The Frobishers/Chapter 15
THE BLUE LINE
When the two girls arrived at the station of the pottery town in which Joan had resolved settling, a cab, by previous arrangement, was awaiting them.
It was needed on account of the luggage they had brought with them. This was in excess of what Joan thought necessary, but Sibylla had insisted on carrying away from Pendabury, and bringing to the new quarters, a thousand knick-knacks, little china dogs and cocks and cows, framed photographs, pin-trays, novels and flower-vases, without which, in her opinion, no girl's bedroom could be complete.
The moment that they alighted, the urchin, uninvited, appeared on the scene and snatched at the bag and bundles Joan had in her hands, and then, observing that Sibylla was her companion, wrested from her also umbrella and parasol, and whatever was in her arms.
"So ye're back!" said the boy, winking at Joan. "I was about to advertise—lost, stolen, or strayed, a young maid."
"Stand back!" exclaimed Sibylla indignantly, staring at the audacious arab, "Let go my parcels. Joan! do pray drive that insolent boy away."
"Is this yer sister?" inquired he, looking up into Joan's face with a familiar grin.
"They needn't trouble to pass the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill for my convenience," said he. "When I'm a sorrerin' widower I shan't cast my affections her way."
"You go too far," said Joan. "What is your name?"
"Tom Treddlehoyle. Do yer like the sound of it?"
"Tom," said Joan, "you offend my sister, and I do not like too much of this."
"All right," answered the urchin, "you can have too much toffee at times."
"Here," said Joan, "here are three pence; I cannot add another, as you have not deserved it with a compliment."
Joan and her sister entered the cab. The boy touched his tattered cap with mock politeness, slammed the door with unnecessary violence, turned the handle, and then, with a leap, ensconced himself by the driver.
"Good gracious! that little fiend is on the box," exclaimed Sibyll. "Joan, we cannot possibly let him accompany us. He is in rags and is smirched with dirt, face and hands, and tatters. It will never do for us to drive through the town with that horror. What will people think of us?"
"As to that, Sibyll, no one will give us a thought. That jackanapes will be serviceable with our boxes and bundles when we reach our destination. He is not a bad little chap."
"Impertinence should never be encouraged," said Sibyll, in a tone of disgust. "It makes me quite uncomfortable to know that he fingers our traps, he is so dirty."
"He is miserably poor—and I am glad to be able to give him a few coppers," said Joan. "We have struck up a sort of friendship, he and I."
"And he really does amuse me."
"I can see nothing amusing in insolence," observed Sibylla severely.
The matter was allowed to drop, and the younger sister looked out of the cab window on her side.
"What a hideous town this is, and so sooty," she remarked irritably. "I have not seen a decent shop as yet. Is it always muffled in crape?"
"We have hardly reached the best part of the town," explained Joan.
"And there are no well-dressed people. We have not passed a single private carriage."
"No one here keeps private carriages. The only wheeled conveyances are the doctor's gig, the tram-cars, some wains, and many perambulators. Do not expect too much. Sibyll, let me speak plainly, and dispel any illusions still occupying your brain. We are wretchedly poor. Papa had much overdrawn at the bank, to invest in that Transvaal gold mine, and we are left with very little. I intend that we shall live by the work of our own hands, and not as parasites. We have been compelled by circumstances to descend from our position as county people to that of the operatives. We shall have to live among and associate with the working hands in a pottery. That is the truth, and has to be met. We must face our difficulties without flinching, and gird ourselves to our task. As a sensible girl you will accommodate yourself to the inevitable; as a good Christian girl you will not give way to useless repining. There are compensations in life, and I already see that the compensation in our case will be considerable. For my part, I feel as though I had stepped out of a conservatory to take a plunge in the sea. You will, doubtless, be startled at first when you meet your future associates, who are my friends. They will come in this evening, after work hours, to observe you. Show them a smiling face and give them pleasant words. They may not have highly polished manners, and so differ from the girls with whom you have hitherto associated, but at heart there is no difference, or let me rather say, what difference exists, is all in their favour. They do not live in luxury, they are none of them idlers; they are, every one of them, useful members of society, contributors to the well-being of mankind. Every one of them has something solid to show at the end of each day: one has turned out so many dozen teapot spouts, another has coloured so many score sprigs of flowers, a third has made so many electric insulators. What contribution have you or I given to human comfort or progress? Our days have been spent in vanity, emptiness, self-indulgence, and waste of good time. Each one of these poor girls in a single day has rendered up a nobler tale of work than you or I in ten years. I beg you to consider that, when you meet them. Approach them in a humble spirit, and humility is the only attitude that beseems us well-bred loafers. They have warm hearts. You will discover that there is a quality in them which will command something more than respect. They are useful—we, not. To such as ourselves, shouldered from our seat by the fire, and thrust forth into a cold and stormy world, the welcome of warm hearts should be precious."
"I will do what I can," said Sibyll, "but I am not a canary, to change my colour when I change my climate."
Joan took her sister's hand.
"Sibyll, I entreat you not to offend them."
"I will do what I can. I have said so, and I will be as good as my word. But you must not expect of me impossibilities."
