Part 3 out of 3
interior, and the fog hung heavily in the vaulted dome and dark little
chapels. One corner alone blazed with brilliancy and colour; this was
the altar of the Virgin. Toward it the tired vagrant made her way, and
on reaching it sank on the nearest chair as though exhausted. She did
not raise her eyes to the marble splendours of the shrine--one of the
masterpieces of old Italian art; she had been merely attracted to the
spot by the glitter of the lamps and candles, and took no thought as
to the reason of their being lighted, though she was sensible of a
certain comfort in the soft lustre shed around her. She seemed still
young; her face, rendered haggard by long and bitter privation, showed
traces of past beauty, and her eyes, full of feverish trouble, were
large, dark, and still lustrous. Her mouth alone--that sensitive
betrayer of the life's good and bad actions--revealed that all had not
been well with her; its lines were hard and vicious, and the resentful
curve of the upper lip spoke of foolish pride, not unmixed with
reckless sensuality. She sat for a moment or two motionless; then,
with exceeding care and tenderness, she began to unfold her thin, torn
shawl by gentle degrees, looking down with anxious solicitude at the
object concealed within. Only a baby--and withal a baby so tiny and
white and frail that it seemed as though it must melt like a snowflake
beneath the lightest touch. As its wrappings were loosened it opened a
pair of large, solemn blue eyes, and gazed at the woman's face with a
strange, pitiful wistfulness. It lay quiet, without moan, a pinched,
pale miniature of suffering humanity--an infant with sorrow's mark
painfully impressed upon its drawn, small features. Presently it
stretched forth a puny hand and feebly caressed its protectress, and
this, too, with the faintest glimmer of a smile. The woman responded
to its affection with a sort of rapture; she caught it fondly to her
breast and covered it with kisses, rocking it to and fro with broken
words of endearment. "My little darling!" she whispered, softly. "My
little pet! Yes, yes, I know! So tired, so cold and hungry! Never
mind, baby, never mind! We will rest here a little; then we will sing
a song presently, and get some money to take us home. Sleep awhile
longer, deary! There! now we are warm and cosey again."
So saying, she rearranged her shawl in closer and tighter folds, so as
to protect the child more thoroughly. While she was engaged in this
operation a lady in deep mourning passed close by her, and, advancing
to the very steps of the altar, knelt down, hiding her face with her
clasped hands. The tired wayfarer's attention was attracted by this;
she gazed with a sort of dull wonder at the kneeling figure robed in
rich rustling silk and crape, and gradually her eyes wandered upward,
upward, till they rested on the gravely sweet and serenely smiling
marble image of the Virgin and Child. She looked and looked again--
surprised--incredulous; then suddenly rose to her feet and made her
way to the altar railing. There she paused, staring vaguely at a
basket of flowers, white and odorous, that had been left there by some
reverent worshipper. She glanced doubtfully at the swinging silver
lamps, the twinkling candles; she was conscious, too, of a subtle,
strange fragrance in the air, as though a basket full of spring
violets and daffodils had just been carried by; then, as her wandering
gaze came back to the solitary woman in black, who still knelt
motionless near her, a sort of choking sensation came into her throat
and a stinging moisture struggled in her eyes. She strove to turn this
hysterical sensation to a low laugh of disdain.
"Lord, Lord!" she muttered beneath her breath, "what sort of place is
this, where they pray to a woman and a baby?"
At that moment the woman in black rose; she was young, with a proud,
fair, but weary face. Her eyes lighted on her soiled and poverty-
stricken sister, and she paused with a pitying look. The street
wanderer made use of the opportunity thus offered, and in an urgent
whisper implored charity. The lady drew out a purse, then hesitated,
looking wistfully at the bundle in the shawl.
"You have a child there?" she asked, in gentle accents. "May I see
"Yes, lady," and the wrapper was turned down sufficiently to disclose
the tiny white face, now more infinitely touching than ever in the
pathos of sleep.
