a voice from the darkness; and it seemed to me, not for the first time, that she was amused at something. “I’m tall enough. Just think how stupendous it would be if, when I was inside and the door really locked, I proved to be a wicked, devastating, burglarious male.”

“I wish you would not say things like that,” I said. “On your honour, are you a man?”

She hesitated, and then said in a changed voice:

“I am not. I don’t know what I am. I was a woman once, just as a derelict was a ship once. But whatever I am, I am not fit to come into a self-respecting house. I am one solid cake of mud.”

Something in her reluctance made me the more determined. Besides, one of the truths on which I have insisted most strongly in my “Veil of the Temple” is that if we show full trust and confidence in others, they will prove worthy of that trust. Her coming indoors had now become a matter of principle, and I insisted. I even said I could lend her a dressing-gown and slippers, so that her wet clothes might be dried by the kitchen fire.

She murmured something about a good Samaritan, but still demurred, and asked if I had a bath-room. I said I had.

That decided her. She seemed to have no difficulty in making up her mind. She did not see two sides to things, as I always do myself.

She said that if I liked to allow her to go to the bath-room first, she should be happy to accept my kind invitation for an hour or so. If not, she would stay where she was.

Half an hour later she was sitting opposite me in the parlour, on the other side of the wood fire, sipping her coffee. I had not put down the brown paper or the mackintosh. It was not necessary. Her close-cropped, curly grey hair, still damp from the bath, was parted, and brushed stiffly back over her ears. It must have been very beautiful hair once. Her thin hands and thinner face and neck looked more like brown parchment than ever, as she sat in the lamplight, my old blue dressing-gown folded negligently round her, and taking picturesque folds which it never did when I was inside it. Those long, gaunt limbs must have been graceful once. Her feet were bare in her slippers—in my slippers, I mean. She looked rather like a well-bred Indian.

It was obvious that she was a lady, but her speech had already told me that. What amazed me most where all amazed me was her self-possession.

I wondered what her impression of me was, as we sat, such a strangely assorted couple, one on each side of the fire. Did I indeed seem to her the quixotic, impetuous, and yet withal dreamy creature which my books show me to be? But I have often been told by those who know me well that I am much more than my books.

“I have not sat by a fire for how many months?” she said, her black eyes on the logs. “Let me see, last time was in a lonely cottage on the Cotswolds. It was a night like this, but colder, and a helpless old couple let me in, and allowed me to dry my clothes, and lie by their fire all night. Very unwise of them, wasn’t it? I might have murdered them in their beds.”

I began to feel rather uncomfortable.

“You are not undergoing a sentence for murder, are you?” I asked.

She looked at me for a moment, and then said:

“The desperate creature who escaped from gaol three days ago, and who was in for life for the murder of the man she lived with, and whose convict clothes I am wearing—whose clothes, I mean, are at this moment drying before your kitchen fire—is not the same woman who is now drinking your excellent coffee.”

“Do you mean to tell me you have never been in prison?”

“Yes, for a year; but I served my time and finished it four years ago.”

I wrung my hands. I was deeply disappointed in her. Her transparent duplicity, which could impose on no one, not even so unsuspicious a nature as mine, hurt me to the quick.

“Oh! you poor soul,” I said, “don’t lie to me. Indeed it isn’t necessary. I will do all I can for you. I will help you to get away. I will give you other clothes, and money, and we will bury these—these garments of shame. But don’t, for God’s sake, don’t lie to me.”

She looked gravely at me, as if she were measuring me, and seeing, no doubt, that I was not deceived, a dusky red rose for a moment to her face and brow.

“It is not easy to speak the truth to some people,” she said, her eyes dropping once more to the fire, “even when they are as compassionate and kind as you are.”

“Truthfulness is a habit that may be regained,” I said earnestly. “I myself, without half your temptations, was untruthful once.”

To associate oneself with the sins of others, to show one’s own scar, is not this sometimes the only way to comfort those overborne in the battle of life? Had I not chronicled my own failing in the matter of truthfulness when I foolishly and wickedly took blame on myself for the fault of one dear to me, in my first book, “With Broken Wing”? But I saw as I spoke that she had not read it, and did not realise to what I was alluding. I have so steadily refused to be interviewed that possibly also she had not even yet guessed who I was.

