The year’s at the spring
THIS is not that Badalia whose spare names were Joanna, Pugnacious, and M’Canna, as the song says, but another and a much nicer lady.In the beginning of things she had been unregenerate; had worn the heavy fluffy fringe which is the ornament of the costermonger’s girl, and there is a legend in Gunnison Street that on her wedding-day she, a flare-lamp in either hand, danced dances on a discarded lover’s winkle-barrow, till a policeman interfered, and then Badalia danced with the Law amid shoutings. Those were her days of fatness, and they did not last long, for her husband after two years took to himself another woman, and passed out of Badalia’s life, over Badalia’s senseless body; for he stifled protest with blows. While she was enjoying her widowhood the baby that the husband had not taken away died of croup, and Badalia was altogether alone. With rare fidelity she listened to no proposals for a second marriage according to the customs of Gunnison Street, which do not differ from those of the Barralong. ‘My man,’ she explained to her suitors, ‘’e’ll come back one o’ these days, an’ then, like as not, ’e’ll take an’ kill me if I was livin’ ’long o’ you. You don’t know Tom; I do. Now you go. I can do for myself—not ‘avin’ a kid.’ She did for herself with a mangle, some tending of babies, and an occasional sale of flowers. This latter trade is one that needs capital, and takes the vendor very far westward, insomuch that the return journey from, let us say, the Burlington Arcade to Gunnison Street, E., is an excuse for drink, and then, as Badalia pointed out, ‘You come ’ome with your shawl arf off of your back, an’ your bonnick under your arm, and the price of nothing-at-all in your pocket, let alone a slop takin’ care o’ you.’ Badalia did not drink, but she knew her sisterhood, and gave them rude counsel. Otherwise she kept herself to herself, and meditated a great deal upon Tom Herodsfoot, her husband, who would come back some day, and the baby who would never return. In what manner these thoughts wrought upon her mind will not be known.
Her entry into society dates from the night when she rose literally under the feet of the Reverend Eustace Hanna, on the landing of No. 17 Gunnison Street, and told him that he was a fool without discernment in the dispensation of his district charities.
‘You give Lascar Loo custids,’ said she, without the formality of introduction; ‘give her pork-wine. Garn! Give ’er blankits. Garn ’ome! ’Er mother, she eats ’em all, and drinks the blankits. Gits ’em back from the shop, she does, before you come visiting again, so as to ’ave ’em all handy an’ proper; an’ Lascar Loo she sez to you, “Oh, my mother’s that good to me!” she do. Lascar Loo ’ad better talk so, bein’ sick abed, ’r else ’er mother would kill ’er. Garn! you’re a bloomin’ gardener—you an’ yer custids! Lascar Loo don’t never smell of ’em even.’
Thereon the curate, instead of being offended, recognised in the heavy eyes under the fringe the soul of a fellow-worker, and so bade Badalia mount guard over Lascar Loo, when the next jelly or custard should arrive, to see that the invalid actually ate it. This Badalia did, to the disgust of Lascar Loo’s mother, and the sharing of a black eye between the three; but Lascar Loo got her custard, and coughing heartily, rather enjoyed the fray.
Later on, partly through the Reverend Eustace Hanna’s swift recognition of her uses, and partly through certain tales poured out with moist eyes and flushed cheeks by Sister Eva, youngest and most impressionable of the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond, it came to pass that Badalia, arrogant, fluffy-fringed, and perfectly unlicensed in speech, won a recognised place among such as labour in Gunnison Street.
These were a mixed corps, zealous or hysterical, faint-hearted or only very wearied of battle against misery, according to their lights. The most part were consumed with small rivalries and personal jealousies, to be retailed confidentially to their own tiny cliques in the pauses between wrestling with death for the body of a moribund laundress, or scheming for further mission-grants to resole a consumptive compositor’s very consumptive boots. There was a rector that lived in dread of pauperising the poor, would fain have held bazars for fresh altar-cloths, and prayed in secret for a large new brass bird, with eyes of red glass, fondly believed to be carbuncles. There was Brother Victor, of the Order of Little Ease, who knew a great deal about altar-cloths, but kept his knowledge in the background while he strove to propitiate Mrs. Jessel, the Secretary of the Tea Cup Board, who had money to dispense, but hated Rome—even though Rome would, on its honour, do no more than fill the stomach, leaving the dazed soul to the mercies of Mrs. Jessel. There were all the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond, daughters of the horseleech, crying ‘Give’ when their own charity was exhausted, and pitifully explaining to such as demanded an account of their disbursements in return for one half-sovereign, that relief-work in a bad district can hardly be systematised on the accounts’ side without expensive duplication of staff. There was the Reverend Eustace Hanna, who worked impartially with Ladies’ Committees, Androgynous Leagues and Guilds, Brother Victor, and anybody else who could give him money, boots, or blankets, or that more precious help that allows itself to be directed by those who know. And all these people learned, one by one, to consult Badalia on matters of personal character, right to relief, and hope of eventual reformation in Gunnison Street. Her answers were seldom cheering, but she possessed special knowledge and complete confidence in herself.
