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A Lady of Quality Frances Hodgson Burnett

An heir is born

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They returned not to the house which had been my Lord of Dunstanwolde's, but went to the duke's own great mansion, and there lived splendidly and in hospitable state. Royalty honoured them, and all the wits came there, some of those gentlemen who writ verses and dedications being by no means averse to meeting noble lords and ladies, and finding in their loves and graces material which might be useful. 'Twas not only Mr. Addison and Mr. Steele, Dr. Swift and Mr. Pope, who were made welcome in the stately rooms, but others who were more humble, not yet having won their spurs, and how these worshipped her Grace for the generous kindness which was not the fashion, until she set it, among great ladies, their odes and verses could scarce express.

"They are so poor," she said to her husband. "They are so poor, and yet in their starved souls there is a thing which can less bear flouting than the dull content which rules in others. I know not whether 'tis a curse or a boon to be born so. 'Tis a bitter thing when the bird that flutters in them has only little wings. All the more should those who are strong protect and comfort them."

She comforted so many creatures. In strange parts of the town, where no other lady would have dared to go to give alms, it was rumoured that she went and did noble things privately. In dark kennels, where thieves hid and vagrants huddled, she carried her beauty and her stateliness, the which when they shone on the poor rogues and victims housed there seemed like the beams of the warm and golden sun.

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Once in a filthy hovel in a black alley she came upon a poor girl dying of a loathsome ill, and as she stood by her bed of rags she heard in her delirium the uttering of one man's name again and again, and when she questioned those about she found that the sufferer had been a little country wench enticed to town by this man for a plaything, and in a few weeks cast off to give birth to a child in the almshouse, and then go down to the depths of vice in the kennel.

"What is the name she says?" her Grace asked the hag nearest to her, and least maudlin with liquor. "I would be sure I heard it aright."

"'Tis the name of a gentleman, your ladyship may be sure," the beldam answered; "'tis always the name of a gentleman. And this is one I know well, for I have heard more than one poor soul mumbling it and raving at him in her last hours. One there was, and I knew her, a pretty rosy thing in her country days, not sixteen, and distraught with love for him, and lay in the street by his door praying him to take her back when he threw her off, until the watch drove her away. And she was so mad with love and grief she killed her girl child when 'twas born i' the kennel, sobbing and crying that it should not live to be like her and bear others. And she was condemned to death, and swung for it on Tyburn Tree. And, Lord! how she cried his name as she jolted on her coffin to the gallows, and when the hangman put the rope round her shuddering little fair neck. 'Oh, John,' screams she, 'John Oxon, God forgive thee! Nay, 'tis God should be forgiven for letting thee to live and me to die like this.' Aye, 'twas a bitter sight! She was so little and so young, and so affrighted. The hangman could scarce hold her. I was i' the midst o' the crowd and cried to her to strive to stand still, 'twould be the sooner over. But that she could not. 'Oh, John,' she screams, 'John Oxon, God forgive thee! Nay, 'tis God should be forgiven for letting thee to live and me to die like this!'"

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A Lady of Quality
Frances Hodgson Burnett

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