The Strand Magazine/Volume 2/Issue 7/Woke Up at Last

Illustrations by Gordon Browne.

4032754The Strand Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 7 — "Woke Up At Last,"Kate Lee

Woke Up at Last.

The Vision of St. Helena. By Paulo Veronese.
(In the National Gallery.)

T HERE'S room for you too, Nellie!" said Ralphie, in his sweet, feeble voice. So Nellie curled herself up beside him in the capacious old leathered-covered armchair which always stood beside the parlour fire.

There was a splendid fire flaming in the grate, so the children did not mind being alone in the on-coming darkness. They were quite happy, nestling together in the big chair, with the firelight playing on their faces and flickering all over the room. The changeful golden glow and the strange leaping shadows brought beauty and mystery into Mrs. Clarke's barely-furnished little parlour.

Mrs. Clarke herself had gone out to do some marketing. She had been a long time gone, and in their secret hearts the children hoped it would be a long while yet before she returned. Poor
"The firelight shone on the two little faces."
Mrs. Clarke, soft-hearted as a baby, but careful and troubled about many things, was often rather cross and disagreeable. Since Mr. Clarke's death four years ago she had been a lodging-house keeper, and lodging-house keeping had spoiled her temper, and brought anxious puckers and wrinkles to her once smooth forehead. But the fact that she had adopted little orphaned Ralphie was proof enough of her being at heart a thoroughly kind and womanly woman.

This was the sad history, so far as Mrs. Clarke knew it, of Ralphie's parentage. Seven years ago, when Mr. Clarke was alive and when Mrs. Clarke only let out two top rooms of her house, there came one day a gentleman seeking lodgings for himself, his wife, and baby. Mrs. Clarke knew he was a gentleman, although he was shabbily dressed, and could not afford to pay much for the rooms. He was an artist, he said, and his face was so sad, gentle, and winning that Mrs. Clarke needed no other recommendation, and even let him have the rooms for much less than she had originally asked. No one knew better than Mrs. Clarke the heart-rending struggles with ill-fortune and poverty her lodgers went through, and no one was sadder than Mrs. Clarke when the young artist laid down his brush for the last time, and took to his bed and died. And when, not many months later, the young artist's girl-wife, broken-hearted, followed her husband into the unseen world, it was Mrs. Clarke who took compassion on the sickly, wailing baby boy, and brought him up side by side with her own little daughter Nellie.

As the firelight shone on the two little faces it was easy to see that the children were not brother and sister. Ralphie's face was delicately pretty, with white arched brow and sensitive blue eyes; Nellie's was plain, plump, and happy-looking. They had been sitting silent for a long time. Nellie was half asleep; her dark head with the straight hair cut short all round it lying against Ralphie's curls of silky gold. Ralphie's dreaming, dilating eyes were fixed upon the clear flaming fire.

"Nellie!" said Ralphie suddenly, "I should think that lady in the picture woke up!"

"What lady, Ralphie?" said Nellie, opening wide her sleepy brown eyes.

"The lady that's asleep, and that the angel boys are flying down to with a cross," said Ralphie.

"That picture in the big gallery that you're so fond of?" said Nellie, suddenly comprehending.

"Yes," answered Ralphie, and went on dreamily: "P'raps these angels are her own little boys that died one day and went to heaven. And one day they wanted to go back to see their mother. So Jesus let them fly down on His cross. But they found their mother fast asleep, she was so tired out with crying because her little boys had died. That's what the picture shows you. I 'spect she woke up soon, and saw her little boys that had been turned into angels. The picture doesn't show you that, but I should think Jesus didn't let them go back to heaven without letting their mother wake up and see them."

This was Ralphie's interpretation of the picture of the vision of St. Helena which hangs in the National Gallery. Mrs. Clarke's house was in a small street scarcely a quarter of an hour's walk from Trafalgar-square, so Ralphie and Nellie often wandered to the "big gallery," as they called it, and spent many happy hours there, gazing and marvelling at the pictures. To Ralphie the pictures were of absorbing and entrancing interest, and many an odd, quaint fancy about them was lodged in his busy brain. The child had inherited his father's impressionable, imaginative artist nature. "How glad she must have been," went on Ralphie, "when she woke up and saw———"

"Mrs. Clarke had come home very tired."

