Grif: A Story of Colonial Life
Chapter VIII. Poor Milly
Chapter VIII. Poor Milly.
A hot, scorching day. The winds, having travelled over hundreds of miles of arid plain and smoking bush, floated into Melbourne, laden with blazing heat. The sky glared down whitely, and the blinding sun scorched up moisture and vegetation with its eye of fire. The very clouds were white with heat, and to look up at them made one dizzy. In the city, mankind panted with thirst and fatigue, and, regardless of consequences, revelled, inordinately and greedily, in ices and cool drinks. Womankind retreated to cellars and shady nooks, and divesting itself of superfluous attire, indulged, gratefully, in water melons; and mankind, coming home wearied and parched, joined womankind in her retreat, and lay at her feet, tamely. Dogkind panted, and lolled out its tongue, distressfully: but though it wandered in despair through the streets, it found no relieving moisture in kennel or gutter; and being, by its constitution and laws, debarred from the luxury of ices and cool drinks, it endured agonies of silent suffering. Clerks fell asleep over their ledgers, and storekeepers grew dozy behind their desks. At the seaside the very waves were too wearied to roll, and lay, supine, beneath the dreadful glare of the sun. The beaches were deserted: not even a crab was to be seen. In the country, the bush smoked and blazed, and wretched oxen strained at their chains, and did their page 85 half-a-mile an hour in dire distress. With suffering noses almost touching the ground, they smelt in vain along the earth for liquid life. The drivers, with their cabbage-tree hats slouched over their eyes, were too lazy to crack their whips, and too fatigued to swear loudly at their cattle; but, determined not to be cheated of their privilege, they growled and cursed in voices almost inaudible. The leafless trees smoked beneath the glare of the sun, and stretched their bare branches to the sky as if for pity, but got none. On the goldfields, diggers stripped to their shirts, and were glad to plunge into cool drives and to hide themselves, with bottles of lager beer or billies of cold tea by their side; those who could find no such shelter threw themselves upon their stretchers, and longed eagerly for the night. Everywhere, business, except where bare-armed men or muslin-clad barmaids served long drinks to thirsty souls, was at a standstill. Merchants were too lazy to haggle. Percentages were forgotten, and invoices disregarded. Even Zachariah Blemish dressed in white linen from the top of his head to the sole of his foot, and looking, with his rubicund face, like a white and pink saint, ready and fit to fly heavenward, lolled idly in his sanctum, and refreshed himself with hock and seltzer water. The conjugal Nuttalls were in the deepest misery. The head of the family, Nicholas Nuttall, was in his dressing room, pouring jugsful of cold water over his head, as if he was afraid of its taking fire; and, directing his eyes to the bed, beheld thereupon the partner of his bosom, whose face was puffed up with mosquito bites, and who, glaring reproachfully at her husband, said as plainly as eloquent page 86 looks could speak, Fiend! behold your handiwork Walls and pavement were smoking; and all nature excepting the flies and the fishes, was in a state of misery. The blazing wind was comparable to nothing but the blast from a fiercely-heated furnace, and high and low succumbed to its power.
High and low! Aye, even down to Old Flick, who, in the back-room of his All Sorts Store, in Old Flick's Thoroughfare, gasped, and growled, and cursed, as he drank his rum and water. Old Flick was attired in shirt, trousers, and slippers. Nothing more. His shirt was open at the bosom, thereby displaying a sinewy chest, covered with dirty grey hair; and was tucked up to the shoulders, shewing his lean and bony arms. He was not a pleasant object to look upon, with his straggling hair, and his blotched face, and his bloodshot, bleary eyes. One might have wondered, while looking upon him, Was this man ever a child, and was he ever blessed with a mother's love? One might have so wondered, and, doubting, might have been pardoned for the doubt. For, indeed, he looked terribly sinful and depraved: a very blot upon humanity. Sitting, and drinking, and growling, he became conscious of a shadow before him, and looking up, and seeing the girl Milly, who had just entered the door, he made a motion as if he would like to spring upon her. She, too, was not pleasant to look upon; for she also had been drinking, and her eyes were bloodshot. Her hair was hanging loosely about her face, and she had a reckless and defiant manner which almost unwomanised her.
“What do you want?” growled Old Flick.page 87
“I want money, you old sinner,” cried Milly, with a kind of drunken scream.
“You're a pretty article to want money,” said Old Flick, with a sneer. “Go and earn it.”
“Don't say that again, Flick,” said the girl, with a threatening look, “or I'll tear your liver out. Oh, I don't care for your looks! What do you think I've got in me to-day?”
“I don't know, and I don't care,” he replied.
“I've got the devil in me,” she cried; “mind how you let it loose. Where's that letter you got from Jim?”
“I've burnt it.”
“You're a liar!” she screamed. “You're a liar, a liar, a liar!”
“You're drunk, you hag?” he exclaimed, in a voice thick with passion. “If you don't go away, I'll set the police on you.”
