A Complete Story.
(All Rights Reserved.)
OUT OF THE SHADOW.
By ANITA GIBSON
Author of "Pearls and Tears," "A Twilight Adventure," "Their Study of Psychology," "Fluffy," "Love's Second Dream," &c.
He let himself in with the latchkey, shutting the door listlessly upon theJ dreary, mud-clogged suburban prospect without. Inside, in the little parlour, his wife was counting the drubs of his boots upon the mat, listening with brightening eye to the faint rustle of his clothes. She could hear his breathng and the fluttering sigh that escaped him unconsciously. He came in with a quick glance round the room, taking three eager steps to the couch, where she lay, with parted lips, the bright spot on each cheek deepening perceptibly at his approach.
"Dearest," she said presently, with a sigh of apology s "I am so tired to-night, I just had to lie down!''
lie looked at her sharply, averting his eyes again, lest she should read the concern that leaped into them. She had said almost the same words to him yesterday, but to-day there was a weak fall in her voice that he had not noticed then. He smoothed the silk cushion under her head, and threw a woollen wrap over her feet, almost roughly, turning to gaze moodily at a dancing flame in the fire that lit up the room with an intermittent flickering.
She lay and looked at him wistfully. "You are tired, too, dear," she said. "Come and tell me what you have done."
* He turned with an uneasy expression.
"I had dinner in the city," he said, "and then called at Withers's place. Withers hasn't heard of anything for me," he went on, after a pause; "but he thinks Bernhart might speak for me with his firm, if things would look up a bit." "Oh!" she said, smothering the droop of her spirits at his words. "What did you have for dinner?" He replied readily, telling the lie without an effort, in his desire to turn the conversation.
' ■ r: had a steak again—there's a ki of nourishment in steaks—good solid stuff."
He had tossed an evening paper on the table as he entered, and she saw his gaze rest thoughtfully upon it for. a moment.
"You haven't? You haven't, have you?" she asked, pleadingly, stroking his hand and refusing to take her eyes from his own.
Ho shifted in his seat till he almost wriggled. "Only a few shillings," he said, reluctantly. "Did a 'treble.' Twilight and Globetrotter won. I can spot a winner as well as any man living. I picked out Fanciful for a place, and was fool •suough to alter it." "And lost?" "Yes, on the third, Red Dragon. My luck's simply fiendish! Over and over again, I've been right on two, and gone wrong on the third!'' A year ago she had refused to hear the subject mentioned, but his persistency had won from her a reluctant sympathy that battled with her apathy of despair, and she had lent
her ears and become initiated in the art of betting upon horses. "When you do a 'double,'" he had explained to her, ' 'you back a horse in one race, and what you win goes on another horse in the" next race. If the first horse's figure is, say, twelve to one, you win twelve pounds for your sovereign; and then the twelve pounds, put on another horse, brings in, perhaps, two hundred pounds! Just think of it!" She did think of it, far more than he knew. She hated the subject with a hatred that nothing but fear can induce.
"And then, you see," he went on, excitedly, "if you have pluck, amd risk a 'treble,' you don't take the two hundred pounds—it goes on to another horse, in the third race, and then you get such long odds. Why, with luck, you can make a fortune! Look at Withers—he scooped 1 in five hundred pounds last year!" "What did he do with it?" she had asked, thinking of the depressingly unflourishing appearance Withers always presented. "Oh! he lost his head over it— neglected his business, and, of course, money won't last for ever. And one's luck changes. When once I get a good run of luck, I'll throw it all up." She turned to him now, with soft pleading in her eyes. ' 'Frank dear,'' she said, earnestly, "I can't help feeling that it takes your mind away from the main thing. If only you could get work!'' "Oh, I'm all right," he replied, hastily. "I've answered ads. till I'm sick. There are a hundred fellows after every birth. If we had another boom on the Stock Exchange I should be snapped at; as it is, all the big firms are dismissing clerks every week. If I could only get a run of luck! Withers says
"Oh, how I wish you had never seen Withers!" she exclaimed. "You have done no good ever since '' The depression with which she had been battling bravely since his return grew too heavy for resistance. The words were choked by the sobs which refused further coercion.
He sat and looked at her dumbly, congratulating himself that she diet not know the full extent of the misery that was pressing on his own overwrought mind. He was almost hopelessly in debt. The very couch upon which she lay was scarcely their own; a bill of sale had been executed upon the furniture, secretly, six months ago, and, if nothing turned up within the next fortnight, there would be no more concealing matters from her.
