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- The Nether World - 30/92 -
'It'll be easier soon,' said the latter, on one of these occasions, bending her head to speak in a low voice. 'You should have seen what blisters I had when I began.'
'It's all very well to say that. I can't do no more, so there Oh, when'll it be five o'clock?'
'It's a quarter to. Try and go on, Annie.'
Five o'clock did come at length, and with it twenty minutes' rest for tea. The rule at Whitehead's was, that you could either bring your own tea, sugar, and eatables, or purchase them here from a forewoman; most of the workers chose to provide themselves. It was customary for each 'party' to club together, emptying their several contributions of tea out of little twists of newspaper into one teapot. Wholesome bustle and confusion succeeded to the former silence. One of the learners, whose turn it was to run on errands, was overwhelmed with commissions to a chandler's shop close by; a wry-faced, stupid little girl she was, and they called her, because of her slowness, the 'funeral horse.' She had strange habits, which made laughter for those who knew of them; for instance, it was her custom in the dinner-hour to go apart and eat her poor scraps on a doorstep close by a cook-shop; she confided to a companion that the odour of baked joints seemed to give her food a relish. From her present errand she returned with a strange variety of dainties-- for it was early in the week, and the girls still had. coppers in their pockets; for two or three she had purchased a farthing's-worth of jam, which she carried in paper. A bite of this and a taste of that rewarded her for her trouble.
The quiet-mannered girl whom we were observing took her cup of tea from the pot in which she had a share, and from her bag produced some folded pieces of bread and butter. She had begun her meal, when there came and sat down by her a young woman of very different appearance--our friend, Miss Peckover. They were old acquaintances; but when we first saw them together it would have been difficult to imagine that they would ever sit and converse as at present, apparently in all friendliness. Strange to say, it was Clem who, during the past three years, had been the active one in seeking to obliterate disagreeable memories. The younger girl had never repelled her, but was long in overcoming the dread excited by Clem's proximity. Even now she never looked straight into Miss Peckover's face, as she did when speaking with others; there was reserve in her manner, reserve unmistakable, though clothed with her pleasant smile and amiable voice.
'I've got something to tell you, Jane,' Clem began, in a tone inaudible to those who were sitting near. 'Something as'll surprise you.'
'What is it, I wonder?'
'You must swear you won't tell nobody.'
Jane nodded. Then the other brought her head a little nearer, and whispered:
'I'm goin' to be married!'
'Are you really?'
'In a week. Who do you think it is? Somebody as you know of, but if you guessed till next Christmas you'd never come right.'
Nor had Clem any intention of revealing the name, but she laughed consumedly, as if her reticence covered the most amusing situation conceivable.
'It'll be the biggest surprise you ever had in your life. You've swore you won't speak about it. I don't think I shall come to work after this week--but you'll have to come an' see us. You'll promise to, won't you?'
Still convulsed with mirth, Clem went off to another part of the room. From Jane's countenance the look of amusement which she had perforce summoned soon passed; it was succeeded by a shadow almost of pain, and not till she had been at work again for nearly an hour was the former placidity restored to her.
When final release came, Jane was among the first to hasten down the wooden staircase and get clear of the timber yard. By the direct way, it took her twenty minutes to walk from Whitehead's to her home in Hanover Street, but this evening she had an object in turning aside. The visit she wished to pay took her into a disagreeable quarter, a street of squalid houses, swarming with yet more squalid children. On all the doorsteps Bat little girls, themselves only just out of infancy, nursing or neglecting bald, red-eyed, doughy-limbed abortions in every stage of babyhood, hapless spawn of diseased humanity, born to embitter and brutalise yet further the lot of those who unwillingly gave them life. With wide, pitiful eyes Jane looked at each group she passed. Three years ago she would have seen nothing but the ordinary and the inevitable in such spectacles, but since then her moral and intellectual being had grown on rare nourishment; there was indignation as well as heartache in the feeling with which she had learnt to regard the world of her familiarity. To enter the house at which she paused it was necessary to squeeze through a conglomerate of dirty little bodies. At the head of the first flight of stairs she came upon a girl sitting in a weary attitude on the top step and beating the wood listlessly with the last remnant of a hearth-brush; on her lap was one more specimen of the infinitely-multiplied baby, and a child of two years sprawled behind her on the landing.
'Waiting for him to come home, Pennyloaf?' said Jane.
