Out of a black, dreamless sleep, with the sense of being drawn upwards through enormous and gradually lightening abysses, Dorothy awoke to a species of consciousness.
Her eyes were still closed. By degrees, however, their lids became less opaque to the light, and then flickered open of their own accord. She was looking out upon a street — a shabby, lively street of small shops and narrow-faced houses, with streams of men, trams, and cars passing in either direction.
But as yet it could not properly be said that she was LOOKING. For the things she saw were not apprehended as men, trams, and cars, nor as anything in particular; they were not even apprehended as things moving; not even as THINGS. She merely SAW, as an animal sees, without speculation and almost without consciousness. The noises of the street — the confused din of voices, the hooting of horns and the scream of the trams grinding on their gritty rails — flowed through her head provoking purely physical responses. She had no words, nor any conception of the purpose of such things as words, nor any consciousness of time or place, or of her own body or even of her own existence.
Nevertheless, by degrees her perceptions became sharper. The stream of moving things began to penetrate beyond her eyes and sort themselves out into separate images in her brain. She began, still wordlessly, to observe the shapes of things. A long-shaped thing swam past, supported on four other, narrower long-shaped things, and drawing after it a square-shaped thing balanced on two circles. Dorothy watched it pass; and suddenly, as though spontaneously, a word flashed into her mind. The word was ‘horse’. It faded, but returned presently in the more complex form: ‘THAT IS A HORSE.’ Other words followed —‘house’, ‘street’, ‘tram’, ‘car’, ‘bicycle’— until in a few minutes she had found a name for almost everything within sight. She discovered the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and, speculating upon these words, discovered that she knew the difference between living and inanimate things, and between human beings and horses, and between men and women.
It was only now, after becoming aware of most of the things about her, that she became aware of HERSELF. Hitherto she had been as it were a pair of eyes with a receptive but purely impersonal brain behind them. But now, with a curious little shock, she discovered her separate and unique existence; she could FEEL herself existing; it was as though something within her were exclaiming ‘I am I!’ Also, in some way she knew that this ‘I’ had existed and been the same from remote periods in the past, though it was a past of which she had no remembrance.
But it was only for a moment that this discovery occupied her. From the first there was a sense of incompleteness in it, of something vaguely unsatisfactory. And it was this: the ‘I am I’ which had seemed an answer had itself become a question. It was no longer ‘I am I’, but ‘WHO am I’?
WHO WAS SHE? She turned the question over in her mind, and found that she had not the dimmest notion of who she was; except that, watching the people and horses passing, she grasped that she was a human being and not a horse. And that the question altered itself and took this form: ‘Am I a man or a woman?’ Again neither feeling nor memory gave any clue to the answer. But at that moment, by accident possibly, her finger-tips brushed against her body. She realized more clearly than before that her body existed, and that it was her own — that it was, in fact, herself. She began to explore it with her hands, and her hands encountered breasts. She was a woman, therefore. Only women had breasts. In some way she knew, without knowing how she knew, that all those women who passed had breasts beneath their clothes, though she could not see them.
She now grasped that in order to identify herself she must examine her own body, beginning with her face; and for some moments she actually attempted to look at her own face, before realizing that this was impossible. She looked down, and saw a shabby black satin dress, rather long, a pair of flesh-coloured artificial silk stockings, laddered and dirty, and a pair of very shabby black satin shoes with high heels. None of them was in the least familiar to her. She examined her hands, and they were both strange and unstrange. They were smallish hands, with hard palms, and very dirty. After a moment she realized that it was their dirtiness that made them strange to her. The hands themselves seemed natural and appropriate, though she did not recognize them.
After hesitating a few moments longer, she turned to her left and began to walk slowly along the pavement. A fragment of knowledge had come to her, mysteriously, out of the blank past: the existence of mirrors, their purpose, and the fact that there are often mirrors in shop windows. After a moment she came to a cheap little jeweller’s shop in which a strip of mirror, set at an angle, reflected the faces of people passing. Dorothy picked her reflection out from among a dozen others, immediately realizing it to be her own. Yet it could not be said that she had recognized it; she had no memory of ever having seen it till this moment. It showed her a woman’s youngish face, thin, very blonde, with crow’s- feet round the eyes, and faintly smudged with dirt. A vulgar black cloche hat was stuck carelessly on the head, concealing most of the hair. The face was quite unfamiliar to her, and yet not strange. She had not known till this moment what face to expect, but now that she had seen it she realized that it was the face she might have expected. It was appropriate. It corresponded to something within her.
As she turned away from the jeweller’s mirror, she caught sight of the words ‘Fry’s Chocolate’ on a shop window opposite, and discovered that she understood the purpose of writing, and also, after a momentary effort, that she was able to read. Her eyes flitted across the street, taking in and deciphering odd scraps of print; the names of shops, advertisements, newspaper posters. She spelled out the letters of two red and white posters outside a tobacconist’s shop. One of them read, ‘Fresh Rumours about Rector’s Daughter’, and the other, ‘Rector’s Daughter. Now believed in Paris’. Then she looked upwards, and saw in white lettering on the corner of a house: ‘New Kent Road’. The words arrested her. She grasped that she was standing in the New Kent Road, and — another fragment of her mysterious knowledge — the New Kent Road was somewhere in London. So she was in London.
As she made this discovery a peculiar tremor ran through her. Her mind was now fully awakened; she grasped, as she had not grasped before, the strangeness of her situation, and it bewildered and frightened her. What could it all MEAN? What was she doing here? How had she got here? What had happened to her?
