Chapter XIII.
 

As for Edith, all doubts and questionings as to her baby's fate were merged into a settled conviction that it was alive, and that her mother knew where it was to be found. From her mother's pity and humanity she had nothing to hope for the child. It had been cruelly cast adrift, pushed out to die; by what means was cared not, so that it died and left no trace.

The face of Mrs. Bray had, in the single glance Edith obtained of it, become photographed in her mind. If she had been an artist, she could have drawn it from memory so accurately that no one who knew the woman could have failed to recognize her likeness. Always when in the street her eyes searched for this face; she never passed a woman of small stature and poor dark clothing without turning to look at her. Every day she went out, walking the streets sometimes for hours looking for this face, but not finding it. Every day she passed certain corners and localities where she had seen women begging, and whenever she found one with a baby in her arms would stop to look at the poor starved thing, and question her about it.

Gradually all her thoughts became absorbed in the condition of poor, neglected and suffering children. Her attendance at the St. John's mission sewing-school, which was located in the neighborhood of one of the worst places in the city, brought her in contact with little children in such a wretched state of ignorance, destitution and vice that her heart was moved to deepest pity, intensified by the thought that ever and anon flashed across her mind: "And my baby may become like one of these!"

Sometimes this thought would drive her almost to madness. Often she would become so wild in her suspense as to be on the verge of openly accusing her mother with having knowledge of her baby's existence and demanding of her its restoration. But she was held back by the fear that such an accusation would only shut the door of hope for ever. She had come to believe her mother capable of almost any wickedness. Pressed to the wall she would never be if there was any way of escape, and to prevent such at thing there was nothing so desperate that she would not do it; and so Edith hesitated and feared to take the doubtful issue.

Week after week and month after month now went on without a single, occurrence that gave to Edith any new light. Mrs. Dinneford wrought with her accomplice so effectually that she kept her wholly out of the way. Often, in going and returning from the mission-school, Edith would linger about the neighborhood where she had once met her mother, hoping to see her come out of some one of the houses there, for she had got it into her mind that the woman called Mrs. Gray lived somewhere in this locality.

One day, in questioning a child who had come to the sewing-school as to her home and how she lived, the little girl said something about a baby that her mother said she knew must have been stolen.

"How old is the baby?" asked Edith, hardly able to keep the tremor out of her voice.

"It's a little thing," answered the child. "I don't know how old it is; maybe it's six months old, or maybe it's a year. It can sit upon the floor."

"Why does your mother think it has been stolen?"

"Because two bad girls have got it, and they pay a woman to take care of it. It doesn't belong to them, she knows. Mother says it would be a good thing if it died."

"Why does she say that?"

"Oh she always talks that way about babies--says she's glad when they die."

"Is it a boy or a girl?"

"It's a boy baby," answered the child.

"Does the woman take good care of it?"

"Oh dear, no! She lets it sit on the floor 'most all the time, and it cries so that I often go up and nurse it. The woman lives in the room over ours."

"Where do you live?"

"In Grubb's court."

"Will you show me the way there after school is over?"

The child looked up into Edith's face with an expression of surprise and doubt. Edith repeated her question.

"I guess you'd better not go," was answered, in a voice that meant all the words expressed.

"Why not?"

"It isn't a good place."

"But you live there?"

"Yes, but nobody's going to trouble me."

"Nor me," said Edith.

"Oh, but you don't know what kind of a place it is, nor what dreadful people live there."

"I could get a policeman to go with me, couldn't I?"

"Yes, maybe you could, or Mr. Paulding, the missionary. He goes about everywhere."

"Where can I find Mr. Paulding?"

"At the mission in Briar street."

"You'll show me the way there after school?"

"Oh yes; it isn't a nice place for you to go, but I guess nobody'll trouble you."

After the school closed, Edith, guided by the child, made her way to the Briar st. mission-house. As she entered the narrow street in which it was situated, the aspect of things was so strange and shocking to her eyes that she felt a chill creep to her heart. She had never imagined anything so forlorn and squalid, so wretched and comfortless. Miserable little hovels, many of them no better than pig-styes, and hardly cleaner within, were crowded together in all stages of dilapidation. Windows with scarcely a pane of glass, the chilly air kept out by old hats, bits of carpet or wads of newspaper, could be seen on all sides, with here and there, showing some remains of an orderly habit, a broken pane closed with a smooth piece of paper pasted to the sash. Instinctively she paused, oppressed by a sense of fear.

