ALL A MISTAKE

It took Richard Ferrier just three months to decide what course his
future life should take. He was too old for the Army or Civil Service.
The Church was equally out of the question, for a reason equally
potent. Need we say that his first idea had been to earn his living by
literature? In these days of extended education and cheap stationery,
it always is the very first idea of any one whose ordinary source of
income is suddenly cut short. Richard had always felt at college that
he had a decided faculty for writing; but an uninterrupted stream of
returned MS., ‘declined, with thanks’ by all sorts and conditions of
editors, convinced him in less than three months that, if writing
indeed were his vocation, it was one that he must forego until he could
pay for the publishing of his own works, which was not exactly the view
he had in wishing to adopt it.
He had no interest in the law, and he knew well enough that he had not
talent to enable him to dispense with interest. Besides, his leanings
had never been that way. The medical profession inspired him with far
more interest. His favourite study had always been biology. He had
enough money to live on sparingly till the necessary four years should
have expired, and it seemed to him better to adopt a profession than
to go in for trade in any form or shape. He had had enough of trade.
He made a round of visits among special chums of his own, and during
the time so occupied had thought long and seriously about his future,
and, of all the ideas that came to him, that of being a doctor was
the one with most attractions and fewest drawbacks. So early in March
he entered himself as a student at Guy’s, determined to throw himself
heart and soul into his new career, and to let the dead past be. No
return to the conditions of that past seemed possible to him, and,
though he determined to think of it as little as he could, there were
some things about it that haunted him disturbingly. But he hoped, among
new friends and with new ambitions, to forget successfully. A man has
his life to live, and life is not over at twenty-five, even when one
has lost father, fortune, and heart’s desire.
One windy, wild, bright March morning he was walking up to the hospital
as usual from his lodgings in Kennington. He looked as cheerful as
the morning itself as he strode along with an oak stick in his hand,
and under his arm two or three shiny black note-books with red edges.
Opposite St Thomas’s Street he paused to watch for a favourable moment
in which to effect a crossing; and before he had time to plunge into
the chaos of vans, omnibuses, cabs, carriages, trucks, barrows and
blasphemy, the touch of a hand on his arm made him turn sharply round.
It was his foster-mother, with a basket on her arm, her attire several
shades shabbier than he had been used to see it, and her worn face
lighted up with pleasure at meeting him.
‘Eh, but Ah’m glad to see thi face, my lad,’ she said earnestly, as he
turned and shook her hand heartily. ‘I thowt as there was na more nor
two pair o’ shoulders like these, and I know’d it was thee or Rowley
the minute Ah seed thee.’
The familiar North-country sing-song accent sent a momentary pain
through the young man’s heart as he answered,–
‘I’m awfully glad to see you again; but what in the name of fortune are
you doing here?’
‘There’s na fortune in’t but bad fortune, lad,’ she answered; ‘tha
know’d well enough when thee and Rowley fell out as Thornsett wouldn’t
be a home for any o’ us for long.’
There was no reproach in her tone. Her speech was only a plain
statement of fact.
‘But what made you come to London?’
‘T’ master thowt as there’d be a big lot o’ work to be gotten here,
seeing as London be such a big place. Oh, but it is big, Master Dick.
Ah’m getting a bit used to it now, but when first we came here the
bigness and the din of it used to get into my head like, till times Ah
felt a’most daft wi’ it.’
By this time he had piloted her across, and they were walking side by
side towards London Bridge, whither she told him she was bound.
‘I’m afraid Hatfield found himself mistaken about the work; there are
no mills in London,’ said Richard.
‘No, or if there be we never found them; but the master’s had a bit o’
luck, and he’s getten took on at a place they call Dartford; m’appen
you’ve heerd on it?’
‘Well, I _am_ glad to hear that. I hope all the hands have done as
well.’
