The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter II. Mother and Child
Ida Starr, dismissed by the schoolmistress, ran quickly homewards. She was unusually late, and her mother would be anxious. Still, when she came within sight of the door, she stopped and stood panting. How should she tell of her disgrace? It was not fear that made her shrink from repeating Miss Rutherford's message; nor yet shame, though she would gladly have hidden herself away somewhere in the dark from every eye; her overwhelming concern was for the pain she knew she was going to cause one who had always cherished her with faultless tenderness,--tenderness which it had become her nature to repay with a child's unreflecting devotion.
Her home was in Milton Street. On the front-door was a brass-plate which bore the inscription: "Mrs. Ledward, Dressmaker;" in the window of the ground-floor was a large card announcing that "Apartments" were vacant. The only light was one which appeared in the top storey, and there Ida knew that her mother was waiting for her, with tea ready on the table as usual. Mrs. Starr was seldom at home during the child's dinner-hour, and Ida had not seen her at all to-day. For it was only occasionally that she shared her mother's bedroom; it was the rule for her to sleep with Mrs. Ledward, the landlady, who was a widow and without children. The arrangement had held ever since Ida could remember; when she had become old enough to ask for an explanation of this, among other singularities in their mode of life, she was told that her mother slept badly, and must have the bed to herself.
But the night had come on, and every moment of delay doubtless increased the anxiety she was causing. Ida went up to the door, stood on tiptoe to reach the knocker, and gave her usual two distinct raps. Mrs. Ledward opened the door to her in person; a large woman, with pressed lips and eyes that squinted very badly; attired, however, neatly, and looking as good-natured as a woman who was at once landlady and dressmaker could be expected to look.
"How 's 't you're so late?" she asked, without looking at the child; her eyes, as far as one could guess, fixed upon the houses opposite, her hands in the little pocket on each side of her apron. "Your mother's poorly."
"Oh, then I shall sleep with her to-night?" exclaimed Ida, forgetting her trouble for the moment in this happy foresight
"Dessay," returned Mrs. Ledward laconically.
Ida left her still standing in the doorway, and ran stairs. The chamber she went into--after knocking and receiving permission to enter, according to the rule which had been impressed upon her-- was a tolerably-furnished bedroom, which, with its bright fire, tasteful little lamp, white coverlets and general air of fresh orderliness, made a comfortable appearance. The air was scented, too, with some pleasant odour of a not too pungent kind. But the table lacked one customary feature; no tea was laid as it was wont to be at this hour. The child gazed round in surprise. Her mother was in bed, lying back on raised pillows, and with a restless, half-pettish look on her face.
"Where have you been?" she asked querulously, her voice husky and feeble, as if from a severe cold. "Why are you so late?"
Ida did not answer at once, but went straight to the bed and offered the accustomed kiss. Her mother waved her off.
"No, no; don't kiss me. Can't you see what a sore throat I've got? You might catch it. And I haven't got you any tea," she went on, her face growing to a calmer expression as she gazed at the child "Ain't I a naughty mother? But it serves you half right for being late. Come and kiss me; I don't think it's catching. No, perhaps you'd better not."
But Ida started forward at the granted leave, and kissed her warmly.
"There now," went on the hoarse voice complainingly, "I shouldn't wonder if you catch it, and we shall both be laid up at once. Oh, Ida, I do feel that poorly, I do! It's the draught under the door; what else can it be? I do, I do feel that poorly!"
She began to cry miserably. Ida forgot all about the tale she had to tell; her own eyes overflowed in sympathy. She put her arm under her mother's neck, and pressed cheek to cheek tenderly.
"Oh, how hot you are, mother! Shall I get you a cup of tea, dear? Wouldn't it make your throat better?"
"Perhaps it would; I don't know. Don't go away, not just yet. You'll have to be a mother to me to-night, Ida. I almost feel I could go to sleep, if you held me like that."