"I lost my little one a week ago," said the lady, simply, as she
looked at it. "He was all I had." Her voice trembled; she opened her
purse, and placed a half-crown in the hand of her astonished
supplicant. "You are happier than I am; perhaps you will pray for me.
I am very lonely!"
Then dropping her long crape veil so that it completely hid her
features, she bent her head and moved softly away. The woman watched
her till her graceful figure was completely lost in the gloom of the
great church, and then turned again vaguely to the altar.
"Pray for her!" she thought. "I! As if I could pray!" And she smiled
bitterly. Again she looked at the statue in the shrine; it had no
meaning at all for her. She had never heard of Christianity save
through the medium of a tract, whose consoling title had been "Stop!
You are Going to Hell!" Religion of every sort was mocked at by those
among whom her lot was cast, the name of Christ was only used as a
convenience to swear by, and therefore this mysterious, smiling,
gently inviting marble figure was incomprehensible to her mind.
"As if I could pray!" she repeated, with a sort of derision. Then she
looked at the broad silver coin in her hand and the sleeping baby in
her arms. With a sudden impulse she dropped on her knees.
"Whoever you are," she muttered, addressing the statue above her, "it
seems you've got a child of your own; perhaps you'll help me to take
care of this one. It isn't mine; I wish it was! Anyway, I love it more
than its own mother does. I dare say you won't listen to the likes of
me, but if there was God anywhere about I'd ask Him to bless that good
soul that's lost her baby. I bless her with all my heart, but my
blessing ain't good for much. Ah!" and she surveyed anew the Virgin's
serene white countenance, "you just look as if you understood me; but
I don't believe you do. Never mind, I've said all I wanted to say this
Her strange petition, or rather discourse, concluded, she rose and
walked away. The great doors of the church swung heavily behind her as
she stepped out and stood once more in the muddy street. It was
raining steadily--a fine, cold, penetrating rain. But the coin she
held was a talisman against outer discomforts, and she continued to
walk on till she came to a clean-looking dairy, where for a couple of
pence she was able to replenish the infant's long ago emptied feeding
bottle; but she purchased nothing for herself. She had starved all
day, and was now too faint to eat. Soon she entered an omnibus, and
was driven to Charing Cross, and alighting at the great station,
brilliant with its electric light, she paced up and down outside it,
accosting several of the passers-by and imploring their pity. One man
gave her a penny; another, young and handsome, with a flushed,
intemperate face, and a look of his fast-fading boyhood still about
him, put his hand in his pocket and drew out all the loose coppers it
contained, amounting to three pennies and an odd farthing, and,
dropping them into her outstretched palm, said, half gaily, half
boldly: "You ought to do better than that with those big eyes of
yours!" She drew back and shuddered; he broke into a coarse laugh, and
went his way. Standing where he had left her, she seemed for a time
lost in wretched reflections; the fretful, wailing cry of the child
she carried roused her, and hushing it softly, she murmured, "Yes,
yes, darling, it is too wet and cold for you; we had better go." And
acting suddenly on her resolve, she hailed another omnibus, this time
bound for Tottenham Court Road, and was, after some dreary jolting,
set down at her final destination--a dirty alley in the worst part of
Seven Dials. Entering it, she was hailed with a shout of derisive
laughter from some rough-looking men and women, who were standing
grouped round a low gin-shop at the corner.
"Here's Liz!" cried one. "Here's Liz and the bloomin' kid!"
"Now, old gel, fork out! How much 'ave you got, Liz? Treat us to a
drop all round!"
Liz waked past them steadily; the conspicuous curve of her upper lip
came into full play, and her eyes flashed disdainfully, but she said
nothing. Her silence exasperated a tangle-haired, cat-faced girl of
seventeen years, who, more than half drunk, sat on the ground,
clasping her knees with both arms and rocking herself lazily to and
"Mother Mawks!" cried she, "Mother Mawks! You're wanted! Here's Liz
come back with your babby!"
