THIRD PILGRIMAGE TO HOUND STREET
Like water, human character will find its level; and Nature, with her way of fitting men to their environment, had made young Martin Stone what Stephen called a "Sanitist." There had been nothing else for her to do with him.
This young man had come into the social scheme at a moment when the conception of existence as a present life corrected by a life to come, was tottering; and the conception of the world as an upper-class preserve somewhat seriously disturbed.
Losing his father and mother at an early age, and brought up till he was fourteen by Mr. Stone, he had formed the habit of thinking for himself. This had rendered him unpopular, and added force to the essential single-heartedness transmitted to him through his grandfather. A particular aversion to the sights and scenes of suffering, which had caused him as a child to object to killing flies, and to watching rabbits caught in traps, had been regulated by his training as a doctor. His fleshly horror of pain and ugliness was now disciplined, his spiritual dislike of them forced into a philosophy. The peculiar chaos surrounding all young men who live in large towns and think at all, had made him gradually reject all abstract speculation; but a certain fire of aspiration coming, we may suppose, through Mr. Stone, had nevertheless impelled him to embrace something with all his might. He had therefore embraced health. And living, as he did, in the Euston Road, to be in touch with things, he had every need of the health which he embraced.
Late in the afternoon of the day when Hughs had committed his assault, having three hours of respite from his hospital, Martin dipped his face and head into cold water, rubbed them with a corrugated towel, put on a hard bowler hat, took a thick stick in his hand, and went by Underground to Kensington.
With his usual cool, high-handed air he entered his aunt's house, and asked for Thyme. Faithful to his definite, if somewhat crude theory, that Stephen and Cecilia and all their sort were amateurs, he never inquired for them, though not unfrequently he would, while waiting, stroll into Cecilia's drawing-room, and let his sarcastic glance sweep over the pretty things she had collected, or, lounging in some luxurious chair, cross his long legs, and fix his eyes on the ceiling.
Thyme soon came down. She wore a blouse of some blue stuff bought by Cecilia for the relief of people in the Balkan States, a skirt of purplish tweed woven by Irish gentlewomen in distress, and held in her hand an open envelope addressed in Cecilia's writing to Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace.
"Hallo!" she said.
Martin answered by a look that took her in from head to foot.
"Get on a hat! I haven't got much time. That blue thing's new."
"It's pure flax. Mother bought it."
"It's rather decent. Hurry up!"
Thyme raised her chin; that lazy movement showed her round, creamy neck in all its beauty.
"I feel rather slack," she said; "besides, I must get back to dinner, Martin."
Thyme turned quickly to the door. "Oh, well, I'll come," and ran upstairs.
When they had purchased a postal order for ten shillings, placed it in the envelope addressed to Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace, and passed the hundred doors of Messrs. Rose and Thorn, Martin said: "I'm going to see what that precious amateur has done about the baby. If he hasn't moved the girl, I expect to find things in a pretty mess."
Thyme's face changed at once.
"Just remember," she said, "that I don't want to go there. I don't see the good, when there's such a tremendous lot waiting to be done."
"Every other case, except the one in hand!"
"It's not my case. You're so disgustingly unfair, Martin. I don't like those people."
"Oh, you amateur!"
Thyme flushed crimson. "Look here!" she said, speaking with dignity, "I don't care what you call me, but I won't have you call Uncle Hilary an amateur."
"What is he, then?"
"I like him."
"Yes, it is."
Martin did not reply, looking sideways at Thyme with his queer, protective smile. They were passing through a street superior to Hound Street in its pretensions to be called a slum.
"Look here!" he said suddenly; "a man like Hilary's interest in all this sort of thing is simply sentimental. It's on his nerves. He takes philanthropy just as he'd take sulphonal for sleeplessness."
Thyme looked shrewdly up at him.
"Well," she said, "it's just as much on your nerves. You see it from the point of view of health; he sees it from the point of view of sentiment, that's all."
"Oh! you think so?"
"You just treat all these people as if they were in hospital."
The young man's nostrils quivered. "Well, and how should they be treated?"
"How would you like to be looked at as a 'case'?" muttered Thyme.
Martin moved his hand in a slow half-circle.
"These houses and these people," he said, "are in the way--in the way of you and me, and everyone."
Thyme's eyes followed that slow, sweeping movement of her cousin's hand. It seemed to fascinate her.
"Yes, of course; I know," she murmured. "Something must be done!"
And she reared her head up, looking from side to side, as if to show him that she, too, could sweep away things. Very straight, and solid, fair, and fresh, she looked just then.
Thus, in the hypnotic silence of high thoughts, the two young "Sanitists" arrived in Hound Street.
In the doorway of No. 1 the son of the lame woman, Mrs. Budgen--the thin, white youth as tall as Martin, but not so broad-stood, smoking a dubious-looking cigarette. He turned his lack-lustre, jeering gaze on the visitors.
"Who d'you want?" he said. "If it's the girl, she's gone away, and left no address."
"I want Mrs. Hughs," said Martin.
The young man coughed. "Right-o! You'll find her; but for him, apply Wormwood Scrubs."
