Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Chapter V

The Key of the Street

When Kitty left Mrs Pulchop’s residence she had no very definite idea as to what she was going to do with herself. Her sole thought was to get as far away from her former life as possible — to disappear in the crowd and never to be heard of again. Poor little soul, she never for a moment dreamed that it was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, and that the world at large might prove more cruel to her than Vandeloup in particular. She had been cut to the heart by his harsh cold words, but notwithstanding he had spoken so bitterly she still loved him, and would have stayed beside him, but her jealous pride forbade her to do so. She who had been queen of his heart and the idol of his life could not bear to receive cold looks and careless words, and to be looked upon as an encumbrance and a trouble. So she thought if she left him altogether and never saw him again he would, perhaps, be sorry for her and cherish her memory tenderly for evermore. If she had only known Gaston’s true nature she would not thus have buoyed herself up with false hopes of his sorrow, but as she believed in him as implicitly as a woman in love with a man always does, in a spirit of self-abnegation she cut herself off from him, thinking it would be to his advantage if not to her own.

She went into town and wandered about listlessly, not knowing where to go, till nearly twelve o’clock, and the streets were gradually emptying themselves of their crowds. The coffee stalls were at all the corners, with hungry-looking people of both sexes crowded round them, and here and there in door steps could be seen some outcasts resting in huddled heaps, while the policemen every now and then would come up and make them move on.

Kitty was footsore and heart-weary, and felt inclined to cry, but was nevertheless resolved not to go back to her home in Richmond. She dragged herself along the lonely street, and round the corner came on a coffee stall with no one at it except one small boy whose head just reached up to the counter. Such a ragged boy as he was, with a broad comical-looking face — a shaggy head of red hair and a hat without any brim to it — his legs were bandy and his feet were encased in a pair of men’s boots several sizes too large for him. He had a bundle of newspapers under one arm and his other hand was in his pocket rattling some coppers together while he bargained with the coffee-stall keeper over a pie. The coffee stall had the name of Spilsby inscribed on it, so it is fair to suppose that the man therein was Spilsby himself. He had a long grey beard and a meek face, looking so like an old wether himself it appeared almost the act of a cannibal on his part to eat a mutton pie. A large placard at the back of the stall set forth the fact that ‘Spilsby’s Specials’ were sold there for the sum of one penny, and it was over ‘Spilsby’s Specials’ the ragged boy was arguing.

‘I tell you I ain’t agoin’ to eat fat,’ he said, in a hoarse voice, as if his throat was stuffed up with one of his own newspapers. ‘I want a special, I don’t want a hordinary.’

‘This are a special, I tells you,’ retorted Spilsby, ungrammatically, pushing a smoking pie towards the boy; ‘what a young wiper you are, Grattles, a-comin’ and spoilin’ my livin’ by cussin’ my wictuals.’

‘Look ’ere,’ retorted Grattles, standing on the tips of his large boots to look more imposing, ‘my stumick’s a bit orf when it comes to fat, and I wants the vally of my penny; give us a muttony one, with lots of gravy.’

‘’Ere y’are, then,’ said Spilsby, quite out of temper with his fastidious customer; ‘’ere’s a pie as is all made of ram as ‘adn’t got more fat on it than you ‘ave.’

Grattles examined the article classed under this promising description with a critical air, and then laid down his penny and took the pie.

‘It’s a special, ain’t it?’ he asked, suspiciously smelling it.

‘It’s the specialest I’ve got, any’ow,’ answered Spilsby, testily, putting the penny in his pocket; ‘you’d eat a ’ole sheep if you could get it for a penny, you greedy young devil, you.’

Here Kitty, who was feeling faint and ill with so much walking, came forward and asked for a cup of coffee.

‘Certainly, dear,’ said Spilsby, with a leer, pouring out the coffee; ‘I’m allays good to a pretty gal.’

‘It’s more nor your coffee is,’ growled Grattles, who had finished his special and was now licking his fingers, ‘it’s all grounds and ‘ot water.’

‘Go away, you wicious thing,’ retorted Spilsby, mildly, giving Kitty her coffee and change out of the money she handed him, ‘or I’ll set the perlice on yer.’

‘Oh, my eye!’ shrieked Grattles, executing a grimace after the fashion of a favourite comedian; ‘he ain’t a tart, oh, no —‘es a pie, ‘e are, a special, a muttony special; ‘e don’t kill no kittings and call ’em sheep, oh, no; ‘e don’t buy chicory and calls it coffee, blest if ‘e does; ‘e’s a corker, ‘e are, and ‘is name ain’t the same as ‘is father’s.’

‘What d’ye mean,’ asked Spilsby, fiercely — that is, as fiercely as his meek appearance would let him; ‘what do you know of my parents, you bandy-legged little devil? who’s your — progenitor, I’d like to know?’

