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IT was in connection with one of the annual treats of my
district Ragged School that I first saw and came to feel an interest in the
child who lives sadly but lovingly in my memory as "Fairy" Armstrong.
She was indeed "a winsome wee thing"; a sweet-faced, gentle-voiced,
blue-eyed, golden-haired little creature whom to see was for most people to
love. A child whose loveliness, gentleness, and helplessness it might have been
thought would have disarmed even that cupidity which seeks to make gain by
children regardless of the physical suffering or moral injury that may be
inflicted upon them - a dastardly, fiendish cupidity by which Fairy Armstrong
suffered sorely. Poor Fairy! Thy fate was indeed a hard one; and yet not so
utterly hard as that of many another child whose martyrdom has passed unnoticed.
Thou didst at least know something of human sympathy and pity in the worst of
thy evil days, and bad known some happy days ere the evil one fell upon
thee; while thousands of others have known nothing but suffering from their
birth upwards, and have alike lived and died unpitied and unknown. My heart [-32-]
is full as I think of thy fate, and as I recall the story of thy life to
tell it here,-
"My eyes are dim with childish tears,
My heart is idly stirred,
For the same sounds are in my ears,
Which in those days I heard."
It was upon one of the occasions when it fell to me to give out the treat tickets to the Sunday-school scholars that I first noticed Fairy Armstrong. I say noticed, for as at that time she had been five weeks at the school, I had of course seen the little creature before, but it was only now that she attracted any special interest. There was always a considerable influx of scholars as the time for the treat approached. That the rush to the schools at this season was dictated by the wisdom of the serpent the managers did not need to be told, and they met it with something of the same wisdom. They had no hard-and-fast line, no fixed degree of regularity or given number of weeks' attendances that gave a right to the treat. Well-behaved children attending regularly all the year round felt morally certain of being bidden to the feast, but all others were designedly left in what was considered to be a wholesome state of doubt until the treat tickets were given out about a week before the day. The faces of the children upon the occasions of these distributions were a study, and it was while observing them upon the particular occasion to which I refer, that I was struck with that of Fairy Armstrong. On many a young face beside hers there were signs of a struggle between hope [-33-] and doubt, but on no other face was it so plainly or painfully visible as upon hers; no other face struck me as so expressive. While yet some half-dozen children from her, as, list and tickets in hand, I passed along the row in which she stood, I caught her bright blue eyes fixed intently upon me, and saw that she was flushed and panting with excitement. As I came nearer to her, her excitement increased until, by the time I reached her side, her cheeks were all aflame. Her name was not on the list, and the instant I had passed her, her face grew suddenly pale, her head drooped, and though she bit her lips and struggled to "be hard," two great tears welled into her eyes. But, as I was pleased to notice, she did not mutter or grumble, or assume an injured or defiant air, as was the wont of the disappointed. Favouritism in dealing with children is, I know, a bad thing; but I am afraid that some little degree of it is natural. I knew that I was "favouring" Fairy Armstrong, and that it was wrong to do so, but I felt that I must do it.
When I had finished I went back to the governess, and, indicating Fairy Armstrong by a motion of the head, asked-
"Who is that little girl?"
"Her name is Annie Armstrong," answered the governess, "though I generally hear the other children calling her 'Fairy.'"
"Well, she is a fairy-like little creature," I said, glancing towards her as I spoke.
"Yes, she certainly is a pretty child," agreed the [-34-] governess, with a smile; "still I should hardly think the name had been bestowed upon heron that ground alone. Here, Smith," she went on, beckoning to one of the scholars. "Why do you other children call Armstrong 'Fairy'?"
"Which I don't call her it more'n others," answered the girl, who evidently had an idea that she had been called up to be reprimanded.
"I don't suppose you do," said the governess; "but why do you call her so at all?"
"Well, 'cos she's one on 'em, I s'pose," was the to me unintelligible reply.
"I don't know what you mean. One what?" urged the governess.
"One fairy, or whatever you calls 'em, in the pantermine, you know, all in white, and as if they wos in the air like. My brother Bill took me last year, and I seed her myself."
"Oh, and that is why you call her Fairy."
"Yes, and some calls her 'Paper Wings,' and some 'Spangles.' She gets called all sorts of names, but not spiteful uns, like some is called; none on us means no harm to her; we like her, and she don't mind."
"Poor little thing!" I said, referring to Fairy, when the other girl had gone back to her class, "she seems sadly cut up at not getting a ticket; I can't help feeling sorry for her, and if it was a matter of payment I would willingly pay for her."
I was feeling my way, but the governess making no response, I was constrained to speak plainly.