‘No one’s gladder nor me. Ah can’t say for the lump o’ the hands; but
him, ever since he heerd as t’ mill was to stop, he’s not been t’ say
the same man as wor so fond of you and Rowley, and as used to go to
chapel regular, and was allus the best o’ husbands.’
‘I hope he’s not unkind to you?’ said the young man anxiously.
‘Nay; he’s steady enow, and kind enow, but he’s changed like. He
willn’t go to chapel no more, an’ he says as he don’t believe as our
trouble’s t’ visitings o’ a kind Providence.’
No more did Richard, but he forbore to say so; and she went on, the
pent-up anxiety and sorrow of the last few weeks finding vent at last,–
‘An’ he’s bitter set against Rowley. I wonder by hours and hours
whether there’s summat atween ’em as I don’t know of. Sithee, Dick, if
tha’ll tell me one thing it’ll do no harm nor no good to no one but me,
and it’ll set my mind at rest. Was there owt i’ what folks set down i’
Thornsett? Was it Rowley as stole our Alice?’
This point-blank question caught the young man right off his guard.
His face gave the answer; his lips only stammered, ‘How should I know?
Besides, it can do no one any good now to know that.’
‘Thi eyes is honester nor thi tongue,’ Mrs Hatfield said, with a face
full of trouble. ‘Make thi tongue speak truth as well, lad, and tell me
what tha knows. Tell me wheer shoo is.’
‘If I had known you would have known too, long ago,’ Richard answered.
‘But tha hasn’t told me a’ tha knows e’en as ’tis.’
‘I don’t know anything,’ Richard was beginning, when Mrs Hatfield
clasped both her hands on his arm.
‘Dick, Dick,’ she said, ‘tha’s heerd o’ her or tha’s seen her. I’ve
allus had a mother’s heart for tha as well as for her, and now it’s as
if one o’ my childer wouldn’t help me to find t’other. What has tha
heard? I see i’ thi face ’twas Rowley. Eh, but I never thought the boy
I nursed would ha’ turned on them as loved him i’ this fashion.’
The tears followed the words, which were not whispered, and the
passers-by turned their heads wonderingly to look at the middle-aged
countrywoman, with the basket, who was looking so earnestly and
entreatingly into the face of the tall young medical student.
‘Come in here,’ he said, and led her into the waiting-room of the
London Bridge Station, which was fortunately empty. She sat down and
began to cry bitterly, while Richard stood helplessly looking at her.
‘Don’t cry,’ he said; but she took no notice, and went on moaning to
herself.
‘Couldn’t tha ha’ stopped it?’ she said, suddenly raising her
tear-stained face. ‘Tha couldst surely ha’ stood i’ the way o’ such a
sinful, cruel thing as that.’
‘Good God, no!’ cried Dick, losing control of his tongue at the sudden
implication of himself in these charges; ‘what could I do? I knew
nothing of it till last October, and then I did the best I could.’
‘And tha found out for sure. Tell me a’ abaat it.’
‘I’m not sure enough to tell any one anything,’ he answered: ‘but I was
sure enough to throw away all my chances, because I felt I couldn’t
have anything more to do with a fellow who’d do such a beastly mean
thing as that.’
He had no idea that he was not speaking the truth. He had by this time
really convinced himself that he had been prompted in his quarrel by
the highest moral considerations, and had taught himself to forget how
other motives and influences had been at work, and how he had been
forced to acknowledge this at the time.
‘How did tha find it out?’ Mrs Hatfield persisted: and Richard in
desperation told her the whole story. It seemed to her as convincing as
it had done to him.
