Part 3 out of 8
Esther was fast asleep next morning when Mrs. Saunders came into the
parlour. Mrs. Saunders stood looking at her, and Esther turned suddenly on
the sofa and said----
"What time is it, mother?"
"It's gone six; but don't you get up. You're your own mistress whilst
you're here; you pays for what you 'as."
"I can't afford them lazy habits. There's plenty of work here, and I must
help you with some of it."
"Plenty of work here, that's right enough. But why should you bother, and
you nearly seven months gone? I daresay you feels that 'eavy that you
never care to get out of your chair. But they says that them who works up
to the last 'as the easiest time in the end. Not that I've found it so."
The conversation paused. Esther threw her legs over the side of the sofa,
and still wrapped in the blanket, sat looking at her mother.
"You can't be over-comfortable on that bit of sofa," said Mrs. Saunders.
"Lor, I can manage right enough, if that was all."
"You is that cast down, Esther; you mustn't give way. Things sometimes
turns out better than one expects."
"You never found they did, mother."
"Perhaps I didn't, but that says nothing for others. We must bear up as
best we can."
One word led to another, and very soon Esther was telling her mother the
whole tale of her misfortune--all about William, the sweepstakes, the ball
at the Shoreham Gardens, the walks about the farm and hillside.
"Service is no place for a girl who wants to live as we used to live when
father was alive--no service that I've seen. I see that plain enough.
Mistress was one of the Brethren like ourselves, and she had to put up
with betting and drinking and dancing, and never a thought of the Lord.
There was no standing out against it. They call you Creeping Jesus if you
say your prayers, and you can't say them with a girl laughing or singing
behind your back, so you think you'll say them to yourself in bed, but
sleep comes sooner than you expect, and so you slips out of the habit.
Then the drinking. We was brought up teetotal, but they're always pressing
it upon you, and to please him I said I would drink the 'orse's 'ealth.
That's how it began.... You don't know what it is, mother; you only knew
God-fearing men until you married him. We aren't all good like you,
mother. But I thought no harm, indeed I didn't."
"A girl can't know what a man is thinking of, and we takes the worst for
"I don't say that I was altogether blameless but--"
"You didn't know he was that bad."
"I knew he was like other men. But he told me--he promised me he'd marry
Mrs. Saunders did not answer, and Esther said, "You don't believe I'm
speaking the truth."
"Yes, I do, dearie. I was only thinking. You're my daughter; no mother had
a better daughter. There never was a better girl in this world."
"I was telling you, mother--"
"But I don't want no telling that my Esther ain't a bad girl."
Mrs. Saunders sat nodding her head, a sweet, uncritical mother; and Esther
understood how unselfishly her mother loved her, and how simply she
thought of how she might help her in her trouble. Neither spoke, and
Esther continued dressing.
"You 'aven't told me what you think of your room. It looks pretty, don't
you think? I keeps it as nice as I can. Jenny hung up them pictures. They
livens it up a bit," she said, pointing to the coloured supplements, from
the illustrated papers, on the wall. "The china shepherd and shepherdess,
you know; they was at Barnstaple."
When Esther was dressed, she and Mrs. Saunders knelt down and said a
prayer together. Then Esther said she would make up her room, and when
that was done she insisted on helping her mother with the housework.
In the afternoon she sat with her sisters, helping them with their dogs,
folding the paper into the moulds, pasting it down, or cutting the skins
into the requisite sizes. About five, when the children had had their tea,
she and her mother went for a short walk. Very often they strolled through
Victoria Station, amused by the bustle of the traffic, or maybe they
wandered down the Buckingham Palace Road, attracted by the shops. And
there was a sad pleasure in these walks. The elder woman had borne years
of exceeding trouble, and felt her strength failing under her burdens,
which instead of lightening were increasing; the younger woman was full of
nervous apprehension for the future and grief for the past. But they loved
each other deeply. Esther threw herself in the way to protect her mother,
whether at a dangerous crossing or from the heedlessness of the crowd at a
corner, and often a passer-by turned his head and looked after them,
attracted by the solicitude which the younger woman showed for the elder.
In those walks very little was said. They walked in silence, slipping now
and then into occasional speech, and here and there a casual allusion or a
broken sentence would indicate what was passing in their minds.
One day some flannel and shirts in a window caught Mrs. Saunder's eye, and
"It is time, Esther, you thought about your baby clothes. One must be
prepared; one never knows if one will go one's full time."
The words came upon Esther with something of a shock, helping her to
realise the imminence of her trouble.
"You must have something by you, dear; one never knows how it is going to
turn out; even I who have been through it do feel that nervous. I looks
round the kitchen when I'm taken with the pains, and I says, 'I may never
see this room again.'"
The words were said in an undertone to Esther, and the shop-woman turned
to get down the ready-made things which Mrs. Saunders had asked to see.
"Here," said the shopwoman, "is the gown, longcloth, one-and-sixpence;
here is the flannel, one-and-sixpence; and here is the little shirt,
"You must have these to go on with, dear, and if the baby lives you'll
want another set."
"Oh, mother, of course he'll live; why shouldn't he?"
Even the shopwoman smiled, and Mrs. Saunders, addressing the shopwoman,
"Them that knows nothing about it is allus full of 'ope."
The shopwoman raised her eyes, sighed, and inquired sympathetically if
this was the young lady's first confinement.
Mrs. Saunders nodded and sighed, and then the shopwoman asked Mrs.
Saunders if she required any baby clothes. Mrs. Saunders said she had all
she required. The parcel was made up, and they were preparing to leave,
when Esther said--
"I may as well buy the material and make another set--it will give me
something to do in the afternoons. I think I should like to make them."
We have some first-rate longcloth at sixpence-half-penny a yard."
"You might take three yards, Esther; if anything should happen to yer
bairn it will always come in useful. And you had better take three yards
of flannel. How much is yer flannel?"
"We have some excellent flannel," said the woman, lifting down a long,
heavy package in dull yellow paper; "this is ten-pence a yard. You will
want a finer longcloth for the little shirts."
And every afternoon Esther sat in the parlour by the window, seeing, when
she raised her eyes from the sewing, the low brick street full of
children, and hearing the working women calling from the open doors or
windows; and as she worked at the baby clothes, never perhaps to be worn,
her heart sank at the long prospect that awaited her, the end of which she
could not see, for it seemed to reach to the very end of her life. In
these hours she realised in some measure the duties that life held in
store, and it seemed to her that they exceeded her strength. Never would
she be able to bring him up--he would have no one to look to but her. She
never imagined other than that her child would be a boy. The task was
clearly more than she could perform, and in despair she thought it would
be better for it to die. What would happen if she remained out of a
situation? Her father would not have her at home, that she knew well
enough. What should she do, and the life of another depending on her? She
would never see William again--that was certain. He had married a lady,
and, were they to meet, he would not look at her. Her temper grew hot, and
the memory of the injustice of which she had been a victim pressed upon
her. But when vain anger passed away she thought of her baby, anticipating
the joy she would experience when he held out tiny hands to her, and that,
too, which she would feel when he laid an innocent cheek to hers; and her
dream persisting, she saw him learning a trade, going to work in the
morning and coming back to her in the evening, proud in the accomplishment
of something done, of good money honestly earned.
She thought a great deal, too, of her poor mother, who was looking
strangely weak and poorly, and whose condition was rendered worse by her
nervous fears that she would not get through this confinement. For the
doctor had told Mrs. Saunders that the next time it might go hard with
her; and in this house, her husband growing more reckless and drunken, it
was altogether a bad look-out, and she might die for want of a little
nourishment or a little care. Unfortunately they would both be down at the
same time, and it was almost impossible that Esther should be well in time
to look after her mother. That brute! It was wrong to think of her father
so, but he seemed to be without mercy for any of them. He had come in
yesterday half-boozed, having kept back part of his money--he had come in
tramping and hiccuping.
"Now, then, old girl, out with it! I must have a few halfpence; my chaps
is waiting for me, and I can't be looking down their mouths with nothing
in my pockets."
"I only have a few halfpence to get the children a bit of dinner; if I
give them to you they'll have nothing to eat."
"Oh, the children can eat anything; I want beer. If yer 'aven't money,
Mrs. Saunders said that if he had any spare clothes she would take them
round the corner. He only answered--
"Well, if I 'aven't a spare waistcoat left just take some of yer own
things. I tell yer I want beer, and I mean to have some."
Then, with his fist raised, he came at his poor wife, ordering her to take
one of the sheets from the bed and "make money," and would have struck her
if Esther had not come between them and, with her hand in her pocket,
said, "Be quiet, father; I'll give you the money you want."
She had done the same before, and, if needs be, she would do so again. She
could not see her mother struck, perhaps killed by that brute; her first
duty was to save her mother, but these constant demands on her little
savings filled her with terror. She would want every penny; the ten
shillings he had already had from her might be the very sum required to
put her on her feet again, and send her in search of a situation where she
would be able to earn money for the boy. But if this extortion continued
she did not know what she would do, and that night she prayed that God
might not delay the birth of her child.
"I wish, mother, you was going to the hospital with me; it would save a
lot of expense and you'd be better cared for."
"I'd like to be with you, dearie, but I can't leave my 'ome, all these
young children about and no one to give an order. I must stop where I am.
But I've been intending to tell you--it is time that you was thinking
about yer letter."
"What letter, mother?"
"They don't take you without a letter from one of the subscribers. If I
was you, now that the weather is fine and you have strength for the walk,
I'd go up to Queen Charlotte's. It is up the Edgware Road way, I think.
What do you think about to-morrow?"
"That makes no matter, them horspitals is open."
"I'll go to-morrow when we have washed up."