[-35-] "Come," I said, "let me intercede for her; if it is not altogether against law and precedent, you might give her a ticket."
"I have to be very careful in such matters," she answered; "still the point is discretional, and as she has been a very good little girl while she has been here, I'll see what I can do. Armstrong, come here," and when Fairy was nearer she asked, "How long have you come to Sunday-school?"
"This makes the sixth Sunday, please," she answered.
"And you came on purpose to get a ticket for the treat! At any rate, that was what you thought most about, wasn't it now?" she went on, softening her question a little on seeing that the child remained silent.
This time she paused firmly for a reply, and at length Fairy stammered out-
"And now that you haven't got a ticket you won't come to school any more, eh ?"
"Yes, I will, governess," she answered; "I like school." And now she spoke steadily enough, and, raising her head, looked the governess in the face. "I will, indeed," she added earnestly, after a moment's pause, seeing that the other remained silent.
"I believe you will," said the governess, laying her hand kindly upon the child's head; "you are a good girl, Annie. Always tell the truth as you have done to-day. I would have known that it was the thought of getting a ticket that had brought you here, even if you [-36-] had said it was not. If you had denied it I would have thought you a story-telling girl; now I know you are a truthful one - and you shall have a ticket.
The revulsion of feeling which this announcement produced was almost too much for Fairy; it put her beyond speaking her thanks, but the fervent expression of delight and gratitude that overspread her countenance was a thing to remember - and treasure.
On the day of the treat I kept an especial look-out for Fairy. She was one of the first to arrive at the school, and came radiant in smiles - and red ribbons. Her dress was clean and comfortable, but it could certainly not have been described as neat. Most people, even without knowing that she had been upon the stage, would have been disposed to pronounce it stagey. Her well-worn frock of dead white muslin was low-necked and short-skirted, her stockings too were white, and she wore a pair of shiny "sandal" shoes; all the rest of her seemed red. There were red bows at her shoes, a red bow at her breast, her waist was encircled, and her hat heavily trimmed, with red ribbon; she had a little red worsted shawl over her left arm, and the paper flag that she carried - it was a custom with the children to provide themselves with small paper flags on these occasions - was also red.
"Here you are then, Annie," I said, as she took her place in the class; "why you are a regular little Red Riding Hood."
She looked puzzled for a moment, and then, her face [-37-] brightening, she answered with a volubility arising out of her state of excitement- "Oh, I know, sir! the little girl in the story ; dad's told me about it; he knows lots of stories. We had the ribbon by us," she went on, glancing down at her shoe bows, "and dad said I should wear it; he likes me to look nice."
Her faith in "dad's" taste and in "dad" generally was evidently unbounded, and as it was not for me to say anything reflecting upon the correctness of his taste, I passed on to other children, leaving Fairy proud and happy in her too-liberal adornment of red.
The treat-ground this year was a lovely common some sixteen miles south-west of London; and here Fairy enjoyed herself with a thoroughness and abandon that was specially noticeable even in a scene in which hearty enjoyment was the prevailing feature. She raced on the grass, flitted about flower-gathering among the underwood, led mimic battles in which the combatants lightly pelted each other with fir cones, and, conspicuous by her red ribbons, skipped and danced about in all directions in wild exuberance of spirits-
"Turning to mirth all things of earth
As only childhood can."
She was nine years old, the governess informed me, in reply to a question, and she was little for her age; but when tea-time came she was quite motherly in helping to [-38-] look after the younger children, and was most unselfish in giving way to others.
In preparing for the return journey she showed the same spirit, "making room" for others time after time, until in the end she found herself squeezed in a corner of the van in most uncomfortable fashion. Seeing this, I lifted her out of that vehicle and took her beside myself on the driver's seat of another van. She was quite tired out, and we were scarcely under weigh on the homeward ride when, nestling close to my side, she fell fast asleep. The season was far enough advanced for the evenings to be slightly chilly; and, seeing that she had fallen asleep, the driver good-naturedly brought a rug out of his box and put it over her. I knew this driver as a "hand" of the gentleman who had lent the van, knew that he was a decent labouring man, living in the neighbourhood, and, noticing the fatherly tenderness with which he "tucked" the wrapper round Fairy, I asked him-
"Do you know her?"
"Well, like most others living in our neighbourhood, I know her in a general way."
"What are her people?" was my next question.
"Well, there's only two on em as 1 know of;" he answered, " her father as she lives with, and her grandmother - Mother Dreadful as they call her - as I expect would like Fairy to live with her, though it would be a bad job for her if she did."
"Is the old woman a bad one, then ?"
