A Rolling Stone Vol. II
Then a little child came by that way,
Bounding along in its happy play.
As I felt the grasp of its tiny hand,
It thrilled me through with a new command.
Three are good people who would shrink from the slightest falsehood implied or spoken to men and women, and yet think it no evil to deceive a little child. Whether it were better to tell the bitter truth at once, or, from day to day, soothe the passionate longings and eager questionings of her motherless charge with promises and hopes never to be fulfilled, Mrs. Sherlock never considered. Her wish was to act in the manner most comfortable to herself, and to manage that Harry should not cry oftener nor louder than was agreeable to the household. Every day the hope was held out to him that to-morrow mother would come. To-morrow surely came; but not the lost face, the vanished presence. That never came again, save in ecstatic dreams, which were fainter and more infrequent as he grew older.
He was a thoughtful child, and quicker of perception than is usual at his age. It was not long before Mrs. Sherlock shamed him out of crying for page 2 his mother. Pride and fear of ridicule helped him, young as he was, to keep back or hide his teas. Only when he was alone, in the darkness of the night, would he indulge his grief. And this before his mother had lain a week in her grave!
However, there was one who stood to him in her place and filled it as well as any one but the real person could have done. It was Rosa now who told him stories and sang him to sleep at night, who dressed him and gave him his meals, and was never weary of him nor impatient. To his mind Rosa was his mother vicegerent, and had been commissioned by her to watch over him. Mrs. Sherlock he despised as an inferior person, who could not understand him nor feel for his needs. But Rosa was his comfort. Together they explored the garden, where he collected old snailshells, pebbles, and bits of broken crockery for curiosities. The kitchen-yard he thought delightful, for there he could do very much as he liked; build little houses, with half bricks and chips; dig miniature wells, or make great excavations in the cinder heap. It was a capital place for fun with the dog and cat, and also for soiling a clean pinafore in the shortest space of time.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sherlock, Mr. Wishart, the doctor, and one or two others did their best to find out his relatives, and after all was done that seemed possible, had to acknowledge themselves defeated. In spite of Mr. Wishart's confident assertion that one could hardly be lost or lose oneself in this page 3 narrowed world, he had to submit to the fact, that a mother and her child had effectually lost themselves. Mrs. Sherlock wondered audibly what was to become of the child and looked at Mr. Wishart as if he ought to tell her. That gentleman spent time and money in vain in quest of Harry's lawful protectors. Passenger lists of the steamers showed no one who could be identified with his mother. The agents could give no information; the captain and officers, when questioned, protested their inability to recollect any one exactly answering the description of this lady and her child. They could not be expected to single out particular persons from the crowd of passengers who went to and fro with them, many of whom they hardly noticed during the short time they were on board, and perhaps never distinguished by name, and whose names, when they were known, would be forgotten in a day or two. Besides, it was impossible to discover which steamer the lady had travelled by. She might not have come direct from Melbourne; that she had been there very lately was only a guess. So, in making these inquiries, Mr. Wishart and his friends felt as if they were groping in the dark.
They could not tell to what country she belonged. They could not tell whence she had come—from some other part of New Zealand, or from Australia. They could not tell whether she had other relatives besides the husband whom she had spoken of. The portrait she had shown to Mrs. Sherlock told them page 4 nothing. It was that of a very young man—a boy he might be called, though his face was a graver, more thoughtful one than usually belongs to a boy. If he were living, it was not likely any one would recognise him from that portrait. It was dim and faded, an old likeness evidently, which must have been taken years ago.
The Melbourne doctor was written to, and although this chance had seemed more promising than any other, here also, by a strange fatality, their hopes were baffled. He was dead, of the same disease which had taken away his patient. They could not trace her. No response came to their advertisements; no advertisement appeared which could be interpreted as an inquiry into her fate. As it may often be in other painstaking researches, their endeavours only served to acquaint them with their own ignorance.
