Esther kept William within doors during the winter months. If his health di_ot improve it got no worse, and she had begun to hope that the breakage o_he blood-vessel did not mean lung disease. But the harsh winds of spring di_ot suit him, and there was business with his lawyer to which he was oblige_o attend. A determined set was going to be made against the renewal of hi_icence, and he was determined to defeat his opponents. Counsel wa_nstructed, and a great deal of money was spent on the case. But the licenc_as nevertheless refused, and the north-east wind did not cease to rattle; i_eemed resolved on William's death, and with a sick husband on her hands, an_ll the money they had invested in the house irreparably lost, Esther began t_ake preparations for moving.
William had proved a kind husband, and in the seven years she had spent in the
"King's Head" there had been some enjoyment of life. She couldn't say that sh_ad been unhappy. She had always disapproved of the betting. They had tried t_o without it. There was a great deal in life which one couldn't approve of.
But Ketley had never been very right in his head, and Sarah's misfortune ha_ad very little to do with the "King's Head." They had all tried to keep he_rom that man; it was her own fault. There were worse places than the "King'_ead." It wasn't for her to abuse it. She had lived there seven years; she ha_een her boy growing up—he was almost a young man now, and had had the bes_ducation. That much good the "King's Head" had done. But perhaps it was n_onger suited to William's health. The betting, she was tired thinking abou_hat; and that constant nipping, it was impossible for him to keep from i_ith every one asking him to drink with them. A look of fear and distres_assed across her face, and she stopped for a moment….
She was rolling up a pair of curtains. She did not know how they were to live, that was the worst of it. If they only had back the money they had sunk in th_ouse she would not so much mind. That was what was so hard to bear; all tha_oney lost, just as if they had thrown it into the river. Seven years of har_ork—for she had worked hard—and nothing to show for it. If she had been doin_he grand lady all the time it would have been no worse. Horses had won an_orses had lost—a great deal of trouble and fuss and nothing to show for it.
That was what stuck in her throat. Nothing to show for it. She looked roun_he dismantled walls, and descended the vacant staircase. She would neve_erve another pint of beer in that bar. What a strong, big fellow he was whe_he first went to live with him! He was sadly changed. Would she ever see hi_trong and well again? She remembered he had told her that he was worth nearly £3000. She hadn't brought him luck. He wasn't worth anything like that to-day.
"How much have we in the bank, dear?"
"A bit over six hundred pounds. I was reckoning of it up yesterday. But wha_o you want to know for? To remind me that I've been losing. Well, I have bee_osing. I hope you're satisfied."
"I wasn't thinking of such a thing."
"Yes, you was, there's no use saying you wasn't. It ain't my fault if the
'orses don't win; I do the best I can."
She did not answer him. Then he said, "It's my 'ealth that makes me irritable, dear; you aren't angry, are you?"
"No, dear, I know you don't mean it, and I don't pay no attention to it." Sh_poke so gently that he looked at her surprised, for he remembered her quic_emper, and he said, "You're the best wife a man ever had."
"No, I'm not, Bill, but I tries to do my best."
The spring was the harshest ever known, and his cough grew worse and th_lood-spitting returned. Esther grew seriously alarmed. Their doctor spoke o_rompton Hospital, and she insisted on his going there to be examined. Willia_ould not have her come with him; and she did not press the point, fearing t_rritate him, but sat at home waiting anxiously for him to return, hopin_gainst hope, for their doctor had told her that he feared very long trouble.
And she could tell from his face and manner that he had bad news for her. Al_er strength left her, but she conquered her weakness and said—
"Now tell me what they said. I've a right to know; I want to know."
"They said it was consumption."
"Oh, did they say that?"
"Yes, but they don't mean that I'm going to die. They said they hoped the_ould patch me up; people often live for years with only half a lung, and i_s only the left one that's gone."
He coughed slightly and wiped the blood from his lips. Esther was quit_vercome.
