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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWeighed And Wanting - Chapter 37. Rencontres
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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 37. Rencontres Post by :voltaire11 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1943

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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 37. Rencontres

CHAPTER XXXVII. RENCONTRES

There was no news of Cornelius. In vain the detective to whom the major had made liberal promises continued his inquiries. There was a rumour of a young woman in whose company he had lately been seen, but she too had disappeared from public sight.

Sarah did her best to make Hester comfortable, and behaved the better that she was humbled by the consciousness of having made a bad job of her caretaking with Cornelius.

One afternoon--it had rained, but the sun was now shining, and Hester's heart felt lighter as she took deep breaths of the clean-washed air--she turned into a passage to visit the wife of a book-binder who had been long laid up with rheumatism so severe as to render him quite unable to work.

They had therefore been on the borders of want, and for Hester it was one of those happy cases in which she felt at full liberty to help with money. The part of the house occupied by them was pretty decent, but the rest of it was in bad repair and occupied by yet poorer people, of none of whom she knew much.

It was in fact a little way beyond what she had come to count her limit.

She knocked at the door. It was opened by the parish doctor.

"You cannot come in, Miss Raymount," he said. "We have a very bad case of small-pox here. You good ladies must make up your minds to keep away from these parts for a while. Their bodies are in more danger than their souls now."

"That may very well be," replied Hester. "My foot may be in more danger than my head, but I can better afford to lose the one than the other."

The doctor did not see the point, and thought there was none.

"You will only carry the infection," he said.

"I will take every precaution," answered Hester. "I always take more, I am certain, than it can be possible for you to take. Why should not I also do my part to help them through?"

"While the parish is in my care," answered the doctor, "I must object to whatever increases the risk of infection. It is hard while we are doing all we can to stamp out the disease, to have you, with the best of motives I admit, carrying it from one house to another. How are we to keep it out of the West End, if you ladies carry the seeds of it?"

The hard-worked man spoke with some heat.

"So the poor brothers are to be left for fear of hurting the rich ones?"

"That's not fair--you know it is not!" said the doctor. "We are set here to fight the disease, and fight it we must."

"And I am set here to fight something worse," returned Hester with a smile.

The doctor came out and shut the door.

"I must beg of you to go away," he said. "I shall be compelled to mention in my report how you and other ladies add to our difficulties."

He slipped in again and closed the door. Hester turned and went down the stair, now on her part a little angry. She knew it was no use thinking when she was angry, for when the anger was gone she almost always thought otherwise. The first thing was to get rid of the anger. Instinctively she sat down and began to sing; it was not the first time she had sat and sung in a dirty staircase. It was not a wise thing to do, but her anger prevented her from seeing its impropriety.

In great cities the children are like flies, gathering swiftly as from out of the unseen: in a moment the stair below was half-filled with them. The tenants above opened their doors and came down. Others came in from the street and were pushed up by those who came behind them. The stair and entrance were presently filled with people, all shabby, and almost all dirty--men and women, young and old, good and bad, listening to the voice of the singing lady, as she was called in the. neighborhood.

By this time the doctor had finished his visit at the bookbinder's, and appeared on the stair above. He had heard the singing, and thought it was in the street; now he learnt it was actually in the house, and had filled it with people! It was no wonder, especially when he saw who the singer was, that he should lose his temper. Through the few women and children above where Hester sat, he made his way towards the crowd of faces below. When he reached her he seized her arm from behind and began to raise at once and push her down the stair. He, too, was an enthusiast in his way. Some of the faces below grew red with anger, and their eyes flamed at the doctor. A loud murmur arose, and several began to force their way up to rescue her, as they would one of their own from the police. But Hester, the moment she saw who it was that had laid hold of her, rose and began to descend the stair, closely followed by the doctor. It was not easy; and the annoyance of a good many in the crowd, some because Hester was their friend, others because the doctor had stopped the singing, gave a disorderly and indeed rather threatening look to the assemblage.

As she reached the door she saw, on the opposite side of the crowded passage, the pale face and glittering eyes of Mr. Blaney looking at her over the heads between. The little man was mounted on a box at the door of a shop whose trade seemed to be in withered vegetables and salt fish, and had already had the pint which, according to his brother-in-law, was more than he could stand.

