The Hired Baby by Marie Corelli
A dark, desolate December night, a night that clung to the metropolis like
a wet black shroud, a night in which the heavy, low-hanging vapours melted
every now and then into a slow, reluctant rain, cold as icicle-drops in a
rock cavern. People passed and repassed in the streets like ghosts in a
bad dream; the twinkling gas-light showed them at one moment rising out of
the fog, and then disappearing from view as though suddenly engulfed in a
vaporous ebon sea. With muffled, angry shrieks, the metropolitan trains
deposited their shoals of shivering, coughing travelers at the several
stations, where sleepy officials, rendered vicious by the weather,
snatched the tickets from their hands with offensive haste and roughness.
Omnibus conductors grew ill-tempered and abusive without any seemingly
adequate reason; shopkeepers became flippant, disobliging, and careless of
custom; cabmen shouted derisive or denunciatory language after their
rapidly retreating fares; in short, everybody was in a discontented,
almost spiteful humour, with the exception of those few aggressively
cheerful persons who are in the habit of always making the best of
everything, even bad weather. Down the long wide vista of the Cromwell
Road, Kensington, the fog had it all its own way; it swept on steadily,
like thick smoke from a huge fire, choking the throats and blinding the
eyes of foot-passengers, stealing through the crannies of the houses, and
chilling the blood of even those luxurious individuals who, seated in
elegant drawing-rooms before blazing fires, easily forgot that there were
such bitter things as cold and poverty in that outside world against which
they had barred their windows. At one house in particular—a house
with gaudy glass doors and somewhat spoiled yellow silk curtains at the
windows, a house that plainly said to itself, "Done up for show!" to all
who cared to examine its exterior—there stood a closed brougham,
drawn by a prancing pair of fat horses. A coachman of distinguished
appearance sat on the box; a footman of irreproachable figure stood
waiting on the pavement, his yellow-gloved hand resting elegantly on the
polished silver knob of the carriage door. Both these gentlemen were
resolute and inflexible of face; they looked as if they had determined on
some great deed that should move the world to wild applause; but, truth to
tell, they had only just finished a highly satisfactory "meat-tea," and
before this grave silence had fallen upon them, they had been discussing
the advisability of broiled steak and onions for supper. The coachman had
inclined to plain mutton-chops as being easier of digestion; the footman
had earnestly asseverated his belief in the superior succulence and
sweetness of the steak and onions, and in the end he had gained his point.
This weighty question being settled, they had gradually grown reflective
on the past, present, and future joys of eating at some one else's
expense, and in this bland and pleasing state of meditation they were
still absorbed. The horses were impatient, and pawed the muddy ground with
many a toss of their long manes and tails, the steam from their glossy
coats mingling with the ever-thickening density of the fog. On the white
stone steps of the residence before which they waited was an almost
invisible bundle, apparently shapeless and immovable. Neither of the two
gorgeous personages in livery observed it; it was too far back in a dim
corner, too unobtrusive, for the casual regard of their lofty eyes.
Suddenly the glass doors before mentioned were thrown apart with a
clattering noise, a warmth and radiance from the entrance-hall thus
displayed streamed into the foggy street, and at the same instant the
footman, still with grave and imperturbable countenance, opened the
brougham. An elderly lady, richly dressed, with diamonds sparkling in her
gray hair, came rustling down the steps, bringing with her faint odours of
patchouly and violet-powder. She was followed by a girl of doll-like
prettiness, with a snub nose and petulant little mouth, who held up her
satin-and-lace skirts with a sort of fastidious disdain, as though she
scorned to set foot on earth that was not carpeted with the best velvet
pile. As they approached their carriage the inert dark bundle, crouched in
the corner, started into life—a woman, with wild hair and wilder
eyes, whose pale lips quivered with suppressed weeping as her piteous
voice broke into sudden clamour:
"Oh, lady!" she cried, "for the love of God, a trifle! Oh, lady, lady!"
But the "lady," with a contemptuous sniff and a shake of her scented
garments, passed her before she could continue her appeal, and she turned
with a sort of faint hope to the softer face of the girl.
"Oh, my dear, do have pity! Just the smallest little thing, and God will
bless you! You are rich and happy—and I am starving! Only a penny!
For the baby—the poor little baby!" And she made as though she would
open her tattered shawl and reveal some treasure hidden therein, but
shrunk back, repelled by the cold, merciless gaze that fell upon her from
those eyes, in which youth dwelt without tenderness.
"You have no business on our door step," said the girl, harshly. "Go away
directly, or I shall tell my servant to call a policeman."
