E-text prepared by Annie McGuire
* * * * *
THE NOVELS OF FRANK SWINNERTON
THE HAPPY FAMILY ON THE STAIRCASE THE CHASTE WIFE SHOPS AND HOUSES NOCTURNE SEPTEMBER COQUETTE
* * * * *
BY FRANK SWINNERTON
COQUETTE SEPTEMBER SHOPS AND HOUSES NOCTURNE THE CHASTE WIFE ON THE STAIRCASE THE HAPPY FAMILY THE CASEMENT THE YOUNG IDEA THE MERRY HEART GEORGE GISSING A Critical Study R. L. STEVENSON A Critical Study
* * * * *
Author of "September," "Shops and Houses," "Nocturne," Etc.
New York George H. Doran Company
Copyright, 1921, by George H. Doran Company
BOOK ONE: TOBY
It was Saturday night—a winter night in which the wind hummed through every draughty crevice between the windows and under the doors and down the chimneys. Outside, in the Hornsey Road, horse-omnibuses rattled by and the shops that were still open at eleven o'clock glistened with light. Up the road, at the butcher's just below the Plough public-house, a small crowd lingered, turning over scraps of meat, while the butcher himself, chanting "Lovely, lovely, lovely!" in a kind of ecstasy, plunged again into a fresh piece of meat the attractive legend, "Oh, mother, look! Three ha'pence a pound!" Just over the way, at the Supply Stores, they had begun to roll down the heavy shutter, hiding the bright windows, and leaving only a narrow doorway, through which light streamed and made rainbow colours on the pavement outside. The noise of the street was a racketting roar, hardly lower now than it had been all the evening. Sally crouched at the window of the first floor flat, looking down at the black roadway, and watching the stragglers from the Supply Stores.
In the flat above there was the sound of one who sang, vamping an accompaniment upon the piano and emphasising the simple time of his carol by a dully stamped foot upon the floor. His foot—making in soft slippers a dead "dump-dump-dump"—shook the ceiling of the Mintos' flat. They could hear his dry voice huskily roaring, "There you are, there you are, there you ain't—ain't—ain't." They had heard it a thousand times, always with the familiar stamp. It was very gay. Old Perce, as he was called, was a carver in a City restaurant. It was he who received orders from the knowing; and in return for apparent tit-bits he received acknowledgments in coin—twopence or threepence a time. Therefore, when he reached home each evening, nicely cheery and about a quarter drunk, his first act after having tea was to withdraw from his pockets a paper bag or two—such as those supplied by banks for the carriage of silver—which he would empty of greasy coppers. He piled these coppers in mounds of twelve, and counted them over several times. He then smoked his pipe, went into his front room, and played, "There you are, there you are, there you ain't—ain't—ain't." Sally did not remember ever having heard him sing anything else. He was singing it: now with customary gusto. Sally thought he must be a very rich man. Old Perce's wife, who let her practise on their piano, hinted as much. His wages were low, she said, but in a week his tips often came to three or four pounds. Three or four pounds! Whew! Sally's father only made thirty-five shillings in a week, everything included. Mrs. Perce told Sally many other things, which Sally shrewdly treasured in memory. It was well to know these things, Sally thought: any day they might be ... useful. For a girl not yet seventeen, Sally had a strangely abundant sense of possible utilities. All old Perce's relatives were licensed victuallers, she had learned; and one day he too would take a "little 'ouse" and stand behind his own bar, instead of behind the counter of a city restaurant. Those would be days! "'Ave a trap and go outa Sunday afternoons," Mrs. Perce said. "Oo, I wish you'd take me!" Sally cried. "Course I will!" answered Mrs. Perce, with the greatest good-humour. Meanwhile old Perce had money out on loan. "I'd like," thought Sally, with considering eyes, "to have money out on loan. I will, too. One day. Why shouldn't I?"
Sally's mother, Mrs. Minto, was yawning by the small fire in the grate. She was a meagre little woman of about forty, tired and energetic. The Mintos' flat, although very bare, was very clean. Even when there was nothing to eat, there was water for scouring; and Mrs. Minto's hands were a sort of red-grey, hard and lined, all the little folds of the discoloured skin looking as if they had been bitten deep with acid that made them black. Her hair was very thin, and she drew it closely back from her forehead into a tiny knob like a bell-pull, leaving the brow high and dry as if the tide of hair had receded. Her lids were heavy over anxious eyes; her mouth was a bitter stroke across her face, under the small, inquiring nose. Her breast was flat, and her body bent through daily housework and too little care of herself, too little personal pride.
Sally resembled her mother. She too was small and thin. Her hair was pale brown, an insipid colour with a slight sandiness in it. Her cheeks were faintly freckled just under the eyes, and her nose, equally small and inquiring, had some freckles upon it too. Her eyelashes were light; her eyes a grey with splashes of amber. She was sitting huddled up near the window, breathing intently, looking out of it with eager, fascinated interest. The streets were full of lures. Outside, there was something which drew and absorbed her whole nature. The noise and the lights intoxicated her; the darkness was even more bewilderingly full of dangerous attractiveness. It was night, and night was the time when thrills came, when her heart beat closely with a sense of timid impudence, a sort of leashed daring. In darkness she brushed hands against the hands of boys, and got into conversation with strangers, and felt herself romantically transfigured. They couldn't see how plain she was in the dark: she herself forgot it. In the dark she felt that she was bolder, with nobody to observe her and carry tales to her mother. Boys who wouldn't look at her in daylight followed her at night along dark streets. She was getting very experienced with boys. She could look after herself with them. Her eyes interestedly and appraisingly scanned every male, so that she came to know a great deal about the ways of men, although she never put her knowledge into words. She scrutinised them. In daylight her plainness was a help in that, because they did not take any notice of so insignificant a figure, and she absorbed every detail of the "fellows" she met, without having to do it under their return observation, by means of side-glances. This was a benefit, and at heart made her bolder, more ruthless.
At this moment, watching the people come out from the little door in the shutter of the Supply Stores, Sally ignored the silhouettes of women; but she peered quite intensely at those of the men. Men filled her thoughts. She was always choosing which men she liked, and which did not interest her, and which were weak and easily exploited. Or, if she were prevented from doing that, she could still look at them, seeing that they were men, and not women. The noise was good, the lights were good; but the darkness, such as there now was in the street below, in all the diminished labour of late traffic, was best of all. She saw the last customer at the Stores shown to the door by Mr. Beddow, the keeper of the shop; and the narrow door in the shutters closed. The last stream of light was abruptly cut off. The face of the Stores was black. All the opposite side of the roadway was now black. There were no more silhouettes.
Mr. Beddow's cheeks were very fat, and when he smiled his eyes disappeared into slits just behind the top of his bulging cheeks. He wore a light frizzly beard. Once Mr. Beddow had given her a little bottle of acid-drops. All the acid-drops were gone now. She had given some of them to May Pearcey, who worked with her. They had eaten the remainder next day over their work, while Miss Jubb was out of the room; and the drops had made them thirsty and had given them hot, sweet breath. Funny she should remember it all so clearly.
May Pearcey and she were both learners at a small dressmaker's shop in a street off Holloway Road. They used to walk together along Grove Road in the mornings, and at dinner-time, and in the evenings. But the boys all looked at May, who was a big girl with rosy cheeks and eyes that were bold with many conquests. Sally only got the soppy ones. That was her luck. Sally wondered why a good-looking boy so often had a soppy one with him. She wasn't soppy herself. The boys thought she was; they never looked at her. But May picked up the good-looking ones, and Sally had to take what was left. She hated to see her boy always looking on at the others, at May, and never at herself; she hated to know that her boy didn't like the look of her, and that he couldn't think of anything to say to her; and didn't take the trouble to think very hard. It made Sally snap her teeth. One day, she reassured herself, it would be different. One day, they'd know.
Slowly she stretched, with her arms high above her head and her mouth stretched sideways in a yawn. Was mother asleep? She felt cramped and tired, and as she turned round to the light her eyes blinked at the contrast with the outer darkness.
"Oo!" groaned Sally. "Tired!"
She yawned again, a yawn that ended in a breathless gasp. Mrs. Minto looked across the room at her.
"D'you want any supper?" she asked.
"Wotcher got? Peaches and cream, and a glass of champagne?"
Mrs. Minto wriggled her skinny shoulders and fingered her chin.
"Don't you be saucy to me, my gel. There's a bit of dry bread on the plate there. And half a glass of stout. You might think yourself lucky to get that."
"Well, I s'pose I might. But somehow I don't. Dry bread! It's Saturday, ain't it? What I mean, pay-day."
There was a sour glance. Mrs. Minto sighed, and looked at the clock, frowning and wriggling her shoulders. It was a form of constant drill or shudder that affected her.
"Yes," she said. "And your father not home. Pubs are closed. Wonder where he is. Come on, Sally. Get your supper and get to bed. Sharp, now."
Sally rose to her feet and walked across the room. She cut a hunk of bread, and stood about munching it, little crumbs gathering upon her lips. You could see how thin she was when her arm was raised. Yet she made a few little dancing steps as she ate, and her face was not without a comical air of mischief. She was an urchin, and she looked it. She was unscrupulous, and a liar; but she knew a great deal for her years, and she never shrank from knowledge, because she was athirst for it. Knowledge which could be turned to account was her preoccupation. She stood looking at her mother, weighing her up, and in the midst of her daughterly contempt she had room for a little admiration also. They were not altogether unlike; but Mrs. Minto had taken the wrong turning. She had married a drinker, and was a slave. Well, Sally had benefited by knowledge of that. She might marry a fool—probably would have to do so, as the wily ones took what they could get and went off on their own; but she would never marry so incautiously as her mother had done. Why should she? If one generation does not react to the follies of the earlier generation, and seek an exactly contrary evil, what becomes of progress? Sally had her wits. She thought they would never fail her.