“Do!” she replied, laughing scornfully. “And I'll tell them who you are in league with. Who do you think they will believe? You or me? You'll set the peelers on me, will you? You worn-out parcel of bones, it's more than your soul's worth—though that's not worth much. I'll tell them that you are in league with two of the cursedest scoundrels in the colony. And I'll prove it too. You shall go out of here into quod, and out of quod into hell, old Flick! You'll set the peelers on me, will you? Shall I call 'em in?” and she moved towards the door.
He threw one of his evil looks upon her, and, in his shaking voice, told her to stay where she was.page 88
“Give me some drink,” exclaimed Milly, taking the bottle as she spoke, and drinking from it. “Do you know what I am going to do, Flick?” she asked, her mood suddenly changing. “I'm going to kill myself with drink.”
“All the better,” he growled.
“Right you are!” she returned, recklessly. “I'm tired of my life. It's time I was dead. Look here, Flick; if you don't tell me where Jim is, I'll set the place about your ears.”
“I don't know,” he whined; “how should I know?
What's the use of asking me where he is? I know nothing about him.”
“You grey-headed old rip, ain't you afraid that your lies will choke you? Ain't you afraid of dying? What an old sinner you are! Do you ever think of the worms creeping over your ugly carcase, and gloating over you when you are in your grave? Do you ever think of the cold slimy earth falling on your face through the coffin, and sucking all the hope out of you, even after you are dead? Ain't you afraid when you think of it? I am! I am!” she exclaimed, with a shuddering shriek; “or I should have killed myself long ago.”
The drunken old man's face twitched with terror as she spoke these dreadful words, and he whined piteously, “Don't, Milly, there's a good girl. Talk of something pleasant.”
“If I wasn't afraid of that,” she continued, “I should have been out of it long before now. I bought some poison one day, and was very near taking it. But I got such a fit of shaking all at once, that I threw it on the page 89 floor; and stamped on it, and ran away, mad with fright. Did you ever try to take poison, Flick? Pour it in a glass, and look at it for a moment, and you see a lot of devils glaring at you and clutching at you, and you feel a lot of creeping things dancing in your brain, and stirring in your hair, and tingling at your fingers' ends!”
Old Flick shook with fear now, and not with ague. “Don't talk like that Milly,” he cried again, looking fearsomely about him; “do talk of something pleasant.”
“Something pleasant!” Milly exclaimed. “What have I got pleasant to talk about, you miserable old fool? I wish the sun would burst through the ceiling, and strike me dead;” and she threw her hair from her face, and looked up wildly. “Do you know, Flick, I think something is going to happen to me? My head is whirling about strangely. I've got an old father and mother at home, and I've been thinking of them at odd times, all the day. Father is an old man—a basketmaker—and I can see him as plainly as I see you, sitting down in our little room, weaving the canes, and thinking of me. Yes, I can see him thinking of me. He used to stroke my hair and my face, and call me his pretty Milly. And what do you think he is doing now, Flick? He is looking at me, and crying, and I am lying dead in a basket cradle, with flowers all about me. But he never looked after me; he used to let me do as I liked.”
“Why don't you go home to him?” growled Old Flick?”
“Home!” she exclaimed. “Home! As I am! What would they say of me, I wonder? No; thank page 90 God, they think me dead. But there! I don't want to think of them, and they still keep coming up;” and she passed her hands over her face, confusedly.
“What's the matter, Milly?” Old Flick said, soothingly. “What's made you like this?”
“Drink I” she cried. “Drink and thought. And the more I think, the more my head is filled with awful fancies. Why did Jim go away from me? What right had he to leave me alone by myself? When I was like this he used to beat me, and it did me good;” and here she began to cry. But, seeing that Flick was about to speak, she said, “Stop a minute. I haven't done yet. I must work myself out first, and then I shall be all right. How long is it since you were a boy, Flick?”
“I don't remember,” he muttered.
“That's what I don't want to do, Flick; but I can't help it. It isn't so long ago since I was a little girl, and I can't help remembering. Oh, if I could forget I if I could forget!” And throwing herself upon the ground, she sighed, and trembled, and sobbed; and then, as if angry with herself, she bit her white lips, and tried to suppress her passion.
“Now then, you are more quiet,” said Old Flick, after a little while. “Get up, Milly, like a good girl, and go home.”
“I'm not a good girl; I'm a bad woman; and,” she said, folding her arms resolutely, “I'm not going to stir until you give me what I want, and tell me what I want to know.”
“I've got no money, Milly,” whined Old Flick, “and I can't tell you anything you don't know.”page 91
“Didn't Jim say, before he left, that you were to give me money when I wanted it?”
“Yes, but he hasn't sent me any, and I've no more to give.”
“What was in that letter Jim sent you? Don't deny that you got one, Flick, for I saw the man bring it to you. What was in it I?”
“There was nothing in it, Milly, upon my—my honor, and I burnt it.”
“All right,” Milly said, quietly, rising. “I suppose there was nothing in it, as you say, for you never tell a lie; and I suppose you burnt it, for you never tell a lie; and I suppose you haven't got any money, for you never tell a lie. That's right, ain't it?”
“Yes, that's right,” he exclaimed, sulkily.
“And can you tell me,” said Milly, “what's to become of Jim's baby—for it is Jim's, you know. How am I to keep it?”
