By K. Douglas King
IN his life John Burnett suffered no distinction in any circles
beyond that immediate one of his acquaintances and friends. He
was an insignificant man in appearance, in moral force, in intellect,
and in rank—which was that of a navvy. Such fame as was his
in Eastown-by-Line (the mushroom town wherein he lived, and
on whose railroads he worked) came solely through his domestic
troubles. Naturally, the source of these troubles was a woman;
his wife, Lucretia—Luce, for short.
So far as looks went there could not have been a worse assorted
couple than the navvy and his wife. Luce was a splendidly
formed woman, with straight features, level brows, and a
penetrating way of looking out of a pair of very handsome eyes;
but with a screw loose somewhere in the complex machinery of
her moral being. This was the reason why her mouth, which
should have been large and generous, to match her eyes, was
curved to a foolish, little droop, at the corners; and why her lips,
when they were not giving vent to absurd and impossible
aspirations, were pursed up in a thin martyr-shape.
She had a twin sister, who hardly belongs to this story, but
who told her once that this martyr-expression completely spoilt her
natural good looks. Luce did not discontinue to assume it, even
She was a good workwoman, and had been employed as a
forewoman in a large dressmaking establishment, before John
Burnett (as much to his own as to others astonishment) carried
her off as his wife to Eastown-by-Line. Her married life
(including the bearing of Burnett s children, the rearing of them,
and looking after her husband and the house) entailed on her
sufficient work to keep her mind, as well as body, fully occupied
from sunrise to midnight. In the pursuance of her wifely and
motherly duties she allowed her mind to run woefully astray.
That was the fatal crook in her soul; and, in consequence, her
husband s dinners, the home comfort, and the six Burnett children
(who were a disgrace to their town, so ill-kept were their
persons) suffered severely. If she had been “born a lady” she
would have read “advanced” books, and become an “advanced”
woman. Also, she would have refused the John Burnetts of her
own station who sought her hand in marriage. She would have
known she had a higher duty to perform than to marry a mere
man, and would have acted, generally, according to her convictions
—which were of a subjective nature.
As she had neither the leisure nor the means wherewith to
cultivate the abnormal in her soul, she asserted her independent
womanhood by an intrigue with another man. This other man
lived alone, in a large, ugly ten-roomed villa, part of whose
garden wall formed the eastern boundary of the Burnett backyard.
The navvy lived in the last of a tiny, frail row of four-roomed
houses, on the outskirts of central Eastown-by-Line. The name
of their street was Aspect Road, most felicitously named since
it overlooked a brickfield at its upper end and the gasworks at
the lower. The new line in course of construction ran, in an
animated streak, between this “view” and Aspect Road, which
was separated from the railway by a low, sloping bank. The
Burnett children, from behind their front garden hedge, used to
throw stones at their father and his mates working on the line,
so short was the distance from the houses to the railroad. The
eastern part of the town was composed of villas and small shops,
and one long, straight avenue, lined with chestnut-trees. There
were six of these trees on either side of the street, and they were
the only trees in the town, except two others—also chestnuts—in
the other man’s garden. From west to east, and from the canal
on the south to the railroad on the north, the entire town was a
ghastly blot on the face of the earth.
Life’s ironical ruling ordained that the other man should be the
assistant superintending engineer of that part of the line on whose
construction Burnett was engaged. His name was Caldwell, and
he first saw Luce when she was airing the Burnett linen on
her little line that stretched across the whole area of her back-
Luce’s manner whilst hanging out the clothes, that memorable
day, was fraught with a mixture of indolence (which was
characteristic) and impatience, born of intense distaste for the
work in hand. It received presentment in her languid movements
and smouldering eyes. She had been at work since five in the
morning, and it was now six in the evening, and she had still five
more hours’ work before her. Of course the woman was tired in
body and sick in soul. It never entered John Burnett’s mind (he
being a man, and a mediocre one at that) that the commonplace
drudgery of existence is sheer bondage to the woman who has
sufficient imagination to realise freedom, but not enough to
idealise duty ; and whose household tasks, commencing at
marriage and ending with death, imprison her from dawn to dusk
within four tiny walls.
Luce was in a tense state, and only a match was needed to set a
volcano ablaze. Caldwell watched her as she moved from line to
basket and back again, her fine eyes alight with unsatisfied
desire; her thin lips pouting; a tired flush on her curved cheeks;
her hair falling untidily over her handsome, heavy brow. Watch-
ing her, the assistant superintendent coveted her.