"And no mistake!" answered the driver, giving his [-39-] whip a flick by way of emphasis; "she ain't called Mother Dreadful for nothink. I should say she was a bad un! If there's ever a worse I should just like to see 'em, or rather I shouldn't like to see em. She must have missed her turn when hearts was a-given out. I never raised a finger agen a woman in my life, and I wouldn't, and in a general way I would be for knocking down any one as I saw doing it; but for all that I think a good dose of this" - shaking his whip - "is what would suit Mother Dreadful's complaint, and when I think of her I almost feel as if I could give it her."
"What is she?" I asked.
"She calls herself a minder," was the answer.
"A minder!" I echoed. "What's that?"
"Well, a real minder," he replied, "is a woman as bakes charge of children for the day while their mothers are out at work; but the minding is only a blind with Dreadful, her place is a regular young beggars' opera."
Again I was rather at a loss as to my companion's exact meaning.
"A beggars' opera?" I said.
"Yes; trains young beggars," exclaimed the driver; "mostly singing ones, though she has all sorts. Bless you, sir, people would hardly believe there could be such things if they didn't see em with their own eyes as I've done. Why, I've seen her with a dozen children round her, teaching em to sing their beggin' songs, just as you might be teaching a class in school their ymns. That wouldn't matter so much; it's the way as she [-40-] knocks the poor little creatures about, and starves 'em, that's the black thing agen her."
"But as I understood you just now, this little girl does not live with her," I said.
"No; but she'd like her to," he responded. "She thinks the father don't make enough out of her, and she has tried it on to get her away from him; but though he's a bit soft on most things, he held fast there. There's no mistake about him loving his daughter."
"What is the father?" I asked.
"Well, that's just as you like to name him," replied our companion. "You could call him a musician, or a teacher of music, or a husker, which is what he really is. He's got a card with 'Music Lessons Given' stuck in his window, though I never heard of any one going to him for lessons - not but what I dare say he could give em, for he can play on a'most anythink. He plays about the piers and in steamboat bands in summer, and in winter at the sing-songs and hops about our neighbourhood-the public-house concerts and balls, you know."
"And does he take this little girl with him to such places?" I asked.
"Not to the hops or sing-songs, he don't," answered my companion; "and he won't neither, though he's had offers to do it as would have tempted many a man. Fairy can sing and dance, and then she could be put as from 'The Theatre Royal;' and I know the landlord of the 'Help-me-through-the-World' offered him fifteen shillings a week to let her appear at his Saturday and [-41-] Monday concerts, but the ole man wouldn't. And that's what crabs Mother Dreadful so much. I've seen her almost a crying with vexation, saying as how the child was a ready-made fortune to anybody as had sense."
When the vans reached the school there was a crowd of the parents waiting about, and Fairy, after one rapid glance at them, joyously exclaimed-
"There's dad! There's dad!"
Dad kissed his hand to her, and began to work his way forward; a tall, thin, round-shouldered man, with remarkably long arms and a shambling gait; middle-aged, with iron-grey hair, worn long and in limp ringlets. He had a shrinking, nervous expression in his eye, and a naturally cadaverous face made strikingly so by a bluish-black tinge on the cheeks arising from constant shaving. The children in the van had to get out at the back, so that he alone among the parents stood at the driver's end, and I had a good look at him, though a brief one, for Fairy, bidding me a hasty good night, called out, "Catch, dad!" and then sprang fearlessly into his arms.
He kissed her as he caught her, and putting her gently on her feet, wrapped round her a shawl that he had brought. Taking her hand, they started homewards, Fairy skipping at a pace that put him to the trot to keep up with her.
On the Sunday following the treat there was, as usual, a large falling off in the attendance at the school; but Fairy, as I was glad to see, was not among the absentees. [-42-] On that and the two following Sundays she was duly in attendance; on the fourth Sunday, however, I missed her, and again on the fifth, and I was reluctantly coming to class her with the backsliders, when I received a letter of explanation from her father, dated from Margate, and stating that it was his practice to take Annie to the seaside for a few weeks every year; that this year he had gone away in a hurry, and his child had been so put out at not having been able to tell her Sunday-school teachers that she was going, that at last yielding to her importunities he had written to explain, though he "dare sayed" we cared very little about it.
Happening to meet my van-driving friend a day or two later, I mentioned the receipt of this letter to him, and speaking of Armstrong, observed "he appears to be a person of some education, and speaks of taking the child to the sea-side every year. Has he any means?" I asked.
