This is number three of the Woburn Books, being A Wedding Morn, a Story by Sheila Kaye-Smith: published at London in 1928 by Elkin Mathews & Marrot[Pg 2]
Five hundred and thirty numbered copies of this story have been set by hand in Imprint Shadow, and printed by Robert MacLehose & Co. Ltd., at the University Press, Glasgow, of which Nos. 1-500 only are for sale and Nos. 501-530 for presentation.
This is copy No. 189
An Easter day was slowly breaking over one of those Squares in North Kensington which an ebbing prosperity has left derelict for many years. Strips of golden cloud lay across the sky behind the houses, and a quickening light made the rare street-lamps hang like dim fruit against the trees of the garden. From innumerable back-yards came the cluck and croon of waking fowls and every now and then the shrill note of a cock, sending a dream of farms to the sleeping country-born. The whole place was held in the dawn like a pearl, full of mysterious glows and a brooding dimness. It was the Square's moment—a moment in which it was almost a landscape of high cliffs and deep pools instead of a mere agglomeration of houses, pavements and lamp-posts, zoning a few exiled trees. The moment passed as the flight grew and revealed the faces of crumbling stucco, the waste-paper that filled the gutters and drifted up the doorsteps, the sooty tanglewood [Pg 4] of the garden where the grass grew rank and tall over the neglected paths and forgotten beds.
The dawn came in at the uncurtained window of a room set high in Number Seven, Lunar Square. It stroked the sleeping face of Ivy Skedmore, and she woke, for she was sleeping lightly. She started up, her mind full of whirling wheels, of a dream that was scarcely done. Her big, round eyes went wildly round the room, and drew reassurance from the hanging strips of wallpaper, the walls that were so high that they soared into shadows under the ceiling, the cornices of plaster fruits, and the matchboard partition which shut her off from the room where her parents and the children slept.
Ivy slept with the lodger, who went by the name of Miss Peach Grey, forgetting some baptismal Maud or Mabel, and worked as mannequin at a small but aspiring dressmaker's. She was still asleep, and Ivy felt glad, for she did not want talk or company just yet. She wanted to feel herself alone, to gather some sort of strength with which to face the day. How many hours? course, she had no watch or clock. On working days there was always the big [Pg 5] buzzer at the paper works. But to-day was not a working day, and she suddenly huddled herself over her knees as she realised that there never would be another working day—no more rising in clammy dusks, no more dressing in the darkness, no more hastily swallowed tea—she could feel the hot catch of it now in her throat—gulped before she ran down the huge rickety flight of stairs, across the Square into Lunar Street, past the waking shops to the Tube Station, and then with her worker's ticket into town, to the Oxford Street restaurant where she washed up dishes, all day, all day . . . smells of grease and cabbage water, the miserable roughness of her skin in the constant water, the unutterable weariness of her legs at her unresting stand before the sink all day . . . all day, all day . . . No, never, never, never again.
She sprang out of bed, forgetting the slumbers of Peach, which luckily were too deep to be disturbed. Her heartbeat quickly and her pulses tingled with the realisation of the new world she was making for herself by this marriage. She had escaped the tyranny of every-day and all-day, that deadly grind of going out to work; and she had not done as so many girls did in marriage, and [Pg 6] merely exchanged paid labour for unpaid, the back-breaking toil of the workshop for the heart-breaking struggle of the home. From this day forward she would be easy and comfortable; she would sit in a parlour and sleep in a brass bed, she would have electric light and eat bacon for breakfast . . . and a girl to help her sometimes in the house. She, Ivy Skedmore, nearly twenty-seven now, who had slaved at one ill-paid job after another ever since she had left school, and no prospect before her but toil till her life's end, she had captured the heart of a childless widower, earning eight pounds a week as an electrician, and offering her a snug little flat over at Hammersmith, full of undreamed-of luxuries in the way of parlours and electric light.
How it had all happened she scarcely remembered now. The first casual meeting at a friend's house, the next unsought encounter, the appointed tryst, later walks and excursions, the growth of expectation and the final settlement, all were merged together in an uncertain fog, in which stood many dark shapes she was wary of as she glanced back, so she glanced but seldom. The fog stretched all the way to the year she had left school. Before that it lightened, and she [Pg 7] had neat, clear memories of family progressions from house to house, of brothers' and sisters' births and deaths, of her work and play at school and in the streets. The Skedmores were regarded as quite one of the old families of the district, as though they had been driven, chiefly by internal expansion, to many changes of residence, they had never moved out of the withered Squares and Crescents of Royal Kensington, as she lies north and is forgotten by her own kingdom in the south.
Ivy knew nothing of East End slum—tradition—of drab rows of houses, and dreary pillars of tenements, which have never been anything but the homes of the poor. The houses she had always lived in—the house she lived in now—had been built with a very different intention. A tablet in the wall of Number One, Lunar Square, recorded how the first stone of it had been laid by the Honourable Mrs. Addleham, in 1839. Enterprising Victorian speculators had planned a new district of wealth and fashion on the slopes behind the Notting Hill race-course. They had designed squares and crescents and terraces, and planted trees and gardens. For a few sweet years, gay crinolines had swung over the pavements, and [Pg 8] elegant carriages had stood at front doors pillared with gleaming stucco, the music of the waltz and the polka had sounded of a winter's night, and in the galleried churches Victorian ladies had prayed into their muffs and Victorian gentlemen into their top hats.
It was all gone now. For some reason or other the district had never really thriven. Those who wanted suburban air went to Putney and Tooting, those who wanted the town remained clustered round Mayfair and Belgravia. No one wanted to be either so far or so near as Paddington. So rents and glory fell. The houses which had once been so respectable and inviolate became disreputable and common. They sheltered two, three, four, five families. Even their floors and finally their rooms were divided. Their basements seethed. Strings of washings were run out, fowls clucked in their areas. Their back gardens became backyards, and their Square gardens became jungles, the haunt of the sleeper-out and the unnchartered lover.