“I am sure—I am quite sure,” I went on after a moment, “that there is a great deal of good in you, that you are by nature truthful.”

“Am I? I wonder. Perhaps I was so once, in the early, untroubled days. But I have told many lies since then.”

She drank her coffee slowly, looking steadfastly into the fire, as if she saw in the wavering flame some reflection of another fire on another hearthstone.

“How good it is!” she said at last, putting her cup down. “How dreadfully good it is—the coffee and the fire, and the quiet room, and to be dry and warm and clean! How good it all is! And how little I thought of them when I had all these things!”

She got up and looked at a water-colour over the low mantelpiece.

“Madeira, isn’t it?” she said. “I seem to remember that peculiar effect of the vivid purple of the Bougainvillea against the dim, cloudy purple of the hills behind.”

“It is Madeira,” I said. “I was there ten years ago. Perhaps you have read my little book, ‘Beside the Bougainvillea’?”

“My husband died there,” she said, looking fixedly at the drawing. “He died just before sunrise, and when it was over I remember looking out across the sea, past the great English man-of-war in the harbour, to those three little islands—I forget their names—and as the first level rays touched them, the islands and the ship all seemed to melt into half-transparent amethyst in a sea of glass, beneath a sky of glass. How calm the sea was—hardly a ripple! I felt that even he, weak as he was, could walk upon it. It was like daybreak in heaven, not on earth. And his long martyrdom was over. It seemed as if we were both safe home at last.”

“Had he been ill long?”

“A long time. He suffered terribly. And I gave him morphia under the doctor’s directions. And then, when he was gone—not at first, but after a little bit—I took morphia myself, to numb my own anguish and to get a little sleep. I thought I should go mad if I could not get any sleep. I had better have gone mad. But I took morphia instead, and sealed my own doom. But how can you tell whether I am speaking the truth? Well, it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me. I am accustomed to it. I am never believed now. And I don’t care if I’m not. I don’t deserve to be. But I suppose you can see that I was not always a tramp on the highway. And, at any rate, that is what I am now, and what I shall remain, unless I drift into prison again, which God forbid, for I should suffocate in a cell after the life in the open air which I am accustomed to.”

She shivered a little, as if she who seemed devoid of fear quailed at the remembrance of her cell.

“You are wondering how I have fallen so low,” she said. “Do you remember Kipling’s lines—

“We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung?

“Well, I have known what it is to drop down the ladder of life, clinging convulsively to each rung in turn, losing hold of it, and being caught back by compassionate hands, only to let go of it again; fighting desperately to hold on to the next rung when I was thrust from the one above it; having my hands beaten from each rung, one after another, one after another, sinking lower and lower yet, cling as I would, pray as I would, repent as I would.”

“Who beat your hands from the rungs?” I said.

“Morphia,” she replied.

There was a long silence.

“Morphia, that was the beginning and the middle and the end of my misfortunes,” she said. “What did I do that gradually lost me my friends?—and I had such good friends, even after my best friend my sister died. What did I do that ruined me by inches? In Australia I have heard of evil men taken red-handed being left in the bush with food and water by them, bound to a fallen tree which has been set on fire at one end. And the fire smoulders and smoulders, and travels inch by inch along the trunk, and they watch their slow, inevitable death coming towards them day by day, until it at last destroys them also inch by inch. What had I done that I should find myself bound like those poor wretches? I cannot tell you. Morphia wipes out the memory as surely as drink. I only know that I was in torment. Faces, familiar and strange faces, some compassionate, some indignant, some horror-struck, come back to me sometimes, blurred as by smoke, but I see nothing clearly. I dimly remember fragments of appeals that were made to me, fragments of divine music in cathedrals where I sobbed my heart out. Broken, splintered, devastating memories of promises made in bitter tears, and endless lies and subterfuges to conceal what I could not conceal. For morphia looks out of the eyes of its victim. I knew that, but I thought no one could see it in mine, that I could hide it. And I have one vivid recollection of a quiet room with flowers in it, and latticed windows, but I don’t know where it was or how I came there, or who were the people in it who spoke to me. There was a tall woman with grey parted hair in a lilac gown. I can see her now. And I swore before God that I had left off the drug. And some one standing behind me took the little infernal machine out of my pocket, and I was confronted with it. And the tall woman wrung her hands and groaned. How I hated her! And in my madness I accused her of putting it there to ruin me. And some one (a man) said slowly, ‘She is impossible!—quite impossible!’ That one memory stands out like a little oasis in a desert of mirage and shifting sand, and thirst. I should know the room again if I saw it. There was a window opening into a little paved courtyard with a fountain in it, and doves drinking. But I shall never see it again. And the drug became alive like a fiend, and pushed me lower and lower, down, always down, until I did something dreadful, I don’t know now exactly what it was, though the prison chaplain explained it to me. But it was about a cheque, and I was convicted and sent to prison.”