On Friday Esther had had to give her father more money for drink. She gave
him two shillings, and that made a sovereign that he had had from her. On
Saturday night he had been brought home helplessly drunk long after
midnight, and next morning one of the girls had to fetch him a drop of
something to pull him together. He had lain in bed until dinner-time,
swearing he would brain anyone who made the least noise. Even the Sunday
dinner, a nice beef-steak pudding, hardly tempted him, and he left the
table saying that if he could find Tom Carter they would take a penny boat
and go for a blow on the river. The whole family waited for his departure.
But he lingered, talked inconsequently, and several times Mrs. Saunders
and the children gave up hope. Esther sat without a word. He called her a
sulky brute, and, snatching up his hat, left the house. The moment he was
gone the children began to chatter like birds. Esther put on her hat and
"I'm going, mother."
"Well, take care of yourself. Good luck to you."
Esther smiled sadly. But the beautiful weather melted on her lips, her
lungs swelled with the warm air, and she noticed the sparrow that flew
across the cab rank, and saw the black dot pass down a mews and disappear
under the eaves. It was a warm day in the middle of April, a mist of green
had begun in the branches of the elms of the Green Park; and in Park Lane,
in all the balconies and gardens, wherever nature could find roothold, a
spray of gentle green met the eye. There was music, too, in the air, the
sound of fifes and drums, and all along the roadway as far as she could
see the rapid movement of assembling crowds. A procession with banners was
turning the corner of the Edgware Road, and the policeman had stopped the
traffic to allow it to pass. The principal banner blew out blue and gold
in the wind, and the men that bore the poles walked with strained backs
under the weight; the music changed, opinions about the objects of the
demonstration were exchanged, and it was some time before Esther could
gain the policeman's attention. At last the conductor rang his bell, the
omnibus started, and gathering courage she asked the way. It seemed to her
that every one was noticing her, and fearing to be overheard she spoke so
low that the policeman understood her to say Charlotte Street. At that
moment an omnibus drew up close beside them.
"Charlotte Street, Charlotte Street," said the policeman, "there's
Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury." Before Esther could answer he had turned to
the conductor. "You don't know any Charlotte Street about here, do you?"
"No, I don't. But can't yer see that it ain't no Charlotte Street she
wants, but Queen Charlotte's Hospital? And ye'd better lose no time in
A roar of coarse laughter greeted this pleasantry, and burning with shame
she hurried down the Edgware Road. But she had not gone far before she had
to ask again, and she scanned the passers-by seeking some respectable
woman, or in default an innocent child.
She came at last to an ugly desert place. There was the hospital, square,
forbidding; and opposite a tall, lean building with long grey columns.
Esther rang, and the great door, some fifteen feet high, was opened by a
"I want to see the secretary."
"Will you come this way?"
She was shown into a waiting-room, and while waiting she looked at the
religious prints on the walls. A lad of fifteen or sixteen came in. He
"You want to see the secretary?"
"But I'm afraid you can't see him; he's out."
"I have come a long way; is there no one else I can see?"
"Yes, you can see me--I'm his clerk. Have you come to be confined?"
Esther answered that she had.
"But," said the boy, "you are not in labour; we never take anyone in
"I do not expect to be confined for another month. I came to make
"You've got a letter?"
"Then you must get a letter from one of the subscribers."
"But I do not know any."
"You can have a book of their names and addresses."
"But I know no one."
"You needn't know them. You can go and call. Take those that live
nearest--that's the way it is done."
"Then will you give me the book?"
"I'll go and get one."
The boy returned a moment after with a small book, for which he demanded a
shilling. Since she had come to London her hand had never been out of her
pocket. She had her money with her; she did not dare leave it at home on
account of her father. The clerk looked out the addresses for her and she
tried to remember them--two were in Cumberland Place, another was in
Bryanstone Square. In Cumberland Place she was received by an elderly lady
who said she did not wish to judge anyone, but it was her invariable
practice to give letters only to married women. There was a delicate smell
of perfume in the room; the lady stirred the fire and lay back in her
armchair. Once or twice Esther tried to withdraw, but the lady, although
unswervingly faithful to her principles, seemed not indifferent to
Esther's story, and asked her many questions.
"I don't see what interest all that can be to you, as you ain't going to
give me a letter," Esther answered.
The next house she called at the lady was not at home, but she was
expected back presently, and the maid servant asked her to take a seat in
the hall. But when Esther refused information about her troubles she was
called a stuck-up thing who deserved all she got, and was told there was
no use her waiting. At the next place she was received by a footman who
insisted on her communicating her business to him. Then he said he would
see if his master was in. He wasn't in; he must have just gone out. The
best time to find him was before half-past ten in the morning.
"He'll be sure to do all he can for you--he always do for the good-looking
ones. How did it all happen?"
"What business is that of yours? I don't ask your business."
"Well, you needn't turn that rusty."
At that moment the master entered. He asked Esther to come into his study.
He was a tall, youngish-looking man of three or four-and-thirty, with
bright eyes and hair, and there was in his voice and manner a kindness
that impressed Esther. She wished, however, that she had seen his mother
instead of him, for she was more than ever ashamed of her condition. He
seemed genuinely sorry for her, and regretted that he had given all his
tickets away. Then a thought struck him, and he wrote a letter to one of
his friends, a banker in Lincoln's Inn Fields. This gentleman, he said,
was a large subscriber to the hospital, and would certainly give her the
letter she required. He hoped that Esther would get through her trouble
The visit brought a little comfort into the girl's heart; and thinking of
his kind eyes she walked slowly, inquiring out her way until she got back
to the Marble Arch, and stood looking down the long Bayswater Road. The
lamps were beginning in the light, and the tall houses towered above the
sunset. Esther watched the spectral city, and some sensation of the poetry
of the hour must have stolen into her heart, for she turned into the Park,
choosing to walk there. Upon its dim green grey the scattered crowds were
like strips of black tape. Here and there by the railings the tape had
been wound up in a black ball, and the peg was some democratic orator,
promising poor human nature unconditional deliverance from evil. Further
on were heard sounds from a harmonium, and hymns were being sung, and in
each doubting face there was something of the perplexing, haunting look
which the city wore.
A chill wind was blowing. Winter had returned with the night, but the
instinct of spring continued in the branches. The deep, sweet scent of the
hyacinth floated along the railings, and the lovers that sat with their
arms about each other on every seat were of Esther's own class. She would
have liked to have called them round her and told them her miserable
story, so that they might profit by her experience.
No more than three weeks now remained between her and the dreaded day. She
had hoped to spend them with her mother, who was timorous and desponding,
and stood in need of consolation. But this was not to be; her father's
drunkenness continued, and daily he became more extortionate in his
demands for money. Esther had not six pounds left, and she felt that she
must leave. It had come to this, that she doubted if she were to stay on
that the clothes on her back might not be taken from her. Mrs. Saunders
was of the same opinion, and she urged Esther to go. But scruples
"I can't bring myself to leave you, mother; something tells me I should
stay with you. It is dreadful to be parted from you. I wish you was coming
to the hospital; you'd be far safer there than at home."
"I know that, dearie; but where's the good in talking about it? It only
makes it harder to bear. You know I can't leave. It is terrible hard, as
you says." Mrs. Saunders held her apron to her eyes and cried. "You have
always been a good girl, never a better--my one consolation since your
poor father died."
"Don't cry, mother," said Esther; "the Lord will watch over us, and we
shall both pray for each other. In about a month, dear, we shall be both
quite well, and you'll bless my baby, and I shall think of the time when I
shall put him into your arms."
"I hope so, Esther; I hope so, but I am full of fears. I'm sore afraid
that we shall never see one another again--leastways on this earth."
"Oh, mother, dear, yer mustn't talk like that; you'll break my heart, that
The cab that took Esther to her lodging cost half-a-crown, and this waste
of money frightened her thrifty nature, inherited through centuries of
working folk. The waste, however, had ceased at last, and it was none too
soon, she thought, as she sat in the room she had taken near the hospital,
in a little eight-roomed house, kept by an old woman whose son was a
It was at the end of the week, one afternoon, as Esther was sitting alone
in her room, that there came within her a great and sudden shock--life
seemed to be slipping from her, and she sat for some minutes quite unable
to move. She knew that her time had come, and when the pain ceased she
went downstairs to consult Mrs. Jones.
"Hadn't I better go to the hospital now, Mrs. Jones?"
"Not just yet, my dear; them is but the first labour pains; plenty of time
to think of the hospital; we shall see how you are in a couple of hours."
"Will it last so long as that?"
"You'll be lucky if you get it over before midnight. I have been down for
longer than that."
"Do you mind my stopping in the kitchen with you? I feel frightened when
"No, I'll be glad of your company. I'll get you some tea presently."
"I could not touch anything. Oh, this is dreadful!" she exclaimed, and she
walked to and fro holding her sides, balancing herself dolefully. Often
Mrs. Jones stopped in her work about the range and said, looking at her,
"I know what it is, I have been through it many a time--we all must--it is
our earthly lot." About seven o'clock Esther was clinging to the table,
and with pain so vivid on her face that Mrs. Jones laid aside the sausages
she was cooking and approached the suffering girl.
"What! is it so bad as all that?"
"Oh," she said, "I think I'm dying, I cannot stand up; give me a chair,
give me a chair!" and she sank down upon it, leaning across the table, her
face and neck bathed in a cold sweat.
"John will have to get his supper himself; I'll leave these sausages on
the hob, and run upstairs and put on my bonnet. The things you intend to
bring with you, the baby clothes, are made up in a bundle, aren't they?"
Little Mrs. Jones came running down; she threw a shawl over Esther, and it
was astonishing what support she lent to the suffering girl, calling on
her the whole time to lean on her and not to be afraid. "Now then, dear,
you must keep your heart up, we have only a few yards further to go."
