The shambling little clerk was still standing at the door watching the retreating figure of the millionaire, and mentally splicing together his fragmentary remarks into a symmetrical piece of advice which might be carried home and digested at leisure, when his attention was attracted to a pale-faced woman, with a child in her arms, who was hanging about the entrance. She looked up at the clerk in a wistful way, as if anxious to address him and yet afraid to do so. Then noting, perhaps, some gleam of kindness in his yellow wrinkled face, she came across to him.
“D’ye think I could see Muster Girdlestone, sir,” she asked, with a curtsey; “or, maybe, you’re Mr. Girdlestone yourself?” The woman was wretchedly dressed, and her eyelids were swollen and red as from long crying.
“Mr. Girdlestone is in his room,” said the head clerk kindly. “I have no doubt that he will see you if you will wait for a moment.” Had he been speaking to the grandest of the be-silked and be-feathered dames who occasionally frequented the office; he could not have spoken with greater courtesy. Verily in these days the spirit of true chivalry has filtered down from the surface and has found a lodgment in strange places.
The merchant looked with a surprised and suspicious eye at his visitor when she was ushered in. “Take a seat, my good woman,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“Please, Mr. Girdlestone, I’m Mrs. Hudson,” she answered, seating herself in a timid way upon the extreme edge of a chair. She was weary and footsore, for she had carried the baby up from Stepney that morning.
“Hudson—Hudson—can’t remember the name,” said Girdlestone, shaking his head reflectively.
“Jim Hudson as was, sir, he was my husband, the bo’sun for many a year o’ your ship the Black Eagle. He went out to try and earn a bit for me and the child, sir, but he’s dead o’ fever, poor dear, and lying in Bonny river, wi’ a cannon ball at his feet, as the carpenter himself told me who sewed him up, and I wish I was dead and with him, so I do.” She began sobbing in her shawl and moaning, while the child, suddenly awakened by the sound, rubbed its eyes with its wrinkled mottled hands, and then proceeded to take stock of Mr. Girdlestone and his office with the critical philosophy of infancy.
“Calm yourself, my good woman, calm yourself,” said the senior partner. He perceived that the evil prophesied by his son had come upon him, and he made a mental note of this fresh instance of Ezra’s powers of foresight.
“It was hard, so it was,” said Mrs. Hudson, drying her eyes, but still giving vent to an occasional tempestuous sob. “I heard as the Black Eagle was comin’ up the river, so I spent all I had in my pocket in makin’ Jim a nice little supper—ham an’ eggs, which was always his favourite, an’ a pint o’ bitter, an’ a quartern o’ whiskey that he could take hot after, bein’ naturally o’ a cold turn, and him comin’ from a warm country, too. Then out I goes, and down the river, until I sees the Black Eagle a-comin’ up wi’ a tug in front of her. Well I knowed the two streaks o’ white paint, let alone the screechin’ o’ the parrots which I could hear from the bank. I could see the heads o’ some of the men peepin’ over the side, so I waves my handkercher, and one o’ them he waves back. ‘Trust Jim for knowin’ his little wife,’ says I, proud like to myself, and I runs round to where I knew as they’d dock her. What with me being that excited that I couldn’t rightly see where I was going, and what with the crowd, for the men was comin’ from work, I didn’t get there till the ship was alongside. Then I jumps aboard, and the first man I seed was Sandy McPherson, who I knowed when we lived in Binnacle Lane. ‘Where’s Jim?’ I cried, running forward, eager like, to the forecastle, but he caught me by the arm as I passed him. ‘Steady, lass, steady!’ Then I looked up at him, and his face was very grave, and my knees got kind o’ weak. ‘Where’s Jim?’ says I. ‘Don’t ask,’ says he. ‘Where is he, Sandy?’ I screeches; and then, ‘Don’t say the word, Sandy, don’t you say it.’ But, Lor’ bless ye, sir, it didn’t much matter what he said nor what he didn’t, for I knowed all, an’ down I flops on the deck in a dead faint. The mate, he took me home in a cab, and when I come to there was the supper lying, sir, and the beer, and the things a-shinin’, and all so cosy, an’ the child askin’ where her father was, for I told her he’d bring her some things from Africa. Then, to think of him a-lyin’ dead in Bonny river, why, sir, it nigh broke my heart.”
“A sore affliction,” the merchant said, shaking his grizzled head. “A sad visitation. But these things are sent to try us, Mrs. Hudson. They are warnings to us not to fix our thoughts too much upon the dross of this world, but to have higher aims and more durable aspirations. We are poor short-sighted creatures, the best of us, and often mistake evil for good. What seems so sad to-day may, if taken in a proper spirit, be looked back upon as a starting-point from which all the good of your life has come.”
“Bless you, sir!” said the widow, still furtively rubbing her eyes with the corner of her little shawl. “You’re a real kind gentleman. It does me good to hear you talk.”
“We have all our burdens and misfortunes,” continued the senior partner. “Some have more, some have less. To-day is your turn, to-morrow it may be mine. But let us struggle on to the great goal, and the weight of our burden need never cause us to sink by the wayside. And now I must wish you a very good morning, Mrs. Hudson. Believe me, you have my hearty sympathy.”
The woman rose and then stood irresolute for a moment, as though there was something which she still wished to mention.
“When will I be able to draw Jim’s back pay, sir?” she asked nervously. “I have pawned nigh everything in the house, and the child and me is weak from want of food.”
“Your husband’s back pay,” the merchant said, taking down a ledger from the shelf and turning rapidly over the leaves. “I think that you are under a delusion, Mrs. Hudson. Let me see—Dawson, Duffield, Everard, Francis, Gregory, Gunter, Hardy. Ah, here it is—Hudson, boatswain of the Black Eagle. The wages which he received amounted, I see, to five pounds a month. The voyage lasted eight months, but the ship had only been out two months and a half when your husband died.”
“That’s true, sir,” the widow said, with an anxious look at the long line of figures in the ledger.
“Of course, the contract ended at his death, so the firm owed him twelve pounds ten at that date. But I perceive from my books that you have been drawing half-pay during the whole eight months. You have accordingly had twenty pounds from the firm, and are therefore in its debt to the amount of seven pounds ten shillings. We’ll say nothing of that at present,” the senior partner concluded with a magnificent air. “When you are a little better off you can make good the balance, but really you can hardly expect us to assist you any further at present.”
“But, sir, we have nothing,” Mrs. Hudson sobbed.
“It is deplorable, most deplorable. But we are not the people to apply to. Your own good sense will tell you that, now that I have explained it to you. Good morning. I wish you good fortune, and hope you will let us know from time to time how you go on. We always take a keen interest in the families of those who serve us.” Mr. Girdlestone opened the door, and the heart-sick little woman staggered away across the office, still bearing her heavy child.
When she got into the open air she stared around her like one dazed. The senior clerk looked anxiously at her as he stood at the open door. Then he glanced back into the office. Ezra Girdlestone was deep in some accounts, and his brother clerks were all absorbed in their work. He stole up to the woman, with an apologetic smile, slipped something into her hand, and then hurried back into the office with an austere look upon his face, as if his whole mind were absorbed in the affairs of the firm. There are speculations above the ken of business men. Perhaps, Thomas Gilray, that ill-spared half-crown of yours may bring in better interest than the five-and-twenty pounds of your employer.