As if her words had been a powerful incantation to summon forth an
evil spirit, a door in one of the miserable houses was thrown open,
and a stout woman, nearly naked to the waist, with a swollen,
blotched, and most hideous countenance, rushed out furiously, and
darting at Liz, shook her violently by the arm.
"Where's my shullin'?" she yelled, "where's my gin? Out with it! Out
with my shullin' an' fourpence! None of yer sneakin' ways with me; a
bargain's a bargain all the world over! Yer're making a fortin' with
my babby--yer know y' are; pays yer a good deal better than yer old
trade! Don't say it don't--yer know it do. Yer'll not find such a
sickly kid anywheres, an' it's the sickly kids wot pays an' moves the
'arts of the kyind ladies an' good gentlemen"--this with an imitative
whine that excited the laughter and applause of her hearers. "Yer've
got it cheap, I kin tell yer, an' if yer don't pay up reg'lar, there's
others that'll take the chance, an' thankful too!"
She stopped for lack of breath, and Liz spoke quietly:
"It's all right, Mother Mawks," she said, with an attempt at a smile;
"here's your shilling, here's the four pennies for the gin. I don't
owe you anything for the child now." She stopped and hesitated,
looking down tenderly at the frail creature in her arms; then added,
almost pleadingly, "It's asleep now. May I take it with me to-night?"
Mother Mawks, who had been testing the coins Liz had given her by
biting them ferociously with her large yellow teeth, broke into a loud
"Take it with yer! I like that! Wot imperence! Take it with yer!"
Then, with her huge red arms akimbo, she added, with a grin, "Tell yer
wot, if yer likes to pay me 'arf a crown, yer can 'ave it to cuddle,
Another shout of approving merriment burst from the drink-sodden
spectators of the little scene, and the girl crouched on the ground
removed her encircling hands from her knees to clap them loudly, as
"Well done, Mother Mawks! One doesn't let out kids at night for
nothing! 'T ought to be more expensive than daytime!"
The face of Liz had grown white and rigid.
"You know I can't give you that money," she said, slowly. "I have not
tasted bit or drop all day. I must live, though it doesn't seem worth
while. The child"--and her voice softened involuntarily--"is fast
asleep; it's a pity to wake it, that's all. It will cry and fret all
night, and--and I will make it warm and comfortable if you'd let me."
She raised her eyes hopefully and anxiously. "Will you?"
Mother Mawks was evidently a lady of an excitable disposition. The
simple request seemed to drive her nearly frantic. She raised her
voice to an absolute scream, thrusting her dirty hands through her
still dirtier hair as the proper accompanying gesture to her
"Will I! Will I!" she screeched. "Will I let out my hown babby for the
night for nuthin'? Will I? No, I won't! I'll see yer blowed into the
middle of next week fust! Lor' 'a' mussey! 'ow 'igh an' mighty we are
gittin', to be sure! The babby'll be quiet with you, Miss Liz, will
it, hindeed! An' it will cry an' fret with its hown mother, will it,
hindeed!" And at every sentence she approached Liz more nearly,
increasing in fury as she advanced. "Yer low hussy! D'ye think I'd let
ye 'ave my babby for a hour unless yer paid for 'it? As it is, yer
pays far too little. I'm an honest woman as works for my livin' an'
wot drinks reasonable, better than you by a long sight, with yer
stuck-up airs! A pretty drab you are! Gi' me the babby; ye 'a'n't no
business to keep it a minit longer." And she made a grab at Liz's
"Oh, don't hurt it!" pleaded Liz, tremblingly. "Such a little thing--
don't hurt it!"
Mother Mawks stared so wildly that her blood-shot eyes seemed
protruding from her head.
" 'Urt it! Hain't I a right to do wot I likes with my hown babby? 'Urt
it! Well, I never! Look 'ere!"--and she turned round on the assembled
neighbours--"hain't she a reg'lar one? She don't care for the law, not
she! She's keepin' back a child from its hown mother!" And with that
she made a fierce attack on the shawl, and succeeded in dragging the
infant from Liz's reluctant arms. Wakened thus roughly from its
slumbers, the poor mite set up a feeble wailing; its mother, enraged
at the sound, shook it violently till it gasped for breath.
