The Runaway

The Runaway

By

Marion Hepworth-Dixon

            I


"I AM sorry to say, Mrs. Reinhart, that your son is —a
profligate."

Mr. Knowler was visibly distressed in giving voice to the words,
and, in order to hide his evident emotion, drew a faded silk
handkerchief from the pocket of his lengthy frock-coat and blew
his nose irritably, as he gazed somewhat foolishly over the top of
the bandanna round the dingy office, and out on to the bare
yellow-brick wall which faced the solitary window.

He was a small, narrow-chested little man with innocent blue
eyes, and a shrill voice, a little man who had cultivated a certain
abruptness of manner in order to give weight and authority to his
otherwise unimposing personality. Not that Mr. Josiah Knowler's
personality lacked impressiveness in the eyes of the woman now
seated in front of him. A poor physiognomist at any time, Mrs.
Reinhart saw in Mr. Josiah the very form and front of visible and
determinating forces. Was he not the senior partner, forsooth, in
the great firm of Knowler Brothers, piano-makers, and the actual
recipient, some thirteen months back, of her horde of five and
twenty pounds paid in exchange for the indentures promising her

son

By Marion Hepworth-Dixon
111

son lessons in piano-tuning ? In the widow's eyes Mr. Knowler's pockets figuratively bulged with the sum of her small savings, a sum it had taken her well-nigh as many years to amass as it represented actvial coin of the realm.

"He hasn't been to his work ?" she queried evasively, as her eyes dwelt on Mr. Josiah's profile and on the meagre cheek made ruddy by the curious little red veins which spread, fibre-like, over the averted cheek-bone.

"Your son," said Mr. Josiah, turning to her and replacing his pocket-handkerchief with a superfluous flourish, "your son, Mrs. Reinhart, has attended on two occasions—or, to be absolutely correct, on three occasions—only during the last seven weeks."

The woman's voice faltered as she answered :

"Then you've not been paying 'im, sir ?"

"Apprentices are paid at the end of their week's work—their full week's work," Mr. Knowler reminded her.

"He was to have four-and-six given 'im the first year, five-and- six the second—"

"For work done, Mrs. Reinhart, for work done."

Mr. Knowler had been fussily replacing a stray paper in his desk at the moment of speaking, and the sharp snap with which the little gentleman reclosed the lid made the reply seem, in a sense, final and unanswerable to Mrs. Reinhart.

In the vague labyrinth of her mind she dimly felt the logic or the master's attitude, while she at the same time cast about for some solution of the inexplicable problem presented by a new presentation of facts. A suspicion which she as yet dared not put into words forced itself upon her. Surely the thing she feared most in all the world could not be true ? Yet there was the sovereign missed from the mantelpiece ; the gold brooch—given her by her poor dead husband on their wedding-day—which she

had

112 The Runaway

had mislaid and could not put her hand upon. Was it conceivable
that her son—

In the pause that followed Mrs. Reinhart heard the faint
monotonous sound of repeated chords, chords indicating the tuning
of a distant piano, from an opposite wing of the building, and then
the gruff laughter of two or three workmen, apparently lifting
some heavy object, in the asphalt court below the window.

Mr. Josiah Knowler fidgeted. He wished it to be understood
that his time was valuable, and half rose from his seat as he made
a mechanical movement in the direction of the office bell.

"He's not been home for a fortnight ; he hasn't earnt anything
here— Where did he get it from ?"

The ellipsis in Mrs. Reinhart's speech made it in no wise
unintelligible to her listener. He was accustomed to deal with
the class from which Mrs. Reinhart sprang, and answered with a
perfect appreciation of her meaning :

"Your son appears to have plenty of money to spend, my good
woman."

"I don't know how he comes by it !" she ejaculated.

"He would appear to have resources," ventured the senior partner.

"He hasn't a farthing, sir. Not one. It's just what I can
earn, and that at the best is half a crown a day, by going out to
sew at ladies houses. And then the work's precarious ; there's
weeks and weeks when there's nothing doing."

"His companions appear to be—to be the least advisable for a
lad," suggested Mr. Knowler. "My brother and I have both
personally represented—"

"Oh ! He never will have nothing said," groaned the woman ;
"he's stubborn, he's terrible stubborn."

