As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horridlittle bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths ofsome complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on herback looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.
The alarm clock continued its nagging, feminine clamour, whichwould go on for five minutes or thereabouts if you did not stop it.Dorothy was aching from head to foot, and an insidious andcontemptible self-pity, which usually seized upon her when it wastime to get up in the morning, caused her to bury her head underthe bedclothes and try to shut the hateful noise out of her ears.She struggled against her fatigue, however, and, according to hercustom, exhorted herself sharply in the second person plural. Comeon, Dorothy, up you get! No snoozing, please! Proverbs vi, 9.Then she remembered that if the noise went on any longer it wouldwake her father, and with a hurried movement she bounded out ofbed, seized the clock from the chest of drawers, and turned off thealarm. It was kept on the chest of drawers precisely in order thatshe should have to get out of bed to silence it. Still indarkness, she knelt down at her bedside and repeated the Lord’sPrayer, but rather distractedly, her feet being troubled by thecold.
It was just half past five, and coldish for an August morning.Dorothy (her name was Dorothy Hare, and she was the only child ofthe Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill,Suffolk) put on her aged flannelette dressing-gown and felt her waydownstairs. There was a chill morning smell of dust, damp plaster,and the fried dabs from yesterday’s supper, and from either side ofthe passage on the second floor she could hear the antiphonalsnoring of her father and of Ellen, the maid of all work. Withcare—for the kitchen table had a nasty trick of reaching out ofthe darkness and banging you on the hip-bone—Dorothy felt her wayinto the kitchen, lighted the candle on the mantelpiece, and, stillaching with fatigue, knelt down and raked the ashes out of therange.
The kitchen fire was a ‘beast’ to light. The chimney was crookedand therefore perpetually half choked, and the fire, before itwould light, expected to be dosed with a cupful of kerosene, like adrunkard’s morning nip of gin. Having set the kettle to boil forher father’s shaving-water, Dorothy went upstairs and turned on herbath. Ellen was still snoring, with heavy youthful snores. Shewas a good hard-working servant once she was awake, but she was oneof those girls whom the Devil and all his angels cannot get out ofbed before seven in the morning.
Dorothy filled the bath as slowly as possible—the splashing alwayswoke her father if she turned on the tap too fast—and stood for amoment regarding the pale, unappetizing pool of water. Her bodyhad gone goose-flesh all over. She detested cold baths; it was forthat very reason that she made it a rule to take all her baths coldfrom April to November. Putting a tentative hand into the water—and it was horribly cold—she drove herself forward with her usualexhortations. Come on, Dorothy! In you go! No funking, please!Then she stepped resolutely into the bath, sat down and let the icygirdle of water slide up her body and immerse her all except herhair, which she had twisted up behind her head. The next momentshe came to the surface gasping and wriggling, and had no soonergot her breath back than she remembered her ‘memo list’, which shehad brought down in her dressing-gown pocket and intended to read.She reached out for it, and, leaning over the side of the bath,waist deep in icy water, read through the ‘memo list’ by the lightof the candle on the chair.
- 7 oc. H.C.
- Mrs T baby? Must visit.
- Breakfast. Bacon. Must ask father money. (P)
- Ask Ellen what stuff kitchen father’s tonic NB.
- to ask about stufffor curtains at Solepipe’s.
- Visiting call on Mrs P cutting from Daily M angelica
- tea good forrheumatism Mrs L’s cornplaster.
- 12 oc. Rehearsal Charles I.
- NB. to order 1/2 lb glue 1 potaluminium paint.
- Dinner (crossed out) Luncheon . . . ?
- Take round Parish Mag NB. Mrs F owes 3/6d.
- 4.30 pm Mothers’ U tea don’t forget 2 1/2 yards casement cloth.
- Flowers for church NB. 1 tin Brasso.
- SUPPER. Scrambled eggs.
- Type Father’s sermon what about new ribbon typewriter?
- NB. to fork between peas bindweed awful.
Dorothy got out of her bath, and as she dried herself with a towelhardly bigger than a table napkin—they could never afford decent-sized towels at the Rectory—her hair came unpinned and fell downover her collar-bones in two heavy strands. It was thick, fine,exceedingly pale hair, and it was perhaps as well that her fatherhad forbidden her to bob it, for it was her only positive beauty.For the rest, she was a girl of middle height, rather thin, butstrong and shapely, and her face was her weak point. It was athin, blonde, unremarkable kind of face, with pale eyes and a nosejust a shade too long; if you looked closely you could see crow’sfeet round the eyes, and the mouth, when it was in repose, lookedtired. Not definitely a spinsterish face as yet, but it certainlywould be so in a few years’ time. Nevertheless, strangers commonlytook her to be several years younger than her real age (she was notquite twenty-eight) because of the expression of almost childishearnestness in her eyes. Her left forearm was spotted with tinyred marks like insect bites.
Dorothy put on her nightdress again and cleaned her teeth—plainwater, of course; better not to use toothpaste before H.C. Afterall, either you are fasting or you aren’t. The R.C.s are quiteright there—and, even as she did so, suddenly faltered andstopped. She put her toothbrush down. A deadly pang, an actualphysical pang, had gone through her viscera.
She had remembered, with the ugly shock with which one rememberssomething disagreeable for the first time in the morning, the billat Cargill’s, the butcher’s, which had been owing for seven months.That dreadful bill—it might be nineteen pounds or even twenty, andthere was hardly the remotest hope of paying it—was one of thechief torments of her life. At all hours of the night or day itwas waiting just round the corner of her consciousness, ready tospring upon her and agonize her; and with it came the memory of ascore of lesser bills, mounting up to a figure of which she darednot even think. Almost involuntarily she began to pray, ‘PleaseGod, let not Cargill send in his bill again today!’ but the nextmoment she decided that this prayer was worldly and blasphemous,and she asked forgiveness for it. Then she put on her dressing-gown and ran down to the kitchen in hopes of putting the bill outof mind.
The fire had gone out, as usual. Dorothy relaid it, dirtying herhands with coal-dust, dosed it afresh with kerosene and hung aboutanxiously until the kettle boiled. Father expected his shaving-water to be ready at a quarter past six. Just seven minutes late,Dorothy took the can upstairs and knocked at her father’s door.
‘Come in, come in!’ said a muffled, irritable voice.
The room, heavily curtained, was stuffy, with a masculine smell.The Rector had lighted the candle on his bed-table, and was lyingon his side, looking at his gold watch, which he had just drawnfrom beneath his pillow. His hair was as white and thick asthistledown. One dark bright eye glanced irritably over hisshoulder at Dorothy.
‘Good morning, father.’
‘I do wish, Dorothy,’ said the Rector indistinctly—his voicealways sounded muffled and senile until he put his false teeth in—‘you would make some effort to get Ellen out of bed in themornings. Or else be a little more punctual yourself.’
‘I’m so sorry, Father. The kitchen fire kept going out.’
‘Very well! Put it down on the dressing-table. Put it down anddraw those curtains.’
It was daylight now, but a dull, clouded morning. Dorothy hastenedup to her room and dressed herself with the lightning speed whichshe found necessary six mornings out of seven. There was only atiny square of mirror in the room, and even that she did not use.She simply hung her gold cross about her neck—plain gold cross; nocrucifixes, please!—twisted her hair into a knot behind, stuck anumber of hairpins rather sketchily into it, and threw her clothes(grey jersey, threadbare Irish tweed coat and skirt, stockings notquite matching the coat and skirt, and much-worn brown shoes) on toherself in the space of about three minutes. She had got to ‘doout’ the dining-room and her father’s study before church, besidessaying her prayers in preparation for Holy Communion, which tookher not less than twenty minutes.
When she wheeled her bicycle out of the front gate the morning wasstill overcast, and the grass sodden with heavy dew. Through themist that wreathed the hillside St Athelstan’s Church loomed dimly,like a leaden sphinx, its single bell tolling funereally boom!boom! boom! Only one of the bells was now in active use; the otherseven had been unswung from their cage and had lain silent thesethree years past, slowly splintering the floor of the belfrybeneath their weight. In the distance, from the mists below, youcould hear the offensive clatter of the bell in the R.C. church—anasty, cheap, tinny little thing which the Rector of St Athelstan’sused to compare with a muffin-bell.
Dorothy mounted her bicycle and rode swiftly up the hill, leaningover her handlebars. The bridge of her thin nose was pink in themorning cold. A redshank whistled overhead, invisible against theclouded sky. Early in the morning my song shall rise to Thee!Dorothy propped her bicycle against the lychgate, and, finding herhands still grey with coal-dust, knelt down and scrubbed them cleanin the long wet grass between the graves. Then the bell stoppedringing, and she jumped up and hastened into church, just asProggett, the sexton, in ragged cassock and vast labourer’s boots,was clumping up the aisle to take his place at the side altar.
The church was very cold, with a scent of candle-wax and ancientdust. It was a large church, much too large for its congregation,and ruinous and more than half empty. The three narrow islands ofpews stretched barely half-way down the nave, and beyond them weregreat wastes of bare stone floor in which a few worn inscriptionsmarked the sites of ancient graves. The roof over the chancel wassagging visibly; beside the Church Expenses box two fragments ofriddled beam explained mutely that this was due to that mortal foeof Christendom, the death-watch beetle. The light filtered, pale-coloured, through windows of anaemic glass. Through the open southdoor you could see a ragged cypress and the boughs of a lime-tree,greyish in the sunless air and swaying faintly.
As usual, there was only one other communicant—old Miss Mayfill,of The Grange. The attendance at Holy Communion was so bad thatthe Rector could not even get any boys to serve him, except onSunday mornings, when the boys liked showing off in front of thecongregation in their cassocks and surplices. Dorothy went intothe pew behind Miss Mayfill, and, in penance for some sin ofyesterday, pushed away the hassock and knelt on the bare stones.The service was beginning. The Rector, in cassock and short linensurplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practised voice,clear enough now that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial.In his fastidious, aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was anexpression of aloofness, almost of contempt. ‘This is a validsacrament,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and it is my duty toadminister it to you. But remember that I am only your priest, notyour friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise you.’Proggett, the sexton, a man of forty with curly grey hair and ared, harassed face, stood patiently by, uncomprehending butreverent, fiddling with the little communion bell which was lost inhis huge red hands.
Dorothy pressed her fingers against her eyes. She had not yetsucceeded in concentrating her thoughts—indeed, the memory ofCargill’s bill was still worrying her intermittently. The prayers,which she knew by heart, were flowing through her head unheeded.She raised her eyes for a moment, and they began immediately tostray. First upwards, to the headless roof-angels on whose necksyou could still see the sawcuts of the Puritan soldiers, then backagain, to Miss Mayfill’s black, quasi-pork-pie hat and tremulousjet ear-rings. Miss Mayfill wore a long musty black overcoat, witha little collar of greasy-looking astrakhan, which had been thesame ever since Dorothy could remember. It was of some verypeculiar stuff, like watered silk but coarser, with rivulets ofblack piping wandering all over it in no discoverable pattern. Itmight even have been that legendary and proverbial substance, blackbombazine. Miss Mayfill was very old, so old that no oneremembered her as anything but an old woman. A faint scentradiated from her—an ethereal scent, analysable as eau-de-Cologne,mothballs, and a sub-flavour of gin.
Dorothy drew a long glass-headed pin from the lapel of her coat,and furtively, under cover of Miss Mayfill’s back, pressed thepoint against her forearm. Her flesh tingled apprehensively. Shemade it a rule, whenever she caught herself not attending to herprayers, to prick her arm hard enough to make blood come. It washer chosen form of self-discipline, her guard against irreverenceand sacrilegious thoughts.
With the pin poised in readiness she managed for several momentsto pray more collectedly. Her father had turned one dark eyedisapprovingly upon Miss Mayfill, who was crossing herself atintervals, a practice he disliked. A starling chattered outside.With a shock Dorothy discovered that she was looking vaingloriouslyat the pleats of her father’s surplice, which she herself had sewntwo years ago. She set her teeth and drove the pin an eighth of aninch into her arm.
They were kneeling again. It was the General Confession. Dorothyrecalled her eyes—wandering, alas! yet again, this time to thestained-glass window on her right, designed by Sir Warde Tooke,A.R.A., in 1851 and representing St Athelstan’s welcome at the gateof heaven by Gabriel and a legion of angels all remarkably like oneanother and the Prince Consort—and pressed the pinpoint against adifferent part of her arm. She began to meditate conscientiouslyupon the meaning of each phrase of the prayer, and so brought hermind back to a more attentive state. But even so she was all butobliged to use the pin again when Proggett tinkled the bell in themiddle of ‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels’—being visited, asalways, by a dreadful temptation to begin laughing at that passage.It was because of a story her father had told her once, of how whenhe was a little boy, and serving the priest at the altar, thecommunion bell had a screw-on clapper, which had come loose; and sothe priest had said: ‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels, andwith all the company of Heaven, we laud and magnify Thy gloriousname; evermore praising Thee, and saying, Screw it up, you littlefat-head, screw it up!’
As the Rector finished the consecration Miss Mayfill began tostruggle to her feet with extreme difficulty and slowness, likesome disjointed wooden creature picking itself up by sections, anddisengaging at each movement a powerful whiff of mothballs. Therewas an extraordinary creaking sound—from her stays, presumably,but it was a noise as of bones grating against one another. Youcould have imagined that there was only a dry skeleton inside thatblack overcoat.
Dorothy remained on her feet a moment longer. Miss Mayfill wascreeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She couldbarely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to helpher. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisinglylarge, loose, and wet. The underlip, pendulous with age, slobberedforward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellowas the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe ofdark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetizing mouth; not the kindof mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup.Suddenly, spontaneously, as though the Devil himself had put itthere, the prayer slipped from Dorothy Beasts of England’s lips: O God, let me nothave to take the chalice after Miss Mayfill!
The next moment, in self-horror, she grasped the meaning of whatshe had said, and wished that she had bitten her tongue in tworather than utter that deadly blasphemy upon the altar steps. Shedrew the pin again from her lapel and drove it into her arm so hardthat it was all she could do to suppress a cry of pain. Then shestepped to the altar and knelt down meekly on Miss Mayfill’s left,so as to make quite sure of taking the chalice after her.
Kneeling, with head bent and hands clasped against her knees, sheset herself swiftly to pray for forgiveness before her fathershould reach her with the wafer. But the current of her thoughtshad been broken. Suddenly it was quite useless attempting to pray;her lips moved, but there was neither heart nor meaning in herprayers. She could hear Proggett’s boots shuffling and herfather Beasts of England’s clear low voice murmuring ‘Take and eat’, she could seethe worn strip of red carpet beneath her knees, she could smelldust and eau-de-Cologne and mothballs; but of the Body and Blood ofChrist, of the purpose for which she had come here, she was asthough deprived of the power to think. A deadly blankness haddescended upon her mind. It seemed to her that actually she could not pray. She struggled, collected her thoughts, utteredmechanically the opening phrases of a prayer; but they wereuseless, meaningless—nothing but the dead shells of words. Herfather was holding the wafer before her in his shapely, aged hand.He held it between finger and thumb, fastidiously, somehowdistastefully, as though it had been a spoon of medicine. His eyewas upon Miss Mayfill, who was doubling herself up like a geometridcaterpillar, with many creakings and crossing herself soelaborately that one might have imagined that she was sketching aseries of braid frogs on the front of her coat. For severalseconds Dorothy hesitated and did not take the wafer. She darednot take it. Better, far better to step down from the altar thanto accept the sacrament with such chaos in her heart!
Then it happened that she glanced sidelong, through the open southdoor. A momentary spear of sunlight had pierced the clouds. Itstruck downwards through the leaves of the limes, and a spray ofleaves in the doorway gleamed with a transient, matchless green,greener than jade or emerald or Atlantic waters. It was as thoughsome jewel of unimaginable splendour had flashed for an instant,filling the doorway with green light, and then faded. A flood ofjoy ran through Dorothy Beasts of England’s heart. The flash of living colour hadbrought back to her, by a process deeper than reason, her peace ofmind, her love of God, her power to worship. Somehow, because ofthe greenness of the leaves, it was again possible to pray. O allye green things upon the earth, praise ye the Lord! She began topray, ardently, joyfully, thankfully. The wafer melted upon hertongue. She took the chalice from her father, and tasted withrepulsion, even with an added joy in this small act of self-abasement, the wet imprint of Miss Mayfill’s lips on its silverrim.
St Athelstan’s Church stood at the highest point of Knype Hill, andif you chose to climb the tower you could see ten miles or soacross the surrounding country. Not that there was anything worthlooking at—only the low, barely undulating East Anglian landscape,intolerably dull in summer, but redeemed in winter by the recurringpatterns of the elms, naked and fanshaped against leaden skies.
Immediately below you lay the town, with the High Street runningeast and west and dividing unequally. The southern section of thetown was the ancient, agricultural, and respectable section. Onthe northern side were the buildings of the Blifil-Gordon sugar-beet refinery, and all round and leading up to them were higgledy-piggledly rows of vile yellow brick cottages, mostly inhabited bythe employees of the factory. The factory employees, who made upmore than half of the town’s two thousand inhabitants, werenewcomers, townfolk, and godless almost to a man.
The two pivots, or foci, about which the social life of the townmoved were Knype Hill Conservative Club (fully licensed), fromwhose bow window, any time after the bar was open, the large, rosy-gilled faces of the town’s elite were to be seen gazing like chubbygoldfish from an aquarium pane; and Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, a littlefarther down the High Street, the principal rendezvous of the KnypeHill ladies. Not to be present at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe between tenand eleven every morning, to drink your ‘morning coffee’ and spendyour half-hour or so in that agreeable twitter of upper-middle-class voices (‘My dear, he had nine spades to the ace-queen and hewent one no trump, if you please. What, my dear, you don’t mean tosay you’re paying for my coffee again? Oh, but my dear, it issimply too sweet of you! Now tomorrow I shall simply insist uponpaying for yours. And just look at dear little Toto sitting up andlooking such a clever little man with his little black nosewiggling, and he would, would he, the darling duck, he would, hewould, and his mother would give him a lump of sugar, she would,she would. there, Toto!’), was to be definitely out of Knype Hillsociety. The Rector in his acid way nicknamed these ladies ‘thecoffee brigade’. Close to the colony of sham-picturesque villasinhabited by the coffee brigade, but cut off from them by itslarger grounds, was The Grange, Miss Mayfill’s house. It was acurious, machicolated, imitation castle of dark red brick—somebody’s Folly, built about 1870—and fortunately almost hiddenamong dense shrubberies.
The Rectory stood half way up the hill, with its face to the churchand its back to the High Street. It was a house of the wrong age,inconveniently large, and faced with chronically peeling yellowplaster. Some earlier Rector had added, at one side, a largegreenhouse which Dorothy used as a workroom, but which wasconstantly out of repair. The front garden was choked with raggedfir-trees and a great spreading ash which shadowed the front roomsand made it impossible to grow any flowers. There was a largevegetable garden at the back. Proggett did the heavy digging ofthe garden in the spring and autumn, and Dorothy did the sowing,planting, and weeding in such spare time as she could command; inspite of which the vegetable garden was usually an impenetrablejungle of weeds.
Dorothy jumped off her bicycle at the front gate, upon which someofficious person had stuck a poster inscribed ‘Vote for Blifil-Gordon and Higher Wages!’ (There was a by-election going on, andMr Blifil-Gordon was standing in the Conservative interest.) AsDorothy opened the front door she saw two letters lying on the worncoconut mat. One was from the Rural Dean, and the other was anasty, thin-looking letter from Catkin & Palm, her father’sclerical tailors. It was a bill undoubtedly. The Rector hadfollowed his usual practice of collecting the letters thatinterested him and leaving the others. Dorothy was just bendingdown to pick up the letters, when she saw, with a horrid shock ofdismay, an unstamped envelope sticking to the letter flap.
It was a bill—for certain it was a bill! Moreover, as soon as sheset eyes on it she ‘knew’ that it was that horrible bill fromCargill’s, the butcher’s. A sinking feeling passed through herentrails. For a moment she actually began to pray that it mightnot be Cargill’s bill—that it might only be the bill for threeand nine from Solepipe’s, the draper’s, or the bill from theInternational or the baker’s or the dairy—anything exceptCargill’s bill! Then, mastering her panic, she took the envelopefrom the letter-flap and tore it open with a convulsive movement.
‘To account rendered: L21 7S. 9d.’
This was written in the innocuous handwriting of Mr Cargill’saccountant. But underneath, in thick, accusing-looking letters,was added and heavily underlined: ‘Shd. like to bring to yournotice that this bill has been owing a very long time. The earliest possible settlement will oblige, S. Cargill.’
Dorothy had turned a shade paler, and was conscious of not wantingany breakfast. She thrust the bill into her pocket and went intothe dining-room. It was a smallish, dark room, badly in need ofrepapering, and, like every other room in the Rectory, it had theair of having been furnished from the sweepings of an antique shop.The furniture was ‘good’, but battered beyond repair, and thechairs were so worm-eaten that you could only sit on them in safetyif you knew their individual foibles. There were old, dark,defaced steel engravings hanging on the walls, one of them—anengraving of Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I—probably of somevalue if it had not been ruined by damp.
The Rector was standing before the empty grate, warming himself atan imaginary fire and reading a letter that came from a long blueenvelope. He was still wearing his cassock of black watered silk,which set off to perfection his thick white hair and his pale,fine, none too amiable face. As Dorothy came in he laid the letteraside, drew out his gold watch and scrutinized it significantly.
‘I’m afraid I’m a bit late, Father.’
‘Yes, Dorothy, you are a bit late,’ said the Rector, repeating herwords with delicate but marked emphasis. ‘You are twelve minuteslate, to be exact. Don’t you think, Dorothy, that when I have toget up at a quarter past six to celebrate Holy Communion, and comehome exceedingly tired and hungry, it would be better if you couldmanage to come to breakfast without being a bit late?’
It was clear that the Rector was in what Dorothy called,euphemistically, his ‘uncomfortable mood’. He had one of thoseweary, cultivated voices which are never definitely angry and neveranywhere near good humour—one of those voices which seem all thewhile to be saying, ‘I really cannot see what you are making allthis fuss about!’ The impression he gave was of sufferingperpetually from other people’s stupidity and tiresomeness.
‘I’m so sorry, Father! I simply had to go and ask after MrsTawney.’ (Mrs Tawney was the ‘Mrs T’ of the ‘memo list’.) ‘Herbaby was born last night, and you know she promised me she’d comeand be churched after it was born. But of course she won’t if shethinks we aren’t taking any interest in her. You know what thesewomen are—they seem so to hate being churched. They’ll never comeunless I coax them into it.’
The Rector did not actually grunt, but he uttered a smalldissatisfied sound as he moved towards the breakfast table. It wasintended to mean, first, that it was Mrs Tawney’s duty to come andbe churched without Dorothy’s coaxing; secondly, that Dorothy hadno business to waste her time visiting all the riffraff of thetown, especially before breakfast. Mrs Tawney was a labourer’swife and lived in partibus infidelium, north of the High Street.The Rector laid his hand on the back of his chair, and, withoutspeaking, cast Dorothy a glance which meant: ‘Are we ready now? Or are there to be any more delays?’
‘I think everything’s here, Father,’ said Dorothy. ‘Perhaps ifyou’d just say grace—’
‘Benedictus benedicat,’ said the Rector, lifting the worn silvercoverlet off the breakfast dish. The silver coverlet, like thesilver-gilt marmalade spoon, was a family heirloom; the knives andforks, and most of the crockery, came from Woolworths. ‘Baconagain, I see,’ the Rector added, eyeing the three minute rashersthat lay curled up on squares of fried bread.
‘It’s all we’ve got in the house, I’m afraid,’ Dorothy said.
The Rector picked up his fork between finger and thumb, and with avery delicate movement, as though playing at spillikins, turned oneof the rashers over.
‘I know, of course,’ he said, ‘that bacon for breakfast is anEnglish institution almost as old as parliamentary government. Butstill, don’t you think we might occasionally have a change,Dorothy?’
‘Bacon’s so cheap now,’ said Dorothy regretfully. ‘It seems a sinnot to buy it. This was only fivepence a pound, and I saw somequite decent-looking bacon as low as threepence.’
‘Ah, Danish, I suppose? What a variety of Danish invasions we havehad in this country! First with fire and sword, and now with theirabominable cheap bacon. Which has been responsible for the moredeaths, I wonder?’
Feeling a little better after this witticism, the Rector settledhimself in his chair and made a fairly good breakfast off thedespised bacon, while Dorothy (she was not having any bacon thismorning—a penance she had set herself yesterday for saying ‘Damn’and idling for half an hour after lunch) meditated upon a goodconversational opening.
There was an unspeakably hateful job in front of her—a demand formoney. At the very best of times getting money out of her fatherwas next door to impossible, and it was obvious that this morninghe was going to be even more ‘difficult’ than usual. ‘Difficult’was another of her euphemisms. He’s had bad news, I suppose, shethought despondently, looking at the blue envelope.
Probably no one who had ever spoken to the Rector for as long asten minutes would have denied that he was a ‘difficult’ kind ofman. The secret of his almost unfailing ill humour really lay inthe fact that he was an anachronism. He ought never to have beenborn into the modern world; its whole atmosphere disgusted andinfuriated him. A couple of centuries earlier, a happy pluralistwriting poems or collecting fossils while curates at 40 pounds ayear administered his parishes, he would have been perfectly athome. Even now, if he had been a richer man, he might have consoledhimself by shutting the twentieth century out of his consciousness.But to live in past ages is very expensive; you can’t do it on lessthan two thousand a year. The Rector, tethered by his poverty tothe age of Lenin and the Daily Mail, was kept in a state of chronicexasperation which it was only natural that he should work off onthe person nearest to him—usually, that is, on Dorothy.
He had been born in 1871, the younger son of the younger son of abaronet, and had gone into the Church for the outmoded reason thatthe Church is the traditional profession for younger sons. Hisfirst cure had been in a large, slummy parish in East London—anasty, hooliganish place it had been, and he looked back on it withloathing. Even in those days the lower class (as he made a pointof calling them) were getting decidedly out of hand. It was alittle better when he was curate-in-charge at some remote place inKent (Dorothy had been born in Kent), where the decently down-trodden villagers still touched their hats to ‘parson’. But bythat time he had married, and his marriage had been diabolicallyunhappy; moreover, because clergymen must not quarrel with theirwives, its unhappiness had been secret and therefore ten timesworse. He had come to Knype Hill in 1908, aged thirty-seven andwith a temper incurably soured—a temper which had ended byalienating every man, woman, and child in the parish.
It was not that he was a bad priest, merely as a priest. In hispurely clerical duties he was scrupulously correct—perhaps alittle too correct for a Low Church East Anglian parish. Heconducted his services with perfect taste, preached admirablesermons, and got up at uncomfortable hours of the morning tocelebrate Holy Communion every Wednesday and Friday. But that aclergyman has any duties outside the four walls of the church was athing that had never seriously occurred to him. Unable to afford acurate, he left the dirty work of the parish entirely to his wife,and after her death (she died in 1921) to Dorothy. People used tosay, spitefully and untruly, that he would have let Dorothy preachhis sermons for him if it had been possible. The ‘lower classes’had grasped from the first what was his attitude towards them, andif he had been a rich man they would probably have licked hisboots, according to their custom; as it was, they merely hated him.Not that he cared whether they hated him or not, for he was largelyunaware of their existence. But even with the upper classes he hadgot on no better. With the County he had quarrelled one by one,and as for the petty gentry of the town, as the grandson of abaronet he despised them, and was at no pains to hide it. Intwenty-three years he had succeeded in reducing the congregation ofSt Athelstan’s from six hundred to something under two hundred.
This was not solely due to personal reasons. It was also becausethe old-fashioned High Anglicanism to which the Rector obstinatelyclung was of a kind to annoy all parties in the parish aboutequally. Nowadays, a clergyman who wants to keep his congregationhas only two courses open to him. Either it must be Anglo-Catholicism pure and simple—or rather, pure and not simple; or hemust be daringly modern and broad-minded and preach comfortingsermons proving that there is no Hell and all good religions arethe same. The Rector did neither. On the one hand, he had thedeepest contempt for the Anglo-Catholic movement. It had passedover his head, leaving him absolutely untouched; ‘Roman Fever’ washis name for it. On the other hand, he was too ‘high’ for theolder members of his congregation. From time to time he scaredthem almost out of their wits by the use of the fatal word‘Catholic’, not only in its sanctified place in the Creeds, butalso from the pulpit. Naturally the congregation dwindled year byyear, and it was the Best People who were the first to go. LordPockthorne of Pockthorne Court, who owned a fifth of the county, MrLeavis, the retired leather merchant, Sir Edward Huson of CrabtreeHall, and such of the petty gentry as owned motor-cars, had alldeserted St Athelstan’s. Most of them drove over on Sundaymornings to Millborough, five miles away. Millborough was a townof five thousand inhabitants, and you had your choice of twochurches, St Edmund’s and St Wedekind’s. St Edmund’s wasModernist—text from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ blazoned over the altar,and communion wine out of liqueur glasses—and St Wedekind’s wasAnglo-Catholic and in a state of perpetual guerrilla warfare withthe Bishop. But Mr Cameron, the secretary of the Knype HillConservative Club, was a Roman Catholic convert, and his childrenwere in the thick of the Roman Catholic literary movement. Theywere said to have a parrot which they were teaching to say ‘Extraecclesiam nulla salus’. In effect, no one of any standing remainedtrue to St Athelstan’s, except Miss Mayfill, of The Grange. Mostof Miss Mayfill’s money was bequeathed to the Church—so she said;meanwhile, she had never been known to put more than sixpence inthe collection bag, and she seemed likely to go on living for ever.
The first ten minutes of breakfast passed in complete silence.Dorothy was trying to summon up courage to speak—obviously she hadgot to start some kind of conversation before raising the money-question—but her father was not an easy man with whom to makesmall talk. At times he would fall into such deep fits ofabstraction that you could hardly get him to listen to you; atother times he was all too attentive, listened carefully to whatyou said and then pointed out, rather wearily, that it was notworth saying. Polite platitudes—the weather, and so forth—generally moved him to sarcasm. Nevertheless, Dorothy decided totry the weather first.
‘It’s a funny kind of day, isn’t it?’ she said—aware, even as shemade it, of the inanity of this remark.
‘What is funny?’ inquired the Rector.
‘Well, I mean, it was so cold and misty this morning, and now thesun’s come out and it’s turned quite fine.’
‘Is there anything particularly funny about that?’
That was no good, obviously. He must have had bad news, shethought. She tried again.
‘I do wish you’d come out and have a look at the things in the backgarden some time, Father. The runner beans are doing so splendidly!The pods are going to be over a foot long. I’m going to keep allthe best of them for the Harvest Festival, of course. I thought itwould look so nice if we decorated the pulpit with festoons ofrunner beans and a few tomatoes hanging in among them.’
This was a faux pas. The Rector looked up from his plate with anexpression of profound distaste.
‘My dear Dorothy,’ he said sharply, ‘Is it necessary to beginworrying me about the Harvest Festival already?’
‘I’m sorry, Father!’ said Dorothy, disconcerted. ‘I didn’t mean toworry you. I just thought—’
‘Do you suppose’, proceeded the Rector, ‘it is any pleasure to meto have to preach my sermon among festoons of runner beans? I amnot a greengrocer. It quite puts me off my breakfast to think ofit. When is the wretched thing due to happen?’
‘It’s September the sixteenth, Father.’
‘That’s nearly a month hence. For Heaven’s sake let me forget ita little longer! I suppose we must have this ridiculous businessonce a year to tickle the vanity of every amateur gardener in theparish. But don’t let’s think of it more than is absolutelynecessary.’
The Rector had, as Dorothy ought to have remembered, a perfectabhorrence of Harvest Festivals. He had even lost a valuableparishioner—a Mr Toagis, a surly retired market gardener—throughhis dislike, as he said, of seeing his church dressed up to imitatea coster’s stall. Mr Toagis, anima naturaliter Nonconformistica,had been kept ‘Church’ solely by the privilege, at Harvest Festivaltime, of decorating the side altar with a sort of Stonehengecomposed of gigantic vegetable marrows. The previous summer he hadsucceeded in growing a perfect leviathan of a pumpkin, a fiery redthing so enormous that it took two men to lift it. This monstrousobject had been placed in the chancel, where it dwarfed the altarand took all the colour out of the east window. In no matter whatpart of the church you were standing, the pumpkin, as the sayinggoes, hit you in the eye. Mr Toagis was in raptures. He hungabout the church at all hours, unable to tear himself away from hisadored pumpkin, and even bringing relays of friends in to admireit. From the expression of his face you would have thought that hewas quoting Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge:
Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty!
Dorothy even had hopes, after this, of getting him to come to HolyCommunion. But when the Rector saw the pumpkin he was seriouslyangry, and ordered ‘that revolting thing’ to be removed at once.Mr Toagis had instantly ‘gone chapel’, and he and his heirs werelost to the Church for ever.
Dorothy decided to make one final attempt at conversation.
‘We’re getting on with the costumes for Charles I,’ she said. (TheChurch School children were rehearsing a play entitled Charles I inaid of the organ fund.) ‘But I do wish we’d chosen something a biteasier. The armour is a dreadful job to make, and I’m afraid thejackboots are going to be worse. I think next time we must reallyhave a Roman or Greek play. Something where they only have to weartogas.’
This elicited only another muted grunt from the Rector. Schoolplays, pageants, bazaars, jumble sales, and concerts in aid of werenot quite so bad in his eyes as Harvest Festivals, but he did notpretend to be interested in them. They were necessary evils, heused to say. At this moment Ellen, the maidservant, pushed openthe door and came gauchely into the room with one large, scaly handholding her sacking apron against her belly. She was a tall,round-shouldered girl with mouse-coloured hair, a plaintive voice,and a bad complexion, and she suffered chronically from eczema.Her eyes flitted apprehensively towards the Rector, but sheaddressed herself to Dorothy, for she was too much afraid of theRector to speak to him directly.
‘Please, Miss—’ she began.
‘Please, Miss,’ went on Ellen plaintively, ‘Mr Porter’s in thekitchen, and he says, please could the Rector come round andbaptize Mrs Porter’s baby? Because they don’t think as it’s goingto live the day out, and it ain’t been baptized yet, Miss.’
Dorothy stood up. ‘Sit down,’ said the Rector promptly, with hismouth full.
‘What do they think is the matter with the baby?’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, Miss, it’s turning quite black. And it’s had diarrhoeasomething cruel.’
The Rector emptied his mouth with an effort. ‘Must I have thesedisgusting details while I am eating my breakfast?’ he exclaimed.He turned on Ellen: ‘Send Porter about his business and tell himI’ll be round at his house at twelve o’clock. I really cannotthink why it is that the lower classes always seem to choosemealtimes to come pestering one,’ he added, casting anotherirritated glance at Dorothy as she sat down.
Mr Porter was a labouring man—a bricklayer, to be exact. TheRector’s views on baptism were entirely sound. If it had beenurgently necessary he would have walked twenty miles through snowto baptize a dying baby. But he did not like to see Dorothyproposing to leave the breakfast table at the call of a commonbricklayer.
There was no further conversation during breakfast. Dorothy’sheart was sinking lower and lower. The demand for money had got tobe made, and yet it was perfectly obvious that it was foredoomed tofailure. His breakfast finished, the Rector got up from the tableand began to fill his pipe from the tobacco-jar on the mantelpiece.Dorothy uttered a short prayer for courage, and then pinchedherself. Go on, Dorothy! Out with it! No funking, please! Withan effort she mastered her voice and said:
‘What is it?’ said the Rector, pausing with the match in his hand.
‘Father, I’ve something I want to ask you. Something important.’
The expression of the Rector’s face changed. He had divinedinstantly what she was going to say; and, curiously enough, he nowlooked less irritable than before. A stony calm had settled uponhis face. He looked like a rather exceptionally aloof andunhelpful sphinx.
‘Now, my dear Dorothy, I know very well what you are going to say.I suppose you are going to ask me for money again. Is that it?’
‘Yes, Father. Because—’
‘Well, I may as well save you the trouble. I have no money at all—absolutely no money at all until next quarter. You have had yourallowance, and I can’t give you a halfpenny more. It’s quiteuseless to come worrying me now.’
Dorothy’s heart sank yet lower. What was worst of all when shecame to him for money was the terrible, unhelpful calmness of hisattitude. He was never so unmoved as when you were reminding himthat he was up to his eyes in debt. Apparently he could notunderstand that tradesmen occasionally want to be paid, and that nohouse can be kept going without an adequate supply of money. Heallowed Dorothy eighteen pounds a month for all the householdexpenses, including Ellen’s wages, and at the same time he was‘dainty’ about his food and instantly detected any falling off inits quality. The result was, of course, that the household wasperennially in debt. But the Rector paid not the smallestattention to his debts—indeed, he was hardly even aware of them.When he lost money over an investment, he was deeply agitated; butas for a debt to a mere tradesman—well, it was the kind of thingthat he simply could not bother his head about.
A peaceful plume of smoke floated upwards from the Rector’s pipe.He was gazing with a meditative eye at the steel engraving ofCharles I and had probably forgotten already about Dorothy’s demandfor money. Seeing him so unconcerned, a pang of desperation wentthrough Dorothy, and her courage came back to her. She said moresharply than before:
‘Father, please listen to me! I must have some money soon! I simply must! We can’t go on as we’re doing. We owe money tonearly every tradesman in the town. It’s got so that some morningsI can hardly bear to go down the street and think of all the billsthat are owing. Do you know that we owe Cargill nearly twenty-twopounds?’
‘What of it?’ said the Rector between puffs of smoke.
‘But the bill’s been mounting up for over seven months! He’s sentit in over and over again. We must pay it! It’s so unfair to himto keep him waiting for his money like that!’
‘Nonsense, my dear child! These people expect to be kept waitingfor their money. They like it. It brings them more in the end.Goodness knows how much I owe to Catkin & Palm—I should hardlycare to inquire. They are dunning me by every post. But you don’thear me complaining, do you?’
‘But, Father, I can’t look at it as you do, I can’t! It’s sodreadful to be always in debt! Even if it isn’t actually wrong,it’s so hateful. It makes me so ashamed! When I go into Cargill’sshop to order the joint, he speaks to me so shortly and makes mewait after the other customers, all because our bill’s mounting upthe whole time. And yet I daren’t stop ordering from him. Ibelieve he’d run us in if I did.’
The Rector frowned. ‘What! Do you mean to say the fellow has beenimpertinent to you?’
‘I didn’t say he’d been impertinent, Father. But you can’t blamehim if he’s angry when his bill’s not paid.’
‘I most certainly can blame him! It is simply abominable how thesepeople take it upon themselves to behave nowadays—abominable! Butthere you are, you see. That is the kind of thing that we areexposed to in this delightful century. That is democracy—progress, as they are pleased to call it. Don’t order from thefellow again. Tell him at once that you are taking your accountelsewhere. That’s the only way to treat these people.’
‘But, Father, that doesn’t settle anything. Really and truly,don’t you think we ought to pay him? Surely we can get hold of themoney somehow? Couldn’t you sell out some shares, or something?’
‘My dear child, don’t talk to me about selling out shares! I havejust had the most disagreeable news from my broker. He tells methat my Sumatra Tin shares have dropped from seven and fourpence tosix and a penny. It means a loss of nearly sixty pounds. I amtelling him to sell out at once before they drop any further.’
‘Then if you sell out you’ll have some ready money, won’t you?Don’t you think it would be better to get out of debt once and forall?’
‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ said the Rector more calmly, putting his pipeback in his mouth. ‘You know nothing whatever about these matters.I shall have to reinvest at once in something more hopeful—it’sthe only way of getting my money back.’
With one thumb in the belt of his cassock he frowned abstractedlyat the steel engraving. His broker had advised United Celanese.Here—in Sumatra Tin, United Celanese, and numberless other remoteand dimly imagined companies—was the central cause of the Rector’smoney troubles. He was an inveterate gambler. Not, of course,that he thought of it as gambling; it was merely a lifelong searchfor a ‘good investment’. On coming of age he had inherited fourthousand pounds, which had gradually dwindled, thanks to his‘investments’, to about twelve hundred. What was worse, every yearhe managed to scrape together, out of his miserable income, anotherfifty pounds which vanished by the same road. It is a curious factthat the lure of a ‘good investment’ seems to haunt clergymen morepersistently than any other class of man. Perhaps it is the modernequivalent of the demons in female shape who used to haunt theanchorites of the Dark Ages.
‘I shall buy five hundred United Celanese,’ said the Rector finally.
Dorothy began to give up hope. Her father was now thinking of his‘investments’ (she new nothing whatever about these ‘investments’,except that they went wrong with phenomenal regularity), and inanother moment the question of the shop-debts would have slippedentirely out of his mind. She made a final effort.
‘Father, let’s get this settled, please. Do you think you’ll beable to let me have some extra money fairly soon? Not this moment,perhaps—but in the next month or two?’
‘No, my dear, I don’t. About Christmas time, possibly—it’s veryunlikely even then. But for the present, certainly not. I haven’ta halfpenny I can spare.’
‘But, Father, it’s so horrible to feel we can’t pay our debts! Itdisgraces us so! Last time Mr Welwyn-Foster was here’ (Mr Welwyn-Foster was the Rural Dean) ‘Mrs Welwyn-Foster was going all roundthe town asking everyone the most personal questions about us—asking how we spent our time, and how much money we had, and howmany tons of coal we used in a year, and everything. She’s alwaystrying to pry into our affairs. Suppose she found out that we werebadly in debt!’
‘Surely it is our own business? I fail entirely to see what it hasto do with Mrs Welwyn-Foster or anyone else.’
‘But she’d repeat it all over the place—and she’d exaggerate ittoo! You know what Mrs Welwyn-Foster is. In every parish she goesto she tries to find out something disgraceful about the clergyman,and then she repeats every word of it to the Bishop. I don’t wantto be uncharitable about her, but really she—’
Realizing that she did want to be uncharitable, Dorothy was silent.
‘She is a detestable woman,’ said the Rector evenly. ‘What of it?Who ever heard of a Rural Dean’s wife who wasn’t detestable?’
‘But, Father, I don’t seem to be able to get you to see how seriousthings are! We’ve simply nothing to live on for the next month. Idon’t even know where the meat’s coming from for today’s dinner.’
‘Luncheon, Dorothy, luncheon!’ said the Rector with a touch ofirritation. ‘I do wish you would drop that abominable lower-classhabit of calling the midday meal dinner!’
‘For luncheon, then. Where are we to get the meat from? I daren’task Cargill for another joint.’
‘Go to the other butcher—what’s his name? Salter—and take nonotice of Cargill. He knows he’ll be paid sooner or later. Goodgracious, I don’t know what all this fuss is about! Doesn’teveryone owe money to his tradesmen? I distinctly remember’—theRector straightened his shoulders a little, and, putting his pipeback into his mouth, looked into the distance; his voice becamereminiscent and perceptibly more agreeable—’I distinctly rememberthat when I was up at Oxford, my father had still not paid some ofhis own Oxford bills of thirty years earlier. Tom’ (Tom was theRector’s cousin, the Baronet) ‘owed seven thousand before he cameinto his money. He told me so himself.’
At that, Dorothy’s last hope vanished. When her father began totalk about his cousin Tom, and about things that had happened ‘whenI was up at Oxford’, there was nothing more to be done with him.It meant that he had slipped into an imaginary golden past in whichsuch vulgar things as butchers’ bills simply did not exist. Therewere long periods together when he seemed actually to forget thathe was only a poverty-stricken country Rector—that he was not ayoung man of family with estates and reversions at his back. Thearistocratic, the expensive attitude was the one that in allcircumstances came the most naturally to him. And of course whilehe lived, not uncomfortably, in the world of his imagination, itwas Dorothy who had to fight the tradesmen and make a leg of muttonlast from Sunday to Wednesday. But she knew the completeuselessness of arguing with him any longer. It would only end inmaking him angry. She got up from the table and began to pile thebreakfast things on to the tray.
‘You’re absolutely certain you can’t let me have any money,Father?’ she said for the last time, at the door; with the tray inher arms.
The Rector, gazing into the middle distance, amid comfortablewreaths of smoke, did not hear her. He was thinking, perhaps, ofhis golden Oxford days. Dorothy went out of the room distressedalmost to the point of tears. The miserable question of the debtswas once more shelved, as it had been shelved a thousand timesbefore, with no prospect of final solution.
On her elderly bicycle with the basketwork carrier on the handle-bars, Dorothy free-wheeled down the hill, doing mental arithmeticwith three pounds nineteen and fourpence—her entire stock of moneyuntil next quarter-day.
She had been through the list of things that were needed in thekitchen. But indeed, was there anything that was not needed in thekitchen? Tea, coffee, soap, matches, candles, sugar, lentils,firewood, soda, lamp oil, boot polish, margarine, baking powder—there seemed to be practically nothing that they were not runningshort of. And at every moment some fresh item that she hadforgotten popped up and dismayed her. The laundry bill, forexample, and the fact that the coal was running short, and thequestion of the fish for Friday. The Rector was ‘difficult’ aboutfish. Roughly speaking, he would only eat the more expensivekinds; cod, whiting, sprats, skate, herrings, and kippers herefused.
Meanwhile, she had got to settle about the meat for today’s dinner—luncheon. (Dorothy was careful to obey her father and call it luncheon, when she remembered it. On the other hand, you could notin honesty call the evening meal anything but ‘supper’; so therewas no such meal as ‘dinner’ at the Rectory.) Better make anomelette for luncheon today, Dorothy decided. She dared not go toCargill again. Though, of course, if they had an omelette forluncheon and then scrambled eggs for supper, her father wouldprobably be sarcastic about it. Last time they had eggs twice inone day, he had inquired coldly, ‘Have you started a chicken farm,Dorothy?’ And perhaps tomorrow she would get two pounds ofsausages at the International, and that staved off the meat-question for one day more.
Thirty-nine further days, with only three pounds nineteen andfourpence to provide for them, loomed up in Dorothy’s imagination,sending through her a wave of self-pity which she checked almostinstantly. Now then, Dorothy! No snivelling, please! It allcomes right somehow if you trust in God. Matthew vi, 25. The Lordwill provide. Will He? Dorothy removed her right hand from thehandle-bars and felt for the glass-headed pin, but the blasphemousthought faded. At this moment she became aware of the gloomy redface of Proggett, who was hailing her respectfully but urgentlyfrom the side of the road.
Dorothy stopped and got off her bicycle.
‘Beg pardon, Miss,’ said Proggett. ‘I been wanting to speak toyou, Miss—partic’lar.’
Dorothy sighed inwardly. When Proggett wanted to speak to you partic’lar, you could be perfectly certain what was coming; it wassome piece of alarming news about the condition of the church.Proggett was a pessimistic, conscientious man, and very loyalchurchman, after his fashion. Too dim of intellect to have anydefinite religious beliefs, he showed his piety by an intensesolicitude about the state of the church buildings. He had decidedlong ago that the Church of Christ meant the actual walls, roof,and tower of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, and he would poke roundthe church at all hours of the day, gloomily noting a cracked stonehere, a worm-eaten beam there—and afterwards, of course, coming toharass Dorothy with demands for repairs which would cost impossiblesums of money.
‘What is it, Proggett?’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, Miss, it’s they —’—here a peculiar, imperfect sound, not aword exactly, but the ghost of a word, all but formed itself onProggett’s lips. It seemed to begin with a B. Proggett was one ofthose men who are for ever on the verge of swearing, but who alwaysrecapture the oath as it is escaping between their teeth. ‘It’sthey bells, Miss,’ he said, getting rid of the B sound with aneffort. ‘They bells up in the church tower. They’re a-splinteringthrough that there belfry floor in a way as it makes you fairshudder to look at ‘em. We’ll have ‘em down atop of us before weknow where we are. I was up the belfry ‘smorning, and I tell you Icome down faster’n I went up, when I saw how that there floor’s a-busting underneath ‘em.’
Proggett came to complain about the condition of the bells not lessthan once a fortnight. It was now three years that they had beenlying on the floor of the belfry, because the cost of eitherreswinging or removing them was estimated at twenty-five pounds,which might as well have been twenty-five thousand for all thechance there was of paying for it. They were really almost asdangerous as Proggett made out. It was quite certain that, if notthis year or next year, at any rate at some time in the nearfuture, they would fall through the belfry floor into the churchporch. And, as Proggett was fond of pointing out, it wouldprobably happen on a Sunday morning just as the congregation werecoming into church.
Dorothy sighed again. Those wretched bells were never out of mindfor long; there were times when the thought of their falling evengot into her dreams. There was always some trouble or other at thechurch. If it was not the belfry, then it was the roof or thewalls; or it was a broken pew which the carpenter wanted tenshillings to mend; or it was seven hymn-books needed at one andsixpence each, or the flue of the stove choked up—and the sweep’sfee was half a crown—or a smashed window-pane or the choir-boys’cassocks in rags. There was never enough money for anything. Thenew organ which the rector had insisted on buying five yearsearlier—the old one, he said, reminded him of a cow with theasthma—was a burden under which the Church Expenses fund had beenstaggering ever since.
‘I don’t know what we can do,’ said Dorothy finally; ‘I reallydon’t. We’ve simply no money at all. And even if we do makeanything out of the school-children’s play, it’s all got to go tothe organ fund. The organ people are really getting quite nastyabout their bill. Have you spoken to my father?’
‘Yes, Miss. He don’t make nothing of it. “Belfry’s held up fivehundred years,” he says; “we can trust it to hold up a few yearslonger.”’
This was quite according to precedent. The fact that the churchwas visibly collapsing over his head made no impression on theRector; he simply ignored it, as he ignored anything else that hedid not wish to be worried about.
‘Well, I don’t know what we can do,’ Dorothy repeated. ‘Of coursethere’s the jumble sale coming off the week after next. I’mcounting on Miss Mayfill to give us something really nice for thejumble sale. I know she could afford to. She’s got such lots offurniture and things that she never uses. I was in her house theother day, and I saw a most beautiful Lowestoft china tea servicewhich was put away in a cupboard, and she told me it hadn’t beenused for over twenty years. Just suppose she gave us that teaservice! It would fetch pounds and pounds. We must just pray thatthe jumble sale will be a success, Proggett. Pray that it’ll bringus five pounds at least. I’m sure we shall get the money somehowif we really and truly pray for it.’
‘Yes, Miss,’ said Proggett respectfully, and shifted his gaze tothe far distance.
At this moment a horn hooted and a vast, gleaming blue car camevery slowly down the road, making for the High Street. Out of onewindow Mr Blifil-Gordon, the Proprietor of the sugar-beet refinery,was thrusting a sleek black head which went remarkably ill with hissuit of sandy-coloured Harris tweed. As he passed, instead ofignoring Dorothy as usual, he flashed upon her a smile so warm thatit was almost amorous. With him were his eldest son Ralph—or, ashe and the rest of the family pronounced it, Walph—an epiceneyouth of twenty, given to the writing of sub-Eliot vers librepoems, and Lord Pockthorne’s two daughters. They were all smiling,even Lord Pockthorne’s daughters. Dorothy was astonished, for itwas several years since any of these people had deigned torecognize her in the street.
‘Mr Blifil-Gordon is very friendly this morning,’ she said.
‘Aye, Miss. I’ll be bound he is. It’s the election coming on nextweek, that’s what ‘tis. All honey and butter they are till they’vemade sure as you’ll vote for them; and then they’ve forgot yourvery face the day afterwards.’
‘Oh, the election!’ said Dorothy vaguely. So remote were suchthings as parliamentary elections from the daily round of parishwork that she was virtually unaware of them—hardly, indeed, evenknowing the difference between Liberal and Conservative orSocialist and Communist. ‘Well, Proggett,’ she said, immediatelyforgetting the election in favour of something more important,‘I’ll speak to Father and tell him how serious it is about thebells. I think perhaps the best thing we can do will be to get upa special subscription, just for the bells alone. There’s noknowing, we might make five pounds. We might even make ten pounds!Don’t you think if I went to Miss Mayfill and asked her to startthe subscription with five pounds, she might give it to us?’
‘You take my word, Miss, and don’t you let Miss Mayfill hearnothing about it. It’d scare the life out of her. If she thoughtas that tower wasn’t safe, we’d never get her inside that churchagain.’
‘Oh dear! I suppose not.’
‘No, Miss. We shan’t get nothing out of her; the old—’
A ghostly B floated once more across Proggett’s lips. His mind alittle more at rest now that he had delivered his fortnightlyreport upon the bells, he touched his cap and departed, whileDorothy rode on into the High Street, with the twin problems of theshop-debts and the Church Expenses pursuing one another through hermind like the twin refrains of a villanelle.
The still watery sun, now playing hide-and-seek, April-wise, amongwoolly islets of cloud, sent an oblique beam down the High Street,gilding the house-fronts of the northern side. It was one of thosesleepy, old-fashioned streets that look so ideally peaceful on acasual visit and so very different when you live in them and havean enemy or a creditor behind every window. The only definitelyoffensive buildings were Ye Olde Tea Shoppe (plaster front withsham beams nailed on to it, bottle-glass windows and revoltingcurly roof like that of a Chinese joss-house), and the new, Doric-pillared post office. After about two hundred yards the HighStreet forked, forming a tiny market-place, adorned with a pump,now defunct, and a worm-eaten pair of stocks. On either side ofthe pump stood the Dog and Bottle, the principal inn of the town,and the Knype Hill Conservative Club. At the end, commanding thestreet, stood Cargill’s dreaded shop.
Dorothy came round the corner to a terrific din of cheering,mingled with the strains of ‘Rule Britannia’ played on thetrombone. The normally sleepy street was black with people, andmore people were hurrying from all the sidestreets. Evidently asort of triumphal procession was taking place. Right across thestreet, from the roof of the Dog and Bottle to the roof of theConservative Club, hung a line with innumerable blue streamers, andin the middle a vast banner inscribed ‘Blifil-Gordon and theEmpire!’ Towards this, between the lanes of people, the Blifil-Gordon car was moving at a foot-pace, with Mr Blifil-Gordon smilingrichly, first to one side, then to the other. In front of the carmarched a detachment of the Buffaloes, headed by an earnest-lookinglittle man playing the trombone, and carrying among them anotherbanner inscribed:
Who’ll save Britain from the Reds?
Who’ll put the Beer back into your Pot?
Blifil-Gordon for ever!
From the window of the Conservative Club floated an enormous UnionJack, above which six scarlet faces were beaming enthusiastically.
Dorothy wheeled her bicycle slowly down the street, too muchagitated by the prospect of passing Cargill’s shop (she had got topass, it, to get to Solepipe’s) to take much notice of theprocession. The Blifil-Gordon car had halted for a moment outsideYe Olde Tea Shoppe. Forward, the coffee brigade! Half the ladiesof the town seemed to be hurrying forth, with lapdogs or shoppingbaskets on their arms, to cluster about the car like Bacchantesabout the car of the vine-god. After all, an election ispractically the only time when you get a chance of exchangingsmiles with the County. There were eager feminine cries of ‘Goodluck, Mr Blifil-Gordon! Dear Mr Blifil-Gordon! We do hope you’llget in, Mr Blifil-Gordon!’ Mr Blifil-Gordon’s largesse of smileswas unceasing, but carefully graded. To the populace he gave adiffused, general smile, not resting on individuals; to the coffeeladies and the six scarlet patriots of the Conservative Club hegave one smile each; to the most favoured of all, young Walph gavean occasional wave of the hand and a squeaky ‘Cheewio!’
Dorothy’s heart tightened. She had seen that Mr Cargill, like therest of the shopkeepers, was standing on his doorstep. He was atall, evil-looking man, in blue-striped apron, with a lean, scrapedface as purple as one of his own joints of meat that had lain alittle too long in the window. So fascinated were Dorothy’s eyesby that ominous figure that she did not look where she was going,and bumped into a very large, stout man who was stepping off thepavement backwards.
The stout man turned round. ‘Good Heavens! It’s Dorothy!’ heexclaimed.
‘Why, Mr Warburton! How extraordinary! Do you know, I had afeeling I was going to meet you today.’
‘By the pricking of your thumbs, I presume?’ said Mr Warburton,beaming all over a large, pink, Micawberish face. ‘And how areyou? But by Jove!’ he added, ‘What need is there to ask? You lookmore bewitching than ever.’
He pinched Dorothy’s bare elbow—she had changed, after breakfast,into a sleeveless gingham frock. Dorothy stepped hurriedlybackwards to get out of his reach—she hated being pinched orotherwise ‘mauled about’—and said rather severely:
‘Please don’t pinch my elbow. I don’t like it.’
‘My dear Dorothy, who could resist an elbow like yours? It’s thesort of elbow one pinches automatically. A reflex action, if youunderstand me.’
