Whenever Ada met Pinkey, she wanted to know how things were progressing; but Pinkey could turn like a hare from undesirable questions.
"Are you an' 'im goin' to git spliced?" she inquired, for the hundredth time.
"I dunno," said Pinkey, turning scarlet; "'e sez we are."
END OF PART I.
THE SIGN OF THE "SILVER SHOE"
THE SIGN OF THE "SILVER SHOE"
The suburban trains slid into the darkness of the tunnel at Cleveland Street, and, as they emerged into daylight on the other side, paused for a moment like intelligent animals before the spider's web of shining rails that curved into the terminus, as if to choose the pair that would carry them in safety to the platform. It was in this pause that the passengers on the left looked out with an upward jerk of the head, and saw that the sun had found a new plaything in Regent Street.
It was the model of a shoe, fifteen feet long, the hugest thing within sight, covered with silver leaf that glittered like metal in the morning sun. A gang of men had hoisted it into position last night by the flare of naphtha lamps, and now it trod securely on air above the new bootshop whose advertisement sprawled across half a page of the morning paper.
In Regent Street a week of painting and hammering had prepared them for surprises; two shops had been knocked into one, with two plate-glass windows framed in brass, and now the shop with its triumphant sign caught the eye like a check suit or a red umbrella. Every inch of the walls was covered with lettering in silver leaf, and across the front in huge characters ran the sign:
JONAH'S SILVER SHOE EMPORIUM
Meanwhile, the shop was closed, the windows obscured by blinds; but the children, attracted by the noise of hammering, flattened their noses against the plate glass, trying to spy out the busy privacy within. Evening fell, and the hammering ceased. Then, precisely on the stroke of seven, the electric lights flashed out, the curtains were withdrawn, and the shop stood smiling like a coquette at her first ball.
Everything was new. The fittings glistened with varnish, mirrors and brass rods reflected the light at every angle, and the building was packed from roof to floor with boots. The shelves were loaded with white cardboard boxes containing the better sort of boot. But there was not room enough on the shelves, and boots and shoes hung from the ceiling like bunches of fruit; they clung to brass rods like swarming bees. The strong, peculiar odour of leather clogged the air. The shopmen stood about, whispering to one another or changing the position of a pair of boots as they waited for the customers.
A crowd had gathered round the window on the left, which was fitted out like a workshop. On one side a clicker was cutting uppers from the skin; beside him a girl sat at a machine stitching the uppers together at racing speed. On the other side a man stood at a bench lasting the uppers to the insoles, and then pegging for dear life; near him sat a finisher, who shaved and blackened the rough edges, handing the finished article to a boy, who gave it a coat of gloss and placed it in the front of the window for inspection. A placard invited the public to watch the process of making Jonah's Famous Silver Shoes. The people crowded about as if it were a play, delighted with the novelty, following the stages in the growth of a boot with the pleasure of a boy examining the inside of a watch.
At eight o'clock another surprise was ready. A brass band began to play popular airs on the balcony, hung about with Chinese lanterns, and a row of electric bulbs flashed out, marking the outline of the wonderful silver shoe, glittering and gigantic in the white light.
The crowd looked up, and made bets on the length of the shoe, and recalled the time, barely five years ago, when the same man—Jonah the hunchback—had astonished Botany Road with his flaring signs in red and white. True, his shop was still on the Road, for Regent Street is but the fag end of a long, dusty road where it saunters into town, snobbishly conscious of larger buildings and higher rents. Since then his progress had been marked by removals, and each step had carried him nearer to the great city. He had outgrown his shops as a boy outgrows his trousers.
It was reported that everything turned to gold that he touched. It was certain that he had captured the trade of the Road, and this move meant that he had fastened his teeth in the trade of the roaring city. And not so long ago people could remember when he was a common larrikin, reputed leader of the Cardigan Street Push, and working for old Paasch, whose shop was now empty, his business absorbed by Jonah with the ease one swallows a lozenge. And they say he began life as a street-arab, selling papers and sleeping in the gutter. Well, some people's luck was marvellous!
The crowd became so dense that the police cleared a passage through it, and the carts and buses slackened to a walk as they passed the shop, where the electric lights glittered, the Chinese lanterns swung gaily in the breeze, and the band struck noisily into the airs from a comic opera.
Meanwhile the shop was crowded with customers, impatient to be served, each carrying a coupon cut from the morning paper, which entitled the holder to a pair of Jonah's Famous Silver Shoes at cost price. And near the door, in an interval of business, stood the proprietor, a hunchback, his grey eyes glittering with excitement at seeing his dream realized, the huge shop, spick and span as paint could make it, the customers jostling one another as they passed in and out, and the coin clinking merrily in the till.
Yes, they were quite right. Everything that he touched turned to gold. Outsiders confused his fortune with the luck of the man who draws the first prize in a sweep, enriched without effort by a chance turn of Fortune's wrist. They were blind to the unresting labour, the ruthless devices that left his rivals gaping, and the fixed idea that shaped everything to its needs. In five years he had fought his way down the Road, his line of march dotted with disabled rivals.
Old Paasch, the German, had been his first victim. Bewildered and protesting, he had succumbed to Jonah's novel methods of attack as a savage goes down under the fire of machine-guns. His shop was closed years ago, and he lived in a stuffy room, smelling vilely of tobacco-smoke, where he taught the violin to hazardous pupils for little more than a crust. He always spoke of Jonah with a vague terror in his blue eyes, convinced that he had once employed Satan as an errand-boy.
People were surprised to find that Jonah meant to live in the rooms over the new shop, when he could well afford to take a private house in the suburbs. It was said he treated his wife like dirt; that they lived like cat and dog; that he grudged her bare living and clothing. Jonah set his lips grimly on a hint of these rumours.
Three years ago he had planted Ada in a house of her own, and had gone home daily to rooms choked with dirt, for with years of ease she had grown more slovenly. Servants were a failure, for she made a friend of them, and their families lived in luxury at her expense. And when Ada was left alone, the meals were never ready, the house was like a pigsty, and she sat complacently amidst the dirt, reading penny novelettes in a gaudy dressing-jacket, or entertaining her old pals from the factory.
These would sit through an afternoon with envy in their hearts, and cries of wonder on their lips at the sight of some useless and costly article, which Ada, with the instinct of the parvenu, had bought to dazzle their eyes. For she remained on the level where she was born, and the gaping admiration of her poorer friends was the only profit she drew from Jonah's success. If Jonah arrived without warning, they tumbled over one another to get out unseen by the back door, but never forgot to carry away some memento of their visit—a tin of salmon, a canister of tea, a piece of bacon, a bottle whose label puzzled them—for Ada bestowed gifts like Royalty, with the invariable formula "Oh! take it; there's plenty more where that comes from."
But the worst was her neglect of Ray, now seven years old, and the apple of Jonah's eye. She certainly spent part of the morning in dressing him up in his clothes, which were always new, for they were discarded by Jonah when the creases wore off; but when this duty, which she was afraid to neglect, was ended, she sent him out into the street to play in the gutter. His meals were the result of hazard, starving one day, and over-eating the next. And then, one day, some stains which Ada had been unable to sponge out elicited a stammering tale of a cart-wheel that had stopped three inches from the prostrate child.
This had finished Jonah, and with an oath he had told Ada to pack up, and move into the rooms over the shop, when they could be got ready. Ada made a scene, grumbled and sulked, but Jonah would take no more risks. His son and his shop, he had fathered both, and they should be brought together under his watchful eye, and Ada's parasites could sponge elsewhere.
It had happened in time for him to have the living-rooms fitted up over the shop, for the part which was required as a store-room left ample space for a family of three. Ada gave in with a sullen anger, refusing to notice the splendours of the new establishment. But she had a real terror, besides her objection to being for ever under Jonah's sharp eyes.
Born and bred in a cottage, she had a natural horror of staircases, looking on them as dangerous contrivances on which people daily risked their lives. She climbed them slowly, feeling for safety with her feet, and descended with her heart in her mouth. The sight of others tripping lightly up and down impressed her like a dangerous performance on the tight-rope in a circus. And the new rooms could only be reached by two staircases, one at the far end of the shop, winding like a corkscrew to the upper floor, and another, sickening to the eye, dropping from the rear balcony in the open air to the kitchen and the yard.
Mrs Yabsley continued to live in the old cottage in Cardigan Street. Jonah made her an allowance, but she still worked at the laundry, not for a living, as she carefully explained to every new customer, but for the sake of exercise. And she had obstinately refused to be pensioned off.
"I've seen too many of them pensioners, creepin' an' coughin' along the street, because they thought they was too old fer work, an' one fine mornin' they fergit ter come down ter breakfust, an' the neighbours are invited to the funeral. An' but for that they might 'ave lived fer years, drawin' their money an' standin' in the way of younger men. No pensions fer me, thank yer!"
