The group which Lord Ascot had seen through the glass doors, consisted of Charles, the coachman’s son, the coachman, and Mr. Sloane. Charles and the coachman’s son had got hold of a plan of the battle of Balaclava, from the Illustrated London News, and were explaining the whole thing to the two older men, to their great delight. The four got enthusiastic and prolonged the talk for some time; and, when it began to flag, Sloane said he must go home, and so they came down into the bar.
Here a discussion arose about the feeding of cavalry-horses, in which all four were perfectly competent to take part. The two young men were opposed in argument to the two elder ones, and they were having a right pleasant chatter about the corn or hay question in the bar, when the swing doors were pushed open, and a girl entered and looked round with that bold, insolent expression one only sees among a certain class.
A tawdry draggled-looking girl, finely enough dressed, but with everything awry and dirty. Her face was still almost beautiful; but the cheekbones were terribly prominent, and the hectic patch of red on her cheeks, and the parched cracked lips, told of pneumonia developing into consumption.
Such a figure had probably never appeared in that decent aristocratic public-house, called the Groom’s Arms, since it had got its licence. The four men ceased their argument and turned to look at her; and the coachman, a family man with daughters, said, “Poor tiling!”
With a brazen, defiant look she advanced to the bar. The barmaid, a very beautiful, quiet-looking, London-bred girl, advanced towards her, frightened at such a wild tawdry apparition, and asked her mechanically what she would please to take.
“I don’t want nothing to drink, miss,” said the girl; “leastways, I’ve got no money; but I want to ask a question. I say, miss, you couldn’t give a poor girl one of them sandwiches, could you 1 You w411 never miss it, you know.”
The barmaid’s father, the jolly landlord, eighteen stone of good humour, was behind his daughter now. "Give her a porkpie, Jane, and a glass of ale, my girl.”
“God Almighty bless you, sir, and keep her from the ark places where the devil lies awaiting. I didn’t come here to beg — it was only when I see them sandwiches that it come over me — I come here to ask a question. I know it ain’t no use. But you can’t see him — can’t see him — can’t see him,” she continued, sobbing wildly, “rattling his poor soul away, and do not do as he asked you. I didn’t come to get out for a walk. I sat there patient three days, and would have sat there till the end, but he would have me come. And so I came; and I must get back — get back.”
The landlord’s daughter brought her some food; and, as her eyes gleamed with wolfish hunger, she stopped speaking. It was a strange group. She in the centre, tearing at her food in a way terrible to see. Behind, the calm face of the landlord, looking on her with pity and wonder; and his pretty daughter, with her arm round his waist, and her head on his bosom, with tears in her eyes. Our four friends stood to the right, silent and curious — a remarkable group enough; for neither the duke’s coachman, nor Mr. Sloane, who formed the background, were exactly ordinary-looking men; and in front of them were Charles and the coachman’s son, who had put his head on Charles’s right shoulder, and was peering over his left at the poor girl, so that the two faces were close together — the one handsome and pale, with the mouth hidden by a moustache 3 the other,
Charles’s, wan and wild, with the lips parted in eager curiosity, and the chin thrust slightly forward.
In a few minutes the girl looked round on them. “I said I’d come here to ask a question; and I must ask it and get back. There was a gentleman’s groom used to use this house, and I want him. His name was Charles Horton. If you, sir, or if any of these gentlemen, know where I can find him, in God Almighty’s name tell me this miserable night.”
Charles was pale before, but he grew more deadly pale now; his heart told him something was coming. His comrade, the coachman’s son, held his hand tighter still on his shoulder, and looked in his face. Sloane and the coachman made an exclamation.
Charles said quietly, “My poor girl, I am the man you are looking for. What, in God’s name, do you want with me?” and, while he waited for her to answer, he felt all the blood in his body going towards his heart.
“Little enough,” she said. “Do you mind a little shoeblack boy as used to stand by St. Peter’s Church?”
“Do I?” said Charles, coming towards her. “Yes, I do. My poor little lad. You don’t mean to say that you know anything about him?”
“I am his sister, sir; and he is dying; and he says he won’t die not till you come. And I come off to see if I could find you. Will you come with me and see him?”
“Will I come!” said Charles. “Let us go at once. My poor little monkey. Dying, too!”
