Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part III.--His Manhood
Chapter XI. The Suicide.
Falconer lived on and laboured on in London. Wherever he found a man fitted for the work, he placed him in such office as De Fleuri already occupied. At the same time he went more into society, and gained the friendship of many influential people. Besides the use he made of this to carry out plans for individual rescue, it enabled him to bestir himself for the first and chief good which he believed it was in the power of the government to effect for the class amongst which he laboured. As I have shown, he did not believe in any positive good being effected save through individual contact--through faith, in a word--faith in the human helper--which might become a stepping-stone through the chaotic misery towards faith in the Lord and in his Father. All that association could do, as such, was only, in his judgment, to remove obstructions from the way of individual growth and education--to put better conditions within reach--first of all, to provide that the people should be able, if they would, to live decently. He had no notion of domestic inspection, or of offering prizes for cleanliness and order. He knew that misery and wretchedness are the right and best condition of those who live so that misery and wretchedness are the natural consequences of their life. But there ought always to be the possibility of emerging from these; and as things were, over the whole country, for many who would if they could, it was impossible to breathe fresh air, to be clean, to live like human beings. And he saw this difficulty ever on the increase, through the rapacity of the holders of small house-property, and the utter wickedness of railway companies, who pulled down every house that stood in their way, and did nothing to provide room for those who were thus ejected--most probably from a wretched place, but only, to be driven into a more wretched still. To provide suitable dwellings for the poor he considered the most pressing of all necessary reforms. His own fortune was not sufficient for doing much in this way, but he set about doing what he could by purchasing houses in which the poor lived, and putting them into the hands of persons whom he could trust, and who were immediately responsible to him for their proceedings: they had to make them fit for human abodes, and let them to those who desired better accommodation, giving the preference to those already tenants, so long as they paid their reasonable rent, which he considered far more necessary for them to do than for him to have done.
One day he met by appointment the owner of a small block, of which he contemplated the purchase. They were in a dreadfully dilapidated condition, a shame that belonged more to the owner than the inhabitants. The man wanted to sell the houses, or at least was willing to sell them, but put an exorbitant price upon them. Falconer expostulated.
'I know the whole of the rent these houses could bring you in,' he said, 'without making any deduction for vacancies and defalcations: what you ask is twice as much as they would fetch if the full rent were certain.'
The poor wretch looked up at him with the leer of a ghoul. He was dressed like a broken-down clergyman, in rusty black, with a neck-cloth of whitey-brown.
'I admit it,' he said in good English, and a rather educated tone. 'Your arguments are indisputable. I confess besides that so far short does the yield come of the amount on paper, that it would pay me to give them away. But it's the funerals, sir, that make it worth my while. I'm an undertaker, as you may judge from my costume. I count back-rent in the burying. People may cheat their landlord, but they can't cheat the undertaker. They must be buried. That's the one indispensable--ain't it, sir?'
Falconer had let him run on that he might have the measure of him. Now he was prepared with his reply.
'You've told me your profession,' he said: 'I'll tell you mine. I am a lawyer. If you don't let me have those houses for five hundred, which is the full market value, I'll prosecute you. It'll take a good penny from the profits of your coffins to put those houses in a state to satisfy the inspector.'
The wretched creature was struck dumb. Falconer resumed.
'You're the sort of man that ought to be kept to your pound of filthy flesh. I know what I say; and I'll do it. The law costs me nothing. You won't find it so.'
The undertaker sold the houses, and no longer in that quarter killed the people he wanted to bury.
I give this as a specimen of the kind of thing Falconer did. But he took none of the business part in his own hands, on the same principle on which Paul the Apostle said it was unmeet for him to leave the preaching of the word in order to serve tables--not that the thing was beneath him, but that it was not his work so long as he could be doing more important service still.
De Fleuri was one of his chief supports. The whole nature of the man mellowed under the sun of Falconer, and over the work that Falconer gave him to do. His daughter recovered, and devoted herself to the same labour that had rescued her. Miss St. John was her superior. By degrees, without any laws or regulations, a little company was gathered, not of ladies and gentlemen, but of men and women, who aided each, other, and without once meeting as a whole, laboured not the less as one body in the work of the Lord, bound in one by bonds that had nothing to do with cobweb committee meetings or public dinners, chairmen or wine-flushed subscriptions. They worked like the leaven of which the Lord spoke.
