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CHAPTER XIV

 

BEN

 

 IT would have been a loud sound which would have awakened them during those deep sleeping hours of the night. They did not even stir on their poor pillows, when long after midnight there was the noise of heavy, drunken footsteps and heavy, drunken stumbling in the passage below, and then the raising of a man's rough voice, and the upsetting of chairs and the slamming of doors, mingled with the expostulations of the woman, whose husband had come home in something even worse than his frequent ill fashion. They slept sweetly through it all; but when the morning came, and hours of unbroken rest had made their slumber lighter, and the sunshine streamed in through the broken windows, they were called back to the world by loud and angry sounds.

"What is it?" said Meg, sitting bolt upright and rubbing her eyes. "Somebody's shouting."

"And somebody's crying," said Robin, sitting up too, but more slowly.

It was quite clear to them as soon as they were fully awake, that both these things were happening. A man seemed to be quarrelling below. They could hear him stamping about and swearing savagely, and they could hear the woman's voice, which sounded as if she was trying to persuade him to do or leave undone something. They could not hear her words, but she was crying, and somebody else was crying too, and they knew it was the boy with the little old face and the hump back.

"I suppose it's the woman's husband?" said Meg. "I'm glad he wasn't here last night."

"I wonder if he knows we are here?" said Robin, listening anxiously.

It was plain that he did know. They heard him stumbling up the staircase, grumbling and swearing as he came, and he was coming up to their room, it was evident.

"What shall we do?" exclaimed Meg, in a whisper.

"Wait," Robin answered breathlessly. "We can't do anything."

The heavy feet blundered up the short second flight and blundered to their door. It seemed that the man had not slept off his drunken fit. He struck the door with his foot.

"Hand out that fifty cents," he shouted. "When my wife takes roomers, I'm goin' to be paid. Hand it out."

They heard the woman hurrying up the stairs after him. She was out of breath with crying, and there was a choking sound in her voice when she spoke to them through the door.

"You'd better let him have it," she said.

"I guess they'd better!" said the man roughly. "Who'd they suppose owns the house."

Rob got up and took fifty cents from their very small store, which was hidden in the lining of his trousers. He went to the door and opened it a little, and held the money out.

"Here it is," he said.

The man snatched it out of his hand and turned away, and went stumbling downstairs, still growling. The woman stood a minute on the landing, and they heard her make a pitiful sort of sound—half sob, half sniff.

Meg sat up in bed with her chin in her hands and glared like a little lioness.

"What do you think of that?" she said.

"He's a devil," said Rob, with terseness, and he was conscious of no impropriety. "I wanted that boy to have it—and go." It was not necessary to say where.

"So did I," answered Meg. "And I believe his mother would have given it to him too."

They heard the man leave the house a few minutes later, and then it did not take them long to dress and go down the narrow, broken, balustraded stairs again. As they descended the first flight, they saw the woman cooking something over the stove in her kitchen, and as she moved about they saw her brush her apron across her eyes.

The squalid street was golden with the early morning sunshine, which is such a joyful thing; and in the full happy flood of it a miserable little figure sat crouched on the steps. It was the boy Ben, and they saw that he looked paler than he had looked the night before, and his little face looked older. His elbow was on his knee and his cheek in his hand, and there were wet marks on his cheeks.

A large lump rose up in Meg's throat.

"I know what's the matter," she whispered to Robin.

"So—so do I," Rob answered rather unsteadily. "And he's poorer than anybody else. It ought not to go by him.'

"No, no!" said Meg, "it oughtn't!"

She walked straight to the threshold and sat down on the step beside him. She was a straightforward child, and she was too much moved to stand on ceremony. She sat down quite close to the poor little fellow, and put her hand on his arm.

"Never you mind!" she said. "Never you mind!" and her throat felt so full that for a few seconds she could say nothing more.

Robin stood against the door-post. The effect of this upon him was to make his small jaw square itself.

"Don't mind us at all," he said. "We—we know!"

The little fellow looked at Meg and then up at him. In that look he saw that they did know.

