SHORT STORIES

The Splendid Pauper

FRANK H. SHAW January 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

The Splendid Pauper

FRANK H. SHAW January 1 1910

The Splendid Pauper

FRANK H. SHAW

"MY dear,” said motherly Mrs. Winstanley to the pretty widow, “you may take this from me—your nearest neighbor is simply a splendid pauper. Not as regards money or position, of course —everybody knows the Earl of Lindisfarne is premier Earl of England and as rich as an American railway president—but as regards love and the recognized comforts of life. He lives in magnificent isolation ; makes no calls and receives none ; will not associate himself with matters public ; withdraws into his shell at the first signs of a visitor’s approach ; and generally proves himself hostile to society’s claims. He is poorer than any laborer on his estate, for he is as hard as the nether millstone.”

“What’s a pauper, muvver?” The query came in a dainty, sweet voice from the farthest corner of Mrs. Leigh’s drawing room, and the young widow turned with a start.

“I’d quite forgotten Iris,” she said, with a glimpse of startled fun on her face. “She is all ears. A pauper, Iris darling, is someone who is very poor indeed. Come and have this cake—it’s full of little silver sweets and icing.” The child came forward, and regarded her mother’s visitor shrewdly.

“I like you,” she said, after an examination under which Mrs. Winstanley shrank somewhat. “You always speak the truf, don’t you?”

“Why, Iris, of course,” exclaimed her mother, before the visitor could speak. “What silly ideas you get into your head !”

“I only wanted to make quite sure,” said Iris, picking the silver sweets from the tasty cake and demolishing them with a quiet determination that characterized most of her actions. “Cause one likes to be quite sure, muvver.”

She effaced herself in her old corner, and Mrs. Winstanley took up the tale.

“I sometimes think the poor man must have had a very terrible shock in his youth,” she said garrulously. “He is a positive hermit. However, that won’t affect you. my dear. We shall try to make you very happy, and I am quite sure you will prove a decided acquisition to our small society. Now I must be off.”

She rose and made her adieux, Iris being fetched from her observatory to kiss and be kissed. Mrs. Winstanley said the wee mite’s face was unusually thoughtful for her years, but at once forgot the child in the rush of paying further calls. A rare old gossip, Mrs. Winstanley, but nothing malicious about her. A good, honest soul, who had watched the splendid isolation of the owner of Lindisfarne Towers with much of pity and something of irritation.

Mrs. Leigh seated herself by the open window of the drawing-room, for, though well on towards the mid-

die of November, the day was warm. Some fictitious remnants of the summer still clung about the lovely old garden, where a surprised robin chirped manfully. And Mrs. Leigh was busy with her thoughts. She was wondering how she would settle in the new home that she had just taken—away from all that mad, unhappy past : away from all old-time associations of Leigh and his people. It was already looming distantly, like#a black and bitter dream, all that miserable period of anxiety and suspense, of disillusionment and scorn.

‘Tm glad I’ve cut myself loose from it all,” she murmured. “I’ll get a chance to forget now, and—I need it. I need it, heaven knows. Thank God Iris is like me, and not like James.”

Yes, there was much to forget, she thought. Seven long years of heartsickening unrest, the result of her hasty marriage with a man who was all but a fiend in disposition ; seven long years of mental—ay, and sometimes bodily—torture, tied hopelessly to a man who had not one single redeeming feature. A gambler, a drunkard, a brute—that was James Leigh. But now it was all over. A chance fall in the hunting-field almost a year before had cut the Gordian knot, and Aincie Leigh was free to live her life as it should be lived —happily, with great peace drooping on her way.

The rustle of paper aroused her from her reverie. She glanced over her shoulder into the quaint room.

“What are you doing, Iris?”

“Reading, muvver—the dickshunary.” Iris had opened the great volume at the letter P. and her slim finger was running down the page with care.

“P-o-r. It isn’t there,” she said

below her breath. “P-Muvver,

spell pauper.”