The answer was not long in coming. She thought — and it seemed to her that she understood perfectly well what the words meant: ‘Of course! I’ve lost my memory!’
At this moment two youths and a girl who were trudging past, the youths with clumsy sacking bundles on their backs, stopped and looked curiously at Dorothy. They hesitated for a moment, then walked on, but halted again by a lamp-post five yards away. Dorothy saw them looking back at her and talking among themselves. One of the youths was about twenty, narrow-chested, black-haired, ruddy-cheeked, good-looking in a nosy cockney way, and dressed in the wreck of a raffishly smart blue suit and a check cap. The other was about twenty-six, squat, nimble, and powerful, with a snub nose, a clear pink skin and huge lips as coarse as sausages, exposing strong yellow teeth. He was frankly ragged, and he had a mat of orange-coloured hair cropped short and growing low on his head, which gave him a startling resemblance to an orang-outang. The girl was a silly-looking, plump creature, dressed in clothes very like Dorothy’s own. Dorothy could hear some of what they were saying:
‘That tart looks ill,’ said the girl.
The orange-headed one, who was singing ‘Sonny Boy’ in a good baritone voice, stopped singing to answer. ‘She ain’t ill,’ he said. ‘She’s on the beach all right, though. Same as us.’
‘She’d do jest nicely for Nobby, wouldn’t she?’ said the dark- haired one.
‘Oh, YOU!’ exclaimed the girl with a shocked-amorous air, pretending to smack the dark one over the head.
The youths had lowered their bundles and leaned them against the lamp-post. All three of them now came rather hesitantly towards Dorothy, the orange-headed one, whose name seemed to be Nobby, leading the way as their ambassador. He moved with a gambolling, apelike gait, and his grin was so frank and wide that it was impossible not to smile back at him. He addressed Dorothy in a friendly way.
‘You on the beach, kid?’
‘On the beach?’
‘Well, on the bum?’
‘On the bum?’
‘Christ! she’s batty,’ murmured the girl, twitching at the black- haired one’s arm as though to pull him away.
‘Well, what I mean to say, kid — have you got any money?’
‘I don’t know.’
At this all three looked at one another in stupefaction. For a moment they probably thought that Dorothy really WAS batty. But simultaneously Dorothy, who had earlier discovered a small pocket in the side of her dress, put her hand into it and felt the outline of a large coin.
‘I believe I’ve got a penny,’ she said.
‘A penny!’ said the dark youth disgustedly, ‘— lot of good that is to us!’
Dorothy drew it out. It was a half-crown. An astonishing change came over the faces of the three others. Nobby’s mouth split open with delight, he gambolled several steps to and fro like some great jubilant ape, and then, halting, took Dorothy confidentially by the arm.
‘That’s the mulligatawny!’ he said. ‘We’ve struck it lucky — and so’ve you, kid, believe me. You’re going to bless the day you set eyes on us lot. We’re going to make your fortune for you, we are. Now, see here, kid — are you on to go into cahoots with us three?’
‘What?’ said Dorothy.
‘What I mean to say — how about you chumming in with Flo and Charlie and me? Partners, see? Comrades all, shoulder to shoulder. United we stand, divided we fall. We put up the brains, you put up the money. How about it, kid? Are you on, or are you off?’
‘Shut up, Nobby!’ interrupted the girl. ‘She don’t understand a word of what you’re saying. Talk to her proper, can’t you?’
‘That’ll do, Flo,’ said Nobby equably. ‘You keep it shut and leave the talking to me. I got a way with the tarts, I have. Now, you listen to me, kid — what might your name happen to be, kid?’
Dorothy was within an ace of saying ‘I don’t know,’ but she was sufficiently on the alert to stop herself in time. Choosing a feminine name from the half-dozen that sprang immediately into her mind, she answered, ‘Ellen.’
‘Ellen. That’s the mulligatawny. No surnames when you’re on the bum. Well now, Ellen dear, you listen to me. Us three are going down hopping, see —’
‘‘Opping!’ put in the dark youth impatiently, as though disgusted by Dorothy’s ignorance. His voice and manner were rather sullen, and his accent much baser than Nobby’s. ‘Pickin’ ‘ops — dahn in Kent! C’n understand that, can’t yer?’
‘Oh, HOPS! For beer?’
‘That’s the mulligatawny! Coming on fine, she is. Well, kid, ‘z I was saying, here’s us three going down hopping, and got a job promised us and all — Blessington’s farm, Lower Molesworth. Only we’re just a bit in the mulligatawny, see? Because we ain’t got a brown between us, and we got to do it on the toby — thirty-five miles it is — and got to tap for our tommy and skipper at night as well. And that’s a bit of a mulligatawny, with ladies in the party. But now s’pose f’rinstance you was to come along with us, see? We c’d take the twopenny tram far as Bromley, and that’s fifteen miles done, and we won’t need skipper more’n one night on the way. And you can chum in at our bin — four to a bin’s the best picking — and if Blessington’s paying twopence a bushel you’ll turn your ten bob a week easy. What do you say to it, kid? Your two and a tanner won’t do you much good here in Smoke. But you go into partnership with us, and you’ll get your kip for a month and something over — and WE’LL get a lift to Bromley and a bit of scran as well.’
About a quarter of his speech was intelligible to Dorothy. She asked rather at random:
‘What is SCRAN?’
‘Scran? Tommy — food. I can see YOU ain’t been long on the beach, kid.’
‘Oh. . . . Well, you want me to come down hop-picking with you, is that it?’
‘That’s it, Ellen my dear. Are you on, or are you off?’
‘All right,’ said Dorothy promptly. ‘I’ll come.’