"Mother was going to give that money to me,' he said brokenly. "I was going to the Fair on it. Everybody is going—everybody is talking about it and thinking about it. Nobody's been talking of nothing else for months and months. The streets are full of people on their way, and they all pass me by."

He rubbed his sleeve across his forlorn face and swallowed hard.

"There's pictures in the shops," he went on, "and flags flying, and everything's going that way—and me staying behind."

Two of the large splendid drops, which had sometimes gathered in Meg's eyelashes and fallen on the straw when she had been telling stories in the barn, fell now upon her lap.

"Robin!" she said.

Robin stood and stared very straight before him for a minute, and then his eyes turned and met hers.

"We're very poor," he said to her, "but everybody has—has something."

"We couldn't leave him behind," Meg said. "We couldn't! Let's think." And she put her head down, resting her elbows on her knee, and clutching her forehead with her supple, strong little hands.

"What can we do without?" said Robin. "Let's do without something."

Meg lifted her head.

"We will eat nothing but the eggs for breakfast," she said, "and go without lunch—if we can; perhaps we can't, but we'll try. And we will not go into some of the places we have to pay to go into. And I will make up stories about them for you—Robin, it is true. Everybody has something to give. That's what I have—the stories I make up. It's something—just a little."

"It isn't so little," Robin answered. "It fills in the empty places. Meg?" with a questioning tone in his voice.

She answered it with a little nod, and then put her hand on Ben's arm again. During their rapid interchange of words, he had been gazing at them in a dazed, uncomprehending way. To his poor little starved nature they seemed so strong and different from himself, that there was something wonderful about them. Meg's glowing face quite made his weak heart beat as she turned it upon him.

"We are not much better off than you are," she said; "but we think we've got enough to take you into the grounds. You let us have your bed. Come along with us."

"To—to—the Fair?" he said tremulously.

"Yes," she answered. "And when we get in I'll try and think up things to tell you and Robin about the places we can't afford to go into. We can go into the palaces for nothing."

"Palaces!" he gasped, his wide eyes on her face.

She laughed.

"That's what we call them," she said. "That's what they are. It's part of a story. I'll tell it to you as we go."

"Oh!" he breathed out with a sort of gasp again.

He evidently did not know how to express himself; his hands trembled, and he looked half frightened.

"If you'll do it," he said, "I'll remember you all my life! "I'll—I'll- If it wasn't for father, I know mother would let you sleep here every night for nothing, and I'd give you my bed and be glad to do it, I would. I'll be so thankful to you. I haint got nothin'—nothin'—but I'll be that thankful—I"— There was a kind of hysterical break in his voice. "Let me go and tell mother," he said, and he got up, stumbling, and rushed into the house.

Meg and Robin followed him to the kitchen, as excited as he was. The woman had just put a cracked bowl of something hot on the table, and as he came in she spoke to him.

"Your mush is ready," she said. "Come and eat while it's hot."

"Mother!" he cried out, "they are going to take me in! I'm going! They're going to take me!"

The woman stopped short and looked at the twins, who stood in the doorway. It seemed as if her chin rather trembled.

"You're going—?" she began, and broke off. "You're as poor as he is," she ended. "You must be, or you wouldn't have come here to room."

"We're as poor in one way," said Meg, "but we worked and saved money to come. It isn't much, but we can do without something that would cost fifty cents, and that will pay for his ticket."

The woman's chin trembled more still.

"Well," she said, "I—I—O Lord!" And she threw her apron over her head, and sat down suddenly.

Meg went over to her not exactly knowing why.

"We couldn't bear not to go ourselves," she said," and he is like us."

She was thinking, as she spoke, that this woman and her boy were very fond of each other. The hands holding the apron were trembling as his had done. They dropped as suddenly as they had been thrown up. The woman lifted her face eagerly.

"What were you thinking of going without?" she asked. "Was it things to eat?"

"We—we've got some hard-boiled eggs," faltered Meg a little guiltily.

"There's hot mush in the pan," said the woman. "There's nothing to eat with it, but it's healthier than cold eggs. Sit down and eat some."

And they did; and in half an hour they left the poor house, feeling full fed and fresh, and—his mother standing on the step looking after him—with them went Ben, his pale old face almost flushed and young, as it set itself toward the City Beautiful.

