SECOND PILGRIMAGE TO HOUND STREET
Arriving in Hound Street, Martin Stone and his companion went straight up to Mrs. Hughs' front room. They found her doing the week's washing, and hanging out before a scanty fire part of the little that the week had been suffered to soil. Her arms were bare, her face and eyes red; the steam of soapsuds had congealed on them.
Attached to the bolster by a towel, under his father's bayonet and the oleograph depicting the Nativity, sat the baby. In the air there was the scent of him, of walls, and washing, and red herrings. The two young people took their seat on the window-sill.
"May we open the window, Mrs. Hughs?" said Thyme. "Or will it hurt the baby?"
"What's the matter with your wrists?" asked Martin.
The seamstress, muffing her arms with the garment she was dipping in soapy water, did not answer.
"Don't do that. Let me have a look."
Mrs. Hughs held out her arms; the wrists were swollen and discoloured.
"The brute!" cried Thyme.
The young doctor muttered: "Done last night. Got any arnica?"
"Of course not." He laid a sixpence on the sill. "Get some and rub it in. Mind you don't break the skin."
Thyme suddenly burst out: "Why don't you leave him, Mrs. Hughs? Why do you live with a brute like that?"
"Any particular row," he said, "or only just the ordinary?"
Mrs. Hughs turned her face to the scanty fire. Her shoulders heaved spasmodically.
Thus passed three minutes, then she again began rubbing the soapy garment.
"If you don't mind, I'll smoke," said Martin. "What's your baby's name? Bill? Here, Bill!" He placed his little finger in the baby's hand. "Feeding him yourself?"
"What's his number?"
"I've lost three, sir; there's only his brother Stanley now."
"One a year?"
"No, Sir. I missed two years in the war, of course."
"Hughs wounded out there?"
"Yes, sir--in the head."
"Ah! And fever?"
Martin tapped his pipe against his forehead. "Least drop of liquor goes to it, I suppose?"
Mrs. Hughs paused in the dipping of a cloth; her tear-stained face expressed resentment, as though she had detected an attempt to find excuses for her husband.
"He didn't ought to treat me as he does," she said.
All three now stood round the bed, over which the baby presided with solemn gaze.
Thyme said: "I wouldn't care what he did, Mrs. Hughs; I wouldn't stay another day if I were you. It's your duty as a woman."
To hear her duty as a woman Mrs. Hughs turned; slow vindictiveness gathered on her thin face.
"Yes, miss?" she said. "I don't know what to do.
"Take the children and go. What's the good of waiting? We'll give you money if you haven't got enough."
But Mrs. Hughs did not answer.
"Well?" said Martin, blowing out a cloud of smoke.
Thyme burst out again: "Just go, the very minute your little boy comes back from school. Hughs 'll never find you. It 'll serve him right. No woman ought to put up with what you have; it's simply weakness, Mrs. Hughs."
As though that word had forced its way into her very heart and set the blood free suddenly, Mrs. Hughs' face turned the colour of tomatoes. She poured forth words:
"And leave him to that young girl--and leave him to his wickedness! After I've been his wife eight years and borne him five! after I've done what I have for him! I never want no better husband than what he used to be, till she came with her pale face and her prinky manners, and--and her mouth that you can tell she's bad by. Let her keep to her profession--sitting naked's what she's fit for--coming here to decent folk---" And holding out her wrists to Thyme, who had shrunk back, she cried: "He's never struck me before. I got these all because of her new clothes!"
Hearing his mother speak with such strange passion, the baby howled. Mrs. Hughs stopped, and took him up. Pressing him close to her thin bosom, she looked above his little dingy head at the two young people.
"I got my wrists like this last night, wrestling with him. He swore he'd go and leave me, but I held him, I did. And don't you ever think that I'll let him go to that young girl--not if he kills me first!"
With those words the passion in her face died down. She was again a meek, mute woman.
During this outbreak, Thyme, shrinking, stood by the doorway with lowered eyes. She now looked up at Martin, clearly asking him to come away. The latter had kept his gaze fixed on Mrs. Hughs, smoking silently. He took his pipe out of his mouth, and pointed with it at the baby.
"This gentleman," he said, "can't stand too much of that."
In silence all three bent their eyes on the baby. His little fists, and nose, and forehead, even his little naked, crinkled feet, were thrust with all his feeble strength against his mother's bosom, as though he were striving to creep into some hole away from life. There was a sort of dumb despair in that tiny pushing of his way back to the place whence he had come. His head, covered with dingy down, quivered with his effort to escape. He had been alive so little; that little had sufficed. Martin put his pipe back into his mouth.
"This won't do, you know," he said. "He can't stand it. And look here! If you stop feeding him, I wouldn't give that for him tomorrow!" He held up the circle of his thumb and finger. "You're the best judge of what sort of chance you've got of going on in your present state of mind!" Then, motioning to Thyme, he went down the stairs.
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