The mother asked him innumerable questions about Alice–how had she
looked, how had she spoken? It grieved him not to be able to give
her pleasanter answers, but, rather to his surprise, her mind seemed
to dwell less with sorrow on Alice’s want and hard work, than with
pleasure on the thought that her daughter had given up her lover, or,
as she called it, returned to the narrow path. But why had she not
returned to her mother? And that question Dick could not answer. All
these questions and replies had taken some time, and the Dartford
train had gone. Dick found out the time of the next train, and then
came and sat down beside her, and did his best to cheer her, in which
attempt his real affection for her assured him a measure of success. By
the time the Dartford train was due she was calm again and reasonably
cheerful. He led her to tell him of their life since they had come
to London; how nearly everything had been turned into money; how the
basket on her arm contained all that she had been able to keep; and
how she was going down to join her husband, and to try to take root
with him in a fresh soil. From her he heard for the first time of Count
Litvinoff’s visit to Thornsett, of the rioting of the mill hands,
and, though she did not say so in so many words, he could see that
she placed the two events in the relation of cause and effect. She
told him, too, of Litvinoff’s bravery, and of the fate of the luckless
Isaac Potts; and Dick, though he couldn’t help feeling interest
and admiration at this recital, did not like the way in which Miss
Stanley’s name and Litvinoff’s were coupled in Mrs Hatfield’s account
of the help, advice, and kindness shown to the hands before they
dispersed from Thornsett. Her words suggested to him vague suspicions;
but he couldn’t think much just then, for it was time to take Mrs
Hatfield’s ticket and to see her off. This he did, and when he had seen
her comfortably seated in a corner of a second-class carriage, he said
good-bye to her, giving her at parting a very hearty hand-shake, and a
sovereign, which he could ill afford.
‘Good-bye, dear,’ he said; ‘you must write and tell me how you get on.
Here’s my address, and I hope with all my heart you will have good
fortune.’
He drew back from the train as it began to move, and waved a farewell.
She in turn waved her damp cotton handkerchief, and was borne out of
sight.
As she disappeared Dick began to wonder what he should do with himself.
The lecture he had been about to attend was hopelessly lost and
there was nothing particular to be done till after lunch. Obedient
to what would have been the instinct of most young men under such
circumstances, his first thought was to take a ticket to Charing Cross,
that being a more cheerful place for the consideration of any problem
than the station where he found himself. In common with every other
traveller on the South-Eastern Railway, he had long since arrived at
the conclusion that London Bridge was the most unreasonably comfortless
and altogether objectionable station in England–which is saying a good
deal. He was just turning to go down to the booking office when–
‘Great heavens, how wonderful!’ he said. As he turned he found himself
face to face with the girl whose mother had just left him. She was
close to him, and had instinctively held out her hand, which he had
clasped in greeting before he noticed that she was not alone. Her
companion was evidently a gentleman. Her dress was much better than had
been that of the girl for whom he had carried the brown-paper parcel
five months ago. Richard noticed this with a pang of uneasiness as he
said,–
‘Why, Alice, I am very glad to see you; you’re looking much better.
Where are you off to? What are you doing?’
‘Oh, dear, I’m so sorry, Mr Richard; I’m just going by this train
to stay at Chislehurst with some friends of this gentleman’s. Mr
Petrovitch, Mr Ferrier.’
The men bowed–Petrovitch with easy courtesy, and Ferrier with a frigid
reserve which would only allow him to raise his hat about an eighth of
an inch–and as they did so the train steamed in.
‘You must not miss this train,’ said Petrovitch; ‘there is not another
for so long a time.’
‘Good-bye, Mr Richard,’ she said. ‘When you see father or mother, tell
them I’m well and happier, and have good friends.’
Ferrier had it on the tip of his tongue to tell her how he had just
seen her mother, but Petrovitch, with an air of authority, cut short
their farewells by hurrying her into the train.


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‘Good-bye,’ said Richard, rather at a loss in this unexpected and
bewilderingly brief meeting; ‘couldn’t you write to me? I’m at
Guy’s–Guy’s Hospital, you know.’
‘Stand back, sir,’ said the guard, slamming the door with one hand and
putting his whistle to his lips with the other, as the train gave a
lurch and began to move off.