“Then you have been in prison twice?” I said, anxious to make it easy for her to be entirely truthful, for I could not doubt the truth of much of this earlier history.

She did not seem to hear me.

“There is no crime,” she went on, “however black, that I did not expiate then. If suffering can wash out sins, I washed out mine. I, who thought I had so many enemies, have no enemy. No one has ever injured me. But if I had the cruellest in the world, I would not condemn him, if he were a morphia maniac, to sudden enforced abstinence and prison life. And I could not die. I am very strong by nature. I could neither die nor live. It was months before I saw light, months of hell, consumed in the flame of hell which is thirst. And slowly the power to live came back to me. I was saved in spite of myself. And slowly the power of thought returned to me. I had time to think. My mind drifted and drifted, but I got control of it now and again, and then for longer intervals, as my poor body reasserted itself from the slavery of the drug. And I thought—I thought—I thought. And at last I made up my mind, my fierce, embittered mind. And when I came out of prison, I took to the road. Even then there were those who would have helped me, but I steeled my heart against them. There was a strange woman with a sweet face waiting at the prison door, who spoke kindly to me. But I distrusted her. I distrusted every one. And I did not mean to be helped any more. I had been helped time and time again. To be helped was to be put where I could get morphia, where I had something, if it was only my clothes, which I could sell to get it, where I could steal things to sell to get it. If I had any possessions, I knew that some day—not for a time perhaps, but some day—I should sell it and get morphia somehow. They say you can’t buy it, but you can. I always could in the past, and I knew I always should in the future. But on the road, in rags, a tramp, down in the dust, in the safe refuge of the dust—there it was not possible. There I was out of temptation. There I could not be burned in that flame again. That was all I thought of, to creep away where the fire could not reach me. And I felt sure I should not live long. In my ignorance I thought the exposure to all weathers, and privation, and the first frost of winter would bring me my release quickly. But they did not. They gave me new life instead. I came out in spring, and I begged my way to Abinger Forest, and nearly starved there; but I did not mind. Have you ever been in Abinger Forest in the spring when the wortleberry is out? Can the Elysian fields of Asphodel be more beautiful? Perhaps to others they might seem so; but not to me. My first glimpse of hope came to me in the woods at Abinger in a windless, sunny week at Easter. The gipsies gave me food once or twice. And I ate the scraps that the trippers left after their picnics at the top of Leith Hill where the tower is. And I lay in the sun by day and I slept in a stack of bracken by night, and my strained life relaxed. And I, who had become so hard and bitter, saw at last what endless love and compassion had been vainly lavished on me, and I was humbled. I had somehow got it rooted into my warped mind that I had been cruelly treated, betrayed, abandoned by my friends, by every one. I had tried hard to forgive them, but I could not. I saw at last that it was I who had been cruel, I who had betrayed, I who needed forgiveness; and I asked it of the only Friend I had left, the only Friend Who never forsakes us. And peace came back and the deep wound in my life healed. It seemed as if Nature, who had forgotten me for so long, had pity on me, and took me again to her heart. For I had loved her years ago, before my husband died.

