Chapter XXIX. Freedom
 

Mr. Woodstock was not so indifferent with regard to Waymark's failure to bring the rents as the young man supposed. Under ordinary circumstances he probably would have waited without any anxiety till the following day; already on a previous occasion Waymark had collected on Tuesday instead of Monday, though not without notice of his intention to do so. But Mr. Woodstock had quite special reasons for wishing to see his agent before the following morning; he desired to assure himself once more that Waymark would not fail to be at the prison punctually. When the afternoon passed without the usual visit, he grew uneasy; he was incapable of attending to matters of business, and walked up and down his office with impatient step. Such a mood was extraordinary in Mr. Woodstock; he had often waxed restive in this or that business difficulty; was, indeed, anything but remarkable for equanimity under trial; but his state of mind was quite different at present, and exhibited itself in entirely different ways. He neither swore nor looked black; his was the anxiety of a man who has some grave interest at stake wherein the better part of his nature is concerned.

At five o'clock he took a cab, and went off to Waymark's lodgings in Chelsea. Here he learned that Waymark had left home at the usual time, and had not yet returned. Just as he was speaking with the landlady at the door, another gentleman came up on the same errand. Mr. Woodstock remembered Julian Casti, and held out his hand to him. Casti looked ill; his handsome features had wasted, and his fair complexion was turned to a dull, unhealthy, yellowish hue. It was a comparatively warm day for the season, but his thin frame was closely muffled up, and still he seemed to be shrinking under the air.

"Have you any idea where he can be?" Mr. Woodstock asked, as they turned away together.

"None whatever. I must see him to-night, though, if possible."

"Ha! And I too."

As he spoke Mr. Woodstock looked at the other keenly, and something seemed to suggest itself to him.

"I'm going to see if he's been for the rents as usual. Would you care to come with me?"

Julian looked surprised, but assented. They got into the cab together, and alighted at the end of Litany Lane, having scarcely spoken on the way. Inquiries here showed that the collector had gone his rounds, and departed, it was said, in the ordinary way.

"Have you an hour to spare, Mr. Casti?" asked the old gentleman, turning suddenly after a moment's reflection.

"Certainly."

"Then I wish you'd just come on with me to St. John's Street Road. It's possible you may have it in your power to do me a great service, if Waymark doesn't turn up. And yet, ten to one, I shall find him waiting for me. Never mind, come along if you can spare the time; you'll find him the sooner."

Mr. Woodstock tried to pooh-pooh his own uneasiness; yet, totally improbable as it seemed that Waymark should disappear at such a juncture, the impatience of the afternoon had worked him into a most unwonted fit of nervousness. Doubts and suspicions which would ordinarily never have occurred to him filled his mind. He was again quite silent till his office was reached.

Waymark had not been. They walked upstairs together, and Mr. Woodstock asked his companion to be seated. He himself stood, and began to poke the fire.

"Do you live in Chelsea still?" he suddenly asked.

"Yes."

"I have left word at Waymark's lodgings that he is to come straight here whenever he returns. If he's not here by midnight, should I find you up if I called--say at half-past twelve or so?"

"I would in any case wait up for you, with pleasure?"

"Really," said Mr. Woodstock, who could behave with much courtesy when he chose, "I must apologise for taking such liberties. Our acquaintance is so slight. And yet I believe you would willingly serve me in the matter in hand. Perhaps you guess what it is. Never mind; I could speak of that when I came to you, if I have to come."

Julian's pale cheek had flushed with a sudden warmth. He looked at the other, and faced steadily the gaze that met his own.

"I am absolutely at your disposal," he said, in a voice which he tried to make firm, though with small success.

"I am obliged to you. And now you will come and have something to eat with me; it is my usual time."

Julian declined, however, and almost immediately took his leave. He walked all the way to Chelsea, regarding nothing that he passed. When he found himself in his lodgings he put a match to the ready-laid fire, and presently made himself some tea. Then he sat idly through the evening, for the most part staring into the glowing coals, occasionally taking up a book for a few minutes, and throwing it aside again with a sigh of weariness. As it got late he shivered so with cold, in spite of the fire, that he had to sit in his overcoat. When it was past midnight he began to pace the room, making impatient gestures, and often resting his head upon his hands as if it ached. It must have been about a quarter to one when there was the sound of a vehicle pulling up in the street below, followed by a knock at the door. Julian went down himself, and admitted Mr. Woodstock.

