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Chapter 6

FIRST PILGRIMAGE TO HOUND STREET


Hilary and his little bulldog entered Hound Street from its eastern end. It was a grey street of three-storied houses, all in one style of architecture. Nearly all their doors were open, and on the doorsteps babes and children were enjoying Easter holidays. They sat in apathy, varied by sudden little slaps and bursts of noise. Nearly all were dirty; some had whole boots, some half boots, and two or three had none. In the gutters more children were at play; their shrill tongues and febrile movements gave Hilary the feeling that their "caste" exacted of them a profession of this faith: "To-day we live; to-morrow--if there be one--will be like to-day."

He had unconsciously chosen the very centre of the street to walk in, and Miranda, who had never in her life demeaned herself to this extent, ran at his heels, turning up her eyes, as though to say: 'One thing I make a point of--no dog must speak to me!'

Fortunately, there were no dogs; but there were many cats, and these cats were thin.

Through the upper windows of the houses Hilary had glimpses of women in poor habiliments doing various kinds of work, but stopping now and then to gaze into the street. He walked to the end, where a wall stopped him, and, still in the centre of the road, he walked the whole length back. The children stared at his tall figure with indifference; they evidently felt that he was not of those who, like themselves, had no to-morrow.

No. 1, Hound Street, abutting on the garden of a house of better class, was distinctly the show building of the street. The door, however, was not closed, and pulling the remnant of a bell, Hilary walked in.

The first thing that he noticed was a smell; it was not precisely bad, but it might have been better. It was a smell of walls and washing, varied rather vaguely by red herrings. The second thing he noticed was his moonlight bulldog, who stood on the doorstep eyeing a tiny sandy cat. This very little cat, whose back was arched with fury, he was obliged to chase away before his bulldog would come in. The third thing he noticed was a lame woman of short stature, standing in the doorway of a room. Her face, with big cheek-bones, and wide-open, light grey, dark-lashed eyes, was broad and patient; she rested her lame leg by holding to the handle of the door.

"I dunno if you'll find anyone upstairs. I'd go and ask, but my leg's lame."

"So I see," said Hilary; "I'm sorry."

The woman sighed: "Been like that these five years"; and turned back into her room.

"Is there nothing to be done for it?"

"Well, I did think so once," replied the woman, "but they say the bone's diseased; I neglected it at the start."

"Oh dear!"

"We hadn't the time to give to it," the woman said defensively, retiring into a room so full of china cups, photographs, coloured prints, waxwork fruits, and other ornaments, that there seemed no room for the enormous bed.

Wishing her good-morning, Hilary began to mount the stairs. On the first floor he paused. Here, in the back room, the little model lived.

He looked around him. The paper on the passage walls was of a dingy orange colour, the blind of the window torn, and still pursuing him, pervading everything, was the scent of walls and washing and red herrings. There came on him a sickness, a sort of spiritual revolt. To live here, to pass up these stairs, between these dingy, bilious walls, on this dirty carpet, with this--ugh! every day; twice, four times, six times, who knew how many times a day! And that sense, the first to be attracted or revolted, the first to become fastidious with the culture of the body, the last to be expelled from the temple of the pure-spirit; that sense to whose refinement all breeding and all education is devoted; that sense which, ever an inch at least in front of man, is able to retard the development of nations, and paralyse all social schemes--this Sense of Smell awakened within him the centuries of his gentility, the ghosts of all those Dallisons who, for three hundred years and more, had served Church or State. It revived the souls of scents he was accustomed to, and with them, subtly mingled, the whole live fabric of aestheticism, woven in fresh air and laid in lavender. It roused the simple, non-extravagant demand of perfect cleanliness. And though he knew that chemists would have certified the composition of his blood to be the same as that of the dwellers in this house, and that this smell, composed of walls and washing and red herrings, was really rather healthy, he stood frowning fixedly at the girl's door, and the memory of his young niece's delicately wrinkled nose as she described the house rose before him. He went on upstairs, followed by his moonlight bulldog.