Then, as she entered the brougham after her mother, she addressed the
respectable footman angrily, giving him the benefit of a strong nasal
"Howard, why do you let such dirty beggars come near the carriage? What
are you paid for, I should like to know? It is perfectly disgraceful to
"Very sorry, miss!" said the footman, gravely. "I didn't see the—the
person before." Then shutting the brougham door, he turned with a
dignified air to the unfortunate creature, who still lingered near, and,
with a sweeping gesture of his gold-embroidered coat-sleeve, said
"Do you 'ear? Be hoff!"
Then, having thus performed his duty, he mounted the box beside his friend
the coachman, and the equipage rattled quickly away, its gleaming lights
soon lost in the smoke-laden vapours that drooped downward like funeral
hangings from the invisible sky to the scarcely visible ground. Left to
herself, the woman who had vainly sought charity from those in whom no
charity existed, looked up despairingly, as one distraught, and seemed as
though she would have given vent to some fierce exclamation, when a feeble
wail came pitifully forth from the sheltering folds of her shawl. She
restrained herself instantly, and walked on at a rapid pace, scarcely
heeding whither she went, till she reached the Catholic church known as
the "Oratory." Its unfinished facade loomed darkly out of the fog; there
was nothing picturesque or inviting about it, yet there were people
passing softly in and out, and through the swinging to and fro of the red
baize-covered doors there came a comforting warm glimmer of light. The
woman paused, hesitated, and then, having apparently made up her mind,
ascended the broad steps, looked in, and finally entered. The place was
strange to her; she knew nothing of its religious meaning, and its cold,
uncompleted appearance oppressed her. There were only some half-dozen
persons scattered about, like black specks, in its vast white interior,
and the fog hung heavily in the vaulted dome and dark little chapels. One
corner alone blazed with brilliancy and colour; this was the altar of the
Virgin. Toward it the tired vagrant made her way, and on reaching it sank
on the nearest chair as though exhausted. She did not raise her eyes to
the marble splendours of the shrine—one of the masterpieces of old
Italian art; she had been merely attracted to the spot by the glitter of
the lamps and candles, and took no thought as to the reason of their being
lighted, though she was sensible of a certain comfort in the soft lustre
shed around her. She seemed still young; her face, rendered haggard by
long and bitter privation, showed traces of past beauty, and her eyes,
full of feverish trouble, were large, dark, and still lustrous. Her mouth
alone—that sensitive betrayer of the life's good and bad actions—revealed
that all had not been well with her; its lines were hard and vicious, and
the resentful curve of the upper lip spoke of foolish pride, not unmixed
with reckless sensuality. She sat for a moment or two motionless; then,
with exceeding care and tenderness, she began to unfold her thin, torn
shawl by gentle degrees, looking down with anxious solicitude at the
object concealed within. Only a baby—and withal a baby so tiny and
white and frail that it seemed as though it must melt like a snowflake
beneath the lightest touch. As its wrappings were loosened it opened a
pair of large, solemn blue eyes, and gazed at the woman's face with a
strange, pitiful wistfulness. It lay quiet, without moan, a pinched, pale
miniature of suffering humanity—an infant with sorrow's mark
painfully impressed upon its drawn, small features. Presently it stretched
forth a puny hand and feebly caressed its protectress, and this, too, with
the faintest glimmer of a smile. The woman responded to its affection with
a sort of rapture; she caught it fondly to her breast and covered it with
kisses, rocking it to and fro with broken words of endearment. "My little
darling!" she whispered, softly. "My little pet! Yes, yes, I know! So
tired, so cold and hungry! Never mind, baby, never mind! We will rest here
a little; then we will sing a song presently, and get some money to take
us home. Sleep awhile longer, deary! There! now we are warm and cosey
So saying, she rearranged her shawl in closer and tighter folds, so as to
protect the child more thoroughly. While she was engaged in this operation
a lady in deep mourning passed close by her, and, advancing to the very
steps of the altar, knelt down, hiding her face with her clasped hands.
The tired wayfarer's attention was attracted by this; she gazed with a
sort of dull wonder at the kneeling figure robed in rich rustling silk and
crape, and gradually her eyes wandered upward, upward, till they rested on
the gravely sweet and serenely smiling marble image of the Virgin and
Child. She looked and looked again—surprised—incredulous; then
suddenly rose to her feet and made her way to the altar railing. There she
paused, staring vaguely at a basket of flowers, white and odorous, that
had been left there by some reverent worshipper. She glanced doubtfully at
the swinging silver lamps, the twinkling candles; she was conscious, too,
of a subtle, strange fragrance in the air, as though a basket full of
spring violets and daffodils had just been carried by; then, as her
wandering gaze came back to the solitary woman in black, who still knelt
motionless near her, a sort of choking sensation came into her throat and
a stinging moisture struggled in her eyes. She strove to turn this
hysterical sensation to a low laugh of disdain.