It was not Caldwell’s habit to lose time in advancing towards
the attainment of his desires. Between the first attack and the
first conditional surrender, the flame of that desire spread and
intensified until it became a passion that penetrated to the deepest
recesses of his being. Luce was in the most dangerous state of
mind that a woman can possibly be in. She wanted something.
She did not know what she wanted. Moreover, she did not care
any longer about the opinions of her little world. This
recklessness of mood brings shipwreck in its train more surely
than the most deliberately planned wrongdoing. The first
advances came from Caldwell. Luce responded to them with
such doubtful eyes and such a passionately wistful mouth that
the assistant superintendent, connoisseur as he was in his way, lost
his head. He recovered it almost immediately; but then the
mischief was done.
Burnett had broad, stunted features, a slouching bearing, deeply
sunken, almost invisible eyes, a slow-moving intellect, and no social
or conversational gifts whatever. Caldwell, on the contrary, was
a fluent talker, and as flashy in intellect as in appearance. His
prominent lips were shaded by a handsome moustache, and his
eyes were bold, blue and bright. Also, he was a fine, tall fellow,
and, without conceit, could lay claim to a knowledge of women
and their inscrutable ways above that of the average man. This
was almost as powerful a factor in his success as Luce’s own
unfortunate mood. Such love as she had ever felt for John Burnett
was already worn thin by interminable toil for him, his house, and
When a woman speaks of her offspring as “his children” one
of two things is in process. Either she is meditating a desperate
leap into the dark, or she is digesting the discovery of a new,
hitherto undreamt-of virtue in her husband. Now Burnett had
no special virtues whatever; at least, such as Luce could appre-
ciate. When she began to think of the children as “his children,”
she was already far on the road that leads to dishonour.
That evening when she hung out her washing, and Caldwell
had first seen her, was one far advanced in April. It was
now late in May, and Scandal was very loud and busy up
Aspect Road. Tremulous-mouthed Lucretia did not care. She
was living a double existence, and Burnett and the children
had only the hollow crust of her attentions. After the first
resistance, Caldwell did not find it difficult to persuade her that
Desire was Duty differently spelt, and that her present duty was
to minister to his. A strong man, or a very selfish man, might
have saved Luce yet. But Burnett was neither strong nor selfish.
He loved his wife and was fond of his children; but was as weak
in the management of one as of the other.
He submitted to his home discomfort like a lamb, instead of
roaring like a lion when half-raw or burnt-up food was set before
him. Of course, this complaisance completed the woman’s
demoralisation; just as much as his easy-going, indulgent ways
with his children caused them to develop into veritable demons of
juvenile wickedness. When he first heard from the neighbours’
idle talk that his wife was going wrong with another man, and
that man was his own superintendent, he simply did not believe it,
and went his daily ways without care or perturbation. He loved
his wife, and he still believed in her honesty, although he was
aware, at last, after ten years’ vain delusion, that she was no cook.
Scandal, as usual, was premature in its assertions. It spoke as
early as April, while May had passed before Lucretia really fell.
It was on the third of June that Caldwell had said to her, as she
stood by her cottage door, shading her lovely, sad, wild eyes from
the setting sun: “Lucy, are you going to be cruel, still?”
The assistant superintendent had just left the line and was
going to his temporary villa home. His way home always took
him past Burnett’s cottage. For weeks past he had not ceased
urging the woman to sin; and last night she had faltered out to
him, when he upbraided her, bitterly, for her cruel coquetry, that
“To-morrow—perhaps—she would—do—what—he wished.”
Against the sunset, his eyes flashing inquiry, reproach, and
expectation upon her, he appeared as the representation of all
manly and persuasive power. Luce changed colour, and her eyes
dropped. Her eldest little daughter, Molly, standing by her side,
glanced at the man with calm, splendid eyes of cold disfavour.
She was neither fascinated by his glittering personality nor over-
awed by his position.
Caldwell struck his foot, impatiently, on the ground. “Well,
Luce?” he cried, his eyes burning through her lowered eyelids,
into her very soul; his whole attitude a fierce interrogation.