An idea presented itself to Mr. Wishart. It seemed such a simple thing that every one wondered how it was he or she had not thought of it. They would question the child.
‘Such a quick child can't have forgotten all he has heard and seen, even in his short life,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘We'll try him; we may learn something. Harry, come here.’
Harry threw down an ill-used wooden horse, and ran up to Mr. Wishart, with whom he was now on very familiar terms.
‘I want you to try and remember, Harry. I can remember when I was a little fellow, smaller page 5 than you are. I wonder how much you can tell me about yourself.’
Harry looked interested. ‘I remember going with mamma and Lizzie on the sands,’ he said.
‘Lizzie? Who was Lizzie?’
‘Lizzie was nurse, of course,’ said Harry. ‘She left because we had to go away, when papa was so angry.’
Mrs. Sherlock looked at Mr. Wishart. ‘That's the first time he's mentioned his father; just encourage him, and we shall hear more.’
‘Mamma used to say,’ said Harry, severely eyeing Mrs. Sherlock, ‘that it was rude to whisper away like that. I wouldn't do it. I always speak up loud, because I don't say things about people I'm afraid of them hearing.’
‘Hoity toity, little wisdom!’ laughed Mrs. Sherlock.
Harry coloured very much, and disdainfully turned away from her.
‘Come, Mrs. Sherlock, you spoil our game. You go on, Harry, and after you've told me ever so much, I'll tell you a long story about what I did when I was a boy.’
‘That was a very long time ago, wasn't it?’ said Harry.
‘Why, yes,’ said Mr. Wishart, laughing. ‘This boy pokes fun at us, Mrs. Sherlock. Your papa wasn't angry with you, Harry, was he? You said he was angry, you know.’page 6
‘No, not with me.’
‘Who then?’ said Mrs. Sherlock.
Harry looked at her distrustfully. If Mrs. Sherlock wanted to know anything the determined at once she should not know it. ‘Nobody,’ he said, pursing up his little mouth with a comical affectation of determined will.
‘I think it wasn't with his little boy at any rate,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘Wouldn't you like to see your papa again, Harry?’
‘No!’ the child answered, in so firm and full-toned a voice that both interrogators stared at him in surprise. His eyes looked boldly into theirs, and his face, had a serious, most unchildlike expression. Most certainly he meant what he said.
‘That's bad,’ said Mr. Wishart, feeling that this was no ordinary child he had to deal with. ‘I am sure he misses you very much.’
‘He used to make mamma cry,’ said Harry, looking a little ashamed, for he perceived that his declaration had shocked the others.
‘Perhaps she cried because she was going away,’ hazarded Mr. Wishart.
‘No. Mamma wanted to go, and she wanted me. Papa said no; we oughtn't to go, and then he was angry.’
‘And you left him at home,’ said Mr. Wishart, continuing to draw him on. ‘Was it a pretty place?’
‘Oh, so beautiful!’ The boy's face was actually page 7 illumined. ‘Mamma always let me be in her room. It was ever so much bigger than this one, and full of pretty things, and I played with them. And out of the windows you could see ever so many streets, and a great many people.’
‘Hum—a town house,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘What did your father do all day, Harry?’
‘Papa was away all day,’ said Harry.
‘Business,’ concluded Mr. Wishart. ‘So your father went to work for you, I expect, just as mine did long ago. Now, my father's name was the same as mine. What did they call yours?’
‘Mamma called him Harold.’
‘But what did other people call him?’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘Every one wouldn't call him Harold.’
‘Yes, broke in Mrs. Sherlock, too impatient to be satisfied with Mr. Wishart's slow process of extracting information. ‘What did gentlemen and ladies say, when they spoke to your papa? Mr. So-and-So—they would say—what was it?’
‘They didn't say such a silly thing,’ answered Harry, indignantly. ‘No one said that.’
‘He doesn't understand you,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘But, Harry, you know your mamma's name?’
‘Mamma's name ‘was Emily,’ readily answered the boy.
