A little later there stood at a window, in one of the cheapest of the respectable streets, a woman whom the neighbors had become used to seeing there. She was a small person, with a repressed and watchful look in her eyes, and she was noticeable, also, to the Lancashire mind, for a certain slightly foreign air, not easily described. It was in consequence of inquiries made concerning this foreign air, that the rumor had arisen that she was a "'Merican," and it was possibly a result of this rumor that she was regarded by the inhabitants of the street with a curiosity not unmingled with awe.
"Aye," said one honest matron. "Hoo's a 'Merican, fur my mester heerd it fro' th' landlord. Eh! I would like to ax her summat about th' Blacks an' th' Indians."
But it was not easy to attain the degree of familiarity warranting the broaching of subjects so delicate and truly "'Merican." The stranger and her husband lived a simple and secluded life. It was said the woman had never been known to go out; it seemed her place to stand or sit at the window and watch for the man when he left the house on one of his mysterious errands in company with the wooden case he carried by its iron handle.
This morning she waited as usual, though the case had not gone out,—rather to the disappointment of those interested, whose conjectures concerning its contents were varied and ingenious. When, at last, the tall, stooping figure turned the corner, she went to the door and stood in readiness to greet its crossing the threshold.
Stephen Murdoch looked down at her with a kindly, absent smile.
"Thank you, Kitty," he said. "You are always here, my dear."
There was a narrow, hard, horse-hair sofa in the small room into which they passed, and he went to it and lay down upon it, panting a little in an exhausted way, a hectic red showing itself on his hollow cheeks.
"Everything is ready, Kitty?" he said at last.
"Yes, all ready."
He lay and looked at the fire, still breathing shortly.
"I never was as certain of it before," he said. "I have thought I was certain, but—I never felt as I do now. And yet—I don't know what made me do it—I went into Haworth's this morning and asked for—for work."
His wife dropped the needle she was holding.
"For work!" she said.
"Yes—yes," a little hastily. "I was there and saw Haworth at a window, and there have been delays so often that it struck me I might as well—not exactly depend on it——" He broke off and buried his face in his hands. "What am I saying?" he cried. "It sounds as if I did not believe in it."
His wife drew her chair nearer to him. She was used to the task of consoling him; it had become a habit. She spoke in an even, unemotional voice.
"When Hilary comes——" she began."It will be all over then," he said, "one way or the other. He will be here when I come back." "Yes."
"I may have good news for him," he said. "I don't see"—faltering afresh—"how it can be otherwise. Only I am so used to discouragement—that that I can't see the thing fairly. It has been—a long time, Kitty."
"This man in London," she said, "can tell you the actual truth about it?"
"He is the first mechanic and inventor in England," he answered, his eye sparkling feverishly. "He is a genius. If he says it is a success, it is one."
The woman rose, and going to the fire bent down to stir it. She lingered over it for a moment or so before she came back.
"When the lad comes," he was saying, as if to himself, "we shall have news for him."
Thirty years before, he had reached America, a gentle, unpractical Lancashire man, with a frail physique and empty pockets. He had belonged in his own land to the better class of mechanics; he had a knack of invention which somehow had never as yet brought forth any decided results. He had done one or two things which had gained him the reputation among his employers of being "a clever fellow," but they had always been things which had finally slipped into stronger or shrewder hands, and left his own empty. But at last there had come to him what seemed a new and wonderful thought. He had labored with it in secret, he had lain awake through long nights brooding over it in the darkness.
And then some one had said to him:
"Why don't you try America? America's the place for a thinking, inventing chap like you. It's fellows like you who are appreciated in a new country. Capitalists are not so slow in America. Why don't you carry your traps out there?"
It was more a suggestion of boisterous good-fellowship than anything else, but it awakened new fancies in Stephen Murdoch's mind. He had always cherished vaguely grand visions of the New World, and they were easily excited.
"I only wonder I never thought of it," he said to himself.
He landed on the strange shore with high hopes in his breast, and a little unperfected model in his shabby trunk.
This was thirty years ago, and to-day he was in Lancashire again, in his native town, with the same little model among his belongings.
During the thirty years' interval he had lived an unsettled, unsuccessful life. He had labored faithfully at his task, but he had not reached the end which had been his aim. Sometimes he had seemed very near it, but it had always evaded him. He had drifted here and there bearing his work with him, earning a scant livelihood by doing anything chance threw in his way. It had always been a scant livelihood,—though after the lapse of eight years, in one of his intervals of hopefulness, he had married. On the first night they spent in their new home he had taken his wife into a little bare room, set apart from the rest, and had shown her his model.
"I think a few weeks will finish it," he said.
The earliest recollections of their one child centered themselves round the small room and its contents. It was the one touch of romance and mystery in their narrow, simple life. The few spare hours the struggle for daily bread left the man were spent there; sometimes he even stole hours from the night, and yet the end was always one step further. His frail body grew frailer, his gentle temperament more excitable, he was feverishly confident and utterly despairing by turns. It was in one of his hours of elation that his mind turned again to his old home. He was sure at last that a few days' work would complete all, and then only friends were needed.
"England is the place, after all," he said. "They are more steady there, even if they are not so sanguine,—and there are men in Lancashire I can rely upon. We'll try Old England once again."
The little money hard labor and scant living had laid away for an hour of need, they brought with them. Their son had remained to dispose of their few possessions. Between this son and the father there existed a strong affection, and Stephen Murdoch had done his best by him.
"I should like the lad," he used to say, "to have a fairer chance than I had. I want him to have what I have lacked."
As he lay upon the horse-hair sofa he spoke of him to his wife.
"There are not many like him," he said. "He'll make his way. I've sometimes thought that may-be——" But he did not finish the sentence; the words died away on his lips, and he lay perhaps thinking over them as he looked at the fire.