Ralphie stopped. Mrs. Clarke had come home, heavily laden with parcels, very tired, and consequently very cross, so although they were very quiet and could not possibly have been in the way, snugged up as they were in the armchair, Ralphie and Nellie were immediately dispatched to bed. They were able, however, to finish their talk about the picture while they undressed. Nellie shared her mother's bed, and Ralphie slept in a closet close by. They always left their doors open, and talked while they got into bed, and sometimes for a long time after. To-night Ralphie would have continued to talk about the lady in the picture long after he and Nellie had nestled down in bed, but Nellie was tired, and fell asleep as soon as her little head touched the pillow.

Ralphie had a bad night. Sometimes he was burning hot, sometimes shivering with cold. He tossed about and muttered to himself, and it was very late before he fell asleep. In the morning when he awoke, there was a strange excitement in his eyes. He lay still a little while, his brain working strangely. Then he slipped out of bed, and went to Nellie's bedside. Mrs. Clarke had been up for some time, but little Nellie was still sleeping. A good shake soon aroused her.

"Nellie!" cried Ralphie, excitedly. "The lady in the picture woke up! She woke up and spoke to me! Nellie, let's go and see if it'll come true! She opened her eyes, and spoke to me! Let's go and see if it'll come true!"

He had much ado to make the bewildered Nellie understand what he wanted her to do—to get up there and then, and go with him to the National Gallery to see if the sleeping lady in the picture was awake! When Nellie did at last comprehend what was required of her she made no demur. She was accustomed to follow and obey Ralphie in everything, and was easily carried away by his excitement and eagerness.

The two children dressed and went quietly downstairs. Mrs. Clarke was busy in the kitchen, so they slipped out of the front door unobserved. Ralphie was weak and dizzy, but his excitement gave him strength, and he started off at a quick patter down the street, almost dragging Nellie with him. All the way he babbled strangely about the lady in the picture, and what she had said to him in his dream.

When they reached the Gallery, Ralphie found, to his keen disappointment, that the doors were not yet open. He had quite overlooked the fact that they did not open till ten o'clock. The clock of St. Martin's showed that it was now half-past eight.

It never occurred to Ralphie to go back, and the two children sat down in the porch to wait an hour and a half.

Ralphie's eyes, fixed with an intent look upon vacancy, grew ever more and more brilliant. Nellie, who had had no beautiful strange dream to make her forget everything else, began to feel cold and hungry. She listlessly drooped her little round head against a stone pillar, and wondered if Ralphie would really wait there till ten o'clock.

Big Ben struck the hour of nine, and St. Martin's chimed in a moment later.

Nellie was fast asleep. Ralphie sat in a waking dream with wide, unblinking eyes.

The hour passed, and Big Ben and St. Martin's proclaimed that it was ten o'clock.

"Nellie was fast asleep."

The doors opened. Ralphie roused Nellie. They slipped in, and stole quickly up one of the stone flights of stairs.

Without a glance of recognition, Ralphie hurried past all his favourite pictures—the Madonnas and baby Christs; the man pierced with cruel arrows; the angel heads emerging from clouds; the lady with the wheel, her face upturned to heaven, and her beautiful dress of ruby and yellow, grey and green; the boy with the bushy hair and flying blue cloak running arm in arm with an angel, and with a fish dangling from one hand;—all these he almost ran past, never pausing until he reached the sleeping lady.

That sweet, weary, calm face of St. Helena, resting on her hand, had taken a great hold on Ralphie's heart. As he and Nellie stopped before the picture now, he clasped his hands together, and fixed his glittering blue eyes on St. Helena's face.

St. Helena was fast asleep.

"Won't you wake up, lady?" Ralphie began to whisper wistfully, "Won't you—?" The little limbs trembled and failed, a strange giddy feeling came into the poor little head, everything grew black, and Ralphie slid to the ground in a swoon.

Nellie screamed in terror, and threw herself down beside him. It filled her with an awful dread to see him lying so motionless and white. Frantically she pulled him by the hand, but he did not stir. She implored him to open his eyes, but he kept them closed. Nellie sobbed in an agony of fear and desolation.

St. Helena slept on. Neither Ralphie's wistful appeal nor Nellie's wild sobs had pierced through her dreams.

But help was coming.

Olivia Ross had been out an hour ago on an errand of mercy. She was now walking slowly back to her lonely home, pondering over the sad scene she had just quitted, marvelling at the strange dealings of God with men.

