THE OPPRESSOR OF THE WIDOW
Before Idalia and Marcus left Audley Street that night they had persuaded Ione to accompany them on their first visit to Rayleigh Abbey, the incubating centre of Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's bi-monthly new religions.
But before she left London Ione was determined to find Keith Harford and return him the thirty pounds which she knew he could so ill afford. She did not know Keith's address, but on one occasion at his request she had noted down that of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Vincent Harford, with the indefinite intention of calling upon her at some future date. It was a small house in a quiet lane, not far from Audley Street. Ione found it one of a narrow, double row of similar buildings, constructed of the peculiar mealy red brick of South London, and the tenements, though one degree more pretentious than those in Audley Street, were at least ten degrees less comfortable.
Dingy yellow curtains drooping within the small oriel window, marked out the house of Mrs. Vincent Harford from that of her neighbours. Waxen fruitage of brilliant dyspeptic hues inclosed in an oval glass case, was visible where the yellow curtains separated a little the one from the other.
Little Angel, looking infinitely pathetic in a loose faded dress of pale blue, opened the door, and as soon as she recognised the visitor, she flew with a glad cry into Ione's arms.
"I am so glad you've come," she said. "I am all alone in the house, and it is so empty and big. At least, when mother is in bed, and the charwoman won't be back till to-morrow. So I was playing at being the Queen, and cutting off people's heads. Now you can be the Queen, turn and turn about."
"That must be a nice play," said Ione. "But I hope your mother is not seriously ill?"
"Who? Mother? Oh, no, only she always goes to bed when there is nothing else to do. But I’ll tell her, and she’ll be so glad you've come."
And with a skip and a wave of a hand daintily elfish, the quaint neglected child disappeared up the narrow stairs which led to the bedrooms of the little brick house.
A few minutes afterwards, through the thin partitions of the jerry-built house, a querulous voice could be heard asking a question. The low-toned answer was received with the words, "I wonder what has brought her here?"
Presently little Angel came flying back with news.
"Mother's getting up as fast as she can. And I'm to talk to you till she's ready. And oh, I hope it will be such a long time."
So with another shrill cry of joy she caught her friend round the neck.
"You are so pretty, do you know?" she went on, "and ever so much nicer than most pretty people. You don't mind my mussing your things, do you, a bit? When I grow up, I'm going to be very pretty, and have lovely silk dresses. One is to be of sky-blue silk — oh, so thin — and it is to be trimmed with Garibaldi red and to have a broad belt of crimson silk round my waist. Yes, and when I go out people will all say, 'Who is that lovely crea-chure?' Do they say that when you go out? I'm sure they do say it to themselves, for all you have only on an old black frock. I say, though, are you really poor like us, or rich like Uncle Keith? Mamma says that he is ever so rich, and that he ought to let us live in a far nicer place than this."
There was a light, uncertain tread on the ill-built stairs, which, even when Angel flew up them, creaked as under a heavy weight. The little, warped, thin-panelled parlour door opened, and the widow came in. As soon as the child heard her mother coming down the stairs, she sprang down from Ione's knee, passed her fingers through her hair, and tripped over to another chair, on the edge of which she sat with her fingers folded in her lap, and her mouth pursed and prim, looking the very ghost of the child who a moment before had wantoned and chattered in Ione's lap.
"Ah, Miss March," said Mrs. Harford, handing Ione one or two unresponsive fingers, much as if she had been passing her a bunch of bananas. "I remember you. My brother — well, he isn't my brother, thank goodness — my late dear husband's brother, I mean, went away with you after putting me and this poor child into a cab. Of course, he only did that to get rid of us. Keith Harford never has any consideration for any one's feelings but his own."
"Oh, mamma!" said little Angel; "Uncle Keith is very kind, I'm sure. And when he has money he brings me bon-bons; and you know he gave me my own dear dolly."