"What can it mean?" he asked anxiously, when they had walked up to the room together. "What has become of him?"

"Don't know. I stopped at his place on the way here."

"Don't you fear some mischance? With all that money--"

"Pooh! It's some absurd freak of his, I'll warrant. He doesn't care how much anxiety he gives other people."

Mr. Woodstock was excited and angry.

"But he will certainly go--go there in the morning, wherever he is," said Julian.

"I'm not so sure of that. I believe it's on that very account that he's keeping out of the way!"

He smote his fist on the palm of the other hand with the emphasis of conviction. Julian looked at him with an expression of wonder. There was a short silence, and then Mr. Woodstock began to speak more calmly. The conversation lasted only about a quarter of an hour. Mr. Woodstock then returned to his cab, which had waited, and Julian bade him good night at the door.

At six o'clock Julian arose. It was still quite dark when he left the house, and the air was piercing. But he did not mind the weather this morning. His step had a vigour very different from the trailing weariness of the night before, and he looked straight before him as he walked. There was a heat on his forehead which the raw breath of the morning could not allay. Before he had gone half a mile, he flung open his overcoat, as if it oppressed him. It was in the direction of Westminster that he walked. Out of Victoria Street he took the same turn as on one miserable night, one which he had taken on many a night since then. But he was far too early at the prison gate. He strayed about the little streets of the neighbourhood, his eyes gazing absently in this or that direction, his hot breath steaming up in the grey light. When it was drawing near the time, he made some inquiries from a policeman whom he passed. Then he went to the spot whither he was directed, and watched. Two or three people, of poor appearance, were also standing about, waiting. Julian kept apart from them. First, a miserable old woman, huddling herself in a dirty shawl; looking on all sides with a greedy eye; hastening off no one knew whither. Then two young girls, laughing aloud at their recovered liberty; they repaired at once to the nearest public-house. Then a figure of quite different appearance, coming quickly forward, hesitating, gazing around; a beautiful face, calm with too great self-control, sad, pale. Towards her Julian advanced.

"Mr. Waymark was unavoidably prevented from coming," he said quickly. "But he has taken rooms for you. You will let me go with you, and show you the house?"

"Thank you," was Ida's only reply.

They walked together into the main street, and Julian stopped the first empty cab that passed. As he sat opposite to her, his eyes, in spite of himself, kept straying to her face. Gazing at her, Casti's eyes grew dim. He forced himself not to look at her again till the cab stopped.

"They are prepared for you here," he said, as they stood on the pavement. "Just give your name. And--you will not go away? You will wait till some one calls?"

Ida nodded.

" No; but your word," Julian urged anxiously. "Promise me."

"I promise."

She went up to the door and knocked. Julian walked quickly away. At the end of the street Mr. Woodstock was waiting.

"What's the matter?" he asked, examining the young man anxiously.

"Nothing--nothing!"

"Does she seem well?"

"I think so; yes," Casti replied, in a stifled voice. Then he asked hurriedly, "Where can Waymark be? What does it all mean?"

Mr. Woodstock shook his head, looking annoyed.

"I am convinced," Julian said, "that something is wrong. Surely it's time to make inquiries."

"Yes, yes; I will do so. But you look downright ill. Do you feel able to get home? If I'd thought it would upset you like this--"

Mr. Woodstock was puzzled, and kept scrutinising the other's face.

"I shall go home and have a little rest," Julian said. "I didn't get much sleep last night, that's all. But I must hear about Waymark."

"You shall. I'll warrant he turns up in the course of the day. Don't be anxious: I'll get to work as soon as possible to find him; but, depend upon it, the fellow's all right."

They shook hands, and Julian took his way homewards. Mr. Woodstock went to the house which Ida had just entered. He knocked lightly, and a woman opened to him and led him into a sitting-room on the ground-floor.

"I'll just have a cup of coffee, Mrs. Sims," he said. "Does she seem to care for her breakfast?"

"I'm afraid not, sir; she looks tired out, and poorly like."

"Yes, yes; the long journey and her troubles. Make her as comfortable as you can. I'll make myself at home with the paper here for an hour or so. Just see if she cares to lie down for a little; If so I won't disturb her."