“Poor little man,” said the coachman. “A many times I’ve heard you speak of him. Let’s all go.” Mr. Sloane and his son seconded this motion. “You mustn’t come,” said the girl. “There’s a awful row in the court tonight; that’s the truth. He’s safe enough with me; but if you come, they’ll think a mob’s being raised. Now, don’t talk of coming.”
“You had better let me go alone,” said Charles. “I feel sure that it would not be right for more of us to follow this poor girl than she chooses. I am ready.”
And so he followed the girl out into the darkness; and, as soon as they were outside, she turned and said to him —
“You’d best follow me from a distance. I’ll tell you why: I expect the police wants me, and you might get into trouble from being with me. Remember, if I am took, it’s Marquis Court, Little Marjoram Street, and it’s the end house, exactly opposite you as you go in. If you stands at the archway, and sings out for Miss Ophelia Flanigan, she’U come to you. But if the row ain’t over, you wait till they’re quiet. Whatever you o, don’t venture in by yourself, however quiet it may Took: sing out for her.”
And so she fluttered away through the fog, and he followed, walking fast to keep her in sight.
It was a dreadful night. The fog had lifted, and a moaning wind had arisen, with rain from the south-west. A wild, dripping, melancholy night, without rain enough to make one think of physical discomfort, and without wind enough to excite one.
The shoeblacks and the crossing-sweepers were shouldering their brooms and their boxes, and were plodding homewards. The costermongers were letting their barrows stand in front of the public-houses, while they went in to get something to drink, and were discussing the price of vegetables there, and being fetched out by dripping policemen, for obstructing her Majesty’s highway. The beggars were gathering their rags together, and posting homewards; let us charitably suppose, to their bit of fish, with guinea-fowl and sea kale afterwards, or possibly, for it was not late in February, to their boiled pheasant and celery sauce. Every one was bound for shelter but the policemen. And Charles — poor, silly, obstinate Charles, with an earl’s fortune waiting for him, dressed as a groom, pale, wan, and desperate — was following a ruined girl, more desperate even than he, towards the bridge.
Yes; this is the darkest part of my whole story. Since his misfortunes he had let his mind dwell a little too much on these bridges. There are very few men without a cobweb of some sort in their heads, more or less innocent. Charles had a cobweb in his head now. The best of men might have a cobweb in his head after such a terrible breakdown in his affairs as he had suffered; more especially if he had three or four splinters of bone in his deltoid muscle, which had prevented his sleeping for three nights. But I would sooner that any friend of mine should at such times take to any form of folly (such even as having fifty French clocks in the room, and discharging the butler if they did not all strike at once, as one good officer and brave fellow did) rather than get to thinking about bridges after dark, with the foul water lapping and swirling about the piers. I have hinted to you about this crotchet of poor Charles for a long time; I was forced to do so. I think the less we say about it the better. I call you to witness that I have not said more about it than was necessary.
At the end of Arabella Row, the girl stopped, and looked back for him. The Mews’ clock was overhead, a broad orb of light in the dark sky. Ten minutes past ten. Lord Ascot was sitting beside Lord Saltire’s bed, and Lord Saltire had rung the bell to send for Inspector Field.
She went on, and he followed her along the Mali She walked fast, and he had hard work to keep her in sight. He saw her plainly enough whenever she passed a lamp. Her shadow was suddenly thrown at his feet, and then swept in a circle to the right, till it overtook her, and then passed her, and grew dim till she came to another lamp, and then came back to his feet, and passed on to her again, beckoning him on to follow her, and leading her — whither?
How many lamps were there? One, two, three, four; and then a man lying asleep on a bench in the rain, who said, with a wild, wan face, when the policeman roused him, and told him to go home, “My home is in the Tliames, friend; but I shall not go there tonight, or perhaps tomorrow.”
“His home was in the Thames.” The Thames, the dear old happy river. The wonder and delight of his boyhood. That was the river that slept in crystal green depths, under the tumbled boulders fallen from the chalk cliff, where the ivy, the oak, and the holly grew; and then went spouting, and raging, and roaring through the weirs at Casterton, where he and Welter used to bathe, and where he lay and watched kind Lord Ascot spinning patiently through one summer afternoon, till he killed the eight-pound trout at sundown.
