The Baby that Stood Between
The Baby that Stood Between
By Tom Gallon
JUST at what speed a man may travel downhill, in the moral sense—or, perhaps it should be said, in the immoral sense—has never exactly been stated, possibly because those most nearly interested do not concern themselves with the statistics of the matter. As in all other speed contests, however, records are made and broken every year.
Mr. Denis Brenderby—still a very young man—had done something towards establishing a record, not without certain pomp and ceremony. You can have a blare of trumpets in matters of vice, as well as in those of virtue; and some large portion of the world knew pretty well what the character of Mr. Denis Brenderby was. That is to say, they thought they knew; for there is in every man some hidden trait which may come out under advantageous circumstances, and quite unexpectedly. And, as shall be shown, that hidden trait was to come out in this case.
Mr. Denis Brenderby had been born into the world with a silver spoon in his mouth—indeed, in such luxurious circumstances that there was even found someone to fill the spoon, and put it between his lips for him. It might have been more fortunate had the spoon been of more common material and less well filled; for Denis grew up with very wrong notions as regarded his own position towards the world, and that of the world towards him.
His mother died when he was still quite a child; his father thereafter forsook the world, and with it the boy who should have been his first care. Being a very rich man, he felt that his duty ended with providing the boy with a liberal allowance, and seeing to it that he was properly educated. From time to time he had reports from those to whom money was paid on his son's behalf; and as those reports were, to all appearance, satisfactory, he felt that there was no more to be said, and that all was well. So he buried himself in that never-to-be-forgotten sorrow and in his books, and left the son to his own devices.
It is quite unnecessary to follow in detail the fortunes—or the misfortunes—of young Denis Brenderby. He was an idle boy at school, because the fees paid for him suggested that there was no actual necessity for his being prepared for any vocation hereafter; he was an idle young man, because he had all that he asked for, and even a little more than that. Flung upon London, with some innocence remaining, and with more than sufficient means to study vice in its most alluring forms, he went pretty swiftly on the rocks, and was for a time the talk of the town—not without whispers and shrugs and shaking of heads.
Of all this, of course, his father knew nothing. Buried in the past, and shut away from life and experience and the knowledge of men, he felt that his cheque-book told him all that was necessary to know concerning his son, and that the rest was only a matter with which time could deal. And in the meantime young Brenderby was making history.
Something more flagrant than usual was noised abroad, and the stir of wagging tongues reached even to the recluse. Stunned and appalled, he began to make inquiries; saw a cloud of debt here, and another cloud of disgrace there; heard the name made sacred by the dead woman bandied about on lips that never should have known it. He sent for his son, and confronted him with the whole business.
It was a strange interview, short though it was. The young man went in out of the brightness and the glow of the world he knew into that semi-darkened room occupied by his father. It was years since they had met, and the father was scarcely prepared for this vision of young manhood—reckless and handsome and headstrong. But he said what he had to say, nevertheless.
"I suppose you know why I have summoned you here?" asked the elder man, looking up through the dim light at his son.
"I suppose so," replied the other, with a shrug.
"You have disappointed me. My son should have been all that was good and strong and purposeful; to be the son of his dead mother"—the strident tones faltered a little—"he should have been all this—and more."
"I had no idea," replied the young man listlessly, "that you took so deep an interest in me. You've been very good, in the way of money; but that's about all. You haven't troubled very much about me otherwise."
"It should not have been necessary," retorted the other. "Now I hear tales of wild expenditure—of losses at cards—of disgraceful things that are spoken of widely. Have you any explanation to offer?"
"None. You must take, me at the valuation the world has set upon me, I suppose," replied Denis. "It might have been a merciful thing for me if I had had something to do—some work in the world. You haven't troubled about that."
"It is totally unnecessary for any son of mine to work," said the old man, with a faint touch of pride. "We are not of a race to work—save in such directions as may be indicated by personal inclination. And so you have nothing to say for yourself?" he added, with a change of voice.
"What can I say? It's for you to speak; you brought me here for that purpose."
"Very well; it shall be for me to speak, as you suggest," said the father harshly. "You have disgraced my name; you have dragged the name borne by your sainted mother in the dust, and have made it a byword on the lips of men and women of the town. Worse than all, there is no repentance in you—no shame for all you have done. From this hour I have done with you; you blame me for having given you no work and no place in the world—you shall seek both for yourself. You leave this house a beggar; I know nothing more about you, and seek to know nothing."