Mrs. Burnett raised her eyes, quickly. They were unnaturally
large and bright, and her face was very pale. She nodded, once
or twice, and then turned round, hastily, and went indoors.
Caldwell laughed; a slight flush rose to his cheeks.
His fiery, amorous eyes, travelling back from the sharply closed
door, rested, one second, on Molly Burnett, as she continued to
lean against the gatepost, apparently unconscious of her surround-
ings. Molly detested Caldwell. It was this lovely, dirty, pic-
turesque child who used to set her small brothers and sisters,
armed with stones and dirt, on the assistant superintendent. Tiny
arms and the strict necessity of cloaking their tactics by a stout
hedge made the stones of no effect. Molly had the supreme
pleasure, once, of seeing a piece of mud, aimed by her with
feminine precision, stick to the back of his coat. She tried to
bully her little brother, “Jack Spratt” Burnett, into piping rude
remarks at him when they used to go down to the line, with the
other East-town children, to watch operations there. To these
heroic heights, however, Jack Spratt could not ascend. He had
the pacific spirit; and when Molly called him a “bloomin’ sheep,”
neither resented the slur on his manhood with retort nor sought
to efface it by action.
Molly’s large shining eyes were fixed on the crimson cloudland
on the northern horizon. She looked inexpressibly lovely. Cald-
well shot a keener glance at her.
“Good-night, Molly,” he called down, to the slim, motionless,
Mrs. Burnett’s nine-year-old daughter stonily turned her eyes
upon the man. There was a magnificent disdain in their pellucid
depths. She raised her shoulders ever so slightly; beyond the
cold movement and that colder stare she made no response.
“By Jove!” muttered Caldwell, genuine admiration leaping
hotly out of his eyes. “What a lovely woman the hussy will be
in ten years’ time!”
With a gay laugh, he bent forward, of a sudden, and thrust his
moustached lips upon Molly’s. Although she was taken com-
pletely by surprise, her defensive action was swifter than his
attack. She ducked, and his mouth barely avoided sharp contact
The Yellow Book—Vol. X. O
with the top of the gatepost. The next second Molly had sprung
up and struck him a resounding blow on the face.
Man as he was, Caldwell staggered back. Molly’s eyes flashed
fire from the other side of the gate. Her bosom heaved.
“Well, I’m damned!” gasped Caldwell at last, with a not
unkindly laugh. “You—little vixen!”
He did not attempt to repeat the experiment, but applied his
handkerchief to his cheek, where a red mark showed. Fortunately
for the dignity of the assistant superintendent’s reputation, both
the thickness of the hedge and the sunset hour, when most of the
workmen had gone home, had deprived the scene of spectators.
“Don’t you think you can kiss everybody!” cried Molly, in a
choked, passionate whisper, over the gate.
Molly had seen the assistant superintendent kiss her mother
more than once. This action of his, and her mother’s complete
acquiescence therein, troubled her—though she could not have
told why. It intensified her dislike of Caldwell into a positive
loathing. She had told Jack Spratt he was to call the assistant
superintendent a “toad” whenever he passed; and used to beat
him when he tearfully refused.
Caldwell took off his hat, and made Molly a sweeping bow
before he passed on.
“In five years, pretty Molly,” he said, blandly, “I’ll wager you
won’t refuse a man’s kiss. You’ll be as eager for kisses then, my
girl, as any of ’em. They all are, you know, pretty Molly!
There’s not a petticoated creature made that isn’t!”
“You’re a lie,” returned Molly, promptly. “You’re a great,
Caldwell laughed again pleasantly, and turned on his heel. He
was not angry, now that the first shock of his discomfiture was
over; even though his cheek was still smartly stinging. When
he had swung his garden gate to behind him, he had forgotten all
about his late misadventure. Lucretia’s splendid eyes, with their
vague longing and alternate melancholy and fire, possessed his
vision. The exultation caused by her promise burned up again in
his soul. He had made communication both easy and secret
between the two households; the last barrier was broken down
Burnett’s domestic troubles were the common talk of Aspect
Road. The matrons loudly expressed their disgust with Luce’s
share in the scandal. They reserved an opinion on the super-
intendent’s part until the doors were closed. The husbands of
most were working under Caldwell and his chief. The men on
the line blamed Burnett for being a fool more than they con-
demned the assistant superintendent, in their hearts, for a knave.