"It's only halfway down," said the child. "We'll 'go quick. I guess nobody'll speak to you. They're afraid of Mr. Paulding about here. He's down on 'em if they meddle with anybody that's coming to the mission."

Edith, thus urged, moved on. She had gone but a few steps when two men came in sight, advancing toward her. They were of the class to be seen at all times in that region--debased to the lowest degree, drunken, ragged, bloated, evil-eyed, capable of any wicked thing. They were singing when they came in sight, but checked their drunken mirth as soon as they saw Edith, whose heart sunk again. She stopped, trembling.

"They're only drunk," said the child. "I don't believe they'll hurt you."

Edith rallied herself and walked on, the men coming closer and closer. She saw them look at each other with leering eyes, and then at her in a way that made her shiver. When only a few paces distant, they paused, and with the evident intention of barring her farther progress.

"Good-afternoon, miss," said one of them, with a low bow. "Can we do anything for you?"

The pale, frightened face of Edith was noticed by the other, and it touched some remnant of manhood not yet wholly extinguished.

"Let her alone, you miserable cuss!" he cried, and giving his drunken companion a shove, sent him staggering across the street. This made the way clear, and Edith sprang forward, but she had gone only a few feet when she came face to face with another obstruction even more frightful, if possible, than the first. A woman with a red, swollen visage, black eye, soiled, tattered, drunk, with arms wildly extended, came rushing up to her. The child gave a scream. The wretched creature caught at a shawl worn by Edith, and was dragging it from her shoulders, when the door of one of the houses flew open, and a woman came out hastily. Grasping the assailant, she hurled her across the street with the strength of a giant.

"We're going to the mission," said the child.

"It's just down there. Go 'long. I'll stand here and see that no one meddles with you again."

Edith faltered her thanks, and went on.

"That's the queen," said her companion.

"The queen!" Edith's hasty tones betrayed her surprise.

"Yes; it's Norah. They're all afraid of her. I'm glad she saw us. She's as strong as a man."

In a few minutes they reached the mission, but in those few minutes Edith saw more to sadden the heart, more to make it ache for humanity, than could be described in pages.

The missionary was at home. Edith told him the purpose of her call and the locality she desired to visit.

"I wanted to go alone," she remarked, "but this little girl, who is in my class at the sewing-school, said it wouldn't be safe, and that you would go with me."

"I should be sorry to have you go alone into Grubb's court," said the missionary, kindly, and with concern in his voice, "for a worse place can hardly be found in the city--I was going to say in the world. You will be safe with me, however. But why do you wish to visit Grubb's court? Perhaps I can do all that is needed."

"This little girl who lives in there, has been telling me about a poor neglected baby that her mother says has no doubt been stolen, and--and--" Edith voice faltered, but she quickly gained steadiness under a strong effort of will: "I thought perhaps I might be able to do something for it--to get it into one of the homes, maybe. It is dreadful, sir, to think of little babies being neglected."

Mr. Paulding questioned the child who had brought Edith to the mission-house, and learned from her that the baby was merely boarded by the woman who had it in charge, and that she sometimes took it out and sat on the street, begging. The child repeated what she had said to Edith--that the baby was the property, so to speak, of two abandoned women, who paid its board.

"I think," said the missionary, after some reflection, "that if getting the child out of their hands is your purpose, you had better not go there at present. Your visit would arouse suspicion; and if the two women have anything to gain by keeping the child in their possession, it will be at once taken to a new place. I am moving about in these localities all the while, and can look in upon the baby without anything being thought of it."

This seemed so reasonable that Edith, who could not get over the nervous tremors occasioned by what she had already seen and encountered, readily consented to leave the matter for the present in Mr. Paulding's hands.

"If you will come here to-morrow," said the missionary, "I will tell you all I can about the baby."

Out of a region where disease, want and crime shrunk from common observation, and sin and death held high carnival, Edith hurried with trembling feet, and heart beating so heavily that she could hear it throb, the considerate missionary going with her until she had crossed the boundary of this morally infected district.

Mr. Dinneford met Edith at the door on her arrival home.

"My child," he exclaimed as he looked into her face, back to which the color had not returned since her fright in Briar street, "are you sick?"

"I don't feel very well;" and she tried to pass him hastily in the hall as they entered the house together. But he laid his hand on her arm and held her back gently, then drew her into the parlor. She sat down, trembling, weak and faint. Mr. Dinneford waited for some moments, looking at her with a tender concern, before speaking.