"Next Saturday," he said, with an assumption of cheerfulness, when her tears had ceased, "it's the Duke of York Stakes. I'm bound to pull off something. I've got a few shillings on Mja-dcap; ahie's a regular stunner, never been beaten but once. Then, on Wednesday, the Cesarewitch—Smasher can't help getting a place. I've spotted True Gold for the Cambridgeshire; he's always lucky. All on a 'treble'! And what do you think it will brin? in?" 6 She tried to look interested. "Three hundred pounds!" he exclaimed, his spirits rising with the vision. "I shall take you to Ventnor at once, and leave you there, while I find work. That will soon set. you up, you'll see. You could stay there* till May, and I'll run down week-ends. Jolly, won't it be?"
"Fine!" she said, almost catching hia enthusiasm. She was very young, and life was sweet to her. The loss of his situation, through no fault of his own, had been the beginning of all the trouble; that, and his anxiety on her behalf. How could she be really angry with him ? She knew it was love for her, and the hope of keeping her from the grip of the shadow, that was dogging her steps. The sentence of death that had been as good as passed upon her, should she have to stay through the winter and spring in London, had goaded him to recklessness. Not a selfish thought had been his, she told herself at the outset, though the gambling spirit was obtaining faster hold upon him daily. Perhaps, after all, he might win the money, and she would get strong again at Ventnor. If not— they would have each other for a little while longer, and the remaining time must not be clouded by reproaches. She took his hand and kissed it. "Boy," she said, tenderly, "don't let us talk about it any more- tonight."
For the next few days, Frank's existence bore as close a resemblance to the purgatorial state as can well be imagined. Everything in life, almost life itself, hung upon the powery, not to think of the vagaries, of three horses. Pie told himself that fate must help him over the crisis. Such luck as he had hitherto had was unprecedented; the turn of the tide must come soon.
On the Saturday Madcap won the Duke of York Stakes, and Frank's hopes ran high, in spite of the depressing fact that Smasher had suffered a slight fall in the public favour. On the Wednesday, foe went through the Cesarewith day with the air of a man smitten with sudden deafness; he was waiting for the familiar cry of the newsboys. When the damp sheets appeared he snatched at one, and his feverish excitement was quashed at a blow. Smasher had behaved badly at the start, and was nowhere in the running! It did not matter in the least what horse had won the Cambridgeshire—
his great "treble" was out of it. He walked home slowly, with the fixed gaze and the drooping shoulders of the man without hope. Laura looked up eagerly as he came in, and her eyes fell at the sight of his face. He stooped to kiss her, without a word, and something rose in his throat like a knife. He got up and went out of the room with a nonchalant air of going to fetch something, walking into the little kitchien, where the rows of white china on the dresser gleamed with a cheerful mockery in the firelight. The walls seemed to close upon him; there was no air. He threw up his arms over his head, and beat his hands on bis forehead, making ugly faces, like a man demented; he felt like one, in his rage. Then he opened his mouth and cursed, cursed himself and his unhappy fate, cursed everything and everybody—all but the little one lying upon the couch in the firelit parlour. The sudden reaction in the check of his rage, at the thought of her, was too great a strain; he did a thing for the first time since he had left his mother's knee—lie sat down, and flung his arms and his head on the bare, deal table, lay across it, and wept—hard, painful sobbing that wrung his heart without bringing a tear to ease the pain at his throat. Then he pulled himself together, and straightened his collar and the lines of his face, walking back to the parlour with the gait of easy carelessness; not forgetting his customary duty of lighting the hall gas on the way. Laura had risen when he entered. She began nervously rearranging some ornaments by her side. By her manner, he knew that the moment for explanation had come— she was going to ask him questions. At sight of her, his rage with himself rose again to an uncontrollable pitch. He loft the room hastily, snatched up his hat, and flung himself out of the house.