"Now, don't look like that," he said, "or I shall fancy I'm going to die to- morrow."
"They said they thought that they could patch you up?"
"Yes; they said I might go on a long while yet, but that I would never be th_an I was."
This was so obvious she could not check a look of pity.
"If you're going to look at me like that I'd sooner go into the hospital a_nce. It ain't the cheerfulest of places, but it will be better than here."
"I'm sorry it was consumption. But if they said they could patch you up, i_ill be all right. It was a great deal for them to say."
Her duty was to overcome her grief and speak as if the doctors had told hi_hat there was nothing the matter that a little careful nursing would fail t_ut right. William had faith in the warm weather, and she resolved to put he_rust in it. It was hard to see him wasting away before her eyes and kee_heerful looks in her face and an accent of cheerfulness in heir voice. Th_unshine which had come at last seemed to suck up all the life that was i_im; he grew paler, and withered like a plant. Then ill-luck seemed to hav_oined in the hunt; he could not "touch" a winner, and their fortune draine_way with his life. Favourites and outsiders, it mattered not; whatever h_acked lost; and Esther dreaded the cry "Win-ner, all the win-ner!" He sat o_he little balcony in the sunny evenings looking down the back street for th_oy to appear with the "special." Then she had to go and fetch the paper. O_he rare occasions when he won, the spectacle was even more painful. H_rightened up, his thin arm and hand moved nervously, and he began to mak_rojects and indulge in hopes which she knew were vain.
She insisted, however, on his taking regularly the medicine they gave him a_he hospital, and this was difficult to do. For his irritability increased i_easure as he perceived the medicine was doing him no good; he found faul_ith the doctors, railed against them unjustly, and all the while the little; cough continued, and the blood-spitting returned at the end of crue_ntervals, when he had begun to hope that at least that trouble was done with.
One morning he told his wife that he was going to ask the doctors to examin_im again. They had spoken of patching up; but he wanted to know whether h_as going to live or die. There was a certain relief in hearing him speak s_lainly; she had had enough of the torture of hope, and would like to know th_orst. He liked better to go to the hospital alone, but she felt that sh_ould not sit at home counting the minutes for him to return, and begged to b_llowed to go with him. To her surprise, he offered no opposition. She ha_xpected that her request would bring about quite a little scene, but he ha_aken it so much as a matter of course that she should accompany him that sh_as doubly glad that she had proposed to go with him; if she hadn't he migh_ave accused her of neglecting him. She put on her hat; the day was too ho_or a jacket; it was the beginning of August; the town was deserted, and th_treets looked as if they were about to evaporate or lie down exhausted, an_he poor, dry, dusty air that remained after the season was too poor even fo_sther's healthy lungs; it made William cough, and she hoped the doctors woul_rder him to the seaside.
From the top of their omnibus they could see right across the plateau of th_reen Park, dry and colourless like a desert; as they descended the hill the_oticed that autumn was already busy in the foliage; lower down the dells wer_ull of fallen leaves. At Hyde Park Corner the blown dust whirled about th_ill-top; all along St. George's Place glimpses of the empty Park appeare_hrough the railings. The wide pavements, the Brompton Road, and a semi- detached public-house at the cross-roads, announced suburban London to th_ondoner.
"You see," said William, "where them trees are, where the road turns off t_he left. That 'ouse is the 'Bell and Horns.' That's the sort of house _hould like to see you in."
"It's a pity we didn't buy it when we had the money."
"Buy it! That 'ouse is worth ten thousand pounds if it's worth a penny."
"I was once in a situation not far from here. I like the Fulham Road; it'_ike a long village street, ain't it?"
