If one were to devote one's mental energies to speculation as to what is goin_n behind the noncommittal fronts of any row of houses in any great city th_maginative mind might be led far.
Bricks, mortar, windows, doors, steps which lead up to the threshold, are wha_re to be seen from the outside. Nothing particular may be transpiring withi_he walls, or tragedies, crimes, hideous suffering may be enclosed. Th_onclusion is obvious to banality—but as suggestive as banal—so suggestive i_act that the hyper-sensitive and too imaginative had better, for their ow_omfort's sake, leave the matter alone. In most cases the existing condition_ould not be altered even if one knocked at the door and insisted on enterin_ith drawn sword in the form of attendant policeman The outside of the slic_f a house in which Feather lived was still rather fresh from its las_ecorative touching up. It had been painted cream colour and had white an_indows and green window boxes with variegated vinca vines trailing from the_nd pink geraniums, dark blue lobelia and ferns filling the earth stuffed i_y the florist who provided such adornments. Passers-by frequently glanced a_t and thought it a nice little house whose amusing diminutiveness was a sor_f attraction. It was rather like a new doll's house.
No one glancing at it in passing at the closing of this particular day ha_eason to suspect that any unaccustomed event was taking place behind th_ream-coloured front. The front door "brasses" had been polished, the window-
boxes watered and no cries for aid issued from the rooms behind them. Th_ouse was indeed quiet both inside and out. Inside it was indeed even quiete_han usual. The servants' preparation for departure had been made graduall_nd undisturbedly. There had been exhaustive quiet discussion of the subjec_ach night for weeks, even before Robert Gareth-Lawless' illness. The smar_oung footman Edward who had means of gaining practical information ha_onstituted himself a sort of private detective. He had in time learned al_hat was to be learned. This, it had made itself clear to him o_nvestigation, was not one of those cases when to wait for evolutionary famil_vents might be the part of discretion. There were no prospects ahead—none a_ll. Matters would only get worse and the whole thing would end in everybod_ot only losing their unpaid back wages but having to walk out into the stree_hrough the door of a disgraced household whose owners would be turned ou_nto the street also when their belongings were sold over their heads. Bette_et out before everything went to pieces and there were unpleasantnesses.
There would be unpleasantnesses because there was no denying that the trades-
people had been played tricks with. Mrs. Gareth-Lawless was only one of a lo_f pretty daughters whose father was a poor country doctor in Jersey. He ha_ad "a stroke" himself and his widow would have nothing to live on when h_ied. That was what Mrs. Lawless had to look to. As to Lord Lawdor Edward ha_earned from those who DID know that he had never approved of his nephew an_hat he'd said he was a fool for marrying and had absolutely refused to hav_nything to do with him. He had six boys and a girl now and big estate_eren't what they had been, everyone knew. There was only one thing left fo_ook and Edward and Emma and Louisa to do and that was to "get out" withou_ny talk or argument.
"She's not one that won't find someone to look after her," ended Edward.
"Somebody or other will take her up because they'll be sorry for her. But u_ot aren't widows and orphans. No one's going to be sorry for us or care _ang what we've been let in for. The longer we stay, the longer we won't b_aid." He was not a particularly depraved or cynical young footman but h_aughed a little at the end of his speech. "There's the Marquis," he added.
"He's been running in and out long enough to make a good bit of talk. Now'_is time to turn up."
After she had taken her cup of tea without cream Feather had fallen asleep i_eaction from her excited agitation. It was in accord with the inevitabl_rend of her being that even before her eyes closed she had ceased to believ_hat the servants were really going to leave the house. It seemed to_idiculous a thing to happen. She was possessed of no logic which could lea_er to a realization of the indubitable fact that there was no reason wh_ervants who could neither be paid nor provided with food should remain in _lace. The mild stimulation of the tea also gave rise to the happy though_hat she would not give them any references if they "behaved badly". It di_ot present itself to her that references from a house of cards which ha_gnominiously fallen to pieces and which henceforth would represent only shad_ailure, would be of no use. So she fell asleep.
* * * * *
When she awakened the lights were lighted in the streets and one directl_cross the way threw its reflection into her bedroom. It lit up the littl_able near which she had sat and the first thing she saw was the pile of smal_ccount books. The next was that the light which revealed them also fel_rightly on the glass knob of the door which led into Robert's room.
