A FAIR MORNING'S WORK

Petrovitch waited at the corner for some moments, but as his _protégée_
did not return, he concluded that she had found the house door open,
and would be all right, so he turned his face west. The new feeling
that had possessed him at the sound of Alice’s surname had, while he
waited, only shown itself in a restless movement of his hand over his
beard; but now it found vent in the swinging pace at which he walked.
He slackened it now and again, to glance with a frown at the heaps
of dirty rags that filled the corners of doorways and the embrasures
of walls, and hid human flesh and blood: the flesh and blood of your
brothers and sisters, my esteemed Royal Commissioners. These door-steps
and archways and out-of-the-way corners are not, of course, to be
included in an investigation into the homes of the poor; but perhaps
they might be if these royal, noble, and eminent brothers realised that
these are the only homes of a large proportion of the poor.
Petrovitch only stopped once, and that was before a door-step on which
something gleamed brightly, and caught his attention. There was a group
there of the usual type–a man and woman, and a child, a little girl,
from whose eyes the gleam came. She was sitting up, her elbow on her
knee and her chin on her hand; a wizened, stunted child of some eight
or nine years, with tangled dark hair that fell over her face, and
through which her eyes were staring wide and vacant at the clear sky.
As he stopped she transferred the gaze to him, but it was still a gaze
void of hope and expectation. He did not speak to her, but patted her
shoulder, dropped some coppers and a bar of chocolate in her lap, and
hurried on, with a muttered curse which the child did not hear.
He stopped no more till he reached a tall house in a quiet street near
Portland Road Station. He let himself in with a key, and softly mounted
the stairs to the second floor. The room he entered was large, and
looked bare until one noticed the shelves on shelves of well-bound,
well-kept books, the pigeon-holes full of manuscripts, the brackets
supporting good busts and statuettes, the one or two choice prints, the
antique writing-table and chairs. There were no curtains to the window,
and there was no carpet to the floor; but there was a reading-lamp of
uncommon design, with a green shade. It was the luxury of literary
asceticism.
Petrovitch turned up the lamp and rekindled his fire. Then he went into
the adjoining room, from which presently came the sound of splashing
water, followed by hard breathing, as of one wrestling with a rough
towel. It was a ghastly hour for tubbing, and many an Englishman who
plumes himself on taking a bath at eight or nine in the morning would
have shuddered at the idea of thus taking one four or five hours
earlier; but it seemed to agree with Petrovitch, for he came back to
the fireside glowing, and seeming to have washed from his face the look
of mingled weariness and anger which he had brought in with him.
His hand hovered a moment along the line of a certain bookshelf, then
he picked out a book, and for the next three hours read steadily, only
pausing to make notes.
At seven o’clock he shut his book gently, replaced it carefully on its
shelf, very deftly and quickly prepared his breakfast, and, having
eaten it, put on his hat and a black coat and went out again.
Now, for the first time, he thought over his night’s adventures, for
during the time he had spent in his room he had not allowed himself to
think of them. He had the capacity of dismissing utterly from his mind
anything about which he did not want to think. It was time enough to
think when he could act, and he had known that he could not act till
the morning. Now, two minutes’ thought decided the course his action
should take.
By half-past eight o’clock he had knocked at the door of 15 Spray’s
Buildings, and had been directed to the room of Mrs Fludger. That lady
was surrounded by the family linen–some just as it had been discarded
by the family, some in the wash-tub, and some hanging on lines slung
across the room at a convenient height for dabbing itself wetly in the
faces of possible visitors. The room appeared to be furnished chastely
and simply with the tub and lines before mentioned, and nothing else
whatever; for the remainder of the furniture had been heaped in one
corner, in order that the washing might not be impeded, and was not
noticeable at the first glance. Mrs Fludger had her arms bared for
toil. She wore a dress with no appreciable waist and no distinctive
colour. A woollen shawl wound her figure in its embrace, a black bonnet
of no particular shape, and of antique appearance, was on the extreme
back of her head, where it was supported, by no visible agency, in
defiance of the laws of gravitation.
‘Now then, my good man,’ she began, in answer to Petrovitch’s tap at
the open door, ‘we don’t want no Scripture reading here. Thank the
Lord, I knows my Bible duty, and does it, which wasn’t I up this very
morning afore five, which is more than you can say, I’ll go bail.
There’s some needs talking to. Why don’t you go after my master an’
teach him the ten commanders if you _wants_ to Bible read?’
