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- Thyrza - 80/122 -
from King's Cross to Holloway. It is doubtful whether London can show any thoroughfare of importance more offensive to eye and ear and nostril. You stand at the entrance to it, and gaze into a region of supreme ugliness; every house front is marked with meanness and inveterate grime; every shop seems breaking forth with mould or dry-rot; the people who walk here appear one and all to be employed in labour that soils body and spirit. Journey on the top of a tram-car from King's Cross to Holloway, and civilisation has taught you its ultimate achievement in ignoble hideousness. You look off into narrow side-channels where unconscious degradation has made its inexpugnable home, and sits veiled with refuse. You pass above lines of railway, which cleave the region with black-breathing fissure. You see the pavements half occupied with the paltriest and most sordid wares; the sign of the pawnbroker is on every hand; the public-houses look and reek more intolerably than in other places. The population is dense, the poverty is undisguised. All this northward-bearing tract, between Camden Town on the one hand and Islington on the other, is the valley of the shadow of vilest servitude. Its public monument is a cyclopean prison: save for the desert around the Great Northern Goods Depot, its only open ground is a malodorous cattle-market. In comparison, Lambeth is picturesque and venerable, St. Giles's is romantic, Hoxton is clean and suggestive of domesticity, Whitechapel is full of poetry, Limehouse is sweet with sea-breathings.
Hither Mrs. Ormonde drove from Victoria Station. The neighbourhood was unknown to her save by name. On entering the Caledonian Road, her cabman had to make inquiries for Bank Street, which he at length found not far from the prison. He drew up before a small coffee-shop, on the window whereof was pasted this advertisement: 'Dine here! Best quality. Largest quantity! Lowest price.' Over the door was the name 'Gandle.'
Mrs. Ormonde bade the driver wait, and entered. It was the dinner-hour of this part of the world. Every available place was occupied by men, some in their shirt-sleeves, who were doing ample justice to the fare set before them by Mrs. Gandle and her daughter. Beyond the space assigned to the public was a partition of wood, four feet high, with a door in the middle; this concealed the kitchen, whence came clouds of steam, and the sound of frying, and odours manifold. At the entrance of a lady--a lady without qualification--such of the feeders as happened to look from their plates stared in wonderment. It was an embarrassing position. Mrs. Ormonde walked quickly down the narrow gangway, and to the door in the partition. A young woman was just coming forth, with steaming plates on a tray.
'Can I see Mrs. Gandle?' the visitor asked.
The girl cried out: 'Mother, you're wanted!' and pushed past, with grins bestowed on either side.
Above the partition appeared a face like a harvest moon.
'I have come in reply to your letter,' Mrs. Ormonde said, 'the letter about the girl who is ill.'
'Oh, you've come, have you, mum!' was the reply, in a voice at once respectful and surprised. 'Would you be so good as step inside, mum? Please push the door.'
Mrs. Ormonde was relieved to pass into the privacy of the kitchen. It was a room of some ten feet square, insufferably hot, very dirty, a factory for the production of human fodder. On a side table stood a great red dripping mass, whence Mrs. Gandle severed portions to be supplied as roast beef. Vessels on the range held a green substance which was called cabbage, and yellow lumps doled forth as potatoes. Before the fire, bacon and sausages were frizzling; above it was spluttering a beef-steak. On a sink in one corner were piled eating utensils which awaited the wipe of a very loathsome rag hanging hard by. Other objects lay about in indescribable confusion.
Mrs. Gandle was a very stout woman, with bare arms. She perspired freely, and was not a little disconcerted by the appearance of her visitor. Her moon-face had a simple and not disagreeable look.
'You won't mind me a-getting on with my work the whiles I talk, mum?' she said. 'The men's tied to time, most of em, and I've often lost a customer by keepin' him waitin'. They're not too sweet-tempered in these parts. I was born and bred in Peckham myself, and only come here when I married my second husband, which he's a plumber by trade. I can't so much as ask you for to sit down, mum. You see, we have to 'conomise room, as my husband says. But I can talk and work, both; only I've got to keep one ear open--'
A shrill voice cried from the shop:
'Two beefs, 'taters an' greens! One steak-pie, 'taters! Two cups o' tea!'
'Right!' cried Mrs. Gandle, and proceeded to execute the orders.
'What is this poor girl's name?' Mrs. Ormonde asked. 'You didn't mention it.'
'Well, mum, she calls herself Mary Wood. Do you know any one o' that name?'
'I think not.'
'Now come along, 'Lizabeth!' screamed the woman of a sudden, at the top of her voice. 'Don't stand a-talkin' there! Two beefs, 'taters and greens.'
'That's right, Mrs. Gandle!' roared some man. 'You give it her. It's the usial Bow-bells with her an' Sandy Dick 'ere!'