She made this decision without any misgiving whatever. It is true that if she had had time to think over her position, she would probably have acted differently; in all probability she would have gone to a police station and asked for assistance. That would have been the sensible course to take. But Nobby and the others had appeared just at the critical moment, and, helpless as she was, it seemed quite natural to throw in her lot with the first human being who presented himself. Moreover, for some reason which she did not understand, it reassured her to hear that they were making for Kent. Kent, it seemed to her, was the very place to which she wanted to go. The others showed no further curiosity, and asked no uncomfortable questions. Nobby simply said, ‘O.K. That’s the mulligatawny!’ and then gently took Dorothy’s half-crown out of her hand and slid it into his pocket — in case she should lose it, he explained. The dark youth — apparently his name was Charlie — said in his surly, disagreeable way:
‘Come on, less get movin’! It’s ‘ar-parse two already. We don’t want to miss that there —— tram. Where d’they start from, Nobby?’
‘The Elephant,’ said Nobby: ‘and we got to catch it before four o’clock, because they don’t give no free rides after four.’
‘Come on, then, don’t less waste no more time. Nice job we’ll ‘ave of it if we got to ‘ike it down to Bromley AND look for a place to skipper in the —— dark. C’m on, Flo.’
‘Quick march!’ said Nobby, swinging his bundle on to his shoulder.
They set out, without more words said, Dorothy, still bewildered but feeling much better than she had felt half an hour ago, walked beside Flo and Charlie, who talked to one another and took no further notice of her. From the very first they seemed to hold themselves a little aloof from Dorothy — willing enough to share her half-crown, but with no friendly feelings towards her. Nobby marched in front, stepping out briskly in spite of his burden, and singing, with spirited imitations of military music, the well-known military song of which the only recorded words seem to be:
‘”——!” was all the band could play;
“——! ——!” And the same to you!’
This was the twenty-ninth of August. It was on the night of the twenty-first that Dorothy had fallen asleep in the conservatory; so that there had been an interregnum in her life of not quite eight days.
The thing that had happened to her was commonplace enough — almost every week one reads in the newspapers of a similar case. A man disappears from home, is lost sight of for days or weeks, and presently fetches up at a police station or in a hospital, with no notion of who he is or where he has come from. As a rule it is impossible to tell how he has spent the intervening time; he has been wandering, presumably, in some hypnotic or somnambulistic state in which he has nevertheless been able to pass for normal. In Dorothy’s case only one thing is certain, and that is that she had been robbed at some time during her travels; for the clothes she was wearing were not her own, and her gold cross was missing.
At the moment when Nobby accosted her, she was already on the road to recovery; and if she had been properly cared for, her memory might have come back to her within a few days or even hours. A very small thing would have been enough to accomplish it; a chance meeting with a friend, a photograph of her home, a few questions skilfully put. But as it was, the slight mental stimulus that she needed was never given. She was left in the peculiar state in which she had first found herself — a state in which her mind was potentially normal, but not quite strung up to the effort of puzzling out her own identity.
For of course, once she had thrown in her lot with Nobby and the others, all chance of reflection was gone. There was no time to sit down and think the matter over — no time to come to grips with her difficulty and reason her way to its solution. In the strange, dirty sub-world into which she was instantly plunged, even five minutes of consecutive thought would have been impossible. The days passed in ceaseless nightmarish activity. Indeed, it was very like a nightmare; a nightmare not of urgent terrors, but of hunger, squalor, and fatigue, and of alternating heat and cold. Afterwards, when she looked back upon that time, days and nights merged themselves together so that she could never remember with perfect certainty how many of them there had been. She only knew that for some indefinite period she had been perpetually footsore and almost perpetually hungry. Hunger and the soreness of her feet were her clearest memories of that time; and also the cold of the nights, and a peculiar, blowsy, witless feeling that came of sleeplessness and constant exposure to the air.
After getting to Bromley they had ‘drummed up’ on a horrible, paper-littered rubbish dump, reeking with the refuse of several slaughter-houses, and then passed a shuddering night, with only sacks for cover, in long wet grass on the edge of a recreation ground. In the morning they had started out, on foot, for the hopfields. Even at this early date Dorothy had discovered that the tale Nobby had told her, about the promise of a job, was totally untrue. He had invented it — he confessed this quite light- heartedly — to induce her to come with them. Their only chance of getting a job was to march down into the hop country and apply at every farm till they found one where pickers were still needed.
They had perhaps thirty-five miles to go, as the crow flies, and yet at the end of three days they had barely reached the fringe of the hopfields. The need of getting food, of course, was what slowed their progress. They could have marched the whole distance in two days or even in a day if they had not been obliged to feed themselves. As it was, they had hardly even time to think of whether they were going in the direction of the hopfields or not; it was food that dictated all their movements. Dorothy’s half- crown had melted within a few hours, and after that there was nothing for it except to beg. But there came the difficulty. One person can beg his food easily enough on the road, and even two can manage it, but it is a very different matter when there are four people together. In such circumstances one can only keep alive if one hunts for food as persistently and single-mindedly as a wild beast. Food — that was their sole preoccupation during those three days — just food, and the endless difficulty of getting it.