“P-a-u-p-e-r,” said Mrs. Leigh slowly; and Iris turned back. There

it was—“a poor person, one reduced in circumstances, one supported by charity.” Charity she understood— she had heard it preached about in church. Evidently this man Mrs. Winstanley had spoken about was one of those people who went about in rags and tatters, soliciting pennies with mendicantal whining. But Iris had a wonderfully tender heart, and—Christmas was not very far away. It was an awful thought that anyone near at hand should be compelled to beg for pennies when the season of presents and rich feeding was so close at hand.

Somewhere at the back of that high, white forehead lay a shrewd and calculating mind. Iris was busy with her thoughts now.

“Eightpence for muvver, fourpence for Nurse, twopence for Grimm, one penny for Baines.” She was reckoning up her Christmas liabilities in view of the coming season. Already she had chosen the presents to be given to the various members of the small household ; by dint of careful saving she would be in possession of two shillings and threepence by the week before Christmas. She dotted down the items on the margin of the dictionary, and reckoned them up carefully, her sticky fingers helping considerably.

“One and threepence,” she said at last after getting it wrong four times. “That leaves elevenpence— no, a whole shilling.”

She licked one sticky finger seriously. No end to the possibilities of a whole shilling, and it required a lot of saving; but she had heard the mandate so often : “Give freely to the poor,” that she relinquished those golden dreams of chocolates and such good trifles with only a very small sigh. Her mother being still engrossed in pictures of the past, Iris rose, and left the drawingroom. Her money-box lay on a high shelf in the nursery, but the child

was resourceful. A chair standing on another chair formed an effective ladder, and it hardly seemed to matter that the whole erection came down with a crash as soon as she had laid hands on the box. When she picked herself up she had her savings in her possession, and a thin knife-blade speedily drew out sundry coins from the slit in the top of the 'ocked box.

“I’ll carry it wiv me,” said Iris. “P’raps I’ll meet him soon.”

“Oh. if you please.” The voice was sweetly pathetic, and George Mainwaring Wriothesley Vincent, tenth Earl of Lindisfarne, looked up with some curiosity — looked up from a black-souled reverie, looked up from miserable heart-searchings, and presented a dark and brooding face to the gaze of the little figure sitting across the top of the high wall.

“Get down, little girl, he said sharply. “You’ve no business there. Besides, you’ll fall.” The last was added inconsequently, and as the mite wriggled in her place the earl darted forward a step.

“It wasn’t vewy hard,” said Iris soothingly. “There’s little bits of stones all over—like steps. But this side is so smoove. I can’t get down, and I do want to get down, please.”

What was it that caused the black frown on Lindisfarne’s brow to smooth away into something of interest? Was it the glance of a pair of appealing violet eyes, the sound of a tremulously brave little voice? For many a long year he had never left his own estate, hugging the sorrow of his life to his heart with solitary morbidness. Bereft of hope, shunning and shunned by his friends, the prey to thoughts of the most unsettling, the victim of his own regrets, what was there in all the. world outside that could offer him solace? Eight long years ago since the tragedy of his life was acted, six

years since he had succeeded to the title and the vast estates, and the honors and riches counted of good worth in the mind of the world, were simply apples of Sodom, turning to dust and ashes in the mouth.

Gorgeous servants waited on his every need, prancing horses stood in the stables awaiting his command : his word was law to an establishment the actual numbers of which he never knew. Served on bended knees almost, served with fear and trembling, he was ; for his bitterness had stamped itself indelibly on his face, and men, looking hereon, said he was harsh and exacting, one to be attended carefully, lest evil befell. A pauper he was, if ever a pauper lived, but it was poverty of the heart and soul that made for his dismal life.

“Oh, if you please,” came the plaintive voice again.

Lindisfarne lifted his head ; the little figure was still rocking perilously on the summit of the high wall.

“I tried to get in at the gate,” said Iris piteously, “but they said it was no place for little girls. Please-”

“What do you want, child?” The voice was hostile, offered no encouragement.