For what seemed quite a long time the young man stood, with a flushed face and with clenched hands, striving to speak; then the thought of the callous injustice of the thing beat down what words he had, and silenced him. He went out of the house, with never a word of entreaty or of farewell; and he never returned to it while his father lived.
It was after that that old George Brenderby—getting near his end, and feeling somewhat grateful to a Providence that would bring him—in death—near to his beloved again—did a curious thing. The threat to his son was unrepented of; but he had an immense property, and it had to be left behind. He had to seek for someone whom it would enrich; he had to be certain that that vagrant son of his should have no chance of laying hands upon it. In a fit of vindictive rage against the boy who had defied him, he determined to seek a stranger. And, in some mysterious fashion, he found one ready to his hand.
With that selfish idea alone in his mind that he would soon be quit of the world, and leave the fight to go on without him, he left his vast property to the last person in the world who should have received it. Perhaps he foresaw endless lawsuits, with his son fighting an uphill and useless fight; more probably, he did not trouble about the matter at all. Whatever the cause, he laid his hand upon the most unlikely person, as has been said—a girl—and, suddenly dying, enriched her with all he had.
There had come to the village near which his great house was situated an unknown woman. Forlorn and broken, and spent after long struggling with the world, she gave up the pitiful journey there, and chose it as a place wherein to lay down the life that was merely a burden. She does not concern this history, more than by reason of the fact that she left behind a baby girl, of some six or seven years, utterly unprovided for. Or so she thought at the time, being quite unaware of the existence of the dying George Brenderby.
Gossip carried the news of the dead stranger and the living child to the ears of the dying man. Here was his chance. His lawyer was in attendance—vainly pleading, if the truth were told, for the son who had been cast off. It was a matter of a few hours for everything to be arranged. Late that night, in the silent house, the old man lay sleeping his last sleep, in a room that was darkened; and below, a wide-eyed child, in a black frock, stared wonderingly about her at the new world that was hers.
Of course, Denis Brenderby was duly acquainted with all the circumstances, by the lawyer who had had the drawing up of the last will and testament of the late George Brenderby: wherein he left to his adopted daughter, Miss Lucy Smith—hereafter to be known as Lucy Brenderby—all of which he died possessed. Only in the event of her death, the property would revert to his son, Denis Brenderby. For with but the life of that frail child between all his great possessions and the world, even old George Brenderby had seen that some further provision must be made.
Denis shrugged his shoulders when he heard the story, and asked who was going to look after the "poor little devil"—by which phrase he meant little Lucy. He was informed that a capable nurse had been engaged for the child, and that she was properly and regularly installed at Brenderby House. Denis, resentful though he might be, saw what he felt was the inevitable, and accepted it. And Lucy reigned supreme—the beggar's child, with a fortune in her baby hands.
The first move in the game that was to be played came from the lawyer. Mr. Simon Feast was a scoundrel, with but one idea in his crafty mind—to line his own nest well, and screw something more than fees out of those he served. And here, surely, was a great and unlooked-for opportunity.
He began to make cautious inquiries; discovered that Denis Brenderby had been spending recklessly money which was not his to spend, in the sense that it was borrowed, a long time before, on the strength of expectations destined never to be realised. He discovered that, since the father's death, creditors were pressing heavily and persistently; that certain writs were out, and that Denis Brenderby, driven like a rat to a corner, was fighting hard, and fighting with no earthly chance of success. He discovered, also, that the only resource left to the young man was ignominious flight—as a ruined and beggared man, without a penny in the world. Here was the chance of a lifetime; and Simon Feast would not have been the man he was, had he not taken advantage of it.
After much search (for Denis Brenderby was practically in hiding) he discovered the young man, in a villainous little inn, in a vile quarter of London. Even there, the young man kept up some sort of style: he had a room to himself, was drinking rather more than was good for him, and was utterly reckless in regard to the future. He had with him one friend, who had probably stuck to him in the hope that something might, after all, be recovered from the wreck of his fortunes.