Though they gossiped freely among themselves, they forbore to
offer any opinion on the case to Burnett himself. The women
were not so considerate. Burnett’s behaviour in allowing Luce
(whose guilt was established beyond a doubt) to continue to live
in his house, as if the sanctity of their marriage tie had never been
violated, exasperated the women into shrill taunts, which were
fearlessly and freely hurled at the unfortunate navvy.
Caldwell was not prepared at first that Lucretia should lire
entirely in his house; and Burnett, when the truth of the matter
was at last borne in upon his stubborn, unreceptive brain, received
from this fact some sort of faint comfort in the midst of his misery.
His love for his wife was of unsuspected magnitude, and of a
magnanimity beyond chivalry. It was not only for the sake of
the six lovely, dirty little children, who rioted, now without shadow
of restraint, about the road, that he was still willing to forgive
Luce, and that he hoped against hope to win her back to him.
Luce went about her daily duties with little outward change.
Perhaps there was more of dreamy haphazard in her method of
work than before Caldwell came to possess her thoughts; but
there had been always so much left to Providence in the internal
ordering of the Burnett household, that a little additional disorder
was hardly noticeable. She grew to look more like a restless,
untamed spirit every day. By turns she was passionately attentive
to the children and completely neglectful of them. But her
manner with them was always kind. Burnett, swayed by the
twin spirits of his steadfast hope and his great affection, met her
indifference to him with a phlegm that concealed, almost too
successfully, the deadly wound her conduct was inflicting.
It was on June the third that Luce gave her fatal promise.
The month of roses was drawing to an end before the navvy spoke
to his wife of what lay up heavily on the hearts of each. Mrs.
Burnett was lazily stirring porridge for the children’s supper
before the kitchen fire. Burnett had come in from work on the
line two hours before. Ever since his entrance he had been
watching her flitting dreamily to and fro—he moodily sitting in a
corner, no word, good or bad, passing between the pair. It had
been pay night, and it was one of the assistant superintendent’s
duties to pay the men their weekly wage. Burnett, whose innate
sensitiveness was largely increased by the suspense and anguish of
the last month, fancied Caldwell shot a look of triumph on him as
he went up to receive his money at the superintendent’s hand.
AJ, a matter of fact, Caldwell had done nothing of the sort. He
hardly knew Burnett by sight, and he certainly did not wish to
provoke Lucretia’s husband into any manifestation of anger before
the other men.
That fancied look, rankling in his heart, impelled the navvy at
last to speak. But what he did and what he said were very
different from that which he had intended to do or say.
“Oh, Luce, dear,” he began, moving quickly forward and
throwing his arms round the woman. “Oh, my dear, dear wife!
Do come back to me, an’ be as you was before this trouble
Lucretia was thoroughly taken aback by this impetuous appeal,
and by the violent exhibition of his feelings. The next minute,
however, she rallied her forces, and slipped from his embrace.
Turning, she faced him, with heightened colour and sparkling
eyes. She held the spoon that she had hastily withdrawn from
the saucepan when he had first seized her, and porridge dropped
from it unheeded in great splashes on the floor.
“I—I haven’t left you!” she cried, defiantly, the scarlet spot
deepening in her cheeks. “And so how can I come back,
She cast a triumphant look on him, as if to ask how he thought
he was going to answer that unanswerable question. Burnett’s
eyes were fixed on the largest porridge splash at his feet, and he
only sighed heavily.
There was a short pause. Then Burnett in a hurried, stifled,
“‘Tis true—for all the same!”
“What’s true?” asked the woman, with a toss of her head,
and another flash of her eyes.
“What they’re sayin’ o’ ye an’—an’ that feller Caldwell,”
mumbled her husband. A savage glow lit up his downcast eyes
one minute; the next, all the light was out, and they reassumed
their normal dulness of appearance.
Mrs. Burnett made no reply, but resumed operations in her
porridge saucepan. The spoon clattered loudly against its metal
sides, and Luce’s hand trembled. Burnett shifted from one foot
to the other. At last he burst out into speech again.
“I’ve never ill-treated ye, nor come home boozy, nor knocked
the children about,” said the navvy. “Ye’ve had my weekly
wages reg’lar an’ full always ! and I’ve let ye go yer own way in
the ‘ouse an’ never put in my oar in nothink, but let ye ‘ave yer
own way in everythink,” he repeated, doggedly. “An’ I can’t
think”—he choked—”I can’t think why ye’re treatin’ me
Mrs. Burnett poured out porridge into six chipped plates. Her
hands were shaking, and some of the scalding stuff splashed on to
them. She bit her lips and spoke never a word.