From morning to night they were begging. They wandered enormous distances, zigzagging right across the country, trailing from village to village and from house to house, ‘tapping’ at every butcher’s and every baker’s and every likely looking cottage, and hanging hopefully round picnic parties, and waving — always vainly — at passing cars, and accosting old gentlemen with the right kind of face and pitching hard-up stories. Often they went five miles out of their way to get a crust of bread or a handful of scraps of bacon. All of them begged, Dorothy with the others; she had no remembered past, no standards of comparison to make her ashamed of it. And yet with all their efforts they would have gone empty- bellied half the time if they had not stolen as well as begged. At dusk and in the early mornings they pillaged the orchards and the fields, stealing apples, damsons, pears, cobnuts, autumn raspberries, and, above all, potatoes; Nobby counted it a sin to pass a potato field without getting at least a pocketful. It was Nobby who did most of the stealing, while the others kept guard. He was a bold thief; it was his peculiar boast that he would steal anything that was not tied down, and he would have landed them all in prison if they had not restrained him sometimes. Once he even laid hands on a goose, but the goose set up a fearful clamour, and Charlie and Dorothy dragged Nobby off just as the owner came out of doors to see what was the matter.
Each of those first days they walked between twenty and twenty-five miles. They trailed across commons and through buried villages with incredible names, and lost themselves in lanes that led nowhere, and sprawled exhausted in dry ditches smelling of fennel and tansies, and sneaked into private woods and ‘drummed up’ in thickets where firewood and water were handy, and cooked strange, squalid meals in the two two-pound snuff-tins that were their only cooking pots. Sometimes, when their luck was in, they had excellent stews of cadged bacon and stolen cauliflowers, sometimes great insipid gorges of potatoes roasted in the ashes, sometimes jam made of stolen autumn raspberries which they boiled in one of the snuff-tins and devoured while it was still scalding hot. Tea was the one thing they never ran short of. Even when there was no food at all there was always tea, stewed, dark brown and reviving. It is a thing that can be begged more easily than most. ‘Please, ma’am, could you spare me a pinch of tea?’ is a plea that seldom fails, even with the case-hardened Kentish housewives.
The days were burning hot, the white roads glared and the passing cars sent stinging dust into their faces. Often families of hop- pickers drove past, cheering, in lorries piled sky-high with furniture, children, dogs, and birdcages. The nights were always cold. There is hardly such a thing as a night in England when it is really warm after midnight. Two large sacks were all the bedding they had between them. Flo and Charlie had one sack, Dorothy had the other, and Nobby slept on the bare ground. The discomfort was almost as bad as the cold. If you lay on your back, your head, with no pillow, lolled backwards so that your neck seemed to be breaking; if you lay on your side, your hip-bone pressing against the earth caused you torments. Even when, towards the small hours, you managed to fall asleep by fits and starts, the cold penetrated into your deepest dreams. Nobby was the only one who could really stand it. He could sleep as peacefully in a nest of sodden grass as in a bed, and his coarse, simian face, with barely a dozen red-gold hairs glittering on the chin like snippings of copper wire, never lost its warm, pink colour. He was one of those red-haired people who seem to glow with an inner radiance that warms not only themselves but the surrounding air.
All this strange, comfortless life Dorothy took utterly for granted — only dimly aware, if at all, that the other, unremembered life that lay behind her had been in some way different from this. After only a couple of days she had ceased to wonder any longer about her queer predicament. She accepted everything — accepted the dirt and hunger and fatigue, the endless trailing to and fro, the hot, dusty days and the sleepless, shivering nights. She was, in any case, far too tired to think. By the afternoon of the second day they were all desperately, overwhelmingly tired, except Nobby, whom nothing could tire. Even the fact that soon after they set out a nail began to work its way through the sole of his boot hardly seemed to trouble him. There were periods of an hour at a time when Dorothy seemed almost to be sleeping as she walked. She had a burden to carry now, for as the two men were already loaded and Flo steadfastly refused to carry anything, Dorothy had volunteered to carry the sack that held the stolen potatoes. They generally had ten pounds or so of potatoes in reserve. Dorothy slung the sack over her shoulder as Nobby and Charlie did with their bundles, but the string cut into her like a saw and the sack bumped against her hip and chafed it so that finally it began to bleed. Her wretched, flimsy shoes had begun to go to pieces from the very beginning. On the second day the heel of her right shoe came off and left her hobbling; but Nobby, expert in such matters, advised her to tear the heel off the other shoe and walk flatfooted. The result was a fiery pain down her shins when she walked uphill, and a feeling as though the soles of her feet had been hammered with an iron bar.
But Flo and Charlie were in a much worse case than she. They were not so much exhausted as amazed and scandalized by the distances they were expected to walk. Walking twenty miles in a day was a thing they had never heard of till now. They were cockneys born and bred, and though they had had several months of destitution in London, neither of them had ever been on the road before. Charlie, till fairly recently, had been in good employment, and Flo, too, had had a good home until she had been seduced and turned out of doors to live on the streets. They had fallen in with Nobby in Trafalgar Square and agreed to come hop-picking with him, imagining that it would be a bit of a lark. Of course, having been ‘on the beach’ a comparatively short time, they looked down on Nobby and Dorothy. They valued Nobby’s knowledge of the road and his boldness in thieving, but he was their social inferior — that was their attitude. And as for Dorothy, they scarcely even deigned to look at her after her half-crown came to an end.
Even on the second day their courage was failing. They lagged behind, grumbled incessantly, and demanded more than their fair share of food. By the third day it was almost impossible to keep them on the road at all. They were pining to be back in London, and had long ceased to care whether they ever got to the hopfields or not; all they wanted to do was to sprawl in any comfortable halting place they could find, and, when there was any food left, devour endless snacks. After every halt there was a tedious argument before they could be got to their feet again.
‘Come on, blokes!’ Nobby would say. ‘Pack your peter up, Charlie. Time we was getting off.’
‘Oh, —— getting off!’ Charlie would answer morosely.