"Oh, no!" exclaimed the man. "It's the other way about, as you may say. Instead of him having means to take her to the sea-side, it's taking her to the sea-side as gets him the means. His holidays pays its own expenses and something to the good. They go busking about to hotels and on the sands, him playing and her singing and going round collecting; and that's a bit of a draw, mind you, as there's plenty'll give to a pretty little girl as wouldn't give to a rusty-looking old feller like 'im. Their sea-side trip and the pantermime season are their best times."
[-43-] "But I thought you said he didn't take her about with him," I observed.
"Not to public-houses, he don't," was the answer; "but he does out of doors sometimes, and I think she likes it; at any rate she don't dislike, or she wouldn't be at it; I know he'd rather starve than force her to a thing like that."
Now, I had not so hard an opinion of the wandering- musician class as I know many good people have - principally, I think, because I had a considerable knowledge of the class. Still, I knew very well that, making all due allowances, it was not a profession in which any one taking a friendly interest would like to see a child brought up - especially a girl. And as I had come to take a very friendly interest in Fairy Armstrong, I decided, even at the risk of being considered meddlesome, to attempt to bring about her withdrawal from such a profession. With this purpose in view, I waited upon her father a few days after his return, some three weeks later than the date of his letter. He occupied a couple of rooms in a quiet by-street mostly inhabited by respectable labourers and their families, and I easily picked out his apartment by means of the card announcing "Music Lessons," of which the van-driver had made mention. I had selected a wet morning as being a likely time to find him in, and I was doubly fortunate on this point, as I found not only that he was at home, but that Fairy, whose presence would have been a check upon a conversation respecting herself, was out, having gone to a neighbour's house.
[-44-] Armstrong himself opened the door, and greeted me with a coldly uttered, "What may be your pleasure, sir? But on my mentioning my name, and that I had come to speak to him about his daughter, his face instantly brightened, and, asking me to come in, he led the way to his living-room. It was a clean, cosey little room, but - rare fault in my district - looked crowdedly furnished - an appearance, however, that was due not to any unusual quantity of ordinary household furniture, but to the presence in the room of a large, old-fashioned piano. Over the piano hung a couple of violins, a cornet-a-piston, and three flutes; coloured frontispieces from popular pieces of music were pasted about the walls by way of pictures, and a pile of sheet music had to be placed on the floor to free a chair for my use. Apart from the musical signs and tokens, the outfitting of the room was commonplace enough, with the exception perhaps of a large-sized, finely executed, and nicely coloured photographic portrait of Fairy in stage costume, which, in a heavy, gilt frame, occupied the place of honour over the mantelpiece.
"I hope you have not come to complain of Annie," said Armstrong, rather nervously, when he had taken a seat.
"Oh, no, anything but that," I answered. "We are all very fond of her at school, and feel an interest in her welfare, and - and - in fact, that is what I have come to speak about."
The subject I had come to broach was a delicate one, [-45-] and now that I was face to face with the father I was at a loss as to how I should come to it, my consciousness of good-will in the matter notwithstanding.
"The fact is, Mr. Armstrong," I said, " I take so warm an interest in your little daughter that, coupled with what I have heard of your affection for her, it has emboldened me to come here, and in all kindliness put it to you as a matter for consideration whether the career to which she is now growing up is well calculated to promote her welfare."
His face flushed as I finished speaking, and for some seconds he sat in silence, nervously twitching his fingers, then, in a voice made husky by the endeavour to keep it steady under strong emotion he answered-
"You need not put that to me, sir, as a matter for consideration; I have considered it times out of number - considered it till both heart and brain have ached - considered it tearfully and prayerfully, and I hope, though it would tear my heart-strings to part with her, unselfishly."
"And what conclusion have you arrived at?" I asked looking at him in surprise.
"Well, you see, she is still as she is and what she is," was his enigmatical answer.
"From the tone in which you speak, I can scarcely believe that you think that the best career for her," I said.