She started; Burnett’s voice was so soft and tremulous, and
full of pleading love. Since the early days of their marriage, ten
years ago, he had not called her anything but Luce. Now
another man called her Lucy, whose voice was like music to her
“Lucy,” said Burnett, huskily, “oh, my girl, do come back,
an’—an’ love me as you used!”
As his sad voice died away there came from without the sound
of many little footsteps and voices. A look of extreme relief
passed over the woman’s face. The Burnett children, in spite of
the irregular ways of the household, showed a remarkable genius
for coming up to time, so far as the hours of the meals were con-
cerned. The difficulty often was that they were ready for the
meal before it was ready for them. Burnett slunk back to his
corner at sound of their approach; something like despair flitted
across his stubbly, inexpressive face.
“You—you don’t understand me!” cried Mrs. Burnett,
hurriedly, over her shoulder, as her husband moved heavily away.
There was the suspicion of a sob in her voice. “You never have
understood me—never! And talking of ill-treatment and all
that shows you don’t and can’t understand me!”
Burnett showed a face of blank, mystified despair at the eternal
feminine wail. It was as incomprehensible to him as if it had
been uttered in a foreign language of which he was entirely
ignorant. It was the navvy’s loss that Caldwell understood it as
completely as man ever can.
The day after Burnett ventured his appeal, a momentous thing
happened. It occurred at noon, and was nothing less than the
breathless descent on the Burnett fold of Mrs. Burnett’s twin
Mrs. Burnett’s sister was also a wife of ten years’ experience;
but she was not a mother. It was her one bitter sorrow.
Tidings of the Burnett-Caldwell scandal had reached her in
her little Northamptonshire village, and her unexpected visit was
the result. It occurred at the midday dinner hour, which, strange
to say, was up to time that day. The Burnett flock were des-
patching slabs of suet pudding and treacle, carved and ladled out
by Mrs. Burnett, at the kitchen dresser, when the cloaked and
bonnetted apparition, omitting the formality of knocking, appeared
in the doorway. Burnett was eating a solitary dinner on the
bank overlooking the line in course of construction.
“Annie!” cried Mrs. Burnett. She fell back a step; her
face, dyed suddenly scarlet at sight of her visitor, rapidly changed
to a deadly pallor.
“Luce,” said the other woman.
“Not before the children!” cried Lucretia, putting out her
hands, as if warding off a blow. “Oh, not a word before the
children, Annie!” she cried, passionately.
The other woman had Lucretia’s splendid, slightly scornful
eyes. Molly had her aunt’s large, full mouth.
“I wasn’t goin’ to say a word,” returned Annie; her sad lips
trembled. “‘Tisn’t no use; I knew that afore I came. I know
you, Luce! No! an’ I won’t sit down an’ eat anythink, Luce;
I’ve a back train to catch, an’ time’s short. I came to ask, Luce,
She faltered here, and changed colour. Lucretia bit her lips.
“Well,” she said, sullenly, “if what?”
“I came to ask if I could take the children home with me for
a spell, Luce,” said her sister, softly.
An indescribable tumult took possession of Lucretia’s soul.
Many conflicting voices clamoured for a hearing. Luce, con-
founded, taken by surprise, and dismayed to death at heart, listened,
with difficulty, to the loudest and most importunate.
“Yes,” she said, heavily, at last; “you can, if you like.”
Mrs. Burnett’s sister had come, primed with the best intention
in the world. She had not for a moment expected that her de-
liberately planned request would be granted. When Luce mut-
tered out her slow “Yes,” she was amazed, but not dismayed.
She thought she was acting for the best in removing the Burnett
children from the immediate scene of their mother’s sin ; but the
wisdom of her act may be questioned. In less than half an hour
the entire flock was ready to start, baggage, such as it was, and
The parting was brief, and without undue expression of senti-
ment. The eleven months old baby was asleep when it changed
hands. The childless woman received it with a most motherly,
caressing movement; Luce’s face was hard and rigid. The
younger children were jubilant at the thought of the journey, but
cried at having to leave their home, as they went down the little
garden path into the road. Jack Spratt neither cried nor laughed.
