Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

A Spirit of Mirth, an electronic edition

by Peggy Webling [Webling, Peggy]

date: 1913
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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CHAPTER II
A FLOWER IN A DITCH

PHOSIE found life decidedly interesting in Airy Street.

Mr Simmons, the landlord, was a composer—by courtesy—who earned his living in a peculiar way by scoring music, and occasionally providing original melodies, for the poorer class of music-hall performers. He was very well known to the musical conductors of London and suburban halls, who frequently had it in their power to put a little money in his pocket. Having played in theatre orchestras all his youth and composed a great number of waltzes, marches and comic songs, Mr Simmons was quite equal, as he said himself, "to turning his hand to any branch of the business."

He was a big, silent man, with a round face, on which the features seemed to have been thrown by a careless hand. One of his eyes was immovable in his head, and his hair, shaved away from a thick neck and from behind his ears, was a dirty, sandy grey, his head being quite bald in patches. He was always in his shirt sleeves, without a collar, and he smoked incessantly.

The keys of Mr Simmons's piano were yellow with age and worn down with use. He played, as he smoked and breathed, without thought or effort, rattle, rattle, rattle all day long. His little front room was strewn with sheets of music, printed songs, old newspapers; the chairs had the appearance of having seen better days, being large and upholstered in plush, but shabby, discoloured, and weak on their legs. The mantelpiece was crowded with china ornaments, dusty bunches of lavender and | | 14 grass in blue vases, and faded photographs of music-hall artistes in startling costumes.

On the walls hung framed copies of Mr Simmons's own compositions, a few old play-bills, and a big portrait of a particularly repulsive boxer, inscribed "To John Simmons, Esq., from his old pal Yours truely ' Baby ' Bull "; a second picture of the "Baby" hung over the piano—"Baby Bull and Family," the family consisting of a very stout lady, five children, and two bull dogs. On the floor was a threadbare carpet, with a grey sheepskin mat before the fireplace, and a strip of oil-cloth laid down, like a red carpet on state occasions, from the door to the piano. The windows were never opened and rarely cleaned. At night the gas flared without shades from a chandelier in the middle of the blackened ceiling.

At Mr Simmons's left hand stood a little table, bearing his desk and inkstand, where he jotted down his inspirations and did his orchestration, rarely moving, except for meals, away from the jingle of the keys.

Mrs Simmons was an untidy, shiftless, good-tempered lady, with a great quantity of black hair and a passion for entertainments. She spent three or four nights every week at one music-hall or another, the frequent change of programme preventing her from being bored. She always went to the cheapest seats, unless Mr Simmons could be induced to get her a free ticket, and returned home at half-past eleven, hot, tired, smoked dry with bad tobacco, but with her hunger for amusement still unsatisfied. Mrs Simmons would have got up in the middle of the night to go to a music-hall.

Eddy Moore, when he first lodged in the house, paid her a small weekly sum to look after his little girl, but Mrs Simmons, whose own children had been shamefully neglected, though never ill-used, soon discovered that he was too particular. An easy way out of the hair-brushing problem, she argued, would be to crop off Phosie's curls altogether, but Eddy Moore objected. He said he would | | 15 brush it himself, and did so. Then Mrs Simmons considered the child's daily bath a wicked waste of warm water, not to mention the unhealthiness of the habit. Again Eddy Moore settled the matter by impressing on the child herself, young as she was, the strong necessity for soap and water.

The first-floor lodger, Miss Sapio, was a tall, handsome young woman with tawny yellow hair, wonderful eyes of the same colour, and fine, straight features. She frankly called herself "a show woman," but she was more than that, being quite a clever actress, with a sense of humour and smouldering fire of dramatic passion hidden in the depths of an unawakened, self-indulgent nature.