But De Fleuri, like almost every one in the community I believe, had his own private schemes subserving the general good. He knew the best men of his own class and his own trade, and with them his superior intellectual gifts gave him influence. To them he told the story of Falconer's behaviour to him, of Falconer's own need, and of his hungry-hearted search. An enthusiasm of help seized upon the men. To aid your superior is such a rousing gladness!--Was anything of this in St. Paul's mind when he spoke of our being fellow-workers with God? I only put the question.--Each one of these had his own trustworthy acquaintances, or neighbours, rather--for like finds out like all the world through, as well as over--and to them he told the story of Falconer and his father, so that in all that region of London it became known that the man who loved the poor was himself needy, and looked to the poor for their help. Without them he could not be made perfect.
Some of my readers may be inclined to say that it was dishonourable in Falconer to have occasioned the publishing of his father's disgrace. Such may recall to their minds that concealment is no law of the universe; that, on the contrary, the Lord of the Universe said once: 'There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed.' Was the disgrace of Andrew Falconer greater because a thousand men knew it, instead of forty, who could not help knowing it? Hope lies in light and knowledge. Andrew would be none the worse that honest men knew of his vice: they would be the first to honour him if he should overcome it. If he would not--the disgrace was just, and would fall upon his son only in sorrow, not in dishonour. The grace of God--the making of humanity by his beautiful hand--no, heart--is such, that disgrace clings to no man after repentance, any more than the feet defiled with the mud of the world come yet defiled from the bath. Even the things that proceed out of the man, and do terribly defile him, can be cast off like the pollution of the leper by a grace that goes deeper than they; and the man who says, 'I have sinned: I will sin no more,' is even by the voice of his brothers crowned as a conqueror, and by their hearts loved as one who has suffered and overcome. Blessing on the God-born human heart! Let the hounds of God, not of Satan, loose upon sin;--God only can rule the dogs of the devil;--let them hunt it to the earth; let them drag forth the demoniac to the feet of the Man who loved the people while he let the devil take their swine; and do not talk about disgrace from a thing being known when the disgrace is that the thing should exist.
One night I was returning home from some poor attempts of my own. I had now been a pupil of Falconer for a considerable time, but having my own livelihood to make, I could not do so much as I would.
It was late, nearly twelve o'clock, as I passed through the region of Seven Dials. Here and there stood three or four brutal-looking men, and now and then a squalid woman with a starveling baby in her arms, in the light of the gin-shops. The babies were the saddest to see--nursery-plants already in training for the places these men and women now held, then to fill a pauper's grave, or perhaps a perpetual cell--say rather, for the awful spaces of silence, where the railway director can no longer be guilty of a worse sin than house-breaking, and his miserable brother will have no need of the shelter of which he deprived him. Now and then a flaunting woman wavered past--a night-shade, as our old dramatists would have called her. I could hardly keep down an evil disgust that would have conquered my pity, when a scanty white dress would stop beneath a lamp, and the gay dirty bonnet, turning round, reveal a painted face, from which shone little more than an animal intelligence, not brightened by the gin she had been drinking. Vague noises of strife and of drunken wrath flitted around me as I passed an alley, or an opening door let out its evil secret. Once I thought I heard the dull thud of a blow on the head. The noisome vapours were fit for any of Swedenborg's hells. There were few sounds, but the very quiet seemed infernal. The night was hot and sultry. A skinned cat, possibly still alive, fell on the street before me. Under one of the gas-lamps lay something long: it was a tress of dark hair, torn perhaps from some woman's head: she had beautiful hair at least. Once I heard the cry of murder, but where, in that chaos of humanity, right or left, before or behind me, I could not even guess. Home to such regions, from gorgeous stage-scenery and dresses, from splendid, mirror-beladen casinos, from singing-halls, and places of private and prolonged revelry, trail the daughters of men at all hours from midnight till morning. Next day they drink hell-fire that they may forget. Sleep brings an hour or two of oblivion, hardly of peace; but they must wake, worn and miserable, and the waking brings no hope: their only known help lies in the gin-shop. What can be done with them? But the secrets God keeps must be as good as those he tells.
But no sights of the night ever affected me so much as walking through this same St. Giles's on a summer Sunday morning, when church-goers were in church. Oh! the faces that creep out into the sunshine then, and haunt their doors! Some of them but skins drawn over skulls, living Death's-heads, grotesque in their hideousness.
I was not very far from Falconer's abode. My mind was oppressed with sad thoughts and a sense of helplessness. I began to wonder what Falconer might at that moment be about. I had not seen him for a long time--a whole fortnight. He might be at home: I would go and see, and if there were light in his windows I would ring his bell.
I went. There was light in his windows. He opened the door himself, and welcomed me. I went up with him, and we began to talk. I told him of my sad thoughts, and my feelings of helplessness.
