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Chapter 4

  • 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!
  • 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.