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The dawn came at last, and soon after the dawn footsteps, but they approached only to recede. When the door at length opened, it was but to let a pair of eyes glance round on them, and close again. The hours seemed to be always beginning, and never going on. But at the long last came the big policeman. To Clare's loving eyes, how friendly he looked!
"Come, kids!" he said, and took them through a long passage to a room in the town-hall, where sat a formal-looking old gentleman behind a table.
"Good morning, sir!" said Clare, to the astonishment of the magistrate, who set his politeness down as impudence.
Nor was the mistake to be wondered at; for the baby in Clare's arms hid, with the mountain-like folds of its blanket, the greater part of his face, and the old gentleman's eyes fell first on Tommy; and if ever scamp was written clear on a countenance, it was written clear on Tommy's.
"Hold your impudent tongue!" said a policeman, and gave Clare a cuff on the head.
"Hold, John," interposed the magistrate; "it is my part to punish, not yours."
"Thank you, sir," said Clare.
"I will thank you, sir," returned the magistrate, "not to speak till I put to you the questions I am about to put to you.--What is the charge against the prisoners?"
"Housebreaking, sir," answered the big man.
"What! Housebreaking! Boys with a baby! House-breakers don't generally go about with babies in their arms! Explain the thing."
The policeman said he had received information that unlawful possession had been taken of a building commonly known as The Haunted House, which had been in Chancery for no one could tell how many years. He had gone to see, and had found the accused in possession of the best bedroom--fast asleep, surrounded by indications that they had made themselves at home there for some time. He had brought them along.
The magistrate turned his eyes on Clare.
"You hear what the policeman says?" he said.
"Yes, sir," answered Clare.
"What have you to say to it?"
"Then you allow it is true?"
"What right had you to be there?"
"None, sir. But we had nowhere else to go, and nobody seemed to want the place. We didn't hurt anything. We swept away a multitude of dead moths, and killed a lot of live ones, and destroyed a whole granary of grubs; and the dog killed a great rat."
"What is your name?"
"Clare--Porson," answered Clare, with a little intervening hesitation.
"You are not quite sure?"
"Yes; that is my name; but I have another older one that I don't know."
"A bad answer! The name you go by is not your own! Hum! Is that boy your brother?"
"No, sir; he's not any relation of mine. He's a tramp."
"And what are you?"
"Something like one now, sir, but I wasn't always."
"What were you?"
"Not much, sir. I didn't do anything till just lately."
He could not bear at the moment to talk of his be-loved dead. He felt as if the old gentleman would be rude to them.
"Is the infant there your sister?"
"She's my sister the big way: God made her. She's not my sister any other way."
"How does she come to be with you then?"
"I took her out of the water-but. Some one threw her in, and I heard the splash, and went and got her out."
"Why did you not take her to the police?"
"I never thought of that. It was all I could do to keep her alive. I couldn't have done it if we hadn't got into the house."
"How long ago is that?"
"Nearly a month, sir."
"And you've kept her there ever since?"
"Yes, sir--as well as I could. I had only sixpence a day."
"And what's that boy's name?"
"Tommy, sir.--I don't know any other."
"Nice respectable company you keep for one who has evidently been well brought up!"
"Baby's quite respectable, sir!"
"And for Tommy, if I didn't keep him, he would steal. I'm teaching him not to steal."
"What woman have you got with you?"
"Baby's the only woman we've got, sir."
"But who attends to her?"
"I do, sir. She only wants washing and rolling round in the blanket; she's got no clothes to speak of. When I'm away, Tommy and Abdiel take care of her."
"Abdiel! Who on earth is that? Where is he?" said the magistrate, looking round for some fourth member of the incomprehensible family.
"He's not on earth, sir; he's in heaven--the good angel, you know, sir, that left Satan and came back again to God."
"You must take him to the county-asylum, James!" said the magistrate, turning to the tall policeman.
"Oh, he's all right, sir!" said James.
"Please, sir," interrupted Clare eagerly, "I didn't mean the dog was in heaven yet. I meant the angel I named him after!"
"They had a little dog with them, sir!"
"Yes--Abdiel. He wanted to be a prisoner too, but they wouldn't let him in. He's a good dog--better than Tommy."
"So! like all the rest of you, you can keep a dog!"
"He followed me home because he hadn't anybody to love," said Clare. "He don't have much to eat, but he's content. He would eat three times as much if I could give it him; but he never complains."
"Have you work of any sort?"
"I had till yesterday, sir."
"At Mr. Maidstone's shop."
"What wages had you?"
"Sixpence a day."
"And you lived, all three of you, on that?"
"Yes; all four of us, sir."
"What do you do at the shop?"
"Please your worship," interposed policeman James, "he was sent about his business yesterday."
"Yes," rejoined Clare, who did not understand the phrase, "I was sent with a lady to carry her bandbox to the station."
