- CHAPTER V UNDER THE LILAC BUSH
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UNDER THE LILAC BUSH
THERE was a long, wide road in Hammersmith, very quiet and countrified in the days of Euphrosyne's girlhood, lying close to the river.
The houses were remarkable for an interesting variety, as if the builder, or probably many different builders, had been unable to decide whether rich or poor people should inhabit them.
They were all old-fashioned, but not sufficiently old to be attractive on that account. Some of them were semidetached with fairly large balconies, and imposing, heavy porticoes; some of them were as small as cottages with a square of garden in front, and some were tall, thin houses with long flights of steps leading to the front doors.
Plane trees were planted in lines on either side of the road, and it was lighted by an insufficient number of gas lamps. A small row of shops, squeezed in among private houses near one end of the road, added to the convenience of the residents, if it somewhat offended their taste. They grumbled at the shops, but found them very useful.
There was the same variety in the gardens as in the houses. The spring was the time to see The Stroll, as this old road was called, at its best, for there was an exceptionally large number of flowering trees; laburnum rained its pale golden spray over the passers-by, hawthorn flung its honeyed scent into the air, and lilac bushes lifted their tiny towers of purple and white blossoms.
Towards the end of May the first freshness of the year was passed, for even The Stroll was not free from the | | 38 drought and dust of London streets in summer, but the plane trees were still at their best and the bushes in the gardens thick with foliage.
It was ten o'clock at night. The heat of the day had given place to a cool, quiet evening. One bright star trembled in the depths of a cloudless blue sky.
Phosie and her companion, dragging their way over Hammersmith Bridge, looked down the long curve of the river towards the dim, misty shores of the distant country.
It was high tide; the towing path was flecked with lights; factory chimneys and clustering roofs looked black and mysterious against the sky. To Phosie they were the unknown castles of her imagination. She forgot she was homeless in the pleasure of her day dream.
Following the course of the river as it wound into silence, she thought of green fields and sheltering trees, where all the flaring lights of the city would burn in the distance as feebly as the yellow lamp at the prow of a creeping barge. Then she seemed to hear the murmur and sobbing of the waves, the music of the wonderful sea she had never looked on. London was gone, and her gay little spirit danced on the open sands.
The feeble clutch of her companion's hand recalled her to reality. Little Gus no longer complained of their dreary flight. He was resigned to his fate, like a faithful dog limping at the heel of a master who had lost his way.
They had made several attempts to get into lodgings, but their extreme youth and evident poverty had only aroused curiosity and suspicion. Even when Phosie showed her money as a guarantee of good faith and honesty, she was confused and rebuffed by volleys of questions or sudden familiarity.
Several of the people at the poor houses where she had asked for accommodation had filled her with vague, instinctive dread. A man had followed them once during the afternoon and tried to make her speak to him, and the incident had shaken her nerve.| | 39
Gus was hopeless. He could only suggest "the work'us," and when Phosie refused to listen he began to talk about drowning himself.
Refreshed by some tea and bread and butter, which they bought at a stuffy little shop in a side street near the bridge, Phosie no longer ignored the truth.
"We shan't get a lodging to-night," she said, in a decided voice. "We must make up our minds to sleep out of doors."
"I dunno where," said Little Gus, staring miserably down the street.
"To-morrow morning I must look for work—I can clean steps anyway," she continued, desperately. "Tonight we must hide ourselves. I don't care! My father often slept out of doors when he was a boy, tramping over the country with a little circus. Now, where shall we go? Where shall we go?"
Lines of anxiety and thought furrowed her childish brows for a few minutes, and then they cleared away and she smiled again.
"Do you remember that long road with trees on each side, Gus, where you took off your boot to see if your heel was blistered?" she asked.
He nodded his head.
"Let us go there!" said Phosie. "We can creep into one of those gardens under the bushes."
"Cops!" said Little Gus, unequal to more than the one alarming word.
"We must risk it!" she replied.
They made their way slowly to The Stroll. Little Gus, with aching limbs, would have taken up his quarters in the first shady garden they found, but Phosie was too prudent. She pulled him, feebly protesting, half down the road before discovering a promising shelter.
