The next morning Ione and Jane Allen were again at the door of the dirty house in Tarvit Street. Ione had wished to go first to Mrs. Vincent Harford in order to enlist her aid. But she had not got half through the account of her interview with that lady when Jane Allen shut authoritatively down on that project.
"I wouldn't trust a pet white rat to a toad like that!" was the unscientific but clear and unmistakable formula in which she expressed her dislike of the selfishness of Mrs. Vincent Harford. So Ione pressed the matter no more.
Jane began the day by going to the manager of the Gopher & Arlington Company, who was opening his day's mail in the little mahogany-panelled office in King William Street. She demanded a whole holiday, which the manager willingly accorded to one of his best and most regular workers. Down a long vista of typewriting tables he saw the slim figure of Ione, who was standing looking at an instruction book. With a sudden increase of interest he said to Jane Allen, "Is that your friend Miss March, who left us some time ago? I heard that her father was dead. I wonder if she wouldn't like to come back to us now."
Jane, however, shook her head. She felt that it was not the time to make such a proposition to Ione, and so presently the two girls found themselves stemming the strong morning tide of humanity running eastward and cityward along Fleet Street.
Having arrived at number 9, Tarvit Street, W. C., Ione rang the bell. This produced no effect whatsoever, so with a quick and sure hand she knocked loudly upon the rusty unblacked knocker, so that the echo came back at once from roof and basement.
"How is Mr. Harford to-day?" asked Ione with a quiet aplomb, which was made more stern and determined by the presence of Jane Allen, in whom she felt there resided an invaluable reserve of power and language in case of a first repulse.
It was the same grimy unwashed serving-maid who answered the door.
"Muster Harford, mum? Why, 'e ain't no better."
"Can we see him?"
The serving-maid glanced over her shoulder.
"I think as 'ow I could manage to slip 'e oop when missus goes for the neck of mutton."
She leaned over towards the girls with a grimly confidential look upon her face.
"She's that 'orrid mean — she goes out every day to buy the very cheapest stuff to feed 'em on. She’ll be gone in ten minutes, and she’ll stop a whole hour, nosin' round and cheapenin'. I’ll sneak you up then, mum, an' no one never the wiser."
She nodded to Ione with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. Evidently she had conceived a low opinion of Jane Allen on the spot, for she added, pointing to Ione's companion, "'Er can stop below along o' me!"
But Ione had imbibed a new spirit, which forbade her to be dependent upon the good offices of a lodging-house Abigail.
"Thank you," she said; "you are very kind, and I shall not forget it. But I would like to see Mr. Harford now."
"Bless you, miss," said the girl, "I daren't! 'E goes on just hawful—'E's fairly off is chump — an' 'as bin for three days. And missus, she won't let 'im go because she 'as collared 'is trunk, an' - No, ma'am, I ham sorry that you can't see Mr. 'Arford to-day. 'E is not receiving no visingtors to-day."
The abrupt change in the manner of the servant girl was produced by the appearance of Mrs. Horehound, the landlady of the Tarvit Street mansion at the head of the stairs, with an expression of such fixed and deadly hatred on her face that Ione, left to herself, would have precipitately retired, but for the strong reserve behind her in the shape of Jane Allen.
"No," grated Mrs. Horehound, from her coign of vantage, "and you can't see Mr. Harford, an' you shan't see Mr. Harford. This is a respectable boardin' house for young gentlemen, and I can't be admittin' young women promiscuous-like off the street, as it were."
"But I must see Mr. Harford," said Ione firmly; "I hear he is very ill. He may need to be removed to a hospital."
"He will not be removed till the arrears of his rent is paid in full. Nor yet until a doctor certifies that he is to be moved to a place where he can be better taken care of, than by a humble but respectable person in my sphere in life."
"You have called in a doctor, then?" queried Ione.
"And, pray, what business may that be of yours whether I 'ave or whether I 'aven't? " retorted Mrs. Horehound. "I suppose I am responsible for my own lodgers?"
Then, with her nose in the air, the landlady became exceedingly ironical. "Perhaps, miss, you are the young gentleman's wife or his sister?"
"Neither," returned Ione promptly. "I am only one of his friends."
"His friend — yes — friends often come to see my young men. But I'm not going to be took in by you nor the like of you. I've seen too many o' your sort — minxes!"
Jane Allen stepped to the front.
“We have come to take Mr. Harford away," she said, "and get him into a hospital. Try to stop us at your peril. If he dies you will be taken up for manslaughter, if not murder?"
"Is this another ‘friend’?" sneered the grim-visaged landlady, making a final rally.