"He's incorrigibly idle," supplemented Mr. Josiah Knowler.

Mrs. Reinhart's face twitched nervously as she half turned with

a shrinking

By Marion Hepworth-Dixon 113

a shrinking movement and clasped the back of the chair she had
been sitting on. Was it to be eternally and indefinitely the same
story ? Was hers to be that weary round of endeavour which
meets only with disappointment and failure ? It was impossible
to forget that the boy had already run away from the electric
light works, where he had earnt his eighteen shillings a week, or
that he had been turned away for non-attendance at the musical
instrument makers', she had got him into with her brother's
influence, at Hounslow. And now that she had actually staked
her last farthing at Messrs. Knowler Brothers, her efforts seemed
as fruitless as heretofore.

Without, in the cheerless northern suburb in which she found
herself in a few moments' time, there was little outward presage
of the coming spring. Everywhere were the stain and soil of
winter. April was already at hand, but soot hung on the
skeleton tracery of the rare trees which overtopped the garden
walls ; only a bud, on some early flowering shrub, told of a world
of green to come. Yet a wind blowing from out the west,
and flapping its damp fingers in her tired face, seemed to speak of
other and less sordid surroundings. The wind blew from out the
west bringing its message from the sea, and with it the ever-
recurring memory of the sailor husband who had been so loyal a
companion to her in the brief years of their married life. Though
a Swede, the elder Reinhart had suffered from exposure to the cold,
a severe winter on the Atlantic helping to aggravate the chest
complaint to which he succumbed at Greenwich Hospital. The
end had been sudden, and it was hardly an hour before the final
spasm that Mrs. Reinhart promised the dying man that their son
should be spared like hardships.

Hardships ! . . . . the wet sea wind lifted the pale hair from
the anaemic face and the dull eyes lighted as she thought of the

wide

114 The Runaway

wide sea's open highways. The life might be hard for those who
do business in great waters, but it was not mere hardship, as she
knew, which wore away body and soul. It was the smirch or
big cities which dulled the wholesome buoyancy of the blood.

And instinctively Mrs. Reinhart felt for the foreign envelope
she had received from Sweden the same morning, and which she
had thrust into her pocket on starting out on her errand to Mr.
Knowler. It was from her dead husband's mother, to whom she
wrote regularly, but whose letter she had forgotten in her anxiety
or the morning. She was glad of anything to distract her thoughts
now, and tore it open in the street.

"Come, my daughter," the cramped foreign writing ran, "I
am fast growing old and need younger eyes than mine about the
farm. If you fear to cross the seas alone, my brother is plying
between London and Gottenburg. You will find him at Mill-
wall till Saturday. Delay no more, my child. Come when he
sails. Ask only for the Eidelweiss, and he will bring you surely to
me . . . ."

The offer was one that had been made many times, but that
the widow had regularly refused on account of her determination
to remain near her son.

"Had her presence availed anything ?" she asked herself, as she
turned down a neglected-looking street running eastward off the
Hampstead Road, and climbed the mildewed steps of a squalid
house, guarded by a somewhat forbidding row of rusty railings,
which stood on the left-hand side of the way.

"Had either entreaty or remonstrance availed ?" The reitera-
tion of the thought was disheartening during the long hours of
the afternoon as her work fell from her lap and her eye wandered
to the rocking tree-tops, which now and again touched the blurred
window pane. The room was directly under the roof, so that the

outside

By Marion Hepworth-Dixon 115

outside message from the world came in gusts which shook the
crazy bolts and fastenings. Presently she rose and loosed them,
and pushing down the sash, braced herself to the wild air which
somehow seemed to calm the harassing trend of her thoughts.
In herself there was confusion, doubt, and misery, and, added
to misery, a fearful misgiving she could not name. There was
life and stir, in a sense hope, in that swaying world without.
The vanishing mists, the larger horizons, the opening of unknown
aerial spaces, all spoke of the expansion of external things. She
could not put the thought into words, but it was God's open air,
and spoke in some inexplicable way of life's larger and more
wholesome purposes. It spoke of the virile satisfaction of accom-
plishment, of an existence in which endeavour is not fruitless, in
which even a weary woman's output has some sort of reward. So
she let the buoyant gusts sweep through the dingy little room,
which it shook as autumn winds sway a rotting leaf. And here,
too, was the sterility of autumn. Lifeless, empty and unreal, in
the woman's eyes everything that had been born there was dead—
all her ambition for her son, all her hopes of living with him in
happy comradeship. The very round of effort which had kept
her cribbed within those four walls seemed to show itself a vain
thing. It had availed nothing. The boy for whom she had
sacrificed her last sovereign would not work.