‘I’m Gunnison Street,’ she said to the austere Mrs. Jessel. ‘I know what’s what, I do, an’ they don’t want your religion, Mum, not a single——. Excuse me. It’s all right when they comes to die, Mum, but till they die what they wants is things to eat. The men they’ll shif’ for themselves. That’s why Nick Lapworth sez to you that ’e wants to be confirmed an’ all that. ’E won’t never lead no new life, nor ’is wife won’t get no good out o’ all the money you gives ’im. No more you can’t pauperise them as ’asn’t things to begin with. They’re bloomin’ well pauped. The women they can’t shif’ for themselves— ’specially bein’ always confined. ’Ow should they? They wants things if they can get ’em anyways. If not they dies, and a good job too, for women is cruel put upon in Gunnison Street.’
‘Do you believe that—that Mrs. Herodsfoot is altogether a proper person to trust funds to?’ said Mrs. Jessel to the curate after this conversation. ‘She seems to be utterly godless in her, speech at least.’
The curate agreed. She was godless according to Mrs. Jessel’s views, but did not Mrs. Jessel think that since Badalia knew Gunnison Street and its needs, as none other knew it, she might in a humble way be, as it were, the scullion of charity from purer sources, and that if, say, the Tea Cup Board could give a few shillings a week, and the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond a few more, and, yes, he himself could raise yet a few more, the total, not at all likely to be excessive, might be handed over to Badalia to dispense among her associates. Thus Mrs. Jessel herself would be set free to attend more directly to the spiritual wants of certain large-limbed hulking men who sat picturesquely on the lower benches of her gatherings and sought for truth—which is quite as precious as silver, when you know the market for it.
‘She’ll favour her own friends,’ said Mrs. Jessel. The curate refrained from mirth, and, after wise flattery, carried his point. To her unbounded pride Badalia was appointed the dispenser of a grant—a weekly trust, to be held for the benefit of Gunnison Street.
‘I don’t know what we can get together each week,’ said the curate to her. ‘But here are seventeen shillings to start with. You do what you like with them among your people, only let me know how it goes so that we shan’t get muddled in the accounts. D’you see?’
‘Ho yuss! ’Taint much though, is it?’ said Badalia, regarding the white coins in her palm. The sacred fever of the administrator, only known to those who have tasted power, burned in her veins. ‘Boots is boots, unless they’re give you, an’ then they ain’t fit to wear unless they’re mended top an’ bottom; an’ jellies is jellies; an’ I don’t think anything o’ that cheap pork-wine, but it all comes to something. It’ll go quicker ’n a quartern of gin—seventeen bob. An’ I’ll keep a book—same as I used to do before Tom went an’ took up ’long o’ that pan-faced slut in Hennessy’s Rents. We was the only barrer that kep’ regular books, me an’—’im.’
She bought a large copy-book—her unschooled handwriting demanded room—and in it she wrote the story of her war; boldly, as befits a general, and for no other eyes than her own and those of the Reverend Eustace Hanna. Long ere the pages were full the mottled cover had been soaked in kerosene—Lascar Loo’s mother, defrauded of her percentage on her daughter’s custards, invaded Badalia’s room in 17 Gunnison Street, and fought with her to the damage of the lamp and her own hair. It was hard, too, to carry the precious ‘pork-wine’ in one hand and the book in the other through an eternally thirsty land; so red stains were added to those of the oil. But the Reverend Eustace Hanna, looking at the matter of the book, never objected. The generous scrawls told their own tale, Badalia every Saturday night supplying the chorus between the written statements thus:
‘I slapped ’is face for a bone-idle beggar! ’E won’t get no work becos ’e’s—excuse me, sir. Won’t you go on?’ The curate continued’
‘Did Sister Eva do that?’ said the curate very softly. Now charity was Sister Eva’s bounden duty, yet to one man’s eyes each act of her daily toil was a manifestation of angelic grace and goodness—a thing to perpetually admire.
‘Yes, sir. She went back to the Sisters’ ’Ome an’ took ’em off ’er own bed. Most beautiful marked too. Go on, sir. That makes up four and thruppence.’
Mrs. Junnet to keep good fire coals is up. 7d. Mrs. Lockhart took a baby to nurse to earn a triffle but mother can’d pay husband summons over and over. He won’t help. Cash 2s. 2d. Worked in a ketchin but had to leave. Fire, tea, and shin of beef 1s. 7½d.
‘There was a fight there, sir,’ said Badalia. ‘Not me, sir. ’Er ’usband, o’ course ’e come in at the wrong time, was wishful to ’ave the beef, so I calls up the next floor an’ down comes that mulatter man wot sells the sword-stick canes, top o’ Ludgate-’ill. “Muley,” sez I, “you big black beast, you, take an’ kill this big white beast ’ere.” I knew I couldn’t stop Tom Lockart ’alf drunk, with the beef in ’is ’ands. “I’ll beef ’m,” sez Muley, an’ ’e did it, with that pore woman a-cryin’ in the next room, an’ the top banisters on that landin’ is broke out, but she got ’er beef-tea, an’ Tom ’e’s got ’is gruel. Will you go on, sir?’
‘No, I think it will be all right. I’ll sign for the week,’ said the curate. One gets so used to these things profanely called human documents.
‘Mrs. Churner’s baby’s got diptheery,’ said Badalia, turning to go.
‘Where’s that? The Churners of Painter’s Alley, or the other Churners in Houghton Street?’
‘Houghton Street. The Painter’s Alley people, they’re sold out an’ left.’
‘Sister Eva’s sitting one night a week with old Mrs. Probyn in Houghton Street—isn’t she?’ said the curate uneasily.