Something in the pathetic story she had just listened to had reminded her of the fate of her young brother Ralph. Ten years ago Ralph, a dreamy, unpractical, talented boy, had turned his back on his home and on his wrathful, disappointed father to live by the Art his father despised and to make himself a name in the world as a painter. Since then there had been no word or sign from him. The wide world had engulphed him.

Olivia Ross was a sweet and tender-hearted woman. About her compassionate lips and on her serene brow there were traces of outlived sorrow. She had had much grief since Ralph, the brother she had loved so well, had gone away. The proud old father had died, not forgiving his son even at the last, and then Olivia, unable to live in the sorrow-haunted home, had left it to come to London, there to expend her wealth and her compassion wherever she found need for it.

Her way this morning lay through Trafalgar-square. As she reached the National Gallery, some strong impulse made her turn and enter. She used to say afterwards that an angel must have taken her by the hand and led her in. The galleries seemed to be quite empty. She walked slowly from one room to another, stopping now and then to glance at a picture, but always drawn irresistibly on again.

Suddenly a child's terrified scream, breaking the stillness of the place, startled her. She hastened in the direction from which the sound had come, and was soon on the spot where Ralphie lay unconscious on the floor, Nellie crouched beside him.

"Ralphie lay unconscious on the floor."

"My poor little ones!" cried Olivia Ross, and in a moment she was lifting the prostrate child into her pitying arms.

Ralphie stirred and opened his eyes.

What a radiant smile it was that stole into his face as he looked up at the lady in whose arms he lay! It was as if some celestial vision had been granted him.

"You have woke up at last!" he whispered. "Woke up at last!" There was a cadence of perfect content in the feeble little voice, and for a moment the blue eyes shone out from the pallor of the child's face with a wonderful lustre and beauty.

Olivia started. It was not Ralphie's words, but his beautiful eyes, that awoke a strange agitation within her.

"How like! How like!" she exclaimed wonderingly to herself, as she scanned the lines of Ralphie's face.

But this was no time for wonder and wild speculation. The exhausted condition of the little fellow demanded immediate relief. Learning from Nellie, who clung sobbing to her skirts, that the children's home was farther away than her own, she did not pause long to consider what she should do. Nellie was sent home to tell the story to her mother, and in a brief time Ralphie was under Olivia Ross's roof with a doctor beside him.

Ralphie was very ill, said the doctor, but with extreme care there was hope of his recovery.

He had always kept but a frail hold of life, and now he had a hard struggle not to let go of it altogether. He lay in a state of semi-consciousness. Now and then he opened his eyes, and always that seraphic smile came into them when he saw the pitiful face of Olivia Ross bending over him. And Olivia smiled back at him, because she saw that it satisfied the child, but her heart was full of tears, and she yearned strangely towards him.

When Mrs. Clarke came, and when Olivia heard the story of Ralphie's parents, her heart nearly broke with mingled joy and pain. There was no doubt that little Ralphie, to whose help she had been so wonderfully guided, was her own nephew, Ralph's child.

Ralphie did not die, Olivia could not let him die. She watched over him with tireless, ceaseless care, keeping hungry death at bay.

"You have woke up at last! Woke up at last!" Ralphie would murmur again and again.

And Olivia, because it soothed him, would answer softly as she stroked his brow with a tender hand, "Yes, I have woke up at last, little Ralph; I have woke up at last!"

To herself, thinking of her young brother's thwarted aspirations and unhappy fate, Olivia cried passionately:

"If he lives—and he must live—I will give him all that was denied to poor Ralph. If he loves Art as Ralph loved it, he shall have sympathy without stint. He shall study, and have the best of teachers. He shall travel, and see all that is best in Art in the world. He shall have every opportunity of developing his talent. He shall be a great painter if it is in him to be one."

When Ralphie was at last free from his delusion, and was able to be told that the lady who had nursed him so pitifully and so lovingly through his illness was his own aunt, his wonder and rapture knew no bounds. It seemed strange at first to hear that he was never to go back to live with Nellie and Mrs. Clarke, and it was hard to part from them. But he was soon reconciled to the change. How could he help it, when it was so beautiful and happy a one? How could he help liking to be loved and cared for by so sweet and noble a lady as his aunt Olivia?

It need scarcely be added that Nellie and Mrs. Clarke were never forgotten, not even when little Ralphie had grown to man's estate, and had become a promising young painter, of whom it was confidently predicted that he would some day write R.A. after his name.

"You have woke up at last."