There was laughter, and 'Lizabeth came running for her orders. Mrs. Gandle, with endless interruptions, proceeded thus:
'Between you and me, mum, I don't believe as that is her name. But she give it at first, and she's stuck to it. No, I don't think she's worse to-day, though she talked a lot in the night. Yes, we've had a doctor. She wouldn't have me send for nobody, and said as there was nothing ailed her, but then it come as she couldn't stand on her feet. She's a littlish girl, may be seventeen or eighteen, with yellow-like hair. I haven't knowed well what to do; I thought I'd ought to send her to the 'orspital, but then I found the henvelope in her pocket, an' we thought we'd just wait a day to see if anybody answered us. And I didn't like to act heartless with her, neither; she's a motherless thing, so she says, an' only wants for to earn her keep and her sleep; an' I don't think there's no harm in her, s'far as I can see. She come into the shop last night was three weeks, just after eleven o'clock, and she says, 'If you please, mum,' she says, speakin' very nice, 'can you give me a bed for sevenpence?' 'Why, I don't know about that,' says I, 'I haven't a bedroom as I let usial under a shilling.' Then she was for goin' straight away, without another word. And she was so quiet like, it took me as I couldn't send her off without asking her something about herself. And she said she hadn't got no 'ome in London, and only sevenpence in her pocket, and as how she wanted to find work. And she must have walked about a deal, she looked that dead beat.
'Well, I just went in and spoke a word to Mr. Gandle. It's true as we wanted someone to help me 'an 'Lizabeth; we've wanted someone bad for a long time. And this young girl wouldn't be amiss, we thought, for waitin' in the shop; the men likes to see a noo face, you know, mum, an' all the more if it's a good-looking 'un. If she'd been a orn'ary lookin' girl, of course I couldn't have not so much as thought of it, as things was. She told me plain an' straightforward as she couldn't say who she was and where she come from. And it was something in her way o' speakin', a kind o' quietness like, as you don't hoften get in young girls nowadays. They're so for'ard, as their parents ain't got the same 'old on 'em as they had when I was young. I shouldn't wonder if you've noticed the same thing with your servants, mum. An' so I said as I'd let her have a bed for sevenpence; and if you'd a' seen how thankful she looked. She wasn't the kind to go an' sleep anywhere, an' goodness only knows what might a' come to her at that hour o' the night. And the next mornin' she did look that white an' poorly, when I met her a-comin' down the stairs. 'Well,' says I, 'an' what about breakfast, eh?' She went a bit red like, an' said as it didn't matter; she'd go out an' find work. 'Well, look here now,' says I, 'suppose you wash up them things there to pay for a cup o' tea and two slices?' An' then she looked at me thankful again, an' says as it was kind o' me. Well, of course, you may say as it isn't everybody 'ud a' took her in for sevenpence, but then, as I was a-sayin', we did want somebody to help me an' 'Lizabeth, an' I don't take much to myself for what I did.'
'You acted well and kindly, Mrs. Gandle,' said Mrs. Ormonde.
So the long story went on. The girl had been only too glad to stay as general servant, and worked well, worked as hard as any one could expect, Mrs. Gandle said. But she was far from well, and every day, after the first week, her strength fell off. At length she had a fainting fit, falling with two dishes in her hands. Her work had to be lightened. But the fainting was several times repeated, and, now three days ago, illness it was impossible to struggle against kept her to her bed.
'Well, I begged an' I prayed of her as she'd tell me where she belonged, and where her friends was. But she could only cry an' say as she'd go away, and wouldn't be a burden. 'Don't talk silly, child,' I kep' sayin'. 'How can you go away in this state? Unless you're goin' to your friends?' But she said no, as she hadn't no friends to go to. An' she cried so, it fair went to my heart, the poor thing! An' I begun to be that afraid as she'd die. I am that glad as you've come, mum. If you don't mind waitin' another ten minutes, the worst o' this 'll be over, an' then I can leave 'Lizabeth to it, and go upstairs with you.'
'Is she conscious at present?'
'She was, a little while ago. It is the nights is worst, of course. Last night she talked an' talked: it's easy to see she has some trouble on her mind. I haven't got nobody as can sit with her when we have the shop full. But I was with her up to three o'clock this morning; then 'Lizabeth took my place till the shop was opened for the early corfee. I don't think she's no worse, and the doctor he don't think so. He's a clever man, I believe; at all events he has that name, as I may say, and he lives just round here in Winter Street, a house with green-painted railing, and ''Spensary' wrote up on the window'
'Will he call again to-day?'
'I don't suppose as he _would_, but he's sure to be at 'ome in an hour, and, if you'd like, mum, I'd just send 'Lizabeth round.'
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