Mr. Simon Feast began cautiously. He deplored the loss of so great a property to its rightful owner; he was shocked to find Denis Brenderby in such surroundings; he drew a vivid picture of the beauty of the property, and of the amount of the annual income from it. Finally, speaking with deep respect of the dead man, he failed to understand how any human being in his senses could have left all he possessed to a child so commonplace and repulsive as this Lucy Smith.
Denis Brenderby said nothing. He sat at the table, in the mean little room, with his head propped on his hand, while he drummed with his finger-tips on the stained wood, almost as though the subject could not interest him. The friend, on the other hand—Mr. Reuben Jelf—was deeply interested, and questioned the lawyer sharply.
"A mere gutter-child, I suppose?" he said bitterly. "A creature, who, when she grows up, will fling all she has to the winds, and make herself the talk of the county—eh?"
"My dear sir, you have, if anything, understated the case," said the lawyer. "Unfortunately, the will is so clearly drawn, and the late lamented George Brenderby was in such complete possession of all his faculties, and has, moreover, so clearly stated his reasons for disinheriting his son"—he coughed, and glanced at the quiet figure by the table—"that any mere legal process would, I fear, be useless. This baby stands between Mr. Denis Brenderby and a great property." He coughed again, and looked more steadily at the silent figure.
"And what the devil were you about, to help him to make such a will?" cried Denis violently, suddenly starting to his feet. "You must have known what an iniquitous business it was; you might have done something to put it off—or to stop it."
"My dear sir, it was impossible," said Mr. Feast, with a sigh. "Your father was not the man to be dictated to; when he said he would have a thing done, it had to be done. If I had refused, there were a score of lawyers ready to do what he demanded. And in that case," he added, "you might have been in a worse position even than you are."
The words were spoken with curious meaning; Denis Brenderby, who had moved away impatiently, turned swiftly, and looked from one man to the other. In the eyes of his friend and of the lawyer was the same look; Denis stood still, watching them.
"Well—what's the game?" he asked slowly. "Why don't you speak? What mischief are you hatching now?"
"Well—there is a way," said the lawyer, laying a thin hand on the table, and looking down at it, as though it interested him. "Come," he added suddenly, "let's sit down and talk. It might be well if we had something to—to refresh us."
If the child at that great, lonely house in the country could have known, she might have woke from her innocent, quiet sleep, to scream aloud at the shadows in the room, and to tremble in the darkness. For two of these men, at least, were there in the dingy inn in London, to plot against her life.
"Think of the position," said the lawyer, in a voice little above a whisper, and after much talk on his part, and much grim silence on the part of Denis Brenderby, "think how matters stand. On the one side, we will put yourself—a young man, in the full flush of early manhood—knowing the world, and knowing what pleasures await him"—he coughed again slightly, and turned his sharp eyes on the young man—"with money. More than all, remember that you, as the only child of your dead father, have a right to all that was his; remember that he cast you adrift for no adequate reason. On the other hand, there is this child, a waif of the gutter—unknown, and, in a sense, unknowing. Under ordinary circumstances, on the death of her mother she would have gone to that home of the homeless—the workhouse."
"It—it's a little rough on the kid," said Denis, with a gulp, stretching out his hand towards the bottle which stood near him.
"That's right, my boy—take something to drink; pull yourself together," said his friend Mr. Reuben Jelf. "You're so frightfully sensitive. What on earth does the child matter to you? Besides, there's another side to the question: I want my money—and I must have it."
"I suppose you think you'll force me into a corner, don't you?" said Denis, starting to his feet, and looking a little unsteadily at both of them. "You know how I stand—unable to turn my hand to anything, weighed down by debts on every side, and with the near prospect of starvation. On the other side of the scale, this beggar's brat, thrust into a position she never ought to have occupied. I know it all; I know what it all means. Come, Mr. Simon Feast—moralist and man-of-law—let's know what you want."
He tossed some more spirit down his throat, and shook himself, and looked round at them defiantly. There was a swift glance from one to the other (and they were sober enough, in all conscience); and then the lawyer spoke, in his cold, dry, cautious tones.
"Being a morose and sullen child, she wanders at night sometimes—quite alone—near the lake in the grounds of—of your house," he began steadily. "If a stranger came upon her at such a time, and startled her, she might—might fall in. There are so many accidents of that kind. If you went down—unknown, as it were—you might be back in London the same night."