"Drat the little beast!" she cried. "Why don't it choke an' 'ave done
And, without heeding the terrified remonstrances of Liz, she flung the
child roughly, as though it were a ball, through the open door of her
lodgings, where it fell on a heap of dirty clothes, and lay
motionless; its wailing had ceased.
"Oh, baby, baby!" exclaimed Liz, in accents of poignant distress. "Oh,
you have killed it, I am sure! Oh, you are cruel, cruel! Oh, baby,
And she broke into a tempestuous passion of sobs and tears. The
bystanders looked on in unmoved silence. Mother Mawks gathered her
torn garments round her with a gesture of defiance, and sniffed the
air as though she said, "Any one who wants to meddle with me will get
the worst of it." There was a brief pause; suddenly a man staggered
out of the gin-shop, smearing the back of his hand across his mouth as
he came--a massively built, ill-favoured brute, with a shock of
uncombed red hair and small ferret-like eyes. He stared stupidly at
the weeping Liz, then at Mother Mawks, finally from one to the other
of the loafers who stood by. "Wot's the row?" he demanded, quickly.
"Wot's up? 'Ave it out fair! Joe Mawks 'll stand by and see fair game.
Fire away, my hearties! fire, fire away!" And, with a chuckling idiot
laugh, he dived into the pocket of his torn corduroy trousers and
produced a pipe. Filling this leisurely from a greasy pouch, with such
unsteady fingers that the tobacco dropped all over him, he lighted it,
repeating, with increased thickness of utterance, "Wot's the row! 'Ave
it out fair!"
"It's about your babby, Joe!" cried the girl before mentioned, jumping
up from her seat on the ground with such force that her hair came
tumbling all about her in a dark, dank mist, through which her thin,
eager face spitefully peered. "Liz has gone crazy! She wants your
babby to cuddle!" And she screamed with sudden laughter. "Eh, eh,
fancy! Wants a babby to cuddle!"
The stupefied Joe blinked drowsily and sucked the stem of his pipe
with apparent relish. Then, as if he had been engaged in deep
meditation on the subject, he removed his smoky consoler from his
mouth, and said, "W'y not? Wants a babby to cuddle? All right! Let 'er
'ave it--w'y not?"
At these words Liz looked up hopefully through her tears, but Mother
Mawks darted forward in raving indignation.
"Yer great drunken fool!" she yelled to her besotted spouse, "aren't
yer ashamed of yerself? Wot! let out babby for a whole night for
nuthin'? It's lucky I've my wits about me, an' I say Liz sha'n't 'ave
it! There, now!"
The man looked at her, and a dogged resolution darkened his repulsive
countenance. He raised his big fist, clinched it, and hit straight
out, giving his infuriated wife a black eye in much less than a
minute. "An' I say she shall 'ave it. Where are ye now?"
In answer to the query Mother Mawks might have said that she was "all
there," for she returned her husband's blow with interest and force,
and in a couple of seconds the happy pair were engaged in a "stand-up"
fight, to the intense admiration and excitement of all the inhabitants
of the little alley. Every one in the place thronged to watch the
combatants, and to hear the blasphemous oaths and curses with which
the battle was accompanied.
In the midst of the affray a wizened, bent old man, who had been
sitting at his door sorting rags in a basket, and apparently taking no
heed of the clamour around him, made a sign to Liz.
"Take the kid now," he whispered. "Nobody'll notice. I'll see they
don't cry arter ye."
Liz thanked him mutely by a look, and rushing to the house where the
child still lay, seemingly inanimate, on the floor among the soiled
clothes, she caught it up eagerly, and hurried away to her own poor
garret in a tumble-down tenement at the farthest end of the alley. The
infant had been stunned by its fall, but under her tender care, and
rocked in the warmth of her caressing arms, it soon recovered, though
when its blue eyes opened they were full of a bewildered pain, such as
may be seen in the eyes of a shot bird.