'He that believeth shall not make haste,' he said. 'There is plenty of time. You must not imagine that the result depends on you, or that a single human soul can be lost because you may fail. The question, as far as you are concerned, is, whether you are to be honoured in having a hand in the work that God is doing, and will do, whether you help him or not. Some will be honoured: shall it be me? And this honour gained excludes no one: there is work, as there is bread in his house, enough and to spare. It shows no faith in God to make frantic efforts or frantic lamentations. Besides, we ought to teach ourselves to see, as much as we may, the good that is in the condition of the poor.'
'Teach me to see that, then,' I said. 'Show me something.'
'The best thing is their kindness to each other. There is an absolute divinity in their self-denial for those who are poorer than themselves. I know one man and woman, married people, who pawned their very furniture and wearing apparel to procure cod-liver oil for a girl dying in consumption. She was not even a relative, only an acquaintance of former years. They had found her destitute and taken her to their own poor home. There are fathers and mothers who will work hard all the morning, and when dinner-time comes "don't want any," that there may be enough for their children--or half enough, more likely. Children will take the bread out of their own mouths to put in that of their sick brother, or to stick in the fist of baby crying for a crust--giving only a queer little helpless grin, half of hungry sympathy, half of pleasure, as they see it disappear. The marvel to me is that the children turn out so well as they do; but that applies to the children in all ranks of life. Have you ever watched a group of poor children, half-a-dozen of them with babies in their arms?'
'I have, a little, and have seen such a strange mixture of carelessness and devotion.'
'Yes. I was once stopped in the street by a child of ten, with face absolutely swollen with weeping, asking me to go and see baby who was very ill. She had dropped him four times that morning, but had no idea that could have done him any harm. The carelessness is ignorance. Their form of it is not half so shocking as that of the mother who will tremble at the slightest sign of suffering in her child, but will hear him lie against his brother without the smallest discomfort. Ah! we shall all find, I fear, some day, that we have differed from each other, where we have done best, only in mode--perhaps not even in degree. A grinding tradesman takes advantage of the over supply of labour to get his work done at starvation prices: I owe him love, and have never thought of paying my debt except in boundless indignation.'
'I wish I had your faith and courage, Mr. Falconer,' I said.
'You are in a fair way of having far more,' he returned. 'You are not so old as I am, by a long way. But I fear you are getting out of spirits. Is to-morrow a hard day with you?'
'I have next to nothing to do to-morrow.'
'Then will you come to me in the evening? We will go out together.'
Of course I was only too glad to accept the proposal. But our talk did not end here. The morning began to shine before I rose to leave him; and before I reached my abode it was broad daylight. But what a different heart I carried within me! And what a different London it was outside of me! The scent of the hayfields came on the hardly-moving air. It was a strange morning--a new day of unknown history--in whose young light the very streets were transformed, looking clear and clean, and wondrously transparent in perspective, with unknown shadows lying in unexpected nooks, with projection and recess, line and bend, as I had never seen them before. The light was coming as if for the first time since the city sprang into being--as if a thousand years had rolled over it in darkness and lamplight, and now, now, after the prayers and longings of ages, the sun of God was ascending the awful east, and the spirit-voice had gone forth: 'Arise, shine, for thy light is come.'
It was a well-behaved, proper London through which I walked home. Here and there, it is true, a debauched-looking man, with pale face, and red sleepy eyes, or a weary, withered girl, like a half-moon in the daylight, straggled somewhither. But they looked strange to the London of the morning. They were not of it. Alas for those who creep to their dens, like the wild beasts when the sun arises, because the light has shaken them out of the world. All the horrid phantasms of the Valley of the Shadow of Death that had risen from the pit with the vaporous night had sunk to escape the arrows of the sun, once more into its bottomless depth. If any horrid deed was doing now, how much more horrid in the awful still light of this first hour of a summer morn! How many evil passions now lay sunk under the holy waves of sleep! How many heartaches were gnawing only in dreams, to wake with the brain, and gnaw in earnest again! And over all brooded the love of the Lord Christ, who is Lord over all blessed for ever, and shall yet cast death and hell into the lake of fire--the holy purifying Fate.
I got through my sole engagement--a very dreary one, for surely never were there stupider young people in the whole region of rank than those to whom duty and necessity sent me on the Wednesday mornings of that London season--even with some enjoyment. For the lessons Falconer had been giving me clung to me and grew on me until I said thus to myself: 'Am I to believe only for the poor, and not for the rich? Am I not to bear with conceit even, hard as it is to teach? for is not this conceit itself the measure as the consequence of incapacity and ignorance? They cannot help being born stupid, any more than some of those children in St. Giles's can help being born preternaturally, unhealthily clever. I am going with my friend this evening: that hope is enough to make me strong for one day at least.' So I set myself to my task, and that morning wiled the first gleam of intelligent delight out of the eyes of one poor little washed-out ladyship. I could have kissed her from positive thankfulness.
