This same afternoon Thyme, wheeling a bicycle and carrying a light valise, was slipping into a back street out of the Old Square. Putting her burden down at the pavement's edge, she blew a whistle. A hansom-cab appeared, and a man in ragged clothes, who seemed to spring out of the pavement, took hold of her valise. His lean, unshaven face was full of wolfish misery.
"Get off with you!" the cabman said.
"Let him do it!" murmured Thyme.
The cab-runner hoisted up the trunk, then waited motionless beside the cab.
Thyme handed him two coppers. He looked at them in silence, and went away.
'Poor man,' she thought; 'that's one of the things we've got to do away with!'
The cab now proceeded in the direction of the Park, Thyme following on her bicycle, and trying to stare about her calmly.
'This,' she thought, 'is the end of the old life. I won't be romantic, and imagine I'm doing anything special; I must take it all as a matter of course.' She thought of Mr. Purcey's face--'that person!'--if he could have seen her at this moment turning her back on comfort. 'The moment I get there,' she mused, 'I shall let mother know; she can come out to-morrow, and see for herself. I can't have hysterics about my disappearance, and all that. They must get used to the idea that I mean to be in touch with things. I can't be stopped by what anybody thinks!'
An approaching motor-car brought a startled frown across her brow. Was it 'that person'? But though it was not Mr. Purcey and his A.i. Damyer, it was somebody so like him as made no difference. Thyme uttered a little laugh.
In the Park a cool light danced and glittered on the trees and water, and the same cool, dancing glitter seemed lighting the girl's eyes.
The cabman, unseen, took an admiring look at her. 'Nice little bit, this!' it said.
'Grandfather bathes here,' thought Thyme. 'Poor darling! I pity everyone that's old.'
The cab passed on under the shade of trees out into the road.
'I wonder if we have only one self in us,' thought Thyme. 'I sometimes feel that I have two--Uncle Hilary would understand what I mean. The pavements are beginning to smell horrid already, and it's only June to-morrow. Will mother feel my going very much? How glorious if one didn't feel!'
The cab turned into a narrow street of little shops.
'It must be dreadful to have to serve in a small shop. What millions of people there are in the world! Can anything be of any use? Martin says what matters is to do one's job; but what is one's job?'
The cab emerged into a broad, quiet square.
'But I'm not going to think of anything,' thought Thyme; 'that's fatal. Suppose father stops my allowance; I should have to earn my living as a typist, or something of that sort; but he won't, when he sees I mean it. Besides, mother wouldn't let him.'
The cab entered the Euston Road, and again the cabman's broad face was turned towards Thyme with an inquiring stare.
'What a hateful road!' Thyme thought. 'What dull, ugly, common-looking faces all the people seem to have in London! as if they didn't care for anything but just to get through their day somehow. I've only seen two really pretty faces!'
The cab stopped before a small tobacconist's on the south side of the road.
'Have I got to live here?' thought Thyme.
Through the open door a narrow passage led to a narrow staircase covered with oilcloth. She raised her bicycle and wheeled it in. A Jewish-looking youth emerging from the shop accosted her.
"Your gentleman friend says you are to stay in your rooms, please, until he comes."
His warm red-brown eyes dwelt on her lovingly. "Shall I take your luggage up, miss?"
"Thank you; I can manage."
"It's the first floor," said the young man.
The little rooms which Thyme entered were stuffy, clean, and neat. Putting her trunk down in her bedroom, which looked out on a bare yard, she went into the sitting-room and threw the window up. Down below the cabman and tobacconist were engaged in conversation. Thyme caught the expression on their faces--a sort of leering curiosity.
'How disgusting and horrible men are!' she thought, moodily staring at the traffic. All seemed so grim, so inextricable, and vast, out there in the grey heat and hurry, as though some monstrous devil were sporting with a monstrous ant-heap. The reek of petrol and of dung rose to her nostrils. It was so terribly big and hopeless; it was so ugly! 'I shall never do anything,' thought Thyme-'never--never! Why doesn't Martin come?'
She went into her bedroom and opened her valise. With the scent of lavender that came from it, there sprang up a vision of her white bedroom at home, and the trees of the green garden and the blackbirds on the grass.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs brought her back into the sitting-room. Martin was standing in the doorway.
Thyme ran towards him, but stopped abruptly. "I've come, you see. What made you choose this place?"
"I'm next door but two; and there's a girl here--one of us. She'll show you the ropes."
"Is she a lady?"
Martin raised his shoulders. "She is what is called a lady," he said; "but she's the right sort, all the same. Nothing will stop her."
At this proclamation of supreme virtue, the look on Thyme's face was very queer. 'You don't trust me,' it seemed to say, 'and you trust that girl. You put me here for her to watch over me!...'
"I 'want to send this telegram," she said
Martin read the telegram. "You oughtn't to have funked telling your mother what you meant to do."
Thyme crimsoned. "I'm not cold-blooded, like you."
"This is a big matter," said Martin. "I told you that you had no business to come at all if you couldn't look it squarely in the face."
"If you want me to stay you had better be more decent to me, Martin."
"It must be your own affair," said Martin.
Thyme stood at the window, biting her lips to keep the tears back from her eyes. A very pleasant voice behind her said: "I do think it's so splendid of you to come!"
A girl in grey was standing there--thin, delicate, rather plain, with a nose ever so little to one side, lips faintly smiling, and large, shining, greenish eyes.
"I am Mary Daunt. I live above you. Have you had some tea?"
In the gentle question of this girl with the faintly smiling lips and shining eyes Thyme fancied that she detected mockery.
"Yes, thanks. I want to be shown what my work's to be, at once, please."
The grey girl looked at Martin.