When Jonah had pointed out that she could not live alone in the cottage, she had listened with a mysterious smile. With Jonah's allowance and her earnings, she was the rich woman, the lady chatelaine of the street, and she chose a companion from the swarm of houseless women that found a precarious footing in the houses of their relations—women with raucous voices, whose husbands had grown tired of life and fled; ladies who were vaguely supposed to be widows; comely young women cast on a cold world with a pitiful tale and a handbag. And she fed them till they were plump and vicious again, when they invariably disappeared, taking everything of value they could lay hands on. When Jonah, exasperated by these petty thefts, begged her to come and live with them, she shook her head, with a humorous twinkle in her eyes.
"No, yer'd 'ave ter pull me up by the roots like that old tree if yer took me out of this street. I remember w'en 'arf this street was open paddicks, an' now yer can't stick a pin between the 'ouses. I was a young gell then, an' a lot better lookin' than yer'd think. Ada's father thought a lot o' me, I tell yer. That was afore 'e took ter drink. I was 'is first love, as the sayin' is, but beer was 'is second. 'E was a good 'usbind ter me wot time 'e could spare from the drink, an' I buried 'im out of this very 'ouse, w'en Ada could just walk. I often think life's a bloomin' fraud, Joe, w'ichever way yer look at it. W'en ye're young, it promises yer everythin' yer want, if yer only wait. An' w'en ye're done waitin', yer've lost yer teeth an' yer appetite, or forgot wot yer were waitin' for. Yes, Joe, the street an' me's old pals. We've seen one another in sickness an' sorrer an' joy an' jollification, an' it 'ud be a poor job ter part us now. Funny, ain't it? This street is more like a 'uman bein' ter me than plenty I know. Yer see, I can't read the paper, an' see 'oo's bin married and murdered through the week, bein' no scholar, but I can read Cardigan Street like a book. An' I've found that wot 'appens in this street 'appens everywhere else, if yer change the names an' addresses."
About a week after the triumphant opening of the Silver Shoe, Jonah was running his eye down some price-lists, when he was disturbed by a loud noise. He looked round, and was surprised to see Miss Giltinan, head of the ladies' department, her lips tight with anger, replacing a heap of cardboard boxes with jerks of suppressed fury.
She was his best saleswoman, gathered in from the pavement a week after she had been ejected from Packard's factory for cheeking the boss. She had spent a few weeks dusting shoes and tying up parcels, and then, brushing the old hands aside, had taken her place as a born saleswoman. Sharp as a needle, the customers were like clay in her hands. She recognized two classes of buyers—those who didn't know what they wanted, and always, under her guidance, spent more than they intended, and those who knew quite well what they wanted, the best quality at an impossible price. Both went away satisfied, for she took them into her confidence, and, with covert glances for fear she should be overheard, gave them her private opinion of the articles in a whisper. And they went away satisfied that they had saved money, and made a friend who would always look after their interests. But this morning she was blazing.
"Save the pieces, Mary," said Jonah, "wot's the matter?"
"A woman in there's got me beat," replied the girl savagely—"says she must 'ave Kling & Wessel's, an' we 'aven't got a pair in the place. Not likely either, when the firm's gone bung; but I wasn't goin' to tell 'er that. Better come an' try 'er yourself, or she'll get away with 'er money."
As Jonah entered, the troublesome customer looked up with an air of great composure. She was a young woman of five-and-twenty, tall, dark, and slight, with features more uncommon than beautiful. Her face seemed quite familiar to Jonah.
"Good mornin', Miss. Can I 'elp you in any way?" he said, trying to remember where he had seen her before.
"So sorry to trouble you, but my feet are rather a nuisance," she said, in a voice that broke like the sound of harps and flutes on Jonah's ear.
Jonah noted mechanically that her eyes were brown, peculiar, and luminous as if they glowed from within. They were marked by dark eyebrows that formed two curves of remarkable beauty. She showed her teeth in a smile; they were small and white and even, so perfect that they passed for false with strangers. She explained that she had an abnormally high instep, and could only be fitted by one brand of shoe. She showed her foot, cased in a black stocking, and the sight of it carried Jonah back to Cardigan Street and the push, for the high instep was a distinguished mark of beauty among the larrikins, adored by them with a Chinese reverence.
"I can only wear Kling & Wessel's, and your assistant tells me you are out of them at present," she continued, "so I am afraid I must give it up as a bad job." She picked up her shoe, and Jonah was seized with an imperious desire to keep her in the shop at any cost.
"I'm afraid yer've worn yer last pair of that make," said Jonah. "The Americans 'ave driven them off the market, and the agency's closed."
"How annoying! I must wear shoes. Whatever shall I do?" she replied, staring at the shelves as if lost in thought.
Jonah marked with an extraordinary pleasure every detail of her face and dress. The stuff was a cheap material, but it was cut and worn with a daintiness that marked her off from the shopgirls and others that Jonah was most familiar with. And as he looked, a soft glow swept through him like the first stage of intoxication. Sometimes at the barber's a similar hypnotic feeling had come over him, some electric current stirred by the brushing of his hair, when common sounds and movements struck on his nerves like music. Again his nerves vibrated tunefully, and he became aware that she was speaking.
"So sorry to have troubled you," she said, and prepared to go.
He felt he must keep her at any cost. "A foot like yours needs a special last shaped to the foot. I don't make to order now, as a rule, but I'll try wot I can do fer yer, if yer care to leave an order," he said. He spoke like one in a dream.
She looked at him with a peculiar, intense gaze. "I should prefer that, but I'm afraid they would be too expensive," she said.
"No, I can do them at the same price as Kling & Wessel's," said Jonah.
Miss Giltinan started and looked sharply from Jonah to his customer. She knew that was impossible. And she looked with a frown at this woman who could make Jonah forget his business instincts for a minute. For she worshipped him in secret, grateful to him for lifting her out of the gutter, and regarded him as the arbiter of her destiny.
He went to the desk and found the sliding rule and tape. As he passed the tape round the stranger's foot, he found that his hands were trembling. And as he knelt before her on one knee, the young woman studied, with a slight repugnance, the large head, wedged beneath the shoulders as if a giant's hand had pressed it down, and the hump projecting behind, monstrous and inhuman. Suddenly Jonah looked up and met her eyes. She coloured faintly.
"Wot sort of fit do yer like?" he asked. His voice, usually sharp and nasal, was rather hoarse.
All her life she remembered that moment. The huge shop, glittering with varnish, mirrors, and brass rods, the penetrating odour of leather, the saleswoman silently copying the figures into the book, and the misshapen hunchback kneeling before her and looking up into her face with his restless grey eyes, grown suddenly steady, that asked one question and sought another. She frowned slightly, conscious of some strange and disagreeable sensation.
"I prefer them as tight as possible without hurting me," she replied nervously; "but I'm afraid I'm giving you too much trouble."
"Not a bit," replied Jonah, clearing his throat.
As he finished measuring, a small boy, dressed in a Fauntleroy velvet suit, with an enormous collar and a flap cap, ran noisily into the shop, dragging a toy train at his heels.
"Get upstairs at once, Ray," said Jonah, without looking round.
The child, puffing and snorting like an engine, took no notice of the command.
"Did yez 'ear me speak?" cried Jonah, angrily.
The child laughed, and stopped with his train in front of the customer, staring at her with unabashed eyes.
"What a pretty boy!" said the young woman. "Won't you tell me your name?"
"My name's Ray Jones, and I'll make old bones," he cried, with the glibness of a parrot.
The young woman laughed, and Jonah's face changed instantly. It wore the adoring gaze of the fond parent, who thinks his child is a marvel and a prodigy.
"Tell the lady 'ow old yer are," he said.
"I'm seven and a bit old-fashioned," cried the child, looking into the customer's face for the amused look that always followed the words. The young woman smiled pleasantly as she laced her shoe.
"'E's as sharp as a needle," said Jonah, with a proud look, "but I 'aven't put 'im to school yet, 'cause 'e'll get enough schooling later on. But I'll 'ave ter do somethin' with 'im soon; 'e's up ter 'is neck in mischief. I wish 'e was old enough ter learn the piano. 'E's got a wonderful ear fer music."
"But he is old enough," said the young woman with a sudden interest. "I have two pupils the same age as he."
"Ah?" said Jonah, inquiringly.
"I am a teacher of music," continued the young woman, "and in my opinion, they can't start too early, if they have any gift."
"An' 'ow would yer judge that?" said Jonah, delighted at the turn of the conversation.
"I generally go by the width of the forehead at the temples. Phrenologists always look for that, and I have never found it fail. Come here," she said to the child, in a sharp, businesslike tone. She passed her hand over his forehead, and pointed out to Jonah a fullness over the corner of the eye. "That is the bump of music. You have it yourself," she said, suddenly looking at Jonah's face. "I'm sure you're fond of music. Do you sing or play?"
"I can do a bit with the mouth-organ," said Jonah, off his guard. He turned red with shame at this vulgar admission but the young woman only smiled.
"Well, about the boy," said Jonah, anxious to change the subject, "I'd like yer to take 'im in 'and, if yer could make anythin' of 'im."