"Well, I hardly know," he answered slowly; "the best is rather wide term; there's many things must go [-46-] to the making up of any best, and it may have many meanings. I do think that as she is constituted, and as things have come to be between her and me, it is the happiest career she could have for the present, at any rate. In any other she would have to be separated from me, and that, though I say it, would break her heart - would make her miserable anywhere. There is a wandering strain in both of us. I have known better days, as the phrase runs, but always more or less wandering ones. My father was the manager of a provincial theatrical company, with which he 'worked' an extensive circuit. Sometimes he kept his brougham; at others, had to keep us without Sunday's dinner to pay the Saturday-night salaries of his company. On an average, however, he was pretty well to do, and he always managed to keep up an appearance, and through all to give me a good education. When I grew up I was furbisher of plays to the company. In my day I have written what by courtesy were called original dramas; I have acted, I have arranged music for, and been 'musical director' of, a large theatre; and if I had only had what some call 'push' and others 'cheek' in my composition, I might have got on in the world. As it was, I came down in the world. From being musical director of a large theatre, I came down to being second fiddle in a small one, and so on down to what I am now - a busker. It was when I was about midway in my downward career that I met with my wife, who was in the ballet at a minor suburban theatre, where I was in the orchestra. As you may have heard, [-47-] she was the daughter of the woman they call Mother Dreadful hereabout; but she had none of her mother's evil disposition in her. She was a simple, kind-hearted creature, and things might have gone differently with Annie if she had lived. But she died when her child was only a year old, and I was as both father and mother to Annie till she was old enough to understand, and then we grew to be companions. Believe me, sir, to separate would be to injure us - her as well as me. I once read some lines that I always remember as being - to my thinking - specially applicable to the relations between my daughter and me, or the notion of making us other than we are. They run -
'For the slender beech and the sapling oak
That grow by the shadowy rill
You may cut down both at a single stroke,
You may cut down which you will;
But this you must know, that, as long as they grow,
Whatever change may be,
You never can teach either oak or beech
To be aught but a greenwood tree.'"
To find in the inhabitant of some very humble homes the follower of some very poorly paid employment, a thoughtful, well-educated person who had "known better days," was a common enough experience with me; still I felt surprised at finding what manner of man Fairy Armstrong's father was, and had been, and I listened to him with a sensation of wonder as well as of interest. For the moment I scarcely knew how to reply, and so mere1y observed-
[-48-] "But your daughter is very young."
"She is, sir," he assented; "but, whether for good or ill, I believe you'll find that she is a twig that has received its bent. There is one thing, I think, I am entitled to say," he went on, opening the door of the inner room, and beckoning me forward as he spoke, "and that is, that she is neither uncomfortable nor neglected. This is her nest."
Following the sweep of his hand, I glanced around the little inner room, which was, upon the whole, bright, cheery, and cosey - such a room as but few children indeed of the poorer working classes could have had to themselves. The little bed had a snow-white coverlet and hangings, and scattered about were pieces of cheap childish finery, picture books, and even toys; while from the open window came a welcome perfume from a number of carefully tended pot-flowers standing on the window-sill, and enclosed by a neatly-painted lath railing.
"That is her own room," Armstrong went on, when I had finished my survey; "as yet she has never known what it is to want a meal, and very rarely known what it is to hear a cross word from me; and so far as I can I look to her moral and religious training, and shield her from all evil influences."
"Well, I was pleased to see that the child was so well cared for," I said, "and I did not doubt his affection for her, but - but -" and here I broke down.
"Don't think I would stand in the way of my child, [-49-] sir," he said earnestly. "I am only anxious for her happiness - and I'll leave it to her. I give you my word that she shall have no hint from me of the object of your call here, and I will trust to your honour as a gentleman not to use any undue persuasion with her, and with that understood, you can try her on the subject the first time you see her. If you find her willing to leave her present mode of life, if you find her even not unwilling, I will do anything I can to help you."
This arrangement was the only one to which I could come in the end.. Such as it was, I proceeded to carry it out at the earliest opportunity: but the alarmed manner and scared look exhibited by Fairy on my merely hinting at the possibility of her being separated from her father, were sufficient to cause me to desist in my attempt.
"I knew it would be so," said the father, speaking to me a day or two later on meeting me in the street. "You see it would make her as well as me unhappy to part us. Not, mark you, sir, that I say she wouldn't give up her present way of life, if that was all; it's our companionship that is the pull. When I am gone, the case will be different; and I will go all the happier now, for knowing that there is at least one person in the world who takes an interest in her. She'll still be young enough to train for something else; for I'm not long for this world." He spoke with a coolness that was astonishing, considering the nature of his remarks; but making no comment upon that point, I merely observed-
[-50-] "How long we may be for this world is a thing that none of us can know."
"I mean nothing irreverent, sir," he answered; "that of course is only my impression, but I have grounds for it. I have felt for years past that whatever of stamina I may have had has been diminishing. My chest has failed me so that for a year past I have had to give up wind instruments altogether, and now I habitually feel sick and shaky as I go about in the daytime, and exhausted when I get home at night. I am pretty near worn out, and as I am not in a position to lie by or nurse myself; I must die in harness."
I scarcely knew what to answer to this, and while I was hesitating he resumed-
"If my fear, or feelings, or whatever it is, should prove true, would you still be willing to befriend my child?"
