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- Where Angels Fear to Tread - 30/34 -


"I don't mind if I do wake him up. I want to see him. I've as much right in him as you."

Harriet gave in. But it was too dark for him to see the child's face. "Wait a minute," he whispered, and before she could stop him he had lit a match under the shelter of her umbrella. "But he's awake!" he exclaimed. The match went out.

"Good ickle quiet boysey, then."

Philip winced. "His face, do you know, struck me as all wrong."

"All wrong?"

"All puckered queerly."

"Of course--with the shadows--you couldn't see him."

"Well, hold him up again." She did so. He lit another match. It went out quickly, but not before he had seen that the baby was crying.

"Nonsense," said Harriet sharply. "We should hear him if he cried."

"No, he's crying hard; I thought so before, and I'm certain now."

Harriet touched the child's face. It was bathed in tears. "Oh, the night air, I suppose," she said, "or perhaps the wet of the rain."

"I say, you haven't hurt it, or held it the wrong way, or anything; it is too uncanny--crying and no noise. Why didn't you get Perfetta to carry it to the hotel instead of muddling with the messenger? It's a marvel he understood about the note."

"Oh, he understands." And he could feel her shudder. "He tried to carry the baby--"

"But why not Gino or Perfetta?"

"Philip, don't talk. Must I say it again? Don't talk. The baby wants to sleep." She crooned harshly as they descended, and now and then she wiped up the tears which welled inexhaustibly from the little eyes. Philip looked away, winking at times himself. It was as if they were travelling with the whole world's sorrow, as if all the mystery, all the persistency of woe were gathered to a single fount. The roads were now coated with mud, and the carriage went more quietly but not less swiftly, sliding by long zigzags into the night. He knew the landmarks pretty well: here was the crossroad to Poggibonsi; and the last view of Monteriano, if they had light, would be from here. Soon they ought to come to that little wood where violets were so plentiful in spring. He wished the weather had not changed; it was not cold, but the air was extraordinarily damp. It could not be good for the child.

"I suppose he breathes, and all that sort of thing?" he said.

"Of course," said Harriet, in an angry whisper. "You've started him again. I'm certain he was asleep. I do wish you wouldn't talk; it makes me so nervous."

"I'm nervous too. I wish he'd scream. It's too uncanny. Poor Gino! I'm terribly sorry for Gino."

"Are you?"

"Because he's weak--like most of us. He doesn't know what he wants. He doesn't grip on to life. But I like that man, and I'm sorry for him."

Naturally enough she made no answer.

"You despise him, Harriet, and you despise me. But you do us no good by it. We fools want some one to set us on our feet. Suppose a really decent woman had set up Gino--I believe Caroline Abbott might have done it--mightn't he have been another man?"

"Philip," she interrupted, with an attempt at nonchalance, "do you happen to have those matches handy? We might as well look at the baby again if you have."

The first match blew out immediately. So did the second. He suggested that they should stop the carriage and borrow the lamp from the driver.

"Oh, I don't want all that bother. Try again."

They entered the little wood as he tried to strike the third match. At last it caught. Harriet poised the umbrella rightly, and for a full quarter minute they contemplated the face that trembled in the light of the trembling flame. Then there was a shout and a crash. They were lying in the mud in darkness. The carriage had overturned.

Philip was a good deal hurt. He sat up and rocked himself to and fro, holding his arm. He could just make out the outline of the carriage above him, and the outlines of the carriage cushions and of their luggage upon the grey road. The accident had taken place in the wood, where it was even darker than in the open.

"Are you all right?" he managed to say. Harriet was screaming, the horse was kicking, the driver was cursing some other man.

Harriet's screams became coherent. "The baby--the baby--it slipped--it's gone from my arms--I stole it!"

"God help me!" said Philip. A cold circle came round his mouth, and, he fainted.

When he recovered it was still the same confusion. The horse was kicking, the baby had not been found, and Harriet still screamed like a maniac, "I stole it! I stole it! I stole it! It slipped out of my arms!"

"Keep still!" he commanded the driver. "Let no one move. We may tread on it. Keep still."

For a moment they all obeyed him. He began to crawl through the mud, touching first this, then that, grasping the cushions by mistake, listening for the faintest whisper that might guide him. He tried to light a match, holding the box in his teeth and striking at it with the uninjured hand. At last he succeeded, and the light fell upon the bundle which he was seeking.

It had rolled off the road into the wood a little way, and had fallen across a great rut. So tiny it was that had it fallen lengthways it would have disappeared, and he might never have found it.

"I stole it! I and the idiot--no one was there." She burst out laughing.

He sat down and laid it on his knee. Then he tried to cleanse the face from the mud and the rain and the tears. His arm, he supposed, was broken, but he could still move it a little, and for the moment he forgot all pain. He was listening--not for a cry, but for the tick of a heart or the slightest tremor of breath.

"Where are you?" called a voice. It was Miss Abbott, against whose carriage they had collided. She had relit one of the lamps, and was picking her way towards him.

"Silence!" he called again, and again they obeyed. He shook the bundle; he breathed into it; he opened his coat and pressed it against him. Then he listened, and heard nothing but the rain and the panting horses, and Harriet, who was somewhere chuckling to herself in the dark.

Miss Abbott approached, and took it gently from him. The face was already chilly, but thanks to Philip it was no longer wet. Nor would it again be wetted by any tear.

Chapter 9

The details of Harriet's crime were never known. In her illness she spoke more of the inlaid box that she lent to Lilia--lent, not given--than of recent troubles. It was clear that she had gone prepared for an interview with Gino, and finding him out, she had yielded to a grotesque temptation. But how far this was the result of ill-temper, to what extent she had been fortified by her religion, when and how she had met the poor idiot--these questions were never answered, nor did they interest Philip greatly. Detection was certain: they would have been arrested by the police of Florence or Milan, or at the frontier. As it was, they had been stopped in a simpler manner a few miles out of the town.

As yet he could scarcely survey the thing. It was too great. Round the Italian baby who had died in the mud there centred deep passions and high hopes. People had been wicked or wrong in the matter; no one save himself had been trivial. Now the baby had gone, but there remained this vast apparatus of pride and pity and love. For the dead, who seemed to take away so much, really take with them nothing that is ours. The passion they have aroused lives after them, easy to transmute or to transfer, but well-nigh impossible to destroy. And Philip knew that he was still voyaging on the same magnificent, perilous sea, with the sun or the clouds above him, and the tides below.

The course of the moment--that, at all events, was certain. He and no one else must take the news to Gino. It was easy to talk of Harriet's crime--easy also to blame the negligent Perfetta or Mrs. Herriton at home. Every one had contributed--even Miss Abbott and Irma. If one chose, one might consider the catastrophe composite or the work of fate. But Philip did not so choose. It was his own fault,


Where Angels Fear to Tread - 30/34

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