"I should be very pleased," said the young woman.
"Very well, we'll talk it over on Thursday, when yer come fer yer shoes," said Jonah, feeling that he was making an appointment with this fascinating stranger.
As she left the shop she handed Jonah a card, on which was printed:
MISS CLARA GRIMES, TEACHER OF MUSIC. Terms: 1 pound 1 shilling per quarter.
"Well, I'm damned!" said Jonah. "Old Grimes's daughter, of course." And as he watched her crossing the street with a quick, alert step, an intense yearning and loneliness came over him. Something within him contracted till it hurt. And suddenly there flashed across his mind some half-forgotten words of Mrs Yabsley's:
"Don't think of marryin' till yer feel there's somethin' wrong wi' yer inside, for that's w'ere it ketches yer."
He sighed heavily, and went into the shop, preoccupied and silent for that day.
A FAMILY IN EXILE
Dad Grimes had just finished the story of his nose and the cabman, and the group in the bar of the Angel exploded like a shell. Dicky Freeman's mouth seemed to slip both ways at once till it reached his ears. The barman put down the glass he was wiping and twisted the cloth in his fingers till the tears stood in his eyes. The noise was deafening.
"An' 'e sez, 'Cum on, you an' yer nose, an' I'll fight the pair o' yez,'" spluttered Dicky, with hysterical gasps, and went off again. His chuckles ended in a dead silence. There was no sound but the rapid breathing of the men. The barman flattened a mosquito on his cheek, the smack sounded like a kiss. Dicky Freeman emptied his glass, and then stared through the bottom as if he wondered where the liquor had gone.
"I assure you for the moment I was staggered," said Dad, rounding off his story. "I am aware that my nose has added to the gaiety of nations, but it was the first time that it had been reckoned as a creature distinct from myself with an individuality of its own."
Dad Grimes was a man of fifty, wearing a frock coat that showed a faint green where the light fell on the shoulders, and a tall silk hat that had grown old with the wearer. But for his nose he might have been an undertaker. It was an impossible nose, the shape and size of a potato, and the colour of pickled cabbage—the nose for a clown in the Carnival of Venice. Its marvellous shape was none of Dad's choosing, but the colour was his own, laid on by years of patient drinking as a man colours a favourite pipe. Years ago, when he was a bank manager, his heart had bled at the sight of this ungainly protuberance; but since his downfall, he had led the chorus of laughter that his nose excited, with a degraded pride in his physical defect.
It was Dicky Freeman's turn to shout, and he began another story as Dad sucked the dregs of beer off his moustache. Dad recognized the opening sentence. It was one of the interminable stories out of the Decameron of the bar-room, realistic and obscene, that circulate among drinkers. Dad knew it by heart. He looked at his glass, and remembered that it was his fourth drink. Instantly he thought of the Duchess. With his usual formula "'Scuse me; I'm a married man, y'know," he hurried out of the bar in search of his little present.
It was nine o'clock, and the Duchess would be waiting for him with his tea since six. And always when he stopped at the "Angel" on his way home, he tried to soften her icy looks with a little present. Sometimes it was a bunch of grapes that he crushed to a pulp by rolling on them; sometimes a dozen apples that he spilt out of the bag, and recovered from the gutter with lurching steps. But tonight he happened to stop in front of the fish shop, and a lobster caught his eye. The beer had quickened the poetry in his soul, and the sight of this fortified inhabitant of the deep pleased him like a gorgeous sunset. He shuffled back to the Angel with the lobster under his arm, wrapped in a piece of paper.
One more drink and he would go home. He put the lobster carefully at his elbow and called for drinks. But Dicky was busy with a new trick with a box of matches, and Dad, who was a recognized expert in the idle devices of bar-room loafers—picking up glasses and bottles with a finger and thumb, opening a footrule with successive jerks from the wrist, drinking beer out of a spoon—forgot the lapse of time with the new toy.
Punctually on the stroke of eleven the swinging doors of the Angel were closed and the huge street lamps were extinguished. Dad's eye was glassy, but he remembered the lobster.
"Whersh my lil' present?" he wailed. "Mush 'ave lil' present for the Duchess, y'know. 'Ow could I g'ome, d'ye think?"
He made so much noise that the landlord came to see what was the matter, and then the barman pointed to where he had left the lobster on the counter. He tucked it under his arm and lurched into the street. Now, Dad could run when he couldn't walk. He swayed a little, then suddenly broke into a run whose speed kept him from falling and preserved his balance like a spinning top.
The Duchess, seen through a haze, seemed unusually stern tonight; but with beery pride he produced his little present, the mail-clad delicacy, the armoured crustacean. But Dicky Freeman, offended by Dad's sudden departure in the middle of the story, had taken a mean revenge with the aid of the barman, and, as Dad unfastened the wrapping, there appeared, not the shellfish in its vermilion armour, but something smooth and black—an empty beer-bottle! Dad stared and blinked. A look at the Duchess revealed a face like the Ten Commandments. The situation was too abject for words; he grinned vacantly and licked his lips.
The Grimes family lived in the third house in the terrace, counting from the lamp-post at the corner of Buckland Street, where, running parallel to Cardigan Street, it tumbles over the hill and is lost to sight on its way to Botany Road. It was a long, ugly row of two-storey houses, the model lodging-houses of the crowded suburbs, so much alike that Dad had forced his way, in a state of intoxication, into every house in the terrace at one time or another, under the impression that he lived there.
Ten years ago the Grimes family had come to live in Waterloo, when the Bank of New Guinea had finally dispensed with Dad's services as manager at Billabong. His wife had picked on this obscure suburb of working men to hide her shame, and Dad who could make himself at home on an ant-hill, had cheerfully acquiesced. He had started in business as a house-agent, and the family of three lived from hand to mouth on the profits that escaped the publican. Not that Dad was idle. He was for ever busy; but it was the busyness of a fly. He would call for the rent, and spend half the morning fixing a tap for Mrs Brown, instead of calling in the plumber; he would make a special journey to the other end of Sydney for Mrs Smith, to prove that he had a nose for bargains.
Mrs Grimes forgot with the greatest ease that her neighbours were made of the same clay as herself, but she never forgot that she had married a bank manager, and she never forgave Dad for lowering her pride to the dust. True, she was only the governess at Nullah Nullah station when Dad married her, but her cold aristocratic features had given her the pick of the neighbouring stations, and Dad was reckoned a lucky man when he carried her off. It was her fine, aquiline features and a royal condescension in manner that had won her the title of "Duchess" in this suburb of workmen. She tried to be affable, and her visitors smarted under a sense of patronage. The language of Buckland Street, coloured with oaths, the crude fashions of the slop-shop, and the drunken brawls, jarred on her nerves like the sharpening of a saw. So she lived, secluded as a nun, mocked and derided by her inferiors.
She was born with the love of the finer things that makes poverty tragic. She kept a box full of the tokens of the past—a scarf of Maltese lace, yellow with age, that her grandmother had sent from England; a long chain of fine gold, too frail to be worn; a brooch set with diamonds in a bygone fashion; a ring with her father's seal carved in onyx.
Her daughter Clara was the image of herself in face and manner, and her grudge against her husband hardened every time she thought of her only child's future. Clara was fifteen when they descended to Buckland Street, a pampered child, nursed in luxury. The Duchess belonged to the Church of England, and it had been one of the sights of Billabong to see her move down the aisle on Sunday like a frigate of Nelson's time in full sail; but she had overcome her scruples, and sent Clara to the convent school for finishing lessons in music, dancing, and painting.
We each live and act our parts on a stage built to our proportions, and set in a corner of the larger theatre of the world, and the revolution that displaces princes was not more surprising to them than the catastrophe that dropped the Grimes family in Buckland Street was to Clara and her mother.
Clara had been taught to look on her equals with scorn, and she stared at her inferiors with a mute contempt that roused the devil in their hearts. She had lived in the street ten years, and was a stranger in it. Buckland Street was never empty, but she learned to pick her time for going in and out when the neighbours were at their meals or asleep. She attended a church at an incredible distance from Waterloo, for fear people should learn her unfashionable address. Her few friends lived in other suburbs whose streets she knew by heart, so that they took her for a neighbour.
When she was twenty-two she had become engaged to a clerk in a Government office, who sang in the same choir. A year passed, and the match was suddenly broken off. This was her only serious love-affair, for, though she was handsome in a singular way, her flirtations never came to anything. She belonged to the type of woman who can take her pick of the men, and remains unmarried while her plainer friends are rearing families.
The natural destiny of the Waterloo girls was the factory, or the workshops of anaemic dressmakers, stitching slops at racing speed for the warehouses. A few of the better sort, marked out by their face and figure, found their way to the tea-rooms and restaurants. But the Duchess had encouraged her daughter's belief that she was too fine a lady to soil her hands with work, and she strummed idly on the dilapidated piano while her mother roughened her fine hands with washing and scrubbing. This was in the early days, when Dad, threatened with starvation, had passed the hotels at a run to avoid temptation, for which he made amends by drinking himself blind for a week at a time. Then, after years of genteel poverty, the Duchess had consented to Clara giving lessons on the piano—that last refuge of the shabby-genteel. But pupils were scarce in Waterloo, and Clara's manner chilled the enthusiasm of parents who only paid for lessons on the understanding that their child was to become the wonder of the world for a guinea a quarter.