"You are too good, you are too kind," Esther said, and she leaned against
the wall, and Mrs. Jones rang the bell.
"Keep up your spirits; to-morrow it will be all over. I will come round
and see how you are."
The door opened. The porter rang the bell, and a sister came running down.
"Come, come, take my arm," she said, "and breathe hard as you are
ascending the stairs. Come along, you mustn't loiter."
On the second landing a door was thrown open, and she found herself in a
room full of people, eight or nine young men and women.
"What! in there? and all those people?" said Esther.
"Of course; those are the midwives and the students."
She saw that the screams she had heard in the passage came from a bed on
the left-hand side. A woman lay there huddled up. In the midst of her
terror Esther was taken behind a screen by the sister who had brought her
upstairs and quickly undressed. She was clothed in a chemise a great deal
too big for her, and a jacket which was also many sizes too large. She
remembered hearing the sister say so at the time. Both windows were wide
open, and as she walked across the room she noticed the basins on the
floor, the lamp on the round table, and the glint of steel instruments.
The students and the nurses were behind her; she knew they were eating
sweets, for she heard a young man ask the young women if they would have
any more fondants. Their chatter and laughter jarred on her nerves; but at
that moment her pains began again and she saw the young man whom she had
seen handing the sweets approaching her bedside.
"Oh, no, not him, not him!" she cried to the nurse. "Not him, not him! he
is too young! Do not let him come near me!"
They laughed loudly, and she buried her head in the pillow, overcome with
pain and shame; and when she felt him by her she tried to rise from the
"Let me go! take me away! Oh, you are all beasts!"
"Come, come, no nonsense!" said the nurse; "you can't have what you like;
they are here to learn;" and when he had tried the pains she heard the
midwife say that it wasn't necessary to send for the doctor. Another said
that it would be all over in about three hours' time. "An easy
confinement, I should say. The other will be more interesting...." Then
they talked of the plays they had seen, and those they wished to see. A
discussion arose regarding the merits of a shilling novel which every one
was reading, and then Esther heard a stampede of nurses, midwives, and
students in the direction of the window. A German band had come into the
"Is that the way to leave your patient, sister?" said the student who sat
by Esther's bed, a good-looking boy with a fair, plump face. Esther looked
into his clear blue, girl-like eyes, wondered, and turned away for shame.
The sister stopped her imitation of a popular comedian, and said, "Oh,
she's all right; if they were all like her there'd be very little use our
"Unfortunately that's just what they are," said another student, a stout
fellow with a pointed red beard, the ends of which caught the light.
Esther's eyes often went to those stubble ends, and she hated him for his
loud voice and jocularity. One of the midwives, a woman with a long nose
and small grey eyes, seemed to mock her, and Esther hoped that this woman
would not come near her. She felt that she could not bear her touch. There
was something sinister in her face, and Esther was glad when her
favourite, a little blond woman with wavy flaxen hair, came and asked her
if she felt better. She looked a little like the young student who still
sat by her bedside, and Esther wondered if they were brother and sister,
and then she thought that they were sweethearts.
Soon after a bell rang, and the students went down to supper, the nurse in
charge promising to warn them if any change should take place. The last
pains had so thoroughly exhausted her that she had fallen into a doze. But
she could hear the chatter of the nurses so clearly that she did not
believe herself asleep. And in this film of sleep reality was distorted,
and the unsuccessful operation which the nurses were discussing Esther
understood to be a conspiracy against her life. She awoke, listened, and
gradually sense of the truth returned to her. She was in the hospital....
The nurses were talking of some one who had died last week.... That poor
woman in the other bed seemed to suffer dreadfully. Would she live through
it? Would she herself live to see the morning? How long the time, how
fearful the place! If the nurses would only stop talking.... The pains
would soon begin again.... It was awful to lie listening, waiting. The
windows were open, and the mocking gaiety of the street was borne in on
the night wind. Then there came a trampling of feet and sound of voices in
the passage--the students and nurses were coming up from supper; and at
the same moment the pains began to creep up from her knees. One of the
young men said that her time had not come. The woman with the sinister
look that Esther dreaded, held a contrary opinion. The point was argued,
and, interested in the question, the crowd came from the window and
collected round the disputants. The young man expounded much medical and
anatomical knowledge; the nurses listened with the usual deference of
Suddenly the discussion was interrupted by a scream from Esther; it seemed
to her that she was being torn asunder, that life was going from her. The
nurse ran to her side, a look of triumph came upon her face, and she said,
"Now we shall see who's right," and forthwith ran for the doctor. He came
running up the stairs; immediately silence and scientific collectedness
gathered round Esther, and after a brief examination he said, in a low
"I'm afraid this will not be as easy a case as one might have imagined. I
shall administer chloroform."
He placed a small wire case over her mouth and nose, and the sickly odour
which she breathed from the cotton wool filled her brain with nausea; it
seemed to choke her, and then life faded, and at every inhalation she
expected to lose sight of the circle of faces.
* * * * *
When she opened her eyes the doctors and nurses were still standing round
her, but there was no longer any expression of eager interest on their
faces. She wondered at this change, and then out of the silence there came
a tiny cry.
"What's that?" Esther asked.
"That's your baby."
"My baby! Let me see it; is it a boy or a girl?"
"It is a boy; it will be given to you when we get you out of the labour
"I knew it would be a boy." Then a scream of pain rent the stillness of
the room. "Is that the same woman who was here when I first came in?
Hasn't she been confined yet?"
"No, and I don't think she will be till midday; she's very bad."
The door was thrown open, and Esther was wheeled into the passage. She was
like a convalescent plant trying to lift its leaves to the strengthening
light, but within this twilight of nature the thought of another life, now
in the world, grew momentarily more distinct. "Where is my boy?" she said;
"give him to me."
The nurse entered, and answered, "Here." A pulp of red flesh rolled up in
flannel was laid alongside of her. Its eyes were open; it looked at her,
and her flesh filled with a sense of happiness so deep and so intense that
she was like one enchanted. When she took the child in her arms she
thought she must die of happiness. She did not hear the nurse speak, nor
did she understand her when she took the babe from her arms and laid it
alongside on the pillow, saying, "You must let the little thing sleep, you
must try to sleep yourself."
Her personal self seemed entirely withdrawn; she existed like an
atmosphere about the babe, an impersonal emanation of love. She lay
absorbed in this life of her life, this flesh of her flesh, unconscious of
herself as a sponge in warm sea-water. She touched this pulp of life, and
was thrilled, and once more her senses swooned with love; it was still
there. She remembered that the nurse had said it was a boy. She must see
her boy, and her hands, working as in a dream, unwound him, and, delirious
with love, she gazed until he awoke and cried. She tried to hush him and
to enfold him, but her strength failed, she could not help him, and fear
came lest he should die. She strove to reach her hands to him, but all
strength had gone from her, and his cries sounded hollow in her weak
brain. Then the nurse came and said--
"See what you have done, the poor child is all uncovered; no wonder he is
crying. I will wrap him up, and you must not interfere with him again."
But as soon as the nurse turned away Esther had her child back in her
arms. She did not sleep. She could not sleep for thinking of him, and the
long night passed in adoration.
She was happy, her babe lay beside her. All her joints were loosened, and
the long hospital days passed in gentle weariness. Lady visitors came and
asked questions. Esther said that her father and mother lived in the
Vauxhall Bridge Road, and she admitted that she had saved four pounds.
There were two beds in this ward, and the woman who occupied the second
bed declared herself to be destitute, without home, or money, or friends.
She secured all sympathy and promises of help, and Esther was looked upon
as a person who did not need assistance and ought to have known better.
They received visits from a clergyman. He spoke to Esther of God's
goodness and wisdom, but his exhortations seemed a little remote, and
Esther was sad and ashamed that she was not more deeply stirred. Had it
been her own people who came and knelt about her bed, lifting their voices
in the plain prayers she was accustomed to, it might have been different;
but this well-to-do clergyman, with his sophisticated speech, seemed
foreign to her, and failed to draw her thoughts from the sleeping child.
The ninth day passed, but Esther recovered slowly, and it was decided that
she should not leave the hospital before the end of the third week. She
knew that when she crossed the threshold of the hospital there would be no
more peace for her; and she was frightened as she listened to the
never-ending rumble of the street. She spent whole hours thinking of her
dear mother, and longing for some news from home, and her face brightened
when she was told that her sister had come to see her.
"Jenny, what has happened; is mother very bad?"
"Mother is dead, that's what I've come to tell you; I'd have come before,
"Mother dead! Oh, no, Jenny! Oh, Jenny, not my poor mother!"
"Yes Esther. I knew it would cut you up dreadful; we was all very sorry,
but she's dead. She's dead a long time now, I was just a-going to tell
"Jenny, what do you mean? Dead a long time?"
"Well, she was buried more than a week ago. We were so sorry you couldn't
be at the funeral. We was all there, and had crape on our dresses and
father had crape on his 'at. We all cried, especially in church and about
the grave, and when the sexton threw in the soil it sounded that hollow it
made me sob. Julia, she lost her 'ead and asked to be buried with mother,
and I had to lead her away; and then we went 'ome to dinner."
"Oh, Jenny, our poor mother gone from us for ever! How did she die? Tell
me, was it a peaceful death? Did she suffer?"
"There ain't much to tell. Mother was taken bad almost immediately after
you was with us the last time. Mother was that bad all the day long and
all night too we could 'ardly stop in the 'ouse; it gave one just the
creeps to listen to her crying and moaning."
"Why, then the baby was born. It was dead, and mother died of weakness;
prostration the doctor called it."
Esther hid her face in the pillow. Jenny waited, and an anxious look of
self began to appear on the vulgar London street face.
"Look 'ere, Esther, you can cry when I've gone; I've a deal to say to yer
and time is short."