She closed her eyes, but only for a moment, then started up anxiously.
"What am I thinking about! Of course you want your tea."
"No, no; indeed I don't, mother."
"Nonsense; of course you do. See, the kettle is on the bob, and I think it's full. Go away; you make me hotter. Let me see you get your tea, and then perhaps it'll make me feel I could drink a cup. There, you've put your hair all out of order; let me smooth it. Don't trouble to lay the cloth; just use the tray; it's in the cupboard."
Ida obeyed, and set about the preparations. Compare her face with that which rested sideways upon the pillows, and the resemblance was as strong as could exist between two people of such different ages: the same rich-brown hair, the same strongly-pencilled eye-brows; the deep-set and very dark eyes, the fine lips, the somewhat prominent jaw-bones, alike in both. The mother was twenty-eight, the daughter ten, yet the face on the pillow was the more childish at present. In the mother's eyes was a helpless look, a gaze of unintelligent misery, such as one could not conceive on Ida's countenance; her lips, too, were weakly parted, and seemed trembling to a sob, whilst sorrow only made the child close hers the firmer. In the one case a pallor not merely of present illness, but that wasting whiteness which is only seen on faces accustomed to borrow artificial hues; in the other, a healthy pearl-tint, the gleamings and gradations of a perfect complexion. The one a child long lost on weary, woful ways, knowing, yet untaught by, the misery of desolation; the other a child still standing upon the misty threshold of unknown lands, looking around for guidance, yet already half feeling that the sole guide and comforter was within.
It was strange that talk which followed between mother and daughter. Lotty Starr (that was the name of the elder child, and it became her much better than any more matronly appellation), would not remain silent, in spite of the efforts it cost her to speak, and her conversation ran on the most trivial topics. Except at occasional moments, she spoke to Ida as to one of her own age, with curious neglect of the relationship between them; at times she gave herself up to the luxury of feeling like an infant dependent on another's care; and cried just for the pleasure of being petted and consoled. Ida had made up her mind to leave her disclosure till the next morning; impossible to grieve her mother with such shocking news when she was so poorly. Yet the little girl with difficulty kept a cheerful countenance; as often as a moment's silence left her to her own reflections she was reminded of the heaviness of heart which made speaking an effort. To bear up under the secret thought of her crime and its consequences required in Ida Starr a courage different alike in quality and degree from that of which children are ordinarily capable. One compensation alone helped her; it was still early in the evening, and she knew there were before her long hours to be spent by her mother's side.
"Do you like me to be with you, mother?" she asked, when a timid question had at length elicited assurance of this joy. "Does it make you feel better?"
"Yes, yes. But it's my throat, and you can't make that better; I only wish you could. But you are a comfort to me, for all that; I don't know what I should do without you. Oh, I sha'n't be able to speak a word soon, I sha'n't!"
"Don't, don't talk, dear. I'll talk instead, and you listen. Don't you think, mother dear, I could--could always sleep with you? I wouldn't disturb you; indeed, indeed I wouldn't! You don't know how quiet I lie. If I'm wakeful ever I seem to have such a lot to think about, and I lie so still and quiet, you can't think. I never wake Mrs. Led ward, indeed. Do let me, mother; just try me!"
Lotty broke out into passionate weeping, wrung her hands, and hid her face in the pillow. Ida was terrified, and exerted every effort to console this strange grief. The outburst only endured a minute or two, however; then a mood of vexed impatience grew out of the anguish and despair, and Lotty pushed away the child fretfully.
"I've often told you, you can't, you mustn't bother me. There, there; you don't mean any harm, but you put me out, bothering me, Ida. Tell me, what do you think about when you lay awake? Don't you think you'd give anything to get off to sleep again? I know I do; I can't bear to think; it makes my head ache so."
"Oh, I like it. Sometimes I think over what I've been reading, in the animal book, and the geography-book; and--and then I begin my wishing-thoughts. And oh, I've such lots of wishing-thoughts, you couldn't believe!"