He was awed by Molly’s proud, pale face.
“Leave me—her,” whispered Lucretia, with a little catch of
her breath, and nodding, feverishly, in the direction of her eldest
daughter, now occupied in nursing the youngest boy but one.
“God’s sake not her—out of any of ’em!” cried back Molly’s
aunt, in a fierce, incoherent undertone; and Molly was swept off
in the general exodus.
Mrs. Burnett watched them as they went down the dusty road.
Molly carried the youngest baby, and her aunt had her late burden,
a sturdy two-year-old. The two younger girls clasped hands,
and walked demurely in front of the hen-in-charge. Jack Spratt
walked alone, a few paces in front, as became the man of the
party. Mrs. Burnett watched them, with dry eyes and burning
eyeballs, until they were out of sight. Then she went indoors,
and fell into a chair, sobbing and weeping, till her emotions
seemed as if they would tear her thin frame asunder.
“Oh, if she had only left me Molly!” she moaned, in the
intervals of her heavy sobbing. “If she had only left me my
pretty Molly—my pretty, pretty girl!”
She had not recovered herself till four o’clock chimed out,
unevenly, from the dilapidated kitchen clock. At that moment
a man’s footstep was heard to approach from without; and a
man’s voice called her name, softly, through the half-opened
He called her Lucy, and Mrs. Burnett leaped to her feet, and
with a little, strangled cry, threw herself upon his breast. His
arms met tightly round her, and he held her thus pressed to him,
for a minute, without speaking. He could see her nerves were
shattered, and that she was in a more desperate state even than
when she had given him her first promise. “Oh, they’ve taken
away my children, Jamie!” she sobbed out, at last. “Take me
home with you! don’t leave me here in my empty home, Jamie!
I can’t bear it!”
Caldwell held her closer to him. He had come, fearing for
once a possible refusal, on purpose to ask her that to which her own
beseeching words to him now gave the affirmatory answer.
Five minutes later Luce left her home on his arm. “I’ll take
you right away from this one-horse place, Lucy,” Caldwell said
to her, as they went out. ” My work is done here, with the
doing of the line’s.”
He referred to the completion of the line, the last detail of
whose construction would be an accomplished fact by sunset.
With the running of the first train, thereon, on the morrow,
Caldwell’s duties, as assistant superintendent of the men at work
on it, would be over.
“I’ll belong to you now, Jamie, for ever and ever,” Lucretia
whispered up to him, as they gained his front door. She did not
mind now if all the world saw her enter Caldwell’s house.
“They’ve taken my children away, and I’ll only belong to you
now, for ever and ever, Jamie,” she repeated, as he led her into
her new home. He bent and kissed her quivering lips.
When Burnett was going home that night, a neighbour,
overflowing with news, darted out, from the next house. She
had been waiting three hours for his advent, although she knew
he could not be due in Aspect Road till past six. She was
consumed with fear lest another neighbour should tell him the
news before she had the chance.
She followed Burnett up his garden plot, in order to drive the
bits of information deeper down into his dull, clouded brain.
“Their aunt came, Burnett, sure as I’m a livin’ woman, and
took ’em all away—the baby an’ that limb, Molly, herself!”
reiterated the shrill-voiced informant. “How you stare, man!
I tell you they’re gone, the whole lot o’ them; at half-past one
they went past our windys, and says I, ‘Lawks, that’s Burnett’s
Burnett turned on his threshold and faced her with working
jaws. She was not overcome at sight of his distress. Her mind
flew off on a fresh tangent.
“An’ Caldwell took her off, Burnett,” went on the
bearer. “In bare daylight, as bold as brass, she went off on his
arm! these eyes o’ mine saw it! ’twas like a theayter piece! and
thinks I, oh, that poor soul, Burnett, who—”
The navvy waved her back, and she retired, somewhat awed at
last, by his expression and his speechlessness. Burnett entered his
“I don’t believe her,” he muttered, staring vacantly around.
“It’s a damned lie!”
Nevertheless, the rooms were empty of wife, of children, and
of children’s clothes and broken toys. Burnett fell to thinking
that perhaps the neighbour had not lied, after all.