Her first service was with Mrs. Dunbar, in Sydney Street, and she remembere_he square church tower at the Chelsea end; a little further on there was th_estry Hall in the King's Road, and then Oakley Street on the left, leadin_own to Battersea. Mrs. Dunbar used to go to some gardens at the end of th_ing's Road. Cremorne Gardens, that was the name; there used to be fire-work_here, and she often spent the evening at the back window watching the rocket_o up. That was just before Lady Elwin had got her the situation as kitchen- maid at Woodview. She remembered the very shops—there was Palmer's th_utterman, and there was Hyde's the grocer's. Everything was just as she ha_eft it. How many years ago? Fifteen or sixteen. So enwrapped was she i_emories that William had to touch her. "Here we are," he said; "don't yo_emember the place?"
She remembered very well that great red brick building, a centrepiece with tw_ings, surrounded by high iron railings lined with gloomy shrubs. The lon_traight walks, the dismal trees arow, where pale-faced men walked or reste_eebly, had impressed themselves on her young mind—thin, patient men, pacin_heir sepulchre. She had wondered who they were, if they would get well; an_hen, quick with sensation of lingering death, she had hurried away on he_rrands. The low wooden yellow-painted gates were unchanged. She had neve_efore seen them open, and it was new to her to see the gardens filled wit_right sunshine and numerous visitors. There were flowers in the beds, and th_rees were beautiful in their leafage. A little yellow was creeping through, and from time to time a leaf fell exhausted from the branches.
William, who was already familiar with the custom of the place, nodded to th_orter and was let pass without question. He did not turn to the principa_ntrance in the middle of the building, but went towards a side entrance. Th_ouse physician was standing near it talking with a young man whom Esthe_ecognised as Mr. Alden. The thought that he, too, might be dying o_onsumption crossed her mind, but his appearance and his healthy, hearty laug_eassured her. A stout, common girl, healthy too, came out of the buildin_ith a child, a little thing of twelve or thirteen, with death in her face.
Mr. Alden stopped her, and in his cheerful, kind manner hoped the little on_as better. She answered that she was. The doctor bade him good-bye an_eckoned William and Esther to follow him. Esther would have liked to hav_poken to Mr. Alden. But he did not see her, and she followed her husband, wh_as talking with the doctor, through the doorway into a long passage. At th_nd of the passage there were a number of girls in print dresses. The gaiet_f the dresses led Esther to think that they must be visitors. But the littl_ough warned her that death was amongst them. As she went past she caugh_ight of a wasted form in a bath-chair. The thin hands were laid on the knees, on a little handkerchief, and there were spots on the whiteness deeper tha_he colour of the dress. They passed down another passage, meeting a sister o_heir way; pretty and discreet she was in her black dress and veil, and sh_aised her eyes, glancing affectionately at the young doctor. No doubt the_oved each other. The eternal love-story among so much death!
Esther wished to be present at the examination, but a sudden whim made Willia_ay that he would prefer to be alone with the doctor, and she returned to th_ardens. Mr. Alden had not yet gone. He stood with his back turned to her. Th_ittle girl she had seen him speaking to was sitting on a bench under th_rees; she held in her hands a skein of yellow worsted which her companion wa_inding into a ball. Two other young women were with them and all four wer_miling and whispering and looking towards Mr. Alden. They evidently sought t_ttract his attention, and wished him to come and speak to them. Just th_atural desire of women to please, and moved by the pathos of this poo_oquetting, he went to them, and Esther could see that they all wanted to tal_o him. She too would have liked to have spoken to him; he was an old friend.
And she walked up the grounds, intending to pass by him as she walked back.
His back was still turned to her, and they were all so interested that the_ave no heed to anything else. One of the young women had an exceedingl_retty face. A small oval, perfectly snow-white, and large blue eyes shade_ith long dark lashes; a little aquiline nose; and Esther heard her say, "_hould be well enough if it wasn't for the cough. It isn't no better since—"
The cough interrupted the end of the sentence, and affecting to misunderstan_er, Mr. Alden said—
"No better than it was a week ago."
"A week ago!" said the poor girl. "It is no better since Christmas."
There was surprise in her voice, and the pity of it took Mr. Alden in th_hroat, and it was with difficulty that he answered that "he hoped that th_resent fine weather would enable her to get well. Such weather as this," h_aid, "is as good as going abroad."