‘Yes; but she won’t sit no longer. I’ve took up Mrs. Probyn. I can’t talk ’er no religion, but she don’t want it; an’ Miss Eva she don’t want no diptheery, tho’ she sez she does. Don’t you be afraid for Miss Eva.’
‘But—but you’ll get it, perhaps.’
‘Like as not.’ She looked the curate between the eyes, and her own eyes flamed under the fringe. ‘Maybe I’d like to get it, for aught you know.’
The curate thought upon these words for a little time till he began to think of Sister Eva in the gray cloak with the white bonnet ribbons under the chin. Then he thought no more of Badalia.
What Badalia thought was never expressed in words, but it is known in Gunnison Street that Lascar Loo’s mother, sitting blind drunk on her own doorstep, was that night captured and wrapped up in the war-cloud of Badalia’s wrath, so that she did not know whether she stood on her head or her heels, and after being soundly bumped on every particular stair up to her room, was set down on Badalia’s bed, there to whimper and quiver till the dawn, protesting that all the world was against her, and calling on the names of children long since slain by dirt and neglect. Badalia; snorting, went out to war, and since the hosts of the enemy were many, found enough work to keep her busy till the dawn.
As she had promised, she took Mrs. Probyn into her own care, and began by nearly startling the old lady into a fit with the announcement that ‘there ain’t no God like as not, an’ if there is it don’t matter to you or me, an’ any’ow you take this jelly.’ Sister Eva objected to being shut off from her pious work in Houghton Street, but Badalia insisted, and by fair words and the promise of favours to come so prevailed on three or four of the more sober men of the neighbourhood, that they blockaded the door whenever Sister Eva attempted to force an entry, and pleaded the diphtheria as an excuse. ‘I’ve got to keep ’er out o’ ’arm’s way,’ said Badalia, ‘an’ out she keeps. The curick won’t care a —— for me, but—he wouldn’t any’ow.’
The effect of that quarantine was to shift the sphere of Sister Eva’s activity to other streets, and notably those most haunted by the Reverend Eustace Hanna and Brother Victor, of the Order of Little Ease. There exists, for all their human bickerings, a very close brotherhood in the ranks of those whose work lies in Gunnison Street. To begin with, they have seen pain—pain that no word or deed of theirs can alleviate—life born into Death, and Death crowded down by unhappy life. Also they understand the full significance of drink, which is a knowledge hidden from very many well-meaning people, and some of them have fought with the beasts at Ephesus. They meet at unseemly hours in unseemly places, exchange a word or two of hasty counsel, advice, or suggestion, and pass on to their appointed toil, since time is precious and lives hang in the balance of five minutes. For many, the gas-lamps are their sun, and the Covent Garden wains the chariots of the twilight. They have all in their station begged for money, so that the freemasonry of the mendicant binds them together.
To all these influences there was added in the case of two workers that thing which men have agreed to call Love. The chance that Sister Eva might catch diphtheria did not enter into the curate’s head till Badalia had spoken. Then it seemed a thing intolerable and monstrous that she should be exposed not only to this risk, but any accident whatever of the streets. A wain coming round a corner might kill her; the rotten staircases on which she trod daily and nightly might collapse and maim her; there was danger in the tottering coping-stones of certain crazy houses that he knew well; danger more deadly within those houses. What if one of a thousand drunken men crushed out that precious life? A woman had once flung a chair at the curate’s head. Sister Eva’s arm would not be strong enough to ward off a chair. There were also knives that were quick to fly. These and other considerations cast the soul of the Reverend Eustace Hanna into torment that no leaning upon Providence could relieve. God was indubitably great and terrible—one had only to walk through Gunnison Street to see that much—but it would be better, vastly better, that Eva should have the protection of his own arm. And the world that was not too busy to watch might have seen a woman, not too young, light-haired and light-eyed, slightly assertive in her speech, and very limited in such ideas as lay beyond the immediate sphere of her duty, where the eyes of the Reverend Eustace Hanna turned to follow the footsteps of a Queen crowned in a little gray bonnet with white ribbons under the chin.
If that bonnet appeared for a moment at the bottom of a courtyard, or nodded at him on a dark staircase, then there was hope yet for Lascar Loo, living on one lung and the memory of past excesses, hope even for whining sodden Nick Lapworth, blaspheming, in the hope of money, over the pangs of a ‘true conversion this time, s’elp me Gawd, sir.’ If that bonnet did not appear for a day, the mind of the curate was filled with lively pictures of horror, visions of stretchers, a crowd at some villainous crossing, and a policeman—he could see that policeman—jerking out over his shoulder the details of the accident, and ordering the man who would have set his body against the wheels—heavy dray wheels, he could see them—to ‘move on.’ Then there was less hope for the salvation of Gunnison Street and all in it.
This agony Brother Victor beheld one day when he was coming from a death-bed. He saw the light in the eye, the relaxing muscles of the mouth, and heard a new ring in the voice that had told flat all the forenoon. Sister Eva had turned into Gunnison Street after a forty-eight hours’ eternity of absence. She had not been run over. Brother Victor’s heart must have suffered in some human fashion, or he would never have seen what he saw. But the Law of his Church made suffering easy. His duty was to go on with his work until he died, even as Badalia went on. She, magnifying her office, faced the drunken husband; coaxed the doubly shiftless, thriftless girl-wife into a little fore-thought, and begged clothes when and where she could for the scrofulous babes that multiplied like the green scum on the untopped water-cisterns.