“When the weather broke, I took to the road, and the road has given me back my health, and much more than health. I can see beauty again now. And there is always beauty in the hedgerow; and wherever the road runs there is beauty. In the open down, beside the tidal rivers with their brown sails creeping among the buttercups, everywhere there is beauty. And I can sleep again now. I learnt how to sleep at Abinger. I had forgotten how it was done without morphia. O God! I can sleep, every night, anywhere. It’s worth being a tramp for that alone, to be able to sleep naturally, to know in the daytime that you will have it at night, and then to lie down and feel it stealing over you like the blessing of God. I used to wake myself at first for sheer joy when it was coming. And then to nestle down, and sink into it, down, down into it, till one reaches the great peace. And no more wakings in torment as the drug passes off, waking as in some iron grave, unable to stir hand or foot, unable to beat back the suffocating horror and terror which lies cheek to cheek with us. No more wakings in hell. No more mornings like that. But instead, the cool, sweet waking in the crystal light in the open air. And to see the sun come up, and to lie still against the clean, fragrant haystack and let it warm you! And to watch the quiet, friendly beasts rise up in the long meadows! And to wake hungry, instead of that dreadful, maddening thirst! And to like to eat—how good that is, even if you go fasting half the day! But I never do. The poor will always give you enough to eat. It hurts them to see any one hungry. Yes, I have dropped down the ladder rung by rung, and now I have reached the lowest rung. And it is a good place, the only safe place for wastrels such as I, the only refuge from my enemy. There is peace on the lowest rung. I can do no more harm there, and I have done so much. I was ambitious once, I was admired and clever once; but I found no abiding city anywhere. Temptation lurked everywhere. I was driven like chaff before the wind. . . . But now I have the road. No one will take the road from me while I live, or the ditch beside it to die in when my time comes. I am provided for at last. I lead a clean life at last.”

She sat silent, her dreamy eyes fixed, her thin hands folded one over the other. I looked at her with an aching heart. What strange mixture of truth and lies was all this! But I said nothing. What was the use?

And as we sat silent beside the dying fire the great inequality between us pressed hard upon me: I, by no special virtue of my own, God knows! on one of the uppermost rungs of life. She poor soul—poor soul—on the lowest.

The clock on the mantelpiece chimed eleven.

She started slightly, looked at it, and then at me, as if uncertain of her surroundings, and the shrewd, sardonic look came back to her face.

“I am keeping you up,” she said, rising. “I think your strong coffee has gone to my head. This outburst of autobiography is a poor return for all your kindness. I had no idea it was so late or that I could be so garrulous, and I must make a very early start tomorrow. Shall I go into the kitchen and put on my own clothes again? They must be quite dry by now.”

“Oh! let me help you,” I said impulsively. “Let me get you into a Home, or help you to emigrate. Don’t go back to this wandering, aimless life. Work for others, interest in others, that is what you need, what I need, what we all need to take us out of ourselves, to make us forget our own misery.”

“I have half forgotten mine already,” she said. “To-night I remembered it again. But I have long since put it from my mind. I think the moment for a change of clothing in the kitchen has arrived.”

She spoke quietly, but as if her last word were final. I found it impossible to continue the subject.

“You will never escape in those clothes,” I said. “You haven’t the ghost of a chance. If you will come into my room, I will see what I can find for you.”

I had been willing to do much more than give her clothes, but I instinctively felt that my appeal to her better feelings had fallen on deaf ears.

She followed me to my bedroom, and I got out all my oldest clothes and spread them before her. But she would have none of them.

“The worst look like an ultra-respectable district visitor,” she said, tossing aside one garment after another. It was the more curious that she should say that because my brother-in-law had always said I looked like one, and that my books even had a parochial flavour about them. But then he had never really studied them, or he would have seen their lighter side.

“I had no idea pockets were worn in a little slit in the front seam,” said my visitor. “It shows how long it is since I have been ‘in the know.’ No doubt front pockets came in with the bicycles. No. It is very kind of you. But, except for that old dyed moreen petticoat, the things won’t do. I always was particular about dress, and I never was more so than I am at this moment. You don’t happen to have an old black ulster with all the buttons off, and a bit of mangy fur dropping off the neck? That’s more my style. But of course you haven’t.”