His mood was a dangerous one. What happened to 'himself he did not care. He was destined to failure and misery, he told himself. But his wife —how could he tell her of the ruin that was close upon their heels? He shivered at the thought of the bill of sale—how could he tell her? How could he face her bewildered grief at the wreck of their home? Who, in all the world, was there to help him? "Not a soul!" he groaned. His betting habit had begun to leak out among his friends, and all of them of any standing had lately been shewing him the cold shoulder. Withers, he knew, had lost heavily on Smasher, and was almost as embarrassed as himself. He walked on, scarcely knowing in what direction, brushing roughly by the pedestrians without apology. The nourishing air of the well-to-do men whom he jostled aroused in him a fierceness like hatred —a little more, and bo could have struck them, or robbed them or even begged of them. The last thought sent the blood tingling through his veins with a more bitter hatred still. He found himself in a street of brilliantly li shops; foe did not know what street. The sight of a richly-dressed jeweller's window made him draw himself up with a jerk, and clench his fist. He had almost driven his hand through the glass, when he met the wolfish gaze of a man, more desperate, more sunk, than himself—ragged, besodden, vicious. He slunk away, sick at the sight, and the momentary feeling of association. His brain reeled as he turned away with a scowl. What should he do ? What should he do? he asked himself. With each passing minute a conviction grew stronger within him—he was learning for the first time, the full extent of a cowardice of which he had, all his life, suspected himself. Though he loved his wife better than his own soul, he could not face her again; could not tell her what it was impossible to conceal any longer. He could not go back home. He had reached Westminster Bridge. The dark water rolling by him seemed fraught with an imperative question—it kept repeating itself with increasing force: What if he were dead ? What if he were dead ? She would be better without him. Friends would help her, alone, who would not help him. Living^ he felt he could not desert her; but living he could not re.turn to her. He quickened his stelps, looking straight ahead; the sight of the dark water filled him with a vague horror. Leaving the bridge, he turned round to the Embankment, where the pedestrians were fewer. Here he stopped, pulling himself up with a quick breath. He would not stay to look; he would go straight over, before there was time for the sick, numbing terror to get further hold of him.
He drew back for the leap to the parapet, and his arm struck rougfclly against a woman's form. She flung herself upon him. "Frank! husband!" she panted, '"T want you! I want you! Take me back home. Frank—l am so tired! I knov. all! I know all! Take me home!" Her frame trembled like a reed in his arms, but her clinging grasp held him with the whole magnetic force of her nature. He turned and led her away, reeling like a drunken man. "You—know all?" he gasped, hoarsely. "All!" she replied, sobbing, her forced strength falling suddenly away from her. "Oh, Frank!" she wailed, "why didn't you trust me? Why couldn't you trust me?" The inevitable climax came. Tire
next few creeks witnes*r >fSe***di% traint upon Frank's belongings, anor the exchange of home, if the shabby apartments to which he took his sick wife could be so designated. With the shadow of a still greater evil hovering over her, Laura faced the crisis almost unmoved. She saw, too, that Frank needed all the support which her loving sympathy alone could lend him.
"Home is where we are together, dearest," she said, soothing his desperate mood. '' While we have each other "
The fear of separation was more alive in her than he guessed. House furniture is of little importance on the borders of eternity. As the lengthening days of February drew to a close, the long-looked-for situation was found for Frank, and the most pressing debts were paid off. With a fresh enthusiasm, he worked feverishly, with ever in th© background of his mind • the haunting thought that more energy had been spent upon his efforts to win fortunes upon horses than in the search for a less fascinating means of livelihood. But his remorse was not strong enough to exorcise the gambling spirit which had obtained fast possession of him- He was still waiting for the run of luck which Fate, with a curious persistency, denied him.
"In March," he told Laura, "the Lincoln Handicap and the Grand National come off. I've got a 'double' on Wanderer and Apple Chip. One thousand pounds it ,will bring in! I raked the money together," be added,, shifting his eyes uneasily. "Something tells me I shall pull it off this time. You'll see." He shook off a feeling of chill which had seized him at the thought of the money "raked together"—a considerable slice of his month's salary, advanced by his employer to meet "pressing demands." Wanderer was going to prove a stunning surprise. Withers had assured him; the public had yet to learn his powers. Withers had got the tip on infallible authority. He put six pounds five on Wanderer and Apple Chip, at one hundred and sixty to 1, satisfying a dramatic instinct to bring the possible haul up to the round sum of one thousand pounds exactly. On Tuesday, at the end of the month, the Lincoln Handicap was run. Wanderer fulfilled the prophecies, and came in first! Frank reeled home that evening like a drunken man, the blood surging wildly through his veins and beating like drums in his burning temples. The continued suspense, and the fact that, in his excitement he had forgotten to dine, had sapped his strength, and the sudden uplifting affected him like a powerful intoxicant.