"Oh, Jenny, don't speak like that! Father, was he kind to mother?"
"I dunno that he thought much about it; he spent 'alf 'is time in the
public, 'e did. He said he couldn't abide the 'ouse with a woman
a-screaming like that. One of the neighbours came in to look after mother,
and at last she had the doctor." Esther looked at her sister through
streaming tears, and the woman in the other bed alluded to the folly of
poor women being confined "in their own 'omes--in a 'ome where there is a
drunken 'usband, and most 'omes is like that nowadays."
At that moment Esther's baby awoke crying for the breast. The little lips
caught at the nipple, the wee hand pressed the white curve, and in a
moment Esther's face took that expression of holy solicitude which Raphael
sublimated in the Virgin's downward-gazing eyes. Jenny watched the
gluttonous lips, interested in the spectacle, and yet absorbed in what she
had come to say to her sister.
"Your baby do look 'ealthy."
"Yes, and he is too, not an ache or a pain. He's as beautiful a boy as
ever lived. But think of poor mother, Jenny, think of poor mother."
"I do think of her, Esther. But I can't help seeing your baby. He's like
you, Esther. I can see a look of you in 'is eyes. But I don't know that I
should care to 'ave a baby meself--the expense comes very 'eavy on a poor
"Please God, my baby shall never want for anything as long as I can work
for him. But, Jenny, my trouble will be a lesson to you. I hope you will
always be a good girl, and never allow yourself to be led away; you
"Yes, I promise."
"A 'ome like ours, a drunken father, and now that poor mother is gone it
will be worse than ever. Jenny, you are the eldest and must do your best
to look after the younger ones, and as much as possible to keep father
from the public-house. I shall be away; the moment I'm well enough I must
look out for a place."
"That's just what I came to speak to you about. Father is going to
Australia. He is that tired of England, and as he lost his situation on
the railway he has made up his mind to emigrate. It is pretty well all
arranged; he has been to an agency and they say he'll 'ave to pay two
pounds a 'ead, and that runs to a lot of money in a big family like ours.
So I'm likely to get left, for father says that I'm old enough to look
after myself. He's willing to take me if I gets the money, not without.
That's what I came to tell yer about."
Esther understood that Jenny had come to ask for money. She could not give
it, and lapsed into thinking of this sudden loss of all her family. She
did not know where Australia was; she fancied that she had once heard that
it took months to get there. But she knew that they were all going from
her, they were going out on the sea in a great ship that would sail and
sail further and further away. She could see the ship from her bedside, at
first strangely distinct, alive with hands and handkerchiefs; she could
distinguish all the children--Jenny, Julia, and little Ethel. She lost
sight of their faces as the ship cleared the harbour. Soon after the ship
was far away on the great round of waters, again a little while and all
the streaming canvas not larger than a gull's wing, again a little while
and the last speck on the horizon hesitated and disappeared.
"What are you crying about, Esther? I never saw yer cry before. It do seem
"I'm so weak. Mother's death has broken my heart, and now to know that I
shall never see any one of you again."
"It do seem 'ard. We shall miss you sadly. But I was going to say that
father can't take me unless I finds two pounds. You won't see me stranded,
will you, Esther?"
"I cannot give you the money, Jenny. Father has had too much of my money
already; there's 'ardly enough to see me through. I've only four pounds
left. I cannot give you my child's money; God knows how we shall live
until I can get to work again."
"You're nearly well now. But if yer can't help me, yer can't. I don't know
what's to be done. Father can't take me if I don't find the money."
"You say the agency wants two pounds for each person?"
"Yes, that's it."
"And I've four. We might both go if it weren't for the baby, but I don't
suppose they'd make any charge for a child on the breast."
"I dunno. There's father; yer know what he is."
"That's true. He don't want me; I'm not one of his. But, Jenny, dear, it
is terrible to be left all alone. Poor mother dead, and all of you going
to Australia. I shall never see one of you again."
The conversation paused. Esther changed the baby from the left to the
right breast, and Jenny tried to think what she had best say to induce her
sister to give her the money she wanted.
"If you don't give me the money I shall be left; it is hard luck, that's
all, for there's fine chances for a girl, they says, out in Australia. If
I remain 'ere I dunno what will become of me."
"You had better look out for a situation. We shall see each other from
time to time. It's a pity you don't know a bit of cooking, enough to take
the place of kitchen-maid."
"I only know that dog-making, and I've 'ad enough of that."
"You can always get a situation as general servant in a lodging-'ouse."
"Service in a lodging-'ouse! Not me. You know what that is. I'm surprised
that you'd ask me."
"Well, what are yer thinking of doing?"
"I was thinking of going on in the pantomime as one of the hextra ladies,
if they'll 'ave me."
"Oh, Jenny, you won't do that, will you? A theatre is only sinfulness, as
we 'ave always knowed."
"You know that I don't 'old with all them preachy-preachy brethren says
about the theatre."
"I can't argue--I 'aven't the strength, and it interferes with the milk."
And then, as if prompted by some association of ideas, Esther said, "I
hope, Jenny, that you'll take example by me and will do nothing foolish;
you'll always be a good girl."
"Yes, if I gets the chance."
"I'm sorry to 'ear you speak like that, and poor mother only just dead."
The words that rose to Jenny's lips were: "A nice one you are, with a baby
at your breast, to come a-lecturing me," but, fearing Esther's temper, she
checked the dangerous words and said instead--
"I didn't mean that I was a-going on the streets right away this very
evening, only that a girl left alone in London without anyone to look to
may go wrong in spite of herself, as it were."
"A girl never need go wrong; if she does it is always 'er own fault."
Esther spoke mechanically, but suddenly remembering her own circumstances
she said: "I'd give you the money if I dared, but for the child's sake I
"You can afford it well enough--I wouldn't ask you if you couldn't. You'll
be earning a pound a week presently."
"A pound a week! What do you mean, Jenny?"
"Yer can get that as wet-nurse, and yer food too."
"How do yer know that, Jenny?"
"A friend of mine who was 'ere last year told me she got it, and you can
get it too if yer likes. Fancy a pound for the next six months, and
everything found. Yer might spare me the money and let me go to Australia
with the others."
"I'd give yer the money if what you said was true."
"Yer can easily find out what I say is the truth by sending for the
matron. Shall I go and fetch her? I won't be a minute; you'll see what she
A few moments after Jenny returned with a good-looking, middle-aged woman.
On her face there was that testy and perplexed look that comes of much
business and many interruptions. Before she had opened her lips her face
had said: "Come, what is it? Be quick about it."
"Father and the others is going to Australia. Mother's dead and was buried
last week, so father says there's nothing to keep 'im 'ere, for there is
better prospects out there. But he says he can't take me, for the agency
wants two pounds a 'ead, and it was all he could do to find the money for
the others. He is just short of two pounds, and as I'm the eldest barring
Esther, who is 'is step-daughter, 'e says that I had better remain, that
I'm old enough to get my own living, which is very 'ard on a girl, for I'm
only just turned sixteen. So I thought that I would come up 'ere and tell
"But, my good girl, what has all this got to do with me? I can't give you
two pounds to go to Australia. You are only wasting my time for nothing."
"'Ear me out, missis. I want you to explain to my sister that you can get
her a situation as a wet-nurse at a pound a week--that's the usual money
they gets, so I told her, but she won't believe me; but if you tells her,
she'll give me two pounds and I shall be able to go with father to
Australia, where they says there is fine chances for a girl."
The matron examined in critical disdain the vague skirt, the broken boots,
and the misshapen hat, coming all the while to rapid conclusions regarding
the moral value of this unabashed child of the gutter.
"I think your sister will be very foolish if she gives you her money."
"Oh, don't say that, missis, don't."
"How does she know that your story is true? Perhaps you are not going to
Australia at all."
"Perhaps I'm not--that's just what I'm afraid of; but father is, and I can
prove it to you. I've brought a letter from father--'ere it is; now, is
that good enough for yer?"
"Come, no impertinence, or I'll order you out of the hospital in double
quick time," said the matron.
"I didn't intend no impertinence," said Jenny humbly, "only I didn't like
to be told I was telling lies when I was speaking the truth."
"Well, I see that your father is going to Australia," the matron replied,
returning the letter to Jenny; "you want your sister to give you her money
to take you there too."
"What I wants is for you to tell my sister that you can get her a
situation as wet-nurse; then perhaps she'll give me the money."
"If your sister wants to go out as wet-nurse, I daresay I could get her a
pound a week."
"But," said Esther, "I should have to put baby out at nurse."
"You'll have to do that in any case," Jenny interposed; "you can't live
for nine months on your savings and have all the nourishing food that
you'll want to keep your milk going,"
"If I was yer sister I'd see yer further before I'd give yer my money. You
must 'ave a cheek to come a-asking for it, to go off to Australia where a
girl 'as chances, and yer sister with a child at the breast left behind.
Well I never!"
Jenny and the matron turned suddenly and looked at the woman in the
opposite bed who had so unexpectedly expressed her views. Jenny was
"What odds is it to you?" she screamed; "what business is it of yours,
coming poking your nose in my affairs?"
"Come, now, I can't have any rowing," exclaimed the matron.
"Rowing! I should like to know what business it is of 'ers."
"Hush, hush, I can't have you interfering with my patients; another word
and I'll order you out of the hospital,"
"Horder me out of the horspital! and what for? Who began it? No, missis,
be fair; wait until my sister gives her answer."
"Well, then, she must be quick about it--I can't wait about here all day."
"I'll give my sister the money to take her to Australia if you say you can
get me a situation as wet-nurse."
"Yes, I think I can do that. It was four pounds five that you gave me to
keep. I remember the amount, for since I've been here no one has come with
half that. If they have five shillings they think they can buy half
"My sister is very careful," said Jenny, sententiously. The matron looked
sharply at her and said--
"Now come along with me--I'm going to fetch your sister's money. I can't
leave you here--you'd get quarrelling with my patients."