When Ivy looked out of the window, she might, had she been so made, have seen the [Pg 9] ghosts of the happy and respectable people who once had lived in Lunar Square and must have been vexed to haunt it by its present ways. But instead of ghosts, she saw only one or two cats prowling among the rubbish in the gutter. The place was void and silent, alight, but without the sun. The dawn wind rustled to her through the trees, and she shivered.
Then she noticed a movement an the tanglewood of the Square garden. At first she thought it was the wind, then that it was a pair of those unchartered lovers. But the next moment a man pushed his way up to the railings, and beckoned to her to come down.
She stood motionless, her round eyes staring from under the shock of her hair. So it was Bill—so he had come over, though she'd never thought he'd do it. Bill . . . there was no matching him for cheek. There was nothing he'd stop at. She caught her breath. Bill . . . he might have left her alone. He was one of those dark shapes in the fog, and now he had come out to stand in the dawn of her wedding day. How dared he? How dared he, the swine! She clenched her hands fiercely and helplessly. What was she to do? She couldn't make [Pg 10] him go. She couldn't shout to him across the silence of the Square. He was making signs to her. He was beckoning her down. His lips were forming her name. The window was shut and she could not hear distinctly, but she knew that he was calling her. He mustn't call her. He mustn't wake the place.
She opened the window very softly and put her head out. She made signs to him to go away, but he only grinned and shook his head.
"Come down," he called to her.
"I can't. Do go away. They'll hear you."
"I don't care. If you don't come down, I'll come up."
But she knew he could. The catch of the front door at Number Seven was a weak makeshift, and once he was in the house there were no keys between him and her. She would have to go down. If she wanted peace and quiet and decorum on her wedding day she would have to go down. She could easily talk him into sense—she had done so many times. Then he would go, and she could get on with her business.[Pg 11]
Ivy did not wear a nightgown. She had always done so until recently, but her couple, were both worn out, and though she had bought three for her wedding, a pink, and a blue and a mauve, everyone knows that it is unlucky to wear your wedding clothes before the wedding day. So for the last month she had slept in her vest and petticoat, and dressing this morning was merely a matter of pulling on her old blue coat frock, thrusting a comb through the tousle of her bobbed hair, and slipping her feet into her old black shoes with their worn soles, and trodden-over heels. What a blessing it would be never to wear them again. Of late they had hurt her badly, and they let in the wet besides. She thought of the comfortable new pair waiting for her feet.
New clothes, new shoes, new furniture, a comfortable home, a comfortable bed, light work, warm fires, good food. She thought of all these things as she ran down the staircase of Number Seven. The bannisters had most of them gone for firewood, but the great and splendid width of the stairs allowed her to run without fear of falling. She dragged open the front door, and was out in a sudden snatch of cold.
The gate of the Square garden had long [Pg 12] been pulled off its hinges, so she was soon treading through the high grass to where Bill waited for her, mercifully discreet, in a thicket of lilac.
"Don't let anybody see us," she said wildly, as he grasped her.
"They can't see us here."
"But they might have. . . . Oh, Bill, how could you? You nearly got me into ever such a fix."
"Nonsense. Nobody will wake up here for hours yet."
"Why did you come?"
"That's a pretty question. I came to see you."
"But why should you? I mean how dare you? You've no right to see me. I've done with you, Bill."
"Yes, so you told me once. But that's no reason why I shouldn't come to wish you luck on your wedding day."
"You know that's not why you've come."
"Of course it is; what else should it be?"
"Then why didn't you come at the proper time?"
"Because I'm going out for a day in Epping Forest. That's one reason, and another is you never asked me. If I come to your wedding I come by invite from the [Pg 13] bride, like a proper little gentleman. But I've a feeling the card went astray in the post."
"I didn't know you were back," she said sulkily. "I thought your ship didn't get in till the end of the month."
"So that's why you fixed to get married to-day."
"No Mr. Smart; I'm getting married to-day because it's Easter Sunday."
"Is it really, Miss Clever? Well, we live and learn. And may I ask why you're in such a temper on your wedding morning? Haven't things been going as smooth as they ought?"
"Not since you came."
"But I haven't been here half-an-hour, and that temper of yours has been brewing for days. I know my little Ivy."
She did not forbid his words so much as his hands, which had come suddenly about her waist.
"Because if you've only come to wish me luck, you've no right to—to mess me about."
"Oh, so that's it. You think it should be 'hands off' because I've only come to [Pg 14] pay you the compliments of the season. But suppose I told you that I'd come to give you one last chance of changing your mind before it is too late."
"It seems you can say nothing but 'don't.'"
"I—I can't bear it."
"Then I'll say 'don't.' Don't bear it, little girl."
Her hands flew up between them against his breast, but it was too late. His arms were round her and his mouth on hers, forcing back her head. The tears ran out of the corners of her eyes, but she made no resistance and no sound; she merely seemed to melt and fade and grow weak, and then suddenly to break, as love and sorrow smote her at once.
After that they talked more quietly together. She had tried at first to be angry, but she knew all the time her anger was unjust. She was vexed with herself rather than with him—not for any moral failure, but for allowing the past to come and upset the present, now at the very last moment, when everything had seemed settled and she herself [Pg 15] was ready for everything. The fire in her had suddenly died, and she was cold and abstracted as he talked on.
"You don't love this chap Hurley."
"Of course you don't. You love me—you've just shown me that."
"What d'you mean by you 'dunno'? I bet you do. I bet you wouldn't have kissed me like that if you hadn't loved me."