"And what are the wishing-thoughts about?" inquired the mother, in a matter-of-fact way.
"I often wish I was grown up. I feel tired of being a child; I want to be a woman. Then I should know so much more, and I should be able to understand all the things you tell me I can't now. I don't care for playing at games and going to school."
"You'll be a woman soon enough, Ida," said Lotty, with a quiet sadness unusual in her. "But go on; what else?"
"And then I often wish I was a boy. It must be so much nicer to be a boy. They're stronger than girls, and they know more. Don't you wish I was a boy, mother?"
"Yes, I do, I often do!" exclaimed Lotty. "Boys aren't such a trouble, and they can go out and shift for themselves."
"Oh, but I won't be a trouble to you," exclaimed Ida. "When I'm old enough to leave school--"
She interrupted herself, for the moment she had actually forgotten the misfortune which had come upon her. But her mother did not observe the falling of her countenance, nor yet the incomplete sentence.
"Ida, have I been a bad mother to you?" Lotty sobbed out presently. "If I was to die, would you be sorry?"
"I've done my best, indeed I've done my best for yon! How many mothers like me would have brought you up as I've done? How many, I'd like to know? And some day you'll hate me; oh yes, you will! Some day you'll wish to forget all about me, and you'll never come to see where I'm buried, and you'll get rid of everything that could remind you of me. How I wish I'd never been born!"
Ida had often to comfort her mother in the latter's fits of low spirits, but had never heard such sad words as these before. The poor child could say nothing in reply; the terrible thought that she herself was bringing new woes to be endured almost broke her heart She clung about her mother's neck and wept passionately.
Lotty shortly after took a draught from a bottle which the child reached out of a drawer for her, and lay pretty still till drowsiness came on. Ida undressed and crept to her side. They had a troubled night, and, when the daylight came again, Lotty was no better. Ida rose in anguish of spirit, torturing herself to find a way of telling what must be told. Yet she had another respite; her mother said that, as it was Saturday, she might as well stay away from school and be a little nurse. And the dull day wore through; the confession being still postponed.
But by the last post at night came Miss Rutherford's letter. Ida was still sitting up, and Lotty had fallen into a doze, when the landlady brought the letter upstairs. The child took it in, answered an inquiry about her mother in a whisper, and returned to the bedside. She knew the handwriting on the envelope. The dreaded moment had come.
She must have stood more than a quarter of an hour, motionless, gazing on her mother's face, conscious of nothing but an agonised expectation of seeing the sleeper's eyes open. They did open at length, and quickly saw the letter.
"It's from Miss Rutherford, mother," said Ida, her own voice sounding very strange to herself.
"Oh, is it?" said Lotty, in the hoarse whisper which was all she could command "I suppose she wants to know why you didn't go. Read it to me."
Ida read, and, in reading, suffered as she never did again throughout her life.
"DEAR MRS. STARR,--I am very sorry to have to say that Ida must not return to school. I had better leave the explanation to herself; she is truthful, and will tell you what has compelled me to take this step. I grieve to lose her, but have really no choice.--I am, yours truly,
No tears rose; her voice was as firm as though she had been reading in class; but she was pale and cold as death.
Lotty rose in bed and stared wildly.
"What have you done, child?--what ever have you done? Is--is it anything--about me"
"I hit Harriet Smales with a slate, and covered her all over with blood, and I thought I'd killed her."
She could not meet her mother's eyes; stood with head hung down, and her hands clasped behind her.
"What made you do it?" asked Lotty in amazement.
"I couldn't help it, mother; she--she said you were a bad woman."