"No, missis, indeed I won't say nothing to her."
"Do as I tell you. Come along with me."
So with a passing scowl Jenny expressed her contempt for the woman who had
come "a-interfering in 'er business," and went after the matron, watching
her every movement. When they came back Jenny's eyes were fixed on the
matron's fat hand as if she could see the yellow metal through the
"Here is your money," said the matron; "four pounds five. You can give
your sister what you like."
Esther held the four sovereigns and the two half-crowns in her hand for a
moment, then she said--
"Here, Jenny, are the two pounds you want to take you to Australia. I 'ope
they'll bring you good luck, and that you'll think of me sometimes."
"Indeed I will, Esther. You've been a good sister to me, indeed you 'ave;
I shall never forget you, and will write to you.... It is very 'ard
"Come, come, never mind those tears. You have got your money; say good-bye
to your sister and run along."
"Don't be so 'eartless," cried Jenny, whose susceptibilities were now on
the move. "'Ave yer no feeling; don't yer know what it is to bid good-bye
to yer sister, and perhaps for ever?" Jenny flung herself into Esther's
arms crying bitterly. "Oh, Esther, I do love you; yer 'ave been that kind
to me I shall never forget it. I shall be very lonely without you. Write
to me sometimes; it will be a comfort to hear how you are getting on. If I
marry I'll send for you, and you'll bring the baby."
"Do you think I'd leave him behind? Kiss 'im before you go."
"Good-bye, Esther; take care of yourself."
Esther was now alone in the world, and she remembered the night she walked
home from the hospital and how cruel the city had seemed. She was now
alone in that great wilderness with her child, for whom she would have to
work for many, many years. How would it all end? Would she be able to live
through it? Had she done right in letting Jenny have the money--her boy's
money? She should not have given it; but she hardly knew what she was
doing, she was so weak, and the news of her mother's death had overcome
her. She should not have given Jenny her boy's money.... But perhaps it
might turn out all right after all. If the matron got her a situation as
wet-nurse she'd be able to pull through. "So they would separate us," she
whispered, bending over the sleeping child. "There is no help for it, my
poor darling. There's no help for it, no help for it."
Next day Esther was taken out of bed. She spent part of the afternoon
sitting in an easy-chair, and Mrs. Jones came to see her. The little old
woman seemed like one whom she had known always, and Esther told her about
her mother's death and the departure of her family for Australia. Perhaps
a week lay between her and the beginning of the struggle which she
dreaded. She had been told that they did not usually keep anyone in the
hospital more than a fortnight. Three days after Mrs. Jones' visit the
matron came into their room hurriedly.
"I'm very sorry," she said, "but a number of new patients are expected;
there's nothing for it but to get rid of you. It is a pity, for I can see
you are both very weak."
"What, me too?" said the woman in the other bed. "I can hardly stand; I
tried just now to get across the room."
"I'm very sorry, but we've new patients coming, and there's all our spring
cleaning. Have you any place to go to?"
"No place except a lodging," said Esther; "and I have only two pounds five
"What's the use in taking us at all if you fling us out on the street when
we can hardly walk?" said the other woman. "I wish I had gone and drowned
myself. I was very near doing it. If I had it would be all over now for me
and the poor baby."
"I'm used to all this ingratitude," said the matron. "You have got through
your confinement very comfortably, and your baby is quite healthy; I hope
you'll try and keep it so. Have you any money?"
"Have you got any friends to whom you can go?"
"Then you'll have to apply for admission to the workhouse."
The woman made no answer, and at that moment two sisters came and forcibly
began to dress her. She fell back from time to time in their arms, almost
"Lord, what a job!" said one sister; "she's just like so much lead in
one's arms. But if we listened to them we should have them loafing here
over a month more." Esther did not require much assistance, and the sister
said, "Oh, you are as strong as they make 'em; you might have gone two
"You're no better than brutes," Esther muttered. Then, turning to the
matron, she said, "You promised to get me a situation as wet-nurse."
"Yes, so I did, but the lady who I intended to recommend you to wrote this
morning to say that she had suited herself."
"But do you think you could get me a situation as wet-nurse?" said the
other woman; "it would save me from going to the workhouse."
"I really don't know what to do with you all; you all want to stop in the
hospital at least a month, eating and drinking the best of everything, and
then you want situations as wet-nurses at a pound a week."
"But," said Esther, indignantly, "I never should have given my sister two
pounds if you had not told me you could get me the situation."
"I'm sorry," said the matron, "to have to send you away. I should like to
have kept you, but really there is no help for it. As for the situation,
I'll do the best I can. It is true that place I intended for you is filled
up, but there will be another shortly, and you shall have the first. Give
me your address. I shall not keep you long waiting, you can depend upon
me. You are still very weak, I can see that. Would you like to have one of
the nurses to walk round with you? You had better--you might fall and hurt
the baby. My word, he is a fine boy."
"Yes, he is a beautiful boy; it will break my heart to part with him."
Some eight or nine poor girls stood outside, dressed alike in dingy
garments. They were like half-dead flies trying to crawl through an
October afternoon; and with their babies and a keen wind blowing, they
found it difficult to hold on their hats.
"It do catch you a bit rough, coming out of them 'ot rooms," said a woman
standing by her. "I'm that weak I can 'ardly carry my baby. I dunno 'ow I
shall get as far as the Edgware Road. I take my 'bus there. Are you going
"No, I'm going close by, round the corner."
Her hair hung about her, her hands and wrists were shrunken, her flesh was
soft and flabby, and she had dark shadows in her face. Nursing her child
seemed to draw all strength from her, and her nervous depression
increased; she was too weary and ill to think of the future, and for a
whole week her physical condition held her, to the exclusion of every
other thought. Mrs. Jones was very kind, and only charged her ten
shillings a week for her board and lodging, but this was a great deal when
only two pounds five shillings remained between her and the workhouse, and
this fact was brought home to her when Mrs. Jones came to her for the
first week's money. Ten shillings gone; only one pound fifteen shillings
left, and still she was so weak that she could hardly get up and down
stairs. But if she were twice as weak, if she had to crawl along the
street on her hands and knees, she must go to the hospital and implore the
matron to get her a situation as wet-nurse. It was raining heavily, and
Mrs. Jones said it was madness for her to go out in such weather, but go
she must; and though it was distant only a few hundred yards, she often
thought she would like to lie down and die. And at the hospital only
disappointment. Why hadn't she called yesterday? Yesterday two ladies of
title had come and taken two girls away. Such a chance might not occur for
some time. "For some time," thought Esther; "very soon I shall have to
apply for admission at the workhouse." She reminded the matron of her
promise, and returned home more dead than alive. Mrs. Jones helped her to
change her clothes, and bade her be of good heart. Esther looked at her
hopelessly, and sitting down on the edge of her bed she put the baby to
Another week passed. She had been to the hospital every day, but no one
had been to inquire for a wet-nurse. Her money was reduced to a few
shillings, and she tried to reconcile herself to the idea that she might
do worse than to accept the harsh shelter of the workhouse. Her nature
revolted against it; but she must do what was best for the child. She
often asked herself how it would all end, and the more she thought, the
more terrible did the future seem. Her miserable meditations were
interrupted by a footstep on the stairs. It was Mrs. Jones, coming to tell
her that a lady who wanted a wet-nurse had come from the hospital; and a
lady entered dressed in a beautiful brown silk, and looked around the
humble room, clearly shocked at its poverty. Esther, who was sitting on
the bed, rose to meet the fine lady, a thin woman, with narrow temples,
aquiline features, bright eyes, and a disagreeable voice.
"You are the young person who wants a situation as wet-nurse?"
"Are you married?"
"Is that your first child?"
"Ah, that's a pity. But it doesn't matter much, so long as you and your
baby are healthy. Will you show it to me?"
"He is asleep now, ma'am," Esther said, raising the bed-clothes; "there
never was a healthier child."
"Yes, he seems healthy enough. You have a good supply of milk?"
"Fifteen shillings, and all found. Does that suit you?"
"I had expected a pound a week."
"It is only your first baby. Fifteen shillings is quite enough. Of course
I only engage you subject to the doctor's approval. I'll ask him to call."
"Very well, ma'am; I shall be glad of the place."
"Then it is settled. You can come at once?"
"I must arrange to put my baby out to nurse, ma'am."
The lady's face clouded. But following up another train of thought, she
"Of course you must arrange about your baby, and I hope you'll make proper
arrangements. Tell the woman in whose charge you leave it that I shall
want to see it every three weeks. It will be better so," she added under
her breath, "for two have died already."
"This is my card," said the lady--"Mrs. Rivers, Curzon Street,
Mayfair--and I shall expect you to-morrow afternoon--that is to say, if
the doctor approves of you. Here is one-and-sixpence for your cab fare."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"I shall expect you not later than four o'clock. I hope you won't
disappoint me; remember my child is waiting."
When Mrs. Rivers left, Esther consulted with Mrs. Jones. The difficulty
was now where she should put the child out at nurse. It was now just after
two o'clock. The baby was fast asleep, and would want nothing for three or
four hours. It would be well for Esther to put on her hat and jacket and
go off at once. Mrs. Jones gave her the address of a respectable woman who
used to take charge of children. But this woman was nursing twins, and
could not possibly undertake the charge of another baby. And Esther
visited many streets, always failing for one reason or another. At last
she found herself in Wandsworth, in a battered tumble-down little street,
no thoroughfare, only four houses and a coal-shed. Broken wooden palings
stood in front of the small area into which descent was made by means of a
few wooden steps. The wall opposite seemed to be the back of some stables,
and in the area of No. 3 three little mites were playing. The baby was
tied in a chair, and a short fat woman came out of the kitchen at Esther's
call, her dirty apron sloping over her high stomach, and her pale brown
hair twisted into a knot at the top of her head.