‘A dook, in course,’ said Grattles loftily; ‘but we don’t, in consequence of ‘er Nibs bein’ mixed up with the old man’s mother, reweal the family skeletons to low piemen,’ then, with a fresh grimace, he darted along the street as quickly as his bandy legs could carry him.

Spilsby took no notice of this, but, seeing some people coming round the corner, commenced to sing out his praises of the specials.

‘ ‘Ere yer are — all ‘ot an’ steamin’,’ he cried, in a kind of loud bleat, which added still more to his sheep-like appearance: ‘Spilsby’s Specials — oh, lovely — ain’t they nice; my eye, fine muttin pies; who ses Spilsby’s; ‘ave one, miss?’ to Kitty.

Thank you, no,’ replied Kitty, with a faint smile as she put down her empty cup; ‘I’m going now.’

Spilsby was struck by the educated manner in which she spoke and by the air of refinement about her.

‘Go home, my dear,’ he said, kindly, leaning forward; ‘this ain’t no time for a young gal like you to be out.’

‘I’ve got no home,’ said Kitty, bitterly, ‘but if you could direct me —’

‘Here, you,’ cried a shrill female voice, as a woman dressed in a flaunting blue gown rushed up to the stall, ‘give us a pie quick; I’m starvin’; I’ve got no time to wait.’

‘No, nor manners either,’ said Spilsby, with a remonstrating bleat, pushing a pie towards her; ‘who are you, a-shovin’ your betters, Portwine Annie?’

‘My betters,’ scoffed the lady in blue, looking Kitty up and down with a disdainful smile on her painted face; ‘where are they, I’d like to know?’

‘’Ere, ’old your tongue,’ bleated Spilsby, angrily, ‘or I’ll tell the perlice at the corner.’

‘And much I care,’ retorted the shrill-voiced female, ‘seeing he’s a particular friend of mine.’

‘For God’s sake tell me where I can find a place to stop in,’ whispered Kitty to the coffee-stall keeper.

‘Come with me, dear,’ said Portwine Annie, eagerly, having overheard what was said, but Kitty shrank back, and then gathering her cloak around her ran down the street.

‘What do you do that for, you jade?’ said Spilsby, in a vexed tone; ‘don’t you see the girl’s a lady.’

‘Of course she is,’ retorted the other, finishing her pie; ‘we’re all ladies; look at our dresses, ain’t they fine enough? Look at our houses, aren’t they swell enough?’

‘Yes, and yer morals, ain’t they bad enough?’ said Spilsby, washing up the dirty plate.

‘They’re quite as good as many ladies in society, at all events,’ replied Portwine Annie, with a toss of her head as she walked off.

‘Oh, it’s a wicked world,’ bleated Spilsby, in a soft voice, looking after the retreating figure. ‘I’m sorry for that poor gal — I am indeed — but this ain’t business,’ and once more raising his voice he cried up his wares, ‘Oh, lovely; ain’t they muttony? Spilsby’s specials, all ’ot; one penny.’

Meanwhile Kitty was walking quickly down Elizabeth Street, and turning round the corner ran right up against a woman.

‘Hullo!’ said the woman, catching her wrist, ‘where are you off to?’

‘Let me go,’ cried Kitty, in a panting voice.

The woman was tall and handsome, but her face had a kindly expression on it, and she seemed touched with the terrified tone of the girl.

‘My poor child,’ she said, half contemptuously, releasing her, ‘I won’t hurt you. Go if you like. What are you doing out at this time of the night?’

‘Nothing,’ faltered Kitty, with quivering lips, lifting her face up to the pale moon. The other saw it in the full light and marked how pure and innocent it was.

‘Go home, dear,’ she said, in a soft tone, touching the girl kindly on the shoulder, ‘it’s not fit for you to be out at this hour. You are not one of us.’

‘My God! no,’ cried Kitty, shrinking away from her.

The other smiled bitterly.

‘Ah! you draw away from me now,’ she said, with a sneer; ‘but what are you, so pure and virtuous, doing on the streets at this hour? Go home in time, child, or you will become like me.’

‘I have no home,’ said Kitty, turning to go.

‘No home!’ echoed the other, in a softer tone; ‘poor child! I cannot take you with me — God help me; but here is some money,’ forcing a shilling into the girl’s hand, ‘go to Mrs Rawlins at Victoria Parade, Fitzroy — anyone will tell you where it is — and she will take you in.’

‘What kind of a place is it?’ said Kitty.

‘A home for fallen women, dear,’ answered the other, kindly.

‘I’m not a fallen woman!’ cried the girl, wildly, ‘I have left my home, but I will go back to it — anything better than this horrible life on the streets.’

‘Yes, dear,’ said the woman, softly, ‘go home; go home, for God’s sake, and if you have a father and mother to shield you from harm, thank heaven for that. Let me kiss you once,’ she added, bending forward, ‘it is so long since I felt a good woman’s kiss on my lips. Good-bye.’

‘Good-bye,’ sobbed Kitty, raising her face, and the other bent down and kissed the child-like face, then with a stifled cry, fled away through the moonlit night.