The story of her deeds was written in the book that the curate signed weekly, but she never told him any more of fights and tumults in the street. ‘Mis’ Eva does ’er work ’er way. I does mine mine. But I do more than Mis’ Eva ten times over, an’ “Thank yer, Badalia,” sez ’e, “that’ll do for this week.” I wonder what Tom’s doin’ now long o’ that—other woman. ’Seems like as if I’d go an’ look at ’im one o’ these days. But I’d cut ’er liver out—couldn’t ’elp myself. Better not go, p’raps.’
Hennessy’s Rents lay more than two miles from Gunnison Street, and were inhabited by much the same class of people. Tom had established himself there with Jenny Wabstow, his new woman, and for weeks lived in great fear of Badalia’s suddenly descending upon him. The prospect of actual fighting did not scare him; but he objected to the police-court that would follow, and the orders for maintenance and other devices of a law that cannot understand the simple rule that ‘when a man’s tired of a woman ’e ain’t such a bloomin’ fool as to live with ’er no more, an’ that’s the long an’ short of it.’ For some months his new wife wore very well, and kept Tom in a state of decent fear and consequent orderliness. Also work was plentiful. Then a baby was born, and, following the law of his kind, Tom, little interested in the children he helped to produce, sought distraction in drink. He had confined himself, as a rule, to beer, which is stupefying and comparatively innocuous: at least, it clogs the legs, and though the heart may ardently desire to kill, sleep comes swiftly, and the crime often remains undone. Spirits, being more volatile, allow both the flesh and the soul to work together—generally to the inconvenience of others. Tom discovered that there was merit in whisky—if you only took enough of it—cold. He took as much as he could purchase or get given him, and by the time that his woman was fit to go abroad again, the two rooms of their household were stripped of many valuable articles. Then the woman spoke her mind, not once, but several times, with point, fluency, and metaphor; and Tom was indignant at being deprived of peace at the end of his day’s work, which included much whisky. He therefore withdrew himself from the solace and companionship of Jenny Wabstow, and she therefore pursued him with more metaphors. At the last, Tom would turn round and hit her—sometimes across the head, and sometimes across the breast, and the bruises furnished material for discussion on doorsteps among such women as had been treated in like manner by their husbands. They were not few.
But no very public scandal had occurred till Tom one day saw fit to open negotiations with a young woman for matrimony according to the laws of free selection. He was getting very tired of Jenny, and the young woman was earning enough from flower-selling to keep him in comfort, whereas Jenny was expecting another baby, and most unreasonably expected consideration on this account. The shapelessness of her figure revolted him, and he said as much in the language of his breed. Jenny cried till Mrs. Hart, lineal descendant, and Irish of the ‘mother to Mike of the donkey-cart,’ stopped her on her own staircase and whispered ‘God be good to you, Jenny, my woman, for I see how ’Tis with you.’ Jenny wept more than ever, and gave Mrs. Hart a penny and some kisses, while Tom was conducting his own wooing at the corner of the street.
The young woman, prompted by pride, not by virtue, told Jenny of his offers, and Jenny spoke to Tom that night. The altercation began in their own rooms, but Tom tried to escape; and in the end all Hennessy’s Rents gathered themselves upon the pavement and formed a court to which Jenny appealed from time to time, her hair loose on her neck, her raiment in extreme disorder, and her steps astray from drink. ‘When your man drinks, you’d better drink too! It don’t ’urt so much when ’e ’its you then,’ says the Wisdom of the Women. And surely they ought to know.
‘Look at ’im!’ shrieked Jenny. ‘Look at ’im, standin’ there without any word to say for himself, that ’ud smitch off and leave me an’ never so much as a shillin’ lef’ be’ind! You call yourself a man—you call yourself the bleedin’ shadow of a man? I’ve seen better men than you made outer chewed paper and spat out arterwards. Look at ’im! ’E’s been drunk since Thursday last, an’ ’e’ll be drunk s’ long’s ’e can get drink. ’E’s took all I’ve got, an’ me—an’ me—as you see——’
A murmur of sympathy from the women.
‘Took it all, he did, an’ atop of his blasted pickin’ an’ stealin’—yes, you, you thief—’e goes off an’ tries to take up long o’ that ’—here followed a complete and minute description of the young woman. Luckily, she was not on the spot to hear. ‘’E’ll serve ’er as ’e served me! ’E’ll drink every bloomin’ copper she makes an’ then leave ’er alone, same as ’e done me! O women, look you, I’ve bore ’im one an’ there’s another on the way, an’ ’e’d up an’ leave me as I am now—the stinkin’ dorg. An’ you may leave me. I don’t want none o’ your leavin’s. Go away. Get away!’ The hoarseness of passion overpowered the voice. The crowd attracted a policeman as Tom began to slink away.
‘Look at ’im,’ said Jenny, grateful for the new listener. ‘Ain’t there no law for such as ’im? ’E’s took all my money, ’E’s beat me once, twice an’ over. ’E’s swine drunk when ’e ain’t mad drunk, an’ now, an’ now ’e’s trying to pick up along o’ another woman. ’;Im I give up a four times better man for. Ain’t there no law?’
‘What’s the matter now? You go into your ’ouse. I’ll see to the man. ‘As ’e been ’itting you?’ said the policeman.
‘’Ittin’ me? ’E’s cut my ’eart in two, an’ ’e stands there grinnin’ as tho’ ’twas all a play to ’im.’
‘You go on into your ’ouse an’ lie down a bit.’