Denis Brenderby had flung up a window, and leaned out into the night, as though in want of air. Turning presently, with his hands on the sill behind him, and his white face addressed to the two men, he spoke sharply.
"So—murder is the word—eh?" he said; and a sort of sob was in his voice. "I won't do it; that's my last word."
"Very good," said Mr. Reuben Jelf, with a laugh, "That settles the matter for me. You know what you owe me. More than that, you have to understand that the true story has not got about yet. Hard pressed as you are, it's nothing to the hunt that will start when the world knows you haven't a penny. And I start that hunt to-morrow."
Denis came back to the table, and drank a little more of the spirit; shook himself again, and faced them. "What—what sort of child did you say this was?" he asked huskily.
"The commonest it is possible to imagine—a very child of the gutter. Sickly, too," added the lawyer, as an afterthought, "and of no use to anyone. Think, Mr. Brenderby, of all this means; on the one side, poverty, disgrace, flight, and starvation; on the other, this great fortune coming into the right hands."
"And your share?" sneered Denis, steadying himself against the table.
"I would suggest a fourth," said the lawyer, with another cough. "You see, my business is to keep secrets."
The young man went again to the window; and came back once more to them. His face was white and drawn, and his lips trembled when he spoke; but there was a glitter in his eyes that boded no good to the child.
"I—I'll do it," he said, in a whisper. "No—don't speak to me—don't say a word. If I've sunk so low as this, it must come to a mere question of paying the price; there is no need for words. You, Mr. Simon Feast, shall have your fourth of this blood-money; you, Jelf, shall be paid in full. After all"—he threw up his head, and laughed aloud—"it's every man for himself in this world, and the devil take the hindmost. And the devil hasn't got me yet! Now, good night to you; not another word!"
The thing was frightful in the cold light of day; but it had to be faced. This last haunt of his was already besieged; the news had got abroad that he was a pauper, and the vultures were upon him, ready to pick his very bones. He managed to escape from the place, and made his way down to that forlorn home of his, filled, if the truth be told, with a bitter hatred against the dead man and against this child who had usurped his place.
He had, of course, to protect himself from any possibility of suspicion; he must not be seen near the house or in the grounds. He had never seen the child, but there could be only one, and he was not likely to make a mistake in that direction. He lingered about, in unfrequented places, until nightfall; he had known that part well, as a lonely boy, and he knew where best to keep out of sight.
So the long day wore itself out, and night came, with placid stars to look down upon the work lie had set himself to do. He had primed himself pretty strongly for that work, and was in a reckless mood enough when at last he vaulted a gate and started to cross the grounds.
"She walks at night near the lake!" he muttered to himself over and over again. "If she happens to see me, and starts screaming, the game will be up. I wish to Heaven those trees wouldn't rock and whisper like that! Near the lake! And she's small, and commonplace, and of no account!"
He came near the lake at last, and stood in the shadow of a clump of trees, looking sharply about him. There was a rustic seat not a dozen yards away, standing amid a tangle of grass and weeds, not far from the water's edge. That water was troubled to-night, and a moaning wind struck little waves out of it, and sent them sighing against its banks. While he looked, he heard another sound, that was not the sound of the wind or of the water. Footsteps—coming that way!
There is something appealing about the hesitating feet of a little child—something that seems to call for guidance and protection. The little feet have started but a short time on the long journey of life—and they have not learned the way. Some such thought as that may have come into the mind of Denis Brenderby, as he stood there among the trees; some sudden shock of horror and shame may have sobered him, and shown him, in all its naked brutal reality, what this thing was he meant to do. As he stood still, trembling and afraid, the little feet came on.
Into the light of the stars came a tiny, white-robed figure. Surely some mistake. Lawyer Feast, for there is nothing repulsive nor commonplace about this baby! A dainty little figure, with hands clasped demurely before her; a staid and modest little figure, seating herself with decorum on the rustic bench, and looking out placidly across the lake. A lonely little figure, pitiful to see at that hour of the night and in that place; a desolate little figure—in the man's eyes, at least, with the knowledge there was in him of the dangers that hedged her round about.
