Walter Barrington by Dora Sigerson Shorter
I first met Walter Barrington at a children's party, to which I had
taken my child. He was an insignificant-looking little man, and, as it
seemed to me at the time, after many efforts to converse with him,
despairingly dull. He sat in a corner, and when his eyes were not upon
his children, he closed them with a shading hand, as though they pained
him. A doleful figure for a children's party, I thought, and commenced
to talk to him. I tried many subjects, yet failed to awaken his
interest. It was a last effort that drew him out.
I had to bring my little girl myself, I said; my wife was not very
He awoke at once and looked around.
I have three little ones here, he answered eagerly. My eldest girl
would not come; she is fifteen, and thought herself too old, he added
smiling. I have a son a year older. Of course he would not think of
coming. He is just the age to be afraid of getting chaffed, you see,
and is very sensitive, poor lad! And I couldn't trust the little ones
No, I replied, remembering my wife's words. You cannot trust them
to be careful when the little ones come out of the hot rooms and into
the cold air. I dropped my voice and hesitated. You have no wife,
She is away just now. Yes, in the country for a time. He looked at
me rather sharply, I fancied; then turned to the children. That is my
Lily over there, seethe pretty little dark girl. Doesn't she dance
well? Look how light she is; you can hardly see her feet. And thatno,
not the girl with the red head
That's my little girl, I said, not offended, for Milly was
really the prettiest child in the room; but he did not seem to hear,
and took no notice.
You see that fine little chap leaning against the door, quite like a
man of many seasons, he continued, laughing. Isn't he a funny little
fellow? That's my Bobby. He raised his voice. Bobby, I want you.
Bobby did not pretend to hear till he was called three times, then he
sauntered over looking bored.
What is it? he demanded, looking me up and down.
I only want to introduce you to this gentleman; he has got a little
girl here for you to dance with.
But I don't want to dance with his little girl, Bobby cried,
dragging himself from his father's hands. Do let me go. You always
He is very shy, the father said; poor little chap!
But he did not attempt to retain his son. I saw Bobby a few minutes
after counting with his eyes the dishes upon the supper-table, which he
intended to raid as soon as he got an opportunity.
The little dull man and I continued a disjointed conversation for the
rest of the evening. I found he lived in the next house to my own.
I have often seen you passing, he said.
I wondered if I had ever seen him; but realized that if I had I must
have passed him unnoticedthe little grey, insignificant man.
A few days after this my wife gave a little party, when amongst those
invited I saw the names of Agnes and William Barrington. I asked,
thinking of the old man, who they were. My wife seemed to know all
Oh! they are the eldest children of that old man who lives next door
on the right. You may have seen him. It's an awfully dull home for the
children, poor things! He seldom goes anywhere with them, and never
entertains. He is always busy, or ill, or something.
I asked her if she had ever spoken to him; but she had notshe had
only met the children, who she was so sorry for.
The mother is away, I remarked. I suppose it's better when she is
at home? My wife laughed. She is never at home, she said. They are
separatedincompatibility of temper. One can hardly wonder when she
was married to that
You are uncharitable, dear, I said, smiling. One cannot always
help being dull, and he seemed, from the few minutes' talk I had with
him, to be kind, and fond of his children.
I have only heard the children's story, my wife said. And of
course it looks bad, the wife leaving him; he must have a bad temper.
Yes, I said. Yes, it's funny that a mother should leave all her
children behind. You have never met her?
No, my wife answered thoughtfully; but I respect her. It's better
if things are going badly between husband and wife that they should
separate. It's awful for the children when there is constant bickering
and quarrelling going on around them; but it would take a great deal to
make a mother leave her children.
My wife looked, with her heart in her eyes, towards the other end of
the room, where our one dear child was playing. I caught her in my
arms, and drew her down upon my knee.
And what do you know of bickering and quarrelling, uncharitable
little wife? I said; and Milly came like a small whirlwind upon us.
Let me come up, too, father! she cried in peals of laughter.
I was nearly smothered between them.
In the midst of the frolic Agnes Barrington was announced by the
smiling servant. Her face sobered us, so doleful was it.
I don't think I can come to your dance, Mrs. Bryson, she said at
once, ignoring me.
Oh, you must not disappoint us, I answered, holding out my hand.
She shook it languidly, and continued to my wife,
It's father, she said, on the verge of tears. He has another
attack, and I am afraid we can't leave.
Poor dear! My wife took her hands and stroked them. It's really
hard, she said, turning to me. Just imagine, this poor child and her
brother are the responsible people at home, like father and mother; are
you not, dear?
Of course, the girl said, when father is ill there's no one but us
to look after things; and, then, Herbert is very selfishall men are!
