- CHAPTER III LITTLE GUS
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"'CHER!" cried Little Gus, giving a loud, single knock at Mrs Simmons's area door.
It was a warm night at the end of May. He pushed back his cap and leaned against the wall, panting.
Little Gus was a butcher boy, but not the typical butcher boy of song and story, who is invariably bullnecked, muscular, a terror to smaller boys—a butcher in the bud.
Gus was small, pale, and the hand which steadied the oblong wooden tray on his shoulder was like a claw. He did not whistle, after the manner of his kind, or exchange defiances with passing youths to beguile the tedium of waiting. He was too tired for that, even if he had had the courage.
It was ten o'clock, Saturday night. Little Gus's master, two streets away, had been shouting "Buy! Buy! Buy! Loverly meat! Buy! Buy! Buy!" since five in the afternoon, but he was a strong man with the prospect of a good supper before him, while Little Gus, tea being a thing of the past, had nothing to look forward to but bed.
"'Cher!" he yelled again, listlessly repeating the single knock.
The door was opened by a girl. He knew her well, and his face brightened. He discreetly dropped his business voice in addressing her.
"'Ullo! Ol' woman out?" he asked, with a jerk of the head towards the passage.| | 24
"Mrs Simmons? Yes. I'll get a dish. Can't you come in and rest for a few minutes, Gus?"
"Can't—'urry!" answered the boy, who always omitted the small words that connect a sentence.
The girl disappeared into the darkness of the passage and reappeared with a dish. She stooped forward to look at him, as he dabbed a small piece of meat on to it, with interest and curiosity.
The light from the lamp in the street fell on her face. It was Phosie Moore, but not the Phosie of the old days.
She was dressed in black, a worn-out dress of mourning; her hair was twisted into a tight plait; she wore a pair of old, rusty, beaded slippers, found among discarded rubbish after Miss Sapio left Airy Street; her hands were roughened with hard work, and her face had lost its rounded curves.
She looked what she was—a little drudge, underfed and growing too fast, like a fair weed in poor soil. But as she looked at the boy her eyes grew bright and impish. He read her thoughts.
"Can't—afraid," he said. "They'd catch us—sure—you go—by yerself."
"No! You're worse off than I am," she replied. "Why haven't you more pluck?"
"Dunno!" said Gus, sadly.
Phosie did not look contemptuous. She was too sorry for the boy. Her feeling was one of impatient helplessness.
It was two years since her father died. Never-to-be forgotten night! It still haunted her mind—the sudden awakening from sleep; the strangers in the room; the dragging on of clothes; the drive through the flaring streets; the great building to which they took her; kind, curious faces turning to look as she was hurried along white-washed passages; a long, quiet room, with rows of beds; and then—her father's face, with closed eyes, as white as the pillow, and her father's hand stretched out, palm upwards, as white as the sheet.| | 25
He had met with an accident on the stage—she remembered grasping that fact in the midst of her dazed horror—and his right side was paralysed. The nurse bent over him and spoke. Phosie could only stare at the strange white face, like the mask of the face she knew. She thought he was asleep.
The nurse spoke again. Phosie, glancing up, with sudden intuition understood the expression of the doctor, who stood immovable on the opposite side of the bed. She realised that her father was drifting into eternal sleep.
"My daddy! My daddy!" she cried in a shrill voice.
At the sound of her cry his eyelids quivered, lay still, quivered again, and lifted on her face. He looked at her—one long, quiet, conscious glance—and died.
Phosie had returned to Airy Street, to be consoled with passionate tenderness by Miss Sapio, and with more considerate kindness by Mr and Mrs Dovey.
Poor Eddy Moore, in his dread of leaving his child penniless, had been tempted, only a few months before his death, to invest the greater part of his savings in an apparently safe theatrical speculation, dazzled by the prospect of big returns. Unfortunately the speculation, like so many of its kind, ended in disappointment and disaster.
Mr Simmons, self-appointed guardian, found that Phosie's inheritance amounted to an elaborate contract with Eddy's ruined partners, and a hundred pounds in the Post Office Savings Bank. He decided, quite sensibly, that she must be taught to earn her own living, paying a small weekly sum for her board and lodging in Airy Street until she was old enough to take care of herself.
For several months she continued to occupy her little room at the top of the house and life was very much the same as it had been in Eddy Moore's time, except for the loneliness in her heart. Outwardly she soon recovered from her loss, laughed and chattered as much as ever, and never spoke of her father.| | 26
Then Miss Sapio obtained an engagement to go to America, and went away from Airy Street, leaving Phosie with tears and embraces, and clasping her great treasure, an old paste necklace, round her neck as a parting gift.
This was the first of a rapid succession of changes. Mr and Mrs Dovey were obliged to move into cheaper lodgings, and they too passed out of Phosie's life.