"Well, what is it?"
"I came about putting a child out to nurse. You are Mrs. Spires, ain't
"Yes, that's my name. May I ask who sent you?"
Esther told her, and then Mrs. Spires asked her to step down into the
"Them 'ere children you saw in the area I looks after while their mothers
are out washing or charing. They takes them 'ome in the evening. I only
charges them four-pence a-day, and it is a loss at that, for they does
take a lot of minding. What age is yours?"
"Mine is only a month old. I've a chance to go out as wet-nurse if I can
find a place to put him out at nurse. Will you look after my baby?"
"How much do you think of paying for him?"
"Five shillings a week."
"And you a-going out as wet-nurse at a pound a week; you can afford more
"I'm only getting fifteen shillings a week."
"Well, you can afford to pay six. I tell you the responsibility I of
looking after a hinfant is that awful nowadays that I don't care to
undertake it for less."
Esther hesitated; she did not like this woman.
"I suppose," said the woman, altering her tone to one of mild
interrogation, "you would like your baby to have the best of everything,
and not the drainings of any bottle that's handy?"
"I should like my child to be well looked after, and I must see the child
every three weeks."
"Do you expect me to bring up the child to wherever the lady lives, and
pay my 'bus fare, all out of five shillings a week? It can't be done!"
Esther did not answer. "You ain't married, of course?" Mrs. Spires said
"No, I ain't; what about that?"
"Oh, nothing; there is so many of you, that's all. You can't lay yer 'and
on the father and get a bit out of 'im?"
The conversation paused. Esther felt strangely undecided. She looked round
suspiciously, and noticing the look the woman said--
"Your baby will be well looked after 'ere; a nice warm kitchen, and I've
no other babies for the moment; them children don't give no trouble, they
plays in the area. You had better let me have the child; you won't do
better than 'ere."
Esther promised to think it over and let her know to-morrow. It took her
many omnibuses to get home, and it was quite dark when she pushed the door
to. The first thing that caught her ear was her child crying. "What is the
matter?" she cried, hurrying down the passage.
"Oh, is that you? You have been away a time. The poor child is that hungry
he has been crying this hour or more. If I'd 'ad a bottle I'd 'ave given
him a little milk."
"Hungry, is he? Then he shall have plenty soon. It is nearly the last time
I shall nurse the poor darling." Then she told Mrs. Jones about Mrs.
Spires, and both women tried to arrive at a decision.
"Since you have to put the child out to nurse, you might as well put him
there as elsewhere; the woman will look after him as well as she
can--she'll do that, if it is for the sake of the six shillings a week."
"Yes, yes, I know; but I've always heard that children die that are put
out to nurse. If mine died I never should forgive myself."
She could not sleep; she lay with her arms about her baby, distracted at
the thought of parting from him. What had she done that her baby should be
separated from her? What had the poor little darling done? He at least was
innocent; why should he be deprived of his mother? At midnight she got up
and lighted a candle, looked at him, took him in her arms, squeezed him to
her bosom till he cried, and the thought came that it would be sweeter to
kill him with her own hands than to be parted from him.
The thought of murder went with the night, and she enjoyed the journey to
Wandsworth. Her baby laughed and cooed, and was much admired in the
omnibus, and the little street where Mrs. Spires lived seemed different. A
cart of hay was being unloaded, and this gave the place a pleasant rural
air. Mrs. Spires, too, was cleaner, tidier; Esther no longer disliked her;
she had a nice little cot ready for the baby, and he seemed so comfortable
in it that Esther did not feel the pangs at parting which she had expected
to feel. She would see him in a few weeks, and in those weeks she would be
richer. It seemed quite wonderful to earn so much money in so short a
time. She had had a great deal of bad luck, but her luck seemed to have
turned at last. So engrossed was she in the consideration of her good
fortune that she nearly forgot to get out of her 'bus at Charing Cross,
and had it not been for the attention of the conductor might have gone on,
she did not know where--perhaps to Clerkenwell, or may be to Islington.
When the second 'bus turned into Oxford Street she got out, not wishing to
spend more money than was necessary. Mrs. Jones approved of all she had
done, helped her to pack up her box, and sent her away with many kind
wishes to Curzon Street in a cab.
Esther was full of the adventure and the golden prospect before her. She
wondered if the house she was going to was as grand as Woodview, and she
was struck by the appearance of the maidservant who opened the door to
"Oh, here you are," Mrs. Rivers said. "I have been anxiously expecting
you; my baby is not at all well. Come up to the nursery at once. I don't
know your name," she said, turning to Esther.
"Emily, you'll see that Waters' box is taken to her room."
"I'll see to it, ma'am."
"Then come up at once, Waters. I hope you'll succeed better than the
A tall, handsome gentleman stood at the door of a room full of beautiful
things, and as they went past him Mrs. Rivers said, "This is the new
nurse, dear." Higher up, Esther saw a bedroom of soft hangings and bright
porcelain. Then another staircase, and the little wail of a child caught
on the ear, and Mrs. Rivers said, "The poor little thing; it never ceases
crying. Take it, Waters, take it."
Esther sat down, and soon the little thing ceased crying.
"It seems to take to you," said the anxious mother.
"So it seems," said Esther; "it is a wee thing, not half the size of my
"I hope the milk will suit it, and that it won't bring up what it takes.
This is our last chance."
"I daresay it will come round, ma'am. I suppose you weren't strong enough
to nurse it yourself, and yet you looks healthy."
"I? No, I could not undertake to nurse it." Then, glancing suspiciously at
Esther, whose breast was like a little cup, Mrs. Rivers said, "I hope you
have plenty of milk?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am; they said at the hospital I could bring up twins."
"Your supper will be ready at nine. But that will be a long time for you
to wait. I told them to cut you some sandwiches, and you'll have a glass
of porter. Or perhaps you'd prefer to wait till supper? You can have your
supper, you know, at eight, if you like?"
Esther took a sandwich and Mrs. Rivers poured out a glass of porter. And
later in the evening Mrs. Rivers came down from her drawing-room to see
that Esther's supper was all right, and not satisfied with the handsome
fare that had been laid before her child's nurse, she went into the
kitchen and gave strict orders that the meat for the future was not to be
quite so much cooked.
Henceforth it seemed to Esther that she was eating all day. The food was
doubtless necessary after the great trial of the flesh she had been
through, likewise pleasant after her long abstinences. She grew happy in
the tide of new blood flowing in her veins, and might easily have
abandoned herself in the seduction of these carnal influences. But her
moral nature was of tough fibre, and made mute revolt. Such constant
mealing did not seem natural, and the obtuse brain of this lowly
servant-girl was perplexed. Her self-respect was wounded; she hated her
position in this house, and sought consolation in the thought that she was
earning good money for her baby. She noticed, too, that she never was
allowed out alone, and that her walks were limited to just sufficient
exercise to keep her in health.
A fortnight passed, and one afternoon, after having put baby to sleep, she
said to Mrs. Rivers, "I hope, ma'am, you'll be able to spare me for a
couple of hours; baby won't want me before then. I'm very anxious about my
"Oh, nurse, I couldn't possibly hear of it; such a thing is never allowed.
You can write to the woman, if you like."
"I do not know how to write, ma'am."
"Then you can get some one to write for you. But your baby is no doubt all
"But, ma'am, you are uneasy about your baby; you are up in the nursery
twenty times a day; it is only natural I should be uneasy about mine."
"But, nurse, I've no one to send with you."
"There is no reason why any one should go with me, ma'am; I can take care
"What! let you go off all the way to--where did you say you had left
it--Wandsworth?--by yourself! I really couldn't think of it. I don't want
to be unnecessarily hard--but I really couldn't--no mother could. I must
consider the interests of my child. But I don't want you to agitate
yourself, and if you like I'll write myself to the woman who has charge of
your baby. I cannot do more, and I hope you'll be satisfied."
By what right, by what law, was she separated from her child? She was
tired of hearing Mrs. Rivers speak of "my child, my child, my child," and
of seeing this fine lady turn up her nose when she spoke of her own
beautiful boy. When Mrs. Rivers came to engage her she had said that it
would be better for the baby to be brought to see her every three or four
weeks, for two had died already. At the time Esther had not understood.
She had supposed vaguely, in a passing way, that Mrs. Rivers had already
lost two children. But yesterday the housemaid had told her that that
little thing in the cradle had had two wet-nurses before Esther, and that
both babies had died. It was then a life for a life. It was more. The
children of two poor girls had been sacrificed so that this rich woman's
child might be saved. Even that was not enough, the life of her beautiful
boy was called for. Then other memories swept into Esther's frenzied
brain. She remembered vague hints, allusions that Mrs. Spires had thrown
out; and as if in the obtuseness of a nightmare, it seemed to this
ignorant girl that she was the victim of a dark and far-reaching
conspiracy; she experienced the sensation of the captured animal, and she
scanned the doors and windows, thinking of some means of escape.
At that moment a knock was heard and the housemaid came in.
"The woman who has charge of your baby has come to see you."
Esther started up from her chair, and fat little Mrs. Spires waddled into
the room, the ends of her shawl touching the ground.
"Where is my baby?" said Esther. "Why haven't you brought him?"
"Why, you see, my dear, the sweet little thing didn't seem as well as
usual this afternoon, and I did not care to bring him out, it being a long
way and a trifle cold.... It is nice and warm in here. May I sit down?"
"Yes, there's a chair; but tell me what is the matter with him?"
"A little cold, dear--nothing to speak of. You must not excite yourself,
it isn't worth while; besides, it's bad for you and the little darling in
the cradle. May I have a look?... A little girl, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is a girl."