“I have something for you, please.” Then he noticed that one grimy fist was tightly clenched on something held within the palm.

With a bitter laugh at his own folly he strode forward, and lifted her down. She thanked him prettily, and looked up into his face with wide eyes.

“It’s mine own,” she said at last, insinuating something into his hand, “so you needn’t be afraid. It’s all mine, honest.” He looked down with some consternation. In his hand lay a sticky shilling, and Iris was regarding him with such charitable interest as might have become the good Samaritan himself/

“It’s all for you,” she said. “So

you’ll have a merry Christmas. I saved it—it’s mine. Poor man, I hopes you’ll be happy.”

“But—I say—look here-”

She waved her hand benignantly. “I s’pose you never had so much before.” she said, “but you’ve got it now. And now, please. I’ll have to go. ’cause nurse didn’t know. I ran away when she was speaking to Forbes. Do you know Forbes, he’s the policeman? He’s fond of nurse.”

“I don’t want your money, child. What should I do with it? Here, take it away with you, and if you are looking for another to add to it, take this as well.” Iris’s face wrinkled, something hot and moist filmed her eyes. But she stamped her foot with some indignation, too.

“You’s a pauper,” she said sternly: “you’s to take it. We was told to give to the poor, and you’re poor, aren’t you?”

“I poor! Good heavens!”

“Mrs. Winstally savs you’s a splendid pauoer,” said Iris with a confidential air. “I shouldn’t have known but for her. You see, there’s no reallv-trulv poor people in the village, so when I heard you was so noor— ’cause pauoer means poor— I took mv monev for you. But T couldn’t find vou for ever so long— nearlv a whole month. Please keep the money, Pauoer dear, and buv a Christmas present. If I’d known I’d have bought you one, but I don’t know what men like.”

Lindisfarne tried to be stern, but failed in the effort, being raked fore and aft by the broadside of her mourning eyes. A queer catch came into his throat as he looked down on her. He began to see what the oast might have held for him if onlv— if only—but that wav lay much sorrow. and he banished the thought at its birth.

“So they call me a solendid pauper. do they?” he said slowly. “My

God ! To be pitied by all the world ! It’s hard—it’s more than hard.”

“Yes, I know it’s hard,” said Iris sympathetically. “But cheer up, please, Pauper dear. You can buy ever so many things with a shilling

—chocolates, and toys, and -”

Her under lip began to quiver a little as glowing vistas of shillingsworths flitted through her mind. “I must really go now, please,” she said. “If you’ll say ‘thank you’

nicely, I won’t wait.”

“Er—what’s that? Oh, ay—thank you, miss. What’s your name, by the wav?”

“Miss Iris Leigh.”

“Thank you. Miss Iris. It’s extremely good of you. But—I wouldn’t say anything about this, if I were you. Peonle might—might—well,

never mind. Look here, little one. come again, will you? If the nurse ladv is so fond of the policeman, perhaps she’ll allow you to soend a little more time with me. Come tomorrow, will you? And you needn’t risk vour neck climbing the wall— I’ll tell the lodgekeeper to admit you at anv time. Just walk straight in, and if I’m not anywhere about, go to that house there, do you see it?” He pointed with a finger that trembled a little along the magnificent avenue, now denuded of every leaf, to where a vast facade showed sombrely against the withered green of the distant hills.

“I suppose that’s the work’us,’ said Iris, thinking of nurse’s sayings. She thought for a moment, and then, happening to look up into the Splendid Pauper’s face, saw something there that made her very grave.

“I like you, Pauper dear,” she said, holding UP her face to be kissed. “Yes. I’ll come to play wiv you. Will thev let you out iust whenever vou like?” For paupers and workhouses seemed somehow connected in Iris’s mind—a result of her attendant’s teachings, perhaps.

Lord Lindisfarne swore softly be-

neath his breath as he watched the twinkling legs vanish down the avenue.