‘When did you get back to Knype Hill?’ said Dorothy, who had puther bicycle between Mr Warburton and herself. It’s over two monthssince I’ve seen you.’
‘I got back the day before yesterday. But this is only a flyingvisit. I’m off again tomorrow. I’m taking the kids to Brittany.The bastards, you know.’
Mr Warburton pronounced the word bastards, at which Dorothy lookedaway in discomfort, with a touch of naive pride. He and his‘bastards’ (he had three of them) were one of the chief scandals ofKnype Hill. He was a man of independent income, calling himself apainter—he produced about half a dozen mediocre landscapes everyyear—and he had come to Knype Hill two years earlier and boughtone of the new villas behind the Rectory. There he lived, orrather stayed periodically, in open concubinage with a woman whomhe called his housekeeper. Four months ago this woman—she was aforeigner, a Spaniard it was said—had created a fresh and worsescandal by abruptly deserting him, and his three children were nowparked with some long-suffering relative in London. In appearancehe was a fine, imposing-looking man, though entirely bald (he wasat great pains to conceal this), and he carried himself with such arakish air as to give the impression that his fairly sizeable bellywas merely a kind of annexe to his chest. His age was forty-eight,and he owned to forty-four. People in the town said that he was a‘proper old rascal’; young girls were afraid of him, not withoutreason.
Mr Warburton had laid his hand pseudo-paternally on Dorothy’sshoulder and was shepherding her through the crowd, talking all thewhile almost without a pause. The Blifil-Gordon car, havingrounded the pump, was now wending its way back, still accompaniedby its troupe of middle-aged Bacchantes. Mr Warburton, hisattention caught, paused to scrutinize it.
‘What is the meaning of these disgusting antics?’ he asked.
‘Oh, they’re—what is it they call it?—electioneering. Trying toget us to vote for them, I suppose.’
‘Trying to get us to vote for them! Good God!’ murmured MrWarburton, as he eyed the triumphal cortege. He raised the large,silver-headed cane that he always carried, and pointed, ratherexpressively, first at one figure in the procession and then atanother. ‘Look at it! Just look at it! Look at those fawninghags, and that half-witted oaf grinning at us like a monkey thatsees a bag of nuts. Did you ever see such a disgusting spectacle?’
‘Do be careful!’ Dorothy murmured. ‘Somebody’s sure to hear you.’
‘Good!’ said Mr Warburton, immediately raising his voice. ‘And tothink that low-born hound actually has the impertinence to thinkthat he’s pleasing us with the sight of his false teeth! And thatsuit he’s wearing is an offence in itself. Is there a Socialistcandidate? If so, I shall certainly vote for him.’
Several people on the pavement turned and stared. Dorothy sawlittle Mr Twiss, the ironmonger, a weazened, leather-coloured oldman, peering with veiled malevolence round the corner of the rushbaskets that hung in his doorway. He had caught the wordSocialist, and was mentally registering Mr Warburton as a Socialistand Dorothy as the friend of Socialists.
‘I really must be getting on,’ said Dorothy hastily, feeling thatshe had better escape before Mr Warburton said something even moretactless. ‘I’ve got ever such a lot of shopping to do. I’ll saygood-bye for the present, then.’
‘Oh, no, you won’t!’ said Mr Warburton cheerfully. ‘Not a bit ofit! I’ll come with you.’
As she wheeled her bicycle down the street he marched at her side,still talking, with his large chest well forward and his sticktucked under his arm. He was a difficult man to shake off, andthough Dorothy counted him as a friend, she did sometimes wish, hebeing the town scandal and she the Rector’s daughter, that he wouldnot always choose the most public places to talk to her in. Atthis moment, however, she was rather grateful for his company,which made it appreciably easier to pass Cargill’s shop—forCargill was still on his doorstep and was regarding her with asidelong, meaning gaze.
‘It was a bit of luck my meeting you this morning,’ Mr Warburtonwent on. ‘In fact, I was looking for you. Who do you think I’vegot coming to dinner with me tonight? Bewley—Ronald Bewley.You’ve heard of him, of course?’
‘Ronald Bewley? No, I don’t think so. Who is he?’
‘Why, dash it! Ronald Bewley, the novelist. Author of Fishpoolsand Concubines. Surely you’ve read Fishpools and Concubines?’
‘No, I’m afraid I haven’t. In fact, I’d never even heard of it.’
‘My dear Dorothy! You have been neglecting yourself. Youcertainly ought to read Fishpools and Concubines. It’s hot stuff,I assure you—real high-class pornography. Just the kind of thingyou need to take the taste of the Girl Guides out of your mouth.’
‘I do wish you wouldn’t say such things!’ said Dorothy, lookingaway uncomfortably, and then immediately looking back again becauseshe had all but caught Cargill’s eye. ‘Where does this Mr Bewleylive?’ she added. ‘Not here, surely, does he?’
‘No. He’s coming over from Ipswich for dinner, and perhaps to staythe night. That’s why I was looking for you. I thought you mightlike to meet him. How about your coming to dinner tonight?’
‘I can’t possibly come to dinner,’ said Dorothy. ‘I’ve gotFather’s supper to see to, and thousands of other things. I shan’tbe free till eight o’clock or after.’
‘Well, come along after dinner, then. I’d like you to know Bewley.He’s an interesting fellow—very au fait with all the Bloomsburyscandal, and all that. You’ll enjoy meeting him. It’ll do yougood to escape from the church hen-coop for a few hours.’
Dorothy hesitated. She was tempted. To tell the truth, sheenjoyed her occasional visits to Mr Warburton’s house extremely.But of course they were very occasional—once in three or fourmonths at the oftenest; it so obviously didn’t do to associate toofreely with such a man. And even when she did go to his house shewas careful to make sure beforehand that there was going to be atleast one other visitor.
Two years earlier, when Mr Warburton had first come to Knype Hill(at that time he was posing as a widower with two children; alittle later, however, the housekeeper suddenly gave birth to athird child in the middle of the night), Dorothy had met him at atea-party and afterwards called on him. Mr Warburton had givenher a delightful tea, talked amusingly about books, and then,immediately after tea, sat down beside her on the sofa and begunmaking love to her, violently, outrageously, even brutally. It waspractically an assault. Dorothy was horrified almost out of herwits, though not too horrified to resist. She escaped from him andtook refuge on the other side of the sofa, white, shaking, andalmost in tears. Mr Warburton, on the other hand, was quiteunashamed and even seemed rather amused.
‘Oh, how could you, how could you?’ she sobbed.
‘But it appears that I couldn’t,’ said Mr Warburton.
‘Oh, but how could you be such a brute?’
‘Oh, that? Easily, my child, easily. You will understand thatwhen you get to my age.’
In spite of this bad beginning, a sort of friendship had grown upbetween the two, even to the extent of Dorothy being ‘talked about’in connexion with Mr Warburton. It did not take much to get you‘talked about’ in Knype Hill. She only saw him at long intervalsand took the greatest care never to be alone with him, but even sohe found opportunities of making casual love to her. But it wasdone in a gentlemanly fashion; the previous disagreeable incidentwas not repeated. Afterwards, when he was forgiven, Mr Warburtonhad explained that he ‘always tried it on’ with every presentablewoman he met.
‘Don’t you get rather a lot of snubs?’ Dorothy could not helpasking him.
‘Oh, certainly. But I get quite a number of successes as well, youknow.’
People wondered sometimes how such a girl as Dorothy could consort,even occasionally, with such a man as Mr Warburton; but the holdthat he had over her was the hold that the blasphemer and evil-liver always has over the pious. It is a fact—you have only tolook about you to verify it—that the pious and the immoral driftnaturally together. The best brothel-scenes in literature havebeen written, without exception, by pious believers or piousunbelievers. And of course Dorothy, born into the twentiethcentury, made a point of listening to Mr Warburton’s blasphemies ascalmly as possible; it is fatal to flatter the wicked by lettingthem see that you are shocked by them. Besides, she was genuinelyfond of him. He teased her and distressed her, and yet she gotfrom him, without being fully aware of it, a species of sympathyand understanding which she could not get elsewhere. For all hisvices he was distinctly likeable, and the shoddy brilliance of hisconversation—Oscar Wilde seven times watered—which she was tooinexperienced to see through, fascinated while it shocked her.Perhaps, too, in this instance, the prospect of meeting thecelebrated Mr Bewley had its effect upon her; though certainlyFishponds and Concubines sounded like the kind of book that sheeither didn’t read or else set herself heavy penances for reading.In London, no doubt, one would hardly cross the road to see fiftynovelists; but these things appeared differently in places likeKnype Hill.
‘Are you sure Mr Bewley is coming?’ she said.
‘Quite sure. And his wife’s coming as well, I believe. Fullchaperonage. No Tarquin and Lucrece business this evening.’
‘All right,’ said Dorothy finally; ‘thanks very much. I’ll comeround—about half past eight, I expect.’
‘Good. If you can manage to come while it is still daylight, somuch the better. Remember that Mrs Semprill is my next-doorneighbour. We can count on her to be on the qui vive any timeafter sundown.’
Mrs Semprill was the town scandalmonger—the most eminent, that is,of the town’s many scandalmongers. Having got what he wanted (hewas constantly pestering Dorothy to come to his house more often),Mr Warburton said au revoir and left Dorothy to do the remainder ofher shopping.
In the semi-gloom of Solepipe’s shop, she was just moving away fromthe counter with her two and a half yards of casement cloth, whenshe was aware of a low, mournful voice at her ear. It was MrsSemprill. She was a slender woman of forty, with a lank, sallow,distinguished face, which, with her glossy dark hair and air ofsettled melancholy, gave her something the appearance of a Van Dyckportrait. Entrenched behind a pile of cretonnes near the window,she had been watching Dorothy’s conversation with Mr Warburton.Whenever you were doing something that you did not particularlywant Mrs Semprill to see you doing, you could trust her to besomewhere in the neighbourhood. She seemed to have the power ofmaterializing like an Arabian jinneeyeh at any place where she wasnot wanted. No indiscretion, however small, escaped her vigilance.Mr Warburton used to say that she was like the four beasts of theApocalypse—’They are full of eyes, you remember, and they rest notnight nor day.’
‘Dorothy dearest,’ murmured Mrs Semprill in the sorrowful,affectionate voice of someone breaking a piece of bad news asgently as possible. ‘I’ve been so wanting to speak to you. I’vesomething simply dreadful to tell you—something that will really horrify you!’
‘What is it?’ said Dorothy resignedly, well knowing what wascoming—for Mrs Semprill had only one subject of conversation.
They moved out of the shop and began to walk down the street,Dorothy wheeling her bicycle, Mrs Semprill mincing at her side witha delicate birdlike step and bringing her mouth closer and closerto Dorothy’s ear as her remarks grew more and more intimate.
‘Do you happen to have noticed,’ she began, ‘that girl who sits atthe end of the pew nearest the organ in church? A rather pretty girl, with red hair. I’ve no idea what her name is,’ added MrsSemprill, who knew the surname and all the Christian names of everyman, woman, and child in Knype Hill.
‘Molly Freeman,’ said Dorothy. ‘She’s the niece of Freeman thegreengrocer.’
‘Oh, Molly Freeman? Is that her name? I’d often wondered. Well—’
The delicate red mouth came closer, the mournful voice sank to ashocked whisper. Mrs Semprill began to pour forth a stream ofpurulent libel involving Molly Freeman and six young men who workedat the sugar-beet refinery. After a few moments the story becameso outrageous that Dorothy, who had turned very pink, hurriedlywithdrew her ear from Mrs Semprill’s whispering lips. She stoppedher bicycle.
‘I won’t listen to such things!’ she said abruptly. ‘I know thatisn’t true about Molly Freeman. It can’t be true! She’s such anice quiet girl—she was one of my very best Girl Guides, and she’salways been so good about helping with the church bazaars andeverything. I’m perfectly certain she wouldn’t do such things asyou’re saying.’
‘But, Dorothy dearest! When, as I told you, I actually saw with myown eyes . . .’
‘I don’t care! It’s not fair to say such things about people.Even if they were true it wouldn’t be right to repeat them.There’s quite enough evil in the world without going about lookingfor it.’
‘Looking for it!’ sighed Mrs Semprill. ‘But, my dear Dorothy, asthough one ever wanted or needed to look! The trouble is that onecan’t help seeing all the dreadful wickedness that goes on in thistown.’
Mrs Semprill was always genuinely astonished if you accused her of looking for subjects for scandal. Nothing, she would protest,pained her more than the spectacle of human wickedness; but it wasconstantly forced upon her unwilling eyes, and only a stern senseof duty impelled her to make it public. Dorothy’s remarks, so farfrom silencing her, merely set her talking about the generalcorruption of Knype Hill, of which Molly Freeman’s misbehaviour wasonly one example. And so from Molly Freeman and her six young menshe proceeded to Dr Gaythorne, the town medical officer, who hadgot two of the nurses at the Cottage Hospital with child, and thento Mrs Corn, the Town Clerk’s wife, found lying in a field deaddrunk on eau-de-Cologne, and then to the curate at St Wedekind’s inMillborough, who had involved himself in a grave scandal with achoirboy; and so it went on, one thing leading to another. Forthere was hardly a soul in the town or the surrounding countryabout whom Mrs Semprill could not disclose some festering secret ifyou listened to her long enough.
It was noticeable that her stories were not only dirty andlibellous, but they had nearly always some monstrous tinge ofperversion about them. Compared with the ordinary scandalmongersof a country town, she was Freud to Boccaccio. From hearing hertalk you would have gathered the impression that Knype Hill withits thousand inhabitants held more of the refinements of evil thanSodom, Gomorrah, and Buenos Aires put together. Indeed, when youreflected upon the lives led by the inhabitants of this latter-dayCity of the Plain—from the manager of the local bank squanderinghis clients’ money on the children of his second and bigamousmarriage, to the barmaid of the Dog and Bottle serving drinks inthe taproom dressed only in high-heeled satin slippers, and fromold Miss Channon, the music-teacher, with her secret gin bottle andher anonymous letters, to Maggie White, the baker’s daughter, whohad borne three children to her own brother—when you consideredthese people, all, young and old, rich and poor, sunken inmonstrous and Babylonian vices, you wondered that fire did not comedown from Heaven and consume the town forthwith. But if youlistened just a little longer, the catalogue of obscenities becamefirst monstrous and then unbearably dull. For in a town in which everyone is either a bigamist, a pederast, or a drug-taker, theworst scandal loses its sting. In fact, Mrs Semprill was somethingworse than a slanderer; she was a bore.
As to the extent to which her stories were believed, it varied. Attimes the word would go round that she was a foul-mouthed old catand everything she said was a pack of lies; at other times one ofher accusations would take effect on some unfortunate person, whowould need months or even years to live it down. She had certainlybeen instrumental in breaking off not less than half a dozenengagements and starting innumerable quarrels between husbands andwives.
All this while Dorothy had been making abortive efforts to shakeMrs Semprill off. She had edged her way gradually across thestreet until she was wheeling her bicycle along the right-handkerb; but Mrs Semprill had followed, whispering without cease. Itwas not until they reached the end of the High Street that Dorothysummoned up enough firmness to escape. She halted and put herright foot on the pedal of her bicycle.
‘I really can’t stop a moment longer,’ she said. ‘I’ve got athousand things to do, and I’m late already.’
‘Oh, but, Dorothy dear! I’ve something else I simply must tellyou—something most important!’
‘I’m sorry—I’m in such a terrible hurry. Another time, perhaps.’
‘It’s about that dreadful Mr Warburton,’ said Mrs Semprill hastily,lest Dorothy should escape without hearing it. ‘He’s just comeback from London, and do you know—I most particularly wanted totell you this—do you know, he actually—’
But here Dorothy saw that she must make off instantly, at no matterwhat cost. She could imagine nothing more uncomfortable than tohave to discuss Mr Warburton with Mrs Semprill. She mounted herbicycle, and with only a very brief ‘Sorry—I really can’t stop!’began to ride hurriedly away.
‘I wanted to tell you—he’s taken up with a new woman!’ MrsSemprill cried after her, even forgetting to whisper in hereagerness to pass on this juicy titbit.
But Dorothy rode swiftly round the corner, not looking back, andpretending not to have heard. An unwise thing to do, for it didnot pay to cut Mrs Semprill too short. Any unwillingness to listento her scandals was taken as a sign of depravity, and led to freshand worse scandals being published about yourself the moment youhad left her.
As Dorothy rode homewards she had uncharitable thoughts about MrsSemprill, for which she duly pinched herself. Also, there wasanother, rather disturbing idea which had not occurred to her tillthis moment—that Mrs Semprill would certainly learn of her visitto Mr Warburton’s house this evening, and would probably havemagnified it into something scandalous by tomorrow. The thoughtsent a vague premonition of evil through Dorothy’s mind as shejumped off her bicycle at the Rectory gate, where Silly Jack, thetown idiot, a third-grade moron with a triangular scarlet face likea strawberry, was loitering, vacantly flogging the gatepost with ahazel switch.
It was a little after eleven. The day, which, like some overripebut hopeful widow playing at seventeen, had been putting onunseasonable April airs, had now remembered that it was August andsettled down to be boiling hot.
Dorothy rode into the hamlet of Fennelwick, a mile out of KnypeHill. She had delivered Mrs Lewin’s corn-plaster, and was droppingin to give old Mrs Pither that cutting from the Daily Mail aboutangelica tea for rheumatism. The sun, burning in the cloudlesssky, scorched her back through her gingham frock, and the dustyroad quivered in the heat, and the hot, flat meadows, over whicheven at this time of year numberless larks chirruped tiresomely,were so green that it hurt your eyes to look at them. It was thekind of day that is called ‘glorious’ by people who don’t have towork.
Dorothy leaned her bicycle against the gate of the Pithers’cottage, and took her handkerchief out of her bag and wiped herhands, which were sweating from the handle-bars. In the harshsunlight her face looked pinched and colourless. She looked herage, and something over, at that hour of the morning. Throughouther day—and in general it was a seventeen-hour day—she hadregular, alternating periods of tiredness and energy; the middle ofthe morning, when she was doing the first instalment of the day’s‘visiting’, was one of the tired periods.
‘Visiting’, because of the distances she had to bicycle from houseto house, took up nearly half of Dorothy’s day. Every day of herlife, except on Sundays, she made from half a dozen to a dozenvisits at parishioners’ cottages. She penetrated into crampedinteriors and sat on lumpy, dust-diffusing chairs gossiping withoverworked, blowsy housewives; she spent hurried half-hours givinga hand with the mending and the ironing, and read chapters from theGospels, and readjusted bandages on ‘bad legs’, and condoled withsufferers from morning-sickness; she played ride-a-cock-horse withsour-smelling children who grimed the bosom of her dress with theirsticky little fingers; she gave advice about ailing aspidistras,and suggested names for babies, and drank ‘nice cups of tea’innumerable—for the working women always wanted her to have a‘nice cup of tea’, out of the teapot endlessly stewing.
Much of it was profoundly discouraging work. Few, very few, of thewomen seemed to have even a conception of the Christian life thatshe was trying to help them to lead. Some of them were shy andsuspicious, stood on the defensive, and made excuses when urged tocome to Holy Communion; some shammed piety for the sake of the tinysums they could wheedle out of the church alms box; those whowelcomed her coming were for the most part the talkative ones, whowanted an audience for complaints about the ‘goings on’ of theirhusbands, or for endless mortuary tales (‘And he had to have glasschubes let into his veins,’ etc., etc.) about the revoltingdiseases their relatives had died of. Quite half the women on herlist, Dorothy knew, were at heart atheistical in a vagueunreasoning way. She came up against it all day long—that vague,blank disbelief so common in illiterate people, against which allargument is powerless. Do what she would, she could never raisethe number of regular communicants to more than a dozen orthereabouts. Women would promise to communicate, keep theirpromise for a month or two, and then fall away. With the youngerwomen it was especially hopeless. They would not even join thelocal branches of the church leagues that were run for theirbenefit—Dorothy was honorary secretary of three such leagues,besides being captain of the Girl Guides. The Band of Hope and theCompanionship of Marriage languished almost memberless, and theMothers’ Union only kept going because gossip and unlimited strongtea made the weekly sewing-parties acceptable. Yes, it wasdiscouraging work; so discouraging that at times it would haveseemed altogether futile if she had not known the sense of futilityfor what it is—the subtlest weapon of the Devil.
Dorothy knocked at the Pithers’ badly fitting door, from beneathwhich a melancholy smell of boiled cabbage and dish-water wasoozing. From long experience she knew and could taste in advancethe individual smell of every cottage on her rounds. Some of theirsmells were peculiar in the extreme. For instance, there was thesalty, feral smell that haunted the cottage of old Mr Tombs, anaged retired bookseller who lay in bed all day in a darkened room,with his long, dusty nose and pebble spectacles protruding fromwhat appeared to be a fur rug of vast size and richness.
But if you put your hand on the fur rug it disintegrated, burst andfled in all directions. It was composed entirely of cats—twenty-four cats, to be exact. Mr Tombs ‘found they kept him warm’, heused to explain. In nearly all the cottages there was a basicsmell of old overcoats and dish-water upon which the other,individual smells were superimposed; the cesspool smell, thecabbage smell, the smell of children, the strong, bacon-like reekof corduroys impregnated with the sweat of a decade.
Mrs Pither opened the door, which invariably stuck to the jamb, andthen, when you wrenched it open, shook the whole cottage. She wasa large, stooping, grey woman with wispy grey hair, a sackingapron, and shuffling carpet slippers.
‘Why, if it isn’t Miss Dorothy!’ she exclaimed in a dreary,lifeless but not unaffectionate voice.
She took Dorothy between her large, gnarled hands, whose knuckleswere as shiny as skinned onions from age and ceaseless washing up,and gave her a wet kiss. Then she drew her into the uncleaninterior of the cottage.
‘Pither’s away at work, Miss,’ she announced as they got inside.‘Up to Dr Gaythorne’s he is, a-digging over the doctor’s flower-beds for him.’
Mr Pither was a jobbing gardener. He and his wife, both of themover seventy, were one of the few genuinely pious couples onDorothy’s visiting list. Mrs Pither led a dreary, wormlike life ofshuffling to and fro, with a perpetual crick in her neck becausethe door lintels were too low for her, between the well, the sink,the fireplace, and the tiny plot of kitchen garden. The kitchenwas decently tidy, but oppressively hot, evil-smelling andsaturated with ancient dust. At the end opposite the fireplace MrsPither had made a kind of prie-dieu out of a greasy rag mat laid infront of a tiny, defunct harmonium, on top of which were anoleographed crucifixion, ‘Watch and Pray’ done in beadwork, and aphotograph of Mr and Mrs Pither on their wedding day in 1882.
‘Poor Pither!’ went on Mrs Pither in her depressing voice, ‘him a-digging at his age, with his rheumatism that bad! Ain’t it cruelhard, Miss? And he’s had a kind of a pain between his legs, Miss,as he can’t seem to account for—terrible bad he’s been with it,these last few mornings. Ain’t it bitter hard, Miss, the lives uspoor working folks has to lead?’
‘It’s a shame,’ said Dorothy. ‘But I hope you’ve been keeping alittle better yourself, Mrs Pither?’
‘Ah, Miss, there’s nothing don’t make me better. I ain’t a casefor curing, not in this world, I ain’t. I shan’t never get nobetter, not in this wicked world down here.’
‘Oh, you mustn’t say that, Mrs Pither! I hope we shall have youwith us for a long time yet.’
‘Ah, Miss, you don’t know how poorly I’ve been this last week!I’ve had the rheumatism a-coming and a-going all down the backs ofmy poor old legs, till there’s some mornings when I don’t feel as Ican’t walk so far as to pull a handful of onions in the garden.Ah, Miss, it’s a weary world we lives in, ain’t it, Miss? A weary,sinful world.’
‘But of course we must never forget, Mrs Pither, that there’s abetter world coming. This life is only a time of trial—just tostrengthen us and teach us to be patient, so that we’ll be readyfor Heaven when the time comes.’
At this a sudden and remarkable change came over Mrs Pither. Itwas produced by the word ‘Heaven’. Mrs Pither had only twosubjects of conversation; one of them was the joys of Heaven, andthe other the miseries of her present state. Dorothy’s remarkseemed to act upon her like a charm. Her dull grey eye was notcapable of brightening, but her voice quickened with an almostjoyful enthusiasm.
‘Ah, Miss, there you said it! That’s a true word, Miss! That’swhat Pither and me keeps a-saying to ourselves. And that’s justthe one thing as keeps us a-going—just the thought of Heaven andthe long, long rest we’ll have there. Whatever we’ve suffered, wegets it all back in Heaven, don’t we, Miss? Every little bit ofsuffering, you gets it back a hundredfold and a thousandfold. That is true, ain’t it, Miss? There’s rest for us all in Heaven—restand peace and no more rheumatism nor digging nor cooking norlaundering nor nothing. You do believe that, don’t you, MissDorothy?’
‘Of course,’ said Dorothy.
‘Ah, Miss, if you knew how it comforts us—just the thoughts ofHeaven! Pither he says to me, when he comes home tired of a nightand our rheumatism’s bad, “Never you mind, my dear,” he says, “weain’t far off Heaven now,” he says. “Heaven was made for the likesof us,” he says; “just for poor working folks like us, that havebeen sober and godly and kept our Communions regular.” That’s thebest way, ain’t it, Miss Dorothy—poor in this life and rich in thenext? Not like some of them rich folks as all their motorcars andtheir beautiful houses won’t save from the worm that dieth not andthe fire that’s not quenched. Such a beautiful text, that is. Doyou think you could say a little prayer with me, Miss Dorothy? Ibeen looking forward all the morning to a little prayer.
Mrs Pither was always ready for a ‘little prayer’ at any hour ofthe night or day. It was her equivalent to a ‘nice cup of tea’.They knelt down on the rag mat and said the Lord’s Prayer and theCollect for the week; and then Dorothy, at Mrs Pither’s request,read the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Mrs Pither coming in fromtime to time with ‘Amen! That’s a true word, ain’t it, MissDorothy? “And he was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom.” Beautiful! Oh, I do call that just too beautiful! Amen, MissDorothy—Amen!’
Dorothy gave Mrs Pither the cutting from the Daily Mail aboutangelica tea for rheumatism, and then, finding that Mrs Pither hadbeen too ‘poorly’ to draw the day’s supply of water, she drew threebucketfuls for her from the well. It was a very deep well, withsuch a low parapet that Mrs Pither’s final doom would almostcertainly be to fall into it and get drowned, and it had not even awinch—you had to haul the bucket up hand over hand. And then theysat down for a few minutes, and Mrs Pither talked some more aboutHeaven. It was extraordinary how constantly Heaven reigned in herthoughts; and more extraordinary yet was the actuality, thevividness with which she could see it. The golden streets and thegates of orient pearl were as real to her as though they had beenactually before her eyes. And her vision extended to the mostconcrete, the most earthly details. The softness of the beds upthere! The deliciousness of the food! The lovely silk clothesthat you would put on clean every morning! The surcease fromeverlasting to everlasting from work of any description! In almostevery moment of her life the vision of Heaven supported andconsoled her, and her abject complaints about the lives of ‘poorworking folks’ were curiously tempered by a satisfaction in thethought that, after all, it is ‘poor working folks’ who are theprincipal inhabitants of Heaven. It was a sort of bargain that shehad struck, setting her lifetime of dreary labour against aneternity of bliss. Her faith was almost too great, if that ispossible. For it was a curious fact, but the certitude with whichMrs Pither looked forward to Heaven—as to some kind of glorifiedhome for incurables—affected Dorothy with strange uneasiness.
Dorothy prepared to depart, while Mrs Pither thanked her, rathertoo effusively, for her visit, winding up, as usual, with freshcomplaints about her rheumatism.
‘I’ll be sure and take the angelica tea,’ she concluded, ‘and thankyou kindly for telling me of it, Miss. Not as I don’t expect asit’ll do me much good. Ah, Miss, if you knew how cruel bad myrheumatism’s been this last week! All down the backs of my legs,it is, like a regular shooting red-hot poker, and I don’t seem tobe able to get at them to rub them properly. Would it be askingtoo much of you, Miss, to give me a bit of a rub-down before yougo? I got a bottle of Elliman’s under the sink.’
Unseen by Mrs Pither, Dorothy gave herself a severe pinch. She hadbeen expecting this, and—she had done it so many times before—shereally did not enjoy rubbing Mrs Pither down. She exhorted herselfangrily. Come on, Dorothy! No sniffishness, please! John xiii,14. ‘Of course I will, Mrs Pither!’ she said instantly.
They went up the narrow, rickety staircase, in which you had tobend almost double at one place to avoid the overhanging ceiling.The bedroom was lighted by a tiny square of window that was jammedin its socket by the creeper outside, and had not been opened intwenty years. There was an enormous double bed that almost filledthe room, with sheets perennially damp and a flock mattress as fullof hills and valleys as a contour map of Switzerland. With manygroans the old woman crept on to the bed and laid herself facedown. The room reeked of urine and paregoric. Dorothy took thebottle of Elliman’s embrocation and carefully anointed Mrs Pither’slarge, grey-veined, flaccid legs.
Outside, in the swimming heat, she mounted her bicycle and began toride swiftly homewards. The sun burned in her face, but the airnow seemed sweet and fresh. She was happy, happy! She was alwaysextravagantly happy when her morning’s ‘visiting’ was over; and,curiously enough, she was not aware of the reason for this. InBorlase the dairy-farmer’s meadow the red cows were grazing, knee-deep in shining seas of grass. The scent of cows, like adistillation of vanilla and fresh hay, floated into Dorothy’snostrils. Though she had still a morning’s work in front of hershe could not resist the temptation to loiter for a moment,steadying her bicycle with one hand against the gate of Borlase’smeadow, while a cow, with moist shell-pink nose, scratched its chinupon the gatepost and dreamily regarded her.
Dorothy caught sight of a wild rose, flowerless of course, growingbeyond the hedge, and climbed over the gate with the intention ofdiscovering whether it were not sweetbriar. She knelt down amongthe tall weeds beneath the hedge. It was very hot down there,close to the ground. The humming of many unseen insects sounded inher ears, and the hot summery fume from the tangled swathes ofvegetation flowed up and enveloped her. Near by, tall stalks offennel were growing, with trailing fronds of foliage like the tailsof sea-green horses. Dorothy pulled a frond of the fennel againsther face and breathed in the strong sweet scent. Its richnessoverwhelmed her, almost dizzied her for a moment. She drank it in,filling her lungs with it. Lovely, lovely scent—scent of summerdays, scent of childhood joys, scent of spice-drenched islands inthe warm foam of Oriental seas!
Her heart swelled with sudden joy. It was that mystical joy inthe beauty of the earth and the very nature of things that sherecognized, perhaps mistakenly, as the love of God. As she kneltthere in the heat, the sweet odour and the drowsy hum of insects,it seemed to her that she could momentarily hear the mighty anthemof praise that the earth and all created things send upeverlastingly to their maker. All vegetation, leaves, flowers,grass, shining, vibrating, crying out in their joy. Larks alsochanting, choirs of larks invisible, dripping music from the sky.All the riches of summer, the warmth of the earth, the song ofbirds, the fume of cows, the droning of countless bees, minglingand ascending like the smoke of ever-burning altars. Thereforewith Angels and Archangels! She began to pray, and for a momentshe prayed ardently, blissfully, forgetting herself in the joy ofher worship. Then, less than a minute later, she discovered thatshe was kissing the frond of the fennel that was still against herface.
She checked herself instantly, and drew back. What was she doing?Was it God that she was worshipping, or was it only the earth?The joy ebbed out of her heart, to be succeeded by the cold,uncomfortable feeling that she had been betrayed into a half-paganecstasy. She admonished herself. None of that, Dorothy! NoNature-worship, please! Her father had warned her against Nature-worship. She had heard him preach more than one sermon against it;it was, he said, mere pantheism, and, what seemed to offend himeven more, a disgusting modern fad. Dorothy took a thorn of thewild rose, and pricked her arm three times, to remind herself ofthe Three Persons of the Trinity, before climbing over the gate andremounting her bicycle.
A black, very dusty shovel hat was approaching round the corner ofthe hedge. It was Father McGuire, the Roman Catholic priest, alsobicycling his rounds. He was a very large, rotund man, so largethat he dwarfed the bicycle beneath him and seemed to be balancedon top of it like a golf-ball on a tee. His face was rosy,humorous, and a little sly.
Dorothy looked suddenly unhappy. She turned pink, and her handmoved instinctively to the neighbourhood of the gold cross beneathher dress. Father McGuire was riding towards her with anuntroubled, faintly amused air. She made an endeavour to smile,and murmured unhappily, ‘Good morning.’ But he rode on without asign; his eyes swept easily over her face and then beyond her intovacancy, with an admirable pretence of not having noticed herexistence. It was the Cut Direct. Dorothy—by nature, alas!unequal to delivering the Cut Direct—got on to her bicycle androde away, struggling with the uncharitable thoughts which ameeting with Father McGuire never failed to arouse in her.
Five or six years earlier, when Father McGuire was holding afuneral in St Athelstan’s churchyard (there was no Roman Catholiccemetery at Knype Hill), there had been some dispute with theRector about the propriety of Father McGuire robing in the church,or not robing in the church, and the two priests had wrangleddisgracefully over the open grave. Since then they had not been onspeaking terms. It was better so, the Rector said.
As to the other ministers of religion in Knype Hill—Mr Ward theCongregationalist minister, Mr Foley the Wesleyan pastor, and thebraying bald-headed elder who conducted the orgies at EbenezerChapel—the Rector called them a pack of vulgar Dissenters and hadforbidden Dorothy on pain of his displeasure to have anything to dowith them.
It was twelve o’clock. In the large, dilapidated conservatory,whose roof-panes, from the action of time and dirt, were dim,green, and iridescent like old Roman glass, they were having ahurried and noisy rehearsal of Charles I.
Dorothy was not actually taking part in the rehearsal, but was busymaking costumes. She made the costumes, or most of them, for allthe plays the schoolchildren acted. The production and stagemanagement were in the hands of Victor Stone—Victor, Dorothycalled him—the Church schoolmaster. He was a small-boned,excitable, black-haired youth of twenty-seven, dressed in dark sub-clerical clothes, and at this moment he was gesturing fiercely witha roll of manuscript at six dense-looking children. On a longbench against the wall four more children were alternatelypractising ‘noises off’ by clashing fire-irons together, andsquabbling over a grimy little bag of Spearmint Bouncers, forty apenny.
It was horribly hot in the conservatory, and there was a powerfulsmell of glue and the sour sweat of children. Dorothy was kneelingon the floor, with her mouth full of pins and a pair of shears inher hand, rapidly slicing sheets of brown paper into long narrowstrips. The glue-pot was bubbling on an oil-stove beside her;behind her, on the rickety, ink-stained work-table, were a tangleof half-finished costumes, more sheets of brown paper, her sewing-machine, bundles of tow, shards of dry glue, wooden swords, andopen pots of paint. With half her mind Dorothy was meditating uponthe two pairs of seventeenth-century jackboots that had got to bemade for Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, and with the other halflistening to the angry shouts of Victor, who was working himself upinto a rage, as he invariably did at rehearsals. He was a naturalactor, and withal thoroughly bored by the drudgery of rehearsinghalf-witted children. He strode up and down, haranguing thechildren in a vehement slangy style, and every now and thenbreaking off to lunge at one or other of them with a wooden swordthat he had grabbed from the table.
‘Put a bit of life into it, can’t you?’ he cried, prodding an ox-faced boy of eleven in the belly. ‘Don’t drone! Say it as if itmeant something! You look like a corpse that’s been buried and dugup again. What’s the good of gurgling it down in your inside likethat? Stand up and shout at him. Take off that second murdererexpression!’
‘Come here, Percy!’ cried Dorothy through her pins. ‘Quick!’
She was making the armour—the worst job of the lot, except thosewretched jackboots—out of glue and brown paper. From longpractice Dorothy could make very nearly anything out of glue andbrown paper; she could even make a passably good periwig, with abrown paper skull-cap and dyed tow for the hair. Taking the yearthrough, the amount of time she spent in struggling with glue,brown paper, butter muslin, and all the other paraphernalia ofamateur theatricals was enormous. So chronic was the need of moneyfor all the church funds that hardly a month ever passed when therewas not a school play or a pageant or an exhibition of tableauxvivants on hand—not to mention the bazaars and jumble sales.
As Percy—Percy Jowett, the blacksmith’s son, a small curly-headedboy—got down from the bench and stood wriggling unhappily beforeher, Dorothy seized a sheet of brown paper, measured it againsthim, snipped out the neckhole and armholes, draped it round hismiddle and rapidly pinned it into the shape of a rough breastplate.There was a confused din of voices.
Victor: Come on, now, come on! Enter Oliver Cromwell—that’s you! No, not like that! Do you think Oliver Cromwell would comeslinking on like a dog that’s just had a hiding? Stand up. Stickyour chest out. Scowl. That’s better. Now go on, Cromwell:‘Halt! I hold a pistol in my hand!’ Go on.
A girl: Please, Miss, Mother said as I was to tell you, Miss—
Dorothy: Keep still, Percy! For goodness’ sake keep still!
Cromwell: ‘Alt! I ‘old a pistol in my ‘and!
A small girl on the bench: Mister! I’ve dropped my sweetie![Snivelling] I’ve dropped by swee-e-e-etie!
Victor: No, no, no, Tommie! No, no, no!
The girl: Please, Miss, Mother said as I was to tell you as shecouldn’t make my knickers like she promised, Miss, because—
Dorothy: You’ll make me swallow a pin if you do that again.
Cromwell: Halt! I Hold a pistol—
The small girl [in tears]: My swee-e-e-e-eetie!
Dorothy seized the glue-brush, and with feverish speed pastedstrips of brown paper all over Percy’s thorax, up and down,backwards and forwards, one on top of another, pausing only whenthe paper stuck to her fingers. In five minutes she had made acuirass of glue and brown paper stout enough, when it was dry, tohave defied a real sword-blade. Percy, ‘locked up in completesteel’ and with the sharp paper edge cutting his chin, looked downat himself with the miserable resigned expression of a dog havingits bath. Dorothy took the shears, slit the breastplate up oneside, set it on end to dry and started immediately on anotherchild. A fearful clatter broke out as the ‘noises off’ beganpractising the sound of pistol-shots and horses galloping.Dorothy’s fingers were getting stickier and stickier, but from timeto time she washed some of the glue off them in a bucket of hotwater that was kept in readiness. In twenty minutes she hadpartially completed three breastplates. Later on they would haveto be finished off, painted over with aluminium paint and laced upthe sides; and after that there was the job of making the thigh-pieces, and, worst of all, the helmets to go with them. Victor,gesticulating with his sword and shouting to overcome the din ofgalloping horses, was personating in turn Oliver Cromwell, CharlesI, Roundheads, Cavaliers, peasants, and Court ladies. The childrenwere now growing restive and beginning to yawn, whine, and exchangefurtive kicks and pinches. The breastplates finished for themoment, Dorothy swept some of the litter off the table, pulled hersewing-machine into position and set to work on a Cavalier’s greenvelvet doublet—it was butter muslin Twinked green, but it lookedall right at a distance.
There was another ten minutes of feverish work. Dorothy broke herthread, all but said ‘Damn!’ checked herself and hurriedly re-threaded the needle. She was working against time. The play wasnow a fortnight distant, and there was such a multitude of thingsyet to be made—helmets, doublets, swords, jackboots (thosemiserable jackboots had been haunting her like a nightmare for dayspast), scabbards, ruffles, wigs, spurs, scenery—that her heartsank when she thought of them. The children’s parents never helpedwith the costumes for the school plays; more exactly, they alwayspromised to help and then backed out afterwards. Dorothy’s headwas aching diabolically, partly from the heat of the conservatory,partly from the strain of simultaneously sewing and trying tovisualize patterns for brown paper jackboots. For the moment shehad even forgotten the bill for twenty-one pounds seven andninepence at Cargill’s. She could think of nothing save thatfearful mountain of unmade clothes that lay ahead of her. It wasso throughout the day. One thing loomed up after another—whetherit was the costumes for the school play or the collapsing floor ofthe belfry, or the shop-debts or the bindweed in the peas—and eachin its turn so urgent and so harassing that it blotted all theothers out of existence.
Victor threw down his wooden sword, took out his watch and lookedat it.
‘That’ll do!’ he said in the abrupt, ruthless tone from which henever departed when he was dealing with children. ‘We’ll go on onFriday. Clear out, the lot of you! I’m sick of the sight of you.’
He watched the children out, and then, having forgotten theirexistence as soon as they were out of his sight, produced a page ofmusic from his pocket and began to fidget up and down, cocking hiseye at two forlorn plants in the corner which trailed their deadbrown tendrils over the edges of their pots. Dorothy was stillbending over her machine, stitching up the seams of the greenvelvet doublet.
Victor was a restless, intelligent little creature, and only happywhen he was quarrelling with somebody or something. His pale,fine-featured face wore an expression that appeared to bediscontent and was really boyish eagerness. People meeting him forthe first time usually said that he was wasting his talents in hisobscure job as a village schoolmaster; but the truth was thatVictor had no very marketable talents except a slight gift formusic and a much more pronounced gift for dealing with children.Ineffectual in other ways, he was excellent with children; he hadthe proper, ruthless attitude towards them. But of course, likeeveryone else, he despised his own especial talent. His interestswere almost purely ecclesiastical. He was what people call a churchy young man. It had always been his ambition to enter theChurch, and he would actually have done so if he had possessed thekind of brain that is capable of learning Greek and Hebrew.Debarred from the priesthood, he had drifted quite naturally intohis position as a Church schoolmaster and organist. It kept him,so to speak, within the Church precincts. Needless to say, he wasan Anglo-Catholic of the most truculent Church Times breed—moreclerical than the clerics, knowledgeable about Church history,expert on vestments, and ready at any moment with a furious tiradeagainst Modernists, Protestants, scientists, Bolshevists, andatheists.
‘I was thinking,’ said Dorothy as she stopped her machine andsnipped off the thread, ‘we might make those helmets out of oldbowler hats, if we can get hold of enough of them. Cut the brimsoff, put on paper brims of the right shape and silver them over.’
‘Oh Lord, why worry your head about such things?’ said Victor, whohad lost interest in the play the moment the rehearsal was over.
‘It’s those wretched jackboots that are worrying me the most,’ saidDorothy, taking the doublet on to her knee and looking at it.
‘Oh, bother the jackboots! Let’s stop thinking about the play fora moment. Look here,’ said Victor, unrolling his page of music, ‘Iwant you to speak to your father for me. I wish you’d ask himwhether we can’t have a procession some time next month.’
‘Another procession? What for?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. You can always find an excuse for a procession.There’s the Nativity of the B.V.M. coming off on the eighth—that’sgood enough for a procession, I should think. We’ll do it instyle. I’ve got hold of a splendid rousing hymn that they can allbellow, and perhaps we could borrow their blue banner with theVirgin Mary on it from St Wedekind’s in Millborough. If he’ll saythe word I’ll start practising the choir at once.’
‘You know he’ll only say no,’ said Dorothy, threading a needle tosew buttons on the doublet. ‘He doesn’t really approve ofprocessions. It’s much better not to ask him and make him angry.’
‘Oh, but dash it all!’ protested Victor. ‘It’s simply months sincewe’ve had a procession. I never saw such dead-alive services as wehave here. You’d think we were a Baptist chapel or something, fromthe way we go on.’
Victor chafed ceaselessly against the dull correctness of theRector’s services. His ideal was what he called ‘the real Catholicworship’—meaning unlimited incense, gilded images, and more Romanvestments. In his capacity of organist he was for ever pressingfor more processions, more voluptuous music, more elaboratechanting in the liturgy, so that it was a continuous pull devil,pull baker between him and the Rector. And on this point Dorothysided with her father. Having been brought up in the peculiar,frigid via media of Anglicanism, she was by nature averse to andhalf-afraid of anything ‘ritualistic’.
‘But dash it all!’ went on Victor, ‘a procession is such fun! Downthe aisle, out through the west door and back through the southdoor, with the choir carrying candles behind and the Boy Scouts infront with the banner. It would look fine.’ He sang a stave in athin but tuneful tenor:
‘Hail thee, Festival Day, blest day that art hallowed for ever!’
‘If I had my way,’ he added, ‘I’d have a couple of boys swingingjolly good censers of incense at the same time.’
‘Yes, but you know how much Father dislikes that kind of thing.Especially when it’s anything to do with the Virgin Mary. He saysit’s all Roman Fever and leads to people crossing themselves andgenuflecting at the wrong times and goodness knows what. Youremember what happened at Advent.’
The previous year, on his own responsibility, Victor had chosen asone of the hymns for Advent, Number 642, with the refrain ‘HailMary, hail Mary, hail Mary full of grace!’ This piece ofpopishness had annoyed the Rector extremely. At the close of thefirst verse he had pointedly laid down his hymn book, turned roundin his stall and stood regarding the congregation with an air sostony that some of the choirboys faltered and almost broke down.Afterwards he had said that to hear the rustics bawling ‘’Ail Mary!‘Ail Mary!’ made him think he was in the four-ale bar of the Dogand Bottle.
‘But dash it!’ said Victor in his aggrieved way, ‘your fatheralways puts his foot down when I try and get a bit of life into theservice. He won’t allow us incense, or decent music, or propervestments, or anything. And what’s the result? We can’t getenough people to fill the church a quarter full, even on EasterSunday. You look round the church on Sunday morning, and it’snothing but the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides and a few oldwomen.’
‘I know. It’s dreadful,’ admitted Dorothy, sewing on her button.‘It doesn’t seem to make any difference what we do—we simply can’t get the people to come to church. Still,’ she added, ‘they do cometo us to be married and buried. And I don’t think the congregation’sactually gone down this year. There were nearly two hundred peopleat Easter Communion.’
‘Two hundred! It ought to be two thousand. That’s the populationof this town. The fact is that three quarters of the people inthis place never go near a church in their lives. The Church hasabsolutely lost its hold over them. They don’t know that itexists. And why? That’s what I’m getting at. Why?’
‘I suppose it’s all this Science and Free Thought and all that,’said Dorothy rather sententiously, quoting her father.
This remark deflected Victor from what he had been about to say.He had been on the very point of saying that St Athelstan’scongregation had dwindled because of the dullness of the services;but the hated words of Science and Free Thought set him off inanother and even more familiar channel.
‘Of course it’s this so-called Free Thought!’ he exclaimed,immediately beginning to fidget up and down again. ‘It’s theseswine of atheists like Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley and allthat crowd. And what’s ruined the Church is that instead of jollywell answering them and showing them up for the fools and liarsthey are, we just sit tight and let them spread their beastlyatheist propaganda wherever they choose. It’s all the fault of thebishops, of course.’ (Like every Anglo-Catholic, Victor had anabysmal contempt for bishops.) ‘They’re all Modernists and time-servers. By Jove!’ he added more cheerfully, halting, ‘did you seemy letter in the Church Times last week?’
‘No, I’m afraid I didn’t,’ said Dorothy, holding another button inposition with her thumb. ‘What was it about?’
‘Oh, Modernist bishops and all that. I got in a good swipe at oldBarnes.’
It was very rarely that a week passed when Victor did not write aletter to the Church Times. He was in the thick of everycontroversy and in the forefront of every assault upon Modernistsand atheists. He had twice been in combat with Dr Major, hadwritten letters of withering irony about Dean Inge and the Bishopof Birmingham, and had not hesitated to attack even the fiendishRussell himself—but Russell, of course, had not dared to reply.Dorothy, to tell the truth, very seldom read the Church Times, andthe Rector grew angry if he so much as saw a copy of it in thehouse. The weekly paper they took in the Rectory was the HighChurchman’s Gazette—a fine old High Tory anachronism with a smalland select circulation.
‘That swine Russell!’ said Victor reminiscently, with his handsdeep in his pockets. ‘How he does make my blood boil!’
‘Isn’t that the man who’s such a clever mathematician, orsomething?’ said Dorothy, biting off her thread.
‘Oh, I dare say he’s clever enough in his own line, of course,’admitted Victor grudgingly. ‘But what’s that got to do with it?Just because a man’s clever at figures it doesn’t mean to saythat— well, anyway! Let’s come back to what I was saying. Why isit that we can’t get people to come to church in this place? It’sbecause our services are so dreary and godless, that’s what it is.People want worship that is worship—they want the real Catholicworship of the real Catholic Church we belong to. And they don’tget if from us. All they get is the old Protestant mumbo-jumbo,and Protestantism’s as dead as a doornail, and everyone knows it.’
‘That’s not true!’ said Dorothy rather sharply as she pressed thethird button into place. ‘You know we’re not Protestants.Father’s always saying that the Church of England is the CatholicChurch—he’s preached I don’t know how many sermons about theApostolic Succession. That’s why Lord Pockthorne and the otherswon’t come to church here. Only he won’t join in the Anglo-Catholic movement because he thinks they’re too fond of ritualismfor its own sake. And so do I.’
‘Oh, I don’t say your father isn’t absolutely sound on doctrine—absolutely sound. But if he thinks we’re the Catholic Church, whydoesn’t he hold the service in a proper Catholic way? It’s a shamewe can’t have incense occasionally. And his ideas about vestments—if you don’t mind my saying it—are simply awful. On EasterSunday he was wearing a Gothic cope with a modern Italian lace alb.Dash it, it’s like wearing a top hat with brown boots.’
‘Well, I don’t think vestments are so important as you do,’ saidDorothy. ‘I think it’s the spirit of the priest that matters, notthe clothes he wears.’
‘That’s the kind of thing a Primitive Methodist would say!’exclaimed Victor disgustedly. ‘Of course vestments are important!Where’s the sense of worshipping at all if we can’t make a properjob of it? Now, if you want to see what real Catholic worship can be like, look at St Wedekind’s in Millborough! By Jove, they dothings in style there! Images of the Virgin, reservation of theSacrament—everything. They’ve had the Kensitites on to them threetimes, and they simply defy the Bishop.’
‘Oh, I hate the way they go on at St Wedekind’s!’ said Dorothy.‘They’re absolutely spiky. You can hardly see what’s happening atthe altar, there are such clouds of incense. I think people likethat ought to turn Roman Catholic and have done with it.’
‘My dear Dorothy, you ought to have been a Nonconformist. Youreally ought. A Plymouth Brother—or a Plymouth Sister or whateverit’s called. I think your favourite hymn must be Number 567, “O myGod I fear Thee, Thou art very High!”’
‘Yours is Number 231, “I nightly pitch my moving tent a day’s marchnearer Rome!”’ retorted Dorothy, winding the thread round the lastbutton.
The argument continued for several minutes while Dorothy adorned aCavalier’s beaver hat (it was an old black felt school hat of herown) with plume and ribbons. She and Victor were never longtogether without being involved in an argument upon the question of‘ritualism’. In Dorothy’s opinion Victor was a kind to ‘go over toRome’ if not prevented, and she was very likely right. But Victorwas not yet aware of his probable destiny. At present the feversof the Anglo-Catholic movement, with its ceaseless exciting warfareon three fronts at once—Protestants to right of you, Modernists tothe left of you, and, unfortunately, Roman Catholics to rear of youand always ready for a sly kick in the pants—filled his mentalhorizon. Scoring off Dr Major in the Church Times meant more tohim than any of the serious business of life. But for all hischurchiness he had not an atom of real piety in his constitution.It was essentially as a game that religious controversy appealed tohim—the most absorbing game ever invented, because it goes on forever and because just a little cheating is allowed.
‘Thank goodness, that’s done!’ said Dorothy, twiddling theCavalier’s beaver hat round on her hand and then putting it down.‘Oh dear, what piles of things there are still to do, though! Iwish I could get those wretched jackboots off my mind. What’s thetime, Victor?’
‘It’s nearly five to one.’
‘Oh, good gracious! I must run. I’ve got three omelettes to make.I daren’t trust them to Ellen. And, oh, Victor! Have you gotanything you can give us for the jumble sale? If you had an oldpair of trousers you could give us, that would be best of all,because we can always sell trousers.’
‘Trousers? No. But I tell you what I have got, though. I’ve gota copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress and another of Foxe’s Book ofMartyrs that I’ve been wanting to get rid of for years. BeastlyProtestant trash! An old Dissenting aunt of mine gave them to me.—Doesn’t it make you sick, all this cadging for pennies? Now, ifwe only held our services in a proper Catholic way, so that wecould get up a proper congregation, don’t you see, we shouldn’tneed—’
‘That’ll be splendid,’ said Dorothy. ‘We always have a stall forbooks—we charge a penny for each book, and nearly all of them getsold. We simply must make that jumble sale a success, Victor! I’mcounting on Miss Mayfill to give us something really nice. WhatI’m specially hoping is that she might give us that beautiful oldLowestoft china tea service of hers, and we could sell it for fivepounds at least. I’ve been making special prayers all the morningthat she’ll give it to us.’
‘Oh?’ said Victor, less enthusiastically than usual. Like Proggettearlier in the morning, he was embarrassed by the word ‘prayer’.He was ready to talk all day long about a point of ritual; but themention of private devotions struck him as slightly indecent.‘Don’t forget to ask your father about the procession,’ he said,getting back to a more congenial topic.
‘All right, I’ll ask him. But you know how it’ll be. He’ll onlyget annoyed and say it’s Roman Fever.’
‘Oh, damn Roman Fever!’ said Victor, who, unlike Dorothy, did notset himself penances for swearing.
Dorothy hurried to the kitchen, discovered that there were onlyfive eggs to make the omelettes for three people, and decided tomake one large omelette and swell it out a bit with the cold boiledpotatoes left over from yesterday. With a short prayer for thesuccess of the omelette (for omelettes are so dreadfully apt to getbroken when you take them out of the pan), she whipped up the eggs,while Victor made off down the drive, half wistfully and halfsulkily humming ‘Hail thee, Festival Day’, and passing on his way adisgusted-looking manservant carrying the two handleless chamber-pots which were Miss Mayfill’s contribution to the jumble sale.
It was a little after ten o’clock. Various things had happened—nothing, however, of any particular importance; only the usualround of parish jobs that filled up Dorothy’s afternoon andevening. Now, as she had arranged earlier in the day, she was atMr Warburton’s house, and was trying to hold her own in one ofthose meandering arguments in which he delighted to entangle her.
They were talking—but indeed, Mr Warburton never failed tomanoeuvre the conversation towards this subject—about the questionof religious belief.
‘My dear Dorothy,’ he was saying argumentatively, as he walked upand down with one hand in his coat pocket and the other manipulatinga Brazilian cigar. ‘My dear Dorothy, you don’t seriously mean totell me that at your age—twenty-seven, I believe—and with yourintelligence, you will retain your religious beliefs more or lessin toto?’
‘Of course I do. You know I do.’
‘Oh, come, now! The whole bag of tricks? All that nonsense thatyou learned at your mother’s knee—surely you’re not going topretend to me that you still believe in it? But of course youdon’t! You can’t! You’re afraid to own up, that’s all it is. Noneed to worry about that here, you know. The Rural Dean’s wifeisn’t listening, and _I_ won’t give the show away.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “all that nonsense”,’ began Dorothy,sitting up straighter in her chair, a little offended.
‘Well, let’s take an instance. Something particularly hard toswallow—Hell, for instance. Do you believe in Hell? When I say believe, mind you, I’m not asking whether you believe it in somemilk and water metaphorical way like these Modernist bishops youngVictor Stone gets so excited about. I mean do you believe in itliterally? Do you believe in Hell as you believe in Australia?’
‘Yes, of course I do,’ said Dorothy, and she endeavoured to explainto him that the existence of Hell is much more real and permanentthan the existence of Australia.
‘Hm,’ said Mr Warburton, unimpressed. ‘Very sound in its way, ofcourse. But what always makes me so suspicious of you religiouspeople is that you’re so deucedly cold-blooded about your beliefs.It shows a very poor imagination, to say the least of it. Here amI an infidel and blasphemer and neck deep in at least six out ofthe Seven Deadly, and obviously doomed to eternal torment. There’sno knowing that in an hour’s time I mayn’t be roasting in thehottest part of Hell. And yet you can sit there talking to me ascalmly as though I’d nothing the matter with me. Now, if I’dmerely got cancer or leprosy or some other bodily ailment, you’d bequite distressed about it—at least, I like to flatter myself thatyou would. Whereas, when I’m going to sizzle on the gridthroughout eternity, you seem positively unconcerned about it.’