A headless rag doll, lying under a chair, caught his eye. He
remembered, with the first thrill of pain, recognised as such, that
he had left his baby sucking it, contentedly, in its cradle when he
went out that morning to put the finishing touches to the line.
He stooped and picked it up, and stood, stroking it, mechanically,
with his grimy hand. Burnett had not an ounce of sentiment
about him, though he had a greater capacity for affection than
Luce had ever discovered. After a while he ceased stroking the
headless doll, and put it in his breast-pocket. He was not an
heroic figure, in his far from clean working suit, and with his
broad, undeveloped features and stubbly hair and beard; but, as
he awkwardly shovelled the rag doll to his breast, his lower lip
trembling the while, he seemed to be invested with a pathetic
majesty that was far above any physical grandeur.
“The childern’s gone,” thought Burnett, rousing himself with
a heavy sigh. “But their aunt ‘ull take care of ’em till—till the
home’s ready for ’em ag’in.”
He went out, swiftly closing the door behind him. Twilight
was falling, and a sense of great loneliness caught him for the first
time, as if two hands had clutched him by the throat. He
wheeled sharply towards Caldwell’s house.
“She must come back if she thinks o’ the childern, and knows
I’m mor’n willing to have her back ag’in,” he said to himself with
a tearless sob. “She must do that!”
A bell hung to his hand by Caldwell’s front door, and he pulled
it. Though he was quite calm and composed to all outward
appearances, he was, in reality, labouring under a violent excite-
ment that made him feel sick and giddy. There was no response
of any kind to his ring, and his eye caught the knocker on the
door. He wondered, dully, why he had not seen it before, and
struck it loudly several times on the metal plate.
There was a dreadful silence. Burnett s throat contracted.
Then there came the sound of footsteps, and Caldwell himself
threw the door open. He did not recognise his visitor at first,
and met him with an impatient exclamation.
Burnett moved doggedly forward over the threshold, and a
hanging lamp in the hall revealed his identity. Caldwell gave
vent to a little low whistle of astonishment.
“I—I want to see my wife,” stammered the navvy. He found
it difficult to speak, owing to the dry condition of his lips. As
Caldwell continued to preserve silence, he cried again, striking
his nailed boot sharply on the hall floor, “I tell you I want to see
the woman who’s my wife!”
“Oh, come in, come in,” said the assistant superintendent,
blandly. “Only no violence before the lady, you know, and no
“I’m not such a fool as to threaten,” cried out Burnett,
shaking from head to foot in his violent excitement. “I know
I’m a fool and can’t understand women like her,” he added,
bitterly. “But I’m not such a fool as to threaten her or any
“Oh, come in,” repeated Caldwell, opening a door at the end
of the passage. He passed in himself, and Burnett followed
heavily. Lucretia was within; she had heard voices and had
risen. As Caldwell entered she ran to him and clasped his arm.
Burnett faced them.
“Well,” said Caldwell, at last, breaking a momentous silence.
“Here is the lady you wanted to see. Say what you have to say,
please, and have done with it. We are particularly engaged to-
The outrageous nature of this last remark was apparently lost
upon the navvy. He-was looking at Lucretia intently. He had
never ceased looking at her since he had entered the room.
Lucretia looked only at her lover.
Suddenly Burnett ran forward with extended arms. “Oh, my
lass!” he cried; “my dear, own lass! come home with me
again, an’ we’ll forget all this! Come home with me, Lucy!
come home, my poor dear! Oh, do come home!”
Two scalding tears slowly trickled down the navvy’s weather-
beaten cheeks. Lucretia shot a glance towards him. There was
no relenting in her eyes.
“You see she won’t come,” began Caldwell, lightly, after
another pause. “She doesn’t want—”
“Let her speak herself,” broke in Burnett, hoarsely. “You’ve
spoke too much for her, as well as to her, damn you! Now
don’t interfere now between man and wife!”
“Don’t you coerce her,” retorted Caldwell, blandly. “She
knows her own mind, I should hope! If she doesn’t want to
come back to you, she doesn’t!”
“Well, let her speak for herself, for God Almighty’s sake,”
cried Burnett. “An’ don’t put your words into her mouth.”
“Answer him, dear,” said Caldwell, turning his face towards
Lucretia. “And in your own words, as your heart dictates.
Choose, Lucy! will you have him or me?”
“Oh! Jamie, Jamie!”