‘Bon voyage, Mrs Litvinoff,’ said Petrovitch, bringing a startled look
and a vivid blush into Alice’s face, and giving Richard the biggest
surprise of his life. His blank astonishment was too evident for
Petrovitch to ignore it. He looked at Richard inquiringly.
‘Er–er, I beg your pardon,’ stammered Ferrier, as soon as he could
find words. ‘You called that–a–lady Mrs Litvinoff?’
‘I did, sir,’ answered the other, with a rather angry flash of his
deep-set eyes. ‘I might have called her Countess Litvinoff, if you
attach any importance to titles.’
‘Good God!’ said Richard, very slowly. He sat down on the wooden seat
without another word.
‘I wish you good-morning, sir,’ said Petrovitch, making for the incline
which leads off the platform.
Before he had made three paces young Ferrier had pulled himself
together, and had overtaken him and laid a hand on his arm.
‘Forgive me, sir–I am afraid you think me very strange and
unmannerly–but I have a deeper interest in this matter than you
can possibly imagine. I must beg you to allow me a few moments for
explanation.’
‘Certainly, sir; I shall be happy to walk your way,’ answered the
Russian, less stiffly.
No more was said till they got outside the station. It was not easy for
Richard to know how to begin. He did not know how much this man knew of
Alice, and he felt it would be unfair to tell her story, as far as he
knew it, to one who seemed to know her only as a married woman. But, on
the other hand, how much did he himself know of her story? He walked
along beside Petrovitch for at least ten minutes before he could make
up his mind how to begin. At length the other half-stopped and looked
at him in a way that compelled speech of some kind.
‘The reason I was so surprised when I heard you call that–lady Mrs
Litvinoff, was that I have known her from a child, and did not know
that she was married. I–I–also knew a Count Litvinoff in London a
few months ago, and certainly did not know that he was married. The
connection of the two names startled me. I must also tell you that it
did more than startle me; it relieved me.’
‘You are, then, very much interested in my friend?’ said Petrovitch.
‘Well,’ said Richard, finding it desperately hard to break through his
English reserve, and yet feeling that he could not in common fairness
expect to get any information from one who called himself a ‘friend’ of
Alice’s without showing good reasons for asking for such information.
‘Well, I am interested, very much interested, but not quite in the
way that men generally are when they talk about being interested in
a woman. Look here,’ he said, stopping, and finding his powers of
diplomacy absolutely failing him, falling back on the naked truth,
‘that young woman has been the cause–the innocent cause, mind–of a
complete separation between my brother and myself. I thought my brother
had done her a great wrong. Can you tell me whether he did or not? His
name is Roland Ferrier.’
‘So far as I know Mrs Litvinoff’s story,’ said Petrovitch, speaking
very deliberately, ‘no wrong of any sort has ever been done her by any
one of that name.’
‘Ay, but,’ said Richard, ‘so far as you know; but do you know all? Do
you know with whom she did go when she left her home?’
‘I do.’
‘It was not my brother?’
‘It was not your brother.’
Richard had just said that he felt greatly relieved. If that statement
was true, his looks certainly belied him.
‘One question more,’ he said. ‘I want to know exactly how far wrong I
have been. Do you know if my brother has had any communication at all
with her since she left her home?–did he know where she was?’
‘I believe that he has had no communication with her, and that he did
not know where she was.’
‘Can you tell me who this Litvinoff is, then? Is he the Count Michael
Litvinoff that I know, or knew? If so, did he marry, and when did he
marry her? and why did she leave him?–for she _did_ leave some man;
she told me so.’
‘Ah,’ said Petrovitch, ‘you said one more question; that question I
answered because I thought you were really concerned in knowing the
answer. Forgive me, these other matters I think do not concern you.’
‘Well,’ Richard answered, ‘I knew that girl when she was a baby, and
I’ve always been fond of her, and I should naturally be glad to hear
anything about her. I am glad to see her looking so much better, and
better cared for than when I met her last.’