"Ivy, little Ivy, give yourself a chance. Give me a chance. You didn't, you know, last summer. There was I, all burning for love of you, and you sent me away."
"I didn't—your ship sailed."
"But you could have given me your promise to take with me."
"What 'ud have been the good of it? You said yourself you couldn't marry for years."
"If you'd loved me you could have waited."
"That's just it—that's what I'm telling you the whole time. I don't love you."
"Yes, you do—you've shown me that. You do love me—but it's the waiting you can't manage. You're afraid of waiting. Well, I'll tell you something. You shan't [Pg 16] wait. I'll chuck the sea and get a job ashore. I'm handy at most things and we could manage if you didn't mind having a job of your own at the start. It was only as I didn't want you to have to work, and if I'd gone on I could have done better for myself and you, too, some day. But if waiting's all that's the matter, I tell you what I'll do. I can't do nothing now, for I've only three days' leave—on Wednesday we go to Middlesbrough to refit. But I'll make it my last voyage. We'll be back in September, and I'll marry you then. I'll get a job in a garage—or maybe we could both go as caretakers somewhere . . . I knew a chap in the Navy who got a thundering good job as porter in a block of flats . . . anyhow, we'll manage fine. So you go home, Ivy, and tell 'em the wedding's off."
Ivy did not speak. She was still thinking—thinking, as she always thought—in a series of pictures. She saw herself as she had been, going out with Bill last summer, pleased with the places where he took her on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes of an evening in the week when she was not too late or too tired. He had spent money freely and done her proud, and other girls [Pg 17] had envied her. He had kissed her freely, too, and asked her to marry him when he was better off. At present he was just an ordinary seaman on the Clio, one of a small steamship line plying between London and Halifax. Like her, he knew what it was to be out of a job, though, as he said, he was handy at most things—at too many, perhaps, she had criticised in her heart, and the reviving criticism gave her a new set of pictures, this time of the future. She saw herself standing in front of the sink—standing till September—another six months of early and weary days, of roughened hands and greasy water, of aching legs . . . she already started what the Square called "various" veins, and the dreaded threat of "bad legs" was upon her . . . she had thought it all over and done with, in time, before the evil happened—another six months might bring it about, and she would have legs like those of so many women she knew, like her own mother's, aching and ulcerated, perpetually swathed in greasy bandages as one patent ointment was tried after another. . . . At the thought her mouth and nose wrinkled up adorably and her pictures were destroyed by Bill's provoked kiss.
"Sweetheart, I've got a better idea. [Pg 18] Come away with me now, so as you won't have to face them at home. I'll take you straight to Mother's, and you can stop along of her till I come back. You'll like it, you know. You and Mother always did get on together. You can go to work just as easy from there as from here, and give her something for your keep and save the rest."
Ivy laughed shortly. That showed the way he thought of things—"save the rest"—as if there'd be any "rest." Bill was too cocksure by half. He saw things much too bright. He saw them married in September, when most likely they wouldn't have a penny piece to do it on. He'd have spent all his money—he always did—and she wouldn't have managed to save any of hers. He'd have to get another job, and try to save on that . . . not likely . . . more years of waiting, more years of working. Then there'd be more working after she was married—standing before the washtub just as now she stood before the sink, standing over the kitchen fire, always cleaning, always trying to manage on just too little. Bill's would be the sort of home in which there was never quite enough, because Bill's would be the sort of home in which there would always be periods of [Pg 19] unemployment, lean weeks that would eat up any small fullness, lean weeks of struggle on the dole . . . she shivered again. She knew the dole, and so did he—it was failure to get work on land that had sent him to sea in the first place. Poor Bill . . . poor, darling, adored Bill! For, of course, she adored him, loved him . . . ever so much. . . . Oh, God! That made another picture come. She had a picture of babies—babies coming year after year, wearing her out as she had seen so many women worn out, binding her yoke upon her without pity or rest. Ivy had no illusions about marriage in general, and, more remarkably, she had no illusions about marriage with Bill.
"Well, precious, what's it going to be?"
"Nothing," she jerked at him shortly.
"Ain't you coming with me?"
"No. And I'm not going to stop the marriage neither."
"Oh, yes you are."
He tried to pull her close for another kiss, but she pushed him from her almost violently.
"No, I say. Stop pawing me about. I won't have it. Gawd! You ought to know better than to speak as you do to me, as good [Pg 20] as married. I tell you I've made up my mind and I know what I am doing. You leave me alone."
"Very well, Miss Spitfire. If you want to be miserable all your life, you're free and welcome, and maybe I've had a lucky escape."
"I shan't be miserable. I'd be miserable if I married you, but I'll be ever so happy if I marry Sid Hurley."
"Bah! He's old enough to be your father."
"He ain't. He's only forty-six; and, anyway, better be an old man's darling than a young man's slave."
"So that's it, is it?" His young face darkened, and at the same time his lip quivered childishly. She could not bear it. She turned from him with a little moan and fought her way out of the bushes. He did not attempt to follow her as she rustled through the wilderness towards the gate. One or two sick flowers went down under her feet. Her frock caught on a twig, tearing a shoddy seam. She cursed and ran on. She wanted to forget. She wanted to blot out that picture of him standing there with his angry eyes and childish, trembling mouth.