"Had she not been paying good money for an empty room this
fortnight past ?" she asked herself in comical anti-climax to her
forerunning mood. Worse than that—the thought took the very
salt and flavour out of—life he had not been to the manufactory
for seven weeks.

It

116 The Runaway


            II


It was with an effort that Mrs. Reinhart at length closed the
window and took up the forgotten sewing which had slipped on
to the floor. How behindhand she was ! A skirt had to be
finished that night. Without a pause the long monotonous hours
of the afternoon passed until it was time to rekindle the bit of fire
and grope about for a candle-end.

The scrap of supper was soon eaten, and then, while the
fragments still strewed the table, she found her gaze wandering
round from one familiar object to another. It was strange how
to-night the room—the scene of her last fourteen or fifteen years'
labour—stood bared to the flickering eye of the solitary candle.
There was the little bed, with its faded grey shawl for a covering,
on which she had tossed those years of lonely nights ; there, the
faded velvet sofa, once the pride of the young married couple's
parlour, on which she had lain weak, but ridiculously happy, in
those long summer days following the birth of her child. Now,
in the rare moments in which she threw herself upon the couch,
it was when she returned at night, too faint and worn out to eat,
after ten or eleven hours' sewing. There was little else in the
room : nothing but the gamboge-coloured tin box, artlessly painted
to simulate grained wood, which contained some poor clothing
and the gimcrack rosewood whatnot, relic of the triumphs of
early married gentility, and on which still stood a dusty ornament
ofF a wedding-cake and a cheap desk, the receptacle of all her
treasures. She had not opened it for a week or two, she remem-
bered, and wondered what she had done with the key.

Of course. It was in the crock on the mantelpiece. And in a
moment she was fitting it, with trembling fingers, into the lock.

What

By Marion Hepworth-Dixon 117

What ... what was this? The key did not turn. Like lightning
the terrible thought seized her. The lock had been tampered with.
Good God ! what she most feared, then, was true ! Sleeping on
the same floor, her son had access to the room at all times. No
one in the house would bar his entrance at any hour of the day
when she was away at her work, and it was while she had been
away at her work in distant parts of London that the mischief
had certainly been wrought. The desk was broken open ; her
watch, the half-sovereign she had hidden in the little wash-leather
case which held it, the locket containing the coloured portrait of
her husband, her mother-in-law's old-fashioned Swedish ring, the
half-dozen krone and two-krone pieces, all were gone !

No one but her son could have taken the things, for no one
but her son knew where she hid the key of her room when she
locked it up on going out for the day. It was in an inaccessible
chink in the rotten boards of the passage which flanked her door,
and was covered not only by a loose piece of the woodwork but
by the mat she had placed there some years later to keep out the
draughts of an exceptionally bitter winter. The boy, when a
little fellow, had always insisted on hiding the key for her
whenever they had to leave the house, and found it again with
delighted chucklings on their return. Yes, certainly her son
knew——

The thought almost choked her. The secret of the missing
brooch, the missing sovereign, his long absence, all was made
clear. She knew now that while he had money he would not
work. Had he not run away from two excellent situations, one
after another, when he was little more than eighteen ? Had he
not been recovered from some disreputable den the year after,
when she was three weeks searching the town ? Yes. . . . On
each occasion, she recollected, in looking back, she had missed

money

118 The Runaway

money, though she had in no way suspected the thief at the time.
It was, then, her earnings that he spent on the slouchers at
tavern bars, on the riff-raff of both sexes that haunt street corners ?
There was no thrusting the miserable fact aside.