‘I never said you were going to Hell,’ said Dorothy somewhatuncomfortably, and wishing that the conversation would take adifferent turn. For the truth was, though she was not going totell him so, that the point Mr Warburton had raised was one withwhich she herself had had certain difficulties. She did indeedbelieve in Hell, but she had never been able to persuade herselfthat anyone actually went there. She believed that Hell existed,but that it was empty. Uncertain of the orthodoxy of this belief,she preferred to keep it to herself. ‘It’s never certain that anyone is going to Hell,’ she said more firmly, feeling that hereat least she was on sure ground.
‘What!’ said Mr Warburton, halting in mock surprise. ‘Surely youdon’t mean to say that there’s hope for me yet?’
‘Of course there is. It’s only those horrid Predestination peoplewho pretend that you go to Hell whether you repent or not. Youdon’t think the Church of England are Calvinists, do you?’
‘I suppose there’s always the chance of getting off on a plea ofInvincible Ignorance,’ said Mr Warburton reflectively; and then,more confidently: ‘Do you know, Dorothy, I’ve a sort of feelingthat even now, after knowing me two years, you’ve still half anidea you can make a convert of me. A lost sheep—brand pluckedfrom the burning, and all that. I believe you still hope againsthope that one of these days my eyes will be opened and you’ll meetme at Holy Communion at seven o’clock on some damned cold wintermorning. Don’t you?’
‘Well—’ said Dorothy, again uncomfortably. She did, in fact,entertain some such hope about Mr Warburton, though he was notexactly a promising case for conversion. It was not in her natureto see a fellow being in a state of unbelief without making someeffort to reclaim him. What hours she had spent, at differenttimes, earnestly debating with vague village atheists who could notproduce a single intelligible reason for their unbelief! ‘Yes,’she admitted finally, not particularly wanting to make theadmission, but not wanting to prevaricate.
Mr Warburton laughed delightedly.
‘You’ve a hopeful nature,’ he said. ‘But you aren’t afraid, by anychance, that I might convert you? “The dog it was that died”, youmay remember.’
At this Dorothy merely smiled. ‘Don’t let him see he’s shockingyou’—that was always her maxim when she was talking to MrWarburton. They had been arguing in this manner, without coming toany kind of conclusion, for the past hour, and might have gone onfor the rest of the night if Dorothy had been willing to stay; forMr Warburton delighted in teasing her about her religious beliefs.He had that fatal cleverness that so often goes with unbelief, andin their arguments, though Dorothy was always right, she was notalways victorious. They were sitting, or rather Dorothy wassitting and Mr Warburton was standing, in a large agreeable room,giving on a moonlit lawn, that Mr Warburton called his ‘studio’—not that there was any sign of work ever having been done in it.To Dorothy’s great disappointment, the celebrated Mr Bewley had notturned up. (As a matter of fact, neither Mr Bewley, nor his wife,nor his novel entitled Fishpools and Concubines, actually existed.Mr Warburton had invented all three of them on the spur of themoment, as a pretext for inviting Dorothy to his house, wellknowing that she would never come unchaperoned.) Dorothy had feltrather uneasy on finding that Mr Warburton was alone. It hadoccurred to her, indeed she had felt perfectly certain, that itwould be wiser to go home at once; but she had stayed, chieflybecause she was horribly tired and the leather armchair into whichMr Warburton had thrust her the moment she entered the house wastoo comfortable to leave. Now, however, her conscience waspricking her. It didn’t do to stay too late at his house—peoplewould talk if they heard of it. Besides, there was a multitude ofjobs that she ought to be doing and that she had neglected in orderto come here. She was so little used to idleness that even an hourspent in mere talking seemed to her vaguely sinful.
She made an effort, and straightened herself in the too-comfortablechair. ‘I think, if you don’t mind, it’s really time I was gettinghome,’ she said.
‘Talking of Invincible Ignorance,’ went on Mr Warburton, taking nonotice of Dorothy’s remark, ‘I forget whether I ever told you thatonce when I was standing outside the World’s End pub in Chelsea,waiting for a taxi, a damned ugly little Salvation Army lassie cameup to me and said—without any kind of introduction, you know — “What will you say at the Judgement Seat?” I said, “I am reservingmy defence.” Rather neat, I think, don’t you?’
Dorothy did not answer. Her conscience had given her another andharder jab—she had remembered those wretched, unmade jackboots,and the fact that at least one of them had got to be made tonight.She was, however, unbearably tired. She had had an exhaustingafternoon, starting off with ten miles or so bicycling to and froin the sun, delivering the parish magazine, and continuing with theMothers’ Union tea in the hot little wooden-walled room behind theparish hall. The Mothers met every Wednesday afternoon to have teaand do some charitable sewing while Dorothy read aloud to them.(At present she was reading Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of theLimberlost.) It was nearly always upon Dorothy that jobs of thatkind devolved, because the phalanx of devoted women (the churchfowls, they are called) who do the dirty work of most parishes haddwindled at Knype Hill to four or five at most. The only helper onwhom Dorothy could count at all regularly was Miss Foote, a tall,rabbit-faced, dithering virgin of thirty-five, who meant well butmade a mess of everything and was in a perpetual state of flurry.Mr Warburton used to say that she reminded him of a comet—’aridiculous blunt-nosed creature rushing round on an eccentric orbitand always a little behind time’. You could trust Miss Foote withthe church decorations, but not with the Mothers or the SundaySchool, because, though a regular churchgoer, her orthodoxy wassuspect. She had confided to Dorothy that she could worship Godbest under the blue dome of the sky. After tea Dorothy had dashedup to the church to put fresh flowers on the altar, and then shehad typed out her father’s sermon—her typewriter was a ricketypre-Boer War ‘invisible’, on which you couldn’t average eighthundred words an hour—and after supper she had weeded the pea rowsuntil the light failed and her back seemed to be breaking. Withone thing and another, she was even more tired than usual.
‘I really must be getting home,’ she repeated more firmly. ‘I’msure it’s getting fearfully late.’
‘Home?’ said Mr Warburton. ‘Nonsense! The evening’s hardly begun.’
He was walking up and down the room again, with his hands in hiscoat pockets, having thrown away his cigar. The spectre of theunmade jackboots stalked back into Dorothy’s mind. She would, shesuddenly decided, make two jackboots tonight instead of only one,as a penance for the hour she had wasted. She was just beginningto make a mental sketch of the way she would cut out the pieces ofbrown paper for the insteps, when she noticed that Mr Warburton hadhalted behind her chair.
‘What time is it, do you know?’ she said.
‘I dare say it might be half past ten. But people like you and medon’t talk of such vulgar subjects as the time.’
‘If it’s half past ten, then I really must be going,’ said Dorothy.I’ve got a whole lot of work to do before I go to bed.’
‘Work! At this time of night? Impossible!’
‘Yes, I have. I’ve got to make a pair of jackboots.’
‘You’ve got to make a pair of what?’ said Mr Warburton.
‘Of jackboots. For the play the schoolchildren are acting. Wemake them out of glue and brown paper.’
‘Glue and brown paper! Good God!’ murmured Mr Warburton. He wenton, chiefly to cover the fact that he was drawing nearer toDorothy’s chair: ‘What a life you lead! Messing about with glueand brown paper in the middle of the night! I must say, there aretimes when I feel just a little glad that I’m not a clergyman’sdaughter.’
‘I think—’ began Dorothy.
But at the same moment Mr Warburton, invisible behind her chair,had lowered his hands and taken her gently by the shoulders.Dorothy immediately wriggled herself in an effort to get free ofhim; but Mr Warburton pressed her back into her place.
‘Keep still,’ he said peaceably.
‘Let me go!’ exclaimed Dorothy.
Mr Warburton ran his right hand caressingly down her upper arm.There was something very revealing, very characteristic in the wayhe did it; it was the lingering, appraising touch of a man to whoma woman’s body is valuable precisely in the same way as though itwere something to eat.
‘You really have extraordinary nice arms,’ he said. ‘How on earthhave you managed to remain unmarried all these years?’
‘Let me go at once!’ repeated Dorothy, beginning to struggle again.
‘But I don’t particularly want to let you go,’ objected MrWarburton.
‘Please don’t stroke my arm like that! I don’t like it!’
‘What a curious child you are! Why don’t you like it?’
‘I tell you I don’t like it!’
‘Now don’t go and turn round,’ said Mr Warburton mildly. ‘Youdon’t seem to realize how tactful it was on my part to approach youfrom behind your back. If you turn round you’ll see that I’m oldenough to be your father, and hideously bald into the bargain. Butif you’ll only keep still and not look at me you can imagine I’mIvor Novello.’
Dorothy caught sight of the hand that was caressing her—a large,pink, very masculine hand, with thick fingers and a fleece of goldhairs upon the back. She turned very pale; the expression of herface altered from mere annoyance to aversion and dread. She made aviolent effort, wrenched herself free, and stood up, facing him.
‘I do wish you wouldn’t do that!’ she said, half in anger and halfin distress.
‘What is the matter with you?’ said Mr Warburton.
He had stood upright, in his normal pose, entirely unconcerned, andhe looked at her with a touch of curiosity. Her face had changed.It was not only that she had turned pale; there was a withdrawn,half-frightened look in her eyes—almost as though, for the moment,she were looking at him with the eyes of a stranger. He perceivedthat he had wounded her in some way which he did not understand,and which perhaps she did not want him to understand.
‘What is the matter with you?’ he repeated.
‘Why must you do that every time you meet me?’
‘“Every time I meet you” is an exaggeration,’ said Mr Warburton.‘It’s really very seldom that I get the opportunity. But if youreally and truly don’t like it—’
‘Of course I don’t like it! You know I don’t like it!’
‘Well, well! Then let’s say no more about it,’ said Mr Warburtongenerously. ‘Sit down, and we’ll change the subject.’
He was totally devoid of shame. It was perhaps his most outstandingcharacteristic. Having attempted to seduce her, and failed, he wasquite willing to go on with the conversation as though nothingwhatever had happened.
‘I’m going home at once,’ said Dorothy. ‘I can’t stay here anylonger.’
‘Oh nonsense! Sit down and forget about it. We’ll talk of moraltheology, or cathedral architecture, or the Girl Guides’ cookingclasses, or anything you choose. Think how bored I shall be allalone if you go home at this hour.’
But Dorothy persisted, and there was an argument. Even if it hadnot been his intention to make love to her—and whatever he mightpromise he would certainly begin again in a few minutes if she didnot go—Mr Warburton would have pressed her to stay, for, like allthoroughly idle people, he had a horror of going to bed and noconception of the value of time. He would, if you let him, keepyou talking till three or four in the morning. Even when Dorothyfinally escaped, he walked beside her down the moonlit drive, stilltalking voluminously and with such perfect good humour that shefound it impossible to be angry with him any longer.
‘I’m leaving first thing tomorrow,’ he told her as they reached thegate. ‘I’m going to take the car to town and pick up the kids—the bastards, you know—and we’re leaving for France the next day. I’mnot certain where we shall go after that; eastern Europe, perhaps.Prague, Vienna, Bucharest.’
‘How nice,’ said Dorothy.
Mr Warburton, with an adroitness surprising in so large and stout aman, had manoeuvred himself between Dorothy and the gate.
‘I shall be away six months or more,’ he said. ‘And of course Ineedn’t ask, before so long a parting, whether you want to kiss megood-bye?’
Before she knew what he was doing he had put his arm about her anddrawn her against him. She drew back—too late; he kissed her onthe cheek—would have kissed her on the mouth if she had not turnedher head away in time. She struggled in his arms, violently andfor a moment helplessly.
‘Oh, let me go!’ she cried. ‘do let me go!’
‘I believe I pointed out before,’ said Mr Warburton, holding hereasily against him, ‘that I don’t want to let you go.’
‘But we’re standing right in front of Mrs Semprill’s window!She’ll see us absolutely for certain!’
‘Oh, good God! So she will!’ said Mr Warburton. ‘I was forgetting.’
Impressed by this argument, as he would not have been by any other,he let Dorothy go. She promptly put the gate between Mr Warburtonand herself. He, meanwhile, was scrutinizing Mrs Semprill’swindows.
‘I can’t see a light anywhere,’ he said finally. ‘With any luckthe blasted hag hasn’t seen us.’
‘Good-bye,’ said Dorothy briefly. ‘This time I really must go.Remember me to the children.’
With this she made off as fast as she could go without actuallyrunning, to get out of his reach before he should attempt to kissher again.
Even as she did so a sound checked her for an instant—theunmistakable bang of a window shutting, somewhere in Mrs Semprill’shouse. Could Mrs Semprill have been watching them after all? But(reflected Dorothy) of course she had been watching them! Whatelse could you expect? You could hardly imagine Mrs Semprillmissing such a scene as that. And if she had been watching them,undoubtedly the story would be all over the town tomorrow morning,and it would lose nothing in the telling. But this thought,sinister though it was, did no more than flight momentarily throughDorothy’s mind as she hurried down the road.
When she was well out of sight of Mr Warburton’s house she stopped,took out her handkerchief and scrubbed the place on her cheek wherehe had kissed her. She scrubbed it vigorously enough to bring theblood into her cheek. It was not until she had quite rubbed outthe imaginary stain which his lips had left there that she walkedon again.
What he had done had upset her. Even now her heart was knockingand fluttering uncomfortably. I can’t bear that kind of thing! sherepeated to herself several times over. And unfortunately this wasno more than the literal truth; she really could not bear it. Tobe kissed or fondled by a man—to feel heavy male arms about herand thick male lips bearing down upon her own—was terrifying andrepulsive to her. Even in memory or imagination it made her wince.It was her especial secret, the especial, incurable disability thatshe carried through life.
If only they would leave you alone! she thought as she walkedonwards a little more slowly. That was how she put it to herselfhabitually—’If only they would leave you alone!’ For it was notthat in other ways she disliked men. On the contrary, she likedthem better than women. Part of Mr Warburton’s hold over her wasin the fact that he was a man and had the careless good humour andthe intellectual largeness that women so seldom have. But whycouldn’t they leave you alone? Why did they always have to kissyou and maul you about? They were dreadful when they kissed you—dreadful and a little disgusting, like some large, furry beast thatrubs itself against you, all too friendly and yet liable to turndangerous at any moment. And beyond their kissing and maulingthere lay always the suggestion of those other, monstrous things(‘all that’ was her name for them) of which she could hardly evenbear to think.
Of course, she had had her share, and rather more than her share,of casual attention from men. She was just pretty enough, and justplain enough, to be the kind of girl that men habitually pester.For when a man wants a little casual amusement, he usually picksout a girl who is not too pretty. Pretty girls (so he reasons) arespoilt and therefore capricious; but plain girls are easy game.And even if you are a clergyman’s daughter, even if you live in atown like Knype Hill and spend almost your entire life in parishwork, you don’t altogether escape pursuit. Dorothy was all tooused to it—all too used to the fattish middle-aged men, with theirfishily hopeful eyes, who slowed down their cars when you passedthem on the road, or who manoeuvred an introduction and then beganpinching your elbow about ten minutes afterwards. Men of alldescriptions. Even a clergyman, on one occasion—a bishop’schaplain, he was. . . .
But the trouble was that it was not better, but oh! infinitelyworse when they were the right kind of man and the advances theymade you were honourable. Her mind slipped backwards five years,to Francis Moon, curate in those days at St Wedekind’s inMillborough. Dear Francis! How gladly would she have married himif only it had not been for all that! Over and over again he hadasked her to marry him, and of course she had had to say No; and,equally of course, he had never known why. Impossible to tell himwhy. And then he had gone away, and only a year later had died soirrelevantly of pneumonia. She whispered a prayer for his soul,momentarily forgetting that her father did not really approve ofprayers for the dead, and then, with an effort, pushed the memoryaside. Ah, better not to think of it again! It hurt her in herbreast to think of it.
She could never marry, she had decided long ago upon that. Evenwhen she was a child she had known it. Nothing would ever overcomeher horror of all that—at the very thought of it something withinher seemed to shrink and freeze. And of course, in a sense she didnot want to overcome it. For, like all abnormal people, she wasnot fully aware that she was abnormal.
And yet, though her sexual coldness seemed to her natural andinevitable, she knew well enough how it was that it had begun. Shecould remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, certaindreadful scenes between her father and her mother—scenes that shehad witnessed when she was no more than nine years old. They hadleft a deep, secret wound in her mind. And then a little later shehad been frightened by some old steel engravings of nymphs pursuedby satyrs. To her childish mind there was something inexplicably,horribly sinister in those horned, semi-human creatures that lurkedin thickets and behind large trees, ready to come bounding forth insudden swift pursuit. For a whole year of her childhood she hadactually been afraid to walk through woods alone, for fear ofsatyrs. She had grown out of the fear, of course, but not out ofthe feeling that was associated with it. The satyr had remainedwith her as a symbol. Perhaps she would never grow out of it, thatspecial feeling of dread, of hopeless flight from something morethan rationally dreadful—the stamp of hooves in the lonely wood,the lean, furry thighs of the satyr. It was a thing not to bealtered, not to be argued away. It is, moreover, a thing toocommon nowadays, among educated women, to occasion any kind ofsurprise.
Most of Dorothy’s agitation had disappeared by the time she reachedthe rectory. The thoughts of satyrs and Mr Warburton, of FrancisMoon and her foredoomed sterility, which had been going to and froin her mind, faded out of it and were replaced by the accusingimage of a jackboot. She remembered that she had the best part oftwo hours’ work to do before going to bed tonight. The house wasin darkness. She went round to the back and slipped in on tiptoeby the scullery door, for fear of waking her father, who wasprobably asleep already.
As she felt her way through the dark passage to the conservatory,she suddenly decided that she had gone wrong in going to MrWarburton’s house tonight. She would, she resolved, never go thereagain, even when she was certain that somebody else would be thereas well. Moreover, she would do penance tomorrow for having gonethere tonight. Having lighted the lamp, before doing anything elseshe found her ‘memo list’, which was already written out fortomorrow, and pencilled a capital P against ‘breakfast’, P stoodfor penance—no bacon again for breakfast tomorrow. Then shelighted the oilstove under the glue-pot.
The light of the lamp fell yellow upon her sewing-machine and uponthe pile of half-finished clothes on the table, reminding her ofthe yet greater pile of clothes that were not even begun; remindingher, also, that she was dreadfully, overwhelmingly tired. She hadforgotten her tiredness at the moment when Mr Warburton laid hishands on her shoulders, but now it had come back upon her withdouble force. Moreover, there was a somehow exceptional qualityabout her tiredness tonight. She felt, in an almost literal senseof the words, washed out. As she stood beside the table she had asudden, very strange feeling as though her mind had been entirelyemptied, so that for several seconds she actually forgot what itwas that she had come into the conservatory to do.
Then she remembered—the jackboots, of course! Some contemptiblelittle demon whispered in her ear, ‘Why not go straight to bed andleave the jackboots till tomorrow?’ She uttered a prayer forstrength, and pinched herself. Come on, Dorothy! No slackingplease! Luke ix, 62. Then, clearing some of the litter off thetable, she got out her scissors, a pencil, and four sheets of brownpaper, and sat down to cut out those troublesome insteps for thejackboots while the glue was boiling.
When the grandfather clock in her father’s study struck midnightshe was still at work. She had shaped both jackboots by this time,and was reinforcing them by pasting narrow strips of paper all overthem—a long, messy job. Every bone in her body was aching, andher eyes were sticky with sleep. Indeed, it was only rather dimlythat she remembered what she was doing. But she worked on,mechanically pasting strip after strip of paper into place, andpinching herself every two minutes to counteract the hypnotic soundof the oilstove singing beneath the glue-pot.
Out of a black, dreamless sleep, with the sense of being drawnupwards through enormous and gradually lightening abysses, Dorothyawoke to a species of consciousness.
Her eyes were still closed. By degrees, however, their lids becameless opaque to the light, and then flickered open of their ownaccord. She was looking out upon a street—a shabby, lively streetof small shops and narrow-faced houses, with streams of men, trams,and cars passing in either direction.
But as yet it could not properly be said that she was looking. Forthe things she saw were not apprehended as men, trams, and cars,nor as anything in particular; they were not even apprehended asthings moving; not even as things. She merely saw, as an animalsees, without speculation and almost without consciousness. Thenoises of the street—the confused din of voices, the hooting ofhorns and the scream of the trams grinding on their gritty rails—flowed through her head provoking purely physical responses. Shehad no words, nor any conception of the purpose of such things aswords, nor any consciousness of time or place, or of her own bodyor even of her own existence.
Nevertheless, by degrees her perceptions became sharper. Thestream of moving things began to penetrate beyond her eyes and sortthemselves out into separate images in her brain. She began, stillwordlessly, to observe the shapes of things. A long-shaped thingswam past, supported on four other, narrower long-shaped things,and drawing after it a square-shaped thing balanced on two circles.Dorothy watched it pass; and suddenly, as though spontaneously, aword flashed into her mind. The word was ‘horse’. It faded, butreturned presently in the more complex form: ‘That is a horse.’ Other words followed—’house’, ‘street’, ‘tram’, ‘car’, ‘bicycle’—until in a few minutes she had found a name for almost everythingwithin sight. She discovered the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and,speculating upon these words, discovered that she knew thedifference between living and inanimate things, and between humanbeings and horses, and between men and women.
It was only now, after becoming aware of most of the things abouther, that she became aware of herself. Hitherto she had been as itwere a pair of eyes with a receptive but purely impersonal brainbehind them. But now, with a curious little shock, she discoveredher separate and unique existence; she could feel herself existing;it was as though something within her were exclaiming ‘I am I!’Also, in some way she knew that this ‘I’ had existed and been thesame from remote periods in the past, though it was a past of whichshe had no remembrance.
But it was only for a moment that this discovery occupied her.From the first there was a sense of incompleteness in it, ofsomething vaguely unsatisfactory. And it was this: the ‘I am I’which had seemed an answer had itself become a question. It was nolonger ‘I am I’, but ‘Who am I’?
Who was she? She turned the question over in her mind, and foundthat she had not the dimmest notion of who she was; except that,watching the people and horses passing, she grasped that she was ahuman being and not a horse. And that the question altered itselfand took this form: ‘Am I a man or a woman?’ Again neitherfeeling nor memory gave any clue to the answer. But at thatmoment, by accident possibly, her finger-tips brushed against herbody. She realized more clearly than before that her body existed,and that it was her own—that it was, in fact, herself. She beganto explore it with her hands, and her hands encountered breasts.She was a woman, therefore. Only women had breasts. In some wayshe knew, without knowing how she knew, that all those women whopassed had breasts beneath their clothes, though she could not seethem.
She now grasped that in order to identify herself she must examineher own body, beginning with her face; and for some moments sheactually attempted to look at her own face, before realizing thatthis was impossible. She looked down, and saw a shabby black satindress, rather long, a pair of flesh-coloured artificial silkstockings, laddered and dirty, and a pair of very shabby blacksatin shoes with high heels. None of them was in the leastfamiliar to her. She examined her hands, and they were bothstrange and unstrange. They were smallish hands, with hard palms,and very dirty. After a moment she realized that it was theirdirtiness that made them strange to her. The hands themselvesseemed natural and appropriate, though she did not recognize them.
After hesitating a few moments longer, she turned to her left andbegan to walk slowly along the pavement. A fragment of knowledgehad come to her, mysteriously, out of the blank past: the existenceof mirrors, their purpose, and the fact that there are oftenmirrors in shop windows. After a moment she came to a cheap littlejeweller’s shop in which a strip of mirror, set at an angle,reflected the faces of people passing. Dorothy picked herreflection out from among a dozen others, immediately realizing itto be her own. Yet it could not be said that she had recognizedit; she had no memory of ever having seen it till this moment. Itshowed her a woman’s youngish face, thin, very blonde, with crow’s-feet round the eyes, and faintly smudged with dirt. A vulgar blackcloche hat was stuck carelessly on the head, concealing most of thehair. The face was quite unfamiliar to her, and yet not strange.She had not known till this moment what face to expect, but nowthat she had seen it she realized that it was the face she mighthave expected. It was appropriate. It corresponded to somethingwithin her.
As she turned away from the jeweller’s mirror, she caught sight ofthe words ‘Fry’s Chocolate’ on a shop window opposite, anddiscovered that she understood the purpose of writing, and also,after a momentary effort, that she was able to read. Her eyesflitted across the street, taking in and deciphering odd scraps ofprint; the names of shops, advertisements, newspaper posters. Shespelled out the letters of two red and white posters outside atobacconist’s shop. One of them read, ‘Fresh Rumours aboutRector’s Daughter’, and the other, ‘Rector’s Daughter. Nowbelieved in Paris’. Then she looked upwards, and saw in whitelettering on the corner of a house: ‘New Kent Road’. The wordsarrested her. She grasped that she was standing in the New KentRoad, and—another fragment of her mysterious knowledge—the NewKent Road was somewhere in London. So she was in London.
As she made this discovery a peculiar tremor ran through her. Hermind was now fully awakened; she grasped, as she had not graspedbefore, the strangeness of her situation, and it bewildered andfrightened her. What could it all mean? What was she doing here?How had she got here? What had happened to her?
The answer was not long in coming. She thought—and it seemed toher that she understood perfectly well what the words meant: ‘Ofcourse! I’ve lost my memory!’
At this moment two youths and a girl who were trudging past, theyouths with clumsy sacking bundles on their backs, stopped andlooked curiously at Dorothy. They hesitated for a moment, thenwalked on, but halted again by a lamp-post five yards away.Dorothy saw them looking back at her and talking among themselves.One of the youths was about twenty, narrow-chested, black-haired,ruddy-cheeked, good-looking in a nosy cockney way, and dressed inthe wreck of a raffishly smart blue suit and a check cap. Theother was about twenty-six, squat, nimble, and powerful, with asnub nose, a clear pink skin and huge lips as coarse as sausages,exposing strong yellow teeth. He was frankly ragged, and he had amat of orange-coloured hair cropped short and growing low on hishead, which gave him a startling resemblance to an orang-outang.The girl was a silly-looking, plump creature, dressed in clothesvery like Dorothy’s own. Dorothy could hear some of what they weresaying:
‘That tart looks ill,’ said the girl.
The orange-headed one, who was singing ‘Sonny Boy’ in a goodbaritone voice, stopped singing to answer. ‘She ain’t ill,’ hesaid. ‘She’s on the beach all right, though. Same as us.’
‘She’d do jest nicely for Nobby, wouldn’t she?’ said the dark-haired one.
‘Oh, you!’ exclaimed the girl with a shocked-amorous air, pretendingto smack the dark one over the head.
The youths had lowered their bundles and leaned them against thelamp-post. All three of them now came rather hesitantly towardsDorothy, the orange-headed one, whose name seemed to be Nobby,leading the way as their ambassador. He moved with a gambolling,apelike gait, and his grin was so frank and wide that it wasimpossible not to smile back at him. He addressed Dorothy in afriendly way.
‘You on the beach, kid?’
‘On the beach?’
‘Well, on the bum?’
‘On the bum?’
‘Christ! she’s batty,’ murmured the girl, twitching at the black-haired one’s arm as though to pull him away.
‘Well, what I mean to say, kid—have you got any money?’
‘I don’t know.’
At this all three looked at one another in stupefaction. For amoment they probably thought that Dorothy really was batty. Butsimultaneously Dorothy, who had earlier discovered a small pocketin the side of her dress, put her hand into it and felt the outlineof a large coin.
‘I believe I’ve got a penny,’ she said.
‘A penny!’ said the dark youth disgustedly, ‘—lot of good that isto us!’
Dorothy drew it out. It was a half-crown. An astonishing changecame over the faces of the three others. Nobby’s mouth split openwith delight, he gambolled several steps to and fro like some greatjubilant ape, and then, halting, took Dorothy confidentially by thearm.
‘That’s the mulligatawny!’ he said. ‘We’ve struck it lucky—andso’ve you, kid, believe me. You’re going to bless the day you seteyes on us lot. We’re going to make your fortune for you, we are.Now, see here, kid—are you on to go into cahoots with us three?’
‘What?’ said Dorothy.
‘What I mean to say—how about you chumming in with Flo and Charlieand me? Partners, see? Comrades all, shoulder to shoulder.United we stand, divided we fall. We put up the brains, you put upthe money. How about it, kid? Are you on, or are you off?’
‘Shut up, Nobby!’ interrupted the girl. ‘She don’t understand aword of what you’re saying. Talk to her proper, can’t you?’
‘That’ll do, Flo,’ said Nobby equably. ‘You keep it shut and leavethe talking to me. I got a way with the tarts, I have. Now, youlisten to me, kid—what might your name happen to be, kid?’
Dorothy was within an ace of saying ‘I don’t know,’ but she wassufficiently on the alert to stop herself in time. Choosing afeminine name from the half-dozen that sprang immediately into hermind, she answered, ‘Ellen.’
‘Ellen. That’s the mulligatawny. No surnames when you’re on thebum. Well now, Ellen dear, you listen to me. Us three are goingdown hopping, see—’
‘’Opping!’ put in the dark youth impatiently, as though disgustedby Dorothy’s ignorance. His voice and manner were rather sullen,and his accent much baser than Nobby’s. ‘Pickin’ ‘ops—dahn inKent! C’n understand that, can’t yer?’
‘Oh, hops! For beer?’
‘That’s the mulligatawny! Coming on fine, she is. Well, kid, ‘z Iwas saying, here’s us three going down hopping, and got a jobpromised us and all—Blessington’s farm, Lower Molesworth. Onlywe’re just a bit in the mulligatawny, see? Because we ain’t got abrown between us, and we got to do it on the toby—thirty-fivemiles it is—and got to tap for our tommy and skipper at night aswell. And that’s a bit of a mulligatawny, with ladies in theparty. But now s’pose f’rinstance you was to come along with us,see? We c’d take the twopenny tram far as Bromley, and that’sfifteen miles done, and we won’t need skipper more’n one night onthe way. And you can chum in at our bin—four to a bin’s the bestpicking—and if Blessington’s paying twopence a bushel you’ll turnyour ten bob a week easy. What do you say to it, kid? Your twoand a tanner won’t do you much good here in Smoke. But you go intopartnership with us, and you’ll get your kip for a month andsomething over—and we’ll get a lift to Bromley and a bit of scranas well.’
About a quarter of his speech was intelligible to Dorothy. Sheasked rather at random:
‘What is scran?’
‘Scran? Tommy—food. I can see you ain’t been long on the beach,kid.’
‘Oh. . . . Well, you want me to come down hop-picking with you, isthat it?’
‘That’s it, Ellen my dear. Are you on, or are you off?’
‘All right,’ said Dorothy promptly. ‘I’ll come.’
She made this decision without any misgiving whatever. It is truethat if she had had time to think over her position, she wouldprobably have acted differently; in all probability she would havegone to a police station and asked for assistance. That would havebeen the sensible course to take. But Nobby and the others hadappeared just at the critical moment, and, helpless as she was, itseemed quite natural to throw in her lot with the first human beingwho presented himself. Moreover, for some reason which she did notunderstand, it reassured her to hear that they were making forKent. Kent, it seemed to her, was the very place to which shewanted to go. The others showed no further curiosity, and asked nouncomfortable questions. Nobby simply said, ‘O.K. That’s themulligatawny!’ and then gently took Dorothy’s half-crown out of herhand and slid it into his pocket—in case she should lose it, heexplained. The dark youth—apparently his name was Charlie—saidin his surly, disagreeable way:
‘Come on, less get movin’! It’s ‘ar-parse two already. We don’twant to miss that there —— tram. Where d’they start from,Nobby?’
‘The Elephant,’ said Nobby: ‘and we got to catch it before fouro’clock, because they don’t give no free rides after four.’
‘Come on, then, don’t less waste no more time. Nice job we’ll ‘aveof it if we got to ‘ike it down to Bromley and look for a place toskipper in the —— dark. C’m on, Flo.’
‘Quick march!’ said Nobby, swinging his bundle on to his shoulder.
They set out, without more words said, Dorothy, still bewilderedbut feeling much better than she had felt half an hour ago, walkedbeside Flo and Charlie, who talked to one another and took nofurther notice of her. From the very first they seemed to holdthemselves a little aloof from Dorothy—willing enough to share herhalf-crown, but with no friendly feelings towards her. Nobbymarched in front, stepping out briskly in spite of his burden, andsinging, with spirited imitations of military music, the well-knownmilitary song of which the only recorded words seem to be:
‘“——!” was all the band could play;
“——! ——!” And the same to you!’
This was the twenty-ninth of August. It was on the night of thetwenty-first that Dorothy had fallen asleep in the conservatory; sothat there had been an interregnum in her life of not quite eightdays.
The thing that had happened to her was commonplace enough—almostevery week one reads in the newspapers of a similar case. A mandisappears from home, is lost sight of for days or weeks, andpresently fetches up at a police station or in a hospital, with nonotion of who he is or where he has come from. As a rule it isimpossible to tell how he has spent the intervening time; he hasbeen wandering, presumably, in some hypnotic or somnambulisticstate in which he has nevertheless been able to pass for normal.In Dorothy’s case only one thing is certain, and that is that shehad been robbed at some time during her travels; for the clothesshe was wearing were not her own, and her gold cross was missing.
At the moment when Nobby accosted her, she was already on the roadto recovery; and if she had been properly cared for, her memorymight have come back to her within a few days or even hours. Avery small thing would have been enough to accomplish it; a chancemeeting with a friend, a photograph of her home, a few questionsskilfully put. But as it was, the slight mental stimulus that sheneeded was never given. She was left in the peculiar state inwhich she had first found herself—a state in which her mind waspotentially normal, but not quite strung up to the effort ofpuzzling out her own identity.
For of course, once she had thrown in her lot with Nobby and theothers, all chance of reflection was gone. There was no time tosit down and think the matter over—no time to come to grips withher difficulty and reason her way to its solution. In the strange,dirty sub-world into which she was instantly plunged, even fiveminutes of consecutive thought would have been impossible. Thedays passed in ceaseless nightmarish activity. Indeed, it was verylike a nightmare; a nightmare not of urgent terrors, but of hunger,squalor, and fatigue, and of alternating heat and cold. Afterwards,when she looked back upon that time, days and nights mergedthemselves together so that she could never remember with perfectcertainty how many of them there had been. She only knew that forsome indefinite period she had been perpetually footsore and almostperpetually hungry. Hunger and the soreness of her feet were herclearest memories of that time; and also the cold of the nights, anda peculiar, blowsy, witless feeling that came of sleeplessness andconstant exposure to the air.
After getting to Bromley they had ‘drummed up’ on a horrible,paper-littered rubbish dump, reeking with the refuse of severalslaughter-houses, and then passed a shuddering night, with onlysacks for cover, in long wet grass on the edge of a recreationground. In the morning they had started out, on foot, for thehopfields. Even at this early date Dorothy had discovered that thetale Nobby had told her, about the promise of a job, was totallyuntrue. He had invented it—he confessed this quite light-heartedly—to induce her to come with them. Their only chance ofgetting a job was to march down into the hop country and apply atevery farm till they found one where pickers were still needed.
They had perhaps thirty-five miles to go, as the crow flies, andyet at the end of three days they had barely reached the fringe ofthe hopfields. The need of getting food, of course, was whatslowed their progress. They could have marched the whole distancein two days or even in a day if they had not been obliged to feedthemselves. As it was, they had hardly even time to think ofwhether they were going in the direction of the hopfields or not;it was food that dictated all their movements. Dorothy’s half-crown had melted within a few hours, and after that there wasnothing for it except to beg. But there came the difficulty. Oneperson can beg his food easily enough on the road, and even two canmanage it, but it is a very different matter when there are fourpeople together. In such circumstances one can only keep alive ifone hunts for food as persistently and single-mindedly as a wildbeast. Food—that was their sole preoccupation during those threedays—just food, and the endless difficulty of getting it.
From morning to night they were begging. They wandered enormousdistances, zigzagging right across the country, trailing fromvillage to village and from house to house, ‘tapping’ at everybutcher’s and every baker’s and every likely looking cottage, andhanging hopefully round picnic parties, and waving—always vainly—at passing cars, and accosting old gentlemen with the right kind offace and pitching hard-up stories. Often they went five miles outof their way to get a crust of bread or a handful of scraps ofbacon. All of them begged, Dorothy with the others; she had noremembered past, no standards of comparison to make her ashamed ofit. And yet with all their efforts they would have gone empty-bellied half the time if they had not stolen as well as begged.At dusk and in the early mornings they pillaged the orchards andthe fields, stealing apples, damsons, pears, cobnuts, autumnraspberries, and, above all, potatoes; Nobby counted it a sin topass a potato field without getting at least a pocketful. It wasNobby who did most of the stealing, while the others kept guard.He was a bold thief; it was his peculiar boast that he would stealanything that was not tied down, and he would have landed them allin prison if they had not restrained him sometimes. Once he evenlaid hands on a goose, but the goose set up a fearful clamour, andCharlie and Dorothy dragged Nobby off just as the owner came out ofdoors to see what was the matter.
Each of those first days they walked between twenty and twenty-fivemiles. They trailed across commons and through buried villageswith incredible names, and lost themselves in lanes that lednowhere, and sprawled exhausted in dry ditches smelling of fenneland tansies, and sneaked into private woods and ‘drummed up’ inthickets where firewood and water were handy, and cooked strange,squalid meals in the two two-pound snuff-tins that were their onlycooking pots. Sometimes, when their luck was in, they hadexcellent stews of cadged bacon and stolen cauliflowers, sometimesgreat insipid gorges of potatoes roasted in the ashes, sometimesjam made of stolen autumn raspberries which they boiled in one ofthe snuff-tins and devoured while it was still scalding hot. Teawas the one thing they never ran short of. Even when there was nofood at all there was always tea, stewed, dark brown and reviving.It is a thing that can be begged more easily than most. ‘Please,ma’am, could you spare me a pinch of tea?’ is a plea that seldomfails, even with the case-hardened Kentish housewives.
The days were burning hot, the white roads glared and the passingcars sent stinging dust into their faces. Often families of hop-pickers drove past, cheering, in lorries piled sky-high withfurniture, children, dogs, and birdcages. The nights were alwayscold. There is hardly such a thing as a night in England when itis really warm after midnight. Two large sacks were all thebedding they had between them. Flo and Charlie had one sack,Dorothy had the other, and Nobby slept on the bare ground. Thediscomfort was almost as bad as the cold. If you lay on your back,your head, with no pillow, lolled backwards so that your neckseemed to be breaking; if you lay on your side, your hip-bonepressing against the earth caused you torments. Even when, towardsthe small hours, you managed to fall asleep by fits and starts, thecold penetrated into your deepest dreams. Nobby was the only onewho could really stand it. He could sleep as peacefully in a nestof sodden grass as in a bed, and his coarse, simian face, withbarely a dozen red-gold hairs glittering on the chin like snippingsof copper wire, never lost its warm, pink colour. He was one ofthose red-haired people who seem to glow with an inner radiancethat warms not only themselves but the surrounding air.
All this strange, comfortless life Dorothy took utterly forgranted—only dimly aware, if at all, that the other, unrememberedlife that lay behind her had been in some way different from this.After only a couple of days she had ceased to wonder any longerabout her queer predicament. She accepted everything—accepted thedirt and hunger and fatigue, the endless trailing to and fro, thehot, dusty days and the sleepless, shivering nights. She was, inany case, far too tired to think. By the afternoon of the secondday they were all desperately, overwhelmingly tired, except Nobby,whom nothing could tire. Even the fact that soon after they setout a nail began to work its way through the sole of his boothardly seemed to trouble him. There were periods of an hour at atime when Dorothy seemed almost to be sleeping as she walked. Shehad a burden to carry now, for as the two men were already loadedand Flo steadfastly refused to carry anything, Dorothy hadvolunteered to carry the sack that held the stolen potatoes. Theygenerally had ten pounds or so of potatoes in reserve. Dorothyslung the sack over her shoulder as Nobby and Charlie did withtheir bundles, but the string cut into her like a saw and the sackbumped against her hip and chafed it so that finally it began tobleed. Her wretched, flimsy shoes had begun to go to pieces fromthe very beginning. On the second day the heel of her right shoecame off and left her hobbling; but Nobby, expert in such matters,advised her to tear the heel off the other shoe and walkflatfooted. The result was a fiery pain down her shins when shewalked uphill, and a feeling as though the soles of her feet hadbeen hammered with an iron bar.
But Flo and Charlie were in a much worse case than she. They werenot so much exhausted as amazed and scandalized by the distancesthey were expected to walk. Walking twenty miles in a day was athing they had never heard of till now. They were cockneys bornand bred, and though they had had several months of destitution inLondon, neither of them had ever been on the road before. Charlie,till fairly recently, had been in good employment, and Flo, too,had had a good home until she had been seduced and turned out ofdoors to live on the streets. They had fallen in with Nobby inTrafalgar Square and agreed to come hop-picking with him, imaginingthat it would be a bit of a lark. Of course, having been ‘on thebeach’ a comparatively short time, they looked down on Nobby andDorothy. They valued Nobby’s knowledge of the road and hisboldness in thieving, but he was their social inferior—that wastheir attitude. And as for Dorothy, they scarcely even deigned tolook at her after her half-crown came to an end.
Even on the second day their courage was failing. They laggedbehind, grumbled incessantly, and demanded more than their fairshare of food. By the third day it was almost impossible to keepthem on the road at all. They were pining to be back in London,and had long ceased to care whether they ever got to the hopfieldsor not; all they wanted to do was to sprawl in any comfortablehalting place they could find, and, when there was any food left,devour endless snacks. After every halt there was a tediousargument before they could be got to their feet again.
‘Come on, blokes!’ Nobby would say. ‘Pack your peter up, Charlie.Time we was getting off.’
‘Oh, —— getting off!’ Charlie would answer morosely.
‘Well, we can’t skipper here, can we? We said we was going to hikeas far as Sevenoaks tonight, didn’t we?’
‘Oh, —— Sevenoaks! Sevenoaks or any other bleeding place—itdon’t make any bleeding difference to me.’
‘But —— it! We want to get a job tomorrow, don’t we? And we gotto get down among the farms ‘fore we can start looking for one.’
‘Oh, —— the farms! I wish I’d never ‘eard of a —— ‘op! Iwasn’t brought up to this —— ‘iking and skippering like you was.I’m fed up; that’s what I am —— fed up.’
‘If this is bloody ‘opping,’ Flo would chime in, ‘I’ve ‘ad mybloody bellyful of it already.’
Nobby gave Dorothy his private opinion that Flo and Charlie wouldprobably ‘jack off’ if they got the chance of a lift back toLondon. But as for Nobby, nothing disheartened him or ruffled hisgood temper, not even when the nail in his boot was at its worstand his filthy remnant of a sock was dark with blood. By the thirdday the nail had worn a permanent hole in his foot, and Nobby hadto halt once in a mile to hammer it down.
‘’Scuse me, kid,’ he would say; ‘got to attend to my bloody hoofagain. This nail’s a mulligatawny.’
He would search for a round stone, squat in the ditch and carefullyhammer the nail down.
‘There!’ he would say optimistically, feeling the place with histhumb. ‘that b—’s in his grave!’
The epitaph should have been Resurgam, however. The nailinvariably worked its way up again within a quarter of an hour.
Nobby had tried to make love to Dorothy, of course, and, when sherepulsed him, bore her no grudge. He had that happy temperamentthat is incapable of taking its own reverses very seriously. Hewas always debonair, always singing in a lusty baritone voice—histhree favourite songs were: ‘Sonny Boy’, ‘’Twas Christmas Day inthe Workhouse’ (to the tune of ‘The Church’s One Foundation’), and‘“——!” was all the band could play’, given with lively renderingsof military music. He was twenty-six years old and was a widower,and had been successively a seller of newspapers, a petty thief,a Borstal boy, a soldier, a burglar, and a tramp. These facts,however, you had to piece together for yourself, for he was notequal to giving a consecutive account of his life. His conversationwas studded with casual picturesque memories—the six months he hadserved in a line regiment before he was invalided out with a damagedeye, the loathsomeness of the skilly in Holloway, his childhood inthe Deptford gutters, the death of his wife, aged eighteen, inchildbirth, when he was twenty, the horrible suppleness of theBorstal canes, the dull boom of the nitro- glycerine, blowing in thesafe door at Woodward’s boot and shoe factory, where Nobby hadcleared a hundred and twenty-five pounds and spent it in threeweeks.
On the afternoon of the third day they reached the fringe of thehop country, and began to meet discouraged people, mostly tramps,trailing back to London with the news that there was nothing doing—hops were bad and the price was low, and the gypsies and ‘homepickers’ had collared all the jobs. At this Flo and Charlie gaveup hope altogether, but by an adroit mixture of bullying andpersuasion Nobby managed to drive them a few miles farther. In alittle village called Wale they fell in with an old Irishwoman—Mrs McElligot was her name—who had just been given a job at aneighbouring hopfield, and they swapped some of their stolen applesfor a piece of meat she had ‘bummed’ earlier in the day. She gavethem some useful hints about hop-picking and about what farms totry. They were all sprawling on the village green, tired out,opposite a little general shop with some newspaper posters outside.
‘You’d best go down’n have a try at Chalmers’s,’ Mrs McElligotadvised them in her base Dublin accent. ‘Dat’s a bit above fivemile from here. I’ve heard tell as Chalmers wants a dozen pickersstill. I daresay he’d give y’a job if you gets dere early enough.’
‘Five miles! Cripes! Ain’t there none nearer’n that?’ grumbledCharlie.
‘Well, dere’s Norman’s. I got a job at Norman’s meself—I’mstartin’ tomorrow mornin’. But ‘twouldn’t be no use for you to tryat Norman’s. He ain’t takin’ on none but home pickers, an’ dey sayas he’s goin’ to let half his hops blow.’
‘What’s home pickers?’ said Nobby.
‘Why, dem as has got homes o’ deir own. Eider you got to live inde neighbourhood, or else de farmer’s got to give y’a hut to sleepin. Dat’s de law nowadays. In de ole days when you come down hoppin’, you kipped in a stable an’ dere was no questions asked.But dem bloody interferin’ gets of a Labour Government brought in alaw to say as no pickers was to be taken on widout de farmer hadproper accommodation for ‘em. So Norman only takes on folks as hasgot homes o’ deir own.’
‘Well, you ain’t got a home of your own, have you?’
‘No bloody fear! But Norman t’inks I have. I kidded’m I wasstayin’ in a cottage near by. Between you an’ me, I’m skipperin’in a cow byre. ‘Tain’t so bad except for de stink o’ de muck, butyou got to be out be five in de mornin’, else de cowmen ‘ud catchyou.’
‘We ain’t got no experience of hopping,’ Nobby said. ‘I wouldn’tknow a bloody hop if I saw one. Best to let on you’re an old handwhen you go up for a job, eh?’
‘Hell! Hops don’t need no experience. Tear ‘em off an’ fling ‘eminto de bin. Dat’s all der is to it, wid hops.’
Dorothy was nearly asleep. She heard the others talking desultorily,first about hop-picking, then about some story in the newspapers ofa girl who had disappeared from home. Flo and Charlie had beenreading the posters on the shop-front opposite; and this had revivedthem somewhat, because the posters reminded them of London and itsjoys. The missing girl, in whose fate they seemed to be ratherinterested, was spoken of as ‘The Rector’s Daughter’.
‘J’a see that one, Flo?’ said Charlie, reading a poster aloud withintense relish: ‘“Secret Love Life of Rector’s Daughter.Startling Revelations.” Coo! Wish I ‘ad a penny to ‘ave a read ofthat!’
‘Oh? What’s ‘t all about, then?’
‘What? Didn’t j’a read about it? Papers ‘as bin full of it.Rector’s Daughter this and Rector’s Daughter that—wasn’t ‘alfsmutty, some of it, too.’
‘She’s bit of hot stuff, the ole Rector’s Daughter,’ said Nobbyreflectively, lying on his back. ‘Wish she was here now! I’d knowwhat to do with her, all right, I would.’
‘’Twas a kid run away from home,’ put in Mrs McElligot. ‘She wascarryin’ on wid a man twenty year older’n herself, an’ now she’sdisappeared an’ dey’re searchin’ for her high an’ low.’
‘Jacked off in the middle of the night in a motor-car with noclo’es on ‘cep’ ‘er nightdress,’ said Charlie appreciatively. ‘The‘ole village sore ‘em go.’
‘Dere’s some t’ink as he’s took her abroad an’ sold her to one o’dem flash cat-houses in Parrus,’ added Mrs McElligot.
‘No clo’es on ‘cep’ ‘er nightdress? Dirty tart she must ‘a been!’
The conversation might have proceeded to further details, but atthis moment Dorothy interrupted it. What they were saying hadroused a faint curiosity in her. She realized that she did notknow the meaning of the word ‘Rector’. She sat up and asked Nobby:
‘What is a Rector?’
‘Rector? Why, a sky-pilot—parson bloke. Bloke that preaches andgives out the hymns and that in church. We passed one of ‘emyesterday—riding a green bicycle and had his collar on back tofront. A priest—clergyman. you know.’
‘Oh. . . . Yes, I think so.’
‘Priests! Bloody ole getsies dey are too, some o’ dem,’ said MrsMcElligot reminiscently.
Dorothy was left not much the wiser. What Nobby had said didenlighten her a little, but only a very little. The whole train ofthought connected with ‘church’ and ‘clergyman’ was strangely vagueand blurred in her mind. It was one of the gaps—there was anumber of such gaps—in the mysterious knowledge that she hadbrought with her out of the past.
That was their third night on the road. When it was dark theyslipped into a spinney as usual to ‘skipper’, and a little aftermidnight it began to pelt with rain. They spent a miserable hourstumbling to and fro in the darkness, trying to find a place toshelter, and finally found a hay-stack, where they huddledthemselves on the lee side till it was light enough to see. Floblubbered throughout the night in the most intolerable manner, andby the morning she was in a state of semi-collapse. Her silly fatface, washed clean by rain and tears, looked like a bladder oflard, if one can imagine a bladder of lard contorted with self-pity. Nobby rooted about under the hedge until he had collected anarmful of partially dry sticks, and then managed to get a firegoing and boil some tea as usual. There was no weather so bad thatNobby could not produce a can of tea. He carried, among otherthings, some pieces of old motor tyre that would make a flare whenthe wood was wet, and he even possessed the art, known only to afew cognoscenti among tramps, of getting water to boil over acandle.
Everyone’s limbs had stiffened after the horrible night, and Flodeclared herself unable to walk a step farther. Charlie backed herup. So, as the other two refused to move, Dorothy and Nobby wenton to Chalmers’s farm, arranging a rendezvous where they shouldmeet when they had tried their luck. They got to Chalmers’s, fivemiles away, found their way through vast orchards to the hop-fields, and were told that the overseer ‘would be along presently’.So they waited four hours on the edge of the plantation, with thesun drying their clothes on their backs, watching the hop-pickersat work. It was a scene somehow peaceful and alluring. The hopbines, tall climbing plants like runner beans enormously magnified,grew in green leafy lanes, with the hops dangling from them in palegreen bunches like gigantic grapes. When the wind stirred themthey shook forth a fresh, bitter scent of sulphur and cool beer.In each lane of bines a family of sunburnt people were shreddingthe hops into sacking bins, and singing as they worked; andpresently a hooter sounded and they knocked off to boil cans of teaover crackling fires of hop bines. Dorothy envied them greatly.How happy they looked, sitting round the fires with their cans oftea and their hunks of bread and bacon, in the smell of hops andwood smoke! She pined for such a job—however, for the presentthere was nothing doing. At about one o’clock the overseer arrivedand told them that he had no jobs for them, so they trailed back tothe road, only avenging themselves on Chalmers’s farm by stealing adozen apples as they went.
When they reached their rendezvous, Flo and Charlie had vanished.Of course they searched for them, but, equally of course, they knewvery well what had happened. Indeed, it was perfectly obvious.Flo had made eyes at some passing lorry driver, who had given thetwo of them a lift back to London for the chance of a good cuddleon the way. Worse yet, they had stolen both bundles. Dorothy andNobby had not a scrap of food left, not a crust of bread nor apotato nor a pinch of tea, no bedding, and not even a snuff-tin inwhich to cook anything they could cadge or steal—nothing, in fact,except the clothes they stood up in.
The next thirty-six hours were a bad time—a very bad time. Howthey pined for a job, in their hunger and exhaustion! But thechances of getting one seemed to grow smaller and smaller as theygot farther into the hop country. They made interminable marchesfrom farm to farm, getting the same answer everywhere—no pickersneeded—and they were so busy marching to and fro that they had noteven time to beg, so that they had nothing to eat except stolenapples and damsons that tormented their stomachs with their acidjuice and yet left them ravenously hungry. It did not rain thatnight, but it was much colder than before. Dorothy did not evenattempt to sleep, but spent the night in crouching over the fireand keeping it alight. They were hiding in a beech wood, under asquat, ancient tree that kept the wind away but also wetted themperiodically with sprinklings of chilly dew. Nobby, stretched onhis back, mouth open, one broad cheek faintly illumined by thefeeble rays of the fire, slept as peacefully as a child. All nightlong a vague wonder, born of sleeplessness and intolerablediscomfort, kept stirring in Dorothy’s mind. Was this the life towhich she had been bred—this life of wandering empty-bellied allday and shivering at night under dripping trees? Had it been likethis even in the blank past? Where had she come from? Who wasshe? No answer came, and they were on the road at dawn. By theevening they had tried at eleven farms in all, and Dorothy’s legswere giving out, and she was so dizzy with fatigue that she founddifficulty in walking straight.
But late in the evening, quite unexpectedly, their luck turned.They tried at a farm named Cairns’s, in the village of Clintock,and were taken on immediately, with no questions asked. Theoverseer merely looked them up and down, said briefly, ‘Right youare—you’ll do. Start in the morning; bin number 7, set 19,’ anddid not even bother to ask their names. Hop-picking, it seemed,needed neither character nor experience.
They found their way to the meadow where the pickers’ camp wassituated. In a dreamlike state, between exhaustion and the joy ofhaving got a job at last, Dorothy found herself walking through amaze of tin-roofed huts and gypsies’ caravans with many-colouredwashing hanging from the windows. Hordes of children swarmed inthe narrow grass alleys between the huts, and ragged, agreeable-looking people were cooking meals over innumerable faggot fires.At the bottom of the field there were some round tin huts, muchinferior to the others, set apart for unmarried people. An old manwho was toasting cheese at a fire directed Dorothy to one of thewomen’s huts.
Dorothy pushed open the door of the hut. It was about twelve feetacross, with unglazed windows which had been boarded up, and it hadno furniture whatever. There seemed to be nothing in it but anenormous pile of straw reaching to the roof—in fact, the hut wasalmost entirely filled with straw. To Dorothy’s eyes, alreadysticky with sleep, the straw looked paradisically comfortable. Shebegan to push her way into it, and was checked by a sharp yelp frombeneath her.
“Ere! What yer doin’ of? Get off of it! ‘Oo asked you to walkabout on my belly, stoopid?’
Seemingly there were women down among the straw. Dorothy burrowedforward more circumspectly, tripped over something, sank into thestraw and in the same instant began to fall asleep. A rough-looking woman, partially undressed, popped up like a mermaid fromthe strawy sea.
‘’Ullo, mate!’ she said. ‘Jest about all in, ain’t you, mate?’
‘Yes, I’m tired—very tired.’
‘Well, you’ll bloody freeze in this straw with no bed-clo’es onyou. Ain’t you got a blanket?’
‘’Alf a mo, then. I got a poke ‘ere.’
She dived down into the straw and re-emerged with a hop-poke sevenfeet long. Dorothy was asleep already. She allowed herself to bewoken up, and inserted herself somehow into the sack, which was solong that she could get into it head and all; and then she was halfwriggling, half sinking down, deep down, into a nest of strawwarmer and drier than she had conceived possible. The strawtickled her nostrils and got into her hair and pricked her eventhrough the sack, but at that moment no imaginable sleeping place—not Cleopatra’s couch of swan’s-down nor the floating bed of Harounal Raschid—could have caressed her more voluptuously.
It was remarkable how easily, once you had got a job, you settleddown to the routine of hop-picking. After only a week of it youranked as an expert picker, and felt as though you had been pickinghops all your life.
It was exceedingly easy work. Physically, no doubt, it wasexhausting—it kept you on your feet ten or twelve hours a day, andyou were dropping with sleep by six in the evening—but it neededno kind of skill. Quite a third of the pickers in the camp were asnew to the job as Dorothy herself. Some of them had come down fromLondon with not the dimmest idea of what hops were like, or how youpicked them, or why. One man, it was said, on his first morning onthe way to the fields, had asked, ‘Where are the spades?’ Heimagined that hops were dug up out of the ground.