"When he has money!" cried the widow, with an unpleasant little laugh. "Well, Miss March, I daresay you are a friend of my brother-in-law's, and will go straight and tell him what I say. But I don't care; he knows it already, or ought to. A thousand times I've told him that if he would get a paper to edit, or go on the Stock Exchange, he might easily make enough money to take us all out of this hole. Ah, Lyall Harford, my own dear husband, was so different. You would never have suspected that Keith and he were brothers. It is true that Lyall was most unfortunate, and lost all his money. But then, so long as he had any, or could get any, he spent it like a gentleman — yes, like a gentleman, and not - "
"But," cried Angel anxiously, “Uncle Keith is poor too!"
"Silence, child! What do you know about it? Poor indeed — with his clubs and fine chambers. He keeps us here in this rat-hole, and all the time he is rolling in the lap of luxury himself. Besides which, if he would only ask his friend Hardy for money, he could get all he wanted in a minute. And they say Hardy's mother is just wild to marry him, and he won't. Keith always was so terribly selfish."
Ione could scarcely help smiling during the progress of this diatribe. But she felt that the sooner she got out of the house the more happy she would be.
"I should be glad if you could tell me where to find Mr. Harford," she said at last. "I have some money of his to return to him. He has been very kind to me indeed."
"Oh, I daresay!" cried the widow, tossing her head, and her fingers rap-rapping angrily on the paper before her. "He is just the very man to be angelic to everybody but those he is in duty bound to help — his poor dead brother's wife and child. He'd call up the first crossing sweeper, and stuff his pockets with money. But to me and my child he scarcely allows as much as will keep body and soul together!"
"When I saw Mr. Keith Harford last," said Ione softly, "he certainly was very poor. Don't you think that may be the reason?"
"Poor!" cried Mrs. Vincent Harford; "of course he is poor, and he deserves to be poor, if he is too proud to ask help from the friends he has. And how can he have a spark of consideration for us, and yet refuse to marry a great and good woman like Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, the advocate of a noble movement — all because, forsooth, she happens to be a little older than himself, and because he pretends that he has not the requisite affection to give her in return. How paltry!"
Ione was glad indeed to get away from the little parlour behind the dingy yellow curtains with Keith Harford's address in her pocket. The palatial apartments to which his sister-in-law so frequently referred turned out to be in a narrow and dingy street leading southward off the Strand, and when Ione reached the place the area of the house suggested that the entire fabric had been reared upon a solid substratum of blackbeetles. Nor was there anything really millionairish about the grimy maid-of-all-work who, after a long interval, answered the bell.
"Mr. Harford, mum? Why, Mr. Harford is ill abed! See him? Well, mum, Mr. Harford has only a bedroom at the top of the house. But, if you like, I’ll go and tell him you are here. Shall I say his sister 'as called?"
At the sound of voices a hard-featured woman came out of some back premises, and stood looking down upon Ione with an air of severe reproach.
"Who is the person, Sarah?" she grated, with the noise of a rotary knife-cleaner when the brushes get a little out of order.
"Friend of Muster Harford's," said Sarah, throwing her voice casually over her shoulder.
"Mr. Harford is in bed, and is not able to see any stranger," said the severe-featured woman; "but I will take care of any message for him, or any letter or package, miss."
She glanced at the envelope in Ione's hand.
"Thank you," said Ione, who had instantly conceived a great dislike for Keith's landlady; "I will not trouble you."
And so walked away. She was resolved not to trust her precious thirty pounds to the care of so evident a harpy. She would either get Marcus Hardy to go with it, or else put her faith in the registration system of H. M. Post Office. As she went slowly away she crossed over to the opposite side of the street, and, casting a glance aloft, she endeavoured to decide which of the small, dirty windows could be that of Keith Harford's room. On the fourth storey one was open nearly half its extent, and the grimy curtain within moved a little as if a breeze were stirring gently up above, though there was not a breath of air in the narrow street where she stood.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.