"And a beautiful little girl too. 'Ow 'ealthy she do look! I'll be bound
you have made a difference in her. I suppose you are beginning to like her
just as if she was your own?"
Esther did not answer.
"Yer know, all you girls are dreadful taken with their babies at first.
But they is a awful drag on a girl who gets her living in service. For my
part I do think it providential-like that rich folk don't nurse their own.
If they did, I dunno what would become of all you poor girls. The
situation of wet-nurse is just what you wants at the time, and it is good
money. I hope yer did what I told you and stuck out for a pound a week.
Rich folk like these here would think nothing of a pound a week, nor yet
two, when they sees their child is suited."
"Never mind about my money, that's my affair. Tell me what's the matter
with my baby?"
"'Ow yer do 'arp on it! I've told yer that 'e's all right; nothing to
signify, only a little poorly, but knowing you was that anxious I thought
it better to come up. I didn't know but what you might like to 'ave in the
"Does he require the doctor? I thought you said it was nothing to
"That depends on 'ow yer looks at it. Some likes to 'ave in the doctor,
however little the ailing; then others won't 'ave anything to do with
doctors--don't believe in them. So I thought I'd come up and see what you
thought about it. I would 'ave sent for the doctor this morning--I'm one
of those who 'as faith in doctors--but being a bit short of money I
thought I'd come up and ask you for a trifle."
At that moment Mrs. Rivers came into the nursery and her first look went
in the direction of the cradle, then she turned to consider curtseying
"This is Mrs. Spires, the lady who is looking after my baby, ma'am," said
Esther; "she has come with bad news--my baby is ill."
"Oh, I'm sorry. But I daresay it is nothing."
"But Mrs. Spires says, ma'am----"
"Yes, ma'am, the little thing seemed a bit poorly, and I being short of
money, ma'am, I had to come and see nurse. I knows right well that they
must not be disturbed, and of course your child's 'ealth is everything;
but if I may make so bold I'd like to say that the little dear do look
beautiful. Nurse is bringing her up that well that yer must have every
satisfaction in 'er."
"Yes, she seems to suit the child; that's the reason I don't want her
"It won't occur again, ma'am, I promise you."
Esther did not answer, and her white, sullen face remained unchanged. She
had a great deal on her mind, and would have spoken if the words did not
seem to betray her when she attempted to speak.
"When the baby is well, and the doctor is satisfied there is no danger of
infection, you can bring it here--once a month will be sufficient. Is
there anything more?"
"Mrs. Spires thinks my baby ought to see the doctor."
"Well, let her send for the doctor."
"Being a bit short of money----"
"How much is it?" said Esther.
"Well, what we pays is five shillings to the doctor, but then there's the
medicine he will order, and I was going to speak to you about a piece of
flannel; if yer could let me have ten shillings to go on with."
"But I haven't so much left. I must see my baby," and Esther moved towards
"No, no, nurse, I cannot hear of it; I'd sooner pay the money myself. Now,
how much do you want, Mrs. Spires?"
"Ten shillings will do for the present, ma'am."
"Here they are; let the child have every attendance, and remember you are
not to come troubling my nurse. Above all, you are not to come up to the
nursery. I don't know how it happened, it was a mistake on the part of the
new housemaid. You must have my permission before you see my nurse." And
while talking rapidly and imperatively Mrs. Rivers, as it were, drove Mrs.
Spires out of the nursery. Esther could hear them talking on the
staircase, and she listened, all the while striving to collect her
thoughts. Mrs. Rivers said when she returned, "I really cannot allow her
to come here upsetting you." Then, as if impressed by the sombre look on
Esther's face, she added: "Upsetting you about nothing. I assure you it
will be all right; only a little indisposition."
"I must see my baby," Esther replied.
"Come, nurse, you shall see your baby the moment the doctor says it is fit
to come here. You can't expect me to do more than that." Esther did not
move, and thinking that it would not be well to argue with her, Mrs.
Rivers went over to the cradle. "See, nurse, the little darling has just
woke up; come and take her, I'm sure she wants you."
Esther did not answer her. She stood looking into space, and it seemed to
Mrs. Rivers that it would be better not to provoke a scene. She went
towards the door slowly, but a little cry from the cradle stopped her, and
"Come, nurse, what is it? Come, the baby is waiting for you."
Then, like one waking from a dream, Esther said: "If my baby is all right,
ma'am, I'll come back, but if he wants me, I'll have to look after him
"You forget that I'm paying you fifteen shillings a week. I pay you for
nursing my baby; you take my money, that's sufficient."
"Yes, I do take your money, ma'am. But the housemaid has told me that you
had two wet-nurses before me, and that both their babies died, so I cannot
stop here now that mine's ill. Everyone for her own; you can't blame me.
I'm sorry for yours--poor little thing, she was getting on nicely too."
"But, Waters, you won't leave my baby. It's cruel of you. If I could nurse
"Why couldn't you, ma'am? You look fairly strong and healthy."
Esther spoke in her quiet, stolid way, finding her words unconsciously.
"You don't know what you're saying, nurse; you can't.... You've forgotten
yourself. Next time I engage a nurse I'll try to get one who has lost her
baby, and then there'll be no bother."
"It is a life for a life--more than that, ma'am--two lives for a life; and
now the life of my boy is asked for."
A strange look passed over Mrs. Rivers' face. She knew, of course, that
she stood well within the law, that she was doing no more than a hundred
other fashionable women were doing at the same moment; but this plain girl
had a plain way of putting things, and she did not care for it to be
publicly known that the life of her child had been bought with the lives
of two poor children. But her temper was getting the better of her.
"He'll only be a drag on you. You'll never be able to bring him up, poor
little bastard child."
"It is wicked of you to speak like that, ma'am, though it is I who am
saying it. It is none of the child's fault if he hasn't got a father, nor
is it right that he should be deserted for that... and it is not for you
to tell me to do such a thing. If you had made sacrifice of yourself in
the beginning and nursed your own child such thoughts would not have come
to you. But when you hire a poor girl such as me to give the milk that
belongs to another to your child, you think nothing of the poor deserted
one. He is but a bastard, you say, and had better be dead and done with. I
see it all now; I have been thinking it out. It is all so hidden up that
the meaning is not clear at first, but what it comes to is this, that fine
folks like you pays the money, and Mrs. Spires and her like gets rid of
the poor little things. Change the milk a few times, a little neglect, and
the poor servant girl is spared the trouble of bringing up her baby and
can make a handsome child of the rich woman's little starveling."
At that moment the baby began to cry; both women looked in the direction
of the cradle.
"Nurse, you have utterly forgotten yourself, you have talked a great deal
of nonsense, you have said a great deal that is untrue. You accused me of
wishing your baby were dead, indeed I hardly know what wild remarks you
did not indulge in. Of course, I cannot put up with such
conduct--to-morrow you will come to me and apologise. In the meantime the
baby wants you, are you not going to her?"
"I'm going to my own child."
"That means that you refuse to nurse my baby?"
"Yes, I'm going straight to look after my own."
"If you leave my house you shall never enter it again."
"I don't want to enter it again."
"I shall not pay you one shilling if you leave my baby. You have no
"I shall try to manage without. I shall go with my baby to the workhouse.
However bad the living may be there, he'll be with his mother."
"If you go to-night my baby will die. She cannot be brought up on the
"Oh, I hope not, ma'am. I should be sorry, indeed I should."
"Then stay, nurse."
"I must go to my baby, ma'am."
"Then you shall go at once--this very instant."
"I'm going this very instant, as soon as I've put on my hat and jacket."
"You had better take your box with you. If you don't I'll shall have it
thrown into the street."
"I daresay you're cruel enough to do that if the law allows you, only be
careful that it do."
The moment Esther got out of the house in Curzon Street she felt in her
pocket for her money. She had only a few pence; enough for her 'bus fare,
however, and her thoughts did not go further. She was absorbed by one
desire, how to save her child--how to save him from Mrs. Spires, whom she
vaguely suspected; from the world, which called him a bastard and denied
to him the right to live. And she sat as if petrified in the corner of the
'bus, seeing nothing but a little street of four houses, facing some
haylofts, the low-pitched kitchen, the fat woman, the cradle in the
corner. The intensity and the oneness of her desire seemed to annihilate
time, and when she got out of the omnibus she walked with a sort of
animal-like instinct straight for the house. There was a light in the
kitchen just as she expected, and as she descended the four wooden steps
into the area she looked to see if Mrs. Spires was there. She was there,
and Esther pushed open the door.
"Where's my baby?"
"Lord, 'ow yer did frighten me!" said Mrs. Spires, turning from the range
and leaning against the table, which was laid for supper. "Coming like
that into other folk's places without a word of warning--without as much
as knocking at the door."
"I beg your pardon, but I was that anxious about my baby."
"Was you indeed? It is easy to see it is the first one. There it is in the
"Have you sent for the doctor?"
"Sent for the doctor! I've to get my husband's supper."
Esther took her baby out of the cradle. It woke up crying, and Esther
said, "You don't mind my sitting down a moment. The poor little thing
wants its mother."
"If Mrs. Rivers saw you now a-nursing of yer baby?"
"I shouldn't care if she did. He's thinner than when I left him; ten days
'ave made a difference in him."
"Well, yer don't expect a child to do as well without its mother as with
her. But tell me, how did yer get out? You must have come away shortly
"I wasn't going to stop there and my child ill."
"Yer don't mean to tell me that yer 'ave gone and thrown hup the
"She told me if I went out, I should never enter her door again."
"And what did you say?"
"Told her I didn't want to."
"And what, may I ask, are yer thinking of doing? I 'eard yer say yer 'ad
"I don't know."
"Take my advice, and go straight back and ask 'er to overlook it, this
"Oh, no, she'd never take me back."