Except for Sundays, one day at the hop camp was very like another.At half past five, at a tap on the wall of your hut, you crawledout of your sleeping nest and began searching for your shoes, amidsleepy curses from the women (there were six or seven or possiblyeven eight of them) who were buried here and there in the straw.In that vast pile of straw any clothes that you were so unwise asto take off always lost themselves immediately. You grabbed anarmful of straw and another of dried hop bines, and a faggot fromthe pile outside, and got the fire going for breakfast. Dorothyalways cooked Nobby’s breakfast as well as her own, and tapped onthe wall of his hut when it was ready, she being better at wakingup in the morning than he. It was very cold on those Septembermornings, the eastern sky was fading slowly from black to cobalt,and the grass was silvery white with dew. Your breakfast wasalways the same—bacon, tea, and bread fried in the grease of thebacon. While you ate it you cooked another exactly similar meal,to serve for dinner, and then, carrying your dinner-pail, you setout for the fields, a mile-and-a-half walk through the blue, windydawn, with your nose running so in the cold that you had to stopoccasionally and wipe it on your sacking apron.
The hops were divided up into plantations of about an acre, andeach set—forty pickers or thereabouts, under a foreman who wasoften a gypsy—picked one plantation at a time. The bines grewtwelve feet high or more, and they were trained up strings andslung over horizontal wires, in rows a yard or two apart; in eachrow there was a sacking bin like a very deep hammock slung on aheavy wooden frame. As soon as you arrived you swung your bin intoposition, slit the strings from the next two bines, and tore themdown—huge, tapering strands of foliage, like the plaits ofRapunzel’s hair, that came tumbling down on top of you, showeringyou with dew. You dragged them into place over the bin, and then,starting at the thick end of the bine, began tearing off the heavybunches of hops. At that hour of the morning you could only pickslowly and awkwardly. Your hands were still stiff and the coldnessof the dew numbed them, and the hops were wet and slippery. Thegreat difficulty was to pick the hops without picking the leavesand stalks as well; for the measurer was liable to refuse your hopsif they had too many leaves among them.
The stems of the bines were covered with minute thorns which withintwo or three days had torn the skin of your hands to pieces. Inthe morning it was a torment to begin picking when your fingerswere almost too stiff to bend and bleeding in a dozen places; butthe pain wore off when the cuts had reopened and the blood wasflowing freely. If the hops were good and you picked well, youcould strip a bine in ten minutes, and the best bines yielded halfa bushel of hops. But the hops varied greatly from one plantationto another. In some they were as large as walnuts, and hung ingreat leafless bunches which you could rip off with a single twist;in others they were miserable things no bigger than peas, and grewso thinly that you had to pick them one at a time. Some hops wereso bad that you could not pick a bushel of them in an hour.
It was slow work in the early morning, before the hops were dryenough to handle. But presently the sun came out, and the lovely,bitter odour began to stream from the warming hops, and people’searly-morning surliness wore off, and the work got into its stride.From eight till midday you were picking, picking, picking, in asort of passion of work—a passionate eagerness, which grewstronger and stronger as the morning advanced, to get each binedone and shift your bin a little farther along the row. At thebeginning of each plantation all the bins started abreast, but bydegrees the better pickers forged ahead, and some of them hadfinished their lane of hops when the others were barely halfwayalong; whereupon, if you were far behind, they were allowed to turnback and finish your row for you, which was called ‘stealing yourhops’. Dorothy and Nobby were always among the last, there beingonly two of them—there were four people at most of the bins. AndNobby was a clumsy picker, with his great coarse hands; on thewhole, the women picked better than the men.
It was always a neck and neck race between the two bins on eitherside of Dorothy and Nobby, bin number 6 and bin number 8. Binnumber 6 was a family of gypsies—a curly-headed, ear-ringedfather, an old dried-up leather-coloured mother, and two strappingsons—and bin number 8 was an old East End costerwoman who wore abroad hat and long black cloak and took snuff out of a papiermachebox with a steamer painted on the lid. She was always helped byrelays of daughters and granddaughters who came down from Londonfor two days at a time. There was quite a troop of childrenworking with the set, following the bins with baskets and gatheringup the fallen hops while the adults picked. And the oldcosterwoman’s tiny, pale granddaughter Rose, and a little gypsygirl, dark as an Indian, were perpetually slipping off to stealautumn raspberries and make swings out of hop bines; and theconstant singing round the bins was pierced by shrill cries fromthe costerwoman of, ‘Go on, Rose, you lazy little cat! Pick them‘ops up! I’ll warm your a— for you!’ etc., etc.
Quite half the pickers in the set were gypsies—there were not lessthan two hundred of them in the camp. Diddykies, the other pickerscalled them. They were not a bad sort of people, friendly enough,and they flattered you grossly when they wanted to get anything outof you; yet they were sly, with the impenetrable slyness ofsavages. In their oafish, Oriental faces there was a look as ofsome wild but sluggish animal—a look of dense stupidity existingside by side with untameable cunning. Their talk consisted ofabout half a dozen remarks which they repeated over and over againwithout ever growing tired of them. The two young gypsies at binnumber 6 would ask Nobby and Dorothy as many as a dozen times a daythe same conundrum:
‘What is it the cleverest man in England couldn’t do?’
‘I don’t know. What?’
‘Tickle a gnat’s a— with a telegraph pole.’
At this, never-failing bellows of laughter. They were allabysmally ignorant; they informed you with pride that not one ofthem could read a single word. The old curly-headed father, whohad conceived some dim notion that Dorothy was a ‘scholard’, onceseriously asked her whether he could drive his caravan to New York.
At twelve o’clock a hooter down at the farm signalled to thepickers to knock off work for an hour, and it was generally alittle before this that the measurer came round to collect thehops. At a warning shout from the foreman of ‘’Ops ready, numbernineteen!’ everyone would hasten to pick up the fallen hops, finishoff the tendrils that had been left unpicked here and there, andclear the leaves out of the bin. There was an art in that. It didnot pay to pick too ‘clean’, for leaves and hops alike all went toswell the tally. The old hands, such as the gypsies, were adeptsat knowing just how ‘dirty’ it was safe to pick.
The measurer would come round, carrying a wicker basket which helda bushel, and accompanied by the ‘bookie,’ who entered the pickingsof each bin in a ledger. The ‘bookies’ were young men, clerks andchartered accountants and the like, who took this job as a payingholiday. The measurer would scoop the hops out of the bin a bushelat a time, intoning as he did so, ‘One! Two! Three! Four!’ andthe pickers would enter the number in their tally books. Eachbushel they picked earned them twopence, and naturally there wereendless quarrels and accusations of unfairness over the measuring.Hops are spongy things—you can crush a bushel of them into a quartpot if you choose; so after each scoop one of the pickers wouldlean over into the bin and stir the hops up to make them lielooser, and then the measurer would hoist the end of the bin andshake the hops together again. Some mornings he had orders to‘take them heavy’, and would shovel them in so that he got a coupleof bushels at each scoop, whereat there were angry yells of, ‘Lookhow the b—’s ramming them down! Why don’t you bloody well stampon them?’ etc.; and the old hands would say darkly that they hadknown measurers to be ducked in cowponds on the last day ofpicking. From the bins the hops were put into pokes whichtheoretically held a hundredweight; but it took two men to hoist afull poke when the measurer had been ‘taking them heavy’. You hadan hour for dinner, and you made a fire of hop bines—this wasforbidden, but everyone did it—and heated up your tea and ate yourbacon sandwiches. After dinner you were picking again till five orsix in the evening, when the measurer came once more to take yourhops, after which you were free to go back to the camp.
Looking back, afterwards, upon her interlude of hop-picking, it wasalways the afternoons that Dorothy remembered. Those long,laborious hours in the strong sunlight, in the sound of fortyvoices singing, in the smell of hops and wood smoke, had a qualitypeculiar and unforgettable. As the afternoon wore on you grewalmost too tired to stand, and the small green hop lice got intoyour hair and into your ears and worried you, and your hands, fromthe sulphurous juice, were as black as a Negro’s except where theywere bleeding. Yet you were happy, with an unreasonable happiness.The work took hold of you and absorbed you. It was stupid work,mechanical, exhausting, and every day more painful to the hands,and yet you never wearied of it; when the weather was fine and thehops were good you had the feeling that you could go on picking forever and for ever. It gave you a physical joy, a warm satisfiedfeeling inside you, to stand there hour after hour, tearing off theheavy clusters and watching the pale green pile grow higher andhigher in your bin, every bushel another twopence in your pocket.The sun burned down upon you, baking you brown, and the bitter,never-palling scent, like a wind from oceans of cool beer, flowedinto your nostrils and refreshed you. When the sun was shiningeverybody sang as they worked; the plantations rang with singing.For some reason all the songs were sad that autumn—songs aboutrejected love and fidelity unrewarded, like gutter versions ofCarmen and Manon Lescaut. There was:
There they go—in their joy—
‘Appy girl—lucky boy—
But ‘ere am _I-I-I_
And there was:
But I’m dan—cing with tears—in my eyes—
‘Cos the girl—in my arms—isn’t you-o-ou!
The bells—are ringing—for Sally—
But no-o-ot—for Sally—and me!
The little gypsy girl used to sing over and over again:
We’re so misable, all so misable,
Down on Misable Farm!
And though everyone told her that the name of it was Misery Farm,she persisted in calling it Misable Farm. The old costerwoman andher granddaughter Rose had a hop-picking song which went:
‘Our lousy ‘ops!
Our lousy ‘ops!
When the measurer ‘e comes round,
Pick ‘em up, pick ‘em up off the ground!
When ‘e comes to measure,
‘E never knows where to stop;
Ay, ay, get in the bin
And take the bloody lot!’
‘There they go in their joy’, and ‘The bells are ringing forSally’, were the especial favourites. The pickers never grew tiredof singing them; they must have sung both of them several hundredtimes over before the season came to an end. As much a part of theatmosphere of the hopfields as the bitter scent and the blowsysunlight were the tunes of those two songs, ringing through theleafy lanes of the bines.
When you got back to the camp, at half past six or thereabouts, yousquatted down by the stream that ran past the huts, and washed yourface, probably for the first time that day. It took you twentyminutes or so to get the coal-black filth off your hands. Waterand even soap made no impression on it; only two things wouldremove it—one of them was mud, and the other, curiously enough,was hop juice. Then you cooked your supper, which was usuallybread and tea and bacon again, unless Nobby had been along to thevillage and bought two pennyworth of pieces from the butcher. Itwas always Nobby who did the shopping. He was the sort of man whoknows how to get four pennyworth of meat from the butcher fortwopence, and, besides, he was expert in tiny economies. Forinstance, he always bought a cottage loaf in preference to any ofthe other shapes, because, as he used to point out, a cottage loafseems like two loaves when you tear it in half.
Even before you had eaten your supper you were dropping with sleep,but the huge fires that people used to build between the huts weretoo agreeable to leave. The farm allowed two faggots a day foreach hut, but the pickers plundered as many more as they wanted,and also great lumps of elm root which kept smouldering tillmorning. On some nights the fires were so enormous that twentypeople could sit round them in comfort, and there was singing farinto the night, and telling of stories and roasting of stolenapples. Youths and girls slipped off to the dark lanes together,and a few bold spirits like Nobby set out with sacks and robbed theneighbouring orchards, and the children played hide-and-seek in thedusk and harried the nightjars which haunted the camp and which, intheir cockney ignorance, they imagined to be pheasants. OnSaturday nights fifty or sixty of the pickers used to get drunk inthe pub and then march down the village street roaring bawdy songs,to the scandal of the inhabitants, who looked on the hopping seasonas decent provincials in Roman Gaul might have looked on the yearlyincursion of the Goths.
When finally you managed to drag yourself away to your nest in thestraw, it was none too warm or comfortable. After that firstblissful night, Dorothy discovered that straw is wretched stuff tosleep in. It is not only prickly, but, unlike hay, it lets in thedraught from every possible direction. However, you had the chanceto steal an almost unlimited number of hop-pokes from the fields,and by making herself a sort of cocoon of four hop-pokes, one ontop of the other, she managed to keep warm enough to sleep at anyrate five hours a night.
As to what you earned by hop-picking, it was just enough to keepbody and soul together, and no more.
The rate of pay at Cairns’s was twopence a bushel, and given goodhops a practised picker can average three bushels an hour. Intheory, therefore, it would have been possible to earn thirtyshillings by a sixty-hour week. Actually, no one in the camp cameanywhere near this figure. The best pickers of all earned thirteenor fourteen shillings a week, and the worst hardly as much as sixshillings. Nobby and Dorothy, pooling their hops and dividing theproceeds, made round about ten shillings a week each.
There were various reasons for this. To begin with, there was thebadness of the hops in some of the fields. Again, there were thedelays which wasted an hour or two of every day. When oneplantation was finished you had to carry your bin to the next,which might be a mile distant; and then perhaps it would turn outthat there was some mistake, and the set, struggling under theirbins (they weighed a hundredweight), would have to waste anotherhalf-hour in traipsing elsewhere. Worst of all, there was therain. It was a bad September that year, raining one day in three.Sometimes for a whole morning or afternoon you shivered miserablyin the shelter of the unstripped bines, with a dripping hop-pokeround your shoulders, waiting for the rain to stop. It wasimpossible to pick when it was raining. The hops were too slipperyto handle, and if you did pick them it was worse than useless, forwhen sodden with water they shrank all to nothing in the bin.Sometimes you were in the fields all day to earn a shilling orless.
This did not matter to the majority of the pickers, for quite halfof them were gypsies and accustomed to starvation wages, and mostof the others were respectable East Enders, costermongers and smallshopkeepers and the like, who came hop-picking for a holiday andwere satisfied if they earned enough for their fare both ways and abit of fun on Saturday nights. The farmers knew this and traded onit. Indeed, were it not that hop-picking is regarded as a holiday,the industry would collapse forthwith, for the price of hops is nowso low that no farmer could afford to pay his pickers a livingwage.
Twice a week you could ‘sub’ up to the amount of half yourearnings. If you left before the picking was finished (aninconvenient thing for the farmers) they had the right to pay youoff at the rate of a penny a bushel instead of twopence—that is,to pocket half of what they owed you. It was also common knowledgethat towards the end of the season, when all the pickers had a fairsum owing to them and would not want to sacrifice it by throwing uptheir jobs, the farmer would reduce the rate of payment fromtwopence a bushel to a penny halfpenny. Strikes were practicallyimpossible. The pickers had no union, and the foremen of the sets,instead of being paid twopence a bushel like the others, were paida weekly wage which stopped automatically if there was a strike;so naturally they would raise Heaven and earth to prevent one.Altogether, the farmers had the pickers in a cleft stick; but itwas not the farmers who were to blame—the low price of hops wasthe root of the trouble. Also as Dorothy observed later, very fewof the pickers had more than a dim idea of the amount they earned.The system of piecework disguised the low rate of payment.
For the first few days, before they could ‘sub’, Dorothy and Nobbyvery nearly starved, and would have starved altogether if the otherpickers had not fed them. But everyone was extraordinarily kind.There was a party of people who shared one of the larger huts alittle farther up the row, a flower-seller named Jim Burrows and aman named Jim Turle who was vermin man at a large London restaurant,who had married sisters and were close friends, and these people hadtaken a liking to Dorothy. They saw to it that she and Nobby shouldnot starve. Every evening during the first few days May Turle, agedfifteen, would arrive with a saucepan full of stew, which waspresented with studied casualness, lest there should be any hint ofcharity about it. The formula was always the same:
‘Please, Ellen, mother says as she was just going to throw thisstew away, and then she thought as p’raps you might like it. Sheain’t got no use for it, she says, and so you’d be doing her akindness if you was to take it.’
It was extraordinary what a lot of things the Turles and theBurrowses were ‘just going to throw away’ during those first fewdays. On one occasion they even gave Nobby and Dorothy half apig’s head ready stewed; and besides food they gave them severalcooking pots and a tin plate which could be used as a frying-pan.Best of all, they asked no uncomfortable questions. They knew wellenough that there was some mystery in Dorothy’s life—’You couldsee,’ they said, ‘as Ellen had come down in the world’—but theymade it a point of honour not to embarrass her by asking questionsabout it. It was not until she had been more than a fortnight atthe camp that Dorothy was even obliged to put herself to thetrouble of inventing a surname.
As soon as Dorothy and Nobby could ‘sub’, their money troubles wereat an end. They lived with surprising ease at the rate of one andsixpence a day for the two of them. Fourpence of this went ontobacco for Nobby, and fourpence-halfpenny on a loaf of bread; andthey spent about sevenpence a day on tea, sugar, milk (you couldget milk at the farm at a halfpenny a half-pint), and margarine and‘pieces’ of bacon. But, of course, you never got through the daywithout squandering another penny or two. You were everlastinglyhungry, everlastingly doing sums in farthings to see whether youcould afford a kipper or a doughnut or a pennyworth of potatochips, and, wretched as the pickers’ earnings were, half thepopulation of Kent seemed to be in conspiracy to tickle their moneyout of their pockets. The local shopkeepers, with four hundredhop-pickers quartered upon them, made more during the hop seasonthan all the rest of the year put together, which did not preventthem from looking down on the pickers as cockney dirt. In theafternoon the farm hands would come round the bins selling applesand pears at seven a penny, and London hawkers would come withbaskets of doughnuts or water ices or ‘halfpenny lollies’. Atnight the camp was thronged by hawkers who drove down from Londonwith vans of horrifyingly cheap groceries, fish and chips, jelliedeels, shrimps, shop-soiled cakes, and gaunt, glassy-eyed rabbitswhich had lain two years on the ice and were being sold off atninepence a time.
For the most part it was a filthy diet upon which the hop-pickerslived—inevitably so, for even if you had the money to buy properfood, there was no time to cook it except on Sundays. Probably itwas only the abundance of stolen apples that prevented the campfrom being ravaged by scurvy. There was constant, systematicthieving of apples; practically everyone in the camp either stolethem or shared them. There were even parties of young men(employed, so it was said, by London fruit-costers) who bicycleddown from London every week-end for the purpose of raiding theorchards. As for Nobby, he had reduced fruit-stealing to ascience. Within a week he had collected a gang of youths wholooked up to him as a hero because he was a real burglar and hadbeen in jail four times, and every night they would set out at duskwith sacks and come back with as much as two hundredweight offruit. There were vast orchards near the hopfields, and theapples, especially the beautiful little Golden Russets, were lyingin piles under the trees, rotting, because the farmers could notsell them. It was a sin not to rake them, Nobby said. On twooccasions he and his gang even stole a chicken. How they managedto do it without waking the neighbourhood was a mystery; but itappeared that Nobby knew some dodge of slipping a sack over achicken’s head, so that it ‘ceas’d upon the midnight with nopain’—or at any rate, with no noise.
In this manner a week and then a fortnight went by, and Dorothy wasno nearer to solving the problem of her own identity. Indeed, shewas further from it than ever, for except at odd moments thesubject had almost vanished from her mind. More and more she hadcome to take her curious situation for granted, to abandon allthoughts of either yesterday or tomorrow. That was the naturaleffect of life in the hopfields; it narrowed the range of yourconsciousness to the passing minute. You could not struggle withnebulous mental problems when you were everlastingly sleepy andeverlastingly occupied—for when you were not at work in the fieldsyou were either cooking, or fetching things from the village, orcoaxing a fire out of wet sticks, or trudging to and fro with cansof water. (There was only one water tap in the camp, and that wastwo hundred yards from Dorothy’s hut, and the unspeakable earthlatrine was at the same distance.) It was a life that wore youout, used up every ounce of your energy, and kept you profoundly,unquestionably happy. In the literal sense of the word, itstupefied you. The long days in the fields, the coarse food andinsufficient sleep, the smell of hops and wood smoke, lulled youinto an almost beastlike heaviness. Your wits seemed to thicken,just as your skin did, in the rain and sunshine and perpetual freshair.
On Sundays, of course, there was no work in the fields; but Sundaymorning was a busy time, for it was then that people cooked theirprincipal meal of the week, and did their laundering and mending.All over the camp, while the jangle of bells from the villagechurch came down the wind, mingling with the thin strains of ‘O Godour Help’ from the ill-attended open-air service held by StSomebody’s Mission to Hop-pickers, huge faggot fires were blazing,and water boiling in buckets and tin cans and saucepans andanything else that people could lay their hands on, and raggedwashing fluttering from the roofs of all the huts. On the firstSunday Dorothy borrowed a basin from the Turles and washed firsther hair, then her underclothes and Nobby’s shirt. Her underclotheswere in a shocking state. How long she had worn them she did notknow, but certainly not less than ten days, and they had been sleptin all that while. Her stockings had hardly any feet left to them,and as for her shoes, they only held together because of the mudthat caked them.
After she had set the washing to dry she cooked the dinner, andthey dined opulently off half a stewed chicken (stolen), boiledpotatoes (stolen), stewed apples (stolen), and tea out of real tea-cups with handles on them, borrowed from Mrs Burrows. And afterdinner, the whole afternoon, Dorothy sat against the sunny side ofthe hut, with a dry hop-poke across her knees to hold her dressdown, alternately dozing and reawakening. Two-thirds of the peoplein the camp were doing exactly the same thing; just dozing in thesun, and waking to gaze at nothing, like cows. It was all you feltequal to, after a week of heavy work.
About three o’clock, as she sat there on the verge of sleep, Nobbysauntered by, bare to the waist—his shirt was drying—with a copyof a Sunday newspaper that he had succeeded in borrowing. It wasPippin’s Weekly, the dirtiest of the five dirty Sunday newspapers.He dropped it in Dorothy’s lap as he passed.
‘Have a read of that, kid,’ he said generously.
Dorothy took Pippin’s Weekly and laid it across her knees, feeling herself far too sleepy to read. A huge headline stared her in theface: ‘PASSION DRAMA IN COUNTRY RECTORY.’ And then there weresome more headlines, and something in leaded type, and an insetphotograph of a girl’s face. For the space of five seconds orthereabouts Dorothy was actually gazing at a blackish, smudgy, butquite recognizable portrait of herself.
There was a column or so of print beneath the photograph. As amatter of fact, most of the newspapers had dropped the ‘Rector’sDaughter’ mystery by this time, for it was more than a fortnightold and stale news. But Pippin’s Weekly cared little whether itsnews was new so long as it was spicy, and that week’s crop of rapesand murders had been a poor one. They were giving the ‘Rector’sDaughter’ one final boost—giving her, in fact, the place of honourat the top left-hand corner of the front page.
Dorothy gazed inertly at the photograph. A girl’s face, lookingout at her from beds of black unappetizing print—it conveyedabsolutely nothing to her mind. She re-read mechanically thewords, ‘PASSION DRAMA IN COUNTRY RECTORY’, without eitherunderstanding them or feeling the slightest interest in them. Shewas, she discovered, totally unequal to the effort of reading; eventhe effort of looking at the photographs was too much for her.Heavy sleep was weighing down her head. Her eyes, in the act ofclosing, flitted across the page to a photograph that was either ofLord Snowden or of the man who wouldn’t wear a truss, and then, inthe same instant, she fell asleep, with Pippin’s Weekly across herknees.
It was not uncomfortable against the corrugated iron wall of thehut, and she hardly stirred till six o’clock, when Nobby woke herup to tell her that he had got tea ready; whereat Dorothy putPippin’s Weekly thriftily away (it would come in for lighting thefire), without looking at it again. So for the moment the chanceof solving her problem passed by. And the problem might haveremained unsolved even for months longer, had not a disagreeableaccident, a week later, frightened her out of the contented andunreflecting state in which she was living.
The following Sunday night two policemen suddenly descended uponthe camp and arrested Nobby and two others for theft.
It happened all in a moment, and Nobby could not have escapedeven if he had been warned beforehand, for the countryside waspullulating with special constables. There are vast numbers ofspecial constables in Kent. They are sworn in every autumn—a sortof militia to deal with the marauding tribes of hop-pickers. Thefarmers had been growing tired of the orchard-robbing, and haddecided to make an example, in terrorem.
Of course there was a tremendous uproar in the camp. Dorothy cameout of her hut to discover what was the matter, and saw a firelitring of people towards which everyone was running. She ran afterthem, and a horrid chill went through her, because it seemed to herthat she knew already what it was that had happened. She managedto wriggle her way to the front of the crowd, and saw the verything that she had been fearing.
There stood Nobby, in the grip of an enormous policeman, andanother policeman was holding two frightened youths by the arms.One of them, a wretched child hardly sixteen years old, was cryingbitterly. Mr Cairns, a stiff-built man with grey whiskers, and twofarm hands, were keeping guard over the stolen property that hadbeen dug out of the straw of Nobby’s hut. Exhibit A, a pile ofapples; Exhibit B, some blood-stained chicken feathers. Nobbycaught sight of Dorothy among the crowd, grinned at her with aflash of large teeth, and winked. There was a confused din ofshouting:
‘Look at the pore little b— crying! Let ‘im go! Bloody shame,pore little kid like that! Serve the young bastard right, gettingus all into trouble! Let ‘im go! Always got to put the blame onus bloody hop-pickers! Can’t lose a bloody apple without it’s usthat’s took it. Let ‘im go! Shut up, can’t you? S’pose they was your bloody apples? Wouldn’t you bloodiwell—’ etc., etc., etc.And then: ‘Stand back mate! ‘Ere comes the kid’s mother.’
A huge Toby jug of a woman, with monstrous breasts and her haircoming down her back, forced her way through the ring of people andbegan roaring first at the policeman and Mr Cairns, then at Nobby,who had led her son astray. Finally the farm hands managed to dragher away. Through the woman’s yells Dorothy could hear Mr Cairnsgruffly interrogating Nobby:
‘Now then, young man, just you own up and tell us who you sharedthem apples with! We’re going to put a stop to this thieving game,once and for all. You own up, and I dessay we’ll take it intoconsideration.’
Nobby answered, as blithely as ever, ‘Consideration, your a—!’
‘Don’t you get giving me any of your lip, young man! Or elseyou’ll catch it all the hotter when you go up before themagistrate.’
‘Catch it hotter, your a—!’
Nobby grinned. His own wit filled him with delight. He caughtDorothy’s eye and winked at her once again before being led away.And that was the last she ever saw of him.
There was further shouting, and when the prisoners were removed afew dozen men followed them, booing at the policemen and Mr Cairns,but nobody dared to interfere. Dorothy meanwhile had crept away;she did not even stop to find out whether there would be anopportunity of saying goodbye to Nobby—she was too frightened, tooanxious to escape. Her knees were trembling uncontrollably. Whenshe got back to the hut, the other women were sitting up, talkingexcitedly about Nobby’s arrest. She burrowed deep into the strawand hid herself, to be out of the sound of their voices. Theycontinued talking half the night, and of course, because Dorothyhad supposedly been Nobby’s ‘tart’, they kept condoling with herand plying her with questions. She did not answer them—pretendedto be asleep. But there would be, she knew well enough, no sleepfor her that night.
The whole thing had frightened and upset her—but it had frightenedher more than was reasonable or understandable. For she was in nokind of danger. The farm hands did not know that she had sharedthe stolen apples—for that matter, nearly everyone in the camp hadshared them—and Nobby would never betray her. It was not eventhat she was greatly concerned for Nobby, who was frankly nottroubled by the prospect of a month in jail. It was something thatwas happening inside her—some change that was taking place in theatmosphere of her mind.
It seemed to her that she was no longer the same person that shehad been an hour ago. Within her and without, everything waschanged. It was as though a bubble in her brain had burst, settingfree thoughts, feelings, fears of which she had forgotten theexistence. All the dreamlike apathy of the past three weeks wasshattered. For it was precisely as in a dream that she had beenliving—it is the especial condition of a dream that one acceptseverything, questions nothing. Dirt, rags, vagabondage, begging,stealing—all had seemed natural to her. Even the loss of hermemory had seemed natural; at least, she had hardly given it athought till this moment. The question ‘Who am i?’ had faded outof her mind till sometimes she had forgotten it for hours together.It was only now that it returned with any real urgency.
For nearly the whole of a miserable night that question went to andfro in her brain. But it was not so much the question itself thattroubled her as the knowledge that it was about to be answered.Her memory was coming back to her, that was certain, and some uglyshock was coming with it. She actually feared the moment when sheshould discover her own identity. Something that she did not wantto face was waiting just below the surface of her consciousness.
At half past five she got up and groped for her shoes as usual.She went outside, got the fire going, and stuck the can of wateramong the hot embers to boil. Just as she did so a memory, seemingirrelevant, flashed across her mind. It was of that halt on thevillage green at Wale, a fortnight ago—the time when they had metthe old Irishwoman, Mrs McElligot. Very vividly she remembered thescene. Herself lying exhausted on the grass, with her arm over herface; and Nobby and Mrs McElligot talking across her supine body;and Charlie, with succulent relish, reading out the poster, ‘SecretLove Life of Rector’s Daughter’; and herself, mystified but notdeeply interested, sitting up and asking, ‘What is a Rector?’
At that a deadly chill, like a hand of ice, fastened about herheart. She got up and hurried, almost ran back to the hut, thenburrowed down to the place where her sacks lay and felt in thestraw beneath them. In that vast mound of straw all your loosepossessions got lost and gradually worked their way to the bottom.But after searching for some minutes, and getting herself wellcursed by several women who were still half asleep, Dorothy foundwhat she was looking for. It was the copy of Pippin’s Weekly whichNobby had given her a week ago. She took it outside, knelt down,and spread it out in the light of the fire.
It was on the front page—a photograph, and three big headlines.Yes! There it was!
PASSION DRAMA IN COUNTRY RECTORY
PARSON’S DAUGHTER AND ELDERLY SEDUCER
WHITE-HAIRED FATHER PROSTRATE WITH GRIEF
(Pippin’s Weekly Special)
‘I would sooner have seen her in her grave!’ was the heartbrokencry of the Rev. Charles Hare, Rector of Knype Hill, Suffolk, onlearning of his twenty-eight-year-old daughter’s elopement with anelderly bachelor named Warburton, described as an artist.
Miss Hare, who left the town on the night of the twenty-first ofAugust, is still missing, and all attempts to trace her havefailed. [In leaded type] Rumour, as yet unconfirmed, states thatshe was recently seen with a male companion in a hotel of evilrepute in Vienna.
Readers of Pippin’s Weekly will recall that the elopement tookplace in dramatic circumstances. A little before midnight on thetwenty-first of August, Mrs Evelina Semprill, a widowed lady whoinhabits the house next door to Mr Warburton’s, happened by chanceto look out of her bedroom window and saw Mr Warburton standing athis front gate in conversation with a young woman. As it was aclear moonlight night, Mrs Semprill was able to distinguish thisyoung woman as Miss Hare, the Rector’s daughter. The pair remainedat the gate for several minutes, and before going indoors theyexchanged embraces which Mrs Semprill describes as being of apassionate nature. About half an hour later they reappeared in MrWarburton’s car, which was backed out of the front gate, and droveoff in the direction of the Ipswich road. Miss Hare was dressed inscanty attire, and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol.
It is now learned that for some time past Miss Hare had been in thehabit of making clandestine visits to Mr Warburton’s house. MrsSemprill, who could only with great difficulty be persuaded tospeak upon so painful a subject, has further revealed—
Dorothy crumpled Pippin’s Weekly violently between her hands andthrust it into the fire, upsetting the can of water. There was acloud of ashes and sulphurous smoke, and almost in the same instantDorothy pulled the paper out of the fire unburnt. No use funkingit—better to learn the worst. She read on, with a horriblefascination. It was not a nice kind of story to read aboutyourself. For it was strange, but she had no longer any shadow ofdoubt that this girl of whom she was reading was herself. Sheexamined the photograph. It was a blurred, nebulous thing, butquite unmistakable. Besides, she had no need of the photograph toremind her. She could remember everything—every circumstance ofher life, up to that evening when she had come home tired out fromMr Warburton’s house, and, presumably, fallen asleep in theconservatory. It was all so clear in her mind that it was almostincredible that she had ever forgotten it.
She ate no breakfast that day, and did not think to prepareanything for the midday meal; but when the time came, from force ofhabit, she set out for the hopfields with the other pickers. Withdifficulty, being alone, she dragged the heavy bin into position,pulled the next bine down and began picking. But after a fewminutes she found that it was quite impossible; even the mechanicallabour of picking was beyond her. That horrible, lying story inPippin’s Weekly had so unstrung her that it was impossible even foran instant to focus her mind upon anything else. Its lickerishphrases were going over and over in her head. ‘Embraces of apassionate nature’—’in scanty attire’—’under the influence ofalcohol’—as each one came back into her memory it brought with itsuch a pang that she wanted to cry out as though in physical pain.
After a while she stopped even pretending to pick, let the binefall across her bin, and sat down against one of the posts thatsupported the wires. The other pickers observed her plight, andwere sympathetic. Ellen was a bit cut up, they said. What elsecould you expect, after her bloke had been knocked off? (Everyonein the camp, of course, had taken it for granted that Nobby wasDorothy’s lover.) They advised her to go down to the farm andreport sick. And towards twelve o’clock, when the measurer wasdue, everyone in the set came across with a hatful of hops anddropped it into her bin.
When the measurer arrived he found Dorothy still sitting on theground. Beneath her dirt and sunburn she was very pale; her facelooked haggard, and much older than before. Her bin was twentyyards behind the rest of the set, and there were less than threebushels of hops in it.
‘What’s the game?’ he demanded. ‘You ill?’
‘Well, why ain’t you bin pickin’, then? What you think this is—toff’s picnic? You don’t come up ‘ere to sit about on the ground,you know.’
‘You cheese it and don’t get nagging of ‘er!’ shouted the oldcockney costerwoman suddenly. ‘Can’t the pore girl ‘ave a bit ofrest and peace if she wants it? Ain’t ‘er bloke in the clinkthanks to you and your bloody nosing pals of coppers? She’s gotenough to worry ‘er ‘thout being —— about by every bloodycopper’s nark in Kent!’
‘That’ll be enough from you, Ma!’ said the measurer gruffly, but helooked more sympathetic on hearing that it was Dorothy’s lover whohad been arrested on the previous night. When the costerwoman hadgot her kettle boiling she called Dorothy to her bin and gave her acup of strong tea and a hunk of bread and cheese; and after thedinner interval another picker who had no partner was sent up toshare Dorothy’s bin. He was a small, weazened old tramp namedDeafie. Dorothy felt somewhat better after the tea. Encouraged byDeafie’s example—for he was an excellent picker—she managed to doher fair share of work during the afternoon.
She had thought things over, and was less distracted than before.The phrases in Pippin’s Weekly still made her wince with shame, butshe was equal now to facing the situation. She understood wellenough what had happened to her, and what had led to Mrs Semprill’slibel. Mrs Semprill had seen them together at the gate and hadseen Mr Warburton kissing her; and after that, when they were bothmissing from Knype Hill, it was only too natural—natural for MrsSemprill, that is—to infer that they had eloped together. As forthe picturesque details, she had invented them later. Or had sheinvented them? That was the one thing you could never be certainof with Mrs Semprill—whether she told her lies consciously anddeliberately As lies, or whether, in her strange and disgustingmind, she somehow succeeded in believing them.
Well, anyway, the harm was done—no use worrying about it anylonger. Meanwhile, there was the question of getting back to KnypeHill. She would have to send for some clothes, and she would needtwo pounds for her train fare home. Home! The word sent a pangthrough her heart. Home, after weeks of dirt and hunger! How shelonged for it, now that she remembered it!
A chilly little doubt raised its head. There was one aspect of thematter that she had not thought of till this moment. Could she,after all, go home? Dared she?
Could she face Knype Hill after everything that had happened? Thatwas the question. When you have figured on the front page ofPippin’s Weekly—’in scanty attire’—’under the influence ofalcohol’—ah, don’t let’s think of it again! But when you havebeen plastered all over with horrible, dishonouring libels, can yougo back to a town of two thousand inhabitants where everybody knowseverybody else’s private history and talks about it all day long?
She did not know—could not decide. At one moment it seemed to herthat the story of her elopement was so palpably absurd that no onecould possibly have believed it. Mr Warburton, for instance, couldcontradict it—most certainly would contradict it, for everypossible reason. But the next moment she remembered that MrWarburton had gone abroad, and unless this affair had got into thecontinental newspapers, he might not even have heard of it; andthen she quailed again. She knew what it means to have to livedown a scandal in a small country town. The glances and furtivenudges when you passed! The prying eyes following you down thestreet from behind curtained windows! The knots of youths on thecorners round Blifil-Gordon’s factory, lewdly discussing you!
‘George! Say, George! J’a see that bit of stuff over there? Withfair ‘air?’
‘What, the skinny one? Yes. ‘Oo’s she?’
‘Rector’s daughter, she is. Miss ‘Are. But, say! What you thinkshe done two years ago? Done a bunk with a bloke old enough to bin‘er father. Regular properly went on the razzle with ‘im in Paris!Never think it to look at ‘er, would you?’
‘She did! Straight, she did. It was in the papers and all. Only‘e give ‘er the chuck three weeks afterwards, and she come back‘ome again as bold as brass. Nerve, eh?’
Yes, it would take some living down. For years, for a decade itmight be, they would be talking about her like that. And the worstof it was that the story in Pippin’s Weekly was probably a merebowdlerized vestige of what Mrs Semprill had been saying in thetown. Naturally, Pippin’s Weekly had not wanted to commit itselftoo far. But was there anything that would ever restrain MrsSemprill? Only the limits of her imagination—and they were almostas wide as the sky.
One thing, however, reassured Dorothy, and that was the thoughtthat her father, at any rate, would do his best to shield her. Ofcourse, there would be others as well. It was not as though shewere friendless. The church congregation, at least, knew her andtrusted her, and the Mothers’ Union and the Girl Guides and thewomen on her visiting list would never believe such stories abouther. But it was her father who mattered most. Almost anysituation is bearable if you have a home to go back to and a familywho will stand by you. With courage, and her father’s support, shemight face things out. By the evening she had decided that itwould be perfectly all right to go back to Knype Hill, though nodoubt it would be disagreeable at first, and when work was over forthe day she ‘subbed’ a shilling, and went down to the general shopin the village and bought a penny packet of notepaper. Back in thecamp, sitting on the grass by the fire—no tables or chairs in thecamp, of course—she began to write with a stump of pencil:
Dearest Father,—I can’t tell you how glad I am, after everythingthat has happened, to be able to write to you again. And I do hopeyou have not been too anxious about me or too worried by thosehorrible stories in the newspapers. I don’t know what you musthave thought when I suddenly disappeared like that and you didn’thear from me for nearly a month. But you see—’
How strange the pencil felt in her torn and stiffened fingers! Shecould only write a large, sprawling hand like that of a child. Butshe wrote a long letter, explaining everything, and asking him tosend her some clothes and two pounds for her fare home. Also, sheasked him to write to her under an assumed name she gave him—EllenMillborough, after Millborough in Suffolk. It seemed a queer thingto have to do, to use a false name; dishonest—criminal, almost.But she dared not risk its being known in the village, and perhapsin the camp as well, that she was Dorothy Hare, the notorious‘Rector’s Daughter’.
Once her mind was made up, Dorothy was pining to escape from thehop camp. On the following day she could hardly bring herself togo on with the stupid work of picking, and the discomforts and badfood were intolerable now that she had memories to compare themwith. She would have taken to flight immediately if only she hadhad enough money to get her home. The instant her father’s letterwith the two pounds arrived, she would say good-bye to the Turlesand take the train for home, and breathe a sigh of relief to getthere, in spite of the ugly scandals that had got to be faced.
On the third day after writing she went down the village postoffice and asked for her letter. The postmistress, a woman withthe face of a dachshund and a bitter contempt for all hop-pickers,told her frostily that no letter had come. Dorothy wasdisappointed. A pity—it must have been held up in the post.However, it didn’t matter; tomorrow would be soon enough—onlyanother day to wait.
The next evening she went again, quite certain that it would havearrived this time. Still no letter. This time a misgivingassailed her; and on the fifth evening, when there was yet again noletter, the misgiving changed into a horrible panic. She boughtanother packet of notepaper and wrote an enormous letter, using upthe whole four sheets, explaining over and over again what hadhappened and imploring her father not to leave her in suchsuspense. Having posted it, she made up her mind that she wouldlet a whole week go by before calling at the post office again.
This was Saturday. By Wednesday her resolve had broken down. Whenthe hooter sounded for the midday interval she left her bin andhurried down to the post office—it was a mile and a half away, andit meant missing her dinner. Having got there she went shame-facedly up to the counter, almost afraid to speak. The dog-facedpostmistress was sitting in her brass-barred cage at the end of thecounter, ticking figures in a long shaped account book. She gaveDorothy a brief nosy glance and went on with her work, taking nonotice of her.
Something painful was happening in Dorothy’s diaphragm. She wasfinding it difficult to breathe, ‘Are there any letters for me?’she managed to say at last.
‘Name?’ said the postmistress, ticking away.
The postmistress turned her long dachshund nose over her shoulderfor an instant and glanced at the M partition of the Poste Restanteletter-box.
‘No,’ she said, turning back to her account book.
In some manner Dorothy got herself outside and began to walk backtowards the hopfields, then halted. A deadly feeling of emptinessat the pit of her stomach, caused partly by hunger, made her tooweak to walk.
Her father’s silence could mean only one thing. He believed MrsSemprill’s story—believed that she, Dorothy, had run away fromhome in disgraceful circumstances and then told lies to excuseherself. He was too angry and too disgusted to write to her. Allhe wanted was to get rid of her, drop all communication with her;get her out of sight and out of mind, as a mere scandal to becovered up and forgotten.
She could not go home after this. She dared not. Now that she hadseen what her father’s attitude was, it had opened her eyes to therashness of the thing she had been contemplating. Of course shecould not go home! To slink back in disgrace, to bring shame onher father’s house by coming there—ah, impossible, utterlyimpossible! How could she even have thought of it?
What then? There was nothing for it but to go right away—rightaway to some place that was big enough to hide in. London,perhaps. Somewhere where nobody knew her and the mere sight of herface or mention of her name would not drag into the light a stringof dirty memories.
As she stood there the sound of bells floated towards her, from thevillage church round the bend of the road, where the ringers wereamusing themselves by ringing ‘Abide with Me’, as one picks out atune with one finger on the piano. But presently ‘Abide with Me’gave way to the familiar Sunday-morning jangle. ‘Oh do leave mywife alone! She is so drunk she can’t get home!’—the same pealthat the bells of St Athelstan’s had been used to ring three yearsago before they were unswung. The sound planted a spear ofhomesickness in Dorothy’s heart, bringing back to her withmomentary vividness a medley of remembered things—the smell of theglue-pot in the conservatory when she was making costumes for theschool play, and the chatter of starlings outside her bedroomwindow, interrupting her prayers before Holy Communion, and MrsPither’s doleful voice chronicling the pains in the backs of herlegs, and the worries of the collapsing belfry and the shop-debtsand the bindweed in the peas—all the multitudinous, urgent detailsof a life that had alternated between work and prayer.
Prayer! For a very short time, a minute perhaps, the thoughtarrested her. Prayer—in those days it had been the very sourceand centre of her life. In trouble or in happiness, it was toprayer that she had turned. And she realized—the first time thatit had crossed her mind—that she had not uttered a prayer sinceleaving home, not even since her memory had come back to her.Moreover, she was aware that she had no longer the smallest impulseto pray. Mechanically, she began a whispered prayer, and stoppedalmost instantly; the words were empty and futile. Prayer, whichhad been the mainstay of her life, had no meaning for her anylonger. She recorded this fact as she walked slowly up the road,and she recorded it briefly, almost casually, as though it had beensomething seen in passing—a flower in the ditch or a bird crossingthe road—something noticed and then dismissed. She had not eventhe time to reflect upon what it might mean. It was shouldered outof her mind by more momentous things.
It was of the future that she had got to be thinking now. She wasalready fairly clear in her mind as to what she must do. When thehop-picking was at an end she must go up to London, write to herfather for money and her clothes—for however angry he might be,she could not believe that he intended to leave her utterly in thelurch—and then start looking for a job. It was the measure of herignorance that those dreaded words ‘looking for a job’ soundedhardly at all dreadful in her ears. She knew herself strong andwilling—knew that there were plenty of jobs that she was capableof doing. She could be a nursery governess, for instance—no,better, a housemaid or a parlourmaid. There were not many thingsin a house that she could not do better than most servants;besides, the more menial her job, the easier it would be to keepher past history secret.
At any rate, her father’s house was closed to her, that wascertain. From now on she had got to fend for herself. On thisdecision, with only a very dim idea of what it meant, she quickenedher pace and got back to the fields in time for the afternoonshift.
The hop-picking season had not much longer to run. In a week orthereabouts Cairns’s would be closing down, and the cockneys wouldtake the hoppers’ train to London, and the gypsies would catchtheir horses, pack their caravans, and march northward toLincolnshire, to scramble for jobs in the potato fields. As forthe cockneys, they had had their bellyful of hop-picking by thistime. They were pining to be back in dear old London, withWoolworths and the fried-fish shop round the corner, and no moresleeping in straw and frying bacon in tin lids with your eyesweeping from wood smoke. Hopping was a holiday, but the kind ofholiday that you were glad to see the last of. You came downcheering, but you went home cheering louder still and swearing thatyou would never go hopping again—until next August, when you hadforgotten the cold nights and the bad pay and the damage to yourhands, and remembered only the blowsy afternoons in the sun and theboozing of stone pots of beer round the red camp fires at night.
The mornings were growing bleak and Novemberish; grey skies, thefirst leaves falling, and finches and starlings already flockingfor the winter. Dorothy had written yet again to her father,asking for money and some clothes; he had left her letterunanswered, nor had anybody else written to her. Indeed, there wasno one except her father who knew her present address; but somehowshe had hoped that Mr Warburton might write. Her courage almostfailed her now, especially at nights in the wretched straw, whenshe lay awake thinking of the vague and menacing future. Shepicked her hops with a sort of desperation, a sort of frenzy ofenergy, more aware each day that every handful of hops meantanother fraction of a farthing between herself and starvation.Deafie, her bin-mate, like herself, was picking against time, forit was the last money he would earn till next year’s hopping seasoncame round. The figure they aimed at was five shillings a day—thirty bushels—between the two of them, but there was no day whenthey quite attained it.
Deafie was a queer old man and a poor companion after Nobby, butnot a bad sort. He was a ship’s steward by profession, but a trampof many years’ standing, as deaf as a post and therefore somethingof a Mr F.’s aunt in conversation. He was also an exhibitionist,but quite harmless. For hours together he used to sing a littlesong that went ‘With my willy willy—with my willy willy’, andthough he could not hear what he was singing it seemed to cause himsome kind of pleasure. He had the hairiest ears Dorothy had everseen. There were tufts like miniature Dundreary whiskers growingout of each of his ears. Every year Deafie came hop-picking atCairns’s farm, saved up a pound, and then spent a paradisiac weekin a lodging-house in Newington Butts before going back to theroad. This was the only week in the year when he slept in whatcould be called, except by courtesy, a bed.
The picking came to an end on 28 September. There were severalfields still unpicked, but they were poor hops and at the lastmoment Mr Cairns decided to ‘let them blow’. Set number 19finished their last field at two in the afternoon, and the littlegypsy foreman swarmed up the poles and retrieved the derelictbunches, and the measurer carted the last hops away. As hedisappeared there was a sudden shout of ‘Put ‘em in the bins!’ andDorothy saw six men bearing down upon her with a fiendishexpression on their faces, and all the women in the set scatteringand running. Before she could collect her wits to escape the menhad seized her, laid her at full length in a bin and swung herviolently from side to side. Then she was dragged out and kissedby a young gypsy smelling of onions. She struggled at first, butshe saw the same thing being done to the other women in the set, soshe submitted. It appeared that putting the women in the bins wasan invariable custom on the last day of picking. There were greatdoings in the camp that night, and not much sleep for anybody.Long after midnight Dorothy found herself moving with a ring ofpeople about a mighty fire, one hand clasped by a rosy butcher-boyand the other by a very drunk old woman in a Scotch bonnet out of acracker, to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
In the morning they went up to the farm to draw their money, andDorothy drew one pound and fourpence, and earned another fivepenceby adding up their tally books for people who could not read orwrite. The cockney pickers paid you a penny for this job; thegypsies paid you only in flattery. Then Dorothy set out for WestAckworth station, four miles away, together with the Turles, MrTurle carrying the tin trunk, Mrs Turle carrying the baby, theother children carrying various odds and ends, and Dorothy wheelingthe perambulator which held the Turles’ entire stock of crockery,and which had two circular wheels and two elliptical.
They got to the station about midday, the hoppers’ train was due tostart at one, and it arrived at two and started at a quarter pastthree. After a journey of incredible slowness, zigzagging all overKent to pick up a dozen hop-pickers here and half a dozen there,going back on its tracks over and over again and backing intosidings to let other trains pass—taking, in fact, six hours to dothirty-five miles—it landed them in London a little after nine atnight.
Dorothy slept that night with the Turles. They had grown so fondof her that they would have given her shelter for a week or afortnight if she had been willing to impose on their hospitality.Their two rooms (they lived in a tenement house not far from TowerBridge Road) were a tight fit for seven people including children,but they made her a bed of sorts on the floor out of two rag mats,an old cushion and an overcoat.
In the morning she said good-bye to the Turles and thanked themfor all their kindness towards her, and then went straight toBermondsey public baths and washed off the accumulated dirt of fiveweeks. After that she set out to look for a lodging, having in herpossession sixteen and eightpence in cash, and the clothes shestood up in. She had darned and cleaned her clothes as best shecould, and being black they did not show the dirt quite as badly asthey might have done. From the knees down she was now passablyrespectable. On the last day of picking a ‘home picker’ in thenext set, named Mrs Killfrew, had presented her with a good pairof shoes that had been her daughter’s, and a pair of woollenstockings.
It was not until the evening that Dorothy managed to find herself aroom. For something like ten hours she was wandering up and down,from Bermondsey into Southwark, from Southwark into Lambeth,through labyrinthine streets where snotty-nosed children played athop-scotch on pavements horrible with banana skins and decayingcabbage leaves. At every house she tried it was the same story—the landlady refused point-blank to take her in. One after anothera succession of hostile women, standing in their doorways asdefensively as though she had been a motor bandit or a governmentinspector, looked her up and down, said briefly, ‘We don’t take single girls,’ and shut the door in her face. She did not know it,of course, but the very look of her was enough to rouse anyrespectable landlady’s suspicions. Her stained and ragged clothesthey might possibly have put up with; but the fact that she had noluggage damned her from the start. A single girl with no luggageis invariably a bad lot—this is the first and greatest of theapophthegms of the London landlady.
At about seven o’clock, too tired to stand on her feet any longer,she ventured into a filthy, flyblown little cafe near the Old Victheatre and asked for a cup of tea. The proprietress, getting intoconversation with her and learning that she wanted a room, advisedher to ‘try at Mary’s, in Wellings Court, jest orff the Cut’.‘Mary’, it appeared, was not particular and would let a room toanybody who could pay. Her proper name was Mrs Sawyer, but theboys all called her Mary.
Dorothy found Wellings Court with some difficulty. You went alongLambeth Cut till you got to a Jew clothes-shop called KnockoutTrousers Ltd, then you turned up a narrow alley, and then turned toyour left again up another alley so narrow that its grimy plasterwalls almost brushed you as you went. In the plaster, perseveringboys had cut the word —— innumerable times and too deeply to beerased. At the far end of the alley you found yourself in a smallcourt where four tall narrow houses with iron staircases stoodfacing one another.
Dorothy made inquiries and found ‘Mary’ in a subterranean denbeneath one of the houses. She was a drabby old creature withremarkably thin hair and face so emaciated that it looked like arouged and powdered skull. Her voice was cracked, shrewish, andnevertheless ineffably dreary. She asked Dorothy no questions, andindeed scarcely even looked at her, but simply demanded tenshillings and then said in her ugly voice:
‘Twenty-nine. Third floor. Go up be the back stairs.’
Apparently the back stairs were those inside the house. Dorothywent up the dark, spiral staircase, between sweating walls, in asmell of old overcoats, dishwater and slops. As she reached thesecond floor there was a loud squeal of laughter, and two rowdy-looking girls came out of one of the rooms and stared at her for amoment. They looked young, their faces being quite hidden underrouge and pink powder, and their lips painted scarlet as geraniumpetals. But amid the pink powder their china-blue eyes were tiredand old; and that was somehow horrible, because it reminded you ofa girl’s mask with an old woman’s face behind it. The taller ofthe two greeted Dorothy.
‘You new ‘ere? Which room you kipping in?’
‘God, ain’t that a bloody dungeon to put you in! You going outtonight?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Dorothy, privately a little astonishedat the question. ‘I’m too tired.’
‘Thought you wasn’t, when I saw you ‘adn’t dolled up. But, say!dearie, you ain’t on the beach, are you? Not spoiling the ship fora ‘aporth of tar? Because f’rinstance if you want the lend of alipstick, you only got to say the word. We’re all chums ‘ere, youknow.’
‘Oh. . . . No, thank you,’ said Dorothy, taken aback.
‘Oh, well! Time Doris and me was moving. Got a ‘portant businessengagement in Leicester Square.’ Here she nudged the other girlwith her hip, and both of them sniggered in a silly mirthlessmanner. ‘But, say!’ added the taller girl confidentially, ‘ain’tit a bloody treat to ‘ave a good night’s kip all alone once in away? Wish _I_ could. All on your Jack Jones with no bloody greatman’s feet shoving you about. ‘S all right when you can afford it,eh?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy, feeling that this answer was expected of her,and with only a very vague notion of what the other was talkingabout.
‘Well, ta ta, dearie! Sleep tight. And jes’ look out for thesmash and grab raiders ‘bout ‘ar-parse one!’
When the two girls had skipped downstairs with another of theirmeaningless squeals of laughter, Dorothy found her way to roomnumber 29 and opened the door. A cold, evil smell met her. Theroom measured about eight feet each way, and was very dark. Thefurniture was simple. In the middle of the room, a narrow ironbedstead with a ragged coverlet and greyish sheets; against thewall, a packing case with a tin basin and an empty whisky bottleintended for water; tacked over the bed, a photograph of BebeDaniels torn out of Film Fun.
The sheets were not only dirty, but damp. Dorothy got into thebed, but she had only undressed to her chemise, or what was left ofher chemise, her underclothes by this time being almost entirely inruins; she could not bring herself to lay her bare body betweenthose nauseous sheets. And once in bed, though she was aching fromhead to foot with fatigue, she could not sleep. She was unnervedand full of forebodings. The atmosphere of this vile place broughthome to her more vividly than before the fact that she was helplessand friendless and had only six shillings between herself and thestreets. Moreover, as the night wore on the house grew noisier andnoisier. The walls were so thin that you could hear everythingthat was happening. There were bursts of shrill idiotic laughter,hoarse male voices singing, a gramophone drawling out limericks,noisy kisses, strange deathlike groans, and once or twice theviolent rattling of an iron bed. Towards midnight the noises beganto form themselves into a rhythm in Dorothy’s brain, and she felllightly and unrestfully asleep. She was woken about a minutelater, as it seemed, by her door being flung open, and two dimlyseen female shapes rushed in, tore every scrap of clothing from herbed except the sheets, and rushed out again. There was a chronicshortage of blankets at ‘Mary’s’, and the only way of gettingenough of them was to rob somebody else’s bed. Hence the term‘smash and grab raiders’.
In the morning, half an hour before opening time, Dorothy went tothe nearest public library to look at the advertisements in thenewspapers. Already a score of vaguely mangy-looking people wereprowling up and down, and the number swelled by ones and twos tillthere were no less than sixty. Presently the doors of the libraryopened, and in they all surged, racing for a board at the other endof the reading-room where the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns fromvarious newspapers had been cut out and pinned up. And in the wakeof the job-hunters came poor old bundles of rags, men and womenboth, who had spent the night in the streets and came to thelibrary to sleep. They came shambling in behind the others,flopped down with grunts of relief at the nearest table, and pulledthe nearest periodical towards them; it might be the Free ChurchMessenger, it might be the Vegetarian Sentinel—it didn’t matterwhat it was, but you couldn’t stay in the library unless youpretended to be reading. They opened their papers, and in the sameinstant fell asleep, with their chins on their breasts. And theattendant walked round prodding them in turn like a stoker poking asuccession of fires, and they grunted and woke up as he proddedthem, and then fell asleep again the instant he had passed.
Meanwhile a battle was raging round the advertisement board,everybody struggling to get to the front. Two young men in blueoveralls came running up behind the others, and one of them put hishead down and fought his way through the crowd as though it hadbeen a football scrum. In a moment he was at the board. He turnedto his companion: ‘’Ere we are, Joe—I got it! “Mechanics wanted—Locke’s Garage, Camden Town.” C’m on out of it!’ He fought hisway out again, and both of them scooted for the door. They weregoing to Camden Town as fast as their legs would carry them. Andat this moment, in every public library in London, mechanics out ofwork were reading that identical notice and starting on the racefor the job, which in all probability had already been given tosomeone who could afford to buy a paper for himself and had seenthe notice at six in the morning.