 

CHAPTER XV

 

JOHN HOLT

 

 BEFORE they entered the Court of Honour Meg stopped them both. She was palpitating with excitement.

"Robin," she said, "let us make him shut his eyes. Then you can take one of his hands and I can take the other, and we will lead him. And when we have taken him to the most heavenly place, he shall look suddenly!"

"I should like that," said Ben, tremulous with anticipation.

"All right," said Robin.

By this time it was as if they had been friends all their lives. They knew each other. They had not ceased talking a moment since they had set out, but it had not been about the Fair. Meg had decided that nothing should be described beforehand that all the entrancement of beauty should burst upon Ben's hungry soul, as paradise bursts upon translated spirits.

"I don't want it to be gradual," she said anxiously.

"I want it to be sudden! It can be gradual after."

She was an artist and an epicure in embryo, this child. She tasted her joys with a delicate palate, and lost no flavour of them. The rapture of yesterday was intensified tenfold to-day, because she felt it throbbing anew in this frail body beside her, in which Nature had imprisoned a soul as full of longings as her own, but not so full of power.

They took Ben by either hand and led him with the greatest care. He shut his eyes tight, and walked between them. People who glanced at them, smiled, recognising the time-honoured and familiar child-trick. They did not know that this time it was something more than that.

"The trouble is," Meg said in a low voice to Robin, "I don't know which is the most heavenly place to stand. Sometimes I think it is at one end, and sometimes at the other, and sometimes at the side."

They led their charge for some minutes indefinitely. Sometimes they paused and looked about them, speaking in undertones. Ben was rigidly faithful, and kept his eyes shut. As they hesitated for a moment near one of the buildings, a man who was descending the steps looked in their direction, and his look was one of recognition. It was the man who had watched them the day before, and he paused upon the steps, interested again, and conscious of being curious.

"What are they going to do?" he said to himself.

"They are going to do something. Where did they pick up the other one?—poor little chap!"

Meg had been looking very thoughtful during that moment of hesitancy. She spoke, and he was near enough to hear her.

"He shall open them where he can hear the water splashing in the fountain," she said. "I think that's the best."

It seemed that Robin thought so too. They turned and took their way to the end of the court where the dome lifted itself wonderful against the sky, and a splendour of rushing water from which magnificent sea-monsters rose, stood guard before.

Their Man followed them. He had had a bad night, and had come out in a dark world. The streams of pleasure-seekers, the gaily fluttering flags, the exhilaration in the very air seemed to make his world blacker and more empty. A year before he had planned to see this wonder with the one soul on earth who would have been most thrilled, and who would have made him most thrill to its deepest and highest meaning. Green grass and summer roses were waving over the earth that had shut in all dreams like these


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"Now," said Meg, "open them suddenly!"

for him. As he had wandered about he had told himself that he had been mad to come and see it all, so alone. Sometimes he turned away from the crowd and sat in some quiet corner of palace or fairy garden—and it was because he was forced to do it, for it was at times when he was in no condition to be looked at by careless passers-by.

He had never been particularly fond of children; but somehow these two waifs, with their alert faces and odd independence, had wakened his interest. He was conscious of rather wanting to know where they had come from and what they would do next. The bit of the story of the Genie of the Palace of the Sea had attracted him. He had learned to love stories from the one who should have seen with him the Enchanted City. She had been a story-lover and full of fancies.

He followed the trio to the end of the great court. When they reached there, three pairs of cheeks were flushed, and the eyes that were open were glowing. Meg and Robin chose a spot of ground and stopped.

"Now," said Meg, "open them—suddenly!"

The boy opened them. The man saw the look that flashed into his face. It was a strange, quivering look, Palaces which seemed of pure marble surrounded him. He had never even dreamed of palaces. White ways rose from the lagoon, leading to fair open portals the wondering world passed through to splendours held within. A great statue of gold towered noble and marvellous with uplifted arms, holding high the emblems of its spirit and power, and at the end of this vista, through the archway, and between the line of columns bearing statues poised against the background of sky, he caught glimpses of the lake's scintillating blue.