‘I’m a married woman, I tell you, an’ I’ll ’ave my ’usband!’
‘I ain’t done her no bloomin’ ’arm,’ said Tom from the edge of the crowd. He felt that public opinion was running against him.
‘You ain’t done me any bloomin’ good, you dorg. I’m a married woman, I am, an’ I won’t ’ave my ’usband took from me.’
‘Well, if you are a married woman, cover your breasts,’ said the policeman soothingly. He was used to domestic brawls.
‘Shan’t—thank you for your impidence. Look ’ere!’ She tore open her dishevelled bodice and showed such crescent-shaped bruises as are made by a well-applied chair-back. ‘That’s what ’e done to me acause my heart wouldn’t break quick enough! ’E’s tried to get in an’ break it. Look at that, Tom, that you gave me last night; an’ I made it up with you. But that was before I knew what you were tryin’ to do long o’ that woman——’
‘D’you charge ’im?’ said the policeman. ‘’E’ll get a month for it, per’aps.’
‘No,’ said Jenny firmly. It was one thing to expose her man to the scorn of the street, and another to lead him to jail.
‘Then you go in an’ lie down, and you’—this to the crowd—‘pass along the pavement, there. Pass along. ’Taint nothing to laugh at.’ To Tom, who was being sympathised with by his friends, ‘It’s good for you she didn’t charge you, but mind this now, the next time,’ etc.
Tom did not at all appreciate Jenny’s forbearance, nor did his friends help to compose his mind. He had whacked the woman because she was a nuisance. For precisely the same reason he had cast about for a new mate. And all his kind acts had ended in a truly painful scene in the street, a most unjustifiable exposure by and of his woman, and a certain loss of caste—this he realised dimly—among his associates. Consequently, all women were nuisances, and consequently whisky was a good thing. His friends condoled with him. Perhaps he had been more hard on his woman than she deserved, but her disgraceful conduct under provocation excused all offence.
‘I wouldn’t ’ave no more to do with ’er—a woman like that there,’ said one comforter.
‘Let ’er go an’ dig for her bloomin’ self. A man wears ’isself out to ’is bones shovin’ meat down their mouths, while they sit at ’ome easy all day; an’ the very fust time, mark you, you ’as a bit of a difference, an’ very proper too for a man as is a man, she ups an’ ’as you out into the street, callin’ you Gawd knows what all. What’s the good o’ that, I arx you?’ So spoke the second comforter.
The whisky was the third, and his suggestion struck Tom as the best of all. He would return to Badalia his wife. Probably she would have been doing something wrong while he had been away, and he could then vindicate his authority as a husband. Certainly she would have money. Single women always seemed to possess the pence that God and the Government denied to hard-working men. He refreshed himself with more whisky. It was beyond any doubt that Badalia would have done something wrong. She might even have married another man. He would wait till the new husband was out of the way, and, after kicking Badalia, would get money and a long absent sense of satisfaction. There is much virtue in a creed or a law, but when all is prayed and suffered, drink is the only thing that will make clean all a man’s deeds in his own eyes. Pity it is that the effects are not permanent.
Tom parted with his friends, bidding them tell Jenny that he was going to Gunnison Street, and would return to her arms no more. Because this was the devil’s message, they remembered and severally delivered it, with drunken distinctness, in Jenny’s ears. Then Tom took more drink till his drunkenness rolled back and stood off from him as a wave rolls back and stands off the wreck it will swamp. He reached the traffic-polished black asphalte of a side-street and trod warily among the reflections of the shop-lamps that burned in gulfs of pitchy darkness, fathoms beneath his boot-heels. He was very sober indeed. Looking down his past, he beheld that he was justified of all his actions so entirely and perfectly that if Badalia had in his absence dared to lead a blameless life he would smash her for not having gone wrong.
Badalia at that moment was in her own room after the regular nightly skirmish with Lascar Loo’s mother. To a reproof as stinging as a Gunnison Street tongue could make it, the old woman, detected for the hundredth time in the theft of the poor delicacies meant for the invalid, could only cackle and answer—
‘D’you think Loo’s never bilked a man in ’er life? She’s dyin’ now—on’y she’s so cunning long about it. Me! I’ll live for twenty years yet.’
Badalia shook her, more on principle than in any hope of curing her, and thrust her into the night, where she collapsed on the pavement and called upon the devil to slay Badalia.
He came upon the word in the shape of a man with a very pale face who asked for her by name. Lascar Loo’s mother remembered. It was Badalia’s husband—and the return of a husband to Gunnison Street was generally followed by beatings.
‘Where’s my wife?’ said Tom. ‘Where’s my slut of a wife?’
‘Upstairs an’ be —— to her,’ said the old woman, falling over on her side. ‘’Ave you come back for ’er, Tom?’
‘Yes. ‘Oo’s she took up while I bin gone?’
‘All the bloomin’ curicks in the parish. She’s that set up you wouldn’t know ’er.’
‘’Strewth she is!’
‘Oh, yuss. Mor’n that, she’s always round an’ about with them sniffin’ Sisters of Charity an’ the curick. Mor’n that, ’e gives ’er money—pounds an’ pounds a week. Been keepin’ her that way for months, ’e ’as. No wonder you wouldn’t ’ave nothin’ to do with ’er when you left. An’ she keeps me outer the food-stuff they gets for me lyin’ dyin’ out ’ere like a dorg. She’s been a blazin’ bad un has Badalia since you lef’.’