Petrovitch bent his head silently.
They had stopped by this time just opposite the Borough Market.
‘I am sorry you will not tell me more about her; but since you have
told me that my brother has not injured her in any way, I don’t know
that I have any right to ask you more. I must thank you for telling me
what you have done, and ask you to excuse my seeming curiosity.’
Petrovitch bowed; young Ferrier did the same, and they
parted–Petrovitch turned across the bridge, while Richard retraced his
steps towards the station. He made his way to the telegraph office, and
sent off this message:–‘Richard Ferrier, Guy’s Hospital, London, to
Gates, The Hollies, Firth Vale.–Please wire me my brother’s address at
once if you know it.’
Then he crossed the station-yard, and ran down the steep stone steps
which are part of the shortest cut to the hospital, and as he went he
felt more wretched than he had ever been before. He had always believed
in himself so intensely that an actual injury would have been less hard
to bear than this sudden shattering of his faith in his own judgment.
He had been so utterly mistaken–so wrong all round. Everything had
seemed to point to his brother’s guilt. Now everything seemed to have
pointed to his innocence. If Richard’s eyes had not been so blinded
by–what? It was a moment for seeing things clearly, and Richard saw
that his own passion and jealousy had perverted his view of all that
had taken place in the autumn. That meeting in Spray’s Buildings–of
course it was the likeliest thing in the world that Roland really had
seen Litvinoff, and at the thought of that sympathetic nobleman the
young man ground his teeth. How completely he had been fooled! It must
be the same Litvinoff–for had not Alice been present at his lecture
in Soho? How had Alice met such a man? Oh, that might have happened in
a thousand ways. Had Litvinoff really married her? Richard thought he
had not. He remembered Litvinoff’s moustache, and felt sure that he had
not. Felt sure? How could he feel sure of anything, when here, where he
had been so absolutely certain, he was proved to have been wrong?
What fearful blunders he had made–what a horrible muddle he had got
everything into–what irretrievable mischief he had done! But, though
he blamed himself deeply and bitterly, he still, not unnaturally,
blamed Litvinoff with still more bitter earnestness. One thing only
was clear to him. He must find Roland at once, tell him all the
circumstances, and beg his pardon. It would be all right again between
him and his brother, towards whom he now felt a rush of reactionary
affection. But how about the mill hands, now scattered far and wide
beyond recall–beyond the reach of his help–through this same mad
folly of his? In an impulse to do something for at least one of those
who had suffered through him, he turned off from the hospital and
took a hansom to his rooms, where he unlocked his desk, and, taking
a five-pound note from his slender stock of money, enclosed it in an
envelope, which he addressed to Mrs Hatfield at the address she had
given him, in a hand not his own. He would do more for them when he
and his brother had begun to work the mill again. That would be one
big result of his new knowledge. His medical studies would be at an
end, and he would be once more Ferrier of Thornsett. But that was poor
compensation for all the rest.
When Mr Gates’ answering telegram came it was a wet blanket on
Richard’s longing to make his confession and talk things over with
Roland–for it ran thus:–‘Robert Gates, The Hollies, Firth Vale,
to Richard Ferrier, Guy’s Hospital.–Don’t know his address–he is
expected here in a few days. Has left Chelsea, and is making visits on
his way here. Glad you want him. Letter follows.’
So he could not see Roland that day, after all, and there was nothing
for it but to possess his soul in patience until he heard again from
Gates. So he spent the evening with some congenial acquaintances who
had diggings in Trinity Square, and managed to get through the night
without being driven to distraction by his remorseful self-tormenting
thoughts. But the next morning he remembered, with a start, for the
first time, that, not content with believing his brother to be guilty
of a disgraceful action, he had accused him of it to Clare Stanley,
and, worse than that, to Alice’s own mother. He felt he could never
face Clare again after that, come what might. But the Hatfields?
