JANE ALLEN’S TRAGEDY
All that night Ione lay awake thinking of Keith Harford alone in the grimy house in Tarvit Street, at the mercy of the hard-featured woman. It weighed on her heart like an oppression, that somehow she had heard his voice call her from behind the dirty curtain of the fourth-storey room. Towards morning she fell into an uneasy slumber, from which she was awakened by Jane Allen bending over her and touching her gently on the shoulder.
"Tell me what is the matter," said the girl. "I can't bear to hear you lying moaning like that! "
"There is nothing the matter at all," said Ione; "I must have been dreaming."
"Was it about him?” queried Jane almost in a whisper.
Ione was silent, for truly her heart was sick and sore within her.
"Let me come in beside you, Ione," said Jane Allen, "and just tell me anything you want to."
After all, there is nothing in the world like human sympathy. By it alone the heart of man, running for even a little way in double harness, is eased of the straining load which sags and lurches behind him over life's uneasy causeway.
Ione did not know that she was in love — certainly at this time she would most vehemently have denied it, even to Jane Allen; but Jane had infinitely more tact than to ask the question point-blank. She only lay quietly, with her hand round her friend's shoulder. And because the hearts of all women are the same, and their comprehension of each other's good and ill greater than that which is granted to man and woman, Ione March was at once soothed and aided by the gentle hand and silent sympathy of the little type-writing girl. At last Ione spoke, very softly and evenly.
"I have a friend," she said, "one who was kind to me — to whom I wish to be kind. He is very ill. I went to see him to-day, but I could not. The landlady was horrid, and would not let me go up. Yet I seemed to hear his voice calling me to come and help him"
"Ione March," said Jane Allen firmly, giving her a fierce little shake, "now you've got to stop this straight away. You and I will go the first thing in the morning, and if there is any frowsy old rent-grabber in London that can keep me from seeing — him as my heart is set on — well I’ll enjoy meeting her, that's all!"
So the two girls lay awake in each other's arms till the grey of the morning reddened to the smoky copper sunrise of Battersea, while the milk-carts, driving Chelseawards towards the spidery tackling of the Albert Bridge, rattled into hearing, grew louder, clattered, passed, and ceased. Then came the hoarse, coughing cry of the early sweep; after him the man with the unknown proclamation, whose voice in these regions can be heard afar in all weathers — a mysterious calling in the dawn which Ione declared sounded like that of Jonah: "Nineveh the Great shall be destroyed — destroyed in three days!" These all went by at their appointed hours, regular as the circling hands of a watch. For the floral clock of the fields — the wakening daisies, the early-closing “Go-to-bed-John,” the turning of the sun-flower upon its stem, are not more regular than the daily calendar of happenings in the streets of a great city — when one stays in the same spot all day and night, and many days one after the other.
And all through the shifting hours Ione told Jane Allen of her friendship for Keith Harford — of her engagement to Kearney Judd, of the meeting in Switzerland at the hotel of Johann Jossi, and her hot brief anger at Meiringen. Then she went on to tell of the meeting in London after many days, the glances left in her heart, meaningless at the time, which, however, had grown great and important during absence and without the utterance of a word. And all the while Jane Allen murmured question, understanding, sympathy. At last in her turn she began to speak to Ione in the same low and even voice — the voice in which women tell each other the secret things of the heart.
"Yes, Ione dear," she said, "that is the beginning — the beginning of true love. No, don't speak any more: just listen! For such a man you would do much, but not yet all. I have done all — all. But I will only tell you part. For when the heart is bitter it is easy to speak, but not easy to speak wisely.
"Ione, five years ago there was a man who swore he loved me. And I loved him! God help me — I love him still. We went to one chapel. We sang in one choir. He was poor and I was poor, but we worked hard for that which would give us a little home together. Three years — that is a long time out of a girl's life! They said I was pretty then — others than he said so; but I never thought of, and never so much as looked at any other. I believed in him, and trusted him in all things. He was to me as God. He travelled in wool and underclothing for Remington & Carter — I mean that was his business; and we had begun to gather little things for the house. See here, Ione!"
And in the growing light of the dawn Jane Allen leaped from the bed and vanished through the door. In a moment she was back again with what looked like a heavy bundle of white fabric. She had been dry-eyed before, and had kept up throughout her narrative that curiously low and even tone. But now, as she looked down at the linen in her hand, strange quick quivers — a woman's premonition of emotional storm — shook her, and there came a slow recurring sob in her throat. Her voice broke, and whistled like the wind among river reeds.
“See, Ione — read what is written there!"
"Jane Broome, High Peak, No. 12”' she read on the corner of the sheet. The marking-ink was black and dense, as if the iron had only just passed over it for the first time.
"Yes; it had gone as far as that. We lived up Derby way then, and he wrote me every post, year out and year in, till there came a time (it is three years ago this spring) I felt his letters grow cold. There was no meaning behind the loving words. May you never know the dreadfulness of seeing such words written and knowing that! Then the letters began to come every other day, then once a week, and soon only one or two in the month. But at first I just told myself how busy he was, and so I kept my heart up, for I loved him. Then, like you, I began to fear that he was ill. So I got a gold sovereign out of the purse I had saved for the little home, and took the train to the station in the country we had so often talked of going to. I got out there and walked along miry roads to his master's works, asking where he lived of all the people I met. And some looked strange at me, and some laughed, but most did not know who it was I meant. However, bit by bit I found he was living in a new cottage near the Matlock Road. His letters had always been sent to the Works — I had sent one there only the day before! He got them quicker that way, he said. And it was about sundown when I came to the house. It was bright and new-appearing, with a shining brass handle to the door, and in the little garden in front there were Canterbury bells and 'None-so-pretty,' all in blossom. These were his favourite flowers. And as I stood and wondered, there came a tall dark girl out of the cottage door, and looked down the road with her hand above her brows. I had never seen her before, but something told me who she was, and I grew all cold as a stone. Some folk might have thought her pretty. I only thought I should die. But I did not faint. I did not cry. I was not even angry. Only I stood farther off behind some bushes by the wayside, hiding like a thief in a little nook where they had once broken stones — broken them with a hammer — as women's hearts are broken!