She turned her eyes away quickly with a nervous shudder. She had a horror o_he nearness of Rob's room. If there had been another part of the house i_hich she could have slept she would have fled to it as soon as he was take_ll. But the house was too small to have "parts". The tiny drawing-rooms pile_hemselves on top of the dining-room, the "master's bedrooms" on top of th_rawing-rooms, and the nurseries and attics where Robin and the servants slep_ne on the other at the top of the house. So she had been obliged to stay an_ndure everything. Rob's cramped quarters had always been full of smart boot_nd the smell of cigars and men's clothes. He had moved about a good deal an_ad whistled and laughed and sworn and grumbled. They had neither of them ha_ad tempers so that they had not quarrelled with each other. They had talke_hrough the open door when they were dressing and they had invented cleve_ricks which helped them to get out of money scrapes and they had gossiped an_ade fun of people. And now the door was locked and the room was a sort o_orror. She could never think of it without seeing the stiff hard figure o_he bed, the straight close line of the mouth and the white hard nos_harpened and narrowed as Rob's had never been. Somehow she particularly coul_ot bear the recollection of the sharp unnatural modeling of the hard, whit_ose. She could not BEAR it! She found herself recalling it the moment she sa_he light on the door handle and she got up to move about and try to forge_t.
It was then that she went to the window and looked down into the street,
probably attracted by some slight noise though she was not exactly aware tha_he had heard anything.
She must have heard something however. Two four-wheeled cabs were standing a_he front door and the cabman assisted by Edward were putting trunks on top o_hem. They were servants' trunks and Cook was already inside the first ca_hich was filled with paper parcels and odds and ends. Even as her mistres_atched Emma got in carrying a sedate band-box. She was the house-parlourmai_nd a sedate person. The first cab drove away as soon as its door was close_nd the cabman mounted to his seat. Louisa looking wholly unprofessiona_ithout her nurse's cap and apron and wearing a tailor-made navy blue costum_nd a hat with a wing in it, entered the second cab followed by Edwar_ntensely suggesting private life and possible connection with a Bank. Th_econd cab followed the first and Feather having lost her breath looked afte_hem as they turned the corner of the street.
When they were quite out of sight she turned back into the room. The colou_ad left her skin, and her eyes were so wide stretched and her face so draw_nd pinched with abject terror that her prettiness itself had left her.
"They've gone—all of them!" she gasped. She stopped a moment, her chest risin_nd falling. Then she added even more breathlessly, "There's no one left i_he house. It's—empty!"
This was what was going on behind the cream-coloured front, the white window_nd green flower-boxes of the slice of a house as motors and carriages passe_t that evening on their way to dinner parties and theatres, and later as th_oliceman walked up and down slowly upon his beat.
Inside a dim light in the small hall showed a remote corner where on a pe_bove a decorative seat hung a man's hat of the highest gloss and latest form;
and on the next peg a smart evening overcoat. They had belonged to Rober_areth-Lawless who was dead and needed such things no more. The same dim ligh_howed the steep narrowness of the white-railed staircase mounting int_ruesome little corners of shadows, while the miniature drawing-room_llumined only from the street seemed to await an explanation of dimness an_hairs unfilled, combined with unnatural silence.
It would have been the silence of the tomb but that it was now and then broke_y something like a half smothered shriek followed by a sort of moaning whic_ade their way through the ceiling from the room above.
Feather had at first run up and down the room like a frightened cat as she ha_one in the afternoon. Afterwards she had had something like hysterics,
falling face downward upon the carpet and clutching her hair until it fel_own. She was not a person to be judged—she was one of the unexplaine_ncidents of existence. The hour has passed when the clearly moral can sum u_he responsibilities of a creature born apparently without brain, or soul o_ourage. Those who aspire to such morals as are expressed by fairness—mer_airness—are much given to hesitation. Courage had never been demanded o_eather so far. She had none whatever and now she only felt panic an_esentment. She had no time to be pathetic about Robert, being too muc_ccupied with herself. Robert was dead—she was alive—here—in an empty hous_ith no money and no servants. She suddenly and rather awfully realized tha_he did not know a single person whom it would not be frantic to expec_nything from.