The day did wear over. The evening did come. I was with my friend--for friend I could call him none the less and all the more that I worshipped him.
'I have business in Westminster,' he said, 'and then on the other side of the water.'
'I am more and more astonished at your knowledge of London, Mr. Falconer,' I said. 'You must have a great faculty for places.'
'I think rather the contrary,' he answered. 'But there is no end to the growth of a faculty, if one only uses it--especially when his whole nature is interested in its efficiency, and makes demands upon it. The will applies to the intellect; the intellect communicates its necessities to the brain; the brain bestirs itself, and grows more active; the eyes lend their aid; the memory tries not to be behind; and at length you have a man gifted in localities.'
'How is it that people generally can live in such quiet ignorance of the regions that surround them, and the kind of humanity so near them?' I said after a pause.
'It does seem strange. It is as if a man should not know who were in his own house. Would-be civilization has for the very centre of its citadel, for the citizens of its innermost city, for the heart around which the gay and fashionable, the learned, the artistic, the virtuous, the religious are gathered, a people some of whom are barbarous, some cruel, many miserable, many unhappy, save for brief moments not of hope, but of defiance, distilled in the alembic of the brain from gin: what better life could steam up from such a Phlegethon! Look there: "Cream of the Valley!" As if the mocking serpent must with sweet words of Paradise deepen the horrors of the hellish compound, to which so many of our brothers and sisters made in the image of God, fly as to their only Saviour from the misery of feeling alive.'
'How is it that the civilized people of London do not make a simultaneous inroad upon the haunts of the demons and drive them out?'
'It is a mercy they do not. They would only do infinite mischief. The best notion civilization seems to have is--not to drive out the demons, but to drive out the possessed; to take from them the poor refuges they have, and crowd them into deeper and more fetid hells--to make room for what?--more and more temples in which Mammon may be worshipped. The good people on the other hand invade them with foolish tracts, that lie against God; or give their money to build churches, where there is as yet no people that will go to them. Why, the other day, a young clergyman bored me, and would have been boring me till now, I think, if I would have let him, to part with a block of my houses, where I know every man, woman, and child, and keep them in comparative comfort and cleanliness and decency, to say no more, that he might pull them down and build a church upon the site--not quite five minutes' walk from the church where he now officiates.'
It was a blowing, moon-lit night. The gaslights flickered and wavered in the gusts of wind. It was cold, very cold for the season. Even Falconer buttoned his coat over his chest. He got a few paces in advance of me sometimes, when I saw him towering black and tall and somewhat gaunt, like a walking shadow. The wind increased in violence. It was a north-easter, laden with dust, and a sense of frozen Siberian steppes. We had to stoop and head it at the corners of streets. Not many people were out, and those who were, seemed to be hurrying home. A few little provision-shops, and a few inferior butchers' stalls were still open. Their great jets of gas, which looked as if they must poison the meat, were flaming fierce and horizontal, roaring like fiery flags, and anon dying into a blue hiss. Discordant singing, more like the howling of wild beasts, came from the corner houses, which blazed like the gates of hell. Their doors were ever on the swing, and the hot odours of death rushed out, and the cold blast of life rushed in. We paused a little before one of them--over the door, upon the sign, was in very deed the name Death. There were ragged women within who took their half-dead babies from their bare, cold, cheerless bosoms, and gave them of the poison of which they themselves drank renewed despair in the name of comfort. They say that most of the gin consumed in London is drunk by women. And the little clay-coloured baby-faces made a grimace or two, and sank to sleep on the thin tawny breasts of the mothers, who having gathered courage from the essence of despair, faced the scowling night once more, and with bare necks and hopeless hearts went--whither? Where do they all go when the gin-hells close their yawning jaws? Where do they lie down at night? They vanish like unlawfully risen corpses in the graves of cellars and garrets, in the charnel-vaults of pestiferously-crowded lodging-houses, in the prisons of police-stations, under dry arches, within hoardings; or they make vain attempts to rest the night out upon door-steps or curbstones. All their life long man denies them the one right in the soil which yet is so much theirs, that once that life is over, he can no longer deny it--the right of room to lie down. Space itself is not allowed to be theirs by any right of existence: the voice of the night-guardian commanding them to move on, is as the howling of a death-hound hunting them out of the air into their graves.