He uttered a weird little sound. It was part exclamation and a bit of a laugh, cut short by something like a nervous sob which did not know what to do with itself.

"Oh!" he said. And then—"Oh!" again. And then "I—I don't know—what it's—like!" And he cleared his throat and stared, and Meg saw his narrow chest heave up and down.

"It isn't like anything, but—something we've dreamed of perhaps," said Meg, gazing in ecstasy with him.

"No—no!" answered Ben. "But I've never dreamed like it."

Meg put her hand on his shoulder.

"But you will now," she said. "You will now."

And their Man had been near enough to hear, and he came to them.

"Good-morning," he said. "You're having another day of it, I see."

Meg and Robin looked up at him radiant. They were both in a good enough mood to make friends. They felt friends with everybody.

"Good-morning," they answered; and Robin added, "We're going to come every day, as long as we can make our money last."

"That's a good enough idea," said their Man. "Where are your father and mother?"

Meg lifted her searching black-lashed eyes to his. She was noticing again the dreary look in his face.

"They died nearly four years ago," she answered for Robin.

"Who is with you?" asked the man, meeting her questioning gaze with a feeling that her great eyes were oddly thoughtful for a child's, and that there was a look in them he had seen before in a pair of eyes closed a year ago. It gave him an almost startled feeling.

"Nobody is with us," Meg said, "except Ben."

"You came alone?" said the man.

"Yes."

He looked at her for a moment in silence, and then turned away and looked across the court to where the lake gleamed through the colonnade.

"So did I," he said reflectively. "So did I. Quite alone."

Meg and Robin glanced at each other.

"Yesterday Rob and I came by ourselves," said Meg next, and she said it gently. "But we were not lonely and to-day we have Ben."

The man turned his eyes on the boy.

"You're Ben, are you?" he said.

"Yes," Ben answered. "And but for them I couldn't never have seen it—never."

"Why?" the man asked. "Almost everybody can see it."

"But not me," said Ben. "And I wanted to more than anyone—seemed like to me. And when they roomed at our house last night, mother was going to give me the fifty cents, but—but father—father, he took it away from us. And they brought me."

Then the man turned on Robin.

"Have you plenty of money?" he asked unceremoniously.

"No," said Rob.

"They're as poor as I am," put in Ben. "They couldn't afford to room anywhere but with poor people."

"But everybody"—Meg began impulsively, and then stopped, remembering that it was not Robin she was talking to.

"But everybody—what?" said the man.

It was Robin who answered for her this time.

"She said that last night,' he explained, with a half-shy laugh—"that everybody had something they could give to somebody else."

"Oh! well, it isn't always money, of course—or anything big," said Meg hurriedly. "It might be something that is ever so little."

The man laughed, but his eyes seemed to be remembering something as he looked over the lagoon again.

"That's a pretty good thing to think," he said.

"Now"—turning on Meg rather suddenly—"I wonder what you have to give to me."

"I don't know," she answered, perhaps a trifle wistfully. "The thing I give to Rob and Ben is a very little one."

"She makes up things to tell us about the places we can't pay to go into, or don't understand," said Robin. "It's not as little as she thinks it is."

"Well," said the man, "look here! Perhaps that's what you have to give to me. You came to this place alone, and so did I. I believe you're enjoying yourselves more than I am. You're going to take Ben about and tell him stories. Suppose you take me!"

"You!" Meg exclaimed. "But you're a man, and you know all about it, I daresay—and I only tell things I make up—fairy stories and—and other things. A man wouldn't care for them. He—he knows."

"He knows too much perhaps—that's the trouble," said the man. "A fairy or so might do me good. I'm not acquainted enough with them. And if I know things you don't—perhaps that's what I have to give to you."

"Why!" said Meg, her eyes widening as she looked up at his odd, clever face, "do you want to go about with us?"

"Yes," said the man, with a quick, decided nod, "I believe that's just what I want to do. I'm lonelier than you two. At least you are together. Come on, children," but it was to Meg he held out his hand. "Take me with you."

And bewildered as she was, Meg found herself giving her hand to him and being led away, Robin and Ben close beside them.