A convulsive shudder ran through her, the four walls of the
little room which held her seemed to rock with a misery too great
to put into words. All was dumb and confused as she sank on
her knees on the floor, pressing her forehead against the hard rim
of the wooden table. It was the only thing she was conscious of
feeling physically for a time which might have been minutes or
hours. The face of her son—flaccid, loose of lip, and shifty of
eye, as she had caught sight of it in the street some fortnight ago
—held her like some hideous phantasm. The very oath with which
he had repelled her seemed to reiterate in her ears.

Why had she been sent this scourge? She had toiled for
twenty years for this son, but now, for the first time in her life,
an extraordinary gulf appeared to open between them. What
was it, and how had it been compassed ? A numbness was creeping
up from her very feet. A curious lassitude followed the tumult
of half an hour before. It was over. That sensation at least was
definite. It was all over. There was the feeling as if she had
been frozen. Her pulse hardly beat at all.

An hour—two hours passed. Then the sudden flare and
stench of the guttering candle recalled her to her surroundings
and made her crawl to the window, where the yellow light from
a street lamp gave a faint gleam from the pavement below. She
did not trouble to find another candle, but sat crouched on the
ground, listlessly hearing the other lodgers climb the steep stairs
and one after another go to bed. Where was her son ? Or did
she any longer actually care ? Soon after all was silent in the
house, and, as the draught from the window made her shiver, she

dragged

By Marion Hepworth-Dixon 119

dragged the worn shawl which acted as coverlet over her shoulders,
and threw herself, all dressed as she was, on the bed.

She did not know how long she had slept, when a familiar
sound startled her. It was the well-known noise of shuffling feet
on the landing outside, accompanied by a thick voice muttering
somewhat superfluous imprecations to the four walls.

Mrs. Reinhart held her breath to listen. It was her son ! He
had returned then ; his money must be spent. What if just
to-night he should force his way in ? Surely that was his hand
on the door handle ? She could feel nothing but the throb of her
heart the following moments in her intense anxiety to catch the
next sound. It came after what seemed a laggard interval. A
shuffle, another exclamation, then the grating of a match, and
while her heart stood still, a chink of light flashed, steadied itself,
and then fell through the long crack in one of the upper panels of
her door. It formed a streak in the darkness which cut a clean
shaft of light across the room, and for nine or ten seconds illumined
with a lurid ray the empty desk still open on the table.

The woman on the bed set her teeth. A grim expression
passed into her eyes. No one had dreamed, and least of all
herself, that there was any latent force in her. Yet the very
shape and form of the open desk seemed visible to Mrs. Reinhart
long after there was silence in her son's room, and when the
phantom tap of the skeleton tree on the window and the dull
moan of the wind in the chimney were the only sounds which
reached her ears. It haunted her as the grey light of the dawning
smote the rain-stained window, and when the sparrows' noisy
chirrup advertised that the gruesome night was at an end.

It was the signal for her to slip on to her feet. Where was the
letter from Sweden ? Yes ; a glance at it showed her that it was
the day the boat sailed. She would keep it by her for reference.

"Ask

120 The Runaway

"Ask for the Edelweiss," it said, and she repeated the name in an
unconscious whisper as she stole noiselessly to and fro in the room.
It would be futile, she knew, to leave anything in writing. In
the time to come the broken-open desk, the empty room would
effectually tell their own tale. One or two things from the
gamboge-coloured box, a pair of thick boots which she did not
put on, this was all she needed. Her bonnet and shawl were on
the chair.

A few minutes later, when the sun rose majestically above the
horizon, the effulgent light of a radiant spring morning touched
the spare figure of a woman who emerged with a bundle from
one of the houses and cautiously put-to the door. The face was
pale, the movements agitated, but once outside, she did not look
back. Her eyes were set, and seemed to look eagerly eastward
as she vanished down the deserted street.

It was close on noon before it was ascertained that Mrs. Reinhart
had thus unostentatiously set out on a journey. By that time, as
a matter of fact, the outward-bound bark Edelweiss had slipped
her moorings and the widow had started for her new home.





MLA citation: Hepworth-Dixon, Marion. "The Runaway." The Yellow Book 13 (April 1897): 110-120. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV13_hepworth_runaway.html