"I am what it does not concern you to know. Let us see Mr. Harford, or we will go away and come back with a policeman and the County Council doctor. They’ll see to it that you are prosecuted for having a case of contagious disease in your house without reporting it. You can get two years for that!"
It was an arrow shot at a desperate venture into the air, but the joints of Mrs. Horehound's armour were many and wide.
"I dunno' as 'tis any case of infectious disease," she grumbled, "but perhaps you had better bring a doctor. But mind you, I don't let a thing belonging him pass out of my house till I am paid every penny of my just dues!"
She retreated up the stairs without a word more, and led the way to Keith's room. After the first landing the wax-cloth was worn into holes, and the feet of the girls felt the steps uneven beneath. Up and up they went, turning after turning, and at each the floor grew more uneven and broken, the staircase narrower and meaner. All pretence of wax-cloth ceased at the beginning of the third flight and even the banisters began to show blanks in their serried array.
As they ascended they became conscious of a voice speaking continuously and very fast, while sometimes an ironic laugh, that seemed hardly human, pealed through the house. Again the softest and most moving accents of adoration and entreaty reached their ears, causing Mrs. Horehound to look to either side, to make sure that the doors leading into the lower rooms were tightly closed.
"Ione March — I beg your pardon. Miss March, but you make me forget myself — you know you are so kind to me. You are not going to marry that rascal! I do know him to be a rascal, Marcus. Hold your tongue! You were angry with me in the Court at Grindelwald, Miss March, but you will forgive me now — now — before I die."
There was a pause, and the voice began again when they were almost at the door:
"Marcus, I did not tell you before that I loved that girl; but I do. I loved her from the very first day I ever saw her. With all my heart's heart I loved her. I would die to save her finger from aching. What do you know about it? You've been in love with twenty girls. I never loved but her; yet she will never know it, Marcus. I would not touch her sweet young life with the shadow of my failure. An old-young man and in love — ha, ha! Forty next year, and the grey already running through the black! Well, both will be laid away for repairs among the worms, deep under the roots of the churchyard grass!"
At this point a feeble elricht voice burst into song:
“’John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonny brow was brent;
But noo your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw,
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson my jo."
''Ha! ha! ha! ha!"
A strange cackling laugh, like that of a parrot, rang out as the door was opened.
And there before them, on a dingy London bed, under a common coverlet, lay Keith Harford, his eyes open and brilliant with fever, turning his head slowly from side to side with the wearying iteration of a chained wild animal.
He had been staring fixedly at the ceiling, but he paused a moment and looked fixedly at the incomers.
"Is that you, Mrs. Horehound? No, Bloodhound, I mean — sired by Vulture out of Horseleech! Ha, ha! Good! The top of the morning to you, Mrs. Bloodhound! Did you happen to see my Sylvia pass this way? If you did, I hope you told her to meet me at the churchyard gate."
Then pausing, he sang, still in that dreadful voice:
“’Great King Pandion, he is dead;
All his friends are lapt in lead!’”
Ione bent down and laid her cool ungloved hands upon the pale and burning brow.
"Keith!" she said softly, with her face immediately above his.
He turned upon her eyes that were vacant of all sight. They seemed to look through and beyond and behind her.
"Hush!" he said impressively, raising his hand and pointing upward; "they told me she was dead. But they lied. I knew she would cheat them. She comes to see me when they are all gone. I heard her voice just now. Once she laughed, softly and sweetly. But I wish she would not play bo-peep with Mr. Sweel behind the curtains. I think it is a little unkind, when I am going to die so soon. But still — I am glad to see her in such excellent spirits. Young lady! — You with the smut on your nose and the hair in curl-papers — prithee tell me — did you happen to see my Sylvia pass this way?"
And he smiled as he tirelessly reeled off his wandering sentences; yet he spoke the words themselves as clearly as if he had been delivering a lecture in class.
"They took her money, the scoundrels. But I sent it back. Ha, ha! that was good — eh, Marcus? She could never guess how. And I did not want the books anyway, though the man that bought them was a rogue and cheated me damnably. What should a dying man want with books? But they need not have sent me to prison — for all the time I had to live. I am glad, though, it did not get in the papers; so she will never know. A pauper's funeral! Ha, ha! I say, Marcus, I wrote up one years ago, when I was on the Dispatch. It made all the women cry, so they said. But they never paid me for it, all the same. I nearly cried myself when I was writing it. But I can't cry now, when I'm going to have a pauper's funeral myself. Perhaps some luckier chap will write up mine, and get paid for it! Don't let that woman come near me! (vehemently). I don't want to see her. — Well, if I have to, I’ll go through with it. She has a sweet little girl — too good for such a harpy — and after all she was my brother's wife. I must not forget that. By the way, when I get along There, I must look up old Lyall. He used to mend salmon rods rather well!"