It was eight o'clock in the Square—very different from the eight o'clock of most days. Usually at eight o'clock the pavements echoed with the patter of girls' feet. From under the solemn porticoes, which long ago had sheltered the slow, swaying exits of crinolined ladies, tripped groups and strings of prettily dressed girls. No Victorian belle had looked smarter or sweeter than these in their stockings of sunburn silk, in their patent-leather shoes, in their big wrap coats, and little cloche hats. It was incredible that they should emerge from these ruins of homes, that the muddle of the common living and sleeping room should produce anything so fresh and delicate and gay. Yet out they came, on their way to the dressmaker, the hairdresser, the cafe, the drapery store, to spend the day waiting on elegance and learning from it their natural lesson of charm, to return at night with step less springy and eye less bright, and maybe mud on the patent shoes (which often let in water) and spots and stains on the sunburn stockings (which often defeated the efforts of the wrap coat to protect its wearer from chills).[Pg 22]
Ivy had never counted herself as a member of this society. She belonged to a smaller, inferior troupe that set out at an earlier, more unfashionable hour, and went to wait on necessity rather than on elegance. Yet it was she and not one of them who had been chosen to live in a four-roomed flat, to preside over the glories of a bathroom, a gas-cooker and electric light, to run an eight-pound-a-week home in unimagined honour. They would marry men like Bill, and in five years become middle-aged slatterns, slaving in three-pound-a-week homes, that periodically would become fourteen-and-sixpenny homes as prosperity ebbed and flowed over the district and the dole took the place of wages. Ivy Skedmore could pity them as she fled from passion to security, running across the empty Square, and up the many steps of Number Seven to where the giant door stood unlatched.
It was lucky that the Sabbath was in the Square, or she and Bill would have been discovered and the story down all the streets by this time. But on Sunday no one ever thought of getting up before nine o'clock. At nine-thirty the shops opened, and the market and the streets were full of those who bought and sold fish and meat and [Pg 23] vegetables that the main-road shops had not been able to get rid of on Saturday night.
The Skedmores had not on this occasion left their shopping till Sunday morning, but had done it in superior fashion on Saturday afternoon. The wedding feast had shared their sleeping chamber, the more perishable parts bestowed for safety on the window-sill. As she passed her parents' door, Ivy was surprised to hear the sound of voices. She felt uneasy. Had they somehow discovered her absence? Had Peach wakened and gone in search of her to the main room? She decided to go in and find out the worst.
But she need not have alarmed herself. Her parents' early rising was due entirely to social reasons. To-day was their eldest daughter's wedding-day, and they had already received one, or rather several, wedding guests. A large woman, with a baby in her arms, was seated on one of the two double beds that the room contained. Round her knees squirmed a mass of children, four of whom were her own, the other three being little Skedmores, arrayed only in their underclothing, as their wedding garments were for obvious reasons not to [Pg 24] be taken out of the drawer till the last moment. On the other bed lay Mr. Skedmore, smoking a pipe while his wife struggled with the fire.
The room was big, and even now almost handsome, with its soaring walls and richly decorated cornice. Peach's and Ivy's room was a mere slice cut off it, and much remained in the chief apartment to suggest the splendour of the rock out of which it had been hewn. It was crammed with furniture—two big beds, a big table, and one or two smaller ones, a chiffonier, a chest of drawers, innumerable chairs, most of them decrepit, and a broken backed sofa. The walls were gay with pictures, and ornaments and the family china and glass, for which there was no cupboard, adorned all available space. Clothes were everywhere—they hung from hooks on the wall, they were rolled up in piles in corners, and eked out the blankets on the beds. The place in its litter and hugeness suggested a parish hall rather inefficiently stocked for a jumble sale. The Skedmores had many possessions, none of which was intact, unblemished or really serviceable, but all of which were loved, prized and hoarded till the day of final disintegration.[Pg 25]
"Well dearie," cried Mrs. Skedmore cheerily, lifting a blackened face out of the smoke—"and how are you this morning? I thought I'd leave you to have your sleep out."
"Thanks, Mum, but I couldn't sleep late this morning."
"Of course she couldn't," the lady on the bed declared with cheeriness—"when it's her wedding day and all."
"A pity to waste a Sunday, though," said Mrs. Skedmore.
"What's that matter to her, marrying Sid Hurley? She may flay in bed all day if she likes."
"Of course she can—and will sometimes, I dessay. It'll all be ever so nice, I tell her."
"I bet she don't want to be told. Ivy, you're looking fine this morning."
Ivy's cheeks were blazing and her eyes were bright.
"It's ever so kind of Mrs. Housego to come in and help us," said her mother. "I thought I'd got everything straight yesterday, but it's all gone and got messed up again. Drat this fire—it won't catch and I've gone and used up all the newspaper."
"Let me help you, dear," said Mrs. Housego, heaving from the bed. There [Pg 26] was a flaw in the Skedmores' grate which involved desperate measures every morning, with a threat of suffocation throughout the day.
"Try a drop of paraffin, dearie."
"There isn't any in the place."
"I'll try and find you some downstairs. Mrs. Spiller has some, I know, for I saw her bring it in yesterday."
"Don't you go chucking paraffin on the fire!" shouted Mr. Skedmore from his bed. "You got me fined a bob last year for setting fire to the chimbley—it'll be half-a-crown next time."
The matrons heaved and struggled amidst clouds of smoke. Finally, one of Mrs. Housego's children found a piece of newspaper under the bed, and, by holding this in front of the grate, a flame was persuaded to kindle and grow. By the time the paper had caught fire and whirled blazing up the chimney there was some chance of the kettle being boiled for a cup of tea.
"And we'll all be glad of that," said Mrs. Skedmore. "What you standing there for, Ivy, like a stuck pig? You'll be tired before you've gone through half to-day."
Ivy sat down upon the bed.
"Let's talk about the wedding," sand Mrs. Housego. "How many are you expecting, dearie?"
"I've got food for ten besides ourselves. Mr. Hurley's mother 'ull be coming and his sister Grace. And then there's yourself, Mrs. Housego, and the Lockits and the Gaits and old Mr. Willard. We'll be a crowd, I tell you. But don't you worry—nobody shall go without. I've got salmon and crab and tongue and prawns, a lovely cake and some fancies and a vealanam pie, and two-dozen of ale and a dozen of Guinness for a start."
