Chapter LXXVI

The winter had been a trying one. Ernest had only paid his way by selling his piano. With this he seemed to cut away the last link that connected him with his earlier life, and to sink once for all into the small shop-keeper. It seemed to him that however low he might sink his pain could not last much longer, for he should simply die if it did.

He hated Ellen now, and the pair lived in open want of harmony with each other. If it had not been for his children, he would have left her and gone to America, but he could not leave the children with Ellen, and as for taking them with him he did not know how to do it, nor what to do with them when he had got them to America. If he had not lost energy he would probably in the end have taken the children and gone off, but his nerve was shaken, so day after day went by and nothing was done.

He had only got a few shillings in the world now, except the value of his stock, which was very little; he could get perhaps 3 pounds or 4 pounds by selling his music and what few pictures and pieces of furniture still belonged to him. He thought of trying to live by his pen, but his writing had dropped off long ago; he no longer had an idea in his head. Look which way he would he saw no hope; the end, if it had not actually come, was within easy distance and he was almost face to face with actual want. When he saw people going about poorly clad, or even without shoes and stockings, he wondered whether within a few months' time he too should not have to go about in this way. The remorseless, resistless hand of fate had caught him in its grip and was dragging him down, down, down. Still he staggered on, going his daily rounds, buying second-hand clothes, and spending his evenings in cleaning and mending them.

One morning, as he was returning from a house at the West End where he had bought some clothes from one of the servants, he was struck by a small crowd which had gathered round a space that had been railed off on the grass near one of the paths in the Green Park.

It was a lovely soft spring morning at the end of March, and unusually balmy for the time of year; even Ernest's melancholy was relieved for a while by the look of spring that pervaded earth and sky; but it soon returned, and smiling sadly he said to himself: "It may bring hope to others, but for me there can be no hope henceforth."

As these words were in his mind he joined the small crowd who were gathered round the railings, and saw that they were looking at three sheep with very small lambs only a day or two old, which had been penned off for shelter and protection from the others that ranged the park.

They were very pretty, and Londoners so seldom get a chance of seeing lambs that it was no wonder every one stopped to look at them. Ernest observed that no one seemed fonder of them than a great lubberly butcher boy, who leaned up against the railings with a tray of meat upon his shoulder. He was looking at this boy and smiling at the grotesqueness of his admiration, when he became aware that he was being watched intently by a man in coachman's livery, who had also stopped to admire the lambs, and was leaning against the opposite side of the enclosure. Ernest knew him in a moment as John, his father's old coachman at Battersby, and went up to him at once.

"Why, Master Ernest," said he, with his strong northern accent, "I was thinking of you only this very morning," and the pair shook hands heartily. John was in an excellent place at the West End. He had done very well, he said, ever since he had left Battersby, except for the first year or two, and that, he said, with a screw of the face, had well nigh broke him.

Ernest asked how this was.

"Why, you see," said John, "I was always main fond of that lass Ellen, whom you remember running after, Master Ernest, and giving your watch to. I expect you haven't forgotten that day, have you?" And here he laughed. "I don't know as I be the father of the child she carried away with her from Battersby, but I very easily may have been. Anyhow, after I had left your papa's place a few days I wrote to Ellen to an address we had agreed upon, and told her I would do what I ought to do, and so I did, for I married her within a month afterwards. Why, Lord love the man, whatever is the matter with him?"--for as he had spoken the last few words of his story Ernest had turned white as a sheet, and was leaning against the railings.

"John," said my hero, gasping for breath, "are you sure of what you say--are you quite sure you really married her?"

"Of course I am," said John, "I married her before the registrar at Letchbury on the 15th of August 1851.

"Give me your arm," said Ernest, "and take me into Piccadilly, and put me into a cab, and come with me at once, if you can spare time, to Mr Overton's at the Temple."