“What the deuce does it all mean?” he asked himself. Then he opened his hand—a sticky shilling fell to the ground. For one moment he set his foot upon it, as though to crush it into the gravel, but second thoughts prevailed. He picked it up carefully and placed it in safety. For some reason or other his face was almost tender now.

Morning brought a renewal of gloom to Lindisfarne’s soul. “I expect she’s a spy sent from some of these infernal interfering people about,” he ruminated heavily. “They’d like to get sneaking into my place, and filling the house with a lot of silly, bridge-playing women looking for husbands. But I’ll keep them at a distance. First the child, then her auntie, or an elder sister or something—yes, that must be it. She’s of a good stock ; her face tells me that. I thought it was familiar, her face, but that’s purely idiotic, of course. Now, when she comes, I’ll give her her shilling back, and another with it, and we’ll close the acquaintance. Yes, that’s the best way.” He breakfasted in stately splendour, surrounded by pictured Lindisfarnes, men who had led happy lives, and had married sweet women. Dimly through his melancholy there came dreams of what his life might have been if only—if only —. He roused himself and clenched his fist. That way lay madness, he said wrathfully. That page of his life was turned down years ago, turned down and blotted out irretrievably. Why resurrect it, then? But—but—after all, it might be as well to take the gift as it was meant. To return the shilling might mean a fresh quivering of that dewy underlip—a fresh mistiness of those violet eyes. He was softening from his self-built hardness, though he

would not allow himself to believe the truth.

It was the sound of a shrill, decisive voice that took him to the great entrance gates. With a pang of self-reproach he remembered he had forgotten to give the necessary instructions, and hastened to the lodge hot-foot. A flushed and wrathful Iris stood there, endeavoring to make the gruff-voiced keeper understand that she possessed a right of way.

“Go away, missie,” said Murdock severely.

“I won’t. Oh, please—he said I was to come in when I liked. Do let me see him. He’s my dear Pauper.” Lindisfarne appeared, and with a little cry the child broke past the outspread arms and ran to him.

“I knowed you’d tell him,” she panted. “Please, I can come in?”

“Let this lady in whenever she wishes,” said the earl decisively, and Murdock touched his forehead.

Iris pattered alongside her newfound friend, and regaled him with much simple prattle as she went. Pie found it vastly entertaining, and before they had reached the sweeping terraces before the house, was displaying something of interest in her home-life.

“My precious one said I mustn’t get in the way,” she explained sweetly. “I had to tell her, of course. But I didn’t say anything of the shilling. Did you spend it, please?”

“No, I’m going to—to—keep it always,” he said. He had fully intended to give the coin back, but in the face of those eyes it was impossible.

“Come in here,” he said, ushering her past a row of gorgeous servants and into a dainty room. “There are things here that might please you.” And thereafter Iris was lost in Wonderland. Unexpected toys seemed to produce themselves from the most unpromising corners ; the house from floor to ceiling — and before the day was over she had explored it in its entirety—was a vast

goldmine of treasure. Lindisfarne accompanied her whithersoever she went, and found his jaws smiling unaccustomedly a hundred times at her unfeigned delight.

“But—I fought you were a pauper, dear,” she said when the long hour was at an end. “Are these toys all yours?”

“Some of them, little one. They belonged to other little girls and boys—before I became a pauper.” He turned away at the look of pity on her face. “Mv God !” he said heavilv : “a pauper? Ah, indeed.”

He conducted her personally to the gate, and watched her on her homeward way, lingering to the last to wave his hand as she turned the corner of the road. He went back to the house almost light-heartedly; the place seemed imbued with a new atmosphere. The scattered toys on the old nursery floor spoke of life and youth—the forty years of him seemed to vanish with a flash. He picked up a clockwork doll, and regarded it tenderly. It was sticky about the waist, where Iris’s fingers had touched it. Looking about him shamefacedly, he stooped and kissed the sticky imprint, then flushed hotly and threw the toy away.