He must have started forward, in his surprise and wonder, for she turned sharply in his direction. But a brave baby this; for there were no screams—not even a start of fear. Instead, she looked up at him with a smile.
"You have been a long time coming!" was her surprising remark.
"A—a long time?" he stammered.
She nodded gravely. "Every night I've come out here, to wait for you; and every night you haven't come," said the child.
"Did you—did you know I was coming?" he asked, startled.
"Of course. You see—it's this way." She demurely made way for him on the bench, and drew her small skirts aside. "You had better sit down; you look so big right up there." He obeyed her. "It's this way. There never was a princess yet, left alone in a 'chanted castle, but there came along presently a prince, to rescue her. Sometimes she waited years—didn't she?"
"There have been such cases, I believe," he replied gravely, wondering whether or not this were a dream.
"Sometimes he came in a jump, like. But he always took her away—and always at night. But you have been a long time!"
Come, Denis Brenderby—here is the chance! Behind you, fortune and all that you desire; in front, the troubled waters, and this baby at your side! Far easier than you imagined, Denis Brenderby!
He got up hurriedly, and walked away from her; came back again, and sat down, and looked into her wondering eyes.
"Aren't you happy, baby?" he asked in a whisper.
She shook her head slowly. "It's all so lonely," she said, with a little, quick sob. "And the shadows are deep, and all the rooms are dark, with strange sounds in them when I walk across the floors—yes, even if I tiptoe," she assured him solemnly.
"Poor baby! And—don't they treat you well?"
"They don't speak to me," she said. "I've tried to be friends with them, but it isn't any use."
"But don't you know, you wise little woman, that you can do as you like? Don't you know that you are one of the richest babies in the world, and can have what you like, and do what you like?"
"Well—I did think you would have known more than that!" she exclaimed, with some indignation. "I can't do what I like; if I did——"
"What would you do?" he asked.
"You don't know your part of the story at all well," she replied. "Of course, what I should like would be for you to carry me off at once. Isn't that what you've come for?"
"Not exactly," he said, with averted head. "I'm afraid I'm not quite the sort of prince you want. I couldn't possibly take you away with me; you don't understand."
For a moment or two she looked at him with a quivering lip; then the little face was bowed in the small hands, and she burst into a passion of hopeless weeping. He was down on his knees in the tangled grass in a moment, and had his arms about her.
"Baby—baby—don't!" he whispered. "It'll never do to cry, you know. Only I'm not the sort of prince you want—indeed, I'm not. I came here to-night—God forgive me!—with a very different thought in my mind. Now I'm going away again; and you—rich little baby!—will go back to your warm bed, and dream that the prince is coming one of these days to make you happy. Don't cry; he'll come, sure enough, in good time."
Before her sobs had ceased, he sprang up and, with something of a sob himself, stumbled away through the trees and out of her sight. But not far; he came back within a few minutes—only to find the bench deserted, and to catch through the trees in the distance the vision of a little white figure, going slowly with lagging feet towards the house. He watched till it was out of sight, and then climbed the gate again and hurried away.
For more than a week Denis Brenderby disappeared. Writs were out against him, and active search was being made for him; but that was not the reason. Truth to tell, he had something from which to recover—some shame to be wiped away; some stain upon him that could not lightly be removed. The strange part of the business was, however, that the child drew him back again. Twice at night he started on a journey to her, and twice came away without reaching her, a little ashamed of this new soft place in his heart. On the third occasion he actually reached the house—to find it with drawn blinds and darkened windows. With some curious touch of fear stirring him, he gained admittance, and asked the startled servant where the child was.
The girl, a little wonderingly, asked him what he wanted with her. He thrust her aside and went into the house. She closed the door and came hurriedly after him; caught his arms and twisted him round by main force.
"’Sh!" she whispered. "She's dying!"
Before he could reply, a door near at hand was opened, and a face looked out—the face of Simon Feast, the lawyer. Silently he beckoned to Denis, who followed him into the room, and closed the door. Somehow or other, the young man was not in the least surprised to see, seated at a table, Mr. Reuben Jelf.
For a second or two there was a dead silence; then Denis Brenderby spoke hoarsely. Even as he spoke, he seemed to have a vision of that lonely little figure by the margin of the lake, seemed to see her going desolately through the trees back to the house. There had been foul play, after all; and for that there should be a reckoning.