‘But I don’t want to Bible read,’ said Petrovitch, as she ended with a
snap of her teeth, and recommenced the action of ‘soaping in,’ which
her vigorous speech had suspended. ‘I only wish to ask you of a Mrs
Litvinoff?’
‘Don’t know the name.’
‘Perhaps I mistake the name; I ask of the young woman who left here
yesterday morning.’
‘Oh, her!’ with contemptuous emphasis; ‘bless you, her name ain’t
nothing like that; no more nor yours nor mine. Her name’s Hatfield; and
she ain’t a missus neither, without she was married yesterday.’
‘I hope she did no wrong here, that you are not angry with her,’ said
he, as though feeling Mrs Fludger’s displeasure to be the severest
punishment of misdoing.
‘No,’ said Mrs Fludger, a little softened, ‘I’m not angry with her; but
will you jest be good enough to say what you want and have done with
it, as my washing’s all behind as it is?’
‘I have a quite special reason,’ he said, ‘for wishing to befriend her.
I am sure you will be willing to help me to give her help by telling me
all you know about her.’
‘Oh, Lord bless the men!’ said Mrs Fludger, with an impatient
intonation, dipping a blue-bag into a pail, ‘I don’t know nothing about
the gal. She was here two months or more, and not a soul ever come
a-nigh her, and now, afore she’s been gone two days, here’s half a
dozen gentlemen comes after her. You ought to be able to do something
‘andsome for her among you all. Why, only yesterday two young swells
was a’most a-comin’ to blows over her outside this very door, a-makin’
a perfick inharmonium o’ my stairs, to say nothing o’ the gent as
went a-makin’ inquiries o’ the ground-floor front, as was quite the
improper person to imply to, not being responsible, and knowin’ nothing
about the lodgers.’
‘I am exceedingly sorry to give you any further trouble, madam, but, as
I know you are the only person who can inform me, I must ask you why
this young woman left.’ He spoke so gravely that Mrs Fludger seemed
impressed. She lowered her voice a little as she answered,–
‘She heard something as wasn’t to her liking.’
‘Not from you, I am sure.’
‘Well, no; it warn’t from me, though I should have told her fast enough
if I had known myself, and, since you must know the ins and outs of it,
she was taken bad on Sunday night, and my Joe went for the doctor, and
if you’re curious you’d better ask him, for he’s more time for jaw than
me, not having got nine children and a husband as is always in liquor.’
Petrovitch thanked her, and asked the address of the lucky doctor whom
Fate had spared these inflictions.
Mrs Fludger gave it, squeezing the soapsuds off her lean arms as she
spoke.
‘Thank you very much,’ he said; ‘good-bye,’ and held out his hand as
though he had known her for years. This was partly because he thought
it was the English thing to do in parting with one’s equals, and partly
because he went enough among poor people to know that their troubles
are not made lighter by an assumption of superiority on the part of
their visitors. It was a matter of course with him, but Mrs Fludger was
particularly gratified. She gave him her damp hand, and returned his
shake with heartiness.
‘Well, now,’ she said, ‘if I’ve been a bit short, you must set it down
to the washin’, and I couldn’t get it out o’ my head that you was one
of the religious sort. And I hope the young woman won’t come to no
hurt, and I will say as you look more the sort to do her good than them
young sparks as come here yesterday, with their cussin’, and swearin’,
and yellow kid gloves.’
An opinion in which her hearer concurred.
Dr Moore was not surprised at the inquiries with which Petrovitch
called upon him ten minutes later. He had sojourned long enough in the
land of the hard-up, and had seen enough of the seamy side of life, to
have left off being surprised at the many threads and ties which bind
together people whom one would imagine to be the very last to have any
concern in each other’s existences.
But before he answered any of the questions, he said,–
‘Excuse me; but may I ask what interest you have in this poor girl? Are
you a City missionary?’
The other smiled grimly.
‘Not I; but there must be something very devout in my appearance.
Evidently extremes meet in me. I encountered a hostile reception at
Spray’s Buildings through being taken for a Bible-reader.’
‘Ah, well, I can’t wonder; they do make themselves disliked. They’re
very good people, but they haven’t a nice way with them, somehow, have
they? Then, what is your motive for these questions?’
For answer the other told him frankly enough all that had passed the
night before, adding that before he made any effort on her behalf he
wished to verify her story as far as possible.
‘But the landlady told me she had gone home to her people.’
‘Ah, that was Mrs Fludger’s little romance,’ said Petrovitch, shrugging
his shoulders. ‘I wish she had gone to her people, poor child; but I am
afraid that is what she will not do.’