Dorothy managed to get to the board at last, and made a note ofsome of the addresses where ‘cook generals’ were wanted. Therewere plenty to choose from—indeed, half the ladies in Londonseemed to be crying out for strong capable general servants. Witha list of twenty addresses in her pocket, and having had abreakfast of bread and margarine and tea which cost her threepence,Dorothy set out to look for a job, not unhopefully.
She was too ignorant as yet to know that her chances of findingwork unaided were practically nil; but the next four days graduallyenlightened her. During those four days she applied for eighteenjobs, and sent written applications for four others. She trudgedenormous distances all through the southern suburbs: Clapham,Brixton, Dulwich, Penge, Sydenham, Beckenham, Norwood—even as faras Croydon on one occasion. She was haled into neat suburbandrawing-rooms and interviewed by women of every conceivable type—large, chubby, bullying women, thin, acid, catty women, alertfrigid women in gold pince-nez, vague rambling women who looked asthough they practised vegetarianism or attended spiritualistseances. And one and all, fat or thin, chilly or motherly, theyreacted to her in precisely the same way. They simply looked herover, heard her speak, stared inquisitively, asked her a dozenembarrassing and impertinent questions, and then turned her down.
Any experienced person could have told her how it would be. In hercircumstances it was not to be expected that anyone would take therisk of employing her. Her ragged clothes and her lack ofreferences were against her, and her educated accent, which she didnot know how to disguise, wrecked whatever chances she might havehad. The tramps and cockney hop-pickers had not noticed heraccent, but the suburban housewives noticed it quickly enough, andit scared them in just the same way as the fact that she had noluggage had scared the landladies. The moment they had heard herspeak, and spotted her for a gentlewoman, the game was up. Shegrew quite used to the startled, mystified look that came overtheir faces as soon as she opened her mouth—the prying, feminineglance from her face to her damaged hands, and from those to thedarns in her skirt. Some of the women asked her outright what agirl of her class was doing seeking work as a servant. Theysniffed, no doubt, that she had ‘been in trouble’—that is, had anillegitimate baby—and after probing her with their questions theygot rid of her as quickly as possible.
As soon as she had an address to give Dorothy had written to herfather, and when on the third day no answer came, she wrote again,despairingly this time—it was her fifth letter, and four had goneunanswered—telling him that she must starve if he did not send hermoney at once. There was just time for her to get an answer beforeher week at ‘Mary’s’ was up and she was thrown out for not payingher rent.
Meanwhile, she continued the useless search for work, while hermoney dwindled at the rate of a shilling a day—a sum justsufficient to keep her alive while leaving her chronically hungry.She had almost given up the hope that her father would do anythingto help her. And strangely enough her first panic had died down,as she grew hungrier and the chances of getting a job grew remoter,into a species of miserable apathy. She suffered, but she was notgreatly afraid. The sub-world into which she was descending seemedless terrible now that it was nearer.
The autumn weather, though fine, was growing colder. Each day thesun, fighting his losing battle against the winter, struggled alittle later through the mist to dye the house-fronts with paleaquarelle colours. Dorothy was in the streets all day, or in thepublic library, only going back to ‘Mary’s’ to sleep, and thentaking the precaution of dragging her bed across the door. She hadgrasped by this time that ‘Mary’s’ was—not actually a brothel, forthere is hardly such a thing in London, but a well-known refuge ofprostitutes. It was for that reason that you paid ten shillings aweek for a kennel not worth five. Old ‘Mary’ (she was not theproprietress of the house, merely the manageress) had been aprostitute herself in her day, and looked it. Living in such aplace damned you even in the eyes of Lambeth Cut. Women sniffedwhen you passed them, men took an offensive interest in you. TheJew on the corner, the owner of Knockout Trousers Ltd, was theworst of all. He was a solid young man of about thirty, withbulging red cheeks and curly black hair like astrakhan. For twelvehours a day he stood on the pavement roaring with brazen lungs thatyou couldn’t get a cheaper pair of trousers in London, andobstructing the passers-by. You had only to halt for a fraction ofa second, and he seized you by the arm and bundled you inside theshop by main force. Once he got you there his manner becamepositively threatening. If you said anything disparaging about histrousers he offered to fight, and weak-minded people bought pairsof trousers in sheer physical terror. But busy though he was, hekept a sharp eye open for the ‘birds’, as he called them; andDorothy appeared to fascinate him beyond all other ‘birds’. He hadgrasped that she was not a prostitute, but living at ‘Mary’s’, shemust—so he reasoned—be on the very verge of becoming one. Thethought made his mouth water. When he saw her coming down thealley he would post himself at the corner, with his massive chestwell displayed and one black lecherous eye turned inquiringly uponher (‘Are you ready to begin yet?’ his eye seemed to be saying),and, as she passed, give her a discreet pinch on the backside.
On the last morning of her week at ‘Mary’s’, Dorothy went downstairsand looked, with only a faint flicker of hope, at the slate in thehallway where the names of people for whom there were letters werechalked up. There was no letter for ‘Ellen Millborough’. Thatsettled it; there was nothing left to do except to walk out into thestreet. It did not occur to her to do as every other woman in thehouse would have done—that is, pitch a hard-up tale and try tocadge another night’s lodging rent free. She simply walked out ofthe house, and had not even the nerve to tell ‘Mary’ that she wasgoing.
She had no plan, absolutely no plan whatever. Except for half anhour at noon when she went out to spend threepence out of her lastfourpence on bread and margarine and tea, she passed the entire dayin the public library, reading weekly papers. In the morning sheread the Barber’s Record, and in the afternoon Cage Birds. Theywere the only papers she could get hold of, for there were alwaysso many idlers in the library that you had to scramble to get holdof a paper at all. She read them from cover to cover, even theadvertisements. She pored for hours together over suchtechnicalities as How to strop French Razors, Why the ElectricHairbrush is Unhygienic, Do Budgies thrive on Rapeseed? It was theonly occupation that she felt equal to. She was in a strangelethargic state in which it was easier to interest herself in Howto strop French Razors than in her own desperate plight. All fearhad left her. Of the future she was utterly unable to think; evenso far ahead as tonight she could barely see. There was a night inthe streets ahead of her, that was all she knew, and even aboutthat she only vaguely cared. Meanwhile there were Cage Birds andthe Barber’s Record; and they were, strangely, absorbinglyinteresting.
At nine o’clock the attendant came round with a long hooked poleand turned out the gaslights, the library was closed. Dorothyturned to the left, up the Waterloo Road, towards the river. Onthe iron footbridge she halted for a moment. The night wind wasblowing. Deep banks of mist, like dunes, were rising from theriver, and, as the wind caught them, swirling north-eastward acrossthe town. A swirl of mist enveloped Dorothy, penetrating her thinclothes and making her shudder with a sudden foretaste of thenight’s cold. She walked on and arrived, by the process ofgravitation that draws all roofless people to the same spot, atTrafalgar Square.
[Scene: Trafalgar Square. Dimly visible through the mist, a dozenpeople, Dorothy among them, are grouped about one of the benchesnear the north parapet.]
Charlie [singing]: ‘Ail Mary, ‘ail Mary, ‘a-il Ma-ary—[Big Benstrikes ten.]
Snouter [mimicking the noise]: Ding dong, ding dong! Shut your—— noise, can’t you? Seven more hours of it on this —— squarebefore we get the chance of a setdown and a bit of sleep! Cripes!
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: Non sum qualis eram boni sub regnoEdwardi! In the days of my innocence, before the Devil carried meup into a high place and dropped me into the Sunday newspapers—that is to say when I was Rector of Little Fawley-cum-Dewsbury. . . .
Deafie [singing]: With my willy willy, with my willy willy—
Mrs Wayne: Ah, dearie, as soon as I set eyes on you I knew as youwas a lady born and bred. You and me’ve known what it is to comedown in the world, haven’t we, dearie? It ain’t the same for us aswhat it is for some of these others here.
Charlie [singing]: ‘Ail Mary, ‘ail Mary, ‘a-il Ma-ary, full ofgrace!
Mrs Bendigo: Calls himself a bloody husband, does he? Four pounda week in Covent Garden and ‘is wife doing a starry in the bloodySquare! Husband!
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: Happy days, happy days! My ivied churchunder the sheltering hillside—my red-tiled Rectory slumberingamong Elizabethan yews! My library, my vinery, my cook, house-parlourmaid and groom-gardener! My cash in the bank, my name inCrockford! My black suit of irreproachable cut, my collar back tofront, my watered silk cassock in the church precincts. . . .
Mrs Wayne: Of course the one thing I do thank God for, dearie, isthat my poor dear mother never lived to see this day. Because ifshe ever had of lived to see the day when her eldest daughter—aswas brought up, mind you, with no expense spared and milk straightfrom the cow. . . .
Mrs Bendigo: Husband!
Ginger: Come on, less ‘ave a drum of tea while we got the chance.Last we’ll get tonight—coffee shop shuts at ‘ar-parse ten.
The Kike: Oh Jesus! This bloody cold’s gonna kill me! I ain’tgot nothing on under my trousers. Oh Je-e-e-eeze!
Charlie [singing]: ‘Ail Mary, ‘ail Mary—
Snouter: Fourpence! Fourpence for six —— hours on the bum! Andthat there nosing sod with the wooden leg queering our pitch atevery boozer between Aldgate and the Mile End Road. With ‘is ——wooden leg and ‘is war medals as ‘e bought in Lambeth Cut!Bastard!
Deafie [singing]: With my willy willy, with my willy willy—
Mrs Bendigo: Well, I told the bastard what I thought of ‘im,anyway. ‘Call yourself a man?’ I says. ‘I’ve seen things like youkep’ in a bottle at the ‘orspital,’ I says. . . .
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: Happy days, happy days! Roast beef andbobbing villagers, and the peace of God that passeth allunderstanding! Sunday mornings in my oaken stall, cool flowerscent and frou-frou of surplices mingling in the sweet corpse-ladenair! Summer evenings when the late sun slanted through my studywindow—I pensive, boozed with tea, in fragrant wreaths ofCavendish, thumbing drowsily some half-calf volume—Poetical Worksof William Shenstone, Esq., Percy’s Reliques of Ancient EnglishPoetry, J. Lempriere, D.D., professor of immoral theology . . .
Ginger: Come on, ‘oo’s for that drum of riddleme-ree? We got themilk and we got the tea. Question is, ‘oo’s got any bleedingsugar?
Dorothy: This cold, this cold! It seems to go right through you!Surely it won’t be like this all night?
Mrs Bendigo: Oh, cheese it! I ‘ate these snivelling tarts.
Charlie: Ain’t it going to be a proper perisher, too? Look at theperishing river mist creeping up that there column. Freeze thefish-hooks off of ole Nelson before morning.
Mrs Wayne: Of course, at the time that I’m speaking of we stillhad our little tobacco and sweetstuff business on the corner,you’ll understand. . . .
The Kike: Oh Je-e-e-eeze! Lend’s that overcoat of yours, Ginger.I’m bloody freezing!
Snouter: —— double-crossing bastard! P’raps I won’t bash ‘isnavel in when I get a ‘old of ‘im!
Charlie: Fortunes o’ war, boy, fortunes o’ war. Perishing Squaretonight—rumpsteak and kip on feathers tomorrow. What else d’youexpect on perishing Thursday?
Mrs Bendigo: Shove up, Daddy, shove up! Think I want your lousyold ‘ed on my shoulder—me a married woman?
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: For preaching, chanting, and intoning Iwas unrivalled. My Lift up your Hearts’ was renowned throughoutthe diocese. All styles I could do you, High Church, Low Church,Broad Church and No Church. Throaty Anglo-Cat Warblings, straightfrom the shoulder muscular Anglican, or the adenoidal Low Churchwhine in which still lurk the Houyhnhnm-notes of neighing chapelelders. . . .
Deafie [singing]: With my willy willy—
Ginger: Take your ‘ands off that bleeding overcoat, Kikie. Youdon’t get no clo’es of mine while you got the chats on you.
As pants the ‘art for cooling streams,
When ‘eated in the chase—
Mrs Mcelligot [in her sleep]: Was ‘at you, Michael dear?
Mrs Bendigo: It’s my belief as the sneaking bastard ‘ad anotherwife living when ‘e married me.
Mr Tallboys [from the roof of his mouth, stage curate-wise,reminiscently]: If any of you know cause of just impedimentwhy these two persons should not be joined together in holymatrimony . . .
The Kike: A pal! A bloody pal! And won’t lend his bloodyovercoat!
Mrs Wayne: Well, now as you’ve mentioned it, I must admit as I never was one to refuse a nice cup of tea. I know that when ourpoor dear mother was alive, pot after pot we used to . . .
Nosy Watson [to himself, angrily]: Sod! . . . Gee’d into itand then a stretch all round. . . . Never even done the bloodyjob. . . . Sod!
Deafie [singing]: With my willy willy—
Mrs Mcelligot [half asleep]: Dear Michael. . . . He was realloving, Michael was. Tender an’ true. . . . Never looked atanother man since dat evenin’ when I met’m outside Kronk’sslaughter-house an’ he gimme de two pound o’ sausage as he’dbummed off de International Stores for his own supper. . . .
Mrs Bendigo: Well, I suppose we’ll get that bloody tea this timetomorrow.
Mr Tallboys [chanting, reminiscently]: By the waters of Babylon wesat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion! . . .
Dorothy: Oh, this cold, this cold!
Snouter: Well, I don’t do no more —— starries this side ofChristmas. I’ll ‘ave my kip tomorrow if I ‘ave to cut it out oftheir bowels.
Nosy Watson: Detective, is he? Smith of the Flying Squad! FlyingJudas more likely! All they can bloody do—copping the oldoffenders what no beak won’t give a fair chance.
Ginger: Well, I’m off for the fiddlede-dee. ‘Oo’s got a couple ofclods for the water?
Mrs Mcelligot [waking]: Oh dear, oh dear! If my back ain’t fairbroke! Oh holy Jesus, if dis bench don’t catch you across dekidneys! An’ dere was me dreamin’ I was warm in kip wid a nice cupa’ tea an’ two o’ buttered toast waitin’ by me bedside. Well, deregoes me last wink o’ sleep till I gets into Lambeth public lib’rytomorrow.
Daddy [his head emerging from within his overcoat like a tortoise’sfrom within its shell]: Wassat you said, boy? Paying money forwater! How long’ve you bin on the road, you ignorant young scut?Money for bloody water? Bum it, boy, bum it! Don’t buy what youcan bum and don’t bum what you can steal. That’s my word—fiftyyear on the road, man and boy. [Retires within his coat.]
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: O all ye works of the Lord—
Deafie [singing]: With my willy willy—
Charlie: ‘Oo was it copped you, Nosy?
The Kike: Oh Je-e-e-eeze!
Mrs Bendigo: Shove up, shove up! Seems to me some folks thinkthey’ve took a mortgage on this bloody seat.
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: O all ye works of the Lord, curse ye theLord, curse Him and vilify Him for ever!
Mrs Mcelligot: What I always says is, it’s always us poor bloodyCatholics dat’s down in de bloody dumps.
Nosy Watson: Smithy. Flying Squad—flying sod! Give us the plansof the house and everything, and then had a van full of copperswaiting and nipped the lot of us. I wrote it up in the BlackMaria:
‘Detective Smith knows how to gee;
Tell him he’s a —— from me.’
Snouter: ‘Ere, what about our —— tea? Go on, Kikie, you’re ayoung ‘un; shut that —— noise and take the drums. Don’t you paynothing. Worm it out of the old tart. Snivel. Do the doleful.
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: O all ye children of men, curse ye theLord, curse Him and vilify Him for ever!
Charlie: What, is Smithy crooked too?
Mrs Bendigo: I tell you what, girls, I tell you what gets me down,and that’s to think of my bloody husband snoring under fourblankets and me freezing in this bloody Square. That’s what _I_can’t stomach. The unnatural sod!
Ginger [singing]: There they go—in their joy—Don’t take thatthere drum with the cold sausage in it, Kikie.
Nosy Watson: Crooked? Crooked? Why, a corkscrew ‘ud look like abloody bradawl beside of him! There isn’t one of them double ——sons of whores in the Flying Squad but ‘ud sell his grandmother tothe knackers for two pound ten and then sit on her gravestoneeating potato crisps. The geeing, narking toe rag!
Charlie: Perishing tough. ‘Ow many convictions you got?
There they go—in their joy—
‘Appy girl—Lucky boy—
Nosy Watson: Fourteen. You don’t stand no chance with that lotagainst you.
Mrs Wayne: What, don’t he keep you, then?
Mrs Bendigo: No, I’m married to this one, sod ‘im!
Charlie: I got perishing nine myself.
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: O Ananias, Azarias and Misael, curse yethe Lord, curse Him and vilify Him for ever!
There they go—in their joy—
‘Appy girl—Lucky boy——
But ‘ere am _I-I-I_—
God, I ain’t ‘ad a dig in the grave for three days. ‘Ow long sinceyou washed your face, Snouter?
Mrs Mcelligot: Oh dear, oh dear! If dat boy don’t come soon widde tea me insides’ll dry up like a bloody kippered herring.
Charlie: You can’t sing, none of you. Ought to ‘ear Snouter andme ‘long towards Christmas time when we pipe up ‘Good KingWenceslas’ outside the boozers. ‘Ymns, too. Blokes in the barweep their perishing eyes out to ‘ear us. ‘Member when we tappedtwice at the same ‘ouse by mistake, Snouter? Old tart fair torethe innards out of us.
Mr Tallboys [marching up and down behind an imaginary drum andsinging]:
All things vile and damnable,
All creatures great and small—
[Big Ben strikes half past ten.]
Snouter [mimicking the clock]: Ding dong, ding dong! Six and a—— half hours of it! Cripes!
Ginger: Kikie and me knocked off four of them safety-razor bladesin Woolworth’s ‘s afternoon. I’ll ‘ave a dig in the bleedingfountains tomorrow if I can bum a bit of soap.
Deafie: When I was a stooard in the P. & O., we used to meet themblack Indians two days out at sea, in them there great canoes asthey call catamarans, catching sea-turtles the size of dinnertables.
Mrs Wayne: Did yoo used to be a clergyman, then, sir?
Mr Tallboys [halting]: After the order of Melchizedec. There isno question of ‘used to be’, Madam. Once a priest always a priest.Hoc est corpus hocus-pocus. Even though unfrocked—un-Crocked, wecall it—and dog-collar publicly torn off by the bishop of thediocese.
Ginger [singing]: There they go—in their joy—... Thank Christ! ‘Erecomes Kikie. Now for the consultation-free!
Mrs Bendigo: Not before it’s bloody needed.
Charlie: ‘Ow come they give you the sack, mate? Usual story?Choirgirls in the family way?
Mrs Mcelligot: You’ve took your time, ain’t you, young man? Butcome on, let’s have a sup of it before me tongue falls out o’ mebloody mouth.
Mrs Bendigo: Shove up, Daddy! You’re sitting on my packet ofbloody sugar.
Mr Tallboys: Girls is a euphemism. Only the usual flannel-bloomered hunters of the unmarried clergy. Church hens—altar-dressers and brass-polishers—spinsters growing bony and desperate.There is a demon that enters into them at thirty-five.
The Kike: The old bitch wouldn’t give me the hot water. Had totap a toff in the street and pay a penny for it.
Snouter: —— likely story! Bin swigging it on the way morelikely.
Daddy [emerging from his overcoat]: Drum o’ tea, eh? I could supa drum o’ tea. [Belches slightly.]
Charlie: When their bubs get like perishing razor stops? _I_know.
Nosy Watson: Tea—bloody catlap. Better’n that cocoa in the stir,though. Lend’s your cup, matie.
Ginger: Jest wait’ll I knock a ‘ole in this tin of milk. Shy us amoney or your life, someone.
Mrs Bendigo: Easy with that bloody sugar! ‘Oo paid for it, I sh’dlike to know?
Mr Tallboys: When their bubs get like razor stops. I thank theefor that humour. Pippin’s Weekly made quite a feature of the case.‘Missing Canon’s Sub Rosa Romance. Intimate Revelations.’ Andalso an Open Letter in John Bull: ‘To a Skunk in Shepherd’sClothing’. A pity—I was marked out for preferment. [To Dorothy]Gaiters in the family, if you understand me. You would not think,would you, that the time has been when this unworthy backsidedented the plush cushions of a cathedral stall?
Charlie: ‘Ere comes Florry. Thought she’d be along soon as we gotthe tea going. Got a nose like a perishing vulture for tea, thatgirl ‘as.
Snouter: Ay, always on the tap. [Singing]
Tap, tap, tappety tap,
I’m a perfec’ devil at that—
Mrs Mcelligot: De poor kid, she ain’t got no sense. Why don’t shego up to Piccadilly Circus where she’d get her five bob reg’lar?She won’t do herself no good bummin’ round de Square wid a set ofmiserable ole Tobies.
Dorothy: Is that milk all right?
Ginger: All right? [Applies his mouth to one of the holes in thetin and blows. A sticky greyish stream dribbles from the other.]
Charlie: What luck, Florry? ‘Ow ‘bout that perishing toff as Isee you get off with just now?
Dorothy: It’s got ‘Not fit for babies’ on it.
Mrs Bendigo: Well, you ain’t a bloody baby, are you? You can dropyour Buckingham Palace manners, ‘ere, dearie.
Florry: Stood me a coffee and a fag—mingy bastard! That tea yougot there, Ginger? You always was my favourite, Ginger dear.
Mrs Wayne: There’s jest thirteen of us.
Mr Tallboys: As we are not going to have any dinner you need notdisturb yourself.
Ginger: What-o, ladies and gents! Tea is served. Cups forward,please!
The Kike: Oh Jeez! You ain’t filled my bloody cup half full!
Mrs Mcelligot: Well, here’s luck to us all, an’ a better bloodykip tomorrow. I’d ha’ took shelter in one o’ dem dere churchesmeself, only de b—s won’t let you in if so be as dey t’ink you gotde chats on you. [Drinks.]
Mrs Wayne: Well, I can’t say as this is exactly the way as I’vebeen accustomed to drinking a cup of tea—but still—[Drinks.]
Charlie: Perishing good cup of tea. [Drinks.]
Deafie: And there was flocks of them there green parakeets in thecoco-nut palms, too. [Drinks.]
What potions have I drunk of siren tears,Distilled from limbecs foul as Hell within!
Snouter: Last we’ll get till five in the —— morning. [Drinks.]
[Florry produces a broken shop-made cigarette from her stocking,and cadges a match. The men, except Daddy, Deafie, and MrTallboys, roll cigarettes from picked-up fag-ends. The red endsglow through the misty twilight, like a crooked constellation, asthe smokers sprawl on the bench, the ground, or the slope of theparapet.]
Mrs Wayne: Well, there now! A nice cup of tea do seem to warm youup, don’t it, now? Not but what I don’t feel it a bit different,as you might say, not having no nice clean table-cloth like I’vebeen accustomed to, and the beautiful china tea service as ourmother used to have; and always, of course, the very best tea asmoney could buy—real Pekoe Points at two and nine a pound. . . .
There they go—in their joy—
‘Appy girl—Lucky boy—
Mr Tallboys [singing, to the tune of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uberalles’]: Keep the aspidistra flying—
Charlie: ‘Ow long you two kids been in Smoke?
Snouter: I’m going to give them boozers such a doing tomorrow asthey won’t know if theyr’e on their ‘eads or their —— ‘eels.I’ll ‘ave my ‘alf dollar if I ‘ave to ‘old them upside down and—— shake ‘em.
Ginger: Three days. We come down from York—skippering ‘alf theway. God, wasn’t it jest about bleeding nine carat gold, too!
Florry: Got any more tea there, Ginger dear? Well, so long,folks. See you all at Wilkins’s tomorrow morning.
Mrs Bendigo: Thieving little tart! Swallers ‘er tea and thenjacks off without so much as a thank you. Can’t waste a bloodymoment.
Mrs Mcelligot: Cold? Ay, I b’lieve you. Skipperin’ in de longgrass wid no blanket an’ de bloody dew fit to drown you, an’ dencan’t get your bloody fire going’ in de mornin’, an’ got to tap demilkman ‘fore you can make yourself a drum o’ tea. I’ve had some’vit when me and Michael was on de toby.
Mrs Bendigo: Even go with blackies and Chinamen she will, thedirty little cow.
Dorothy: How much does she get each time?
Charlie: Bet your life. Do it for a perishing fag along towardsmorning.
Mrs Mcelligot: I never took less’n a shilling, never.
Ginger: Kikie and me skippered in a boneyard one night. Woke upin the morning and found I was lying on a bleeding gravestone.
The Kike: She ain’t half got the crabs on her, too.
Mrs Mcelligot: Michael an’ me skippered in a pigsty once. We wasjust a-creepin’ in, when, ‘Holy Mary!’ says Michael, ‘dere’s a pigin here!’ ‘Pig be ——!’ I says, ‘he’ll keep us warm anyway.’ Soin we goes, an’ dere was an old sow lay on her side snorin’ like atraction engine. I creeps up agen her an’ puts me arms round her,an’ begod she kept me warm all night. I’ve skippered worse.
Deafie [singing]: With my willy willy—
Charlie: Don’t ole Deafie keep it up? Sets up a kind of a ‘umminginside of ‘im, ‘e says.
Daddy: When I was a boy we didn’t live on this ‘ere bread and margand tea and suchlike trash. Good solid tommy we ‘ad in them days.Beef stoo. Black pudden. Bacon dumpling. Pig’s ‘ead. Fed like afighting-cock on a tanner a day. And now fifty year I’ve ‘ad of iton the toby. Spud-grabbing, pea-picking, lambing, turnip-topping—everythink. And sleeping in wet straw and not once in a year youdon’t fill your guts right full. Well—! [Retires within his coat.]
Mrs Mcelligot: But he was real bold, Michael was. He’d go inanywhere. Many’s de time we’ve broke into an empty house an kippedin de best bed. ‘Other people got homes,’ he’d say. ‘Why shouln’twe have’m too!’
Ginger [singing]: But I’m dan—cing with tears—in my eyes—
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: Absumet haeres Caecuba dignior! Tothink that there were twenty-one bottles of Clos St Jacques 1911 inmy cellar still, that night when the baby was born and I left forLondon on the milk train! . . .
Mrs Wayne: And as for the wreaths we ‘as sent us when our motherdied—well, you wouldn’t believe! ‘Uge, they was. . . .
Mrs Bendigo: If I ‘ad my time over again I’d marry for bloodymoney.
But I’m dan—cing with tears—in my eyes—
‘Cos the girl—in my arms—isn’t you-o-ou!
Nosy Watson: Some of you lot think you got a bloody lot to howlabout, don’t you? What about a poor sod like me? You wasn’tnarked into the stir when you was eighteen year old, was you?
The Kike: Oh Je-e-eeeze!
Charlie: Ginger, you can’t sing no more’n a perishing tomcat withthe guts-ache. Just you listen to me. I’ll give y’a treat.[Singing]: Jesu, lover of my soul—
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: Et ego in Crockford. . . . With Bishopsand Archbishops and with all the Company of Heaven. . . .
Nosy Watson: D’you know how I got in the stir the first time?Narked by my own sister—yes, my own bloody sister! My sister’s acow if ever there was one. She got married to a religious maniac—he’s so bloody religious that she’s got fifteen kids now—well, itwas him put her up to narking me. But I got back on ‘em, _I_ cantell you. First thing, I done when I come out of the stir, I buysa hammer and goes round to my sister’s house, and smashed her pianoto bloody matchwood. ‘There!’ I says, ‘that’s what you get fornarking me! You nosing mare!’ I says.
Dorothy: This cold, this cold! I don’t know whether my feet arethere or not.
Mrs Mcelligot: Bloody tea don’t warm you for long, do it? I’mfair froze myself.
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: My curate days, my curate days! Myfancywork bazaars and morris-dancers in aid of on the villagegreen, my lectures to the Mothers’ Union-missionary work in WesternChina with fourteen magic lantern slides! My Boys’ Cricket Club,teetotallers only, my Confirmation classes—purity lecture oncemonthly in the Parish Hall—my Boy Scout orgies! The Wolf Cubswill deliver the Grand Howl. Household Hints for the ParishMagazine, ‘Discarded fountain-pen fillers can be used as enemas forcanaries. . . .’
Charlie [singing]: Jesu, lover of my soul—
Ginger: ‘Ere comes the bleeding flattie! Get up off the ground,all of you. [Daddy emerges from his overcoat.]
The policeman [shaking the sleepers on the next bench]: Now then,wake up, wake up! Rouse up, you! Got to go home if you want tosleep. This isn’t a common lodging house. Get up, there! [etc.,etc.]
Mrs Bendigo: It’s that nosy young sod as wants promotion.Wouldn’t let you bloody breathe if ‘e ‘ad ‘is way.
Jesu, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly—
The policeman: Now then, You! What you think this is? Baptistprayer meeting? [To the Kike] Up you get, and look sharp aboutit!
Charlie: I can’t ‘elp it, sergeant. It’s my toonful nature. Itcomes out of me natural-like.
The policeman [shaking Mrs Bendigo]: Wake up, mother, wake up!
Mrs Bendigo: Mother? Mother, is it? Well, if I am a mother,thank God I ain’t got a bloody son like you! And I’ll tell youanother little secret, constable. Next time I want a man’s fat‘ands feeling round the back of my neck, I won’t ask You to do it.I’ll ‘ave someone with a bit more sex-appeal.
The policeman: Now then, now then! No call to get abusive, youknow. We got our orders to carry out. [Exit majestically.]
Snouter [sotto voce]: —— off, you —— son of a ——!
While the gathering waters roll,
While the tempest still is ‘igh!
Sung bass in the choir my last two years in Dartmoor, I did.
Mrs Bendigo: I’ll bloody mother ‘im! [Shouting after thepoliceman] ‘I! Why don’t you get after them bloody cat burglars‘stead of coming nosing round a respectable married woman?
Ginger: Kip down, blokes. ‘E’s jacked. [Daddy retires within hiscoat.]
Nosy Watson: Wassit like in Dartmoor now? D’they give you jamnow?
Mrs Wayne: Of course, you can see as they couldn’t reely allowpeople to sleep in the streets—I mean, it wouldn’t be quite nice—and then you’ve got to remember as it’d be encouraging of all thepeople as haven’t got homes of their own—the kind of riff-raff, ifyou take my meaning. . . .
Mr Tallboys [to himself]: Happy days, happy days! Outings withthe Girl Guides in Epping Forest—hired brake and sleek roanhorses, and I on the box in my grey flannel suit, speckled strawhat, and discreet layman’s necktie. Buns and ginger pop under thegreen elms. Twenty Girl Guides pious yet susceptible frisking inthe breast-high bracken, and I a happy curate sporting among them,in loco parentis pinching the girls’ backsides. . . .
Mrs Mcelligot: Well, you may talk about kippin’ down, but begoddere won’t be much sleep for my poor ole bloody bones tonight. Ican’t skipper it now de way me and Michael used to.
Charlie: Not jam. Gets cheese, though, twice a week.
The Kike: Oh Jeez! I can’t stand it no longer. I going down tothe M.A.B.
[Dorothy stands up, and then, her knees having stiffened with thecold, almost falls.]
Ginger: Only send you to the bleeding Labour Home. What you saywe all go up to Covent Garden tomorrow morning? Bum a few pears ifwe get there early enough.
Charlie: I’ve ‘ad my perishing bellyful of Dartmoor, b’lieve me.Forty on us went through ‘ell for getting off with the ole womendown on the allotments. Ole trots seventy years old they was—spud-grabbers. Didn’t we cop it just! Bread and water, chained tothe wall—perishing near murdered us.
Mrs Bendigo: No fear! Not while my bloody husband’s there. Oneblack eye in a week’s enough for me, thank you.
Mr Tallboys [chanting, reminiscently]: As for our harps, we hangedthem up, upon the willow trees of Babylon! . . .
Mrs Mcelligot: Hold up, kiddie! Stamp your feet an’ get de bloodback into ‘m. I’ll take y’a walk up to Paul’s in a coupla minutes.
Deafie [singing]: With my willy willy—
[Big Ben strikes eleven.]
Snouter: Six more—hours! Cripes!
[An hour passes. Big Ben stops striking. The mist thins and thecold increases. A grubby-faced moon is seen sneaking among theclouds of the southern sky. A dozen hardened old men remain on thebenches, and still contrive to sleep, doubled up and hidden intheir greatcoats. Occasionally they groan in their sleep. Theothers set out in all directions, intending to walk all night andso keep their blood flowing, but nearly all of them have driftedback to the Square by midnight. A new policeman comes on duty.He strolls through the Square at intervals of half an hour,scrutinizing the faces of the sleepers but letting them alone whenhe has made sure that they are only asleep and not dead. Roundeach bench revolves a knot of people who take it in turns to sitdown and are driven to their feet by the cold after a few minutes.Ginger and Charlie fill two drums at the fountains and set out inthe desperate hope of boiling some tea over the navvies’ clinkerfire in Chandos Street; but a policeman is warming himself at thefire, and orders them away. The Kike suddenly vanishes, probablyto beg a bed at the M.A.B. Towards one o’clock a rumour goes roundthat a lady is distributing hot coffee, ham sandwiches, and packetsof cigarettes under Charing Cross Bridge; there is a rush to thespot, but the rumour turns out to be unfounded. As the Squarefills again the ceaseless changing of places upon the benchesquickens until it is a game of musical chairs. Sitting down, withone’s hands under one’s armpits, it is possible to get into a kindof sleep, or doze, for two or three minutes on end. In this state,enormous ages seem to pass. One sinks into a complex, troublingdreams which leave one conscious of one’s surroundings and of thebitter cold. The night is growing clearer and colder every minute.There is a chorus of varying sound—groans, curses, bursts oflaughter, and singing, and through them all the uncontrollablechattering of teeth.]
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: I am poured out like water, and all mybones are out of joint! . . .
Mrs Mcelligot: Ellen an’ me bin wanderin’ round de City dis twohours. Begod it’s like a bloody tomb wid dem great lamps glarin’down on you an’ not a soul stirren’ excep’ de flatties strollin’two an’ two.
Snouter: Five past —— one and I ain’t ‘ad a bite since dinner!Course it ‘ad to ‘appen to us on a —— night like this!
Mr Tallboys: A drinking night I should have called it. But everyman to his taste. [Chanting] ‘My strength is dried like apotsherd, and my tongue cleaveth to my gums!’ . . .
Charlie: Say, what you think? Nosy and me done a smash jest now.Nosy sees a tobacconist’s show-case full of them fancy boxes ofGold Flake, and ‘e says, ‘By cripes I’m going to ‘ave some of themfags if they give me a perishing stretch for it!’ ‘e says. So ‘ewraps ‘is scarf round ‘is ‘and, and we waits till there’s aperishing great van passing as’ll drown the noise, and then Nosylets fly—biff! We nipped a dozen packets of fags, and then I betyou didn’t see our a—s for dust. And when we gets round thecorner and opens them, there wasn’t no perishing fags inside!Perishing dummy boxes. I ‘ad to laugh.
Dorothy: My knees are giving way. I can’t stand up much longer.
Mrs Bendigo: Oh, the sod, the sod! To turn a woman out of doorson a night like bloody this! You wait’ll I get ‘im drunk o’Saturday night and ‘e can’t ‘it back. I’ll mash ‘im to bloody shinof beef, I will. ‘E’ll look like two pennorth of pieces after I’veswiped ‘im with the bloody flat-iron.
Mrs Mcelligot: Here, make room’n let de kid sit down. Press upagen ole Daddy, dear. Put his arm round you. He’s chatty, buthe’ll keep you warm.
Ginger [double marking time]: Stamp your feet on the ground—onlybleeding thing to do. Strike up a song, someone, and less allstamp our bleeding feet in time to it.
Daddy [waking and emerging]: Wassat? [Still half asleep, he letshis head fall back, with mouth open and Adam’s apple protrudingfrom his withered throat like the blade of a tomahawk.]
Mrs Bendigo: There’s women what if they’d stood what I’ve stood,they’d ave put spirits of salts in ‘is cup of bloody tea.
Mr Tallboys [beating an imaginary drum and singing]: Onward,heathen so-oldiers—
Mrs Wayne: Well, reely now! If any of us’d ever of thought, inthe dear old days when we used to sit round our own Silkstone coalfire, with the kettle on the hob and a nice dish of toastedcrumpets from the baker’s over the way. . . .
[The chattering of her teeth silences her.]
Charlie: No perishing church trap now, matie. I’ll give y’a bitof smut—something as we can perishing dance to. You listen t’me.
Mrs Mcelligot: Don’t you get talkin’ about crumpets, Missis. Mebloody belly’s rubbin’ agen me backbone already.
[Charlie draws himself up, clears his throat, and in an enormousvoice roars out a song entitled ‘Rollicking Bill the Sailor’. Alaugh that is partly a shudder bursts from the people on the bench.They sing the song through again, with increasing volume of noise,stamping and clapping in time. Those sitting down, packed elbow toelbow, sway grotesquely from side to side, working their feet asthough stamping on the pedals of a harmonium. Even Mrs Wayne joinsin after a moment, laughing in spite of herself. They are alllaughing, though with chattering teeth. Mr Tallboys marches up anddown behind his vast swag belly, pretending to carry a banner orcrozier in front of him. The night is now quite clear, and an icywind comes shuddering at intervals through the Square. Thestamping and clapping rise to a kind of frenzy as the people feelthe deadly cold penetrate to their bones. Then the policeman isseen wandering into the Square from the eastern end, and thesinging ceases abruptly.]
Charlie: There! You can’t say as a bit of music don’t warm youup.
Mrs Bendigo: This bloody wind! And I ain’t even got any drawerson, the bastard kicked me out in such a ‘urry.
Mrs Mcelligot: Well, glory be to Jesus, ‘twon’t be long before datdere church in de Gray’s Inn Road opens up for de winter. Deygives you a roof over your head of a night, ‘t any rate.
The policeman: Now then, now then! D’you think this is the timeof night to begin singing like a blooming bear garden? I shallhave to send you back to your homes if you can’t keep quiet.
Snouter [sotto voce]: You —— son of a ——!
Ginger: Yes—they lets you kip on the bleeding stone floor withthree newspaper posters ‘stead of blankets. Might as well be inthe Square and ‘ave done with it. God, I wish I was in thebleeding spike.
Mrs Mcelligot: Still, you gets a cup of Horlicks an’ two slices.I bin glad to kip dere often enough.
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: I was glad when they said unto me, We willgo into the house of the Lord! . . .
Dorothy [starting up]: Oh, this cold, this cold! I don’t knowwhether it’s worse when you’re sitting down or when you’re standingup. Oh, how can you all stand it? Surely you don’t have to dothis every night of your lives?
Mrs Wayne: You mustn’t think, dearie, as there isn’t some of uswasn’t brought up respectable.
Charlie [singing]: Cheer up, cully, you’ll soon be dead! Brrh!Perishing Jesus! Ain’t my fish-hooks blue! [Double marks time andbeats his arms against his sides.]
Dorothy: Oh, but how can you stand it? How can you go on likethis, night after night, year after year? It’s not possible thatpeople can live so! It’s so absurd that one wouldn’t believe it ifone didn’t know it was true. It’s impossible!
Snouter: —— possible if you ask me.
Mr Tallboys [stage curate-wise]: With God, all things are possible.
[Dorothy sinks back on to the bench, her knees still beingunsteady.]
Charlie: Well, it’s jest on ‘ar-parse one. Either we got to getmoving, or else make a pyramid on that perishing bench. Unless wewant to perishing turn up our toes. ‘Oo’s for a littleconstitootional up to the Tower of London?
Mrs Mcelligot: ‘Twon’t be me dat’ll walk another step tonight. Mebloody legs’ve given out on me.
Ginger: What-o for the pyramid! This is a bit too bleeding nine-day-old for me. Less scrum into that bench—beg pardon, Ma!
Daddy [sleepily]: Wassa game? Can’t a man get a bit of kip butwhat you must come worriting ‘in and shaking of ‘im?
Charlie: That’s the stuff! Shove in! Shift yourself, Daddy, andmake room for my little sit-me-down. Get one atop of each other.That’s right. Never mind the chats. Jam all together likepilchards in a perishing tin.
Mrs Wayne: Here! I didn’t ask you to sit on my lap, young man!
Ginger: Sir on mine, then, mother—’sall the same. What-o! Firstbit of stuff I’ve ‘ad my arm round since Easter.
[They pile themselves in a monstrous shapeless clot, men and womenclinging indiscriminately together, like a bunch of toads atspawning time. There is a writhing movement as the heap settlesdown, and a sour stench of clothes diffuses itself. Only MrTallboys remains marching up and down.]
Mr Tallboys [declaiming]: O ye nights and days, ye light anddarkness, ye lightnings and clouds, curse ye the Lord!
[Deafie, someone having sat on his diaphragm, utters a strange,unreproducible sound.]
Mrs Bendigo: Get off my bad leg, can’t you? What you think I am?Bloody drawing-room sofa?
Charlie: Don’t ole Daddy stink when you get up agen ‘im?
Ginger: Bleeding Bank ‘oliday for the chats this’ll be.
Dorothy: Oh, God, God!
Mr Tallboys [halting]: Why call on God, you puling deathbedpenitent? Stick to your guns and call on the Devil as I do.Hail to thee, Lucifer, Prince of the Air! [Singing to the tuneof ‘Holy, holy holy’]: Incubi and Succubi, falling down beforeThee! . . .
Mrs Bendigo: Oh, shut up, you blarsphemous old sod! ‘E’s toobloody fat to feel the cold, that’s what’s wrong with ‘im.
Charlie: Nice soft be’ind you got, Ma. Keep an eye out for theperishing flattie, Ginger.
Mr Tallboys: Malecidite, omnia opera! The Black Mass! Why not?Once a priest always a priest. Hand me a chunk of toke and I willwork the miracle. Sulphur candles, Lord’s Prayer backwards,crucifix upside down. [To Dorothy] If we had a black he-goat youwould come in useful.
[The animal heat of the piled bodies had already made itself felt.A drowsiness is descending upon everyone.]
Mrs Wayne: You mustn’t think as I’m accustomed to sitting on agentleman’s knee, you know . . .
Mrs Mcelligot [drowsily]: It took my sacraments reg’lar till debloody priest wouldn’t give me absolution along o’ my Michael. Deole get, de ole getsie! . . .
Mr Tallboys [striking an attitude]: Per aquam sacratam quam nuncspargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio. . . .
Ginger: ‘Oo’s got a fill of ‘ard-up? I’ve smoked by last bleedingfag-end.
Mr Tallboys [as at the altar]: Dearly beloved brethren we aregathered together in the sight of God for the solemnization ofunholy blasphemy. He has afflicted us with dirt and cold, withhunger and solitude, with the pox and the itch, with the headlouseand the crablouse. Our food is damp crusts and slimy meat-scrapshanded out in packets from hotel doorways. Our pleasure is stewedtea and sawdust cakes bolted in reeking cellars, bar-rinsing sandspittle of common ale, the embrace of toothless hags. Our destinyis the pauper’s grave, twenty-feet deep in deal coffins, the kip-house of underground. It is very meet, right and our bounden dutyat all times and in all places to curse Him and revile Him.Therefore with Demons and Archdemons [etc., etc., etc.].
Mrs Mcelligot [drowsily]: By holy Jesus, I’m half asleep rightnow, only some b—’s lyin’ across my legs and crushin’ ‘em.
Mr Tallboys: Amen. Evil from us deliver, but temptation into notus lead [etc., etc., etc.].
[As he reaches the first word of the prayer he tears theconsecrated bread across. The blood runs out of it. There is arolling sound, as of thunder, and the landscape changes. Dorothy’sfeet are very cold. Monstrous winged shapes of Demons andArchdemons are dimly visible, moving to and fro. Something, beakor claw, closes upon Dorothy’s shoulder, reminding her that herfeet and hands are aching with cold.]
The policeman [shaking Dorothy by the shoulder]: Wake up, now,wake up, wake up! Haven’t you got an overcoat? You’re as white asdeath. Don’t you know better than to let yourself sprawl about inthe cold like that?
[Dorothy finds that she is stiff with cold. The sky is now quiteclear, with gritty little stars twinkling like electric lampsenormously remote. The pyramid has unrolled itself.]
Mrs Mcelligot: De poor kid, she ain’t used to roughin’ it de wayus others are.
Ginger [beating his arms]: Brr! Woo! ‘Taters in the bleedingmould!
Mrs Wayne: She’s a lady born and bred.
The policeman: Is that so?—See here, Miss, you best come down tothe M.A.B. with me. They’ll give you a bed all right. Anyone cansee with half an eye as you’re a cut above these others here.
Mrs Bendigo: Thank you, constable, thank you! ‘Ear that, girls?‘A cut above us,’ ‘e says. Nice, ain’t it? [To the policeman]Proper bloody Ascot swell yourself, ain’t you?
Dorothy: No, no! Leave me, I’d rather stay here.
The policeman: Well, please yourself. You looked real bad justnow. I’ll be along later and take a look at you. [Moves offdoubtfully.]
Charlie: Wait’ll the perisher’s round the corner and then pile upagen. Only perishing way we’ll keep warm.
Mrs Mcelligot: Come on, kid. Get underneath an’ let’m warm you.
Snouter: Ten minutes to —— two. Can’t last for ever, I s’pose.
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: I am poured out like water, and all mybones are out of joint. My heart also in the midst of my body islike unto melting wax! . . .
[Once more the people pile themselves on the bench. But thetemperature is now not many degrees above freezing-point, and thewind is blowing more cuttingly. The people wriggle their wind-nipped faces into the heap like sucking pigs struggling for theirmother’s teats. One’s interludes of sleep shrink to a few seconds,and one’s dreams grow more monstrous, troubling, and undreamlike.There are times when the nine people are talking almost normally,times when they can even laugh at their situation, and times whenthey press themselves together in a kind of frenzy, with deepgroans of pain. Mr Tallboys suddenly becomes exhausted and hismonologue degenerates into a stream of nonsense. He drops his vastbulk on top of the others, almost suffocating them. The heap rollsapart. Some remain on the bench, some slide to the ground andcollapse against the parapet or against the others’ knees. Thepoliceman enters the Square and orders those on the ground to theirfeet. They get up, and collapse again the moment he is gone.There is no sound from the ten people save of snores that arepartly groans. Their heads nod like those of joined porcelainChinamen as they fall asleep and reawake as rhythmically as theticking of a clock. Three strikes somewhere. A voice yells like atrumpet from the eastern end of the Square: ‘Boys! Up you get!The noospapers is come!’]
Charlie [starting from his sleep]: The perishing papers! C’m on,Ginger! Run like Hell!
[They run, or shamble, as fast as they can to the corner of theSquare, where three youths are distributing surplus posters givenaway in charity by the morning newspapers. Charlie and Ginger comeback with a thick wad of posters. The five largest men now jamthemselves together on the bench, Deafie and the four women sittingacross their knees; then, with infinite difficulty (as it has to bedone from the inside), they wrap themselves in a monstrous cocoonof paper, several sheets thick, tucking the loose ends into theirnecks or breasts or between their shoulders and the back of thebench. Finally nothing is uncovered save their heads and the lowerpart of their legs. For their heads they fashion hoods of paper.The paper constantly comes loose and lets in cold shafts of wind,but it is now possible to sleep for as much as five minutesconsecutively. At this time—between three and five in themorning—it is customary with the police not to disturb the Squaresleepers. A measure of warmth steals through everyone and extendseven to their feet. There is some furtive fondling of the womenunder cover of the paper. Dorothy is too far gone to care.
By a quarter past four the paper is all crumpled and torn tonothing, and it is far too cold to remain sitting down. The peopleget up, swear, find their legs somewhat rested, and begin to slouchto and fro in couples, frequently halting from mere lassitude.Every belly is now contorted with hunger. Ginger’s tin ofcondensed milk is torn open and the contents devoured, everyonedipping their fingers into it and licking them. Those who have nomoney at all leave the Square for the Green Park, where they willbe undisturbed till seven. Those who can command even a halfpennymake for Wilkins’s cafe not far from the Charing Cross Road. It isknown that the cafe will not open till five o’clock; nevertheless,a crowd is waiting outside the door by twenty to five.]
Mrs Mcelligot: Got your halfpenny, dearie? Dey won’t let more’nfour of us in on one cup o’tea, de stingy ole gets!
Mr Tallboys [singing]: The roseate hu-ues of early da-awn—
Ginger: God, that bit of sleep we ‘ad under the newspapers done mesome good. [Singing] But I’m dan-cing with tears—in my eyes—
Charlie: Oh, boys, boys! Look through that perishing window, willyou? Look at the ‘eat steaming down the window pane! Look at thetea-urns jest on the boil, and them great piles of ‘ot toast and‘am sandwiches, and them there sausages sizzling in the pan! Don’tit make your belly turn perishing summersaults to see ‘em?
Dorothy: I’ve got a penny. I can’t get a cup of tea for that,can I?
Snouter: —— lot of sausages we’ll get this morning withfourpence between us. ‘Alf a cup of tea and a —— doughnut morelikely. There’s a breakfus’ for you!
Mrs Mcelligot: You don’t need buy a cup o’ tea all to yourself.I got a halfpenny an’ so’s Daddy, an’ we’ll put’m to your penny an’have a cup between de t’ree of us. He’s got sores on his lip, butHell! who cares? Drink near de handle an’ dere’s no harm done.
[A quarter to five strikes.]
Mrs Bendigo: I’d bet a dollar my ole man’s got a bit of ‘addock to‘is breakfast. I ‘ope it bloody chokes ‘im.
Ginger [singing]: But I’m dan-cing with tears—in my eyes—
Mr Tallboys [singing]: Early in the morning my song shall rise toThee!
Mrs Mcelligot: You gets a bit o’ kip in dis place, dat’s onecomfort. Dey lets you sleep wid your head on de table till seveno’clock. It’s a bloody godsend to us Square Tobies.
Charlie [slavering like a dog]: Sausages! Perishing sausages!Welsh rabbit! ‘Ot dripping toast! And a rump-steak two inchesthick with chips and a pint of Ole Burton! Oh, perishing Jesus!
[He bounds forward, pushes his way through the crowd and rattlesthe handle of the glass door. The whole crowd of people, aboutforty strong, surge forward and attempt to storm the door, which isstoutly held within by Mr Wilkins, the proprietor of the cafe. Hemenaces them through the glass. Some press their breasts and facesagainst the window as though warming themselves. With a whoop anda rush Florry and four other girls, comparatively fresh from havingspent part of the night in bed, debouch from a neighbouring alley,accompanied by a gang of youths in blue suits. They hurlthemselves upon the rear of the crowd with such momentum that thedoor is almost broken. Mr Wilkins pulls it furiously open andshoves the leaders back. A fume of sausages, kippers, coffee, andhot bread streams into the outer cold.]
Youths voices from the rear: Why can’t he —— open before five?We’re starving for our —— tea! Ram the —— door in! [etc.,etc.]
Mr Wilkins: Get out! Get out, the lot of you! Or by God not oneof you comes in this morning!
Girls’ voices from the rear: Mis-ter Wil-kins! Mis-ter Wil-kins!BE a sport and let us in! I’ll give y’a kiss all free for nothing.BE a sport now! [etc., etc.]
Mr Wilkins: Get on out of it! We don’t open before five, and youknow it. [Slams the door.]
Mrs Mcelligot: Oh, holy Jesus, if dis ain’t de longest ten minuteso’ de whole bloody night! Well, I’ll give me poor ole legs a rest,anyway. [Squats on her heels coal-miner-fashion. Many others dothe same.]
Ginger: ‘Oo’s got a ‘alfpenny? I’m ripe to go fifty-fifty on adoughnut.
Youths’ voices [imitating military music, then singing]:
‘——!’ was all the band could play;
‘——! ——’ And the same to you!
Dorothy [to Mrs McElligot]: Look at us all! Just look at us!What clothes! What faces!
Mrs Bendigo: You’re no Greta Garbo yourself, if you don’t mind mymentioning it.
Mrs Wayne: Well, now, the time do seem to pass slowly when you’rewaiting for a nice cup of tea, don’t it now?
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: For our soul is brought low, even unto thedust: our belly cleaveth unto the ground!
Charlie: Kippers! Perishing piles of ‘em! I can smell ‘emthrough the perishing glass.
But I’m dan-cing with tears—in my eyes—
‘Cos the girl—in my arms—isn’t you-o-ou!
[Much time passes. Five strikes. Intolerable ages seem to pass.Then the door is suddenly wrenched open and the people stampede into fight for the corner seats. Almost swooning in the hot air,they fling themselves down and sprawl across the tables, drinkingin the heat and the smell of food through all their pores.]
Mr Wilkins: Now then, all! You know the rules, I s’pose. Nohokey-pokey this morning! Sleep till seven if you like, but if Isee any man asleep after that, out he goes on his neck. Get busywith that tea, girls!
A deafening chorus of yells: Two teas ‘ere! Large tea and adoughnut between us four! Kippers! Mis-ter Wil-kins! ‘Ow muchthem sausages? Two slices! Mis-ter Wil-kins! Got any fag papers?Kipp-ers! [etc., etc.]
Mr Wilkins: Shut up, shut up! Stop that hollering or I don’tserve any of you.
Mrs Mcelligot: D’you feel de blood runnin’ back into your toes,dearie?
Mrs Wayne: He do speak rough to you, don’t he? Not what I’d calla reely gentlemanly kind of man.
Snouter: This is —— starvation Corner, this is. Cripes!Couldn’t I do a couple of them sausages!
The tarts [in chorus]: Kippers ‘ere! ‘Urry up with them kippers!Mis-ter Wilkins! Kippers all round! AND a doughnut!
Charlie: Not ‘alf! Got to fill up on the smell of ‘em thismorning. Sooner be ‘ere than on the perishing Square, ALL thesame.
Ginger: ‘Ere, Deafie! You’ve ‘ad your ‘alf! Gimme me thatbleeding cup.
Mr Tallboys [chanting]: Then was our mouth filled with laughter,and our tongue with joy! . . .
Mrs Mcelligot: Begod I’m half asleep already. It’s de heat o’ deroom as does it.
Mr Wilkins: Stop that singing there! You know the rules.
The tarts [in chorus]: Kipp-ers!
Snouter: —— doughnuts! Cold prog! It turns my belly sick.
Daddy: Even the tea they give you ain’t no more than water with abit of dust in it. [Belches.]
Charlie: Bes’ thing—’ave a bit of shut-eye and forget about it.Dream about perishing cut off the joint and two veg. Less get our‘eads on the table and pack up comfortable.
Mrs Mcelligot: Lean up agen me shoulder, dearie. I’ve got moreflesh on me bones’n what you have.
Ginger: I’d give a tanner for a bleeding fag, if I ‘ad a bleedingtanner.
Charlie: Pack up. Get your ‘ead agenst mine, Snouter. That’sright. Jesus, won’t I perishing sleep!
[A dish of smoking kippers is borne past to the tarts’ table.]
Snouter [drowsily]: More —— kippers. Wonder ‘ow many timesshe’s bin on ‘er back to pay for that lot.
Mrs Mcelligot [half-asleep]: ‘Twas a pity, ‘twas a real pity, whenMichael went off on his jack an’ left me wid de bloody baby an’all. . . .
Mrs Bendigo [furiously, following the dish of kippers with accusingfinger]: Look at that, girls! Look at that! Kippers! Don’t itmake you bloody wild? We don’t get kippers for breakfast, do we,girls? Bloody tarts swallering down kippers as fast as they canturn ‘em out of the pan, and us ‘ere with a cup of tea between fourof us and lucky to get that! Kippers!
Mr Tallboys [stage curate-wise]: The wages of sin is kippers.
Ginger: Don’t breathe in my face, Deafie. I can’t bleeding standit.
Charlie [in his sleep]: Charles-Wisdom-drunk-and-incapable-drunk?-yes-six-shillings-move-on-next!
Dorothy [on Mrs McElligot’s bosom]: Oh, joy, joy!
[They are asleep.]
And so it goes on.
Dorothy endured this life for ten days—to be exact, nine days andten nights. It was hard to see what else she could do. Herfather, seemingly, had abandoned her altogether, and though she hadfriends in London who would readily have helped her, she did notfeel that she could face them after what had happened, or what wassupposed to have happened. And she dared not apply to organizedcharity because it would almost certainly lead to the discovery ofher name, and hence, perhaps, to a fresh hullabaloo about the‘Rector’s Daughter’.