“How do I know what's to become of it?” asked Old Flick, in return.
“I think I'll go and kill it,” Milly said, composedly.
“Milly!” cried Old Flick, catching her arm.
“Let me go. You don't think I meant it, do you? I haven't come to that yet. No, I won't kill it. I'll do something better;” and without another word, Milly walked away.
“A good job she's gone,” muttered Old Flick. “I must tell Jim about her. She's getting mischievous. What a turn she gave me when she talked about killing the baby! I am glad she's gone;” and here, in self-congratulation, Old Flick drank some more rum and water, page 92 and, raising his eyes, exclaimed—” The devil take the cat! here she is again!”
And there she was again, sure enough, with her baby in her arms.
“Now, then, Old Flick,” she said, “when Jim went away, he told me you would give me money as I wanted it, so long as I didn't ask for too much. I haven't asked for too much, have I? You precious old flint, you've taken good care of that. You've screwed me down so tight that I've been obliged to pawn every blessed thing I could lay hands on; and now I haven't a mag left, and I've got nothing more to pawn.”
“You've plenty of money to get drunk with, anyhow,” said Old Flick, with a growl.
“The drink was shouted to me. People 'll give me lush, but they won't give me bread. Can you tell me how I am to keep Jim's baby?”
“How do I know? I suppose you can get your own living.”
She gave him another threatening look, and then she asked—
“Are you going to give me some money?”
“I haven't got any.”
“Very well. Then, as I can't keep Jim's baby, and as you are in partnership with Jim, you'd better keep it yourself;” and she laid the baby on the table, where it sprawled contentedly amongst the bottles and-glasses.
“What do you mean?” demanded Old Flick, in considerable alarm.
“What do I mean? Just this—I'm going to leave the baby here. It'll be a nice companion for you, and page 93 you can bring it up your own way. What a blessed father you'll make!”
“Are you mad?” cried Old Flick, with a rueful look at the baby.”
“Not a bit of it. I've often thought what a pity it is you haven't got a lot of young Flicks of your own. Never mind. Here's one you can try your hand upon.”
“Take the brat away!” exclaimed Old Flick.
“Will you give me some money?”
“No,” he snarled.
“Then here's your baby,” Milly said; and taking the child from the table, she placed it dexterously in Old Flick's arms, and moved towards the door.
“Come back, you infernal jade,” roared Old Flick, looking disgustedly at his burden. “Come back, and I'll give you what you want.”
“How much, now?” asked Milly, with a drunken laugh, standing by the half-open door.
Old Flick fumbled in his pockets, and, with much difficulty, produced three half-crowns.
“Seven and six,” he said.
“Baby 'll cost you more than that the first week,” said Milly. “Then, how am I to live? 'Tain't half enough.”
“I shall be ruined,” cried Old Flick, tearing at his grey locks in a delirium of drunken despair; “you'll ruin me, you jade.”
“Say two pounds,” suggested Milly, regardless of his appeal; “and out with it quick, or I'm off. Now, then, before I count three. One”——
“Milly, dear, say a pound,” implored Old Flick.
“Thirty bob!” screamed Old Flick, in anguish.
“Three. I'm off.”
“Stop, stop!” roared Old Flick; “here's the money, and I wish you'd kill yourself with it.”
“And what did Jim say about me in the letter?” asked Milly, coming back.
“Say about you? Let me think.” And Old Flick, as he counted out a pound's worth of silver, pretended to consider deeply. “Not a word. Oh, yes, he did; he sent his love to you. You'll find that right, Milly.”
“All right,” said Milly, pocketing the money carelessly. “You know, Flick, if you'd like to keep the baby”——
“Take it away—take it away!” cried Old Flick, “and curse you, the pair of you,” he added, in an undertone, as Milly walked off with the child. “Phew! what with her, and what with the heat, I'm melting away. How cantankerous she was about that letter! She'd have gone mad if she'd seen it. I must burn it; it isn't safe to keep; but I must copy the address first. The devil take the sun—it's enough to scorch me to a cinder!”
As a counteractive, Old Flick applied himself industriously to his rum and water, which he swallowed with a running accompaniment of oaths and curses. Now, as too much rum and water will make a man drunk, and as Old Flick had drunk a great deal too much rum and water, and still continued drinking it, he soon got very drunk indeed—so drunk, that he began to cry, and to beat his breast, and to tear his hair, and to shake so, that the table trembled when he leant upon it.
“To scorch one to a cinder,” he mumbled, pursuing page 95 his previous remark. “Supposing it should come, and scorch me to a cinder. I'm a very old man—a very old man!” he whined, looking up piteously. “What did she mean by asking me if I had ever tried to take poison I What did she mean by the devils in the glass? Ugh! I can see them glaring at me!”—and Old Flick staggered to his feet in terror, and then dropped down in a drunken swoon.
