SIR GEORGE TRESSADY, VOLUME II
IN TWO VOLUMES
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
AUTHOR OF "MARCELLA," "THE HISTORY OF DAVID GRIEVE," "ROBERT ELSMERE," ETC.
On a hot morning at the end of June, some four weeks after the Castle Luton visit, George Tressady walked from Brook Street to Warwick Square, that he might obtain his mother's signature to a document connected with the Shapetsky negotiations, and go on from there to the House of Commons.
She was not in the drawing-room, and George amused himself during his minutes of waiting by inspecting the various new photographs of the Fullerton family that were generally to be found on her table. What a characteristic table it was, littered with notes and bills, with patterns from every London draper, with fashion-books and ladies' journals innumerable! And what a characteristic room, with its tortured decorations and crowded furniture, and the flattered portraits of Lady Tressady, in every caprice of costume, which covered the walls! George looked round it all with an habitual distaste; yet not without the secret admission that his own drawing-room was very like it.
His mother might, he feared, have a scene in preparation for him.
For Letty, under cover of some lame excuse or other, had persisted in putting off the visit which Lady Tressady had intended to pay them at Ferth during the Whitsuntide recess, and since their return to town there had been no meeting whatever between the two ladies. George, indeed, had seen his mother two or three times. But even he had just let ten days pass without visiting her. He supposed he should find her in a mood of angry complaint; nor could he deny that there would be some grounds for it.
"Good morning, George," said a sharp voice, which startled him as he was replacing a photograph of the latest Fullerton baby. "I thought you had forgotten your way here by now."
"Why, mother, I am very sorry," he said, as he kissed her. "But I have really been terribly busy, what with two Committees and this important debate."
"Oh! don't make excuses, pray. And of course—for Letty—you won't even attempt it. I wouldn't if I were you."
Lady Tressady settled herself on a chair with her back to the light, and straightened the ribbons on her dress with hasty fingers. Something in her voice struck George. He looked at her closely.
"Is there anything wrong, mother? You don't look very well."
Lady Tressady got up hurriedly, and began to move about the room, picking up a letter here, straightening a picture there. George felt a sudden prick of alarm. Were there some new revelations in store for him? But before he could speak she interrupted him.
"I should be very well if it weren't for this heat," she said pettishly. "Do put that photograph down, George!—you do fidget so! Haven't you got any news for me—anything to amuse me? Oh! those horrid papers!—I see. Well! they'll wait a little. By the way, the 'Morning Post' says that young scamp, Lord Ancoats, has gone abroad. I suppose that girl was bought off."
She sat down again in a shady corner, fanning herself vigorously.
"I am afraid I can't tell you any secrets," said George, smiling, "for I don't know any. But it looks as though Mrs. Allison and Maxwell between them had somehow found a way out."
"How's the mother?"
"You see, she has gone abroad, too—to Bad Wildheim. In fact, Lord Ancoats has taken her."
"That's the place for heart, isn't it?" said his mother, abruptly. "There's a man there that cures everybody."
"I believe so," said George. "May we come to business, mother? I have brought these papers for you to sign, and I must get to the House in good time."
Lady Tressady seemed to take no notice. She got up again, restlessly, and walked to the window.
"How do you like my dress, George? Now, don't imagine anything absurd! Justine made it, and it was quite cheap."
George could not help smiling—all the more that he was conscious of relief. She would not be asking him to admire her dress if there were fresh debts to confess to him.
"It makes you look wonderfully young," he said, turning a critical eye, first upon the elegant gown of some soft pinky stuff in which his mother had arrayed herself, then upon the subtly rouged and powdered face above it. "You are a marvellous person, mother! All the same, I think the heat must have been getting hold of you, for your eyes are tired. Don't racket too much!"
He spoke with his usual careless kindness, laying a hand upon her arm.
Lady Tressady drew herself away, and, turning her back upon him, looked out of the window.
"Have you seen any more of the Maxwells?" she said, over her shoulders.
George gave a slight involuntary start. Then it occurred to him that his mother was making conversation in an odd way.
"Once or twice," he said, reluctantly, in reply. "They were at the Ardaghs' the other night, of course."
"Oh! you were there?"—Lady Tressady's voice was sharp again. "Well, of course. Letty went as your wife, and you're a member of Parliament. Lady Ardagh knows me quite well—but I don't count now; she used to be glad enough to ask me."
"It was a great crush, and very hot," said George, not knowing what to say.
Lady Tressady frowned as she looked out of the window.
"Well!—and Lady Maxwell—is she as absurd as ever?"
"That depends upon one's point of view," said George, smiling. "She seemed as convinced as ever."
"Who sent Mrs. Allison to that place? Barham, I suppose. He always sends his patients there. They say he's in league with the hotel-keepers."
George stared. What was the matter with her? What made her throw out these jerky sentences with this short, hurried breath.
Suddenly Lady Tressady turned.
"Yes, mother." He stepped nearer to her. She caught his sleeve.
"George "—there was something like a sob in her voice—"you were quite right. I am ill. There, don't talk about it. The doctors are all fools. And if you tell Letty anything about it, I'll never forgive you."
George put his arm round her, but was not, in truth, much disturbed. Lady Tressady's repertory, alas! had many roles. He had known her play that of the invalid at least as effectively as any other.
"You are just overdone with London and the heat," he said. "I saw it at once. You ought to go away."
She looked up in his face.
"You don't believe it?" she said.
Then she seemed to stagger. He saw a terrible drawn look in her face, and, putting out all his strength, he held her, and helped her to a sofa.
"Mother!" he exclaimed, kneeling beside her, "what is the matter?"
Voice and tone were those of another man, and Lady Tressady quailed under the change. She pointed to a small bag on a table near her. He opened it, and she took out a box, from which she swallowed something. Gradually breath and colour returned, and she began to move restlessly.
"That was nothing," she said, as though to herself—"nothing—and it yielded at once. Well, George, I knew you thought me a humbug!"
Her eyes glanced at him with a kind of miserable triumph. He looked down upon her, still kneeling, horror-struck against his will. After a life of acting, was this the truth—this terror, which spoke in every movement, and in some strange way had seized upon and infected himself?
He urgently asked her to be frank with him. And with a sob she poured herself out. It was the tragic, familiar story that every household knows. Grave symptoms, suddenly observed—the hurried visit to a specialist—his verdict and his warnings.
"Of course, he said at first I ought to give up everything and go abroad—to this very same place—Bad-what-do-you-call-it? But I told him straight out I couldn't and wouldn't do anything of the sort. I am just eaten up with engagements. And as to staying at home and lying-up, that's nonsense—I should die of that in a fortnight. So I told him to give me something to take, and that was all I could do. And in the end he quite came round—they always do if you take your own line—and said I had much better do what suited me, and take care. Besides, what do any of them know? They all confess they're just fumbling about. Now, surgery, of course—that's different. Battye"—Battye was Lady Tressady's ordinary medical adviser—"doesn't believe all the other man said. I knew he wouldn't. And as for making an invalid of me, he sees, of course, that it would kill me at once. There, my dear George, don't make too much of it. I think I was a fool to tell you."
And Lady Tressady struggled to a sitting position, looking at her son with a certain hostility. The frown on her white face showed that she was already angry with him for his emotion—this rare emotion, that she had never yet been able to rouse in him.
He could only implore her to be guided by her doctor—to rest, to give up at least some of the mill-round of her London life, if she would not go abroad. Lady Tressady listened to him with increasing obstinacy and excitability.
"I tell you I know best!" she said, passionately, at last. "Don't go on like this—it worries me. Now, look here—"
She turned upon him with emphasis.
"Promise me not to tell Letty a word of this. Nobody shall know—she least of all. I shall do just as usual. In fact, I expect a very gay season. Three 'drums' this afternoon and a dinner-party—it doesn't look as though I were quite forgotten yet, though Letty does think me an old fogey!"
She smiled at him with a ghastly mixture of defiance and conceit. The old age in her pinched face, fighting with the rouged cheeks and the gaiety of her fanciful dress, was pitiful.
"Promise," she said. "Not a word—to her!"
George promised, in much distress. While he was speaking she had a slight return of pain, and was obliged to submit to lie down again.
"At least," he urged, "don't go out to-day. Give yourself a rest. Shall I go back, and ask Letty to come round to tea?"
Lady Tressady made a face like a spoilt child.
