Eric Eldred, Charles Franks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
THE STORY OF A YOUNG GIRL’S LIFE
BY HENRY HARFORD
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The novel _Fan_ was originally published in 1892, under the pseudonym of “Henry Harford.” It now makes its appearance under the name of W.H. Hudson for the first time.
This edition is limited to 498 copies of which 450 copies are for sale.
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A Misty evening in mid-October; a top room in one of the small dingy houses on the north side of Moon Street, its floor partially covered with pieces of drugget carpet trodden into rags; for furniture, an iron bed placed against the wall, a deal cupboard or wardrobe, a broken iron cot in a corner, a wooden box and three or four chairs, and a small square deal table; on the table one candle in a tin candlestick gave light to the two occupants of the room. One of these a woman sitting in a listless attitude before the grate, fireless now, although the evening was damp and chilly. She appeared strong, but just now was almost repulsive to look at as she sat there in her dirty ill-fitting gown, with her feet thrust out before her, showing her broken muddy boots. Her features were regular, even handsome; that, however, was little in her favour when set against the hard red colour of her skin, which told of habitual intemperance, and the expression, half sullen and half reckless, of her dark eyes, as she sat there staring into the empty grate. There were no white threads yet in her thick long hair that had once been black and glossy, unkempt now, like everything about her, with a dusky dead look in it.
On the cot in the corner rested or crouched a girl not yet fifteen years old, the woman’s only child: she was trying to keep herself warm there, sitting close against the wall with her knees drawn up to enable her to cover herself, head included, with a shawl and an old quilt. Both were silent: at intervals the girl would start up out of her wrappings and stare towards the door with a startled look on her face, apparently listening. From the street sounded the shrill animal-like cries of children playing and quarrelling, and, further away, the low, dull, continuous roar of traffic in the Edgware Road. Then she would drop back again, to crouch against the wall, drawing the quilt about her, and remain motionless until a step on the stair or the banging of a door below would startle her once more.
Meanwhile her mother maintained her silence and passive attitude, only stirring when the light grew very dim; then she would turn half round, snuff the wick off with her fingers, and wipe them on her shabby dirty dress.
At length the girl started up, throwing her quilt quite off, and remained seated on the edge of her cot, the look of anxiety increasing every moment on her thin pale face. In the matter of dress she seemed even worse off than her mother, and wore an old tattered earth-coloured gown, which came down to within three or four inches of her ankles, showing under it ragged stockings and shoes trodden down at heel, so much too large for her feet that they had evidently belonged to her mother. She looked tall for her years, but this was owing to her extreme thinness. Her arms were like sticks, and her sunken cheeks showed the bones of her face; but it was a pathetic face, both on account of the want and anxiety so plainly written on it and its promise of beauty. There was not a particle of colour in it, even the thin lips were almost white, but the eyes were of the purest grey, shaded by long dark lashes; while her hair, hanging uneven and disordered to her shoulders, was of a pure golden brown.
“Mother, he’s coming!” said the girl.
“Let him come!” returned the other, without looking up or stirring.
Slowly the approaching footsteps came nearer, stumbling up the dark, narrow staircase; then the door was pushed open and a man entered–a broad-chested, broad-faced rough-looking man with stubbly whiskers, wearing the dress and rusty boots of a labourer.
He drew a chair to the table and sat down in silence. Presently he turned to his wife.
“Well, what have you got to say?” he asked, in a somewhat unsteady voice.
“Nothing,” she returned. “What have you got?”
“I’ve got tired of walking about for a job, and I want something to eat and drink, and that’s what _I’ve_ got.”
“Then you’d better go where you can get it,” said she. “You can’t find work, but you can find drink, and you ain’t sober now.”
For only answer he began whistling and drumming noisily on the table. Suddenly he paused and looked at her.
“Ain’t you done that charing job, then?” he asked with a grin.
“Yes; and what’s more, I got a florin and gave it to Mrs. Clark,” she replied.
“You blarsted fool! what did you do that for?”
“Because I’m not going to have my few sticks taken for rent and be turned into the street with my girl. That’s what I did it for; and if you won’t work you’ll starve, so don’t you come to me for anything.”
Again he drummed noisily on the table, and hummed or tried to hum a tune. Presently he spoke again:
“What’s Fan been a-doing, then?”
“You know fast enough; tramping about the streets to sell a box of matches. A nice thing!”
“How much did she get?”
To this question no answer was returned.
“What did she get, I arsk you?” he repeated, getting up and putting his hand heavily on her shoulder.
“Enough for bread,” she replied, shaking his hand off.
“How much?” But as she refused to answer, he turned to the girl and repeated in a threatening tone, “How much?”
She sat trembling, her eyes cast down, but silent.
“I’ll learn you to answer when you’re spoken to, you damn barstard!” he said, approaching her with raised hand.
“Don’t you hit her, you brute!” exclaimed his wife, springing in sudden anger to her feet.
“Oh, father, don’t hit me–oh, please don’t–I’ll tell–I’ll tell! I got eighteenpence,” cried the girl, shrinking back terrified.
He turned and went back to his seat, grinning at his success in getting at the truth. Presently he asked his wife if she had spent eighteenpence in bread.
“No, I didn’t. I got a haddock for morning, and two ounces of tea, and a loaf, and a bundle of wood,” she returned sullenly.
After an interval of a couple of minutes he got up, went to the cupboard, and opened it.
“There’s the haddy right enough,” he said. “No great things–cost you thrippence, I s’pose. Tea tuppence-ha’penny, and that’s fivepence- ha’penny, and a ha’penny for wood, and tuppence-ha’penny for a loaf makes eightpence-ha’penny. There’s more’n ninepence over, Margy, and all I want is a pint of beer and a screw. Threepence–come now.”
“I’ve nothing to give you,” she returned doggedly.
“Then what did you do with it? How much gin did you drink–eh?”
“As much as I could get,” she answered defiantly.
He looked at her, whistled and drummed, then got up and went out.
“Mother, he’s gone,” whispered Fan.
“No such luck. He’s only going to ask Mrs. Clark if I gave her the florin. He won’t be long you’ll see.”
Very soon he did return and sat down again. “A pint and a screw, that’s all I want,” he said, as if speaking to himself, and there was no answer. Then he got up, put his hand on her shoulder, and almost shook her out of her chair. “Don’t you hear?” he shouted.
“Let me alone, you drunken brute; I’ve got nothing, I tell you,” she returned, and after watching his face a few moments settled down again.
“All right, old woman, I’ll leave you,” he said, dropping his hands. But suddenly changing his mind, he swung round and dealt her a heavy blow.
She sprang up with a scream of anger and pain, and taking no notice of Fan’s piteous cries and pleadings, rushed at him; they struggled together for some moments, but the man was the strongest; very soon he flung her violently from him, and reeling away to some distance, and unable to recover her balance, she finally fell heavily on to the floor.
“Oh, mother, mother, he has killed you,” sobbed Fan, throwing herself down beside the fallen woman and trying to raise her head.
“That I will, and you too,” remarked the man, going back to his seat.
The woman, recovering from the shock, struggled to her feet and sat down again on her chair. She was silent, looking now neither angry nor frightened, but seemed half-dazed, and bending forward a little she covered her eyes with her hand.
“Oh, mother, poor mother–are you hurt?” whispered Fan, trying to draw the hand away to look into the bowed face.
“You go back to your corner and leave your mother to me,” he said; and Fan, after hesitating a few moments, rose and shrank away.
Presently he got up again, and seizing his wife by the wrist, dragged her hand forcibly from her face.
“Where’s the coppers, you blarsted drunkard?” he shouted in her ear. “D’ye think to get off with the little crack on the crown I’ve giv’ you? I’ll do for you to-night if you won’t hand over.”
“Oh, father, father!” cried the girl, starting up in an agony of terror. “Oh, have mercy and don’t hit her, and I’ll go out and try to get threepence. Oh, father, there’s nothing in the house!”
“Then go, and don’t be long about it,” he said, going back to his seat.
The mother roused herself at this.
“You sha’n’t stir a step to-night, Fan,” she said, but in a voice not altogether resolute. “What’ll come to you, going into the streets at this time of night?”
“Something grand, like what’s come to her mother, perhaps,” said he with a laugh.
“Not a step, Fan, if I die for it,” retorted the mother, stung by his words. But the girl quickly and with trembling hands had already thrust on her old shapeless hat, and wrapped her shawl about her; then she took a couple of boxes of safety matches, old and greasy from long use, and moved towards the door as her mother rose to prevent her from going out.
“Oh, mother, let me go,” she pleaded. “It’s best for all of us. It’ll kill me to stay in. Let me go, mother; I sha’n’t be long.”
Her mother still protested; but Fan, seeing her irresolution, slipped past her and was out of the door in a moment.
Once out of the house she ran swiftly along the dark sloppy street until she came to the wide thronged thoroughfare, bright with the flaring gas of the shops; then, after a few moments’ hesitation, walked rapidly northwards.
Even in that squalid street where she lived, those who knew Fan from living in the same house, or in one of those immediately adjoining it, considered it a disgraceful thing for her parents to send her out begging; for that was what they called it, although the begging was made lawful by the match-selling pretext. To them it was a very flimsy one, since the cost of a dozen such boxes at any oil-shop in the Edgware Road was twopence-three-farthings–eleven farthings for twelve boxes of safety matches! The London poor know how hard it is to live and pay their weekly rent, and are accustomed to make every allowance for each other; and those who sat in judgment on the Harrods–Fan’s parents–were mostly people who were glad to make a shilling by almost any means; glad also, many of them, to get drunk occasionally when the state of the finances allowed it; also they regarded it as the natural and right thing to do to repair regularly every Monday morning to the pawnbroker’s shop to pledge the Sunday shoes and children’s frocks, with perhaps a tool or two or a pair of sheets and blankets not too dirty and ragged to tempt the cautious gentleman with the big nose.
But they were not disreputable, they knew where to draw the line. Had Fan been a coarse-fibred girl with a ready insolent tongue and fond of horse- play, it would not have seemed so shocking; for such girls, and a large majority of them are like that, seem fitted to fight their way in the rough brutish world of the London streets; and if they fall and become altogether bad, that only strikes one as the almost inevitable result of girlhood passed in such conditions. That Fan was a shy, modest, pretty girl, with a delicate type of face not often seen among those of her class, made the case look all the worse for those who sent her out, exposing her to almost certain ruin.