That was the dear old Thames. But that was fifty iles up the river, and ages ago. Now, and here, the river had got foul, and lapped about hungrily among piles, and barges, and the buttresses of bridges. And lower down it ran among mud banks. And there was a picture of one of them, by dear old H. K. Browne, and you didn’t see at first what it was that lay among the sedges, because the face was reversed, and the limbs were —
They passed in the same order through Spring Gardens into the Strand. And then Charles found it more troublesome than ever to follow the poor girl in her rapid walk. There were so many like her there: but she walked faster than any of them. Before he came to the street which leads to Waterloo Bridge, he thought he had lost her; but when he turned the corner, and as the dank wind smote upon his face, he came upon her, waiting for him.
And so they went on across the bridge. They walked together now. Was she frightened, too?
When they reached the other end of the bridge, she went on again to show the way. A long way on past the Waterloo Station, she turned to the left. They passed out of a broad, low, noisy street, into other streets, some quiet, some turbulent, some blazing with the gas of miserable shops, some dark and stealthy, with only one or two figures in them, which disappeared round corners, or got into dark archways as they passed. Charles saw that they were getting into “ Queer Street.”
How that poor gaudy figure fluttered on! How it paused at each turning to look back for him, and then fluttered on once more I What innumerable turnings there were I How should he ever find his way back — back to the bridge?
At last she turned into a street of greengrocers, and marine storekeepers, in which the people were all at their house doors looking out: all looking in one direction, and talking so earnestly to one another, that even his top-boots escaped notice: which struck him as being remarkable, as nearly all the way from Waterloo Bridge a majority of the populace had criticised them, either ironically; or openly, in an unfavourable manner. He thought they were looking at a fire, and turned his head in the same direction; he only saw the poor girl, standing at the mouth of a narrow entry, watching for him.
He came up to her. A little way down a dark alley was an archway, and beyond there were lights, and a noise of a great many people shouting, and talking, and screaming. The girl stole on, followed by Charles a few steps, and then drew suddenly back. The whole of the alley, and the dark archway beyond, was lined with policemen.
A brisk-looking, middle-sized man, with intensely lack scanty whiskers, stepped out, and stood before them. Charles saw at once that it was the inspector of police,
“Now then, young woman,” he said, sharply, “what are you bringing that young man here for, eh?”
She was obliged to come forward. She began wringing her hands.
“Mr, Inspector,” she said, “sir, I wish I may be struck dead, sir, if I don’t tell the truth. It’s my poor little brother, sir. He’s a dying in number eight, sir, and he sent for this young man for to see him, sir. Oh! don’t stop us, sir. S’elp me — ”
“Pish!” said the inspector; “what the devil is the use of talking this nonsense to me? As for you, young man, you march back home double quick. You’ve no business here. It’s seldom we see a gentleman’s servant in such company in this part of the town.”
“Pooh! pooh! my good sir,” said Charles; “stuff and nonsense. Don’t assume that tone with me, if you will have the goodness. What the young woman says is perfectly correct. If you can assist me to get to that house at the further end of the court, where the poor boy lies dying, I shall be obliged to you. If you can’t, don’t express an opinion without being in possession of circumstances. You may detain the girl, but I am going on. You don’t know who you are talking to.”
How the old Oxford insolence flashed out even at the last.
The inspector drew back and bowed. “I must do my duty, sir. Dickson!”
Dickson, in whose beat the court was, as he knew by many a sore bone in his body, came forward. He said, “Well, sir, I won’t deny that the young woman is Bess, and perhaps she may be on the cross, and I don’t go to say that what with flimping, and with cly-faking, and such like, she mayn’t be wanted some day like her brother the Nipper was; but she is a good young woman, and a honest young woman in her way, and what she says this night about her brother is gospel truth.”
“Flimping ” is a style of theft which I have never practised, and, consequently, of which I know nothing. “Cly-faking” is stealing pocket-handkerchiefs. I never practised this either, never having had sufficient courage or dexterity. But, at all events, Police-constable Dickson’s notion of “an honest young woman in her way” seems to me to be confused and unsatisfactory in the last degree.
