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In which I see my father for the last time; learn that real tragedy is silent; and go out into the world to make my own way.
IT gave me a great shock to recognize my father in the man who sat there drinking. I quivered as I looked at him. He was changed; his dark handsome face had reddened and looked swollen and flabby; his eyes were bloodshot. He did not see me at first. The man with him appeared to be urging something, and my father cried with an oath that he would not. I caught the word "hospital," and saw his hands shake as he pounded the table. Then some one coming in pushed me into the room and he saw me.
"Hello, here's the little tike!" he cried. "Blast me, he hasn't grown an inch! Here, come here to your daddy!"
I went over to the table and stood looking at him, the bundles under my arm. He was very boisterous, calling all the men in the bar to see me, and boasting of how I could dance.
He swung me to the table-top, crying, "Come, my beauty, show 'em what you can do!" and they began to clap. I danced for them, and then I mimicked them one by one until the room was in an uproar.
"He's his father's own son!" they cried. "Little Charlie Chaplin!"
My father was very proud of me and kept me at it until I was tired, and, remembering that my mother was waiting, I climbed down from the table and picked up my bundles.
"Going without a drink?" cried my father, and offered me his glass, but I pushed it away. I did not like the smell of it. My father seemed hurt and angry; he drained the glass and put it on the table with a slam, and I saw again how his hand shook.
"Just like his mother!" he said bitterly. "Despises his own father! I'm not good enough for his little highness. She's taught him that."
"It's not true!" I cried, enraged. "My mother never says a word about you!"
"Oh, don't she?" he sneered, but his lip shook. He stared moodily at the table, drumming on it with his fingers, and then he turned to me with a dreary look in his eyes. "Well, then, come home with me," he said. "I'll take good care of you and give you a fine start in the profession and clothes that aren't rags. I can do that, yet. I'm not done for, whatever they say. Come, will you do it?"
"No," I said. "I want to stay with my mother."
"We'll see about that!" he shouted angrily. He seized my arm and shook it. "You'll come with me, if I say so. You hear?" He glared at me and I looked back at him, frightened.
"You hurt! I want to go home to my mother!" I cried.
He held me a minute and then wearily pushed me away. "All right, go and be damned!" he said. "It's a hell of a life." Then, with a sudden motion, he caught my hand and put a sovereign in it. I dodged through the crowd and escaped into the street, eager to take the money to my mother.
The next week, as we were sitting together, my mother sewing and I painfully spelling out long words in my reading, the landlady came puffing up the stairs and knocked at the door.
"Your mister's took bad and in the hospital," she said to my mother. "He's sent a message 'e wants to see you."
My mother turned whiter and rose in a hurry to put on her bonnet, while I picked the bits of thread from her gown. Then she kissed me, told me to mind the stew and not go out till she came back, and went away.
There seemed a horror left in the room when she was gone. I could not keep my thoughts from that word "hospital," which all the poor of London fear and dread. I wandered about the room, looking from the window at the starving cats in the court and at the brick wall opposite till it grew dark. Then I ate a small plate of the stew, leaving some for my mother, and went miserably to bed.
Late in the night my mother woke me and I saw that her face was shining almost as it used to do.
"Oh, my dear!" she cried, hugging me. "It's all right. We are going to be so happy again!" She rocked back and forth, hugging me, and her hair tumbled down about us. Then she told me that when my father was well we were all going to leave London and go far away together — to Australia. We were going to have a farm there, in the country, with cows, and I was to have milk and cream and eggs, and she would make butter, and my father would never drink again. She poured it all out, in little bursts of talk, and her warm tears fell on my face.
When at last she left me to brush out her hair she hummed a little song and smiled at herself in the tiny mirror.
"I wish my hair was all brown as it used to be," she said. "It hurt him so to see it white. I will get fat in the country. Do you remember how handsome your father was and how jolly? Oh, won't it be fun?" After she had put out the light we lay a long time in the dark talking, and she told me tales of the pleasant times they had when I was little and asked if I remembered them.
After that my mother went every day to the hospital. She did not sew any more, and she bought bunches of flowers and fruit for my father and cakes for me. At night, when she tucked me in, her face was bright with hope, and hearing her laugh, I remembered how seldom she had done it lately. We were both very happy.
Then one day she came in slowly, stumbling a bit. My heart gave a terrible leap when I saw her face — gray, with a blue look about her lips. I ran to her, frightened, and helped her to a chair. She sat there quite still, not answering me at first, and then she said in a dull voice, "He's dead. He's dead. He was dead when I got there. It can't be true. He's dead."
My father had died suddenly the night before. There was some confusion about the burial arrangements. My mother seemed dazed and there was no money. People came and talked with her and she did not seem to understand them, but it seemed that the music-hall people were making the arrangements, and then that somebody objected to that and undertook them — I gathered that it was my father's sister.
Then one day my mother and I dressed very carefully and went to the funeral. It was a foggy cold day, late in autumn, with drops of rain falling slowly. At one end of the grave stood a thin angular woman with her lips pressed together tight, and my mother and I stood at the other. My mother held her head proudly and did not shed a tear, but her hand in mine was cold. There were several carriages and people from the music-halls with a few flowers. When the coffin was lowered into the grave the thin hard-looking woman dropped some flowers on it. My mother looked at her and she looked at my mother coldly. We had no flowers, but my mother took from my pocket a little handkerchief of hers which she had given me — a little handkerchief with an embroidered border which I prized very much, and put it in my hand.
"You can put that in," she said, and I dropped it into the open grave and watched it flutter down. My heart was almost breaking with grief for my mother.
Then we went back to our cold room alone, and my mother went at once at her sewing.
We had no more talks or study, and she did not seem to hear when I read aloud, so after a time I stopped. She sat silently, all day, sewing at the blouses, and I hunted for errands in the streets, and made the stew, and tried to get her to eat some. She said she did not care to eat because her head ached, she would rather I had it.
At this time I looked everywhere for work, but could not seem to find any. I was so small and thin that people thought I could not do it well. I picked up a few pennies here and there and learned the ways of the streets, and wished I were bigger and not so shabby, so that I might go on the stage. I was sure I could make money there.
Then one day I came home and found my mother lying on the floor beside her chair, gray and cold, with blue lips. I could not rouse her. I screamed on the staircase for the landlady, and she came up and we worked over my mother together. After a while the parish doctor came — a busy bustling little man. He pursed up his lips and shook his head. "Infirmary case!" he said briskly. "Looks bad!"
A wagon came and they took my mother away, still gray and cold. She had not moved or spoken to me. When she had gone I sat at the top of the staircase in blank hopeless misery, thinking of the grave in which they had buried my father, and that I would never see my mother again. After a while the landlady came up with a broom.
"Well, well," she said crossly. "I 'ave my room to let again. It's a 'ard world. I'm a poor woman, you know; you can't stay 'ere."
"Yes, I know. I have other lodgings," I said importantly, so that she should not see how miserable I was. I went into the room with her and looked around. I had nothing to take away but a comb and a collar. I put them in my pocket and left.
When I was on the stairs the landlady called to me from the top.
"You know I'd like to keep you 'ere if I could," she said.
"Yes, I know. But I can look out for myself," I said. I put my hands in my pockets and whistled to show her I needed no pity, and went out into the street.