Poor unhappy Fan knew what they thought, and to avoid exciting remarks she always skulked away, concealing her little stock-in-trade beneath her dilapidated shawl, and only bringing it out when at a safe distance from the outspoken criticisms of Moon Street. Sometimes in fine weather her morning expeditions were as far as Netting Hill, and as she frequently appeared at the same places at certain hours, a few individuals got to know her; in some instances they had began by regarding the poor dilapidated girl with a kind of resentment, a feeling which, after two or three glances at her soft grey timid eyes, turned to pity; and from such as these who were not political economists, when she was so lucky as to meet them, she always got a penny, or a threepenny-bit, sometimes with even a kind word added, which made the gift seem a great deal to her. From others she received many a sharp rebuke for her illicit way of getting a living; and these without a second look would pass on, little knowing how keen a pang had been inflicted to make the poor shamefaced child’s lot still harder to bear.
She had never been out so late before, and hurrying along the wet pavement, trembling lest she should run against some Moon Street acquaintance, and stung with the thought of the miserable scene in store for her should she be compelled to return empty-handed, she walked not less than half a mile before pausing. Then she drew forth the concealed matches and began the piteous pleading–“Will you please buy a box of matches?” spoken in a low tremulous voice to each passer-by, unheeded by those who were preoccupied with their own thoughts, by all others looked scornfully at, until at last, tired and dispirited, she turned to retrace the long hopeless road. And now the thoughts of home became at every yard of the way more painful and even terrifying to her. What a misery to have to face it–to have to think of it! But to run away and hide herself from her parents, and escape for ever from her torturing apprehensions, never entered her mind. She loved her poor drink-degraded mother; there was no one else for her to love, and where her mother was there must be her only home. But the thought of her father was like a nightmare to her; even the remembrance of his often brutal treatment and language made her tremble. Father she had always called him, but for some months past, since he had been idle, or out of work as he called it, he had become more and more harsh towards her, not often addressing her without calling her “barstard,” usually with the addition of one of his pet expletives, profane or sanguineous. She had always feared and shrunk from him, regarding him as her enemy and the chief troubler of her peace; and his evident dislike of her had greatly increased during her last year at the Board School, when he had more than once been brought before a magistrate and fined for her non-attendance. When that time was over, and he was no longer compelled by law to keep her at school, he had begun driving her out to beg in the streets, to make good what her “book-larning,” as he contemptuously expressed it, had cost him. And the miserable wife had allowed it, after some violent scenes and occasional protests, until the illegal pence brought in each day grew to be an expected thing, and formed now a constant cause of wrangling between husband and wife, each trying to secure the lion’s share, only to spend it at the public-house.
At last, without one penny of that small sum of threepence, which she had mentally fixed on as the price of a domestic truce, she had got back to within fifteen minutes’ walk of Moon Street. Her anxiety had made her more eager perhaps, and had given a strange tremor to her voice and made her eyes more eloquent in their silent pathos, when two young men pushed by her, walking fast and conversing, but she did not let them pass without repeating the oft-repeated words.
“No, indeed, you little fraud!” exclaimed one of the young men; while his companion, glancing back, looked curiously into her face.
“Stop a moment,” he said to his friend. “Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to pay. But, I say, just look at her eyes–good eyes, aren’t they?”
The other turned round laughing, and stared hard at her face. Fan reddened and dropped her eyes. Finally he took a penny from his pocket and held it up before her. “Take,” he said. She took the penny, thanking him with a grateful glance, whereupon he laughed and turned away, remarking that he had got his money’s worth.
She was nearly back to her own street again before anyone else noticed her; then she met a very large important-looking gentleman, with a lady at his side–a small, thin, meagre woman, with a dried yellow face, wearing spectacles. The lady stopped very deliberately before Fan, and scrutinised her face.
“Come along,” said her husband or companion. “You are not going to stop to talk to that wretched little beggar, I hope.”
“Yes, I am, so please be quiet.–Now, my girl, are you not ashamed to come out begging in the streets–do you not know that it is very wrong of you?”
“I’m not begging–I’m selling matches,” answered Fan sullenly, and looking down.
“You might have known that she’d say that, so come on, and don’t waste more time,” said the impatient gentleman.
“Don’t hurry me, Charles,” returned the lady. “You know perfectly well that I never bestow alms indiscriminately, so that you have nothing to fear.–Now, my girl, why do you come out selling matches, as you call it? It is only a pretext, because you really do not sell them, you know. Do your parents send you out–are they so poor?”
Then Fan repeated the words she had been instructed to use on occasions like the present, which she had repeated so often that they had lost all meaning to her. “Father’s out of work and mother’s ill, and I came out because we’re starving.”
“Just so, of course, what did you think she would say!” exclaimed the big gentleman. “Now I hope you are satisfied that I was right.”
“That’s just where you are mistaken, Charles. You know that I never give without a thorough investigation beforehand, and I am now determined to look narrowly into this case, if you will only let me go quietly on in my own way.–And now, my girl,” she continued, turning to Fan, “just tell me where you live, so that I can call on your mother when I have time, and perhaps assist her if it is as you say, and if I find that her case is a deserving one.”
Fan at once gave the address and her mother’s name.
“There now, Charles,” said the lady with a smile. “That is the test; you see there is no deception here, and I think that I am able to distinguish a genuine case of distress when I meet with one.–Here is a penny, my girl”–one penny after all this preamble!–“and I trust your poor mother will find it a help to her.” And then with a smile and a nod she walked off, satisfied that she had observed all due precautions in investing her penny, and that it would not be lost: for he who “giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord,” but certainly not to all the London poor. Her husband, with a less high opinion of her perspicacity, for he had muttered “Stuff and nonsense” in reply to her last remark, followed, pleased to have the business over.
Fan remained standing still, undecided whether to go home or not, when to her surprise a big rough-looking workman, without stopping in his walk or speaking to her, thrust a penny into her hand. That made up the required sum of threepence, and turning into Moon Street, she ran home as fast as those ragged and loose old shoes would let her.
The candle was still burning on the table, throwing its flickering yellow light on her mother’s form, still sitting in the same listless attitude, staring into the empty grate. The man was now lying on the bed, apparently asleep.
On her entrance the mother started up, enjoining silence, and held out her hand for the money; but before she could take it her husband awoke with a snort.
“Drop that!” he growled, tumbling himself hastily off the bed, and Fan, starting back in fear, stood still. He took the coppers roughly from her, cursing her for being so long away, then taking his clay-pipe from the mantelpiece and putting on his old hat, swung out of the room; but after going a few steps he groped his way back and looked in again. “Go to bed, Margy,” he said. “Sorry I hit you, but ’tain’t much, and we must give and take, you know.” And then with a nod and grin he shut the door and took himself off.
Meanwhile Fan had gone to her corner and removed her old hat and kicked off her muddy shoes, and now sat there watching her mother, who had despondently settled in her chair again.
“Go to bed, Fan–it’s late enough,” she said.
Instead of obeying her the girl came and knelt down by her side, taking one of her mother’s listless hands in hers.
“Mother”–she spoke in a low tone, but with a strange eagerness in her voice–“let’s run away together and leave him.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, child! Where’d we go?”
“Oh, mother, let’s go right away from London–right out into the country, far as we can, where he’ll never find us, where we can sit on the grass under the trees and rest.”
“And leave my sticks for him to drink up? Don’t you think I’m such a silly.”
“Do–_do_ let’s go, mother! It’s worse and worse every day, and he’ll kill us if we don’t.”
“No fear. He’ll knock us about a bit, but he don’t want a rope round _his_ neck, you be sure. And he ain’t so bad neither, when he’s not in the drink. He’s sorry he hit me now.”
“Oh, mother, I can’t bear it! I hate him–I hate him; and he _isn’t_ my father, and he hates me, and he’ll kill me some day when I come home with nothing.”
“Who says he isn’t your father–where did you hear that, Fan?”
“He calls me bastard every day, and I know what that means. Mother, _is_ he my father?”
“Then why did you marry him, mother? Oh, we could have been so happy together!”
“Yes, Fan, I know that _now_, but I didn’t know it then. I married him three months before you was born, so that you’d be the child of honest parents. He had a hundred pounds with me, but it all went in a year; and it’s always been up and down, up and down with us ever since, but now it’s nothing but down.”
“A hundred pounds!” exclaimed Fan in amazement “And who was my father?”
“Go to bed, Fan, and don’t ask questions. I’ve been very foolish to say so much. You are too young to understand such things.”
“But, mother, I do understand, and I want to know who my father is. Oh, do–do tell me!”
“Because when I know I’ll go to him and tell him how–how _he_ treats us, and ask him to help us to go away into the country where he’ll never find us any more.” Her mother laughed. “You’re a brave girl if you’d do that,” she said, her face softening. “No, Fan, it can’t be done.”
“Oh, please tell me, and I’ll do it. Why can’t it be done, mother?”
“I can’t tell you any more, child. Go to bed, and forget all about it. You hear bad things enough in the street, and it ‘ud only put badness into your head to hear talk of such things.”
Fan’s pleading eyes were fixed on her mother’s face with a strange meaning and earnestness in them; then she said:
“Mother, I hear bad things in the street every day, but they don’t make _me_ bad. Oh, do tell me about my father, and why can’t I go to him?”
The unhappy woman looked down, and yet could hardly meet those grey beautiful eyes fixed so earnestly on her face. She hesitated, and passed her trembling fingers over Fan’s disordered hair, and finally burst into tears.
“Oh, Fan, I can’t help it,” she said, half sobbing. “You have just his eyes, and it brings it all back when I look into them. It was wicked of me to go wrong, for I was brought up good and honest in the country; but he was a gentleman, and kind and good to me, and not a working-man and a drunken brute like poor Joe. But I sha’n’t ever see him again. I don’t know where he is, and he wouldn’t know me if he saw me; and perhaps he’s dead now. I loved him and he loved me, but we couldn’t marry because he was a gentleman and me only a servant-girl, and I think he had a wife. But I didn’t care, because he was good to me and loved me, and he gave me a hundred pounds to get married, and I can’t ever tell you his name, Fan, because I promised never to name him to anyone, and kissed the Book on it when he gave me the hundred pounds, and it would be wicked to tell now. And Joe, he wanted to marry me; he knew it all, and took the hundred pounds and said it would make no difference. He’d love you just the same, he said, and never throw it up to me; and that’s why I married Joe. Oh, what a fool I was, to be sure! But it can’t be helped now, and it’s no use saying more about it. Now go to bed, Fan, and forget all I’ve said to you.”
Fan rose and went sorrowfully to her bed; but she did not forget, or try to forget, what she had heard. It was sad to lose that hope of ever seeing her father, but it was a secret joy to know that he had been kind and loving to her poor mother, and that he was a gentleman, and not one like Joe Harrod; that thought kept her awake in her cold bed for a long time–long after Joe and his wife were peacefully sleeping side by side.