"Coo! Listen to that! Ivy, your mother couldn't have done you prouder, if it had been your funeral."
"Well, I didn't want Sid Hurley's people to think he was marrying dirt," said Mrs. Skedmore modestly.
"They won't think it after this. What a breakfast! What a treat! When I married, my mother didn't give us nothing but fish-and-chips and tea—not but what she didn't have to pawn her crocks to get that much. Pore mother! Which reminds me, I've got my five-shilling parcel back, and it's got my [Pg 28] best hat in it as well as the sheets, so I shan't look such a guy at your wedding, Ivy, after all."
"Are you coming to the church?"
"You betcher life!—Now I've got my hat. I'm all for the church, as I told the clergyman the other day. Why, I was as weak as a rat after Monty was born till I had any churching. I said to the nurse, 'for mercy's sake, let me out. I know what's good for me.' And I did. She found me cleaning the windows the next time she came. Now that Mrs. Winter, at Number Three, has never had herself churched nor her baby christened. I tell her the child won't ever be strong and healthy till it's done. And it don't cost nothing like being vaccinated, and you don't have to fuss about keeping the place clean afterwards. I tell you, I'm all for the Church."
"Well, I wish the Church 'ud let us get married a bit earlier. They won't have us till a quarter past twelve, which means nearly half the day gone."
"That doesn't matter to Ivy. She'll have more than the day for her holiday. Is he taking you away, Ivy?"
"We're going down to Eastbourne till Tuesday."[Pg 29]
"Did you ever, now! Eastbourne! I've heard that's a fashionable place. Ivy Skedmore, you're a lucky girl, as I've always said. Now, I believe I hear that kettle boiling. Let's have a nice cup of tea all round."
She went to the tea-making, while Mrs. Skedmore spread a piece of newspaper on the table and set out the heel of a loaf and some dissolving margarine.
"We don't want more than just a bite just now. There's plenty coming later."
"Only a cup of tea to freshen us all a bit. Ivy 'ull have to think about getting dressed soon."
"Oh, there's time enough. She might spoil her gown if she sat about in it."
"Is she having any bridesmaids?"
"Just our Nellie. We've got her a wreath of flowers. That's why I've done up her hair like that in rags. I thought maybe it 'ud curl."
"She'll look ever so sweet. Oh, it'll be a pretty wedding, Mrs. Skedmore—quite like the ones you read about. Who else is getting married with Ivy?"
"I don't know for certain, except that there'll be young Spiller and Rose Chown—at last and not before it was time, to my [Pg 30] way of thinking; and there'll be the gipsies."
"Those Lees—Tom and Dinah. I'm sorry about it, but it can't be helped."
"We've too many gipsies in these parts. My Jim was saying to me only yesterday as they've quite spoilt the barrer trade. They always seem to think of better things to take round on barrers than ordinary Christians."
"Talking of barrers, Mr. Skedmore's thinking of a new job. There's a chap asked him to go shares in an ice-cream stall."
"Ice-cream's no good. People are mostly too cold these days to want it."
"Well, you can do chestnuts and baked potatoes in the winter."
"Yes, and tortusses in the spring. Don't I know it? Haven't I been through it all with my poor Jim? I tell him that's the way to keep our homes about us—ha! ha!" and she pulled out a handful of pawn-tickets. "It ain't every woman who carries her home in her pocket."
"I hope you haven't too many things away, dear—nothing that's really wanted, I mean."
"Not now I've got my five-shilling parcel back. But I've not had a hat to me head [Pg 31] nor a sheet to me bed these six months, and all because my man wants to be his own master."
"Quite right, too," growled Mr. Skedmore into his tea-cup. "It's a dog's life working for a boss. I'm all for being me own capitalist."
"He's getting quite red—Mr. Skedmore," said his wife proudly—"sings the 'Red Rag' and all. But I'd rather he stayed at the works; then I know where I am. Even as it is, I'd have had a lot of things away if it hadn't been for Ivy's Mr. Hurley's kindness, getting everything back for us in time for the wedding."
"Did he reelly? Well, that's what I call generous and handsome. My Gawd! Ivy's in luck."
"Ivy!" cried her mother—"what are you staring at? Come away from that winder and take some notice of us all."
Ivy was looking down at the Square garden. She could see tracks in the grass, the spoor as it were, of some wild animal escaped. Down in that garden a wild beast, sleek and lovely, had threatened her, had opened its [Pg 32] jaws to devour Sid Hurley's meek head and prosperous home. But it was gone now. The garden lay empty, tossed by wind, while the Easter sun at last shone down on it over the house-tops, spattering its undergrowth with dusty light—queer, shifting spots and speckles, as if a beast really moved there . . . Ivy turned away."
"Hullo, everybody; I'm all right."
"Betcher life you are!"
The door had opened as she turned and Peach Grey had come in—a very different Peach from the tall girl who trod indifferently the showrooms of Madame Bertha. Her hair lay close under the shingle-cap in which she slept, for a wave cost one and sixpence to put in and must be preserved as long as possible. She wore a shabby but still colourful wrapper, and an edge beneath it proclaimed the aristocracy of a lace-trimmed nightgown. Nevertheless Peach was not exactly your idea of a successful mannequin—even of a mannequin who is the only one employed by a small Queen's Road establishment, and has to take on occasionally the role of saleswoman, as pressure demands. Her voice was certainly different from what you would expect from those disdainful lips, and different from the voice in which she made [Pg 33] occasional rare utterances while on duty. "This little dress would be very becoming to Moddom." "A model straight from our French house, Moddom." "The price is really quate ridiculous, Moddom, when you look at the material."
"A cup of tea, Miss Grey?"