"And by-and-by round the turn of the white empty road I saw him come. He had a bundle of papers in his hand, and he waved them when he caught sight of the tall girl. I had seen him do that. And then — and then — she gave a little skip upon one foot as if she were glad, and looked over her shoulder to see that no one was watching. Then catching up her skirt in one hand, she ran to him like a three-year-old child. Ah! she loved him, and she was good—but then so did I. If she deserved happiness more than I, well—that was not my fault. I had loved him first, and longest, and most. But I grew ever colder, and my heart ever stiller. It seemed to be turning to stone within me. But I made no sign, and he and she came slowly past the bushes behind which I stood, and they were looking together at the magazines and books he had brought back. His arm was about her; I knew just how firm the clasp was, just where it began and where it ended. There was a proud look in her eyes, too, that came — as I knew also — from a glad heart. As he came past he slipped his hand up over her shoulder and stroked her further cheek. They were too far off for me to hear what he said, when he did it. But I needed no telling.
"'Little Sweetheart!' — that was what he said to her. And it was then that my heart broke. But I waited quite quietly, though I had to catch at the tree to keep from falling. It was a book with bright pictures, all about flowers and greenhouses and seeds and prices that they were looking at together. And when they got near the little door with the brass knocker, she laughed out suddenly, and leaned her head back. He bent down to kiss her, at which she pretended to be angry, and ran in quickly just like a kitten. He followed, smiling, and the door was shut upon them.
"Then a man came by, and I heard a voice saying, not a bit like mine, ‘Whose house might that be? It is a pretty house!' And the man answered, 'Whoy, that's Master Broome's house. Eh! ye may well say 'tis pretty. There's lots of brass i' that house, lady. Whoy, that young man married his maister's daughter ten days agone coom next Saturday.'
"I thanked him, and said that it was a good thing, and that I wished them well. Then I went back to the tree and tried to pray, with my brow hard against the rough bark. But I could not. Yet I used to do it regular before that. He could pray — oh, beautiful! He prayed in a chapel and at meetings, and was a Sunday School teacher. But I never could pray rightly since then. So I stood there and saw the windows of the cottage light up, and never once noticed how fast the night came down. And hours after, still standing and holding to the tree, I saw the light move and darken below, and then flicker and brighten in the windows above. And then — and then — after a while I saw it put out. It rained out there by the tree, and the big broad drops fell on my face. But I did not care, for I fell down and lay all night in the wet like one dead.
"And next day I was taken to the hospital, for it was brain fever I had. And it was eight months and many things had happened before I came out again, the shadow of the girl that walked along that road from the little station, all to see Joseph Broome's wife standing at the door. But when I came home I sent him all the sheets that were not marked and the other things I had got ready. And he took them. But you see these were marked, and so I could not send them. For I heard that her name was Alice."
And all the time Jane Allen knelt by Ione's bedside, holding the linen in her thin fingers, smoothing it and touching it gently as if it had been a dead child, turning the name this way and that as she looked at the pretty neat black lettering. The water was running steadily down her cheeks now, and with the beginning of that the dry sob had ceased. Suddenly, however, the girl threw her face forward, and with her brow sunk on Ione's shoulders, she cried out, -
"Oh, I think I wouldn't have minded if he hadn't stroked her just like he used to do me, on the cheek, I mean, and called her my name — the pet name he called me long before he ever saw her! 'Lil' sweetheart!' he used to say, like that! Oh, he needn't have said that! For he had lots of names girls like to hear. But that was my own — my very own!"
Ione drew the girl to her. She was all trembling now and chill.
"Jane," she said, "get into bed at once!"
"I must put these back," she said, checking her sobs quickly and rising to her feet.
"You will catch cold — I will do that," returned Ione.
So Ione took the linen sheets, and leaving Jane Allen in her warm place, she went into her friend's room. The little bureau was open. On the bed lay a folded dress, of white nun's veiling, with lace and a blue rosette of ribbons upon it at the shoulder — a poor, tawdry, home-made thing. But the same hard woman's sob came into Ione's throat as she gazed, for she knew that she was looking at the wedding-dress of her that should have been Jane Broome. So swiftly and reverently she returned the linen to its place, and nestled the faded white dress tenderly on top. As she pulled it off the bed, a picture lay half revealed underneath the pillow. Ione could not help looking at it by the light of the candle. It represented a very smug-looking young man with short muttonchop whiskers, his abundant hair dressed in a sleek cock's-comb. He was leaning in a self-contented and provincial manner against a pillar which stood alone in a classical landscape. Beside him, and upon a chair, sat the dimpling radiant image of the girl whose pale shadow was to-day Jane Allen. The young man's hand was half raised from her shoulder, as if only the moment before he had stroked her cheek and murmured, "Lil' sweetheart!"
Somehow Ione felt that he did it again as soon as the photographer turned his back to go into his dark room.
She returned to Jane Allen, who silently made room for her; and there, till it was time to rise, did the two girls lie without further spoken word, each comforted and strengthened, their hearts lightened, and the coming day made less dark, because of the tears of the night and the mutual heart-opening of the morning.
Each knew now what the other meant by the pronoun "he." And all real girl friendships are based on that.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.