‘Got the same room still, ’as she?’ said Tom, striding over Lascar Loo’s mother, who was picking at the chinks between the pave-stones.
‘Yes, but so fine you wouldn’t know it.’
Tom went up the stairs and the old lady chuckled. Tom was angry. Badalia would not be able to bump people for some time to come, or to interfere with the heaven-appointed distribution of custards.
Badalia, undressing to go to bed, heard feet on the stair that she knew well. Ere they stopped to kick at her door she had, in her own fashion, thought over very many things.
‘Tom’s back,’ she said to herself. ‘An’ I’m glad . . . spite o’ the curick an’ everythink.’
She opened the door, crying his name.
The man pushed her aside.
‘I don’t want none o’ your kissin’s an’ slaverin’s. I’m sick of ’em,’ said he.
‘You ain’t ’ad so many neither to make you sick these two years past.’
‘I’ve ’ad better. Got any money?’
‘On’y a little—orful little.’
‘That’s a —— lie, an’ you know it.’
‘’Taint—and, oh Tom, what’s the use o’ talkin’ money the minute you come back? Didn’t you like Jenny? I knowed you wouldn’t.’
‘Shut your ’ead. Ain’t you got enough to, make a man drunk fair?’
‘You don’t want bein’ made more drunk any. You’re drunk a’ready. You come to bed, Tom.’
‘Ay, to me. Ain’t I nothin’—spite o’ Jenny?’
She put out her arms as she spoke. But the drink held Tom fast.
‘Not for me,’ said he, steadying himself against the wall. ‘Don’t I know ’ow you’ve been goin’ on while I was away, yah!’
‘Arsk about!’ said Badalia indignantly, drawing herself together. ‘’Oo sez anythink agin me ere?’
‘’Oo sez? W’y, everybody. I ain’t come back more’n a minute fore I finds you’ve been with the curick Gawd knows where. Wot curick was ’e?’
‘The curick that’s ’ere always,’ said Badalia hastily. She was thinking of anything rather than the Rev. Eustace Hanna at that moment. Tom sat down gravely in the only chair in the room. Badalia continued her arrangements for going to bed.
‘Pretty thing that,’ said Tom, ‘to tell your own lawful married ’usband—an’ I guv five bob for the weddin’-ring. Curick that’s ’ere always! Cool as brass you are. Ain’t you got no shame? Ain’t ’e under the bed now?’
‘Tom, you’re bleedin’ drunk. I ain’t done nothin’ to be ’shamed of.’
‘You! You don’t know wot shame is. But I ain’t come ’ere to mess with you. Give me wot you’ve got, an’ then I’ll dress you down an’ go to Jenny.’
‘I ain’t got nothin’ ’cept some coppers an’ a shillin’ or so.’
‘Wot’s that about the curick keepin’ you on five poun’ a week?’
‘’Oo told you that?’
‘Lascar Loo’s mother, lyin’ on the pavemint outside, an’ more honest than you’ll ever be. Give me wot you’ve got!’
Badalia passed over to a little shell pin-cushion on the mantelpiece, drew thence four shillings and threepence—the lawful earnings of her trade—and held them out to the man who was rocking in his chair and surveying the room with wide-opened, rolling eyes.
‘That ain’t five poun’,’ said he drowsily.
‘I ain’t got no more. Take it an’ go—if you won’t stay.’
Tom rose slowly, gripping the arms of the chair. ‘Wot about the curick’s money that ’e guv you?’ said he. ‘Lascar Loo’s mother told me. You give it over to me now, or I’ll make you.’
‘Lascar Loo’s mother don’t know anything about it.’
‘She do, an’ more than you want her to know.’
‘She don’t. I’ve bumped the ’eart out of ’er, and I can’t give you the money. Anythin’ else but that, Tom, an’ everythin’ else but that, Tom, I’ll give willin’ and true. ’Taint my money. Won’t the dollar be enough? That money’s my trust. There’s a book along of it too.’
‘Your trust? Wot are you doin’ with any trust that your ’usband don’t know of? You an’ your trust! Take you that!’
Tom stepped towards her and delivered a blow of the clenched fist across the mouth. ‘Give me wot you’ve got,’ said he, in the thick, abstracted voice of one talking in dreams.
‘I won’t,’ said Badalia, staggering to the washstand. With any other man than her husband she would have fought savagely as a wild cat; but Tom had been absent two years, and, perhaps, a little timely submission would win him back to her. None the less, the weekly trust was sacred.
The wave that had so long held back descended on Tom’s brain. He caught Badalia by the throat and forced her to her knees. It seemed just to him in that hour to punish an erring wife for two years of wilful desertion; and the more, in that she had confessed her guilt by refusing to give up the wage of sin.
Lascar Loo’s mother waited on the pavement without for the sounds of lamentation, but none came. Even if Tom had released her gullet Badalia would not have screamed.
‘Give it up, you slut!’ said Tom. ‘Is that ‘ow you pay me back for all I’ve done?’
‘I can’t. ’Tain’t my money. Gawd forgive you, Tom, for wot you’re ——,’ the voice ceased as the grip tightened, and Tom heaved Badalia against the bed. Her forehead struck the bedpost, and she sank, half kneeling, on the floor. It was impossible for a self-respecting man to refrain from kicking her: so Tom kicked with the deadly intelligence born of whisky. The head drooped to the floor, and Tom kicked at that till the crisp tingle of hair striking through his nailed boot with the chill of cold water, warned him that it might be as well to desist.