"My pet! my poor little darling!" she murmured over and over again,
kissing its wee white face and soft hands; "I wish I was your mother--
Lord knows I do! As it is, you're all I've got to care for. And you do
love me, baby, don't you? just a little, little bit!" And as she
renewed her fondling embraces, the tiny, sad-visaged creature uttered
a low, crooning sound of baby satisfaction in response to her
endearments--a sound more sweet to her ears than the most exquisite
music, and which brought a smile to her mouth and a pathos to her dark
eyes, rendering her face for the moment almost beautiful. Holding the
child closely to her breast, she looked cautiously out of her narrow
window, and perceived that the connubial fight was over. From the
shouts of laughter and plaudits that reached her ears, Joe Mawks had
evidently won the day; his wife had disappeared from the field. She
saw the little crowd dispersing, most of those who composed it entered
the gin-shop, and very soon the alley was comparatively quiet and
deserted. By-and-bye she heard her name called in a low voice: "Liz!
She looked down and saw the old man who had promised her his
protection in case Mother Mawks should persecute her. "Is that you,
Jim? Come upstairs; it's better than talking out there." He obeyed,
and stood before her in the wretched room, looking curiously both at
her and the baby. A wiry, wolfish-faced being was Jim Duds, as he was
familiarly called, though his own name was the aristocratic and
singularly inappropriate one of James Douglas. He was more like an
animal than a human creature, with his straggling gray hair, bushy
beard, and sharp teeth protruding like fangs from beneath his upper
lip. His profession was that of an area thief, and he considered it a
sufficiently respectable calling.
"Mother Mawks has got it this time," he said, with a grin which was
more like a snarl. "Joe's blood was up, and he pounded her nigh into a
jelly. She'll leave ye quiet now; so long as ye pay the hire reg'lar
ye'll have Joe on yer side. If so be as there's a bad day, ye'd better
not come home at all."
"I know," said Liz; "but she's always had the money for the child, and
surely it wasn't much to ask her to let me keep it warm on such a cold
night as this."
Jim Duds looked meditative. "Wot makes yer care for that babby so
much?" he asked. " 'T ain't yourn."
"No," she said, sadly. "That's true. But it seems something to hold on
to, like. See what my life has been!" She stopped, and a wave of
colour flushed her pallid features. "From a little girl, nothing but
the streets--the long, cruel streets! and I just a bit of dirt on the
pavement--no more; flung here, flung there, and at last swept into the
gutter. All dark--all useless!" She laughed a little. "Fancy, Jim!
I've never seen the country!"
"Nor I," said Jim, biting a piece of straw reflectively. "It must be
powerful fine, with naught but green trees an' posies a- blowin' an' a
growin' everywheres. There ain't many kitching areas there, though,
Liz went on, scarcely heeding him: "The baby seems to me like what the
country must be--all harmless and sweet and quiet; when I hold it so,
my heart gets peaceful somehow--I don't know why."
Again Jim looked speculative. He waved his bitten straw expressively.
"Ye've had 'sperience, Liz. Hain't ye met no man like wot ye could
Liz trembled, and her eyes grew wild..
"Men!" she cried, with bitterest scorn--"no men have come my way, only
Jim stared, but was silent; he had no fit answer ready. Presently Liz
spoke again, more softly:
"Jim, do you know I went into a great church to-day?"
"Worse luck!" said Jim, sententiously. "Church ain't no use nohow as
far as I can see."
"There was a figure there, Jim," went on Liz, earnestly, "of a Woman
holding up a Baby, and people knelt down before it. What do you s'pose
"Can't say!" replied the puzzled Jim. "Are ye sure 't was a church?
Most like 't was a mooseum."
"No, no!" said Liz. " 'T was a church for certain; there were folks
praying in it."
"Ah, well," growled Jim, gruffly, "much good it may do 'em! I'm not of
the prayin' sort. A woman an' a babby, did ye say? Don't ye get such
cranky notions into yer head, Liz! Women an' babbies are common enough
--too common, by a long chalk; an' as for prayin' to 'em--" Jim's
utter contempt and incredulity were too great for further expression,
and he turned away, wishing her a curt "Good-night!"