At least it would be only fair to make what reparation he could by
undeceiving them. He would go down to Dartford that very day, and tell
them how mistaken he had been. He went by the same train which had
carried Mrs Hatfield thither on the preceding day.
Arrived at Dartford the Dismal, Richard betook himself to the address
that had been given him, which, after some difficulty, he found to be
one of a row of small, ill-favoured, squalid cottages a little way out
of the town. There were a good many children about, who stared at him
with open-eyed curiosity, and did dreadful things to their mouths with
their grimy little fingers in the excitement of seeing a gentleman stop
at No. 5 Earl’s Terrace. The battered, blistered green door had no
knocker. The handle of Richard’s umbrella afforded an impromptu one,
and, in answer to the spirited solo which he proceeded to execute with
it, the door was opened, and by his foster-mother herself.
She looked very pale and worried, and had evidently been crying. She
didn’t seem surprised to see him; she was in that state of mind when
nothing seems worth being surprised about.
‘Come in, lad,’ she said. ‘Ah got thi kind token. Ah know’d ’twas thee
as sent it, and m’appen Ah’ll need it more nor tha thowt when tha sent
it, for t’ maister’s giv’ up his work an’ gone off.’
She had set a chair for him, and as she finished this speech she sat
down herself and looked hopelessly at him.
‘Gone–gone! Left you! Why, he must be out of his mind.’
‘His mind’s right enough; it’s his soul as Ah’m feared about, Dick.
He’s gone to have it out wi’ Rowley, and get at the rights of it.’
‘But where is Roland? Where’s he gone to?’
‘He’s gone to Thornsett.’
‘Why, Roland isn’t there.’
‘Thank God! God be praised, if it’ll on’y please His good providence to
keep ’em fra meetin’!’
‘But how came he to go? How did it happen? Tell me all about it?’
It seemed that when her husband had met her at Dartford Station, she,
pleased with having met Richard, had told him of the rencontre. That he
had closely questioned her, and when at last he had learned every word
that had passed between them, he had turned suddenly on her, and told
her that this was the first time he had ever even thought of such a
thing being possible as that Roland had been the cause of Alice’s ruin,
and that now he did know he would not lose a day in facing him with the
accusation.
‘Do you mean to say,’ said Richard, ‘that it’s through me he thinks
that Roland took her away?’
‘I don’t say it was thy fault, lad. I’m more to blame than thee. I
should a-kept my clattering tongue quiet, and I should a-known my own
man better after a’ these years nor to think that if he had a-thowt it
was Rowley he wouldna ha’ faced him wi’ it long sin’.’
‘This is devilish pleasant!’ said Richard, rising and taking a stride
across the little room; but how did he go?’
It appeared he had started off with but a pound, or little more, in his
pocket, intending to walk the greater part of the way, and only telling
her that she wouldn’t hear of him until she saw him back again.
‘And what do you think will happen when they do meet?’ he asked.
‘Oh, Ah’m feared to think!’ she said, wringing her hands and beginning
to weep.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Richard. ‘I’ll go straight down to
Thornsett now, and keep a look-out for Hatfield. I’ll stop any more
mischief, any way. I think I can promise you that nothing much will
happen if they do meet.’
She caught hold of his hand, and began to thank him.
‘Oh, don’t thank me!’ he said; ‘the whole sad business has been my
fault from beginning to end. I found out yesterday, almost directly I
left you, that Rowley was as innocent of doing any harm to Alice as I
am, and I found out, too, that she is well and pretty happy, and, I
heard, married. If it hadn’t been for me, Hatfield wouldn’t have gone
off on this wild-goose chase. But I must get back now; my train goes in
twenty minutes, and I want to catch the three o’clock train for Firth
Vale.’
He caught the three o’clock train to Firth Vale, having managed, by a
very hurried farewell, to escape the torrent of questions Mrs Hatfield
would have liked to pour out. He felt that, all things considered, the
less he said about the matter the better. He had been wrong too often,
and too much.