She looked at me defiantly, as my wife shook her head. He goes off to
clubs and places, leaving everything to me. She burst into tears. I
want to enjoy myself when I am young like other girls, and travel about
and see things; but I have to sit at home and nurse and look after the
You must be brave, my wife said sympathetically. Your father will
be better soon, and you can go about again.
Oh, but he won't, the girl flashed in. The last time there was an
operation it was weeks and months before he was better. We had an awful
time, stuck in the house in constant attendance upon him. My complexion
has never been the same since, with late hours and unhealthy invalid
atmosphere. She began to cry again.
An operation! What's the matter with your father? I said sharply.
Oh, I don't know; he is always complaining. She turned from me. And
it's to be on the night of your party, the doctor says. Of all the
nights, to pick out that one night; but it's just my fate, I had my
dress made and everything.
Never mind, Agnes, said my wife, comforting her. We will have
another party when your father is well again, especially for you.
Agnes smiled a wan smile. She was certainly a pretty girl, when the
habitual look of discontent left her face.
It's very well to joke, she said; but it is hard, when one
is young, not to be able to go about I know a house where there are
three old maids; all because they had to stay at home and nurse their
father and mother till they died. Then the girls were too old to get
married, or do anything for themselves. All their youth and freshness
had passed away by sick beds, and when they were free they were old
themselves. I suppose I shall be like them. She rose and began walking
up and down. I know another girl, too, who is beginning to look
fadedshe was so pretty. She has to stay at home and mind her
bedridden grandmother. The old woman is a bundle of nerves and temper,
and she won't let Annie have a friend in, because the talking worries
her. She may not even keep a bird, because the singing annoys her. And
there is the young girl fading, fading, fading all the time. I hate old
people, I hate illness. I want to be with young, healthy people; I want
My wife took the girl by her shoulder and drew her to a seat.
The poor old people, she said softly (I knew she was thinking of
her parents, whom she loved), who have taken care of us when we were
helpless and a burden to them. Agnes, I have known little ones who have
made men give up their dreams of fame and settle down to earning bread
and butter for the infant mouthsclever men who have given up studies
that they loved for their children's sake and women who have had to
stay at home, to sit up at night, to wear their hearts out with love
for their children. Cannot the children spare a little love in return?
I saw the girl was only half listening; her mind was on her own
troubles. The world should be for the young, she aid. All the things
that I want to do now I shall not want to do when I am old and free to
do them. Do you think I shall care to go to dances when I am fifty; or
where will my pretty dress be; and what will it matter what colour I
wear? She went to the door.
My wife laughed. Silly child! she said, bidding her good-bye. When
you are fifty you will have more sense. If your father is better, come
in to our dance; after all, it's only from door to door.
It is hard on the poor thing, she added as the door closed. You
see, she has plenty of brains, and is not domesticated.
She can think, but not feel, I said; then repented. Well, it is
hard, as you say, after all. So much beauty, life, movement shut away
from light and enjoyment in that dull house. Youth and crabbed age, my
Yes, she answered; perhaps things would be different if there was
not something missing in the house
Mother! mother! Milly called; I want you.
That's it, she smiled, catching the child in her arms.
When I passed Walter Barrington's house in the days that followed, I
always looked up at the windows, wondering if I should see the little
old man. It was curious that he had up to this been unnoticed by me,
or, if noticed, only as part of the moving traffic of the street. He
had been like the milkman's little pony which stopped by our gate each
day, or the dog which, every morning when the door of the house
opposite was opened, rushed forth in a volley of barks, or like the
lamplighter who lit up the street lamp by lamp. I suppose the old man
had closed his door behind him every morning about the time that I left
mine, and his bent shoulders and grey locks had passed before me
unnoticed. Now the little man had a personality for me; he became a
human being, an individual for the first time.
So every morning I looked up, but never saw him. Only once I saw
Agnes at the window, looking through the dirty glass, her face pale,
the picture of woe. I couldn't help pitying her, on these beautiful,
bright morningsshut in there. I wondered what was wrong with the old
man. Once, meeting the younger children, I stopped them and asked how
he was. Lily said he was all right. She didn't know what was the
matter with him. Bobby giggled, 'Spect he is shamming, and asked me
how Carrots was. I suppose he meant my daughter; the nickname
evidently slipped out, he got so furiously red. He certainly was one of
the ugliest little boys I have ever seen.
On the night of the party Agnes and her brother turned up, all
smiles. The girl was dressed in a pretty pink frock, and looked almost
beautiful. I was glad to see her with the frown off her face, and to
feel the poor thing was happy and in the enjoyment of her youth. She
was soon surrounded by an admiring crowd of young men, all begging for
Father insisted upon my coming, she whispered to my wife, who stood
looking on with tears not far from her eyes.