Nobody had money enough for themselves, however rich they were. The riche_hey were the more they needed. It was when this thought came to her that sh_lutched her hands in her hair. The pretty and smart women and agreeable mor_r less good looking men who had chattered and laughed and made love in he_rawing-rooms were chattering, laughing and making love in other houses a_his very moment—or they were at the theatre applauding some fashionabl_ctor-manager. At this very moment—while she lay on the carpet in the dark an_very little room in the house had horror shut inside its close_oors—particularly Robert's room which was so hideously close to her own, an_here there seemed still to lie moveless on the bed, the stiff hard figure. I_as when she recalled this that the unnatural silence of the drawing-rooms wa_ntruded upon by the brief half-stifled hysteric shriek, and the moaning whic_ade its way through the ceiling. She felt almost as if the door handle migh_urn and something stiff and cold try to come in.
So the hours went on behind the cream-coloured outer walls and the whit_indows and gay flower-boxes. And the street became more and more silent—s_ilent at last that when the policeman walked past on his beat his heav_egular footfall seemed loud and almost resounding.
To even vaguely put to herself any question involving would not have bee_ithin the scope of her mentality. Even when she began to realize that she wa_eginning to feel faint for want of food she did not dare to contemplate goin_ownstairs to look for something to eat. What did she know about downstairs?
She had never there and had paid no attention whatever to Louisa's complaint_hat the kitchen and Servants' Hall were small and dark and inconvenient an_hat cockroaches ran about. She had cheerfully accepted the simple philosoph_hat London servants were used to these things and if they did their work i_id not really matter. But to go out of one's room in the horrible stillnes_nd creep downstairs, having to turn up the gas as one went, and to face th_asement steps and cockroaches scuttling away, would be even more impossibl_han to starve. She sat upon the floor, her hair tumbling about her shoulder_nd her thin black dress crushed.
"I'd give almost ANYTHING for a cup of coffee," she protested feebly. "An_here's no USE in ringing the bell!"
Her mother ought to have come whether her father was ill or not. He wasn'_ead. Robert was dead and her mother ought to have come so that whateve_appened she would not be quite alone and SOMETHING could be done for her. I_as probably this tender thought of her mother which brought back th_ecollection of her wedding day and a certain wedding present she ha_eceived. It was a pretty silver travelling flask and she remembered that i_ust be in her dressing-bag now, and there was some cognac left in it. She go_p and went to the place where the bag was kept. Cognac raised your spirit_nd made you go to sleep, and if she could sleep until morning the house woul_ot be so frightening by daylight—and something might happen. The little flas_as almost full. Neither she nor Robert had cared much about cognac. Sh_oured some into a glass with water and drank it.
Because she was unaccustomed to stimulant it made her feel quite warm and in _ew minutes she forgot that she had been hungry and realized that she was no_o frightened. It was such a relief not to be terrified; it was as if a pai_ad stopped. She actually picked up one or two of the account books an_lanced at the totals. If you couldn't pay bills you couldn't and nobody wa_ut in prison for debt in these days. Besides she would not have been put i_rison—Rob would—and Rob was dead. Something would happen—something.
As she began to arrange her hair for the night she remembered what Cook ha_aid about Lord Coombe. She has cried until she did not look as lovely a_sual, but after she had bathed her eyes with cold rose-water they began t_eem only shadowy and faintly flushed. And her fine ash-gold hair wa_onderful when it hung over each shoulder in wide, soft plaits. She might be _chool-girl of fifteen. A delicate lacy night-gown was one of the mos_ecoming things one wore. It was a pity one couldn't wear them to parties.
There was nothing the least indecent about them. Millicent Hardwicke had bee_hotographed in one of hers and no one had suspected what it was. Yes; sh_ould send a little note to Coombe. She knew Madame Helene had only let he_ave her beautiful mourning because—. The things she had created were quit_nique—thin, gauzy, black, floating or clinging. She had been quite happy th_orning she gave Helene her orders. Tomorrow when she had slept through th_ight and it was broad daylight again she would be able to think of things t_ay in her letter to Lord Coombe. She would have to be a little carefu_ecause he did not like things to bore him.—Death and widows might—a little—a_irst. She had heard him say once that he did not wish to regard himself i_he light of a charitable institution. It wouldn't do to frighten him away.
Perhaps if he continued coming to the house and seemed very intimate th_rades-people might be managed.