Hilary's tall thin figure appearing in the open doorway of the top-floor front, his kind and worried face, and the pale agate eyes of the little bulldog peeping through his legs, were witnessed by nothing but a baby, who was sitting in a wooden box in the centre of the room. This baby, who was very like a piece of putty to which Nature had by some accident fitted two movable black eyes, was clothed in a woman's knitted undervest, spreading beyond his feet and hands, so that nothing but his head was visible. This vest divided him from the wooden shavings on which he sat, and, since he had not yet attained the art of rising to his feet, the box divided him from contacts of all other kinds. As completely isolated from his kingdom as a Czar of all the Russias, he was doing nothing. In this realm there was a dingy bed, two chairs, and a washstand, with one lame leg, supported by an aged footstool. Clothes and garments were hanging on nails, pans lay about the hearth, a sewing-machine stood on a bare deal table. Over the bed was hung an oleograph, from a Christmas supplement, of the birth of Jesus, and above it a bayonet, under which was printed in an illiterate hand on a rough scroll of paper: "Gave three of em what for at Elandslaagte. S. Hughs." Some photographs adorned the walls, and two drooping ferns stood on the window-ledge. The room withal had a sort of desperate tidiness; in a large cupboard, slightly open, could be seen stowed all that must not see the light of day. The window of the baby's kingdom was tightly closed; the scent was the scent of walls and washing and red herrings, and--of other things.

Hilary looked at the baby, and the baby looked at him. The eyes of that tiny scrap of grey humanity seemed saying:

'You are not my mother, I believe?'

He stooped down and touched its cheek. The baby blinked its black eyes once.

'No,' it seemed, to say again, 'you are not my mother.'

A lump rose in Hilary's throat; he turned and went downstairs. Pausing outside the little model's door, he knocked, and, receiving no answer, turned the handle. The little square room was empty; it was neat and clean enough, with a pink-flowered paper of comparatively modern date. Through its open window could be seen a pear-tree in full bloom. Hilary shut the door again with care, ashamed of having opened it.

On the half-landing, staring up at him with black eyes like the baby's, was a man of medium height and active build, whose short face, with broad cheekbones, cropped dark hair, straight nose, and little black moustache, was burnt a dark dun colour. He was dressed in the uniform of those who sweep the streets--a loose blue blouse, and trousers tucked into boots reaching half-way up his calves; he held a peaked cap in his hand.

After some seconds of mutual admiration, Hilary said:

"Mr. Hughs, I believe?" Yes.

"I've been up to see your wife."

"Have you?"

"You know me, I suppose?"

"Yes, I know you."

"Unfortunately, there's only your baby at home."

Hughs motioned with his cap towards the little model's room. "I thought perhaps you'd been to see her," he said. His black eyes smouldered; there was more than class resentment in the expression of his face.

Flushing slightly and giving him a keen look, Hilary passed down the stairs without replying. But Miranda had not followed. She stood, with one paw delicately held up above the topmost step.

'I don't know this man,' she seemed to say, 'and I don't like his looks.'

Hughs grinned. "I never hurt a dumb animal," he said; "come on, tykie!"

Stimulated by a word she had never thought to hear, Miranda descended rapidly.

'He meant that for impudence,' thought Hilary as he walked away.

"Westminister, sir? Oh dear!"

A skinny trembling hand was offering him a greenish newspaper.

"Terrible cold wind for the time o' year!"

A very aged man in black-rimmed spectacles, with a distended nose and long upper lip and chin, was tentatively fumbling out change for sixpence.

"I seem to know your face," said Hilary.

"Oh dear, yes. You deals with this 'ere shop--the tobacco department. I've often seen you when you've a-been agoin' in. Sometimes you has the Pell Mell off o' this man here." He jerked his head a trifle to the left, where a younger man was standing armed with a sheaf of whiter papers. In that gesture were years of envy, heart-burning, and sense of wrong. 'That's my paper,' it seemed to say, 'by all the rights of man; and that low-class fellow sellin' it, takin' away my profits!'

"I sells this 'ere Westminister. I reads it on Sundays--it's a gentleman's paper, 'igh-class paper--notwithstandin' of its politics. But, Lor', sir, with this 'ere man a-sellin' the Pell Mell"--lowering his voice, he invited Hilary to confidence--"so many o' the gentry takes that; an' there ain't too many o' the gentry about 'ere--I mean, not o' the real gentry--that I can afford to 'ave 'em took away from me."

Hilary, who had stopped to listen out of delicacy, had a flash of recollection. "You live in Hound Street?"

The old man answered eagerly: "Oh dear! Yes, sir--No. 1, name of Creed. You're the gentleman where the young person goes for to copy of a book!"

"It's not my book she copies."

