The Frobishers/Chapter 16
Joan found Cissie Averill alone in No. 35, crouching by the fire, with her head in her hands and with traces of tears on her colourless cheeks. She looked up as her visitor entered, and greeted her with a smile, but a smile in which was no brightness.
"Tell me all about it," said Joan, taking a stool and seating herself beside Cissie.
Then the girl poured out her story into her ear. There was not much in it more than what had already been communicated by Polly Myatt, but the particulars were fuller.
"I've been ailing some time," said Cissie, "and I knowed it would be on me soon. Charlie Mangin heard of it through our bailie, and he came right into our room and straight up to me. 'Look here,' says he, 'I'm not going to have no more lead cases at Fennings', so clear out with a week's wages to play with. Hook to the seaside—anywhere you like out of this town; and after you have been there three weeks, I'll send you a postal order for a sovereign. If you mend, the Fennings know how to make it up to you—and you'll be taken back again, and promoted to something better.' ' Well,' said I, ' I'll consider it.' Then he pressed me further, and I asked him to give me a couple of days to consider it. You see, a sovereign won't go a long way, what with the trainage and lodgings; and I don't feel up to nothing, and don't fancy the sea would do much for me. If I am to die, let me die here where I've worked all my days, and where I've some friends. I don't want to be hustled away to die amongst strangers, just to accommodate Fennings and oblige Mangin."
"Why should you not go into the hospital here?"
"Because it would be reported as another case of lead-poisoning, and be brought home to Fennings' bank. They don't want to be blamed and get a bad name. It might get into the papers, and then the public might take it into their heads not to buy Fennings' ware, and think they'd done the virtuous thing, and go to sleep again. That is why they're ready enough to give me a sovereign to keep out of the way."
"Do you really expect to be ill, Cissie?"
"I don't see how I can chance to be other. I've enjoyed bad health some time, but I've kept it back and tried not to let anyone see the blue line. I've held my mouth closed—but it has come out at last. I suppose I shall just melt away with it. The lead plays the deuce with the nervous system, as they call it, and puts all the organs out of tune."
"But really, I suspect that the seaside would be the best place for you."
Cissie shook her head.
"I haven't saved enough to keep me playing. When Mangin's sovereign and my money are spent—what then? I'd rather die here. I know you'd come and see me."
"But, Cissie, you must not die. You must not think of melting away, as you term it. Surely you can take up some healthier branch of the work."
"Where? No potbank will have me, now that the Government are making such a stir about us, and sending down a Commissioner to examine into the matter of the lead-poisoning."
"Look at my thumb—how that is affected. Besides, I have never learned needlework and cutting-out, and suchlike. I was put to the pots when a child, and have kept to them ever since. Then—when one is leaded, most of the life and pluck go out of one. There's no strength left, and all you care for is just to be let alone. At first you fear it is coming on, and you struggle against it. Then you know it is on you, and it's no good resisting. At last you have it, and don't care what happens. That's my case. I don't wish to hurt the bank; I've worked in it sixteen years, and the rest of the girls have been at me persuading me to leave the place, so that there mayn't be no disturbances. Some must do the work, and if they do it, sooner or later they must be leaded."
"Cissie," said Joan, "the same mischief is not wrought in all parts of the factory."
"Bless you, no. It is harmless anywhere but in the dipping and the ground-laying. But what's the good of all the processes that are harmless, without the lead at the end? Some must do the work with that."
"Because nobody will have ware that hasn't been treated with it."
Joan looked into the fire and brooded. She could see no way out of the dilemma. Presently she said—
"Cissie, I am about to try to get my sister into Fennings' bank; not into one of the branches of the work that is dangerous. I am determined that she shall have nothing to do with the lead."
"You must go where you're put."
"We shall see. She shall leave, if set at any employment that will poison her. Now, when we are both engaged all day we shall require someone in No. 16, to look after the house for us and to cook our dinner for us."
"Shan't you go to an eating-house?"
"No—because I want you to come to us."
"Yes, Cissie. Come and help us. My sister has never been accustomed to work of any sort, and would be as helpless over the kitchen fire as you would be with a sewing machine. We shall return from the bank fagged and disinclined for domestic drudgery; moreover, how should I find time to receive the girls in the evening, if I had to be engaged on matters connected with the house? I should be most unwilling not to have leisure to sit and talk, and bake chestnuts with my visitors."
"Me, with you?"
"Yes, Cissie. Have you any objection?"
The tears filled the girl's great solemn eyes, and she took Joan's hand between her own and kissed it; then she dropped the hand and said—
"It won't do neither. I'm pretty sure to be palsied.
My hand may fall at the wrist like Polly Myatt's, or else I'd have the lead colic."
"I'll take you as you are, Cissie; and if you do fail, you shall not go to the hospital. I will attend to you myself. And now"—as the girl was about to be effusive in her gratitude—"now I particularly wish you to return with me at once to No. 16, for I have got a present for you from the country—a pound of beautiful butter, yellow as a buttercup, from Jersey cows, and with a crown of roses stamped on the top."
The girl's heart was too full for words, but she pressed Joan's hand to her bosom, and rose to accompany her.
At that moment the door opened and Mrs. Skrimager came in, the woman with whom Cissie lodged.
Recognising Joan, she nodded and said—
"Bad job about Cissie, ain't it?"
"Very bad indeed; she is too young to become a wreck," answered Joan.
"Oh, we've all to chance it," said the woman slightingly. "My Jane went with it. Some stand it better than do others. Whatever she's to do I don't know. We can't keep her here, earning nothing. That's not reasonable, and she's no relation to the master or to me, so we've no call to do it."
"What's that?" asked Skrimager, also coming in. "Are you talking about Cissie? If she leaves here it's to go to the hospital, and we don't want that. Lord, old woman! it shan't come to that. You know, mother, how our daughter Jane was leaded and we lost her. Well, the doctor, he behaved like a gem'man, and registered her, as how she died of suppressed rheumatics. What the deuce do it matter, if a gal does go underground, if it's caused by the lead or by suppressed rheumatics? It don't touch her 'appiness in kingdom come, now-ways. And it ain't more consoling to the surviving parents, if it's one or t'other. We don't want no unpleasantness any more than do the Fennings. If there's such a fuss made about the lead—and there's too many restrictions imposed—it'll drive the business out of the country, and that means as how the money will go to Germans or French, and not come into North Staffordshire. Colour dusting and dipping must be done, and you must have some to do it, and take the risks. I'll tell you what I'll do, mother and Cissie; I'll have a talk to Charlie Mangin, and propose—what will you do it for, mother? shall I say seven shillings a week?—that we keep the girl on here, and if she die, I daresay we can get a doctor as is a gem'man, who will subscribe she died of suppressed rheumatics. Lord bless you! it's wonderful what a ravaging complaint that is in our parts, and how many in this place do die of suppressed rheumatics."