So she stayed in London, and became one of that curious tribe, rarebut never quite extinct—the tribe of women who are penniless andhomeless, but who make such desperate efforts to hide it that theyvery nearly succeed; women who wash their faces at drinkingfountains in the cold of the dawn, and carefully uncrumple theirclothes after sleepless nights, and carry themselves with an airof reserve and decency, so that only their faces, pale beneathsunburn, tell you for certain that they are destitute. It was notin her to become a hardened beggar like most of the people abouther. Her first twenty-four hours on the Square she spent withoutany food whatever, except for the cup of tea that she had hadovernight and a third of a cup more that she had had at Wilkins’scafe in the morning. But in the evening, made desperate by hungerand the others’ example, she walked up to a strange woman, masteredher voice with an effort, and said: ‘Please, Madam, could you giveme twopence? I have had nothing to eat since yesterday.’ Thewoman stared, but she opened her purse and gave Dorothy threepence.Dorothy did not know it, but her educated accent, which had made itimpossible to get work as a servant, was an invaluable asset to heras a beggar.
After that she found that it was really very easy to beg the dailyshilling or so that was needed to keep her alive. And yet shenever begged—it seemed to her that actually she could not do it—except when hunger was past bearing or when she had got to lay inthe precious penny that was the passport to Wilkins’s cafe in themorning. With Nobby, on the way to the hopfields, she had beggedwithout fear or scruple. But it had been different then; she hadnot known what she was doing. Now, it was only under the spur ofactual hunger that she could screw her courage to the point, andask for a few coppers from some woman whose face looked friendly.It was always women that she begged from, of course. She did oncetry begging from a man—but only once.
For the rest, she grew used to the life that she was leading—usedto the enormous sleepless nights, the cold, the dirt, the boredom,and the horrible communism of the Square. After a day or two shehad ceased to feel even a flicker of surprise at her situation.She had come, like everyone about her, to accept this monstrousexistence almost as though it were normal. The dazed, witlessfeeling that she had known on the way to the hopfields had comeback upon her more strongly than before. It is the common effectof sleeplessness and still more of exposure. To live continuouslyin the open air, never going under a roof for more than an hour ortwo, blurs your perceptions like a strong light glaring in youreyes or a noise drumming in your ears. You act and plan andsuffer, and yet all the while it is as though everything were alittle out of focus, a little unreal. The world, inner and outer,grows dimmer till it reaches almost the vagueness of a dream.
Meanwhile, the police were getting to know her by sight. On theSquare people are perpetually coming and going, more or lessunnoticed. They arrive from nowhere with their drums and theirbundles, camp for a few days and nights, and then disappear asmysteriously as they come. If you stay for more than a week orthereabouts, the police will mark you down as an habitual beggar,and they will arrest you sooner or later. It is impossible forthem to enforce the begging laws at all regularly, but from time totime they make a sudden raid and capture two or three of the peoplethey have had their eye on. And so it happened in Dorothy’s case.
One evening she was ‘knocked off’, in company with Mrs McElligotand another woman whose name she did not know. They had beencareless and begged off a nasty old lady with a face like a horse,who had promptly walked up to the nearest policeman and given themin charge.
Dorothy did not mind very much. Everything was dreamlike now—theface of the nasty old lady, eagerly accusing them, and the walk tothe station with a young policeman’s gentle, almost deferentialhand on her arm; and then the white-tiled cell, with the fatherlysergeant handing her a cup of tea through the grille and tellingher that the magistrate wouldn’t be too hard on her if she pleadedguilty. In the cell next door Mrs McElligot stormed at thesergeant, called him a bloody get, and then spent half the night inbewailing her fate. But Dorothy had no feeling save vague reliefat being in so clean and warm a place. She crept immediately on tothe plank bed that was fixed like a shelf to the wall, too tiredeven to pull the blankets about her, and slept for ten hourswithout stirring. It was only on the following morning that shebegan to grasp the reality of her situation, as the Black Mariarolled briskly up to Old Street Police Court, to the tune of‘Adeste fideles’ shouted by five drunks inside.
Dorothy had wronged her father in supposing that he was willing tolet her starve to death in the street. He had, as a matter offact, made efforts to get in touch with her, though in a roundaboutand not very helpful way.
His first emotion on learning of Dorothy’s disappearance had beenrage pure and simple. At about eight in the morning, when he wasbeginning to wonder what had become of his shaving water, Ellen hadcome into his bedroom and announced in a vaguely panic-strickentone:
‘Please, Sir, Miss Dorothy ain’t in the house, Sir. I can’t findher nowhere!’
‘What?’ said the Rector.
‘She ain’t in the house, Sir! And her bed don’t look as if ithadn’t been slept in, neither. It’s my belief as she’s gorn, Sir!’
‘Gone!’ exclaimed the Rector, partly sitting up in bed. ‘What doyou mean—gone?’
‘Well, Sir, I believe she’s run away from ‘ome, Sir!’
‘Run away from home! At this hour of the morning? And what aboutmy breakfast, pray?’
By the time the Rector got downstairs—unshaven, no hot waterhaving appeared—Ellen had gone down into the town to makefruitless inquiries for Dorothy. An hour passed, and she did notreturn. Whereupon there occurred a frightful, unprecedented thing—a thing never to be forgotten this side of the grave; the Rectorwas obliged to prepare his own breakfast—yes, actually to messabout with a vulgar black kettle and rashers of Danish bacon—withhis own sacerdotal hands.
After that, of course, his heart was hardened against Dorothy forever. For the rest of the day he was far too busy raging overunpunctual meals to ask himself why she had disappeared and whetherany harm had befallen her. The point was that the confounded girl(he said several times ‘confounded girl’, and came near to sayingsomething stronger) had disappeared, and had upset the wholehousehold by doing so. Next day, however, the question became moreurgent, because Mrs Semprill was now publishing the story of theelopement far and wide. Of course, the Rector denied it violently,but in his heart he had a sneaking suspicion that it might be true.It was the kind of thing, he now decided, that Dorothy would do. Agirl who would suddenly walk out of the house without even takingthought for her father’s breakfast was capable of anything.
Two days later the newspapers got hold of the story, and a nosyyoung reporter came down to Knype Hill and began asking questions.The Rector made matters worse by angrily refusing to interview thereporter, so that Mrs Semprill’s version was the only one that gotinto print. For about a week, until the papers got tired ofDorothy’s case and dropped her in favour of a plesiosaurus that hadbeen seen at the mouth of the Thames, the Rector enjoyed a horriblenotoriety. He could hardly open a newspaper without seeing someflaming headline about ‘Rector’s Daughter. Further Revelations’,or ‘Rector’s Daughter. Is she in Vienna? Reported seen in Low-class Cabaret’. Finally there came an article in the SundaySpyhole, which began, ‘Down in a Suffolk Rectory a broken old mansits staring at the wall’, and which was so absolutely unbearablethat the Rector consulted his solicitor about an action for libel.However, the solicitor was against it; it might lead to a verdict,he said, but it would certainly lead to further publicity. So theRector did nothing, and his anger against Dorothy, who had broughtthis disgrace upon him, hardened beyond possibility of forgiveness.
After this there came three letters from Dorothy, explaining whathad happened. Of course the Rector never really believed thatDorothy had lost her memory. It was too thin a story altogether.He believed that she either had eloped with Mr Warburton, or hadgone off on some similar escapade and had landed herself pennilessin Kent; at any rate—this he had settled once and for all, and noargument would ever move him from it—whatever had happened to herwas entirely her own fault. The first letter he wrote was not toDorothy herself but to his cousin Tom, the baronet. For a man ofthe Rector’s upbringing it was second nature, in any serioustrouble, to turn to a rich relative for help. He had not exchangeda word with his cousin for the last fifteen years, since they hadquarrelled over a little matter of a borrowed fifty pounds; still,he wrote fairly confidently, asking Sir Thomas to get in touch withDorothy if it could be done, and to find her some kind of job inLondon. For of course, after what had happened, there could be noquestion of letting her come back to Knype Hill.
Shortly after this there came two despairing letters from Dorothy,telling him that she was in danger of starvation and imploring himto send her some money. The Rector was disturbed. It occurred tohim—it was the first time in his life that he had seriouslyconsidered such a thing—that it is possible to starve if you haveno money. So, after thinking it over for the best part of a week,he sold out ten pounds’ worth of shares and sent a cheque for tenpounds to his cousin, to be kept for Dorothy till she appeared. Atthe same time he sent a cold letter to Dorothy herself, telling herthat she had better apply to Sir Thomas Hare. But several moredays passed before this letter was posted, because the Rector hadqualms about addressing a letter to ‘Ellen Millborough’—he dimlyimagined that it was against the law to use false names—and, ofcourse, he had delayed far too long. Dorothy was already in thestreets when the letter reached ‘Mary’s’.
Sir Thomas Hare was a widower, a good-hearted, chuckle-headed manof about sixty-five, with an obtuse rosy face and curlingmoustaches. He dressed by preference in checked overcoats andcurly brimmed bowler hats that were at once dashingly smart andfour decades out of date. At a first glance he gave the impressionof having carefully disguised himself as a cavalry major of the‘nineties, so that you could hardly look at him without thinking ofdevilled bones with a b and s, and the tinkle of hansom bells, andthe Pink ‘Un in its great ‘Pitcher’ days, and Lottie Collins and ‘Tarara-boom-deay’. But his chief characteristic was an abysmalmental vagueness. He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t youknow?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of theirsentences. When he was puzzled or in difficulties, his moustachesseemed to bristle forward, giving him the appearance of a well-meaning but exceptionally brainless prawn.
So far as his own inclinations went Sir Thomas was not in the leastanxious to help his cousins, for Dorothy herself he had never seen,and the Rector he looked on as a cadging poor relation of the worstpossible type. But the fact was that he had had just about as muchof this ‘Rector’s Daughter’ business as he could stand. Theaccursed chance that Dorothy’s surname was the same as his own hadmade his life a misery for the past fortnight, and he foresawfurther and worse scandals if she were left at large any longer.So, just before leaving London for the pheasant shooting, he sentfor his butler, who was also his confidant and intellectual guide,and held a council of war.
‘Look here, Blyth, dammit,’ said Sir Thomas prawnishly (Blyth wasthe butler’s name), ‘I suppose you’ve seen all this damn’ stuff inthe newspapers, hey? This “Rector’s Daughter” stuff? About thisdamned niece of mine.’
Blyth was a small sharp-featured man with a voice that never roseabove a whisper. It was as nearly silent as a voice can be whilestill remaining a voice. Only by watching his lips as well aslistening closely could you catch the whole of what he said. Inthis case his lips signalled something to the effect that Dorothywas Sir Thomas’s cousin, not his niece.
‘What, my cousin, is she?’ said Sir Thomas. ‘So she is, by Jove!Well, look here, Blyth, what I mean to say—it’s about time we gothold of the damn’ girl and locked her up somewhere. See what Imean? Get hold of her before there’s any more trouble. She’sknocking about somewhere in London, I believe. What’s the best wayof getting on her track? Police? Private detectives and all that?D’you think we could manage it?’
Blyth’s lips registered disapproval. It would, he seemed to besaying, be possible to trace Dorothy without calling in the policeand having a lot of disagreeable publicity.
‘Good man!’ said Sir Thomas. ‘Get to it, then. Never mind what itcosts. I’d give fifty quid not to have that “Rector’s Daughter” business over again. And for God’s sake, Blyth,’ he addedconfidentially, ‘once you’ve got hold of the damn’ girl, don’t lether out of your sight. Bring her back to the house and damn’ wellkeep her here. See what I mean? Keep her under lock and key tillI get back. Or else God knows what she’ll be up to next.’
Sir Thomas, of course, had never seen Dorothy, and it was thereforeexcusable that he should have formed his conception of her from thenewspaper reports.
It took Blyth about a week to track Dorothy down. On the morningafter she came out of the police-court cells (they had fined hersix shillings, and, in default of payment, detained her for twelvehours: Mrs McElligot, as an old offender, got seven days), Blythcame up to her, lifted his bowler hat a quarter of an inch from hishead, and inquired noiselessly whether she were not Miss DorothyHare. At the second attempt Dorothy understood what he was saying,and admitted that she was Miss Dorothy Hare; whereupon Blythexplained that he was sent by her cousin, who was anxious to helpher, and that she was to come home with him immediately.
Dorothy followed him without more words said. It seemed queer thather cousin should take this sudden interest in her, but it was noqueerer than the other things that had been happening lately. Theytook the bus to Hyde Park Corner, Blyth paying the fares, and thenwalked to a large, expensive-looking house with shuttered windows,on the borderland between Knightsbridge and Mayfair. They wentdown some steps, and Blyth produced a key and they went in. So,after an absence of something over six weeks, Dorothy returned torespectable society, by the area door.
She spent three days in the empty house before her cousin camehome. It was a queer, lonely time. There were several servants inthe house, but she saw nobody except Blyth, who brought her hermeals and talked to her, noiselessly, with a mixture of deferenceand disapproval. He could not quite make up his mind whether shewas a young lady of family or a rescued Magdalen, and so treatedher as something between the two. The house had that hushed,corpselike air peculiar to houses whose master is away, so that youinstinctively went about on tiptoe and kept the blinds over thewindows. Dorothy did not even dare to enter any of the main rooms.She spent all the daytime lurking in a dusty, forlorn room at thetop of the house which was a sort of museum of bric-a-brac datingfrom 1880 onwards. Lady Hare, dead these five years, had been anindustrious collector of rubbish, and most of it had been stowedaway in this room when she died. It was a doubtful point whetherthe queerest object in the room was a yellowed photograph ofDorothy’s father, aged eighteen but with respectable side-whiskers,standing self-consciously beside an ‘ordinary’ bicycle—this was in1888; or whether it was a little sandalwood box labelled ‘Piece ofBread touched by Cecil Rhodes at the City and South Africa Banquet,June 1897’. The sole books in the room were some grisly schoolprizes that had been won by Sir Thomas’s children—he had three,the youngest being the same age as Dorothy.
It was obvious that the servants had orders not to let her go outof doors. However, her father’s cheque for ten pounds had arrived,and with some difficulty she induced Blyth to get it cashed, and,on the third day, went out and bought herself some clothes. Shebought herself a ready-made tweed coat and skirt and a jersey to gowith them, a hat, and a very cheap frock of artificial printedsilk; also a pair of passable brown shoes, three pairs of lislestockings, a nasty, cheap little handbag, and a pair of grey cottongloves that would pass for suede at a little distance. That cameto eight pounds ten, and she dared not spend more. As forunderclothes, nightdresses, and handkerchiefs, they would have towait. After all, it is the clothes that show that matter.
Sir Thomas arrived on the following day, and never really got overthe surprise that Dorothy’s appearance gave him. He had beenexpecting to see some rouged and powdered siren who would plaguehim with temptations to which alas! he was no longer capable ofsuccumbing; and this countrified, spinsterish girl upset all hiscalculations. Certain vague ideas that had been floating about hismind, of finding her a job as a manicurist or perhaps as a privatesecretary to a bookie, floated out of it again. From time to timeDorothy caught him studying her with a puzzled, prawnish eye,obviously wondering how on earth such a girl could ever havefigured in an elopement. It was very little use, of course,telling him that she had not eloped. She had given him her versionof the story, and he had accepted it with a chivalrous ‘Of course,m’dear, of course!’ and thereafter, in every other sentence,betrayed the fact that he disbelieved her.
So for a couple of days nothing definite was done. Dorothycontinued her solitary life in the room upstairs, and Sir Thomaswent to his club for most of his meals, and in the evening therewere discussions of the most unutterable vagueness. Sir Thomas wasgenuinely anxious to find Dorothy a job, but he had greatdifficulty in remembering what he was talking about for more than afew minutes at a time. ‘Well, m’dear,’ he would start off, ‘you’llunderstand, of course, that I’m very keen to do what I can for you.Naturally, being your uncle and all that—what? What’s that? Notyour uncle? No, I suppose I’m not, by Jove! Cousin—that’s it;cousin. Well, now, m’dear, being your cousin—now, what was Isaying?’ Then, when Dorothy had guided him back to the subject, hewould throw out some such suggestion as, ‘Well, now, for instance,m’dear, how would you like to be companion to an old lady? Somedear old girl, don’t you know—black mittens and rheumatoidarthritis. Die and leave you ten thousand quid and care of theparrot. What, what?’ which did not get them very much further.Dorothy repeated a number of times that she would rather be ahousemaid or a parlourmaid, but Sir Thomas would not hear of it.The very idea awakened in him a class-instinct which he was usuallytoo vague-minded to remember. ‘What!’ he would say. ‘A dashedskivvy? Girl of your upbringing? No, m’dear—no, no! Can’t do that kind of thing, dash it!’
But in the end everything was arranged, and with surprising ease;not by Sir Thomas, who was incapable of arranging anything, but byhis solicitor, whom he had suddenly thought of consulting. And thesolicitor, without even seeing Dorothy, was able to suggest a jobfor her. She could, he said, almost certainly find a job as aschoolmistress. Of all jobs, that was the easiest to get.
Sir Thomas came home very pleased with this suggestion, whichstruck him as highly suitable. (Privately, he thought that Dorothyhad just the kind of face that a schoolmistress ought to have.)But Dorothy was momentarily aghast when she heard of it.
‘A schoolmistress!’ she said. ‘But I couldn’t possibly! I’m sureno school would give me a job. There isn’t a single subject I canteach.’
‘What? What’s that? Can’t teach? Oh, dash it! Of course youcan! Where’s the difficulty?’
‘But I don’t know enough! I’ve never taught anybody anything,except cooking to the Girl Guides. You have to be properlyqualified to be a teacher.’
‘Oh, nonsense! Teaching’s the easiest job in the world. Goodthick ruler—rap ‘em over the knuckles. They’ll be glad enoughto get hold of a decently brought up young woman to teach theyoungsters their abc. That’s the line for you, m’dear—schoolmistress. You’re just cut out for it.’
And sure enough, a schoolmistress Dorothy became. The invisiblesolicitor had made all the arrangements in less than three days.It appeared that a certain Mrs Creevy, who kept a girls’ day schoolin the suburb of Southbridge, was in need of an assistant, and wasquite willing to give Dorothy the job. How it had all been settledso quickly, and what kind of school it could be that would take ona total stranger, and unqualified at that, in the middle of theterm, Dorothy could hardly imagine. She did not know, of course,that a bribe of five pounds, miscalled a premium, had changedhands.
So, just ten days after her arrest for begging, Dorothy set out forRingwood House Academy, Brough Road, Southbridge, with a smalltrunk decently full of clothes and four pounds ten in her purse—for Sir Thomas had made her a present of ten pounds. When shethought of the ease with which this job had been found for her, andthen of the miserable struggles of three weeks ago, the contrastamazed her. It brought home to her, as never before, themysterious power of money. In fact, it reminded her of a favouritesaying of Mr Warburton’s, that if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote ‘money’ instead of ‘charity’,the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.
Southbridge was a repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London. Brough Road lay somewhere at the heart of it, amid labyrinths of meanly decent streets, all so indistinguishablya like, with their ranks of semi-detached houses, their privet andlaurel hedges and plots of ailing shrubs at the crossroads, that you could lose yourself there almost as easily as in a Brazilian forest. Not only the houses themselves, but even their names werethe same over and over again. Reading the names on the gates asyou came up Brough Road, you were conscious of being haunted bysome half-remembered passage of poetry; and when you paused toidentify it, you realized that it was the first two lines of Lycidas.
Ringwood House was a dark-looking, semi-detached house of yellowbrick, three storeys high, and its lower windows were hidden fromthe road by ragged and dusty laurels. Above the laurels, on thefront of the house, was a board inscribed in faded gold letters:
RINGWOOD HOUSE ACADEMY FOR GIRLS
Ages 5 to 18
Music and Dancing Taught
Apply within for Prospectus
Edge to edge with this board, on the other half of the house, wasanother board which read:
RUSHINGTON GRANGE HIGH SCHOOL FOR BOYS
Ages 6 to 16
Book-keeping and Commercial Arithmetic a Speciality
Apply within for Prospectus
The district pullulated with small private schools; there were fourof them in Brough Road alone. Mrs Creevy, the Principal ofRingwood House, and Mr Boulger, the Principal of Rushington Grange,were in a state of warfare, though their interests in no wayclashed with one another. Nobody knew what the feud was about, noteven Mrs Creevy or Mr Boulger themselves; it was a feud that theyhad inherited from earlier proprietors of the two schools. In themornings after breakfast they would stalk up and down theirrespective back gardens, beside the very low wall that separatedthem, pretending not to see one another and grinning with hatred.
Dorothy’s heart sank at the sight of Ringwood House. She had notbeen expecting anything very magnificent or attractive, but she hadexpected something a little better than this mean, gloomy house,not one of whose windows was lighted, though it was after 8 o’clockin the evening. She knocked at the door, and it was opened by awoman, tall and gaunt-looking in the dark hallway, whom Dorothytook for a servant, but who was actually Mrs Creevy herself.Without a word, except to inquire Dorothy’s name, the woman led theway up some dark stairs to a twilit, fireless drawing-room, whereshe turned up a pinpoint of gas, revealing a black piano, stuffedhorsehair chairs, and a few yellowed, ghostly photos on the walls.
Mrs Creevy was a woman somewhere in her forties, lean, hard, andangular, with abrupt decided movements that indicated a strong willand probably a vicious temper. Though she was not in the leastdirty or untidy there was something discoloured about her wholeappearance, as though she lived all her life in a bad light; andthe expression of her mouth, sullen and ill-shaped with the lowerlip turned down, recalled that of a toad. She spoke in a sharp,commanding voice, with a bad accent and occasional vulgar turns ofspeech. You could tell her at a glance for a person who knewexactly what she wanted, and would grasp it as ruthlessly as anymachine; not a bully exactly—you could somehow infer from herappearance that she would not take enough interest in you to wantto bully you—but a person who would make use of you and then throwyou aside with no more compunction than if you had been a worn-outscrubbing-brush.
Mrs Creevy did not waste any words on greetings. She motionedDorothy to a chair, with the air rather of commanding than ofinviting her to sir down, and then sat down herself, with her handsclasped on her skinny forearms.
‘I hope you and me are going to get on well together, MissMillborough,’ she began in her penetrating, subhectoring voice.(On the advice of Sir Thomas’s everwise solicitor, Dorothy hadstuck to the name of Ellen Millborough.) ‘And I hope I’m not goingto have the same nasty business with you as I had with my last twoassistants. You say you haven’t had an experience of teachingbefore this?’
‘Not in a school,’ said Dorothy—there had been a tarradiddle inher letter of introduction, to the effect that she had hadexperience of ‘private teaching’.
Mrs Creevy looked Dorothy over as though wondering whether toinduct her into the inner secrets of school-teaching, and thenappeared to decide against it.
‘Well, we shall see,’ she said. ‘I must say,’ she addedcomplainingly, ‘it’s not easy to get hold of good hardworkingassistants nowadays. You give them good wages and good treatment,and you get no thanks for it. The last one I had—the one I’vejust had to get rid of—Miss Strong, wasn’t so bad so far as theteaching part went; in fact, she was a B.A., and I don’t know whatyou could have better than a B.A., unless it’s an M.A. You don’thappen to be a B.A. or an M.A., do you, Miss Millborough?’
‘No, I’m afraid not,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, that’s a pity. It looks so much better on the prospectus ifyou’ve got a few letters after your name. Well! Perhaps itdoesn’t matter. I don’t suppose many of our parents’d know whatB.A. stands for; and they aren’t so keen on showing theirignorance. I suppose you can talk French, of course?’
‘Well—I’ve learnt French.’
‘Oh, that’s all right, then. Just so as we can put it on theprospectus. Well, now, to come back to what I was saying, MissStrong was all right as a teacher, but she didn’t come up to myideas on what I call the moral side. We’re very strong on themoral side at Ringwood House. It’s what counts most with theparents, you’ll find. And the one before Miss Strong, Miss Brewer—well, she had what I call a weak nature. You don’t get on withgirls if you’ve got a weak nature. The end of it all was that onemorning one little girl crept up to the desk with a box of matchesand set fire to Miss Brewer’s skirt. Of course I wasn’t going tokeep her after that. In fact I had her out of the house the sameafternoon—and I didn’t give her any refs either, I can tell you!’
‘You mean you expelled the girl who did it?’ said Dorothy,mystified.
‘What? The girl? Not likely! You don’t suppose I’d go and turnfees away from my door, do you? I mean I got rid of Miss Brewer,not the girl. It’s no good having teachers who let the girls getsaucy with them. We’ve got twenty-one in the class just atpresent, and you’ll find they need a strong hand to keep them down.’
‘You don’t teach yourself?’ said Dorothy.
‘Oh dear, no!’ said Mrs Creevy almost contemptuously. ‘I’ve got alot too much on my hands to waste my time teaching. There’s thehouse to look after, and seven of the children stay to dinner—I’veonly a daily woman at present. Besides, it takes me all my timegetting the fees out of the parents. After all, the fees are whatmatter, aren’t they?’
‘Yes. I suppose so,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, we’d better settle about your wages,’ continued Mrs Creevy.‘In term time I’ll give you your board and lodging and tenshillings a week; in the holidays it’ll just be your board andlodging. You can have the use of the copper in the kitchen foryour laundering, and I light the geyser for hot baths everySaturday night; or at least most Saturday nights. You can’t havethe use of this room we’re in now, because it’s my reception-room,and I don’t want you to go wasting the gas in your bedroom. Butyou can have the use of the morning-room whenever you want it.’
‘Thank you,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I should think that’ll be about all. I expect you’refeeling ready for bed. You’ll have had your supper long ago, ofcourse?’
This was clearly intended to mean that Dorothy was not going to getany food tonight, so she answered Yes, untruthfully, and theconversation was at an end. That was always Mrs Creevy’s way—shenever kept you talking an instant longer than was necessary. Herconversation was so very definite, so exactly to the point, that itwas not really conversation at all. Rather, it was the skeleton ofconversation; like the dialogue in a badly written novel whereeveryone talks a little too much in character. But indeed, in theproper sense of the word she did not talk; she merely said, in herbrief shrewish way, whatever it was necessary to say, and then gotrid of you as promptly as possible. She now showed Dorothy alongthe passage to her bedroom, and lighted a gas-jet no bigger than anacorn, revealing a gaunt bedroom with a narrow white-quilted bed, arickety wardrobe, one chair and a wash-hand-stand with a frigidwhite china basin and ewer. It was very like the bedrooms inseaside lodging houses, but it lacked the one thing that gives suchrooms their air of homeliness and decency—the text over the bed.
‘This is your room,’ Mrs Creevy said; ‘and I just hope you’ll keepit a bit tidier than what Miss Strong used to. And don’t goburning the gas half the night, please, because I can tell whattime you turn it off by the crack under the door.’
With this parting salutation she left Dorothy to herself. The roomwas dismally cold; indeed, the whole house had a damp, chillyfeeling, as though fires were rarely lighted in it. Dorothy gotinto bed as quickly as possible, feeling bed to be the warmestplace. On top of the wardrobe, when she was putting her clothesaway, she found a cardboard box containing no less than nine emptywhisky bottles—relics, presumably, of Miss Strong’s weakness onthe moral side.
At eight in the morning Dorothy went downstairs and found MrsCreevy already at breakfast in what she called the ‘morning-room’.This was a smallish room adjoining the kitchen, and it had startedlife as the scullery; but Mrs Creevy had converted it into the‘morning-room’ by the simple process of removing the sink andcopper into the kitchen. The breakfast table, covered with a clothof harsh texture, was very large and forbiddingly bare. Up at MrsCreevy’s end were a tray with a very small teapot and two cups, aplate on which were two leathery fried eggs, and a dish ofmarmalade; in the middle, just within Dorothy’s reach if shestretched, was a plate of bread and butter; and beside her plate—as though it were the only thing she could be trusted with—a cruetstand with some dried-up, clotted stuff inside the bottles.
‘Good morning, Miss Millborough,’ said Mrs Creevy. ‘It doesn’tmatter this morning, as this is the first day, but just rememberanother time that I want you down here in time to help me getbreakfast ready.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Dorothy.
‘I hope you’re fond of fried eggs for your breakfast?’ went on MrsCreevy.
Dorothy hastened to assure her that she was very fond of friedeggs.
‘Well, that’s a good thing, because you’ll always have to have thesame as what I have. So I hope you’re not going to be what I call dainty about your food. I always think,’ she added, picking up herknife and fork, ‘that a fried egg tastes a lot better if you cut itwell up before you eat it.’
She sliced the two eggs into thin strips, and then served them insuch a way that Dorothy received about two-thirds of an egg. Withsome difficulty Dorothy spun out her fraction of egg so as to makehalf a dozen mouthfuls of it, and then, when she had taken a sliceof bread and butter, she could not help glancing hopefully in thedirection of the dish of marmalade. But Mrs Creevy was sittingwith her lean left arm—not exactly round the marmalade, but in aprotective position on its left flank, as though she suspected thatDorothy was going to make an attack upon it. Dorothy’s nervefailed her, and she had no marmalade that morning—nor, indeed,for many mornings to come.
Mrs Creevy did not speak again during breakfast, but presently thesound of feet on the gravel outside, and of squeaky voices in theschoolroom, announced that the girls were beginning to arrive.They came in by a side-door that was left open for them. MrsCreevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast thingstogether on the tray. She was one of those women who can nevermove anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumpsand raps as a poltergeist. Dorothy carried the tray into thekitchen, and when she returned Mrs Creevy produced a penny notebookfrom a drawer in the dresser and laid it open on the table.
‘Just take a look at this,’ she said. ‘Here’s a list of the girls’names that I’ve got ready for you. I shall want you to know thewhole lot of them by this evening.’ She wetted her thumb andturned over three pages: ‘Now, do you see these three lists here?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, you’ll just have to learn those three lists by heart, andmake sure you know what girls are on which. Because I don’t wantyou to go thinking that all the girls are to be treated alike.They aren’t—not by a long way, they aren’t. Different girls,different treatment—that’s my system. Now, do you see this lot onthe first page?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy again.
‘Well, the parents of that lot are what I call the good payers.You know what I mean by that? They’re the ones that pay cash onthe nail and no jibbing at an extra half-guinea or so now andagain. You’re not to smack any of that lot, not on any account.This lot over here are the medium payers. Their parents do pay upsooner or later, but you don’t get the money out of them withoutyou worry them for it night and day. You can smack that lot ifthey get saucy, but don’t go and leave a mark their parents cansee. If you’ll take my advice, the best thing with children is totwist their ears. Have you ever tried that?’
‘No,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I find it answers better than anything. It doesn’t leave amark, and the children can’t bear it. Now these three over hereare the bad payers. Their fathers are two terms behind already,and I’m thinking of a solicitor’s letter. I don’t care what you doto that lot—well, short of a police-court case, naturally. Now,shall I take you in and start you with the girls? You’d betterbring that book along with you, and just keep your eye on it allthe time so as there’ll be no mistakes.’
They went into the schoolroom. It was a largish room, with grey-papered walls that were made yet greyer by the dullness of thelight, for the heavy laurel bushes outside choked the windows, andno direct ray of the sun ever penetrated into the room. There wasa teacher’s desk by the empty fireplace, and there were a dozensmall double desks, a light blackboard, and, on the mantelpiece, ablack clock that looked like a miniature mausoleum; but there wereno maps, no pictures, nor even, as far as Dorothy could see, anybooks. The sole objects in the room that could be calledornamental were two sheets of black paper pinned to the walls, withwriting on them in chalk in beautiful copperplate. On one was‘Speech is Silver. Silence is Golden’, and on the other‘Punctuality is the Politeness of Princes’.
The girls, twenty-one of them, were already sitting at their desks.They had grown very silent when they heard footsteps approaching,and as Mrs Creevy came in they seemed to shrink down in their placeslike partridge chicks when a hawk is soaring. For the most partthey were dull-looking, lethargic children with bad complexions, andadenoids seemed to be remarkably common among them. The eldest ofthem might have been fifteen years old, the youngest was hardly morethan a baby. The school had no uniform, and one or two of thechildren were verging on raggedness.
‘Stand up, girls,’ said Mrs Creevy as she reached the teacher’sdesk. ‘We’ll start off with the morning prayer.’
The girls stood up, clasped their hands in front of them, and shuttheir eyes. They repeated the prayer in unison, in weak pipingvoices, Mrs Creevy leading them, her sharp eyes darting over themall the while to see that they were attending.
‘Almighty and everlasting Father,’ they piped, ‘we beseech Theethat our studies this day may be graced by Thy divine guidance.Make us to conduct ourselves quietly and obediently; look down uponour school and make it to prosper, so that it may grow in numbersand be a good example to the neighbourhood and not a disgrace likesome schools of which Thou knowest, O Lord. Make us, we beseechThee, O Lord, industrious, punctual, and ladylike, and worthy inall possible respects to walk in Thy ways: for Jesus Christ’s sake,our Lord, Amen.’
This prayer was of Mrs Creevy’s own composition. When they hadfinished it, the girls repeated the Lord’s Prayer, and then satdown.
‘Now, girls,’ said Mrs Creevy, ‘this is your new teacher, MissMillborough. As you know, Miss Strong had to leave us all of asudden after she was taken so bad in the middle of the arithmeticlesson; and I can tell you I’ve had a hard week of it looking for anew teacher. I had seventy-three applications before I took onMiss Millborough, and I had to refuse them all because theirqualifications weren’t high enough. Just you remember and tellyour parents that, all of you—seventy-three applications! Well,Miss Millborough is going to take you in Latin, French, history,geography, mathematics, English literature and composition,spelling, grammar, handwriting, and freehand drawing; and Mr Boothwill take you in chemistry as usual on Thursday afternoons. Now,what’s the first lesson on your time-table this morning?’
‘History, Ma’am,’ piped one or two voices.
‘Very well. I expect Miss Millborough’ll start off by asking you afew questions about the history you’ve been learning. So just youdo your best, all of you, and let her see that all the troublewe’ve taken over you hasn’t been wasted. You’ll find they can bequite a sharp lot of girls when they try, Miss Millborough.’
‘I’m sure they are,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I’ll be leaving you, then. And just you behave yourselves,girls! Don’t you get trying it on with Miss Millborough like youdid with Miss Brewer, because I warn you she won’t stand it. If Ihear any noise coming from this room, there’ll be trouble forsomebody.’
She gave a glance round which included Dorothy and indeed suggestedthat Dorothy would probably be the ‘somebody’ referred to, anddeparted.
Dorothy faced the class. She was not afraid of them—she was tooused to dealing with children ever to be afraid of them—but shedid feel a momentary qualm. The sense of being an impostor (whatteacher has not felt it at times?) was heavy upon her. It suddenlyoccurred to her, what she had only been dimly aware of before, thatshe had taken this teaching job under flagrantly false pretences,without having any kind of qualification for it. The subject shewas now supposed to be teaching was history, and, like most‘educated’ people, she knew virtually no history. How awful, shethought, if it turned out that these girls knew more history thanshe did! She said tentatively:
‘What period exactly were you doing with Miss Strong?’
Nobody answered. Dorothy saw the older girls exchanging glances,as though asking one another whether it was safe to say anything,and finally deciding not to commit themselves.
‘Well, whereabouts had you got to?’ she said, wondering whetherperhaps the word ‘period’ was too much for them.
Again no answer.
‘Well, now, surely you remember something about it? Tell me thenames of some of the people you were learning about in your lasthistory lesson.’
More glances were exchanged, and a very plain little girl in thefront row, in a brown jumper and skirt, with her hair screwed intotwo tight pigtails, remarked cloudily, ‘It was about the AncientBritons.’ At this two other girls took courage, and answeredsimultaneously. One of them said, ‘Columbus’, and the other‘Napoleon’.
Somehow, after that, Dorothy seemed to see her way more clearly.It was obvious that instead of being uncomfortably knowledgeable asshe had feared, the class knew as nearly as possible no history atall. With this discovery her stage-fright vanished. She graspedthat before she could do anything else with them it was necessaryto find out what, if anything, these children knew. So, instead offollowing the time-table, she spent the rest of the morning inquestioning the entire class on each subject in turn; when she hadfinished with history (and it took about five minutes to get to thebottom of their historical knowledge) she tried them with geography,with English grammar, with French, with arithmetic—with everything,in fact, that they were supposed to have learned. By twelve o’clockshe had plumbed, though not actually explored, the frightful abyssesof their ignorance.
For they knew nothing, absolutely nothing—nothing, nothing,nothing, like the Dadaists. It was appalling that even childrencould be so ignorant. There were only two girls in the class whoknew whether the earth went round the sun or the sun round theearth, and not a single one of them could tell Dorothy who was thelast king before George V, or who wrote Hamlet, or what was meantby a vulgar fraction, or which ocean you crossed to get to America,the Atlantic or the Pacific. And the big girls of fifteen were notmuch better than the tiny infants of eight, except that the formercould at least read consecutively and write neat copperplate. Thatwas the one thing that nearly all of the older girls could do—theycould write neatly. Mrs Creevy had seen to that. And of course,here and there in the midst of their ignorance, there were small,disconnected islets of knowledge; for example, some odd stanzasfrom ‘pieces of poetry’ that they had learned by heart, and a fewOllendorffian French sentences such as ‘Passez-moi le beurre, s’ilvous plait’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’, whichthey appeared to have learned as a parrot learns ‘Pretty Poll’. Asfor their arithmetic, it was a little better than the othersubjects. Most of them knew how to add and subtract, about half ofthem had some notion of how to multiply, and there were even threeor four who had struggled as far as long division. But that wasthe utmost limit of their knowledge; and beyond, in every direction,lay utter, impenetrable night.
Moreover, not only did they know nothing, but they were so unusedto being questioned that it was often difficult to get answers outof them at all. It was obvious that whatever they knew they hadlearned in an entirely mechanical manner, and they could only gapein a sort of dull bewilderment when asked to think for themselves.However, they did not seem unwilling, and evidently they had madeup their minds to be ‘good’—children are always ‘good’ with a newteacher; and Dorothy persisted, and by degrees the children grew,or seemed to grow, a shade less lumpish. She began to pick up,from the answers they gave her, a fairly accurate notion of whatMiss Strong’s regime had been like.
It appeared that, though theoretically they had learned all theusual school subjects, the only ones that had been at all seriouslytaught were handwriting and arithmetic. Mrs Creevy was particularlykeen on handwriting. And besides this they had spent greatquantities of time—an hour or two out of every day, it seemed—indrudging through a dreadful routine called ‘copies.’ ‘Copies’ meantcopying things out of textbooks or off the blackboard. Miss Strongwould write up, for example, some sententious little ‘essay’ (therewas an essay entitled ‘Spring’ which recurred in all the oldergirls’ books, and which began, ‘Now, when girlish April is trippingthrough the land, when the birds are chanting gaily on the boughsand the dainty flowerets bursting from their buds’, etc., etc.), andthe girls would make fair copies of it in their copybooks; and theparents, to whom the copybooks were shown from time to time, were nodoubt suitably impressed. Dorothy began to grasp that everythingthat the girls had been taught was in reality aimed at the parents.Hence the ‘copies’, the insistence on handwriting, and the parrotingof ready-made French phrases; they were cheap and easy ways ofcreating an impression. Meanwhile, the little girls at the bottomof the class seemed barely able to read and write, and one of them—her name was Mavis Williams, and she was a rather sinister-lookingchild of eleven, with eyes too far apart—could not even count. Thischild seemed to have done nothing at all during the past term and ahalf except to write pothooks. She had quite a pile of books filledwith pothooks—page after page of pothooks, looping on and on likethe mangrove roots in some tropical swamp.
Dorothy tried not to hurt the children’s feelings by exclaiming attheir ignorance, but in her heart she was amazed and horrified.She had not known that schools of this description still existed inthe civilized world. The whole atmosphere of the place was socuriously antiquated—so reminiscent of those dreary little privateschools that you read about in Victorian novels. As for the fewtextbooks that the class possessed, you could hardly look at themwithout feeling as though you had stepped back into the midnineteenth century. There were only three textbooks of which eachchild had a copy. One was a shilling arithmetic, pre Great War butfairly serviceable, and another was a horrid little book called TheHundred Page History of Britain—a nasty little duodecimo book witha gritty brown cover, and, for frontispiece, a portrait of Boadiceawith a Union Jack draped over the front of her chariot. Dorothyopened this book at random, came to page 91, and read:
After the French Revolution was over, the self-styled EmperorNapoleon Buonaparte attempted to set up his sway, but though he wona few victories against continental troops, he soon found that inthe ‘thin red line’ he had more than met his match. Conclusionswere tried upon the field of Waterloo, where 50,000 Britons put toflight 70,000 Frenchmen—for the Prussians, our allies, arrived toolate for the battle. With a ringing British cheer our men chargeddown the slope and the enemy broke and fled. We now come on to thegreat Reform Bill of 1832, the first of those beneficent reformswhich have made British liberty what it is and marked us off fromthe less fortunate nations [etc., etc.]. . . .
The date of the book was 1888. Dorothy, who had never seen ahistory book of this description before, examined it with a feelingapproaching horror. There was also an extraordinary little‘reader’, dated 1863. It consisted mostly of bits out of FenimoreCooper, Dr Watts, and Lord Tennyson, and at the end there were thequeerest little ‘Nature Notes’ with woodcut illustrations. Therewould be a woodcut of an elephant, and underneath in small print:‘The elephant is a sagacious beast. He rejoices in the shade ofthe Palm Trees, and though stronger than six horses he will allow alittle child to lead him. His food is Bananas.’ And so on to theWhale, the Zebra, and Porcupine, and the Spotted Camelopard. Therewere also, in the teacher’s desk, a copy of Beautiful Joe, aforlorn book called Peeps at Distant Lands, and a French phrase-book dated 1891. It was called All you will need on your ParisianTrip, and the first phrase given was ‘Lace my stays, but not tootightly’. In the whole room there was not such a thing as an atlasor a set of geometrical instruments.
At eleven there was a break of ten minutes, and some of the girlsplayed dull little games at noughts and crosses or quarrelled overpencil-cases, and a few who had got over their first shynessclustered round Dorothy’s desk and talked to her. They told hersome more about Miss Strong and her methods of teaching, and howshe used to twist their ears when they made blots on theircopybooks. It appeared that Miss Strong had been a very strictteacher except when she was ‘taken bad’, which happened about twicea week. And when she was taken bad she used to drink some medicineout of a little brown bottle, and after drinking it she would growquite jolly for a while and talk to them about her brother inCanada. But on her last day—the time when she was taken so badduring the arithmetic lesson—the medicine seemed to make her worsethan ever, because she had no sooner drunk it than she begansinking and fell across a desk, and Mrs Creevy had to carry her outof the room.
After the break there was another period of three quarters of anhour, and then school ended for the morning. Dorothy felt stiffand tired after three hours in the chilly but stuffy room, and shewould have liked to go out of doors for a breath of fresh air, butMrs Creevy had told her beforehand that she must come and help getdinner ready. The girls who lived near the school mostly went homefor dinner, but there were seven who had dinner in the ‘morning-room’ at tenpence a time. It was an uncomfortable meal, and passedin almost complete silence, for the girls were frightened to talkunder Mrs Creevy’s eye. The dinner was stewed scrag end of mutton,and Mrs Creevy showed extraordinary dexterity in serving the piecesof lean to the ‘good payers’ and the pieces of fat to the ‘mediumpayers’. As for the three ‘bad payers’, they ate a shamefacedlunch out of paper bags in the school-room.
School began again at two o’clock. Already, after only onemorning’s teaching, Dorothy went back to her work with secretshrinking and dread. She was beginning to realize what her lifewould be like, day after day and week after week, in that sunlessroom, trying to drive the rudiments of knowledge into unwillingbrats. But when she had assembled the girls and called their namesover, one of them, a little peaky child with mouse-coloured hair,called Laura Firth, came up to her desk and presented her with apathetic bunch of browny-yellow chrysanthemums, ‘from all of us’.The girls had taken a liking to Dorothy, and had subscribedfourpence among themselves, to buy her a bunch of flowers.
Something stirred in Dorothy’s heart as she took the ugly flowers.She looked with more seeing eyes than before at the anaemic facesand shabby clothes of the children, and was all of a suddenhorribly ashamed to think that in the morning she had looked atthem with indifference, almost with dislike. Now, a profound pitytook possession of her. The poor children, the poor children! Howthey had been stunted and maltreated! And with it all they hadretained the childish gentleness that could make them squandertheir few pennies on flowers for their teacher.
She felt quite differently towards her job from that momentonwards. A feeling of loyalty and affection had sprung up in herheart. This school was her school; she would work for it and beproud of it, and make every effort to turn it from a place ofbondage into a place human and decent. Probably it was very littlethat she could do. She was so inexperienced and unfitted for herjob that she must educate herself before she could even begin toeducate anybody else. Still, she would do her best; she would dowhatever willingness and energy could do to rescue these childrenfrom the horrible darkness in which they had been kept.
During the next few weeks there were two things that occupiedDorothy to the exclusion of all others. One, getting her classinto some kind of order; the other, establishing a concordat withMrs Creevy.
The second of the two was by a great deal the more difficult. MrsCreevy’s house was as vile a house to live in as one could possiblyimagine. It was always more or less cold, there was not acomfortable chair in it from top to bottom, and the food wasdisgusting. Teaching is harder work than it looks, and a teacherneeds good food to keep him going. It was horribly dispiriting tohave to work on a diet of tasteless mutton stews, damp boiledpotatoes full of little black eyeholes, watery rice puddings, breadand scrape, and weak tea—and never enough even of these. MrsCreevy, who was mean enough to take a pleasure in skimping even herown food, ate much the same meals as Dorothy, but she always hadthe lion’s share of them. Every morning at breakfast the two friedeggs were sliced up and unequally partitioned, and the dish ofmarmalade remained for ever sacrosanct. Dorothy grew hungrier andhungrier as the term went on. On the two evenings a week when shemanaged to get out of doors she dipped into her dwindling store ofmoney and bought slabs of plain chocolate, which she ate in thedeepest secrecy—for Mrs Creevy, though she starved Dorothy more orless intentionally, would have been mortally offended if she hadknown that she bought food for herself.
The worst thing about Dorothy’s position was that she had noprivacy and very little time that she could call her own. Onceschool was over for the day her only refuge was the ‘morning-room’,where she was under Mrs Creevy’s eye, and Mrs Creevy’s leading ideawas that Dorothy must never be left in peace for ten minutestogether. She had taken it into her head, or pretended to do so,that Dorothy was an idle person who needed keeping up to the mark.And so it was always, ‘Well, Miss Millborough, you don’t seem tohave very much to do this evening, do you? Aren’t there someexercise books that want correcting? Or why don’t you get yourneedle and do a bit of sewing? I’m sure _I_ couldn’t bear to justsit in my chair doing nothing like you do!’ She was for everfinding household jobs for Dorothy to do, even making her scrub theschoolroom floor on Saturday mornings when the girls did not cometo school; but this was done out of pure ill nature, for she didnot trust Dorothy to do the work properly, and generally did itagain after her. One evening Dorothy was unwise enough to bringback a novel from the public library. Mrs Creevy flared up at thevery sight of it. ‘Well, really, Miss Millborough! I shouldn’thave thought you’d have had time to read!’ she said bitterly. Sheherself had never read a book right through in her life, and wasproud of it.
Moreover, even when Dorothy was not actually under her eye, MrsCreevy had ways of making her presence felt. She was for everprowling in the neighbourhood of the schoolroom, so that Dorothynever felt quite safe from her intrusion; and when she thoughtthere was too much noise she would suddenly rap on the wall withher broom-handle in a way that made the children jump and put themoff their work. At all hours of the day she was restlessly,noisily active. When she was not cooking meals she was bangingabout with broom and dustpan, or harrying the charwoman, orpouncing down upon the schoolroom to ‘have a look round’ in hopesof catching Dorothy or the children up to mischief, or ‘doing a bitof gardening’—that is, mutilating with a pair of shears theunhappy little shrubs that grew amid wastes of gravel in the backgarden. On only two evenings a week was Dorothy free of her, andthat was when Mrs Creevy sallied forth on forays which she called‘going after the girls’; that is to say, canvassing likely parents.These evenings Dorothy usually spent in the public library, forwhen Mrs Creevy was not at home she expected Dorothy to keep out ofthe house, to save fire and gaslight. On other evenings Mrs Creevywas busy writing dunning letters to the parents, or letters to theeditor of the local paper, haggling over the price of a dozenadvertisements, or poking about the girls’ desks to see that theirexercise books had been properly corrected, or ‘doing a bit ofsewing’. Whenever occupation failed her for even five minutes shegot out her workbox and ‘did a bit of sewing’—generallyrestitching some bloomers of harsh white linen of which she hadpairs beyond number. They were the most chilly looking garmentsthat one could possibly imagine; they seemed to carry upon them, asno nun’s coif or anchorite’s hair shirt could ever have done, theimpress of a frozen and awful chastity. The sight of them set youwondering about the late Mr Creevy, even to the point of wonderingwhether he had ever existed.
Looking with an outsider’s eye at Mrs Creevy’s manner of life, youwould have said that she had no pleasures whatever. She never didany of the things that ordinary people do to amuse themselves—never went to the pictures, never looked at a book, never atesweets, never cooked a special dish for dinner or dressed herselfin any kind of finery. Social life meant absolutely nothing toher. She had no friends, was probably incapable of imagining sucha thing as friendship, and hardly ever exchanged a word with afellow being except on business. Of religious belief she had notthe smallest vestige. Her attitude towards religion, though shewent to the Baptist Chapel every Sunday to impress the parents withher piety, was a mean anti-clericalism founded on the notion thatthe clergy are ‘only after your money’. She seemed a creatureutterly joyless, utterly submerged by the dullness of herexistence. But in reality it was not so. There were severalthings from which she derived acute and inexhaustible pleasure.
For instance, there was her avarice over money. It was the leadinginterest of her life. There are two kinds of avaricious person—the bold, grasping type who will ruin you if he can, but who neverlooks twice at twopence, and the petty miser who has not theenterprise actually to make money, but who will always, as thesaying goes, take a farthing from a dunghill with his teeth. MrsCreevy belonged to the second type. By ceaseless canvassing andimpudent bluff she had worked her school up to twenty-one pupils,but she would never get it much further, because she was too meanto spend money on the necessary equipment and to pay proper wagesto her assistant. The fees the girls paid, or didn’t pay, werefive guineas a term with certain extras, so that, starve and sweather assistant as she might, she could hardly hope to make more thana hundred and fifty pounds a year clear profit. But she was fairlysatisfied with that. It meant more to her to save sixpence than toearn a pound. So long as she could think of a way of dockingDorothy’s dinner of another potato, or getting her exercise books ahalfpenny a dozen cheaper, or shoving an unauthorized half guineaon to one of the ‘good payers’’ bills, she was happy after herfashion.
And again, in pure, purposeless malignity—in petty acts of spite,even when there was nothing to be gained by them—she had a hobbyof which she never wearied. She was one of those people whoexperience a kind of spiritual orgasm when they manage to dosomebody else a bad turn. Her feud with Mr Boulger next door—aone-sided affair, really, for poor Mr Boulger was not up to MrsCreevy’s fighting weight—was conducted ruthlessly, with no quartergiven or expected. So keen was Mrs Creevy’s pleasure in scoringoff Mr Boulger that she was even willing to spend money on itoccasionally. A year ago Mr Boulger had written to the landlord(each of them was for ever writing to the landlord, complainingabout the other’s behaviour), to say that Mrs Creevy’s kitchenchimney smoked into his back windows, and would she please have itheightened two feet. The very day the landlord’s letter reachedher, Mrs Creevy called in the bricklayers and had the chimneylowered two feet. It cost her thirty shillings, but it was worthit. After that there had been the long guerrilla campaign ofthrowing things over the garden wall during the night, and MrsCreevy had finally won with a dustbinful of wet ashes thrown on toMr Boulger’s bed of tulips. As it happened, Mrs Creevy won a neatand bloodless victory soon after Dorothy’s arrival. Discovering bychance that the roots of Mr Boulger’s plum tree had grown under thewall into her own garden, she promptly injected a whole tin ofweed-killer into them and killed the tree. This was remarkable asbeing the only occasion when Dorothy ever heard Mrs Creevy laugh.
But Dorothy was too busy, at first, to pay much attention to MrsCreevy and her nasty characteristics. She saw quite clearly thatMrs Creevy was an odious woman and that her own position wasvirtually that of a slave; but it did not greatly worry her. Herwork was too absorbing, too all-important. In comparison with it,her own comfort and even her future hardly seemed to matter.
It did not take her more than a couple of days to get her classinto running order. It was curious, but though she had noexperience of teaching and no preconceived theories about it, yetfrom the very first day she found herself, as though by instinct,rearranging, scheming, innovating. There was so much that wascrying out to be done. The first thing, obviously, was to get ridof the grisly routine of ‘copies’, and after Dorothy’s second dayno more ‘copies’ were done in the class, in spite of a sniff or twofrom Mrs Creevy. The handwriting lessons, also, were cut down.Dorothy would have liked to do away with handwriting lessonsaltogether so far as the older girls were concerned—it seemed toher ridiculous that girls of fifteen should waste time in practisingcopperplate—but Mrs Creevy would not hear of it. She seemed toattach an almost superstitious value to handwriting lessons. Andthe next thing, of course, was to scrap the repulsive Hundred PageHistory and the preposterous little ‘readers’. It would have beenworse than useless to ask Mrs Creevy to buy new books for thechildren, but on her first Saturday afternoon Dorothy begged leaveto go up to London, was grudgingly given it, and spent two poundsthree shillings out of her precious four pounds ten on a dozensecondhand copies of a cheap school edition of Shakespeare, a bigsecond-hand atlas, some volumes of Hans Andersen’s stories for theyounger children, a set of geometrical instruments, and two poundsof plasticine. With these, and history books out of the publiclibrary, she felt that she could make a start.
She had seen at a glance that what the children most needed, andwhat they had never had, was individual attention. So she began bydividing them up into three separate classes, and so arrangingthings that two lots could be working by themselves while she ‘wentthrough’ something with the third. It was difficult at first,especially with the younger girls, whose attention wandered as soonas they were left to themselves, so that you could never reallytake your eyes off them. And yet how wonderfully, how unexpectedly,nearly all of them improved during those first few weeks! For themost part they were not really stupid, only dazed by a dull,mechanical rigmarole. For a week, perhaps, they continuedunteachable; and then, quite suddenly, their warped little mindsseemed to spring up and expand like daisies when you move thegarden roller off them.
Quite quickly and easily Dorothy broke them in to the habit ofthinking for themselves. She got them to make up essays out oftheir own heads instead of copying out drivel about the birdschanting on the boughs and the flowerets bursting from their buds.She attacked their arithmetic at the foundations and started thelittle girls on multiplication and piloted the older ones throughlong division to fractions; she even got three of them to the pointwhere there was talk of starting on decimals. She taught them thefirst rudiments of French grammar in place of ‘Passez-moi lebeurre, s’il vous plait’ and ‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu sonchapeau’. Finding that not a girl in the class knew what any ofthe countries of the world looked like (though several of them knewthat Quito was the capital of Ecuador), she set them to making alarge contour-map of Europe in plasticine, on a piece of three-plywood, copying it in scale from the atlas. The children adoredmaking the map; they were always clamouring to be allowed to go onwith it. And she started the whole class, except the six youngestgirls and Mavis Williams, the pothook specialist, on readingMacbeth. Not a child among them had ever voluntarily read anythingin her life before, except perhaps the Girl’s Own Paper; but theytook readily to Shakespeare, as all children do when he is not madehorrible with parsing and analysing.
History was the hardest thing to teach them. Dorothy had notrealized till now how hard it is for children who come from poorhomes to have even a conception of what history means. Everyupper-class person, however ill-informed, grows up with some notionof history; he can visualize a Roman centurion, a medieval knight,an eighteenth-century nobleman; the terms Antiquity, Middle Ages,Renaissance, Industrial Revolution evoke some meaning, even if aconfused one, in his mind. But these children came from booklesshomes and from parents who would have laughed at the notion thatthe past has any meaning for the present. They had never heard ofRobin Hood, never played at being Cavaliers and Roundheads, neverwondered who built the English churches or what Fid. Def. on apenny stands for. There were just two historical characters ofwhom all of them, almost without exception, had heard, and thosewere Columbus and Napoleon. Heaven knows why—perhaps Columbus andNapoleon get into the newspapers a little oftener than mosthistorical characters. They seemed to have swelled up in thechildren’s minds, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, till they blockedout the whole landscape of the past. Asked when motor-cars wereinvented, one child, aged ten, vaguely hazarded, ‘About a thousandyears ago, by Columbus.’
