Part 4 out of 8
She asked herself if she should run after him and tell him her story. Why
should he not assist her? He could so easily spare it. Would he? But
before she could decide to appeal to him he had called a passing hansom
and was soon far away. Then looking at the windows of the great hotels,
she thought of the folk there who could so easily save her from the
workhouse if they knew. There must be many a kind heart behind those
windows who would help her if she could only make known her trouble. But
that was the difficulty. She could not make known her trouble; she could
not tell the misery she was enduring. She was so ignorant; she could not
make herself understood. She would be mistaken for a common beggar.
Nowhere would she find anyone to listen to her. Was this punishment for
her wrong-doing? An idea of the blind cruelty of fate maddened her, and in
the delirium of her misery she asked herself if it would not have been
better, perhaps, if she had left him with Mrs. Spires. What indeed had the
poor little fellow to live for? A young man in evening dress came towards
her, looking so happy and easy in life, walking with long, swinging
strides. He stopped and asked her if she was out for a walk.
"No, sir; I'm out because I've no place to go."
She told him the story of the baby-farmer and he listened kindly, and she
thought the necessary miracle was about to happen. But he only
complimented her on her pluck and got up to go. Then she understood that
he did not care to listen to sad stories, and a vagrant came and sat down.
"The 'copper,'" he said, "will be moving us on presently. It don't much
matter; it's too cold to get to sleep, and I think it will rain. My cough
is that bad."
She might beg a night's lodging of Mrs. Jones. It was far away; she did
not think she could walk so far. Mrs. Jones might have left, then what
would she do? The workhouse up there was much the same as the workhouse
down here. Mrs. Jones couldn't keep her for nothing, and there was no use
trying for another situation as wet-nurse; the hospital would not
recommend her again.... She must go to the workhouse. Then her thoughts
wandered. She thought of her father, brothers, and sisters, who had gone
to Australia. She wondered if they had yet arrived, if they ever thought
of her, if--She and her baby were on their way to the workhouse. They were
going to become paupers. She looked at the vagrant--he had fallen asleep.
He knew all about the workhouse--should she ask him what it was like? He,
too, was friendless. If he had a friend he would not be sleeping on the
Embankment. Should she ask him? Poor chap, he was asleep. People were
happy when they were asleep.
A full moon floated high up in the sky, and the city was no more than a
faint shadow on the glassy stillness of the night; and she longed to float
away with the moon and the river, to be borne away out of sight of this
Her baby grew heavy in her arms, and the vagrant, a bundle of rags thrown
forward in a heap, slept at the other end of the bench. But she could not
sleep, and the moon whirled on her miserable way. Then the glassy
stillness was broken by the measured tramp of the policeman going his
rounds. He directed her to Lambeth Workhouse, and as she walked towards
Westminster she heard him rousing the vagrant and bidding him move onward.
Those who came to the workhouse for servants never offered more than
fourteen pounds a year, and these wages would not pay for her baby's keep
out at nurse. Her friend the matron did all she could, but it was always
fourteen pounds. "We cannot afford more." At last an offer of sixteen
pounds a year came from a tradesman in Chelsea; and the matron introduced
Esther to Mrs. Lewis, a lonely widowed woman, who for five shillings a
week would undertake to look after the child. This would leave Esther
three pounds a year for dress; three pounds a year for herself.
The shop was advantageously placed at a street corner. Twelve feet of
fronting on the King's Road, and more than half that amount on the side
street, exposed to every view wall papers and stained glass designs. The
dwelling-house was over the shop; the shop entrance faced the kerb in the
The Bingleys were Dissenters. They were ugly, and exacted the uttermost
farthing from their customers and their workpeople. Mrs. Bingley was a
tall, gaunt woman, with little grey ringlets on either side of her face.
She spoke in a sour, resolute voice, when she came down in a wrapper to
superintend the cooking. On Sundays she wore a black satin, fastened with
a cameo brooch, and round her neck a long gold chain. Then her manners
were lofty, and when her husband called "Mother," she answered testily,
"Don't keep on mothering me." She frequently stopped him to settle his
necktie or collar. All the week he wore the same short jacket; on Sundays
he appeared in an ill-fitting frock-coat. His long upper lip was clean
shaven, but under his chin there grew a ring of discoloured hair, neither
brown nor red, but the neutral tint that hair which does not turn grey
acquires. When he spoke he opened his mouth wide, and seemed quite
unashamed of the empty spaces and the three or four yellow fangs that
John, the elder of the two brothers, was a silent youth whose one passion
seemed to be eavesdropping. He hung round doors in the hopes of
overhearing his sisters' conversation and if he heard Esther and the
little girl who helped Esther in her work talking in the kitchen, he would
steal cautiously halfway down the stairs. Esther often thought that his
young woman must be sadly in want of a sweetheart to take on with one such
as he. "Come along, Amy," he would cry, passing out before her; and not
even at the end of a long walk did he offer her his arm; and they came
strolling home just like boy and girl.
Hubert, John's younger brother, was quite different. He had escaped the
family temperament, as he had escaped the family upper lip. He was the one
spot of colour in a somewhat sombre household, and Esther liked to hear
him call back to his mother, "All right, mother, I've got the key; no one
need wait up for me. I'll make the door fast."
"Oh, Hubert, don't be later than eleven. You are not going out dancing
again, are you? Your father will have the electric bell put on the door,
so that he may know when you come in."
The four girls were all ruddy-complexioned and long upper-lipped. The
eldest was the plainest; she kept her father's books, and made the pastry.
The second and third entertained vague hopes of marriage. The youngest was
subject to hysterics, fits of some kind.
The Bingleys' own house was representative of their ideas, and the taste
they had imposed upon the neighbourhood. The staircase was covered with
white drugget, and the white enamelled walls had to be kept scrupulously
clean. There were no flowers in the windows, but the springs of the blinds
were always in perfect order. The drawing-room was furnished with
substantial tables, cabinets and chairs, and antimacassars, long and wide,
and china ornaments and glass vases. There was a piano, and on this
instrument, every Sunday evening, hymns were played by one of the young
ladies, and the entire family sang in the chorus.
It was into this house that Esther entered as general servant, with wages
fixed at sixteen pounds a year. And for seventeen long hours every day,
for two hundred and thirty hours every fortnight, she washed, she
scrubbed, she cooked, she ran errands, with never a moment that she might
call her own. Every second Sunday she was allowed out for four, perhaps
for four and a half hours; the time fixed was from three to nine, but she
was expected to be back in time to get the supper ready, and if it were
many minutes later than nine there were complaints.
She had no money. Her quarter's wages would not be due for another
fortnight, and as they did not coincide with her Sunday out, she would not
see her baby for another three weeks. She had not seen him for a month,
and a great longing was in her heart to clasp him in her arms again, to
feel his soft cheek against hers, to take his chubby legs and warm, fat
feet in her hands. The four lovely hours of liberty would slip by, she
would enter on another long fortnight of slavery. But no matter, only to
get them, however quickly they sped from her. She resigned herself to her
fate, her soul rose in revolt, and it grew hourly more difficult for her
to renounce this pleasure. She must pawn her dress--the only decent dress
she had left. No matter, she must see the child. She would be able to get
the dress out of pawn when she was paid her wages. Then she would have to
buy herself a pair of boots; and she owed Mrs. Lewis a good deal of money.
Five shillings a week came to thirteen pound a year, leaving her three
pound a year for boots and clothes, journeys back and forward, and
everything the baby might want. Oh, it was not to be done--she never would
be able to pull through. She dare not pawn her dress; if she did she'd
never be able to get it out again. At that moment something bright lying
on the floor, under the basin-stand, caught her eye. It was half-a-crown.
She looked at it, and as the temptation came into her heart to steal, she
raised her eyes and looked round the room.
She was in John's room--in the sneak's room. No one was about. She would
have cut off one of her fingers for the coin. That half-crown meant
pleasure and a happiness so tender and seductive that she closed her eyes
for a moment. The half-crown she held between forefinger and thumb
presented a ready solution of the besetting difficulty. She threw out the
insidious temptation, but it came quickly upon her again. If she did not
take the half-crown she would not be able to go Peckham on Sunday. She
could replace the money where she found it when she was paid her wages. No
one knew it was there; it had evidently rolled there, and having tumbled
between the carpet and the wall had not been discovered. It had probably
lain there for months, perhaps it was utterly forgotten. Besides, she need
not take it now. It would be quite safe if she put it back in its place;
on Sunday afternoon she would take it, and if she changed it at once--It
was not marked. She examined it all over. No, it was not marked. Then the
desire paused, and she wondered how she, an honest girl, who had never
harboured a dishonest thought in her life before, could desire to steal; a
bitter feeling of shame came upon her.
It was a case of flying from temptation, and she left the room so
hurriedly that John, who was spying in the passage, had not time either to
slip downstairs or to hide in his brother's room. They met face to face.
"Oh, I beg pardon, sir, but I found this half-crown in your room."
"Well, there's nothing wonderful in that. What are you so agitated about?
I suppose you intended to return it to me?"
"Intended to return it! Of course."
An expression of hate and contempt leaped into her handsome grey eyes,
and, like a dog's, the red lip turned down. She suddenly understood that
this pasty-faced, despicable chap had placed the coin where it might have
accidentally rolled, where she would be likely to find it. He had
complained that morning that she did not keep his room sufficiently clean!
It was a carefully-laid plan, he was watching her all the while, and no
doubt thought that it was his own indiscretion that had prevented her from
falling into the snare. Without a word Esther dropped the half-crown at
his feet and returned to her work; and all the time she remained in her
present situation she persistently refused to speak to him; she brought
him what he asked for, but never answered him, even with a Yes or No.
It was during the few minutes' rest after dinner that the burden of the
day pressed heaviest upon her; then a painful weariness grew into her
limbs, and it seemed impossible to summon strength and will to beat
carpets or sweep down the stairs. But if she were not moving about before
the clock struck, Mrs. Bingley came down to the kitchen.
"Now, Esther, is there nothing for you to do?"