No one knew Miss Sapio's real history, for she had a vivid imagination and a bad memory, so that the stories she told of her life were apt to become confused. She had been married, but sometimes her husband was represented as having died fighting for his country, at others he was casually mentioned as a successful teaplanter in Ceylon—expected home next summer—and all her other connections were equally vague.

A certain brother Jack, who figured in her conversation at this period, appeared to belong to the Naval and Military services indiscriminately, except when he was farming in Manitoba, or attached to the British Embassy in Russia.

Her sister Marguerite was sometimes the wife of a professor at Cambridge, sometimes of a country vicar, and sometimes the chatelaine of a grand old manor house in the north of England.

Even the story of her pet dog, a tiny liver-and-white spaniel, was wrapped in mystery, for at first his mistress had bought him for a song in Drury Lane, then she had rescued him at great personal danger from the brutality of a gang of roughs in Hoxton, and then he was the gift of a broken-down man of genius whom Miss Sapio had befriended in his darkest hour.

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She was an educated woman and could be charming, but long association with people who were mentally and socially her inferiors had coarsened her tastes and warped her finer instincts. Conscious of her beauty, conscious of her deterioration, there was nevertheless something magnificent—something that not only quickened the senses but moved the heart—in the vitality and wasted possibilities of this still young, still attractive woman. At times she could be terrible, when her tongue was unbridled and her temper uncontrolled, but as a rule she was lazily good-humoured and always generous.

Eddy Moore, when first Miss Sapio took possession of the first floor, had told his child not to speak to her or go into her rooms. Having worked in the same pantomime as Miss Sapio in the provinces, he had heard her talk, and knew she could be violent and evil-tongued.

One day Miss Sapio met Phosie on the stairs, Phosie being accompanied by her invisible pets, the chicken and the oyster, for whose benefit she was squeezing against the wall to give them room to walk beside her on the narrow staircase.

"Hullo! Who are you?" exclaimed Miss Sapio, kindly.

Phosie told her name.

"Oh, the kiddy on the top floor," said Miss Sapio; 'I thought you didn't belong to old Simmons. Let's have a look at you."

She put a big, shapely hand under the little chin and turned her face up. Phosie looked into the bold, tawny eyes with a child's open curiosity. Her own face, strained upward, was serious for a second in its interest of expression, then the sweet mouth broke into the ready smile of good fellowship. Miss Sapio stooped down and kissed her.

"There, run along!" she said, and watched her out of sight.

Miss Sapio made an opportunity to speak to Eddy Moore.

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"What a jolly youngster you've got," she said. "She reminds me of my little sister Marguerite. I don't mind her coming into my room to see the dog, you know. I'm fond of kiddies, when they're clean."

Eddy thanked her a little nervously. He was rather afraid of Miss Sapio. She guessed it and laughed.

"It's all right, old man," she said, suddenly. "I know what you're thinking about, but you needn't be frightened. I'll be careful what I say before the child."

He stammered a few words in answer to her frankness.

"You can't be too careful when they're young," he said, feebly.

Miss Sapio agreed in strong language. Eddy looked at her a little reproachfully.

"Oh, come, you're no kid!" she exclaimed. "I shouldn't have said it if she'd been here."

Eddy, in spite of his repugnance, told Phosie she might go into Miss Sapio's room, for the simple reason that he had not the courage to forbid it.

Mr and Mrs Dovey, whose whole existence was passed in straining and pulling to make both ends meet, were a most depressing couple. Mrs Dovey worked as a jacket hand at a big dress and mantle maker's in Holborn. Mr Dovey—fifteen years of whose life had been spent in earning the small capital which he lost in a musical instrument shop in fifteen months—played the cornet in a music-hall orchestra at night, and gave lessons, at one shilling per hour, in the daytime.

It was among these people, in the shadow of these narrow and mean walls, that Phosie spent the years of her childhood

Her father could well have afforded a brighter and fairer home, but he was haunted by the dread of leaving his child penniless if he died; the poor Human Eel had a bad habit of always expecting to die, and that was the reason that he hoarded his small salary.