'Oh, is that you, Miss Snowdon!' exclaimed the other, returning to consciousness and manifesting some shame at being discovered in this position. Hastily she drew together the front of her dress, which for the baby's sake had been wide open, and rose to her feet. Pennyloaf was not a bit more womanly in figure than on the day of her marriage; her voice was still an immature treble; the same rueful irresponsibility marked her features; but all her poor prettiness was wasted under the disfigurement of pains and cares, Incongruously enough, she wore a gown of bright-patterned calico, and about her neck had a collar of pretentious lace; her hair was dressed as if for a holiday, and a daub recently made on her cheeks by the baby's fingers lent emphasis to the fact that she had but a little while ago washed herself with much care.
'I can't stop,' said Jane, 'but I thought I'd just look in and speak a word. How have you been getting on?'
'Oh, do come in for just a minute!' pleaded Pennyloaf, moving backwards to an open door, whither Jane followed. They entered a room--much like other rooms that we have looked into from time to time. Following the nomadic custom of their kind, Bob Hewett and his wife had lived in six or seven different lodgings since their honeymoon in Shooter's Gardens. Mrs. Candy first of all made a change necessary, as might have been anticipated, and the restlessness of domestic ill-being subsequently drove them from place to place. 'Come in 'ere, Johnny,' she Called to the child lying on the landing. 'What's the good o' washin' you, I'd like to know? Just see, Miss Snowdon, he's made his face all white with the milk as the boy spilt on the stairs! Take this brush an' play with it, do! I _can't_ keep 'em clean, Miss Snowdon, so it's no use talkin'.'
'Are you going somewhere to-night?' Jane inquired, with a glance at the strange costume.
Pennyloaf looked up and down in a shamefaced way.
'I only did it just because I thought he might like to see me. He promised me faithful as he'd come 'ome to-night, and I thought-- it's only somethink as got into my 'ed to-day, Miss Snowdon.'
'But hasn't he been coming home since I saw you last?'
'He did just once, an' then it was all the old ways again. I did what you told me; I did, as sure as I'm a-standin' 'ere! I made the room so clean you wouldn't have believed; I scrubbed the floor an' the table, an' I washed the winders--you can see they ain't dirty yet. An' he'd never a' paid a bit o' notice if I hadn't told him, He was jolly enough for one night, just like he can be when he likes. But I knew as it wouldn't last, an' the next night he was off with a lot o' fellers an' girls, same as ever. I didn't make no row when he came 'ome; I wish I may die if I said a word to set his back up! An' I've gone on just the same all the week; we haven't had not the least bit of a row; so you see I kep' my promise. But it's no good; he won't come 'ome; he's always got fellers an' girls to go round with. He took his hoath as he'd come back to-night, an' then it come into my 'ed as I'd put my best things on, just to--you know what I mean, Miss Snowdon. But he won't come before twelve o'clock; I know he won't. An' I get that low sittin' 'ere, you can't think I can't go nowhere, because o' the children. If it wasn't for them I could go to work again, an' I'd be that glad; I feel as if my 'ed would drop off sometimes! I _ham_ so glad you just come in!'
Jane had tried so many forms of encouragement, of consolation, on previous occasions that she knew not how to repeat herself. She was ashamed to speak words which sounded so hollow and profitless. This silence was only too significant to Pennyloaf, and in a moment she exclaimed with querulous energy:
'I know what'll be the bend of it! I'll go an' do like mother does--I will! I will! I'll put my ring away, an' I'll go an' sit all night in the public-'ouse! It's what all the others does, an' I'll do the same. I often feel I'm a fool to go on like this. I don't know what I live for, P'r'aps he'll be sorry when I get run in like mother.'
'Don't talk like that, Pennyloaf!' cried Jane, stamping her foot, (It was odd how completely difference of character had reversed their natural relations to each other; Pennyloaf was the child, Jane the mature woman.) 'You know better, and you've no right to give way to such thoughts. I was going to say I'd come and be with you all Saturday afternoon, but I don't know whether I shall now. And I'd been thinking you might like to come and see me on Sunday, but I can't have people that go to the public-house, so we won't say anything more about it. I shall have to be off; good-bye!'
She stepped to the door.
Jane turned, and after an instant of mock severity, broke into a laugh which seemed to fill the wretched den with sunlight. Words, too, she found; words of soothing influence such as leap from the heart to the tongue in spite of the heavy thoughts that try to check them. Pennyloaf was learning to depend upon these words for strength
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