And again, about eight o'clock, she felt too tired to bear the weight of
her own flesh. She had passed through fourteen hours of almost
unintermittent toil, and it seemed to her that she would never be able to
summon up sufficient courage to get through the last three hours. It was
this last summit that taxed all her strength and all her will. Even the
rest that awaited her at eleven o'clock was blighted by the knowledge of
the day that was coming; and its cruel hours, long and lean and
hollow-eyed, stared at her through the darkness. She was often too tired
to rest, and rolled over and over in her miserable garret bed, her whole
body aching. Toil crushed all that was human out of her; even her baby was
growing indifferent to her. If it were to die! She did not desire her
baby's death, but she could not forget what the baby-farmer had told
her--the burden would not become lighter, it would become heavier and
heavier. What would become of her? Was there no hope? She buried her face
in her pillow, seeking to escape from the passion of her despair. She was
an unfortunate girl, and had missed all her chances.
In the six months she had spent in the house in Chelsea her nature had
been strained to the uttermost, and what we call chance now came to decide
the course of her destiny. The fight between circumstances and character
had gone till now in favour of character, but circumstances must call up
no further forces against character. A hair would turn the scale either
way. One morning she was startled out of her sleep by a loud knocking at
the door. It was Mrs. Bingley, who had come to ask her if she knew what
time it was. It was nearly seven o'clock. But Mrs. Bingley could not blame
her much, having herself forgotten to put on the electric bell, and Esther
hurried through her dressing. But in hurrying she happened to tread on her
dress, tearing it right across. It was most unfortunate, and just when she
was most in a hurry. She held up the torn skirt. It was a poor, frayed,
worn-out rag that would hardly bear mending again. Her mistress was
calling her; there was nothing for it but to run down and tell her what
"Haven't you got another dress that you can put on?"
"Really, I can't have you going to the door in that thing. You don't do
credit to my house; you must get yourself a new dress at once."
Esther muttered that she had no money to buy one.
"Then I don't know what you do with your money."
"What I do with my wages is my affair; I've plenty of use for my money."
"I cannot allow any servant of mine to speak to me like that."
Esther did not answer, and Mrs. Bingley continued--
"It is my duty to know what you do with your money, and to see that you do
not spend it in any wrong way. I am responsible for your moral welfare."
"Then, ma'am, I think I had better leave you."
"Leave me, because I don't wish you to spend your money wrongfully,
because I know the temptations that a young girl's life is beset with?"
"There ain't much chance of temptation for them who work seventeen hours a
"Esther, you seem to forget--"
"No, ma'am; but there's no use talking about what I do with my
money--there are other reasons; the place is too hard a one. I've felt it
so for some time, ma'am. My health ain't equal to it."
Once she had spoken, Esther showed no disposition to retract, and she
steadily resisted all Mrs. Bingley's solicitations to remain with her. She
knew the risk she was running in leaving her situation, and yet she felt
she must yield to an instinct like that which impels the hunted animal to
leave the cover and seek safety in the open country. Her whole body cried
out for rest, she must have rest; that was the thing that must be. Mrs.
Lewis would keep her and her baby for twelve shillings a week; the present
was the Christmas quarter, and she was richer by five and twenty shillings
than she had been before. Mrs. Bingley had given her ten shillings, Mr.
Hubert five, and the other ten had been contributed by the four young
ladies. Out of this money she hoped to be able to buy a dress and a pair
of boots, as well as a fortnight's rest with Mrs. Lewis. She had
determined on her plans some three weeks before her month's warning would
expire, and henceforth the mountainous days of her servitude drew out
interminably, seeming more than ever exhausting, and the longing in her
heart to be free at times rose to her head, and her brain turned as if in
delirium. Every time she sat down to a meal she remembered she was so many
hours nearer to rest--a fortnight's rest--she could not afford more; but
in her present slavery that fortnight seemed at once as a paradise and an
eternity. Her only fear was that her health might give way, and that she
would be laid up during the time she intended for rest--personal rest. Her
baby was lost sight of. Even a mother demands something in return for her
love, and in the last year Jackie had taken much and given nothing. But
when she opened Mrs. Lewis's door he came running to her, calling her
Mummie; and the immediate preference he showed for her, climbing on her
knees instead of on Mrs. Lewis's, was a fresh sowing of love in the
They were in the midst of those few days of sunny weather which come in
January, deluding us so with their brightness and warmth that we look
round for roses and are astonished to see the earth bare of flowers. And
these bright afternoons Esther spent entirely with Jackie. At the top of
the hill their way led through a narrow passage between a brick wall and a
high paling. She had always to carry him through this passage, for the
ground there was sloppy and dirty, and the child wanted to stop to watch
the pigs through the chinks in the boards. But when they came to the
smooth, wide, high roads overlooking the valley, she put him down, and he
would run on ahead, crying, "Turn for a walk, Mummie, turn along," and his
little feet went so quickly beneath his frock that it seemed as if he were
on wheels. She followed, often forced to break into a run, tremulous lest
he should fall. They descended the hill into the ornamental park, and
spent happy hours amid geometrically-designed flower-beds and curving
walks. She ventured with him as far as the old Dulwich village, and they
strolled through the long street. Behind the street were low-lying,
shiftless fields, intersected with broken hedges. And when Jackie called
to his mother to carry him, she rejoiced in the labour of his weight; and
when he grew too heavy, she rested on the farm-gate, and looked into the
vague lowlands. And when the chill of night awoke her from her dream she
clasped Jackie to her bosom and turned towards home, very soon to lose
herself again in another tide of happiness.
The evenings, too, were charming. When the candles were lighted, and tea
was on the table, Esther sat with the dozing child on her knee, looking
into the flickering fire, her mind a reverie, occasionally broken by the
homely talk of her companion; and when the baby was laid in his cot she
took up her sewing--she was making herself a new dress; or else the great
kettle was steaming on the hob, and the women stood over the washing-tubs.
On the following evening they worked on either side of the ironing-table,
the candle burning brightly and their vague woman's chatter sounding
pleasant in the hush of the little cottage. A little after nine they were
in bed, and so the days went softly, like happy, trivial dreams. It was
not till the end of the third week that Mrs. Lewis would hear of Esther
looking out for another place. And then Esther was surprised at her good
fortune. A friend of Mrs. Lewis's knew a servant who was leaving her
situation in the West End of London. Esther got the address, and went next
day after the place. She was fortunate enough to obtain it, and her
mistress seemed well satisfied with her. But one day in the beginning of
her second year of service she was told that her mistress wished to speak
to her in the dining-room.
"I fancy," said the cook, "that it is about that baby of yours; they're
very strict here."
Mrs. Trubner was sitting on a low wicker chair by the fire. She was a
large woman with eagle features. Her eyesight had been failing for some
years, and her maid was reading to her. The maid closed the book and left
"It has come to my knowledge, Waters, that you have a child. You're not a
married woman, I believe?"
"I've been unfortunate; I've a child, but that don't make no difference so
long as I gives satisfaction in my work. I don't think that the cook has
"No, the cook hasn't complained, but had I known this I don't think I
should have engaged you. In the character which you showed me, Mrs.
Barfield said that she believed you to be a thoroughly religious girl at
"And I hope I am that, ma'am. I'm truly sorry for my fault. I've suffered
a great deal."
"So you all say; but supposing it were to happen again, and in my house?
"Then don't you think, ma'am, there is repentance and forgiveness? Our
"You ought to have told me; and as for Mrs. Barfield, her conduct is most
"Then, ma'am, would you prevent every poor girl who has had a misfortune
from earning her bread? If they was all like you there would be more girls
who'd do away with themselves and their babies. You don't know how hard
pressed we are. The baby-farmer says, 'Give me five pounds and I'll find a
good woman who wants a little one, and you shall hear no more about it.'
Them very words were said to me. I took him away and hoped to be able to
rear him, but if I'm to lose my situations----"
"I should be sorry to prevent anyone from earning their bread----"
"You're a mother yourself, ma'am, and you know what it is."
"Really, it's quite different.... I don't know what you mean, Waters."
"I mean that if I am to lose my situations on account of my baby, I don't
know what will become of me. If I give satisfaction--"
At that moment Mr. Trubner entered. He was a large, stout man, with his
mother's aquiline features. He arrived with his glasses on his nose, and
slightly out of breath.
"Oh, oh, I didn't know, mother," he blurted out, and was about to withdraw
when Mrs. Trubner said--
"This is the new servant whom that lady in Sussex recommended."
Esther saw a look of instinctive repulsion come over his face.
"I'll leave you to settle with her, mother."
"I must speak to you, Harold--I must."
"I really can't; I know nothing of this matter."
He tried to leave the room, and when his mother stopped him he said
testily, "Well, what is it? I am very busy just now, and--" Mrs. Trubner
told Esther to wait in the passage.
"Well," said Mr. Trubner, "have you discharged her? I leave all these
things to you."
"She has told me her story; she is trying to bring up her child on her
wages.... She said if she was kept from earning her bread she didn't know
what would become of her. Her position is a very terrible one."
"I know that.... But we can't have loose women about the place. They all
can tell a fine story; the world is full of impostors."
"I don't think the girl is an impostor."
"Very likely not, but everyone has a right to protect themselves."
"Don't speak so loud, Harold," said Mrs. Trubner, lowering her voice.
"Remember her child is dependent upon her; if we send her away we don't
know what may happen. I'll pay her a month's wages if you like, but you
must take the responsibility."
"I won't take any responsibility in the matter. If she had been here two
years--she has only been here a year--not so much more--and had proved a
satisfactory servant, I don't say that we'd be justified in sending her
away.... There are plenty of good girls who want a situation as much as
she. I don't see why we should harbour loose women when there are so many
"Then you want me to send her away?"
"I don't want to interfere; you ought to know how to act. Supposing the
same thing were to happen again? My cousins, young men, coming to the
"But she won't see them."
"Do as you like; it is your business, not mine. It doesn't matter to me,
so long as I'm not interfered with; keep her if you like. You ought to
have looked into her character more closely before you engaged her. I
think that the lady who recommended her ought to be written to very
They had forgotten to close the door, and Esther stood in the passage
burning and choking with shame.
"It is a strange thing that religion should make some people so
unfeeling," Esther thought as she left Onslow Square.