"More willing then than even I am now," I replied.
"God bless you!" he exclaimed fervently, by way of answer; and as he spoke he grasped my hand, and then hastily walked away, though not before I had caught a glimpse of the tears that he sought to hide.
Looking at his bowed and wasted figure as he passed down the street, I could not help acknowledging to myself that there was in all likelihood a good deal of truth in what he had said about his being a worn-out man. But as this thought passed through my mind little did I think that for him the end was so near as in the event it proved to be. Three months later he was dead. The "outing" season was drawing to a close, and he had [-51-] been working very hard as a member of bands accompanying or hanging on to excursion parties. On one of these excursions he had got wet, and going about in his damp clothes for many hours afterward, had caught a severe cold. He had been strongly advised to nurse it, but saying that he must make a little money for "wintering" on, he persevered in going out day after day, and the result was fatal in the end. One night, in the midst of a paroxysm of coughing, he fell from his chair, and the people in the lower part of the house rushing up, on hearing Fairy's screams, found him insensible, and blood gushing from the mouth. He had ruptured important blood vessels; and the next day Fairy was an orphan.
I heard of the death within a few hours of its taking place, and immediately hastened to the house, where the first discovery I made was that Mother Dreadful had already "come down like a wolf on the fold." I need scarcely say that I was deeply chagrined but feeling that I must accept the situation, I did so with the best grace I could muster.
"Where is the child?" I asked civilly.
"In her own room, pore little dear, a sobbin' her 'art out a'most," she drawled out in a whining tone that was palpably "put on." "It's so sudden, yer see, but I dessay she'll be better presently; I've been a cheerin' of her up all I can."
"Don't you think it would be well for me to take her away for a while?" I said; "I know a lady that would take charge of her till something could be arranged for her."
[-52-] "Well, thanking you kindly, sir, I think I'd rayther take care of her myself," she answered, a covert sneer underlying her lachrymose tone. "I think her own grandmother is the fittest person to have charge of her."
I saw that any attempt at persuasion would be useless, and so assuming a sterner tone, I said-
"Now, look here, Mrs. -, this is neither a time nor place for wrangling, but I must be plain. I don't think you are the fittest person to have charge of this child; but, remember this, if you do persist in keeping her with you, you shall be well watched."
"I can stand being watched," she replied, now sneering undisguisedly; "I know what my rights are, and what yours aren't, and I don't care that for you or any of yer sort," snapping her fingers contemptuously.
I did see that she was watched in respect to her conduct towards Fairy, but I could hear of no attempt on her part to deal harshly with her. Finding, however, that at the end of three weeks she did not return to Sunday-school, I determined upon bearding the lion in her den, and accordingly proceeded to Mother Dreadful's residence.
"And what might you want?" was the greeting with which she met me on the doorstep.
"I wanted to know why Annie Armstrong did not attend Sunday-school now."
"Just because I ain't goin' to let her attend a school where her mind II be poisoned agen me - that's why," she retorted defiantly.
"That's nonsense," I said impatiently.
[-53-] "It's what I'm going to stick to, any way," she answered, in the same tone. "As I told you before, I knows my rights, and I intend to stand by 'em. I wouldn't spoil her, like her fool of a father, but I'm doing what's right by her; you can speak to her, if you like."
"By herself?" I questioned.
"Oh yes," she answered; "I'll take a turn up the street while you see her; I know you can't stand to take her away."
Accepting this offer, I entered the house, where I found Fairy looking very thin and grief-stricken and still mourning with heart-breaking intensity for her lost "dad." But while the sorrowful expression of her young face was pitiful to see, she was comfortably clad in mourning, and had no complaint to make of hard living or ill-usage, but spoke of "grandmother" being very good to her.
I could point to nothing substantial to justify suspicion, and my work at this time taking me into another part of my district, and giving me many other people and things to think about, Fairy Armstrong was comparatively forgotten.
But, as events proved, she was destined to be but too soon brought under my notice again. Some three months after my last-mentioned interview with her, on a sloppy, foggy, miserable Saturday night in December I was surprised by a visit from my van-driver friend. He looked strongly excited and mysterious withal, and his [-54-] greeting was in keeping with the expression of his face.
"Look here, sir," he broke out, "come with me, and ast no questions; the thing as I shall take you to see will explain itself."
"Can't you tell me what it is?" I asked.
"Well, of course I could," he answered, "but I'd rather not. An hour's telling wouldn't bring it home to you half as strong as a minute's seeing. You may take my word for it, sir, that when you have seen it, you'll say that seeing it first, without hearing about it, was out-and-out the best way."