She felt much less helpless and when she was ready for bed she took a littl_ore cognac. The flush had faded from her eye-lids and bloomed in deliciou_ose on her cheeks. As she crept between the cool sheets and nestled down o_er pillow she had a delightful sense of increasing comfort—comfort. What _eautiful thing it was to go to sleep!
And then she was disturbed-started out of the divine doze stealing upon her-b_ shrill prolonged wailing shriek!
It came from the Night Nursery and at the moment it seemed almost worse tha_nything which had occurred all through the day. It brought everything back s_ideously. She had of course forgotten Robin again-and it was Robin! An_ouisa had gone away with Edward. She had perhaps put the child to slee_iscreetly before she went. And now she had wakened and was screaming. Feathe_ad heard that she was a child with a temper but by fair means or foul Louis_ad somehow managed to prevent her from being a nuisance.
The shrieks shocked her into sitting upright in bed. Their shrillness tearin_hrough the utter soundlessness of the empty house brought back all he_errors and set her heart beating at a gallop.
"I—I WON'T!" she protested, fairly with chattering teeth. "I won't!
She had never done anything for the child since its birth, she did not kno_ow to do anything, she had not wanted to know. To reach her now she would b_bliged to go out in the dark-the gas-jet she would have to light was actuall_lose to the outer door of Robert's bedroom—THE room! If she did not die o_anic while she was trying to light it she would have to make her way almos_n the dark up the steep crooked little staircase which led to the nurseries.
And the awful little creature's screams would be going on all the time makin_he blackness and dead silence of the house below more filled with horror b_ontrast-more shut off and at the same time more likely to waken to som_orror which was new.
"I-I couldn't-even if I wanted to!" she quaked. "I daren't! I daren't! _ouldn't do it—for A MILLION POUNDS?" And she flung herself down agai_huddering and burrowing her head under the coverings and pillows she dragge_ver her ears to shut out the sounds.
The screams had taken on a more determined note and a fiercer shrillness whic_he still house heard well and made the most of, but they were so far deadene_or Feather that she began beneath her soft barrier to protest pantingly.
"I shouldn't know what to do if I went. If no one goes near her she'll cr_erself to sleep. It's—it's only temper. Oh-h! what a horrible wail! It—i_ounds like a—a lost soul!"
But she did not stir from the bed. She burrowed deeper under the bed clothe_nd held the pillow closer to her ears.
* * * * *
It did sound like a lost soul at times. What panic possesses a baby who crie_n the darkness alone no one will ever know and one may perhaps give thanks t_hatever gods there be that the baby itself does not remember. What awful wo_f sudden unprotectedness when life exists only through protection—wha_iteous panic in the midst of black unmercifulness, inarticulate soun_owsoever wildly shrill can neither explain nor express.
Robin knew only Louisa, warmth, food, sleep and waking. Or if she knew mor_he was not yet aware that she did. She had reached the age when she generall_lept through the night. She might not have disturbed her mother unti_aylight but Louisa had with forethought given her an infant sleeping potion.
It had disagreed with and awakened her. She was uncomfortable and darknes_nveloped her. A cry or so and Louisa would ordinarily have come to he_leepy, and rather out of temper, but knowing what to do. In this strang_ight the normal cry of warning and demand produced no result.
No one came. The discomfort continued—the blackness remained black. The crie_ecame shrieks—but nothing followed; the shrieks developed into prolonge_creams. No Louisa, no light, no milk. The blackness drew in closer and becam_ thing to be fought with wild little beating hands. Not a glimmer—not _ustle—not a sound! Then came the cries of the lost soul—alone—alone—in _lack world of space in which there was not even another lost soul. And the_he panics of which there have been no records and never will be, because i_he panic stricken does not die in mysterious convulsions he or she grows awa_rom the memory of a formless past—except that perhaps unexplained nightmare_rom which one wakens quaking, with cold sweat, may vaguely repeat the lon_idden thing.
What the child Robin knew in the dark perhaps the silent house which echoe_er might curiously have known. But the shrieks wore themselves out at las_nd sobs came—awful little sobs shuddering through the tiny breast and shakin_he baby body. A baby's sobs are unspeakable things—incredible things. Slowe_nd slower Robin's came—with small deep gasps and chokings between—and when a_ninfantile druglike sleep came, the bitter, hopeless, beaten little sobs wen_n.
But Feather's head was still burrowed under the soft protection of the pillow.