previous
next



  ― 1 ―

I Nullius Filius

THE earliest recollection of my childhood comprises a tragic and indelible memorial of my parents: a scene which is so sharply fixed and which stands out in such bold relief from other mind pictures of the remoter past as to blot and blur them into spectral and unseizable mist. It concerns, in the first place, a large and stately chamber the lofty ceiling of which was painted with rosy figures emblematical of spring. It was furnished richly, and its walls were embellished with deep-toned pictures, from the shades of which looked forth sad-eyed dames, and men in armour leaning thoughtfully upon cross-hilted swords. Upon the floor was cast a profusion of rugs and skins, amongst which grinned a cruel tiger face, his yellow eyes half closed, his dried, painted lips uptwisted in a sardonic snarl, to show his yellow fangs. A grand piano occupied a moiety of the apartment: it was open, its great flat lid propped upon a shining amber-coloured rod. The keyboard was white as snow, and on the stand rested a sheaf of unbound manuscript. A dark and very handsome man was seated before the instrument on a massive stool shaped like a lyre. His eyes were exceedingly black, large, and heavy-lidded; his nose was long and straight; his mouth and chin were hidden behind a black moustache and pointed Vandyck beard. His left hand strayed idly over the keys, touching them


  ― 2 ―
unconsciously into soft tones of sound; his right was outstretched in a warning gesture, and he regarded a young woman, who had disturbed him, with a frown of stern disapprobation. The woman stood some feet away; her right foot rested on the tiger's head. She was beautiful, but her expression held something evil, and at the moment there was a strange resemblance between her face and that of the dead thing on the floor. Her cheeks were flushed with passion, her eyes glittered wickedly, and her scarlet lips were drawn back, displaying sharp, white teeth. Her hair was tawny, like the tiger's. As she stood there the resemblance became each moment more striking and hideous. The man observed it and frowned more sternly than before; his right hand fell to his side.

“There is no need to shout,” he protested, disdainfully. “I should hear you perfectly were you to whisper.”

“Ho, my fine gentleman!” she cried, enraged. “Afraid of the servants, are you?”

I shudder now as I did then, for with the shock of an old but ever fresh conviction I realise that the man was a gentleman, but the woman—for all her beauty—a harridan.

The man rose slowly from the stool and stood erect, his face gloomy but resolute. “I warned you, Clara!” he said, icily.

“You will leave me?”

He nodded: “At once!”

She ground her teeth. “A damned good riddance too,” she cried; “but you'll not have the boy.”

“Lucas!” said the man, “come here!”

I had been standing somewhere, exactly where I cannot recollect, for the room was large, and the only part of it I remember perfectly I have described. On hearing my father's voice I moved towards him. He took my hand and looked steadily at the woman. “The child shall decide. Will that content you?”

The woman shook with a sudden access of rage. “No!” she shouted, “No!” and sprang forward. The man directed at her a commanding look and she paused—for a moment cowed.

“Choose between us, Lucas!” said my father, gravely;


  ― 3 ―
his eyes were fixed upon me tenderly, his voice was marvellously sweet and kind.

“Will you come with me, Lucas, or will you stay with—your mother?”

I looked at the woman and shuddered—her eyes glowed with an expression of speechless menace. Terrified I clasped my father's hands—“With you, take me with you!” I cried.

“Kismet!” said my father, and glancing swiftly at the woman he stooped to kiss me on the brow. There came a swift rush from behind us. My father uttered a loud cry and started upright, my head and hands were bathed with a flow of warm fluid. Half blinded I stared about me; childishly conscious of some terrible catastrophe. When at last I could see, the woman was sitting huddled in a chair beside the tiger's head, feverishly wiping her hands, which did not, however, seem to be soiled, with a tiny lace handkerchief. I looked at my father; his right hand was plucking at something fastened in his shoulder, he was staggering and swaying as though of a sudden grown weak and helpless, his face was paper-white. At last he wrenched the something from his shoulder. I saw that it was a cross-handled knife. He threw it from him. His coat was covered with dark blood which trickled downwards to the floor.

“Father!” I cried, terrified at I knew not what. I was shivering like a leaf.

“Go!” he said; “go for the servants—I am dying.”

But I was rooted to the spot, I could not stir. “Mother!” I gasped.

The woman arose; her face was ghastly, she seemed dazed. “What is the matter, Jim?” she asked in a queer, strained voice. “Did I hurt you?—I didn't mean to—I was drunk!” and she reeled towards him. But he did not answer—he sank at her feet in a limp, dreadful heap.

For hours I seemed to stand, while the woman—my mother—foolishly mumbled over and caressed my father's body lying stretched beside her on the floor, and all the while his blood oozed out upon the white rug upon which he lay, until a great purple pool collected there. It is still an agony to think I might have saved him could I have


  ― 4 ―
collected my panic-stricken senses; but I was scarcely seven years old.

My mother stood up at last; it was dark, the sun had disappeared, and the short southern twilight had already fled. She took me by the hand and led me from the house. On the steps I tottered and fell. She carried me. We entered a hansom cab. It was raining hard. We drove through dripping streets and streets, then reached a park, scattered houses, and the sea. We left the carriage and walked, the rain beat upon our faces—we were drenched, but we proceeded without a pause along a rocky path quite close to the water's edge. Our road was sometimes illumined by flashes of lightning—but, for the rest, it was very dark and gloomy, and I was very terrified. The woman held my wrist as in a vice. At last we stopped. We were standing on a little rocky eminence, the foot of which was splashed with a rim of surf. Suddenly I noticed that the woman was crying, crying silently, her body was heaving and shuddering with sobs. I commenced to cry too, not from sympathy, but fear and childish horror. She noticed, and turned to me.

“What is it, Lucas—what are you crying for?” she asked in a shaking voice.

“Father!” I moaned.

But at that she threw me from her and both her hands on high. “Oh, God!” she cried, “Oh, God!” Staring up wildly into the black sky she rushed forward. I knew that she was going to her death, but I could not stay her. I fell swooning to the ground, and throughout that long, awful night lay unconscious on the rocks while the ceaseless rain beat down.

In the morning I was discovered by the park-ranger and taken to a hospital. There I lay for weeks, fighting fiercest pain, with intervals of blissful delirium, beset with rheumatic fever. I recovered, and was given into the care of my mother's brother, who came forward with a charitable offer of protection, on which account he reaped much kudos from the authorities because he was reputed a poor man and a rascal, and such liberality was unlooked for from his class


  ― 5 ―
It was then I learned that although my father had been wealthy, I gained nothing but ill from his death. Had he lived he would no doubt have provided for me passing well, for I think he loved me, but his heir—a hard and grasping man—had stepped in, and he condemned me as no-man's son, equipped only with a heritage of crime and shame to commence my battle with the world among the shades.

previous
next