"Lord, Lord!" she muttered beneath her breath, "what sort of place is
this, where they pray to a woman and a baby?"
At that moment the woman in black rose; she was young, with a proud, fair,
but weary face. Her eyes lighted on her soiled and poverty-stricken
sister, and she paused with a pitying look. The street wanderer made use
of the opportunity thus offered, and in an urgent whisper implored
charity. The lady drew out a purse, then hesitated, looking wistfully at
the bundle in the shawl.
"You have a child there?" she asked, in gentle accents. "May I see it?"
"Yes, lady," and the wrapper was turned down sufficiently to disclose the
tiny white face, now more infinitely touching than ever in the pathos of
"I lost my little one a week ago," said the lady, simply, as she looked at
it. "He was all I had." Her voice trembled; she opened her purse, and
placed a half-crown in the hand of her astonished supplicant. "You are
happier than I am; perhaps you will pray for me. I am very lonely!"
Then dropping her long crape veil so that it completely hid her features,
she bent her head and moved softly away. The woman watched her till her
graceful figure was completely lost in the gloom of the great church, and
then turned again vaguely to the altar.
"Pray for her!" she thought. "I! As if I could pray!" And she smiled
bitterly. Again she looked at the statue in the shrine; it had no meaning
at all for her. She had never heard of Christianity save through the
medium of a tract, whose consoling title had been "Stop! You are Going to
Hell!" Religion of every sort was mocked at by those among whom her lot
was cast, the name of Christ was only used as a convenience to swear by,
and therefore this mysterious, smiling, gently inviting marble figure was
incomprehensible to her mind.
"As if I could pray!" she repeated, with a sort of derision. Then she
looked at the broad silver coin in her hand and the sleeping baby in her
arms. With a sudden impulse she dropped on her knees.
"Whoever you are," she muttered, addressing the statue above her, "it
seems you've got a child of your own; perhaps you'll help me to take care
of this one. It isn't mine; I wish it was! Anyway, I love it more than its
own mother does. I dare say you won't listen to the likes of me, but if
there was God anywhere about I'd ask Him to bless that good soul that's
lost her baby. I bless her with all my heart, but my blessing ain't good
for much. Ah!" and she surveyed anew the Virgin's serene white
countenance, "you just look as if you understood me; but I don't believe
you do. Never mind, I've said all I wanted to say this time."
Her strange petition, or rather discourse, concluded, she rose and walked
away. The great doors of the church swung heavily behind her as she
stepped out and stood once more in the muddy street. It was raining
steadily—a fine, cold, penetrating rain. But the coin she held was a
talisman against outer discomforts, and she continued to walk on till she
came to a clean-looking dairy, where for a couple of pence she was able to
replenish the infant's long ago emptied feeding bottle; but she purchased
nothing for herself. She had starved all day, and was now too faint to
eat. Soon she entered an omnibus, and was driven to Charing Cross, and
alighting at the great station, brilliant with its electric light, she
paced up and down outside it, accosting several of the passers-by and
imploring their pity. One man gave her a penny; another, young and
handsome, with a flushed, intemperate face, and a look of his fast-fading
boyhood still about him, put his hand in his pocket and drew out all the
loose coppers it contained, amounting to three pennies and an odd
farthing, and, dropping them into her outstretched palm, said, half gaily,
half boldly: "You ought to do better than that with those big eyes of
yours!" She drew back and shuddered; he broke into a coarse laugh, and
went his way. Standing where he had left her, she seemed for a time lost
in wretched reflections; the fretful, wailing cry of the child she carried
roused her, and hushing it softly, she murmured, "Yes, yes, darling, it is
too wet and cold for you; we had better go." And acting suddenly on her
resolve, she hailed another omnibus, this time bound for Tottenham Court
Road, and was, after some dreary jolting, set down at her final
destination—a dirty alley in the worst part of Seven Dials. Entering
it, she was hailed with a shout of derisive laughter from some
rough-looking men and women, who were standing grouped round a low
gin-shop at the corner.
"Here's Liz!" cried one. "Here's Liz and the bloomin' kid!"
"Now, old gel, fork out! How much 'ave you got, Liz? Treat us to a drop
Liz waked past them steadily; the conspicuous curve of her upper lip came
into full play, and her eyes flashed disdainfully, but she said nothing.
Her silence exasperated a tangle-haired, cat-faced girl of seventeen
years, who, more than half drunk, sat on the ground, clasping her knees
with both arms and rocking herself lazily to and fro.
"Mother Mawks!" cried she, "Mother Mawks! You're wanted! Here's Liz come
back with your babby!"
As if her words had been a powerful incantation to summon forth an evil
spirit, a door in one of the miserable houses was thrown open, and a stout
woman, nearly naked to the waist, with a swollen, blotched, and most
hideous countenance, rushed out furiously, and darting at Liz, shook her
violently by the arm.