"I don't think she'll come," she said. "Of course, I know from the first she took an ungodly dislike to me. Though, if it hadn't been for me—Well, never mind! Yes, you can ask her, George—do! I'll wait and see if she comes. If she comes, perhaps I'll stay in. It would amuse me to hear what she has been doing. I'll behave quite nicely—there!"
And, taking up her fan, Lady Tressady lightly tapped her son's hand with it in her most characteristic manner.
He rose, seeing from the clock that he should only just have time to drive quickly back to Letty if he was to be at the House in time for an appointment with a constituent, which had been arranged for one o'clock.
"I will send Justine to you as I go out," he said, taking up his hat, "and I shall hear of you from Letty this evening."
Lady Tressady said nothing. Her eyes, bright with some inner excitement, watched him as he looked for his stick. Suddenly she said, "George! kiss me!"
Her tone was unsteady. Infinitely touched and bewildered, the young man approached her, and, kneeling down again beside her, took her in his arms. He felt a quick sobbing breath pass through her; then she pushed him lightly away, and, putting up the slim, pink-nailed hand of which she was so proud, she patted him on the cheek.
"There—go along! I don't like that coat of yours, you know. I told you so the other day. If your figure weren't so good, you'd positively look badly dressed in it. You should try another man."
Tressady hailed a hansom outside, and drove back to Brook Street. On the way his eyes saw little of the crowded streets. So far, he had had no personal experience of death. His father had died suddenly while he was at Oxford, and he had lost no other near relation or friend. Strange! this grave, sudden sense that all was changed, that his careless, half-contemptuous affection for his mother could never again be what it had been. Supposing, indeed, her story was all true! But in the case of a character like Lady Tressady's, there are for long, recurrent, involuntary scepticisms on the part of the bystander. It seems impossible, unfitting, to grant to such persons le beau role they claim. It outrages a certain ideal instinct, even, to be asked to believe that they too can yield, in their measure, precisely the same tragic stuff as the hero or the saint.
Letty was at home, just about to share her lunch with Harding Watton, who had dropped in. Hearing her husband's voice, she came out to the stairhead to speak to him.
But after a minute or two George dashed down again to his study, that he might write a hurried note to a middle-aged cousin of his mother's, asking her to go round to Warwick Square early in the afternoon, and making excuses for Letty, who was "very much engaged."
For Letty had met his request with a smiling disdain. Why, she was simply "crowded up" with engagements of all sorts and kinds!
"Mother is really unwell," said George, standing with his hands on his sides, looking down upon her. He was fuming with irritation and hurry, and had to put a force on himself to speak persuasively.
"My dear old boy!"—she rose on tiptoe and twisted his moustache for him—"don't we know all about your mother's ailments by this time? I suppose she wants to give me a scolding, or to hear about the Ardaghs, or to tell me all about the smart parties she has been to—or something of the sort. No, really, it's quite impossible—this afternoon. I know I must go and see her some time—of course I will."
She said this with the air of someone making a great concession. It was, indeed, her first formal condonement of the offence offered her just before the Castle Luton visit.
George attempted a little more argument and entreaty, but in vain. Letty was rather puzzled by his urgency, but quite obdurate. And as he ran down the stairs, he heard her laugh in the drawing-room mingled with Harding Watton's. No doubt they were making merry over the "discipline" which Letty found it necessary to apply to her mother-in-law.
In the House of Commons the afternoon was once more given up to the adjourned debate on the second reading of the Maxwell Bill. The House was full, and showing itself to advantage. On the whole, the animation and competence of the speeches reflected the general rise in combative energy and the wide kindling of social passions which the Bill had so far brought about, both in and out of Parliament. Those who figured as the defenders of industries harassed beyond bearing by the Socialist meddlers spoke with more fire, with more semblance, at any rate, of putting their hearts into it than any men of their kind had been able to attain since the "giant" days of the first Factory debates. Those, on the other hand, who were urging the House to a yet sterner vigilance in protecting the worker—even the grown man—from his own helplessness and need, who believed that law spells freedom, and that the experience of half a century was wholly on their side—these friends of a strong cause were also at their best, on their mettle. Owing to the widespread flow of a great reaction, the fight had become a representative contest between two liberties—a true battle of ideas.
Yet George, sitting below the Gangway beside his leader, his eyes staring at the ceiling, and his hands in his pockets, listened to it all in much languor and revolt. He himself had made his speech on the third day of the debate. It had cost him endless labour, only to seem to him in the end—by contrast with the vast majority of speeches made in the course of the debate, even those by men clearly inferior to himself in mind and training—to be a hollow and hypocritical performance. What did he really think and believe? What did he really desire? He vowed to himself once more, as he had vowed at Ferth, that his mind was a chaos, without convictions, either intellectual or moral; that he had begun what he was not able to finish; and that he was doomed to make a failure of his parliamentary career, as he was already making a failure of coal-owning and a failure—
He curbed something bitter and springing that haunted his most inmost mind. But his effort could not prevent his dwelling angrily for a minute on the thought of Letty laughing with Harding Watton—laughing because he had asked her a small kindness, and she had most unkindly refused it.
Yet she must help him with his poor mother. How softened were all his thoughts about that difficult and troublesome lady! As it happened, he had a good deal of desultory medical knowledge, for the problems and perils of the body had always attracted his pessimist sense. Yet it did not help him much at this juncture. At one moment he said to himself, "eighteen months—she will live eighteen months," and at another, "Battye was probably right; Barham took an unnecessarily gloomy view—she may quite well last as long as the rest of us."
* * * * *
Suddenly he was startled by a movement beside him.
"The honourable member has totally misunderstood me," cried Fontenoy, springing to his feet and looking eagerly towards the Speaker.
The member who was speaking on the Government side smiled, put on his hat, and sat down. Fontenoy flung out a few stinging sentences, was hotly cheered both by his own supporters and from a certain area of the Liberal benches, and sat down again triumphant, having scored an excellent point.
George turned round to his companion.
"Good!" he said, with emphasis. "That rubbed it in!"
But when the man opposite was once more on his legs, labouring to undo the impression which had been made, George found himself wondering whether, after all, the point had been so good, and why he had been so quick to praise. She would have said, of course, that it was a point scored against common-sense, against humanity. He began to fancy the play of her scornful eyes, the eloquence of her white hand moving and quivering as she spoke.
How long was it—one hurried month only—since he had walked with her along the river at Castle Luton? While the crowded House about him was again listening with attention to the speech which had just brought the protesting Fontenoy to his legs; while his leader was fidgeting and muttering beside him; while to his left the crowd of members round the door was constantly melting, constantly reassembling, Tressady's mind withdrew itself from its surroundings, saw nothing, heard nothing, but the scenes of a far-off London and a figure that moved among them.
How often had he been with her since Castle Luton? Once or twice a week, certainly, either at St. James's Square or in the East End, in spite of Parliament, and Fontenoy, and his many engagements as Letty's husband. Strange phenomenon—that little salon of hers in the far East! For it was practically a salon, though it existed for purposes the Hotel Rambouillet knew nothing of. He found himself one of many there. And, like all salons, it had an inner circle. Charles Naseby, Edward Watton, Lady Madeleine Penley, the Levens—some or all of these were generally to be found in Lady Maxwell's neighbourhood, rendering homage or help in one way or another. It was touching to see that girl, Lady Madeleine, looking at the docker or the shirtmaker, with her restless greenish eyes, as though she realised for the first time what hideous bond it is—the one true commonalty—that crushes the human family together!
Well!—and what had he seen? Nothing, certainly, of which he had not had ample information before. Under the fresh spur of the talk that occupied the Maxwell circle he had made one or two rounds through some dismal regions in Whitechapel, Mile End, and Hackney, where some of the worst of the home industries to which, at last, after long hesitation on the part of successive Governments, Maxwell's Bill was intended to put an end, crowded every house and yard. He saw some of it in the company of a lady rent-collector, an old friend of the Maxwells, who had charge of several tenement blocks where the trouser and vest trade was largely carried on; and he welcomed the chance of one or two walks in quest of law-breaking workshops with a young inspector, who could not say enough in praise of the Bill. But if it had been only a question of fact, George would have felt when the rounds were done merely an added respect for Fontenoy, perhaps even for his own party as a whole. Not a point raised by his guides but had been abundantly discussed and realised—on paper, at any rate—by Fontenoy and his friends. The young inspector, himself a hot partisan, and knowing with whom he had to deal, would have liked to convict his companion of sheer and simple ignorance; but, on the contrary, Tressady was not to be caught napping. As far as the trade details and statistics of this gruesome slopwork of East London went, he knew all that could be shown him.