Some of the older girls, Dorothy discovered, had been through theHundred Page History as many as four times, from Boadicea to thefirst Jubilee, and forgotten practically every word of it. Notthat that mattered greatly, for most of it was lies. She startedthe whole class over again at Julius Caesar’s invasion, and atfirst she tried taking history books out of the public library andreading them aloud to the children; but that method failed, becausethey could understand nothing that was not explained to them inwords of one or two syllables. So she did what she could in herown words and with her own inadequate knowledge, making a sort ofparaphrase of what she read and delivering it to the children;striving all the while to drive into their dull little minds somepicture of the past, and what was always more difficult, someinterest in it. But one day a brilliant idea struck her. Shebought a roll of cheap plain wallpaper at an upholsterer’s shop,and set the children to making an historical chart. They markedthe roll of paper into centuries and years, and stuck scraps thatthey cut out of illustrated papers—pictures of knights in armourand Spanish galleons and printing-presses and railway trains—atthe appropriate places. Pinned round the walls of the room, thechart presented, as the scraps grew in number, a sort of panoramaof English history. The children were even fonder of the chartthan of the contour map. They always, Dorothy found, showed moreintelligence when it was a question of making something instead ofmerely learning. There was even talk of making a contour map ofthe world, four feet by four, in papiermache, if Dorothy could ‘getround’ Mrs Creevy to allow the preparation of the papiermache—amessy process needing buckets of water.
Mrs Creevy watched Dorothy’s innovations with a jealous eye, butshe did not interfere actively at first. She was not going to showit, of course, but she was secretly amazed and delighted to findthat she had got hold of an assistant who was actually willing towork. When she saw Dorothy spending her own money on textbooks forthe children, it gave her the same delicious sensation that shewould have had in bringing off a successful swindle. She did,however, sniff and grumble at everything that Dorothy did, and shewasted a great deal of time by insisting on what she called‘thorough correction’ of the girls’ exercise books. But her systemof correction, like everything else in the school curriculum, wasarranged with one eye on the parents. Periodically the childrentook their books home for their parents’ inspection, and Mrs Creevywould never allow anything disparaging to be written in them.Nothing was to be marked ‘bad’ or crossed out or too heavilyunderlined; instead, in the evenings, Dorothy decorated the books,under Mrs Creevy’s dictation, with more or less applauding commentsin red ink. ‘A very creditable performance’, and ‘Excellent! Youare making great strides. Keep it up!’ were Mrs Creevy’s favourites.All the children in the school, apparently, were for ever ‘makinggreat strides’; in what direction they were striding was not stated.The parents, however, seemed willing to swallow an almost unlimitedamount of this kind of thing.
There were times, of course, when Dorothy had trouble with thegirls themselves. The fact that they were all of different agesmade them difficult to deal with, and though they were fond of herand were very ‘good’ with her at first, they would not have beenchildren at all if they had been invariably ‘good’. Sometimes theywere lazy and sometimes they succumbed to that most damnable viceof schoolgirls—giggling. For the first few days Dorothy wasgreatly exercised over little Mavis Williams, who was stupider thanone would have believed it possible for any child of eleven to be.Dorothy could do nothing with her at all. At the first attempt toget her to do anything beyond pothooks a look of almost subhumanblankness would come into her wide-set eyes. Sometimes, however,she had talkative fits in which she would ask the most amazing andunanswerable questions. For instance, she would open her ‘reader’,find one of the illustrations—the sagacious Elephant, perhaps—andask Dorothy:
‘Please, Miss, wass ‘at thing there?’ (She mispronounced her wordsin a curious manner.)
‘That’s an elephant, Mavis.’
‘Wass a elephant?’
‘An elephant’s a kind of wild animal.’
‘Wass a animal?’
‘Well—a dog’s an animal.’
‘Wass a dog?’
And so on, more or less indefinitely. About half-way through thefourth morning Mavis held up her hand and said with a slypoliteness that ought to have put Dorothy on her guard:
‘Please, Miss, may I be ‘scused?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
One of the bigger girls put up her hand, blushed, and put her handdown again as though too bashful to speak. On being prompted byDorothy, she said shamefacedly:
‘Please, Miss, Miss Strong didn’t used to let Mavis go to thelavatory alone. She locks herself in and won’t come out, and thenMrs Creevy gets angry, Miss.’
Dorothy dispatched a messenger, but it was too late. Mavisremained in latebra pudenda till twelve o’clock. Afterwards, MrsCreevy explained privately to Dorothy that Mavis was a congenitalidiot—or, as she put it, ‘not right in the head’. It was totallyimpossible to teach her anything. Of course, Mrs Creevy didn’t‘let on’ to Mavis’s parents, who believed that their child was only‘backward’ and paid their fees regularly. Mavis was quite easy todeal with. You just had to give her a book and a pencil and tellher to draw pictures and be quiet. But Mavis, a child of habit,drew nothing but pothooks—remaining quiet and apparently happy forhours together, with her tongue hanging out, amid festoons ofpothooks.
But in spite of these minor difficulties, how well everything wentduring those first few weeks! How ominously well, indeed! Aboutthe tenth of November, after much grumbling about the price ofcoal, Mrs Creevy started to allow a fire in the schoolroom. Thechildren’s wits brightened noticeably when the room was decentlywarm. And there were happy hours, sometimes, when the firecrackled in the grate, and Mrs Creevy was out of the house, and thechildren were working quietly and absorbedly at one of the lessonsthat were their favourites. Best of all was when the two topclasses were reading Macbeth, the girls squeaking breathlesslythrough the scenes, and Dorothy pulling them up to make thempronounce the words properly and to tell them who Bellona’sbridegroom was and how witches rode on broomsticks; and the girlswanting to know, almost as excitedly as though it had been adetective story, how Birnam Wood could possible come to Dunsinaneand Macbeth be killed by a man who was not of woman born. Thoseare the times that make teaching worth while—the times when thechildren’s enthusiasm leaps up, like an answering flame, to meetyour own, and sudden unlooked-for gleams of intelligence rewardyour earlier drudgery. No job is more fascinating than teaching ifyou have a free hand at it. Nor did Dorothy know, as yet, thatthat ‘if’ is one of the biggest ‘ifs’ in the world.
Her job suited her, and she was happy in it. She knew the mindsof the children intimately by this time, knew their individualpeculiarities and the special stimulants that were needed beforeyou could get them to think. She was more fond of them, moreinterested in their development, more anxious to do her best forthem, than she would have conceived possible a short while ago.The complex, never-ended labour of teaching filled her life just asthe round of parish jobs had filled it at home. She thought anddreamed of teaching; she took books out of the public library andstudied theories of education. She felt that quite willingly shewould go on teaching all her life, even at ten shillings a week andher keep, if it could always be like this. It was her vocation,she thought.
Almost any job that fully occupied her would have been a reliefafter the horrible futility of the time of her destitution. Butthis was more than a mere job; it was—so it seemed to her—amission, a life-purpose. Trying to awaken the dulled minds ofthese children, trying to undo the swindle that had been workedupon them in the name of education—that, surely, was something towhich she could give herself heart and soul? So for the timebeing, in the interest of her work, she disregarded the beastlinessof living in Mrs Creevy’s house, and quite forgot her strange,anomalous position and the uncertainty of her future.
But of course, it could not last.
Not many weeks had gone by before the parents began interferingwith Dorothy’s programme of work. That—trouble with the parents—is part of the regular routine of life in a private school. Allparents are tiresome from a teacher’s point of view, and theparents of children at fourth-rate private schools are utterlyimpossible. On the one hand, they have only the dimmest idea ofwhat is meant by education; on the other hand, they look on‘schooling’ exactly as they look on a butcher’s bill or a grocer’sbill, and are perpetually suspicious that they are being cheated.They bombard the teacher with ill-written notes making impossibledemands, which they send by hand and which the child reads on theway to school. At the end of the first fortnight Mabel Briggs,one of the most promising girls in the class, brought Dorothy thefollowing note:
Dear Miss,—Would you please give Mabel a bit more arithmetic? Ifeel that what your giving her is not practacle enough. All thesemaps and that. She wants practacle work, not all this fancy stuff.So more arithmetic, please. And remain,
P. S. Mabel says your talking of starting her on something calleddecimals. I don’t want her taught decimals, I want her taught arithmetic.
So Dorothy stopped Mabel’s geography and gave her extra arithmeticinstead, whereat Mabel wept. More letters followed. One lady wasdisturbed to hear that her child was being given Shakespeare toread. ‘She had heard’, she wrote, ‘that this Mr Shakespeare was awriter of stage-plays, and was Miss Millborough quite certain thathe wasn’t a very immoral writer? For her own part she had never somuch as been to the pictures in her life, let alone to a stage-play, and she felt that even in reading stage-plays there was avery grave danger,’ etc., etc. She gave way, however, on beinginformed that Mr Shakespeare was dead. This seemed to reassureher. Another parent wanted more attention to his child’shandwriting, and another thought French was a waste of time; andso it went on, until Dorothy’s carefully arranged time-table wasalmost in ruins. Mrs Creevy gave her clearly to understand thatwhatever the parents demanded she must do, or pretend to do. Inmany cases it was next door to impossible, for it disorganizedeverything to have one child studying, for instance, arithmeticwhile the rest of the class were doing history or geography. Butin private schools the parents’ word is law. Such schools exist,like shops, by flattering their customers, and if a parent wantedhis child taught nothing but cat’s-cradle and the cuneiformalphabet, the teacher would have to agree rather than lose a pupil.
The fact was that the parents were growing perturbed by the talestheir children brought home about Dorothy’s methods. They saw nosense whatever in these new-fangled ideas of making plasticine mapsand reading poetry, and the old mechanical routine which had sohorrified Dorothy struck them as eminently sensible. They becamemore and more restive, and their letters were peppered with theword ‘practical’, meaning in effect more handwriting lessons andmore arithmetic. And even their notion of arithmetic was limitedto addition, subtraction, multiplication and ‘practice’, with longdivision thrown in as a spectacular tour de force of no real value.Very few of them could have worked out a sum in decimals themselves,and they were not particularly anxious for their children to be ableto do so either.
However, if this had been all, there would probably never have beenany serious trouble. The parents would have nagged at Dorothy, asall parents do; but Dorothy would finally have learned—as, again,all teachers finally learn—that if one showed a certain amount oftact one could safely ignore them. But there was one fact that wasabsolutely certain to lead to trouble, and that was the fact thatthe parents of all except three children were Nonconformists,whereas Dorothy was an Anglican. It was true that Dorothy had losther faith—indeed, for two months past, in the press of varyingadventures, had hardly thought either of her faith or of its loss.But that made very little difference; Roman or Anglican, Dissenter,Jew, Turk or infidel, you retain the habits of thought that youhave been brought up with. Dorothy, born and bred in the precinctsof the Church, had no understanding of the Nonconformist mind.With the best will in the world, she could not help doing thingsthat would cause offence to some of the parents.
Almost at the beginning there was a skirmish over the Scripturelessons—twice a week the children used to read a couple of chapters from the Bible. Old Testament and New Testamentalternately—several of the parents writing to say, would MissMillborough please not answer the children when they askedquestions about the Virgin Mary; texts about the Virgin Mary wereto be passed over in silence, or, if possible, missed outaltogether. But it was Shakespeare, that immoral writer, whobrought things to a head. The girls had worked their way throughMacbeth, pining to know how the witches’ prophecy was to befulfilled. They reached the closing scenes. Birnam Wood had cometo Dunsinane—that part was settled, anyway; now what about the manwho was not of woman born? They came to the fatal passage:
Thou losest labour;
As easy may’st thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests,
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.
Despair thy charm,
And let the Angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
The girls looked puzzled. There was a momentary silence, and thena chorus of voices round the room:
‘Please, Miss, what does that mean?’
Dorothy explained. She explained haltingly and incompletely, witha sudden horrid misgiving—a premonition that this was going tolead to trouble—but still, she did explain. And after that, ofcourse, the fun began.
About half the children in the class went home and asked theirparents the meaning of the word ‘womb’. There was a suddencommotion, a flying to and fro of messages, an electric thrill ofhorror through fifteen decent Nonconformist homes. That night theparents must have held some kind of conclave, for the followingevening, about the time when school ended, a deputation called uponMrs Creevy. Dorothy heard them arriving by ones and twos, andguessed what was going to happen. As soon as she had dismissed thechildren, she heard Mrs Creevy call sharply down the stairs:
‘Come up here a minute, Miss Millborough!’
Dorothy went up, trying to control the trembling of her knees. Inthe gaunt drawing-room Mrs Creevy was standing grimly beside thepiano, and six parents were sitting round on horsehair chairs likea circle of inquisitors. There was the Mr Geo. Briggs who hadwritten the letter about Mabel’s arithmetic—he was an alert-looking greengrocer with a dried-up, shrewish wife—and there was alarge, buffalo-like man with drooping moustaches and a colourless,peculiarly flat wife who looked as though she had been flattenedout by the pressure of some heavy object—her husband, perhaps.The names of these two Dorothy did not catch. There was also MrsWilliams, the mother of the congenital idiot, a small, dark, veryobtuse woman who always agreed with the last speaker, and there wasa Mr Poynder, a commercial traveller. He was a youngish to middle-aged man with a grey face, mobile lips, and a bald scalp acrosswhich some strips of rather nasty-looking damp hair were carefullyplastered. In honour of the parents’ visit, a fire composed ofthree large coals was sulking in the grate.
‘Sit down there, Miss Millborough,’ said Mrs Creevy, pointing to ahard chair which stood like a stool of repentance in the middle ofthe ring of parents.
Dorothy sat down.
‘And now,’ said Mrs Creevy, ‘just you listen to what Mr Poynder’sgot to say to you.’
Mr Poynder had a great deal to say. The other parents hadevidently chosen him as their spokesman, and he talked till flecksof yellowish foam appeared at the corners of his mouth. And whatwas remarkable, he managed to do it all—so nice was his regard forthe decencies—without ever once repeating the word that had causedall the trouble.
‘I feel that I’m voicing the opinion of all of us,’ he said withhis facile bagman’s eloquence, ‘in saying that if Miss Millboroughknew that this play—Macduff, or whatever its name is—containedsuch words as—well, such words as we’re speaking about, she neverought to have given it to the children to read at all. To my mindit’s a disgrace that schoolbooks can be printed with such words inthem. I’m sure if any of us had ever known that Shakespeare wasthat kind of stuff, we’d have put our foot down at the start. Itsurprises me, I must say. Only the other morning I was reading apiece in my News Chronicle about Shakespeare being the father ofEnglish Literature; well, if that’s Literature, let’s have a bit less Literature, say I! I think everyone’ll agree with me there.And on the other hand, if Miss Millborough didn’t know that theword—well, the word I’m referring to—was coming, she just oughtto have gone straight on and taken no notice when it did come.There wasn’t the slightest need to go explaining it to them. Justtell them to keep quiet and not get asking questions—that’s theproper way with children.’
‘But the children wouldn’t have understood the play if I hadn’texplained!’ protested Dorothy for the third or fourth time.
‘Of course they wouldn’t! You don’t seem to get my point, MissMillborough! We don’t want them to understand. Do you think wewant them to go picking up dirty ideas out of books? Quite enoughof that already with all these dirty films and these twopennygirls’ papers that they get hold of—all these filthy, dirty love-stories with pictures of—well, I won’t go into it. We don’t sendour children to school to have ideas put into their heads. I’mspeaking for all the parents in saying this. We’re all of decentGod-fearing folk—some of us are Baptists and some of us areMethodists, and there’s even one or two Church of England among us;but we can sink our differences when it comes to a case like this—and we try to bring our children up decent and save them fromknowing anything about the Facts of Life. If I had my way, nochild—at any rate, no girl—would know anything about the Facts ofLife till she was twenty-one.’
There was a general nod from the parents, and the buffalo-like manadded, ‘Yer, yer! I’m with you there, Mr Poynder. Yer, yer!’ deepdown in his inside.
After dealing with the subject of Shakespeare, Mr Poynder addedsome remarks about Dorothy’s new-fangled methods of teaching, whichgave Mr Geo. Briggs the opportunity to rap out from time to time,‘That’s it! Practical work—that’s what we want—practical work!Not all this messy stuff like po’try and making maps and stickingscraps of paper and such like. Give ‘em a good bit of figuring andhandwriting and bother the rest. Practical work! You’ve said it!’
This went on for about twenty minutes. At first Dorothy attemptedto argue, but she saw Mrs Creevy angrily shaking her head at herover the buffalo-like man’s shoulder, which she rightly took as asignal to be quiet. By the time the parents had finished they hadreduced Dorothy very nearly to tears, and after this they madeready to go. But Mrs Creevy stopped them.
‘Just a minute, ladies and gentlemen,’ she said. ‘Now that you’veall had your say—and I’m sure I’m most glad to give you theopportunity—I’d just like to say a little something on my ownaccount. Just to make things clear, in case any of you might think_I_ was to blame for this nasty business that’s happened. And You stay here too, Miss Millborough!’ she added.
She turned on Dorothy, and, in front of the parents, gave her avenomous ‘talking to’ which lasted upwards of ten minutes. Theburden of it all was that Dorothy had brought these dirty booksinto the house behind her back; that it was monstrous treachery andingratitude; and that if anything like it happened again, outDorothy would go with a week’s wages in her pocket. She rubbed itin and in and in. Phrases like ‘girl that I’ve taken into myhouse’, ‘eating my bread’, and even ‘living on my charity’,recurred over and over again. The parents sat round watching, andin their crass faces—faces not harsh or evil, only blunted byignorance and mean virtues—you could see a solemn approval, asolemn pleasure in the spectacle of sin rebuked. Dorothyunderstood this; she understood that it was necessary that MrsCreevy should give her her ‘talking to’ in front of the parents, sothat they might feel that they were getting their money’s worth andbe satisfied. But still, as the stream of mean, cruel reprimandwent on and on, such anger rose in her heart that she could withpleasure have stood up and struck Mrs Creevy across the face.Again and again she thought, ‘I won’t stand it, I won’t stand itany longer! I’ll tell her what I think of her and then walkstraight out of the house!’ But she did nothing of the kind. Shesaw with dreadful clarity the helplessness of her position.Whatever happened, whatever insults it meant swallowing, she hadgot to keep her job. So she sat still, with pink humiliated face,amid the circle of parents, and presently her anger turned tomisery, and she realized that she was going to begin crying if shedid not struggle to prevent it. But she realized, too, that if shebegan crying it would be the last straw and the parents woulddemand her dismissal. To stop herself, she dug her nails so hardinto the palms that afterwards she found that she had drawn a fewdrops of blood.
Presently the ‘talking to’ wore itself out in assurances from MrsCreevy that this should never happen again and that the offendingShakespeares should be burnt immediately. The parents were nowsatisfied. Dorothy had had her lesson and would doubtless profitby it; they did not bear her any malice and were not conscious ofhaving humiliated her. They said good-bye to Mrs Creevy, saidgood-bye rather more coldly to Dorothy, and departed. Dorothy alsorose to go, but Mrs Creevy signed to her to stay where she was.
‘Just you wait a minute,’ she said ominously as the parents leftthe room. ‘I haven’t finished yet, not by a long way I haven’t.’
Dorothy sat down again. She felt very weak at the knees, andnearer to tears than ever. Mrs Creevy, having shown the parentsout by the front door, came back with a bowl of water and threw itover the fire—for where was the sense of burning good coals afterthe parents had gone? Dorothy supposed that the ‘talking to’ wasgoing to begin afresh. However, Mrs Creevy’s wrath seemed to havecooled—at any rate, she had laid aside the air of outraged virtuethat it had been necessary to put on in front of the parents.
‘I just want to have a bit of a talk with you, Miss Millborough,’she said. ‘It’s about time we got it settled once and for all howthis school’s going to be run and how it’s not going to be run.’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, I’ll be straight with you. When you came here I could seewith half an eye that you didn’t know the first thing about school-teaching; but I wouldn’t have minded that if you’d just had a bitof common sense like any other girl would have had. Only it seemsyou hadn’t. I let you have your own way for a week or two, and thefirst thing you do is to go and get all the parents’ backs up.Well, I’m not going to have that over again. From now on I’m goingto have things done my way, not your way. Do you understand that?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy again.
‘You’re not to think as I can’t do without you, mind,’ proceededMrs Creevy. ‘I can pick up teachers at two a penny any day of theweek, M.A.s and B.A.s and all. Only the M.A.s and B.A.s mostlytake to drink, or else they—well, no matter what—and I will sayfor you you don’t seem to be given to the drink or anything of thatkind. I dare say you and me can get on all right if you’ll dropthese new-fangled ideas of yours and understand what’s meant bypractical school-teaching. So just you listen to me.’
Dorothy listened. With admirable clarity, and with a cynicism thatwas all the more disgusting because it was utterly unconscious, MrsCreevy explained the technique of the dirty swindle that she calledpractical school-teaching.
‘What you’ve got to get hold of once and for all,’ she began, ‘isthat there’s only one thing that matters in a school, and that’sthe fees. As for all this stuff about “developing the children’sminds”, as you call it, it’s neither here nor there. It’s the feesI’m after, not Developing the children’s minds. After all, it’s nomore than common sense. It’s not to be supposed as anyone’d go toall the trouble of keeping school and having the house turnedupside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit ofmoney to be made out of it. The fees come first, and everythingelse comes afterwards. Didn’t I tell you that the very first dayyou came here?’
‘Yes,’ admitted Dorothy humbly.
‘Well, then, it’s the parents that pay the fees, and it’s theparents you’ve got to think about. Do what the parents want—that’s our rule here. I dare say all this messing about withplasticine and paper-scraps that you go in for doesn’t do thechildren any particular harm; but the parents don’t want it, andthere’s an end of it. Well, there’s just two subjects that they do want their children taught, and that’s handwriting and arithmetic.Especially handwriting. That’s something they can see the senseof. And so handwriting’s the thing you’ve got to keep on and onat. Plenty of nice neat copies that the girls can take home, andthat the parents’ll show off to the neighbours and give us a bit ofa free advert. I want you to give the children two hours a dayjust at handwriting and nothing else.’
‘Two hours a day just at handwriting,’ repeated Dorothy obediently.
‘Yes. And plenty of arithmetic as well. The parents are very keenon arithmetic: especially money-sums. Keep your eye on the parentsall the time. If you meet one of them in the street, get hold ofthem and start talking to them about their own girl. Make out thatshe’s the best girl in the class and that if she stays just threeterms longer she’ll be working wonders. You see what I mean?Don’t go and tell them there’s no room for improvement; because ifyou tell them that, they generally take their girls away. Justthree terms longer—that’s the thing to tell them. And when youmake out the end of term reports, just you bring them to me and letme have a good look at them. I like to do the marking myself.’
Mrs Creevy’s eye met Dorothy’s. She had perhaps been about to saythat she always arranged the marks so that every girl came outsomewhere near the top of the class; but she refrained. Dorothycould not answer for a moment. Outwardly she was subdued, and verypale, but in her heart were anger and deadly repulsion againstwhich she had to struggle before she could speak. She had nothought, however, of contradicting Mrs Creevy. The ‘talking to’had quite broken her spirit. She mastered her voice, and said:
‘I’m to teach nothing but handwriting and arithmetic—is that it?’
‘Well, I didn’t say that exactly. There’s plenty of other subjectsthat look well on the prospectus. French, for instance—Frenchlooks very well on the prospectus. But it’s not a subject you wantto waste much time over. Don’t go filling them up with a lot ofgrammar and syntax and verbs and all that. That kind of stuffdoesn’t get them anywhere so far as _I_ can see. Give them a bitof “Parley vous Francey”, and “Passey moi le beurre”, and so forth;that’s a lot more use than grammar. And then there’s Latin—Ialways put Latin on the prospectus. But I don’t suppose you’revery great on Latin, are you?’
‘No,’ admitted Dorothy.
‘Well, it doesn’t matter. You won’t have to teach it. None of our parents’d want their children to waste time over Latin. But theylike to see it on the prospectus. It looks classy. Of coursethere’s a whole lot of subjects that we can’t actually teach, butwe have to advertise them all the same. Book-keeping and typingand shorthand, for instance; besides music and dancing. It alllooks well on the prospectus.’
‘Arithmetic, handwriting, French—is there anything else?’ Dorothysaid.
‘Oh, well, history and geography and English Literature, of course.But just drop that map-making business at once—it’s nothing butwaste of time. The best geography to teach is lists of capitals.Get them so that they can rattle off the capitals of all theEnglish counties as if it was the multiplication table. Thenthey’ve got something to show for what they’ve learnt, anyway. Andas for history, keep on with the Hundred Page History of Britain.I won’t have them taught out of those big history books you keepbringing home from the library. I opened one of those books theother day, and the first thing I saw was a piece where it said theEnglish had been beaten in some battle or other. There’s a nicething to go teaching children! The parents won’t stand for that kind of thing, I can tell you!’
‘And Literature?’ said Dorothy.
‘Well, of course they’ve got to do a bit of reading, and I can’tthink why you wanted to turn up your nose at those nice littlereaders of ours. Keep on with the readers. They’re a bit old, butthey’re quite good enough for a pack of children, I should havethought. And I suppose they might as well learn a few pieces ofpoetry by heart. Some of the parents like to hear their childrensay a piece of poetry. “The Boy stood on the Burning Deck”—that’sa very good piece—and then there’s “The Wreck of the Steamer”—now, what was that ship called? “The Wreck of the SteamerHesperus”. A little poetry doesn’t hurt now and again. But don’tlet’s have any more Shakespeare, please!’
Dorothy got no tea that day. It was now long past tea-time, butwhen Mrs Creevy had finished her harangue she sent Dorothy awaywithout saying anything about tea. Perhaps this was a little extrapunishment for l’affaire Macbeth.
Dorothy had not asked permission to go out, but she did not feelthat she could stay in the house any longer. She got her hat andcoat and set out down the ill-lit road, for the public library. Itwas late into November. Though the day had been damp the nightwind blew sharply, like a threat, through the almost naked trees,making the gas-lamps flicker in spite of their glass chimneys, andstirring the sodden plane leaves that littered the pavement.Dorothy shivered slightly. The raw wind sent through her a bone-deep memory of the cold of Trafalgar Square. And though she didnot actually think that if she lost her job it would mean goingback to the sub-world from which she had come—indeed, it was notso desperate as that; at the worst her cousin or somebody elsewould help her—still, Mrs Creevy’s ‘talking to’ had made TrafalgarSquare seem suddenly very much nearer. It had driven into her afar deeper understanding than she had had before of the greatmodern commandment—the eleventh commandment which has wiped outall the others: ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job.’
But as to what Mrs Creevy had said about ‘practical school-teaching’, it had been no more than a realistic facing of thefacts. She had merely said aloud what most people in her positionthink but never say. Her oft-repeated phrase, ‘It’s the fees I’mafter’, was a motto that might be—indeed, ought to be—writtenover the doors of every private school in England.
There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England.Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was aspecimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen andthe score in every London suburb and every provincial town. Atany given moment there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of tenthousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject toGovernment inspection. And though some of them are better thanothers, and a certain number, probably, are better than the councilschools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evilin all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purposeexcept to make money. Often, except that there is nothing illegalabout them, they are started in exactly the same spirit as onewould start a brothel or a bucket shop. Some snuffy little man ofbusiness (it is quite usual for these schools to be owned by peoplewho don’t teach themselves) says one morning to his wife:
‘Emma, I got a notion! What you say to us two keeping school, eh?There’s plenty of cash in a school, you know, and there ain’t thesame work in it as what there is in a shop or a pub. Besides, youdon’t risk nothing; no over’ead to worry about, ‘cept jest yourrent and few desks and a blackboard. But we’ll do it in style.Get in one of these Oxford and Cambridge chaps as is out of a joband’ll come cheap, and dress ‘im up in a gown and—what do theycall them little square ‘ats with tassels on top? That ‘ud fetchthe parents, eh? You jest keep your eyes open and see if you can’tpick on a good district where there’s not too many on the same gamealready.’
He chooses a situation in one of those middle-class districts wherethe people are too poor to afford the fees of a decent school andtoo proud to send their children to the council schools, and ‘setsup’. By degrees he works up a connexion in very much the samemanner as a milkman or a greengrocer, and if he is astute andtactful and has not too many competitors, he makes his few hundredsa year out of it.
Of course, these schools are not all alike. Not every principal isa grasping low-minded shrew like Mrs Creevy, and there are plentyof schools where the atmosphere is kindly and decent and theteaching is as good as one could reasonably expect for fees of fivepounds a term. On the other hand, some of them are cryingscandals. Later on, when Dorothy got to know one of the teachersat another private school in Southbridge, she heard tales ofschools that were worse by far than Ringwood House. She heard of acheap boarding-school where travelling actors dumped their childrenas one dumps luggage in a railway cloakroom, and where the childrensimply vegetated, doing absolutely nothing, reaching the age ofsixteen without learning to read; and another school where the dayspassed in a perpetual riot, with a broken-down old hack of a masterchasing the boys up and down and slashing at them with a cane, andthen suddenly collapsing and weeping with his head on a desk, whilethe boys laughed at him. So long as schools are run primarily formoney, things like this will happen. The expensive private schoolsto which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, sobad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and thePublic School examination system keeps them up to the mark; butthey have the same essential taint.
It was only later, and by degrees, that Dorothy discovered thesefacts about private schools. At first, she used to suffer from anabsurd fear that one day the school inspectors would descend uponRingwood House, find out what a sham and a swindle it all was, andraise the dust accordingly. Later on, however, she learned thatthis could never happen. Ringwood House was not ‘recognized’, andtherefore was not liable to be inspected. One day a Governmentinspector did, indeed, visit the school, but beyond measuring thedimensions of the schoolroom to see whether each girl had her rightnumber of cubic feet of air, he did nothing; he had no power to domore. Only the tiny minority of ‘recognized’ schools—less thanone in ten—are officially tested to decide whether they keep up areasonable educational standard. As for the others, they are freeto teach or not teach exactly as they choose. No one controls orinspects them except the children’s parents—the blind leading theblind.
Next day Dorothy began altering her programme in accordance withMrs Creevy’s orders. The first lesson of the day was handwriting,and the second was geography.
‘That’ll do, girls,’ said Dorothy as the funereal clock struck ten.‘We’ll start our geography lesson now.’
The girls flung their desks open and put their hated copybooks awaywith audible sighs of relief. There were murmurs of ‘Oo, jography!Good!’ It was one of their favourite lessons. The two girls whowere ‘monitors’ for the week, and whose job it was to clean theblackboard, collect exercise books and so forth (children willfight for the privilege of doing jobs of that kind), leapt fromtheir places to fetch the half-finished contour map that stoodagainst the wall. But Dorothy stopped them.
‘Wait a moment. Sit down, you two. We aren’t going to go on withthe map this morning.’
There was a cry of dismay. ‘Oh, Miss! Why can’t we, Miss? Please let’s go on with it!’
‘No. I’m afraid we’ve been wasting a little too much time over themap lately. We’re going to start learning some of the capitals ofthe English counties. I want every girl in the class to know thewhole lot of them by the end of the term.’
The children’s faces fell. Dorothy saw it, and added with anattempt at brightness—that hollow, undeceiving brightness of ateacher trying to palm off a boring subject as an interesting one:
‘Just think how pleased your parents will be when they can ask youthe capital of any county in England and you can tell it them!’
The children were not in the least taken in. They writhed at thenauseous prospect.
‘Oh, capitals! Learning capitals! That’s just what we used to dowith Miss Strong. Please, Miss, why can’t we go on with the map?’
‘Now don’t argue. Get your notebooks out and take them down as Igive them to you. And afterwards we’ll say them all together.’
Reluctantly, the children fished out their notebooks, stillgroaning. ‘Please, Miss, can we go on with the map next time?’
‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’
That afternoon the map was removed from the schoolroom, and MrsCreevy scraped the plasticine off the board and threw it away. Itwas the same with all the other subjects, one after another. Allthe changes that Dorothy had made were undone. They went back tothe routine of interminable ‘copies’ and interminable ‘practice’sums, to the learning parrot-fashion of ‘Passez-moi le beurre’ and‘Le fils du jardinier a perdu son chapeau’, to the Hundred PageHistory and the insufferable little ‘reader’. (Mrs Creevy hadimpounded the Shakespeares, ostensibly to burn them. Theprobability was that she had sold them.) Two hours a day were setapart for handwriting lessons. The two depressing pieces of blackpaper, which Dorothy had taken down from the wall, were replaced,and their proverbs written upon them afresh in neat copperplate.As for the historical chart, Mrs Creevy took it away and burnt it.
When the children saw the hated lessons, from which they hadthought to have escaped for ever, coming back upon them one by one,they were first astonished, then miserable, then sulky. But it wasfar worse for Dorothy than for the children. After only a coupleof days the rigmarole through which she was obliged to drive themso nauseated her that she began to doubt whether she could go onwith it any longer. Again and again she toyed with the idea ofdisobeying Mrs Creevy. Why not, she would think, as the childrenwhined and groaned and sweated under their miserable bondage—whynot stop it and go back to proper lessons, even if it was only foran hour or two a day? Why not drop the whole pretence of lessonsand simply let the children play? It would be so much better forthem than this. Let them draw pictures or make something out ofplasticine or begin making up a fairy tale—anything real, anythingthat would interest them, instead of this dreadful nonsense. Butshe dared not. At any moment Mrs Creevy was liable to come in, andif she found the children ‘messing about’ instead of getting onwith their routine work, there would be fearful trouble. SoDorothy hardened her heart, and obeyed Mrs Creevy’s instructions tothe letter, and things were very much as they had been before MissStrong was ‘taken bad’.
The lessons reached such a pitch of boredom that the brightest spotin the week was Mr Booth’s so-called chemistry lecture on Thursdayafternoons. Mr Booth was a seedy, tremulous man of about fifty,with long, wet, cowdung-coloured moustaches. He had been a PublicSchool master once upon a time, but nowadays he made just enoughfor a life of chronic sub-drunkenness by delivering lectures at twoand sixpence a time. The lectures were unrelieved drivel. Even inhis palmiest days Mr Booth had not been a particularly brilliantlecturer, and now, when he had had his first go of delirium tremensand lived in a daily dread of his second, what chemical knowledgehe had ever had was fast deserting him. He would stand ditheringin front of the class, saying the same thing over and over againand trying vainly to remember what he was talking about. ‘Remember,girls,’ he would say in his husky, would-be fatherly voice, ‘thenumber of the elements is ninety-three—ninety-three elements,girls—you all of you know what an element is, don’t you?—there arejust ninety-three of them—remember that number, girls—ninety-three,’ until Dorothy (she had to stay in the schoolroom during thechemistry lectures, because Mrs Creevy considered that it didn’t do to leave the girls alone with a man) was miserable with vicariousshame. All the lectures started with the ninety-three elements, andnever got very much further. There was also talk of ‘a veryinteresting little experiment that I’m going to perform for you nextweek, girls—very interesting you’ll find it—we’ll have it nextweek without fail—a very interesting little experiment’, which,needless to say, was never performed. Mr Booth possessed no chemicalapparatus, and his hands were far too shaky to have used it even ifhe had had any. The girls sat through his lectures in a suetystupor of boredom, but even he was a welcome change from handwritinglessons.
The children were never quite the same with Dorothy after theparents’ visit. They did not change all in a day, of course. Theyhad grown to be fond of ‘old Millie’, and they expected that aftera day or two of tormenting them with handwriting and ‘commercialarithmetic’ she would go back to something interesting. But thehandwriting and arithmetic went on, and the popularity Dorothy hadenjoyed, as a teacher whose lessons weren’t boring and who didn’tslap you, pinch you, or twist your ears, gradually vanished.Moreover, the story of the row there had been over Macbeth was notlong in leaking out. The children grasped that old Millie had donesomething wrong—they didn’t exactly know what—and had been givena ‘talking to’. It lowered her in their eyes. There is no dealingwith children, even with children who are fond of you, unless youcan keep your prestige as an adult; let that prestige be oncedamaged, and even the best-hearted children will despise you.
So they began to be naughty in the normal, traditional way.Before, Dorothy had only had to deal with occasional laziness,outbursts of noise and silly giggling fits; now there were spiteand deceitfulness as well. The children revolted ceaselesslyagainst the horrible routine. They forgot the short weeks when oldMillie had seemed quite a good sort and school itself had seemedrather fun. Now, school was simply what it had always been, andwhat indeed you expected it to be—a place where you slacked andyawned and whiled the time away by pinching your neighbour andtrying to make the teacher lose her temper, and from which youburst with a yell of relief the instant the last lesson was over.Sometimes they sulked and had fits of crying, sometimes they arguedin the maddening persistent way that children have, ‘Why should wedo this? Why does anyone have to learn to read and write?’ overand over again, until Dorothy had to stand over them and silencethem with threats of blows. She was growing almost habituallyirritable nowadays; it surprised and shocked her, but she could notstop it. Every morning she vowed to herself, ‘Today I will not lose my temper’, and every morning, with depressing regularity, she did lose her temper, especially at about half past eleven when thechildren were at their worst. Nothing in the world is quite soirritating as dealing with mutinous children. Sooner or later,Dorothy knew, she would lose control of herself and begin hittingthem. It seemed to her an unforgivable thing to do, to hit achild; but nearly all teachers come to it in the end. It wasimpossible now to get any child to work except when your eye wasupon it. You had only to turn your back for an instant andblotting-paper pellets were flying to and fro. Nevertheless, withceaseless slave-driving the children’s handwriting and ‘commercialarithmetic’ did certainly show some improvement, and no doubt theparents were satisfied.
The last few weeks of the term were a very bad time. For over afortnight Dorothy was quite penniless, for Mrs Creevy had told herthat she couldn’t pay her her term’s wages ‘till some of the feescame in’. So she was deprived of the secret slabs of chocolatethat had kept her going, and she suffered from a perpetual slighthunger that made her languid and spiritless. There were leadenmornings when the minutes dragged like hours, when she struggledwith herself to keep her eyes away from the clock, and her heartsickened to think that beyond this lesson there loomed another justlike it, and more of them and more, stretching on into what seemedlike a dreary eternity. Worse yet were the times when the childrenwere in their noisy mood and it needed a constant exhausting effortof the will to keep them under control at all; and beyond the wall,of course, lurked Mrs Creevy, always listening, always ready todescend upon the schoolroom, wrench the door open, and glare roundthe room with ‘Now then! What’s all this noise about, please?’ andthe sack in her eye.
Dorothy was fully awake, now, to the beastliness of living in MrsCreevy’s house. The filthy food, the cold, and the lack of bathsseemed much more important than they had seemed a little while ago.Moreover, she was beginning to appreciate, as she had not done whenthe joy of her work was fresh upon her, the utter loneliness of herposition. Neither her father nor Mr Warburton had written to her,and in two months she had made not a single friend in Southbridge.For anyone so situated, and particularly for a woman, it is all butimpossible to make friends. She had no money and no home of herown, and outside the school her sole places of refuge were thepublic library, on the few evenings when she could get there, andchurch on Sunday mornings. She went to church regularly, ofcourse—Mrs Creevy had insisted on that. She had settled thequestion of Dorothy’s religious observances at breakfast on herfirst Sunday morning.
‘I’ve just been wondering what Place of Worship you ought to goto,’ she said. ‘I suppose you were brought up C. of E., weren’tyou?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
‘Hm, well. I can’t quite make up my mind where to send you.There’s St George’s—that’s the C. of E.—and there’s the BaptistChapel where I go myself. Most of our parents are Nonconformists,and I don’t know as they’d quite approve of a C. of E. teacher.You can’t be too careful with the parents. They had a bit of ascare two years ago when it turned out that the teacher I had thenwas actually a Roman Catholic, if you please! Of course she keptit dark as long as she could, but it came out in the end, and threeof the parents took their children away. I got rid of her the sameday as I found it out, naturally.’
Dorothy was silent.
‘Still,’ went on Mrs Creevy, ‘we have got three C. of E. pupils,and I don’t know as the Church connexion mightn’t be worked up abit. So perhaps you’d better risk it and go to St George’s. Butyou want to be a bit careful, you know. I’m told St George’s isone of these churches where they go in for a lot of bowing andscraping and crossing yourself and all that. We’ve got two parentsthat are Plymouth Brothers, and they’d throw a fit if they heardyou’d been seen crossing yourself. So don’t go and do that,whatever you do.’
‘Very well,’ said Dorothy.
‘And just you keep your eyes well open during the sermon. Have agood look round and see if there’s any young girls in thecongregation that we could get hold of. If you see any likelylooking ones, get on to the parson afterwards and try and find outtheir names and addresses.’
So Dorothy went to St George’s. It was a shade ‘Higher’ than StAthelstan’s had been; chairs, not pews, but no incense, and thevicar (his name was Mr Gore-Williams) wore a plain cassock andsurplice except on festival days. As for the services, they wereso like those at home that Dorothy could go through them, and utterall the responses at the right moment, in a state of the completestabstraction.
There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her.Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now;her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is amysterious thing, the loss of faith—as mysterious as faith itself.Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change inthe climate of the mind. But however little the church servicesmight mean to her, she did not regret the hours she spent inchurch. On the contrary, she looked forward to her Sunday morningsas blessed interludes of peace; and that not only because Sundaymorning meant a respite from Mrs Creevy’s prying eye and naggingvoice. In another and deeper sense the atmosphere of the churchwas soothing and reassuring to her. For she perceived that in allthat happens in church, however absurd and cowardly its supposedpurpose may be, there is something—it is hard to define, butsomething of decency, of spiritual comeliness—that is not easilyfound in the world outside. It seemed to her that even though youno longer believe, it is better to go to church than not; better tofollow in the ancient ways, than to drift in rootless freedom. Sheknew very well that she would never again be able to utter a prayerand mean it; but she knew also that for the rest of her life shemust continue with the observances to which she had been bred.Just this much remained to her of the faith that had once, like thebones in a living frame, held all her life together.
But as yet she did not think very deeply about the loss of herfaith and what it might mean to her in the future. She was toobusy merely existing, merely struggling to make her nerves hold outfor the rest of that miserable term. For as the term drew to anend, the job of keeping the class in order grew more and moreexhausting. The girls behaved atrociously, and they were all thebitterer against Dorothy because they had once been fond of her.She had deceived them, they felt. She had started off by beingdecent, and now she had turned out to be just a beastly old teacherlike the rest of them—a nasty old beast who kept on and on withthose awful handwriting lessons and snapped your head off if you somuch as made a blot on your book. Dorothy caught them eyeing herface, sometimes, with the aloof, cruel scrutiny of children. Theyhad thought her pretty once, and now they thought her ugly, old,and scraggy. She had grown, indeed, much thinner since she hadbeen at Ringwood House. They hated her now, as they had hated alltheir previous teachers.
Sometimes they baited her quite deliberately. The older and moreintelligent girls understood the situation well enough—understoodthat Millie was under old Creevy’s thumb and that she got droppedon afterwards when they had been making too much noise; sometimesthey made all the noise they dared, just so as to bring old Creevyin and have the pleasure of watching Millie’s face while old Creevytold her off. There were times when Dorothy could keep her temperand forgive them all they did, because she realized that it wasonly a healthy instinct that made them rebel against the loathsomemonotony of their work. But there were other times when her nerveswere more on edge than usual, and when she looked round at thescore of silly little faces, grinning or mutinous, and found itpossible to hate them. Children are so blind, so selfish, somerciless. They do not know when they are tormenting you pastbearing, and if they did know they would not care. You may do yourvery best for them, you may keep your temper in situations thatwould try a saint, and yet if you are forced to bore them andoppress them, they will hate you for it without ever askingthemselves whether it is you who are to blame. How true—when youhappen not to be a school-teacher yourself—how true those often-quoted lines sound—
Under a cruel eye outworn
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay!
But when you yourself are the cruel eye outworn, you realize thatthere is another side to the picture.
The last week came, and the dirty farce of ‘exams’, was carriedthrough. The system, as explained by Mrs Creevy, was quite simple.You coached the children in, for example, a series of sums untilyou were quite certain that they could get them right, and then setthem the same sums as an arithmetic paper before they had time toforget the answers; and so with each subject in turn. Thechildren’s papers were, of course, sent home for their parents’inspection. And Dorothy wrote the reports under Mrs Creevy’sdictation, and she had to write ‘excellent’ so many times that—assometimes happens when you write a word over and over again—sheforgot how to spell it and began writing in ‘excelent’, ‘exsellent’,‘ecsellent’, ‘eccelent’.
The last day passed in fearful tumults. Not even Mrs Creevyherself could keep the children in order. By midday Dorothy’snerves were in rags, and Mrs Creevy gave her a ‘talking to’ infront of the seven children who stayed to dinner. In the afternoonthe noise was worse than ever, and at last Dorothy, overcome,appealed to the girls almost tearfully to stop.
‘Girls!’ she called out, raising her voice to make herself heardthrough the din. ‘Please stop it, please! You’re behavinghorribly to me. Do you think it’s kind to go on like this?’
That was fatal, of course. Never, never, never throw yourself onthe mercy of a child! There was an instant’s hush, and then onechild cried out, loudly and derisively, ‘Mill-iee!’ The nextmoment the whole class had taken it up, even the imbecile Mavis,chanting all together ‘Mill-iee! Mill-iee! Mill-iee!’ At that,something within Dorothy seemed to snap. She paused for aninstant, picked out the girl who was making the most noise, walkedup to her, and gave her a smack across the ear almost as hard asshe could hit. Happily it was only one of the ‘medium payers’.
On the first day of the holidays Dorothy received a letter from MrWarburton.
My Dear Dorothy [he wrote],—Or should I call you Ellen, as Iunderstand that is your new name? You must, I am afraid, havethought it very heartless of me not to have written sooner, but Iassure you that it was not until ten days ago that I even heardanything about our supposed escapade. I have been abroad, first invarious parts of France, then in Austria and then in Rome, and, asyou know, I avoid my fellow countrymen most strenuously on thesetrips. They are disgusting enough even at home, but in foreignparts their behaviour makes me so ashamed of them that I generallytry to pass myself off as an American.
When I got to Knype Hill your father refused to see me, but Imanaged to get hold of Victor Stone, who gave me your address andthe name you are using. He seemed rather reluctant to do so, and Igathered that even he, like everyone else in this poisonous town,still believes that you have misbehaved yourself in some way. Ithink the theory that you and I eloped together has been dropped,but you must, they feel, have done something scandalous. A youngwoman has left home suddenly, therefore there must be a man in thecase; that is how the provincial mind works, you see. I need nottell you that I have been contradicting the whole story with theutmost vigour. You will be glad to hear that I managed to cornerthat disgusting hag, Mrs Semprill, and give her a piece of my mind;and I assure you that a piece of my mind is distinctly formidable.But the woman is simply sub-human. I could get nothing out of herexcept hypocritical snivellings about ‘poor, poor Dorothy’.
I hear that your father misses you very much, and would gladly haveyou home again if it were not for the scandal. His meals are neverpunctual nowadays, it seems. He gives it out that you ‘went awayto recuperate from a slight illness and have now got an excellentpost at a girls’ school’. You will be surprised to hear of onething that has happened to him. He has been obliged to pay off allhis debts! I am told that the tradesmen rose in a body and heldwhat was practically a creditors’ meeting in the Rectory. Not thekind of thing that could have happened at Plumstead Episcopi—butthese are democratic days, alas! You, evidently, were the onlyperson who could keep the tradesmen permanently at bay.
And now I must tell you some of my own news, etc., etc., etc.
At this point Dorothy tore the letter up in disappointment and evenin annoyance. He might have shown a little more sympathy! shethought. It was just like Mr Warburton after getting her intoserious trouble—for after all, he was principally to blame forwhat had happened—to be so flippant and unconcerned about it. Butwhen she had thought it over she acquitted him of heartlessness.He had done what little was possible to help her, and he could notbe expected to pity her for troubles of which he had not heard.Besides, his own life had been a series of resounding scandals;probably he could not understand that to a woman a scandal is aserious matter.
At Christmas Dorothy’s father also wrote, and what was more, senther a Christmas present of two pounds. It was evident from thetone of his letter that he had forgiven Dorothy by this time. whatexactly he had forgiven her was not certain, because it was notcertain what exactly she had done; but still, he had forgiven her.The letter started with some perfunctory but quite friendlyinquiries. He hoped her new job suited her, he wrote. And wereher rooms at the school comfortable and the rest of the staffcongenial? He had heard that they did one very well at schoolsnowadays—very different from what it had been forty years ago.Now, in his day, etc., etc., etc. He had, Dorothy perceived, notthe dimmest idea of her present circumstances. At the mention ofschools his mind flew to Winchester, his old school; such a placeas Ringwood House was beyond his imagining.
The rest of the letter was taken up with grumblings about the waythings were going in the parish. The Rector complained of beingworried and overworked. The wretched churchwardens kept botheringhim with this and that, and he was growing very tired of Proggett’sreports about the collapsing belfry, and the daily woman whom hehad engaged to help Ellen was a great nuisance and had put herbroom-handle through the face of the grandfather clock in hisstudy—and so on, and so forth, for a number of pages. He saidseveral times in a mumbling roundabout way that he wished Dorothywere there to help him; but he did not actually suggest that sheshould come home. Evidently it was still necessary that she shouldremain out of sight and out of mind—a skeleton in a distant andwell-locked cupboard.
The letter filled Dorothy with sudden painful homesickness. Shefound herself pining to be back at her parish visiting and her GirlGuides’ cooking class, and wondering unhappily how her father hadgot on without her all this while and whether those two women werelooking after him properly. She was fond of her father, in a waythat she had never dared to show; for he was not a person to whomyou could make any display of affection. It surprised and rathershocked her to realize how little he had been in her thoughtsduring the past four months. There had been periods of weeks at atime when she had forgotten his existence. But the truth was thatthe mere business of keeping body and soul together had left herwith no leisure for other emotions.
Now, however, school work was over, and she had leisure and tospare, for though Mrs Creevy did her best she could not inventenough household jobs to keep Dorothy busy for more than part ofthe day. She made it quite plain to Dorothy that during theholidays she was nothing but a useless expense, and she watched herat her meals (obviously feeling it an outrage that she should eatwhen she wasn’t working) in a way that finally became unbearable.So Dorothy kept out of the house as much as possible, and, feelingfairly rich with her wages (four pounds ten, for nine weeks) andher father’s two pounds, she took to buying sandwiches at the hamand beef shop in the town and eating her dinner out of doors. MrsCreevy acquiesced, half sulkily because she liked to have Dorothyin the house to nag at her, and half pleased at the chance ofskimping a few more meals.
Dorothy went for long solitary walks, exploring Southbridge and itsyet more desolate neighbours, Dorley, Wembridge, and West Holton.Winter had descended, dank and windless, and more gloomy in thosecolourless labyrinthine suburbs than in the bleakest wilderness.On two or three occasions, though such extravagance would probablymean hungry days later on, Dorothy took a cheap return ticket toIver Heath or Burnham Beeches. The woods were sodden and wintry,with great beds of drifted beech leaves that glowed like copper inthe still, wet air, and the days were so mild that you could sitout of doors and read if you kept your gloves on. On Christmas EveMrs Creevy produced some sprigs of holly that she had saved fromlast year, dusted them, and nailed them up; but she did not, shesaid, intend to have a Christmas dinner. She didn’t hold with allthis Christmas nonsense, she said—it was just a lot of humbug gotup by the shopkeepers, and such an unnecessary expense; and shehated turkey and Christmas pudding anyway. Dorothy was relieved; aChristmas dinner in that joyless ‘morning-room’ (she had an awfulmomentary vision of Mrs Creevy in a paper hat out of a cracker) wassomething that didn’t bear thinking about. She ate her Christmasdinner—a hard-boiled egg, two cheese sandwiches, and a bottle oflemonade—in the woods near Burnham, against a great gnarled beechtree, over a copy of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.
On days when it was too wet to go for walks she spent most of hertime in the public library—becoming, indeed, one of the regularhabituees of the library, along with the out-of-work men who satdrearily musing over illustrated papers which they did not read,and the elderly discoloured bachelor who lived in ‘rooms’ on twopounds a week and came to the library to study books on yachting bythe hour together. It had been a great relief to her when the termended, but this feeling soon wore off; indeed, with never a soul totalk to, the days dragged even more heavily than before. There isperhaps no quarter of the inhabited world where one can be quite socompletely alone as in the London suburbs. In a big town thethrong and bustle give one at least the illusion of companionship,and in the country everyone is interested in everyone else—toomuch so, indeed. But in places like Southbridge, if you have nofamily and no home to call your own, you could spend half alifetime without managing to make a friend. There are women insuch places, and especially derelict gentlewomen in ill-paid jobs,who go for years upon end in almost utter solitude. It was notlong before Dorothy found herself in a perpetually low-spirited,jaded state in which, try as she would, nothing seemed able tointerest her. And it was in the hateful ennui of this time—thecorrupting ennui that lies in wait for every modern soul—that shefirst came to a full understanding of what it meant to have losther faith.
She tried drugging herself with books, and it succeeded for a weekor so. But after a while very nearly all books seemed wearisomeand unintelligible; for the mind will not work to any purpose whenit is quite alone. In the end she found that she could not copewith anything more difficult than a detective story. She tookwalks of ten and fifteen miles, trying to tire herself into abetter mood; but the mean suburban roads, and the damp, miry pathsthrough the woods, the naked trees, the sodden moss and greatspongy fungi, afflicted her with a deadly melancholy. It was humancompanionship that she needed, and there seemed no way of gettingit. At nights’ when she walked back to the school and looked atthe warm-lit windows of the houses, and heard voices laughing andgramophones playing within, her heart swelled with envy. Ah, to belike those people in there—to have at least a home, a family, afew friends who were interested in you! There were days when shepined for the courage to speak to strangers in the street. Days,too, when she contemplated shamming piety in order to scrapeacquaintance with the Vicar of St George’s and his family, andperhaps get the chance of occupying herself with a little parishwork; days, even, when she was so desperate that she thought ofjoining the Y.W.C.A.
But almost at the end of the holidays, through a chance encounterat the library, she made friends with a little woman named MissBeaver, who was geography mistress at Toot’s Commercial College,another of the private schools in Southbridge. Toot’s CommericalCollege was a much larger and more pretentious school than RingwoodHouse—it had about a hundred and fifty day-pupils of both sexesand even rose to the dignity of having a dozen boarders—and itscurriculum was a somewhat less blatant swindle. It was one ofthose schools that are aimed at the type of parent who blathersabout ‘up-to-date business training’, and its watch-word wasEfficiency; meaning a tremendous parade of hustling, and thebanishment of all humane studies. One of its features was a kindof catechism called the Efficiency Ritual, which all the childrenwere required to learn by heart as soon as they joined the school.It had questions and answers such as:
Q. What is the secret of success?A. The secret of success is efficiency.Q. What is the test of efficiency?A. The test of efficiency is success.
And so on and so on. It was said that the spectacle of the wholeschool, boys and girls together, reciting the Efficiency Ritualunder the leadership of the Headmaster—they had this ceremony twomornings a week instead of prayers—was most impressive.
Miss Beaver was a prim little woman with a round body, a thin face,a reddish nose, and the gait of a guinea-hen. After twenty yearsof slave-driving she had attained to an income of four pounds aweek and the privilege of ‘living out’ instead of having to put theboarders to bed at nights. She lived in ‘rooms’—that is, in abed-sitting room—to which she was sometimes able to invite Dorothywhen both of them had a free evening. How Dorothy looked forwardto those visits! They were only possible at rare intervals,because Miss Beaver’s landlady ‘didn’t approve of visitors’, andeven when you got there there was nothing much to do except to helpsolve the crossword puzzle out of the Daily Telegraph and look atthe photographs Miss Beaver had taken on her trip (this trip hadbeen the summit and glory of her life) to the Austrian Tyrol in1913. But still, how much it meant to sit talking to somebody in afriendly way and to drink a cup of tea less wishy-washy than MrsCreevy’s! Miss Beaver had a spirit lamp in a japanned travellingcase (it had been with her to the Tyrol in 1913) on which shebrewed herself pots of tea as black as coal-tar, swallowing about abucketful of this stuff during the day. She confided to Dorothythat she always took a Thermos flask to school and had a nice hotcup of tea during the break and another after dinner. Dorothyperceived that by one of two well-beaten roads every third-rateschoolmistress must travel: Miss Strong’s road, via whisky to theworkhouse; or Miss Beaver’s road, via strong tea to a decent deathin the Home for Decayed Gentlewomen.
Miss Beaver was in truth a dull little woman. She was a mementomori, or rather memento senescere, to Dorothy. Her soul seemed tohave withered until it was as forlorn as a dried-up cake of soap ina forgotten soap dish. She had come to a point where life in abed-sitting room under a tyrannous landlady and the ‘efficient’thrusting of Commercial Geography down children’s retching throats,were almost the only destiny she could imagine. Yet Dorothy grewto be very fond of Miss Beaver, and those occasional hours thatthey spent together in the bed-sitting room, doing the DailyTelegraph crossword over a nice hot cup of tea, were like oases inher life.