It was late in the afternoon now, and people breathed more freely. A slight but refreshing breeze had set in from the sea, and the air grew cooler, much to the satisfaction of everybody, and to none more so than to Grif, whose sufferings during the day had caused him to fret exceedingly. Grif was not a fortunate lad. Fate seemed to be against him. He had not prospered as a moral shoeblack. He had attended some meetings of the Moral Bootblacking Boys' Reformatory, and had heard a great deal about morality; and, albeit he would have been considerably perplexed if he had been asked to define the meaning of the word, it could not but be presumed that he had been much edified by the moral essays and exhortations to which he had listened. And yet his mental condition, when he came away from these meetings, was one of perplexity. He could not see the connection between morality and a bellyful of food. “It's all wery well,” he would mutter, “for them coves who's got lots to eat and drink, to talk about morality; but wot good does it do me?” Then he would go home, and argue the matter with Alice. Alice was his good angel She kept him from crime. Ill as she could page 96 afford it, poor girl, she fed him often, although everyday her means grew less and less, and Hunger, with its white eyes and despairing face, crept nearer and nearer at every turn of the hour-glass. For her lot was hard to bear. She had received but two letters from her husband since his departure to the goldfields. They were both written in a very desponding mood—the last especially so. There are some men who cannot fight with the world—who cannot battle with misfortune. The first blow floors them, and they lie helpless, and make no effort to rise. There are others who, at every knock-down blow, jump up again, hurt but not killed, and who, to speak metaphorically, square up at misfortune with courage and vigor. Richard Handfield was one of the former, and, because he did not find a rich patch of gold at the bottom of the first hole he sunk, he whimpered at Fate, and did not care to try again. All Alice could glean from his letters was, that misfortune pursued him, and mocked at his efforts. In truth, the fault lay in himself. He was naturally indolent, and if he had known how to work, he would scarcely have cared to do so. There are thousands of men of this type in the world.
Alice often fed Grif, and, by her good influence, kept him honest. But Grif, although uncultured, had quick instincts and a noble heart, and he knew that Alice could ill afford to spare him what she did. Often, when he was hungry; often, when he had stood about all the day patiently, without earning a sixpence, he had refrained from going to her, and had gone, hungry, to sleep. At other times he would wait until he knew page 97 Alice had finished her poor meal, and then, in answer to her inquiry as to whether he had had his tea, would say that he had had a jolly good tuck-out, and would make his mouth water by particularising what he had eaten.
On this afternoon Grif was particularly miserable. He had suffered much during the day from the heat, and although he had had plenty of cold water to drink, it must be admitted that that was but poor satisfaction to a hungry boy. He would have gone to his pie-shop, but the old woman had been gathered to her foremothers, and the pie-shop had passed into other hands. Grif had stood behind his boot-stand all the day, broiling in the sun. No passer-by had been mad enough to stay blistering for a quarter of an hour in the heat, while his boots were being blackened. And, when evening came, it found Grif faint, and weary, and unhappy. The tears actually welled into his eyes as the sense of his forlorn condition came upon him. He could not stand it any longer.
“I won't go to Ally,” he muttered. “I'll die first. She stinted herself last night, and didn't 'ave enough to eat because I wos there. I know wot I'll do. I'll go to Old Flick's, and sell my stand and brushes. He'll give me a bob for 'em, I dessay. Ally won't like it wen she 'ears it, but I can't 'elp it; I'm dreadful 'ungry.”
Then the thought came upon him that he had no right to sell the stand and brushes. They were the property of the Reformatory.
“I don't care,” he said. “I've been moral long enough. It ain't a bit of good. I ain't agoin' to page 98 starve. If they find it out, they can put me in quod agin, that's all. I s'pose I am a bad lot, and I shall never be no good. How can I be good wen I 'aven't got nothin' to eat?”
Thus philosophising, Grif shouldered his stand, and wended his way towards Old Flick's Thoroughfare.
When Milly walked out of Old Flick's store, she walked out with the full determination of returning and possessing herself of the letter he had received from Jim Pizey, and which she was certain the old man had not destroyed. She had two reasons for her determination. One was a woman's reason—she had made up her mind to have it, and have it she would. A woman's logic is not always logical. The other reason was, that she was convinced there was something in the letter concerning herself. Ruffian as Jim Pizey undoubtedly was, she had an affection for him, and she felt hurt that he had sent her no word since his departure. There was nothing strange in this affection. She had no one else to cling to. He had beaten her and ill-treated her over and over again, and yet she clung to him. There is no human being in the world who is so complete an isolation as, not to have a love for something; and the unfortunate class to which Milly belonged is no exception to this rule, for it is capable of strong, if misguided, affection.
To fortify herself for her task, Milly, after she had lulled her baby to sleep, adjourned to the bar of a public house, where she told how she had done Old Flick, and where she spent the greater portion of the two pounds in treating her associates to drink. Having soon made page 99 herself most thoroughly and desperately drunk, she set off staggering, but very earnest, towards Old Flick's All-sorts Store. Her mind was in a dangerous state of tension. She was almost blind from the fumes of the spirits she had taken, and everthing swam before her; but she swung onwards, trolling out snatches of songs, and laughing and talking to herself incoherently. She did not attract much attention. A woman drunk was no novelty in that neighborhood—indeed, her state was chronic to the locality; and she was allowed to proceed unmolested—some few people turning to look after her, but most avoiding her. She had not far to go, and, arrived at her destination, she staggered in at the door, and sinking into a seat, gazed confusedly about her. Brushing her hair from her face, she looked round in vain for old Flick.
