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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHow It All Came Round - Chapter 36. An Old Wedding-Ring
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How It All Came Round - Chapter 36. An Old Wedding-Ring Post by :chensf Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :2935

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How It All Came Round - Chapter 36. An Old Wedding-Ring

CHAPTER XXXVI. AN OLD WEDDING-RING

Once in Charlotte's life before now, she had remembered her father doing what she considered a strangely hard thing. A valet in whom he had always reposed full confidence had robbed him of one hundred pounds. He had broken open his master's desk at night and taken from thence notes to that amount. The deed had been clumsily done, and detection was very easy. The name of this valet was Wright. He was young and good-looking, and had been lately married; hitherto he had been considered all that was respectable. When his crime was brought home to him, he flew to seek Charlotte, then a very young girl; he flung himself on his knees in her presence, and begged of her to ask her father to show mercy to him. Scarcely half a dozen words of passionate, terrified entreaty had passed his trembling lips, before there came a tap at the door and the young wife rushed in to kneel by his side. Together they implored; their words were poor and halting, but the agony of their great plea for mercy went straight to the young generous heart they asked to intercede for them. Charlotte promised to do what she could. She promised eagerly, with hope in her tones.

Never afterwards did she forget that day. Long indeed did the faces of those two continue to haunt her, for she had promised in vain; her father was obdurate to all her entreaties; even her tears, and she had cried passionately, had failed to move him. Nothing should save Wright from the full penalty of his crime. He was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison.

From that moment the Harmans lost sight of the couple. Charlotte had tried, it is true, to befriend Hester Wright, but the young woman with some pride had refused all assistance from those whom she considered strangely hard and cruel. It was some years now since anything had been heard of either of them. Charlotte, it is true, had not forgotten them, but she had put them into a back part of her memory, for her father's conduct with regard to Wright had always been a sore puzzle to her. And now, on this day of all days, she was driving in a cab by the side of Hester Wright to see her dying husband. She had sent a message home by the coachman which would allay all immediate anxiety on her account, and she sat back in the cab by the side of the poor and sad woman with a sense of almost relief, for the present. For an hour or two she had something outside of herself and her home to turn her thoughts to. After what seemed a very long drive, they reached the shabby court and shabbier house where the Wrights lived.

Charlotte had heard of such places before, but had never visited them. Shabby women, and dirty and squalid children surrounded the young lady as she descended to the pavement. The children came very close indeed, and some even stroked her dress. One mite of three years raised, in the midst of its dirt and neglect, a face of such sweetness and innocence, that Charlotte suddenly stooped down and kissed it. That kiss, though it left a grimy mark on her lips, yet gave the first faint touch of consolation to her sorely bruised heart. There was something good still left on God's earth, and she had come to this slum, in the East end of London, to see it shine in a baby's eyes.

"Ef you please, Miss, I think we had better keep the cab," said Hester Wright; "I don't think there's any cabstand, not a long way from yere."

Charlotte spoke to the cabby, desired him to wait, then she followed Hester into the house.

"No, I have no children," said the woman in answer to a question of the young lady's; "thank God fur that; who'd want to have young 'uns in a hole like this?"

By this time they had reached their destination. It was a cellar; Hester was not so very far wrong in calling it a hole. It was damp, dirty, and ill-smelling, even to the woman who was accustomed to it; to Charlotte it was horrible beyond words. For a time, the light was so faint she could distinguish nothing, then on some straw in a corner she saw a man. He was shrunken, and wasted, and dying, and Charlotte, prepared as she was for a great change, could never have recognized him. His wife, taking Charlotte's hand in hers, led her forward at once.

"You'd never ha' guessed, Dan, as I'd have so much luck," she said. "I met our young lady in the street, and I made bold to 'ax her and come and see you, and she come off at once. This is our Miss Harman, Dan dear."

"Our Miss Harman," repeated the dying man, raising his dim eyes. "She's changed a goodish bit."

"Don't call me yours," said Charlotte. "I never did anything for you."

"Ay, but you tried," said the wife. "Dan and me don't furget as we heerd you cryin' fit to break yer heart outside the study door, and him within, wid a heart as hard as a nether mill-stone, would do nought. No, you did yer werry best; Dan and me, we don't furget."

"No, I don't furget," said the man. "It wor a pity as the old man were so werry 'ard. I wor young and I did it rare and clumsy; it wor to pay a debt, a big, big debt. I 'ad put my 'and to a bit of paper widhout knowing wot it meant, and I wor made to pay for it, and the notes they seemed real 'andy. Well, well, I did it badly, I ha' larnt the right way since from some prison pals. I would not be found out so easy now."

He spoke in an indifferent, drawling kind of voice, which expressed no emotion whatever.

"You are very ill, I fear," said Charlotte, kneeling by his side.