That troubled evening was followed by a quiet period, lasting from Wednesday to Saturday, during which there were no brawls indoors, and Fan was free of the hateful task of going out to collect pence in the streets. Joe had been offered a three or four days’ job; he had accepted it gratefully because it was only for three or four days, and for that period he would be the sober, stolid, British workman. The pleasures of the pot-house would claim him on Saturday, when he would have money in his pockets and the appetite that comes from abstention.
On Saturday morning after he had left the house at six o’clock, Fan started up from her cot and came to her mother’s side at the table.
“Mother, may I go out to the fields to-day?” she asked. “I know if I go straight along the Edgware Road I’ll come to them soon. And I’ll be home early.”
“No, Fan, don’t you try it. It’s too far and’ll tire you, and you’d be hungry and maybe get lost.”
“Can’t I take some bread, mother? Do let me go! It will be so nice to see the fields and trees, and they say it isn’t far to walk.”
“You’re not fit to be seen walking, Fan. Wait till you’ve got proper shoes to your feet, and a dress to wear. Perhaps I’ll git you one next week.”
“But if I wait I’ll never go! He’ll finish his work to-day and spend the money, and on Monday he’ll send me out just the same as before.”
And as she continued to plead, almost with tears, so intent was she on this little outing, her mother at length gave her consent. She even got her scissors to cut off the ragged fringing from the girl’s dress to make her look more trim, and mended her torn shoes with needle and thread; then cut her a hunk of bread for her dinner.
“I never see a girl so set on the country,” she said, when Fan was about to start, her thin pale face brightening with anticipation. “It’s a long tramp up the Edgware Road, and not much to see when you git to the fields.”
There would be much to see, Fan thought, as she set out on her expedition. She had secretly planned it in her mind, and had thought about it by day and dreamed about it by night–how much there would be to see!
But the way was long; so long that before she got out of London–out of that seemingly endless road with shops on either hand–she began to be very tired. Then came that wide zone surrounding London, of uncompleted streets and rows of houses partly occupied, separated by wide spaces with brick-fields, market-gardens, and waste grounds. Here she might have turned aside to rest in one of the numerous huge excavations, their bottoms weedy and grass-grown, showing that they had been long abandoned; but this was not the country, the silent green woods and fields she had come so far to seek, and in spite of weariness she trudged determinedly on.
At first the day had promised to be fine; now a change came over it, the sky was overcast with grey clouds, and a keen wind from the north-west blew in her face and made her shiver with cold. Many times during that long walk she drew up beside some gate or wooden fence, and leaned against it, feeling almost too tired and dispirited to proceed further; but she could not sit down there to rest, for people were constantly passing in traps, carts and carriages, and on foot, and not one passed without looking hard at her; and by-and-by, overcoming her weakness, she would trudge on again, all the time wishing herself back in the miserable room in Moon Street once more.
At last she got beyond the builders’ zone, into the country; from an elevated piece of ground over which the road passed she was able to see the prospect for miles ahead, and the sight made her heart sink within her. The few trees visible were bare of foliage, and the fields, shut within their brown ragged hedges, were mostly ploughed and black, and the green fields were as level as the ploughed, and there was no shelter from the cold wind, no sunshine on the pale damp sward. It was in the middle of October; the foliage and beauty of summer had long vanished; she had seen the shed autumn leaves in Hyde Park many days ago, yet she had walked all the weary distance from Moon Street, cheered with the thought that in the country it would be different, that there would still be sunshine and shadow there, and green trees and flowers. It was useless to go on, and impossible in her weak exhausted condition to attempt to return at once. The only thing left for her to do was to creep aside and lie down under the shelter of some hedge, and get through the time in the best way she could. Near the road, some distance ahead, there was a narrow lane with a rough thorny hedge on either side, and thither she now went in quest of a shelter of some kind from the rain which was beginning to fall. The lane was on the east side of the road, and under the hedge on one hand there was an old ditch overgrown with grass and weeds; here Fan crouched down under a bush until the shower was over, then got out and walked on again. Presently she discovered a gap in the hedge large enough to admit her body, and after peering cautiously through and seeing no person about, she got into the field. It was small, and the hedge all round shut out the view on every side; nevertheless it was a relief to be there, safe out of sight of all men for a little while. She walked on, still keeping close to the hedge, until she came to a dwarf oak tree, with a deep hollow in the ground between its trunk and the hedge; the hollow was half filled with fallen dead leaves, and Fan, turning them with her foot, found that under the surface they were dry, and this spot being the most tempting one she had yet seen, she coiled herself up in the leafy bed to rest. And lying there in the shelter, after eating her bread, she very soon fell asleep, in spite of the cold.
From her sleep, which lasted for some hours, she woke stiff and chilled to the marrow. It was late in the day, and the occasional watery gleams the sun shot through the grey clouds came from low down in the western sky. She started up, and scarcely able at first to use her sore, cramped limbs, set out on her return. She was hungry and thirsty and sore–sore also in mind at her disappointment–and the gusty evening wind blew chill, and more than one shower of rain fell to wet her; but she reached Paddington at last. In the Edgware Road the Saturday evening market was in full progress when she passed, too tired and miserable to take any interest in the busy bustling scene. And by-and-by the dense moving crowds, noise of bawling costermongers, and glare of gas and naphtha torches were left behind, when she reached the welcome gloom and comparative quiet of her own squalid street. There was also welcome quiet in the top room when she entered, for her parents were out. A remnant of fire was in the grate, and the teapot had been left on the fender to keep warm. Fan poured herself out some tea and drank it thirstily; then hanging her dress over a chair to dry by the heat of the embers, and nestling into her rickety bed in the corner, she very quickly fell asleep. From her sleep she was at length roused by Mrs. Clark, the landlady, who with her husband and children inhabited the ground-floor.
“When did you come in, Fan?” she asked.
“I think it was half-past seven,” said the girl.
“Well, your mother went out earlier than that, and now it’s half-past ten, and she not in yet. It’s a shame for them always to stay out like that when they’ve got a bit of money. I think you’d better go and see if you can find her, and make her come in. She went to buy the dinner, and look for Joe in Crawford Street. That’s where you’ll find her, I’m thinking.”
Fan rose obediently, shivering with cold, her eyes still heavy with sleep, and putting on her damp things went out into the streets again. In a few minutes she was in Crawford Street. It is long, narrow, crooked, and ill-paved; full of shops, but of a meaner description than those in the adjacent thoroughfare, with a larger proportion of fishmongers, greengrocers, secondhand furniture and old clothes sellers. Here also was a Saturday evening market, an overflow from the Edgware Road, composed chiefly of the poorer class of costermongers–the vendors of cheap damaged fruits and vegetables, of haddock and herring, shell-fish, and rabbits, the skins dangling in clusters at each end of the barrow. Public-houses were numerous here; on the pavement before them groups of men were standing, pipe in mouth, idly talking; these were men who had already got rid of their week’s earnings, or of that portion they had reserved for their own pleasures, but were not yet prepared to go home, and so miss the chance of a last half-pint of beer from some passing still solvent acquaintance. There were other larger groups and little crowds gathered round the street auctioneers, minstrels, quacks, and jugglers, whose presence in the busier thoroughfare was not tolerated by the police.
It was late now, and the money spending and getting nearly over; costermongers, some with half their goods still unsold, were leaving; the groups were visibly thinning, the doors of the public-houses swinging to and fro less frequently. As Fan hurried anxiously along, she peeped carefully through the clouded window-panes into the “public bar” department of each drinking place in search of her mother, and paused for a few moments whenever she came to a group of spectators gathered round some object of curiosity at a street corner. After satisfying herself that her mother was not in the crowd, she would remain for a few moments looking on with the others.
At one spot her attention was painfully held by a short, dark, misshapen man with no hands nor arms, but only the stump of an arm, with a stick tied to it. Before him on a rough stand was a board, with half a dozen thick metal wires stretched across it. Rapidly moving his one poor stump, he struck on the wires with his stick and so produced a succession of sounds that roughly resembled a tune. Poor man, how she pitied him; how much more miserable seemed his life than hers! It was cold and damp, yet the perspiration stood in great drops on his sallow, wasted face as he violently wriggled his deformed body about, playing without hands on his rude instrument–all to make a few pence to save himself from starvation, or from that living tomb into which, with a humanity more cruel than Nature’s cruelty, we thrust the unfit ones away out of our sight! No one gave him anything for his music, and with a pang in her heart she hurried away on her quest.
Not all the street scenes were ghastly or painful. She came to one crowd, ranged motionless and silent before a large, fat, dignified-looking man, in good broad-cloth garments, white tie, and wearing a fez; he was calmly sitting on a camp-stool, and held a small phial in one hand. Not a word did he speak for a long time. At length one of the onlookers, a tipsy working-man, becoming impatient, addressed him:
“Ain’t you going to do nothing, mister? Here I’ve been a-waiting with these other ladies and gentl’men more’n ten minutes, and you ain’t done nothing yet, nor yet said nothing.”
The fat man placed a hand on his broad shirt-front, rolled up his eyes, and solemnly shook his head.
“Fools, fools!” he said, as if speaking to himself. “But what does it matter to me if they won’t be saved–if they’d rather die of their complaints? In the East it’s different, because I’m known there. I’ve been to Constantinople, and Morocco, and everywhere. Let them ask the heathen what I have done for them. Do they think I cure them for the sake of their dirty pence? No, no; those that like gold, and jewels, and elephants to ride on, can have it all in the East, and I came away from there. Because why? I care more for these. _I_ don’t ask them what’s the matter with them! Is there such a thing as a leper in this crowd? Let them bring me a leper here, and I’ll cure him for nothing, just to show them what this medicine is. As for rheumatics, consumption, toothache, palpitations of the ‘art–what you like, that’s all nothing. One drop and it’s gone. Sarsaparilla, and waters this, and pills that, what they give their pence for, and expect it’s going to do them good. Rubbish, I call it. They buy it, as much as they can put in their insides, and die just the same. This is different. Twenty years in the East, and this is what I got. Doctors! I laugh at such people.”
Here, with a superior smile, he cast down his eyes again and relapsed into silence.
No one laughed. Then Fan heard someone near her remark: “He has book- learning, that’s what he has”; to which another voice replied, “Ah, you may say it, and he has more’n that.”
Next to Fan stood a gaunt, aged woman, miserably dressed, and she, too, listened to these remarks; and presently she pushed her way to the wise man of the East, and began, “Oh, sir, my heart’s that bad–“
“Hush, hush! don’t say another word,” he interrupted with a majestic wave of his hand. “You needn’t tell me what you have. I saw it all before you spoke.”
He uncorked the phial. “One drop on your tongue will make you whole for ever. Poor woman! poor woman! how much you have suffered. I know it all. Sixpence first, if you please. If you were rich I would say a hundred pounds; but you are poor, and your sixpence shall be more to you in the Day of Judgment than the hundred pounds of the rich man.”
