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In which Sidney comes home to find father dead, mother too ill to recognize him and me half starved and in rags.
WHEN at last I arrived, panting, at Waterloo station the lamps were already lighted and all the place was bright with them. There was such a noise a people coming and going and so much confusion that, used as I was to the turmoil of the market, I hardly knew where to go or what to do. Besides, the manner of these people was so different and their clothes so good that I felt more than ever ashamed of my raggedness and doubtful what Sidney would think when he saw me.
However, I was so determined not to miss him that I got up courage to ask the way to the trains and was waiting there trembling with excitement and eagerness when the nine o'clock express came in. I had not quite courage enough to run forward, but hung back a little, keeping my broken shoe with the hole in it where my toe showed behind the other and looking carefully at each man that passed in the hope that he might be Sidney.
At last I saw him. He was almost seventeen then; big, well-dressed and healthy looking as he swung along with his cap pushed back looking eagerly at every woman in sight, expecting, I knew, to see my mother. He went by me without a glance and I saw his bright clean boots and the new glove he wore on the hand that held his bag. They seemed to put such a distance between us that I let him go past, not daring to stop him. I stood there stupidly looking at his back.
Then I realized that he was going, that I was losing him, and I ran after him and desperately touched his arm. He looked down at me impatiently.
"No, lad," he said sharply, "I will carry the bag."
He went on through the station still watching for my mother, and I followed him, ashamed to speak to him again, ragged and dirty as I was, and yet not being able to let him go. At last he gave up hope of my mother's coming to meet him and went outside, where he hailed a cab. I stood there beside him trying to speak to him and choking while the driver opened the cab door and he got in. Then I could bear it no longer. I seized the door handle and clung to it desperately.
"Oh, Sidney, don't you know me?" I cried. "I'm Charlie."
He looked at me a minute, surprised, before he recognized me. Then his face went white and he pulled me into the cab, calling to the driver to go on, anywhere.
"For God's sake, what has happened?" he asked.
"Father's dead and mother's in the parish hospital, and I haven't had anywhere to sleep or to wash," I blurted out.
Sidney did not speak for a minute. His face seemed to set and harden as I watched it, while the cab bumped over the cobbles.
"How long has this been going on?" he said at last, choking over the words.
"About three months," I said. Then I told him as much as I could, tangling it up because there was so much to say — about father's death, and how my mother had sewed, and why I was so dirty because I had no soap and had to sleep in the cart, and that I could not make mother understand that his letter had come.
"And I've been — saving my money!" he said, once, like a groan, and his hand shook. Then he became very brisk and spoke sharply to the driver, ordering him where to go.
I sat in the cab while he got out to see about rooms and then he came back and took me into a place that seemed as beautiful as a palace — a suite of rooms with lace curtains, and carpets, and a piano, and a fireplace. I stood on some papers and undressed, while Sidney drew the bath for me, and it seemed as unreal as a fairy tale.
"Good heavens, you're starving!" Sidney cried when he saw how thin I was, and he sent out for hot milk and biscuits. Then, leaving me happy with the hot water and soap and plenty of clean soft towels, he went out, taking my rags done in a bundle.
When he came back I was sitting wrapped in his bathrobe, curling my toes before the fire, as happy as I could possibly be. He brought new clothes for me, warm underwear and a Norfolk suit and new shoes. When I was dressed in them, with my hair combed and a bright silk tie knotted under a clean white collar, I walked up and down, feeling cocky enough to speak to a king, except when I saw Sidney's white set face and thought of my poor mother.
"I got a permit to see her to-night," Sidney said. "I have the cab waiting. I thought maybe when she saw the presents I brought — and saw you looking so well — she always liked you best — "
So we set out in the cab again for the hospital. I felt quite grand coming up the steps in my new clothes and walked among the nurses, who did not recognize me at first, with a superior air, speaking to them confidently. I led Sidney down the long ward I knew so well, holding my head high, but all my new importance left me when I saw my mother.
She lay there with her eyes closed and her sweet face so thin, with deep hollows in the cheeks and dark marks under her lashes, that the old fear hurt my heart and I trembled.
"Is she — is she alive?" I asked the nurse.
"Yes. Speak to her and rouse her if you can," she said. Sidney and I leaned over the bed and called to her.
"Mother, look! Here's Sidney home! Look, mother!" I said cheerily.
"See, mother dear — all the beautiful presents. Wake up and see — it's Christmas!" Sidney said, taking her hand. She did not seem to hear at first, and then she turned her head on the pillow and opened her eyes.
"Here we are, mother!" we cried happily. "All the hard times are over — we'll have Christmas together — look at the lovely things Sidney's brought — see Charlie's new clothes." We tumbled the words together, excited and eager.
"Is — it — morning?" mother said painfully. "Three dozen more to sew. He shouldn't keep out the money for spots; there were no spots at all. Twelve make a dozen, and that's a half-crown, and then a dozen more, and then a dozen more, and then a dozen more," She did not know us at all.
Sidney spread over the bed the beautiful shawl he had brought for her and put the earrings in her hand and showed her the comb of brilliants for her hair, which the nurses had cut away, but she only turned her head restlessly on the pillow and talked wildly until the nurse told us we must come away.
We rode back to the rooms, not saying a word. Sidney sat with his arm about my shoulders and his eyes were hard and bright. When we were home again he ordered up a great supper of chops and a meat pie and pudding. We sat down and he piled my plate high with food. Then suddenly he put his arms down on the table and began to sob.
It was terrible. He could not stop. I tried to speak to him, but could not, so after a moment I got up and went over to the window. I stood there leaning my forehead against the glass, looking at the lights outside, so miserable that I could not cry. What was the good of all this comfort without our mother?
Sidney came over after a while and we stood together not saying anything for a long time. Then he drew a deep breath and said: "Well, all we can do is to go on. I suppose we must look up a berth for you after you have been fed up a bit. What do you want to do?"
"I want to be an actor," I answered dully.
"All right. We'll see what we can do tomorrow," he said.