"I don't mind if I do."
Peach sat down, and produced a packet of cigarettes from somewhere about her person.
"Have a fag, anybody?"
However, nobody smoked but Mr. Skedmore, who preferred his pipe. There was a subtle, social distinction of which all were conscious between Peach and the others in the room. Her wages were in point of fact no more than Ivy's, but she worked in elegance for elegance instead of in squalor for appetite, and the difference was appreciated. She sat with her kimono pulled modestly over her crossed knees, while Mrs. Skedmore poured her out a cup of tea, which Ivy brought to her.
"Well, Ivy, you were up fine and early this morning."
"How d'you mean?" blurted Ivy, taken unawares.
"Well I heard you go out, and it wasn't [Pg 34] more'n half past seven, for the church bells hadn't finished."
"How do you know? You were asleep."
"I heard you go out, I say, and I heard the bells, too."
"I tell you I didn't go out—not till after eight. I didn't come in here till after eight, did I, Ma?"
"No, you didn't. Mrs. Housego had been sitting with us a quarter of an hour before you came."
"There's bells at eight, too," continued Ivy desperately; "what should I get up earlier for on a Sunday?"
"Oh, well, you didn't then," said Peach airily. She felt quite sure that Ivy had got up and gone out before half past seven, but if she didn't want it mentioned, she certainly was not going to give her away.
"Did you go to the pictures, Peach, last night?"
"I did. We went to see Norma Talmadge at the Pavilion."
"What was she like?" asked Ivy wistfully.
"Ever so nice."
"Ivy will be able to go to the pictures any day she chooses now," said Mrs. Skedmore—"the price of a seat won't be no object, and she loves the pictures."[Pg 35]
"Well if you ever get the chance, Ivy," said Peach, "go and see Norma Talmadge in 'Love Makes New.' It's ever such a beautiful picture."
"What's it about?"
"Oh, about a girl in temptation. On one side there's a nice poor boy and on the other side a rich old chap, and she has to choose between them."
Ivy wished she hadn't asked.
"Who does she choose?" asked Mrs. Housego.
"Why, the boy, of course. But not till the end of the picture. The old chap brings her lovely pearls. I didn't half think I'd have married him in her place."
"And jilted your Algy?" rallied Mrs. Skedmore.
"Oh, the boy in the picture wasn't near so nice as Algy."
Here again Peach outraged your convention of a mannequin, who is always supposed to be superior and expensive in her love affairs, having been engaged for the last four years to a young salesman at a Brixton draper's, who might be able to afford to marry her in another four years' time.
"Well, I'm all for Romance," said Mrs. Housego. "Love in a cottage—that's what [Pg 36] I like on the pictures. I pity the girl who sells herself for money."
"Lots of them do,' said Mrs. Skedmore, shaking her head.
"But they always regrets it," said Mrs. Housego.
"And ends up old and grey, sitting in the empty nursery," said Mrs. Skedmore with a catch in her voice.
Ivy hung down her head, and her hands quivered and locked together, though she knew that her mother and Mrs. Housego were talking of another life than this, the Life of the Pictures, in which things happen differently from this life, and therefore a life into which it is sometimes good to escape.
"Albie," said Mrs. Skedmore, "run down to Mrs. Spiller and ask her kindly what time it is."
The youngest Skedmore emerged from beneath a bed, and trotted off. He came back with the alarming intelligence that it was a quarter past ten.
"A quarter past ten! Did you ever! And we haven't even begun to get things [Pg 37] straight. Come, girls, make a start, or Sid will be here and none of us ready."
"What time is he coming?"
"He said he'd be round with a keb at a quarter to twelve. Come, hustle, girls! Bless me! You'd never think I'd spring-cleaned this room all over yesterday."
"We can't do nothing, Ma, with the children here. Can't they go out for a bit?"
"Of course they can—no, they can't for they ain't dressed, and they mustn't play in the street with their new clothes on."
"They can wear their old knickers and jerseys, just to run out. Mrs. Housego's Gertie will look after them and see as they come back in time."
"I wan'er go to church," said Gertie.
"Did you ever!" cried her mother. "You'll have plenty of church later, when you go to see Ivy married."
"But I won't get a pitcher. I get a pitcher if I go to church now."
"I wan'er pitcher—I wan'er pitcher," chimed in the other little Housegos.
"I wan'er pitcher," echoed the little Skedmores.
"Oh, let them go, Ma," cried Ivy impatiently; "they'll be out of the way, anyhow."[Pg 38]
"The children's service begins at a quarter to ten," said Peach, "not much good their going at a quarter past."
But such a distinction was merely trivial in the Skedmore conception of time. It being decided that the children were best out of the way, that church was safer than the street, and that they were more likely to return from it than from more thrilling and scattered pursuits, they were accordingly dispatched there, to add their arrival to the confusion at the end of the Children's Mass.
As soon as they were gone Mrs. Housego and Mrs. Skedmore settled down to what they called euphemistically "a good clean." The crockery of the wedding feast was washed anew and would have to be washed again more than once in the course of the meal if the glasses and plates were to go round. A bunch of flowers, bought last night in Lunar Street market, was dispersed among Mrs. Skedmore's vases. Pictures and ornaments were finally dusted, the hearth cleaned and the food spread out on the newly-washed tablecloth. In the midst of it all Mr. Skedmore shaved, with blasphemous interludes, and Ivy, in the next room, helped by Peach, put on her rosewood [Pg 39] cloth dress with the detachable cape, the nigger-brown straw hat, the silk stockings and suede shoes that formed the chief splendours of her wedding.
"Coo, Ivy, but you look ever so nice! You pay for dressing up, you do. I wish I had a chance with you at Madame's. I could make you look sweet. But maybe you'll come some day. You'll be able to afford it, you know, once and again. I bet lots of the women who come to us don't have as much as eight pounds a week. But you're a lucky girl. I wish I had half your luck," and she sighed.