He talked to himself balf aloud as he pushed his way through the thronged streets. A thousand pounds! If only Apple Chip were lucky! Whab could he do with a thousand pounds? Wbat could he not do with it? It would buy a house and new furniture, and a thousand little luxuries to smooth away the furrows from Laura's brow, and win back the pretty smiles that had first made captive his heart. And he must get her away from London, while there was yet hope for her; out of the sleet and the icy blast that was cutting on his own throbbing head gratefully enough. On reaching home he found Laura feverish and alarmingly ill, and, for the first time, the fear of immediate danger seized him with a numbing grip that banished all thought of the coming Grand National from his mind.
On the day of the race he sat by his wife's bedside in dazed misery. By moments only, vivid flashes of consciousness that came to him like a stunning blow, he realised that she was slipping away from him on the ebb tide of her life, a current, the stemming of which was out of his power, even with the aid of a thousand pounds. Outside, in the street, rose up thJe hoarse cries of the suburban hawker, and, later on, the voice of the newsboy, crying the familiar "Winner! Winner!" The sounds fell on his ears without meaning. The Grand National had been run, but there was a greater and more absorbing race going on in the shabby little bedroom—a contest between life and death, and the odds were on the grim spectre. Laura stirred at the sound of the boy's shrill voice. He had thought her sleeping; but she had been thinking of the life stretching out before him, bereft of her -restraining hand. It had restrained but little m life, she feared, unconscious of the full weight of her influence over him, but there was a hope in her death. She fought down the longing to spare him and herself. "Dearest!" she faltered. He gripped her hand, and remembered, tempering the grasp with the tightening of the clutch at hn heart.
'You would like to do something —one last thing, especially for my sake—to make me very happy?" she asked, with a wistful pleading that wrung his heart. He writhed in his chair, knowing what words were coming, yet dread ing to hear them. ''Heaven knows!" he answered, helplessly. "Then promise—promise me now." He looked up imploringly. "Say, I will never bet again in all my life!" she entreated, her eyes dilating in the force of her supplication.
lently. "No, no!'\ " ** not too late. Promik -- my sake!" % . "Heaven help me*/ l - kenly. "I promise.! He went downsßsk shake off the grip on hVtnTdaT\ was choking him. He fc| Withers, waiting -"admission atffront door. ■ \ V "Have you seen the paper?" hi& friend demanded, excitedly. "Paper? No!" replied Frank, indifferently. "What is it?" Withers thrust a crumpled evening paper in his face. "Look, then!" bo almost screamed. "Apple Chip! Won by a neck! Your thousand pounds! Are you deaf?" Frank took the paper, reading the results through slowly. He thought the Grand National must have been run yesterday, so long had the time been since sunrise. He sat down, looking at Withers almost vacantly. "It's too late now," he said, sullenly. "She's going!" Withers looked shocked for a moment, but, for himself, be was wedded only to the passion for gambling. He shifted uneasily, unable to quell his excitement. "Who knows?'* he exclaimed, with assumed cheerfulness. "Money can work wonders. Buck up, old chap ! Where's your voucher ?" Frank sorted out the papers in his breast-pocket, handing him the voucher mechanically. "I'll see to it all," said Withers. "Sign the paper. You'll get the money in two days." All that night Laura lay speechless in Frank's arms, her soft, slow breath coming fainter each hour from the parted lips. As the first stealthy rays of the dawn crept over her face, the last fluttering sigh trembled on the air like the stirring of angels' wings. He laid her down and flung himself face downward upon the floor, wishing he could cry now that she could no longer hear, as he had cried that day of the Cesarewitch, when hope had still been his, though he had not known it.
Withers came again in two days, bringing the thousand pounds. He thrust the banknotes excitedly into Frank's fingers, which almost refused to close over them. .
"Ten of them," he said, counting them out with a shaking hand. "Hang it, Ranger, you'll have a run of luck now, if you'll stick to doubles! I wish I was you; my luck's cleaned turned lately." Prank let him out and stood looking at the notes in his hand. They seemed to burn hisi palm; the crisp rustle, at the twitching of his fingers, went to his heart with stabs of pain. Her thousand pounds! They had been won for her! She had needed a hundred luxuries in the past months. The day was gone when the removal to a milder climate might Wave saved her life. Her thousand pounds that he had so often, with his flowery imagination, pressed with a mock indifference, into the now rigid fingers! He flung them viciously to the ground putting his heel upon them, ready to grind them into the floor, in the feeling of rage with fate that swept over him. But a sudden inspiration checked him. He picked them up again and folded them together, creeping up to the room where she lay with the red spots still lingering under the shadows of the closed fringers of her eyes.