“Now then, Flick,” she said, almost inarticulately, “'it's no use hiding away. Lord! how my head swims! Come out and give me the letter!”
She waited for an answer, but received none, for Old Flick was deep in his drunken swoon upon the floor.
“Are you coming out, you old sinner?” she asked, looking vaguely about her. “I will have the letter—I will! I will! I will! I'll tear your hair out of your head if you don't give it to me.”
She felt dizzy and confused, and seeing a bucket filled with water in the corner, she staggered instinctively towards it, and, tumbling down by its side, plunged her face into it. It was deliciously cool; she kept her face in it, until she almost lost her breath, and then raising the bucket, she poured the water over her page 100 head. It refreshed, if it did not sober her. But a moment afterwards, as she seized her hair to wring the water from it, she shivered, and turned cold as ice; and then flushed into a burning heat. Wiping her face with her dress, Milly, for the first time, observed Old Flick lying upon the floor. Her eagerness to obtain possession of the letter appeared to desert her for a time. She sat still, shivering, and burst out into a strange wild laugh.
“What's the matter with me?” she murmured. “I never felt like this before. Get up, Old Flick,” she said, softly, to herself, and with no idea of addressing the old man. “Get up, Old Flick.”
She repeated these words, almost in a whisper, twenty times, at least, in a wondering kind of voice. Then she sang them, softly, over and again, in a vacant, meaning-less manner.
“Get up, Old Flick, and give me the letter,” and these last words bringing to her mind the object she had in view, she crept towards the prostrate man, and felt in his pockets.
“Here's Jim's letter,” she said. But she made no effort to read it. Clutching it in her hand, she threw the damp hair back from her forehead, and looked shudderingly round the room. Her skin was blazing, and there was an awful brilliancy in her eyes as she glared around.
“Oh, my head! my head!” she moaned, and then she commenced again singing softly to herself, her voice breaking occasionally into a kind of wail. She continued in this state for some time, and made no sign of recognition of Old Flick when, after a series of growls, he sat up page 101 on the floor. He gazed at her with stupified amazement, and he growled, as he looked down at the pool of water in which he had been lying. As he raised his eyes, she caught his look, and introduced his name into the meaningless words she was singing.
“Milly!” he cried, half frightened; but she showed no consciousness of him. “She's going mad, I believe,” he muttered. “What the devil shall I do? Get up, Milly, there's a dear, and go home.”
But she was deaf to all his entreaties, and presently she began to scream.
“There, Old Flick!” she cried. “Do you see the spiders creeping up the wall? Keep away—keep away!” she screamed, clutching at the old man. “They'll drop down upon us. That's right, Jim. Crush 'em—smash 'em! Ugh! You can't kill 'em half quick enough. Do you see that big one leering down? That's Old Flick. Smash him, Jim. Ugh! you devils; keep off. They're dropping from the ceiling upon me!” and she writhed upon the floor, and shuddered and moaned distressfully.
At this moment Grif, with his boot-stand on his shoulder, and his brushes under his arm, entered the store. Receiving no answer to his taps upon the counter, he peeped into the back room, and saw Milly tearing madly at her dress, and Old Flick looking on helplessly, in an agony of terror.
“Wot's up?” inquired Grif.
Old Flick rose instantly, and he clung to Grif as though the lad was an anchor of hope.
“Don't grip so 'ard, Flick,” cried Grif, who, being page 102 faint with hunger, scarcely had strength to shake the old man off.
“Milly's going mad, I think,” said Old Flick. “Take her home, Grif, take her home.”
“How am I to take 'er 'ome?” asked Grif, looking at Milly. She had covered her face with her hands, and was in a terrible fit of trembling. As Grif asked the question, he caught sight of a loaf of bread in the cupboard, the door of which wag half open. Not even pity for the girl could overcome his natural sensations of hunger. The gnawing within was more powerful than pity. “Wot'll yer give me if I take 'er away?” he inquired, eyeing the loaf yearningly.
“Anything—anything—that is, anything in reason,” quavered Old Flick, qualifying his answer. “And if she ever darkens my door again,” he muttered, “I'll have her dragged to the lockup, as sure as my name's Flick.”
Man is a bargaining animal. Despite his hunger, Grif pretended to consider for a few moments.
“I'll take 'er away,” he said, slowly, “if yer'll give me that loaf of bread”—and he moved wistfully towards the cupboard—“and this tin of sardines”——
“Yes—yes,” assented Old Flick, eagerly, taking the food from the cupboard.
“And five bob for this stand and set of brushes,” concluded Grif.
“Two and six, Grif—take two and six,” implored Flick; “Don't rob an old man.”
Grif shook his head.