“You see,” said Caldwell, holding Lucretia to his heart, as he
faced the speechless man, a few paces in front of him. “She
Burnett’s mouth opened and shut. He said nothing.
“She made a mistake when she married you,” said Caldwell,
coolly. “She found it out when she saw me, and now she’s
rectifying it. It’s quite natural, you know, and an event of every
“I don’t know about no ev’ry day ‘vents,” sobbed the navvy.
“But I know you’ve broke my heart, an’ I hope you’ll burn in
Lucretia’s flaming face looked up above Caldwell’s caressing
“And if he does,” she cried back, “by God Almighty, John
Burnett! I’ll burn with him too!”
Her fierce, adoring eyes devoured her lover’s face. Caldwell
bent his head till his lips met hers.
Burnett heard their kiss as he went heavily out.
He crossed the threshold and drew the door sharply to
behind him. Then he turned, swiftly, impulsively. Lucretia’s
name choked in his throat. The hard, unyielding door reminded
him of the futility of his effort, and he laughed, mocking, in his
anguish, his own bitter mistake. There was no moon; the
twilight had passed, leaving the darker night behind. A tear
stood out on his worn, whitened cheeks and his teeth clenched
on a sob, when he lifted the latch of his house door and passed
into his dishonoured home.
“The childern’s gone, too,” he said again, gazing round the
empty room, in dreary, vacant misery. “But this aunt’ll bring
’em back ag’in some day, when Molly’s grown more handylike, to
shift for me an’ the little uns alone. An’ I’ll stay on ‘ere till they
comes. I’ll not go too. An’ p’raps—p’raps—she’ll come back
too, some day. . . .”
He stumbled, slowly and awkwardly, up and down his kitchen,
painfully working out his scheme of the future in his dull, heavy
brain. “I don’t understand her,” he muttered, again, his future
revolving round his wife as its sole, eternal pivot. He had not
yet realised that Lucretia was lost to him for ever. “I don’t
understand her,” he groaned, “nor any woman ; but p’raps she’ll
grow tired and ‘ave no place to lay her tired ‘ead in—my poor
lass!—an’ p’raps she’ll remember our only home we ever ‘ad
together, she an’ me, an’ so p’raps she’ll come back to it at last.
If I goes on livin’ ‘ere, same as ever, p’raps she ll come back at
Dawn broke over the grey wilderness of slate roofs, over the
railroad, where it circled round the eastern suburb of the town,
over the dreary brickfields.
“I’ll light a fire, so as she’ll see there’s no change ‘ere,”
thought Burnett, setting, awkwardly enough, to his unwonted
task. A fitful eagerness flashed over his stolid face.
There was a slight breeze from the west. The pale, twisted
smoke column from Burnett’s chimney overtook the larger
volume that was gaily spouting from the big chimney on the
assistant superintendent’s house. Both were mingled together as
they were blown, eastwards, over the town. At his usual time
Burnett went down to his work on the line.
“If so be as she gives a thought to—to what she’s left be’ind,”
he thought, “she’ll see me goin’ an’ think I’m the same as usual.
‘Twill make ‘er comin’ back the easier.”
He clung to the one remaining hope that Lucretia’s faithlessness
had not uprooted and cast out of his life. Without that anchor
to his miserable soul he would have been like a ship adrift on an
open sea, and shipwreck would speedily have followed. Contrary
to habit, he went home at midday, to eat his dinner in his own
“‘Twill seem more—more homelike,” he thought. “An’
’twill be another chanst for ‘er to see I’m not meanin’ to leave my
The long, hot afternoon of toil dragged to a weary close on the
Burnett sat by his cottage door, staring, steadily, across the
railroad. The sun went slowly down beyond the deserted
brickfields; the twilight drew closer around him, and shut him
in, alone. A board with “To Let” written across it, in bright
black letters had been set up above the fence in front of the
assistant superintendent’s late home, since midday.
“But she’ll come back some day,” thought Burnett. His dry,
miserable eyes looked, blankly, into the growing darkness. “She
must—she must do that! She must know—she looked at my
chimney as she . . . as she went . . . an’ she must know how I
love her. . . .”
Night fell slowly over the town.
King, K. Douglas. Lucretia. The Yellow Book, vol. 10, July 1896, pp. 223-244. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://1890s.ca/YBV10_king_lucretia/