With trembling fingers she brought out her money and counted out fivepence-halfpenny.
“It’s ahl I have,” she sorrowfully said, offering it to him.
He shook his head, and she was about to retire when someone came forward and placed a halfpenny in her hand. He took his fee, and then all pressed closer round to watch with intense interest while a drop of brown liquid was poured on to the poor woman’s tongue, thrust far out so that none of that balsam of life should be lost. After witnessing this scene, Fan hurried on once more.
At length, near Blandford Square, she came against a crowd so large that nothing short of a fight, or the immediate prospect of one, could have caused it to collect at that late hour. A temporary opening of the crowd enabled her to see into the middle of it, and there, in a small space which had been made for them, two women stood defiantly facing each other. The dim light from the windows of the public-house they had been drinking in fell on their heads, and she instantly recognised them both: one was her mother, excited by alcohol and anger; the other a tall, pale- faced, but brawny-looking woman, known in the place as “Long ‘Liza,” a noted brawler, once a neighbour of the Harrods in Moon Street, but now just out of prison and burning to pay off old scores. In vain Fan struggled to reach her mother; the ring of people closed up again; she was flung roughly back and no regard paid to her piteous appeals and sobs.
It was anguish to her to have to stand there powerless on the outer edge of the ring of people, to listen to the frantic words of the insult and challenge of the two women and the cries and cheers of the excited crowd. But it was plain that a war of words was not enough to satisfy the onlookers, that they were bent on making the women come to blows. The crowd increased every moment; she was pushed further and further back, and in the hubbub could only catch portions of what the two furious women were saying.
“No, you won’t fight, you —-; that’s not your way, but wait till one’s down, and then…. And if you got six weeks with hard, it’s a pity, I say, as it wasn’t six months…. But if I was a —- blab like you I could say worse things of you than you and your —- Moon Street crew can say of me any day…. And you’ll out with it if you don’t want your head knocked on the stones for nothing…. Not by you, you —-; I’m ready, if you want to try your strength with me, then we’ll see whose head ‘ull be knocked on the stones…. Yes, I’ll fight you fast enough, but first…. If you’ll have it, where’s the girl you send into the streets to beg? You and your man to git drunk on the coppers she gits! More too if you’d like to hear it…. But you can’t say more, nor that neither, you —-…. Smash my teeth, then! Who was her father, or did the poor fool marry you off the streets when he was drunk?”
With a scream and a curse her antagonist sprang at her, and in a moment they were striking and tearing at each other like a couple of enraged wild animals. With a burst of cheering the people pressed closer round, but after a few moments they interposed and forcibly pulled the combatants apart. Not that there was any ruth in their hearts, any compassionate desire to shield these two miserable women of their own class from their insane fury; their only fear was that the fighters would exhaust themselves too soon, encumbered as they were with their jackets and shawls. Not one in the throng remembered that he had an old mother, a pale-faced wife and little children at home, and sisters, working-girls perhaps. For the working-man has a sporting instinct as well as his betters; he cannot gratify it by seeing stripped athletic men pounding each other with their fists at Pelican Clubs; he has only the occasional street fight to delight his soul, and the spectacle of two maddened women tearing each other is not one to be ungrateful for.
Having pulled off their hats and stripped them to their corsets, their friends and backers released them with encouraging words and slaps on the back, just as dog-fighters set their dogs on each other. Again there were yells and curses, tearing of hair and garments, and a blind, mad rain of blows; until Long ‘Liza, striking her foot on the curb, measured her length on the stones, and instantly her adversary was down on her chest, pounding her face with clenched fists.
Groans and shouts of protest arose from the onlookers, and then several of them rushed in and dragged her off, after which the two women were set on their feet and encouraged to renew the fight. Round after round was fought with unabated fury, invariably ending by one going down, to be stamped on, beaten, and kicked by her opponent until rescued by the spectators, who wished only to prolong the contest. But the last round ended more disastrously; locked in a close tussle, ‘Liza exerted her whole strength to lift her antagonist from the ground and hurl her down, and succeeded, falling heavily on her, then quickly disengaging herself she jumped on her as if with the object of trampling her life out, when once more the spectators rushed in and dragged her off, still struggling and yelling with baffled rage. But the fallen woman could not be roused; the back of her head had struck the edge of the kerbstone; she was senseless, and her loosened hair becoming saturated with fast-flowing blood.
Fan, sobbing and pressing her hands together in anguish and terror, was no longer kept back; as if by magic the crowd had dissipated, while half a dozen men and women surrounded ‘Liza and hurried her, still struggling and cursing, from the ground. Fan was on her knees beside the fallen woman, trying to raise her; but presently she was pushed roughly aside by two policemen who had just arrived on the scene. Of the crowd, numbering about a hundred and fifty persons, only a dozen or twenty men still lingered on the spot, and some of these assisted the policemen in raising the woman and bathing her head with cold water. Then, finding that she was seriously injured, they put her into a four-wheeler and drove off to St. Mary’s Hospital.
Left alone, Fan stood for a few moments not knowing what to do, then she set off running after the cab, crying as she ran; but it went too fast for her, and before she got to the end of Crawford Street it was out of sight. Still she kept on, and at last, crossing Edgware Road, plunged into a wilderness of narrow dark streets, still hoping to reach St. Mary’s not long after the cab. But though well acquainted with the hospital, and all the streets leading to it, on this occasion she became bewildered, and after wandering about for some time, and feeling utterly worn-out with her long fatiguing day and the painful emotions she had experienced, she sat down on a doorstep in a lonely dark street, not knowing where she had got to.
Then a poor woman came by and was able to direct her, and she hurried on once more; but when close to the gate she met her father, who asked her in a surly tone what she did there at that late hour. He had witnessed the whole fight to the end, only keeping well in the background to escape observation, and was just returning from the hospital when he met Fan. Hearing that she was going to see her mother, he ordered her home, saying that at the hospital they would admit no one at that hour, and that she must go in the morning to inquire. Sick with grief and misery, she followed him back to Moon Street, which they reached at about half-past twelve.
Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday passed sadly and slowly enough, and at five o’clock on the evening of the last day Fan was told at St. Mary’s–that Margaret Harrod was dead. During those three miserable days of suspense she had spent most of her time hanging about the doors of the hospital, going timidly at intervals to inquire, and to ask to be allowed to see her mother. But her request was refused. Her mother was suffering from concussion of the brain, besides other serious injuries, and continued unconscious; nothing was to be gained by seeing her.
Without a word, without a tear, she turned away from the dreary gates and walked slowly back to Moon Street; and at intervals on her homeward walk she paused to gaze about her in a dazed way, like a person who had wandered unknowingly into some distant place where everything wore a strange look. The old familiar streets and buildings were there, the big shop-windows full of cheap ticketed goods, the cab-stand and the drinking-fountain, the omnibuses and perpetual streams of’ foot- passengers on the broad pavement. She knew it all so well, yet now it looked so unfamiliar. She was a stranger, lost and alone there in that place and everywhere. She was walking there like one in a dream, from which there would be no more waking to the old reality; no more begging pence from careless passers-by in the street; no more shrinking away and hiding herself with an unutterable sense of shame and degradation from the sight of some neighbour or old school acquaintance; no more going about in terror of the persecution and foul language of the gangs of grown-up boys and girls that spent their evenings in horse-play in the streets; no more going home to the one being she loved, and who loved her, whose affection supplied the food for which her heart hungered.
Arrived at her home, she did not go up as was her custom to her dreary room at the top, but remained standing in the passage near the landlady’s door; and presently Mrs. Clark, coming out, discovered her there.
“Well, Fan, how’s mother now?” she asked in a kind voice.
“She’s dead,” returned Fan, hanging her head.
“Dead! I thought it ‘ud be that! Dear, dear! poor Margy, so strong as she was only last Saturday, and dead! Poor Margy, poor dear–we was always friendly”–here she wiped away a tear–“as good a soul as ever breathed! _That_ she was, though she did die like that; but she never had a chance, and went to the bad all on account of him. Dead, and he on the drink–Lord only knows where he gits it–and lying there asleep in his room, and his poor wife dead at the hospital, and never thinking how he’s going to pay the rent. I’ve stood it long enough for poor Margy, poor dear, because we was friends like, and she’d her troubles the same as me, but I ain’t going to stand it from him. That I’ll let him know fast enough; and now she’s dead he can take himself off, and good riddance. But how’re _you_ going to live–begging about the street? A big girl like you–I’m ashamed of such goings on, and ain’t going to have it in my house.”
Fan shook her head: the slow tears were beginning to fall now. “I’d do anything for mother,” she said, with a half sob, “but she’s dead, and I’ll never beg more.”
“That’s a good girl, Fan. But you always was a good girl, I must say, only they didn’t do what’s right by you. Now don’t cry, poor dear, but run up to your room and lie down; you’re dead tired.”
“I can’t go there any more,” murmured Fan, in a kind of despairing way.
“And what are you going to do? He’ll do nothing for you, but ‘ll only make you beg and abuse you. I know Joe Harrod, and only wish he’d got his head broke instead of poor Margy. Ain’t you got no relation you know of to go to? She was country-bred, Margy was; she come from Norfolk, I often heard her say.”
“I’ve got no one,” murmured Fan.
“Well, don’t cry no more. Come in here; you look starved and tired to death. When my man comes in you’ll have tea with us, and I’ll let you sleep in my room. But, Fan, if Joe won’t keep you and goes off and leaves you, you’ll have to go into the House, because _I_ couldn’t keep you, if I wanted ever so.”
Fan followed her into her room on the ground-floor: there was a fire in the grate, which threw a dim flickering light on the dusty-looking walls and ceiling and the old shabby furniture, but it was very superior to the Harrods’ bare apartment, and to the poor girl it seemed a perfect haven of rest. Retreating to a corner she sat down, and began slowly pondering over the words the landlady had spoken. The “House” she had always been taught to look on as a kind of prison where those who were unfit to live, and could not live, and yet would not die, were put away out of sight. For those who went to gaol for doing wrong there was hope; not so for the penniless, friendless incapables who drifted or were dragged into the dreary refuge of the “House.” They might come out again when the weather was warm, and try to renew the struggle in which they had suffered defeat; but their case would be then like that of the fighter who has been felled to the earth, and staggers up, half stunned and blinded with blood, to renew the combat with an uninjured opponent. And yet the words she had heard, while persistently remaining in her mind, did not impress her very much then. She was tired and dazed, and had nothing to live for, and was powerless to think and plan for herself: she was ready to go wherever she was bidden, and ask no questions and make no trouble. So she went and sat down in a dark corner, without making any reply. With eyes closed and her tired head resting against the wall, she remained for half an hour in that impassive state, saying no word in answer to Mrs. Clark’s occasional remarks, as she moved about preparing the six o’clock meal.
