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"Oh, Mr. Jackson, do not be severe with me! Speak a word of encouragement to me, I beseech you."
"You are Polly's mother."
Yes. Polly herself might come to this, one day. As you see what the rose was in its faded leaves; as you see what the summer growth of the woods was in their wintry branches; so Polly might be traced, one day, in a careworn woman like this, with her hair turned grey. Before him were the ashes of a dead fire that had once burned bright. This was the woman he had loved. This was the woman he had lost. Such had been the constancy of his imagination to her, so had Time spared her under its withholding, that now, seeing how roughly the inexorable hand had struck her, his soul was filled with pity and amazement.
He led her to a chair, and stood leaning on a corner of the chimney- piece, with his head resting on his hand, and his face half averted.
"Did you see me in the street, and show me to your child?" he asked.
"Is the little creature, then, a party to deceit?"
"I hope there is no deceit. I said to her, 'We have lost our way, and I must try to find mine by myself. Go to that gentleman, and tell him you are lost. You shall be fetched by-and-by.' Perhaps you have not thought how very young she is?"
"She is very self-reliant."
"Perhaps because she is so young."
He asked, after a short pause, "Why did you do this?"
"Oh, Mr. Jackson, do you ask me? In the hope that you might see something in my innocent child to soften your heart towards me. Not only towards me, but towards my husband."
He suddenly turned about, and walked to the opposite end of the room. He came back again with a slower step, and resumed his former attitude, saying:
"I thought you had emigrated to America?"
"We did. But life went ill with us there, and we came back."
"Do you live in this town?"
"Yes. I am a daily teacher of music here. My husband is a book- keeper."
"Are you--forgive my asking--poor?"
"We earn enough for our wants. That is not our distress. My husband is very, very ill of a lingering disorder. He will never recover--"
"You check yourself. If it is for want of the encouraging word you spoke of, take it from me. I cannot forget the old time, Beatrice."
"God bless you!" she replied with a burst of tears, and gave him her trembling hand.
"Compose yourself. I cannot be composed if you are not, for to see you weep distresses me beyond expression. Speak freely to me. Trust me."
She shaded her face with her veil, and after a little while spoke calmly. Her voice had the ring of Polly's.
"It is not that my husband's mind is at all impaired by his bodily suffering, for I assure you that is not the case. But in his weakness, and in his knowledge that he is incurably ill, he cannot overcome the ascendancy of one idea. It preys upon him, embitters every moment of his painful life, and will shorten it."
She stopping, he said again: "Speak freely to me. Trust me."
"We have had five children before this darling, and they all lie in their little graves. He believes that they have withered away under a curse, and that it will blight this child like the rest."
"Under what curse?"
"Both I and he have it on our conscience that we tried you very heavily, and I do not know but that, if I were as ill as he, I might suffer in my mind as he does. This is the constant burden:- 'I believe, Beatrice, I was the only friend that Mr. Jackson ever cared to make, though I was so much his junior. The more influence he acquired in the business, the higher he advanced me, and I was alone in his private confidence. I came between him and you, and I took you from him. We were both secret, and the blow fell when he was wholly unprepared. The anguish it caused a man so compressed must have been terrible; the wrath it awakened inappeasable. So, a curse came to be invoked on our poor, pretty little flowers, and they fall.'"
"And you, Beatrice," he asked, when she had ceased to speak, and there had been a silence afterwards, "how say you?"
"Until within these few weeks I was afraid of you, and I believed that you would never, never forgive."
"Until within these few weeks," he repeated. "Have you changed your opinion of me within these few weeks?"
"For what reason?"
"I was getting some pieces of music in a shop in this town, when, to my terror, you came in. As I veiled my face and stood in the dark end of the shop, I heard you explain that you wanted a musical instrument for a bedridden girl. Your voice and manner were so softened, you showed such interest in its selection, you took it away yourself with so much tenderness of care and pleasure, that I knew you were a man with a most gentle heart. Oh, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jackson, if you could have felt the refreshing rain of tears that followed for me!"
Was Phoebe playing at that moment on her distant couch? He seemed to hear her.
"I inquired in the shop where you lived, but could get no information. As I had heard you say that you were going back by the next train (but you did not say where), I resolved to visit the station at about that time of day, as often as I could, between my lessons, on the chance of seeing you again. I have been there very often, but saw you no more until to-day. You were meditating as you walked the street, but the calm expression of your face emboldened me to send my child to you. And when I saw you bend your head to speak tenderly to her, I prayed to GOD to forgive me for having ever brought a sorrow on it. I now pray to you to forgive me, and to forgive my husband. I was very young, he was young too, and, in the ignorant hardihood of such a time of life, we don't know what we do to those who have undergone more discipline. You generous man! You good man! So to raise me up and make nothing of my crime against you!"--for he would not see her on her knees, and soothed her as a kind father might have soothed an erring daughter--"thank you, bless you, thank you!"
When he next spoke, it was after having drawn aside the window curtain and looked out awhile. Then he only said:
"Is Polly asleep?"
"Yes. As I came in, I met her going away upstairs, and put her to bed myself."
"Leave her with me for to-morrow, Beatrice, and write me your address on this leaf of my pocket-book. In the evening I will bring her home to you--and to her father."
* * *
"Hallo!" cried Polly, putting her saucy sunny face in at the door next morning when breakfast was ready: "I thought I was fetched last night?"
"So you were, Polly, but I asked leave to keep you here for the day, and to take you home in the evening."
"Upon my word!" said Polly. "You are very cool, ain't you?"
However, Polly seemed to think it a good idea, and added: "I suppose I must give you a kiss, though you ARE cool."
The kiss given and taken, they sat down to breakfast in a highly conversational tone.
"Of course, you are going to amuse me?" said Polly.
"Oh, of course!" said Barbox Brothers.
In the pleasurable height of her anticipations, Polly found it indispensable to put down her piece of toast, cross one of her little fat knees over the other, and bring her little fat right hand down into her left hand with a business-like slap. After this gathering of herself together, Polly, by that time a mere heap of dimples, asked in a wheedling manner:
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Short Stories -- by Charles Dickens