"Where's my shullin'?" she yelled, "where's my gin? Out with it! Out with
my shullin' an' fourpence! None of yer sneakin' ways with me; a bargain's
a bargain all the world over! Yer're making a fortin' with my babby—yer
know y' are; pays yer a good deal better than yer old trade! Don't say it
don't—yer know it do. Yer'll not find such a sickly kid anywheres,
an' it's the sickly kids wot pays an' moves the 'arts of the kyind ladies
an' good gentlemen"—this with an imitative whine that excited the
laughter and applause of her hearers. "Yer've got it cheap, I kin tell
yer, an' if yer don't pay up reg'lar, there's others that'll take the
chance, an' thankful too!"
She stopped for lack of breath, and Liz spoke quietly:
"It's all right, Mother Mawks," she said, with an attempt at a smile;
"here's your shilling, here's the four pennies for the gin. I don't owe
you anything for the child now." She stopped and hesitated, looking down
tenderly at the frail creature in her arms; then added, almost pleadingly,
"It's asleep now. May I take it with me to-night?"
Mother Mawks, who had been testing the coins Liz had given her by biting
them ferociously with her large yellow teeth, broke into a loud laugh.
"Take it with yer! I like that! Wot imperence! Take it with yer!" Then,
with her huge red arms akimbo, she added, with a grin, "Tell yer wot, if
yer likes to pay me 'arf a crown, yer can 'ave it to cuddle, an' welcome!"
Another shout of approving merriment burst from the drink-sodden
spectators of the little scene, and the girl crouched on the ground
removed her encircling hands from her knees to clap them loudly, as she
"Well done, Mother Mawks! One doesn't let out kids at night for nothing!
'T ought to be more expensive than daytime!"
The face of Liz had grown white and rigid.
"You know I can't give you that money," she said, slowly. "I have not
tasted bit or drop all day. I must live, though it doesn't seem worth
while. The child"—and her voice softened involuntarily—"is
fast asleep; it's a pity to wake it, that's all. It will cry and fret all
night, and—and I will make it warm and comfortable if you'd let me."
She raised her eyes hopefully and anxiously. "Will you?"
Mother Mawks was evidently a lady of an excitable disposition. The simple
request seemed to drive her nearly frantic. She raised her voice to an
absolute scream, thrusting her dirty hands through her still dirtier hair
as the proper accompanying gesture to her vituperative oratory.
"Will I! Will I!" she screeched. "Will I let out my hown babby for the
night for nuthin'? Will I? No, I won't! I'll see yer blowed into the
middle of next week fust! Lor' 'a' mussey! 'ow 'igh an' mighty we are
gittin', to be sure! The babby'll be quiet with you, Miss Liz, will it,
hindeed! An' it will cry an' fret with its hown mother, will it, hindeed!"
And at every sentence she approached Liz more nearly, increasing in fury
as she advanced. "Yer low hussy! D'ye think I'd let ye 'ave my babby for a
hour unless yer paid for 'it? As it is, yer pays far too little. I'm an
honest woman as works for my livin' an' wot drinks reasonable, better than
you by a long sight, with yer stuck-up airs! A pretty drab you are! Gi' me
the babby; ye 'a'n't no business to keep it a minit longer." And she made
a grab at Liz's sheltering shawl.
"Oh, don't hurt it!" pleaded Liz, tremblingly. "Such a little thing—don't
Mother Mawks stared so wildly that her blood-shot eyes seemed protruding
from her head.
"'Urt it! Hain't I a right to do wot I likes with my hown babby? 'Urt it!
Well, I never! Look 'ere!"—and she turned round on the assembled
neighbours—"hain't she a reg'lar one? She don't care for the law,
not she! She's keepin' back a child from its hown mother!" And with that
she made a fierce attack on the shawl, and succeeded in dragging the
infant from Liz's reluctant arms. Wakened thus roughly from its slumbers,
the poor mite set up a feeble wailing; its mother, enraged at the sound,
shook it violently till it gasped for breath.
"Drat the little beast!" she cried. "Why don't it choke an' 'ave done with
And, without heeding the terrified remonstrances of Liz, she flung the
child roughly, as though it were a ball, through the open door of her
lodgings, where it fell on a heap of dirty clothes, and lay motionless;
its wailing had ceased.
"Oh, baby, baby!" exclaimed Liz, in accents of poignant distress. "Oh, you
have killed it, I am sure! Oh, you are cruel, cruel! Oh, baby, baby!"
And she broke into a tempestuous passion of sobs and tears. The bystanders
looked on in unmoved silence. Mother Mawks gathered her torn garments
round her with a gesture of defiance, and sniffed the air as though she
said, "Any one who wants to meddle with me will get the worst of it."