This morning Clara was busy practising scales, while her mother dusted and swept with feverish haste, for Mr Jones, the owner of the great boot-shop, was bringing his son in the afternoon to arrange for lessons on the piano. The Duchess knew the singular history of Jonah, the boot king, and awaited his arrival with intense curiosity. She had married a failure, and adored success. She decided to treat Jonah as an equal, forgiving his lowly origin with a confused idea that it was the proper thing for millionaires to spring from the gutter, the better to show their contempt for the ordinary advantages of education and family. She had decided to wear her black silk, faded and darned, but by drawing the curtains; she hoped it would pass. From some receptacle unknown to Dad she had fished out a few relics of her former grandeur—an old-fashioned card-tray of solid silver, and the quaint silver tea-set with the tiny silver spoons that her grandmother had sent as a wedding present from England.
Clara had just finished a variation with three tremendous fortissimo chords when she heard the wheels of a cab. This was an event in itself, for cabs in Buckland Street generally meant doctors, hospitals, or sudden death. She ran to the window and saw the hunchback and the boy stepping out. Clara opened the door with an air of surprise, and led them to the parlour where the Duchess was waiting. Years and misfortune had added to her dignity, and Jonah felt his shop and success and money slip away from him, leaving him the street-arab sprung from the gutter before this aristocrat. Ray took to her at once, and climbed into her lap, bringing her heart into her mouth as he rubbed his feet on the famous black silk.
"I have never had the pleasure of meeting you, but I have heard of your romantic career," she said.
"Well, I've got on, there's no denying that," said Jonah. "Some people think it's luck, but I tell 'em it's 'ard graft."
"Exactly," said the Duchess, wondering what he meant by graft.
Jonah looked round the stuffy room. It had an indescribable air of antiquity. Every piece of furniture was of a pattern unknown to him, and there was a musty flavour in the air, for the Duchess, valuing privacy more than fresh air, never opened the windows. On the wall opposite was a large picture in oils, an English scene, with the old rustic bridge and the mill in the distance, painted at Billabong by Clara at an early age. The Duchess caught Jonah's eye.
"That was painted by my daughter ten years ago. Her teachers considered she had a wonderful talent, but misfortune came, and she was unable to follow it up," she said.
Jonah's amazement increased. It was a mere daub, but to his untrained eye it was like the pictures in the Art Gallery, where he had spent a couple of dull afternoons. Over the piano a framed certificate announced that Clara Grimes had passed the junior grade of Trinity College in 1890. And Jonah, who had an eye for business like a Jew, who moved in an atmosphere of profit and loss, suddenly felt ill at ease. His shop, his money, and his success must seem small things to these women who lived in the world of art. His thoughts were brought back to earth by a sudden crash. Ray was sitting on a chair, impatient for the music to begin, and, as he never sat on a chair in the ordinary fashion, he had paralysed the Duchess with a series of gymnastic feats, twining his legs round the chair, sitting on his feet, kneeling on the seat with his feet on the back of the chair, until at last an unlucky move had tilted the chair backwards into a pot-stand. The jar fell with a crash, and Ray laughed. The Duchess uttered a cry of terror.
"Yer young devil, keep still," cried Jonah, angrily. "Yer can pay fer that out of yer pocket-money," he added.
"It was of no value," said the Duchess, with frigid dignity.
"Perhaps Miss Grimes will play something," said Jonah. "Ray's talked of nothing else since daylight this morning."
Clara sat down at the piano and ran her fingers over the keys. She had selected her masterpiece, "The Wind Among the Pines", a tone-picture from a shilling album. Her fingers ran over the keys with amazing rapidity as she beat out the melody with the left hand on the groaning bass, while with the right she executed a series of scales to the top of the keyboard and back. Jonah listened spellbound to the clap-trap arrangement. He had the native ear for music, and he recognized that he was in the presence of a born musician. Ray crept near, and listened with open mouth to this display of musical fireworks. When she had finished, Clara turned to Jonah with a languid smile, the look of the artist conscious of divine gifts.
"My daughter was considered the best player at the convent where she was educated," said the Duchess—"a great talent wasted in this dreadful place."
"I niver 'eard anythin' like that in my natural," said Jonah with enthusiasm. "If yer can teach Ray ter play like that, I'm satisfied."
"You may depend upon her doing her best with your son, but it is not everyone who has Clara's talent," said the Duchess.
"Play some more," said Ray.
This time she selected a grand march, striking the dilapidated piano a series of stunning blows with both hands, filling the air with the noise of battle.
"That must be terrible 'ard," said Jonah.
"It takes it out of one," replied Clara, with the simplicity of an artist.
Then she gave Ray his first lesson, showing him how to sit and place his hands, anxious to impress the parent that she was a good teacher. She declared that Ray was very apt, and would learn rapidly. An hour later, Jonah paid for Ray's first quarter. Clara's terms were a guinea, but Jonah insisted on two guineas on the understanding that Ray would receive special attention.
But in spite of her promises, Ray's progress was slow. As Jonah had no piano, the boy came half an hour early to his lesson to practise, but the twenty minutes' journey from the Silver Shoe occupied the best part of an hour, for Ray, who took to the streets as a duck takes to water, could spend a morning idling before shop windows, following fiddlers on their rounds, watching navvies dig a drain, with a frank, sensuous delight in the sights and sounds of the streets, an inheritance from Jonah's years of vagabondage. Then the street-arabs fell on him, annoyed by his new clothes and immense white collar, and at the end of the third week he reached home after dark with a cut on his forehead and spattered with mud.
The next day Jonah called on Clara to make some other arrangements. His tone was brusque, and Clara noticed with surprise that he was inclined to blame her for Ray's mishap. He seemed to forget everything when it was a question of his son. But all of the Duchess in Clara came to the surface in her annoyance, and she suggested that the lessons had better come to an end. Absorbed in his egotistic feelings, Jonah looked up in surprise, and his anger vanished. He saw that he had offended her, and apologized. Then he remembered what had brought him. His overpowering desire to see this woman had surprised him like the first symptoms of an illness. He had not seen her for three weeks, and in the increased flow of business at the Silver Shoe had half forgotten his amazing emotions as one forgets a powerful dream. Women, he repeated, were worse than drink for taking a man's mind off his work.
In his experience he had observed with some curiosity that drink and women were alike in throwing men off their balance. Drink, fortunately, had no power over him. Beer only fuddled his brain, and he looked on its effect with the curious dislike women look on smoking, blind to its fascinations. As for women, Ada was the only one he had ever been on intimate terms with, and, judging by his sensations, people who talked about love were either fools or liars. True, he had heard Chook talking like a fool about Pinkey, swearing that he couldn't live without her, but thought naturally that he lied. And they had quarrelled so fiercely over the colour of her hair, that for years each looked the other way when they met in the street. But as he looked at Clara again, something vibrated within him, and he was conscious of nothing but a desire to look at her and hear her speak.
"My idea was to buy a piano, an' then yer could give Ray 'is lessons at 'ome," he said.
"That is the only way out of the difficulty," said Clara.
Jonah thought awhile, and made up his mind with a snap.
"Could yer come with me now, an' pick me a piano? I can tell a boot by the smell of the leather, but pianos are out of my line. Clara's manner changed instantly as she thought of the commission she would get from Kramer's, where she had a running account for music."
"I shall be only too pleased," she said.
As they left the house she remembered, with a slight repugnance, Jonah's deformity. She hoped people wouldn't notice them as they went down the street. But to her surprise and relief, Jonah hailed a passing cab.
"Time's money to me," he said, with an apologetic look.
Cabs were a luxury in Buckland Street, and Clara was delighted. She felt suddenly on the level of the rich people who could afford to ride where others trudged afoot. She leaned forward, hoping that the people would notice her.
At Kramer's she took charge of Jonah as a guide takes charge of tourists in a foreign land, anxious to show him that she was at home among this display of expensive luxuries. The floor was packed with pianos, glittering with varnish which reflected the strong light of the street. From another room came a monotonous sound repeated indefinitely, a tuner at work on a piano.
The salesman stepped up, glancing at the hunchback with the quick look of surprise which Clara had noticed in others. They stopped in front of an open piano, and Clara, taking off her gloves, ran her fingers over the keys. The rich, singing notes surprised Jonah, they were quite unlike those he had heard on Clara's piano. Clara played as much as she could remember of "The Wind Among the Pines", and Jonah decided to buy that one.
"'Ow much is that?" he inquired.
"A hundred guineas," replied the shopman, indifferently.
"Garn! Yer kiddin'?" cried Jonah, astounded.