It was necessary to keep her child secret, and in her next situation she
shunned intimacy with her fellow-servants, and was so strict in her
conduct that she exposed herself to their sneers. She dreaded the remark
that she always went out alone, and often arrived at the cottage
breathless with fear and expectation--at a cottage where a little boy
stood by a stout middle-aged woman, turning over the pages of the
illustrated papers that his mother had brought him; she had no money to
buy him toys. Dropping the Illustrated London News, he cried, "Here is
Mummie," and ran to her with outstretched arms. Ah, what an embrace! Mrs.
Lewis continued her sewing, and for an hour or more Esther told about her
fellow-servants, about the people she lived with, the conversation
interrupted by the child calling his mother's attention to the pictures,
or by the delicate intrusion of his little hand into hers.
Her clothes were her great difficulty, and she often thought that she
would rather go back to the slavery of the house in Chelsea than bear the
humiliation of going out any longer on Sunday in the old things that the
servants had seen her in for eight or nine months or more. She was made to
feel that she was the lowest of the low--the servant of servants. She had
to accept everybody's sneer and everybody's bad language, and oftentimes
gross familiarity, in order to avoid arguments and disputes which might
endanger her situation. She had to shut her eyes to the thefts of cooks;
she had to fetch them drink, and to do their work when they were unable to
do it themselves. But there was no help for it. She could not pick and
choose where she would live, and any wages above sixteen pound a year she
must always accept, and put up with whatever inconvenience she might meet.
Hers is an heroic adventure if one considers it--a mother's fight for the
life of her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against
the lowly and the illegitimate. She is in a situation to-day, but on what
security does she hold it? She is strangely dependent on her own health,
and still more upon the fortunes and the personal caprice of her
employers; and she realised the perils of her life when an outcast mother
at the corner of the street, stretching out of her rags a brown hand and
arm, asked alms for the sake of the little children. Esther remembered
then that three months out of a situation and she too would be on the
street as a flower-seller, match-seller, or----
It did not seem, however, that any of these fears were to be realised. Her
luck had mended; for nearly two years she had been living with some rich
people in the West End; she liked her mistress and was on good terms with
her fellow servants, and had it not been for an accident she could have
kept this situation. The young gentlemen had come home for their summer
holidays; she had stepped aside to let Master Harry pass on the stairs.
But he did not go by, and there was a strange smile on his face.
"Look here, Esther, I'm awfully fond of you. You are the prettiest girl
I've ever seen. Come out for a walk with me next Sunday."
"Master Harry, I'm surprised at you; will you let me go by at once?"
There was no one near, the house was silent, and the boy stood on the step
above her. He tried to throw his arm round her waist, but she shook him
off and went up to her room calm with indignation. A few days afterward
she suddenly became aware that he was following her in the street. She
turned sharply upon him.
"Master Harry, I know that this is only a little foolishness on your part,
but if you don't leave off I shall lose my situation, and I'm sure you
don't want to do me an injury."
Master Harry seemed sorry, and he promised not to follow her in the street
again. And never thinking that it was he who had written the letter she
received a few days after, she asked Annie, the upper housemaid, to read
it. It contained reference to meetings and unalterable affection, and it
concluded with a promise to marry her if she lost her situation through
his fault. Esther listened like one stunned. A schoolboy's folly, the
first silly sentimentality of a boy, a thing lighter than the lightest
leaf that falls, had brought disaster upon her.
If Annie had not seen the letter she might have been able to get the boy
to listen to reason; but Annie had seen the letter, and Annie could not be
trusted. The story would be sure to come out, and then she would lose her
character as well as her situation. It was a great pity. Her mistress had
promised to have her taught cooking at South Kensington, and a cook's
wages would secure her and her child against all ordinary accidents. She
would never get such a chance again, and would remain a kitchen-maid to
the end of her days. And acting on the impulse of the moment she went
straight to the drawing-room. Her mistress was alone, and Esther handed
her the letter. "I thought you had better see this at once, ma'am. I did
not want you to think it was my fault. Of course the young gentleman means
"Has anyone seen this letter?"
"I showed it to Annie. I'm no scholar myself, and the writing was
"You have no reason for supposing----How often did Master Harry speak to
you in this way?"
"Only twice, ma'am."
"Of course it is only a little foolishness. I needn't say that he doesn't
mean what he says."
"I told him, ma'am, that if he continued I should lose my situation."
"I'm sorry to part with you, Esther, but I really think that the best way
will be for you to leave. I am much obliged to you for showing me this
letter. Master Harry, you see, says that he is going away to the country
for a week. He left this morning. So I really think that a month's wages
will settle matters nicely. You are an excellent servant, and I shall be
glad to recommend you."
Then Esther heard her mistress mutter something about the danger of
good-looking servants. And Esther was paid a month's wages, and left that
It was the beginning of August, and London yawned in every street; the
dust blew unslaked, and a little cloud curled and disappeared over the
crest of the hill at Hyde Park Corner; the streets and St. George's Place
looked out with blind, white eyes; and in the deserted Park the trees
tossed their foliage restlessly, as if they wearied and missed the fashion
of their season. And all through Park Lane and Mayfair, caretakers and
gaunt cats were the traces that the caste on which Esther depended had
left of its departed presence. She was coming from the Alexandra Hotel,
where she had heard a kitchen-maid was wanted. Mrs. Lewis had urged her to
wait until people began to come back to town. Good situations were rarely
obtainable in the summer months; it would be bad policy to take a bad one,
even if it were only for a while. Besides, she had saved a little money,
and, feeling that she required a rest, had determined to take this advice.
But as luck would have it Jackie fell ill before she had been at Dulwich a
week. His illness made a big hole in her savings, and it had become
evident that she would have to set to work and at once.
She turned into the park. She was going north, to a registry office near
Oxford Street, which Mrs. Lewis had recommended. Holborn Row was difficult
to find, and she had to ask the way very often, but she suddenly knew that
she was in the right street by the number of servant-girls going and
coming from the office, and in company with five others Esther ascended a
gloomy little staircase. The office was on the first floor. The doors were
open, and they passed into a special odour of poverty, as it were, into an
atmosphere of mean interests.
Benches covered with red plush were on either side, and these were
occupied by fifteen or twenty poorly-dressed women. A little old woman,
very white and pale, stood near the window recounting her misfortunes to
no one in particular.
"I lived with her more than thirty years; I brought up all the children. I
entered her service as nurse, and when the children grew up I was given
the management of everything. For the last fifteen years my mistress was a
confirmed invalid. She entrusted everything to me. Oftentimes she took my
hand and said, 'You are a good creature, Holmes, you mustn't think of
leaving me; how should I get on without you?' But when she died they had
to part with me; they said they were very sorry, and wouldn't have thought
of doing so, only they were afraid I was getting too old for the work. I
daresay I was wrong to stop so long in one situation. I shouldn't have
done so, but she always used to say, 'You mustn't leave us; we never shall
be able to get on without you.'"
At that moment the secretary, an alert young woman with a decisive voice,
came through the folding doors.
"I will not have all this talking," she said. Her quick eyes fell on the
little old woman, and she came forward a few steps. "What, you here again,
Miss Holmes? I've told you that when I hear of anything that will suit you
"So you said, Miss, but my little savings are running short. I'm being
pressed for my rent."
"I can't help that; when I hear of anything I'll write. But I can't have
you coming here every third day wasting my time; now run along." And
having made casual remarks about the absurdity of people of that age
coming after situations, she called three or four women to her desk, of
whom Esther was one. She examined them critically, and seemed especially
satisfied with Esther's appearance.
"It will be difficult," she said, "to find you the situation you want
before people begin to return to town. If you were only an inch or two
taller I could get you a dozen places as housemaid; tall servants are all
the fashion, and you are the right age--about five-and-twenty."
Esther left a dozen stamps with her, and soon after she began to receive
letters containing the addresses of ladies who required servants. They
were of all sorts, for the secretary seemed to exercise hardly any
discrimination, and Esther was sent on long journeys from Brixton to
Notting Hill to visit poor people who could hardly afford a
maid-of-all-work. These useless journeys were very fatiguing. Sometimes
she was asked to call at a house in Bayswater, and thence she had to go to
High Street, Kensington, or Earl's Court; a third address might be in
Chelsea. She could only guess which was the best chance, and while she was
hesitating the situation might be given away. Very often the ladies were
out, and she was asked to call later in the day. These casual hours she
spent in the parks, mending Jackie's socks or hemming pocket
handkerchiefs, so she was frequently delayed till evening; and in the
mildness of the summer twilight, with some fresh disappointment lying
heavy on her heart, she made her way from the Marble Arch round the barren
Serpentine into Piccadilly, with its stream of light beginning in the
And standing at the kerb of Piccadilly Circus, waiting for a 'bus to take
her to Ludgate Hill Station, the girl grew conscious of the moving
multitude that filled the streets. The great restaurants rose up calm and
violet in the evening sky, the Cafe Monico, with its air of French
newspapers and Italian wines; and before the grey facade of the
fashionable Criterion hansoms stopped and dinner parties walked across the
pavement. The fine weather had brought the women up earlier than usual
from the suburbs. They came up the long road from Fulham, with white
dresses floating from their hips, and feather boas waving a few inches
from the pavement. But through this elegant disguise Esther could pick out
the servant-girls. Their stories were her story. They had been deserted,
as she had been; and perhaps each had a child to support, only they had
not been so lucky as she had been in finding situations.
But now luck seemed to have deserted her. It was the middle of September
and she had not yet been able to find the situation she wanted; and it had
become more and more distressing to her to refuse sixteen pound a year.
She had calculated it all out, and nothing less than eighteen pound was of
any use to her. With eighteen pound and a kind mistress who would give her
an old dress occasionally she could do very well. But if she didn't find
these two pounds she did not know what she should do. She might drag on
for a time on sixteen pound, but such wages would drive her in the end
into the workhouse. If it were not for the child! But she would never
desert her darling boy, who loved her so dearly, come what might. A sudden
imagination let her see him playing in the little street, waiting for her
to come home, and her love for him went to her head like madness. She
wondered at herself; it seemed almost unnatural to love anything as she
did this child.