‘Where’s the curick’s money, you kep’ woman?’ he whispered in the blood-stained ear. But there was no answer—only a rattling at the door, and the voice of Jenny Wabstow crying ferociously, ‘Come out o’ that, Tom, an’ come ’ome with me! An’ you, Badalia, I’ll tear your face off its bones!’
Tom’s friends had delivered their message, and Jenny, after the first flood of passionate tears, rose up to follow Tom, and, if possible, to win him back. She was prepared even to endure an exemplary whacking for her performances in Hennessy’s Rents. Lascar Loo’s mother guided her to the chamber of horrors, and chuckled as she retired down the staircase. If Tom had not banged the soul out of Badalia, there would at least be a royal fight between that Badalia and Jenny. And Lascar Loo’s mother knew well that Hell has no fury like a woman fighting above the life that is quick in her.
Still there was no sound audible in the street. Jenny swung back the unbolted door, to discover her man stupidly regarding a heap by the bed. An eminent murderer has remarked that if people did not die so untidily, most men, and all women, would commit at least one murder in their lives. Tom was reflecting on the present untidiness, and the whisky was fighting with the clear current of his thoughts.
‘Don’t make that noise,’ he said. ‘Come in quick.’
‘My Gawd!’ said Jenny, checking like a startled wild beast. ‘Wot’s all this ’ere? You ain’t——’
‘Dunno. ’Spose I did it.’
‘Did it! You done it a sight too well this time.’
‘She was aggravatin’,’ said Tom thickly, dropping back into the chair. ‘That aggravatin’ you’d never believe. Livin’ on the fat o’ the land among these aristocratic parsons an’ all. Look at them white curtings on the bed. We ain’t got no white curtings. What I want to know is——’ The voice died as Badalia’s had died, but from a different cause. The whisky was tightening its grip after the accomplished deed, and Tom’s eyes were beginning to close. Badalia on the floor breathed heavily.
‘No, nor like to ’ave,’ said Jenny. ‘You’ve done for ’er this time. You go!’
‘Not me. She won’t hurt. Do ’er good. I’m goin’ to sleep. Look at those there clean sheets! Aint you comin’ too?’
Jenny bent over Badalia, and there was intelligence in the battered woman’s eyes-intelligence and much hate.
‘I never told ’im to do such,’ Jenny whispered. ‘’Twas Tom’s own doin’—none o’ mine. Shall I get ’im took, dear?’
The eyes told their own story. Tom, who was beginning to snore, must not be taken by the Law.
‘Go,’ said Jenny. ‘Get out! Get out of ’ere.’
‘You—told—me—that—this afternoon,’ said the man very sleepily. ‘Lemme go asleep.’
‘That wasn’t nothing. You’d only ’it me. This time it’s murder—murder—murder! Tom, you’ve killed ’er now.’ She shook the man from his rest, and understanding with cold terror filled his fuddled brain.
‘I done it for your sake, Jenny,’ he whimpered feebly, trying to take her hand.
‘You killed ’er for the money, same as you would ha’ killed me. Get out o’ this. Lay ’er on the bed first, you brute!’
They lifted Badalia on to the bed, and crept forth silently.
‘I can’t be took along o’ you—and if you was took you’d say I made you do it, an’ try to get me ’anged. Go away—anywhere outer ’ere,’ said Jenny, and she dragged him down the stairs.
‘Goin’ to look for the curick?’ said a voice from the pavement. Lascar Loo’s mother was still waiting patiently to hear Badalia squeal.
‘Wot curick?’ said Jenny swiftly. There was a chance of salving her conscience yet in regard to the bundle upstairs.
‘Anna—63 Roomer Terrace—close ’ere,’ said the old woman. She had never been favourably regarded by the curate. Perhaps, since Badalia had not squealed, Tom preferred smashing the man to the woman. There was no accounting for tastes.
Jenny thrust her man before her till they reached the nearest main road. ‘Go away, now,’ she gasped. ‘Go off anywheres, but don’t come back to me. I’ll never go with you again; an’, Tom—Tom, d’you ‘ear me?—clean your boots.’
Vain counsel. The desperate thrust of disgust which she bestowed upon him sent him staggering face-down into the kennel, where a policeman showed interest in his welfare.
‘Took for a common drunk. Gawd send they don’t look at ’is boots! ’Anna, 63 Roomer Terrace!’ Jenny settled her hat and ran.
The excellent housekeeper of the Roomer Chambers still remembers how there arrived a young person, blue-lipped and gasping, who cried only : Badalia, 17 Gunnison Street. Tell the curick to come at once—at once—at once!’ and vanished into the night. This message was borne to the Rev. Eustace Hanna, then enjoying his beauty-sleep. He saw there was urgency in the demand, and unhesitatingly knocked up Brother Victor across the landing. As a matter of etiquette, Rome and England divided their cases in the district according to the creeds of the sufferers; but Badalia was an institution, and not a case, and there was no district-relief etiquette to be considered. ‘Something has happened to Badalia,’ the curate said, ‘and it’s your affair as well as mine. Dress and come along.’
‘I am ready,’ was the answer. ‘Is there any hint of what’s wrong?’
‘Nothing beyond a runaway-knock and a call.’
‘Then it’s a confinement or a murderous assault. Badalia wouldn’t wake us up for anything less. I’m qualified for both, thank God.’