The salesman looked in surprise from Jonah to Clara. She coloured slightly. Jonah saw that she was annoyed. The salesman led them to another instrument, and, with less deference in his tone, remarked that this was the firm's special cheap line at fifty guineas. But Jonah had noticed the change in Clara's manner, and decided against the cheaper instrument instantly. They thought he wasn't good for a hundred quid, did they? Well, he would show them. But, to his surprise, Clara opposed the idea. The Steinbech, she explained, was an instrument for artists. It would be a sacrilege for a beginner to touch it. Jonah persisted, but the shopman agreed with Clara that the celebrated Ropp at eighty guineas would meet his wants. A long discussion followed, and Jonah listened while Clara tried to beat the salesman down below catalogue price for cash. Here was a woman after his own heart, who could drive a bargain with the best of them. At the end of half an hour Jonah filled in a cheque for eighty guineas, and the salesman, reading the signature, bowed them deferentially out of the shop.
Clara walked out of the shop with the air of a millionaire. To be brought in contact even for a moment with this golden stream of sovereigns excited her like wine. All her life she had desired things whose price put them beyond her reach, and she felt suddenly friendly to this man who took what he wanted regardless of cost. She thought pleasantly of the ride home in the cab, but she was pulled up with a jerk when Jonah led the way to the tram. He wore an anxious look, as if he had spent more than he could afford, and yet the money was a mere flea-bite to him. But whenever he spent money, a panic terror seized him—a survival of the street-arab's instinct, who counted his money in pennies instead of pounds.
ADA MAKES A FRIEND
Ada moved uneasily, opened her eyes and stared at the patch of light on the opposite wall. As she lay half awake, she tried to remember the day of the week, and, deceived by the morning silence, decided that it was Sunday. She thought, with lazy pleasure, that a day of idleness lay before her, and felt under the pillow for the tin of lollies that she hid there every night. This movement awakened her completely, and stretching her limbs luxuriously between the warm sheets, she began to suck the lollies, at first slowly revolving the sticky globules on her tongue, and then scrunching them between her firm teeth with the tranquil pleasure of a quadruped.
This was her only pleasure and the only pleasant hour of the day. She looked at Jonah, who lay on his side with his nose buried in the pillow, without repugnance and without liking. That had gone long ago. And as she looked, she remembered that he was to be awakened early and that it was Friday the hardest day of the week, when she must make up her arrears of scrubbing and dusting. Her luxurious mood changed to one of dull irritation, and she looked sullenly at the enormous wardrobe and dressing-table with their speckled mirrors. These had delighted her at first, but in her heart she preferred the battered, makeshift furniture of Cardigan Street. A few licks with the duster and her work was done; but here the least speck of dust showed on the polished surface. Jonah, too, had got into a nasty habit of writing insulting words on the dusty surface with his finger.
Well, let him! There had been endless trouble since he bought the piano. As sure as Miss Grimes came to give Ray his lesson, he declared the place was a pigsty and tried to shame her by taking off his coat and dusting the room himself. Not that she blamed Miss Grimes. She was quite a lady in her way, and had won Ada's heart by telling her that she hated housework. She thought Ada must be a born housekeeper to do without a servant, and Ada didn't trouble to put her right. Anyhow, Jonah should keep a servant. He pretended that their servants in Wyndham Street had made game of her behind her back, and robbed her right and left. What did that matter? she thought—Jonah could afford it.
The real reason was that he wanted no one in the house to see how he treated his wife. She cared little herself whether she had a girl or not, for she had always been accustomed to make work easy by neglecting it. If Jonah wanted a floor that you could eat your dinner off, let him get a servant. He was as mean as dirt. A fat lot she got out of his money. Here she was, shut up in these rooms, little better than a prisoner, for her old pals never dared show their noses in this house, and she could never go out without all the shop-hands knowing it. She never bought a new dress, but Jonah stormed like a madman, declaring that she looked like a servant dressed up. Well, her clothes knocked Cardigan Street endways when she paid her mother a visit, and that was all she wanted.
There was her mother, too. She had never been a real mother to her; you could never tell what she was thinking about. Other people took their troubles to her, but she treated her own daughter like a stranger. And, of course, she sided with Jonah and talked till her jaw ached about her duty to her child and her husband. She would have married Tom Mullins if it hadn't been for the kid, and lived in Cardigan Street like her pals. Her thoughts travelled back to Packard's and the Road. She remembered with intense longing the group at the corner, the drunken rows, and the nightly gossip on the doorstep. That was life for her. She had been like a fish out of water ever since she left it. She thought with singular bitterness of Jonah's attempts to introduce her to the wives of the men he met in business, women who knew not Cardigan Street, and annoyed her by staring at her hands, and talking of their troubles with servants till they made her sick.
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Jonah. He turned in his sleep and pushed the sheet from his face, but a loud scrunch from Ada's jaw woke him completely. He tugged at the pillow and his hand fell on the tin of sticky lollies.
"Bah!" he cried in disgust, and rubbed his fingers on the sheet. "Only kids eat that muck."
"Kid yerself!" cried Ada furiously. "Anybody 'ud think I was eatin' di'monds. Yer'd grudge me the air I breathe, if yer thought it cost money."
"Yah, git up an' light the fire!" replied Jonah.
"Yes, that's me all over. Anybody else 'ud keep a servant; but as long as I'm fool enough ter slave an' drudge, yer save the expense."
"You slave an' drudge?" cried Jonah in scorn—"that was in yer dream. Are yer sure ye're awake?"
"Yes, I am awake, an' let me tell yer that it's the talk of the neighbourhood that yer've got thousands in the bank, an' too mean ter keep a servant."
"That's a lie, an' yer know it!" cried Jonah. "Didn't yez 'ave a girl in Wyndham Street, an' didn't she pinch enough things to set up 'er sister's 'ouse w'en she got married?"
"Yous couldn't prove it," said Ada, sullenly.
"No, I couldn't prove it without showing everybody wot sort of wife I'd got."
"She's a jolly sight too good fer yous, an' well yer know it."
"Yes, that's wot I complain of," said Jonah. "I'd prefer a wife like other men 'ave that can mind their 'ouse, an' not make a 'oly show of themselves w'en they take 'em out."
"A fat lot yer take me out!"
"Take yous out! Yah! Look at yer neck!"
Ada flushed a sullen red. So far the quarrel had been familiar and commonplace, like a conversation about the weather, but her neck, hidden under grubby lace, was Ada's weak point.
"Look at the hump on yer back before yer talk about my neck," she shouted. It was the first time she had ever dared to taunt Jonah with his deformity, and the sound of her words frightened her. He would strike her for certain.
Jonah's face turned white. He raised himself on his elbow and clenched his fist, the hard, knotty fist of the shoemaker swinging at the end of the unnaturally long arms, another mark of his deformity. Jonah had never struck her—contrary to the habit of Cardigan Street—finding that he could hit harder with his tongue; but it was coming now, and she nerved herself for the blow. But Jonah's hand dropped helplessly.
"You low, dirty bitch," he said. "If a man said that to me, I'd strangle him. I took yer out of the factory, I married yer, an' worked day an' night ter git on in the world, an' that's yer thanks. Pity I didn't leave yer in the gutter w'ere yer belonged. I wonder who yer take after? Not after yer mother. She is clean an' wholesome. Any other woman would take an interest in my business, an' be a help to a man; but you're like a millstone round my neck. I thought I'd done with Cardigan Street, an' the silly loafers I grew up with, but s'elp me Gawd, when I married you I married Cardigan Street. I could put up with yer want of brains—you don't want much brains ter git through this world—but it's yer nasty, sulky temper, an' yer bone idleness. I suppose yer git them from yer lovely father. The 'ardest work 'e ever did was to drink beer. It's a wonder yer don't take after 'im in that. I suppose I've got something to be thankful for."
"Yes, I suppose yer'd like me ter drink meself ter death, so as yer could marry again. But yer needn't fear I'll last yous out," cried Ada, recovering her tongue now that she was no longer in fear of a blow.
"Ah well, yer can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear they say," said Jonah. There was an intense weariness in his voice as he turned his back on Ada.
"No more than yer can make a man out of a monkey on a stick," muttered Ada to herself as she got out of bed.
Ada got the breakfast and went about the house in sullen silence. Jonah was used to this. For days together after a quarrel she would sulk without speaking, proud of her stubborn temper that forced others to give in first. And they would sit down to meals and pass one another in the rooms, watching each other's movements to avoid the necessity for speaking. The day had begun badly for Ada, and her anger increased as she brooded over her wrongs. Heavy and sullen by nature, her wrath came to a head hours after the provocation, burning with a steady heat when others were cooling down.
But as she was pegging out some towels in the yard she heard a discreet cough on the other side of the fence. Ada recognized the signal. It was her neighbour, the woman with the hairy lip, housekeeper to Aaron the Jew. It had taken Ada weeks to discover Mrs Herring's physical defect, which she humoured by shaving. Now Ada could tell in an instant whether she was shaven or hairy, for when her lip bristled with hairs for lack of the razor, she peered over the fence so as to hide the lower part of her face. Ada, being used to such things, thought at first she was hiding a black eye. But who was there to give her one? Aaron the pawnbroker, not being her husband, could not take such a liberty.