‘Well, we can’t skipper here, can we? We said we was going to hike as far as Sevenoaks tonight, didn’t we?’
‘Oh, —— Sevenoaks! Sevenoaks or any other bleeding place — it don’t make any bleeding difference to me.’
‘But —— it! We want to get a job tomorrow, don’t we? And we got to get down among the farms ‘fore we can start looking for one.’
‘Oh, —— the farms! I wish I’d never ‘eard of a —— ‘op! I wasn’t brought up to this —— ‘iking and skippering like you was. I’m fed up; that’s what I am —— fed up.’
‘If this is bloody ‘opping,’ Flo would chime in, ‘I’ve ‘ad my bloody bellyful of it already.’
Nobby gave Dorothy his private opinion that Flo and Charlie would probably ‘jack off’ if they got the chance of a lift back to London. But as for Nobby, nothing disheartened him or ruffled his good temper, not even when the nail in his boot was at its worst and his filthy remnant of a sock was dark with blood. By the third day the nail had worn a permanent hole in his foot, and Nobby had to halt once in a mile to hammer it down.
‘‘Scuse me, kid,’ he would say; ‘got to attend to my bloody hoof again. This nail’s a mulligatawny.’
He would search for a round stone, squat in the ditch and carefully hammer the nail down.
‘There!’ he would say optimistically, feeling the place with his thumb. ‘THAT b —‘s in his grave!’
The epitaph should have been Resurgam, however. The nail invariably worked its way up again within a quarter of an hour.
Nobby had tried to make love to Dorothy, of course, and, when she repulsed him, bore her no grudge. He had that happy temperament that is incapable of taking its own reverses very seriously. He was always debonair, always singing in a lusty baritone voice — his three favourite songs were: ‘Sonny Boy’, ‘‘Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ (to the tune of ‘The Church’s One Foundation’), and ‘”——!” was all the band could play’, given with lively renderings of military music. He was twenty-six years old and was a widower, and had been successively a seller of newspapers, a petty thief, a Borstal boy, a soldier, a burglar, and a tramp. These facts, however, you had to piece together for yourself, for he was not equal to giving a consecutive account of his life. His conversation was studded with casual picturesque memories — the six months he had served in a line regiment before he was invalided out with a damaged eye, the loathsomeness of the skilly in Holloway, his childhood in the Deptford gutters, the death of his wife, aged eighteen, in childbirth, when he was twenty, the horrible suppleness of the Borstal canes, the dull boom of the nitro — glycerine, blowing in the safe door at Woodward’s boot and shoe factory, where Nobby had cleared a hundred and twenty-five pounds and spent it in three weeks.
On the afternoon of the third day they reached the fringe of the hop country, and began to meet discouraged people, mostly tramps, trailing back to London with the news that there was nothing doing — hops were bad and the price was low, and the gypsies and ‘home pickers’ had collared all the jobs. At this Flo and Charlie gave up hope altogether, but by an adroit mixture of bullying and persuasion Nobby managed to drive them a few miles farther. In a little village called Wale they fell in with an old Irishwoman — Mrs McElligot was her name — who had just been given a job at a neighbouring hopfield, and they swapped some of their stolen apples for a piece of meat she had ‘bummed’ earlier in the day. She gave them some useful hints about hop-picking and about what farms to try. They were all sprawling on the village green, tired out, opposite a little general shop with some newspaper posters outside.
‘You’d best go down’n have a try at Chalmers’s,’ Mrs McElligot advised them in her base Dublin accent. ‘Dat’s a bit above five mile from here. I’ve heard tell as Chalmers wants a dozen pickers still. I daresay he’d give y’a job if you gets dere early enough.’
‘Five miles! Cripes! Ain’t there none nearer’n that?’ grumbled Charlie.
‘Well, dere’s Norman’s. I got a job at Norman’s meself — I’m startin’ tomorrow mornin’. But ‘twouldn’t be no use for you to try at Norman’s. He ain’t takin’ on none but home pickers, an’ dey say as he’s goin’ to let half his hops blow.’
‘What’s home pickers?’ said Nobby.
‘Why, dem as has got homes o’ deir own. Eider you got to live in de neighbourhood, or else de farmer’s got to give y’a hut to sleep in. Dat’s de law nowadays. In de ole days when you come down hoppin’, you kipped in a stable an’ dere was no questions asked. But dem bloody interferin’ gets of a Labour Government brought in a law to say as no pickers was to be taken on widout de farmer had proper accommodation for ‘em. So Norman only takes on folks as has got homes o’ deir own.’
‘Well, you ain’t got a home of your own, have you?’
‘No bloody fear! But Norman t’inks I have. I kidded’m I was stayin’ in a cottage near by. Between you an’ me, I’m skipperin’ in a cow byre. ‘Tain’t so bad except for de stink o’ de muck, but you got to be out be five in de mornin’, else de cowmen ‘ud catch you.’
‘We ain’t got no experience of hopping,’ Nobby said. ‘I wouldn’t know a bloody hop if I saw one. Best to let on you’re an old hand when you go up for a job, eh?’
‘Hell! Hops don’t need no experience. Tear ‘em off an’ fling ‘em into de bin. Dat’s all der is to it, wid hops.’
Dorothy was nearly asleep. She heard the others talking desultorily, first about hop-picking, then about some story in the newspapers of a girl who had disappeared from home. Flo and Charlie had been reading the posters on the shop-front opposite; and this had revived them somewhat, because the posters reminded them of London and its joys. The missing girl, in whose fate they seemed to be rather interested, was spoken of as ‘The Rector’s Daughter’.