Then, in a shiver of fear, determined to save her 'bus fare, she made her
way through Leicester Square. She was a good-looking girl, who hastened
her steps when addressed by a passer-by or crossed the roadway in sullen
indignation, and who looked in contempt on the silks and satins which
turned into the Empire, and she seemed to lose heart utterly. She had been
walking all day and had not tasted food since the morning, and the
weakness of the flesh brought a sudden weakness of the spirit. She felt
that she could struggle no more, that the whole world was against her--she
felt that she must have food and drink and rest. All this London tempted
her, and the cup was at her lips. A young man in evening clothes had
spoken to her. His voice was soft, the look in his eyes seemed kindly.
Thinking of the circumstances ten minutes later it seemed to her that she
had intended to answer him. But she was now at Charing Cross. There was a
lightness, an emptiness in her head which she could not overcome, and the
crowd appeared to her like a blurred, noisy dream. And then the dizziness
left her, and she realised the temptation she had escaped. Here, as in
Piccadilly, she could pick out the servant girls; but here their service
was yesterday's lodging-house--poor and dissipated girls, dressed in vague
clothes fixed with hazardous pins. Two young women strolled in front of
her. They hung on each other's arms, talking lazily. They had just come
out of an eating-house, and a happy digestion was in their eyes. The skirt
on the outside was a soiled mauve, and the bodice that went with it was a
soiled chocolate. A broken yellow plume hung out of a battered hat. The
skirt on the inside was a dim green, and little was left of the cotton
velvet jacket but the cotton. A girl of sixteen walking sturdily, like a
little man, crossed the road, her left hand thrust deep into the pocket of
her red cashmere dress. She wore on her shoulders a strip of beaded
mantle; her hair was plaited and tied with a red ribbon. Corpulent women
passed, their eyes liquid with invitation; and the huge bar-loafer, the
man of fifty, the hooked nose and the waxed moustache, stood at the door
of a restaurant, passing the women in review.
A true London of the water's edge--a London of theatres, music-halls,
wine-shops, public-houses--the walls painted various colours, nailed over
with huge gold lettering; the pale air woven with delicate wire, a
gossamer web underneath which the crowd moved like lazy flies, one half
watching the perforated spire of St. Mary's, and all the City spires
behind it now growing cold in the east, the other half seeing the spire of
St. Martin's above the chimney-pots aloft in a sky of cream pink. Stalwart
policemen urged along groups of slattern boys and girls; and after vulgar
remonstrance these took the hint and disappeared down strange passages.
Suddenly Esther came face to face with a woman whom she recognised as
"What, is it you, Margaret?"
"Yes, it is me all right. What are you doing up here? Got tired of
service? Come and have a drink, old gal."
"No, thank you; I'm glad to have seen you, Margaret, but I've a train to
"That won't do," said Margaret, catching her by the arm; "we must have a
drink and a talk over old times."
Esther felt that if she did not have something she would faint before she
reached Ludgate Hill, and Margaret led the way through the public-house,
opening all the varnished doors, seeking a quiet corner. "What's the
matter?" she said, startled at the pallor of Esther's face.
"Only a little faintness; I've not had anything to eat all day."
"Quick, quick, four of brandy and some water," Margaret cried to the
barman, and a moment after she was holding the glass to her friend's lips.
"Not had anything to eat all day, dear? Then we'll have a bite and a sup
together. I feel a bit peckish myself. Two sausages and two rolls and
butter," she cried. Then the women had a long talk. Margaret told Esther
the story of her misfortune.
The Barfields were all broken up. They had been very unlucky racing, and
when the servants got the sack Margaret had come up to London. She had
been in several situations. Eventually, one of her masters had got her
into trouble, his wife had turned her out neck and crop, and what was she
to do? Then Esther told how Master Harry had lost her her situation.
"And you left like that? Well I never! The better one behaves the worse
one gets treated, and them that goes on with service find themselves in
the end without as much as will buy them a Sunday dinner."
Margaret insisted on accompanying Esther, and they walked together as far
as Wellington Street. "I can't go any further," and pointing to where
London seemed to end in a piece of desolate sky, she said, "I live on the
other side, in Stamford Street. You might come and see me. If you ever get
tired of service you'll get decent rooms there."
Bad weather followed fine, and under a streaming umbrella Esther went from
one address to another, her damp skirts clinging about her and her boots
clogged with mud. She looked upon the change in the weather as
unfortunate, for in getting a situation so much depended on personal
appearance and cheerfulness of manner; and it is difficult to seem a right
and tidy girl after two miles' walk through the rain.
One lady told Esther that she liked tall servants, another said she never
engaged good-looking girls, and another place that would have suited her
was lost through unconsciously answering that she was chapel. The lady
would have nothing in her house but church. Then there were the
disappointments occasioned by the letters which she received from people
who she thought would have engaged her, saying they were sorry, but that
they had seen some one whom they liked better.
Another week passed and Esther had to pawn her clothes to get money for
her train fare to London, and to keep the registry office supplied with
stamps. Her prospects had begun to seem quite hopeless, and she lay awake
thinking that she and Jackie must go back to the workhouse. They could not
stop on at Mrs. Lewis's much longer. Mrs. Lewis had been very good to
them, but Esther owed her two weeks' money. What was to be done? She had
heard of charitable institutions, but she was an ignorant girl and did not
know how to make the necessary inquiries. Oh, the want of a little
money--of a very little money; the thought beat into her brain. For just
enough to hold on till the people came back to town.
One day Mrs. Lewis, who read the newspapers for her, came to her with an
advertisement which she said seemed to read like a very likely chance.
Esther looked at the pence which remained out of the last dress that she
"I'm afraid," she said, "it will turn out like the others; I'm out of my
"Don't say that," said Mrs. Lewis; "keep your courage up; I'll stick to
you as long as I can."
The women had a good cry in each other's arms, and then Mrs. Lewis advised
Esther to take the situation, even if it were no more than sixteen. "A lot
can be done by constant saving, and if she gives yer 'er dresses and ten
shillings for a Christmas-box, I don't see why you should not pull
through. The baby shan't cost you more than five shillings a week till you
get a situation as plain cook. Here is the address--Miss Rice, Avondale
Road, West Kensington."
Avondale Road was an obscure corner of the suburb--obscure, for it had
just sprung into existence. The scaffolding that had built it now littered
an adjoining field, where in a few months it would rise about Horsely
Gardens, whose red gables and tiled upper walls will correspond
unfailingly with those of Avondale Road. Nowhere in this neighbourhood
could Esther detect signs of eighteen pounds a year. Scanning the Venetian
blinds of the single drawing-room window, she said to herself, "Hot joint
today, cold the next." She noted the trim iron railings and the spare
shrubs, and raising her eyes she saw the tiny gable windows of the
cupboard-like rooms where the single servant kept in these houses slept.
A few steps more brought her to 41, the corner house. The thin passage and
the meagre staircase confirmed Esther in the impression she had received
from the aspect of the street; and she felt that the place was more
suitable to the gaunt woman with iron-grey hair who waited in the passage.
This woman looked apprehensively at Esther, and when Esther said that she
had come after the place a painful change of expression passed over her
face, and she said--
"You'll get it; I'm too old for anything but charing. How much are you
going to ask?"
"I can't take less than sixteen."
"Sixteen! I used to get that once; I'd be glad enough to get twelve now.
You can't think of sixteen once you've turned forty, and I've lost my
teeth, and they means a couple of pound off."
Then the door opened, and a woman's voice called to the gaunt woman to
come in. She went in, and Esther breathed a prayer that she might not be
engaged. A minute intervened, and the gaunt woman came out; there were
tears in her eyes, and she whispered to Esther as she passed, "No good; I
told you so. I'm too old for anything but charing." The abruptness of the
interview suggested a hard mistress, and Esther was surprised to find
herself in the presence of a slim lady, about seven-and-thirty, whose
small grey eyes seemed to express a kind and gentle nature. As she stood
speaking to her, Esther saw a tall glass filled with chrysanthemums and a
large writing-table covered with books and papers. There was a bookcase,
and in place of the usual folding-doors, a bead curtain hung between the
The room almost said that the occupant was a spinster and a writer, and
Esther remembered that she had noticed even at the time Miss Rice's
manuscript, it was such a beautiful clear round hand, and it lay on the
table, ready to be continued the moment she should have settled with her.
"I saw your advertisement in the paper, miss; I've come after the
"You are used to service?"
"Yes, miss, I've had several situations in gentlemen's families, and have
excellent characters from them all." Then Esther related the story of her
situations, and Miss Rice put up her glasses and her grey eyes smiled. She
seemed pleased with the somewhat rugged but pleasant-featured girl before
"I live alone," she said; "the place is an easy one, and if the wages
satisfy you, I think you will suit me very well. My servant, who has been
with me some years, is leaving me to be married."
"What are the wages, miss?"
"Fourteen pounds a year."
"I'm afraid, miss, there would be no use my taking the place; I've so many
calls on my money that I could not manage on fourteen pounds. I'm very
sorry, for I feel sure I should like to live with you, miss."
But what was the good of taking the place? She could not possibly manage
on fourteen, even if Miss Rice did give her a dress occasionally, and that
didn't look likely. All her strength seemed to give way under her
misfortune, and it was with difficulty that she restrained her tears.
"I think we should suit each other," Miss Rice said reflectively.
"I should like to have you for my servant if I could afford it. How much
would you take?"
"Situated, as I am, miss, I could not take less than sixteen. I've been
used to eighteen."
"Sixteen pounds is more than I can afford, but I'll think it over. Give me
your name and address."
"Esther Waters, 13 Poplar Road, Dulwich."
As Esther turned to go she became aware of the kindness of the eyes that
looked at her. Miss Rice said--
"I'm afraid you're in trouble.... Sit down; tell me about it."
"No, miss, what's the use?" But Miss Rice looked at her so kindly that
Esther could not restrain herself. "There's nothing for it," she said,
"but to go back to the workhouse."
"But why should you go to the workhouse? I offer you fourteen pounds a
year and everything found."