In St. James's we came upon a group around the gates of a great house. Visitors were coming and going, and it was a show to be had for nothing by those who had nothing to pay. Oh! the children with clothes too ragged to hold pockets for their chilled hands, that stared at the childless duchess descending from her lordly carriage! Oh! the wan faces, once lovely as theirs, it may be, that gazed meagre and pinched and hungry on the young maidens in rose-colour and blue, tripping lightly through the avenue of their eager eyes--not yet too envious of unattainable felicity to gaze with admiring sympathy on those who seemed to them the angels, the goddesses of their kind. 'O God!' I thought, but dared not speak, 'and thou couldst make all these girls so lovely! Thou couldst give them all the gracious garments of rose and blue and white if thou wouldst! Why should these not be like those? They are hungry even, and wan and torn. These too are thy children. There is wealth enough in thy mines and in thy green fields, room enough in thy starry spaces, O God!' But a voice--the echo of Falconer's teaching, awoke in my heart--'Because I would have these more blessed than those, and those more blessed with them, for they are all my children.'
By the Mall we came into Whitehall, and so to Westminster Bridge. Falconer had changed his mind, and would cross at once. The present bridge was not then finished, and the old bridge alongside of it was still in use for pedestrians. We went upon it to reach the other side. Its centre rose high above the other, for the line of the new bridge ran like a chord across the arc of the old. Through chance gaps in the boarding between, we looked down on the new portion which was as yet used by carriages alone. The moon had, throughout the evening, alternately shone in brilliance from amidst a lake of blue sky, and been overwhelmed in billowy heaps of wind-tormented clouds. As we stood on the apex of the bridge, looking at the night, the dark river, and the mass of human effort about us, the clouds gathered and closed and tumbled upon her in crowded layers. The wind howled through the arches beneath, swept along the boarded fences, and whistled in their holes. The gas-lights blew hither and thither, and were perplexed to live at all.
We were standing at a spot where some shorter pieces had been used in the hoarding; and, although I could not see over them, Falconer, whose head rose more than half a foot above mine, was looking on the other bridge below. Suddenly he grasped the top with his great hands, and his huge frame was over it in an instant. I was on the top of the hoarding the same moment, and saw him prostrate some twelve feet below. He was up the next instant, and running with huge paces diagonally towards the Surrey side. He had seen the figure of a woman come flying along from the Westminster side, without bonnet or shawl. When she came under the spot where we stood, she had turned across at an obtuse angle towards the other side of the bridge, and Falconer, convinced that she meant to throw herself into the river, went over as I have related. She had all but scrambled over the fence--for there was no parapet yet--by the help of the great beam that ran along to support it, when he caught her by her garments. So poor and thin were those garments, that if she had not been poor and thin too, she would have dropped from them into the darkness below. He took her in his arms, lifted her down upon the bridge, and stood as if protecting her from a pursuing death. I had managed to find an easier mode of descent, and now stood a little way from them.
'Poor girl! poor girl!' he said, as if to himself: 'was this the only way left?'
Then he spoke tenderly to her. What he said I could not hear--I only heard the tone.
'O sir!' she cried, in piteous entreaty, 'do let me go. Why should a wretched creature like me be forced to live? It's no good to you, sir. Do let me go.'
'Come here,' he said, drawing her close to the fence. 'Stand up again on the beam. Look down.'
She obeyed, in a mechanical kind of way. But as he talked, and she kept looking down on the dark mystery beneath, flowing past with every now and then a dull vengeful glitter--continuous, forceful, slow, he felt her shudder in his still clasping arm.
'Look,' he said, 'how it crawls along--black and slimy! how silent and yet how fierce! Is that a nice place to go to down there? Would there be any rest there, do you think, tumbled about among filth and creeping things, and slugs that feed on the dead; among drowned women like yourself drifting by, and murdered men, and strangled babies? Is that the door by which you would like to go out of the world?'
'It's no worse,' she faltered, '--not so bad as what I should leave behind.'
'If this were the only way out of it, I would not keep you from it. I would say, "Poor thing! there is no help: she must go." But there is another way.'
'There is no other way, sir--if you knew all,' she said.
'Tell me, then.'
'I cannot. I dare not. Please--I would rather go.'
She looked, from the mere glimpses I could get of her, somewhere about five-and-twenty, making due allowance for the wear of suffering so evident even in those glimpses. I think she might have been beautiful if the waste of her history could have been restored. That she had had at least some advantages of education, was evident from both her tone and her speech. But oh, the wild eyes, and the tortured lips, drawn back from the teeth with an agony of hopelessness, as she struggled anew, perhaps mistrusting them, to escape from the great arms that held her!
'But the river cannot drown you,' Falconer said. 'It can only stop your breath. It cannot stop your thinking. You will go on thinking, thinking, all the same. Drowning people remember in a moment all their past lives. All their evil deeds come up before them, as if they were doing them all over again. So they plunge back into the past and all its misery. While their bodies are drowning, their souls are coming more and more awake.'