Nevertheless, cool and impassive as his manner was throughout, the experience in the main did mean the exchange of a personal for a paper and hearsay knowledge. When, indeed, had he, or Fontenoy, or anyone else ever denied that the life of the poor was an odious and miserable struggle, a scandal to gods and men? What then? Did they make the world and its iron conditions? And yet this long succession of hot and smelling dens, this series of pale, stooping figures, toiling hour after hour, at fever pace, in these stifling backyards, while the June sun shone outside, reminding one of English meadows and the ripple of English grass; these panting, dishevelled women, slaving beside their husbands and brothers, amid the rattle of the machines and the steam of the pressers' irons, with the sick or the dying, perhaps, in the bed beside them, and their blanched children at their feet—sights of this sort, thus translated from the commonplace of reports and newspapers into a poignant, unsavoury truth, had at least this effect—they vastly quickened the personal melancholy of the spectator, they raised and drove home a number of piercing questions which, probably, George Tressady would never have raised, and would have lived happily without raising, if it had not been for a woman, and a woman's charm.
For that woman's solutions remained as doubtful to him as ever. He would go back to that strange little house where she kept her strange court, meet her eager eyes, and be roused at once to battle. How they had argued! He knew that she had less hope than ever of persuading him even to modify his view of the points at issue between the Government and his own group. She could not hope for a moment that any act of his would be likely to stand between Maxwell and defeat. He had not talked of his adventures to Fontenoy—would rather, indeed, that Fontenoy knew nothing of them. But he and she knew that Fontenoy, so far, had little to fear from them.
And yet she had not turned from him. To her personal mood, to her wifely affection even, he must appear more plainly than ever as the callous and selfish citizen, ready and glad to take his own ease while his brethren perished. He had been sceptical and sarcastic; he had declined to accept her evidence; he had shown a persistent preference for the drier and more brutal estimate of things. Yet she had never parted from him without gentleness, without a look in her beautiful eyes that had often tormented his curiosity. What did it mean? Pity? Or some unspoken comment of a personal kind she could not persuade her womanly reticence to put into words?
Or, rather: had she some distant inkling of the real truth—that he was beginning to hate his own convictions—to feel that to be right with Fontenoy was nothing, but to be wrong with her would be delight?
What absurdity! With a strong effort, he pulled himself together—steadied his rushing pulse. It was like someone waking at night in a nervous terror, and feeling the pressure of some iron dilemma, from which he cannot free himself—cold vacancy and want on the one side, calamity on the other.
For that cool power of judgment in his own case which he had always possessed did not fail him now. He saw everything nakedly and coldly. His marriage was not three months old, but no spectator could have discussed its results more frankly than he was now prepared to discuss them with himself. It was monstrous, no doubt. He felt his whole position to be as ugly as it was abnormal. Who could feel any sympathy with it or him? He himself had been throughout the architect of his own misfortune. Had he not rushed upon his marriage with less care—relatively to the weight of the human interest in such a matter—than an animal shows when it mates?
Letty's personal idiosyncrasies even—her way of entering a room, her mean little devices for attracting social notice, the stubborn extravagance of her dress and personal habits, her manner to her servants, her sharp voice as she retailed some scrap of slanderous gossip—her husband had by now ceased to be blind or deaf to any of them. Indeed, his senses in relation to many things she said and did were far more irritable at this moment—possibly far less just—than a stranger's would have been. Often and often he would try to recall to himself the old sense of charm, of piquancy. In vain. It was all gone—he could only miserably wonder at the past. Was it that he knew now what charm might mean, and what divinity may breathe around a woman!
* * * * *
"I say, where are you off to?"
Tressady looked up with a start as Fontenoy rose beside him.
"Good opportunity for dinner, I think," said Fontenoy, with a motion of the head towards the man who had just caught the Speaker's eye. "Are you coming? I should like a word with you."
George followed him into the Lobby. As the swing-door closed behind him, they plunged into a whirlpool of talk and movement. All the approaches to the House were full of folk; everybody was either giving news or getting it. For the excitement of a coming crisis was in the air. This was Friday, and the division on the second reading was expected on the following Monday.
"What a crowd, and what a temperature!" said Fontenoy. "Come on to the Terrace a moment."
They made their way into the air, and as they walked up and down Fontenoy talked in his hoarse, hurried voice of the latest aspect of affairs. The Government would get their second reading, of course that had never been really doubtful; though Fontenoy was certain that the normal majority would be a good deal reduced. But all the hopes of the heterogeneous coalition which had been slowly forming throughout the spring hung upon the Committee stage, and Fontenoy's mind was now full of the closest calculations as to the voting on particular amendments.
For him the Bill fell into three parts. The first part, which was mainly confined to small amendments and extensions of former Acts, would be sharply criticised, but would probably pass without much change. The second part contained the famous clause by which it became penal to practise certain trades, such as tailoring, boot-finishing, and shirt-making, in a man's or woman's own home—in the same place, that is to say, as the worker uses for eating and sleeping. This clause, which represented the climax of a long series of restrictions upon the right of a man to stitch even his own life away, still more upon his right to force his children or bribe his neighbour to a like waste of the nation's force, was by now stirring the industrial mind of England far and wide.
And not the mind of England only. Ireland and Scotland, town and country, talked of it, seethed with it. The new law, if it passed, was to be tried, indeed, at first, in London only. But every provincial town and every country district knew that, if it succeeded, there was not a corner of the land that would not ultimately feel the yoke, or the deliverance, of it Every workman's club, every trade-union meeting, every mechanics' institute was ringing with it. Organised labour, dragged down at every point—in London, at any rate—by the competition of the starving and struggling crew of home-workers, clamoured for the Bill. The starving and struggling crew themselves were partly voiceless, partly bewildered; now drawn by the eloquence of their trade-union fellows to shout for the revolution that threatened them, now surging tumultuously against it.
On this vital clause, in Fontenoy's belief, the Government would go down. But if, by amazing good-fortune and good generalship, they should get through with it, then the fight would but rage the more fiercely round the last two sections of the Bill.
The third section dealt with the hours of labour in the new workshops that were to be. For the first time it became directly penal for a man, as well as a woman, to work more than the accepted factory-day of ten and a half hours, with a few exceptions and exemptions in the matter of overtime. On this clause, if it were ever reached, the Socialist vote, were it given solidly for the Government, might, no doubt, pull them through. "But if we have any luck—damn it! they won't get the chance!" Fontenoy would say, with that grim, sudden reddening which revealed from moment to moment the feverish tension of the man.
In the last section of the Bill the Government, having made its revolution, looked round for a class on which to lay the burden of carrying it into action, and found it in the landlords. The landlords were to be the policemen of the new Act. To every owner of every tenement or other house in London the Bill said: You are responsible. If, after a certain date, you allow certain trades to be carried on within your walls at all, even by the single man or the single woman working in their own room, penalty and punishment shall follow.
Of this clause in the Bill Fontenoy could never speak with calmness. One might see his heart thumping in his breast as he denounced it. At bottom it was to him the last and vilest step in a long and slanderous campaign against the class to which he belonged, against property,—against the existing social order. He fell upon the subject to-night a propos of a Socialist letter in the morning papers; and George, who was mostly conscious at the moment of a sick fatigue with Fontenoy and Fontenoy's arguments, had to bear it as best he might. Presently he interrupted:
"One assumption you make I should like to contest. You imagine, I think, that if they carry the prohibition and the hours clauses we shall be able to whip up a still fiercer attack on the 'landlords' clause. Now, that isn't my view."
Fontenoy turned upon him, startled.
"Why isn't it your view?" he said abruptly.
"Because there are always waverers who will accept a fait accompli; and you know how opposition has a trick of cooling towards the end of a Bill. Maxwell has carried his main point, they will say; this is a question of machinery. Besides, many of those Liberals who will be with us on the main point don't love the landlords. No! don't flatter yourself that, if we lose the main engagement, there will be any Prussians to bring up. The thing will be done."
"Well, thank God!" grumbled Fontenoy, "we don't mean to lose the main engagement. But if one of our men were to argue in that way, I should know what to say to him."
George made no reply.
They walked on in silence, the summer twilight falling softly over the river and the Hospital, over the Terrace with its groups, and the towering pile of buildings beside them.
Presently Fontenoy said, in another voice:
"I have really never had the courage to talk to you of the matter, Tressady, but didn't you see something of that lad Ancoats before he went off abroad?"