"Good-night!" said Liz, softly; and long after he had left her she
still sat silent, thinking, thinking, with the baby asleep in her
arms, listening to the rain as it dripped, dripped heavily, like clods
falling on a coffin lid. She was not a good woman--far from it. Her
very motive in hiring the infant at so much a day was entirely
inexcusable; it was simply to gain money upon false pretences--by
exciting more pity than would otherwise have been bestowed on her had
she begged for herself alone, without a child in her arms. At first
she had carried the baby about to serve as a mere trick of her trade,
but the warm feel of its little helpless body against her bosom day
after day had softened her heart toward its innocence and pitiful
weakness, and at last she had grown to love it with a strange, intense
passion--so much that she would willingly have sacrificed her life for
its sake. She knew that its own parents cared nothing for it, except
for the money it brought them through her hands; and often wild plans
would form in her poor tired brain--plans of running away with it
altogether from the roaring, devouring city, to some sweet, humble
country village, there to obtain work and devote herself to making
this little child happy. Poor Liz! Poor, bewildered, heart-broken Liz!
Ignorant London heathen as she was, there was one fragrant flower
blossoming in the desert of her soiled and wasted existence--the
flower of a pure and guileless love for one of those "little ones," of
whom it hath been said by an all-pitying Divinity unknown to her,
"Suffer them to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the
kingdom of heaven."
The dreary winter days crept on apace, and, as they drew near
Christmas, dwellers in the streets leading off the Strand grew
accustomed of nights to hear the plaintive voice of a woman, singing
in a peculiarly thrilling and pathetic manner some of the old songs
and ballads familiar and dear to the heart of every Englishman--"The
Banks of Allan Water," "The Bailiff's Daughter," "Sally in our Alley,"
"The Last Rose of Summer." All these well-loved ditties she sang one
after the other, and, though her notes were neither fresh nor
powerful, they were true and often tender, more particularly in the
hackneyed, but still captivating, melody of "Home, Sweet Home."
Windows were opened, and pennies freely showered on the street
vocalist, who was accompanied in all her wanderings by a fragile
infant, which she seemed to carry with especial care and tenderness.
Sometimes, too, in the bleak afternoons, she would be seen wending her
way through mud and mire, setting her weary face against the bitter
east wind, and patiently singing on; and motherly women, coming from
the gay shops and stores, where they had been purchasing Christmas
toys for their own children, would often stop to look at the baby's
pinched, white features with pity, and would say, while giving their
spare pennies, "Poor little thing! Is it not very ill?" And Liz, her
heart freezing with sudden terror, would exclaim, hurriedly, "Oh, no,
no! It is always pale; it is just a little bit weak, that's all!" And
the kindly questioners, touched by the large despair of her dark eyes,
would pass on and say no more. And Christmas came--the birthday of the
Child Christ--a feast the sacred meaning of which was unknown to Liz;
she only recognized it as a sort of large and somewhat dull bank-
holiday, when all London devoted itself to church-going and the eating
of roast beef and plum-pudding. The whole thing was incomprehensible
to her mind, but even her sad countenance was brighter than usual on
Christmas eve, and she felt almost gay, for had she not, by means of a
little extra starvation on her own part, been able to buy a wondrous
gold-and-crimson worsted bird suspended from an elastic string, a bird
which bobbed up and down to command in the most lively and artistic
manner? And had not her hired baby actually laughed at the clumsy toy
--laughed an elfish and weird laugh, the first it had ever indulged
in? And Liz had laughed too, for pure gladness in the child's mirth,
and the worsted bird became a sort of uncouth charm to make them both
But after Christmas had come and gone, and the melancholy days, the
last beating of the failing pulse of the Old Year, throbbed slowly and
heavily away, the baby took upon its wan visage a strange expression--
the solemn expression of worn-out and suffering age. Its blue eyes
grew more solemnly speculative and dreamy, and after a while it seemed
to lose all taste for the petty things of this world and the low