'That is dreadful,' she murmured, with her great eyes fixed on his, and growing steadier in their regard. She had ceased to struggle, so he had slackened his hold of her, and she was leaning back against the fence.
'And then,' he went on, 'what if, instead of closing your eyes, as you expected, and going to sleep, and forgetting everything, you should find them come open all at once, in the midst of a multitude of eyes all round about you, all looking at you, all thinking about you, all judging you? What if you should hear, not a tumult of voices and noises, from which you could hope to hide, but a solemn company talking about you--every word clear and plain, piercing your heart with what you could not deny,--and you standing naked and shivering in the midst of them?'
'It is too dreadful!' she cried, making a movement as if the very horror of the idea had a fascination to draw her towards the realization of it. 'But,' she added, yielding to Falconer's renewed grasp, 'they wouldn't be so hard upon me there. They would not be so cruel as men are here.'
'Surely not. But all men are not cruel. I am not cruel,' he added, forgetting himself for a moment, and caressing with his huge hand the wild pale face that glimmered upon him as it were out of the infinite night--all but swallowed up in it.
She drew herself back, and Falconer, instantly removing his hand, said,
'Look in my face, child, and see whether you cannot trust me.'
As he uttered the words, he took off his hat, and stood bare-headed in the moon, which now broke out clear from the clouds. She did look at him. His hair blew about his face. He turned it towards the wind and the moon, and away from her, that she might be undisturbed in her scrutiny. But how she judged of him, I cannot tell; for the next moment he called out in a tone of repressed excitement,
'Gordon, Gordon, look there--above your head, on the other bridge.'
I looked and saw a gray head peering over the same gap through which Falconer had looked a few minutes before. I knew something of his personal quest by this time, and concluded at once that he thought it was or might be his father.
'I cannot leave the poor thing--I dare not,' he said.
I understood him, and darted off at full speed for the Surrey end of the bridge. What made me choose that end, I do not know; but I was right.
I had some reason to fear that I might be stopped when I reached it, as I had no business to be upon the new bridge. I therefore managed, where the upper bridge sank again towards a level with the lower, to scramble back upon it. As I did so the tall gray-headed man passed me with an uncertain step. I did not see his face. I followed him a few yards behind. He seemed to hear and dislike the sound of my footsteps, for he quickened his pace. I let him increase the distance between us, but followed him still. He turned down the river. I followed. He began to double. I doubled after him. Not a turn could he get before me. He crossed all the main roads leading to the bridges till he came to the last--when he turned toward London Bridge. At the other end, he went down the stairs into Thames Street, and held eastward still. It was not difficult to keep up with him, for his stride though long was slow. He never looked round, and I never saw his face; but I could not help fancying that his back and his gait and his carriage were very like Falconer's.
We were now in a quarter of which I knew nothing, but as far as I can guess from after knowledge, it was one of the worst districts in London, lying to the east of Spital Square. It was late, and there were not many people about.
As I passed a court, I was accosted thus:
''Ain't you got a glass of ale for a poor cove, gov'nor?'
'I have no coppers,' I said hastily. 'I am in a hurry besides,' I added as I walked on.
'Come, come!' he said, getting up with me in a moment, 'that ain't a civil answer to give a cove after his lush, that 'ain't got a blessed mag.'
As he spoke he laid his hand rather heavily on my arm. He was a lumpy-looking individual, like a groom who had been discharged for stealing his horse's provender, and had not quite worn out the clothes he had brought with him. From the opposite side at the same moment, another man appeared, low in stature, pale, and marked with the small-pox.
He advanced upon me at right angles. I shook off the hand of the first, and I confess would have taken to my heels, for more reasons than one, but almost before I was clear of him, the other came against me, and shoved me into one of the low-browed entries which abounded.
I was so eager to follow my chase that I acted foolishly throughout. I ought to have emptied my pockets at once; but I was unwilling to lose a watch which was an old family piece, and of value besides.
'Come, come! I don't carry a barrel of ale in my pocket,' I said, thinking to keep them in good-humour. I know better now. Some of these roughs will take all you have in the most good-humoured way in the world, bandying chaff with you all the time. I had got amongst another set, however.
'Leastways you've got as good,' said a third, approaching from the court, as villanous-looking a fellow as I have ever seen.
'This is hardly the right way to ask for it,' I said, looking out for a chance of bolting, but putting my hand in my pocket at the same time. I confess again I acted very stupidly throughout the whole affair, but it was my first experience.
'It's a way we've got down here, anyhow,' said the third with a brutal laugh. 'Look out, Savoury Sam,' he added to one of them.