“I had one once of that kind; it was so bad that I could not even give it away. So I put it in the dog’s basket. Lindo used to sleep on it. He loved it, poor dear! It may be there still.”

We went downstairs again, and I pulled Lindo’s basket out from under the stairs.

The old black wrap was still in it, but it was mildewy and stuck to the basket. It tore as I released it. It reminded me painfully of my lost darling.

“The very thing!” she said, with enthusiasm, as the dilapidated travesty of a coat shook itself free. “Quiet and unobtrusive to the last degree. Parisian in colour and simplicity. And mole colour is so becoming. Can you really spare it? Then with the moreen petticoat I am provided, equipped.”

We went back to the kitchen again.

“What will you do with them?” I said, pointing to her convict clothes which had dried perfectly stiff, owing to the amount of mud on them. How such quantities of mud could have got on to them was a mystery to me.

“It certainly does not improve one’s clothes, to hide in a wet ditch in a ploughed field,” she said meditatively. “I will dispose of them early tomorrow morning. I picked a place as I found my way here.”

“Not on my premises?” I said anxiously.

“Of course not. Do you take me for a monster of ingratitude? I’ll manage that all right.”

I suddenly remembered that she must have food to take with her. I went to the larder, and when I came back I looked at her with renewed amazement.

My dressing-gown and slippers were laid carefully on a chair. The astonishing woman was a tramp once more, squatting on the brick floor, drawing on to her bare feet the shapeless excuses for boots which had been toasting before the fire.

Then she leaned over the hearth, rubbed her hands in the ashes, and passed them gently over her face, her neck, her wrists and ankles. She drew forward and tangled her hair before the kitchen glass. Then she rolled up her convict clothes into a compact bundle, wiped her right hand carefully on the kitchen towel, and held it out to me.

“Remember,” I said gravely, taking it in both of mine and pressing it, “if ever you are in need of a friend, you know to whom to apply. Marion Dalrymple, Rufford, will always find me.”

I thought I ought not to let her go away without letting her know who I was. But my name seemed to have no especial meaning for her. Perhaps she had lived beyond the pale too long.

“You have indeed been a friend to me,” she said. “God bless you, you good Samaritan! May the world go well with you! Good-night, and thank you, and good-bye. If you’ll give me the stable key, I’ll let myself in. It’s a pity you should come out; its raining again. And I’ll leave the stable locked when I go. And the key will be in the lavender bush at the door. Good-bye again.”

I did not sleep that night, and in the morning I was so tired that I made no attempt to work. I had, of course, stolen out before six to retrieve the stable key from the lavender bush, and hang it on its accustomed nail. I looked into the stable first. My guest had departed.

I spent an idle morning musing on the events of the previous evening, if time thus spent can be called idling. It may seem so to others, but in my own experience these apparently profitless hours are often more fruitful than those spent in belabouring the brain to a forced activity. But then I have always preferred to remain, as the great Molinos advises, a learner rather than a teacher in the school of life. Early in the afternoon, as I was on my way to the post-office, my landlord, Mr. Ledbury, met me. He looked excited, an open telegram in his hand.

“Have you heard about the escaped convict?” he said. “She has been taken. She was traced to Bronsal Heath yesterday, and run to earth this morning at Framlingham.”

He turned and walked with me. He was too much taken up with the news to notice how I started and how my colour changed. But indeed I flush and turn pale at nothing. All my life it has been a vexation to me that a chance word or allusion should bring the colour to my cheek.

“Poor soul!” he said. “I could almost wish she had made good her escape. She got out, Heaven alone knows how, to see her child, which she had heard was ill. But the ground she must have covered in the time! She was absolutely dead beat when she was taken. And she was not in her prison clothes. That is so inexplicable. How she got others she alone knows. Some one must have befriended her, and given them to her—some one very poor, for she was miserably clad, and the extraordinary thing is that though she was traced to the deserted cottage on the heath yesterday, and taken at Framlingham today, her prison clothes were found hidden in my wood-yard, here in my wood-yard, by Zack when he went to his work. And this place is not on the way to Framlingham. How in the name of fortune could she have hidden her clothes here?”