Keith's voice altered again. It grew restrained and conversational.
"My dear sister," he said, "I am so glad to see you. I am sorry I have no money besides the quarter's allowance which I have already sent you. I cannot put you into a better house, I have no money even for myself, nor can I beg from my friend Mr. Hardy, who has gone to America — for the present at any rate."
Ione's steady hand was cooling his brow. She had taken her handkerchief and wetted it at a water-bottle, greasy and green from lack of internal cleaning, which stood on the bare round table by the young man's bed.
Presently he looked up again.
"I do not know who you are," he said softly, his eyes were very large and dark in their deadly purple sockets, "but it was good of you to send her away. That woman wearies me, and I have no more money to give her. That other harpy downstairs — but I will not rant like a fool! Of course the woman takes what is her due. And she can't help it if her name is Horehound. With a headpiece like that to support in respectability she ought to have married an honest man named Smith or Jones. Thomson is good name, too, though more uncommon. What o'clock do they wake a fellow up when they are going to hang him — daybreak, isn't it? Well, if they would only put up the gallows somewhere else than just outside the window, I would not care. The strokes of the hammers ring through my head all the time, and I can't get any sleep. I declare I shall write to the Times upon 'The Rights of Englishmen about to be Hanged.' What a capital subject for the silly season!"
And so without a minute's pause Keith wandered on and on and ever on. Ione looked up to Jane Allen, who stood with clasped hands and anxious brow at the foot of the bed.
"Jane," she said, "we must get him out of this, to a place where he can be properly nursed and cared for."
"Not a foot till my just debts is paid in full!" said Mrs. Horehound, determinedly.
"Let me see your account!" said Ione.
"Don't you do anything of the kind, Ione; she can't help you taking him to an hospital."
"I'm going to take him home to Audley Street if the doctor will allow it," said Ione. "Do you fetch him, and I will settle with the woman."
Jane went swiftly and silently downstairs. She knew where there was the office of an insurance doctor close by. She would bring him if he happened to be in.
"I do not practise in the neighbourhood," said Doctor Spencer Bateson, a tall, stout man, of genial aspect, beaming down upon the anxious girl; "it is not etiquette; but if there is any danger or need, I will go. Is the gentleman a friend of yours?"
"He is a friend of a friend of mine," said Jane. "She is with him now. Come this way at once, please!"
While she spoke the doctor had been getting his hat, and slipping a small case of remedies and another of instruments into his pocket.
They returned together to the high grimy room in Tarvit Street. The landlady was standing on the lower step of the stair with a dazed kind of look on her face. She had emerged signally worsted from her financial conflict with Ione. For that practical young woman had insisted upon her displaying the vouchers for all her alleged extra purchases. While by comparison with other weeks for which the account had been settled, the fact was established that for the last fortnight she had charged her lodger three times the real rent of the room. Driven from post to pillar, Mrs. Horehound had at last written a receipt for the amount of her account after full deductions, and this was now safe in Ione's pocket as she sat calmly beside Keith Harford, waiting for Jane's return.
Doctor Spencer Bateson possessed such a majestic carriage and such a commanding and sonorous voice that, from his first entrance, he fairly appalled Mrs. Horehound.
"Where is your patient, madam?" he demanded, as soon as he came within the outer door. "I hope you have him in a clean and airy room, or else I cannot answer for the consequences."
And he sniffed all the way up the stairs in a most discomposing manner.
Arrived in the room in which Keith lay, he made a hasty diagnosis, stood awhile in thought, then tapped with his pencil on his hand.
"The patient is suffering from congestion of the brain, with marked delirious symptoms. The disease is probably the result of worry and mental strain, which has ended in nervous breakdown. He ought to be moved at once to some place where he can have pure air and ample attention."
"We will take him home and nurse him there!" she said.
The doctor fought a good fight for the public hospital, but something in Ione's eyes mastered him. Besides, he could not help noticing the purposeful and decided way in which she moved about the sick room.
"You have had experience," he said quickly, as she shifted Keith's head a little higher on the pillow.
"A little," said Ione quietly. "I was only three months in training, but I have been through a season's cholera in an Italian city."
The doctor said no more.
"I will bring an ambulance waggon at once," he said, "if you will have the patient ready for removal. I will go down with you myself!"
In this way Keith Harford was taken to 33, Audley Street, Battersea, where he was laid in Ione's own room, and tended daily by Doctor Spencer Bateson — who, curiously enough, found that it was wholly convenient to take Battersea on his way from Hampstead to his office in the Strand.