She was glad when the Easter term began, for even the daily roundof slave-driving was better than the empty solitude of theholidays. Moreover, the girls were much better in hand this term;she never again found it necessary to smack their heads. For shehad grasped now that it is easy enough to keep children in order ifyou are ruthless with them from the start. Last term the girls hadbehaved badly, because she had started by treating them as humanbeings, and later on, when the lessons that interested them werediscontinued, they had rebelled like human beings. But if you areobliged to teach children rubbish, you mustn’t treat them as humanbeings. You must treat them like animals—driving, not persuading.Before all else, you must teach them that it is more painful torebel than to obey. Possibly this kind of treatment is not verygood for children, but there is no doubt they understand it andrespond to it.
She learned the dismal arts of the school-teacher. She learned toglaze her mind against the interminable boring hours, to economizeher nervous energy, to be merciless and ever-vigilant, to take akind of pride and pleasure in seeing a futile rigmarole well done.She had grown, quite suddenly it seemed, much tougher and maturer.Her eyes had lost the half-childish look that they had once had,and her face had grown thinner, making her nose seem longer. Attimes it was quite definitely a schoolmarm’s face; you couldimagine pince-nez upon it. But she had not become cynical as yet.She still knew that these children were the victims of a drearyswindle, still longed, if it had been possible, to do somethingbetter for them. If she harried them and stuffed their heads withrubbish, it was for one reason alone: because whatever happened shehad got to keep her job.
There was very little noise in the schoolroom this term. MrsCreevy, anxious as she always was for a chance of finding fault,seldom had reason to rap on the wall with her broom-handle. Onemorning at breakfast she looked rather hard at Dorothy, as thoughweighing a decision, and then pushed the dish of marmalade acrossthe table.
‘Have some marmalade if you like, Miss Millborough,’ she said,quite graciously for her.
It was the first time that marmalade had crossed Dorothy’s lipssince she had come to Ringwood House. She flushed slightly. ‘Sothe woman realizes that I have done my best for her,’ she could nothelp thinking.
Thereafter she had marmalade for breakfast every morning. And inother ways Mrs Creevy’s manner became—not indeed, genial, for itcould never be that, but less brutally offensive. There were eventimes when she produced a grimace that was intended for a smile;her face, it seemed to Dorothy, creased with the effort. Aboutthis time her conversation became peppered with references to ‘nextterm’. It was always ‘Next term we’ll do this’, and ‘Next term Ishall want you to do that’, until Dorothy began to feel that shehad won Mrs Creevy’s confidence and was being treated more like acolleague than a slave. At that a small, unreasonable but veryexciting hope took root in her heart. Perhaps Mrs Creevy was goingto raise her wages! It was profoundly unlikely, and she tried tobreak herself of hoping for it, but could not quite succeed. Ifher wages were raised even half a crown a week, what a differenceit would make!
The last day came. With any luck Mrs Creevy might pay her wagestomorrow, Dorothy thought. She wanted the money very badly indeed;she had been penniless for weeks past, and was not only unbearablyhungry, but also in need of some new stockings, for she had not apair that were not darned almost out of existence. The followingmorning she did the household jobs allotted to her, and then,instead of going out, waited in the ‘morning-room’ while Mrs Creevybanged about with her broom and pan upstairs. Presently Mrs Creevycame down.
‘Ah, so There you are, Miss Millborough!’ she said in a peculiarmeaning tone. ‘I had a sort of an idea you wouldn’t be in such ahurry to get out of doors this morning. Well, as you are here, Isuppose I may as well pay you your wages.’
‘Thank you,’ said Dorothy.
‘And after that,’ added Mrs Creevy, ‘I’ve got a little something asI want to say to you.’
Dorothy’s heart stirred. Did that ‘little something’ mean thelonged-for rise in wages? It was just conceivable. Mrs Creevyproduced a worn, bulgy leather purse from a locked drawer in thedresser, opened it and licked her thumb.
‘Twelve weeks and five days,’ she said. ‘Twelve weeks is nearenough. No need to be particular to a day. That makes sixpounds.’
She counted out five dingy pound notes and two ten-shilling notes;then, examining one of the notes and apparently finding it tooclean, she put it back into her purse and fished out another thathad been torn in half. She went to the dresser, got a piece oftransparent sticky paper and carefully stuck the two halvestogether. Then she handed it, together with the other six, toDorothy.
‘There you are, Miss Millborough,’ she said. ‘And now, will youjust leave the house at once, please? I shan’t be wanting you anylonger.’
‘You won’t be—’
Dorothy’s entrails seemed to have turned to ice. All the blooddrained out of her face. But even now, in her terror and despair,she was not absolutely sure of the meaning of what had been said toher. She still half thought that Mrs Creevy merely meant that shewas to stay out of the house for the rest of the day.
‘You won’t be wanting me any longer?’ she repeated faintly.
‘No. I’m getting in another teacher at the beginning of next term.And it isn’t to be expected as I’d keep you through the holidaysall free for nothing, is it?’
‘But you don’t mean that you want me to leave—that you’redismissing me?’
‘Of course I do. What else did you think I meant?’
‘But you’ve given me no notice!’ said Dorothy.
‘Notice!’ said Mrs Creevy, getting angry immediately. ‘What’s itgot to do with you whether I give you notice or not? You haven’tgot a written contract, have you?’
‘No . . . I suppose not.’
‘Well, then! You’d better go upstairs and start packing your box.It’s no good your staying any longer, because I haven’t gotanything in for your dinner.’
Dorothy went upstairs and sat down on the side of the bed. She wastrembling uncontrollably, and it was some minutes before she couldcollect her wits and begin packing. She felt dazed. The disasterthat had fallen upon her was so sudden, so apparently causeless,that she had difficulty in believing that it had actually happened.But in truth the reason why Mrs Creevy had sacked her was quitesimple and adequate.
Not far from Ringwood House there was a poor, moribund littleschool called The Gables, with only seven pupils. The teacher wasan incompetent old hack called Miss Allcock, who had been atthirty-eight different schools in her life and was not fit to havecharge of a tame canary. But Miss Allcock had one outstandingtalent; she was very good at double-crossing her employers. Inthese third-rate and fourth-rate private schools a sort of piracyis constantly going on. Parents are ‘got round’ and pupils stolenfrom one school to another. Very often the treachery of theteacher is at the bottom of it. The teacher secretly approachesthe parents one by one (‘Send your child to me and I’ll take herat ten shillings a term cheaper’), and when she has corrupted asufficient number she suddenly deserts and ‘sets up’ on her own,or carries the children off to another school. Miss Allcock hadsucceeded in stealing three out of her employer’s seven pupils, andhad come to Mrs Creevy with the offer of them. In return, she wasto have Dorothy’s place and a fifteen-per-cent commission on thepupils she brought.
There were weeks of furtive chaffering before the bargain wasclinched, Miss Allcock being finally beaten down from fifteen percent to twelve and a half. Mrs Creevy privately resolved to sackold Allcock the instant she was certain that the three children shebrought with her would stay. Simultaneously, Miss Allcock wasplanning to begin stealing old Creevy’s pupils as soon as she hadgot a footing in the school.
Having decided to sack Dorothy, it was obviously most important toprevent her from finding it out. For, of course, if she knew whatwas going to happen, she would begin stealing pupils on her ownaccount, or at any rate wouldn’t do a stroke of work for the restof the term. (Mrs Creevy prided herself on knowing human nature.)Hence the marmalade, the creaky smiles, and the other ruses toallay Dorothy’s suspicions. Anyone who knew the ropes would havebegun thinking of another job the very moment when the dish ofmarmalade was pushed across the table.
Just half an hour after her sentence of dismissal, Dorothy,carrying her handbag, opened the front gate. It was the fourth ofApril, a bright blowy day, too cold to stand about in, with a skyas blue as a hedgesparrow’s egg, and one of those spiteful springwinds that come tearing along the pavement in sudden gusts and blowdry, stinging dust into your face. Dorothy shut the gate behindher and began to walk very slowly in the direction of the main-linestation.
She had told Mrs Creevy that she would give her an address to whichher box could be sent, and Mrs Creevy had instantly exacted fiveshillings for the carriage. So Dorothy had five pounds fifteen inhand, which might keep her for three weeks with careful economy.What she was going to do, except that she must start by going toLondon and finding a suitable lodging, she had very little idea.But her first panic had worn off, and she realized that thesituation was not altogether desperate. No doubt her father wouldhelp her, at any rate for a while, and at the worst, though shehated even the thought of doing it, she could ask her cousin’s helpa second time. Besides, her chances of finding a job were probablyfairly good. She was young, she spoke with a genteel accent, andshe was willing to drudge for a servant’s wages—qualities that aremuch sought after by the proprietors of fourth-rate schools. Verylikely all would be well. But that there was an evil time ahead ofher, a time of job-hunting, of uncertainty and possibly of hunger—that, at any rate, was certain.
However, it turned out quite otherwise. For Dorothy had not gonefive yards from the gate when a telegraph boy came riding up thestreet in the opposite direction, whistling and looking at thenames of the houses. He saw the name Ringwood House, wheeled hisbicycle round, propped it against the kerb, and accosted Dorothy.
‘Miss Mill-Burrow live ‘ere?’ he said, jerking his head in thedirection of Ringwood House.
‘Yes. I am Miss Millborough.’
‘Gotter wait case there’s a answer,’ said the boy, taking anorange-coloured envelope from his belt.
Dorothy put down her bag. She had once more begun tremblingviolently. And whether this was from joy or fear she was notcertain, for two conflicting thoughts had sprung almostsimultaneously into her brain. One, ‘This is some kind of goodnews!’ The other, ‘Father is seriously ill!’ She managed to tearthe envelope open, and found a telegram which occupied two pages,and which she had the greatest difficulty in understanding. Itran:
Rejoice in the lord o ye righteous note of exclamation great newsnote of exclamation your reputation absolutely reestablished stopmrs semprill fallen into the pit that she hath digged stop actionfor libel stop no one believes her any longer stop your fatherwishes you return home immediately stop am coming up to town myselfcomma will pick you up if you like stop arriving shortly after thisstop wait for me stop praise him with the loud cymbals note ofexclamation much love stop.
No need to look at the signature. It was from Mr Warburton, ofcourse. Dorothy felt weaker and more tremulous than ever. She wasdimly aware the telegraph boy was asking her something.
‘Any answer?’ he said for the third or fourth time.
‘Not today, thank you,’ said Dorothy vaguely.
The boy remounted his bicycle and rode off, whistling with extraloudness to show Dorothy how much he despised her for not tippinghim. But Dorothy was unaware of the telegraph’s boy’s scorn. Theonly phrase of the telegram that she had fully understood was ‘yourfather wishes you return home immediately’, and the surprise of ithad left her in a semi-dazed condition. For some indefinite timeshe stood on the pavement, until presently a taxi rolled up thestreet, with Mr Warburton inside it. He saw Dorothy, stopped thetaxi, jumped out and came across to meet her, beaming. He seizedher both hands.
‘Hullo!’ he cried, and at once threw his arm pseudo-paternallyabout her and drew her against him, heedless of who might belooking. ‘How are you? But by Jove, how thin you’ve got! I canfeel all your ribs. Where is this school of yours?’
Dorothy, who had not yet managed to get free of his arm, turnedpartly round and cast a glance towards the dark windows of RingwoodHouse.
‘What! That place? Good God, what a hole! What have you donewith your luggage?’
‘It’s inside. I’ve left them the money to send it on. I thinkit’ll be all right.’
‘Oh, nonsense! Why pay? We’ll take it with us. It can go on topof the taxi.’
‘No, no! Let them send it. I daren’t go back. Mrs Creevy wouldbe horribly angry.’
‘Mrs Creevy? Who’s Mrs Creevy?’
‘The headmistress—at least, she owns the school.’
‘What, a dragon, is she? Leave her to me—I’ll deal with her.Perseus and the Gorgon, what? You are Andromeda. Hi!’ he calledto the taxi-driver.
The two of them went up to the front door and Mr Warburton knocked.Somehow, Dorothy never believed that they would succeed in gettingher box from Mrs Creevy. In fact, she half expected to see themcome out flying for their lives, and Mrs Creevy after them with herbroom. However, in a couple of minutes they reappeared, the taxi-driver carrying the box on his shoulder. Mr Warburton handedDorothy into the taxi and, as they sat down, dropped half a crowninto her hand.
‘What a woman! What a woman!’ he said comprehensively as the taxibore them away. ‘How the devil have you put up with it all thistime?’
‘What is this?’ said Dorothy, looking at the coin.
‘Your half-crown that you left to pay for the luggage. Rather afeat getting it out of the old girl, wasn’t it?’
‘But I left five shillings!’ said Dorothy.
‘What! The woman told me you only left half a crown. By God, whatimpudence! We’ll go back and have the half-crown out of her. Justto spite her!’ He tapped on the glass.
‘No, no!’ said Dorothy, laying her hand on his arm. ‘It doesn’tmatter in the least. Let’s get away from here—right away. Icouldn’t bear to go back to that place again—ever!’
It was quite true. She felt that she would sacrifice not merelyhalf a crown, but all the money in her possession, sooner than seteyes on Ringwood House again. So they drove on, leaving Mrs Creevyvictorious. It would be interesting to know whether this wasanother of the occasions when Mrs Creevy laughed.
Mr Warburton insisted on taking the taxi the whole way into London,and talked so voluminously in the quieter patches of the trafficthat Dorothy could hardly get a word in edgeways. It was not tillthey had reached the inner suburbs that she got from him anexplanation of the sudden change in her fortunes.
‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘what is it that’s happened? I don’tunderstand. Why is it all right for me to go home all of a sudden?Why don’t people believe Mrs Semprill any longer? Surely shehasn’t confessed?’
‘Confessed? Not she! But her sins have found her out, all thesame. It was the kind of thing that you pious people would ascribeto the finger of Providence. Cast thy bread upon the waters, andall that. She got herself into a nasty mess—an action for libel.We’ve talked of nothing else in Knype Hill for the last fortnight.I though you would have seen something about it in the newspapers.’
‘I’ve hardly looked at a paper for ages. Who brought an action forlibel? Not my father, surely?’
‘Good gracious, no! Clergymen can’t bring actions for libel. Itwas the bank manager. Do you remember her favourite story abouthim—how he was keeping a woman on the bank’s money, and so forth?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘A few months ago she was foolish enough to put some of it inwriting. Some kind friend—some female friend, I presume—took theletter round to the bank manager. He brought an action—MrsSemprill was ordered to pay a hundred and fifty pounds damages.I don’t suppose she paid a halfpenny, but still, that’s the end ofher career as a scandalmonger. You can go on blackening people’sreputations for years, and everyone will believe you, more or less,even when it’s perfectly obvious that you’re lying. But onceyou’ve been proved a liar in open court, you’re disqualified, so tospeak. Mrs Semprill’s done for, so far as Knype Hill goes. Sheleft the town between days—practically did a moonlight flit, infact. I believe she’s inflicting herself on Bury St Edmunds atpresent.’
‘But what has all that got to do with the things she said about youand me?’
‘Nothing—nothing whatever. But why worry? The point is thatyou’re reinstated; and all the hags who’ve been smacking theirchops over you for months past are saying, “Poor, poor Dorothy, how shockingly that dreadful woman has treated her!”’
‘You mean they think that because Mrs Semprill was telling lies inone case she must have been telling lies in another?’
‘No doubt that’s what they’d say if they were capable of reasoningit out. At any rate, Mrs Semprill’s in disgrace, and so all thepeople she’s slandered must be martyrs. Even my reputation ispractically spotless for the time being.’
‘And do you think that’s really the end of it? Do you think theyhonestly believe that it was all an accident—that I only lost mymemory and didn’t elope with anybody?’
‘Oh, well, I wouldn’t go as far as that. In these country placesthere’s always a certain amount of suspicion knocking about. Notsuspicion of anything in particular, you know; just generalizedsuspicion. A sort of instinctive rustic dirty-mindedness. I canimagine its being vaguely rumoured in the bar parlour of the Dogand Bottle in ten years’ time that you’ve got some nasty secret inyour past, only nobody can remember what. Still, your troubles areover. If I were you I wouldn’t give any explanations till you’reasked for them. The official theory is that you had a bad attackof flu and went away to recuperate. I should stick to that.You’ll find they’ll accept it all right. Officially, there’snothing against you.
Presently they got to London, and Mr Warburton took Dorothy tolunch at a restaurant in Coventry Street, where they had a youngchicken, roasted, with asparagus and tiny, pearly-white potatoesthat had been ripped untimely from their mother earth, and alsotreacle tart and a nice warm bottle of Burgundy; but what gaveDorothy the most pleasure of all, after Mrs Creevy’s lukewarm watertea, was the black coffee they had afterwards. After lunch theytook another taxi to Liverpool Street Station and caught the 2.45.It was a four-hour journey to Knype Hill.
Mr Warburton insisted on travelling first-class, and would not hearof Dorothy paying her own fare; he also, when Dorothy was notlooking, tipped the guard to let them have a carriage to themselves.It was one of those bright cold days which are spring or winteraccording as you are indoors or out. From behind the shut windowsof the carriage the too-blue sky looked warm and kind, and all theslummy wilderness through which the train was rattling—thelabyrinths of little dingy-coloured houses, the great chaoticfactories, the miry canals, and derelict building lots littered withrusty boilers and overgrown by smoke-blackened weeds—all wereredeemed and gilded by the sun. Dorothy hardly spoke for the firsthalf-hour of the journey. For the moment she was too happy to talk.She did not even think of anything in particular, but merely satthere luxuriating in the glass-filtered sunlight, in the comfort ofthe padded seat and the feeling of having escaped from Mrs Creevy’sclutches. But she was aware that this mood could not last very muchlonger. Her contentment, like the warmth of the wine that she haddrunk at lunch, was ebbing away, and thoughts either painful ordifficult to express were taking shape in her mind. Mr Warburtonhad been watching her face, more observantly than was usual for him,as though trying to gauge the changes that the past eight months hadworked in her.
‘You look older,’ he said finally.
‘I am older,’ said Dorothy.
‘Yes; but you look—well, more completely grown up. Tougher.Something has changed in your face. You look—if you’ll forgivethe expression—as though the Girl Guide had been exorcized fromyou for good and all. I hope seven devils haven’t entered into youinstead?’ Dorothy did not answer, and he added: ‘I suppose, as amatter of fact, you must have had the very devil of a time?’
‘Oh, beastly! Sometimes too beastly for words. Do you know thatsometimes—’
She paused. She had been about to tell him how she had had to begfor her food; how she had slept in the streets; how she had beenarrested for begging and spent a night in the police cells; how MrsCreevy had nagged at her and starved her. But she stopped, becauseshe had suddenly realized that these were not the things that shewanted to talk about. Such things as these, she perceived, are ofno real importance; they are mere irrelevant accidents, notessentially different from catching a cold in the head or having towait two hours at a railway junction. They are disagreeable, butthey do not matter. The truism that all real happenings are in themind struck her more forcibly than ever before, and she said:
‘Those things don’t really matter. I mean, things like having nomoney and not having enough to eat. Even when you’re practicallystarving—it doesn’t change anything inside you.’
‘Doesn’t it? I’ll take your word for it. I should be very sorryto try.’
‘Oh, well, it’s beastly while it’s happening, of course; but itdoesn’t make any real difference; it’s the things that happeninside you that matter.’
‘Meaning?’ said Mr Warburton.
‘Oh—things change in your mind. And then the whole world changes,because you look at it differently.’
She was still looking out of the window. The train had drawn clearof the eastern slums and was running at gathering speed pastwillow-bordered streams and low-lying meadows upon whose hedges thefirst buds made a faint soft greenness, like a cloud. In a fieldnear the line a month-old calf, flat as a Noah’s Ark animal, wasbounding stiff-legged after its mother, and in a cottage garden anold labourer, with slow, rheumatic movements, was turning over thesoil beneath a pear tree covered with ghostly bloom. His spadeflashed in the sun as the train passed. The depressing hymn-line‘Change and decay in all around I see’ moved through Dorothy’smind. It was true what she had said just now. Something hadhappened in her heart, and the world was a little emptier, a littlepoorer from that minute. On such a day as this, last spring or anyearlier spring, how joyfully, and how unthinkingly, she would havethanked God for the first blue skies and the first flowers of thereviving year! And now, seemingly, there was no God to thank, andnothing—not a flower or a stone or a blade of grass—nothing inthe universe would ever be the same again.
‘Things change in your mind,’ she repeated. ‘I’ve lost my faith,’she added, somewhat abruptly, because she found herself halfashamed to utter the words.
‘You’ve lost your what?’ said Mr Warburton, less accustomed thanshe to this kind of phraseology.
‘My faith. Oh, you know what I mean! A few months ago, all of asudden, it seemed as if my whole mind had changed. Everything thatI’d believed in till then—everything—seemed suddenly meaninglessand almost silly. God—what I’d meant by God—immortal life,Heaven and Hell—everything. It had all gone. And it wasn’t thatI’d reasoned it out; it just happened to me. It was like whenyou’re a child, and one day, for no particular reason, you stopbelieving in fairies. I just couldn’t go on believing in it anylonger.’
‘You never did believe in it,’ said Mr Warburton unconcernedly.
‘But I did, really I did! I know you always thought I didn’t—youthought I was just pretending because I was ashamed to own up. Butit wasn’t that at all. I believed it just as I believe that I’msitting in this carriage.’
‘Of course you didn’t, my poor child! How could you, at your age?You were far too intelligent for that. But you’d been brought upin these absurd beliefs, and you’d allowed yourself to go onthinking, in a sort of way, that you could still swallow them.You’d built yourself a life-pattern—if you’ll excuse a bit ofpsychological jargon—that was only possible for a believer, andnaturally it was beginning to be a strain on you. In fact, it wasobvious all the time what was the matter with you. I should saythat in all probability that was why you lost your memory.’
‘What do you mean?’ she said, rather puzzled by this remark.
He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that lossof memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from animpossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious trickswhen it is in a tight corner. Dorothy had never heard of anythingof this kind before, and she could not at first accept hisexplanation. Nevertheless she considered it for a moment, andperceived that, even if it were true, it did not alter thefundamental fact.
‘I don’t see that it makes any difference,’ she said finally.
‘Doesn’t it? I should have said it made a considerabledifference.’
‘But don’t you see, if my faith is gone, what does it matterwhether I’ve only lost it now or whether I’d really lost it yearsago? All that matters is that it’s gone, and I’ve got to begin mylife all over again.’
‘Surely I don’t take you to mean,’ said Mr Warburton, ‘that youactually regret losing your faith, as you call it? One might aswell regret losing a goitre. Mind you, I’m speaking, as it were,without the book—as a man who never had very much faith to lose.The little I had passed away quite painlessly at the age of nine.But it’s hardly the kind of thing I should have thought anyonewould regret losing. Used you not, if I remember rightly, to dohorrible things like getting up at five in the morning to go toHoly Communion on an empty belly? Surely you’re not homesick forthat kind of thing?’
‘I don’t believe in it any longer, if that’s what you mean. And Isee now that a lot of it was rather silly. But that doesn’t help.The point is that all the beliefs I had are gone, and I’ve nothingto put in their place.’
‘But good God! why do you want to put anything in their place?You’ve got rid of a load of superstitious rubbish, and you ought tobe glad of it. Surely it doesn’t make you any happier to go aboutquaking in fear of Hell fire?’
‘But don’t you see—you must see—how different everything is whenall of a sudden the whole world is empty?’
‘Empty?’ exclaimed Mr Warburton. ‘What do you mean by saying it’sempty? I call that perfectly scandalous in a girl of your age.It’s not empty at all, it’s a deuced sight too full, that’s thetrouble with it. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and we’ve notime to enjoy what we’ve got.’
‘But how can one enjoy anything when all the meaning’s been takenout of it?’
‘Good gracious! What do you want with a meaning? When I eat mydinner I don’t do it to the greater glory of God; I do it because Ienjoy it. The world’s full of amusing things—books, pictures,wine, travel, friends—everything. I’ve never seen any meaning init all, and I don’t want to see one. Why not take life as you findit?’
She broke off, for she saw already that she was wasting words intrying to make herself clear to him. He was quite incapable ofunderstanding her difficulty—incapable of realizing how a mindnaturally pious must recoil from a world discovered to bemeaningless. Even the loathsome platitudes of the pantheists wouldbe beyond his understanding. Probably the idea that life wasessentially futile, if he thought of it at all, struck him asrather amusing than otherwise. And yet with all this he wassufficiently acute. He could see the difficulty of her ownparticular position, and he adverted to it a moment later.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I can see that things are going to be alittle awkward for you when you get home. You’re going to be, soto speak, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Parish work—Mothers’Meetings, prayers with the dying, and all that—I suppose it mightbe a little distasteful at times. Are you afraid you won’t be ableto keep it up—is that the trouble?’
‘Oh, no. I wasn’t thinking of that. I shall go on with it, justthe same as before. It’s what I’m most used to. Besides, Fatherneeds my help. He can’t afford a curate, and the work’s got to bedone.’
‘Then what’s the matter? Is it the hypocrisy that’s worrying you?Afraid that the consecrated bread might stick in your throat, andso forth? I shouldn’t trouble. Half the parsons’ daughters inEngland are probably in the same difficulty. And quite nine-tenthsof the parsons, I should say.’
‘It’s partly that. I shall have to be always pretending—oh, youcan’t imagine in what ways! But that’s not the worst. Perhapsthat part of it doesn’t matter, really. Perhaps it’s better to bea hypocrite—that kind of hypocrite—than some things.’
‘Why do you say that kind of hypocrite? I hope you don’t mean thatpretending to believe is the next best thing to believing?’
‘Yes . . . I suppose that’s what I do mean. Perhaps it’s better—less selfish—to pretend one believes even when one doesn’t, thanto say openly that one’s an unbeliever and perhaps help turn otherpeople into unbelievers too.’
‘My dear Dorothy,’ said Mr Warburton, ‘your mind, if you’ll excusemy saying so, is in a morbid condition. No, dash it! it’s worsethan morbid; it’s downright septic. You’ve a sort of mentalgangrene hanging over from your Christian upbringing. You tell methat you’ve got rid of these ridiculous beliefs that were stuffedinto you from your cradle upwards, and yet you’re taking anattitude to life which is simply meaningless without those beliefs.Do you call that reasonable?’
‘I don’t know. No perhaps it’s not. But I suppose it’s what comesnaturally to me.’
‘What you’re trying to do, apparently,’ pursued Mr Warburton, ‘isto make the worst of both worlds. You stick to the Christianscheme of things, but you leave Paradise out of it. And I suppose,if the truth were known, there are quite a lot of your kindwandering about among the ruins of C. of E. You’re practically asect in yourselves,’ he added reflectively: ‘the Anglican Atheists.Not a sect I should care to belong to, I must say.’
They talked for a little while longer, but not to much purpose. Inreality the whole subject of religious belief and religious doubtwas boring and incomprehensible to Mr Warburton. Its only appealto him was as a pretext for blasphemy. Presently he changed thesubject, as though giving up the attempt to understand Dorothy’soutlook.
‘This is nonsense that we’re talking,’ he said. ‘You’ve got holdof some very depressing ideas, but you’ll grow out of them lateron, you know. Christianity isn’t really an incurable disease.However, there was something quite different that I was going tosay to you. I want you to listen to me for a moment. You’recoming home, after being away eight months, to what I expect yourealize is a rather uncomfortable situation. You had a hard enoughlife before—at least, what I should call a hard life—and now thatyou aren’t quite such a good Girl Guide as you used to be, it’sgoing to be a great deal harder. Now, do you think it’s absolutelynecessary to go back to it?’
‘But I don’t see what else I can do, unless I could get anotherjob. I’ve really no alternative.’
Mr Warburton, with his head cocked a little on one side, gaveDorothy a rather curious look.
‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, in a more serious tone than usual,‘there’s at least one other alternative that I could suggest toyou.’
‘You mean that I could go on being a schoolmistress? Perhapsthat’s what I ought to do, really. I shall come back to it in theend, in any case.’
‘No. I don’t think that’s what I should advise.’
All this time Mr Warburton, unwilling as ever to expose hisbaldness, had been wearing his rakish, rather broad-brimmed greyfelt hat. Now, however, he took it off and laid it carefully onthe empty seat beside him. His naked cranium, with only a wisp ortwo of golden hair lingering in the neighbourhood of the ears,looked like some monstrous pink pearl. Dorothy watched him with aslight surprise.
‘I am taking my hat off,’ he said, ‘in order to let you see me atmy very worst. You will understand why in a moment. Now, let meoffer you another alternative besides going back to your GirlGuides and your Mothers’ Union, or imprisoning yourself in somedungeon of a girls’ school.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Dorothy.
‘I mean, will you—think well before you answer; I admit there aresome very obvious objections, but—will you marry me?’
Dorothy’s lips parted with surprise. Perhaps she turned a littlepaler. With a hasty, almost unconscious recoil she moved as faraway from him as the back of the seat would allow. But he had madeno movement towards her. He said with complete equanimity:
‘You know, of course, that Dolores [Dolores was Mr Warburton’s ex-mistress] left me a year ago?’
‘But I can’t, I can’t!’ exclaimed Dorothy. ‘You know I can’t! I’mnot—like that. I thought you always knew. I shan’t ever marry.’
Mr Warburton ignored this remark.
‘I grant you,’ he said, still with exemplary calmness, ‘that Idon’t exactly come under the heading of eligible young men. I amsomewhat older than you. We both seem to be putting our cards onthe table today, so I’ll let you into a great secret and tell youthat my age is forty-nine. And then I’ve three children and a badreputation. It’s a marriage that your father would—well, regardwith disfavour. And my income is only seven hundred a year. Butstill, don’t you think it’s worth considering!’
‘I can’t, you know why I can’t!’ repeated Dorothy.
She took it for granted that he ‘knew why she couldn’t’, though shehad never explained to him, or to anyone else, why it was impossiblefor her to marry. Very probably, even if she had explained, hewould not have understood her. He went on speaking, not appearingto notice what she had said.
‘Let me put it to you’, he said, ‘in the form of a bargain. Ofcourse, I needn’t tell you that it’s a great deal more than that.I’m not a marrying kind of man, as the saying goes, and I shouldn’task you to marry me if you hadn’t a rather special attraction forme. But let me put the business side of it first. You need a homeand a livelihood; I need a wife to keep me in order. I’m sick ofthese disgusting women I’ve spent my life with, if you’ll forgivemy mentioning them, and I’m rather anxious to settle down. A bitlate in the day, perhaps, but better late than never. Besides, Ineed somebody to look after the children; the bastards, you know.I don’t expect you to find me overwhelmingly attractive,’ he added,running a hand reflectively over his bald crown, ‘but on the otherhand I am very easy to get on with. Immoral people usually are, asa matter of fact. And from your own point of view the scheme wouldhave certain advantages. Why should you spend your life deliveringparish magazines and rubbing nasty old women’s legs with Elliman’sembrocation? You would be happier married, even to a husband witha bald head and a clouded past. You’ve had a hard, dull life for agirl of your age, and your future isn’t exactly rosy. Have youreally considered what your future will be like if you don’tmarry?’
‘I don’t know. I have to some extent,’ she said.
As he had not attempted to lay hands on her or to offer anyendearments, she answered his question without repeating herprevious refusal. He looked out of the window, and went on in amusing voice, much quieter than his normal tone, so that at firstshe could barely hear him above the rattle of the train; butpresently his voice rose, and took on a note of seriousness thatshe had never heard in it before, or even imagined that it couldhold.
‘Consider what your future would be like,’ he repeated. ‘It’s thesame future that lies before any woman of your class with nohusband and no money. Let us say your father will live another tenyears. By the end of that time the last penny of his money willhave gone down the sink. The desire to squander it will keep himalive just as long as it lasts, and probably no longer. All thattime he will be growing more senile, more tiresome, more impossibleto live with; he will tyrannize over you more and more, keep youshorter and shorter of money, make more and more trouble for youwith the neighbours and the tradesmen. And you will go on withthat slavish, worrying life that you have lived, struggling to makeboth ends meet, drilling the Girl Guides, reading novels to theMothers’ Union, polishing the altar brasses, cadging money for theorgan fund, making brown paper jackboots for the schoolchildren’splays, keeping your end up in the vile little feuds and scandals ofthe church hen-coop. Year after year, winter and summer, you willbicycle from one reeking cottage to another, to dole out penniesfrom the poor box and repeat prayers that you don’t even believe inany longer. You will sit through interminable church serviceswhich in the end will make you physically sick with their samenessand futility. Every year your life will be a little bleaker, alittle fuller of those deadly little jobs that are shoved off on tolonely women. And remember that you won’t always be twenty-eight.All the while you will be fading, withering, until one morning youwill look in the glass and realize that you aren’t a girl anylonger, only a skinny old maid. You’ll fight against it, ofcourse. You’ll keep your physical energy and your girlishmannerisms—you’ll keep them just a little bit too long. Do youknow that type of bright—too bright—spinster who says “topping” and “ripping” and “right-ho”, and prides herself on being such agood sport, and she’s such a good sport that she makes everyonefeel a little unwell? And she’s so splendidly hearty at tennis andso handy at amateur theatricals, and she throws herself with a kindof desperation into her Girl Guide work and her parish visiting,and she’s the life and soul of Church socials, and always, yearafter year, she thinks of herself as a young girl still and neverrealizes that behind her back everyone laughs at her for a poor,disappointed old maid? That’s what you’ll become, what you mustbecome, however much you foresee it and try to avoid it. There’sno other future possible to you unless you marry. Women who don’tmarry wither up—they wither up like aspidistras in back-parlourwindows; and the devilish thing is that they don’t even know thatthey’re withering.’
Dorothy sat silent and listening with intent and horrifiedfascination. She did not even notice that he had stood up, withone hand on the door to steady him against the swaying of thetrain. She was as though hypnotized, not so much by his voice asby the visions that his words had evoked in her. He had describedher life, as it must inevitably be, with such dreadful fidelitythat he seemed actually to have carried her ten years onward intothe menacing future, and she felt herself no longer a girl full ofyouth and energy, but a desperate, worn virgin of thirty-eight. Ashe went on he took her hand, which was lying idle on the arm of theseat; and even that she scarcely noticed.
‘After ten years,’ he continued, ‘your father will die, and he willleave you with not a penny, only debts. You will be nearly forty,with no money, no profession, no chance of marrying; just aderelict parson’s daughter like the ten thousand others in England.And after that, what do you suppose will become of you? You willhave to find yourself a job—the sort of job that parsons’daughters get. A nursery governess, for instance, or companion tosome diseased hag who will occupy herself in thinking of ways tohumiliate you. Or you will go back to school-teaching; Englishmistress in some grisly girls’ school, seventy-five pounds a yearand your keep, and a fortnight in a seaside boarding-house everyAugust. And all the time withering, drying up, growing more sourand more angular and more friendless. And therefore—’
As he said ‘therefore’ he pulled Dorothy to her feet. She made noresistance. His voice had put her under a spell. As her mind tookin the prospect of that forbidding future, whose emptiness she wasfar more able to appreciate than he, such a despair had grown inher that if she had spoken at all it would have been to say, ‘Yes,I will marry you.’ He put his arm very gently about her and drewher a little towards him, and even now she did not attempt toresist. Her eyes, half hypnotized, were fixed upon his. When heput his arm about her it was as though he were protecting her,sheltering her, drawing her away from the brink of grey, deadlypoverty and back to the world of friendly and desirable things—tosecurity and ease, to comely houses and good clothes, to books andfriends and flowers, to summer days and distant lands. So fornearly a minute the fat, debauched bachelor and the thin,spinsterish girl stood face to face, their eyes meeting, theirbodies all but touching, while the train swayed them in its motion,and clouds and telegraph poles and bud-misted hedges and fieldsgreen with young wheat raced past unseen.
Mr Warburton tightened his grip and pulled her against him. Itbroke the spell. The visions that had held her helpless—visionsof poverty and of escape from poverty—suddenly vanished and leftonly a shocked realization of what was happening to her. She wasin the arms of a man—a fattish, oldish man! A wave of disgust anddeadly fear went through her, and her entrails seemed to shrink andfreeze. His thick male body was pressing her backwards anddownwards, his large, pink face, smooth, but to her eyes old, wasbearing down upon her own. The harsh odour of maleness forceditself into her nostrils. She recoiled. Furry thighs of satyrs!She began to struggle furiously, though indeed he made hardly anyeffort to retain her, and in a moment she had wrenched herself freeand fallen back into her seat, white and trembling. She looked upat him with eyes which, from fear and aversion, were for a momentthose of a stranger.
Mr Warburton remained on his feet, regarding her with an expressionof resigned, almost amused disappointment. He did not seem in theleast distressed. As her calmness returned to her she perceivedthat all he had said had been no more than a trick to play upon herfeelings and cajole her into saying that she would marry him; andwhat was stranger yet, that he had said it without seriously caringwhether she married him or not. He had, in fact, merely beenamusing himself. Very probably the whole thing was only another ofhis periodical attempts to seduce her.
He sat down, but more deliberately than she, taking care of thecreases of his trousers as he did so.
‘If you want to pull the communication cord,’ he said mildly, ‘youhad better let me make sure that I have five pounds in my pocket-book.’
After that he was quite himself again, or as nearly himself asanyone could possibly be after such a scene, and he went on talkingwithout the smallest symptom of embarrassment. His sense of shame,if he had ever possessed one, had perished many years ago. Perhapsit had been killed by overwork in a lifetime of squalid affairswith women.
For an hour, perhaps, Dorothy was ill at ease, but after that thetrain reached Ipswich, where it stopped for a quarter of an hour,and there was the diversion of going to the refreshment room for acup of tea. For the last twenty miles of the journey they talkedquite amicably. Mr Warburton did not refer again to his proposalof marriage, but as the train neared Knype Hill he returned, lessseriously than before, to the question of Dorothy’s future.
‘So you really propose’, he said ‘to go back to your parish work? “The trivial round, the common task?” Mrs Pither’s rheumatism andMrs Lewin’s corn-plaster and all the rest of it? The prospectdoesn’t dismay you?’
‘I don’t know—sometimes it does. But I expect it’ll be all rightonce I’m back at work. I’ve got the habit, you see.’
‘And you really feel equal to years of calculated hypocrisy? Forthat’s what it amounts to, you know. Not afraid of the cat gettingout of the bag? Quite sure you won’t find yourself teaching theSunday School kids to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards, or readingGibbon’s fifteenth chapter to the Mothers’ Union instead of GeneStratton Porter?’
‘I don’t think so. Because, you see, I do feel that that kind ofwork, even if it means saying prayers that one doesn’t believe in,and even if it means teaching children things that one doesn’talways think are true—I do feel that in a way it’s useful.’
‘Useful?’ said Mr Warburton distastefully. ‘You’re a little toofond of that depressing word “useful”. Hypertrophy of the sense ofduty—that’s what’s the matter with you. Now, to me, it seems themerest common sense to have a bit of fun while the going’s good.’
‘That’s just hedonism,’ Dorothy objected.
‘My dear child, can you show me a philosophy of life that isn’thedonism? Your verminous Christian saints are the biggest hedonistsof all. They’re out for an eternity of bliss, whereas we poorsinners don’t hope for more than a few years of it. Ultimatelywe’re all trying for a bit of fun; but some people take it in suchperverted forms. Your notion of fun seems to be massaging MrsPither’s legs.’
‘It’s not that exactly, but—oh! somehow I can’t explain!’
What she would have said was that though her faith had left her,she had not changed, could not change, did not want to change, thespiritual background of her mind; that her cosmos, though now itseemed to her empty and meaningless, was still in a sense theChristian cosmos; that the Christian way of life was still the waythat must come naturally to her. But she could not put this intowords, and felt that if she tried to do so he would probably beginmaking fun of her. So she concluded lamely:
‘Somehow I feel that it’s better for me to go on as I was before.’
‘Exactly the same as before? The whole bill of fare? The GirlGuides, the Mothers’ Union, the Band of Hope, the Companionship ofMarriage, parish visiting and Sunday School teaching, HolyCommunion twice a week and here we go round the doxology-bush,chanting Gregorian plain-song? You’re quite certain you can manageit?’
Dorothy smiled in spite of herself. ‘Not plain-song. Fatherdoesn’t like it.’
‘And you think that, except for your inner thoughts, your life willbe precisely what it was before you lost your faith? There will be no change in your habits?’
Dorothy thought. Yes, there would be changes in her habits; butmost of them would be secret ones. The memory of the disciplinarypin crossed her mind. It had always been a secret from everyoneexcept herself and she decided not to mention it.
‘Well,’ she said finally, ‘perhaps at Holy Communion I shall kneeldown on Miss Mayfill’s right instead of on her left.’
A week had gone by.
Dorothy rode up the hill from the town and wheeled her bicycle inat the Rectory gate. It was a fine evening, clear and cold, andthe sun, unclouded, was sinking in remote, greenish skies. Dorothynoticed that the ash tree by the gate was in bloom, with clotteddark red blossoms that looked like festerings from a wound.
She was rather tired. She had had a busy week of it, what withvisiting all the women on her list in turn and trying to get theparish affairs into some kind of order again. Everything was in afearful mess after her absence. The church was dirty beyond allbelief—in fact, Dorothy had had to spend the best part of a daycleaning up with scrubbing-brushes, broom and dustpan, and the bedsof ‘mouse dirts’ that she had found behind the organ made her wincewhen she thought of them. (The reason why the mice came there wasbecause Georgie Frew, the organ-blower, would bring penny packetsof biscuits into church and eat them during the sermon.) All theChurch associations had been neglected, with the result that theBand of Hope and the Companionship of Marriage had now given up theghost, Sunday School attendance had dropped by half, and there wasinternecine warfare going on in the Mothers’ Union because of sometactless remark that Miss Foote had made. The belfry was in aworse state than ever. The parish magazine had not been deliveredregularly and the money for it had not been collected. None of theaccounts of the Church Funds had been properly kept up, and therewas nineteen shillings unaccounted for in all, and even the parishregisters were in a muddle—and so on and so on, ad infinitum. TheRector had let everything slide.
Dorothy had been up to her eyes in work from the moment of reachinghome. Indeed, things had slipped back into their old routine withastonishing swiftness. It was as though it had been only yesterdaythat she had gone away. Now that the scandal had blown over, herreturn to Knype Hill had aroused very little curiosity. Some ofthe women on her visiting list, particularly Mrs Pither, weregenuinely glad to see her back, and Victor Stone, perhaps, seemedjust a little ashamed of having temporarily believed Mrs Semprill’slibel; but he soon forgot it in recounting to Dorothy his latesttriumph in the Church Times. Various of the coffee-ladies, ofcourse, had stopped Dorothy in the street with ‘My dear, how very nice to see you back again! You have been away a long time! Andyou know, dear, we all thought it such a shame when that horriblewoman was going round telling those stories about you. But I dohope you’ll understand, dear, that whatever anyone else may havethought, I never believed a word of them’, etc., etc., etc. Butnobody had asked her the uncomfortable questions that she had beenfearing. ‘I’ve been teaching in a school near London’ hadsatisfied everyone; they had not even asked her the name of theschool. Never, she saw, would she have to confess that she hadslept in Trafalgar Square and been arrested for begging. The factis that people who live in small country towns have only a very dimconception of anything that happens more than ten miles from theirown front door. The world outside is a terra incognita, inhabited,no doubt, by dragons and anthropophagi, but not particularlyinteresting.
Even Dorothy’s father had greeted her as though she had only beenaway for the week-end. He was in his study when she arrived,musingly smoking his pipe in front of the grandfather clock, whoseglass, smashed by the charwoman’s broom-handle four months ago, wasstill unmended. As Dorothy came into the room he took his pipe outof his mouth and put it away in his pocket with an absent-minded,old-mannish movement. He looked a great deal older, Dorothythought.
‘So here you are at last,’ he said. ‘Did you have a good journey?’
Dorothy put her arms round his neck and touched his silver-palecheek with her lips. As she disengaged herself he patted hershoulder with a just perceptible trace more affection than usual.
‘What made you take it into your head to run away like that?’ hesaid.
‘I told you, Father—I lost my memory.’
‘Hm,’ said the Rector; and Dorothy saw that he did not believe her,never would believe her, and that on many and many a futureoccasion, when he was in a less agreeable mood than at present,that escapade would be brought up against her. ‘Well,’ he added,‘when you’ve taken your bag upstairs, just bring your typewriterdown here, would you? I want you to type out my sermon.’
Not much that was of interest had happened in the town. Ye OldeTea Shoppe was enlarging its premises, to the further disfigurementof the High Street. Mrs Pither’s rheumatism was better (thanks tothe angelica tea, no doubt), but Mr Pither had ‘been under thedoctor’ and they were afraid he had stone in the bladder. MrBlifil-Gordon was now in Parliament, a docile deadhead on the backbenches of the Conservative Party. Old Mr Tombs had died justafter Christmas, and Miss Foote had taken over seven of his catsand made heroic efforts to find homes for the others. Eva Twiss,the niece of Mr Twiss the ironmonger, had had an illegitimate baby,which had died. Proggett had dug the kitchen garden and sowed afew seeds, and the broad beans and the first peas were justshowing. The shop-debts had begun to mount up again after thecreditors’ meeting, and there was six pounds owing to Cargill.Victor Stone had had a controversy with Professor Coulton in theChurch Times, about the Holy Inquisition, and utterly routed him.Ellen’s eczema had been very bad all the winter. Walph Blifil-Gordon had had two poems accepted by the London Mercury.
Dorothy went into the conservatory. She had got a big job on hand—costumes for a pageant that the schoolchildren were going to haveon St George’s Day, in aid of the organ fund. Not a penny had beenpaid towards the organ during the past eight months, and it wasperhaps as well that the Rector always threw the organ-people’sbills away unopened, for their tone was growing more and moresulphurous. Dorothy had racked her brains for a way of raisingsome money, and finally decided on a historical pageant, beginningwith Julius Caesar and ending with the Duke of Wellington. Theymight raise two pounds by a pageant, she thought—with luck and afine day, they might even raise three pounds!
She looked round the conservatory. She had hardly been in heresince coming home, and evidently nothing had been touched duringher absence. Her things were lying just as she had left them; butthe dust was thick on everything. Her sewing-machine was on thetable amid the old familiar litter of scraps of cloth, sheets ofbrown paper, cotton-reels and pots of paint, and though the needlehad rusted, the thread was still in it. And, yes! there were thejackboots that she had been making the night she went away. Shepicked one of them up and looked at it. Something stirred in herheart. Yes, say what you like, they were good jackboots! What apity they had never been used! However, they would come in usefulfor the pageant. For Charles II, perhaps—or, no, better not have Charles II; have Oliver Cromwell instead; because if you had OliverCromwell you wouldn’t have to make him a wig.
Dorothy lighted the oilstove, found her scissors and two sheets ofbrown paper, and sat down. There was a mountain of clothes to bemade. Better start off with Julius Caesar’s breastplate, shethought. It was always that wretched armour that made all thetrouble! What did a Roman soldier’s armour look like? Dorothymade an effort, and called to mind the statue of some idealizedcurly-bearded emperor in the Roman Room at the British Museum. Youmight make a sort of rough breastplate out of glue and brown paper,and glue narrow strips of paper across it to represent the platesof the armour, and then silver them over. No helmet to make, thankgoodness! Julius Caesar always wore a laurel wreath—ashamed ofhis baldness, no doubt, like Mr Warburton. But what about greaves?Did they wear greaves in Julius Caesar’s time? And boots? Was acaligum a boot or a sandal?
After a few moments she stopped with the shears resting on herknee. A thought which had been haunting her like some inexorcizableghost at every unoccupied moment during the past week had returnedonce more to distract her. It was the thought of what Mr Warburtonhad said to her in the train—of what her life was going to be likehereafter, unmarried and without money.
It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts ofher future. She could see it all quite clearly before her. Tenyears, perhaps, as unsalaried curate, and then back to school-teaching. Not necessarily in quite such a school as Mrs Creevy’s—no doubt she could do something rather better for herself thanthat—but at least in some more or less shabby, more or lessprison-like school; or perhaps in some even bleaker, even lesshuman kind of drudgery. Whatever happened, at the very best, shehad got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely andpenniless women. ‘The Old Maids of Old England’, as somebodycalled them. She was twenty-eight—just old enough to enter theirranks.
But it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter! That was the thing thatyou could never drive into the heads of the Mr Warburtons of thisworld, not if you talked to them for a thousand years; that mereoutward things like poverty and drudgery, and even loneliness,don’t matter in themselves. It is the things that happen in yourheart that matter. For just a moment—an evil moment—while MrWarburton was talking to her in the train, she had known the fearof poverty. But she had mastered it; it was not a thing worthworrying about. It was not because of that that she had got tostiffen her courage and remake the whole structure of her mind.
No, it was something far more fundamental; it was the deadlyemptiness that she had discovered at the heart of things. Shethought of how a year ago she had sat in this chair, with thesescissors in her hand, doing precisely what she was doing now; andyet it was as though then and now she had been two differentbeings. Where had she gone, that well-meaning, ridiculous girl whohad prayed ecstatically in summer-scented fields and pricked herarm as a punishment for sacrilegious thoughts? And where is any ofourselves of even a year ago? And yet after all—and here lay thetrouble—she was the same girl. Beliefs change, thoughts change,but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change.Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.
And given only faith, how can anything else matter? How cananything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the worldwhich you can serve, and which, while serving it, you canunderstand? Your whole life is illumined by the sense of purpose.There is no weariness in your heart, no doubts, no feeling offutility, no Baudelairean ennui waiting for unguarded hours. Everyact is significant, every moment sanctified, woven by faith as intoa pattern, a fabric of never-ending joy.
She began to meditate upon the nature of life. You emerged fromthe womb, you lived sixty or seventy years, and then you died androtted. And in every detail of your life, if no ultimate purposeredeemed it, there was a quality of greyness, of desolation, thatcould never be described, but which you could feel like a physicalpang at your heart. Life, if the grave really ends it, ismonstrous and dreadful. No use trying to argue it away. Think oflife as it really is, think of the details of life; and then thinkthat there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except thegrave. Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose livesare exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought withoutflinching?
She shifted her position in her chair. But after all there must be some meaning, some purpose in it all! The world cannot be anaccident. Everything that happens must have a cause—ultimately,therefore, a purpose. Since you exist, God must have created you,and since He created you a conscious being, He must be conscious.The greater doesn’t come out of the less. He created you, and Hewill kill you, for His own purpose. But that purpose is inscrutable.It is in the nature of things that you can never discover it, andperhaps even if you did discover it you would be averse to it.Your life and death, it may be, are a single note in the eternalorchestra that plays for His diversion. And suppose you don’t likethe tune? She thought of that dreadful unfrocked clergyman inTrafalgar Square. Had she dreamed the things he said, or had hereally said them? ‘Therefore with Demons and Archdemons and withall the company of Hell’. But that was silly, really. For your notliking the tune was also part of the tune.
Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that therewas no solution. There was, she saw clearly, no possiblesubstitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient toitself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of‘progress’ with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps ofsteel and concrete. It is all or nothing. Either life on earth isa preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it ismeaningless, dark, and dreadful.
Dorothy started. A frizzling sound was coming from the glue-pot.She had forgotten to put any water in the saucepan, and the gluewas beginning to burn. She took the saucepan, hastened to thescullery sink to replenish it, then brought it back and put it onthe oilstove again. I simply must get that breastplate done beforesupper! she thought. After Julius Caesar there was William theConqueror to be thought of. More armour! And presently she mustgo along to the kitchen and remind Ellen to boil some potatoes togo with the minced beef for supper; also there was her ‘memo list’to be written out for tomorrow. She shaped the two halves of thebreastplate, cut out the armholes and neckholes, and then stoppedagain.
Where had she got to? She had been saying that if death ends all,then there is no hope and no meaning in anything. Well, what then?
The action of going to the scullery and refilling the saucepan hadchanged the tenor of her thoughts. She perceived, for a moment atleast, that she had allowed herself to fall into exaggeration andself-pity. What a fuss about nothing, after all! As though inreality there were not people beyond number in the same case asherself! All over the world, thousands, millions of them; peoplewho had lost their faith without losing their need of faith. ‘Halfthe parsons’ daughters in England,’ Mr Warburton had said. He wasprobably right. And not only parsons’ daughters; people of everydescription—people in illness and loneliness and failure, peopleleading thwarted, discouraging lives—people who needed faith tosupport them, and who hadn’t got it. Perhaps even nuns inconvents, scrubbing floors and singing Ave Marias, secretlyunbelieving.
And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you hadgot rid of—to want to believe something that you knew in yourbones to be untrue!
Dorothy had put down her scissors. Almost from force of habit, asthough her return home, which had not restored her faith, hadrestored the outward habits of piety, she knelt down beside herchair. She buried her face in her hands. She began to pray.
‘Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief. Lord, I believe, Ibelieve; help Thou my unbelief.’
It was useless, absolutely useless. Even as she spoke the wordsshe was aware of their uselessness, and was half ashamed of heraction. She raised her head. And at that moment there stole intoher nostrils a warm, evil smell, forgotten these eight months butunutterably familiar—the smell of glue. The water in the saucepanwas bubbling noisily. Dorothy jumped to her feet and felt thehandle of the glue-brush. The glue was softening—would be liquidin another five minutes.
The grandfather clock in her father’s study struck six. Dorothystarted. She realized that she had wasted twenty minutes, and herconscience stabbed her so hard that all the questions that had beenworrying her fled out of her mind. What on earth have I been doingall this time? she thought; and at that moment it really seemed toher that she did not know what she had been doing. She admonishedherself. Come on, Dorothy! No slacking, please! You’ve got toget that breastplate done before supper. She sat down, filled hermouth with pins and began pinning the two halves of the breastplatetogether, to get it into shape before the glue should be ready.
The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer. She did not knowthis. She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to herdifficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution;that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimatepurpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and nofaith are very much the same provided that one is doing what iscustomary, useful, and acceptable. She could not formulate thesethoughts as yet, she could only live them. Much later, perhaps,she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.
There was still a minute or two before the glue would be ready touse. Dorothy finished pinning the breastplate together, and in thesame instant began mentally sketching the innumerable costumes thatwere yet to be made. After William the Conqueror—was it chainmail in William the Conqueror’s day?—there were Robin Hood—Lincoln Green and a bow and arrow—and Thomas a Becket in his copeand mitre, and Queen Elizabeth’s ruff, and a cocked hat for theDuke of Wellington. And I must go and see about those potatoes athalf past six, she thought. And there was her ‘memo list’ to bewritten out for tomorrow. Tomorrow was Wednesday—mustn’t forgetto set the alarm clock for half past five. She took a slip ofpaper and began writing out the ‘memo list’:
- 7 oc. H.C.
- Mrs J. baby next month go and see her.
- Breakfast. Bacon.
She paused to think of fresh items. Mrs J. was Mrs Jowett, theblacksmith’s wife; she came sometimes to be churched after herbabies were born, but only if you coaxed her tactfully beforehand.And I must take old Mrs Frew some paregoric lozenges, Dorothythought, and then perhaps she’ll speak to Georgie and stop himeating those biscuits during the sermon. She added Mrs Frew to herlist. And then what about tomorrow’s dinner—luncheon? We simplymust pay Cargill something! she thought. And tomorrow was the dayof the Mothers’ Union tea, and they had finished the novel thatMiss Foote had been reading to them. The question was, what to getfor them next? There didn’t seem to be any more books by GeneStratton Porter, their favourite. What about Warwick Deeping? Toohighbrow, perhaps? And I must ask Proggett to get us some youngcauliflowers to plant out, she thought finally.
The glue had liquefied. Dorothy took two fresh sheets of brownpaper, sliced them into narrow strips, and—rather awkwardly,because of the difficulty of keeping the breastplate convex—pastedthe strips horizontally across it, back and front. By degrees itstiffened under her hands. When she had reinforced it all over sheset it on end to look at it. It really wasn’t half bad! One morecoating of paper and it would be almost like real armour. We mustmake that pageant a success! she thought. What a pity we can’tborrow a horse from somebody and have Boadicea in her chariot! Wemight make five pounds if we had a really good chariot, withscythes on the wheels. And what about Hengist and Horsa? Cross-gartering and winged helmets. Dorothy sliced two more sheets ofbrown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it itsfinal coating. The problem of faith and no faith had vanishedutterly from her mind. It was beginning to get dark, but, too busyto stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip afterstrip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration,in the penetrating smell of the glue-pot.