"Yes, I saw him several times, first at the club; then he came and dined with me here one night."
"And did he confide in you?"
"More or less," said George, smiling rather queerly at the recollection.
Fontenoy made a sound between a growl and a sigh.
"Really, it's rather too much to have to think out that young man's affairs as well as one's own. And the situation is so extraordinary!—Maxwell and I have to be in constant consultation. I went to see him in his room in the House of Lords the other night, and met a man coming out, who stopped, and stared as though he were shot. Luckily I knew him, and could say a word to him, or there would have been all sorts of cock-and-bull stories abroad."
"Well, and what are you and Maxwell doing?"
"Trying to get at the young woman. One can't buy her off, of course. Ancoats is his own master, and could outbid us. But Maxwell has found a brother—a decent sort of fellow—a country solicitor. And there is a Ritualist curate, a Father somebody,"—Fontenoy raised his shoulders,—"who seems to have an intermittent hold on the girl. When she has fits of virtue she goes to confess to him. Maxwell has got hold of him."
"And meanwhile Ancoats is at Bad Wildheim?"
"Ancoats is at Bad Wildheim, and behaving himself, as I hear from his poor mother." Fontenoy sighed. "But the boy was frightened, of course, when they went abroad. Now she is getting better, and one can't tell—"
"No, one can't tell," said George.
"I wish I knew what the thing really meant," said Fontenoy, presently, in a tone of perplexed reverie. "What do you think? Is it a passion—?"
"Or a pose?"
"H'm," he said at last—"more of a pose, I think, than a passion. Ancoats always seems to me the jeune premier in his own play. He sees his life in scenes, and plays them according to all the rules."
"Intolerable!" said Fontenoy, in exasperation. "And at least he might refrain from dragging a girl into it! We weren't saints in my day, but we weren't in the habit of choosing well-brought-up maidens of twenty in our own set for our confidantes. You know, I suppose, what broke up the party at Castle Luton?"
"Ancoats told me nothing. I have heard some gossip from Harding Watton," said George, unwillingly. It was one of his strongest characteristics, this fastidious and even haughty dislike of chatter about other people's private affairs, a dislike which, in the present case, had been strengthened by his growing antipathy to Harding.
"How should he know?" said Fontenoy, angrily. He was glad enough to use Watton as a political tool, but had never yet admitted him to the smallest social intimacy.
Yet with Tressady he felt no difficulty in talking over these private affairs; and he did, in fact, report the whole story—that same story with which Marcella had startled Betty Leven on the night in question: how Ancoats on this Sunday evening had decoyed this handsome, impressionable girl, to whom throughout the winter he had been paying decided and even ostentatious court, into a tete-a-tete—had poured out to her frantic confessions of his attachment to the theatrical lady—a woman he could never marry, whom his mother could never meet, but with whom, nevertheless, come what might, he was determined to live and die. She—Madeleine—was his friend, his good angel. Would she go to his mother and break it to her? Would she understand, and forgive him? There must be no opposition, or he would shoot himself. And so on, till the poor girl, worn out with excitement and grief, tottered into Mrs. Allison's room more dead than alive.
But at that point Fontenoy stopped abruptly.
George agreed that the story was almost incredible, and added the inward and natural comment of the public-school man—that if people will keep their boys at home, and defraud them of the kickings that are their due, they may look out for something unwholesome in the finished product. Then, aloud, he said:
"I should imagine that Ancoats was acting through the greater part of that. He had said to himself that such a scene would be effective—and would be new."
"Good heavens!—why, that makes it ten thousand times more abominable than before!"
"I daresay," said George, coolly. "But it also makes the future, perhaps, a little more hopeful—throws some light on the passion or pose alternative. My impression is, that if we can only find an effective exit for Ancoats,—a last act that he would consider worthy of him,—he will bow himself out of the business willingly enough."
Fontenoy smiled rather gloomily, and the two walked on in silence.
Once or twice, as they paced the Terrace, George glanced sidelong at his leader. A corner of Fontenoy's nightly letter to Mrs. Allison was, he saw, sticking out of the great man's coat-pocket. Every night he wrote a crowded sheet upon his knee, under the shelter of a Blue Book, and on one or two nights George's quick eyes had not been able to escape from the pencilled address on the envelope to which it was ultimately consigned. The sheet was written with the regularity and devotion of a Prime Minister reporting to the Sovereign.
Well! it was all very touching and very remarkable. But George had some sympathy with Ancoats. To be virtually saddled with a stepfather, with whom your minutest affairs are confidentially discussed, and yet to have it said by all the world that your poor mother is too unselfish and too devoted to her son to marry again—the situation is not without its pricks. And that Ancoats was acutely conscious of them George had good reason to know.
"I say, Tressady, will you pair till eleven?" cried a man, swinging bareheaded along the Terrace with his hat in his hand. "I want an hour or two off badly, and there will be no big guns on till eleven or so."
George exchanged a word or two with Fontenoy, then stood still, and thought a moment. A sudden animation flushed into his face. Why not?
"All right!" he said; "till eleven."
Then he and Fontenoy went back to dine. As they mounted the dark staircase leading from the Terrace another man caught Tressady by the arm.
"The strike notices are out," he said. "I have just had a wire. Everyone leaves work to-night."
George shrugged his shoulders. He had been expecting the news at any moment, and was glad that the long shilly-shallying on both sides was at last over.
"Good luck to them!" he said. "I'm glad. The fight had to come."
"Oh! we shall be in the middle of arbitration before a fortnight's up. The men won't stand."
George shook his head. He himself believed that the struggle would last on through the autumn.
"Well, to be sure, there's Burrows," said his informant, himself a large coal-owner in the Ferth district; "if Burrows keeps sober, and if somebody doesn't buy him, Burrows will do his worst."
"That we always knew," said George, laughing, and passed on. He had but just time to catch his train.
He walked across to the Underground station, and by the time he reached it he had clean forgotten his pits and the strike, though as he passed the post-office in the House a sheaf of letters and telegrams had been put into his hands. Rather, he was full of a boy's eagerness and exultation. He had never supposed he could be let off to-night, till the offer of Dudley's pair tempted him. And now, in half an hour he would be in that queer Mile End room, watching her—quarrelling with her.
A little later, however, as he was sitting quietly in the train, quick composite thoughts of Letty, of his miners, and his money difficulties began to clutch at him again. Perhaps, now that the strike was a reality, it might even be a help to him and a bridle to his wife. Preposterous, what she was doing and planning at Perth! His face flushed and hardened as he thought of their many wrangles during the past fortnight, her constant drag upon his purse, his own weakness, the annoyance and contempt that made him yield rather than argue.
What was that fellow, Harding Watton, doing in the house at all hours, and beguiling Letty, by his collector's airs, into a hundred foolish wants and whims? And that brute Cathedine! Was it decent, was it bearable, that a bride of three months should take no more notice of her husband's wishes and dislikes in such a matter than Letty had shown with regard to her growing friendship with that disreputable person? It seemed to George that he called most afternoons. Letty laughed, excused herself, or abused her visitor as soon as he had departed; but the rebuff which George's pride would not let him ask of her directly, while yet his whole manner demanded it, was never given.
He sat solitary in his brilliantly lit carriage, staring at the advertisements opposite, his long chin thrust forward, his head, with its fair curls, thrown moodily back. And all the time his mind was working with an appalling clearness. This cold light, in which he was beginning to see his wife and all she did—it was already a tragedy.
What was he flying to, what was he in search of—there in the East End? His whole being flung the answer. A little sympathy, a little heart, a little tenderness and delicacy of soul!—nothing else. He had once taken it for granted that every woman possessed them in some degree. Or, was it only since he had found them in this unexampled fulness and wealth that he had begun to thirst for them in this way? He made himself face the question. "One needn't lie to oneself!"
At Aldgate, as he was making his way out of the station, he stumbled upon Edward Watton.
"Hullo! You bound for No. 20, too?"
"No; there is no function to-night. Lady Maxwell is at a meeting. It has grown rather suddenly from small beginnings, and two days ago they made her promise to speak. I came down because I am afraid of a row. Things are beginning to look ugly down here, and I don't think she has much idea of it. Will you come?"
Watton looked at him with an amused and friendly eye.
It was another instance of her power—that she had been able to bind even this young enemy to her chariot-wheels. He hoped Letty had the sense to approve! As a matter of fact, Watton had never, by his own choice, become well acquainted with his cousin Letty, and had always secretly marvelled at Tressady's sudden marriage.