As she sat down near her mother, they both heard a sudden slamming of the front door, two flights of stairs below. Their eyes flew in an exchanged glance that held trepidation. It was probably dad, and at this time on a Saturday night dad was usually the worse for wear. Both listened. There was a heavy step. Then the sound of voices—a woman's raised voice, and dad's. It was evidently a row. Sally ran to the door, and they listened to what was passing. Down the half-lighted stairway they could just discern two figures, faintly outlined in the wavering flutter of gas. Obviously dad was drunk, for he was haranguing a rather hysterical Mrs. Clancy, who stood at the foot of the stairs and shouted after him. She said that he was drunk, that he ought not to come in at that time of night stumbling about like an ostrich, that decent people liked a little quiet, if he pleased. Mr. Minto said he would come in when he chose, and in what state he preferred. He was not obliged to consult such an indiscriminate mother as Mrs. Clancy, and he would not do it. Far from it. Far from it. He stood for liberty. He had as good a right to the staircase as anybody else in the house. More right, in fact. Let her bring out Mr. Clancy if she wanted a fight.... He then proceeded to the top of the first flight of stairs. He climbed with difficulty, missing a stair once in a while, and breathing hard. He was pursued by an outcry. A third voice was heard—that of Mr. Clancy. It was directed at first entirely to the woman, and begged her to come back into the kitchen. They could see her arm caught by Mr. Clancy, from whom she freed herself by a blow. There was a pause. But Mrs. Clancy broke out afresh. She was beyond control, passionately shrill, and quite wildly resentful of what had been said and done in her despite.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" cried Mrs. Minto, with inadequate petulance. She stepped out on to the landing, fingering her mouth. Sally tiptoed after, hardly moved, but intensely curious. She was grinning, but nervously and with contempt of the row. "Joe!" called Mrs. Minto. "Joe! Come upstairs. Don't get quarrelling like that. Ought to be ashamed of yourself. Come upstairs!" She looked over the rails at her husband, like a sparrow on a twig. He was a flight below. "Come up here!"
There was a fresh outburst from Mrs. Clancy.
"You put your 'usband to bed, Mrs. Minto. Pore woman! Pore soul! Fancy 'aving a thing like that for a 'usband! 'Usband, indeed! A great noisy drunkard, a great beastly elephant, boozing all his money away. Drunken fool, stamping about...."
"You shut your mouth!" bawled dad, thickly. "You shut your mouth. See? When I want.... You shut your bloody jaw. See?"
"Joe!" called Mrs. Minto, urgently, a mean little slip peering over the bannisters.
"Joe!" mimicked Mrs. Clancy. "You take him to bed, Mrs. Minto. Take his boots off. He's not safe. He's a danger, that's what he is. I shall tell the police, Mr. Minto. It's got to come. You got to stop it. I shall tell the police. I will, I swear it...."
Mr. Minto retorted. His retort provoked Mrs. Clancy to rebuke. The quarrel was suddenly intensified. It became rougher. Even Sally was excited, and her hands were clasped together. Mr. Minto lost his temper. He became mad. A fierce brutality seized him in its unmanageable grip. They heard him give a kind of frenzied cry of passion, saw him raise his hands, heard a hurried scuffle at the foot of the stairs, where the Clancys, both alarmed, drew back towards their room. And then the rattle of an arm against a rail, a slither, a bumping, and a low thud. Dad, overbalancing in his rage, had pitched and fallen headlong down the stairs. Mrs. Minto and Sally set up a thin screaming. The gas flickered and burned steadily again. A shriek came from Mrs. Clancy. It was repeated. Mr. Minto lay quite still in a confused heap in the lower passage.
Dad was dead. It was the end of that stage in Sally's life. After the funeral, Sally and her mother were quite without money. Everything was so wretched and unforeseen that the two were lost in this miserable new aspect of poverty and improvidence. For a time Mrs. Perce was good to them, and Mrs. Clancy would have been the same if Mrs. Minto had not stared through her as through a pane of glass. But when that was done, and the funeral was over, they had nothing. Together they sat in their bare room above the noisy traffic of Hornsey Road, not speaking much, but all the time turning and turning in their heads all possible ways of making money. In another two or three years Sally might have earned more; but she was not now much above sixteen, and at sixteen, in the dressmaking, one does not earn a living. And while at first they thought that Mrs. Minto might get needlework to do, with which Sally could help, they found this out of the question. Mrs. Minto's eyes were weak, and she could not keep her seams straight. The machine they had was ricketty. Sewing, for her, was impossible. For a few days she was stunned with the new demand for which she was unprepared. She was nerveless. It made Sally sick to watch her mother and to realise from the vacancy which so soon appeared upon her face that memory and a kind of futile pondering had robbed her brains of activity. With a bitter sense of grudge against life, a tightening of lips already thin, and a narrowing of eyes already discomfitingly merciless, Sally savagely told herself that she had to do everything alone. It was she who must save the situation. The arrogant grasp of this fact made a great impression upon her mind and her character. Henceforward she no longer dreamed about men, but was alert in her intention to make everything her tool, and everybody. From a young girl she had been converted into an unscrupulous taker from all. The death of her father was a blow which had suddenly drawn together all those vague determinations which had lain concealed. There was nothing except dangerous theft from which her mind shrank. Looking afresh at her mother, she felt stirred by a new impatience, and a succeeding indifferent contempt. Love had been killed, and from now onwards she would play for her own hand. Small teeth met with a snap. Her thin lips were drawn back. Mrs. Minto shrank from the strange venomous snarl which she saw disfiguring Sally's face.
It was as though Sally felt trapped. Everything had been spoilt by this unexpected happening, and Sally's unconscious helplessness revealed. It was a blow to her vanity, a douche to her crude romanticism. She had felt cramped and irritable before; but now she was made to realise how little she had with which to fight against calamity and the encroachments of others. Compared with this new danger, of starvation or slavery, all old discomforts were shown to have been trivial, because they had been accidents in a life which, however rough and ugly had been at least absorbed in plans for enjoyment. Now plans for enjoyment gave place to expedients for protection. Sally was indeed fierce and resentful. It was with animosity that she put together the few sticks of rubbish which remained to them and helped her mother to rearrange these things in a single room which they had taken on the other side of Holloway Road. No more for them the delights of Hornsey Road and three rooms; but the confined space surrounded by these four dingy walls. What wonder that Sally was desperate for fresh air, for escape, and ran out of doors as soon as she could wriggle free! What wonder that she walked quickly about the dark streets! Tears came to her eyes, and with clenched fists she secretly whimpered in this new angry despair. Of what avail? She was alone, and the streets were dark; and behind her lay that one room, gloomy and wretched, with a speechless ruminating mother for solitary welcome; and no hope ... no hope.
The roads she now so wildly trod were familiar ground to Sally. They were all gravelled roads, upon which in the evenings boys and girls cycled and flirted, and in which on Saturdays and after school hours children bowled their hoops and played together. As the darkness grew, the roads were more deserted, for the children were in bed, and the boys and girls were not allowed out. Then appeared young men and girls of slightly greater age and of a different class, the girls walking two by two, the young men likewise. The young men cleared their throats, the girls peeped and a little raised their voices, a relation was established, and still the pairs continued to promenade, safe in couples, and relishing the thought that they were enjoying stolen acquaintance. Sally knew the whole thing through and through. She had walked so with May. She had tried to talk to the boys and found them soppy, and herself soppy, and everything soppy. She had wanted more and more excitement, and all this strolling and holding hands in the dark, and snatching them away, and running, and being caught, was tame to her eager longing for greater adventure. And now she walked rapidly about the roads, her eyes full of despair, her heart heavy, her brain active and contemptuous. She knew her own cleverness. She knew it too well. And it was smarting now at being proved such an ignominiously valueless possession. She might be clever, she might have brains enough to despise May Pearcey; but she had not the power to make a living. She must still pinch and starve beside her mother. Trapped! Trapped!
It was a matter of weeks, this mood of indignant despair, of baffled powerlessness in face of reality. And each night, after such a lonely walk, in such a vehement mood, Sally would return to the miserable room in which for the present she was to spend her life. It was at the back of the house, on the second floor, and there was another floor above. The room had a stained ceiling and a wallpaper that had discoloured in streaks. The original pattern had been of small flowers on a pseudo-primrose background. Now all was merged in a general stagnation of Cambridge blue and coffee colour. Mrs. Minto had carefully put the washstand beneath a patch that had been washed nearly white by splashes; and Sally had insisted that it should stand in another part of the room. "But that's where a washstand's stood before," wailed Mrs. Minto. "That's why," explained Sally, brutally. "Put the chest-of-drawers there. I don't want to splash exactly where other people have splashed. Not likely! The place ought to have been papered new."
When their bed and the washstand and a table and the chairs and chest-of-drawers were in there was not much to arrange. Nor was there room for very much, because the bed took up about a quarter of the space. The Mintos had no pictures. They thus anticipated the best modern taste. But the consequence was that if Sally happened to be irritable she saw the wallpaper, and the wallpaper drove her crazy. It was a constant exasperation to her. Her extremely good taste was beginning to bud, and wallpaper is as vital an aesthetic test as any other. She had not yet the power or the knowledge to dress effectively, but she was already learning intuitively such things as harmony and colour-values. She gave an eye to neatness and cleanliness, and knew how to riddle the costumes of girls of her own class, beginning with May Pearcey. She also was becoming aware of all Miss Jubb's deficiencies. Higher than her own class she could not well go, because she never had opportunities for seeing well-dressed women. It was so much the Minto habit to rise late on Sundays, to sit about during the afternoon, and to go out only when other people were generally indoors, that Sundays were wasted days. Moreover, Sally had not in the past thought much of other girls. She had thought only of boys. Even her new spruceness was a comparatively recent manifestation. She was growing.
She was growing so fast that her old knowledges had been undermined. She felt raw. She felt merely exasperated with the past, so that she desired only to forget it. All she had seemed to know and to relish had become insipid to Sally. She was chafing at her new position, and was unconsciously looking round and round her, bewildered, for a new path to follow. She could no longer take the old silly pleasure in hearing of May's fresh conquests, which gave May such monotonous delight. She abandoned "boys," and was rewarded for her emancipation by May's indignant sniffs at her loss of spirit. May was driven to take a new comrade, a girl prettier than Sally, and therefore more of a rival. So May was equally dissatisfied with the present position. She had lost ground, and some of her victories were invented. Nellie Cavendish had a sharp tongue, and that helped May; but Nellie was less coarsely confident than May, and annexed the boys by means of her demureness in face of double meanings. May could not refrain from turning away to hide a burst of laughter. That gave Nellie an advantage, and May secretly longed to hunt once more with Sally. When the old times could not be recaptured, May sneered in self-defence. The two girls did not chatter over their work now when they were left alone. They became hostile, each aggrieved, and both mutually contemptuous. Sally kept to her stitching, and glowered. May thought to herself. Sally abruptly announced the soppiness of May's continued exploits. When asked by her mother if she were not going out with May, Sally returned the cold answer that May was soft, and continued to walk alone, much disturbed, and privately indignant that her mother should be so blind as to ignore the alteration that had come about. She was lonely and wretched, spoiling for any mischief that might offer.