I could see that he had set his heart on having his own way in the matter; and so, waiving the point, set out with him. He kept a little ahead, with a view, as I took it. of avoiding questions on my part; and, after about ten minutes' walk, stopped in front of a large corner public-house known as the "Help-me-through-the-World."
"Are we going in here?" I asked.
"Yes, up into the sing-song room," he answered, and entering the house as he spoke, left nothing for me but to follow.
A description of a London sing-song would not be without a certain grim interest, but there is neither space nor necessity to give the description here. Suffice it to say that the large room was crowded with a rough, noisy, more or less drunken audience, and reeked with the fumes of rankly strong tobacco and cheap cigars. I [-55-] entered at a favourable moment; for the audience being engaged in roaring a chorus, I was able to take a seat unobserved.
It was a last verse they were chorusing, and the retiring singer was succeeded by a father bringing on two tiny children, whom he put through a number of violent contortions. Then ensued a pause and buzz of expectation, until the chairman rose and announced that Fairy Armstrong, of the Theatre Royal, would now make her first appearance as a juvenile character singer and dancer.
This announcement was received with enthusiastic approbation, which found vent in the hammering of pewter pots upon tables. Under cover of this, my companion whispered-
"There, now, the murder's out! That's Mother Dreadful's doings. It was to bring her to this that she pretended to be so kind to her. Look here, sir, I'd sooner see a little girl of mine laid in her grave than brought on to that stage. I say nothing agen the poor things as gets their liven in such places, God help 'em, they've most likely been drove to it, or never known anything better; but you see for yourself what sort come here."
"But what do you want me to do?" I whispered.
"Do!" he exclaimed, in the same low but energetic tone. "Why, if you really care for her, as I think you do, save her from this. Though her poor old father let her go with other children on the theatre stage, he'd [-56-] have rather seen her dead at his feet than brought here to perform - he knew what it meant."
At this point the hammering and shouting suddenly ceased, and Fairy, clad in ballet costume, skipped lightly on to the stage, and gracefully acknowledged the round of applause with which she was received. Then she raised her head, gave a quick glance round the room and at the upturned faces, and instantly - as, watching her intently, I could see - turned pale and faltered.
My companion also noticed this, for, clutching my arm, he whispered-
"There, do you see that? the light has broke in on her; you may depend she didn't know the sort of place she was being brought to."
Before I could make any reply, all was uproar and confusion, for Fairy, after standing stock-still for a minute, gave a hysterical scream, and, covering her face with her hands, rushed from the stage. Amid all the noise in front of the stage, I could hear angry voices behind it; and, without a moment's further hesitation, I pushed my way up, and boldly opening a side door, found myself in the little apartment which served the performers as waiting-room. Fairy was in the centre of an excited group, consisting of performers, waiters, the landlord, and Mother Dreadful. The last-named personage was grasping Fairy tightly by the shoulder, and trying to induce her to sip at some brandy which she held in a glass. Fairy's face being towards the door, she was the first to recognise me, and shaking herself free from her [-57-] grandmother's grasp, she sprang to my side, and seizing my hand, exclaimed-
"Oh, teacher, take me away; take me away from here, please." For, though I was not her teacher, she had always addressed me by that title since the day on which I had got her the "treat" ticket.
Before I could make any answer beyond what was conveyed by a pressure of the hand, the grandmother, her face all aflame with passion, broke out-
"So it's you as has put her up to this, is it? It's a plant, eh?"
"Look here, Mrs. ----," I returned, "if I had known of this sooner, I would have interfered to prevent the child's being here at all, as now I shall interfere to prevent her being brought here again."
"And how will you prevent it?" she asked, with a sneer.
"Not by any appeal to you, certainly," was my answer, "but I warn the landlord that if he persists in being a party to the dragging of this child here against her will, I will do all that I can to get his license taken from him."
The landlord protested that he would have nothing further to do with the affair; that he had been misled by Mother Dreadful, and "done out" of three pounds, which he had let her have in advance.
Hearing the landlord speak in this way, Mother Dreadful, shrugging her shoulders, and glancing significantly at me, observed-
[-58-] "Ah, well, if she won't work at this sort of thing, she must at something else. I can't keep her in idleness."
"You needn't keep her at all," I said; "I am willing to take her off your hands."
"But I'm not quite willing to let you."
"Then you had better take care how you treat her," I said.
"That is just what I will do," she answered. "I know my book."
As there was nothing more to be done under the circumstances, I left the house, but with a mind full of forebodings for poor Fairy.