Ida had raised her eyes with a look of love and proud confidence. Lotty shrank before her, clutched convulsively at the bed-clothes, then half raised herself and dashed her head with fearful violence against the wall by which the bed stood. She fell back, half stunned, and lay on the pillows, whilst the child, with outstretched hands, gazed horror-struck. But in a moment Ida had her arms around the distraught woman, pressing the dazed head against her breast. Lotty began to utter incoherent self-reproaches, unintelligible to her little comforter; her voice had become the merest whisper; she seemed to have quite exhausted herself. Just now there came a knock at the door, and Ida was relieved to see Mrs. Ledward, whose help she begged. In a few minutes Lotty had come to herself again, and whispered that she wished to speak to the landlady alone. The latter persuaded Ida to go downstairs for a while, and the child, whose tears had begun to flow, left the room, sobbing in anguish.
"Ain't you better then?" asked the woman, with an apparent effort to speak in a sympathetic tone which did not come easily to her.
"I'm very bad," whispered the other, drawing her breath as if in pain.
"Ay, you've got a bad cold, that's what it is. I'll make you some gruel presently, and put some rum in it. You don't take care of yourself: I told you how it 'ud be when you came in with those wringin' things on, on Thursday night."
"They've found out about me at the school," gasped Lotty, with a despairing look, "and Ida's got sent away."
"She has? Well, never mind, you can find another, I suppose. I can't see myself what she wants with so much schoolin', but I suppose you know best about your own affairs."
"Oh, I feel that bad! If I get over this, I'll give it up--God help me, I will! I'll get my living honest, if there's any way. I never felt so bad as I do now."
"Pooh!" exclaimed the woman. "Wait a bit till you get rid of your sore throat, and you'll think different. Poorly people gets all sorts o' fancies. Keep a bit quiet now, and don't put yourself out so."
"What are we to do? I've only got a few shillings--"
"Well, you'll have money again some time, I suppose. You don't suppose I'll turn you out in the streets? Write to Fred on Monday, and he'll send you something."
They talked till Lotty exhausted herself again, then Ida was allowed to re-enter the room. Mrs. Ledward kept coming and going till her own bed-time, giving what help and comfort she could in her hard, half-indifferent way. Another night passed, and in the morning Lotty seemed a little better. Her throat was not so painful, but she breathed with difficulty, and had a cough. Ida sat holding her mother's hand. It was a sunny morning, and the bells of neighbouring churches began to ring out clearly on the frosty air.
"Ida," said the sick woman, raising herself suddenly, "get me some note-paper and an envelope out of the box; and go and borrow pen and ink, there's a good child."
The materials were procured, and, with a great effort, Lotty managed to arrange herself so as to be able to write. She covered four pages with a sad scrawl, closed the envelope, and was about to direct it, but paused.
"The bells have stopped," she said, listening. "It's half-past eleven. Put on your things, Ida."
The child obeyed, wondering.
"Give me my purse out of the drawer. See, there's a shilling. Now, say this after me: Mr. Abra'm Woodstock, Number--, St. John Street Road."
Ida repeated the address.
"Now, listen, Ida. You put this letter in your pocket; you go down into the Mary'bone road; you ask for a 'bus to the Angel. When you get to the Angel, you ask your way to Number--, St. John Street Road; it isn't far off. Knock at the door, and ask if Mr. Abra'm Woodstock is in. If he is, say you want to see him, and then give him this letter,--into his own hands, and nobody else's. If he isn't in, ask when he will be, and, if it won't be long, wait."
Ida promised, and then, after a long gaze, her mother dropped back again on the pillow, and turned her face away. A cough shook her for a few moments. Ida waited.
"Well, ain't you gone?" asked Lotty faintly.
"Kiss me, mother."
They held each other in a passionate embrace, and then the child went away.
She reached Islington without difficulty, and among the bustling and loitering crowd which obstructs the corner at the Angel, found some one to direct her to the street she sought. She had to walk some distance down St. John Street Road, in the direction of the City, before discovering the house she desired to find. When she reached it, it proved to be a very dingy tenement, the ground-floor apparently used as offices; a much-worn plate on the door exhibited the name of the gentleman to whom her visit was, with his professional description added. Mr. Woodstock was an accountant.