This assertion was disputed. One of the women had been to Australia for he_ealth, and the story of travel was interspersed by the little coughs, terrible in their apparent insignificance. But it was Mr. Alden that th_thers wished to hear speak; they knew all about their companion's trip t_ustralia, and in their impatience their eyes went towards Esther. So Mr.
Alden became aware of a new presence, and he turned.
"What! is it you, Esther?"
"But there doesn't seem much the matter with you. You're all right."
"Yes, I'm all right, sir; it's my husband."
They walked a few yards up the path.
"Your husband! I'm very sorry."
"He's been an out-door patient for some time; he's being examined by th_octors now."
"Whom did you marry, Esther?"
"William Latch, a betting man, sir."
"You married a betting man, Esther? How curiously things do work out! _emember you were engaged to a pious young man, the stationer's foreman. Tha_as when you were with Miss Rice; you know, I suppose, that she's dead."
"No, sir, I didn't know it. I've had so much trouble lately that I've not bee_o see her for nearly two years. When did she die, sir?"
"About two months ago. So you married a betting man! Miss Rice did sa_omething about it, but I don't think I understood that he was a betting man; I thought he was a publican."
"So he was, sir. We lost our licence through the betting."
"You say he's being examined by the doctor. Is it a bad case?"
"I'm afraid it is, sir."
They walked on in silence until they reached the gate.
"To me this place is infinitely pathetic. That little cough never silent fo_ong. Did you hear that poor girl say with surprise that her cough is n_etter than it was last Christmas?"
"Yes, sir. Poor girl, I don't think she's long for this world."
"But tell me about your husband, Esther," he said, and his face filled with a_xpression of true sympathy. "I'm a subscriber, and if your husband would lik_o become an in-door patient, I hope you'll let me know."
"Thank you, sir; you was always the kindest, but there's no reason why _hould trouble you. Some friends of ours have already recommended him, and i_nly rests with himself to remain out or go in."
He pulled out his watch and said, "I am sorry to have met you in such sa_ircumstances, but I'm glad to have seen you. It must be seven years or mor_ince you left Miss Rice. You haven't changed much; you keep your good looks."
He laughed at her embarrassment and walked across the road hailing a hansom, just as he used to in old times when he came to see Miss Rice. The memory o_hose days came back upon her. It was strange to meet him again after so man_ears. She felt she had seen him now for the last time. But it was foolish an_icked, too, to think of such things; her husband dying…. But she couldn'_elp it; he reminded her of so much of what was past and gone. A moment afte_he dashed these personal tears aside and walked open-hearted to meet William.
What had the doctor said? She must know the truth. If she was to lose him sh_ould lose everything. No, not everything; her boy would still remain to her, and she felt that, after all, her boy was what was most real to her in life.
These thoughts had passed through her mind before William had had time t_nswer her question.
"He said the left lung was gone, that I'd never be able to stand anothe_inter in England. He said I must go to Egypt."
"Egypt," she repeated. "Is that very far from here?"
"What matter how far it is! If I can't live in England I must go where I ca_ive."
"Don't be cross, dear. I know it's your health that makes you that irritable, but it's hard to bear at times."
"You won't care to go to Egypt with me."
"How can you think that, Bill? Have I ever refused you anything?"
"Quite right, old girl, I'm sorry. I know you'd do anything for me. I'v_lways said so, haven't I? It's this cough that makes me sharp tempered an_retful. I shall be different when I get to Egypt."
"When do we start?"
"If we get away by the end of October it will be all right. It will cost a lo_f money; the journey is expensive, and we shall have to stop there si_onths. I couldn't think of coming home before the end of April."
Esther did not answer. They walked some yards in silence. Then he said—
"I've been very unlucky lately; there isn't much over a hundred pounds in th_ank."
"How much shall we want?"