Then the husband came in, and being a silent man, said nothing when his wife told him that Margaret was dead at the hospital. When she proceeded to add that Joe would sell the sticks and go off, leaving Fan on their hands, and that Fan would have to go to the House, he only nodded his head and went on with his tea.
Fan drank her tea and ate her bread-and-butter, and then once more returned to her seat, and after some time she fell asleep, leaning her head against the wall. She woke with a start two hours later to find herself alone in the room, but there was still some fire in the grate, and a candle burning on the table. The heavy steps of a man on the stairs had woke her, and she knew that Joe Harrod was coming down from his room. He came and knocked at the door.
“Is Fan here?” he called huskily. “Where’s the girl got to, I’d like to know?”
She remained silent, shrinking back trembling in her corner; and after waiting a while and getting no answer he went grumbling away, and presently she heard him go out at the street door. Then she sprang to her feet, and stood for a while intently listening, with a terror and hatred of this man stronger than she had ever felt before urging her to fly and place herself for ever beyond his reach. Somewhere in this great city she might find a hiding-place; it was so vast; in all directions the great thoroughfares stretched away into the infinite distance, bright all night with the flaring gas and filled with crowds of people and the noise of traffic; and branching off from the thoroughfares there were streets, hundreds and thousands of streets, leading away into black silent lanes and quiet refuges, in the shadow of vast silent buildings, and arches, and gateways, where she might lie down and rest in safety. So strong on her was this sudden impulse to fly, that she would have acted on it had not Mrs. Clark returned at that moment to the room.
“Come, Fan, I’ve made you up a bed in my room, and if he comes bothering for you to-night, I’ll soon send him about his business. Don’t you fear, my girl.”
Fan followed her silently to the adjoining room, where a bed of rugs and blankets had been made for her on four or five chairs. For the present she felt safe; but she could not sleep much, even on a bed made luxurious by warmth, for thinking of the morrow; and finally she resolved to slip away in the morning and make her escape.
At six o’clock next morning the Clarks were up, one to go to his work, the other to make him his breakfast. When they had left the bedroom Fan also got up and dressed herself in all haste, and after waiting till she heard the man leave the house, she went into the next room, and Mrs. Clark gave her some coffee and bread, and expressed surprise at seeing her up so early. Fan answered that she was going out to look for something to do.
“It’s not a bit of use,” said the other. “They won’t look at you with them things on. Just you stop in quiet, and I’ll see he don’t worry you; but by-and-by you’ll have to go to the House, for Joe Harrod’s not the man to take care of you. They’ll feed you and give you decent clothes, and that’s something; and perhaps they’ll send you to some place where they take girls to learn them to be housemaids and kitchen-maids, and things like that. Don’t you go running about the streets, because it’ll come to no good, and I won’t have it.”
Fan had intended to ask her to let her go out and try just once, and when once clear of the neighbourhood, to remain away, but Mrs. Clark had spoken so sharply at the last, that she only hung her head and remained silent.
But presently the opportunity came when the woman went away to look after some domestic matter, and Fan, stealing softly to the door, opened it, and finding no person in sight, made her escape in the direction of Norfolk Crescent. Skirting the neighbourhood of squares and gardens and large houses, she soon reached Praed Street, and then the Harrow Road, along which she hurriedly walked; and when it began to grow light and the shopkeepers were taking down their shutters, she had crossed the Regent’s Canal, and found herself in a brick-and-mortar wilderness entirely unknown to her.
Here she felt perfectly safe for the time, for the Clarks, she felt sure, would trouble themselves no further about her, for she was nothing to them; and as for Joe Harrod, she had heard them say that he would be called that day to identify his wife’s body at the inquest, and give his evidence about the way in which she had met her death.
About these unknown streets Fan wandered for hours in an aimless kind of way, not seeking work nor speaking to anyone; for the words Mrs. Clark had spoken about the uselessness of seeking employment dressed as she was still weighed on her mind and made her ashamed of addressing any person. Towards noon hunger and fatigue began to make her very faint; and by-and- by the short daylight would fail, and there would be no food and no shelter for the night. This thought spurred her into action. She went into a small side street of poor mean-looking houses and a few shops scattered here and there among the private dwellings. Into one of these –a small oil-shop, where she saw a woman behind the counter–she at last ventured.
“What for you?” said the woman, the moment she put her foot inside the door.
“Please do you want a girl to help with work–“
“No, I don’t want a girl, and don’t know anyone as does,” said the woman sharply; then turned away, not well pleased that this girl was no buyer of an honest bundle of wood, a ha’porth of treacle, or a half-ounce of one-and-four tea; for out of the profits of such small transactions she had to maintain herself and children.
Fan went out; but by-and-by recovering a little courage, and urged by need, she went into other shops, into all the shops in that mean little street at last, but nobody wanted her, and in one or two instances she was ordered out in sharp tones and followed by sharp eyes lest she should carry off something concealed under her shawl.
Then she wandered on again, and at length finding a quiet spot, she sat down to rest on a doorstep. The pale October sunshine which had been with her up till now deserted her; it was growing cold and grey, and at last, shivering and faint, she got up and walked aimlessly on once more, resolving to go into the next shop she should come to, and to speak to the next woman she should see standing at her door, with the hope of finding someone at last to take her in and give her food and a place to lie down in. But on coming to the shop she would pass on; and when she saw a woman standing outside her door, with keen hard eyes looking her from head to foot, she would drop her own and walk on; and at last, through very weariness, she began to lose that painful apprehension of the cold night spent out of doors; even her hunger seemed to leave her; she wanted only to sit down and fall asleep and remember no more. By-and- by she found herself again in the Harrow Road, but her brain was confused, so that she did not know whether she was going east or west. It was growing colder now and darker, and a grey mist was forming in the air, and she could find no shelter anywhere from the cold and mud and mist, and from the eyes of the passers-by that seemed to look so pitilessly at her. The sole of one of her shoes was worn through, and the cold flag-stones of the footway and the mud of the streets made her foot numb, so that she could scarcely lift it. Near Paddington Green–for she had been for some time walking back towards the Edgware Road–she paused at the entrance of a short narrow street, running up to the canal. It had a very squalid appearance, and a number of ragged children were running about shouting at their play in it, but it was better than the thoroughfare to rest in, and advancing a few yards, she paused on the edge of the pavement and leant against a lamp-post. A few of the dirty children came near and stared at her, then returned to their noisy sports with the others. A little further on women were standing at their doors exchanging remarks. Presently a thin sad-looking woman, in a rusty black gown, carrying something wrapped in a piece of newspaper in her hand, came by from the thoroughfare. She paused near Fan, looked at her once or twice, and said:
“What name be you looking for? The numbers is mostly rubbed off the doors. Maybe they never had none.”
“I wasn’t looking for anyone,” said Fan.
“I thought you was, seeing you standing as if you didn’t know where to go, like.”
Fan shook her head, feeling too tired to say anything. She had no friend, no one she knew even in these poor tenements, and only wished to rest a little there out of sight of the passing people. The woman was still standing still, but not watching her.
“Maybe you’re waiting for someone?” she suggested.
“No? you’re not.” And after a further interval she began studying the little loosely-wrapped parcel in her hand; and finally, with slow deliberation, she unfolded it. It contained a bloater: she felt it carefully as though to make sure that it had a soft roe, and then smelt it to make sure that it was good, after which she slowly wrapped it up again. “Maybe you’ve no home to go to,” she remarked tentatively, looking away from Fan as if speaking to some imaginary person.
“No, I haven’t,” said Fan.
“You don’t look a bad ‘un. P’r’aps they treated you badly and you ran away.”
“And you’ve no place to go to, and no money?”
Again the woman’s eyes wandered absently away; then she began studying the parcel, and appeared about to unfold it once more, then thought better of it, and at last said, still speaking in the same absent mournful tone: “I’ve got a room to myself up there,” indicating the upper end of the street. “You can come and sleep along with me, if you like. One bloater ain’t much for two, but there’s tea and bread, and that’ll do you good.”
“Thank you, I’ll come,” said Fan, and moving along at her side they walked about forty yards further on to an open door, before which stood a dirty-looking woman with bare folded arms. She moved aside to let them pass, and going in they went up to a top room, small and dingy, furnished with a bed, a small deal table, one chair, and a deal box, which served as a washing-stand. But there was a fire burning in the small grate, with a kettle on; and a cottage loaf, an earthenware teapot with half its spout broken off, and one cup and saucer, also a good deal damaged, were on the table, the poor woman having made all preparations for her tea before going out to buy her bloater.
“Take off your hat and sit here,” she said, drawing her one cane-bottomed chair near the fire.
Fan obeyed, putting her hat on the bed, and then sat warming herself, too tired and sad to think of anything.
Meanwhile her hostess took off her boots and began quietly moving about the room, which was uncarpeted, finishing her preparations for tea. The herring was put down to toast before the coals and the tea made; then she went downstairs and returned with a second cup. Finally she drew the little table up to the bed, which would serve as a second seat. It was all so strangely quiet there, with no sound except the kettle singing, and the hissing and sputtering of the toasting herring, that the unaccustomed silence had the effect of rousing the girl, and she glanced at the woman moving so noiselessly about the room. She was not yet past middle age, but had the coarsened look and furrowed skin of one whose lot in life had been hard; her hair was thin and lustreless, sprinkled with grey, and there was a faraway look of weary resignation in her dim blue eyes. Fan pitied her, and remembering that but for this poor woman’s sympathy she would have been still out in the cold streets, with no prospect of a shelter for the night, she bent down her face and began to cry quietly.
The woman took no notice, but continued moving about in her subdued way, until all was ready, and then going to the window she stood there gazing out into the mist and darkness. Only when Fan had finished crying she came back to the fireside, and they sat down to their tea. It was a silent meal, but when it was over, and the few things washed and put away, she drew the deal box up to the fire and sat down by Fan. Then they talked a little: Fan told her that her mother was just dead, that she was homeless and trying to find something to do for a living. The woman, on her side, said she worked at a laundry close by. “But they don’t want no more hands there,” she added, in a desponding way. “And you ain’t fit for such work neither. You must try to find something for yourself to-morrow, and if you can’t find nothing, which I don’t think you will, come back and sleep with me. It don’t cost much to give you tea, and I ain’t owing any rent now, and it’s company for me, so you needn’t mind.”
After this short conversation they went to bed and to sleep, for they were both tired.
The result of Fan’s second day’s search for employment proved no more promising than the first. She wandered about the Westbourne Park district, going as far west as Ladbroke Grove Road, still avoiding the streets, gardens, and squares of the larger houses. But she was apparently not good enough for even the humbler class of dwellings, for no one would so much as ask her what she could do, or condescend to speak to her, except in one house, to which she had been directed by a woman in a greengrocer’s shop; there she was scoffingly asked if she had a “character” and decent clothes to wear.