Kitty turned away slowly and walked up the street. She knew there was a cab starting opposite the Town Hall which went to Richmond, and determined to go home. After all, hard though her life might be in the future, it would be better than this cruel harshness of the streets.

At the top of the block, just as she was about to cross Swanston Street, a party of young men in evening dress came round the corner singing, and evidently were much exhilarated with wine. These were none other than Mr Jarper and his friends, who, having imbibed a good deal more than was good for them, were now ripe for any mischief. Bellthorp and Jarper, both quite intoxicated, were walking arm-in-arm, each trying to keep the other up, so that their walking mostly consisted of wild lurches forward, and required a good deal of balancing.

‘Hullo!’ cried Bellthorp solemnly — he was always solemn when intoxicated —‘girl — pretty — eh!’

‘Go ‘way,’ said Barty, staggering back against the wall, ‘we’re Christian young men.’

Kitty tried to get away from this inebriated crew, but they all closed round her, and she wrung her hands in despair. ‘If you are gentlemen you will let me go,’ she cried, trying to push past.

‘Give us kiss first,’ said a handsome young fellow, with his hat very much on one side, putting his arm round her waist, ‘pay toll, dear.’

She felt his hot breath on her cheek and shrieked out wildly, trying to push him away with all her force. The young man, however, paid no attention to her cries, but was about to kiss her when he was taken by the back of the neck and thrown into the gutter.

‘Gentlemen!’ said a rich rolling voice, which proceeded from a portly man who had just appeared on the scene. ‘I am astonished,’ with the emphasis on the first person singular, as if he were a man of great note.

‘Old boy,’ translated Bellthorp to the others, ‘is ‘tonished.’

‘You have,’ said the stranger, with an airy wave of his hand, ‘the appearance of gentlemen, but, alas! you are but whited sepulchres, fair to look upon, but full of dead men’s bones within.’

‘Jarper,’ said Bellthorp, solemnly, taking Barty’s arm, ‘you’re a tombstone with skeleton inside — come along — old boy is right — set of cads ‘suiting an unprotected gal — good night, sir.’

The others picked up their companion out of the gutter, and the whole lot rolled merrily down the street.

‘And this,’ said the gentleman, lifting up his face to the sky in mute appeal to heaven, ‘this is the generation which is to carry on Australia. Oh, Father Adam, what a dissipated family you have got — ah! — good for a comedy, I think.’

‘Oh!’ cried Kitty, recognising a familiar remark, ‘it’s Mr Wopples.’

‘The same,’ said the airy Theodore, laying his hand on his heart, ‘and you, my dear — why, bless me,’ looking closely at her, ‘it is the pretty girl I met in Ballarat — dear, dear — surely you have not come to this.’

‘No, no,’ said Kitty, quickly, laying her hand on his arm, ‘I will tell you all about it, Mr Wopples; but you must be a friend to me, for I sadly need one.’

‘I will be your friend,’ said the actor, emphatically, taking her arm and walking slowly down the street; ‘tell me how I find you thus.’

‘You won’t tell anyone if I do?’ said Kitty, imploringly.

‘On the honour of a gentleman,’ answered Wopples, with grave dignity.

Kitty told him how she had left Ballarat, but suppressed the name of her lover, as she did not want any blame to fall on him. But all the rest she told freely, and when Mr Wopples heard how on that night she had left the man who had ruined her, he swore a mighty oath.

‘Oh, vile human nature,’ he said, in a sonorous tone, ‘to thus betray a confiding infant! Where,’ he continued, looking inquiringly at the serene sky, ‘where are the thunderbolts of Heaven that they fall not on such?’

No thunderbolt making its appearance to answer the question, Mr Wopples told Kitty he would take her home to the family, and as they were just starting out on tour again, she could come with them.

‘But will Mrs Wopples receive me?’ asked Kitty, timidly.

‘My dear,’ said the actor, gravely, ‘my wife is a good woman, and a mother herself, so she can feel for a poor child like you, who has been betrayed through sheer innocence.’

‘You do not despise me?’ said Kitty, in a low voice.

‘My dear,’ answered Wopples, quietly, ‘am I so pure myself that I can judge others? Who am I,’ with an oratorical wave of the hand, ‘that I should cast the first stone? — ahem! — from Holy Writ. In future I will be your father; Mrs Wopples, your mother, and you will have ten brothers and sisters — all star artistes.’

‘How kind you are,’ sobbed Kitty, clinging trustfully to him as they went along.

‘I only do unto others as I would be done by,’ said Mr Wopples, solemnly. ‘That sentiment,’ continued the actor, taking off his hat, ‘was uttered by One who, tho’ we may believe or disbelieve in His divinity as a God, will always remain the sublimest type of perfect manhood the world has ever seen.’

Kitty did not answer, and they walked quickly along; and surely this one good deed more than compensated for the rest of the actor’s failings.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55