Clear and bright through the misty air and over silent chimney tops whose utterances had been stilled by the passing of night, the steeple bells tolled, as from their brass depths echoed the call that roused all of London’s inhabitants to wake.
High on the third story of an old whitewashed boarding house, the windows of which were mercilessly bespattered with mud, and in a small room cheered only by the light of the golden dawn streaming in by way of a narrow casement, a woman of no more than thirty years crouched before a blazing hearth stirring the steaming contents of a black pot. The musty room was bare of furniture save for a chair near the door, a straw pallet, and a low bed beneath the window.
“Come, Grip,” said the woman, rising and turning to face a huge ruddy-coloured dog lying on a mat a few feet away. The dog was shaggy and his yellow-tipped ears were drawn close against his head; he bounded to her side the instant his name was spoken. His countenance, deemed perhaps repellent by some for reason of its gruff fierceness, did not strike any hidden chord of concern within the woman, who placed a tender morsel at his feet. The great animal paused a moment as the woman withdrew to the side of the little bed, and then, a few minutes having passed, he eagerly devoured the meat.
“Alice, dear,’ said the woman gently, kneeling alongside the bed. “Alice, come and drink this warm broth.” There was a wheezing cough from beneath the coverlets as the woman drew away the quilts and stroked the frail face laid down amongst the grey sheets. The child turned then, and the sunken eyes and thin cheekbones rendered a ghastly view of what the deathly illness had so diligently wrought within the once rosy and childish features.
“Mama,” the little girl murmured, “where is Grip?” The dog heard his name and trotted to the bed, then, sitting back on his haunches, he wagged his tail willingly.
“Good boy, Grip,” the child said, smiling. She stroked the coarse tuft of hair along the top of his head. “He is a good dog, isn’t he, mama?”
“Yes he is, dear,” she replied. The woman eased Alice into a sitting position and began ladling spoonfuls of the steaming liquid into the child’s mouth. The dog sat nearby, a worthy sentinel of his failing charge, with his powerful form erect and his intelligent eyes fixed unremitting upon the two humans.
Presently the woman rose, stroking once more the mass of golden ringlets dishevelled across the pillow, and bending low to place a gentle kiss upon the fevered brow, she gazed down tenderly upon the fragile being.
“Alice,” she said, “I shall return in a little while.”
“When the bells chime three, mama?”
“Mama,” the child’s eyes were pleading, her tone earnest.
“Oh mama, please do not tire yourself so, as I know how often you do. I am afraid, mama, that if you make yourself so weary you also shall fall ill.”
The mother paused a moment, turning her head away from the imploring eyes.
“Hush, Alice. I shall return,” she said as, taking up a heavy shawl and bonnet lying across the chair, she prepared to leave the room.
“God bless you, mama,” Alice whispered. With one backward glance misty with hot tears, the woman bit her lip, snatched up a hand woven basket, and hurried from the room. Her departing footsteps rang through the empty hall then down the wooden staircase and into the dirty streets already swarming with people; and Alice listened intently until they had blended into the sounds of the world below the window. Amid the race of happenings the barking of a dog sounded above the noise in the streets, and in an instant Grip, a low growl rumbling through his jaws, was on his feet, his great teeth barred and his lips curled back in a fierce snarl.
“Grip, old boy,” the girl said, “we’re quite alright up here. And besides,” she added, “you are with me.” Little Alice lovingly stroked the tuft of hair, and the dog, being assured, was subdued, and he sat back on his haunches as though in reverence of his young charge.
“Do you ever wonder what they do down there, Grip?” the child said dreamily. “Oh yes, I know—
‘Some go to school
Some go to play
But we shall be happy
Together all day.’”
Alice giggled softly and the dog nestled his burly head next to the thin arm lying open on the quilts, and he fixed his brown eyes contentedly upon her.
“That’s what mama always says, isn’t it, Grip?” Alice said. “She is very good to us you know, and some day, when I am better and strong enough, we shall do something splendid for her. We shall buy her books, and lovely dresses, and all kinds of beautiful flowers—mama loves flowers, doesn’t she, Grip? And someday, when I am better, you and mama and me shall run together again over the grassy hills and have picnics in the woods and gather the sweet violets, and buttercups and the fairy flax, and we shall listen to the little birdies sings—mama loved the sound of the birds.” Alice sighed and gazed wistfully out of the window over the expanse of rooftops with their frowning chimney stacks, and her eyes sought the place where the glorious sun hung suspended in the pure sky and shed its brilliant glow over a world teeming with the wonders of life.
“There’s dear Papa too, Grip, waiting just where the sun meets the crest of the great hill. He is waiting for Mama and me to come to him. It has been so long, Grip, that Papa has been waiting, so long that I fear—“ the child stopped speaking and despair griped her heart. “Do you suppose he is gone by now? Perhaps he grew weary and left? It has been long, I know. We must go to him soon, Grip, very soon.” She closed her eyes and in a moment was swept away into the realms of a restless slumber.
Hours passed away; the steeple bells chimed two, three, four o’clock, and at last the child awoke.
“Where is mama?” she moaned. Slowly Alice lifted the frail hand to her forehead and applied the icy fingers to the dripping perspiration beaded on her pallid brow, and she winced in pain as the salty fluid stung her eyes.
“Grip? Grip, where are you?” she said. The great animal rose from the mat nearby and the girl, being assured of his comforting presence, and her frail limbs not suffering her to give reward, allowed her eyelids to droop.
“You must wait for mama, Grip,” she whispered. “Be sure to tell her how I love her and will miss her. You must promise to stay near her in the night, for she will cry again I think. And Grip,” little Alice paused and turned to the dog, who wagged his tail eagerly. “Grip old boy, tell mama that I’ll be waiting over the hill—with Papa.” The child sighed and a contented smile overspread her gaunt features. The dog nudged her arm and whined pleadingly; then sat back on his haunches knowing it should please her.
The faint echo of footsteps resounded on the stairs, and they grew louder, ever drawing nearer.
“She is coming now, mama is coming to me, Grip…go and meet her at the door.” The dog did not remover himself but instead nuzzled his warm shaggy head next to her arm.
“Ah, Grip…goodbye my own dear faithful Grip.” The child’s voice grew dim and dimmer still until at last it trailed off into a hushed silence.
The footsteps sounded at the threshold, Dusk, in her gloomy vesture, sunk to rest upon the velvety brow of the hill, and in the shadowy streets below the footsteps fell more softly than before as each, with eager stride, bent to their silent place of rest. And the face of Little Alice, her pale cheeks which had long since deserted the rosy bloom of girlhood, took on a sweet and heavenly glow, for she well knew, with joy and peaceful calm never known by her before, wither her own steps were tending.
COPYRIGHT 2021 BROOKLYN K. BIEGEL
FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2010 BY “THE GRANDE PRAIRIE PUBLIC LIBRARY” CLEM & MURIEL COLLINS WRITING CONTEST