The two men were soon on the top of the Mile End Road tramcar, on their way eastward. It was a hot, dull evening. The setting sun behind them was already swallowed up in mist, and the heavy air held down and made palpable all the unsavoury odours of street and shop. Before them stretched the wide, interminable road which was once the highway from the great city to Colchester and East Anglia. A broad and comely thoroughfare on the whole, save that from end to end it has now the dyed and patched look that an old village street inevitably puts on when it has been swallowed up by the bricks and mortar of an overtaking town.
Tressady looked round him in a reverie, interested in the place and the streets because she cared for them, and had struck one of her roots here. Strange medley everywhere—in this main street, at all events—of old and new! Here were the Trinity almshouses, with their Jacobean gables and their low, spreading quadrangle behind the fine ironwork that shelters them from the street—a poetic fragment from the days of Wren and Dryden, sore threatened now by an ever-advancing London, hungry for ground and space. Here was a vast mission-hall, there a still vaster brewery; on the right, the quiet entrance to the oldworld quiet of Stepney-Green; and to the left a huge flame-ringed gin-palace, with shops on either side, hung to the roof with carpets, or brooms, or umbrellas, plastered with advertisements, and blazing with gas. While in the street between streamed the ever-moving crowd of East London folk, jostling, chattering, loafing, doing their business or their pleasure, and made perpetually interesting, partly by their frank preoccupation with the simplest realities of life: with eating, drinking, earning, marrying, child-rearing; still more, perhaps, by the constant presence among them of that "leisured class" which, alike at the bottom and the top of things, has time to be gay, curious, and witty.
As he rolled along, watching the scene, Tressady thought to himself, as he had often thought before, that the East End, in many of its aspects, is a very decentish sort of place, about which many people talk much nonsense. He made the remark, carelessly, to Watton.
Watton shrugged his shoulders, and pointed silently to the entrances, right and left, of two side-streets, the typical streets of the East End: long lines of low houses,—two storeys always, or two storeys and a basement,—all of the same yellowish brick, all begrimed by the same smoke, every door-knocker of the same pattern, every window-blind hung in the same way, and the same corner "public" on either side, flaming in the hazy distance.
Watton hardly put his comment into words; but Tressady, who knew him well, understood, and nodded over his cigarette. Watton meant, of course, to suggest the old commonplace of the mean and dull monotony that weighs like a nightmare upon this vast East London and its human hive, which hums and toils, drones and feeds, by night and day, in these numberless featureless boxes of wood and stone, on this flat, interminable earth that stretches eastward to Essex marshes and southward to the river, and bears yellow brick and cemeteries for corn. Well! Tressady knew that the thought of this monotony, and of the thousands under its yoke, was to Watton a constant sting and oppression; he knew, too, or guessed, the religious effects it produced in him. For Watton was a religious man, and the action of the dream within showed itself in him and all he did. But why should everyone make a grief of East London? He was in the mood again to-night to feel it a kind of impertinence, this endless, peering anxiety about a world you never planned and cannot mend. Whose duty is it to cry for the moon?
"Better get down here, I think," said Watton, signalling to the tram-conductor, "and find out whether they have really gone, or not."
They stopped, half-way down the Mile End Road, before a piece of wall with a door in it. A trim maiden of fifteen in a spotless cotton frock and white apron opened to them.
Inside was a small flagged courtyard and the old-fashioned house that Marcella Maxwell, a year before,—some time after their first lodging had been given up,—had rescued from demolition and the builder, to make an East End home out of it. Somewhere about 1750 some City tradesman had built it among fields, and taken his rest there; while somewhat later, in a time of Evangelical revival, a pious widow had thrown out a low room to one side for class-meetings. In this room Marietta now held her gatherings, and both Tressady and Watton knew it well.
The little handmaid bubbled over with willing talk. Oh, yes, there was a meeting up Manx Road, and her Ladyship had gone with Lord Naseby, and Lady Madeleine, and Mr. Everard, the inspector, and, she thought, one or two besides. She expected the ladies back about ten, and they were to stay the night.
"An they do say, sir," she said eagerly, looking up at Watton, whom she knew, "as there'll be a lot o' rough people at the meetin."
"Oh! I daresay," said Watton. "Well, we're going up, too, to look after her."
As they walked on they talked over the general situation in the district, and Watton explained what he knew of this particular meeting. In the first place, he repeated, he could not see that Lady Maxwell understood as yet the sort of opposition that the Bill was rousing, especially in these East End districts. The middle-class and parliamentary resistance she had always appreciated; but the sort of rage that might be awakened among a degraded class of workers by proposals that seemed to threaten their immediate means of living, he believed she had not yet realised, in anything like its full measure and degree. And he feared that this meeting might be a disagreeable experience.
For it was the direct fruit of an agitation that, as Tressady knew, was in particular Fontenoy's agitation. The Free Workers' League, which had called upon the trade-unionist of Mile End to summon the meeting, and to hear therein what both sides had to say, was, in fact, Fontenoy's creation. It had succeeded especially in organising the women home-workers of Mile End and Poplar. Two or three lady-speakers employed by the League had been active to the point of frenzy in denouncing the Bill and shrieking "Liberty!" in the frightened ear of Mile End. Watton could not find a good word for any of them—was sure that what mostly attracted them was the notoriety of the position, involving, as it did, a sort of personal antagonism to Lady Maxwell, who had, so to speak, made Mile End her own. And to be Lady Maxwell's enemy was, Watton opined, the next best thing, from the point of view of advertisement, to being her friend.
"Excellent women, I daresay," said Tressady, laughing—"talking excellent sense. But, tell me, what is this about Naseby—why Naseby?—on all these occasions?"
"Why not, indeed?" said Watton. "Ah! you don't know? It seems to be Naseby that's going to get the egg out of the hat for us."
And he plunged eagerly into the description of certain schemes wherewith Naseby had lately astonished the Maxwell circle. Tressady listened, languidly at first, then with a kind of jealous annoyance that scandalised himself. How well he could understand the attraction of such things for her quick mind! Life was made too easy for these "golden lads." People attributed too much importance to their fancies.
Naseby, in fact,—but so much George already knew,—had been for some months now the comrade and helper of both the Maxwells. His friends still supposed him to be merely the agreeable and fashionable idler. In reality, Naseby for some years past had been spending all the varied leisure that his commission in the Life Guards allowed him upon the work of a social and economic student. He had joined the staff of a well-known sociologist, who was at the time engaged in an inquiry into certain typical East London trades. The inquiry had made a noise, and the evidence collected under it had already been largely used in the debates on the Maxwell Bill. Tressady, for instance, had much of it by heart, although he never knew, until he became a haunter of Lady Maxwell's circle, that Naseby had played any part in the gathering of it.
At the same time, as George had soon observed, Naseby was no blind follower of the Maxwells. In truth, under his young gaiety and coolness he had the temper of the student, who was more in love with his problem itself than with any suggested solution of it. As he had told Lady Betty, he had "no opinions"—would himself rather leave the sweated trades alone, and trust to much slower and less violent things than law-making. All this the Maxwells knew perfectly, and liked and trusted him none the less.
Now, however, it seemed there was a new development. If the Bill passed, Naseby had a plan. He was already a rich man, independently of the marquisate to come. His grandmother had left him a large preliminary fortune, and through his friends and connections besides he seemed to command as much money as he desired. And of this money, supposing the Bill passed, he proposed to make original and startling use. He had worked out the idea of a syndicate furnished with, say, a quarter of a million of money, which should come down upon a given district of the East End, map it out, buy up all the existing businesses in its typical trade, and start a system of new workshops proportioned to the population, supplying it with work just as the Board schools supply it with education. The new scheme was to have a profit-sharing element: the workers were to be represented on the syndicate, and every nerve was to be strained to secure the best business management. The existing middlemen would be either liberally bought out, or absorbed into the new machine. It was by no means certain that they would show it any strong resistance.
Tressady made a number of unfriendly comments on the scheme as Watton detailed it. A bit of amateur economics, which would only help the Bill to ruin a few more people than would otherwise have gone down!
"Ah! well," said Watton, "if this thing passes there are bound to be experiments, and Naseby means to be in 'em. So do I, only I haven't got a quarter of a million. Here's our road! We're late, of course—the meeting's begun. I say, just look at this!"