She had introduced herself over the fence the week of Ada's arrival, giving her the history of the neighbourhood in an unceasing flow of perfect English, her voice never rising above a whisper. For days she would disappear altogether, and then renew the conversation by coughing gently on her side of the fence. This morning her lip was shaven, and she leaned over the fence, full of gossip. But Ada's sullen face caught her eye, and instantly she was full of sympathy, a peculiar look of falsity shining in her light blue eyes.
"Why, what's the matter, dearie?" she inquired.
"Oh, nuthin'," said Ada roughly.
"Ah, you mustn't tell me that! When my poor husband was alive, I've often looked in my glass and seen a face like that. He was my husband, and I suppose I should say no more, but men never brought any happiness to me or any other woman that I know of. The first day I set eyes on you, I said, 'That's an unhappy woman.'"
"Well, yer needn't tell the bloomin' street," growled Ada.
"What you want is love and sympathy, but I suppose your husband is too busy making money to spare the time for that. Ah, many's the time, when my poor dear husband was alive, did I pine for a kind word, and get a black look instead! And a woman can turn to no one in a trouble like that. She feels as if her own door had been slammed in her face. What you want is a cheerful outing with a sympathetic friend, but I hear you're little more than a prisoner in your own house."
"Who told yer that?" cried Ada, flushing angrily.
"A little bird told me," said the woman, with a false grin.
"Well, I'd wring its neck, if I 'eard it," cried Ada. "And as fer bein' a prisoner, I'm goin' out this very afternoon."
"Why, how curious!" cried Mrs Herring. "This is my afternoon out. We could have a pleasant chat, if you have nothing better to do."
Ada hesitated. Jonah always wanted to know where she was going, and had forbidden her to make friends with the neighbours, for in Cardigan Street friendship with neighbours generally ended in a fight or the police court. She had never defied Jonah before, but her anger was burning with a steady flame. She'd show him!
"I'll meet yer at three o'clock opposite the church," she cried, and walked away.
She gave Jonah his meal in silence, and sent Ray off on a message before two o'clock. But Jonah seemed to have nothing to do this afternoon, and sat, contrary to custom, reading the newspaper. Ada watched the clock anxiously, fearing she would be baulked. But, as luck would have it, Jonah was suddenly called into the shop, and the coast was clear. It never took Ada long to dress; her clothes always looked as if they had been thrown on with a pitchfork, and she slipped down the outside stairs into the lane at the back. It was the first time she had gone out without telling Jonah where she was going and when she would be back. And afterwards she could never understand why she crept out in this furtive manner. Mrs Herring was waiting, dressed in dingy black, a striking contrast to Ada's flaring colours. They walked up Regent Street, as Mrs Herring said she wanted to buy a thimble.
But when they reached Redfern Street, Mrs Herring put her hand suddenly to her breast and cried "Oh, dearie, if you could feel how my heart is beating! I really feel as if I am going to faint. I've suffered for years with my heart, and the doctor told me always to take a drop of something soothing, when I had an attack."
They were opposite the "Angel", no longer sinister and forbidding in the broad daylight. The enormous lamps hung white and opaque; the huge mirrors reflected the cheerful light of the afternoon sun. The establishment seemed harmless and respectable, like the grocer's or baker's. But from the swinging doors came a strong odour of alcohol, enveloping the two women in a vinous caress that stirred hidden desires like a strong perfume.
"Do you think we could slip in here without being seen?" said the housekeeper.
"If ye're so bad as all that, we can," replied Ada.
Mrs Herring turned and slipped in at the side door with the dexterity of customers entering a pawnshop, and Ada followed, slightly bewildered. The housekeeper, seeming quite familiar with the turnings, led the way to a small room at the back. Ada looked round with great curiosity. She had never entered a hotel before in this furtive fashion. In Cardigan Street she had always fetched her mother's beer in a jug from the bar. On the walls were two sporting prints of dogs chasing a hare, and a whisky calendar. On the table was a small gong, which Mrs Herring rang. Cassidy himself, the landlord, answered the ring.
"Good dey, good dey to you, Mrs Herring," he said briskly. "The same as usual, I suppose? And what'll your friend take?" he added, grinning at Ada.
"My friend, Mrs Jones," said the housekeeper.
"Glad to meet you," cried Cassidy. "A terrible hill this," he continued, winking at Ada. "We should never see Mrs Herring, if it wasn't for the hill."
"Nothing for me," said Ada, shaking her head.
"Now just a drop to keep me company," begged Mrs Herring.
As Ada continued to shake her head, Cassidy went out, and returned with a bottle of brandy and three glasses on a tray.
"Sure, I forgot to tell you I'm a father again; father number nine, unless I've lost count. Sure your friend will join us in a glass to wet the head of the baby?"
He filled three glasses as he spoke, and winked at Mrs Herring. Ada's brain was in a whirl. She saw that she had been trapped, and that Mrs Herring was a liar and a comedian. She might as well drink now she was here. But Jonah would kill her, if he smelt drink on her. Well, let him! It was little enough fun she got out of life anyhow. She nodded to Cassidy. They clinked the three glasses and drank, the landlord and Mrs Herring at a gulp, Ada with tiny sips as if it were poison.
"Well, I'll leave you to your bit of gossip; I think I hear the child crying," said the landlord, backing out of the door with a grin.
Mrs Herring, who had forgotten her palpitations, filled her glass again, and sipped slowly to keep Ada company. In half an hour Ada finished her second glass. A pleasant glow had spread through her body. The weight was lifted off her mind, and she felt calm and happy. She thought of Jonah with indifference. What did he matter? She listened cheerfully to Mrs Herring's ceaseless whisper, only catching the meaning of one word in ten.
"And many's the time, when my poor dear husband was alive, have I gone out meaning to throw myself into the harbour, and a drop of cordial has changed my mind."
Ada nodded to show that she understood that the late Mr Herring was a brute and a tyrant.
"And then he went with the contingent to South Africa, and the next I heard was that he was dead. And the thought of my poor dear lying with his face turned to the skies would have driven me mad, if the doctor hadn't insisted on my taking a drop of cordial to bear my grief. And when I recovered, I vowed I would never marry again. The men dearie, are all alike. They marry one woman, and want twenty. And if you as much as look at another man, they smash the furniture and threaten to get a divorce. I can see you've found that out."
"Ye're barkin' up the wrong tree," said Ada. "My old man's as 'ard as nails, but 'e don't run after women. 'E's the wrong shape, see."
Ada had never spent such a pleasant time in her life. She had never tasted brandy till that afternoon. Cardigan Street drank beer, and the glasses Ada had drunk at odd times had only made her sleepy without excitement. But this seductive liquid leapt through her veins, bringing a delicious languor and a sense of comfort. Her mind, dull and heavy by habit, ran on wheels. She wanted to interrupt Mrs Herring to make some observations of her own which seemed too good to lose. She felt a silly impulse to ask her whether she was born with a moustache, who taught her to shave, whether she could grow a moustache if she left it alone. She wanted to ask why her palpitations had gone off so quickly, and why she seemed perfectly at home in the "Angel", but her thoughts crowded heel on heel so fast that she had forgotten them before she could speak.
She remembered that a few weeks ago the housekeeper's husband had died of typhoid in the Never Never country, and Mrs Herring had nursed him bravely to the end. She tried to reconcile this with his death this afternoon in the Boer War, and decided that it didn't matter. He must have died somewhere, for no one had ever seen him. She was discovering slowly that this woman was a consummate liar, who lied as the birds sing, but forgot her many inventions, a born liar without a memory. Suddenly Mrs Herring said she must be going, and Ada got up to leave. She lurched as she stood, and pushed her chair over with a clumsy movement.
"I b'lieve I'm drunk," she muttered, with a foolish titter.
Mrs PARTRIDGE LENDS A HAND
Since ten o'clock in the morning the large house, standing in its own grounds, had been invaded by a swarm of dealers, hook-nosed and ferret-eyed, prying into every corner, searching each lot for hidden faults, judging at a glance the actual value of every piece of furniture, their blood stirred with the hereditary joy in chaffering, for an auction is as full of surprises as a battle, the prices rising and falling according to the temper of the crowd. And they watched one another with crafty eyes that had long lost the power to see anything but the faults and defects in the property of others. Those who had commissions from buyers marked the chosen lots in their catalogue with a stumpy pencil.
Mother Jenkins was one of these. She was the auctioneer's scavenger, snapping up the dishonoured, broken remnants disdained by the others, buying for a song the job lots on the way to the rubbish-heap. All was fish that came to her net, for her second-hand shop in Bathurst Street had taught her to despise nothing that had an ounce of wear left in it. Her bids never ran beyond a few shillings, but to-day she had an important commission, twenty pounds to lay out on the furnishing of three rooms for a married couple. These were her windfalls. Sometimes she got a wedding order, and furnished the house out of her amazing collection, supplemented by her bargains at the next auction sale. This had brought her to the sale early, for the young couple, deciding to furnish in style, had exhausted her resources by demanding wardrobes, dressing-tables, and washstands with marble tops.