Naturally enough, he made cautious inquiries, and found out something about Iris’s home. Once he felt inclined to pay her a visit, to ask her mother for permission to take the child back to the vast sounding Hall more frequently, but he shrank back into his shell before he had walked a hundred yards along the road. No, in all likelihood the child’s mother was just one of those designing persons he had purposely shunned thfc»e many years—he turned on his heel and strode back to the safe haven of his own great park.

But as the days wore on towards Christmas he found himself looking more and more for her now daily visit. It was the one bright gleam in his dull life; whenever the patter

of her footsteps sounded on the terrace-walks the sun seemed to break out from Dehind the clouds and shine gaily. He ransacked the house for toys to please her, and discovered at the back of his mind a wonderful imagination that enabled him to people the great, sounding rooms with fairy figures for her special behoof. Gradually the ice about his heart melted away, and left it a throbbing, human organ, quick to feel and understand the tiny mite’s needs.

Iris said but little of her daily doings to her mother. Mrs Leigh had no desire to thrust herself where, so common report had it, no woman was wanted. At times she thanked her God for the softness of the earl’s heart, when Iris came back with glowing descriptions of things done and said ; but she took her daughter’s description for truth. Iris held to it that her Splendid Pauper was “frightfully old and very big and uglv.” But a dozen times Mrs. Leigh found herself thinking of the magnificent isolation of the man who had taken her daughter to his heart ; and sieh after sigh broke from her lips, when she compared his solitude with her own embittered life. Iris knew nothing of this, however; she was purely happy and content. Her Pauper was one of the poor she had been tol'd to help—she had his own word for it—and she said she would help him to the full.

It was dark and threatening when Tris left The Towers on Christmas Eve. and the earl, after escorting her to the gate, demited Murdock to see her home. Iris carried with her a cunning parcel, which she had been instructed not to open before the morrow. Lindisfarne went slowly back to his solitude, smiling as he went, for he was easily able to picture the surprise and wonder of his friend when that parcel revealed its treasures on Christmas Day,

But Murdock was faithless to his trust. He had barely gone fifty yards towards Plover’s Nest—Iris’s home—when he heard a suspicious crashing in the undergrowth, and, with his mind set on poachers, he turned towards the sound.

“You just go on, missie,” he said to the child. “You can’t go wrong. Keep to the road, and you’ll see your home in a few minutes.”

He left her, vaulted the wall and disappeared. Iris, with sundry qualms of fear, gripped her parcel tightly and trudged on. A whirl of snow dashed in her face and blinded her, but she persevered. The snow lay thick on the ground—it baffled her ; her feet grew heavy. She stopped and looked up—but she had lost her way. No—there was the road, spreading out white and inviting before her eyes. She gathered her courage together and went forward.

It was close on nine o’clock when a bewildered nurse came flying to The Towers and rang the bell violently. The belaced servant who answered it could make nothing of her incoherence, and told her so, told her with a rising voice.

“It’s Miss Iris — she ain’t come home,” said the nurse. “Her mother’s wired to say she’s missed the train from town, and won’t be here till eleven. What to do I don’t know. I daren’t face her with the child lost.” And the nurse broke down in a passion of weeping.

“What’s the matter here, Sparkes? Shut that door—can’t you see the snow driving in? Why, my good woman, what is the matter?”

“It’s Miss Iris, my lord,” stammered the nurse, curtseying low. She’s never come home.” And she told her tale in tear-punctuated intervals. Before it was half done the unrest of a great fear broke up the orderly calm of Lindisfarne Towers.

“Don’t stand there like a pack of fools !” cried the earl violently. “Get lanterns — call out the stablemen.

Bring me my coat and a lantern. Be quick, if ever you were quick!” He was white and shaking; he had visions of a pair of violet eyes closed in their last long sleep. It was more than he could stand.

“Go home at once,” he commanded the panic-stricken nurse. “Get hot water and blankets ready. Don’t breathe a word to anyone until you hear from me. Quick, now, quick ! My God !” He led the way down the avenue at a sharp trot, a crowd of energetic lantern-bearers bringing up the rear. Swift questioning at the lodge elicited the story of Murdoch’s dereliction. Lindisfarne eyed him grimly.