For Manx Road, as they turned into it, was already held by another big meeting of its own. The room in the Board school which crossed the end of the street must be full, and this crowd represented, apparently, those who had been turned away.
As the two friends pushed their way through, Tressady's quick eye recognised in the throng a number of familiar types. Well-to-do "pressers" and machinists, factory-girls of different sorts, hundreds of sallow women, representing the home-workers of Mile End, Bow, and Stepney—poor souls bowed by toil and maternity, whose marred fingers labour day and night to clothe the Colonies and the army; their husbands and brothers, too, English slop-tailors for the most part, of the humbler sort—the short side-street was packed with them. It was an anxious, sensitive crowd, Tressady thought, as he elbowed his passage through it. A small thing might inflame it; and he saw a number of rough lads on the skirts of it.
Jews, too, there were in plenty. For the stress of this Bill had brought Jew and Gentile together in a new comradeship that amazed the East End. Here were groups representing the thrifty, hard-working London Jew of the second generation,—small masters for the most part, pale with the confinement and "drive" of the workshop,—men who are expelling and conquering the Gentile East Ender, because their inherited passion for business is not neutralised by any of the common English passions for spending—above all by the passion for drink. Here, too, were men of a far lower type and grade—the waste and refuse of the vast industrial mill. Tressady knew a good many of them by sight—sullen, quick-eyed folk, who buy their "greeners" at the docks, and work them day and night at any time of pressure; whose workshops are still flaring at two o'clock in the morning, and alive again by the winter dawn; who fight and flout the law by a hundred arts, and yet, brutal and shifty as many of them are, have a curious way of winning the Gentile inspector's sympathy, even while he fines and harasses them, so clearly are they and their "hands" alike the victims of a huge world-struggle that does but toss them on its surge.
These gentry, however, were hard hit by more than one clause of the Maxwell Bill, and they were here to-night to protest, as they had been already protesting at many meetings, large and small, all over the East End. And they had their slaves with them,—ragged, hollow-eyed creatures, newly arrived from Russian Poland, Austria, or Romania, and ready to shout or howl in Yiddish as they were told,—men whose strange faces and eyes under their matted shocks of black or reddish hair suggested every here and there the typical history and tragic destiny of the race which, in other parts of the crowd, was seen under its softer and more cosmopolitan aspects.
As the two men neared the door of the school, where the press was densest, they were recognised as probably belonging to the Maxwell party, and found themselves a good deal jeered and hustled, and could hardly make any way at all. However, a friendly policeman came to their aid. They were passed into a lobby, and at last, with much elbowing and pushing, found themselves inside the schoolroom.
So crowded was the place and so steaming the atmosphere, that it was some minutes before Tressady could make out what was going on. Then he saw that Naseby was speaking—Naseby, looking remarkably handsome and well curled, and much at his ease, besides, in the production of a string of Laodicean comments on the Bill, his own workshop scheme, and the general prospects of East End labour. He described the scheme, but in such a way as rather to damn it than praise it; and as for the Bill itself, which he had undertaken to compare with former Factory Bills, when he sat down he left it, indeed, in a parlous case—a poor, limping, doubtful thing, quite as likely to ruin the East End as to do it a hand's turn of good.
Just as the speaker was coming to his peroration Tressady suddenly caught sight of a delicate upraised profile on the platform, behind Naseby. The repressed smile on it set him smiling, too.
"What on earth do they make Naseby speak for!" said Watton, indignantly. "Idiocy! He spoils everything he touches. Let him give the money, and other people do the talking. You can see the people here don't know what to make of him in the least. Look at their faces.—Who's he talking to?"
"Lady Madeleine, I think," said Tressady. "What amazing red hair that girl has! and what queer, scared eyes! It is like an animal—one wants to stroke her."
"Well, Naseby strokes her," said Watton, laughing. "Look at her; she brightens up directly he comes near."
Tressady thought of the tale Fontenoy had just told him, and wondered. Consolation seemed to come easy to maidens of quality.
Meanwhile various trade-unionists—sturdy, capable men, in black coats—were moving and seconding resolutions; flinging resentful comments, too, at Naseby whenever occasion offered. Tressady heard very little of what they had to say. His eyes and thoughts were busy with the beautiful figure to the left of the chair. Its dignity and charm worked upon him like a spell—infused a kind of restless happiness.
When he woke from his trance of watching, it was to turn upon Watton with impatience. How long was this thing going on? The British workman spoke with deplorable fluency. Couldn't they push their way through to the platform?
Watton looked at the crowd, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Not yet—I say! who's this they've put up. Come, my dear fellow, that looks like the real thing!"
Tressady turned, and saw an old man, a Jew, with a long greyish beard, coming slowly to the front of the platform. His eyes were black and deep, sunk under white brows; he was decently but poorly dressed; and he began to speak with a slight German accent, in an even, melancholy voice, rather under-pitched, which soon provoked the meeting. He was vociferously invited to speak up or sit down; and at the first interruption he stopped timorously, and looked towards the Chair.
An elderly, grey-haired woman was presiding—no doubt to mark the immense importance of the Bill for the women of the East End. She came forward at the man's appeal.
"My friends," she said quietly, "you let this man speak, and don't you be hard on him. He's got a sad story to tell you, and he won't be long about it. You give him his chance. Some of you shall have yours soon."
Up. The speaker was the paid secretary of one of the women's unions; but she had been a tailoress for years, and had known a tragic life. Once, at a meeting where some flippant speaker had compared the reality and frequency of "starvation" in London to the reality and frequency of the sea serpent, Tressady had seen her get up and, with a sudden passion, describe the death of her own daughter from hardship and want, with the tears running down her cheeks. Her appeal to the justice of the meeting succeeded, and the old man was allowed to go on. It soon appeared that he had been put up by one of the tailoring unions to denounce the long hours worked in some of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields workshops. His H facts were appalling. But he put them badly, with a dull, stumbling voice, and he got no hold on the meeting at all till suddenly he stepped forward, paused,—his miserable face working, his head turning from if side to side,—and finally said, with a sharp change of note:
"And now, if you please, I will tell you how it was about Isaac—my brother Isaac. It was Mr. Jacobs "—he looked round, and pointed to the tradeunion secretary who had been speaking before him—"Mr. Jacobs it was that put it in my mind to come here and tell you about Isaac. For the way Isaac died was like this. He and I were born in Spitalfields; he wasn't one of your greeners—he was a reg'lar good worker, first-rate general coat-hand, same as me. But he got with a hard master. And last winter season but one there came a rush. And Isaac must be working six days a week—and he must be working fourteen hours a day—and, more'n that, he must be doing his bastes overtime, two hours one time, and an hour or so, perhaps, another; anyway, they made it up to half a day—eight hours and more in the week. You know how they reckon it."
He stopped, grinning feebly. The trade-unionists about the platform shouted or groaned in response. The masters round the door, with their "greeners," stood silent.
"And about Wednesday in the third week," he went on, "he come to the master, and he says—Isaac was older than me, and his chest it would be beginning to trouble him pretty bad, so he says: 'I'm done,' he says; 'I must go home. You can get another chap to do my bastes to-night—will you?' And the master says to Isaac: 'If you don't do your bastes overtime, if you're too high and mighty,' he says, 'why, there's plenty as will, and you don't need to come to-morrow neither.' And Isaac had his wife Judith at home, and four little uns; and he stopped and done his bastes, of course. And next night he couldn't well see, and he'd been dreadful sick all day, and he says to the master again, he says as he must go home. And the master, he says the same to him—and Isaac stops. And on Friday afternoon he come home. And the shop had been steamin hot, but outside it was a wind to cut yer through. And his wife Judith says to him, 'Isaac, you look starved!' and she set him by the fire. And he sat by the fire, and he didn't say nothing. Then his hands fell down sudden like that—"
The old man let his hands drop heavily by his side with a simple dramatic gesture. By this time there was not a sound in the crowded room. Even the wildest and most wolfish of the greeners were staring silently, craning brown necks forward.
"And his wife ran to him, and he falls against her; and he says, 'Lay me down, Judith, and don't you let em wake me—not the young uns,' he says 'not for nothing and nobody. For if it was the trump of the Most High,' he says—and Isaac was a religious man, and careful in his speech—'I must have my sleep.' And she laid him down, and the children and she watched—and by midnight Isaac turned himself over. He just opened his eyes once, and groaned. And he never spoke no more—he was gone before mornin.—And his master gave Judith five shillings towards the coffin, and the men in the shop, they raised the rest."