On the life of the child for a space of three months following, I will not dwell. It would profit nothing to speak of her termagant grandmother's cunning cruelty to her, or my feelings at finding myself impotent to prevent it. She "knew her book," as she phrased it. She did not thrash Fairy, or starve her, nor did she make her do anything that was not done by scores of other children in the neighbourhood; and yet it is not too much to say that she was killing her by inches. In the cold, wet winter weather, poor little Fairy, her spirit utterly broken, was sent out step-cleaning, the result being that she caught severe colds, that her hands were chapped, her feet chilblained, and herself altogether miserable - and I could do very little to alleviate her sufferings, for the law, as she managed to keep within the letter of it, was upon the side of Mother Dreadful.
Such was the position of affairs when one dark and [-59-] bitterly cold night in March, returning from the opposite side of the river in a small boat, I landed at the waterman's stairs of my district.
"A black night," I observed, in passing, to the man in charge of the stairs.
"It is," he replied; " I wish it wasn't, for I'm trying to keep a bright look-out."
"Expecting anything particular up the river, then?" I questioned.
"No; it's on shore here I want to keep my eye," he answered. "There's some poor girl dodging about here in sad trouble; and young as she is, I do believe she means to make a plunge of it. I've heard her sobbing and moaning; but when I try to go near her she scuds away and hides, and I don't like to go far in case she should give me the slip and get down the steps. Whist!" he went on, suddenly dropping his voice, and laying his hand upon my shoulder, "there she comes, you'll see her in half a minute; she'll come into the light of that lamp."
I turned my gaze towards the spot he indicated, and presently made out coming slowly forward, and peering anxiously about her - Fairy Armstrong.
In my surprise I blurted out her name, whereupon the man at my side, slapping his thigh, exclaimed,-
"Bless me, so it is! To think as I shouldn't a known her. Here I dessay I've been putting myself in a sweat for nothink; it's most likely as she's just been a-looking Out for you. Were you expecting of her?"
[-60-] "No," I replied; "but if she had been inquiring for me she would be told I was over the water." Without waiting to say more I hastened up the stairs, and the instant I came into the light Fairy rushed up to me, and, throwing herself sobbing into my arms, exclaimed,-
"O teacher, teacher! take me with you; I daren't go back to grandmother again!"
Then, as well as her grief would let her, she told her story. Her hands were so sore that she could not clean steps, and she had gone home on the previous day without having earned anything. But the grandmother had sent her out again this morning, telling her that, if she returned again without money, see would "lick her within an inch of her life." Fairy. had attempted to clean one set of steps, but the pain of her hands was so great that she had been compelled to desist, and, being again without money, feared to venture home, believing that her grandmother would do as she said.
As in heart-broken accents she poured out her tale, I resolved that I would defy Mother Dreadful, and chance her carrying out her oft-repeated threat of "lawing" me. Having found her acomfortable shelter for the night, on the following day I arranged with a benevolent lady that Fairy should be taken into her house; should be nursed there till she was strong again, and then brought in to be an assistant-nursemaid - always supposing that we succeeded in keeping Mother Dreadful at bay, as, happily, we were able to do, for though she came storming to the house and renewed her threats of "lawing," she took no [-61-] action in the matter, probably seeing that she had as much to fear as we had from any appeal to law.
But alas for poor Fairy! Though she was lovingly nursed, she was destined never to be "strong again. The hardship she had gone through had been too much for her delicate constitution. The doctor called in to attend her could not say that she was suffering from any specific complaint. She simply faded away. She, as well as those around her, knew for weeks before she died that she was dying. And in a simple child like but still confident and happy way, she was prepared to go. She spoke calmly, and with all the unquestioning faith of a child, of meeting her "dear Saviour," of being with the angels, and seeing "dad" again. She had a natural love of music, and her greatest delight towards the last was when the lady of the house would play over the air, while she (Fairy) murmured a verse or two of a favourite hymn of our Sunday-school scholars-
"I know I'm weak and sinful,
But Jesus will forgive;
For many little children
Have gone to heaven to live.
Dear Saviour, when I languish,
And lay me down to die,
Oh! send a shining angel
To bear me to the sky.
Oh, there I'll be an angel,
And with the angels stand,
A crown upon my forehead,
A harp within my hand;
[-62-] And there before my Saviour,
So glorious and so bright,
I'll wake the heavenly music,
And praise Him day and night."
When the end came it was peace. Painlessly, and with a smile on her lips, she passed away. By the kindness of friends who had become interested in her, she was laid in the same grave as her father; so that of the poor broken-down busker and his child it might, with very little stretch of poetical license, be said that they "were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided."