The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter V. Possibilities
Christmas passed, and the beginning of the New Year drew nigh. And, one morning, as Mr. Woodstock was glancing up and down the pages of a ledger, a telegram was delivered to him. It was from a hospital in the north-west of London. "Your daughter is dying, and wishes to see you. Please come at once."
Lotty's ailment had declared itself as pneumonia. She was frequently delirious, and the substance of her talk at such times led the attendant Sister to ask her, when reason returned, whether she did not wish any relative to be sent for. Lotty was frightened, but, as long as she was told that there was still hope of recovery, declined to mention any name. The stubborn independence which had supported her through these long years asserted itself again, as a reaction after her fruitless appeal; at moments she felt that she could die with her lips closed, and let what might happen to her child. But when she at length read upon the faces of those about her that her fate hung in the balance, and when she saw the face of little Ida, come there she knew not how, looking upon her from the bedside, then her purpose yielded, and in a whisper she told her father's address, and begged that he might be apprised of her state.
Abraham Woodstock arrived at the hospital, but to no purpose. Lotty had lost her consciousness. He waited for some hours; there was no return of sensibility. When it had been long dark, and he had withdrawn from the ward for a little, he was all at once hastily summoned back. He stood by the bedside, his hands behind his back, his face set in a hard gaze upon the pale features on the pillow. Opposite to him stood the medical man, and a screen placed around the bed shut them off from the rest of the ward. All at once Lotty's eyes opened. It seemed as though she recognised her father, for a look of surprise came to her countenance. Then there was a gasping for breath, a struggle, and the eyes saw no more, for all their staring.
Mr. Woodstock left the hospital. At the first public-house he reached he entered and drank a glass of whisky. The barman had forgotten the piece of lemon, and was rewarded with an oath considerably stronger than the occasion seemed to warrant. Arrived at certain cross-ways, Mr. Woodstock paused. His eyes were turned downwards; he did not seem dubious of his way, so much as in hesitation as to a choice of directions. He took a few steps hither, then back; began to wend thither, and again turned. When he at length decided, his road brought him to Milton Street, and up to the door on which stood the name of Mrs. Ledward.
He knocked loudly, and the landlady herself opened.
"A Mrs. Starr lived here, I believe?" he asked.
"She does live here, sir, but she's in the orspital at present, I'm sorry to say."
"Is her child at home?"
"She is, sir."
"Let me see her, will you? In some room, if you please."
Mrs. Ledward's squinting eyes took shrewd stock of this gentleman, and, with much politeness, she showed him into her own parlour. Then she summoned Ida from upstairs, and, the door being closed upon the two, she held her ear as closely as possible to the keyhole.
Ida recognised her visitor with a start, and drew back a little. There were both fear and dislike in her face, fear perhaps predominating.
"You remember coming to see me," said Mr. Woodstock, looking down upon the child, and a trifle askance.
"Yes, sir," was Ida's reply.
"I have just been at the hospital. Your mother is dead."
His voice gave way a little between the first and the last letter of the last word. Perhaps the sound was more to his ear than the thought had been to his mind. Perhaps, also, he felt when it was too late that he ought to have made this announcement with something more of preparation. Ida's eyes were fixed upon his face, and seemed expanding as they gazed; her lips had parted; she was the image of sudden dread. He tried to look away from her, but somehow could not. Then two great tears dropped upon her cheeks, and her mouth began to quiver. She put her hands up to her face, and sobbed as a grown woman might have done.
Mr. Woodstock turned away for a minute, and fingered a china ornament on the mantelpiece. He heard the sobs forcibly checked, and, when there was silence, again faced his grandchild.
"You'll be left all alone now, you see," he said, his voice less hard. "I was a friend of your mother's, and I'll do what I can for you. You'd better come with me to my house."
Ida looked at him in surprise, tempered with indignation.
"If you were a friend of mother's," she said, "why did you want to take me away from her and never let her see me again?"
"Well, you've nothing to do with that," said Abraham roughly. "Go and put your things on, and come with me."
"No," replied Ida firmly. "I don't want to go with you."
"What you want has nothing to do with it. You will do as I tell you."
Abraham felt strangely in this interview. It was as though time were repeating itself, and he was once more at issue with his daughter's childish wilfulness.
Ida did not move.
"Why won't you come?" asked Mr. Woodstock sharply.
"I don't want to," was Ida's answer.
"Look here, then," said the other, after a brief consideration. "You have the choice, and you're old enough to see what it means. You can either come with me and be well cared for, or stay here and shift as best you can; now, be sharp and make up your mind."
"I don't wish to go with you, I'll stay here and do my best."
Mr. Woodstock whistled a bar of an air, stepped from the room, and thence out into the streets.
It was not his intention really to go at once. Irritation had made it impossible for him to speak longer with the child; he would walk the length of the street and return to give her one more chance. Distracted in purpose as he had never been in his life before, he reached Marylebone Road; rain was just beginning to fall, and he had no umbrella with him. He stood and looked back. Ida once out of his sight, that impatient tenderness which her face inspired failed before the recollection of her stubbornness. She had matched her will with his, as bad an omen as well could be. What was the child to him, or he to her? He did not feel capable of trying to make her like him; what good in renewing the old conflicts and upsetting the position of freedom he had attained? Doubtless she inherited a fatal disposition. In his mind lurked the foreknowledge that he might come to be fond of this little outcast, but Woodstock was incapable as yet of understanding that love must and will be its own reward. The rain fell heavier, and at this moment an omnibus came up. He hailed it, saying to himself that he would think the matter over and come back on the morrow. The first part of his purpose he fulfilled; but to Milton Street he never returned.
As soon as he had left the house, Mrs. Ledward bounced into the room where Ida stood.
"You little idjot!" she exclaimed. "What do you mean by refusing a offer like that!--Why, the gentleman's your own father."
"My father!" repeated Ida, in scornful astonishment. "My father died when I was a baby. Mother's told me so often."
"If you believe all your mother told you,--Well, well, you have been a little wooden-head. What made you behave like that to him?-- Where does he live, eh?"
"I don't know."
"You do know. Why, I heard him say you'd been to see him. And what are you going to do, I'd like to know? You dont expect me to keep you, I s'pose. Tell me at once where the gentleman lives, and let me take you there. The idea of your turning against your own father!"
"He's not my father!" cried Ida passionately. "My father is dead; and now mother's dead, and I'm alone." She turned and went from the room, weeping bitterly.