Material for the use of such desperation never lacks. It arose naturally. Toby came into her life.
Toby was a young man of about twenty years of age, who lived in the house. She caught sight of him one night as she returned home, for he was running down the stairs as she went up them. He was of middle height, very dark and rather stoutly built; and he wore a cap. That was all she noticed at their first encounter, since the stairs were dark: that, and the fact that he did not draw to one side as they met. The contact filled her mind with sudden interest. She thought about him as she munched her supper, and wondered what he was really like. She wreathed around Toby quite a host of guesses—not very deep or vivid, but sufficiently so to make her think of him still as she undressed and slipped into bed beside her mother. Her last thought before sleep came was a faint enjoyment of the knowledge that a young man lived in the same house. It was the faintest of thoughts, due solely to her restlessness; but in the gloom she was conscious of him and of the conviction that they would meet again upon the stairs. For that time this was as far as speculation could carry her. Sally did not think of herself at all—only that there was a young man, and that she should see him again. The rest of her attention was absorbed in the endeavour to remember all she had noticed of his appearance in that hasty meeting. She had seen enough to be sure of recognising him again with the house as associative background. That was all. Knowing it, she feel asleep, and dreamed of a sudden gift of beauty and attractiveness.
For several days Sally did not see the young man, and so she half forgot him, lost him in the mixture of her more pressing preoccupations. Every morning she rose at eight o'clock, after her mother had left the house for her first situation, and then, breakfasting slowly, she had just time to reach Miss Jubb's by nine. She did not like Miss Jubb, who was a thin-faced and fussy person who always wore a grey pinafore and felt that her untidy grey hair looked as though it might hint a sorrow rather than betray advancing years. Miss Jubb was full of the futile vanity of the elderly spinster, her mouth full of pins, and her head full of paper patterns. She lived with her mother on two floors of an old house, and one of the downstairs rooms was used on Sundays for sitting in and during the week for trying on. The work she did never suggested anything of the enormous pains Miss Jubb took in fitting, in fastening pins and cutting out. She was incurably a bad dressmaker; but she gave her clients the impression that she knew her business. This was because she was so careful, and because they knew no better than she did what women may and may not wear with propriety. The backs of all skirts coming from Miss Jubb drooped lower than the fronts. Her bodices always went wrong upon the shoulders. She was great on tucks. But she was cheap, and she was Sybil-like in her mysterious assurance. So she supported herself and her mother; while May and Sally did the rough basting and all sorts of odd jobs in the room behind the parlour. Here were the big cutting-out table, the treadled sewing machine, three or four chairs, many fragments of material, several half-made garments, and, upon the walls, a number of coloured prints from fashion papers. In such surroundings Sally spent her days. She ate her lunch at twelve o'clock, and had her tea at four. And as her fingers worked, or her feet occasionally by special permission propelled the sewing machine, she thought of the future and planned to get into the West End.
It was the West End that now lured her. If only she could get into the West End all her troubles would be wiped away at once, she felt. She could possibly make more money there; but even if she did not succeed in that aim she would still be in the running for better work. That she could do better work she never doubted. And she knew that as long as she was with Miss Jubb she would never do anything at all. Some instinct told her that. She knew it. She knew it as clearly as if she had surveyed the future from above. It was not that she was suddenly wise; but only that ambition had come into her consciousness. The blow she had received by her father's death had struck deep into her character. She had now to make something of her life, or starve. With a quick circle of thought she imagined her mother dead. What would happen then? What chance had she? Only vaguely did Sally glimpse the possibilities. She knew she could not keep herself. She had one aunt—her mother's sister—with two boy children who were both younger than Sally; but Aunt Emmy had a rough time herself, and could hardly be a help. Sally saw clearly enough that she had to fight alone. Very well, if she had to fight alone she would do it, and fight hard. As she scowled, it became evident that Sally would in this fight unscrupulously use every weapon that she could seize. She would not shrink from anything that put opportunity into her head. She was already hardened—a kind of hardening on the surface, or in strata, which left curious soft places in her nature, streaks of good and layers and patches of armour and grit and callous cruelty. Above all, she was determined upon having money. Money was the essential thing. Money meant safety. And safety, when starvation threatens, becomes the one imperious if ignominious ideal. Once one has known physical hunger, no act is inconceivable as a means of averting the risk of a similar experience.
Thus Sally's thoughts ran, not coherently or explicitly, but in vehement revolts and resolves. Thus she ruminated, while Miss Jubb was out of the room or had her attention so distracted that she could not observe an idle apprentice. When Miss Jubb came back to the room or to supervision work had a little to be hurried, so that she might not find occasion for complaint. For Miss Jubb had a sharp tongue, and although she took the pins out of her mouth before she talked she showed that they had left their influence upon her tongue, which was sharp to a fault. And there, across the room, was the rosy-cheeked May Pearcey, so silly, so incapable of more than momentary resentment, that she was always forgetting that Sally and she no longer spoke, but was always trying to encourage Sally into a return to their former relation. Sometimes Sally would glower across at May, bitterly hating her and riddling her plumpness and folly with the keen eye of malice. May, unconscious of the scrutiny, would go on with her work, self-satisfied, much coarser and more physical in her appetites than Sally, still in spite of all the rebuffs she had received grinning about her boys and what they had said and what they had meant....
"Oo, he is awful!" she would burst out to Sally. "The things he said. I dint half blush."
May had enjoyed his boldness, it seemed. She told Sally what he had said. She told her things and things in the irresistible splurge of the silly girl whose mind is full of adolescent impurity. Well, Sally knew all that. She knew all the things that boys said; and a few more things she had noticed and thought for herself. She was not a prude. May didn't know anything that Sally did not know; but she talked about it. Sally did not talk. Her sexual knowledges, so far as they went, were as close and searching as a small-tooth comb, and collected as much that was undesirable. She despised May. May was a fool. She was soppy, talking about all these things as if they were new marvels, when they were as old as the hills and as old as the crude coquetries of boys and girls. May was the soppiest girl in Holloway. Yet the boys liked her for her plump face and arms and legs, and her red cheeks, and her self-conscious laugh, and her eyes that held guilt and evil and general silliness and vanity. The boys liked May. They did not like Sally. She was too small and sandy; too obviously critical and contemptuous in face of their small stock of talk, and too greedy of their poor and pompously-displayed schemes for economical entertainment. Sally's teeth showed like the teeth of a cat, very small and sharp, emblems of her nature. Conceit took firmer root in her heart because of her contempt for May and her inevitable suppressions of pain and resentment in face of neglect, as well as her suppressions of knowledge gained by a mental process so quick that May could never have had the smallest notion of it. Sally became secret, and her determination was made more emphatic. She began to study her face, and her body. One day her mother found her naked in front of a mirror, twisting herself so that she could see the poise of her figure. It was a pretty figure, if underdeveloped, and from that time of thorough examination onwards Sally never had the smallest doubt of her own attractiveness and its principal constituents. Only her face was wrong, she felt with bitter chagrin; her face and her hair. If her face were fatter and less freckled, and if her hair were not so sandy and pale, she would be pretty. Really pretty. Pretty enough to make a man go silly. Well, such things could be cured, couldn't they? Or, if not cured, then at least improved.... That was a notion that dwelt constantly in Sally's thoughts.
The point was, that she must have actual experience in rousing men. It was not that she had determined upon marriage as a way out of her present difficulties. At the back of her mind, perhaps, was always the knowledge that she must get a man to work for her; but this never became an obsession. She was simply a growing girl, hungry for experience, and at the outset hampered by circumstance. Unless something happened to her, Sally was doomed to poverty and suffering. Therefore, full of raw confidence, she was determined that she should be the heroine of her own romance. Her impulse was not to give, but to take. She did not long to be the loving help of a good man, but was ever craftily bent upon exploiting the weaker sides of those she met for the furtherance of her own ends.
It was several days before she met Toby again; but she waited with a kind of patience wholly in keeping with the rest of her nature. She always expected to meet him upon the stairs, and never did so. In the streets she looked for him. Nights, however, were dark and Toby apparently elusive. But one evening she was running down the three steps at the front door just as he arrived home. With a quick breath she ventured a "good evening." When he answered, she was filled with a pleasure which she would have found it hard to explain. "Evening," said Toby, surlily, and passed on. Sally gave a small grimace, a faint jerk of the head. That was done. A few more days passed. Still in the darkness she saw him a third time, now as she closed the door of the room, while Toby hurried to the floor above. By questions, she had found out that he lived exactly over them, and that his aunt had the room next to his, in the front of the house. This aunt she never saw, as she was very exclusive, and did not associate at all with her neighbours. Toby's surname she could not learn; but his aunt was called Mrs. Tapping. The aunt had an annuity. Toby worked somewhere in the neighbourhood; and Sally soon discovered the time of his departure and return. She knew these so well that she could have told you to the minute when his foot might be expected upon the stairs. If he happened to be late she could have remarked upon it to her mother if she had been in the habit of telling her mother anything at all.
Later, when they had been in the house about three weeks, she had a triumph. She was going out one evening and was barely down the first two or three stairs when she heard him running behind her. He was forced to pull up, and, from a peep, she saw that he was still half a flight above. Their progress from that instant coincided. They reached the front door almost at the same time. She left it open, and as Toby came out she turned and smiled "good evening." He replied. Sally followed with "Beautiful, isn't it!" and then went slowly towards Tollington Park. Would he follow? She was almost breathless, her eyes downcast, her ears strained. He did not follow. Sally frowned. A sneer came to her lips. Then a pensiveness succeeded, and resolve became fixed. All right; he did not follow. He was a man. All the more worthy of her address.