There was a brief pause; suddenly a man staggered out of the gin-shop,
smearing the back of his hand across his mouth as he came—a
massively built, ill-favoured brute, with a shock of uncombed red hair and
small ferret-like eyes. He stared stupidly at the weeping Liz, then at
Mother Mawks, finally from one to the other of the loafers who stood by.
"Wot's the row?" he demanded, quickly. "Wot's up? 'Ave it out fair! Joe
Mawks 'll stand by and see fair game. Fire away, my hearties! fire, fire
away!" And, with a chuckling idiot laugh, he dived into the pocket of his
torn corduroy trousers and produced a pipe. Filling this leisurely from a
greasy pouch, with such unsteady fingers that the tobacco dropped all over
him, he lighted it, repeating, with increased thickness of utterance,
"Wot's the row! 'Ave it out fair!"
"It's about your babby, Joe!" cried the girl before mentioned, jumping up
from her seat on the ground with such force that her hair came tumbling
all about her in a dark, dank mist, through which her thin, eager face
spitefully peered. "Liz has gone crazy! She wants your babby to cuddle!"
And she screamed with sudden laughter. "Eh, eh, fancy! Wants a babby to
The stupefied Joe blinked drowsily and sucked the stem of his pipe with
apparent relish. Then, as if he had been engaged in deep meditation on the
subject, he removed his smoky consoler from his mouth, and said, "W'y not?
Wants a babby to cuddle? All right! Let 'er 'ave it—w'y not?"
At these words Liz looked up hopefully through her tears, but Mother Mawks
darted forward in raving indignation.
"Yer great drunken fool!" she yelled to her besotted spouse, "aren't yer
ashamed of yerself? Wot! let out babby for a whole night for nuthin'? It's
lucky I've my wits about me, an' I say Liz sha'n't 'ave it! There, now!"
The man looked at her, and a dogged resolution darkened his repulsive
countenance. He raised his big fist, clinched it, and hit straight out,
giving his infuriated wife a black eye in much less than a minute. "An' I
say she shall 'ave it. Where are ye now?"
In answer to the query Mother Mawks might have said that she was "all
there," for she returned her husband's blow with interest and force, and
in a couple of seconds the happy pair were engaged in a "stand-up" fight,
to the intense admiration and excitement of all the inhabitants of the
little alley. Every one in the place thronged to watch the combatants, and
to hear the blasphemous oaths and curses with which the battle was
In the midst of the affray a wizened, bent old man, who had been sitting
at his door sorting rags in a basket, and apparently taking no heed of the
clamour around him, made a sign to Liz.
"Take the kid now," he whispered. "Nobody'll notice. I'll see they don't
cry arter ye."
Liz thanked him mutely by a look, and rushing to the house where the child
still lay, seemingly inanimate, on the floor among the soiled clothes, she
caught it up eagerly, and hurried away to her own poor garret in a
tumble-down tenement at the farthest end of the alley. The infant had been
stunned by its fall, but under her tender care, and rocked in the warmth
of her caressing arms, it soon recovered, though when its blue eyes opened
they were full of a bewildered pain, such as may be seen in the eyes of a
"My pet! my poor little darling!" she murmured over and over again,
kissing its wee white face and soft hands; "I wish I was your mother—Lord
knows I do! As it is, you're all I've got to care for. And you do love me,
baby, don't you? just a little, little bit!" And as she renewed her
fondling embraces, the tiny, sad-visaged creature uttered a low, crooning
sound of baby satisfaction in response to her endearments—a sound
more sweet to her ears than the most exquisite music, and which brought a
smile to her mouth and a pathos to her dark eyes, rendering her face for
the moment almost beautiful. Holding the child closely to her breast, she
looked cautiously out of her narrow window, and perceived that the
connubial fight was over. From the shouts of laughter and plaudits that
reached her ears, Joe Mawks had evidently won the day; his wife had
disappeared from the field. She saw the little crowd dispersing, most of
those who composed it entered the gin-shop, and very soon the alley was
comparatively quiet and deserted. By-and-bye she heard her name called in
a low voice: "Liz! Liz!"
She looked down and saw the old man who had promised her his protection in
case Mother Mawks should persecute her. "Is that you, Jim? Come upstairs;
it's better than talking out there." He obeyed, and stood before her in
the wretched room, looking curiously both at her and the baby. A wiry,
wolfish-faced being was Jim Duds, as he was familiarly called, though his
own name was the aristocratic and singularly inappropriate one of James
Douglas. He was more like an animal than a human creature, with his
straggling gray hair, bushy beard, and sharp teeth protruding like fangs
from beneath his upper lip. His profession was that of an area thief, and
he considered it a sufficiently respectable calling.