"Yes, she will; you suits the child, and that's all they think of."
"I don't know what will become of me and my baby."
"No more don't I. Yer can't stop always in the work'us, and a baby'll be a
'eavy drag on you. Can't you lay 'ands on 'is father, some'ow?"
Esther shook her head, and Mrs. Spires noticed that she was crying.
"I'm all alone," she said; "I don't know 'ow I'm ever to pull through."
"Not with that child yer won't--it ain't possible.... You girls is all
alike, yer thinks of nothing but yer babies for the first few weeks, then
yer tires of them, the drag on yer is that 'eavy--I knows yer--and then
yer begins to wish they 'ad never been born, or yer wishes they had died
afore they knew they was alive. I don't say I'm not often sorry for them,
poor little dears, but they takes less notice than you'd think for, and
they is better out of the way; they really is, it saves a lot of trouble
hereafter. I often do think that to neglect them, to let them go off
quiet, that I be their best friend; not wilful neglect, yer know, but what
is a woman to do with ten or a dozen, and I often 'as as many? I am sure
they'd thank me for it."
Esther did not answer, but judging by her face that she had lost all hope,
Mrs. Spires was tempted to continue.
"There's that other baby in the far corner, that was brought 'ere since
you was 'ere by a servant-girl like yerself. She's out a'nursing of a
lady's child, getting a pound a week, just as you was; well, now I asks
'ow she can 'ope to bring up that 'ere child--a weakly little thing that
wants the doctor and all sorts of looking after. If that child was to live
it would be the ruin of that girl's life. Don't yer 'ear what I'm saying?"
"Yes, I hear," said Esther, speaking like one in a dream; "don't she care
for her baby, then?"
"She used to care for them, but if they had all lived I should like to
know where she'd be. There 'as been five of them--that's the fifth--so,
instead of them a-costing 'er money, they brings 'er money. She 'as never
failed yet to suit 'erself in a situation as wet-nurse."
"And they all died?"
"Yes, they all died; and this little one don't look as if it was long for
the world, do it?" said Mrs. Spires, who had taken the infant from the
cradle to show Esther. Esther looked at the poor wizened features,
twitched with pain, and the far-off cry of doom, a tiny tinkle from the
verge, shivered in the ear with a strange pathos.
"It goes to my 'eart," said Mrs. Spires, "it do indeed, but, Lord, it is
the best that could 'appen to 'em; who's to care for 'em? and there is
'undreds and 'undreds of them--ay, thousands and thousands every year--and
they all dies like the early shoots. It is 'ard, very 'ard, poor little
dears, but they is best out of the way--they is only an expense and a
Mrs. Spires talked on in a rapid, soothing, soporific voice. She had just
finished pouring some milk in the baby's bottle and had taken down a jug
of water from the dresser.
"But that's cold water," said Esther, waking from the stupor of her
despair; "it will give the baby gripes for certain."
"I've no 'ot water ready; I'll let the bottle stand afore the fire,
that'll do as well." Watching Esther all the while, Mrs. Spires held the
bottle a few moments before the fire, and then gave it to the child to
suck. Very soon after a cry of pain came from the cradle.
"The little dear never was well; it wouldn't surprise me a bit if it
died--went off before morning. It do look that poorly. One can't 'elp
being sorry for them, though one knows there is no 'ouse for them 'ere.
Poor little angels, and not even baptised. There's them that thinks a lot
of getting that over. But who's to baptise the little angels?"
"Baptise them?" Esther repeated. "Oh, sprinkle them, you mean. That's not
the way with the Lord's people;" and to escape from a too overpowering
reality she continued to repeat the half-forgotten patter of the Brethren,
"You must wait until it is a symbol of living faith in the Lord!" And
taking the baby in her hands for a moment, the wonder crossed her mind
whether he would ever grow up and find salvation and testify to the Lord
as an adult in voluntary baptism.
All the while Mrs. Spires was getting on with her cooking. Several times
she looked as if she were going to speak, and several times she checked
herself. In truth, she didn't know what to make of Esther. Was her love of
her child such love as would enable her to put up with all hardships for
its sake, or was it the fleeting affection of the ordinary young mother,
which, though ardent at first, gives way under difficulties? Mrs. Spires
had heard many mothers talk as Esther talked, but when the real strain of
life was put upon them they had yielded to the temptation of ridding
themselves of their burdens. So Mrs. Spires could not believe that Esther
was really different from the others, and if carefully handled she would
do what the others had done. Still, there was something in Esther which
kept Mrs. Spires from making any distinct proposal. But it were a pity to
let the girl slip through her fingers--five pounds were not picked up
every day. There were three five-pound notes in the cradles. If Esther
would listen to reason there would be twenty pounds, and the money was
wanted badly. Once more greed set Mrs. Spires' tongue flowing, and,
representing herself as a sort of guardian angel, she spoke again about
the mother of the dying child, pressing Esther to think what the girl's
circumstances would have been if they had all lived.
"And they all died?" said Esther.
"Yes, and a good job, too," said Mrs. Spires, whose temper for the moment
outsped her discretion. Was this penniless drab doing it on purpose to
annoy her? A nice one indeed to high-and-mighty it over her. She would
show her in mighty quick time she had come to the wrong shop. Just as Mrs.
Spires was about to speak out she noticed that Esther was in tears. Mrs.
Spires always looked upon tears as a good sign, so she resolved to give
her one more chance. "What are you crying about?" she said.
"Oh," said Esther, "I don't even know where I shall sleep tonight. I have
only threepence, and not a friend in the world."
"Now look 'ere, if you'll listen to reason I'll talk to you. Yer mustn't
look upon me as a henemy. I've been a good friend to many a poor girl like
you afore now, and I'll be one to you if you're sensible. I'll do for you
what I'm doing for the other girl. Give me five pounds--"
"Five pounds! I've only a few pence."
"'Ear me out. Go back to yer situation--she'll take you back, yer suits
the child, that's all she cares about; ask 'er for an advance of five
pounds; she'll give it when she 'ears it is to get rid of yer child--they
'ates their nurses to be a-'ankering after their own, they likes them to
be forgotten like; they asks if the child is dead very often, and won't
engage them if it isn't, so believe me she'll give yer the money when yer
tells 'er that it is to give the child to someone who wants to adopt it.
That's what you 'as to say."
"And you'll take the child off my hands for ever for five pounds?"
"Yes; and if you likes to go out again as wet-nurse, I'll take the second
off yer 'ands too, and at the same price."
"You wicked woman; oh, this is awful!"
"Come, come.... What do you mean by talking to me like that? And because I
offered to find someone who would adopt your child."
"You did nothing of the kind; ever since I've been in your house you have
been trying to get me to give you up my child to murder as you are
murdering those poor innocents in the cradles."
"It is a lie, but I don't want no hargument with yer; pay me what you owe
me and take yerself hoff. I want no more of yer, do you 'ear?"
Esther did not shrink before her as Mrs. Spires expected. Clasping her
baby more tightly, she said: "I've paid you what I owe you, you've had
more than your due. Mrs. Rivers gave you ten shillings for a doctor which
you didn't send for. Let me go."
"Yes, when yer pays me."
"What's all this row about?" said a tall, red-bearded man who had just
come in; "no one takes their babies out of this 'ere 'ouse before they
pays. Come now, come now, who are yer getting at? If yer thinks yer can
come here insulting of my wife yer mistaken; yer've come to the wrong
"I've paid all I owe," said Esther. "You're no better than murderers, but
yer shan't have my poor babe to murder for a five-pound note."
"Take back them words, or else I'll do for yer; take them back," he said,
raising his fist.
"Help, help, murder!" Esther screamed. Before the brute could seize her
she had slipped past, but before she could scream again he had laid hold
of her. Esther thought her last moment had come.
"Let 'er go, let 'er go," cried Mrs. Spires, clinging on her husband's
arm. "We don't want the perlice in 'ere."
"Perlice! What do I care about the perlice? Let 'er pay what she owes."
"Never mind, Tom; it is only a trifle. Let her go. Now then, take yer
hook," she said, turning to Esther; "we don't want nothing to do with such
With a growl the man loosed his hold, and feeling herself free Esther
rushed through the open doorway. Her feet flew up the wooden steps and she
ran out of the street. So shaken were her nerves that the sight of some
men drinking in a public-house frightened her. She ran on again. There was
a cab-stand in the next street, and to avoid the cabmen and the loafers
she hastily crossed to the other side. Her heart beat violently, her
thoughts were in disorder, and she walked a long while before she realised
that she did not know where she was going. She stopped to ask the way, and
then remembered there was no place where she might go.
She would have to spend the night in the workhouse, and then?
She did not know.... All sorts of thoughts came upon her unsolicited, and
she walked on and on. At last she rested her burden on the parapet of a
bridge, and saw the London night, blue and gold, vast water rolling, and
the spectacle of the stars like a dream from which she could not
disentangle her individuality. Was she to die in the star-lit city, she
and her child; and why should such cruelty happen to her more than to the
next one? Steadying her thoughts with an effort, she said, "Why not go to
the workhouse, only for the night?... She did not mind for herself, only
she did not wish her boy to go there. But if God willed it...."
She drew her shawl about her baby and tried once more to persuade herself
into accepting the shelter of the workhouse. It seemed strange even to her
that a pale, glassy moon should float high up in the sky, and that she
should suffer; and then she looked at the lights that fell like golden
daggers from the Surrey shore into the river. What had she done to deserve
the workhouse? Above all, what had the poor, innocent child done to
deserve it? She felt that if she once entered the workhouse she would
remain there. She and her child paupers for ever. "But what can I do?" she
asked herself crazily, and sat down on one of the seats.
A young man coming home from an evening party looked at her as he passed.