Her happiest hours were spent in his company. They | | 18 went out together, and she told him stories of "Florence" and "Count-Countess." She spent a great deal of time reading to him a curious selection of borrowed books. Mr Simmons lent them Uncle Tom's Cabin, Swiss Family Robinson, the Pickwick Papers, and several old-fashioned very lengthy novels. When the pages were torn, or missing, Eddy would fill in the blank spaces with recollections from old melodramas seen in his boyhood.

Mrs Simmons passed them on the Family Herald Supplements every week, which little Phosie tried to enjoy because the stories evidently impressed her father. Mrs Dovey's contributions to the child's literary education consisted of tracts, and bad tales of the kind known as " goody-goody."

It was Miss Sapio, choosing her gifts in the light of the memory of nobler days, who gave Phosie a few of the many cherishable, imperishable books of fairy lore.

Gentle Hans Andersen found his way to the little top rooms in Airy Street, with his tin soldiers and his talking flowers; the Brothers Grimm brought their witches and hobgoblins; Shahrazad filled the air with undying perfumes of the East; the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and Alice were frequent visitors; even the immortal heroes—Perseus, Jason, Heracles—were known to little Phosie in the simple words of an English story-teller, and she read of a certain gentle knight who was pricking o'er the plain long before she knew that his adventures were really written in verse.

Her father could have told her no such tales. Indeed, he listened to them himself with all the simplicity of a child, taking legend and symbol in a literal sense.

Phosie had the gift of gaiety; she devised games for herself, invented stories, cut out rag dolls, which she stuffed and painted in gaudy tints, and covered quires of cheap writing-paper with badly-drawn, but comic, pictures.

She early assumed the household duties, supplementing | | 19 Mrs Simmons's haphazard cooking with daring experiments in cakes and puddings; she kept the top floor as tidy and smutless as she possibly could, and it all afforded her intense amusement.

Phosie was never the girl to shed tears over trifling troubles. As a mere child she instinctively differentiated between the things which matter, or do not matter, in daily life. If her household attempts were successful she was absurdly elated; while a slight mishap only spurred her to greater efforts, an utter failure brought out all her reserve force, but never prevented her from laughing at herself.

She was a great favourite with Mr Simmons, who looked upon his own children, three loutish boys, as his wife's exclusive property for whom she was solely responsible.

Phosie usually visited Mr Simmons in the late afternoon, sitting down beside the piano to talk if he happened to be alone, or placing herself in one of the plush arm-chairs, on the opposite side of the room, if he happened to be interviewing a patron.

The gentlemen who sought his services were usually blue-chinned, very smartly or very shabbily dressed, talked slang, and smoked incessantly. If they were musical they whistled their ideas to Mr Simmons, who jotted down the notes on a small sheet of music paper.

The lady visitors were generally very friendly, even affectionate in manner, with a fondness for fancy handbags, high heels and flowery hats. There was a great similarity in their complexions and the colour of their hair. Phosie often wondered why such pretty golden hair turned brown at the roots.

Mr Simmons was alike indifferent to the gentlemen's chaff or the ladies' fascinations. He composed or scored their music with an air of complete detachment. Relying on his undoubted cheapness he demanded payment in advance, with the understanding that his work should be altered a reasonable number of times to suit the purchaser.

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"Why do you make all your tunes so much alike, Mr Simmons?" asked Phosie, innocently, after listening to a sentimental ballad, a comic song, and a composition to be played during the performance of trained dogs.

Mr Simmons turned his squint in her direction and smiled, for the first time that day.

"Because I only charge 'em half-a-crown each, my dear," he answered.

"Then you could make them different if you chose?" she said.

"Of course I could!" said Mr Simmons. "I could write an opera if they was to pay me enough, or an oratorio. Why not?"

If he meant to be sarcastic—his horrible eyes and heavy features never changed their expression, so that it was impossible to judge—it was lost upon Phosie.