When the woman who had given her shelter on the previous evening returned at five o’clock from her work, she found Fan in Dudley Grove, for that was the beautiful name of the slum she lived in, standing, as before, beside the lamp-post; and after a few words of greeting took her to her room. While preparing the tea she noticed the girl’s weak and starved condition, for Fan had eaten nothing all day, and went out and presently returned with a better supply of food–brawn, and salt butter, and a bundle of water-cress–quite a variety.
As on the evening before, they sat for a while by the small fire after their meal, speaking a few words, and those not very hopeful ones, and then presently they went to bed, and to sleep as soon as their heads touched the pillow. After their modest breakfast next morning the woman said:
“Are you going back to your friends to-day?”
Fan glanced at her in sudden fear and cast down her eyes.
“You was tired and had nothing to eat yesterday, and couldn’t git nothing to do. Didn’t it make you wish to go back to them again?”
“No, I’ll not go back. I’ve no friends,” said Fan; and then she added timidly, “You don’t want me to come back here no more?”
“Yes; you come back if you don’t find nothing. The tea and bread ain’t much, and I don’t mind it, and it’s company to me to have you.”
And without more words they went out together, separating in the Harrow Road.
On this morning Fan took a different route, and going south soon found herself in wide, clean streets, among very big stuccoed and painted houses. It was useless to seek for anything there, she thought, and yet presently something happened in this place to put a new hope into her heart. It was very early, and at some of the houses the cooks or kitchen- maids were cleaning the doorsteps, and while passing one of these doors she was accosted by the woman and asked if she would clean the steps. She consented gladly enough, and received a penny in payment. Then she remembered that she had often seen poor girls, ill-dressed as herself, cleaning the steps of large houses, and had heard that the usual payment was one penny for the task. After walking about for some time she began timidly ringing the area bells of houses where the steps had not yet been cleaned, and asking if a girl was wanted to do them. Almost invariably she was sent away with an emphatic “No!” from a servant angry at being disturbed; but twice again during that day she received a penny for step- cleaning, so that she had earned threepence. After midday, finding she could get no more work, and feeling faint with hunger, she bought a penny loaf, and going to a shelter facing the fountains in Kensington Gardens, made her modest dinner, and rested afterwards until it was time to return to Dudley Grove.
In the evening as she sat by the fire after tea she gave an account of her success, and exhibited the two remaining pence, offering them to the poor woman who had sheltered her.
She only shook her head. “You’ll maybe want something to eat to-morrow,” she said; and presently continued, “Step-cleaning ain’t no good. There’s too many at it. And you a growing girl, and always hungry, you’d starve at it. Saturdays is not bad, because there’s many houses where they only clean the steps once a week, and they has a girl to do it. You might make sixpence or a shilling on a Saturday. But other days is bad. You can’t live at it. There’s nothing you can do to live.”
Fan was profoundly discouraged; but thinking over the subject, she remembered that she had seen other girls out on the same quest as herself that day, and though all of them had a dirty draggled look, as was natural considering the nature of the work, some of them, at all events, looked well-fed, healthy, and not unhappy, and this had made her more hopeful. At last she said:
“If other girls get their living at it, why can’t I? If I could make sixpence a day, couldn’t I live on that?”
“No, nor yet on ninepence, nor yet on a shilling. You’re a tall growing girl, and you ain’t strong, and you are hungry, and want your dinner in the middle of the day; and if you don’t get it, you’ll be down ill, and then what’ll you do? You can’t do it on sixpence, nor yet on a shilling, because you’ve got no home to go to, and must pay for a room; and no one to find you clothes and shoes, you must buy them. Them girls you see are stronger than you, and have homes to go to, and don’t go about like you to find steps to clean, but go to the houses they know, where they always clean the steps. And they don’t get only a penny; they get tuppence, and make a shilling a day–some of them as knows many houses; and on Saturdays they make more’n three shillings. But you can’t do it, because you don’t know nobody, and have no clothes and no home, and there’s too many before you.”
It looked as if this poor woman had worked at step-cleaning herself for a living, she was so pessimistic about it, and appeared to be so very familiar with the whole subject. People never believe that a fortune is to be made at any business in which they have been unsuccessful themselves.
Fan was discouraged, but there was nothing else for her to do, and it was hard for her to give up this one chance.
“Won’t you let me try just a few days?” she asked at length.
“Yes, you can try; but it ain’t no use, there’s so many at it. In a few days your clothes’ll be dropping off you, and then what’ll you do? It’s rough work, and not fit for a girl like you. I don’t mind, because your tea don’t cost much, and it’s company to have you here, as it ain’t all giving, but it’s give-and-take like between us.”
The same dreary words were repeated evening after evening, when Fan returned from her daily peregrinations; but still the poor girl hoped against hope, and clung desperately to the only occupation she had been able to discover. It was a hard miserable life, and each succeeding day only seemed to bring her nearer to the disastrous end prophesied by the mournful laundrywoman of Dudley Grove. How weary she often was with walking hour after hour, sometimes feeling so famished that she could hardly refrain from picking up the orange-peels from the street to appease the cruel pangs of hunger! And when she was more lucky and had steps to clean, then the wet and grime of the hearthstone made her poor gown more worn and soiled and evil-looking than ever, while her shoes were in such a state that it was hard, by much mending every evening, to keep them from falling to pieces. Every day seemed to bring her nearer to the end, when she would be compelled to sit down and say “I can do no more–I must starve”; yet with the little renewal of strength which the evening meal and drearily-expressed sympathy of her friend and the night’s rest would bring her, she would go forth each morning to wander about for another day.
Ten or twelve days had gone by in this way, and acting on a little practical advice given by the poor laundrywoman, she had forsaken the neighbourhood of squares and big houses close to Hyde Park to go further afield into the district lying west of Westbourne Grove, where the houses were smaller, and fewer servants were kept in them.
About ten o’clock one morning she stopped before a house in Dawson Place, a wide clean street of pretty detached, moderate-sized houses, each with a garden in front and a larger garden and trees behind. The house had a trim well-kept appearance, and five or six broad white steps led up to the front door, which was painted deep blue. Fan, looking critically at the steps, could not make out whether they had been already cleaned or not, so white and clean, yet dry, did they look. And the steps of all the houses in Dawson Place had the same white look, so that there seemed no chance of anything for her to do there; but she felt tired already, and stood resting beside the area gate, not venturing to ring.
By-and-by the front door opened and a lady came out and down the steps, and on reaching the pavement stood still and looked hard at Fan. She was tall, and had a round shapely figure, a well-developed bust, and looked about five-and-twenty years old. Fan thought her marvellously beautiful, but felt a little frightened in her presence, she was so tall and stately, and her face had such a frowning, haughty expression. Beautiful women-faces had always had a kind of fascination for her–the gentle, refined face, on which she would gaze with a secret intense pleasure, and a longing to hear some loving word addressed to herself from a sister with sweet lips, so strong that it was like a sharp pain at her heart. The proud masterful expression of this beautiful face affected her differently–she feared as well as admired.
The lady was fashionably dressed, and wore a long dark blue velvet jacket, deeply trimmed with brown fur, and under the shadow of a rather broad fur hat her hair looked very black and glossy; her straight eyebrows were also black, and her eyes very dark, full and penetrating. Her skin was of that beautiful rich red colour not often seen in London ladies, and more common in Ireland than in England. Her features were fine, the nose slightly aquiline, the red lips less full, and the mouth smaller than is usual in faces of so luxuriant a type; a shapely, beautiful mouth, which would have been very sweet but for its trick of looking scornful.
“What do you want?” she said in a sharp imperative tone–just the tone one would have expected from so imperious-looking a dame.
“Please, do you want the steps cleaned?” Fan asked very timidly.
“No, of course not. What an absurd little goose you must be to ask such a thing! Servants are kept for such a purpose.”
For a few moments Fan still remained standing there, her eyes cast down, then shyly glanced up at that richly-coloured beautiful face, and encountered the dark strong eyes intently watching her.
“Yes, you may clean them,” said the lady. “When you have finished go down to the kitchen, and tell the cook to pay you and give you something to eat.” Then she walked away, but after going about a dozen yards, came back and sharply rang the area-bell to bring out the cook, and repeated the order to her.
“Very well, ma’am,” said the cook, wiping her hands on her apron; but she did not return at once to her kitchen, for her mistress was still standing there watching Fan.
“Never mind, cook, you needn’t pay her,” said the lady, speaking again. “Let her wait in the kitchen till I return. I am going to the Grove, and shall be back in half an hour.”
Then she walked away, her head well up, and with that stately bird-like gait seen in some women. When Fan had finished the steps she went into the kitchen, and the cook gave her some bread and cheese and a glass of ale, which revived her and made her more strong and hopeful than she had felt for many a day. Then she began to wonder what the fine lady was going to say to her, and whether she would give her twopence instead of the usual penny. Or perhaps it was intended to present her with an old gown or pair of boots. Such things had happened, she knew, and the thought that such a thing might happen again, and to her, made her heart beat fast; and though it was so pleasant resting there in that bright warm kitchen, she began to wish for the lady’s return, so that her suspense might end. And while she sat there occupied with her thoughts, the cook, a staid-looking woman of about forty–the usual age of the London cook–made up her fire and went about doing a variety of things, taking no notice of her guest.
Then the housemaid came running down the stairs singing into the kitchen, dusting-brush and dust-pan in her hands–a pretty girl with dark merry bright eyes, and her brown hair worn frizzled on her forehead.
“My!” she exclaimed, starting back at seeing Fan. And after surveying her for some time with a mocking smile playing about the corners of her pretty ripe mouth, she said, “Is this one of your poor relations, Mrs. Topping?”
“No, Rosie; that she ain’t. The missus gave her the steps to clean, and told her to wait here till she got back.”
The maid burst into a ringing peal of laughter. “Fancy, Miss Starbrow!” she exclaimed. “Where do you come from?” she continued, addressing Fan. “Whitechapel? Seven Dials?”
Fan reddened with shame and anger, and refused to reply: stubborn silence was her only shield against those who scoffed at her extreme poverty; and that this pretty girl was mocking her she knew very well. Then the maid sat down and stared at her, and amused herself and fellow-servant with malicious comments on Fan’s dress.
“May I ask you, miss, where you got that lovely hat?” she said. “From Madame Elise? Why, of course, how could I ask! I assure you it is most charmingly becoming. I shall try to get one like it, but I’m afraid I can’t go beyond six guineas. And your shawl–a Cashmere, I see. A present from her Majesty, no doubt.”