Moreover, she had noticed him more clearly than ever before, because the gas in the hall had lighted his face as she turned upon the threshold. He was strong, and she adored strength. He was broad and muscular and dark. He had dark eyes under heavy brows. His age she supposed to be about twenty or slightly above. As she recollected these details Sally's face became inscrutable. All the same, her walk had lost its savour, and she returned home earlier than usual. How miserable it was that she had no other girl of her own age to go about with. Boys always went in twos. So did girls. The one gave the other courage. Yet Sally was done with May. May was soppy. She did not, in thinking this, do anything but envy May; but all the same she knew that Toby's solitariness matched her own. It was an augury. She lay awake until he came home, listening to her mother breathing; and then, in a few minutes, heard eleven o'clock strike.
The next time this happened, and they met so definitely, Toby looked sharply at her. Sally did nothing, but paused an instant. He followed her with his eyes. Then, he stepped to her side. It was the moment and Sally stopped sharply, shrinking a little from him.
"Going out alone?" Toby said. "Mind if I come too?" He walked beside her. "I mean ... live in the same house."
Oh, he had plenty of assurance.
"All right; you can come," Sally vouchsafed. She was not going to show eagerness; but she was thrilling with excitement. She moistened her lips, her nostrils pinched and her eyes suddenly shrewd. She felt her heart beating terribly in her breast, and was half the calculating victor and half a genuinely shrinking young girl engaged in her first serious exploit.
For a few moments both Toby and Sally were silent. Everything depended upon the establishment of some instant connection between them, for otherwise the nerve of both might fail, and a fiasco result. Toby's step hesitated, as though he was beset by an impulse to leave her. Sally shot a quick glance. He was wavering, and must be held.
"Nice night, isn't it?" she remarked, in a ladylike way.
The inclination to fly was checked. Toby remained by her side. They walked together about the streets for an hour, he smoking cigarette after cheap cigarette, and every now and then saying something that was nothing. He was not a good talker. He could not express himself, but said "er" between words, and moved his hands. Partly it was nervousness. Sally often grinned at knowledge of this and of his bad way of speaking, which made him sometimes appear almost loutish. But behind every roughness there lay a hidden strength that she was ready to worship. She walked beside him with steps quicker than his own, but a good swing; exulting in their power to walk in unison, a thin little figure beside his stoutness, her large black straw hat hiding her every expression except when she tilted up her head and in the light of a street lamp showed a tiny white face. Toby slouched along, one hand sometimes in a trouser pocket, but more often with both hands in restless motion. She could hear him: "I mean to say ... these yobs go about ... penn'orth of chocolates and a drink at the fountain. That's all the dinner they get. Wear a tiddy little bowler hat and never brush their boots.... Office boys, they are; and call 'emselves junior clurks. And what's it come to? I mean to say.... I'd rather work with my hands, like a man.... What's the matter with a little dirt? Comes off, doesn't it?"
"Oo ... yes ..." sighed Sally, admiringly.
At last, pursuing this theme, Toby told her an anecdote about one of the other fellows at his work. Sally listened with a breathless interest that was only half-feigned. She wanted him to think she understood. She wanted him to like her. She even wanted to sympathise. It was such a mixture of feelings she had—some good, some mischievous and deliberate. All her vanities were involved. Her nerves were taut with the strain of such a show of absorption, while her mind ran on at top speed. She asked pseudo-timid questions, just to show her interest and her cleverness, and to encourage Toby to keep on telling her things that threw light upon himself and his likes and dislikes. She walked delicately, stifled yawns, interjected "fancy" and "there" as if she understood all he said. She beguiled him. And all the time, under the design, her heart was soft towards him, soft and admiring.
They walked along the darkened streets at a slow pace, and the passers were few. Once or twice they encountered hushed couples, sometimes laughing groups. Always Sally glanced stealthily, and summed up those whom they saw; and had a tail glance for Toby. He appeared to ignore everything, and slouched along at her side, as he must have done when alone, with his head lowered. She could not make him out. In some ways he was so self-confident, in others so much as though he had never looked at a girl before. Did he know girls? Did he know what they were like? What a mystery—a delicious mystery! He wasn't soppy, yet he hardly looked at her. Funny ... funny! So she mused; continuing to give his talk quite half her attention.
At last ten o'clock struck, and, although both wanted to stay out longer, Sally was prudent and firm. She said "mother would wonder what had happened," and laughed a little in her excitement, at the innuendo, and in encouraging flattery. "Must go," she added, lingering. So Toby took her back to the corner of their road, it being a strict unspoken covenant that they should not enter the house together, in case they should be seen. There was no handshake; but Sally had the satisfaction of seeing Toby awkwardly move the peak of his cap in parting. That was ever so good, she thought. Her hard scrutiny of his manner found as yet no cause for suspicion, but only for a renewal of her curiosity concerning him. Toby showed no sign of any feeling beyond satisfaction with her, and this was an irresistible flattery. She ran in, full of excitement.
What was the truth about him? Sally's thoughts bit into her observation with intense gusto. She turned and twisted all her impressions during a couple of wakeful hours; and she remained full of glee. What a piece of luck. Toby! Toby, Toby, Toby! How quickly her mind worked! It was like acid, testing and comparing; and yet its action was soft and caressing when she remembered his figure and his voice—some of the little gestures, some turns of speech, his sturdy contempt for what he called "yobs," which she discovered to be the word "boys" spelt in an unfamiliar way. Those were the things she loved. The rest she had exploited. The mixture of pleasure and tactics filled her with delicious dread and hunger.
When the following evening came, Sally deliberately waited until she heard Toby go out. Only after a delay of five minutes did she put on her hat and coat in opposition to her mother's command. What was mother? There was a faint flush on Sally's cheeks, and a new sparkle in her eyes. She was engaged upon an adventure. She dallied as she went down the stairs. At the door she checked herself once more. What if he were not there? To herself she said that she would not mind; but that was a lie which she told to her wits. Her heart gave a different message.
How dark it was! At first Sally could see nothing. The moon, if there was one, hid itself behind black clouds. Only specks of light came from street lamps and between the slats of Venetian blinds. A wind hustled about, blowing up for rain, and uncomfortably draughty. As Sally stood on the step the door slammed behind her, and she heard a rattling run all through the house, a banging of other doors and trembling of window-panes. And then, as she lowered her head to meet the dusty breeze, she felt Toby beside her, at her elbow, expectant. Sally gave a start and a cry, for he had been so silent in the midst of all these alarms as to come unexpectedly.
"How you startled me!" she exclaimed coquettishly. "Thought you'd gone out long ago!"
Toby gave a sort of half-confused laughing grunt.
"Hours ago I went out," he said, very close to her, deliciously bold.
"Didn't think you'd remember.... I didn't say I'd come.... Have you been waiting?" Sally sounded very nearly affected in her unplanned speech. Toby answered with a sort of off-hand nonchalance.
"Only a minute. That's all right. I was afraid you weren't coming." Afraid! What a lovely word! He continued, with his hand quickly at her elbow: "Shall we go round Fairmead?"
When he spoke as he was doing now, Toby's rough voice dropped to a low note that he believed to be gentle. It was in fact still vibrant; but Sally liked everything about his tone and his manner. It made her feel that he was a man; and manliness was everything to her. She longed while she was with him to meet May ... to show her.... It would have given Sally fierce joy. For the rest, she was content. He was by her side. Their arms touched from time to time. When the wind blew extra strong, she clutched him, and they stood together to resist the onset. And at every touch Sally had fresh sense of strength and adventure.
"What you been doing to-day?" she asked, as talk flagged. He told her. He told her a great deal more about himself, and about his aunt. He had had the most marvellous adventures. Sally could not believe them all; but she was charmed by the narrative. Toby talked more freely. He hesitated less, and was more confident. Sally felt sure he must have known other girls. You didn't talk like that if you were new to it. She was again curious. Once she almost blurted out the question; but she stayed the words in time. It would have been a mistake to ask anything at this stage. It would have seemed possessive. It might have alarmed him. Anyway, she thought, if he has, what does that matter? To her it was an added pleasure, that he might be wise and experienced. It was a greater flattery; it called for greater resource in herself.
Once, when they had stopped and Sally had stood close to him so that he might light a fresh cigarette under the shelter of her body, Toby blew forth a puff of smoke and put his arm round her. Very coolly did Sally free herself, perfectly mistress of the situation; but she liked him the better for his boldness. It was the sort of thing she had dreamed—a lover who was ardent, a lover who had to be repelled, so that the delight of ultimate surrender should be fully savoured. Was he a lover? Sally shivered. The attempt and the rebuff made them more intimate, as though an understanding had been reached between them. They walked along elbow to elbow, at first silent, and then talking freely, both in good-humor and with continued interest. In the safe darkness Sally's eyes glistened. The very faintest smile made her mouth enigmatic. Already she carried herself with fresh assurance. She was conscious of her power, and altogether resolved to maintain it by prudence.
All this time Toby had never seen Sally in daylight. He had seen her in a glimpse under the flickering hall gas, and again from time to time in the shine of street lamps; but he had never once been with her in daylight. She herself was conscious of this, at first accidental, but now deliberate, mystification; and she dreaded the disclosure that was bound to come. It was not, she knew, that she was ugly; but only that to a man like Toby her small face and sandy hair might mark her down and ruin everything. She feared to notice a change in him, a change from their present and increasingly confidential relation to an indifference, a contempt, which she might find unbearable. The feeling was acute. It was not solely due to dependence upon Toby, but was a part of her long-suffered self-disparagement and a fear, almost fatalistic, that she could never keep a man's interest. The fear grew more intense as she fell into the bitter-sweets of a lover's doubtings. The day must come, and then what would happen? She longed to twine herself into his life before he could see her clearly. Perhaps then he would not notice? Perhaps even now he knew, and did not mind?
That was one mood. Another was a recognition of her own piquancy. In this stronger mood, she concentrated upon her own prettiness, the slimness of her body, her power to please him. But the confidence did not last, because he had become a necessity to her. Having half-determined to snare him, Sally was herself snared by the gins of love. She was hard, but she was soft. She was cold, but she was warm. And as each day she used the sewing machine or roughly stitched the raw material for Miss Jubb's costumes, Sally always looked to the nights. When it rained, and she had to stay indoors, she chafed irritably and went early to bed. When she met Toby she was full of unwonted high spirits. For a long time she did not know what had happened to her. Then at last the truth flashed out one morning as she lay in bed, and with a little laughing sound Sally knew that she was in love.