"The child—what has happened?" he asked.
"In a manner of speaking, my dear Mr. Brenderby," replied the lawyer, passing a smooth hand across his lips as though to hide a smile, "we have been forestalled. The thing is not—not in our hands."
"I don't understand. Once again—what has happened?"
"You have been spared some—some trouble. Nature—wiser than ourselves—has taken the matter in her own hands. The child, in quite an ordinary fashion, has caught something of a fever; We are waiting to-night for the inevitable. My dear Mr. Brenderby, I congratulate you. It is so much easier than—than the other way."
Denis Brenderby stood with a dazed look in his eyes, and did not answer. To do him justice, all thought of what this easy solution of the matter would mean to him was gone; instead, he saw one poor, frail little life battling hard against those who watched for the spark to go out; for the first time he saw the brutal, bitter injustice of it all—the cowardice of the fight. With an exclamation, he turned and tore open the door, and went up the stairs. Looking back, as he reached the first landing, he had a glimpse of two startled faces at the door of the room below, looking up at him.
The servant he had seen before met him on the stairs. Being a woman, and having, perhaps, for that reason some deeper intuition than a man might have had, she said never a word, but opened the door of a room and, with a finger on her lips, signed to him to enter. And Denis Brenderby went in.
It happened to be the night when the crisis was expected, the night when life and death warred for this little creature, and when a certain hour should decide which way victory went. Confident in their own minds of what the issue would be, those most interested had quite properly summoned a doctor—a grave-faced young man, who sat beside the bed, quietly watching his small patient. In his own mind there was not much doubt as to what the issue would be.
The doctor turned his head as Denis came in, and then rose slowly. There was a whispered word or two between them, and the young doctor, perhaps, wondered a little at the strange set look of agony on the visitor's face.
"It's touch and go," he said in a whisper. "You see, a mite like this hasn't a fair chance. She's been neglected and left to herself in this great house, and the fever really springs from her own fear of the place, more than from anything else. We shall know to-night—within an hour or two."
"You might—might leave me with her," said Denis, without looking at the other man. "I'll call you if anything—happens."
The doctor, with a quick look at him, nodded, and passed out of the room. For a moment Denis Brenderby stood silently beside the bed, looking down at that small figure in it.
Perhaps at that time he saw, looking back through the years, another small figure, who might have trod a different path if, by the grace of God, some hand had been held out to him; perhaps, in that solemn time, there rose up within him an infinite pity and a tenderness for this poor waif, cast so strangely on the world, and made so strangely his enemy. After a moment or two he suddenly fell upon his knees beside the bed, and made shift, brokenly enough, to say something of a prayer to the God he had almost forgotten.
It was a mere, poor, broken, muttering sort of thing, but it came from the heart of the man; and perhaps the battle that was being waged in that quiet room ceased for a time while he prayed. Curiously enough, when his poor pleadings had worn themselves out, the hand of the child, moving restlessly about the bed, touched his—clasped the fingers of it with a warm, dry touch. Resting his lips upon it, he found strength to pray again.
"Oh, God! give her back to me! In all my clouded, broken life nothing has touched me or held me like this; no other hand has touched me so purely, or held me so strongly. In mercy, give her back to me!"
The brisk young doctor, coming in some hours later, touched the little fluttering pulse, and screwed up his lips, and nodded; life had won the battle, and the small waif had come into her fortune. Denis Brenderby, strangely awed and quieted, went away from the room, and left the child sleeping.
Thereafter several things happened. There was a tense, stormy interview downstairs with the men who had waited for other news—threats on the one side, open contempt on the other. They went after a time, debating between themselves what the next move should be. And Denis Brenderby settled down to watch the little life growing stronger.
It was quite a curious thing to see this broken, ruined gamester settled down there, and watching day by day beside the child. As she grew stronger, and came to recognise that strange prince of her dreams by the lake, she began to feel that life was very fine and good indeed, and that there was absolutely nothing more to be desired—indeed, she told him so, more than once.
And then it was that Denis set himself to fight the last battle. For, now that all danger was past, he knew that he must leave her; he knew that he must do what was right and just, and give to her the fortune that was hers—that was the only reparation he could make for that vile thought that once had been in his mind. He would leave her here, and go away, so that his very name should be forgotten.