Mr Simmons, after twenty years of indifference to the charms of the many ladies whom he met professionally, eloped with a flaxen-haired, plain little woman, whose only attraction appeared to be her unlikeness to his wife.
With characteristic coolness he advised his friends of his change of address before taking the irrevocable step, having had his piano removed during his wife's absence from home, and carried on his business in his old way at his new home, where his new partner—Mrs Simmons by courtesy—managed their lodgers, their patrons, and Mr Simmons with strict impartiality.
The original Mrs Simmons, backed by the Law, compelled him to contribute towards her support and continued to occupy the house in Airy Street. Her sorrow—if it could be considered a sorrow to be rid of Mr Simmons—did not improve her character. Always intemperate in her love of amusement, she became intemperate in other ways, and developed a latent meanness.
Phosie had to give up her own dear little attic and sleep in a dark slip of a room at the top of the kitchen stairs. Having left school, for she was past fourteen, Mrs Simmons began to make her useful in the house. The hundred pounds was dwindling away, some of it having vanished with Mr Simmons, and Phosie found herself in the position of an unpaid servant.
Her sole duty in life was to save Mrs Simmons's steps, so she answered the door, waited on the lodgers, and ran the errands. There was no time to read, even if she had had any books, for her mistress was a born nigger-driver, | | 27 violent in wrath, as many lazily good-tempered people become, and thoroughly selfish.
Phosie's life was intolerable. A less buoyant nature would have been conquered by daily physical exhaustion, but the girl—child of her mother's independence of spirit and her father's persistence of effort—gained in strength of purpose as she gained in years. There was nothing of the willing martyr in her composition. If she adapted herself to her circumstances, prompt and obedient to her mistress and properly humble to the lodgers, she was nevertheless continually plotting freedom.
It was the weakness of little Gus, a fellow victim, that had kept her in slavery so long.
"Let us run away!" said Phosie, for the hundredth time during the past three months, on that warm May night when Mrs Simmons was not at home and she talked to her friend in the area.
"Where to?" asked Gus, his invariable question.
"Out of Airy Street, into the world," said Phosie. "I can't breathe here. I am tired of it—sick of it all."
"We've got to live," urged Gus. "We can't starve—'ungry, you know—awful!"
Phosie laid her hands on the boy's shoulders. He felt how strongly they gripped through his thin jacket.
"Won't you trust me, Gus?" she said. "I'll take care of you. You're all alone in the world, and so am I. We can work—I'm not afraid."
"You ain't very old," he argued. "I dunno what you could do—nor me neither."
"Oh, you'd get a job at once! "said Phosie, with the certainty of ignorance. "All you want is courage and determination. I'm not so very young. There are lots of people younger than I am. Lots of them are only babies. Think of that, Gus! I can do plain cooking, and I can dance."
Even Little Gus smiled at this.| | 28
"Dance!" he repeated scornfully. "Who'll pay yer? Dance! I could dance myself."
"Ah, but not like this!" said Phosie.
She suddenly stood on the very tips of her toes, spread out her arms and pattered round the area, straight as a dart from ankle to head. Then she gave a couple of high kicks, first with one foot then with the other, and if the people who disapprove of high kicking could have seen her they would have been obliged to confess that there was something very neat and dainty in the way the old beaded slipper flew into the air, twinkled on a level with Gus's head, and was back to earth before his start was over. She burst out laughing and dropped on the soles of her feet. Gus, after a vain attempt to balance on his toes in imitation, shook his head and shouldered his wooden tray.
"Who learned you?" he asked.
"I taught myself—it's nothing," said Phosie. "But it shows how well I could dance if I tried. I could go on the stage. I've saved a pound, and I've got that old necklace Miss Sapio gave me, and some rings which belonged to my mother, and my father's watch and chain and scarf-pin—no, I couldn't sell those, but all the others might go. The money would keep us both for months, Gus, till we got a job."
"I dunno!" said the boy for the second time.
These words expressed his whole attitude towards life. In after years he learned to say the same thing in different ways—"I really can't say," or "I haven't any idea," or "I would rather not give an opinion"—but the fact remained unaltered. Perhaps the modesty of his confession will not be overlooked in judging the character of Little Gus. Wiser men have come to the same conclusion—"Much as we know, what do we know?"
"You don't mind leaving your master and mistress, do you? "continued Phosie.| | 29
"Ne-ow!" said Gus, with supreme disgust at such an idea.
"You haven't got any relations, have you? "she asked.
The boy shook his head, and his worn, unchildish face suddenly twitched.
"Dunno know who I am—born work'us—no father—mother dead—no 'ome—no money—no friends!"
Those words determined her. His constant fear of facing a world, which she believed only waited to be won, had almost broken the ties of mutual loneliness which bound them together. But when he said he had no friends and no home, and she realised it was the truth, her young heart opened and took him in.
Little Gus—neglected, stunted, ill-born son of misery—from that hour was Phosie's brother.
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