I do love to see her so, she murmured. Now, doesn't she seem in
her element? I declare when I look up at that dim house next door, and
see the young faces looking out into the world, like birds in a dark
cage, it almost makes me cry. I am sure I don't know what that old man
does with his money; he certainly does not spend it on taking his
children about, for he only takes them to museums and free
picture-galleries, zoological gardens and things like that. He never
has company for themonly such children as they ask in themselves.
Perhaps he is saving, I said; and a sick man can't do much in the
way of entertaining, especially if he has to work hard at the same
Ah, poor fellow! no, my wife answered. I suppose it's hard; only
it's worse for the children: and he is such a dull-looking old fellow
to be the father of these bright creatures.
She had hardly spoken when a servant whispered to mea woman wished
to speak to me in the hall. I had hardly got down the stairs when she
came quickly towards mea decent old woman, like a servant.
You are Mr. Bryson? she said. Will you come in next door? The
master is very bad; he wants to see you.
I will be with you at once, I said. Shall I call his son and
daughter to come with us?
I'll send for them later on, the old woman muttered. Let them
belet them be; the house is too full of noise as it is.
I followed the old woman to Walter Barrington's house. What first
struck me on entering, in contrast to mine, was its utter want of taste
in the little decoration I saw; the dinginess, the wear and tear upon
every thing; the worn stair-carpets, the dirty hall paper, the lack of
a woman's touch to make the home comfort I knew and loved.
Clean everything is, but what is done here is by the servant at my
side, I thought. All honour to her for her endeavours. Otherwise what
a house it would be for dirt! Agnes has no hand in this. Look at her
hat with torn ribbons upon the hall rack, and her little velvet jacket
flung upon the chair. Untidy Agnes!
As we reached the door of his room I heard the sound of squabbling
inside. At the noise the woman flung the door open and rushed in. I saw
her seize the two younger children by the arms and force them apart
Bobby and Lily were fighting over a toy.
I told you not to come in here, disturbing your father when he's
ill! the woman shouted; get out of here, both of you!
She pushed them roughly to the door, Lily scratching and Bobby
I want my train! he roared, escaping from her and running back for
his toy. He caught it by the leading string, and drew it out after him,
the iron wheels creaking and rattling over the wooden floor.
A low groan from the bed made me look round. Walter Barrington lay
there, older, more insignificant than ever, his face withered with
pain. I went to his side, full of pity; he motioned me to be seated.
For some minutes he could not speak, seeming to be in great agony. I
looked round the room, seeking something to ease him, but did not know
what to do. I was struck with the untidy, bare room, the uncarpeted
floor, the uncurtained windows, the medicine bottles and details of an
invalid chamber all about within sight of the sick man. Through the
walls came the sound of musicgiggiggig. It burst upon me with a
shock; it was from my own house.
I must stop that dancing, I said aloud; it's horrible!
Walter Barrington shook his head. No, no; I like it, he whispered.
Agnes is there; I made her go. Agnes is dancing.
She is there, I said, looking so pretty. He smiled feebly. But
you must not be worried with noises.
He shook his head again. It's nothing. I like it. Then he looked
pleadingly at me. I sent for you. You are kind to come.
I am glad to come, I said. What can I do for you?
I am dying, he said feebly. I want you to help me to die in peace.
I worry about my children. What is to become of them? who is to look
after them? Will you promise? Would you promise? It will be more
difficult than you think Will you be trustee for them? You are the only
one I can ask; the only one who has been kind to me.
I have done nothing for you, I said, ashamed. Anything I can do
now I will.
You and your wife have been so kind to my darlings, so very kind.
The door was opened with a kick. Bobby thrust his head in, laughing.
Walter Barrington gave a moan, his poor, thin hands raised to his head.
I felt I could strangle the little boy. My Hush! was so stern that he
came on tip-toe to the bed in his nailed boots.
Is father asleep? he questioned in a loud whisper.
Walter Barrington drew his hands from his face and turned upon his
son the loveliest smile I have ever seen.
He is so thoughtful, poor little child! Sit by me, my love.
The boy sat himself by his father's side, and commenced whittling a
bit of stick. I am making a whistle, he volunteered; but it won't
If it does, I said to myself, out you go.
I am doing a curious thing, the old man muttered; but it must be
done. If you will look after the interests of my children, my
housekeeper, whom you have seen, will keep the home together. He
hesitated. My wife he looked distressed.
I know, I hastened to tell him. I understand all about it; you
could not agree, so you separated. It was best for the children. But
now that you are so ill, could you not forget? A mother would be best
to look after her children, after all.
His face contracted in a terrible sorrow.