She rang the bell, and a girl appeared. Yes, Mr. Woodstock was at home. Ida was told to enter the passage, and wait.
A door at her right hand as she entered was slightly ajar, and voices could be heard from the other side of it. One of these voices very shortly raised itself in a harsh and angry tone, and Ida could catch what was said.
"Well, Mr. What's-your-name, I suppose I know my own business rather better than you can teach me. It's pretty clear you've been doing your best for some time to set the people against me, and I'm damned if I'll have it! You go to the place on religious pretences, and what your real object may be I don't know; but I do know one thing, and that is, I won't have you hanging about any longer. I'll meet you there myself, and if it's a third-floor window you get pitched out of, well, it won't be my fault. Now I don't want any more talk with you. This is most folks' praying-time; I wonder you're not at it. It's my time for writing letters, and I'd rather have your room than your company. I'm a plain-spoken man, you see, a man of business, and I don't mince matters. To come and dictate to me about the state of my houses and of my tenants ain't a business-like proceeding, and you'll excuse me if I don't take it kindly. There's the door, and good morning to you!"
The door opened, and a young man, looking pale and dismayed, came out quickly, and at once left the house. Behind him came the last speaker. At the sight of the waiting child he stood still, and the expression of his face changed from sour annoyance to annoyed surprise.
"Eh? Well?" he exclaimed, looking closely at Ida, his eye-brows contracting.
"I have a letter for Mr. Abra'm Woodstock, sir."
"Well, give it here. Who's it from?"
"Mrs. Starr, sir."
"Who's Mrs. Starr? Come in here, will you?"
His short and somewhat angry tone was evidently in some degree the result of the interview that had just closed, but also pretty clearly an indication of his general manner to strangers. He let the child pass him, and followed her into the room with the letter in his hand. He did not seem able to remove his eyes from her face. Ida, on her side, did not dare to look up at him. He was a massively built, grey-headed man of something more than sixty. Everything about him expressed strength and determination, power alike of body and mind. His features were large and heavy, but the forehead would have become a man of strong intellect; the eyes were full of astonishing vital force, and the chin was a physiognomical study, so strikingly did its moulding express energy of character. He was clean-shaven, and scarcely a seam or wrinkle anywhere broke the hard, smooth surface of his visage, its complexion clear and rosy as that of a child.
Still regarding Ida, he tore open the envelope. At the sight of the writing he, not exactly started, but moved his head rather suddenly, and again turned his eyes upon the messenger.
"Sit down," he said, pointing to a chair. The room was an uncomfortable office, with no fire. He himself took a seat deliberately at a desk, whence he could watch Ida, and began to read. As he did so, his face remained unmoved, but he looked away occasionally, as if to reflect.
"What's your name?" he asked, when he had finished, beginning, at the same time, to tear the letter into very small pieces, which he threw into a waste-paper basket.
"Ida, sir,--Ida Starr."
"Starr, eh?" He looked at her very keenly, and, still looking, and still tearing up the letter, went on in a hard, unmodulated voice. "Well, Ida Starr, it seems your mother wants to put you in the way of earning your living." The child looked up in fear and astonishment. "You can carry a message? You'll say to your mother that I'll undertake to do what I can for you, on one condition, and that is that she puts you in my hands and never sees you again."
"Oh, I can't leave mother!" burst from the child's lips involuntarily, her horror overcoming her fear of the speaker.
"I didn't ask you if you could," remarked Mr. Woodstock, with something like a sneer, tapping the desk with the fingers of his right hand. "I asked whether you could carry a message. Can you, or not?"
"Yes, I can," stammered Ida.
"Then take that message, and tell your mother it's all I've got to say. Run away."
He rose and stood with his hands behind him, watching her. Ida made what haste she could to the door, and sped out into the street.