"Prison! What for?"
"Stickin' her through the wrist with his bayonet;" and the young man let a long, luxurious fume of smoke trickle through his nose.
"How horrible!" said Thyme.
Martin regarded the young man, unmoved. "That stuff' you're smoking's rank," he said. "Have some of mine; I'll show you how to make them. It'll save you one and three per pound of baccy, and won't rot your lungs."
Taking out his pouch, he rolled a cigarette. The white young man bent his dull wink on Thyme, who, wrinkling her nose, was pretending to be far away.
Mounting the narrow stairs that smelt of walls and washing and red herrings, Thyme spoke: "Now, you see, it wasn't so simple as you thought. I don't want to go up; I don't want to see her. I shall wait for you here." She took her stand in the open doorway of the little model's empty room. Martin ascended to the second floor.
There, in the front room, Mrs. Hughs was seen standing with the baby in her arms beside the bed. She had a frightened and uncertain air. After examining her wrist, and pronouncing it a scratch, Martin looked long at the baby. The little creature's toes were stiffened against its mother's waist, its eyes closed, its tiny fingers crisped against her breast. While Mrs. Hughs poured forth her tale, Martin stood with his eyes still fixed on the baby. It could not be gathered from his face what he was thinking, but now and then he moved his jaw, as though he were suffering from toothache. In truth, by the look of Mrs. Hughs and her baby, his recipe did not seem to have achieved conspicuous success. He turned away at last from the trembling, nerveless figure of the seamstress, and went to the window. Two pale hyacinth plants stood on the inner edge; their perfume penetrated through the other savours of the room--and very strange they looked, those twin, starved children of the light and air.
"These are new," he said.
"Yes, sir," murmured Mrs. Hughs. "I brought them upstairs. I didn't like to see the poor things left to die."
From the bitter accent of these words Martin understood that they had been the little model's.
"Put them outside," he said; "they'll never live in here. They want watering, too. Where are your saucers?"
Mrs. Hughs laid the baby down, and, going to the cupboard where all the household gods were kept, brought out two old, dirty saucers. Martin raised the plants, and as he held them, from one close, yellow petal there rose up a tiny caterpillar. It reared a green, transparent body, feeling its way to a new resting-place. The little writhing shape seemed, like the wonder and the mystery of life, to mock the young doctor, who watched it with eyebrows raised, having no hand at liberty to remove it from the plant.
"She came from the country. There's plenty of men there for her!"
Martin put the plants down, and turned round to the seamstress.
"Look here!" he said, "it's no good crying over spilt milk. What you've got to do is to set to and get some work."
"Don't say it in that sort of way," said Martin; "you must rise to the occasion."
"You want a tonic. Take this half-crown, and get in a dozen pints of stout, and drink one every day."
And again Mrs. Hughs said, "Yes, sir."
"And about that baby."
Motionless, where it had been placed against the footrail of the bed, the baby sat with its black eyes closed. The small grey face was curled down on the bundle of its garments.
"It's a silent gentleman," Martin muttered.
"It never was a one to cry," said Mrs. Hughs.
"That's lucky, anyway. When did you feed it last?"
Mrs. Hughs did not reply at first. "About half-past six last evening, sir."
"It slept all night; but to-day, of course, I've been all torn to pieces; my milk's gone. I've tried it with the bottle, but it wouldn't take it."
Martin bent down to the baby's face, and put his finger on its chin; bending lower yet, he raised the eyelid of the tiny eye....
"It's dead," he said.
At the word "dead" Mrs. Hughs, stooping behind him, snatched the baby to her throat. With its drooping head close to her she, she clutched and rocked it without sound. Full five minutes this desperate mute struggle with eternal silence lasted--the feeling, and warming, and breathing on the little limbs. Then, sitting down, bent almost double over her baby, she moaned. That single sound was followed by utter silence. The tread of footsteps on the creaking stairs broke it. Martin, rising from his crouching posture by the bed, went towards the door.
His grandfather was standing there, with Thyme behind him.
"She has left her room," said Mr. Stone. "Where has she gone?"
Martin, understanding that he meant the little model, put his finger to his lips, and, pointing to Mrs. Hughs, whispered:
"This woman's baby has just died."
Mr. Stone's face underwent the queer discoloration which marked the sudden summoning of his far thoughts. He stepped past Martin, and went up to Mrs. Hughs.
He stood there a long time gazing at the baby, and at the dark head bending over it with such despair. At last he spoke:
"Poor woman! He is at peace."
Mrs. Hughs looked up, and, seeing that old face, with its hollows and thin silver hair, she spoke:
"He's dead, sir."
Mr. Stone put out his veined and fragile hand, and touched the baby's toes. "He is flying; he is everywhere; he is close to the sun--Little brother!" And turning on his heel, he went out.
Thyme followed him as he walked on tiptoe down stairs which seemed to creak the louder for his caution. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.
Martin sat on, with the mother and her baby, in the close, still room, where, like strange visiting spirits, came stealing whiffs of the perfume of hyacinths.
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