Gently he moved aside the lid of the plain, black coffin, and, with a hush upon him that suspended his breath, he took up one whit© hand and placed the little packet within it.
Suddenly, his heart gave a great bound and stood still, while the room swam round him, making him clutch at the side of the coffin for support.
"Good heavens!" he almost shrieked. Had his eyes deceived him? Could it be true? He had thought that be saw the waxen fingers close tighter upon the crisp paper; the faint crackling sound had reached his ears, smiting the thrilling nerves like the cut of a whip.
"Good heavens!" lie cried again, snatching up the hand and covering it with frantic kisses. "Oh, Heaven! Let me see it again! Tell me it was not a devilish deception !'' He let fall the limp hand and turned trembling to the marble face, raising the eyelids and peering with bated breath into the still, blue, unresponsive eyes. In the sickening suspense, a hoarse groan tore his frame. Pressing the lids down again, he stood waiting with parted lips, his own breath seeming to stand still in the awful chill of doubt that seized him. The next moment he shook it off again, refusing to believe his fancy had played him so cruel a trick.
"Laura! Laura!" he cried, leaning over her and breathing in her face. He drew back, with the light of a great joy rushing again to his eyes. He was not mistaken. This time the sign was unmistakable. God had heard him. The lowered lids fluttered with a faint twitching, in answer, to his voice. The trembling movement was repeated as he leant over her in a transport of excitement, and the next moment the pale lips stirred with the same soft, fluttering motion. He drew himself up dizzily, and :
• "t - l \. - - ~ _ ~ - j»*ng "aer n| #•* ■* - s^^ that her\ irom*tiie^Head was a lasting^ i She was his again; here, in his%r&s God had given her back to him. "O God," he cried, leaving the bed and falling upon his knees, "ask wlnat Thou wilt of me in return." Out-side the door he heard the sound of curious voices. The people of the house had gathered, listening to the bursts of frantic joy that escaped him, and telling each other that his grief had made him mad. He sprang up and opened to them. "She is alive! Come and see! She is given back to me!" he spluttered. The good woman stared incredulously and half fearfully at his distorted face, moving nervously to the bed, while her husband stood eyeing him askance from the doorway. The next minute the woman turned with surprised eyes. "George!" she exclaimed, excitedly, "I believe he's right! Run round, quick, lt>r Dr. Fordham."
Laura had, in truth, been given back to him. The astonished doctor turned to Frank, after his inspection, and wrung his hand in speechless congratulation. The man's stony despair had haamtecf him, accustomed though he was to scenes of grief, and his heart burnt in sympathy with Frank's uncontrollable joy.
"One of these rare cases of unsuspected trance," he said. "There is stijl every hope for her, if you can get her away from London." The faint flutter of awakening life had been succeeded by a full re turn to consciousness, and . Laura was able to speak again. Frank's ungovernable transports of joy revealed to her how close had been her approach to the awful valley of the shadows. The notes still lay clasped in her lingers when presently she awoke from the quiet sleep which had succeeded the excitement of their reunion.
"Frank," she whispered, putting her arms round his neck, "your month's salary is nearly due, isn't it?"
"Next week, my darling," he replied. "If necessary, the manager would have let the advanced sum stand over for a bit, but now " "Wait, dearest!" she continued, interrupting his excited speech. "You could manage to send me to Ventnor now, without using this money ?''
He looked up sharply and read the thought which lay in her eloquent eyes.
"It is all yours, Laura/ hie said, bowing his head .with a slight, shrinking movement.
Her hand stole over his head, smoothing the ruffled waves of hair that had .always been her pride. "God has been very good to us, Frank," she said. "I know it! I know it!" he replied, gathering her closer. "A thousand times better than I deserve."
"You remember your promise, Frank?" she went on, timidly. "Aye!" he answered, reverently. "I swore to you, and to Him, that I will never make another bet in all my life. I will keep my oath, Laura."
She moved a little uneasily, nerving herself for the effort which thie words cost her, for hia sake. "Dearest," she said, "let us start again, free of this—this betting money. If I had died you would have done without it. Let us still do without it."
She had but voiced thie inspiration that was struggling for mastery in his own heart. And he had promised God whatsoever He should ask of him.
"It is all yours," he replied. "Yours, to do with as you please little wife." *
The next day the treasurer of the London headquarters of a certain society for aiding friendless women was astonished by the reception of an anonymous donation, to the amount of one thousand pounds. The few informal words accompanying it were signed in a tremulous feminine hand, the single word, "Thanksgiving." (The End.)