"Three or four hundred pounds at least. We won't take the boy with us, w_ouldn't afford that; but I should like to pay a couple of quarters i_dvance."
"That won't be much."
"Not if I have any luck. The luck must turn, and I have some splendi_nformation about the Great Ebor and the Yorkshire Stakes. Stack knows of _orse or two that's being kept for Sandown. Unfortunately there is not muc_oing in August. I must try to make up the money: it's a matter of life an_eath."
It was for his very life that her husband was now gambling on the race-course, and a sensation of very great wickedness came up in her mind, but she stifle_t instantly. William had noticed the look of fear that appeared in her eyes, and he said—
"It's my last chance. I can't get the money any other way; and I don't want t_ie yet awhile. I haven't been as good to you as I'd like, and I want to d_omething for the boy, you know."
He had been told not to remain out after sundown, but he was resolved to leav_o stone unturned in his search for information, and often he returned home a_ate as nine and ten o'clock at night coughing—Esther could hear him all u_he street. He came in ready to drop with fatigue, his pockets filled wit_porting papers, and these he studied, spreading them on the table under th_amp, while Esther sat striving to do some needlework. It often dropped out o_er hands, and her eyes filled with tears. But she took care that he shoul_ot see these tears; she did not wish to distress him unnecessarily. Poo_hap! he had enough to put up with as it was. Sometimes he read out th_orses' names and asked her which she thought would win, which seemed to her _ikely name. But she begged of him not to ask her; they had many quarrels o_his subject, but in the end he understood that it was not fair to ask her.
Sometimes Stack and Journeyman came in, and they argued about weights an_istances, until midnight; old John came to see them, and every day he ha_eard some new tip. It often rose to Esther's lips to tell William to back hi_ancy and have done with it; she could see that these discussions onl_atigued him, that he was no nearer to the truth now than he was a fortnigh_go. Meanwhile the horse he had thought of backing had gone up in the betting.
But he said that he must be very careful. They had only a hundred pounds left; he must be careful not to risk this money foolishly—it was his very life- blood. If he were to lose all this money, he wouldn't only sign his own deat_arrant, but also hers. He might linger on a long while—there was no knowing, but he would never be able to do any work, that was certain (unless he wen_ut to Egypt); the doctor had said so, and then it would be she who would hav_o support him. And if God were merciful enough to take him off at once h_ould leave her in a worse plight than he had found her in, and the bo_rowing up! Oh, it was terrible! He buried his face in his hands, and seeme_uite overcome. Then the cough would take him, and for a few minutes he coul_nly think of himself. Esther gave him a little milk to drink, and he said—
"There's a hundred pounds left, Esther. It isn't much, but it's something. _on't believe that there's much use in my going to Egypt. I shall never ge_ell. It is better that I should pitch myself into the river. That would b_he least selfish way out of it."
"William, I will not have you talk in that way," Esther said, laying down he_ork and going over to him. "If you was to do such a thing I should neve_orgive you. I could never think the same of you."
"All right, old girl, don't be frightened. I've been thinking too much abou_hem horses, and am a bit depressed. I daresay it will come out all right. _hink that Mahomet is sure to win the Great Ebor, don't you?"
"I don't think there's no better judge than yourself. They all say if he don'_all lame that he's bound to win."
"Then Mahomet shall carry my money. I'll back him to-morrow."
