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- The Children's Pilgrimage - 1/48 -


THE CHILDREN'S PILGRIMAGE

BY

MRS. L. T. MEADE

THE CHILDREN'S PILGRIMAGE

FIRST PART.

"LOOKING FOR THE GUIDE."

"The night is dark, and I am far from home. Lead Thou me on"

CHAPTER I.

"THREE ON A DOORSTEP."

In a poor part of London, but not in the very poorest part--two children sat on a certain autumn evening, side by side on a doorstep. The eldest might have been ten, the youngest eight. The eldest was a girl, the youngest a boy. Drawn up in front of these children, looking into their little faces with hungry, loving, pathetic eyes, lay a mongrel dog.

The three were alone, for the street in which they sat was a cul-de-sac --leading nowhere; and at this hour, on this Sunday evening, seemed quite deserted. The boy and girl were no East End waifs; they were clean; they looked respectable; and the doorstep which gave them a temporary resting-place belonged to no far-famed Stepney or Poplar. It stood in a little, old-fashioned, old-world court, back of Bloomsbury. They were a foreign-looking little pair--not in their dress, which was truly English in its clumsiness and want of picturesque coloring--but their faces were foreign. The contour was peculiar, the setting of the two pairs of eyes--un-Saxon. They sat very close together, a grave little couple. Presently the girl threw her arm round the boy's neck, the boy laid his head on her shoulder. In this position those who watched could have traced motherly lines round this little girl's firm mouth. She was a creature to defend and protect. The evening fell and the court grew dark, but the boy had found shelter on her breast, and the dog, coming close, laid his head on her lap.

After a time the boy raised his eyes, looked at her and spoke:

"Will it be soon, Cecile?"

"I think so, Maurice; I think it must be soon now."

"I'm so cold, Cecile, and it's getting so dark."

"Never mind, darling, stepmother will soon wake now, and then you can come indoors and sit by the fire."

The boy, with a slight impatient sigh, laid his head once more on her shoulder, and the grave trio sat on as before.

Presently a step was heard approaching inside the house--it came along the passage, the door was opened, and a gentleman in a plain black coat came out. He was a doctor and a young man. His smooth, almost boyish face looked so kind that it could not but be an index to a charitable heart.

He stopped before the children, looking at them with interest and pity.

"How is our stepmother, Dr. Austin?" asked Cecile, raising her head and speaking with alacrity.

"Your stepmother is very ill, my dear--very ill indeed. I stopped with her to write a letter which she wants me to post. Yes, she is very ill, but she is awake now; you may go upstairs; you won't disturb her."

"Oh, come, Cecile," said little Maurice, springing to his feet; "stepmother is awake, and we may get to the fire. I am so bitter cold."

There was not a particle of anything but a kind of selfish longing for warmth and comfort on his little face. He ran along the passage holding out his hand to his sister, but Cecile drew back. She came out more into the light and looked straight up into the tall doctor's face:

"Is my stepmother going to be ill very long, Dr. Austin?"

"No, my dear; I don't expect her illness will last much longer."

"Oh, then, she'll be quite well to-morrow."

"Perhaps--in a sense--who knows!" said the doctor, jerking out his words and speaking queerly. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but finally nodding to the child, turned on his heel and walked away.

Cecile, satisfied with this answer, and reading no double meaning in it, followed her brother and the dog upstairs. She entered a tolerably comfortable sitting-room, where, on a sofa, lay a woman partly dressed. The woman's cheeks were crimson, and her large eyes, which were wide open, were very bright. Little Maurice had already found a seat and a hunch of bread and butter, and was enjoying both drawn up by a good fire, while the dog Toby crouched at his feet and snapped at morsels which he threw him. Cecile, scarcely glancing at the group by the fire, went straight up to the woman on the sofa:

"Stepmother," she said, taking her hand in hers, "Dr. Austin says you'll be quite well to-morrow."

The woman gazed hard and hungrily into the sweet eyes of the child; she held her small hand with almost feverish energy, but she did not speak, and when Maurice called out from the fire, "Cecile, I want some more bread and butter," she motioned to her to go and attend to him.

All his small world did attend to Maurice at once, so Cecile ran to him, and after supplying him with milk and bread and butter, she took his hand to lead him to bed. There were only two years between the children, but Maurice seemed quite a baby, and Cecile a womanly creature.

When they got into the tiny bedroom, which they shared together, Cecile helped her little brother to undress, and tucked him up when he got into bed.

"Now, Toby," she said, addressing the dog, whose watchful eyes had followed her every movement, "you must lie down by Maurice and keep him company; and good-night, Maurice, dear."

"Won't you come to bed too, Cecile?"

"Presently, darling; but first I have to see to stepmother. Our stepmother is very ill, you know, Maurice."

"Very ill, you know," repeated Maurice sleepily, and without comprehending; then he shut his eyes, and Cecile went back into the sitting-room.

The sick woman had never stirred during the child's absence, now she turned round eagerly. The little girl went up to the sofa with a confident step. Though her stepmother was so ill now, she would be quite well to-morrow, so the doctor had said, and surely the best way to bring that desirable end about was to get her to have as much sleep as possible.

"Stepmother," said Cecile softly, "'tis very late; may I bring in your night-dress and air it by the fire, and then may I help you to get into bed, stepmother dear?"

"No, Cecile," replied the sick woman. "I'm not going to stir from this yere sofa to-night."

"Oh, but then--but then you won't be quite well to-morrow," said the child, tears springing to her eyes.

"Who said I'd be quite well to-morrow?" asked Cecile's stepmother.

"Dr. Austin, mother; I asked him, and he said, 'Yes,'--at least he said 'Perhaps,' but I think he was very sure from his look."

"Aye, child, aye; he was very sure, but he was not meaning what you were meaning. Well, never mind; but what was that you called me just now, Cecile?"

"I--I----" said Cecile, hesitating and coloring.

"Aye, like enough 'twas a slip of your tongue. But you said, 'Mother'; you said it without the 'step' added on. You don't know --not that it matters now--but you won't never know how that 'stepmother' hardened my heart against you and Maurice, child."

"'Twas our father," said Cecile; "he couldn't forget our own mother, and he asked us not to say 'Mother,' and me and Maurice, we could think of no other way. It wasn't that we--that I--didn't love."

"Aye, child, you're a tender little thing; I'm not blaming you, and maybe I couldn't have borne the word from your lips, for I didn't love you, Cecile--neither you nor Maurice--I had none of the mother about me for either of you little kids. Aye, you were right enough; your father, Maurice D'Albert, never forgot his Rosalie, as he called her. I always thought as Frenchmen were fickle, but he worn't not fickle enough for me. Well, Cecile, I'm no way sleepy, and I've a deal to say, and no one but you to say it to; I'm more strong now than I have been for the day, so I'd better say my say while I have


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