The inspector said to Charles, “Sir, if gentlemen disguise themselves they must expect the police to be somewhat at fault till they open their mouths. Allow me to say, sir, that in putting on your servant’s clothes on have done the most foolish thing you possibly could. You are on an errand of mercy, it appears, and I will do what I can for you. There’s a doctor and a Scripture reader somewhere in the court now, so our people say. They can’t get out. I don’t think you have much chance of getting in.”
“By Jove!” said Charles, “do you know that you are a deuced good fellow? I am sorry that I was rude to you, but I am in trouble, and irritated. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“Not another word, sir,” said the inspector. “Come and look here, sir. You may never see such a sight again. Our people daren’t go in. This, sir, is, I believe, about the worst court in London.”
“I thought,” said Charles, quite forgetting his top-boots, and speaking “de haut en bas” as in old times — “I thought that your Rosemary Lane carried off the palm as being a lively neighbourhood?”
“Lord bless you,” said the inspector, “nothing to this; — look here.”
They advanced to the end of the arch, and looked in. It was as still as death, but it was as light as day, for there were candles burning in every window.
“Why,” said Charles, “the court is empty. I can run across. Let me go; I am certain I can get across.”
“Don’t be a lunatic, sir,” said the inspector, holding him tight; “wait till I give you the word, unless you want six months in Guy’s Hospital.”
Charles soon saw the inspector was right, There were three houses on each side of the court. The centre one on the right was a very large one, which was approached on each side by a flight of three steps, guarded by iron railings, which, in meeting, formed a kind of platform or rostrum. This was Mr. Malone’s house, whose wife chose, for family reasons, to call herself Miss Ophelia Flanigan.
The court was silent and hushed, when, from the door exactly opposite to this one, there appeared a tall and rather handsome young man, with a great frieze coat under one arm, and a fire-shovel over his shoulder.
This was Mr, Dennis Moriarty, junior. He advanced to the arch, so close to Charles and the inspector that they could have touched him, and then walked down the centre of the court, dragging the coat behind him, lifting his heels defiantly high at every step, and dexterously beating a “chune on the bare head of um wid the fire-shovel. Hurroo!”
He had advanced half-way down the court without a soul appearing, when suddenly the enemy poured out on him in two columns, from behind two doorways, and he was borne back, fighting like a hero with his fire-shovel, into one of the doors on his own side of the court.
The two columns of the enemy, headed by Mr. Phelim O’Neill, uniting, poured into the doorway after him, and from the interior of the house arose a hubbub, exactly as though people were fighting on the stairs.
At this point there happened one of those mistakes which so often occur in warfare, which are disastrous at the time, and inexplicable afterwards. Can anyone explain why Lord Lucan gave that order at Balaclava? No. Can anyone explain to me, why, on this occasion, Mr. Phelim O’Neill headed the attack on the staircase in person, leaving his rear struggling in confusion in the court, by reason of their hearing the fun going on inside, and not being able to get at it? I think not. Such was the case, however, and, in the midst of it, Mr. Malone, howling like a demon, and horribly drunk, followed by thirty or forty worse than himself, dashed out of a doorway close by, and before they had time to form line of battle, fell upon them hammer and tongs.
I need not say that after this surprise in the rear, Mr. Phelim O’Neill’s party had very much the worst of it. In about ten minutes, however, the two parties were standing opposite one another once more, inactive from sheer fatigue.
At this moment Miss Ophelia Flanigan appeared from the door of No. 8 — the very house that poor Charles was so anxious to get to — and slowly and majestically advanced towards the rostrum in front of her own door, and, ascending the steps, folded her arms and looked about her.
She was an uncommonly powerful, red-faced Irish-woman; her arms were bare, and she had them akimbo, and was scratching her elbows.
Every schoolboy knows that the lion has a claw at the end of his tail with which he lashes himself into fury. When the experienced hunter sees him doing that, he, so to speak, “hooks it.” When Miss Manigan’s enemies saw her scratching her elbows, they generally did the same. She was scratching her elbows now. There was a dead silence.
One woman in that court, and one only, ever offered battle to the terrible Miss Ophelia: that was young Mrs. Phaylim O’Neill. On the present occasion she began slowly walking up and down in front of the expectant hosts. While Miss Flanigan looked on in contemptuous pity, scratching her elbows, Mrs. O’Neill opened her fire.