‘J’a see that one, Flo?’ said Charlie, reading a poster aloud with intense relish: ‘“Secret Love Life of Rector’s Daughter. Startling Revelations.” Coo! Wish I ‘ad a penny to ‘ave a read of that!’
‘Oh? What’s ‘t all about, then?’
‘What? Didn’t j’a read about it? Papers ‘as bin full of it. Rector’s Daughter this and Rector’s Daughter that — wasn’t ‘alf smutty, some of it, too.’
‘She’s bit of hot stuff, the ole Rector’s Daughter,’ said Nobby reflectively, lying on his back. ‘Wish she was here now! I’d know what to do with her, all right, I would.’
‘‘Twas a kid run away from home,’ put in Mrs McElligot. ‘She was carryin’ on wid a man twenty year older’n herself, an’ now she’s disappeared an’ dey’re searchin’ for her high an’ low.’
‘Jacked off in the middle of the night in a motor-car with no clo’es on ‘cep’ ‘er nightdress,’ said Charlie appreciatively. ‘The ‘ole village sore ‘em go.’
‘Dere’s some t’ink as he’s took her abroad an’ sold her to one o’ dem flash cat-houses in Parrus,’ added Mrs McElligot.
‘No clo’es on ‘cep’ ‘er nightdress? Dirty tart she must ‘a been!’
The conversation might have proceeded to further details, but at this moment Dorothy interrupted it. What they were saying had roused a faint curiosity in her. She realized that she did not know the meaning of the word ‘Rector’. She sat up and asked Nobby:
‘What is a Rector?’
‘Rector? Why, a sky-pilot — parson bloke. Bloke that preaches and gives out the hymns and that in church. We passed one of ‘em yesterday — riding a green bicycle and had his collar on back to front. A priest — clergyman. YOU know.’
‘Oh. . . . Yes, I think so.’
‘Priests! Bloody ole getsies dey are too, some o’ dem,’ said Mrs McElligot reminiscently.
Dorothy was left not much the wiser. What Nobby had said did enlighten her a little, but only a very little. The whole train of thought connected with ‘church’ and ‘clergyman’ was strangely vague and blurred in her mind. It was one of the gaps — there was a number of such gaps — in the mysterious knowledge that she had brought with her out of the past.
That was their third night on the road. When it was dark they slipped into a spinney as usual to ‘skipper’, and a little after midnight it began to pelt with rain. They spent a miserable hour stumbling to and fro in the darkness, trying to find a place to shelter, and finally found a hay-stack, where they huddled themselves on the lee side till it was light enough to see. Flo blubbered throughout the night in the most intolerable manner, and by the morning she was in a state of semi-collapse. Her silly fat face, washed clean by rain and tears, looked like a bladder of lard, if one can imagine a bladder of lard contorted with self- pity. Nobby rooted about under the hedge until he had collected an armful of partially dry sticks, and then managed to get a fire going and boil some tea as usual. There was no weather so bad that Nobby could not produce a can of tea. He carried, among other things, some pieces of old motor tyre that would make a flare when the wood was wet, and he even possessed the art, known only to a few cognoscenti among tramps, of getting water to boil over a candle.
Everyone’s limbs had stiffened after the horrible night, and Flo declared herself unable to walk a step farther. Charlie backed her up. So, as the other two refused to move, Dorothy and Nobby went on to Chalmers’s farm, arranging a rendezvous where they should meet when they had tried their luck. They got to Chalmers’s, five miles away, found their way through vast orchards to the hop- fields, and were told that the overseer ‘would be along presently’. So they waited four hours on the edge of the plantation, with the sun drying their clothes on their backs, watching the hop-pickers at work. It was a scene somehow peaceful and alluring. The hop bines, tall climbing plants like runner beans enormously magnified, grew in green leafy lanes, with the hops dangling from them in pale green bunches like gigantic grapes. When the wind stirred them they shook forth a fresh, bitter scent of sulphur and cool beer. In each lane of bines a family of sunburnt people were shredding the hops into sacking bins, and singing as they worked; and presently a hooter sounded and they knocked off to boil cans of tea over crackling fires of hop bines. Dorothy envied them greatly. How happy they looked, sitting round the fires with their cans of tea and their hunks of bread and bacon, in the smell of hops and wood smoke! She pined for such a job — however, for the present there was nothing doing. At about one o’clock the overseer arrived and told them that he had no jobs for them, so they trailed back to the road, only avenging themselves on Chalmers’s farm by stealing a dozen apples as they went.
When they reached their rendezvous, Flo and Charlie had vanished. Of course they searched for them, but, equally of course, they knew very well what had happened. Indeed, it was perfectly obvious. Flo had made eyes at some passing lorry driver, who had given the two of them a lift back to London for the chance of a good cuddle on the way. Worse yet, they had stolen both bundles. Dorothy and Nobby had not a scrap of food left, not a crust of bread nor a potato nor a pinch of tea, no bedding, and not even a snuff-tin in which to cook anything they could cadge or steal — nothing, in fact, except the clothes they stood up in.