Now that he had made up his mind what horse to back his spirits revived. H_as able to dismiss the subject from his mind, and they talked of othe_hings, of their son, and they laid projects for his welfare. But on the da_f the race, from early morning, William could barely contain himself. Usuall_e took his winnings and losings very quietly. When he had been especiall_nlucky he swore a bit, but Esther had never seen any great excitement befor_ race was run. The issues of this race were extraordinary, and it was heart- breaking to see him suffer; he could not remain still a moment. A prey to al_he terrors of hope, exhausted with anticipation, he rested himself agains_he sideboard and wiped drops of sweat from his forehead. A broiling sunligh_nfested their window-panes, the room grew oven-like, and he was obliged a_ast to go into the back parlour and lie down. He lay there in his shir_leeves quite exhausted, hardly able to breathe; the arm once so strong an_ealthy was shrunken to a little nothing. He seemed quite bloodless, an_ooking at him Esther could hardly hope that any climate would restore him t_ealth. He just asked her what the time was, and said, "The race is being ru_ow." A few minutes after he said, "I think Mahomet has won. I fancied I sa_im get first past the post." He spoke as if he were sure, and said nothin_bout the evening paper. If he were disappointed, Esther felt that it woul_ill him, and she knelt down by the bedside and prayed that God would allo_he horse to win. It meant her husband's life, that was all she knew. Oh, tha_he horse might win! Presently he said, "There's no use praying, I feel sur_t is all right. Go into the next room, stand on the balcony so that you ma_ee the boy coming along."
A pale yellow sky rose behind the brick neighbourhood, and with agonised sou_he woman viewed its plausive serenity. There seemed to be hope in it_uietness. At that moment the cry came up, "Win-ner, Win-ner." It came fro_he north, from the east, and now from the west. Three boys were shoutin_orth the news simultaneously. Ah, if it should prove bad news! But someho_he too felt that the news was good. She ran to meet the boy. She had a half- penny ready in her hand; he fumbled, striving to detach a single paper fro_he quire under his arm. Seeing her impatience, he said, "Mahomet's won." The_he pavement seemed to slide beneath her feet, and the setting sun she coul_ardly see, so full was her heart, so burdened with the happiness that she wa_ringing to the poor sick fellow who lay in his shirt sleeves on the bed i_he back room. "It's all right," she said. "I thought so too; it seemed lik_t." His face flushed, life seemed to come back. He sat up and took the pape_rom her. "There," he said, "I've got my place-money, too. I hope Stack an_ourneyman come in tonight. I'd like to have a chat about this. Come, give m_ kiss, dear. I'm not going to die, after all. It isn't a pleasant thing t_hink that you must die, that there's no hope for you, that you must go unde_round."
The next thing to do was to pick the winner of the Yorkshire Handicap. In thi_e was not successful, but he backed several winners at Sandown Park, and a_he close of the week had made nearly enough to take him to Egypt.
The Doncaster week, however, proved disastrous. He lost most of his winnings, and had to look forward to retrieving his fortunes at Newmarket. "The worst o_t is, if I don't make up the money by October, it will be no use. They sa_he November fogs will polish me off."
Between Doncaster and Newmarket he lost a bet, and this bet carried him bac_nto despondency. He felt it was no use struggling against fate. Better remai_n London and be taken away at the end of November or December; he couldn'_ast much longer than that. This would allow him to leave Esther at leas_ifty pounds to go on with. The boy would soon be able to earn money. It woul_e better so. No use wasting all this money for the sake of his health, whic_asn't worth two-pence-three-farthings. It was like throwing sovereigns afte_arthings. He didn't want to do any betting; he was as hollow as a shel_nside, he could feel it. Egypt could do nothing for him, and as he had to go, better sooner than later. Esther argued with him. What should she have to liv_or if he was taken from her. The doctors had said that Egypt might set hi_ight. She didn't know much about such things, but she had always heard tha_t was extraordinary how people got cured out there.
"That's true," he said. "I've heard that people who couldn't live a week i_ngland, who haven't the length of your finger of lung left, can go on al_ight out there. I might get something to do out there, and the boy might com_ut after us."
"That's the way I like to hear you talk. Who knows, at Newmarket we might hav_uck! Just one big bet, a winner at fifty to one, that's all we want."
"That's just what has been passing in my mind. I've got particular informatio_bout the Cesarewitch and Cambridgeshire. I could get the price you spea_f—fifty to one against the two, Matchbox and Chasuble—the double event, yo_now. I'm inclined to go it. It's my last chance."