Abraham did not devote much attention to the news. He sat before the fire, a cup of coffee within reach on the mantel piece, his legs fully stretched out before him, his favourite attitude when thinking. In spite of his fresh complexion and active limbs, you would have seen, had you watched him in his present mood, that Mr. Woodstock was beginning to age. Outwardly he was well-preserved-- few men of his years anything like so well. But let the inner man become visible during a fit of brooding, and his features made evident the progress of years. His present phase of countenance was a recent development; the relaxed lines brought to light a human kindliness not easily discoverable in the set expression of wide-awake hours. At present there was even tenderness in his eyes, and something of sad recollection. His strong mouth twitched a little at times, and his brows contracted, as if in self-reproach. When he returned to himself, it was with a sigh. He sat for about an hour; then the woman presented herself again, and told him that Miss Starr had been persuaded to lie down. It seemed likely she might sleep.

"Very well," said Mr. Woodstock, rising. "I'll go to the office. Send some one round when she's stirring, will you?"

Ida, to get rid of her troublesome though well-meaning attendant, had promised to lie down, but she had no need of sleep. Alone, she still kept her chair by the fire, sitting like one worn out with fatigue, her hands upon her lap, her head drooping, her eyes fixed on vacancy. She was trying to think, but thoughts refused to come consecutively, and a dull annoyance at this inability to reason upon her position fretted her consciousness. Not with impunity can the human mind surrender itself for half a year to unvaried brooding upon one vast misery; the neglected faculties revenge themselves by rusting, and will not respond when at length summoned. For months Ida's thoughts had gone round and round about one centre of anguish, like a wailing bird circling over a ravaged nest. The image of her mental state had been presented by an outward experience with which she became familiar. Waking long before daylight, she would lie with her eyes directed to the little barred window, and watch till there came the first glimmer of dawn. Even so was it her sole relief in the deep night of her misery to look forward for that narrow gleam of hope--her ultimate release. As the day approached, she made it the business of her thoughts to construct a picture of the events it would bring. Even before hearing from Waymark, she had been sure that he would meet her; Waymark and freedom grew identical images; to be free meant to see him awaiting her and to put herself absolutely in his hands. Now that everything had turned out differently from what she had grown to anticipate with certainty, she found herself powerless to face the unexpected. Why had Waymark failed her?--she could do no more than repeat the question a thousand times, till the faculty of self-communing forsook her. It was as though the sun should fail one morning to rise upon the world, and men should stand hopeless of day for ever.

She wondered vaguely whither she had been brought. At one moment she seemed to have been waiting an eternity in this unknown room, Julian's face and voice unspeakably remote; then again she would look round and wonder that she no longer saw the hare walls and barred window of her cell, the present seeming only a dream. All the processes of her mind were slow, sinewless. She tried to hope for something, to expect that something would happen, but could not summon the energy. Resentment, revolt, bitterness of spirit, of these things she knew just as little. They had been strong enough within her at first, but how long ago that seemed! She had no thought of time in the present; to sit waiting for an hour meant as little as to wait five minutes; such was the habit that had become impressed upon her by interminable days and nights. When at length she heard a knock at the door it filled her with fear; she started to her feet and looked with unintelligent eyes at the woman who again presented herself.

"Do you feel better, 'm?" the landlady asked. "Have you rested yourself?"

"Yes, thank you."

The woman went away; then came another knock, and Mr. Woodstock entered the room. He closed the door behind him, and drew near. She had again started up, and did not move her eyes from his face.

"Have you any recollection of me?" Abraham asked, much embarrassed in her presence, his voice failing to be as gentle as he wished through his difficulty in commanding it.

Ida had recognised him at once. He had undergone no change since that day when she saw him last in Milton Street, and at this moment it was much easier for her to concentrate her thoughts upon bygone things than to realise the present.

"You are Abraham Woodstock," she said very coldly, the resentment associated with the thought of him being yet stronger than the dead habit which had but now oppressed her.

"Yes, I am. And I am a friend of Osmond Waymark. I should like to talk a little with you, if you'll let me."

The old man found it so hard to give expression to the feelings that possessed him. Ida concluded at once that he came with some hostile purpose, and the name of Waymark was an incentive to her numbed faculties.