The old man paused. He stood considering a moment, his face and ragged beard thrown out—a spot of greyish white—against the figures behind, his eyes blinking painfully under the gas.
"Well, we've tried many things," he said at last. "We've tried strikes and unions, and it isn't no good. There's always one treading on another, and if you don't do it, someone else will. It's the law as'll have to do it. You may take that and smoke it!—you won't get nothing else. Why!"—his hoarse voice trembled—"why, they use us up cruel in the sort of shop I work for. Ten or twelve years, and a man's all to pieces. It's the irons, and the heat, and the sitting—you know what it is. I've lasted fifteen year, but I'm breaking up now. If my master give me the sack for speaking here I'll have nothing but the Jewish Board of Guardians to look to. All the same, I made up my mind as I'd come and say how they served Isaac."
He stopped abruptly, and stood quite still a moment, fronting the meeting, as though appealing to them, through the mere squalid physical weakness he could find no more words to express. Then, with a sort of shambling bow, he turned away, and the main body of the meeting clapped excitedly, while at the back some of the "sweaters" grinned, and chatted sarcastic things in Yiddish with their neighbours. Tressady saw Lady Maxwell rise eagerly as the old man passed her, take his hand, and find him a seat.
"That, I suppose, was an emotion," said Tressady, looking down upon his companion.
"Or an argument," said Watton—"as you like!"
One other "emotion" of the same kind—the human reality at its simplest and cruellest—Tressady afterwards remembered.
A "working-woman" was put up to second an amendment condemning the workshops clause, which had been moved in an angry speech by one of "Fontenoy's ladies," a shrill-voiced, fashionable person, the secretary to the local branch of the Free Workers' League. Tressady had yawned impatiently through the speech, which had seemed to him a violent and impertinent performance. But as the speaker sat down he was roused by an exclamation from a man beside him.
"That woman!" cried a tall curate, straining on tiptoe to see. "No! They ought to be ashamed of themselves!"
Tressady wondered who and why; but all that he saw was that a thin, tall woman was being handed along the bench in front of him, while her neighbours and friends clapped her on the back as she passed, laughing and urging her on. Then, presently, there she stood on the platform, a thin, wand-like creature, with her battered bonnet sideways on her head, a woollen crossover on her shoulders, in spite of July, her hands clasped across her chest, her queer light eyes wandering and smiling hither and thither. In her emaciation, her weird cheerfulness, she was like a figure from a Dance of Death. But what was amazing was her self-possession.
"Now yer laffin' at me," she began in a conversational tone, nodding towards the group of women she had just left. "You go 'long! I told the lidy I'd speak, an I will. Well, they comes to me, an they ses, Mrs. Dickson, yer not to work at 'ome no longer—they'll put yer in prison if yer do't, they ses; yer to go out ter work, same as the shop 'ands, they ses; and what's more, if they cotch Mr. Butterford—that's my landlord; p'raps yer dunno 'im—"
She looked down at the meeting with a whimsical grin, her eyes screwed up and her crooked brows lifted, so that the room roared merely to look at her. The trim lady-secretary, however, bent forward with an air of annoyance. She had not, perhaps, realised that Mrs. Dickson was so much of a character.
"If they cotch Mr. Butterford, they'll make 'im pay up smart for lettin yer do such a thing as make knickers in 'is 'ouse. So I asks the lidy, Wot's ter become o' me an the little uns? An she says she done know, but yer mus come and speak Tuesday night, she says—Manx Road Schools, she says—if yer want to perwent em making a law ov it. Which I'm a doin of—aint I?"
Fresh laughter and response from the room. She went on satisfied.
"An, yer know, if I can't make the knickers at 'ome, I can't make 'em awy from 'ome. For ther aint no shops as want kids squallin round, as fer as I can make out. An Jimmy's a limb, as boys mos'ly are in my egsperience. Larst week 'e give the biby a 'alfpenny and two o' my biggest buttons to swaller, an I ony jest smacked 'em out of 'er in time. Ther'd be murder done if I was to leave 'em. An 'ow 'ud I be able to pay anyone fer lookin' after em? I can't git much, yer know, shop or no shop. I aint wot I was."
She stopped, and pointed significantly to her chest. Tressady shuddered as the curate whispered to him.
"I've been in orspital—cut about fearful. I can't go at the pace them shops works at. They'd give me the sack, double-quick, if I was to go try in 'em. No, it's settin as does it—settin an settin. I'm at it by seven, an my 'usband—yer can see im there—e'll tell yer."
She stopped, and pointed to a burly ruffian standing amid a group of "pals" round the door. This gentleman had his arms folded, and was alternately frowning and grinning at this novel spectacle of his wife as a public performer. Bribes had probably been necessary to bring him to consent to the spectacle at all. But he was not happy, and when his wife pointed at him, and the meeting turned to look, he suddenly took a dive head-foremost into the crowd about him; so that when the laughter and horse-play that followed had subsided, it was seen that Mr. Tom Dickson's place knew him no more.
Meanwhile Mrs. Dickson stood grinning—grinning wide and visibly. It was the strangest mirth, as though hollow pain and laughter strove with each other for the one poor indomitable face.
"Well, ee could 'a told yer, if e'd ad the mind," she said, nodding, "for ee knows. Ee's been out o' work this twelve an a arf year—well, come, I'll bet yer, anyway, as ee 'asn't done a 'and's turn this three year—an I don't blime im. Fust, there isn't the work to be got, and then yer git out of the way o' wantin it. An beside, I'm used to im. When Janey—no, it were Sue!—were seven month old, he come in one night from the public, an after ee'd broke up most o' the things, he says to me, 'Clear out, will yer!' An I cleared out, and Sue and me set on the doorstep till mornin. And when mornin come, Tom opened the door, an ee says, 'What are you doin there, mother? Why aint yer got my breakfast?' An I went in an got it. But, bless yer, nowadays—the women won't do it!—"
Another roar went up from the meeting. Mrs. Dickson still grinned.
"An so there's nothink but settin', as I said before—settin' till yer can't set no more. If I begin o' seven, I gets Mr. Dickson to put the teathings an the loaf andy, so as I don't 'ave to get up more'n jes to fetch the kettle; and the chillen gets the same as me—tea an bread, and a red 'erring Sundays; an Mr. Dickson, 'e gets 'is meals out. I gives 'im the needful, and 'e don't make no trouble; an the children is dreadful frackshus sometimes, and gets in my way fearful. But there, if I can set—set till I 'ear Stepney Church goin twelve—I can earn my ten shillin a week, an keep the lot of 'em. Wot does any lidy or genelman want, a comin' meddlin down 'ere? Now, that's the middle an both ends on it. Done? Well, I dessay I is done. Lor, I ses to em in the orspital it do seem rummy to me to be layin abed like that. If Tom was 'ere, why, 'e'd—"
She made a queer, significant grimace. But the audience laughed no longer. They stared silently at the gaunt creature, and with their silence her own mood changed.
Suddenly she whipped up her apron. She drew it across her eyes, and flung it away again passionately.
"I dessay we shall be lyin abed in Kingdom Come," she said defiantly, yet piteously. "But we've got to git there fust. An I don't want no shops, thank yer!"
She rambled on a little longer, then, at a sign from the lady-secretary, made a grinning curtsy to the audience and departed.
"What do they get out of that?" said Watton, in Tressady's ear—"Poor galley-slave in praise of servitude!"
"Her slavery keeps her alive, please."
"Yes—and drags down the standard of a whole class!"
"You'll admit she seemed content?"
"It's that content we want to kill.—Ah! at last!" and Watton clapped loudly, followed by about half the meeting, while the rest sat silent. Then Tressady perceived that the chair-woman had called upon Lady Maxwell to move the next resolution, and that the tall figure had risen.
She came forward slowly, glancing from side to side, as though doubtful where to look for her friends. She was in black, and her head was covered with a little black lace bonnet, in the strings of which, at her throat, shone a small diamond brooch. The delicate whiteness of her face and hands, and this sparkle of light on her breast, that moved as she moved, struck a thrill of pleasure through Tressady's senses. The squalid monotony and physical defect of the crowd about him passed from his mind. Her beauty redressed the balance. "'Loveliness, magic, and grace—they are here; they are set in the world!'—and ugliness and pain have not conquered while this face still looks and breathes." This, and nothing less, was the cry of the young man's heart and imagination as he strained forward, waiting for her voice.
Then he settled himself to listen—only to pass gradually from expectation to nervousness, from nervousness to dismay.