"Oh no; it's an old gentleman; I know 'im. He come an' see me once. He come in one Sunday morning. 'Here's a pound o' tobacca for you!' 'e says. 'You was a butler,' 'e says. 'Butlers!' 'e says, 'there'll be no butlers in fifty years.' An' out 'e goes. Not quite"--he put a shaky hand up to his head--"not quite--oh dear!"

"Some people called Hughs live in your house, I think?"

"I rents my room off o' them. A lady was a-speakin' to me yesterday about 'em; that's not your lady, I suppose, sir?"

His eyes seemed to apostrophise Hilary's hat, which was of soft felt: 'Yes, yes--I've seen your sort a-stayin' about in the best houses. They has you down because of your learnin'; and quite the manners of a gentleman you've got.'

"My wife's sister, I expect."

"Oh dear! She often has a paper off o' me. A real lady--not one o' these"--again he invited Hilary to confidence--"you know what I mean, sir--that buys their things a' ready-made at these 'ere large establishments. Oh, I know her well."

"The old gentleman who visited you is her father."

"Is he? Oh dear!" The old butler was silent, evidently puzzled.

Hilary's eyebrows began to execute those intricate manoeuvres which always indicated that he was about to tax his delicacy.

"How-how does Hughs treat the little girl who lives in the next room to you?"

The old butler replied in a rather gloomy tone:

"She takes my advice, and don't 'ave nothin' to say to 'im. Dreadful foreign-lookin' man 'e is. Wherever 'e was brought up I can't think!"

"A soldier, wasn't he?"

"So he says. He's one o' these that works for the Vestry; an' then 'e'll go an' get upon the drink, an' when that sets 'im off, it seems as if there wasn't no respect for nothing in 'im; he goes on against the gentry, and the Church, and every sort of institution. I never met no soldiers like him. Dreadful foreign--Welsh, they tell me."

"What do you think of the street you're living in?"

"I keeps myself to myself; low class o' street it is; dreadful low class o' person there--no self-respect about 'em."

"Ah!" said Hilary.

"These little 'ouses, they get into the hands o' little men, and they don't care so long as they makes their rent out o' them. They can't help themselves--low class o' man like that; 'e's got to do the best 'e can for 'imself. They say there's thousands o' these 'ouses all over London. There's some that's for pullin' of 'em down, but that's talkin' rubbish; where are you goin' to get the money for to do it? These 'ere little men, they can't afford not even to put a paper on the walls, and the big ground landlords-you can't expect them to know what's happenin' behind their backs. There's some ignorant fellers like this Hughs talks a lot o' wild nonsense about the duty o' ground landlords; but you can't expect the real gentry to look into these sort o' things. They've got their estates down in the country. I've lived with them, and of course I know."

The little bulldog, incommoded by the passers-by, now took the opportunity of beating with her tail against the old butler's legs.

"Oh dear! what's this? He don't bite, do 'e? Good Sambo!"

Miranda sought her master's eye at once. 'You see what happens to her if a lady loiters in the streets,' she seemed to say.

"It must be hard standing about here all day, after the life you've led," said Hilary.

"I mustn't complain; it's been the salvation o' me."

"Do you get shelter?"

Again the old butler seemed to take him into confidence.

"Sometimes of a wet night they lets me stand up in the archway there; they know I'm respectable. 'T wouldn't never do for that man"--he nodded at his rival--"or any of them boys to get standin' there, obstructin' of the traffic."

"I wanted to ask you, Mr. Creed, is there anything to be done for Mrs. Hughs?"

The frail old body quivered with the vindictive force of his answer.

"Accordin' to what she says, if I'm a-to believe 'er, I'd have him up before the magistrate, sure as my name's Creed, an' get a separation, an' I wouldn't never live with 'im again: that's what she ought to do. An' if he come to go for her after that, I'd have 'im in prison, if 'e killed me first! I've no patience with a low class o' man like that! He insulted of me this morning."

"Prison's a dreadful remedy," murmured Hilary.

The old butler answered stoutly: "There ain't but one way o' treatin' them low fellers--ketch hold o' them until they holler!"

Hilary was about to reply when he found himself alone. At the edge of the pavement some yards away, Creed, his face upraised to heaven, was embracing with all his force the second edition of the Westminster Gazette, which had been thrown him from a cart.

'Well,' thought Hilary, walking on, 'you know your own mind, anyway!'

And trotting by his side, with her jaw set very firm, his little bulldog looked up above her eyes, and seemed to say: 'It was time we left that man of action!'


John Galsworthy