“Oh, do be quiet, Rosie; you’ll kill me!” cried the cook, overcome with laughter at such exquisite wit. But Rosie, seeing the effects of it, only became more lively and satirical, until Fan, goaded beyond endurance, started up from her seat, determined to make her escape. Fortunately at that moment the lady of the house returned, and the maid scampered off to open the door to her. Soon she returned and dropped Fan a mocking curtsey. “Please follow me this way,” she said. “Miss Starbrow regrets that she has been detained so long, and is now quite ready to receive you.”
Fan followed her up the kitchen stairs to the hall, where Miss Starbrow, with her hat on as she had come in, stood waiting to see her. She looked keenly at the girl’s flushed and tearful face, and turned to Rosie for an explanation; but that lively damsel, foreseeing storms, had already vanished up the stairs.
“Has she been teasing you?” said the lady. “Well, never mind, don’t think any more about it. She’s an impudent hussy, I know–they all are, and one has to put up with them. Now sit down here and tell me your name, and where you live, and all about yourself, and why you go out cleaning steps for a living.”
Then she also sat down and listened patiently, aiding with an occasional question, while the girl in a timid, hesitating way related the principal events in her unhappy life.
“Poor girl!” was Miss Starbrow’s comment when the narrative was finished. She had drawn off her glove and now took Fan’s hand in hers. “How can you do that hard rough work with such poor thin little hands?” she said. “Let me look at your eyes again–it is so strange that you should have such eyes! You don’t seem like a child of such people as your parents were.”
Fan glanced timidly at her again, her eyes brightening, a red colour flushing her pale cheeks, and her lips quivering.
“You have an eloquent face–what do you wish to say?” asked the lady.
Fan still hesitated.
“Trust me, my poor girl, and I shall help you. Then is something in your mind you would like to say.”
Then Fan, losing all fear, said:
_”He_ was not my father–the man that married mother. My father was a gentleman, but I don’t know his name.”
“I can very well believe it. Especially when I look at your eyes.”
“Mother said my eyes were just like my father’s,” said Fan, with growing confidence and a touch of pride.
“Perhaps they are like his in one way, my poor girl,” said the other, a little frown clouding her forehead. “In another way they are very different, I should think. No one who ever did a cruel thing could have had that expression in his eyes.”
After sitting in silence for some time, still with that frown on her beautiful face, her eyes resting thoughtfully on the tessellated floor, she roused herself, and taking out her purse, gave Fan half-a-crown.
“Go home now,” she said, “and come again to-morrow at the same hour.”
Fan went from the door with a novel sense of happiness filling her heart. At intervals she took out the half-crown from her pocket to look at it. What a great broad noble coin it looked to her eyes! It was old–nearly seventy years old–and the lines on it were blurred, and yet it seemed wonderfully bright and beautiful to Fan; even the face of George the Third on it, which had never been called beautiful, now really seemed so to her. But very soon she ceased thinking about the half-crown and all that it represented; it was not that which caused the strange happiness in her heart, but the gentle compassionate words that the proud-looking lady had spoken to her. Never before had so sweet an experience come to her; how long it would live in her memory–the strange tender words, the kindly expression of the eyes, the touch of the soft white hand–to refresh her like wine in days of hunger and weariness!
It was early still in the day, and many hours before she could return to Dudley Grove; and so she continued roaming about, and found another doorstep to clean, and received threepence for cleaning it, to her surprise. With the threepence she bought all the food she required. The half-crown she would not break into; that must be shown to the poor washer-woman just as she had received it. When the woman saw it in the evening she was very much astonished, and expressed the feeling, if it be not a contradiction to say so, by observing a long profound silence. But like the famous parrot she “thought the more,” and at length she gave it as her opinion that the lady intended taking Fan as a servant in her house.
“Oh, do you really think so?” exclaimed Fan, becoming excited at the prospect of such happiness. And after a while she added, “Then I’ll leave you the half-crown for all you’ve done for me.”
The poor woman would not listen to such a proposal; but next morning she consented to take charge of it, promising, if Fan should not return, to use it.
Fan did not fail to be at Dawson Place at the time, or a little before the time, appointed. “Oh, I hope that girl won’t open the door when I ring,” she said to herself, giving the door-bell a little hesitating pull. But the summons was promptly answered by the undesirable person in question, and she greeted the visitor with a mocking curtsey. She had little time, however, in which to make Fan miserable, for Miss Starbrow was quickly on the scene, looking very gracious and very beautiful in a dark red morning gown.
“Come here and sit down,” she said, placing herself in one hall chair and making Fan take the other. “Now listen. Would you like to come and live here as my servant? You are not fit for such a place, I know–at all events, not at present; and I should not put you with the other servants, and upstairs you could do nothing. However that does not signify. The thing is this. If you would like to come and live with me you must stay here now, and never go back to those places where you have lived, and try if possible to forget all about them.”
“Oh yes, ma’am, I promise!” she replied, trembling with joy at the very thought of escaping from that life of bitter want and anxiety.
“Very well, that’s settled then. Come this way with me.”
She then led the way to a large bath-room, a few steps above the first-floor landing.
“Now,” she said, “undress yourself, and put all your clothes and hat and shoes in a bundle in the corner–they are shocking to look at, and must be taken away–and give yourself a hot bath. See, I am turning on the water for you. That will be enough. And stay in as long as you like, or can, and try not only to wash off all the dirt on your skin, but all thought and recollection of Moon Street and Harrow Road and doorsteps, and all the foul evil things you have seen and heard in your life; and when you have washed all that off, Fan, and dried yourself, wrap this shawl around you, and run into that open room you see facing the bath.”
Left to herself, Fan proceeded to obey the instructions she had received. It was a great luxury to be in that smooth enamelled basin, where she could lie at full length and move her limbs freely about, experiencing the delicious sensation of the hot water over her whole body at the same time.
In the dressing-room she found her mistress waiting for her. There were clothes there ready for her, and now, for the first time in her life, she dressed herself in new, clean, sweet garments, over all a gown of a soft grey material, loose at the waist, and reaching nearly to the ankles–a kind of “Maid Marian” costume. There were also black stockings and new shoes. Everything fitted well, although they had all been made the day before by guess in Westbourne Grove.
Miss Starbrow made her stand in the middle of the room, and turned her round, while Fan glanced shyly at her own reflection in the tall cheval- glass, almost wondering “if this be I.”
“Yes, that will do well enough for the present,” said her mistress. “But your hair is all uneven, Fan, and such lovely hair to be spoilt by barbarous neglect. Let me cut it even for you, and by-and-by we’ll find out how to arrange it. Well, no; just now it looks best hanging loose on your back. When it grows long again, we’ll put it up. Now come here to the light, and let me, see what you’re like. Nearly fifteen years old, and pale and very thin, poor girl, which makes you look tall. Golden hair, good features, and a very pure skin for a girl who has lived a grimy life. And your eyes–don’t be afraid to show them, Fan. If you had not looked at me yesterday with those eyes, I should have thought no more about you. Long lashes. Eyes grey–yes, grey decidedly, though at times they look almost sapphire blue; but the pupils are so large–that is perhaps the secret of their pathetic expression. That will do. You think it strange, do you not, Fan? that I should take you into my house and clothe you–a poor homeless girl; for I don’t suppose that you can do anything for me, and you will therefore only be an extra expense. A great piece of folly, my friends would probably say. But don’t be afraid, I care nothing for what others say. What I do, I do only to please myself, and not others. If I am disappointed in you, and find you different from what I imagine, I shall not keep you, and there will be an end of it all. Now don’t look so cast-down; I believe that you are at heart a good, pure, truthful girl. I think I can see that much in your eyes, Fan. And there is, after all, something you can do for me–something which few can do, or do so well, which will be sufficient payment for all I am doing for you.”
“Oh, ma’am, will you please tell me what it is?” exclaimed Fan, her voice trembling with eagerness.
“Perhaps you will do it without my telling you, Fan. I shall leave you to think about it and find out what it is for yourself. I must only tell you this; I have not taken you into my house because I am charitable and like doing good to the poor. I am not charitable, and care nothing about the poor. I have taken you in for my own pleasure; and as I think well of you, I am going to trust you implicitly. You may stay in this room when I am out, or go into the back room on this floor, where you can look out on the garden, and amuse yourself with the books and pictures till I come back. I am going out now, and at one o’clock Rosie will give you some dinner. Take no notice of her if she teases you. Mind me, and not the servants–they are nothing.”
Miss Starbrow then changed her dress and went out, leaving Fan to her own devices, wondering what it was that she could do for her mistress, and feeling a little trouble about the maid who would give her her dinner at one o’clock; and after a while she went to explore that apartment at the back Miss Starbrow had spoken of. It was a large room, nearly square, with cream-coloured walls and dark red dado, and a polished floor, partly covered with a Turkish carpet; but there was very little furniture in it, and the atmosphere seemed chill and heavy, for it was the old unrenewed air of a room that was never used. On a large centre table a number of artistic objects were lying together in a promiscuous jumble: Japanese knick-knacks; an ivory card-case that had lost its cover, and a broken- bladed paper-knife; glove and collar and work-boxes of sandal-wood, mother-of-pearl, and papier-mache, with broken hinges; faded fans and chipped paper-weights; gorgeous picture-books with loosened covers, and a magnificent portrait-album which had been deflowered and had nothing left in it but the old and ugly, the commonplace middle-aged, and the vapid young; with many other things besides, all more or less defective.
This round table seemed like an asylum and last resting-place of things which had never been useful, and had ceased to be ornamental, which were yet not quite bad enough to be thrown into the dust-bin. To Fan it was a sort of South Kensington Museum, where she was permitted to handle things freely, and for some time she continued inspecting these rich treasures, after which she once more began to glance round the room. Such a stately room, large enough to shelter two or three families, so richly decorated with its red and cream colours, yet silent and cold and dusty and untenanted! On the mantelpiece of grey marble stood a large ornamental clock, which ticked not and the hands of which were stationary, supported on each side by bronzes–a stalwart warrior in a coat of mail in the act of drawing his sword, and a long-haired melancholy minstrel playing on a guitar. A few landscapes in oil were also hanging on the walls– representations of that ideal world of green shade and peace which was so often in Fan’s mind. Facing the fireplace stood a tall bookcase, and opening it she selected a book full of poetry and pictures, and took it to an old sofa, or couch, to read. The sofa was under the large window, which had panes of coloured glass, and remembering that Miss Starbrow had told her that it looked on to the garden, she got on to the sofa and pushed the heavy sash up.