Evidently she was not looking at Ivy from the moral view-point of the pictures. She did not see her friend as "selling herself for money." And yet she knew all about Bill. She also knew all about life, and that a girl can't always afford to live up to the exalted moral standard set by the cinema—that she must occasionally move on a lower level, simply in order to avoid bad legs . . . Ivy's chosen course suddenly appeared to her as absolutely sordid and humdrum. Not thus would Norma Talmadge or Mary Pickford or Mae Murray have chosen. The tears began to roll down her cheeks.[Pg 40]
"Wotever's the matter, Ivy?"
"I feel so bad about it all, Peach."
"Bad about wot?"
"Marrying Sid when I ought to be marrying Bill."
"Now don't start all that nonsense over again. Why ever should you be marrying Bill? He's not got a penny and never will have."
"I could go on with my job."
"Yes, you could—till the kids came. And what then? No, you forget it, Ivy. It's no good. I wouldn't say that if he was like Algy, but he isn't. My own opinion is that he's not straight. Anyhow, I wouldn't trust him. Now, there's nothing really exciting about Sid, but he's as straight as they're made. He won't let you down. He's good stuff."
"Do you really think so?"
"Of course I think so, and so do you. You've only got the jim-jams at the last minute, the way most girls do."
Ivy wondered. Had she really only got the jim-jams? Or was this Conscience Roused at Last? The words seemed to flicker before her eyes, as if thrown on a screen. She went to the window and looked out—down at the garden where the sun-dappled [Pg 41] shadows moved like some spotted beast. Suddenly she saw two figures come arm in arm round the corner of the Square. It was Bill and an unknown female, whom he led past the house. She was smartly dressed in green, with a hat to match, and her skirts displayed much silken leg. Bill's hand lay tenderly over the one he had pulled through his arm. He was bending towards her and talking eagerly.
"Cad!" shouted Ivy, and brought Peach, who was kneeling to button a shoe, startled to her feet.
"What is it? Who?—Oh!"
She looked out and saw Bill turning at the Square corner, to lead his lady back past the window that he wished to mock.
"Why, it's Bill! Who in the Lord's name has he got hold of now?"
"He's brought her to jeer at me. He's a cad. He's a——"
"Shut up, Ivy. You don't want every one to hear. Don't be a fool and give him his chance like that. Get away from the window"; and she pulled her back into the room with such violence that she fell across the bed that filled up most of it.
"There, what did I say?" continued Peach. "I told you he wasn't straight. [Pg 42] He's a rotten sort of chap. You're well rid of him."
Ivy sobbed, stifling, into her pillow.
"Now don't do that, or you'll spoil your face. Come and let me brush your dress."
"Has he gone?"
"Yes—now you're not looking out any more. He's cleared off"; and Peach made an unladylike gesture of farewell. "Come, Ivy, and don't be a damn fool. You'll get yourself all crumpled. Sit up. That's right. Now, let me give you just a dust over with my powder. Yes, you must. You can't let everyone see you with a red nose and red eyes like that. They'll think you've been crying. And you've nothing to cry for. You're a lucky girl."
"If you say that again," said Ivy, sullenly, "I shall scream."
"Well, then, I won't say it, but I'll think it all the same."
A sudden clamour broke out in the next room.
"Girls! Girls!" shrieked Mrs. Skedmore—"Sid's come!"
Doors flew open, footsteps thudded, voices questioned and screamed.
"Sid's come . . . the keb's here . . . the children ain't back. Wherever can they [Pg 43] be? They've got to be dressed, and Nellie to put on her bridesmaid's clothes and all."
In the midst of the uproar, Sid Hurley's step came quietly up the stairs.
"Hello, what's the matter? Where's Ivy?"
"Here I am, Sid."
"Don't sound so sad, little girl. What's she been doing, Mrs. Skedmore? Is she tired?"
"No, but what am I to do, Sid? There's all the children out heaven knows where."
"Well, if they can't be found, the wedding must go on without them. It's a quarter to twelve."
"But Nellie's to be bridesmaid. Oh, what shall we do? Ivy, you're dressed. Run down to the corner and——"
"No, no, Mrs. Skedmore; Ivy mustn't do any more running about this morning. Why, she's tired already, poor little girl"; and he gently tucked back a piece of hair that had flown loose under her hat.
"Well, I'll go to the corner, dear, if you like," said Mrs. Housego. "I can call them, but heaven knows I can't chase after them, being the size I am."
"Stay where you are, ma'am," said Sid. [Pg 44] "I'll see if I can find 'em; and, if I find 'em, I bet I bring 'em too."
"There!" cried Mrs. Skedmore. "That's a man, dearie."
Peach, too, thought that it was. She nudged Ivy in the ribs.
"Wot price Doug Fairbanks?" she whispered.
Meanwhile, the finishing touches were put to Mr. Skedmore's tie and Mrs. Skedmore's toque. Mrs. Housego went downstairs to her own room, to put on the redeemed hat and await such of her family as the bridegroom should recover in the short time allowed him. His chief efforts were to be centred on Nellie Skedmore, but it was more than likely that the children had kept together.
So it proved. Just as the more trustworthy clocks in the Square pointed to twelve, Sid Hurley reappeared with a little string of grubs. It appeared that, finding themselves too late at church to receive the coveted pictures, they had gone on in hope to the Salvation Army Sunday School, where they had each been rewarded with a coloured text about the size of a postage stamp. Thus refreshed, they had endured a certain amount of instruction, agreed that [Pg 45] they had found the Lord, and started off home, stopping on the way to join in a game of "house" on the steps of the Parish Hall. This was not "house" as played in the nursery, but as played in the British Army; and, though none of the players had any money, stakes were put up in the way of buttons, marbles, matchboxes and similar treasures. The little Skedmores staked their texts and lost them, and it was in the midst of the ensuing battle that Sid Hurley arrived and dragged them away.