The windows of the house she picked upon were all dark, except for a faint gleam through the blind of a room which was partially underground.| | 40
The front garden was exceptionally broad and neglected. There was a holly tree beside the gate, and a straggling privet hedge divided it from the garden next door. The centre bed was a tangle of flowers and leaves which they could not distinguish in the darkness, and two large bushes, lilac and syringa, formed a dense screen against the right side of the house.
There was no one in sight. With the quickness of fear and excitement Phosie slipped through the open gate, still holding Gus, closed it behind her, and crept into the blackness of the bushes.
She laid her hand on the wall, stooped low, and gently forced her way under the mass of laden boughs. Gus followed, breathing hard, and making tiny whimpering sounds as the twigs flicked into his face.
"Hush!" whispered Phosie. "Be quiet!"
The ground felt damp. They could see nothing. She put her arm round him and they crouched down, protecting their eyes with their hands.
They remained in the same cramped position for several minutes, without speaking, afraid to stir. Then Phosie, finding they were safe so far, spread out the skirt of her dress as well as she could, sat on the ground, and drew Little Gus down beside her. A bright thought flashed across her desolation.
"It's like the Babes in the Wood!" she whispered.
An unexpected fear made the boy tremble more than ever.
"Think there's snakes?" he asked, touching the soft, cold earth.
"No, of course not!" she said.
"There is—always—in the country," he declared.
Phosie's eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. She could make out the shapes of surrounding boughs, see the lines of the houses, and catch glimpses of sky over her head.
She pressed backward firmly into the centre of the bush, | | 41 drew her knees up to her chin, and again passed her right arm round Little Gus, drawing him close to her side.
The humid air smelt of earth; stray leaves tickled their necks, like the touch of swift fingers; they were pricked now and again by broken twigs; their breath was warm on each other's faces.
The street was very silent. Once a cab passed, the trip-clip-clop of the horse's hoofs ringing out clearly on the even road. A party of friends, returning from the local theatre, sounded terribly close with their laughter and talk to the unseen listeners. The gloomy singing of a half-drunken man, occasionally breaking out into loud, discordant notes, made them sick with fright. A policeman went by so quietly that they were as unconscious of him as he of them.
The slow hours dragged and the searching wind of night found them out; the bushes quivered as it breathed in the leaves, and the boy and girl shuddered as they felt it lifting their hair and stealing over their flesh.
"Cold!" whispered Little Gus.
Phosie, who was keenly alive to every sensation, understood his wretchedness, his complete surrender to physical discomfort, and pressed her cheek against his with something of the protecting, pitying tenderness a mother feels for her child.
"Try to go to sleep, dear!" she murmured. "I'll take care of you."
He whimpered a little more of the darkness and the cold, then his eyes closed and he nestled against her more closely, with his head upon her shoulder.
She was grateful he was asleep. Poor Little Gus! All the impatience with his helplessness she had suppressed during the day faded out of her mind. She thought of him, out of the depth of her fifteen years, as a child. She took upon herself the whole responsibility of what they had done, but it rested very lightly on her shoulders.
The irrepressible gaiety of her nature asserted itself | | 42 once more. The terrors of the first hours of concealment disappeared.
There was not a sound to be heard. She could plainly see the blue sky and the one bright star through the branches. The remembrance of the close rooms at Airy Street brought no regret.
Too young, too ignorant to realise the hardships and discouragements of life, Phosie was quite old enough to appreciate freedom. She had known what it was to be the victim of petty tyranny, and she saw in her companion the effects of suppression, overwork, and utter dependence on the will of others.
A feeling of strength, born of a day of courageous action, swept over her. It was her misfortune, not her fault, that her friends had disappeared. She recognised this, and refused to acknowledge failure.
Little Gus leaned against her heavily. One of her arms grew stiff and painful. She pulled it away, without waking him, and rubbed the cramped muscles into action. Then she treated her feet with the same vigour, slipping off her shoes for a few minutes to do it, till her fingers tingled and she felt aglow, even to the tips of her ears.
The wind was gone. Every leaf was still. Phosie's eyelids drooped. She gave a little sigh of forgetful ease and fell asleep.
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