'Now I don't want to hurt you,' struck in the first, coming nearer, 'but if you gives tongue, I'll make cold meat of you, and gouge your pockets at my leisure, before ever a blueskin can turn the corner.'
Two or three more came sidling up with their hands in their pockets.
'What have you got there, Slicer?' said one of them, addressing the third, who looked like a ticket-of-leave man.
'We've cotched a pig-headed counter-jumper here, that didn't know Jim there from a man-trap, and went by him as if he'd been a bull-dog on a long-chain. He wants to fight cocum. But we won't trouble him. We'll help ourselves. Shell out now.'
As he spoke he made a snatch at my watch-chain. I forgot myself and hit him. The same moment I received a blow on the head, and felt the blood running down my face. I did not quite lose my senses, though, for I remember seeing yet another man--a tall fellow, coming out of the gloom of the court. How it came into my mind, I do not know, and what I said I do not remember, but I must have mentioned Falconer's name somehow.
The man they called Slicer, said,
'Who's he? Don't know the--.'
Words followed which I cannot write.
'What! you devil's gossoon!' returned an Irish voice I had not heard before. 'You don't know Long Bob, you gonnof!'
All that passed I heard distinctly, but I was in a half faint, I suppose, for I could no longer see.
'Now what the devil in a dice-box do you mean?' said Slicer, possessing himself of my watch. 'Who is the blasted cove?--not that I care a flash of damnation.'
'A man as 'll knock you down if he thinks you want it, or give you a half-a-crown if he thinks you want it--all's one to him, only he'll have the choosing which.'
'What the hell's that to me? Look spry. He mustn't lie there all night. It's too near the ken. Come along, you Scotch haddock.'
I was aware of a kick in the side as he spoke.
'I tell you what it is, Slicer,' said one whose voice I had not yet heard, 'if so be this gentleman's a friend of Long Bob, you just let him alone, I say.'
I opened my eyes now, and saw before me a tall rather slender man in a big loose dress-coat, to whom Slicer had turned with the words,
'You say! Ha! ha! Well, I say--There's my Scotch haddock! who'll touch him?'
'I'll take him home,' said the tall man, advancing towards me. I made an attempt to rise. But I grew deadly ill, fell back, and remember nothing more.
When I came to myself I was lying on a bed in a miserable place. A middle-aged woman of degraded countenance, but kindly eyes, was putting something to my mouth with a teaspoon: I knew it by the smell to be gin. But I could not yet move. They began to talk about me, and I lay and listened. Indeed, while I listened, I lost for a time all inclination to get up, I was so much interested in what I heard.
'He's comin' to hisself,' said the woman. 'He'll be all right by and by. I wonder what brings the likes of him into the likes of this place. It must look a kind of hell to them gentle-folks, though we manage to live and die in it.'
'I suppose,' said another, 'he's come on some of Mr. Falconer's business.'
'That's why Job's took him in charge. They say he was after somebody or other, they think.--No friend of Mr. Falconer's would be after another for any mischief,' said my hostess.
'But who is this Mr. Falconer?--Is Long Bob and he both the same alias?' asked a third.
'Why, Bessy, ain't you no better than that damned Slicer, who ought to ha' been hung up to dry this many a year? But to be sure you 'ain't been long in our quarter. Why, every child hereabouts knows Mr. Falconer. Ask Bobby there.'
'Who's Mr. Falconer, Bobby?'
A child's voice made reply,
'A man with a long, long beard, that goes about, and sometimes grows tired and sits on a door-step. I see him once. But he ain't Mr. Falconer, nor Long Bob neither,' added Bobby in a mysterious tone. 'I know who he is.'
'What do you mean, Bobby? Who is he, then?'
The child answered very slowly and solemnly,
'He's Jesus Christ.'
The woman burst into a rude laugh.
'Well,' said Bobby in an offended tone, 'Slicer's own Tom says so, and Polly too. We all says so. He allus pats me on the head, and gives me a penny.'
Here Bobby began to cry, bitterly offended at the way Bessy had received his information, after considering him sufficiently important to have his opinion asked.
'True enough,' said his mother. 'I see him once a-sittin' on a door-step, lookin' straight afore him, and worn-out like, an' a lot o' them childer standin' all about him, an' starin' at him as mum as mice, for fear of disturbin' of him. When I come near, he got up with a smile on his face, and give each on 'em a penny all round, and walked away. Some do say he's a bit crazed like; but I never saw no sign o' that; and if any one ought to know, that one's Job's Mary; and you may believe me when I tell you that he was here night an' mornin' for a week, and after that off and on, when we was all down in the cholerer. Ne'er a one of us would ha' come through but for him.'