The next thirty-six hours were a bad time — a very bad time. How they pined for a job, in their hunger and exhaustion! But the chances of getting one seemed to grow smaller and smaller as they got farther into the hop country. They made interminable marches from farm to farm, getting the same answer everywhere — no pickers needed — and they were so busy marching to and fro that they had not even time to beg, so that they had nothing to eat except stolen apples and damsons that tormented their stomachs with their acid juice and yet left them ravenously hungry. It did not rain that night, but it was much colder than before. Dorothy did not even attempt to sleep, but spent the night in crouching over the fire and keeping it alight. They were hiding in a beech wood, under a squat, ancient tree that kept the wind away but also wetted them periodically with sprinklings of chilly dew. Nobby, stretched on his back, mouth open, one broad cheek faintly illumined by the feeble rays of the fire, slept as peacefully as a child. All night long a vague wonder, born of sleeplessness and intolerable discomfort, kept stirring in Dorothy’s mind. Was this the life to which she had been bred — this life of wandering empty-bellied all day and shivering at night under dripping trees? Had it been like this even in the blank past? Where had she come from? Who was she? No answer came, and they were on the road at dawn. By the evening they had tried at eleven farms in all, and Dorothy’s legs were giving out, and she was so dizzy with fatigue that she found difficulty in walking straight.
But late in the evening, quite unexpectedly, their luck turned. They tried at a farm named Cairns’s, in the village of Clintock, and were taken on immediately, with no questions asked. The overseer merely looked them up and down, said briefly, ‘Right you are — you’ll do. Start in the morning; bin number 7, set 19,’ and did not even bother to ask their names. Hop-picking, it seemed, needed neither character nor experience.
They found their way to the meadow where the pickers’ camp was situated. In a dreamlike state, between exhaustion and the joy of having got a job at last, Dorothy found herself walking through a maze of tin-roofed huts and gypsies’ caravans with many-coloured washing hanging from the windows. Hordes of children swarmed in the narrow grass alleys between the huts, and ragged, agreeable- looking people were cooking meals over innumerable faggot fires. At the bottom of the field there were some round tin huts, much inferior to the others, set apart for unmarried people. An old man who was toasting cheese at a fire directed Dorothy to one of the women’s huts.
Dorothy pushed open the door of the hut. It was about twelve feet across, with unglazed windows which had been boarded up, and it had no furniture whatever. There seemed to be nothing in it but an enormous pile of straw reaching to the roof — in fact, the hut was almost entirely filled with straw. To Dorothy’s eyes, already sticky with sleep, the straw looked paradisically comfortable. She began to push her way into it, and was checked by a sharp yelp from beneath her.
“Ere! What yer doin’ of? Get off of it! ‘Oo asked YOU to walk about on my belly, stoopid?’
Seemingly there were women down among the straw. Dorothy burrowed forward more circumspectly, tripped over something, sank into the straw and in the same instant began to fall asleep. A rough- looking woman, partially undressed, popped up like a mermaid from the strawy sea.
‘‘Ullo, mate!’ she said. ‘Jest about all in, ain’t you, mate?’
‘Yes, I’m tired — very tired.’
‘Well, you’ll bloody freeze in this straw with no bed-clo’es on you. Ain’t you got a blanket?’
‘‘Alf a mo, then. I got a poke ‘ere.’
She dived down into the straw and re-emerged with a hop-poke seven feet long. Dorothy was asleep already. She allowed herself to be woken up, and inserted herself somehow into the sack, which was so long that she could get into it head and all; and then she was half wriggling, half sinking down, deep down, into a nest of straw warmer and drier than she had conceived possible. The straw tickled her nostrils and got into her hair and pricked her even through the sack, but at that moment no imaginable sleeping place — not Cleopatra’s couch of swan’s-down nor the floating bed of Haroun al Raschid — could have caressed her more voluptuously.
It was remarkable how easily, once you had got a job, you settled down to the routine of hop-picking. After only a week of it you ranked as an expert picker, and felt as though you had been picking hops all your life.
It was exceedingly easy work. Physically, no doubt, it was exhausting — it kept you on your feet ten or twelve hours a day, and you were dropping with sleep by six in the evening — but it needed no kind of skill. Quite a third of the pickers in the camp were as new to the job as Dorothy herself. Some of them had come down from London with not the dimmest idea of what hops were like, or how you picked them, or why. One man, it was said, on his first morning on the way to the fields, had asked, ‘Where are the spades?’ He imagined that hops were dug up out of the ground.
Except for Sundays, one day at the hop camp was very like another. At half past five, at a tap on the wall of your hut, you crawled out of your sleeping nest and began searching for your shoes, amid sleepy curses from the women (there were six or seven or possibly even eight of them) who were buried here and there in the straw. In that vast pile of straw any clothes that you were so unwise as to take off always lost themselves immediately. You grabbed an armful of straw and another of dried hop bines, and a faggot from the pile outside, and got the fire going for breakfast. Dorothy always cooked Nobby’s breakfast as well as her own, and tapped on the wall of his hut when it was ready, she being better at waking up in the morning than he. It was very cold on those September mornings, the eastern sky was fading slowly from black to cobalt, and the grass was silvery white with dew. Your breakfast was always the same — bacon, tea, and bread fried in the grease of the bacon. While you ate it you cooked another exactly similar meal, to serve for dinner, and then, carrying your dinner-pail, you set out for the fields, a mile-and-a-half walk through the blue, windy dawn, with your nose running so in the cold that you had to stop occasionally and wipe it on your sacking apron.
The hops were divided up into plantations of about an acre, and each set — forty pickers or thereabouts, under a foreman who was often a gypsy — picked one plantation at a time. The bines grew twelve feet high or more, and they were trained up strings and slung over horizontal wires, in rows a yard or two apart; in each row there was a sacking bin like a very deep hammock slung on a heavy wooden frame. As soon as you arrived you swung your bin into position, slit the strings from the next two bines, and tore them down — huge, tapering strands of foliage, like the plaits of Rapunzel’s hair, that came tumbling down on top of you, showering you with dew. You dragged them into place over the bin, and then, starting at the thick end of the bine, began tearing off the heavy bunches of hops. At that hour of the morning you could only pick slowly and awkwardly. Your hands were still stiff and the coldness of the dew numbed them, and the hops were wet and slippery. The great difficulty was to pick the hops without picking the leaves and stalks as well; for the measurer was liable to refuse your hops if they had too many leaves among them.