She was in love. And Toby, how did he feel? A new stage had been reached, when her caution was directed to an altogether different end. She did not now seek so coolly to play with his inclinations. She had great need for care lest she should betray her own secret. The occasional contacts with him had become an eager need, and must be checked so as to make them appear as accidental as they were deliberate. Sally was not withholding from coquetry, but from dread lest she should give herself away and show herself over-willing. She noticed everything he did, without watchful scrutiny, and with the merest quickness of her caressing glance. She loved everything in him, his speech and his movements, his strength, his stubbornness, his rough carriage and silence. She loved him. She feared him. She did not dare to risk losing him. Above all, she longed to be in Toby's arms, to be desired by him.
Once, when she was examining her face in the mirror, and trying to imagine just how pretty Toby might be made to think her, Sally lost her nerve. She was tearful all that day, tearful and speechless, so that a rebuke from Miss Jubb brought about a real fit of crying. Miss Jubb, astounded at such a collapse, instantly abandoned blame and showed true kindness of heart, while May Pearcey looked on with round saucer eyes above her round apple cheeks. And Sally went home early, ashamed of herself, once more irritable to viciousness, and spent the time before her mother's return lying upon the bed and trying to sleep. There was no walk that night. Toby went out as usual, and even ventured a whistle when she did not come; but Sally remained indoors. She did not, indeed, hear the whistle, as she was at the back of the house; but she knew he was waiting. She dared not go. In half an hour she heard Toby return, and go tramping indignantly up to his room directly above. The sound made her cry more than ever, but very quietly, in case her mother should hear and awaken.
The next night was even more wretched, for Toby went out and was nowhere to be seen when Sally followed him. She walked fruitlessly in the directions they had taken upon previous evenings, and came back disconsolate and exhausted. Pale and ill, Sally could not sleep. She had been living poorly, and her spirit was low. The future was dismal. Toby must have thrown her over. It was in vain that her wits consoled her with the certainty that he must have missed her, that a boy who did not care about her would never have shown such surly pique as his. So great had her love become that she could not listen to such reassurance. Only the worst was convincing enough for her misery. He was gone. He was done with her. She had lost him. No wonder then when she was alone Sally's eyes filled with weak tears.
Fortunately enough the next day was a Saturday, and she was able to go alone up to Waterlow Park, on Highgate Hill. She walked up the Holloway Road alone, and saw the autumn sun flashing upon the cross which stands erect above St. Joseph's dome. The air was already murky with the heaviness of the season. Leaves lay upon the ground and in the pathways. The cable-cars grunted and groaned upon the hill, and the Park looked bleak in the daylight. But the exercise did Sally good, and she saw other people, and watched some children playing touch until the Park bell rang to show that the gates were going to be closed. Even then she lingered, watching the moving figures and noticing the greenness of the grass under the shrivelling leaves.
From that walk she returned more healthy and in better spirits. She determined to go out marketing with her mother in the evening, and walked back past the flaring lamps, at which women were already crowding, with her head in the air and her courage high. She almost forgot Toby while she was bathed in this flustering brilliance of light and noise. Only far below, in her heart, continued that inexhaustible consciousness of her love. Even in this temporary oblivion she shivered as she came to the darker part of the road.
Sally was once again among shops; and then she went down a side road. And her heart was beating rather fast as she approached the house, in case Toby should meet her. It was with a mingled relief and chagrin that she reached the house alone. She was inside the door now, and the woman on the ground floor was just standing on a chair to light the gas. Sally had to wait for a minute until she plunged heavily down and dragged the chair aside.
"Oh," said the woman. "There's a letter for you. It's just come. This minute."
It was not often that Sally had a letter. Had Toby written to her? She pounced upon the envelope. Fancy his doing that! Oh, no. It was only from Aunt Emmy, at Brixton. Well, perhaps Aunt Emmy knew somebody in the West End. What could she have written about?
"Is mother in, d'you know?" Sally asked the woman.
"I fancy ... yes, I fancy she just went out. Shoppin', I expect. It's a nice evening. You know, what I call crisp. Not that sort of muggy ... ugh...." She gave a great shudder, as the man in the fairy tale did when his wife poured gudgeon upon him while he slept.
Sally, threatened with a lengthy conversation, made for the stairs. She reached their room, which was lighted; and so she knew that her mother would not be long. A kettle was singing on a small fire of coal blocks, and the teapot was laid to warm. Sally looked round the room, guessed that her mother had gone out for tea or sugar, and tore open her letter. In ugly crude writing she read the kind words Aunt Emmy had sent.
"Dear Sally. How are you and your mother? She takes no notice when I write to her, so perhaps I'd better start writing to you. Such news I've got. I've won thirty-five pounds in a competition. I don't know how I did it any more than you do. Anyway, Sally, I don't want to forget my little niece, and so here's a little something for you. I'm giving the boys some, and buying a new dress, and then I'm going to bank the rest against a rainy day. Waste not, want not, you know. Don't tell mummy I've sent you anything, but spend it on yourself, love. Get a bit of something nice. Your affectionate Aunt Emmy."
Enclosed was a postal-order for a pound. Sally's heart seemed to stop beating for an instant. She looked again at the postal-order, and with a sharp movement put it inside her blouse. Then she put the letter in the fire, and watched it flame and blacken and flick to pieces in the draught. Slowly, thinking with all her might, she took off her out-of-doors jacket and hung it up. A pound! She was rich! With a pound you could do a lot. You could ... you could buy material for a frock. You could buy underclothes, stockings, shoes. Not all of them, but what you wanted. Or you could buy a hat and sweets and scent and ... oh, lots of things! A whole pound to spend! Slowly, slowly came Sally's mind round to something from which it instantly darted away. It crept back again. It seized upon her will. With a pound you could ... you could make your hair look nice and your face....
After the resolve, Sally was quite cool. She turned to greet her mother with entire self-possession. But her ears were strained, because overhead she heard a heavy footstep.
The thing determined, Sally was faced with a great difficulty. She did not know how to do things. She had to find out. You couldn't make a fool of yourself and ask at a shop. She had talked to May once or twice about ... making your hair look nice ... well, dyeing it, if you wanted to know; and May could only show her advertisements clipped from the Sunday paper. She had not kept those advertisements: she had not liked the look of them. Mother wouldn't know. She must do it at once. A bold plan had come into her mind. She was near the end of her second year with Miss Jubb. She could go into the West End if only she looked nice enough. If she could do it to-night or to-morrow she could meet May Pearcey first thing on Monday morning, get her to tell Miss Jubb Sally was ill, and perhaps go after some situation during the day. What a game! But how was she to get the stuff? That was the difficulty. No, it was the easiest thing of all. Mrs. Perce! Mrs. Perce used peroxide, because she had once been a barmaid. But that meant a long time. Sally must have something quick in its action. Mrs. Perce would know. Mrs. Perce knew everything of that kind. The notion of going shopping with her mother was abandoned. She had more important things to do. She would go and see Mrs. Perce immediately after tea. Then, while old Perce was playing the piano, she would get to know everything. Sally became wildly animated. She glimpsed the future. Transformed, she would conquer. Toby would be won. She would be in the West End. A whole new vista opened before her, glittering with promise. Never had she been so excited, even when Toby first spoke to her.
Mrs. Minto wearily threw off her dingy cloak and raked the fire, so that the kettle began to boil. She looked in a lethargic way at Sally, as a cat looks at a stranger in whom it is not at all interested; and then mechanically took down the tea-caddy from the mantelpiece. As she stooped over the kettle there seemed to be cramp in all her limbs. The little bell-pull of hair was smaller than ever, and the hair itself was more grey. Her whole bearing expressed a lifeless dejection. Panting faintly as the result of her late posture, Mrs. Minto brought the teapot to the spotless table, and clumsily touched the teacups and spoons so that they jarred upon Sally's nerves. Everything her mother did now annoyed Sally. The slow motions, the awkward way in which her fingers turned to thumbs, the shortsightedness that made her unable to thread a needle or read a paper except through an old magnifying glass, the general air of debility and discouragement. Sally felt furious with her all the time—"Old fool ... old fool!" she would frantically murmur to herself; and then would fall again into despair at her own sensation of frustrate youth. She had lost love for her mother, had no pity to give in its place; and only awoke in these moments of dreadful exasperation to the sense that she was still dependent upon Mrs. Minto for her existence. During this tea-time, while her mother mutely ate bread and margarine, Sally was away in the clouds, dreaming of all that her windfall was to produce. It was to produce beauty, opportunity, happiness. So much for a pound to do! Sally was so impatient to call on Mrs. Perce that she could hardly eat anything or drink her tea.
"You are worritting and fidgetting, Sally," cried Mrs. Minto, peevishly. "Sit still, there's a good girl. I don't know what's come to my 'ead. It feels all funny inside, and if I put my hand there it's like I got a bruise. And yet I don't remember knockin' myself anywheres, and I can't understand it at all, because it's not as if I'd taken anything to disagree with me; and yet there it is, a nasty pain all inside my 'ead and a feeling as though I'd got a bruise on the outside. I was telling Mrs. ... oh, dear, what is her name?... Mrs. ... Roberson about it, and she said that's what her 'usband used to suffer from, and ... he took...."
Sally ignored the rest of the speech. Her mother rambled on; and Sally looked at the clock. She'd get to Hornsey Road about six. That would be time enough. There would be the Clancy kids playing in the doorway, so she would go straight upstairs to Mrs. Perce; and she would say....
Self-absorbed, both went mechanically on with the unappetising meal. Upstairs Toby walked once more into his own room; and then came running heavily down the stairs and past their door and then right down to the street. Sally's heart was in a flutter, and her eyes flew once again to the clock. It was so early for Toby to be going out. She would not see him, then. She would not see him, and all her excitement was gone like an exploded toy balloon. The heart was taken out of her enterprise. He was going out: he did not want her: he was finished with her. Sally could not repress the single sob that rose to her lips.
"... so I asked Mr. Flack if they'd ever kep' it, and he said no, they never had, and told me to try at Boots's, down by the Nag's Head...."