"You see, miss, I've a baby; we've been in the workhouse already; I had to
go there the night I left my situation, to get him away from Mrs. Spires;
she wanted to kill him; she'd have done it for five pounds--that's the
price. But, miss, my story is not one that can be told to a lady such as
"I think I'm old enough to listen to your story; sit down, and tell it to
And all the while Miss Rice's eyes were filled with tenderness and pity.
"A very sad story--just such a story as happens every day. But you have
been punished, you have indeed."
"Yes, miss, I think I have; and after all these years of striving it is
hard to have to take him back to the workhouse. Not that I want to give
out that I was badly treated there, but it is the child I'm thinking of.
He was then a little baby and it didn't matter; we was only there a few
months. There's no one that knows of it but me. But he's a growing boy
now, he'll remember the workhouse, and it will be always a disgrace."
"How old is he?"
"He was six last May, miss. It has been a hard job to bring him up. I now
pay six shillings a week for him, that's more than fourteen pounds a year,
and you can't do much in the way of clothes on two pounds a year. And now
that he's growing up he's costing more than ever; but Mrs. Lewis--that's
the woman what has brought him up--is as fond of him as I am myself. She
don't want to make nothing out of his keep, and that's how I've managed up
to the present. But I see well enough that it can't be done; his expense
increases, and the wages remains the same. It was my pride to bring him up
on my earnings, and my hope to see him an honest man earning good money.
But it wasn't to be, miss, it wasn't to be. We must be humble and go back
to the workhouse."
"I can see that it has been a hard fight."
"It has indeed, miss; no one will ever know how hard. I shouldn't mind if
it wasn't going to end by going back to where it started.... They'll take
him from me; I shall never see him while he is there. I wish I was dead,
miss, I can't bear my trouble no longer."
"You shan't go back to the workhouse so long as I can help you. Esther,
I'll give you the wages you ask for. It is more than I can afford.
Eighteen pounds a year! But your child shall not be taken from you. You
shall not go to the workhouse. There aren't many such good women in the
world as you, Esther."
From the first Miss Rice was interested in her servant, and encouraged her
confidences. But it was some time before either was able to put aside her
natural reserve. They were not unlike--quiet, instinctive Englishwomen,
strong, warm natures, under an appearance of formality and reserve.
The instincts of the watch-dog soon began to develop in Esther, and she
extended her supervision over all the household expenses, likewise over
her mistress's health.
"Now, miss, I must 'ave you take your soup while it is 'ot. You'd better
put away your writing; you've been at it all the morning. You'll make
yourself ill, and then I shall have the nursing of you." If Miss Rice were
going out in the evening she would find herself stopped in the passage.
"Now, miss, I really can't see you go out like that; you'll catch your
death of cold. You must put on your warm cloak."
Miss Rice's friends were principally middle-aged ladies. Her sisters,
large, stout women, used to come and see her, and there was a
fashionably-dressed young man whom her mistress seemed to like very much.
Mr. Alden was his name, and Miss Rice told Esther that he, too, wrote
novels; they used to talk about each other's books for hours, and Esther
feared that Miss Rice was giving her heart away to one who did not care
for her. But perhaps she was satisfied to see Mr. Alden once a week and
talk for an hour with him about books. Esther didn't think she'd care, if
she had a young man, to see him come and go like a shadow. But she hadn't
a young man, and did not want one. All she now wanted was to awake in the
morning and know that her child was safe; her ambition was to make her
mistress's life comfortable. And for more than a year she pursued her plan
of life unswervingly. She declined an offer of marriage, and was rarely
persuaded into a promise to walk out with any of her admirers. One of
these was a stationer's foreman, and almost every day Esther went to the
stationer's for the sermon paper on which her mistress wrote her novels,
for blotting-paper, for stamps, to post letters--that shop seemed the
centre of their lives.
Fred Parsons--that was his name--was a meagre little man about
thirty-five. A high and prominent forehead rose above a small pointed
face, and a scanty growth of blonde beard and moustache did not conceal
the receding chin nor the red sealing-wax lips. His faded yellow hair was
beginning to grow thin, and his threadbare frock-coat hung limp from
sloping shoulders. But these disadvantages were compensated by a clear
bell-like voice, into which no trace of doubt ever seemed to come; and his
mind was neatly packed with a few religious and political ideas. He had
been in business in the West End, but an uncontrollable desire to ask
every customer who entered into conversation with him if he were sure that
he believed in the second coming of Christ had been the cause of severance
between him and his employers.
He had been at West Kensington a fortnight, had served Esther once with
sermon paper, and had already begun to wonder what were her religious
beliefs. But bearing in mind his recent dismissal, he refrained for the
present. At the end of the week they were alone in the shop. Esther had
come for a packet of note-paper. Fred was sorry she had not come for
sermon paper; if she had it would have been easier to inquire her opinions
regarding the second coming. But the opportunity, such as it was, was not
to be resisted. He said--
"Your mistress seems to use a great deal of paper; it was only a day or
two ago that I served you with four quires."
"That was for her books; what she now wants is note-paper."
"So your mistress writes books!"
"I hope they're good books--books that are helpful." He paused to see that
no one was within earshot. "Books that bring sinners back to the Lord."
"I don't know what she writes; I only know she writes books; I think I've
heard she writes novels."
Fred did not approve of novels--Esther could see that--and she was sorry;
for he seemed a nice, clear-spoken young man, and she would have liked to
tell him that her mistress was the last person who would write anything
that could do harm to anyone. But her mistress was waiting for her paper,
and she took leave of him hastily. The next time they met was in the
evening. She was going to see if she could get some fresh eggs for her
mistress's breakfast before the shops closed, and coming towards her,
walking at a great pace, she saw one whom she thought she recognised, a
meagre little man with long reddish hair curling under the brim of a large
soft black hat. He nodded, smiling pleasantly as he passed her.
"Lor'," she thought, "I didn't know him; it's the stationer's foreman."
And the very next evening they met in the same street; she was out for a
little walk, he was hurrying to catch his train. They stopped to pass the
time of day, and three days after they met at the same time, and as nearly
as possible at the same place.
"We're always meeting," he said.
"Yes, isn't it strange?... You come this way from business?" she said.
"Yes; about eight o'clock is my time."
It was the end of August; the stars caught fire slowly in the murky London
sunset; and, vaguely conscious of a feeling of surprise at the pleasure
they took in each other's company, they wandered round a little bleak
square in which a few shrubs had just been planted. They took up the
conversation exactly at the point where it had been broken off.
"I'm sorry," Fred said, "that the paper isn't going to be put to better
"You don't know my mistress, or you wouldn't say that."
"Perhaps you don't know that novels are very often stories about the loves
of men for other men's wives. Such books can serve no good purpose."
"I'm sure my mistress don't write about such things. How could she, poor
dear innocent lamb? It is easy to see you don't know her."
In the course of their argument it transpired that Miss Rice went to
neither church nor chapel.
Fred was much shocked.
"I hope," he said, "you do not follow your mistress's example."
Esther admitted she had for some time past neglected her religion. Fred
went so far as to suggest that she ought to leave her present situation
and enter a truly religious family.
"I owe her too much ever to think of leaving her. And it has nothing to do
with her if I haven't thought as much about the Lord as I ought to have.
It's the first place I've been in where there was time for religion."
This answer seemed to satisfy Fred.
"Where used you to go?"
"My people--father and mother--belonged to the Brethren."
"To the Close or the Open?"
"I don't remember; I was only a little child at the time."
"I'm a Plymouth Brother."
"Well, that is strange."
"Remember that it is only through belief in our Lord, in the sacrifice of
the Cross, that we can be saved."
"Yes, I believe that."
The avowal seemed to have brought them strangely near to each other, and
on the following Sunday Fred took Esther to meeting, and introduced her as
one who had strayed, but who had never ceased to be one of them.
She had not been to meeting since she was a little child; and the bare
room and bare dogma, in such immediate accordance with her own
nature--were they not associated with memories of home, of father and
mother, of all that had gone?--touched her with a human delight that
seemed to reach to the roots of her nature. It was Fred who preached; and
he spoke of the second coming of Christ, when the faithful would be
carried away in clouds of glory, of the rapine and carnage to which the
world would be delivered up before final absorption in everlasting hell;
and a sensation of dreadful awe passed over the listening faces; a young
girl who sat with closed eyes put out her hand to assure herself that
Esther was still there--that she had not been carried away in glory.
As they walked home, Esther told Fred that she had not been so happy for a
long time. He pressed her hand, and thanked her with a look in which
appeared all his soul; she was his for ever and ever; nothing could wholly
disassociate them; he had saved her soul. His exaltation moved her to
wonder. But her own innate faith, though incapable of these exaltations,
had supported her during many a troublous year. Fred would want her to
come to meeting with him next Sunday, and she was going to Dulwich. Sooner
or later he would find out that she had a child, then she would see him no
more. It were better that she should tell him than that he should hear it
from others. But she felt she could not bear the humiliation, the shame;
and she wished they had never met. That child came between her and every
possible happiness.... It were better to break off with Fred. But what
excuse could she give? Everything went wrong with her. He might ask her to
marry him, then she would have to tell him.
Towards the end of the week she heard some one tap at the window; it was
Fred. He asked her why he had not seen her; she answered that she had not
"Can you come out this evening?"
"Yes, if you like."
She put on her hat, and they went out. Neither spoke, but their feet took
instinctively the pavement that led to the little square where they had
walked the first time they went out together.
"I've been thinking of you a good deal, Esther, in the last few days. I
want to ask you to marry me."
Esther did not answer.
"Will you?" he said.
"I can't; I'm very sorry; don't ask me."
"Why can't you?"
"If I told you I don't think you'd want to marry me. I suppose I'd better
tell you. I'm not the good woman you think me. I've got a child. There,
you have it now, and you can take your hook when you like."
It was her blunt, sullen nature that had spoken; she didn't care if he
left her on the spot--now he knew all and could do as he liked. At last,
"But you've repented, Esther?"
"I should think I had, and been punished too, enough for a dozen
"Ah, then it wasn't lately?"
"Lately! It's nearly eight year ago."
"And all that time you've been a good woman?"
"Yes, I think I've been that."