“Say four bob,” he said, “and it's a bargain.”page 103
Old Flick hastily produced four shillings, and gave them to Grif, who deposited upon the table his vouchers to respectability, and felt that, from that moment, he had lost his character as a moral shoeblack, and was once more a vagrant and a thief. The next thing Grif did, was to tear a piece out of the loaf and wolfishly devour it. Theoretical philanthropists might have, learned a useful lesson if they had witnessed the ravenous eagerness with which Grif swallowed the stale dry bread. Old Flick was neither a theoretical nor a practical philanthropist, and he viewed the proceeding with a feeling of impatience, urging Grif to take Milly away quickly. It was not a difficult task—indeed it was so easily accomplished, that Flick felt considerable remorse at the price he had paid for it. Milly's fit was over for a while, and she rose almost passively as Grif took her hand. She trembled violently as they walked to her poor lodgings; and when she got to her room, she threw herself upon the bed, and moaned and cried deliriously. She had placed the letter she stole from Old Flick in the bosom of her dress, and she kept her hand over it as if to guard it.
“She's horfle bad,” mused Grif, who had seated himself on a stool at the foot of the bed, and was busily employed eating the bread and sardines. “I wonder if she knows me. Milly!”
But the girl made no reply, and tossed about on the bed, moaning piteously.
“Milly!” he cried again, shaking her, and attempting to raise her. “Send I may live! if she ain't like a ball of fire! And she's all wet, too. Wot did you say, Milly? Say that agin.”page 104
She was murmuring to herself now.
“Go home!” she said. “Why don't I go home, he asked? What would they think of me? Don't come near me, father! Keep away; I'm not your Milly—she's dead, long ago—dead! dead! dead! Do you see that sheet of water?” and she half rose from the bed, and clutched Grif by the shoulder. “Father's standing on the other side. What an awful way off he is! He looks like a ghost. Does the water stretch into the next world, I wonder! There it is—miles, and miles, and miles of it—and look—just over the hill, where it flows out of the world, there's father and mother, and they're looking at me, and crying, and I am sinking down, down! I'm choking—take me out! take me out! Now I'm in my coffin. They're nailing me down. Don't shut out the light; everything is black: now it's red. Keep the worms away! Ugh! you creeping devils! I can't breathe!” and she struggled madly with Grif, who was holding her down. It was as much as his strength could accomplish, and presently she grew calmer.
“I can't leave 'er like this,” said Grif to himself, in perplexity. “She's wery ill, and she'll do 'erself a mischief, if she ain't took care on. She's quiet now, I'll run and fetch a doctor.”
And acting on the impulse, Grif, first taking the baby from the bed, and placing it upon the floor in a corner of the room, ran quickly to an apothecary's shop hard by. It happened fortunately that a doctor was in the shop at the time, giving some directions for a prescription. He listened to Grif's story, and, without a mo- page 105 ment's hesitation, accompanied Grif to Milly's lodgings. He looked very grave as he placed his hand upon Milly's burning forehead, and felt her pulse.
“She is seriously ill,” observed the doctor. “If the poor girl has any friends, they should be here. She wants care and nursing, although even they will not save her, I fear. A female friend should be with her all the night. Come with me, boy, and I will give you some medicine.”
In silence, Grif followed the doctor to the apothecary's shop, and in silence he received the medicine which the doctor himself made up.
“You can read?” said the doctor.
“I knows some of the letters,” replied Grif, “wen they're stuck upon the wall wery large.”
“Ah!” mused the doctor, looking with curiosity at Grif. “Give her a wineglassful of this medicine every hour; but don't wake her to give it, if she is sleeping quietly. I will call again in the morning to see how she is getting on.”
“Is she wery bad?” inquired Grif.
“Very,” laconically replied the doctor.
Grif was on the point of quitting the shop, when the thought occurred to him that the doctor ought to be paid. Taking from his pocket the four shillings, for which he had sold his boot-stand and brushes, he placed them on the counter, immediately beneath the doctor's nose.
“What is this for, my lad?” asked the doctor.
Struck with a sense of the insufficiency of the remuneration, Grif said, apologetically, “I ain't got another page 106 mag about me, sir. I'll bring you some more Wen I gets it.”
“Confound you, you young scamp!” exclaimed the doctor, in a fiery manner. “Do you think I have no humanity? Take your four shillings away, and here are ten more to add to them. Run off, and give the girl her medicine, and mind she has some one with her during the night;” and he pushed the boy hastily out of the shop.
When Grif returned to Milly, he found her still lying on the bed. He spoke to her, but she did not reply to him. She was not asleep; her eyes were staring round the room, and her cheeks were burning with an unnatural fire. He moistened her parched lips with water, and tried to make her take the medicine, but she pushed him away, fretfully, and turned from him.
“Wot's to be done,” asked Grif of himself, in serious perplexity. “The doctor chap says she ought to 'ave some one with 'er. I can't get 'er to take 'er physic.” Then, struck with a sudden idea, he said, “I'll go and arks Ally.”
No sooner said than done. Yet, when he arrived at Alice's lodgings, he hesitated. His instinct told him of the bar which separated so good a woman as Alice from so shameless a one as Milly; still, Milly must not be deserted—above all, she must not be left long by herself. “She'll kill 'erself, p'rhaps,” he said, “and the kid too; I'll tell Ally straight out.”
Which he did. There was no need to entreat her help. Her bonnet and shawl were on before he had concluded his story.page 107
“But she's a bad girl, Ally,” said Grif; “a reg'lar “bad un.”