"Mother Mawks has got it this time," he said, with a grin which was more
like a snarl. "Joe's blood was up, and he pounded her nigh into a jelly.
She'll leave ye quiet now; so long as ye pay the hire reg'lar ye'll have
Joe on yer side. If so be as there's a bad day, ye'd better not come home
"I know," said Liz; "but she's always had the money for the child, and
surely it wasn't much to ask her to let me keep it warm on such a cold
night as this."
Jim Duds looked meditative. "Wot makes yer care for that babby so much?"
he asked. "'T ain't yourn."
"No," she said, sadly. "That's true. But it seems something to hold on to,
like. See what my life has been!" She stopped, and a wave of colour
flushed her pallid features. "From a little girl, nothing but the streets—the
long, cruel streets! and I just a bit of dirt on the pavement—no
more; flung here, flung there, and at last swept into the gutter. All dark—all
useless!" She laughed a little. "Fancy, Jim! I've never seen the country!"
"Nor I," said Jim, biting a piece of straw reflectively. "It must be
powerful fine, with naught but green trees an' posies a-blowin' an' a
growin' everywheres. There ain't many kitching areas there, though, I'm
Liz went on, scarcely heeding him: "The baby seems to me like what the
country must be—all harmless and sweet and quiet; when I hold it so,
my heart gets peaceful somehow—I don't know why."
Again Jim looked speculative. He waved his bitten straw expressively.
"Ye've had 'sperience, Liz. Hain't ye met no man like wot ye could care
Liz trembled, and her eyes grew wild..
"Men!" she cried, with bitterest scorn—"no men have come my way,
Jim stared, but was silent; he had no fit answer ready. Presently Liz
spoke again, more softly:
"Jim, do you know I went into a great church to-day?"
"Worse luck!" said Jim, sententiously. "Church ain't no use nohow as far
as I can see."
"There was a figure there, Jim," went on Liz, earnestly, "of a Woman
holding up a Baby, and people knelt down before it. What do you s'pose it
"Can't say!" replied the puzzled Jim. "Are ye sure 't was a church? Most
like 't was a mooseum."
"No, no!" said Liz. "'T was a church for certain; there were folks praying
"Ah, well," growled Jim, gruffly, "much good it may do 'em! I'm not of the
prayin' sort. A woman an' a babby, did ye say? Don't ye get such cranky
notions into yer head, Liz! Women an' babbies are common enough—too
common, by a long chalk; an' as for prayin' to 'em—" Jim's utter
contempt and incredulity were too great for further expression, and he
turned away, wishing her a curt "Good-night!"
"Good-night!" said Liz, softly; and long after he had left her she still
sat silent, thinking, thinking, with the baby asleep in her arms,
listening to the rain as it dripped, dripped heavily, like clods falling
on a coffin lid. She was not a good woman—far from it. Her very
motive in hiring the infant at so much a day was entirely inexcusable; it
was simply to gain money upon false pretences—by exciting more pity
than would otherwise have been bestowed on her had she begged for herself
alone, without a child in her arms. At first she had carried the baby
about to serve as a mere trick of her trade, but the warm feel of its
little helpless body against her bosom day after day had softened her
heart toward its innocence and pitiful weakness, and at last she had grown
to love it with a strange, intense passion—so much that she would
willingly have sacrificed her life for its sake. She knew that its own
parents cared nothing for it, except for the money it brought them through
her hands; and often wild plans would form in her poor tired brain—plans
of running away with it altogether from the roaring, devouring city, to
some sweet, humble country village, there to obtain work and devote
herself to making this little child happy. Poor Liz! Poor, bewildered,
heart-broken Liz! Ignorant London heathen as she was, there was one
fragrant flower blossoming in the desert of her soiled and wasted
existence—the flower of a pure and guileless love for one of those
"little ones," of whom it hath been said by an all-pitying Divinity
unknown to her, "Suffer them to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of
such is the kingdom of heaven."