‘I am very glad,’ said Dr Moore, ‘that someone does take an interest in
her, but I must say I wish it was a woman instead of a man, for it is a
woman’s care and kindness she will need by-and-by.’
‘So I imagined,’ said Petrovitch thoughtfully, ‘and I suppose the best
I can do towards her is to try and find for her such care and kindness.’
‘I am afraid it will be difficult; women are angels, certainly, but
they are very apt to be hard on each other.’
‘Very much like the rest of us. But, like the rest of us, they can
sometimes be got to hear reason.’
‘That’s not the general opinion of women,’ said Dr Moore, laughing;
‘but I hope you’re right. I have seen a great many of these sad cases,’
he went on, gravely, ‘but very, very few of the others. We’re all much
too ready to cast stones, and it’s two to one if a girl’s in trouble
that a female priest or Levite comes by, and not a good Samaritan.’
The doctor was pleased with his visitor, whose face and figure were not
quite like those that usually faced him in his drug-scented surgery,
and when the interview ended it was he who offered the hand-shake.
As Petrovitch came out of the door he glanced at his watch.
‘Now for a third interview,’ he thought, and he did not think in
English. ‘Only two hours and a-half in which to work a miracle.’
If this man had no connection with the Bible reading and City
missionary fraternity, he had at least one thing to which they lay
claim–the faith which moves mountains; but it was faith in humanity,
and faith in himself.
He only knew one woman who combined the strength of character and the
kindness of heart necessary for his purpose, and of her it had been
said only the night before, by the one who ought to have known her
best, that she had a sharp tongue. Mr Toomey had not adhered strictly
to truth in telling Alice that he lived up in the direction of Gray’s
Inn Road, vaguely. His household gods were enshrined ‘out Bermondsey
way,’ and thither Petrovitch now betook himself.
Mrs Toomey welcomed him in an off-hand manner, which showed that she at
least did not suspect him of being a Bible-reader. She asked him in,
and he passed up the narrow passage where two Toomeys of tender years
were playing at houses with a profusion of oyster-shells. A third of
still smaller size was in the mother’s arms.
‘Toomey’s a-bed,’ she said, as she set a chair for Petrovitch, ‘and I
wonder you’re not. He told me he saw you on the bridge in the beginning
of the morning. What have you done with that poor thing?’
‘Nothing yet.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘That’s just what I want you to tell me,’ he answered, and forthwith
began gently to unfold his plan, which was neither more nor less than
that Mrs Toomey should let Alice rent her spare room, and should be as
kind to her as possible. But Mrs Toomey, as might have been expected,
didn’t see it at all. She had much the feeling of the elder brother of
the Prodigal–that it was hardly fair to those who had done their duty
thus to help out of their difficulties those who had not.
‘This is the great privilege of those who do their duty,’ said he, ‘to
be able to help those who have not done it.’
‘That’s all very well,’ said Mrs Toomey; ‘but what’s to become of
example if the good and the bad gets treated alike?’
‘It isn’t that; what I want is to give the bad–who is not so very bad
in this case–a chance of being better.’
But she was not silenced. She ran over the whole scale of objections,
moral and conventional, to his proposition, and to each and all of them
he found an answer, and sat there quietly persistent, until at last he
drove her back upon ‘What will people say?’
‘As far as I’m concerned they can say what they like, but if you care
about people’s opinion, it is easy to guard yourself against it by
telling them nothing. No one would know more than you chose to tell
them.’


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‘That’s honest, isn’t it?’ asked Mrs Toomey, patting the baby, who was
choking himself with his fist.
‘Well, honesty doesn’t consist in publishing other people’s affairs to
all your neighbourhood. And, my good Mrs Toomey, don’t you see that the
very fact of her being in your house would stop questions?’
‘I’m no hand at arguing,’ said Mrs Toomey at last, ‘but I know you’ve
some sense, sir, and I don’t think you’d press a thing like this
without there was some rhyme or reason in it; but the most I can say
is, me and Toomey’ll talk it over; but the truth is, I’ve never had
nothing to say to that sort o’ girls, and I don’t like to begin at this
time o’ day. And even if my man agrees, I won’t promise about it until
I’ve seen the young woman, for what’s the good of Providence giving
us common sense if we’re not to put it to use, instead of trusting to
hearsay and other people.’
‘Quite right; that’s a first-rate principle. If all the world would
think like that we should see some changes. I will tell her you have a
room to let, and advise her to apply for it, and then you can see her
and act as you choose. But I feel sure beforehand how it will be.’