The young woman with the mop of red hair followed on her heels, amazed by the luxury of the interior harmonized in a scheme of colour. Her day-dreams, coloured by the descriptions of ducal mansions in penny novelettes, came suddenly true. And she lingered before carved cabinets, strange vases like frozen rainbows, and Oriental tapestry with the instinctive delight in luxury planted in women.
But Mother Jenkins had no time to spare. She had found the very thing for Pinkey, and led the way to the servants' quarters, hidden at the back of the house. Pinkey's visions of grandeur fled at the sight. The rooms were small, and a sour smell hung on the air, the peculiar odour of servants' rooms where ventilation is unknown. Pinkey recognized the curtains and drapes at a glance, the pick of a suburban rag-shop. One room was as bare as a prison cell, merely a place to sleep in, but the next was royally furnished with a wardrobe, toilet-table, and washstand, solid and old-fashioned like the generation it had outlived. By its look it had descended in regular stages from the bedrooms of the family to the casual guests' room and then to the servants. But Pinkey had seen nothing so beautiful at home, and her heart swelled at the thought of possessing such genteel furniture. Mother Jenkins explained that with a lick of furniture polish they would look as good as new, but Pinkey's only fear was that they would be too expensive. Then the dealer reckoned that she could get the lot for seven pounds. The only rivals she feared were women who, if they set their heart on anything, sometimes forced the price up till you could buy it for less in the shop.
Meanwhile the sale had begun, and in the distance Pinkey could hear the monotonous voice of the auctioneer forcing the bids up till he reached the limit. From time to time there was a roar of laughter as he cracked a joke over the heads of his customers. The buyers stood wedged like sardines in the room, craning their necks to see each lot as it was put up. As the crowd moved from room to room, Pinkey's excitement increased. Mother Jenkins had gone to the kitchen, where she always found a few pickings. She came back and found Pinkey's husband, the young man with the ugly face and dancing eyes, who was waiting outside with the cart, watching while Pinkey polished a corner of the wardrobe to show him its quality. She hurried them down to the kitchen to examine the linoleum on the floor, as it would fit their dining-room, if the worn parts were cut out.
The crowd moved like a mob of sheep into the servants rooms, standing in each other's way, tired of the strain on their attention. Mother Jenkins whispered that things would go cheap because the auctioneer was in a hurry to get to his lunch. Pinkey stood behind her, ready to poke her in the ribs if she wished her to keep on bidding.
"Now, gentlemen," said the auctioneer, "lot one hundred and seventy-five. Duchesse wardrobe, dressing-table with bevelled mirrors, and marble-top washstand, specially imported from England by Mrs Harper. What am I offered?"
"Specially imported from England?" cried a dealer. "Yes, came out in the first fleet."
"What's that?" cried the auctioneer. "Thank you for telling me, Mr Isaacs." And he began again: "What offer for this solid ash bedroom suite, imported in the first fleet, guaranteed by Mr Isaacs, who was in leg-irons and saw it."
There was a roar of laughter at the dealer's discomfiture.
"Now, Mr Isaacs, how much are you going to bid, for old times' sake?" cried the auctioneer, pushing his advantage. But Isaacs had turned sulky.
"A pound," said Mother Jenkins.
"No, mother, you don't mean it," cried the auctioneer, grinning.
"That'll leave you nothing to pay your tram fare home." But he went on: "I'm offered a pound for this solid ash bedroom suite that cost thirty guineas in London."
The bids crawled slowly up to six pounds.
"It's against you, mother," cried the auctioneer; "don't let a few shillings stand in the way of your getting married. I knew the men couldn't leave you alone with that face. Thank you, six-five."
The old hag showed her toothless gums in a hideous smile, the woman that was left in the dried shell still tickled at the reference to marriage. But her look changed to one of intense pain as Pinkey, trembling with excitement, nudged her violently in the ribs as a signal to keep on bidding. However, there was no real opposition, and the bidding stopped suddenly at seven pounds, forced up to that price by a friend of Mother Jenkins's to increase her commission.
In the kitchen the auctioneer lost his temper, and knocked down to Mother Jenkins enough pots and pans to last Pinkey a lifetime for ten shillings before the others could get in a bid. Chook, who had borrowed Jack Ryan's cart for the day, drove off with his load in triumph, while Pinkey went with Mother Jenkins to her shop in Bathurst Street to sort out her curtains, bed-linen, and crockery from that extraordinary collection. Twenty pounds would pay for the lot, and leave a few shillings over.
One Saturday morning, two years ago, Pinkey had set out for the factory as usual, and had come home to dinner with her wages in her handkerchief and a wedding ring on her finger. Mrs Partridge gave up novelettes for a week when she learned that her stepdaughter had married Chook that morning at the registry office. Partridge had taken the news with a look that had frightened the women; the only sign of emotion that he had given was to turn his back without a word on his favourite daughter. Since then they had lived with Chook's mother, as he had no money to furnish; but last month Chook had joined a syndicate of three to buy a five-shilling sweep ticket, which, to their amazement, drew a hundred-pound prize. With Chook's share they had decided to take Jack Ryan's shop in Pitt Street just round the corner from Cardigan Street. It was a cottage that had been turned into a shop by adding a false front to it. The rent, fifteen shillings a week, frightened Chook, but he reserved ten pounds to stock it with vegetables, and buy the fittings from Jack Ryan, who had tried to conduct his business from the bar of the nearest hotel, and failed. If the money had run to Jack's horse and cart, their fortunes would have been made.
Mrs Partridge's wanderings had ended with the marriage of Pinkey. Only once had she contrived to move, and the result had frightened her, for William had mumbled about his lost time in his sleep. And she had lived in Botany Street for two years, a stone's throw from the new shop in Pitt Street. She remembered that Chook had helped to move her furniture in at their first meeting, and, not liking to be out-done in generosity, resolved to slip round after tea and lend a hand. She knew, if any woman did, the trouble of moving furniture and setting it straight. She prepared for her labours by putting on her black silk blouse and her best skirt, and as William was anchored by the fireside with the newspaper, she decided to wear her new hat with the ostrich feathers, twenty years too young for her face, which she had worn for three months on the quiet out of regard for William's feelings, for it had cost the best part of his week's wages, squeezed out in shillings and sixpences, the price of imaginary pounds of tea, butter, and groceries.
She found Chook with his mouth full of nails, hanging pictures at five shillings the pair; Pinkey, dishevelled, sweating in beads, covered with dust, her sleeves tucked up to the elbows, ordering Chook to raise or lower the picture half an inch to increase the effect. It was some time before Mrs Partridge could find a comfortable chair where she ran no risk of soiling her best clothes, but when she did she smiled graciously on them, noting with intense satisfaction Pinkey's stare of amazement at the black hat, twenty years too young for her face.
"I thought I'd come round and give you a hand," she explained.
"Thanks, Missis," said Chook, thankful for even a little assistance.
Pinkey stared again at the hat, and Mrs Partridge felt a momentary dissatisfaction with life in possessing such a hat without the right to wear it in public. In half an hour Chook and Pinkey had altered the position of everything in the room under the direction of Mrs Partridge, who sat in her chair like a spectator at the play. At last they sat down exhausted and Mrs Partridge, who felt as fresh as paint, gave them her opinion on matrimony and the cares of housekeeping. But Pinkey, unable to sit in idleness among this beautiful furniture, got to work with her duster.
"Ah," said Mrs Partridge, "it's natural to take a pride in the bit of furniture you start with, but when you've been through the mill like I 'ave, you'll think more of your own comfort. There was yer Aunt Maria wore 'er fingers to the bone polishing 'er furniture on the time-payment plan, an' then lost it all through the death of 'er 'usband, an' the furniture man thanked 'er kindly fer keepin' it in such beautiful order when 'e took it away. An' Mrs Ross starved 'erself to buy chairs an' sofas, which she needed, in my opinion, being too weak to walk about; an' then 'er 'usband dropped a match, an' they 'ad the best fire ever seen in the street, an' 'ave lived in lodgings ever since."
"That's all right," said Chook uneasily, "but this ain't time-payment furniture, an' I ain't goin' ter sling matches about like some people sling advice."
"That's very true," said Mrs Partridge, warming up to her subject, "but there's no knowin' 'ow careless yer may git when yer stomach's undermined with bad cookin'."
"Wot rot ye're talkin'!" cried Chook. "Mother taught her to cook a fair treat these two years. She niver got anythin' to practise on in your 'ouse."
"That's true," said Mrs Partridge, placidly. "I was never one to poison meself with me own cooking. When I was a girl I used ter buy a penn'orth of everythin', peas-pudden, saveloys, pies, brawn, trotters, Fritz, an' German sausage. Give me the 'am shop, an' then I know who ter blame, if anythin' goes wrong with me stomach."