‘But your mamma's friends wouldn't call her that,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘They would speak of her by some other name.’
‘Lizzie called her ma'am,’ said Harry, ‘and one page 8 ugly old lady would always call her “dear,” though mamma never spoke to her like that.’
‘He's a little simpleton,’ Mrs. Sherlock ventured to whisper.
‘He is nothing of the kind,’ said Mr. Wishart, looking into the face of the child with a curious and thoughtful gaze. ‘I am sure,’ he thought to himself, ‘that he's more than four years old’ (in which the gentleman was mistaken), ‘and I don't believe that such a sharp boy could help taking notice of his father's name, or have forgotten it so soon. Surely he can't be deceiving us. This age produces some frightfully precocious children, but one can hardly imagine such a youngster as this craftily playing a part, and feigning the innocency of babes when he's hardly left babyhood behind him. Harry,’ he continued, ‘think a little. Try to remember another name for your father and mother. Don't you know people always have two names?’
‘No,’ said the boy decidedly. ‘I've only one. This isn't a game,’ he added petulantly; ‘I don't like it.’ He pulled his hand away from Mr. Wishart's, and pattered away down the passage and on to the verandah, admiringly looking down on his bright shoe buckles as they flashed in and out as he ran.
He sat down on the edge of the verandah and took off his shoes, a thing which he did about ten times a day. And then, while this singular child was seemingly absorbed in the contemplation of page 9 these same little shoes and their resplendent buckles, he was softly saying to himself, ‘I know, I know, but I won't tell.’
Mr. Wishart, though baffled this once, was not discouraged. He questioned Harry carefully again and again, without learning anything new. In the end he became fully persuaded that the child was the soul of truthfulness and candour, of too frank and unreserved a nature to be able to keep back a hidden thought. His sounding line was just a little too short. He forgot that your frank and open people can keep secrets very well on occasion, simply because others will not believe in the existence of such property. And Harry kept his. By and by he had no need to be careful over it; it had gone from his own grasp.
But there were things he never forgot. He never forgot how his father and mother had parted from each other. As even then he had taken his mother's side, so ever afterwards he retained the impression that she had suffered, and had been injured. He never lost a dim recollection of her as a beautiful and unhappy woman, full of all love and tenderness for him. The mind picture he preserved of his father, though not so fondly treasured, was more clear and distinct than this. A grave and serious man, cold in manner, and with a voice that sounded harsh, even when his words were not so. He remembered his face: old-looking, worn, and colourless; he remembered how he had disliked the glance page 10 of his keen bright eyes, and how he had been afraid to play, or laugh and chatter noisily in his presence. All this had come into his mind when Mr. Wishart had questioned him. If they knew who his father was, would they not send him back to a house which would be a prison now his mother was not with him?
His father had not deserved to be thus remembered. Both wife and child had been very dear to him. There are those who can never put their happier thoughts into words; who can never show their better nature to another. They can endure no close intimacy; they form no warm friendships. Yet, who knows?—are they not always mutely stretching out their hands, with yearnings inexpressible, towards the very ones whom they offend by their cold reserve? No one knows, and they can never tell how it is with them. These are the people who really are misjudged and misunderstood; not the poor wailing creatures who are for ever complaining that their talent is unrecognised, that their work is not prized, and their good qualities are not seen. They are always turning their little natures inside out; the others live quietly amongst us, bear their trials, and make no sign. They may not have the pity which is their due; for no one guesses that they need it; and yet pitiable enough is the case of one who cannot even win the love of a little child.
It became necessary that some one should decide page 11 what was to be done with Harry. Children who belong to nobody in particular are at least the property of the State. Mr. Wishart knew that a wise and parentally inclined Government had made some provision for orphans and destitute children. But he knew also what these orphans of the State were, and from what class they were recruited. This child could not be sent amongst them. He resolved to take him to his own home, and told Mrs. Sherlock so.