It was decided once again to concentrate on Nellie; the others, having no prominent part in the coming ceremony, might scramble as they chose into the new jerseys and knickers laid out for them. But Nellie must be washed, combed, brushed, and clothed in white raiment, white stockings and shoes, with a wreath of daisies round her rag-curled hair. Nellie, though next in age to Ivy, was not yet twelve. She represented the other side of a gap which had been filled with a variety of births and deaths, as little Skedmores came into the world and left it in rapid succession. Three had not survived their birth more than a few weeks, one had died sensationally in a smallpox epidemic much written of in the newspapers, while [Pg 46] another, as if to show the utter contempt of Providence for the efforts of the Skedmores, had died of a "bad arm" caused by septic conditions after vaccination.
While Nellie was being dressed, Ivy and her bridegroom sat together by the window, their conversation screened by the general uproar.
"Sure you're not tired, darling?"
She shook her head.
"I believe you are a bit."
"Why should I be? I've done nothing to-day."
"But it's all been exciting and trying for you. I'll be ever so glad when I've got you away all quiet by the seaside."
"What is it, dear?"
"Ivy, you're not unhappy, are you? You're not feeling—oh, my dear, tell me that you're glad."
"I am glad," said Ivy.
She suddenly knew that she was glad. "I've only got the jim-jams at the last moment, the way most girls have," she repeated firmly.
She suddenly knew that she had only got the jim-jams. That was what it was—what [Pg 47] every girl had on her wedding day. There was nothing else—no regrets, no flight, no sorrow, no wild beast in the garden. . . .
"There now!" said her mother. "She looks a pitcher!"
"Boo-hoo!" sobbed Nellie. "There's a pin sticking into me."
"There ain't. I tell you there's no pin. Now you behave! If it wasn't Ivy's wedding day you'd have been well tanned by your dad for the dance you've led us."
"We only went to the Salvations."
"Well, it wasn't the Salvations who rolled you in the dirt and spoiled your only decent pair of drawers. Now don't you move till we all go out together. Albie! Georgie! . . . Oh, thank you, Peach. Now is everybody ready? Ivy! We can't get far without you, nor Sid either. You'll have plenty of time for spooning later. Now everybody go out. Dad! Got the key? That's right. Lock the door after us. Now, Albie, if you start running. . . ."
Somehow or other they all got downstairs and were not too hopelessly involved with the emerging Housegos. There stood the [Pg 48] cab, and somehow or other they all got into it. As they drove across the Square, before the windows became too fogged to see out, Ivy looked her last into the garden. Nobody was there, neither a spotted beast, nor a maddening, jeering boy, parading his new love to mock the old. She felt quite quiet now—quiet and not unhappy. The past was over and done with, and the future looked brighter than it had looked before the sun was up. It looked bright as well as comfortable . . . She glanced across at Sid, and remembered with a little creep of pride that Peach had compared him to Douglas Fairbanks. Not that he was really very like him, but he was certainly strong and kind . . . and Peach had also sand he was "good stuff."
The cab stopped outside the church. They were not so very late after all, for though it was twenty past twelve, the Easter morning service was not yet over. The verger cane out and told them to stay in the porch till it was finished. Looking in, Ivy could see dim figures and dim lights, and sniff the soft blue haze that reminded her of her childhood's Sundays. Church-going was either for the very old or for the very young—the middle years were too, [Pg 49] crowded and too hard, and Saturday night ate up too much of Sunday morning. But perhaps she would go again now, for there would be leisure in her home, such as there had never been in her mother's and as there would not be in Peach's when she married.
How smart Peach looked! Smarter than any of the brides—for Ivy's was not the only glory of that wedding day. No less than eight other brides were crowding with their retinues into that narrow porch, while their friends and neighbours covered the pavement outside.
"Bang! Crash! Bang! Terrumphy! The service was over and the organ had began to play the congregation out. The various wedding-parties made a rush for the entrance, but the verger and churchwardens held them back.
"Let the people out first."
Out the congregation came, dribbling a thin line through the brides and bridegrooms. In the vestry a tired clergyman was taking off his vestments and scrambling into a surplice for the approaching orgy.
"I wish you'd let me take them," said the new curate, who had not begun his day's work at five.[Pg 50]
"My dear chap, you couldn't start with nine couples at a time. You'd get 'em mixed. I'll polish them off in twenty minutes and then thank the Lord for food, hot coffee, rest."
He disappeared into the church, where the verger had by this time marshalled the different couples and arranged them in a long row in front of the chancel. Those who had no bridesmaids stood in front of the pews, those who had the longest trail stood in the aisle. Ivy stood a little way to the right, with Sid on one side and her father on the other, and Nell behind her, wedged against a Litany desk and still complaining of a pin. She had time to look round her while they waited for the priest. There stood the gipsies, right at the end—her hat was full of feathers like a donah. Rose Chown actually had a white veil. There was swank for you! Especially after what people said—and Hilda James . . . she didn't know Hilda was getting married. The other couples were strangers—two of them were quite middle-aged . . . getting married again . . . then it couldn't be so bad the first time . . . she looked round shyly at Sid. Her jim-jams were all gone now—she supposed it had been just that, just like [Pg 51] what every girl has before her wedding . . . no mistaking Peach for a bride now—she was right behind in one of the pews.
A great shuffle went through the lines. The clergyman had come in. He stood before them, turning over the pages of his book, eyeing meanwhile one of the bridegrooms who was a little drunk. Then he began to read:
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God. . . ."