"Impossibilities! No—all I require of you is to behave towards these girls with kindly courtesy. That is what every lady should be able and willing to give to even the lowest."
Sibyll interrupted her sister with an exclamation—
"I say, Joan! Where are we going? We seem to be descending into the slums. What an awful place!"
"This is our street."
The cab stopped, and with one bound the urchin was on the ground; and next moment had reached the door of No. 16, and had knocked.
It was opened immediately, and a girl appeared in the doorway with the glow behind her in the little passage from the fire in the parlour.
The boy ran to the side of the cab, and threw wide the door, then unceremoniously laid hold of rugs and parcels that lay on the unoccupied seat, and carried them within. He was back in a moment, but not before Joan had descended. He then crooked his arm with offer of support to Sibyll as she stepped forth.
"One of us must watch the imp," said Sibyll, "lest he walk off with some of our traps. We have so many small items."
"He is all right; I would trust him with my watch," said Joan. "Come in and see my pal, Polly."
When the boy had carried every article into the house, and Joan had paid the cabman, she offered the lad threepence for his further services.
"All right," said he, "but I'd prefer a kiss."
"And that you certainly shall not have from me."
"Well, give me leave to cheek your sister."
"Nor that either."
"Then hand over the threepence."
"Tom," said Joan, "we are not far off Christmas. I shall be making a plum-pudding against that festival. Should you be this way, and come to our door on Christmas Day, I think there will be a slice for you, with a sprig of holly on top. In return, moderate your impudence. My sister does not like it. She is unhappy, and a very little upsets her. Say what you will to me—I don't mind you—but keep a civil tongue in your head before her."
"All right, old gal!" sung out the urchin, turned a wheel in the muddy street, and disappeared.
With a beaming face Joan entered the parlour, that was flushed with light from a well heaped-up coal fire.
Sibyll had been prepared by Joan for Polly. Joan had told her that the girl was partly paralysed; that she lived next door; that she had been a help to her in many ways, notably in getting admission to Fennings' bank; and she had further enlarged on the girl's many good qualities.
Polly flew to divest Sibyll of her sealskin jacket.
"My word!" she exclaimed, "if this ain't real fur. What a grand burying you might have on it! However did you come by it?"
"It was given to me by my father," answered Sibyll.
"He must have been reckless with his brass. No wonder he went bankrupt. I've got you something ready to eat. The kettle is on the boil for tea, and I've set out bacon and cheese for your meal."
"Bacon and cheese!" gasped Sibyll.
"I think, Polly," said Joan, "that we shall have an appetite for nothing but tea and bread and butter. We have plenty to occupy us; a lot of unpacking must be done, and that before the girls drop in. That they are sure to do when they go by from bank, and notice a light in our house."
"Ah, you know them," said Polly, laughing. "Well, it's just about so. They're all amazing curious to see your sister, and find out if she is like you."
"I am glad to hear it, for I have something for each."
"I will give you your present at once, if you will get me a knife and help to cut the strings of that hamper. Take care—we must not open it in this hot room, but remove it to the back kitchen."
"What is it?"
"Butter. A pound of real country butter for each of my friends."
Polly would have clapped her hands had not one been maimed. However, her eyes danced.
"You couldn't give us nothing we'd like better. There's some for Cissie, I suppose?"
"Of course there is."
"I doubt if she will come here."
"She's in trouble."
"Of what sort?"
"Oh, the blue line."
"What do you mean by the blue line?"
"Look here," said Polly, and pulled down her lower lip. "Do you see this streak? That is the lead. It shows itself there, when in the blood. At the bank the bailie found out that Cissie had it, and she has been sacked. They don't want to have her paralysed or die of the lead colic. You see there's been a lot of talk lately about the lead, and there's Government Inspectors coming down to look into it—so they tell; and Charlie Mangin don't want a row, and anything get in the papers about poisoning at Fennings' bank. So he sacked her at once.
"But why was she not put to other work in which no lead was employed?"
"She's too far gone for that. They do that often, but you see there's an inspector like to come."
"Then is she at home now?"
"She is at No. 35."
"Is that where her people are?"
"She hasn't got any people. She has no home. Her father met with an accident in the ovens and was killed. She is an orphan—without a mother either. She just lodges with the Skrimagers. How she will get on now with them, and she earning no wages, I can't say. But she is gone terrible low-spirited."
"This is extraordinarily sudden, is it not?"
"Oh no! She's knowed it was coming on, but said naught. You see she must live, and to live must work; and so long as the public will have their ware glossed, some must do the dipping. She had the lead over her fingers all day, and run up her sleeve, over her arm. Some take it sooner; for years some don't seem to be affected by it, and then, all at once, down they go as if shot. Cissie has been ailing for some time, and looked queer, and has been low and not liked to talk. We saw it was coming on, but she took care to keep her mouth shut, so that the blue line might not be seen. But it was found out at last, and now she is done for."
"But what will become of her if the Skrimagers will not keep her?"
"She'll get worse, and have to be took to the hospital or union."
"I'll go to her at once," said Joan.
"Ay, go, there is a dear. The Skrimagers are out now at bank. I'll keep your sister company."