I made an attempt to rise. The woman came to my bedside.
'How does the gentleman feel hisself now?' she asked kindly.
'Better, thank you,' I said. 'I am ashamed of lying like this, but I feel very queer.'
'And it's no wonder, when that devil Slicer give you one o' his even down blows on the top o' your head. Nobody knows what he carry in his sleeve that he do it with--only you've got off well, young man, and that I tell you, with a decent cut like that. Only don't you go tryin' to get up now. Don't be in a hurry till your blood comes back like.'
I lay still again for a little. When I lifted my hand to my head, I found it was bandaged up. I tried again to rise. The woman went to the door, and called out,
'Job, the gentleman's feelin' better. He'll soon be able to move, I think. What will you do with him now?'
'I'll go and get a cab,' said Job; and I heard him go down a stair.
I raised myself, and got on the floor, but found I could not stand. By the time the cab arrived, however, I was able to crawl to it. When Job came, I saw the same tall thin man in the long dress coat. His head was bound up too.
'I am sorry to see you too have been hurt--for my sake, of course,' I said. 'Is it a bad blow?'
'Oh! it ain't over much. I got in with a smeller afore he came right down with his slogger. But I say, I hope as how you are a friend of Mr. Falconer's, for you see we can't afford the likes of this in this quarter for every chance that falls in Slicer's way. Gentlemen has no business here.'
'On the contrary, I mean to come again soon, to thank you all for being so good to me.'
'Well, when you comes next, you'd better come with him, you know.'
'You mean with Mr. Falconer?'
'Yes, who else? But are you able to go now? for the sooner you're out of this the better.'
'Quite able. Just give me your arm.'
He offered it kindly. Taking a grateful farewell of my hostess, I put my hand in my pocket, but there was nothing there. Job led me to the mouth of the court, where a cab, evidently of a sort with the neighbourhood, was waiting for us. I got in. Job was shutting the door.
'Come along with me, Job,' I said. 'I'm going straight to Mr. Falconer's. He will like to see you, especially after your kindness to me.'
'Well, I don't mind if I do look arter you a little longer; for to tell the truth,' said Job, as he opened the door, and got in beside me, 'I don't over and above like the look of the--horse.'
'It's no use trying to rob me over again,' I said; but he gave no reply. He only shouted to the cabman to drive to John Street, telling him the number.
I can scarcely recall anything more till we reached Falconer's chambers. Job got out and rang the bell. Mrs. Ashton came down. Her master was not come home.
'Tell Mr. Falconer,' I said, 'that I'm all right, only I couldn't make anything of it.'
'Tell him,' growled Job, 'that he's got his head broken, and won't be out o' bed to-morrow. That's the way with them fine-bred ones. They lies a-bed when the likes o' me must go out what they calls a-custamongering, broken head and all.'
'You shall stay at home for a week if you like, Job--that is if I've got enough to give you a week's earnings. I'm not sure though till I look, for I'm not a rich man any more than yourself.'
'Rubbish!' said Job as he got in again; 'I was only flummuxing the old un. Bless your heart, sir, I wouldn't stay in--not for nothink. Not for a bit of a pat on the crown, nohow. Home ain't none so nice a place to go snoozing in--nohow. Where do you go to, gov'nor?'
I told him. When I got out, and was opening the door, leaning on his arm, I said I was very glad they hadn't taken my keys.
'Slicer nor Savoury Sam neither's none the better o' you, and I hopes you're not much the worse for them,' said Job, as he put into my hands my purse and watch. 'Count it, gov'nor, and see if it's all right. Them pusses is mannyfactered express for the convenience o' the fakers. Take my advice, sir, and keep a yellow dump (sovereign) in yer coat-tails, a flatch yenork (half-crown) in yer waistcoat, and yer yeneps (pence) in yer breeches. You won't lose much nohow then. Good-night, sir, and I wish you better.'
'But I must give you something for plaster,' I said. 'You'll take a yellow dump, at least?'
'We'll talk about that another day,' said Job; and with a second still heartier good-night, he left me. I managed to crawl up to my room, and fell on my bed once more fainting. But I soon recovered sufficiently to undress and get into it. I was feverish all night and next day, but towards evening begun to recover.
I kept expecting Falconer to come and inquire after me; but he never came. Nor did he appear the next day or the next, and I began to be very uneasy about him. The fourth day I sent for a cab, and drove to John Street. He was at home, but Mrs. Ashton, instead of showing me into his room, led me into her kitchen, and left me there.
A minute after, Falconer came to me. The instant I saw him I understood it all. I read it in his face: he had found his father.