"Oh, mother," cried Sally, beside herself. "Do shut up about your head. It gives me the hump." Then, as she became aware of what she had said, she defensively proceeded. "Well, you keep on talking about it, and it doesn't do any good to talk about it. If you want to know, I'm ill myself. I've got a headache, and I've got the rats...."
"You got no call to speak to your mother that way," said Mrs. Minto. "If I'd a spoke to my mother like that, I should have got the strap. So mind that, Sally. It's not nice. I've noticed you getting very unmannerly and out of hand lately. Very rude. I don't know what to do with you, you're so rude. It's not right, and it worries me so that I can't think what I'm doing. I was talking about it the other day to Mrs. Roberson, and she says...."
"Yes, ma," said Sally, rising, and going to the door to take her hat down from the peg. "She seems to have got a lot to say. Doesn't seem to be much sense in what she says."
"Now, you're not to...." By this time Sally had one sleeve on and was feeling for the other. In a glance at her little peaked determined face, and obstinate mouth, Mrs. Minto's spirit suddenly failed. Where she had meant to be maternally peremptory she became querulous. "Wherever you going now?" she asked weakly. "Oh, you are a naughty wilful girl."
"Out," said Sally, bluntly. Unheeding the outcry that followed, she was out of the door and down the stairs before her mother could check her; and with a new ugly sense of revolt was on her way to see Mrs. Perce in a mood of reckless despair. Left alone, Mrs. Minto washed feebly up, and sighingly dried the cups and plates and rearranged them in the cupboard. Presently she sat in a limp curve over the fire, in a kind of stupor, dreaming of she knew not what. Every now and then she would give a jerk in anger at Sally's rudeness and recently uncontrollable highhandedness, which recurred to her attention whenever her thoughts touched reality. For the rest she sat motionless, until the coal-blocks subsided and the fire went black.
Out in the dark streets, Sally was as if enveloped. First she looked this way and that for Toby; but he was gone. A wave of hysteria passed over her. She hated him. She hated him for such loutish cruelty. He didn't care. And because he did not care, although she tried to feel indifferent, she loved him the more. Blindly she walked away from the house, and heard the trams grinding, and the rattle of carts over the rough paving. Holloway Road at this point is at its worst—dull and ugly, with an air of third-rate respectable indigence. She crossed the road, and passed into a squalid thoroughfare called Grove Road, and marched past the ugly houses with her head in the air, pretending that she had no interest whatever in Toby. All her thoughts were busy inventing indifference; and her consciousness was at each turn confusing and contradicting her thoughts. If solitude had been possible to her, Sally would have cried; but as a rule she cried very little, both because she was rarely alone and because she was not naturally hysterical. Fighting, therefore, against what she felt to be weakness, she proceeded on her way, trying to laugh at rival butchers shouting insults and challenges across the street. At the post office near her old home she changed her open postal-order, and was given a half-sovereign and ten shillings-worth of silver. This money she carefully put, in paper, inside her blouse. She was then ready for her interview.
At the old address new tenants already occupied the first floor flat, and Mr. Clancy stood at the gate smoking his pipe. The man who lived in the ground floor flat next door still showed his glass-covered sign "Why Pay Rent?" Children littered the few inches of asphalt which served as front garden to the two houses. Seeing Sally, Mr. Clancy took his pipe out of his mouth, spat, and nodded at her in a friendly way.
"Hello, Sally. Keepin' well? Look fine."
"I've come to see Mrs. Perce— Mrs. Barrow, you know."
Mr. Clancy jerked his head, receptive of the news, and as Sally passed him continued to smoke and to regard the traffic. He must have been bitterly cold, she thought; but she knew he must be standing outside either because Mrs. Clancy was out or because she was in. The stairs were just as steep as of old, and as dark. Sally had absolutely no memory of her father's fall. She was merely curious about the new people in the flat. But she did not see them, for all the doors were closed, and she kicked her feet against the stairs, stumbling a little in the darkness.
At her further progress a door flew open above, and Mrs. Perce looked out.
"Sally! Well I never!" she ejaculated. "Perce! Here's Sally come to see you!" Perce's reply did not reach Sally, but there was an exchanged kiss with Mrs. Perce, and then her coat and hat were off and she was conscious of overpowering warmth and kippers and a general sizzle of comfort and plenty. "Had your tea?" demanded Mrs. Perce. "Have another. Come on. Plenty of kippers. Perce! Sally's eating your kippers!"
Perce appeared, rubbing the back of his neck with a towel—a large fair red-faced man with a broad grin. He put his hand on Sally's shoulder, and shook her. Then he went out of the room again, and Sally began almost immediately upon the feast. It was such a jolly, cosy, close room, so bright and gaudy in its decoration, that it was Sally's idea of what a kitchen should be. The walls were a varnished brown, so that they shone in the lamplight. Polished candlesticks stood by a shiny clock on the mantelpiece. There were bright pictures and a brilliant lamp and a glittering tablecloth covered with polished dishes and silver. She had a great admiration for old Perce and Mrs. Perce. They both loved comfort and food and drink, and both had hearty laughs that showed all their teeth. Both had shrewd, glistening, money-engrossed eyes; both were large and stout and cheerful and noisy. To anybody as young as Sally noise goes a long way towards cheeriness, because it deadens thought. So when old Perce came and took his place at the table she suddenly threw off her despair with the volatility of childhood, and laughed aloud and ate and drank, and made sly remarks, until she became an altogether different Sally from the one who had taken an earlier tea with her mother. She was now in high spirits. All sorts of funny things came into her head—things she had seen and thought since their last meeting; and when she repeated them the Barrows laughed in great roars that filled her with conceited exultation. It was so long since she had laughed. It was so long since she had fed properly. This was like a dream, a riotous dream of noise and colour. She looked from old Perce's red face to Mrs. Perce's almost equally florid cheeks, her eyes travelling like dragon-flies, as bright and eager as possible.
And all the time she was taking in Mrs. Perce's appearance. Mrs. Perce wore a black silk dress, very plain, but well-cut. She had a gold brooch at her throat, and a thin gold chain round her neck. Her hair was abundant, and was dressed in a great blob upon the top of her head. It was a noticeable colour, fair and startling. She did not decorate her eyebrows and eyelashes, which were darker than her hair. And she wore high corsets, because her bosom, although firm, was inclined to be over-flowing. The bodice of her dress fitted closely and emphasised what was still a very shapely figure. She was what would be called a fine woman. Her eyes were full and clear; her lips were well-moulded; her teeth, rather protruding, were unimpaired. Sally was filled with renewed envy of her personal advantages. Then her eyes went back to Mrs. Perce's hair. It was too obviously doctored. She didn't want anything like that. She wanted something more delicate....
The truth flashed upon her. Mrs. Perce was a trifle on the coarse side. Sally quickly compared Mrs. Perce's plump hands with her own lean ones. At the scrutiny, she put her hands below the table, for they were not clean. But if they had been clean she would have taken pride in them; for where the fingers of Mrs. Perce were stubby her own were slim and pretty. She understood her own shortcomings, but in the quick observations and comparisons she had been making, Sally had learnt a great deal more clearly than ever before how careful she must be to avoid exaggeration in all she did. Dressed and adorned as Mrs. Perce was dressed and adorned, she would have looked a guy. It was a new lesson to her, and a valuable one.
"Have you noticed," said Mrs. Perce, "how me and Perce's dressed up to-day?"
Sally was staggered. She looked quickly at old Perce and saw that he was in his best clothes, with a lovely new spotted blue and white tie, and a dahlia in his buttonhole.
"Of course," she said. "I noticed everything. Didn't like to ask. What is it? Is it your birthday? Wish I'd known," she added, half-truthfully. "I'd a brought you a present."
"No," laughed Mrs. Perce. "Very good guess. Not a birthday. It's the anniversary of our wedding-day. Been married nine years, we have."
"Nine years!" echoed Sally, awestruck. "Nine years! And you haven't had a baby yet!"
There was a startling guffaw. Old Perce slapped his leg and bayed. Mrs. Perce threw herself back in her chair, showing every brilliant tooth. The noise was tremendous.
"The things she says!" shrieked Mrs. Perce. "Perce, I always said that child was a caution!" They both laughed until they were in an extremity of mirth.
Sally recognised herself as a wit, flushed, and laughed as heartily as they. She had spoken incautiously, as a child, and without sophistication. But she accepted responsibility for her joke. She was not in the least flurried, but was pleased at being considered an adept in the ways of marriage. At heart she was despising herself for not having been more truly observant of their clothes, because in reality she had been so concentrated upon Mrs. Perce that she had never thought to spare an eye for Mrs. Perce's husband. She was thankful to have ridden off so easily upon her naivete. Meanwhile, having laughed amply, the Barrows had resumed their tea.
"Nine years, eh!" said old Perce, reflectively. "Takes some believing, Poll. Nine years. Nine years, and no baby, eh!" He shook his head, like a cat sneezing, and laughed again. "Here, Sally. Have some more kipper. More tea, then. Poll, here's a lady will have some more tea, if you please, ma'am. Sweet enough, Sally? As before, if you please, Poll."
"See, where was you then, Perce?" asked Mrs. Perce. "Nine years ago."
"This time nine years ago——" murmured old Perce, reflectively. "I was at Potter's. Yes, Sally, I waddn't makin' above two pound a week when I got married—if that. Two pound a week was about my top-notch in those days. Well, it's different now." He shrugged his shoulders. "And I'll tell you for why, Sally. It was Poll, there. Don't you forget it. If a man's got a good wife—say there's something in him—he'll end his days in comfort. She'll see to that. Now, the man you marry——"
"Here, Perce! Steady on!" cried Mrs. Perce. "Sally's not seventeen yet, remember."
"Wait!" Old Perce directed a finger. Sally was brimming with gladness, at the topic and the confidence in herself which she saw he was going to express. "The man you marry, Sally—he'll have to be a man. Understan' what I mean? None of these fine la-di-da fellows, but a Man. And—if he works, you save. Not to scrape, you understand. Just save. For the first five years, be careful. Have your fun. No harm in that. But be careful. No kids. No swank. Stability, that's what's wanted. Stability. If you've got a bit of money behind you—— See what I mean?"
"Oo yes, Mr. Barrow," said Sally, incoherent with pride. "That's just what I think."