"How can you be a friend of Osmond Waymark?" she asked, with cold suspicion.

"Didn't he ever mention my name to you?"

"Never."

Waymark had in truth always kept silence with Ida about his occupations, though he had spoken so freely of them to Maud. He could not easily have explained to himself why he had made this difference, though it had a significance. Mr. Woodstock was almost at a loss how to proceed. He coughed, and moved his foot uneasily.

"I have known him all his life, for all that," he said. "And it was through him I found you."

"Found me?"

"It'll seem very strange, what I have to tell you.--You were a little girl when I saw you last, and you refused to come with me. Had you any idea why I asked you?"

"I hadn't then."

"But you have thought of it since?"

Ida looked at him sternly, and turned her eyes away again. The belief that he was her father had always increased the resentment with which she recalled his face.

"I am your grandfather," Abraham said gravely. "Your mother was my daughter."

A change came over her countenance; she gazed at him with wonder.

"Who did you think I was?" he asked.

She hesitated for a moment, then, instead of replying, said:

"You behaved cruelly to my poor mother."

"I won't deny it," the old man returned, mastering his voice with difficulty. "I ought to have been more patient with her. But she refused to obey me, and I can't help my nature. I repented it when it was too late."

Ida could not know what it cost him to utter these abrupt sentences. He seemed harsh, even in confining his harshness. She was as far from him as ever.

"I can't do anything for her," Mr. Woodstock continued, trying to look her in the face. "But you are her child, and I want to do now what I ought to have done long ago. I've come here to ask you if you'll live in my house, and be like a child of my own."

"I don't feel to you as a child ought," Ida said, her voice changing to sadness. "You've left it too late."

"No, it isn't too late!" exclaimed the other, with emotion he could not control. "You mustn't think of yourself, but of me. You have all your life before you, but I'm drawing near to the end of mine. There's no one in the world belonging to me but you. I have a right to--"

"No right! no right!" Ida interrupted him almost passionately.

"Then you have a duty," said Abraham, with lowered voice. "My mind isn't at ease, and it's in your power to help me. Don't imitate me, and put off doing good till it is too late. I don't ask you to feel kindly to me; all I want is that you'll let me take you to my home and do all I can for you, both now and after I'm gone."

There was pathos in the speech, and Ida felt it.

"Do you know where I came from this morning ?" she asked, when both had been silent for some moments.

"I know all about it. I was at the trial, and I did my best for you then."

"Do you believe that I robbed that woman?" Ida asked, leaning forward with eager eyes and quickened breath.

"Believe it! Not I! No one believes it who knows anything about her. Waymark said he wouldn't have believed it if all the courts in England found you guilty."

"He said that?" she exclaimed. Then, as if suddenly becoming clearer about her position: "Where is Mr. Waymark? Why didn't he meet me as he promised?"

Abraham hesitated, but speedily made up his mind that it would be best to speak the truth.

"I know as little as you do. He ought to have come to me yesterday, but he didn't, and I can't discover him. I got Mr. Casti to meet you instead."

The keenest trouble manifested itself on Ida's countenance. She asked questions in rapid succession, and thus elicited an explanation of all the circumstances hitherto unknown to her.

"Have you been through the houses?" she inquired, all her native energy restored by apprehension. "Haven't you thought that he may have been robbed and--"

She stopped, overcome by sudden weakness, and sank into the chair.

"Come, come, it isn't so bad as all that," said the old man, observing her closely. "He may turn up at any moment; all sorts of unexpected things may have happened. But I'll go again to his lodgings, and if I can't hear anything there, I'll set the police to work. Will you promise me to wait here quietly?"

"No, that I can't do. I want to move about; I must do something. Let me go with you to look for him."

"No, no; that'll never do, Ida."

The power of speaking tenderly seemed to have been given to him all at once; this and his calling her "Ida," struck so upon the girl's agitated feelings that she began to sob.

"Let me, let me go with you! I will forget everything--I will be your child--I will try to love you.--"

She was as weak as water, and would have sunk to the ground if Abraham had not given her his support just in time. He could not find words to soothe her, but passed his hand very tenderly over her head.

"We are losing time!" she exclaimed, forcing herself into an appearance of calmness. "Come at once."