"I don't want no ifs. If I am not good enough for you, you can go
elsewhere and get better; I've had enough of reproaches."
"I did not mean to reproach you; I know that a woman's path is more
difficult to walk in than ours. It may not be a woman's fault if she
falls, but it is always a man's. He can always fly from temptation."
"Yet there isn't a man that can say he hasn't gone wrong."
"No, not all, Esther."
Esther looked him full in the face.
"I understand what you mean, Esther, but I can honestly say that I never
Esther did not like him any better for his purity, and was irritated by
the clear tones of his icy voice.
"But that is no reason why I should be hard on those who have not been so
fortunate. I didn't mean to reproach you just now, Esther; I only meant to
say that I wish you had told me this before I took you to meeting."
"So you're ashamed of me, is that it? Well, you can keep your shame to
"No, not that, Esther--"
"Then you'd like to see me humiliated before the others, as if I haven't
had enough of that already."
"No, Esther, listen to me. Those who transgress the moral law may not
kneel at the table for a time, until they have repented; but those who
believe in the sacrifice of the Cross are acquitted, and I believe you do
"A sinner that repenteth----I will speak about this at our next meeting;
you will come with me there?"
"Next Sunday I'm going to Dulwich to see the child."
"Can't you go after meeting?"
"No, I can't be out morning and afternoon both."
"May I go with you?"
"You won't go until after meeting; I can meet you at the railway station."
"If you like."
As they walked home Esther told Fred the story of her betrayal. He was
interested in the story, and was very sorry for her.
"I love you, Esther; it is easy to forgive those we love."
"You're very good; I never thought to find a man so good." She looked up
in his face; her hand was on the gate, and in that moment she felt that
she almost loved him.
Mrs. Humphries, an elderly person, who looked after a bachelor's
establishment two doors up, and generally slipped in about tea-time, soon
began to speak of Fred as a very nice young man who would be likely to
make a woman happy. But Esther moved about the kitchen in her taciturn
way, hardly answering. Suddenly she told Mrs. Humphries that she had been
to Dulwich with him, and that it was wonderful how he and Jackie had taken
to one another.
"You don't say so! Well, it is nice to find them religious folks less
'ard-'earted than they gets the name of."
Mrs. Humphries was of the opinion that henceforth Esther should give
herself out as Jackie's aunt. "None believes them stories, but they make
one seem more respectable like, and I am sure Mr. Parsons will appreciate
the intention." Esther did not answer, but she thought of what Mrs.
Humphries had said. Perhaps it would be better if Jackie were to leave off
calling her Mummie. Auntie! But no, she could not bear it. Fred must take
her as she was or not at all. They seemed to understand each other; he was
earning good money, thirty shillings a week, and she was now going on for
eight-and-twenty; if she was ever going to be married it was time to think
"I don't know how that dear soul will get on without me," she said one
October morning as they jogged out of London by a slow train from St.
Paul's. Fred was taking her into Kent to see his people.
"How do you expect me to get on without you?"
"Trust you to manage somehow. There ain't much fear of a man not looking
after his little self."
"But the old folk will want to know when. What shall I tell them?"
"This time next year; that'll be soon enough. Perhaps you'll get tired of
me before then."
"Say next spring, Esther."
The train stopped.
"There's father waiting for us in the spring-cart. Father! He don't hear
us. He's gone a bit deaf of late years. Father!"
"Ah, so here you are. Train late."
"This is Esther, father."
They were going to spend the day at the farm-house, and she was going to
be introduced to Fred's sisters and to his brother. But these did not
concern her much, her thoughts were set on Mrs. Parsons, for Fred had
spoken a great deal about his mother. When she had been told about Jackie
she was of course very sorry; but when she had heard the whole of Esther's
story she had said, "We are all born into temptation, and if your Esther
has really repented and prayed to be forgiven, we must not say no to her."
Nevertheless Esther was not quite easy in her mind, and half regretted
that she had consented to see Fred's people until he had made her his
wife. But it was too late to think of such things. There was the
farm-house. Fred had just pointed it out, and scenting his stable, the old
grey ascended the hill at a trot, and Esther wondered what the farm-house
would be like. All the summer they had had a fine show of flowers, Fred
said. Now only a few Michaelmas daisies withered in the garden, and the
Virginia creeper covered one side of the house with a crimson mantle. The
old man said he would take the trap round to the stable, and Fred walked
up the red-bricked pavement and lifted the latch. As they passed through
the kitchen Fred introduced Esther to his two sisters, Mary and Lily. But
they were busy cooking.
"Mother is in the parlour," said Mary; "she is waiting for you." By the
window, in a wide wooden arm-chair, sat a large woman about sixty, dressed
in black. She wore on either side of her long white face two corkscrew
curls, which gave her a somewhat ridiculous appearance. But she ceased to
be ridiculous or grotesque when she rose from her chair to greet her son.
Her face beamed, and she held out her hands in a beautiful gesture of
"Oh, how do you do, dear Fred? I am that glad to see you! How good of you
to come all this way! Come and sit down here."
"Mother, this is Esther."
"How do you do, Esther? It was good of you to come. I am glad to see you.
Let me get you a chair. Take off your things, dear; come and sit down."
She insisted on relieving Esther of her hat and jacket, and, having laid
them on the sofa, she waddled across the room, drawing over two chairs.
"Come and sit down; you'll tell me everything. I can't get about much now,
but I like to have my children round me. Take this chair, Esther." Then
turning to Fred, "Tell me, Fred, how you've been getting on. Are you still
living at Hackney?"
"Yes, mother; but when we're married we're going to have a cottage at
Mortlake. Esther will like it better than Hackney. It is nearer the
"Then you've not forgotten the country. Mortlake is on the river, I think.
I hope you won't find it too damp."
"No, mother, there are some nice cottages there. I think we shall find
that Mortlake suits us. There are many friends there; more than fifty meet
together every Sunday. And there's a lot of political work to be done
there. I know that you're against politics, but men can't stand aside
nowadays. Times change, mother."
"So long as we have God in our hearts, my dear boy, all that we do is
well. But you must want something after your journey. Fred, dear, knock at
that door. Your sister Clara's dressing there. Tell her to make haste."
"All right, mother," cried a voice from behind the partition which
separated the rooms, and a moment after the door opened and a young woman
about thirty entered. She was better-looking than the other sisters, and
the fashion of her skirt, and the worldly manner with which she kissed her
brother and gave her hand to Esther, marked her off at once from the rest
of the family. She was forewoman in a large millinery establishment. She
spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday at the farm, but to-day she had got
away earlier, and with the view to impressing Esther, she explained how
this had come about.
Mrs. Parsons suggested a glass of currant wine, and Lily came in with a
tray and glasses. Clara said she was starving. Mary said she would have to
wait, and Lily whispered, "In about half-an-hour."
After dinner the old man said that they must be getting on with their work
in the orchard. Esther said she would be glad to help, but as she was
about to follow the others Mrs. Parsons detained her.
"You don't mind staying with me a few minutes, do you, dear? I shan't keep
you long." She drew over a chair for Esther. "I shan't perhaps see you
again for some time. I am getting an old woman, and the Lord may be
pleased to take me at any moment. I wanted to tell you, dear, that I put
my trust in you. You will make a good wife to Fred, I feel sure, and he
will make a good father to your child, and if God blesses you with other
children he'll treat your first no different than the others. He's told me
so, and my Fred is a man of his word. You were led into sin, but you've
repented. We was all born into temptation, and we must trust to the Lord
to lead us out lest we should dash our foot against a stone."
"I was to blame; I don't say I wasn't, but----"
"We won't say no more about that. We're all sinners, the best of us.
You're going to be my son's wife; you're therefore my daughter, and this
house is your home whenever you please to come to see us. And I hope that
that will be often. I like to have my children about me. I can't get about
much now, so they must come to me. It is very sad not to be able to go to
meeting. I've not been to meeting since Christmas, but I can see them
going there from the kitchen window, and how 'appy they look coming back
from prayer. It is easy to see that they have been with God. The
Salvationists come this way sometimes. They stopped in the lane to sing. I
could not hear the words, but I could see by their faces that they was
with God... Now, I've told you all that was on my mind. I must not keep
you; Fred is waiting."
Esther kissed the old woman, and went into the orchard, where she found
Fred on a ladder shaking the branches. He came down when he saw Esther,
and Harry, his brother, took his place. Esther and Fred filled one basket,
then, yielding to a mutual inclination, they wandered about the orchard,
stopping on the little plank bridge. They hardly spoke at all, words
seemed unnecessary; each felt happiness to be in the other's presence.
They heard the water trickling through the weeds, and as the light waned
the sound of the falling apples grew more distinct. Then a breeze shivered
among the tops of the apple-trees, and the sered leaves were blown from
the branches. The voices of the gatherers were heard crying that their
baskets were full. They crossed the plank bridge, joking the lovers, who
stood aside to let them pass.
When they entered the house they saw the old farmer, who had slipped in
before them, sitting by his wife holding her hand, patting it in a curious
old-time way, and the attitude of the old couple was so pregnant with
significance that it fixed itself on Esther's mind. It seemed to her that
she had never seen anything so beautiful. So they had lived for forty
years, faithful to each other, and she wondered if Fred forty years hence
would be sitting by her side holding her hand.
The old man lighted a lantern and went round to the stable to get a trap
out. Driving through the dark country, seeing village lights shining out
of the distant solitudes, was a thrilling adventure. A peasant came like a
ghost out of the darkness; he stepped aside and called, "Good-night!"
which the old farmer answered somewhat gruffly, while Fred answered in a
ringing, cheery tone. Never had Esther spent so long and happy a day.
Everything had combined to produce a strange exaltation of the spirit in
her; and she listened to Fred more tenderly than she had done before.
The train rattled on through suburbs beginning far away in the country;
rattled on through suburbs that thickened at every mile; rattled on
through a brick entanglement; rattled over iron bridges, passed over deep
streets, over endless lines of lights.
He bade her good-bye at the area gate, and she had promised him that they
should be married in the spring. He had gone away with a light heart. And
she had run upstairs to tell her dear mistress of the happy day which her
kindness had allowed her to spend in the country. And Miss Rice had laid
the book she was reading on her knees, and had listened to Esther's
pleasures as if they had been her own.