Old Perce looked at Mrs. Perce, raising his shoulders as if to exhibit Sally to her. There was a nod between them. For some time all became rather thoughtful, perhaps thinking—as she was uncontrollably doing—of Sally's future. Old Perce took out his pipe at last.
"I'm just going to step in the other room, Sally," he remarked, "and have a pipe and a bit of a tune. I'll see you later—you ladies," he added gallantly, with a bow. And then he withdrew, leaving them alone, with Sally's cheeks flushed at the warmth and the subject they had been considering. All the time old Perce had been talking she had been wishing that Toby had been there to hear. Then he'd have seen what these people thought of her. They didn't think of her face; they didn't go off in a huff because she had been too ill to go out one evening. They knew.... Tears filled her eyes. She stared at the red fire in the grate. Mrs. Perce had her back turned, filling the kettle for the inevitable washing-up, and so she did not see this sudden arrival of tragic reflection. All she saw was a willing Sally gathering the dishes and scraping the fishbones together ready for throwing behind the fire. How was Mrs. Perce to visualise that other tea, that lonely figure in the other room? How was anybody to understand why Sally was so different from what she had been at home?
Over the washing-up, the two became confidential. Sally broached the subject of the West End. She dilated upon it. Mrs. Perce was all sympathy, and full of agreement.
"You're quite right," she said. "And I'm glad. I wish I could help you. Now, can I?" She thought a moment. "Wait a bit. Wait a bit."
She went out of the room. Amid the din of "There you are, there you are, there you ain't—ain't—ain't," Sally heard her call: "Perce, what's the name Maggie Merrick calls herself now?" There was a silence. The door of the other room was closed. Sally, standing by the kitchen table, drying a plate, strained her ears unavailingly. A silence was upon the flat. Only the fire huskily caved in, and little darting sparks flew into the air. It was as though her life hung suspended. Then, in a few minutes, Mrs. Perce returned, a triumphant beam upon her face. "You go and see Maggie on Monday," she said. "I'll write her a letter. She calls herself Gala—Madame Gala. Got a place round behind Regent Street, and about twenty hands. She's a very old friend of mine.... I'll give you a letter to-night. Just say you come from Polly Barrow. She'll see you. Course, I can't be sure...."
"No, no!" Sally's concurrence was eager. Her heart was like a flame. "You are kind to me, Mrs. Perce."
"If I can help you, Sally...." Mrs. Perce's voice took on a tone of kindness almost solemn. "Well, that's all right. Just wait till these things are washed."
Trembling, Sally introduced her other problem. At first Mrs. Perce gave a great laugh, and looked very sharply at Sally. She looked at her dress, at her face, at her hair.
"I don't want to look...."
"It wouldn't help you to look made-up. Not with Maggie. So there is a boy!"
"No!" Sally's tone was fierce.
"Oh, all right." Mrs. Perce was evidently not altogether convinced. She dried her hands, her head consideringly upon one side.
"Who'd look at me?" There was a vain effort in this speech to corroborate the disclaimer; but there was also an ingenuous and pathetic appeal for some sort of reassurance, for this was Sally's hidden fear.
"Don't be a fool, Sally. If a girl makes up her mind to have a man...."
Sally's heart leapt. She looked with shining eyes of glory at Mrs. Perce. It was the announcement of her dream, a confirmation of her hope. She was for a moment ecstatic.
"Oh, Mrs. Perce!"
"You just look at him like that, my dear. Well, I'll tell you.... You don't want to look too fresh. Don't use peroxide. Henna's the stuff for you."
"Henna! How much?" Sally was desperate. The word was open sesame to her.
"Wait a bit. I'll think. Henna. And a face cream. But mind, Sally, be careful. Not too much of it. And whatever you do, remember your neck. You don't see it; but others do. All that's above your dress. And a bit below. Some people are inquisitive. And just a bit of lip salve—just a tinge. See, your lips aren't red enough. But you've got to be on the watch not to overdo it. No good looking like a tart."
"No. It's just the hair and the freckles," breathed Sally.
"Oh, well.... We'll make a picture of you. And the eyebrows, Sally. But only a bit, Sally. Only a bit. You've got to be moderate...."
Mrs. Perce went off into a delighted silence. She was in her element. She had before her a great opportunity, and all her vanity was roused. They understood one another. And for all Sally's disclaimer Mrs. Perce was in no way deceived about her ultimate object. She was as aware of Toby as if she knew the facts. But she was too shrewd to force a confidence. To herself she was laughing with the full enjoyment which some women, if not most of them, bring to the contemplation of an intrigue and its ultimate consequences. Later, she resolved to add a word of warning upon the handling of that subject. But more thought encouraged her to be silent. There was that in Sally's bearing which gave Mrs. Perce to understand that in the long run Sally knew what she was about. Mrs. Perce was conscious of a smart feeling of admiration for this child.
Clasping tightly the precious henna and her other purchases, Sally hurried home through the dark streets. Within her blouse was the letter to Madame Gala. Her head was full of her plans, her delighted anticipations of victory. For this moment she could not contemplate the possibility that all would not go well. She was intoxicated. Her heart was swelling. Thoughts galloped away, like steam from a boiling kettle. She kept no memory of them. It was enough for her that she was thrilled with her own prospects. Of course Mrs. Perce's friend would take her on. Of course Toby would fall in love with her. She could make him. Once let her achieve her immediate objects, and there was no end to future possibilities. How strange, how wonderful, the difference which the last few hours had made to her! It really seemed true for once that in the darkest hour dawn was most nearly at hand. She let herself into the house and crept up the stairs, subdued but exultant. It would now have taken much more than the coldness and darkness of the horrible room to spoil her excited happiness. She even welcomed them, because if her mother awoke there would be the less need for explanations. She stood a candle upon the washstand, screened from the bed, and lighted the oil stove which they always used for preparing the breakfast. Her purchases were carefully arrayed, and then hidden. She removed her outer clothes, and let down her hair, shivering slightly, but tense with resolve and the absorption of the moment. Round her shoulders she hung a big towel, and kicked it out, looking down at her legs and feet. She was conscious of pride, of physical freedom. She made small dancing steps, as happy as a child, while she waited and waited for the slow kettle to boil.
Later, Sally stole to bed, careful not to touch her sleeping mother, lest her own chill body should awaken her and provoke a querulous scene. She was shuddering from head to foot. It seemed to take hours to shake off the frozen feeling, and if she raised her feet and touched them with her hands they were like pieces of ice. They were still cold when she forgot everything; and she awoke, the towel still about her head, with the sun up and the day well advanced. A careful hand to her hair, a quick scurry to the mirror, a leap of apprehensiveness; and then she was back in bed, shamming sleep, because her mother had stirred. The two lay side by side for ever so long, until Sally could once again allow herself to breathe freely. She did not examine her feelings: she only knew that she was afraid and confident, alternately timid and ashamed, and then again breathing deep with satisfaction. She had begun. She was set out upon her adventure. At a blow she had to put everything to the test. How she longed for the next day! How she longed for her interview with Mrs. Perce's friend, and for her next encounter with Toby!
At night she allowed her mother to go to bed first, and waited a little while before beginning her preparations. She was so long that her mother, although still engrossed by the pain in her head, began to grumble.
"What you doing, Sally?" she cried sharply.
"Washing my hair," answered Sally, like a shot.
"Ought to have done it in daylight, silly girl. And dried it in front the fire. I don't know what's come to you, Sally. You seem to do everything you can to worrit me. Now I want to go to sleep, and you keep the lamp burning, and the fire burning, and it's all alight, so I can't get off."
Sally shaded the lamp. Her lip was curled. She did not deign to answer the complaint. Silly old fool; always grumbling! Let her wait. Let her wait and see what happened! Sally was less excited, and less clumsy, to-night. She was warmer, too; and that gave her more assurance. Once her mother had fallen asleep, as she knew from the loud breathing, she became leisurely. Her actions were even luxurious, so much more at ease was she. First of all she combed her hair, wishing it were longer. Then she made all her dispositions. For the next hour she was busy, and by the time she was in bed she had begun to giggle almost hysterically. She lay quite still, and quite warm, listening for some sound of Toby. But none came. Wherever he was, she did not hear him before she went to sleep.
And then in the dark morning her mother could not see the transformation that had occurred; and Sally could not see it, either. They made a slow and tasteless breakfast, and Mrs. Minto slipped out to her first situation, where she had to be at half-past seven. From that she would go on to another at half-past ten that would keep her for the greater part of the afternoon. Sally, instead of going back to bed, as she often did when the two breakfasted together, dressed herself with great care and prepared to go out and meet May Pearcey. She tried to see herself in the mirror, but could only get a lamplight view that frightened her. She had washed very carefully, and as she had made her own dress it fitted well and suited her. She had a big black hat and was going to get new gloves before calling upon Madame Gala. Her shoes were bad, but she brushed them well. Stockings she had bought on Saturday night. Turning round and round before the mirror, extending her arms, and patting down her skirt, she was content with everything but the incalculable effect of her recent activities. But the part of her hair which showed beneath her hat was a rich shade, and if her face looked artificially pale it still appeared smooth and fresh.
What doubt she may have had was set at rest by May Pearcey when they met. The encounter took place in Grove Road at the corner of Hornsey Road, just where the shops are; and the two girls walked westward together.
"Oo, Sally, you do look smart!" May irrepressibly cried. "Oo, what you bin doing to your hair! Looks lervly! Oo, and your face. Got off with a earl?"
She was all attention at Sally's tale, and Sally showed her the letter to Madame Gala. They stood together reading it. For the moment May was honestly full of congratulation. She was so simple-minded, and so little attached to the dressmaking, that she had no envy. A boy would have been a different matter. And she was honestly delighted with Sally's appearance.
"You look lervly!" she kept saying. "Oo, I do hope you get it. I say, come out 's evening, and tell me. Will you?" May was very coaxing indeed. She was sincerely impressed.
It was a compliment, as well as a curiosity. Sally hesitated. She had planned to see Toby; but if Toby was going to be a lout she might just as well show him she didn't care.
"All right," she said. "Look here, if I'm not there by half-past seven, you'll know I've been kept—mother's kept me. See?"