The dreary winter days crept on apace, and, as they drew near Christmas,
dwellers in the streets leading off the Strand grew accustomed of nights
to hear the plaintive voice of a woman, singing in a peculiarly thrilling
and pathetic manner some of the old songs and ballads familiar and dear to
the heart of every Englishman—"The Banks of Allan Water," "The
Bailiff's Daughter," "Sally in our Alley," "The Last Rose of Summer." All
these well-loved ditties she sang one after the other, and, though her
notes were neither fresh nor powerful, they were true and often tender,
more particularly in the hackneyed, but still captivating, melody of
"Home, Sweet Home." Windows were opened, and pennies freely showered on
the street vocalist, who was accompanied in all her wanderings by a
fragile infant, which she seemed to carry with especial care and
tenderness. Sometimes, too, in the bleak afternoons, she would be seen
wending her way through mud and mire, setting her weary face against the
bitter east wind, and patiently singing on; and motherly women, coming
from the gay shops and stores, where they had been purchasing Christmas
toys for their own children, would often stop to look at the baby's
pinched, white features with pity, and would say, while giving their spare
pennies, "Poor little thing! Is it not very ill?" And Liz, her heart
freezing with sudden terror, would exclaim, hurriedly, "Oh, no, no! It is
always pale; it is just a little bit weak, that's all!" And the kindly
questioners, touched by the large despair of her dark eyes, would pass on
and say no more. And Christmas came—the birthday of the Child Christ—a
feast the sacred meaning of which was unknown to Liz; she only recognized
it as a sort of large and somewhat dull bank-holiday, when all London
devoted itself to church-going and the eating of roast beef and
plum-pudding. The whole thing was incomprehensible to her mind, but even
her sad countenance was brighter than usual on Christmas eve, and she felt
almost gay, for had she not, by means of a little extra starvation on her
own part, been able to buy a wondrous gold-and-crimson worsted bird
suspended from an elastic string, a bird which bobbed up and down to
command in the most lively and artistic manner? And had not her hired baby
actually laughed at the clumsy toy—laughed an elfish and weird
laugh, the first it had ever indulged in? And Liz had laughed too, for
pure gladness in the child's mirth, and the worsted bird became a sort of
uncouth charm to make them both merry.
But after Christmas had come and gone, and the melancholy days, the last
beating of the failing pulse of the Old Year, throbbed slowly and heavily
away, the baby took upon its wan visage a strange expression—the
solemn expression of worn-out and suffering age. Its blue eyes grew more
solemnly speculative and dreamy, and after a while it seemed to lose all
taste for the petty things of this world and the low desires of mere
humanity. It lay very quiet in Liz's arms; it never cried, and was no
longer fretful, and it seemed to listen with a sort of mild approval to
the tones of her voice as they rang out in the dreary streets, through
which, by day and night, she patiently wandered. By-and-by the worsted
bird, too, fell out of favour; it jumped and glittered in vain; the baby
surveyed it with an unmoved air of superior wisdom, just as if it had
suddenly found out what real birds were like, and was not to be deceived
into accepting so poor an imitation of nature. Liz grew uneasy, but she
had no one in whom to confide her fears. She had been very regular in her
payments to Mother Mawks, and that irate lady, kept in order by her
bull-dog of a husband, had been of late very contented to let her have the
child without further interference. Liz knew well enough that no one in
the miserable alley where she dwelt would care whether the baby were ill
or not. They would tell her, "The more sickly the better for your trade."
Besides, she was jealous; she could not endure the idea of any one tending
it or touching it but herself. Children were often ailing, she thought,
and if left to themselves without doctor's stuff they recovered sometimes
more quickly than they had sickened. Thus soothing her inward tremors as
best she might, she took more care than ever of her frail charge, stinting
herself than she might nourish it, though the baby seemed to care less and
less for mundane necessities, and only submitted to be fed, as it were,
under patient and silent protest.
And so the sands in Time's hour-glass ran slowly but surely away, and it
was New-Year's eve. Liz had wandered about all day, singing her little
repertoire of ballads in the teeth of a cruel, snow-laden wind—so
cruel that people otherwise charitably disposed had shut close their doors
and windows, and had not even heard her voice. Thus the last span of the
Old Year had proved most unprofitable and dreary; she had gained no more
than sixpence; how could she return with only that humble amount to face
Mother Mawks and her vituperative fury? Her throat ached; she was very
tired, and, as the night darkened from pale to deep and starless shadows,
she strolled mechanically from the Strand to the Embankment, and after
walking some little distance she sat down in a corner close to Cleopatra's
Needle—that mocking obelisk that has looked upon the decay of
empires, itself impassive, and that still appears to say, "Pass on, ye
puny generations! I, a mere carven block of stone, shall outlive you all!"
For the first time in all her experience the child in her arms seemed a
heavy burden. She put aside her shawl and surveyed it tenderly; it was
fast asleep, a small, peaceful smile on its thin, quiet face. Thoroughly
worn out herself, she leaned her head against the damp stone wall behind
her, and clasping the infant tightly to her breast, she also slept—the
heavy, dreamless sleep of utter fatigue and physical exhaustion. The
solemn night moved on, a night of black vapours; the pageant of the Old
Year's deathbed was unbrightened by so much as a single star. None of the
hurrying passers-by perceived the weary woman where she slept in that
obscure corner, and for a long while she rested there undisturbed.
Suddenly a vivid glare of light dazzled her eyes; she started to her feet
half asleep, but still instinctively retaining the infant in her close
embrace. A dark form, buttoned to the throat and holding a brilliant
bull's-eye lantern, stood before her.
