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Stephen Archer
by [?]

“There’s Joe Bradley,” she said, in some alarm. “Come into my room, sir, till he’s gone up; there’s no harm in him when he’s sober, but he ain’t been sober for a week now.”

Stephen obeyed; and she, taking a key from her pocket, and unlocking a door on the landing, led him into a room to which his back-parlour was a paradise. She offered him the only chair in the room, and took her place on the edge of the bed, which showed a clean but much-worn patchwork quilt. Charley slept on the bed, and she on a shake-down in the corner. The room was not untidy, though the walls and floor were not clean; indeed there were not in it articles enough to make it untidy withal.

“Where do you go on Sundays?” asked Stephen.

“Nowheres. I ain’t got nobody,” she added, with a smile, “to take me nowheres.”

“What do you do then?”

“I’ve plenty to do mending of Charley’s trousers. You see they’re only shoddy, and as fast as I patch ’em in one place they’re out in another.”

“But you oughtn’t to work Sundays.”

“I have heard tell of people as say you oughtn’t to work of a Sunday; but where’s the differ when you’ve got a brother to look after? He ain’t got no mother.”

“But you’re breaking the fourth commandment; and you know where people go that do that. You believe in hell, I suppose.”

“I always thought that was a bad word.”

“To be sure! But it’s where you’ll go if you break the Sabbath.”

“Oh, sir!” she said, bursting into tears, “I don’t care what become of me if I could only save that boy.”

“What do you mean by saving him?”

“Keep him out of prison, to be sure. I shouldn’t mind the workus myself, if I could get him into a place.”

A place was her heaven, a prison her hell. Stephen looked at her more attentively. No one who merely glanced at her could help seeing her eyes first, and no one who regarded them could help thinking her nice-looking at least, all in a shabby cotton dress and black shawl as she was. It was only the “penury and pine” that kept her from being beautiful. Her features were both regular and delicate, with an anxious mystery about the thin tremulous lips, and a beseeching look, like that of an animal, in her fine eyes, hazy with the trouble that haunted her mouth. Stephen had the good sense not to press the Sabbath question, and by degrees drew her story from her.

Her father had been a watchmaker, but, giving way to drink, had been, as far back as she could remember, entirely dependent on her mother, who by charing and jobbing managed to keep the family alive. Sara was then the only child, but, within a few months after her father’s death, her mother died in giving birth to the boy. With her last breath she had commended him to his sister. Sara had brought him up–how she hardly knew. He had been everything to her. The child that her mother had given her was all her thought. Those who start with the idea “that people with nought are naughty,” whose eyes are offended by rags, whose ears cannot distinguish between vulgarity and wickedness, and who think the first duty is care for self, must be excused from believing that Sara Coulter passed through all that had been decreed for her without losing her simplicity and purity. But God is in the back slums as certainly as–perhaps to some eyes more evidently than–in Belgravia. That which was the burden of her life–namely, the care of her brother–was her salvation. After hearing her story, which he had to draw from her, because she had no impulse to talk about herself, Stephen went home to turn the matter over in his mind.

The next Sunday, after he had had his dinner, he went out into the same region, and found himself at Sara’s door. She was busy over a garment of Charley’s, who was sitting on the bed with half a loaf in his hand. When he recognized Stephen he jumped down, and would have rushed from the room; but changing his mind, possibly because of the condition of his lower limbs, he turned, and springing into the bed, scrambled under the counterpane, and drew it over his head.