"Sarves you right, miss," he cried, when he saw who was the centre of the commotion; "sarves you right! You turned me out o' your house for singin', an' I don't see why you should come a singin' an' a misbehavin' of yourself in ourn! Jest you bring her out here, pleeceman, an' let me give her a bit o' my mind. Oh, don't you be afeared, I won't hurt her! Not in all my life did I ever once hurt a woman--bless 'em! But it's time the gentry swells knowed as how we're yuman bein's as well as theirselves. We don't like, no more'n they would theirselves, havin' our feelin's hurt for the sake o' what they calls bein' done good to. Come you along down over here, miss!"

The crowd had been gathering from both ends of the passage, for high words draw yet faster than sweet singing, and the place was so full that it was hardly possible to get out of it. The doctor was almost wishing he had let ill alone, for he was now anxious about Hester. Some of the rougher ones began pushing. The vindictive little man kept bawling, his mouth screwed into the middle of his cheek. From one of the cross entrances of the passage came the pulse of a fresh tide of would-be spectators, causing the crowd to sway hither and thither. All at once Hester spied a face she knew, considerably changed as it was since last she had seen it.

"Now we shall have help!" she said to her companion, making common cause with him notwithstanding his antagonism. "--Mr. Franks!"

The athlete was not so far off that she needed to call very loud. He heard and started with eager interest. He knew the voice, sent his eyes looking and presently found her who called him. With his great lean muscular arms he sent the crowd right and left like water, and reached her in a moment.

"Come! come! don't you hurt her!" shouted Mr. Blaney from the top of his box. "She ain't nothing to you. She's a old friend o' mine, an' I ain't a goin' to see her hurt."

"You shut up!" bawled Franks, "or I'll finish the pancake you was meant for."

Then turning to Hester, who had begun to be a little afraid he too had been drinking, he pulled off his fur cap, and making the lowest and politest of stage bows, said briefly,

"Miss Raymount--at your service, miss!"

"I am very glad to see you again, Mr. Franks," said Hester. "Do you think you could get us out of the crowd?"

"Easy, miss. I'll _carry you out of it like a baby, miss, if you'll let me."

"No, no; that will hardly be necessary," returned Hester, with a smile.

"Go on before, and make a way for us," said the doctor, with an authority he had no right to assume.

"There is not the least occasion for you to trouble yourself about me farther," said Hester. "I am perfectly safe with this man. I know him very well. I am sorry to have vexed you."

Franks looked up sharply at the doctor, as if to see whether he dared acknowledge a claim to the apology; then turning to Hester,--

"Nobody 'ain't ha' been finding fault with you, miss?" he said--a little ominously.

"Not more than I deserved," replied Hester. "But come, Franks! lead the way, or all Bloomsbury will be here, and then the police! I shouldn't like to be shut up for offending Mr. Blaney!"

Those near them heard and laughed. She took Franks's arm. Room was speedily made before them, and in a minute they were out of the crowd, and in one of the main thoroughfares.

But as if everybody she knew was going to appear, who should meet them face to face as they turned into Steevens's Road, with a fringe of the crowd still at their heels, but lord Gartley! He had written from town, and Mrs. Raymount had let him know that Hester was in London, for she saw that the sooner she had an opportunity of telling him what had happened the better. His lordship went at once to Addison square, and had just left the house disappointed when he met Hester leaning on Franks's arm.

"Miss Raymount!" he exclaimed almost haughtily.

"My lord!" she returned, with unmistakable haughtiness, drawing herself up, and looking him in the face, hers glowing.

"Who would have expected to see you here?" he said.

"Apparently yourself, my lord!"

He tried to laugh.

"Come then; I will see you home," he said.

"Thank you, my lord. Come, Franks."

As she spoke she looked round, but Franks was gone. Finding she had met one of her own family, as he supposed, he had quietly withdrawn: the moment he was no longer wanted, he grew ashamed, and felt shabby. But he lingered round a corner near, to be certain she was going to be taken care of, till seeing them walk away together he was satisfied, and went with a sigh.

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