From the first the symptoms pointed to a somewhat prolonged illness. It was not till the fifth day that Keith began to recover his consciousness. Then the quick over-activity of the brain and the constant and wearying pour of words gave way to a sleepy unconsciousness, from which he only waked at intervals to resume his mental wanderings. Sometimes Ione would go out for a turn in the noble park, the southern entrance of which was within a few minutes' walk of Audley Street, and on these rare occasions she seemed to float light-headed in a new chill world of phantoms and unrealities.
One day as she came rapidly round a corner from the direction opposite to that by which she had gone out, she almost stumbled upon a young man. He seemed to be gazing ardently in the direction of No. 33, while the rest of his body was clapped as close to the brick wall as if he had been crawling along its base like some foul, creeping thing. His attitude suggested that he was exceedingly anxious not to disclose his identity. Something familiar about the hock-bottle slope of the neck and narrow shoulders caused Ione to turn quickly round.
She found herself almost face to face with H. Chadford Eaton, late confidential clerk to Mr. Nathaniel Shillabeer.
The youth, finding that he was recognised, suddenly withdrew his head, and pulling out his cigarette-case, he began with an obvious assumption of careless ease to light up, keeping however his eyes persistently averted from Ione's face. She proceeded slowly to the door of number 33. Tom Adair was just going out to meet Jane Allen — as he had got into the habit of doing, ostensibly because in these days of trouble and sick-nursing Jane generally carried home ice and all manner of dainties and medicaments, which could be more cheaply obtained at Billingsgate or Covent Garden than in the suburbs.
"Tom," cried Ione, eagerly, "the fellow who followed us before is at the corner. I wish you would - "
Ere she had finished her sentence Tom Adair was off. He never paused save to thrust his best new "bowler" more firmly down on the back of his head. But Mr. H. Chadford Eaton knew that the district of Battersea would be warm for him, and as soon as Ione passed he had taken to his heels riverwards.
When Tom reached the first corner he was already disappearing at the end of the street. Tom gave the view hallo, and redoubled his exertions. But H. Chadford knew his pursuer, and did not wish to repeat his experiences of the yard gates.
The confidential clerk ran straight for the nearest underground station. He battered up the long approach to the Albert Bridge. He dived into the intricate maze of small streets and courts which lies to the south of King's Road, and finally just as Tom Adair was close upon him, he ran across an open square and plunged unexpectedly down the steep descent of an underground station. A train passed up the platform at the same moment with a growling creak of brakes and a whirl of escaping steam.
Tom almost had his enemy that time, but H. Chadford was through before him. All ticketless, he burst past the guardian of the gates. Tom was about to follow, but the gate porter was not to be caught twice. Slam came the heavy postern in his face. "Too late, sir! Next train in five minutes!"
And before the words were out of his mouth the guardian was at his work of securing doors, and crying in some unknown tongue the name of the station.
H. Chadford passed slowly opposite his pursuer as the train slid groaning and hissing out. As he did so he made that ancient gesture of contempt and defiance whose origin is lost in solar myth, but whose practise to this day arouses passion and excites language of quite different origin.
"Oh, wait —just wait, young man!" gritted the irate Tom Adair between his teeth, as he slowly remounted the stairs — so angry as to be all unconscious that Jane Allen had arrived by the same train which had borne away his triumphant foe. They mounted almost parallel on the stairs. Jane walked a little behind Tom, complacently smiling. She did not speak till they had almost reached the top.
Then she said, "Oh, Tom, I did not think you could be so mean — to let me carry all these heavy parcels up those long stairs!"
Whereupon neither Tom Adair's remorse nor his profuse explanations and apologies availed him anything.
When Ione went into the sick-room one Sunday Keith Harford looked up at her with a new intelligence raying from his eyes.
"Do you know," he said confidentially, "that you very distinctly remind me of some one who did a great deed of kindness for me. Once, long ago, I was condemned to die, and a girl took my punishment and died instead for me."
“She must have loved you!” said Ione softly.
Keith Harford leaned forward. He was so weak that he could not even raise his hand, but the eager boyishness of his face was accentuated by the pallor of a brow from which the Alpine sunburn had quite faded.
"No," he said, "she did not love me — she could not. But it was her fate, and she could not help it. Don't you think it is mean to live on and to let a girl die for you? Would you like to know her name? It was Ione March!"
And as he spoke Ione felt a chill shadow creep over her as if he had indeed spoken the truth, and she was in reality doomed to die instead of Keith Harford.
And she remembered the words of the epistle she had heard that morning in church.
“Yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.”
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.