"Mother!" laughed May. "Well, I'll be there quarter-past. See! Shouldn't come any further, case old Mother Jubb's lookin' out the window. She might not believe you was ill if she saw you lookin' so smart. Might think you was takin' a day off to go to the Zoo."
They parted, May Pearcey to spin a tale of Sally's illness to Miss Jubb, and Sally to proceed, after getting a pair of black cotton gloves, to the West End. In the shop, half hidden among the rolls of flannel and little racks and trays of smaller articles of haberdashery, there was a full-length strip of mirror. It stood gloomily in the half-light of the shop, which, like all suburban drapers' shops, had the air of a crowded and airless cavern full of stale adornments. Sally did not see the mirror at first, but while the shop girl went to fetch the gloves, she was looking idly round when she caught sight of a slim young lady in black. The young lady was very trim, dressed all in black, with slim ankles and pretty hands, and a big black hat—and it was herself! Herself, looking like a lady. Quickly, she stepped to the mirror, examining her cheeks, her neck, her brows, and her gloriously richly-tinted hair. She was amazed and delighted. A proud smile twisted her thin little lips, so slightly touched with Lipsol that they did not seem to have been touched at all, but only to be prettier than usual. After the first curiosity, the first flush of recognition, followed precise scrutiny. Sally nodded to herself. She would do. There was no doubt of it. From that moment she was no longer triumphant or excited: she was sure. She had learnt a great lesson, that excitement is no criterion of victory or happiness, and that the artist is cool, confident, free from triumph. At a bound, Sally had become an artist. She had always been potentially an artist; but she at last had attained vision.
Precious pennies went to pay her tram fare to Tottenham Court Road; and from there she walked to Madame Gala's, asking the way, and getting rather flustered and bewildered at the pushing crowds and the big shops with their irresistible windows, and the extraordinary amount of traffic that seemed to make Oxford Street one continuous torrent of carts and omnibuses. The big furniture shops in Tottenham Court Road had impressed her; but the shops in Oxford Street were beyond anything she ever remembered to have seen. A flash of comparison with Holloway—even with Jones's magnificent row of shops on the way to Highbury, or the big drapers and clothiers in the Upper Street—made her realise how right had been her longing for the West End. It had been more than a dream. It had been an inspiration. Holloway was seen in its dinginess, its greasy mud on the rough roads, the general air it had of being a step or two behind the times; and here was the brilliance, the enthralling reality, of the West to take its place. Sally was conscious of new buoyancy. If she had been pleased with Tottenham Court Road, and delighted with the essentially commonplace Oxford Street, she exulted in that alluring curve which will always make Regent Street a fascination for the visitor to London and even a satisfaction to the Londoner himself. Sally was both a Londoner and a visitor, and her feelings were proportionate. She did not know that she was proud of being London born and bred; but her eye was possessive, and she would not have given London in exchange for the dozen other great capitals of the world put together. She looked round at the shops, at the buildings and the traffic; and she made a historic remark.
"Cooh," she said. "Fine! Fancy living here! This is the place for me."
It was final. It took no account of the risks of a peradventure. Madame Gala was a mere cog in the great wheel of Sally's progress through life. Even Toby had at first no place in her survey. Then she wondered if he knew Regent Street. He could come one Saturday and wait for her outside Madame Gala's. They would swank, and go and have tea at an A. B. C. or Lyons's; and perhaps go into Hyde Park. Gradually it came back to her that her father used to take them to Hyde Park on Sundays. But that was long ago, and on Sundays the traffic was less and the shops were all shuttered. She gave a sigh at the memory, awoke, and marched up to a colossal policeman who was wagging a pair of gloves in his right hand—as if to keep the flies away, but in reality to encourage the traffic. He inclined an ear, and an eye to her letter, and trumpeted out directions.
And at last Sally reached Madame Gala's, and with Madame Gala's another turning-point in her life. It was the first time she had been conscious of so all-important an event. When she came to the building she was trembling. Her eyes closed, almost in an expression of prayer. She took five minutes to climb the stairs to the second floor, and then turned to fly. She recovered, and hung about for a while, hoping for some accident to carry her right into the place. Then, with a feeble air of confidence, she pushed open the door and walked in without knocking.
Sally could have fallen down in horror; for as she entered she saw a very tall young woman talking to the most beautifully dressed person she had ever seen. And they were in a room such as Sally had never been in before—a room entirely decorated in a sort of grey-blue. Wallpaper, hangings, and chair-upholsterings were exactly uniform. The effect, although beautiful and restful, was to Sally's eye so sumptuous that she felt she must by some terrible mischance have come into a drawing-room. But she heard the young woman say, "Yes, meddam.... I'll tell Madame Gala.... Yes, meddam.... Yes, meddam ... quite ... yes, I quite.... Good morning, meddam." And then as the wonderful creature disappeared in a whirl of richness, like a fairy godmother, the tall young woman turned almost pouncingly upon Sally, and in a contemptuous voice said "Yes?"
Sally shook herself. It was the gesture of one who has been dreaming.
"I want to see Madame Gala," she said, very distinctly. "I've got a letter for her from Mrs. Barrow."
"Where is it?" demanded the young woman. "That it?"
She took from Sally's unwilling but unresisting hand the letter which Mrs. Perce had written, pulled it from the open envelope, read it, and looked again at Sally.
"I want to see Madame Gala," said Sally, stubbornly. Her little mouth was now very savagely set, and if there had been any refusal upon the young woman's part there would have been a scene.
"All right. Keep your hair on," said the inquisitive young woman. "Are you Miss Minto?"
"Yes, I am." Sally nodded energetically, flushing. She wondered if the word "hair"....
Her interlocutor turned, and went into an inner room, replacing the letter as she did so, and folding over the flap, so that it would seem as though she knew nothing of the contents. Sally quickly saw the kind of person she was—an interfering creature, with "Miss Pry" written all over her. She was tall and thin, and had gooseberry eyes and a small nose and a large sycophantic mouth. Sally had a picture of her all the time she was away—grey-blue dress and all. She didn't like her. She hated her. She knew that they would never get on together. Miss Nosey! "Yes, meddam; no, meddam ... yes, I quite...." Sally tried to pronounce quite "quaite," as she had done. After all, she was only a sort of maid—somebody to take the names of callers. She'd got no right to be saucy. Old six-foot. Old match-legs. She'd got a nose in everybody's business. Mind she didn't get it pulled!... But what a lovely room! Must have cost pounds and pounds! All grey-blue—even to the little ornaments on the mantelpiece, all except the black tiger. Fancy working in a place like this! Different to Miss Jubb's! Sally gave a sort of internal giggle, a noiseless affair that was almost just a wriggle of delight. Miss Jubb! Did you ever see anything like the dress she made for Mrs. Miller, of 17 Tavistock! Chronic, it was! Like a concertina! And poor old Annie Jubb getting flurried when the material frayed in the scissors! Cooh! Call her a dressmaker! More like a figure of fun!
"Come in, please," said Nosey, jerking her nose. And Sally started once again from reverie, to follow the tall young woman from the grey-blue room into another one which was all in a warm colour between orange and biscuit. She swallowed quickly, and heard a little runnel of moisture in her dry throat. There was a throbbing behind her eyes. She became very small and clumsy, and kept her head lowered, and her hands clasped.
When a voice bade her sit down, Sally stole a quick glance at Madame Gala. At once she lowered her eyes again, because they had met unexpectedly a pair of eyes more disconcerting than any she had known since her schooldays. Madame Gala did not employ a score of hands for nothing! She had looked at Sally the moment Sally came into the room, and did not cease to look at her. And she had very cold grey eyes, and was very cold (really very deficient in stamina) herself. She was terribly thin, and chilling, and capable. She was dressed in grey; but you could not see the dress except at the bottom of the skirt and the middle of the sleeves, because she wore a large pinafore-overall, of a lighter grey and a softer material. She had no pins in her mouth, and there were no pictures of costumes or sheets of paper patterns to be seen. But the room, all the same, was a workroom, and there was a beautiful large table in it which could have served for cutting out a costume for a giantess.
"You're Miss Minto. How old are you? Hn, small for your age. Mother and father? When did your—oh, you're in mourning for him. How did he die? What sort of accident? Hn.... What experience have you had? Miss What? Oh, yes ... two years. Have you left? I see. Well, Mrs. Barrow's an old friend of mine, and I'd like to oblige her. Also, I want more help. My business is increasing. If you can start in a fortnight I'll pay you six—no, I'll pay you seven shillings a week. You get here at nine in the morning. You'll do as you're told, and behave yourself. You'll work under a very clever lady, Miss Summers, in that room. I'll show you. Come in here...."
Sally, shaking with jubilation, followed her into a very large room adjoining, where a number of girls were (apparently) frantically busy—far too busy to be conscious that their employer had entered the room. Sally did not believe that they were always so intent upon their work. She knew too much. To herself she said "Swank!" It was a beautifully light place, all decorated in a pale grey; and there was a long deep bench all round the room. It was lighted by windows and a skylight, and it was plain that a considerable amount of work was in progress. Sally gave a dazed glance round, and looked again, saying, "Yes, ma'am; Yes, ma'am," to everything Madame Gala said; and a few minutes later was out in the street again, engaged at seven shillings a week, and not knowing whether she was alive or dead, awake or dreaming. The day was still before her; she had nearly ten shillings hidden in her bodice; and she was a queen amid all the surging traffic of the West End—her West End—the place of her dreams, her pilgrimage, her triumph. Sally's eyes were filmed with tears. She walked away from the building passionately fighting with sobs that rose from deep within her. The tears trickled down her white cheeks. And all at once she was laughing again, chuckling and chuckling as if this was the most splendid joke in the world. And then, when the laughter was done, she was once again Sally, deliberate, cool and unflinching. This was what she had determined. There were other steps to follow. She must not be too sure; she must go carefully. But all the same she would win. She was Sally. She was going to get on. She was going to be cautious. She was going to be secure. That was her touchstone—security. Without it, she would never know peace. At all costs, security. That meant keeping cool. That meant watching your step. And in the end it meant making money, and having enough to eat, and nice clothes, and pleasures, and all that she had never yet had. Into the eyes that had been brimming with tears, and, immediately after, with glee, there came once again a hardness, a determination. It was the expression of a wary animal, treading among dangers.