"Where have you been, my dear?" he asked, at length.

After a little hesitation, Edith told her father about her visit to Briar street and the shock she had received.

"You were wrong," he answered, gravely. "It is most fortunate for you that you took the child's advice and called at the mission. If you had gone to Grubb's court alone, you might not have come out alive."

"Oh no, father! It can't be so bad as that."

"It is just as bad as that," he replied, with a troubled face and manner. "Grubb's court is one of the traps into which unwary victims are drawn that they may be plundered. It is as much out of common observation almost as the lair of a wild beast in some deep wilderness. I have heard it described by those who have been there under protection of the police, and shudder to think of the narrow escape you have made. I don't want you to go into that vile district again. It is no place for such as you."

"There's a poor little baby there," said Edith, her voice trembling and tears filling her eyes. Then, after a brief struggle with her feelings, she threw herself upon her father, sobbing out, "And oh, father, it may be my baby!"

"My poor child," said Mr. Dinneford, not able to keep his voice firm--"my poor, poor child! It is all a wild dream, the suggestion of evil spirits who delight in torment."

"What became of my baby, father? Can you tell me?"

"It died, Edith dear. We know that," returned her father, trying to speak very confidently. But the doubt in his own mind betrayed itself.

"Do you know it?" she asked, rising and confronting her father.

"I didn't actually see it die. But--but--"

"You know no more about it than I do," said Edith; "if you did, you might set my heart at rest with a word. But you cannot. And so I am left to my wild fears, that grow stronger every day. Oh, father, help me, if you can. I must have certainty, or I shall lose my reason."

"If you don't give up this wild fancy, you surely will," answered Mr. Dinneford, in a distressed voice.

"If I were to shut myself up and do nothing," said Edith, with greater calmness, "I would be in a madhouse before a week went by. My safety lies in getting down to the truth of this wild fancy, as you call it. It has taken such possession of me that nothing but certainty can give me rest. Will you help me?"

"How can I help you? I have no clue to this sad mystery."

"Mystery! Then you are as much in the dark as I am--know no more of what became of my baby than I do! Oh, father, how could you let such a thing be done, and ask no questions--such a cruel and terrible thing--and I lying helpless and dumb? Oh, father, my innocent baby cast out like a dog to perish--nay, worse, like a lamb among wolves to be torn by their cruel teeth--and no one to put forth a hand to save! If I only knew that he was dead! If I could find his little grave and comfort my heart over it!"

Weak, naturally good men, like Mr. Dinneford, often permit great wrongs to be done in shrinking from conflict and evading the sterner duties of life. They are often the faithless guardians of immortal trusts.

There was a tone of accusation and rebuke in Edith's voice that smote painfully on her father's heart. He answered feebly:

"What could I do? How should I know that anything wrong was being done? You were very ill, and the baby was sent away to be nursed, and then I was told that it was dead."

"Oh, father! Sent away without your seeing it! My baby! Your little grandson! Oh, father!"

"But you know, dear, in what a temper of mind your mother was--how impossible it is for me to do anything with her when she once sets herself to do a thing."

"Even if it be murder!" said Edith, in a hoarse whisper.

"Hush, hush, my child! You must not speak so," returned the agitated father.

A silence fell between them. A wall of separation began to grow up. Edith arose, and was moving from the room.

"My daughter!" There was a sob in the father's voice.

Edith stopped.

"My daughter, we must not part yet. Come back; sit down with me, and let us talk more calmly. What is past cannot be changed. It is with the now of this unhappy business that we have to do."

Edith came back and sat down again, her father taking a seat beside her.

"That is just it," she answered, with a steadiness of tone and manner that showed how great was the self-control she was able to exert. "It is with the now of this unhappy affair that we have to do. If I spoke strongly of the past, it was that a higher and intenser life might be given to present duty."

"Let there be no distance between us. Let no wall of separation grow up," said Mr. Dinneford, tenderly. "I cannot bear to think of this. Confide in me, consult with me. I will help you in all possible ways to solve this mystery. But do not again venture alone into that dreadful place. I will go with you if you think any good will come of it."

"I must see Mr. Paulding in the morning," said Edith, with calm decision.

"Then I will go with you," returned Mr. Dinneford.

"Thank you, father;" and she kissed him. "Until then nothing more can be done." She kissed him again, and then went to her own room. After locking the door she sank on her knees, leaning forward, with her face buried in the cushion of a chair, and did not rise for a long time.