desires of mere humanity. It lay very quiet in Liz's arms; it never
cried, and was no longer fretful, and it seemed to listen with a sort
of mild approval to the tones of her voice as they rang out in the
dreary streets, through which, by day and night, she patiently
wandered. By-and-by the worsted bird, too, fell out of favour; it
jumped and glittered in vain; the baby surveyed it with an unmoved air
of superior wisdom, just as if it had suddenly found out what real
birds were like, and was not to be deceived into accepting so poor an
imitation of nature. Liz grew uneasy, but she had no one in whom to
confide her fears. She had been very regular in her payments to Mother
Mawks, and that irate lady, kept in order by her bull-dog of a
husband, had been of late very contented to let her have the child
without further interference. Liz knew well enough that no one in the
miserable alley where she dwelt would care whether the baby were ill
or not. They would tell her, "The more sickly the better for your
trade." Besides, she was jealous; she could not endure the idea of any
one tending it or touching it but herself. Children were often ailing,
she thought, and if left to themselves without doctor's stuff they
recovered sometimes more quickly than they had sickened. Thus soothing
her inward tremors as best she might, she took more care than ever of
her frail charge, stinting herself than she might nourish it, though
the baby seemed to care less and less for mundane necessities, and
only submitted to be fed, as it were, under patient and silent
And so the sands in Time's hour-glass ran slowly but surely away, and
it was New-Year's eve. Liz had wandered about all day, singing her
little repertoire of ballads in the teeth of a cruel, snow-laden wind
--so cruel that people otherwise charitably disposed had shut close
their doors and windows, and had not even heard her voice. Thus the
last span of the Old Year had proved most unprofitable and dreary; she
had gained no more than sixpence; how could she return with only that
humble amount to face Mother Mawks and her vituperative fury? Her
throat ached; she was very tired, and, as the night darkened from pale
to deep and starless shadows, she strolled mechanically from the
Strand to the Embankment, and after walking some little distance she
sat down in a corner close to Cleopatra's Needle--that mocking obelisk
that has looked upon the decay of empires, itself impassive, and that
still appears to say, "Pass on, ye puny generations! I, a mere carven
block of stone, shall outlive you all!" For the first time in all her
experience the child in her arms seemed a heavy burden. She put aside
her shawl and surveyed it tenderly; it was fast asleep, a small,
peaceful smile on its thin, quiet face. Thoroughly worn out herself,
she leaned her head against the damp stone wall behind her, and
clasping the infant tightly to her breast, she also slept--the heavy,
dreamless sleep of utter fatigue and physical exhaustion. The solemn
night moved on, a night of black vapours; the pageant of the Old
Year's deathbed was unbrightened by so much as a single star. None of
the hurrying passers-by perceived the weary woman where she slept in
that obscure corner, and for a long while she rested there
undisturbed. Suddenly a vivid glare of light dazzled her eyes; she
started to her feet half asleep, but still instinctively retaining the
infant in her close embrace. A dark form, buttoned to the throat and
holding a brilliant bull's-eye lantern, stood before her.
"Come now," said this personage, "this won't do! Move on!"
Liz smiled faintly and apologetically.
"All right!" she answered, striving to speak cheerfully, and raising
her eyes to the policeman's good-natured countenance. "I didn't mean
to fall asleep here. I don't know how I came to do it. I must go home,
"Of course," said the policeman, somewhat mollified by her evident
humility, and touched in spite of himself by the pathos of her eyes.
Then turning his lamp more fully upon her, he continued, "Is that a
baby you've got there?"
"Yes," said Liz, half proudly, half tenderly. "Poor little dear! it's
been ailing sadly--but I think it's better now than it was."
And, encouraged by his friendly tone, she opened the folds of her
shawl to show him her one treasure. The bulls-eye came into still
closer requisition as the kindly guardian of the peace peered
inquiringly at the tiny bundle. He had scarcely looked when he started
back with an exclamation:
"God bless my soul!" he cried, "it's dead!"