“I’ll deal with you afterwards,” he said ; and his voice was full of fear. “If the child is—is—if anything has gone wrong you’ll be a murderer. Don’t stand there gaping—bring a lantern and follow !”

The snow was very thick, and still falling. Tiny footmarks would have been hidden long before ; but the search-party broke up into units and scoured every possible place of refuge. Without avail. Look where they would there was no Iris.

“If she’s gone along here, my lord,” said Sparkes nervously, swinging his lantern past a post at the corner of the road, “she’ll—she’ll—” “I know, man ! The old quarry’s along there. Follow me.”

They ploughed with bent heads towards the old quarry, long ago fallen into disuse. But still no traces of the tiny, wandering feet, still no welcoming cry. And so they reached the edge of the great opening, and peered over with fast-beating hearts.

“Looks as if someone had fallen over, my lord,” said Murdock, indicating where the edge of the soil had crumbled away. The break looked recent. Without a word— but those who saw his face shuddered—the earl slung his lantern about his neck and clambered down the rugged stone. And there he found

her. She was alive and still breathing, for a broad ledge had received the falling body; she was almost unhurt, but the snowwreaths lay over her in thick profusion. Lindisfarne gasped out an inarticulate cry that turned to a sigh of relief as he felt the beating of her heart, and lifted her tenderly to his broad shoulder. Then, with set teeth and laboring breath, he began to scale the perilous climb.

“Get off home, all of you," he said curtly, as he gained the top again. “I'll see to the child.”

The door of Plover’s Nest was standing open, and a gleam of lamplight shone down the snow-covered path, A wide-eyed woman stood at the door, her hands clenched nervously over her breast. She was peering into the swirling whiteness, peering with tear-filled eyes, for the news had been told her—Iris was lost. She never heard the tramp of feet on the road, for the snow deadened all sounds ; she saw nothing of a shadowy figure coming round the bend in the path. Lindisfarne appeared before her suddenly, veiled in whiteness, and with a low, glad cry, Mrs. Leigh raced forward.

“Is it Iris?” she cried, and the man nodded. They said no more until he had reached the hall, and there he straightened himself.

“She’s alive,” he said, and saying it stared with all his eyes.

Mrs. Leigh looked up from the bundle he carried, and “George!” she cried.

“Aincie! My God!” The two cries were almost simultaneous, and as Lindisfarne’s voice rang out incredulously, Mrs. Leigh fell atrembling.

"So, she’s your child?” he said, licking his dry lips. “God! if I’d only known.” And he laid his burden down very tenderly.

“Your child!” he said again. “She —she might have been mine, Aincie. But how did it happen?”

“We must see to the child first, George,” said Mrs. Leigh gravely. “Afterwards will be time enough for explanation.”

And when Iris was tucked up snugly in her crib the two met once more in the well-lit hall.

“Why didn’t you let me know?” asked the earl gently. “Plow was I to know you were a widow? I thought—I didn’t know—Aincie, 1 was too poor in those days to ask you to share my life, and—and—so I never spoke. And then the title and the riches came—too late, girl, too late—they made me a Splendid Pauper. Is it too late, Aincie, is it too late?”

“I—I,” stammered Aincie Leigh, with a strange glory on her face, “I —George, I’ve never—never—oh, I can’t say it. But all the time—can’t you know, can’t you understand?”

And the Splendid Pauper, understanding, came into a priceless inheritance of love.

“Come upstairs,” said Aincie, after many minutes were past. “She brought us together—she must know what she has done.”

Iris smiled sleepily, clutching in her arms a large white parcel, somewhat stained at the edges.

“Merry Chris’mas, Pauper dear,” she said softly, and over her face two pairs of lips joined in a long caress.

A woman will often say no when she means yes ; but never yes when she means no.—Jean Milne.