“She must have wandered here in the dark,” I suggested.

“I don’t understand it,” he said, turning in at his own gate. “But anyhow, the poor thing has been caught.”

My story should end here. Indeed, to my mind it does end here. And if I have been persuaded by my family to add a few more lines on the subject, it is sorely against the grain and against my artistic sense. And I am conscious that I have been unwise in allowing myself to be over-ruled by those who have not given their lives to literature as I have done, and who therefore cannot judge as I can when a story should be brought to a close.

I need hardly say that I often thought of my unhappy visitant, often wondered how she was getting on. A year later I was staying with a friend in Ipswich who was a visitor at the prison there, and I remembered how it was to Ipswich she had been brought back, and I asked to see her. My friend knew her, and told me that she had made no further attempt to escape, and that she believed the child was dead. It had been an old promise that she would one day take me over the prison. I claimed it, and begged that I might be allowed to have a few words with that particular inmate. It was not according to the regulations, but my friend was a privileged person. That afternoon I passed with her under that dreary portal, and after walking along interminable white-washed passages, and past how many locked and numbered doors, my friend whispered to a warder, who motioned me to a cell.

A woman was sitting on her bed with her head in her hands.

“You have not forgotten me, I hope,” I said gently. It may be weak, but I have never been able to speak ungently to any one in trouble, whatever the cause may be. I have known too much trouble myself.

She raised her head slowly, pushed back her hair, and looked at me.

I had never seen her before.

I could only stare helplessly at her.

“But you are not the woman who escaped last October?” I stammered at last.

“Yes,” she said pathetically, “I am. Who else should I be? What do you want with me?”

But I was speechless. It was all so unexpected, so inexplicable. I have often thought since how much stranger fact is than fiction. The more interested one is in life and in one’s fellow-creatures the more surprises there are in store for one. With every year I live my sense of wonder increases, and with it my realisation of my own ignorance. As I stared amazedly at her, a change came over her face. She looked at me almost with eagerness.

“You didn’t take me for ‘er, did you?” she said hurriedly. “‘Er as ‘elped me. Did you know ‘er? She ain’t copped, is she? Don’t tell me as she’s copped too.”

“I thought you were her,” I said. “I don’t know what I thought. I don’t understand it.”

“She found me on a dirty night,” she said, “in a tumbledown cottage. I’d never seen her afore. But she crep’ in and found me, and tole me there was a watch kep’ for me at Woodbridge. And she changed clothes with me, so as to give me a bit of a chance. Mine was fair stiff with mud, for I’d laid in a wet ditch till night, but they showed the blasted colour for all that. And she give me all she had on her—her clothes, and a bite of bread and bacon, and two pence. And it wasn’t as if we was pals. I’d never seen her afore. She stuck at nothing, and she only larfed at the risk, for they’d have shut her up for certain if they’d caught her. She said she’d manage some’ow. And she ‘eartened me up, and put me on the road for Wickham, and she said she’d dror away the pursoot by hiding the prison clothes somewhere in the opsit direction where they could be found easy by the first fool.”

“She did it,” I said.

“And how did she spare ’em? She’d nuthin’ but them.”

“I gave her some more. If she had been my own sister I could not have done more for her.”

“And she worn’t caught, wor she?”

“Not that I know of. No, I feel sure she never was. I helped her to get away.”

“I was took in spite of all,” said the woman, “and by my own silliness. But I seed my little Nan alive fust, and that was all I wanted. And I don’t know who she was, nor what she was. She tole me she was a outcast and a tramp and a good-for-nothing. But there’s never been anybody yet, be they who they may, as done for me what she done. She’d have give me the skin orf her back if she could ‘ave took it orf. And it worn’t as if I knowed her. I’d never set eyes on ‘er afore, nor never shall again.”

I have never seen her again, either.

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