"Dead!" shrieked Liz; "oh, no, no! Not dead! Don't say so, oh, don't,
don't say so! Oh, you can't mean it! Oh, for God's love, say you
didn't mean it! It can't be dead, not really dead!--no, no, indeed!
Oh, baby, baby! You are not dead, my pet my angel, not dead, oh no!"
And breathless, frantic with fear, she felt the little thing's hands
and feet and face, kissed it wildly, and called it by a thousand
endearing names, in vain--in vain! Its tiny body was already stiff and
rigid; it had been a corpse more than two hours.
The policeman coughed, and brushed his thick gauntlet glove across his
eyes. He was an emissary of the law, but he had a heart. He thought of
his bright-eyed wife at home, and of the soft-cheeked, cuddling little
creature that clung to her bosom and crowed with rapture whenever he
"Look here," he said, very gently, laying one hand on the woman's
shoulder as she crouched shivering against the wall, and staring
piteously at the motionless waxen form in her arms; "it's no use
fretting about it." He paused; there was an uncomfortable lump in his
throat, and he had to cough again to get it down. "The poor little
creature's gone--there's no help for it. The next world's a better
place than this, you know! There, there, don't take on so about it"--
this as Liz shuddered and sighed; a sigh of such complete despair that
it went straight to his honest soul, and showed him how futile were
his efforts at consolation. But he had his duty to attend to, and he
went on in firmer tones: "Now, like a good woman, you just move off
from here and go home. If I leave you here by yourself a bit, will you
promise me to go straight home? I mustn't find you here when I come
back on this beat, d' ye understand?" Liz nodded. "That's right!" he
resumed, cheerily. "I'll give you just ten minutes; you just go
And with a "Good-night," uttered in accents meant to be comforting, he
turned away and paced on, his measured tread echoing on the silence at
first loudly, then fainter and fainter, till it altogether died away,
as his bulky figure disappeared in the distance. Left to herself, Liz
rose from her crouching posture; rocking the dead child in her arms,
"Go straight home!" she murmured, half aloud. "Home, sweet home! Yes,
baby; yes, my darling, we will go home together!"
And creeping cautiously along in the shadows, she reached a flight of
the broad stone steps leading down to the river. She descended them,
one by one; the black water lapped against them heavily, heavily; the
tide was full up. She paused; a sonorous, deep-toned iron voice rang
through the air with reverberating, solemn melody. It was the great
bell of St. Paul's tolling midnight--the Old Year was dead.
"Straight home!" she repeated, with a beautiful, expectant look in her
wild, weary eyes. "My little darling! Yes, we are both tired; we will
go home! Home, sweet home! We will go!"
Kissing the cold face of the baby corpse she held, she threw herself
forward; there followed a sullen, deep splash--a slight struggle--and
all was over! The water lapped against the steps heavily, heavily, as
before; the policeman passed once more, and saw to his satisfaction
that the coast was clear; through the dark veil of the sky one star
looked out and twinkled for a brief instant, then disappeared again. A
clash and clamour of bells startled the brooding night, here and there
a window was opened, and figures appeared in balconies to listen. They
were ringing in the New Year--the festival of hope, the birthday of
the world! But what were New Years to her, who, with white, upturned
face, and arms that embraced an infant in the tenacious grip of death,
went drifting, drifting solemnly down the dark river, unseen, unpitied
by all those who awoke to new hopes and aspirations on that first
morning of another life-probation! Liz had gone; gone to make her
peace with God--perhaps through the aid of her "hired" baby, the
little sinless soul she had so fondly cherished; gone to that sweetest
"home" we dream of and pray for, where the lost and bewildered
wanderers of this earth shall find true welcome and rest from grief
and exile; gone to that fair, far glory-world where reigns the divine
Master, whose words still ring above the tumult of ages: "See that ye
despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that their
angels do always behold the face of My Father who is in heaven."