“God help her!” said Alice. “She is in the more need of assistance. And the poor baby, too! Come, Grif.”
And very soon our Alice was in the sick girl's room, attending on her, and nursing her with a good woman's loving zeal. No thought of the difference in their social positions interfered with the performance of what Alice deemed to be a duty. She undressed Milly, and placed her in the bed; and, raising the poor girl's head on her bosom, she gave her the medicine, which Milly swallowed without resistance. Then Alice tidyed up the room, and hushed the baby to sleep by the mother's side. She almost forgot her own grief in the sad spectacle before her, and the tears came to her eyes out of very pity, as she sat beside the sick girl's bed.
“Will you stop 'ere all night, Ally?” asked Grif, who had retired from the room, and who now entered at a signal from Alice.
“Yes, until the doctor comes in the morning.”
“She's a hangel, that's wot she is,” soliloquised Grif, retreating to a corner, and squatting himself upon the floor, “and I'm 'er friend. She sed so 'erself. I'd die for 'er if she wanted it. I wonder if there ever wos anybody 'arf so good as 'er!”
When Alice was undressing Milly, she observed the letter which lay concealed in the bosom of Milly's dress; but, unconscious of all else, the sick girl clutched the paper tightly in her hand, and, seeing her desire to retain it, Alice made no effort to take it from her. Many hours passed, and still Alice sat patiently by Milly's page 108 side. During this time Milly was delirious, and raved and spoke words which caused Alice to shudder. But pity for the poor girl's condition overcame every repugnant feeling, and she nursed Milly tenderly and gently, as if she were, indeed, a good and virtuous, instead of an erring, sister. Shortly after midnight, the moon being nearly at its full, Milly turned her eyes to Alice's face, and asked, in a weak, wondering voice—
“Who are you?”
“I am your friend, Milly,” replied Alice. “Do you feel better?”
“Yes, I feel better.” The words came from her lips slowly, and with an effort. “Give me your hand.”
Alice placed her hand in Milly's, and the sick girl raised it to her lips, and to her forehead.
“Who sent you here?”
“No one. Grif told me you were ill, and I came to nurse you.”
“I never saw you before. Good God!” Milly exclaimed, feeling Alice's wedding-ring. “Are you married?”
“And you come to nurse me? Do you know what I am?” and she raised herself in the bed, and her eyes appeared to dilate with horror as she looked round the walls of the room.
“Hush, my dear! Lie down.”
“What is this?” Milly cried, seizing Alice by the arm, and trembling violently. “Everything is fading from my sight. Don't let me go! Hold me—hold me! My heart is fainting—dying!” And a wild shriek page 109 issuing from her lips, as she fell back powerless in the bed, roused Grif from his slumber, and caused him to start to his feet.
A great change had come over Milly. Her face had grown pinched and white, her hands were clammy, and a wild despairing look in her eyes made them awful to look upon. Alice needed all her courage to keep herself from swooning.
“Has she any friends, Grif?” she asked.
“None as I knows on,” replied Grif. “Do yer know who she is? She's Jim Pizey's woman. She's going off.”
She was going off, but her ears had caught Jim Pizey's name.
“Yes, Jim Pizey,” she said; “why did you go away, and leave me to starve, and drink myself to death? Look at me—I am dying. Oh God! I am dying, and you have killed me. I don't want to die. I'm not fit to die. Here's Old Flick come to choke me. Keep off; you devil; take your fingers from me! That's right, Jim—strangle him, squeeze the life out of him! I could do it myself, but I am dying Lord help me! I am dying!”
“Grif,” whispered Alice, “was not Jim Pizey the man who tempted my husband to crime?”
Grif nodded, but Milly's wandering speech prevented the continuance of the subject.
“There's mother and father again,” she said; “they're always haunting me. I am glad they have come to wish me good bye before I die. I have been a bad daughter to them—a bad daughter—a bad daughter. I'm punished page 110 for it now. Forgive me, daddy. See! there's my little sister; she died yesterday. How sad she looks in her shroud. She was prettier than me. I slept with her the night before she died, and she told me to be always good. I say, Jim, don't you think little Cis is prettier than me—she's better than me. I should like father to make me a basket coffin. Where's baby?”
Alice placed the child in her arms, and as Milly pressed it to her breast, the haggard look in her face almost quite passed away. She was very young—scarcely nineteen years of age; yet it was better for her to die, young as she was, than live her life of shame.
“Do you know where there's a clergyman, Grif?” asked Alice.
“No; wot for?”
“Do you not see, Grif, that she is dying? I wish there was a clergyman here.”
“I don't want a clergyman,” gasped Milly. “Yes, my dear, I am quite sensible now. I don't want a clergyman. Your good face is better than all. Will you kiss me?”
Alice bent down and kissed her.
“Don't cry for me. I wonder why you should be here; for, you know, I am a bad girl, and you are a respectable woman. Give me a little drink—my throat is so dry. Oh, what a wicked life I have led! Will God forgive me, do you think?”
“Yes, dear Milly,” said Alice, weeping. “God will forgive you if you ask Him.”