“Pussey, pussey!” she began, “kitty, kitty, kitty. Miaow, miaow!” (Mr. Malone had accumulated property in the cats’ meat business.) “Morraow, ye little tabby divvle, don’t come anighst her, my Kitleen Avourneen, or yill be convarted into sassidge mate, and sowld to keep a drunken one-eyed ould rapparee, from he county Cark, as had two months for bowling his barrer sharp round the corner of Park Lane over a ould gineral officer, in a white hat and a green silk umbereller; and as married a red-haired woman from the county Waterford, as calls herself by her maiden name, and never feels up to fighting but when the licker’s in her, which it most in general is, pussey; and let me see the one of Malone’s lot or Moriarty’s lot ather, for that matter, as will deny it. Miaow!”
Miss Ophelia Flanigan blew her nose contemptuously. Some of the low characters in the court had picked her pocket.
Mrs. O’Neill quickened her pace and raised her voice. She was beginning again, when the poor girl who was with Charles ran into the court and cried out, “Miss Flanigan! I have brought him; Miss Flanigan!”
In a moment the contemptuous expression faded from Miss Flanigan’s face. She came down off the steps and advanced rapidly towards where Charles stood. As she passed Mrs. O’Neill she said, “Whist now, Biddy O’Nale, me darlin. I ain’t up to a shindy tonight. Ye know the rayson.”
And Mrs. O’Neill said, “Ye’re a good woman, Ophelia Sorra a one of me would have loosed tongue on ye this night, only I thought it might cheer ye up a bit after yer watching. Don’t take notice of me, that’s a dear.”
Miss Flanigan went up to Charles, and, taking him by the arm, walked with him across the court. It was whispered rapidly that this was the young man who had been sent for to see little Billy Wilkins, who was dying in No. 8. Charles was as safe as if he had been in the centre of a square of the Guards. As he went into the door they gave him a cheer; and, when the door closed behind him, they went on with their fighting again.
Charles found himself in a squalid room, about which there was nothing remarkable but its meanness and dirt. There were four people there when he came in — a woman asleep by the bed, two gentlemen who stood aloof in the shadow, and the poor little wan and wasted boy in the bed.
Charles went up and sat by the bed; when the boy saw him he made an effort, rose half up, and threw his arms round his neck. Charles put his arm round him nd supported him — as strange a pair, I fancy, as you ill meet in many long days’ marches.
“If you would not mind. Miss Flanigan,” said the octor, “stepping across the court with me, I shall be eeply obliged to you. You, sir, are going to stay a ittle longer.”
“Yes, sir,” said the other gentleman, in a harsh, npleasant voice; “I shall stay till the end.”
“You won’t have to stay very long, my dear sir,” said the doctor. “Now, Miss Flanigan, I am ready. Please to call out that the doctor is coming through the court, and that, if any man lays a finger on him, he will exhibit Croton and other drastics to him till he wishes he was dead, and after that, throw in quinine till the top of his head comes off. Allons, my dear madam.”
With this dreadful threat the doctor departed. The other gentleman, the Scripture reader, stayed behind, and sat in a chair in the further corner. The poor mother was sleeping heavily. The poor girl who had brought Charles, sat down in a chair and fell asleep with her head on a table.
The dying child was gone too far for speech. He tried two or three times, but he only made a rattle in his throat. After a few minutes he took his arms from round’ Charles’s neck, and, with a look of anxiety, felt for something by his side. When he found it he smiled, and held it towards Charles. Well, well; it was only the ball that Charles had given him —
Charles sat on the bed, and put his left arm round the child, so that the little death’s head might lie upon his breast. He took the little hand in his. So they remained. How long?
I know not. He only sat there with the hot head against his heart, and thought that a little life, so strangely dear to him, now that all friends were gone, was fast ebbing away, and that he must get home again that night across the bridge.
The little hand that he held in his relaxed its grasp, and the boy was dead. He knew it, but he did not move. He sat there still with the dead child in his arms, with a dull terror on him, when he thought of his homeward journey across the bridge.
Some one moved and came towards him. The mother and the girl were still asleep — it was the Scripture reader. He came towards Charles, and laid his hand upon his shoulder. And Charles turned from the dead child, and looked up into his face — into the face of John–Marston.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56