But when the spring came Esther put Fred off till the autumn, pleading as
an excuse that Miss Rice had not been very well lately, and that she did
not like to leave her.
It was one of those long and pallid evenings at the end of July, when the
sky seems as if it could not darken. The roadway was very still in its
dust and heat, and Esther, her print dress trailing, watched a poor horse
striving to pull a four-wheeler through the loose heavy gravel that had
just been laid down. So absorbed was she in her pity for the poor animal
that she did not see the gaunt, broad-shouldered man coming towards her,
looking very long-legged in a pair of light grey trousers and a black
jacket a little too short for him. He walked with long, even strides, a
small cane in one hand, the other in his trousers pocket; a heavy gold
chain showed across his waistcoat. He wore a round hat and a red necktie.
The side whiskers and the shaven upper lip gave him the appearance of a
gentleman's valet. He did not notice Esther, but a sudden step taken
sideways as she lingered, her eyes fixed on the cab-horse, brought her
nearly into collision with him.
"Do look where you are going to," he exclaimed, jumping back to avoid the
beer-jug, which fell to the ground. "What, Esther, is it you?"
"There, you have made me drop the beer."
"Plenty more in the public; I'll get you another jug."
"It is very kind of you. I can get what I want myself."
They looked at each other, and at the end of a long silence William said:
"Just fancy meeting you, and in this way! Well I never! I am glad to see
"Are you really! Well, so much for that--your way and mine aren't the
same. I wish you good evening."
"Stop a moment, Esther."
"And my mistress waiting for her dinner. I've to go and get some more
"Shall I wait for you?"
"Wait for me! I should think not, indeed."
Esther ran down the area steps. Her hand paused as it was about to lift
the jug down from the dresser, and a number of thoughts fled across her
mind. That man would be waiting for her outside. What was she to do? How
unfortunate! If he continued to come after her he and Fred would be sure
"What are you waiting for, I should like to know?" she cried, as she came
up the steps.
"That's 'ardly civil, Esther, and after so many years too; one would
"I want none of your thinking; get out of my sight. Do you 'ear? I want no
truck with you whatever. Haven't you done me enough mischief already?"
"Be quiet; listen to me. I'll explain."
"I don't want none of your explanation. Go away."
Her whole nature was now in full revolt, and quick with passionate
remembrance of the injustice that had been done her, she drew back from
him, her eyes flashing. Perhaps it was some passing remembrance of the
breakage of the first beer-jug that prevented her from striking him with
the second. The spasm passed, and then her rage, instead of venting itself
in violent action, assumed the form of dogged silence. He followed her up
the street, and into the bar. She handed the jug across the counter, and
while the barman filled it searched in her pocket for the money. She had
brought none with her. William promptly produced sixpence. Esther answered
him with a quick, angry glance, and addressing the barman, she said, "I'll
pay you to-morrow; that'll do, I suppose? 41 Avondale Road."
"That will be all right, but what am I to do with this sixpence?"
"I know nothing about that," Esther said, picking up her skirt; "I'll pay
you for what I have had."
Holding the sixpence in his short, thick, and wet fingers, the barman
looked at William. William smiled, and said, "Well, they do run sulky
He caught at the leather strap and pulled the door open for her, and as
she passed out she became aware that William still admired her. It was
really too bad, and she was conscious of injustice. Having destroyed her
life, this man had passed out of sight and knowledge, but only to reappear
when a vista leading to a new life seemed open before her.
"It was that temper of yours that did it; you wouldn't speak to me for a
fortnight. You haven't changed, I can see that," he said, watching
Esther's face, which did not alter until he spoke of how unhappy he had
been in his marriage. "A regular brute she was--we're no longer together,
you know; haven't been for the last three years; could not put up with
'er. She was that--but that's a long story." Esther did not answer him. He
looked at her anxiously, and seeing that she would not be won over easily,
he spoke of his money.
"Look 'ere, Esther," he said, laying his hand on the area gate. "You won't
refuse to come out with me some Sunday. I've a half a share in a
public-house, the 'King's Head,' and have been backing winners all this
year. I've plenty of money to treat you. I should like to make it up to
you. Perhaps you've 'ad rather a 'ard time. What 'ave yer been doing all
these years? I want to hear."
"What 'ave I been doing? Trying to bring up your child! That's what I've
"There's a child, then, is there?" said William, taken aback. Before he
could recover himself Esther had slipped past him down the area into the
house. For a moment he looked as if he were going to follow her; on second
thoughts he thought he had better not. He lingered a moment and then
walked slowly away in the direction of the Metropolitan Railway.
"I'm sorry to 'ave kept you waiting, miss, but I met with an accident and
had to come back for another jug."
"And what was the accident you met with, Esther?"
"I wasn't paying no attention, miss; I was looking at a cab that could
hardly get through the stones they've been laying down in the Pembroke
Road; the poor little horse was pulling that 'ard that I thought he'd drop
down dead, and while I was looking I ran up against a passer-by, and being
a bit taken aback I dropped the jug."
"How was that? Did you know the passer-by?"
Esther busied herself with the dishes on the sideboard; and, divining that
something serious had happened to her servant, Miss Rice refrained and
allowed the dinner to pass in silence. Half-an-hour later Esther came into
the study with her mistress's tea. She brought over the wicker table, and
as she set it by her mistress's knees the shadows about the bookcase and
the light of the lamp upon the book and the pensive content on Miss Rice's
face impelled her to think of her own troubles, the hardship, the passion,
the despair of her life compared with this tranquil existence. Never had
she felt more certain that misfortune was inherent in her life. She
remembered all the trouble she had had, she wondered how she had come out
of it all alive; and now, just as things seemed like settling, everything
was going to be upset again. Fred was away for a fortnight's holiday--she
was safe for eleven or twelve days. After that she did not know what might
not happen. Her instinct told her that although he had passed over her
fault very lightly, so long as he knew nothing of the father of her child,
he might not care to marry her if William continued to come after her. Ah!
if she hadn't happened to go out at that particular time she might never
have met William. He did not live in the neighbourhood; if he did they
would have met before. Perhaps he had just settled in the neighbourhood.
That would be worst of all. No, no, no; it was a mere accident; if the
cask of beer had held out a day or two longer, or if it had run out a day
or two sooner, she might never have met William! But now she could not
keep out of his way. He spent the whole day in the street waiting for her.
If she went out on an errand he followed her there and back. If she'd only
listen. She was prettier than ever. He had never cared for any one else.
He would marry her when he got his divorce, and then the child would be
theirs. She did not answer him, but her blood boiled at the word "theirs."
How could Jackie become their child? Was it not she who had worked for
him, brought him up? and she thought as little of his paternity as if he
had fallen from heaven into her arms.
One evening as she was laying the table her grief took her unawares, and
she was obliged to dash aside the tears that had risen to her eyes. The
action was so apparent that Miss Rice thought it would be an affectation
to ignore it. So she said in her kind, musical, intimate manner, "Esther,
I'm afraid you have some trouble on your mind; can I do anything for you?"
"No, miss, no, it's nothing; I shall get over it presently."
But the effort of speaking was too much for her, and a bitter sob caught
her in the throat.
"You had better tell me your trouble, Esther; even if I cannot help you it
will ease your heart to tell me about it. I hope nothing is the matter
"No, miss, no; thank God, he's well enough. It's nothing to do with him;
leastways--" Then with a violent effort she put back her tears. "Oh, it is
silly of me," she said, "and your dinner getting cold."
"I don't want to pry into your affairs, Esther, but you know that----"
"Yes, miss, I know you to be kindness itself; but there's nothing to be
done but to bear it. You asked me just now if it had anything to do with
Jackie. Well, it is no more than that his father has come back."
"But surely, Esther, that's hardly a reason for sorrow; I should have
thought that you would have been glad."
"It is only natural that you should think so, miss; them what hasn't been
through the trouble never thinks the same as them that has. You see, miss,
it is nearly nine years since I've seen him, and during them nine years I
'ave been through so much. I 'ave worked and slaved, and been through all
the 'ardship, and now, when the worst is over, he comes and wants me to
marry him when he gets his divorce."
"Then you like some one else better?"
"Yes, miss, I do, and what makes it so 'ard to bear is that for the last
two months or more I've been keeping company with Fred Parsons--that's the
stationer's assistant; you've seen him in the shop, miss--and he and me is
engaged to be married. He's earning good money, thirty shillings a week;
he's as good a young man as ever stepped--religious, kind-hearted,
everything as would make a woman 'appy in 'er 'ome. It is 'ard for a girl
to keep up with 'er religion in some of the situations we have to put up
with, and I'd mostly got out of the habit of chapel-going till I met him;
it was 'e who led me back again to Christ. But for all that, understanding
very well, not to say indulgent for the failings of others, like yourself,
miss. He knew all about Jackie from the first, and never said nothing
about it, but that I must have suffered cruel, which I have. He's been
with me to see Jackie, and they both took to each other wonderful like; it
couldn't 'ave been more so if 'e'd been 'is own father. But now all that's
broke up, for when Fred meets William it is as likely as not as he'll
think quite different."
The evening died behind the red-brick suburb, and Miss Rice's strip of
garden grew greener. She had finished her dinner, and she leaned back
thinking of the story she had heard. She was one of those secluded maiden
ladies so common in England, whose experience of life is limited to a tea
party, and whose further knowledge of life is derived from the
yellow-backed French novels which fill their bookcases.
"How was it that you happened to meet William--I think you said his name
"It was the day, miss, that I went to fetch the beer from the
public-house. It was he that made me drop the jug; you remember, miss, I
had to come back for another. I told you about it at the time. When I went
out again with a fresh jug he was waiting for me, he followed me to the
'Greyhound' and wanted to pay for the beer--not likely that I'd let him; I
told them to put it on the slate, and that I'd pay for it to-morrow. I
didn't speak to him on leaving the bar, but he followed me to the gate. He
wanted to know what I'd been doing all the time. Then my temper got the
better of me, and I said, 'Looking after your child.' 'My child!' says he.
'So there's a child, is there?'"