And as he bade her good-bye he did feel quite sure that he had not
spent that half-hour in vain.
‘I really feel like a City missionary, or a newspaper correspondent,
after all these interviews. Now for the last and most interesting.’
But when he reached Mrs Litvinoff’s room he found her out. There was no
answer to his repeated knocks, so at last, as the key was in the door,
he opened it, almost fearing to find her in another of those fainting
fits. But the room was empty. He hesitated a moment, and then entered.
It wanted a few minutes to noon; he would wait till the appointed
time, and while he waited he wondered, as he had been wondering all
the morning, why she had taken this name of Litvinoff. Was it simply
because Litvinoff had been the first name that had come into her head,
or for some deeper or more important reason?
The room was very neat, and did not offer much entertainment to the eye
or employment to the mind; but there were four or five books on the
mantelpiece, and he was drawn towards them by a natural attraction.
It was one of his habits always to take up a book, if one was within
reach. They were very nicely bound, he noticed, except two small
volumes at the end of the row, in which he smiled rather sadly to
recognise a Bible and Prayer Book. He ran over the titles–one or
two novels, ‘The Children’s Garland,’ ‘Mrs Hemans,’ and, strange
accompaniment, Swinburne’s ‘Songs before Sunrise.’
He took it out and opened it. On the first page was written, ‘To Alice,
from Litvinoff.’
He stood looking at it fixedly–so absorbed that he did not hear
Alice’s foot on the stairs, nor notice the rustle of her dress in the
room, till she said,–
‘Have you been here long? I am so sorry I had to run out for some
thread for my work. I thought I should have been back before.’
She was a little out of breath with running upstairs, and a little
flushed, too. He now saw that she was prettier than he had thought, but
he also saw more plainly the hollows in her cheeks and the dark circles
round her eyes.
‘I must make a confession,’ he began at once, turning to her with the
book in his hand. ‘I have asked myself, was it chance made you take
this name of Litvinoff? But I see now you have a right to it.’
She turned her head and looked towards the window in silence for a
moment. Then she said,–
‘I do not know that I have a right to any name except the one I was
born to; but if I have a right to any it is to the one written there.’
It was said slowly and with evident effort. She threw her bonnet on the
table, leaned her elbows on the window-ledge, and looked out.
‘Won’t you sit down?’ she asked, after a minute, without looking round.
He took a chair, and said, ‘Then it wasn’t only for the lecture you
went to Soho?’
‘No.’
‘See here, Mrs Litvinoff; I know the Count, and I and others are much
interested in his career. I wish you to believe that I would not ask
you questions from idle curiosity. His own welfare depends to a great
extent on what we may hear of him.’
‘I have nothing but good to tell you of him.’
‘But, madam–forgive me–how about last night? He has deserted you?’
‘No,’ said she, steadily; ‘don’t make any mistake. I left him. He was
never anything but good to me.’
‘You are not married to him?’
‘Don’t ask me any more questions,’ said Alice. ‘I can’t tell you
anything.’
‘Mrs Litvinoff,’ said Petrovitch, very gently and very gravely, ‘I beg
you for his sake to tell me all you can of him. You know the sort of
dangers run by a man in such a position as his; and from many of these
dangers we can help to screen him. I am a friend to all who are friends
of Litvinoff. Think of me not as a man and a stranger, but as the
friend of him, and tell me frankly all there is to tell.’
It was characteristic of the man who spoke that he should be able
to make an appeal which would move this girl, who had not known
him twenty-four hours, to tell him all that she had felt it to be
impossible to tell her foster-brother, Richard Ferrier. For she did
tell him.
The substance of her story was this: She had been staying with an aunt
who kept a small hotel in Liverpool, when she had met Litvinoff, and
had seen a great deal of him. He had seemed to her to be different from
all the other men she had ever seen, and though she could not help
being pleased by his admiration, she had felt that the difference in
their station was such that she could not properly fill the position
of his wife. His grave and respectful manner and the perfect deference
with which he always treated her had made it impossible for her to
suppose that his wish was other than to make her his wife. So, though
all her inclinations would have kept her in Liverpool, she had, after
a severe struggle with herself, shortened her visit, and returned to
Derbyshire without bidding him good-bye.
He had followed her, and one evening when she was walking alone she had
met him. Of course, there had been explanations. He had implored her
not to send him away–to let him be always as happy as he had been that
month at Liverpool. He met her objections as to the difference in their
position by telling her that he was an outcast and an exile, and had
no position. Would she not make his hard life a little easier to him?