There had been a thought in his mind that he might stop there, to protect and help her; but he knew what that would mean—that he was simply gaining his lost fortune in the simplest way. So that was clearly out of the question.
On the very day when his mind was made up to leave her, his purpose was changed again. The lawyer Feast and Reuben Jelf put in an appearance once more at the house—the first full of sneering contempt for the man who was wasting time over "the brat"; the second rough with threats and demands. In an instant Denis saw that to leave the child and the fortune in the hands of these men would be worst of all. That frail life that had so lately touched the borderland of Death was not safe while that great fortune depended upon her.
He fought the thing out, step by step, in solitude, and came at last to the conclusion that he could do nothing. This child had been picked out of the great world by his father, and given this burden to bear; she must bear it alone. His father had wronged him and had made him helpless. No doubt, he told himself easily, it would be all right. Half satisfied, he made his final arrangements, and was going. With some shame at the thought of the helplessness of the baby, he was going away at night—creeping out like a thief.
At the last moment he found he could not do it; the desperate longing was upon him to see the child. He crept up to her room where she lay asleep, bent over her, and kissed her and whispered his farewell.
"Good-bye, little one. I'd like to stay and fight your battles for you; only I mustn't do that. The time is coming when you will grow up a beautiful and rich woman—with every path in life smoothed and made pleasant for you. And in that time you will have forgotten the prince of your dreams, and will only hear, with a little regret, of the man whose fortune became yours, and who was of no account, and about whom no one ever troubles. Good-bye."
With a hasty exclamation, he turned and went out of the room, not daring to look back. Going to the rooms he had occupied, he put together his small belongings, and left a note saying where they were to be sent. Then he came out again into the hall, ready to go.
He heard a sound up above him—a sound that made his heart beat quicker; it was the patter of little feet. While he stood irresolute, he saw, at the head of the stairs, the figure of the child; and her arms were stretched out towards him.
"Go back, baby," he said steadily—"go back to your bed. Sleep well, dear!"
She came slowly down the stairs, looking at him anxiously, and with her lips quivering. He had to meet her half way; and all the strength went out of him as the child's arms went about his neck, and her lips touched his cheek. She didn't speak; there seemed no need for that; she held him close—tighter and tighter as he spoke.
"Now, you've got to be a brave baby, and go back to bed. You'll be well looked after—and no harm will come to you. I have to go away."
He tried, gently enough, to release the clinging hands; but it was a more difficult task than he could, without roughness, perform.
"With you—with you!" she whispered, with her lips brushing his cheek.
"I'm going far away, baby—out into the rough world, where I shall sometimes be hungry, and often cold—no warm bed to sleep in, and perhaps the sky for a roof, and God's stars for lamps. That's no place for a baby, is it?"
"With you—with you!" she whispered again, and held him closer yet.
A door opened below him. As on another night he remembered, he saw the two faces looking up at him. His grip on the child tightened, and hers on him. As he looked down at them, he seemed to see daylight for the first time; he seemed to know what he must do.
"Well, have you made up your mind?" asked Jelf roughly.
"I have," he replied slowly, bending his face down to the child. "I'm going away."
"And the child?" asked the lawyer.
"Goes with me," he replied steadily. "As for the rest—fight over it, you wolves! Tear at each other's throats for it; lie about it; scheme for it; do what you will with it—I take the child."
He went back into the child's room, and hastily wrapped her in the first warm things he could catch up; went out again on to the stairs. As he reached the foot of them, the two men confronted him in amazement.
"Do you really mean that you give it all up?" asked the lawyer, in a startled whisper.
"Heavens, man! do you think I could buy the baby?" asked Denis. "I've got a sort of curious idea," he added softly—"a strange feeling that she may make a man of me; that she may teach me what life means, and show me a little of the beauty of it. We'll try—won't we, little one? " he whispered, with his face against hers.
Without another word, he went out of the house, carrying the child in his arms. God knows, his heart was lighter than it had ever been. By strange ways this waif had been brought to him; by stranger ways she was to teach him to live finely and strongly and purely. Nothing else mattered.
Copyright, 1906, by Tom Gallon, in the United States of America.