It is impossible, he said; then looked fiercely at me. We did not
agree. He spoke in a strong voice. Remember, incompatibility of
temper; make no mistake, incompatibility of temper. With a hoarse cry
he put his weak arms about the boy, as though to protect him from what
I might think.
Bobby peevishly put away his feeble clasp. Father, you are so
silly! he cried. Look! you nearly broke my whistle.
If she should come back, the old man continued, struggling with
shame and pain, and make any trouble about the will, remember, I was
quite sane when I spoke to you and named you as trustee.
Is mother coming back? Bobby asked, lifting his face and smiling.
She is so long away. Mother is so gay, he added, turning to me; she
was always laughing and playing with us. When will she come home?
Walter Barrington moved restlessly. Oh, my God! I heard him mutter,
my God! I thought he was in pain, but saw the agony was in his soul.
Bobby seemed to be remembering something; his face changed into
You would not let her in. He turned on his father. You would not
let her in when she came home last time.
Be silent! the dying man commanded sternly, his face already dead.
Then, his voice changing to infinite tenderness, Hush, darling, hush,
You did! the boy began to shout. When she came home last time,
long ago, you wouldn't let her in. It was in the middle of the night,
and she stood on the doorstep, and you wouldn't let her in.
I ran to put the boy from the room. He turned to me. As I came near
him and took his hand, he began to sob.
He did! he did! he wouldn't let her in; and she cried and cried.
You never heard it, Walter Barrington shouted, half raising
himself. Hush! hold your tongue!
I did! the boy screamed back. I was at the little window upstairs;
and she cried and cried, and I called, 'Mother! Mother! Mother!' but
she did not hear me.
It was a dream, I said pityingly, leading the boy to the door,
only a dream.
No, he sobbed, it wasn't, for I heard her singing in the darkness
as she went away, and I knew the song, and I went to bed and cried and
cried, and then I fell asleep and forgot; but I know it was she, for
she sang, 'Sleep, Little Baby,' and she always sang that to Lily. It is
like this He opened his mouth, but I bid him go and buy sweets,
giving him a shilling, I closed the door upon him.
When I turned to Walter Barrington, his face was hidden by his hands,
but through the fingers tears rolled glistening. Poor dying creature!
may I never behold such grief again! What would I not have given to
make peaceful the few hours that remained? I laid my hands across his
thin shoulders as a woman might, and he seemed to lean towards me as if
for comfort. Poor creature! so lonely, so deserted, so miserable in the
grasp of death!
Be at peace, I whispered earnestly. Trust your children to me. I
will see no one interferes, andI understand, my poor friend, I
He fell back half fainting, and I laid him upon his pillows. I sat
with him till he somewhat recovered, then rose to go. As I did so, the
door opened, and Agnes entered, a whirl of perfume and beauty.
Is father better? she said; then bent and gave him a peck of a
kiss. Oh, he is. See my card, father; I danced every dance. I'll read
you out all the names and tell you of all my conquests. She sat down,
a flutter of silk and laces, by his bed. Do I worry you? No. Well,
first, Mrs. Bryson is wondering where her husband is, so we shall say
goodnight, and thank you, Mr. Bryson.
You must not stay long with your father; he is very tired talking to
me, I said, smiling.
Oh, no. The sick man smiled, holding my hand in a long, grateful
clasp. I love to have her. Herbert will show you out. Thank you, my
friend, for the comfort you have given me.
Herbert came sauntering into the room at the moment, his pipe in his
mouth. Hope you don't object to smoke, he said, with a laugh. Hallo,
Governor, how are you?feeling fit?
* * *
The next time I entered the Barringtons' house Walter Barrington had
left it for ever. But a strange, loud woman was going from room to
room, evidently noting down the things.
Did you ever hear of such a thing? she raged, when I met her. I am
not to come near my own children, and am not mentioned in the will. The
housekeeper, if you please, is to have charge of them till they are
of age, and a trustee is to have all the money; but I shall dispute the
I turned from her in disgust, asking the maid where Agnes and the
others were. She pointed to a door, and resumed her work, staring open
eyes and mouth at the new arrival, and answering at random all the
questions that that individual was putting to her.
I opened the door she had directed me to and entered. Agnes was
standing before the mirror trying on a large red hat belonging, as I
guessed, to Walter Barrington's wife. As she turned and twisted before
the glass, the tears were running down her face.
Poor father! she sobbed, when she saw me; I did not know he was
really so ill and going to die.
Bobby and Lily came out of the corner where they had been playing
with a lot of chairs. Their faces were full of importance and gravity.
Father was put into a box, Lily whispered in my ear as I lifted her
in my arms, and taken away. There were four black horses to his
We are playing at funerals, Bobby said, pointing to the row of
chairs. These are the carriages.