"Ill! I'm dying, miss dear."

Charlotte had never seen death before. She noticed now the queer shade of grey in the complexion, the short and labored breath. She felt puzzled by these signs, for though she had never seen death, this grayness, this shortness of breath, were scarcely unfamiliar.

"I'm dying," continued the man. "I don't much care; weren't it fur Hetty there, I'd be rayther glad. I never 'ad a chance since the old master sent me to prison. I'd ha' lived respectable enough ef the old master 'ad bin merciful that time. But once in prison, always in prison fur a friendless chap like me. I never wanted to steal agen, but I jest 'ad to, to keep the life in me. I could get no honest work hanywhere; then at last I took cold, and it settled yere," pointing to his sunken chest, "and I'm going off, sure as sure!"

"He ain't like to live another twenty-four hours, so the doctor do say," interrupted the wife.

"No, that's jest it. Yesterday a parson called. I used ter see the jail chaplain, and I never could abide him, but this man, he did speak hup and to the point. He said as it wor a hawful thing to die unforgiven. He said it over and over, until I wor fain to ax him wot I could do to get furgiven, fur he did say it wor an hawful thing to die without having parding."

"Oh, it must be, it must be!" said Charlotte, suddenly clasping her hands very tightly together.

"I axed him how I could get it from God h'Almighty, and he told me, to tell him, the parson, first of all my whole story, and then he could _adwise me; so I hup and telled him heverything, hall about that theft as first tuk me to prison and ruined me, and how 'ard the old master wor, and I telled him another thing too, for he 'ad sech a way, he seemed to draw yer werry 'art out of you. Then he axed me ef I'd furgiven the old master, and I said no, fur he wor real, real 'ard; then he said so solemn-like, 'That's a great, great pity, fur I'm afraid as God can't furgive you, till you furgives.' Arter that he said a few more words, and prayed awhile, and then he went away. I could not sleep hall night, and to-day I called Hetty there, over, and she said as she'd do her werry best to bring either the old master yere, or you miss, and you see you are come; 'tis an awful thing to die without parding, that's why I axed you to come."

"Yes," said Charlotte very softly.

"Please, miss, may a poor dying feller, though he ain't no better nor a common, common thief, may he grip, 'old of yer and?"

"With all my heart."

"There now, it don't seem so werry 'ard. _Lord Jesus, I furgives Mr. Harman. Now I ha' said it. Wife dear, bring me hover that little box, that as I allers kep' so close."

His wife brought him a tiny and very dirty cardboard box.

"_She kep' it when I wor locked up; I allers call it my bit o' revenge. I'll give it back now. Hetty, open it."

Hetty did so, taking from under a tiny bit of cotton-wool a worn, old-fashioned wedding-ring.

"There, miss dear," said Wright, handing it to her, "that wor the old master's wife's ring. I knew as he set more prize to it nor heverything else he had, he used to wear it on a bit of ribbon round his neck. One day he did not put it on, he furgot it, and I, when I found he meant to be so werry, werry 'ard, I took it and hid it, and took it away wid me. It comforted me when I wor so long in prison to think as he might be fretting fur it, and never guess as the lad he were so 'ard on had it. I never would sell it, and now as I has furgiven him, he may have it back agen. You tell him arter I'm dead, tell him as I furgives him, and yere's the ring back agen."

Charlotte slipped the worn little trinket on her finger.

"I will try and give my father your message," she said. "I may not be able at once, but I will try. I am glad you have forgiven him; we all stand in sore, sore need of that, not only from our fellow-men, but much more from our God. Now good-bye, I will come again." She held out her hand.

"Ah, but miss dear, I won't be yere fur no coming again, I'll be far away. Hetty knows that, poor, poor, gal! Hetty'll miss me, but only fur that I could be real glad, fur now as I ha' furgiven the old master, I feels real heasy. I ain't nothing better nor a common thief, but fur hall that, I think as Jesus 'ull make a place for me somehow nigh of hisself."

"And, miss," said Hester, "I'm real sorry, and so will Dan be when I tell him how bad the old master is."

"My father is not well; but how do you know?" said Charlotte.

"Well, miss, I went to the house to-day, a-looking fur you and the servant she told me, she said as there worn't never a hope, as the old master were safe to die."

"Then maybe I can tell himself hup in heaven as I quite furgives him," said Dan Wright.

Charlotte glanced from one speaker to the other in a kind of terrible astonishment. Suddenly she knew on whose brow she had seen that awful grayness, from whose lips she had heard that short and hurried breath. A kind of spasm of great agony suddenly contracted her heart. Without a word, however, she rose to her feet, gave the wife money for her present needs, bade the dying husband good-bye, and stepped into the cab which still waited for her. It was really late, and all daylight had faded as she gave the direction for her own luxurious home.

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