"Oh! Won't to-morrow do for all that sort of thing? I'm sure you must be tired. Mr. Stone, do make her rest!"
Martin's glance seemed to say: 'Please leave your femininities!'
"If you mean business, your work will be the same as hers," he said; "you're not qualified. All you can do will be visiting, noting the state of the houses and the condition of the children."
The girl in grey said gently: "You see, we only deal with sanitation and the children. It seems hard on the grown people and the old to leave them out; but there's sure to be so much less money than we want, so that it must all go towards the future."
There was a silence. The girl with the shining eyes added softly: "1950!"
"1950!" repeated Martin. It seemed to be some formula of faith.
"I must send this telegram!" muttered Thyme.
Martin took it from her and went out.
Left alone in the little room, the two girls did not at first speak. The girl in grey was watching Thyme half timidly, as if she could not tell what to make of this young creature who looked so charming, and kept shooting such distrustful glances.
"I think it's so awfully sweet of you to come," she said at last. "I know what a good time you have at home; your cousin's often told me. Don't you think he's splendid?"
To that question Thyme made no answer.
"Isn't this work horrid," she said--"prying into people's houses?"
The grey girl smiled. "It is rather awful sometimes. I've been at it six months now. You get used to it. I've had all the worst things said to me by now, I should think."
"You see," said the grey girl's faintly smiling lips, "you soon get the feeling of having to go through with it. We all realise it's got to be done, of course. Your cousin's one of the best of us; nothing seems to put him out. He has such a nice sort of scornful kindness. I'd rather work with him than anyone."
She looked past her new associate into that world outside, where the sky seemed all wires and yellow heat-dust. She did not notice Thyme appraising her from head to foot, with a stare hostile and jealous, but pathetic, too, as though confessing that this girl was her superior.
"I'm sure I can't do that work!" she said suddenly.
The grey girl smiled. "Oh, I thought that at first." Then, with an admiring look: "But I do think it's rather a shame for you, you're so pretty. Perhaps they'd put you on to tabulation work, though that's awfully dull. We'll ask your cousin."
"No; I'll do the whole or nothing."
"Well," said the grey girl, "I've got one house left to-day. Would you like to come and see the sort of thing?"
She took a small notebook from a side pocket in her skirt.
"I can't get on without a pocket. You must have something that you can't leave behind. I left four little bags and two dozen handkerchiefs in five weeks before I came back to pockets. It's rather a horrid house, I'm afraid!"
"I shall be all right," said Thyme shortly.
In the shop doorway the young tobacconist was taking the evening air. He greeted them with his polite but constitutionally leering smile.
"Good-evening, mith," he said; "nithe evening!"
"He's rather an awful little man," the grey girl said when they had achieved the crossing of the street; "but he's got quite a nice sense of humour."
"Ah!" said Thyme.
They had turned into a by-street, and stopped before a house which had obviously seen better days. Its windows were cracked, its doors unpainted, and down in the basement could be seen a pile of rags, an evil-looking man seated by it, and a blazing fire. Thyme felt a little gulping sensation. There was a putrid scent as of burning refuse. She looked at her companion. The grey girl was consulting her notebook, with a faint smile on her lips. And in Thyme's heart rose a feeling almost of hatred for this girl, who was so business-like in the presence of such sights and scents.
The door was opened by a young red-faced woman, who looked as if she had been asleep.
The grey girl screwed up her shining eyes. "Oh, do you mind if we come in a minute?" she said. "It would be so good of you. We're making a report."
"There's nothing to report here," the young woman answered. But the grey girl had slipped as gently past as though she had been the very spirit of adventure.
"Of course, I see that, but just as a matter of form, you know."
"I've parted with most of my things," the young woman said defensively, "since my husband died. It's a hard life."
"Yes, yes, but not worse than mine--always poking my nose into other people's houses."
The young woman was silent, evidently surprised.
"The landlord ought to keep you in better repair," said the grey girl. "He owns next door, too, doesn't he?"
The young woman nodded. "He's a bad landlord. All down the street 'ere it's the same. Can't get nothing done."
The grey girl had gone over to a dirty bassinette where a half-naked child sprawled. An ugly little girl with fat red cheeks was sitting on a stool beside it, close to an open locker wherein could be seen a number of old meat bones.'
"Your chickabiddies?" said the grey girl. "Aren't they sweet?"
The young woman's face became illumined by a smile.
"They're healthy," she said.
"That's more than can be said for all the children in the house, I expect," murmured the grey girl.
The young woman replied emphatically, as though voicing an old grievance: "The three on the first floor's not so bad, but I don't let 'em 'ave anything to do with that lot at the top."
Thyme saw her new friend's hand hover over the child's head like some pale dove. In answer to that gesture, the mother nodded. "Just that; you've got to clean 'em every time they go near them children at the top."
The grey girl looked at Thyme. 'That's where we've got to go, evidently,' she seemed to say.
"A dirty lot!" muttered the young woman.
"It's very hard on you."
"It is. I'm workin' at the laundry all day when I can get it. I can't look after the children--they get everywhere."
"Very hard," murmured the grey girl. "I'll make a note of that."
Together with the little book, in which she was writing furiously, she had pulled out her handkerchief, and the sight of this handkerchief reposing on the floor gave Thyme a queer satisfaction, such as comes when one remarks in superior people the absence of a virtue existing in oneself.
"Well, we mustn't keep you, Mrs.--Mrs.--?"
"Cleary. How old's this little one? Four? And the other? Two? They are ducks. Good-bye!"
In the corridor outside the grey girl whispered: "I do like the way we all pride ourselves on being better than someone else. I think it's so hopeful and jolly. Shall we go up and see the abyss at the top?"
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