‘Well, sir, you are kind,’ said she. ‘Very few gentlemen would have taken the trouble you've put yourself to. I must say you've raised a load from my mind.’
‘How's that?’ asked Mr. Wishart.
‘You know my husband, and what romancing views he takes of things. He's dreadfully unpractical, Sherlock is. Now it's not every one who can afford to be romantic.’
‘I should have thought one state of mind was as cheap as another.’
‘Not unless you keep your ideas in your mind and never put them into practice. When you take a fancy to do a thing, Mr. Wishart, you don't stop to count the cost. You can indulge all your fancies; you can adopt a dozen boys if you like, and bring them up.’
‘A dozen! Mrs. Sherlock, I am not prepared to go that length. I hardly consider that I'm adopting this boy. I hope—indeed I'm almost certain, that page 12 his father is looking for him, and will come for him, sooner or later.’
‘It comes to much the same thing,’ said Mrs. Sherlock. ‘I've been afraid Sherlock would adopt him. I'm morally certain he would have done so if you hadn't spoken first. You see, sir, it's a remarkable thing to happen in one's house: so affecting and pathetic; just like a piece of a novel; and Sherlock reads heaps of novels, wasting precious time and eyesight over them, and he likes to imitate the queer, crack-brained people described in them. Now, you know, sir, if this was written down in a novel, they'd make Sherlock and me adopt this child. But I've brought up eight—four of them boys—and each one more trouble than the last, and I call upon you to say whether I've not done my share.’
‘Most certainly you have,’ said Mr. Wishart, laughing.
‘I don't care if I am thought hard-hearted. I say I'll be bothered no more with young children. There's a sentimental way of looking at these things, and there's a sensible one. He's a sweet child when he's not in his tantrums; but. I don't want to start again and bring him up, for he's not much more than a baby. No, thank goodness! I've done with nursing, with walking about half the night with crying fits, measles, whooping cough, and all the rest of it.’
‘Mrs. Sherlock,’ said Mr. Wishart, as seriously as he could, ‘depend upon it I should be the last person to overwhelm you again with such page 13 responsibilities. Harry goes home with me tonight.’
Mrs. Sherlock packed up Harry's clothes and toys. In the last-named property he was rich, and had become much richer since his acquaintance with Mr. Wishart. When it was time to go, Rosa carried him to the gate and lifted him into the cab. She was sorry to lose her little friend. Mrs. Sherlock was not sorry; Harry had given her sufficient proof of a quick temper. Sherlock made some remarks, borrowed from his last novel, on the poetry and romance which still lingered in the world notwithstanding its age. Mr. Borage rushed out at the last moment, almost killing the cat, which got in his way, and hastily presented a packet, containing about two pounds of jujubes, as refreshment for Harry upon his journey—a most injudicious present, which Mrs. Sherlock attempted to confiscate. Then the cab rolled away, and hurried the orphan and his guardian out of sight.
They had a long drive before them. At sunset they were climbing the last hill, with their faces towards the rosy western sky. When they passed Mr. Bailey's he himself was at the gate to greet Mr. Wishart with a ‘beautiful evening, this evening, sir,’ and all the young Baileys were running wild outside, making the most of a short twilight. The boys were shouting and cracking whips; the girls, with torn frocks and tangled hair, were chasing each other round the house. One could see from a distance page 14 how red their cheeks were, and how they were growing out of their clothes at a rate that was the despair of their mother. The kitchen door was open; it was seldom closed by day, and never locked by night; for ‘the poor may sleep with open gate.’ And such a splendid wood fire blazed on the open hearth, where Mrs. Bailey was boiling a kettle, with about enough fuel to get up steam for a fair-sized engine. The red glow from door and window made Harry and Mr. Wishart realise how cold they were. Mr. Wishart swathed Harry in a carriage rug till he looked like a soft furry ball. He fell asleep very soon. When he opened his eyes again he was being carried into a large room, brilliantly lighted and full of pleasant warmth. Hardly awake, he was conscious of a figure, gliding, as it seemed, rather than walking towards him—a lady who was very tall and graceful, whose pale brown hair was golden in the lamplight, and who had a soft delicate colour in her face, and beautiful shining eyes. She looked at him as no one had looked since his mother had gone, and, half dreaming, half waking, he stretched out his arms to her, and murmured, ‘Mamma.’