"I think you told me that he married one of the young ladies at the place
you were then in situation?"
"Young lady! No fear, she wasn't no young lady. Anyway, she was too good
or too bad for him; for they didn't get on, and are now living separate."
"Does he speak about the child? Does he ask to see him?"
"Lor', yes, miss; he'd the cheek to say the other day that we'd make him
our child--our child, indeed! and after all these years I've been working
and he doing nothing."
"Perhaps he might like to do something for him; perhaps that's what he's
"No, miss, I know him better than that. That's his cunning; he thinks
he'll get me through the child."
"In any case I don't see what you'll gain by refusing to speak to him; if
you want to do something for the child, you can. You said he was
proprietor of a public-house."
"I don't want his money; please God, we'll be able to do without it to the
"If I were to die to-morrow, Esther, remember that you would be in exactly
the same position as you were when you entered my service. You remember
what that was? You have often told me there was only eighteen-pence
between you and the workhouse; you owed Mrs. Lewis two weeks' money for
the support of the child. I daresay you've saved a little money since
you've been with me, but it cannot be more than a few pounds. I don't
think that you ought to let this chance slip through your fingers, if not
for your own, for Jackie's sake. William, according to his own account, is
making money. He may become a rich man; he has no children by his wife; he
might like to leave some of his money--in any case, he'd like to leave
"He was always given to boasting about money. I don't believe all he says
about money or anything else."
"That may be, but he may have money, and you have no right to refuse to
allow him to provide for Jackie. Supposing later on Jackie were to
"Jackie'd never do that, miss; he'd know I acted for the best."
"If you again found yourself out of a situation, and saw Jackie crying for
his dinner, you'd reproach yourself."
"I don't think I should, miss."
"I know you are very obstinate, Esther. When does Parsons return?"
"In about a week, miss."
"Without telling William anything about Parsons, you'll be able to find
out whether it is his intention to interfere in your life. I quite agree
with you that it is important that the two men should not meet; but it
seems to me, by refusing to speak to William, by refusing to let him see
Jackie, you are doing all you can to bring about the meeting that you wish
to avoid. Is he much about here?"
"Yes, miss, he seems hardly ever out of the street, and it do look so bad
for the 'ouse. I do feel that ashamed. Since I've been with you, miss, I
don't think you've 'ad to complain of followers."
"Well, don't you see, you foolish girl, that he'll remain hanging about,
and the moment Parsons comes back he'll hear of it. You'd better see to
this at once."
"Whatever you says, miss, always do seem right, some 'ow. What you says do
seem that reasonable, and yet I don't know how to bring myself to go to
'im. I told 'im that I didn't want no truck with 'im."
"Yes, I think you said so. It is a delicate matter to advise anyone in,
but I feel sure I am right when I say that you have no right to refuse to
allow him to do something for the child. Jackie is now eight years old,
you've not the means of giving him a proper education, and you know the
disadvantage it has been to you not to know how to read and write."
"Jackie can read beautifully--Mrs. Lewis 'as taught him."
"Yes, Esther; but there's much besides reading and writing. Think over
what I've said; you're a sensible girl; think it out when you go to bed
Next day, seeing William in the street, she went upstairs to ask Miss
Rice's permission to go out. "Could you spare me, miss, for an hour or
so?" was all she said. Miss Rice, who had noticed a man loitering,
replied, "Certainly, Esther."
"You aren't afraid to be left in the house alone, miss? I shan't be far
"No. I am expecting Mr. Alden. I'll let him in, and can make the tea
Esther ran up the area steps and walked quickly down the street, as if she
were going on an errand. William crossed the road and was soon alongside
"Don't be so 'ard on a chap," he said. "Just listen to reason."
"I don't want to listen to you; you can't have much to say that I care
Her tone was still stubborn, but he perceived that it contained a change
"Come for a little walk, and then, if you don't agree with what I says,
I'll never come after you again."
"You must take me for a fool if you think I'd pay attention to your
"Esther, hear me out; you're very unforgiving, but if you'd hear me
"You can speak; no one's preventing you that I can see."
"I can't say it off like that; it is a long story. I know that I've
behaved badly to you, but it wasn't as much my fault as you think; I could
explain a good lot of it."
"I don't care about your explanations. If you've only got
"There's that boy."
"Oh, it is the boy you're thinking of?"
"Yes, and you too, Esther. The mother can't be separated from the child."
"Very likely; the father can, though."
"If you talk that snappish I shall never get out what I've to say. I've
treated you badly, and it is to make up for the past as far as I can--"
"And how do you know that you aren't doing harm by coming after me?"
"You mean you're keeping company with a chap and don't want me?"
"You don't know I'm not a married woman; you don't know what kind of
situation I'm in. You comes after me just because it pleases your fancy,
and don't give it a thought that you mightn't get me the sack, as you got
it me before."
"There's no use nagging; just let's go where we can have a talk, and then
if you aren't satisfied you can go your way and I can go mine. You said I
didn't know that you wasn't married. I don't, but if you aren't, so much
the better. If you are, you've only to say so and I'll take my hook. I've
done quite enough harm, without coming between you and your husband."
William spoke earnestly, and his words came so evidently from his heart
that Esther was touched against her will.
"No, I ain't married yet," she replied.
"I'm glad of that."
"I don't see what odds it can make to you whether I'm married or not. If I
ain't married, you are."
William and Esther walked on in silence, listening to the day as it hushed
in quiet suburban murmurs. The sky was almost colourless--a faded grey,
that passed into an insignificant blue; and upon this almost neutral tint
the red suburb appeared in rigid outline, like a carving. At intervals the
wind raised a cloud of dust in the roadway. Stopping before a piece of
waste ground, William said--
"Let's go in there; we'll be able to talk easier." Esther raised no
objection. They went in and looked for a place where they could sit down.
"This is just like old times," said William, moving a little closer.
"If you are going to begin any of that nonsense I'll get up and go. I only
came out with you because you said you had something particular to say
about the child."
"Well, it is only natural that I should like to see my son."
"How do you know it's a son?"
"I thought you said so. I should like it to be a boy--is it?"
"Yes, it is a boy, and a lovely boy too; very different to his father.
I've always told him that his father is dead."
"And is he sorry?"
"Not a bit. I've told him his father wasn't good to me; and he don't care
for those who haven't been good to his mother."
"I see, you've brought him up to hate me?"
"He don't know nothing about you--how should 'e?"
"Very likely; but there's no need to be that particular nasty. As I've
said before, what's done can't be undone. I treated you badly, I know
that; and I've been badly treated myself--damned badly treated. You've 'ad
a 'ard time; so have I, if that's any comfort to ye."
"I suppose it is wrong of me, but seeing you has brought up a deal of
bitterness, more than I thought there was in me."
William lay at length, his body resting on one arm. He held a long grass
stalk between his small, discoloured teeth. The conversation had fallen.
He looked at Esther; she sat straight up, her stiff cotton dress spread
over the rough grass; her cloth jacket was unbuttoned. He thought her a
nice-looking woman and he imagined her behind the bar of the "King's
Head." His marriage had proved childless and in every way a failure; he
now desired a wife such as he felt sure she would be, and his heart
hankered sorely after his son. He tried to read Esther's quiet, subdued
face. It was graver than usual, and betrayed none of the passion that
choked in her. She must manage that the men should not meet. But how
should she rid herself of him? She noticed that he was looking at her, and
to lead his thoughts away from herself she asked him where he had gone
with his wife when they left Woodview. Breaking off suddenly, he said--
"Peggy knew all the time I was gone on you."
"It don't matter about that. Tell me where you went--they said you went
"We first went to Boulogne, that's in France; but nearly everyone speaks
English there, and there was a nice billiard room handy, where all the big
betting men came in of an evening. We went to the races. I backed three
winners on the first day--the second I didn't do so well. Then we went on
to Paris. The race-meetings is very 'andy--I will say that for
Paris--half-an-hour's drive and there you are."
"Did your wife like Paris?"
"Yes, she liked it pretty well--it is all the place for fashion, and the
shops is grand; but she got tired of it too, and we went to Italy."
"That's down south. A beast of a place--nothing but sour wine, and all the
cookery done in oil, and nothing to do but seeing picture-galleries. I got
that sick of it I could stand it no longer, and I said, 'I've 'ad enough
of this. I want to go home, where I can get a glass of Burton and a cut
from the joint, and where there's a horse worth looking at.'"
"But she was very fond of you. She must have been."
"She was, in her way. But she always liked talking to the singers and the
painters that we met out there. Nothing wrong, you know. That was after we
had been married about three years."
"What was that?"
"That I caught her out."
"How do you know there was anything wrong? Men always think bad of women."
"No, it was right enough! she had got dead sick of me, and I had got dead
sick of her. It never did seem natural like. There was no 'omeliness in
it, and a marriage that ain't 'omely is no marriage for me. Her friends
weren't my friends; and as for my friends, she never left off insulting me
about them. If I was to ask a chap in she wouldn't sit in the same room
with him. That's what it got to at last. And I was always thinking of you,
and your name used to come up when we was talking. One day she said, 'I
suppose you are sorry you didn't marry a servant?' and I said, 'I suppose
you are sorry you did?'"
"That was a good one for her. Did she say she was?"
"She put her arms round my neck and said she loved none but her big Bill.
But all her flummery didn't take me in. And I says to myself, 'Keep an eye
on her.' For there was a young fellow hanging about in a manner I didn't
particularly like. He was too anxious to be polite to me, he talked to me
about 'orses, and I could see he knew nothing about them. He even went so
far as go down to Kempton with me."
"And how did it all end?"
"I determined to keep my eye on this young whipper-snapper, and come up
from Ascot by an earlier train than they expected me. I let myself in and
ran up to the drawing-room. They were there sitting side by side on the
sofa. I could see they were very much upset. The young fellow turned red,
and he got up, stammering, and speaking a lot of rot.
"'What! you back already? How did you get on at Ascot? Had a good day?'
"'Rippin'; but I'm going to have a better one now,' I said, keeping my eye
all the while on my wife. I could see by her face that there was no doubt
about it. Then I took him by the throat. 'I just give you two minutes to