Chook gave his opinion of cookshops.
"Ah well," said Mrs Partridge, "what the eye doesn't see the 'eart doesn't grieve over, as the sayin' is! An' that reminds me. Elizabeth suffers from 'er 'eart, an' that means a doctor's bill which I could never understand the prices they charge, knowin' plenty as got better before the doctor could cure 'em an' so takin' the bread out of 'is mouth, as the sayin' is. Though I make it my business to be very smooth with them as might put somethin' nasty in the medsin an' so carry you off, an' none the wiser, as the sayin' is."
"'Ere, this ain't a funeral," cried Chook, in disgust.
"An' thankful you ought ter be that it ain't," cried Mrs Partridge, "after what I read in the paper only last week about people bein' buried alive oftener than dead, an' fair gave me the creeps thinkin' I could see the people scratchin' their way out of the coffin, an' sittin' on a tombstone with nuthin' but a sheet round 'em. It would cure anybody of wantin' ter die. I've told William to stick pins in me when my time comes."
"Anybody could tell w'en you're dead," said Chook.
"Why, 'ow?" cried Mrs Partridge, eagerly.
"Yer'll stop gassin' about yerself," cried Chook, roughly.
Mrs Partridge started to smile, and then stopped. It dawned slowly on her mind that she was insulted, and she rose to her feet.
"Thank's fer yer nasty remark," she cried. "That's all the thanks I get fer comin' to give a 'elpin' 'and. But I know when I'm not wanted."
"Yer don't," said Pinkey, "or yer'd 'ave gone 'ours ago."
Mrs Partridge turned to go, the picture of offended dignity, when her eyes fell on an apparition in the doorway, and she quailed. It was William, left safely by the fireside for the night, and now glowering, not at her as she swiftly divined, but at the hat with the drooping feathers, twenty years too young for her face. For the first time in her life she lost her nerve, but with wonderful presence of mind, she smiled in her agony.
"Why, there you are, William," she cried. "Yer gave me quite a start. I was just tryin' on Elizabeth's new 'at, to see if it suited me."
As she spoke, she tore out the hatpins with feverish dexterity, and thrust the hat into Pinkey's astonished hand.
"Take it, yer little fool," she whispered, savagely.
Her face looked suddenly old and withered under the scanty grey hair.
"Good evenin', Mr Partridge—glad ter see yer," cried Chook, advancing with outstretched hand; but the old man ignored him. His eyes travelled slowly round the room, taking in every detail of the humble furniture. The others stood silent with a little fear in their hearts at the sight of this old man with the face of a sleep-walker; but suddenly Pinkey walked up to him, and, reaching on tiptoe, kissed him, her face pink with emotion. It was the first time since her unforgiven marriage. And she hung on him like a child, her wonderful hair, the colour of a new penny, heightening the bloodless pallor of the old man's face. The stolid grey eyes turned misty, and, in silence, he slowly patted his daughter's cheek.
Chook kept his distance, feeling that he was not wanted. Mrs Partridge, who had recovered her nerve, came as near cursing as her placid, selfish nature would permit. She could have bitten her tongue for spite. She thought of a thousand ways of explaining away the hat. She should have said that a friend had lent it to her; that she had bought it for half price at a sale. She had meant to show it to William some night after his beer with a plausible story, but his sudden appearance had upset her apple-cart, and the lie had slipped out unawares. She wasn't afraid of William, she scorned him in her heart. And now that little devil must keep it, for if she went back on her word it would put William on the track of other little luxuries that she squeezed out of his wages unknown to him—luxuries whose chief charm lay in their secrecy. She felt ready to weep with vexation. Instead she cried gaily:
"I've been tellin' them what a nice little 'ome they've got together. I've seen plenty would be glad to start on less."
Partridge seemed not to hear his wife's remark. His mind dulled by shock and misfortune, was slowly revolving forgotten scenes. He saw with incredible sharpness of view his first home, with its few sticks of second-hand furniture like Pinkey's, and Pinkey's mother, the dead image of her daughter. That was where he belonged—to the old time, when he was young and proud of himself, able to drink his glass and sing a song with the best of them. Someone pulled him gently. He looked round, wondering what he was doing there. But Pinkey pulled him across the room to Chook, who was standing like a fool. He looked Chook up and down as if he were a piece of furniture, and then, without a word, held out his hand. The reconciliation was complete.
"Well, we must be goin', William," said Mrs Partridge, wondering how she was to get home without a hat; but Partridge followed Chook into the kitchen, where a candle was burning. Chook held the candle in his hand to show the little dresser with the cups and saucers and plates arranged in mathematical precision. The pots and pans were already hung on hooks. They had all seen service, and in Chook's eyes seemed more at home than the brand-new things that hung in the shops. As Chook looked round with pride, he became aware that Partridge was pushing something into his hand. It seemed like a wad of dirty paper, and Chook held it to the candle in surprise. He unrolled it with his fingers, and recognized banknotes.
"'Ere, I don't want yer money," cried Chook, offering the wad of paper to the old man; but he pushed it back into Chook's hand with an imploring look.
"D'ye mean it fer Liz?" asked Chook.
Partridge nodded; his eyes were full of tears.
"Yous are a white man, an' I always knew it. Yer niver 'ad no cause ter go crook on me, but I ain't complainin'," cried Chook hoarsely.
The tears were running a zigzag course over the grey stubble of Partridge's cheeks.
"Yer'll be satisfied if I think as much of 'er as yous did of her mother?" asked Chook, feeling a lump in his throat.
Partridge nodded, swallowing as if he were choking.
"She's my wife, an' the best pal I ever 'ad, an' a man can't say more than that," cried Chook proudly, but his eyes were full of tears.
Without a word the grey-haired old man shook his head and hurried to the front door, where Mrs Partridge was waiting impatiently. She had forced the hat on Pinkey in a speech full of bitterness, and had refused the loan of a hat to see her home. To explain her bare head, she had prepared a little speech about running down without a hat because of the fine night, but Partridge was too agitated to notice what she wore.
When they stepped inside, the first thing that met Chook's eyes was the hat with the wonderful feathers lying on a chair where Pinkey had disdainfully thrown it. He stood and laughed till his ribs ached as he thought of the figure cut by Mrs Partridge. He looked round for Pinkey to join in, and was amazed to find her in tears.
"W'y, wot's the matter, Liz?" he cried, serious in a moment.
"Nuthin'," said Pinkey, drying her eyes "I was cryin' because I'm glad father made it up with you. 'E's bin a good father to me. W'en Lil an' me was kids, 'e used ter take us out every Saturday afternoon, and buy us lollies," and the tears flowed again.
Chook wisely decided to say nothing about the banknotes till her nerves were steadier.
"'Ere, cum an' try on yer new 'at," he cried, to divert her thoughts.
"Me?" cried Pinkey, blazing. "Do yer think I'd put anythin' on my 'ead belongin' to 'er?"
"All right," said Chook, with regret, "I'll give it to mother fer one of the kids."
"Yer can burn it, if yer like," cried Pinkey.
Chook held up the hat, and examined it with interest. It was quite unlike any he had seen before.
"See 'ow it look on yer," he coaxed.
"Not me," said Pinkey, glaring at the hat as if it were Mrs Partridge.
But Chook had made up his mind, and after a short scuffle, he dragged Pinkey before the glass with the hat on her head.
"That's back ter front, yer silly," she said, suddenly quiet.
A minute later she was staring into the glass, silent and absorbed, forgetful of Mrs Partridge, Chook, and her father. The hat was a dream. The black trimmings and drooping feathers set off the ivory pallor of her face and made the wonderful hair gleam like threads of precious metal. She turned her head to judge it at very angle, surprised at her own beauty. Presently she lifted it off her head as tenderly as if it were a crown, with the reverence of women for the things that increase their beauty. She put it down as if it were made of glass.
"I'll git Miss Jones to alter the bow, an' put the feathers farther back," she said, like one in a dream.
"I thought yer wouldn't wear it at any price," said Chook, delighted, but puzzled.
"Sometimes you talk like a man that's bin drinkin'," said Pinkey, with the faintest possible smile.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
It was past ten o'clock, and one by one, with a sudden, swift collapse, each shop in Botany Road extinguished its lights, leaving a blank gap in the shining row of glass windows. Mrs Yabsley turned into Cardigan Street and, taking a firmer grip of her parcels, mounted the hill slowly on account of her breath. She still continued to shop at the last minute, in a panic, as her mother had done before her, proud of her habit of being the last customer at the butcher's and the grocer's. She looked up at the sky and, being anxious for the morrow, tried to forecast the weather. A sharp wind was blowing, and the stars winked cheerfully in a windswept sky. There was every promise of a fine day, but to make sure, she tried the corn on her left foot. The corn gave no sign, and she thought with satisfaction of her new companion, Miss Perkins.