At every word he said she felt her resolutions melting away; but her
parents, would they ever consent to her marriage with one who held such
opinions as his?
Then he had told her gravely and tenderly that he was at war with
society and with most of its conventions, and that for him to marry in
the ordinary sense of the word would be to compromise and deny every
principle on which his life was founded. The true marriage, he had
maintained, was fidelity, and mutual love was more binding than could
be a ceremony in which one of the performers did not believe. He loved
her he had said, far too dearly to wish to deceive her in the smallest
degree about his sentiments, and so he felt bound to tell her that to
him a legal marriage would be for ever impossible. In spite of that,
would she not be noble enough to trust her life entirely to him, and be
his wife?
This had been so completely unexpected as to be a great shock to her,
and she had felt at once that, however she might decide, it would be
out of the question to tell or ask her parents about it. Her choice lay
between them and her lover. We know how she chose.
Of her time of happiness she said very little, but her hearer gathered
that, though Litvinoff had left her much alone, she had had no reason
to doubt that he still cared for her.
But the influence of her early training, though it had sunk into
abeyance in the hour of strong temptation, had slowly and surely
reasserted itself as the months went by. She had striven still to
believe that she was acting rightly, but at last it became impossible
to her to persuade herself that she had any right to be a law unto
herself. So at last she had left her lover, with no farewell but a
letter, in which she had tried to tell him how it was. She had felt a
pleasure in the hardness of the life that followed–had vaguely felt it
to be in some sort an expiation of her wickedness.
‘You see,’ she ended, ‘if I had believed as he did, perhaps I should
have been right to act as I did; but I believed in all the things that
he denies, and so I was wrong to dare to take his views of good and
bad for me, while all the time I kept my own old thoughts of what was
really good and bad. I can’t explain myself well, but you see what I
mean–don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ answered Petrovitch, rising; ‘I see that another life has been
sacrificed upon the altar of an abstraction. If it gives you happiness
to give yourself pain, at anyrate I should think your wickedness, as
you call it, was expiated now. Has he never tried to find you out?’
‘He may have tried,’ said Alice, ‘but he has not succeeded.’
‘Would you not go back to him–now that you have another life than your
own to think of?’
Alice darted a quick glance at him, and turned very white.
‘No, unless that happened which never can happen–if his belief
changed. But I cannot go on talking like this; it is torture to me–and
to what end?’
‘I told you–for his good and yours. However, to business. Of course,
since you have undertaken that tailor’s work you must finish it; but
after, I will get you work better paid. And this room–you do not like
it? Mrs Toomey has a room to let, and I am sure she will like to have
you for a lodger. Will you go there and see it, and if you like it move
there? I will lend you money for moving and for present expenses, and
you can pay me when you settle to work again.’
‘But why,’ asked Alice, half turning round to look at him, ‘why are you
so kind? Why do you help me so?’
‘I help you,’ he answered, laying some money on the table, ‘because to
me you are truly Litvinoff’s wife, and I am the true friend of all who
are friends of him.’
* * * * *
Alice knocked at Mrs Toomey’s door about three o’clock that afternoon.
Mrs Toomey, her baby in her arms, and an air of reserving judgment
about her, showed the room she had to let, which was convenient and
exquisitely clean.
Alice followed her into the parlour afterwards.
‘I think it only fair to tell you,’ she began confusedly, ‘that I am
not really Mrs Litvinoff–but–‘
The other interrupted her.
‘I know all about it,’ she said, bluntly, ‘and now I’ve seen
you–‘specially as you were going to tell me, so honest and fair–I’m
sure we shall get on very well. And no one sha’n’t ever know anything
from me, and let bygones be bygones betwixt us. If you’d like to move
in at once, why do, and come and have a cup o’ tea with me when you’ve
fetched your things.’
There was no mistaking the cordiality which had replaced Mrs Toomey’s
half distrust as soon as she saw that her would-be lodger had no
intention of coming there under false pretences.
And so, a few hours later, Alice had effected her moving, taken
possession of her room, and was sitting by Mrs Toomey’s spotless
hearth, with her feet on the brilliant steel fender, her face brighter
than it had been for many a long day, while the children stared at her
with wide but friendly eyes, and Mrs Toomey’s baby lay contentedly on
her lap.
The day had been at its beginning so wild, so bitter, so full of
horrible possibilities; this was a peaceful–almost a happy–ending to
it. Alice felt the change keenly, and there was gratitude to Petrovitch
in every word she spoke to the mother, every smile she gave to the
little ones.