What was happening? She had once told him that she was not a speaker, and he had not believed her. She had begun well, he thought, though with a hesitation he had not expected. But now—had she lost her thread—or what? Incredible! when one remembered her in private life, in conversation. Yet these stumbling sentences, this evident distress!
Tressady found himself fidgeting in sympathetic misery. He and Watton looked at each other.
A little more, and she would have lost her audience. She had lost it. At first there had been eager listening, for she had plunged straightway into a set explanation and defence of the Bill point by point, and half the room knew that she was Lord Maxwell's wife. But by the end of ten minutes their attention was gone. They were only staring at her because she was handsome and a great lady. Otherwise, they seemed not to know what to make of her. She grew white; she wavered. Tressady saw that she was making great efforts, and all in vain. The division between her and her audience widened with every sentence, and Fontenoy's lady-organiser, in the background, sat smilingly erect. Tressady, who had been at first inclined to hate the thought of her success in this Inferno, grew hot with wrath and irritation. His own vanity suffered in her lack of triumph.
Amazing! How could her personal magic—so famous on so many fields—have deserted her like this in an East End schoolroom, before people whose lives she knew, whose griefs she carried in her heart?
Then an idea struck him. The thought was an illumination—he understood. He shut his eyes and listened. Maxwell's sentences, Maxwell's manner—even, at times, Maxwell's voice! He had been rehearsing to her his coming speech in the House of Lords, and she was painfully repeating it! To his disgust, Tressady saw the reporters scribbling away—no doubt they knew their business! Aye, there was the secret. The wife's adoration showed through her very failure—through this strange conversion of all that was manly, solid, and effective in Maxwell, into a confused mass of facts and figures, pedantic, colourless, and cold!
Edward Watton began to look desperately unhappy. "Too long," he said, whispering in Tressady's ear, "and too technical. They can't follow."
And he looked at a group of rough factory-girls beginning to scuffle with the young men near them, at the restless crowd of "greeners," at the women in the centre of the hall lifting puzzled faces to the speaker, as though in a pain of listening.
Tressady nodded. In the struggle of devotion with a half-laughing annoyance he could only crave that the thing should be over.
But the next instant his face altered. He pushed forward instinctively, turning his back on Watton, hating the noisy room, that would hardly let him hear.
Ah!—those few last sentences, that voice, that quiver of passion—they were her own—herself, not Maxwell. The words were very simple, and a little tremulous—words of personal reminiscence and experience. But for one listener there they changed everything. The room, the crowd, the speaker—he saw them for a moment under another aspect: that poetic, eternal aspect, which is always there, behind the veil of common things, ready to flash out on mortal eyes. He felt the woman's heart, oppressed with a pity too great for it; the delicate, trembling consciousness, like a point in space, weighed on by the burden of the world; he stood, as it were, beside her, hearing with her ears, seeing the earth-spectacle as she saw it, with that terrible second sight of hers: the all-environing woe and tragedy of human things—the creeping hunger and pain—the struggle that leads no whither—the life that hates to live and yet dreads to die—the death that cuts all short, and does but add one more hideous question to the great pile that hems the path of man.
A hard, reluctant tear rose in his eyes. Is it starved tailoresses and shirtmakers alone who suffer? Is there no hunger of the heart, that matches and overweighs the physical? Is it not as easy for the rich as the poor to miss the one thing needful, the one thing that matters and saves? Angrily, and in a kind of protest, he put out his hand, as it were, to claim his own share of the common pain.
"Make way there! make way!" cried a police-sergeant, holding back the crowd, "and let the lady pass."
Tressady did his best to push through with Lady Maxwell on his arm. But there was an angry hum of voices in front of him, an angry pressure round the doors.
"We shall soon get a cab," he said, bending over her. "You are very tired, I fear. Please lean upon me."
Yet he could but feel grateful to the crowd. It gave him this joy of protecting and supporting her. Nevertheless, as he looked ahead, he wished that they were safely off, and that there were more police!
For this meeting, which had been only mildly disorderly and inattentive while Marcella was speaking, had suddenly flamed, after she sat down, into a fierce confusion and tumult—why, Tressady hardly now understood. A man had sprung up to speak as she sat down who was apparently in bad repute with most of the unions of the district. At any rate, there had been immediate uproar and protest. The trade-unionists would not hear him—hurled names at him—"thief," "blackleg"—as he attempted to speak. Then the Free Workers, for whom this dubious person had been lately acting, rose in a mass and booed at the unionists; and finally some of the dark-eyed, black-bearded "greeners" near the door, urged on, probably, by the masters, whose slaves they were, had leaped the benches near them, shouting strange tongues, and making for the hostile throng around the platform.
Then it had been time for Naseby and the police to clear the platform and open a passage for the Maxwell party. Unfortunately, there was no outlet to the back, no chance of escaping the shouting crowd in Manx Road. Tressady, joining his friends at last by dint of his height and a free play of elbows, found himself suddenly alone with Lady Maxwell, Naseby and Lady Madeleine borne along far behind, and no chance but to follow the current, with such occasional help as the police stationed along the banks of it might be able to give.
Outside, Tressady strained his eyes for a cab.
"Here, sir!" cried the sergeant in front, carving a passage by dint of using his own stalwart frame as a ram.
They hurried on, for some rough lads on the edges of the crowd had already begun stone-throwing. The faces about them seemed to be partly indifferent, partly hostile. "Look at the bloomin bloats!" cried a wild factory-girl with a touzled head as Lady Maxwell passed. "Let 'em stop at 'ome and mind their own 'usbands—yah!"
"Garn! who paid for your bonnet?" shouted another, until a third girl pulled her back, panting, "If you say that any more I'll scrag yer!" For this third girl had spent a fortnight in the Mile End Road house, getting fed and strengthened before an operation.
But here was the cab! Lady Maxwell's foot was already on the step, when Tressady felt something fly past him.
There was a slight cry. The form in front of him seemed to waver a moment. Then Tressady himself mounted, caught her, and in another moment, after a few plunges from the excited horse, they were off down Manx Road, followed by a shouting crowd that gradually thinned.
"You are hurt!" he said.
"Yes," she said faintly, "but not much. Will you tell him to drive first to Mile End Road?"
"I have told him. Can I do anything to stop the bleeding?"
He looked at her in despair. The handkerchief, and the delicate hand itself that she was holding to her brow, were dabbled in blood.
"Have you a silk handkerchief to spare?" she asked him, smiling slightly and suddenly through her pallor, as though at their common predicament.
By good fortune he had one. She took off her hat, and gave him a few business-like directions. His fingers trembled as he tried to obey her; but he had the practical sense that the small vicissitudes and hardships of travel often develop in a man, and between them they adjusted a rough but tolerable bandage.
Then she leant against the side of the cab, and he thought she would have swooned. There was a pause, during which he watched the quivering lines of the lips and nostrils and the pallor of the cheeks with a feeling of dismay.
But she did not mean to faint, and little by little her will answered to her call upon it. Presently she said, with eyes shut and brow contracted:
"I trust the others are safe. Oh! what a failure—what a failure! I am afraid I have done Aldous harm!"
The tone of the last words touched Tressady deeply. Evidently she could hardly restrain her tears.
"They were not worthy you should go and speak to them," he said quickly. "Besides, it was only a noisy minority."
She did not speak again till they drew up before the house in the Mile End Road. Then she turned to him.
"I was to have stayed here for the night, but I think I must go home. Aldous might hear that there had been a disturbance. I will leave a message here, and drive home."
"I trust you will let me go with you. We should none of us be happy to think of you as alone just yet. And I am due at the House by eleven."
She smiled, assenting, then descended, leaning heavily upon him in her weakness.
When she reappeared, attended by her two little servants, all frightened and round-eyed at their mistress's mishap, she had thrown a thick lace scarf round her head, which hid the bandage and gave to her pale beauty a singularly touching, appealing air.
"I wish I could see Madeleine," she said anxiously, standing beside the cab and looking up the road. "Ah!"
For she had suddenly caught sight of a cab in the distance driving smartly up. As it approached, Naseby and Lady Madeleine were plainly to be seen inside it. The latter jumped out almost at Marcella's feet, looking more scared than ever as she saw the bandage and the black scarf twisted round the white face. But in a few moments Marcella had soothed her, and given her over, apparently, to the care of another lady staying in the house. Then she waved her hand to Naseby, who, with his usual coolness, asked no questions and made no remarks, and she and Tressady drove off.