"Come now," said this personage, "this won't do! Move on!"
Liz smiled faintly and apologetically.
"All right!" she answered, striving to speak cheerfully, and raising her
eyes to the policeman's good-natured countenance. "I didn't mean to fall
asleep here. I don't know how I came to do it. I must go home, of course."
"Of course," said the policeman, somewhat mollified by her evident
humility, and touched in spite of himself by the pathos of her eyes. Then
turning his lamp more fully upon her, he continued, "Is that a baby you've
"Yes," said Liz, half proudly, half tenderly. "Poor little dear! it's been
ailing sadly—but I think it's better now than it was."
And, encouraged by his friendly tone, she opened the folds of her shawl to
show him her one treasure. The bulls-eye came into still closer
requisition as the kindly guardian of the peace peered inquiringly at the
tiny bundle. He had scarcely looked when he started back with an
"God bless my soul!" he cried, "it's dead!"
"Dead!" shrieked Liz; "oh, no, no! Not dead! Don't say so, oh, don't,
don't say so! Oh, you can't mean it! Oh, for God's love, say you didn't
mean it! It can't be dead, not really dead!—no, no, indeed! Oh,
baby, baby! You are not dead, my pet my angel, not dead, oh no!"
And breathless, frantic with fear, she felt the little thing's hands and
feet and face, kissed it wildly, and called it by a thousand endearing
names, in vain—in vain! Its tiny body was already stiff and rigid;
it had been a corpse more than two hours.
The policeman coughed, and brushed his thick gauntlet glove across his
eyes. He was an emissary of the law, but he had a heart. He thought of his
bright-eyed wife at home, and of the soft-cheeked, cuddling little
creature that clung to her bosom and crowed with rapture whenever he came
"Look here," he said, very gently, laying one hand on the woman's shoulder
as she crouched shivering against the wall, and staring piteously at the
motionless waxen form in her arms; "it's no use fretting about it." He
paused; there was an uncomfortable lump in his throat, and he had to cough
again to get it down. "The poor little creature's gone—there's no
help for it. The next world's a better place than this, you know! There,
there, don't take on so about it"—this as Liz shuddered and sighed;
a sigh of such complete despair that it went straight to his honest soul,
and showed him how futile were his efforts at consolation. But he had his
duty to attend to, and he went on in firmer tones: "Now, like a good
woman, you just move off from here and go home. If I leave you here by
yourself a bit, will you promise me to go straight home? I mustn't find
you here when I come back on this beat, d' ye understand?" Liz nodded.
"That's right!" he resumed, cheerily. "I'll give you just ten minutes; you
just go straight home."
And with a "Good-night," uttered in accents meant to be comforting, he
turned away and paced on, his measured tread echoing on the silence at
first loudly, then fainter and fainter, till it altogether died away, as
his bulky figure disappeared in the distance. Left to herself, Liz rose
from her crouching posture; rocking the dead child in her arms, she
"Go straight home!" she murmured, half aloud. "Home, sweet home! Yes,
baby; yes, my darling, we will go home together!"
And creeping cautiously along in the shadows, she reached a flight of the
broad stone steps leading down to the river. She descended them, one by
one; the black water lapped against them heavily, heavily; the tide was
full up. She paused; a sonorous, deep-toned iron voice rang through the
air with reverberating, solemn melody. It was the great bell of St. Paul's
tolling midnight—the Old Year was dead.
"Straight home!" she repeated, with a beautiful, expectant look in her
wild, weary eyes. "My little darling! Yes, we are both tired; we will go
home! Home, sweet home! We will go!"
Kissing the cold face of the baby corpse she held, she threw herself
forward; there followed a sullen, deep splash—a slight struggle—and
all was over! The water lapped against the steps heavily, heavily, as
before; the policeman passed once more, and saw to his satisfaction that
the coast was clear; through the dark veil of the sky one star looked out
and twinkled for a brief instant, then disappeared again. A clash and
clamour of bells startled the brooding night, here and there a window was
opened, and figures appeared in balconies to listen. They were ringing in
the New Year—the festival of hope, the birthday of the world! But
what were New Years to her, who, with white, upturned face, and arms that
embraced an infant in the tenacious grip of death, went drifting, drifting
solemnly down the dark river, unseen, unpitied by all those who awoke to
new hopes and aspirations on that first morning of another life-probation!
Liz had gone; gone to make her peace with God—perhaps through the
aid of her "hired" baby, the little sinless soul she had so fondly
cherished; gone to that sweetest "home" we dream of and pray for, where
the lost and bewildered wanderers of this earth shall find true welcome
and rest from grief and exile; gone to that fair, far glory-world where
reigns the divine Master, whose words still ring above the tumult of ages:
"See that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you,
that their angels do always behold the face of My Father who is in