“I do ask Him,” said Milly, earnestly, but very slowly, for her voice was failing her. “Fold my hands, dear. I do ask Him, humbly. Forgive me, God!”page 111
There was solemn silence in the room. Alice, kneeling by the bed, checked her sobs, and watched every movement in the face of the dying girl. Grif, bare-headed, stood by, in awe; his eyes were not crying, but his heart was. For Grif was very troubled. He had never prayed to God, and here in the quiet night, in the dread presence of death, the thought of his own utter wickedness and unworthiness filled him with gloom. He crept down on his knees, and lifting his hands, as if to a visible presence, he said—“Forgive me, God!” and then trembled, and cried softly to himself.
“Yes, mine has been a wicked life,” said Milly; “but what could I do? What is your name, dear?”
“Alice. May I call you Alice? Thank you. You are like a good angel standing by my bed. What could I do? I was persuaded to run away from my home by a young man, three years ago. We came out here, and he left me. What could I do? Is all the sin mine, Alice? I was led away. It was not all my fault. Oh, my dear! You are a married woman, and respectable; you don't know the sufferings we poor girls endure!”
Ah! poor Alice! She thought of herself and of her own sad lot, and laid her cheek close by the side of Milly's.
“How good you are, Alice! What will become of baby when I am gone? Never mind, it will be better without me. See here, Alice—take this letter, and by and bye”——she could not control her shudders as she said these words, and gave Alice the letter she had stolen from Old Flick— “read it. It is from Jim Pizey page 112 —he is a bad, wicked man, but I was living with him. If you can find out in it where he is, let him know that I am dead. Will you? Promise me you will. I have no one else to ask.”
“I promise, Milly.”
“God bless you. Ask him to give baby to some respectable people to keep, and never to come near it—do you hear me?—never to come near it. He is baby's father, but he must never come near it, or she will be bad like me. How dark it is! Is the moon shining, Alice?”
“Yes, Milly, it is at its full.”
“Open the window, dear, and let it shine upon me. Thank you. I can see it—there is a ladder of light to it from my bed. There are figures moving about in the light—I see your shadow in it, Alice, with your dear eyes. Oh, God bless you! my dear, for being by my side. Kiss me again. Good bye. Is that Grif? Good bye, Grif.”
“Good bye, Milly,” said Grif, in a choking voice.
“And now, my dear, fold my hands once more. Forgive me, God!”
A rippling smile passed over Milly's face, and in that smile she died. The light from the silver moon might have kissed away her life, she yielded it up so peacefully.
For half an hour no sound disturbed the silence. Then Alice, after covering the face of the dead girl, opened the letter. She read, and as she read, her eyes dilated with horror, her whole form collapsed, and with a shuddering scream, she sank into Grif's arms. The page 113 next instant she, by a strong effort, recovered herself, and reading a few more lines, she cried, in such a voice of anguish, that Grif's knees trembled and his face turned ashen white.
“Oh, Grif! Grif! my heart is broken!”
“Wot is it, Ally? Are you ill?”
“Listen to me, Grif,” said Alice, rapidly, and in a voice of strong emotion. “The crisis of my life has come. You said once that you would help me if you could “——
“And so I will!” cried the boy. “With my life! So 'elp me God!”
“This is a letter from Jim Pizey, that poor girl's associate. In it he details his devilish schemes. He discloses how he and his vile associates are going to rob Highlay station”——
“Yes, Ally, yes,” said Grif, eagerly, as Alice paused to recover her breath.
“That is my father's station, Grif. My father is displeased with me, and that is the reason I am poor. He is rich—he always keeps large sums of money in his house; and these men are going to rob him—perhaps murder him.”
“Jim Pizey don't stick at nothin',” put in Grif, rapidly. “I've 'eerd 'im talk of Highlay, but I didn't know it wos yer father's. Let's go and tell the peelers.”
“I cannot! I dare not?” cried Alice. “For, oh, Grif! Grif! they have entrapped my husband, who knows where my father keeps his gold. They have entrapped him in the gang, and they are on the road to rob and murder my father.”page 114
“Wot can we do?”
“We must get up there somehow. We must walk, if we cannot ride. We must beg upon the road, Grif. They intend to wait—thank God I we may be in time. They intend to wait, the letter says, until my father has got in his house a very large sum, with which he is about to purchase a new station. It is the whim of the seller that he should be paid in gold. We may be in time. Oh! thou beneficent Lord!” exclaimed the girl, as, falling upon her knees, she raised her streaming eyes to the bright heavens, which shone upon her through the open window, “grant my prayer! Let me save my husband from this dread crime, and then let me die!”
A silence, as of death, was in the chamber. The glory of the moon shone full upon the upturned face of Alice, quivering with a strong agony, and upon the death-couch of poor Milly, whose life of shame was ended.
“You will come with me Grif,” said Alice, presently.
“Are you ready, Ally?” asked Grif, in return. He had been quietly packing up the remains of his bread and sardines in a pocket-handkerchief.
“Yes. Come.” And with one last look—a look of blended pity and despair—at the form of the dead girl, Alice took Grif's hand, and went out with him into the open.