"How clever you are, Mr Simmons!" she exclaimed, with a genuine belief in any man's possibilities which made some people call her, in after years, a born flatterer.

Miss Sapio became another of her warm friends. At the light tap of her foot on the stairs Miss Sapio's door would open, and the tall, handsome woman, dishevelled about the head, and dressed in strange garments, would spring out and seize upon the child.

Sometimes Phosie struggled away, laughing, and then Miss Sapio would call her a little wretch—a monkey—a puss—an imp—anything which came into her head, but never a coarse or cruel word. When she showed an inclination to accept hospitality, Miss Sapio bribed her to stop with chocolates, small toys, or penny bunches of flowers. She told her long stories of Jack and Marguerite, the never-seen brother and sister, and allowed her to play with a store of old finery.

None of these things really influenced Phosie's affection. She liked Miss Sapio for herself, not for her gifts, but there was something about her which repelled the child. Of course she was unable, as children are, to give | | 21 any reason for this feeling. It was subtle, unexplainable, but at times Miss Sapio offended her inner consciousness, as the smell of the stalks of dead flowers, or the sound of a vile word, offended her peculiarly keen senses.

Mr and Mrs Dovey frequently invited Phosie to tea on Sundays. They were rather afraid of the mild Human Eel, and secretly disapproved of his profession. With them she was seen at her best. Her chatter amused them, and her laughter drove the demon of depression out of their room. She made them think of the children of their dreams—the dreams of half-forgotten youth when they had loved each other.

She listened to Mr Dovey's gloomy views on the decadence of the cornet, and to Mrs Dovey's recollections of brighter days, with as much interest as to Miss Sapio's most thrilling story of her brother Jack's adventures; entertaining them in her turn with snatches from the books she was reading and descriptions of her father's achievements. She danced, and even acted little plays of her own invention. Sometimes Mr Dovey played the cornet, if he felt in sufficiently good spirits, and then Phosie sang "Believe me if all those endearing young charms," and "The Minstrel Boy" to his accompaniment, firmly convinced that Moore's Melodies were specially composed for that instrument, while Mrs Dovey forgot her never-finished labours of finishing jackets and listened to the incongruous music with placid pleasure.

Mrs Simmons was the one person in the house who was indifferent to the child. Phosie's youth and ignorance of music-hall matters probably accounted for this. At first she had been struck with her bright face and quantity of curly hair, but as time went on she was less and less inclined to share in the household's affection for the little girl. Phosie, feeling antipathy in the air, tried to avoid her, became silent and watchful in her presence, and almost afraid of her loud laugh, and full, red face.

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So the days slipped past, and the long, long years of childhood were left behind.

The self-told story of "Florence" and "Count-Countess" lost its interest. "Biddy" and "Winkey" ceased to be realities. She discovered that her father, once thought to be so old, like all the other grown-up people in the world, was almost young. She began to pay attention to her frocks, and to secretly exult in the shortness of her upper lip and the length of her eyelashes.

Without any loss of high spirits, she was stirred with new emotions none the less beautiful because they are known to nearly every sensitive girl for a very brief, easily-forgotten period of her life. She feels as if she were awakening to the consciousness of separate existence; doubly bound to those she loves, for all her natural affections are strengthened at this time, she suddenly discovers the joy of solitude. Her thoughts are too evanescent, too delicate, to be shared with the most intimate companion. For a little while there is no sentimentality, or even religious fervour, in her dream of awakening.

She is simply content To Be, and her most serious thoughts flash with minutes of wild, unexplainable joy, when the heart seems to leap into the throat and the limbs are as light as air.

Thus, like a flower at the edge of a ditch, Euphrosyne raised her little head—pure, delicate, stretching towards the sun—from out the dreariness and dirt of Airy Street, brightening all her poor surroundings with something of her own gaiety and innocence.

chapter 33 >>