There was a good-sized garden without, and trees in it–poplar, lime, and thorn, now nearly leafless; but it was very pleasant to see them and to feel the mild autumn air on her face, so pleasant that Fan thought no more about her book. Ivy grew in abundance against the walls of the garden, and there were laurel and other evergreen shrubs in it, and a few China asters–white, red, and purple–still blooming. No sound came to her at that quiet back window, except the loud glad chirruping of the sparrows that had their home there. How still and peaceful it seemed! The pale October sunshine–pale, but never had sunshine seemed so divine, so like a glory shining on earth from the far heavenly throne–fell lighting up the dark leaves of ivy and laurel, stiff and green and motionless as if cut out of malachite, and the splendid red and purple shields of the asters; and filling the little dun-coloured birds with such joy that their loud chirping grew to a kind of ringing melody.
Oh, that dark forsaken room in Moon Street, full of bitter memories of miserable years! Oh, poor dead mother lying for ever silent and cold in the dark earth! Oh, poor world-weary woman in Dudley Grove, and all the countless thousands that lived toiling, hungry, hopeless lives in squalid London tenements–why had she, Fan, been so favoured as to be carried away from it all into this sweet restful place? Why–why? Then, even while she asked, wondering, thinking that it was all like a strange beautiful dream, unable yet to realise it, suddenly as by inspiration the meaning of the words Miss Starbrow had spoken to her flashed into her mind; and the thought made her tremble, the blood rushed to her face, and she felt her eyes growing dim with tears of joy. Was it true, could it be true, that this proud, beautiful lady–how much more beautiful now to Fan’s mind than all other women!–really loved her, and that to be loved was all she desired in return? She was on her knees on the sofa, her arms resting on the window-sill, and forgetful now of the sunshine and leaves and flowers, and of the birds on the brown twigs talking together in their glad ringing language, she closed her eyes and resigned herself wholly to this delicious thought.
“Oh, here you are, sly little cat! Who said you might come into this room?”
Fan, starting up in alarm, found herself confronted with the pretty housemaid. But the pretty eyes were sparkling vindictively, the breath coming short and quick, and the pretty face was white with resentment.
“The lady told me to come here,” returned Fan, still a little frightened.
“Oh, did she! and pray what else did she tell you? And don’t lie, because I shall find you out if you do.”
Fan was silent.
“You won’t speak, you little sneak! When your mistress is out you must mind _me_–do you hear? Go instantly and take your filthy rags to the dust-bin, and ask cook for a bottle of carbolic acid to throw over them. We don’t want any of your nasty infectious fevers brought here, if you please.”
Fan hesitated a few moments, and then replied, “I’ll only do what the lady tells me.”
“You’ll only do what the lady tells you!” she repeated, with a mocking whine. Then, in unconscious imitation of the scornful caterpillar in the wonderful story of Alice, she added, “You! And who are _you_! Shall I tell you what you are? A filthy, ragged little beggar picked out of the gutter, a sneaking area thief, put into the house for a spy! You vile cat, you! A starving mangy cur! Yes, I’ll give you your dinner; I’ll feed you on swill and dog-biscuits, and that’s better than you ever had in your life. You, a diseased, pasty-faced little street-walker, too bad even for the slums, to keep you, to be dressed up and waited on by respectable servants! How dare you come into this house! I’d like to wring your miserable sick-chicken’s neck for you!”
She was in a boiling rage, and stamped her foot and poured out her words so rapidly that they almost ran into each other; but Fan’s whole previous life had served to make her indifferent to hard words, however unjust, and the housemaid’s torrent of abuse had not the least effect.
Rosie, on her side, finding that her rage was wasted, sat down to recover herself, and then began to jeer at her victim, criticising her appearance, and asking her for the cast-off garments–“for which your la’ship will have no further use.” Finding that her ridicule was received in the same silent passive way, she became more demonstrative. “Somebody’s been trimming you,” she said. “I s’pose Miss Starbrow was your barber–a nice thing for a lady! Well, I never! But there’s one thing she forgot. Here’s a pair of scissors. Now, little sick monkey, sit still while I trim your eyelashes. It’ll be a great improvement, I’m sure. Oh, you won’t! Well, then I’ll soon make you.” And putting the pair of small scissors between her lips, she seized Fan by the arms and tried to force her down on the sofa. Fan resisted silently and with all her strength, but her strength was by no means equal to Rosie’s, and after a desperate struggle she was overcome and thrown on to the couch.
“Now, will you be quiet and let me trim you!” said the maid.
In speaking, Rosie had dropped the scissors from her mouth, and not being able to use her hands occupied in holding her victim down, she could do nothing worse than make faces, thrust out her tongue, and finally spit at Fan. Then she thought of something better. “If you won’t be quiet and let me trim you,” she said, “I’ll pinch your arms till they’re black and blue.”
No reply being given, she proceeded to carry out her threat, and Fan set her teeth together and turned her face away to hide the tears. At length the other, tired of the struggle, released her. Fan bared her arm, displaying a large discoloration, and moistened it with her mouth to soothe the pain. She had a good deal of experience in bruises. “It’ll be black by-and-by,” she said, “and I’ll show it to the lady when she comes back.”
“Oh, you’ll show it to her, you little tell-tale sneak! Then I’ll be even with you and put rat’s-bane in your dinner.”
“Why don’t you leave me alone, then?” said Fan.
Rosie considered for some time, and finally said, “I’ll leave you alone if you’ll tell me what you are here for–everything about yourself, mind, and no lies; and what Miss Starbrow is going to do with you.”
“I don’t know, and I sha’n’t say a word more,” returned Fan, whereupon Rosie slapped her face and ran out of the room.
In spite of the rough handling she had been subjected to, and the pain in her arm, Fan very soon recovered her composure. Her happiness was too great to be spoiled by so small a matter, and very soon she returned to her place at the open window and to her pleasant thoughts.
About midday the maid came again bringing a tray. “Here’s your food, starved puppy; lap it up, and may it choke you,” she said, and left the room.
After she had been gone a few minutes, Fan, beginning to feel hungry, went to the table, and found a plate of stewed meat and vegetables, with bread and cheese, and a glass of ale. But over it all Rosie had carefully sprinkled ashes, and had also dropped a few pinches into the ale, making it thick and muddy. Now, although on any previous day of her hungry orphaned existence she would have wiped off the ashes and eaten the food, on this occasion she determined not to touch it. Her new surroundings and dress, and the thought that she was no longer without someone to care for her, had served to inspire in her a pride which was stronger than hunger. Presently she noticed that the door had a key to it, and in her indignation at the maid’s persecution she ran and locked it, resolved to let the dinner remain there untasted until Miss Starbrow should return.
Presently Rosie came back, and finding the door locked, began knocking and calling. “Open, you cat!” she cried. “I must take the things down, now you’ve gobbled up your pig’s food. Open, you spiteful little devil!”
“I haven’t touched the dinner, and I sha’n’t open the door till the lady comes,” she answered, and would say no more.
After a good deal more abuse, Rosie in despair went away; but presently the cook came up, and Fan opened to her. She had a second supply of food and beer, without any ashes in it this time, and put it on the table. “Now, have your dinner, miss,” she said, with mock humility. She was taking away the first tray, but at the door she paused and, looking back, said, “You won’t say nothing to the missus, will you, miss?”
“If she’ll let me be I’ll not say anything,” said Fan.
“Very well, miss, she won’t trouble you no more. But, lors, she don’t mean no harm; it’s only her little funny ways.” And having thus explained and smoothed matters over, she went off to the kitchen.
About five o’clock Miss Starbrow came in and found Fan still sitting by the open window in the darkening room.
“Why, my poor girl, you must be half frozen,” she said, coming to the sofa.
But how little Fan felt the chill evening air, when she started up at the kind greeting, her eyes brightening and her face flushing with that strange new happiness now warming her blood and making her heart beat quick!
“Oh no, ma’am, I’m not a bit cold,” she said.
The other pulled off her glove and touched the girl’s cheek with her fingers.
“Your skin feels cold enough, anyhow,” she returned. “Come into my room; it is warmer there.”
Fan followed into the adjoining large bedroom, where a bright fire was burning in the grate; and Miss Starbrow, taking off her hat and cloak, sat down. After regarding the girl for some time in silence, she said with a little laugh, “What can I do with you, Fan?”
Fan was troubled at this, and glanced anxiously at the other’s face, only to drop her eyes abashed again; but at last, plucking up a little courage, she said:
“Will you please let me do something in the house, ma’am?” And after a few moments she added, “I wish I could do something, and–and be your servant.”
Miss Starbrow laughed again, and then frowned a little and sat silent for some time.
“The fact is,” she said at length, “now that you are here I don’t quite know what to do with you. However, that doesn’t signify. I took you for my own pleasure, and it doesn’t make much difference to have you in the house, and if it did I shouldn’t care. But you must look after yourself for the present, as I have just got rid of one servant and there are only two to do everything. They are anxious for me not to engage a third just now, and prefer to do all the work themselves, which means, I suppose, that there will be more plunder to divide between them.”
“And can’t I help, ma’am?” said Fan, whose last words had not yet been answered.
“I fancy you would look out of place doing housework,” said Miss Starbrow. “It strikes me that you are not suited for that sort of thing. If it hadn’t been so, I shouldn’t have noticed you. The only way in which I should care to employ you would be as lady’s-maid, and for that you are unfit. Perhaps I shall have you taught needlework and that kind of thing by-and-by, but I am not going to bother about it just now. For the present we must jog along just how we can, and you must try to make yourself as happy as you can by yourself.”
Just then the housemaid came up with tea for her mistress.
“Get me another cup–a large one, and some more bread-and-butter,” said Miss Starbrow.
“The young person’s tea is in the back room, ma’am,” returned Rosie, with a tremor in her voice.
Miss Starbrow looked at her, but without speaking; the maid instantly retired to obey the order, and when she set the cup and plate of bread- and-butter on the tray her hand trembled, while her mistress, with a slight smile on her lips, watched her face, white with suppressed rage.
After tea, during which Miss Starbrow had been strangely kind and gentle to the girl, she said:
“Perhaps you can help me take off my dress, Fan, and comb out my hair.”
This was strange work for Fan, but her intense desire to do something for her mistress partly compensated for her ignorance and awkwardness, and after a little while she found that combing those long rich black tresses was an easy and very delightful task. Miss Starbrow sat with eyes half- closed before the glass, only speaking once or twice to tell Fan not to hurry.
“The longer you are with my hair the better I like it,” she said.
Fan was only too glad to prolong the task; it was such a pleasure to feel the hair of this woman who was now so much to her; if the glass had not been before them–the glass in which from time to time she saw the half- closed eyes studying her face–she would more than once have touched the dark tresses she held in her hand to her lips.
Miss Starbrow, however, spoke no more to her, but finishing her dressing went down to her seven o’clock dinner, leaving Fan alone by the fire. After dinner she came up again and sat by the bedroom fire in the dark room. Then Rosie came up to her.