"And when you came back, you was turned away, wasn't you?" said James.
"What had you done?" asked the magistrate.
"I don't quite know, sir."
"A likely story!"
Clare made no reply.
"Answer me directly."
"Please, sir, you told me not to speak unless you asked me a question."
"I said, 'A likely story!' which meant, 'Do you expect me to believe that?'"
"Of course I do, sir."
"Because it is true."
"How am I to believe that?"
"I don't know, sir. I only know I've got to speak the truth. It's the person who hears it that's got to believe it, ain't it, sir?"
"You've got to prove it."
"I don't think so, sir; I never was told so; I was only told I must speak the truth; I never was told I must prove what I said.--I've been several times disbelieved, I know."
"I should think so indeed!"
"It was by people who did not know me."
"Never by people who did know you?"
"I think not, sir. I never was by the people at home."
"Ah! you could not read what they were thinking!"
"Were you not believed when you were at home, sir?"
The magistrate's doubt of Clare had its source in the fact that, although now he was more careful to speak the truth than are most people, it was not his habit when a boy, and he had suffered severely in consequence. He was annoyed, therefore, at his question, set him down as a hypocritical, boastful prig, and was seized with a strong desire to shame him.
"I remand the prisoner for more evidence. Take the children to the workhouse," he said.
Tommy gave a sudden full-sized howl. He had heard no good of the workhouse.
"The baby is mine!" pleaded Clare.
"Are you the father of it?" said the big policeman.
"Yes, I think so: I saved her life.--She would have been drowned if I hadn't looked for her when I heard the splash!" reasoned Clare, his face drawn with grief and the struggle to keep from crying.
"She's not yours," said the magistrate. "She belongs to the parish. Take her away, James."
The big policeman came up to take her. Clare would have held her tight, but was afraid of hurting her. He did draw back from the outstretched hands, however, while he put a question or two.
"Please, sir, will the parish be good to her?" he asked.
"Much better than you."
"Will it let me go and see her?" he asked again, with an outbreaking sob.
"You can't go anywhere till you're out of this," answered the big policeman, and, not ungently, took the baby from him.
"And when will that be, please?" asked Clare, with his empty arms still held out.
"That depends on his worship there."
"Hold your tongue, James," said the magistrate. "Take the boy away, John."
"Please, sir, where am I going to?" asked Clare.
"To prison, till we find out about you."
"Please, sir, I didn't mean to steal her. I didn't know the parish wanted her!"
"Take the boy away, I tell you!" cried the magistrate angrily. "His tongue goes like the hopper of a mill!"
James, carrying the baby on one arm, was already pushing Tommy before him by the neck. Tommy howled, and rubbed his red eyes with what was left him of cuffs, but did not attempt resistance.
"Please, don't let anybody hold her upside down, policeman!" cried Clare. "She doesn't like it!--Oh, baby! baby!"
John tightened his grasp on his arm, and hurried him away in another direction.
Where the big policeman issued with his charge, there was Abdiel hovering about as if his spring were wound up so tight that it wouldn't go off. How he came to be at that door, I cannot imagine.
When he spied Tommy, he rushed at him. Tommy gave him a kick that rolled him over.
"Don't want you, you mangy beast!" he said, and tried to kick him again.
Abdiel kept away from him after that, but followed the party to the workhouse, where also, to his disgust, plainly expressed, he was refused admittance. He returned to the entrance by which Clare had vanished from his eyes the night before, and lay down there. I suspect he had an approximate canine theory of the whole matter. He knew at least that Clare had gone in with the others at that door; that he had not come out with them at the other door; that, therefore, in all probability, he was within that door still.
The police made inquiry at Mr. Maidstone's shop. Reasons for his dismissal were there given involving no accusation: there was little desire in that quarter to have the matter searched into. There was therefore nothing to the discredit of the boy, beyond his running to earth in the neglected house like a wild animal. After three days he was set at liberty.
As the big policeman led the way to the door to send him out, Clare addressed him thus:
"Please, Mr. James, may I go back to the house for a little while?"
"Well, you are an innocent!" said James; "--or," he added, "the biggest little humbug ever I see!--No, it's not likely!"
"I only wanted," explained Clare, "to set things straight a bit. The house is cleaner than it was, I know, but it is not in such good order as when we went into it. I don't like to leave it worse than we found it."
"Never you heed," said James, believing him perfectly before he knew what he was about. "The house don't belong to nobody, so far as ever I heerd, an' the things'll rot all the same wherever they stand."
"But I should like," persisted Clare.
"I couldn't do it off my own hook, an' his worship would think you only wanted to steal something. The best thing you can do is to leave the place at once, an' go where nobody knows nothing agin you."
Thought Clare with himself, "If the house doesn't belong to anybody, why wouldn't they let me stay in it?"
But the policeman opened the door, and as he was turning to say good-bye to him, gave him a little shove, and closed it behind him.
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