‘Yes, poor child,’ she said. ‘I'll be your mamma now; you shall belong to me.’
‘You are taking plenty of responsibility on yourself, Maud,’ said another lady short, plump, and lazy-looking, with hair, eyes, and complexion all of the lightest shade.page 15
‘What are we worth if we cannot endure a few responsibilities?’ said Maud.
The other lady was Mr. Wishart's widowed sister, Mrs. Meade. She had come to live with him because she had complained of her loneliness until he had been compelled to invite her. She had been glad enough to rid herself of the cares of housekeeping by joining him. The cares of her family, which consisted of two sons, had been dispensed with some time before. Her son's were disposed of for life: one an apprentice in the merchant service, the other a midshipman in the navy. Mrs. Meade was only in middle life, but she had already abandoned herself to the ease and retirement proper to old age. She almost lived in an easy-chair. Only one thing she persevered in—the incessant study of light literature; and only one work employed her hands—the fabrication of a set of drawing-room curtains which, if they ever were finished, would be a marvel of fine art needlework.
They went into the dining-room, Harry walking between the two ladies, and holding a hand of each. Mrs. Meade noticed him kindly now and then; but he had already chosen. Maud as his favourite, and to her he always looked and listened. Every one waited on him, and indulged him to the utmost. Mr. Wishart would have endangered his health by feeding him exclusively on cream cake and jelly had not Mrs. Meade prudently interfered. Maud talked nonsense to him all the time, and allowed him to page 16 play with the jewelled charms on her watch-chain, and to slip her bracelets over his chubby brown hands. Afterwards, when they were in the drawing-room again, and she was at the piano, playing soft and dreamy music, he crept to her side to listen, and watched the quick movements of her fingers. She sang, and he came still nearer, and laid his hands on her knee, looking up into her face in a strange solemn manner.
‘What is it?’ she said, stopping to smile at him. ‘Do you like music?’
‘You poor little darling!’ said Mrs. Meade, so moved that she felt obliged to fatigue herself by leaving her chair and her novel and going to Harry to affectionately embrace him. Harry, who did not quite understand such a sudden outburst of affection, submitted to it patiently, though it was not pleasant to have the ends of a lace cravat dangled into his eyes.
‘He looks sleepy,’ said Maud. ‘I suppose he ought to go to bed.’
‘One would naturally suppose so,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘Madame, my sister, at what hour do little boys of three or four go to bed? You must tell us these things. Maud and I know nothing of any but grown-up children.’
‘They ought not to sit up much later than seven,’ said Mrs. Meade, with authority.
‘And, woe worth the hour! it is nine,’ said Mr. page 17 Wishart. ‘One of the most important rules infringed already! Harry, wouldn't you like to go to bed?’
‘No,’ answered that person. ‘I won't.’
‘Oh!’ said Mr. Wishart, and they all laughed; Harry wondered why.
But a few minutes afterwards his eyelids felt so heavy that do what he would they dropped lower and lower, and presently the long eyelashes rested on his check, and his head lay on Maud's shoulder. He was carried upstairs to a cosy, white, little, bed, which had been made ready for him in a room which henceforth was to be known as ‘Harry's room.’ They laid him down there, without waking him, and he slept the deep delightful sleep of tired-out childhood. Towards morning dreams came, in which he sat again with his new friends at the table, and Maud was beside him but instead of quiet placid Mrs. Meade, his mother, happier-looking, more beautiful than ever, was on the other hand. And he felt that this—this was true, and that he had only lost her and wept for her in some dream that was past. But he woke to the sunshine of another day, and to a world that mocks our dreams.