The two men raced to Gunnison Street, for there were no cabs abroad, and under any circumstances a cab-fare means two days’ good firing for such as are perishing with cold. Lascar Loo’s mother had gone to bed, and the door was naturally on the latch. They found considerably more than they had expected in Badalia’s room, and the Church of Rome acquitted itself nobly with bandages, while the Church of England could only pray to be delivered from the sin of envy. The Order of Little Ease, recognising that the soul is in most cases accessible through the body, take their measures and train their men accordingly.
‘She’ll do now,’ said Brother Victor, in a whisper. ‘It’s internal bleeding, I fear, and a certain amount of injury to the brain. She has a husband, of course?’
‘They all have, more’s the pity.’
‘Yes, there’s a domesticity about these injuries that shows their origin.’ He lowered his voice. ‘It’s a perfectly hopeless business, you understand. Twelve hours at the most.’
Badalia’s right hand began to beat on the counterpane, palm down.
‘I think you are wrong,’ said the Church of England ‘She is going.’
‘No, that’s not the picking at the counterpane,’ said the Church of Rome. ‘She wants to say something; you know her better than L’
The curate bent very low.
‘Send for Miss Eva,’ said Badalia, with a cough.
‘In the morning. She will come in the morning,’ said the curate, and Badalia was content. Only the Church of Rome, who knew something of the human heart, knitted his brows and said nothing. After all, the law of his Order was plain. His duty was to watch till the dawn while the moon went down.
It was a little before her sinking that the Rev. Eustace Hanna said, ‘Hadn’t we better send for Sister Eva? She seems to be going fast.’
Brother Victor made no answer, but as early as decency admitted there came one to the door of the house of the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond and demanded Sister Eva, that she might soothe the pain of Badalia Herodsfoot. That man, saying very little, led her to Gunnison Street, No. 17, and into the room where Badalia lay. Then he stood on the landing, and bit the flesh of his fingers in agony, because he was a priest trained to know, and knew how the hearts of men and women beat back at the rebound, so that Love is born out of horror, and passion declares itself when the soul is quivering with pain.
Badalia, wise to the last, husbanded her strength till the coming of Sister Eva. It is generally maintained by the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond that she died in delirium, but since one Sister at least took a half of her dying advice, this seems uncharitable.
She tried to turn feebly on the bed, and the poor broken human machinery protested according to its nature.
Sister Eva started forward, thinking that she heard the dread forerunner of the death-rattle. Badalia lay still conscious, and spoke with startling distinctness, the irrepressible irreverence of the street-hawker, the girl who had danced on the winkle-barrow, twinkling in her one available eye.
‘Sounds jest like Mrs. Jessel, don’t it? Before she’s ’ad ’er lunch an’ ’as been talkin’ all the mornin’ to her classes.’
Neither Sister Eva nor the curate said anything. Brother Victor stood without the door, and the breath came harshly between his teeth, for he was in pain.
‘Put a cloth over my ’ead,’ said Badalia. ‘I’ve got it good, an’ I don’t want Miss Eva to see. I ain’t pretty this time.’
‘Who was it?’ said the curate.
‘Man from outside. Never seed ’im no more’n Adam. Drunk, I s’pose. S’elp me Gawd that’s truth! Is Miss Eva ’ere? I can’t see under the towel. I’ve got it good, Miss Eva. Excuse my not shakin’ ’ands with you, but I’m not strong, an’ it’s fourpence for Mrs. Imeny’s beef-tea, an’ wot you can give ’er for baby-linning. Allus ’avin’ kids, these people. I ’adn’t oughter talk, for my ’usband ’e never come a-nigh me these two years, or I’d a-bin as bad as the rest; but ’e never come a-nigh me . . . . A man come and ’it me over the ’ead, an’ ’e kicked me, Miss Eva; so it was just the same’s if I had ha’ had a ’usband, ain’t it? The book’s in the drawer, Mister ’Anna, an’ it’s all right, an’ I never guv up a copper o’ the trust money—not a copper. You look under the chist o’ drawers—all wot isn’t spent this week is there . . . . An’, Miss Eva, don’t you wear that gray bonnick no more. I kep’ you from the diptheery, an’—an’ I didn’t want to keep you so, but the curick said it ’ad to be done. I’d a sooner ha’ took up ,with ’im than any one, only Tom ’e come, an’ then—you see, Miss Eva, Tom ’e never come a—nigh me for two years, nor I ’aven’t seen ’im yet. S’elp me——, I ’aven’t. Do you ’ear? But you two go along, and make a match of it. I’ve wished otherways often, but o’ course it was not for the likes o’ me. If Tom ’ad come back, which ’e never did, I’d ha’ been like the rest—sixpence for beef-tea for the baby, an’ a shilling for layin’ out the baby. You’ve seen it in the books, Mister ’Anna. That’s what it is; an’ o’ course, you couldn’t never ’ave nothing to do with me. But a woman she wishes as she looks, an’ never you ’ave no doubt about ’im, Miss Eva. I’ve seen it in ’is face time an’ agin—time an’ agin . . . . Make it a four pound ten funeral—with a pall.’
It was a seven pound fifteen shilling funeral, and all Gunnison Street turned out to do it honour. All but two; for Lascar Loo’s mother saw that a Power had departed, and that her road lay clear to the custards. Therefore, when the carriages rattled off, the cat on the doorstep heard the wail of the dying prostitute who could not die—
‘Oh, mother, mother, won’t you even let me lick the spoon!’