The stems of the bines were covered with minute thorns which within two or three days had torn the skin of your hands to pieces. In the morning it was a torment to begin picking when your fingers were almost too stiff to bend and bleeding in a dozen places; but the pain wore off when the cuts had reopened and the blood was flowing freely. If the hops were good and you picked well, you could strip a bine in ten minutes, and the best bines yielded half a bushel of hops. But the hops varied greatly from one plantation to another. In some they were as large as walnuts, and hung in great leafless bunches which you could rip off with a single twist; in others they were miserable things no bigger than peas, and grew so thinly that you had to pick them one at a time. Some hops were so bad that you could not pick a bushel of them in an hour.
It was slow work in the early morning, before the hops were dry enough to handle. But presently the sun came out, and the lovely, bitter odour began to stream from the warming hops, and people’s early-morning surliness wore off, and the work got into its stride. From eight till midday you were picking, picking, picking, in a sort of passion of work — a passionate eagerness, which grew stronger and stronger as the morning advanced, to get each bine done and shift your bin a little farther along the row. At the beginning of each plantation all the bins started abreast, but by degrees the better pickers forged ahead, and some of them had finished their lane of hops when the others were barely halfway along; whereupon, if you were far behind, they were allowed to turn back and finish your row for you, which was called ‘stealing your hops’. Dorothy and Nobby were always among the last, there being only two of them — there were four people at most of the bins. And Nobby was a clumsy picker, with his great coarse hands; on the whole, the women picked better than the men.
It was always a neck and neck race between the two bins on either side of Dorothy and Nobby, bin number 6 and bin number 8. Bin number 6 was a family of gypsies — a curly-headed, ear-ringed father, an old dried-up leather-coloured mother, and two strapping sons — and bin number 8 was an old East End costerwoman who wore a broad hat and long black cloak and took snuff out of a papiermache box with a steamer painted on the lid. She was always helped by relays of daughters and granddaughters who came down from London for two days at a time. There was quite a troop of children working with the set, following the bins with baskets and gathering up the fallen hops while the adults picked. And the old costerwoman’s tiny, pale granddaughter Rose, and a little gypsy girl, dark as an Indian, were perpetually slipping off to steal autumn raspberries and make swings out of hop bines; and the constant singing round the bins was pierced by shrill cries from the costerwoman of, ‘Go on, Rose, you lazy little cat! Pick them ‘ops up! I’ll warm your a — for you!’ etc., etc.
Quite half the pickers in the set were gypsies — there were not less than two hundred of them in the camp. Diddykies, the other pickers called them. They were not a bad sort of people, friendly enough, and they flattered you grossly when they wanted to get anything out of you; yet they were sly, with the impenetrable slyness of savages. In their oafish, Oriental faces there was a look as of some wild but sluggish animal — a look of dense stupidity existing side by side with untameable cunning. Their talk consisted of about half a dozen remarks which they repeated over and over again without ever growing tired of them. The two young gypsies at bin number 6 would ask Nobby and Dorothy as many as a dozen times a day the same conundrum:
‘What is it the cleverest man in England couldn’t do?’
‘I don’t know. What?’
‘Tickle a gnat’s a — with a telegraph pole.’
At this, never-failing bellows of laughter. They were all abysmally ignorant; they informed you with pride that not one of them could read a single word. The old curly-headed father, who had conceived some dim notion that Dorothy was a ‘scholard’, once seriously asked her whether he could drive his caravan to New York.
At twelve o’clock a hooter down at the farm signalled to the pickers to knock off work for an hour, and it was generally a little before this that the measurer came round to collect the hops. At a warning shout from the foreman of ‘‘Ops ready, number nineteen!’ everyone would hasten to pick up the fallen hops, finish off the tendrils that had been left unpicked here and there, and clear the leaves out of the bin. There was an art in that. It did not pay to pick too ‘clean’, for leaves and hops alike all went to swell the tally. The old hands, such as the gypsies, were adepts at knowing just how ‘dirty’ it was safe to pick.
The measurer would come round, carrying a wicker basket which held a bushel, and accompanied by the ‘bookie,’ who entered the pickings of each bin in a ledger. The ‘bookies’ were young men, clerks and chartered accountants and the like, who took this job as a paying holiday. The measurer would scoop the hops out of the bin a bushel at a time, intoning as he did so, ‘One! Two! Three! Four!’ and the pickers would enter the number in their tally books. Each bushel they picked earned them twopence, and naturally there were endless quarrels and accusations of unfairness over the measuring. Hops are spongy things — you can crush a bushel of them into a quart pot if you choose; so after each scoop one of the pickers would lean over into the bin and stir the hops up to make them lie looser, and then the measurer would hoist the end of the bin and shake the hops together again. Some mornings he had orders to ‘take them heavy’, and would shovel them in so that he got a couple of bushels at each scoop, whereat there were angry yells of, ‘Look how the b —‘s ramming them down! Why don’t you bloody well stamp on them?’ etc.; and the old hands would say darkly that they had known measurers to be ducked in cowponds on the last day of picking. From the bins the hops were put into pokes which theoretically held a hundredweight; but it took two men to hoist a full poke when the measurer had been ‘taking them heavy’. You had an hour for dinner, and you made a fire of hop bines — this was forbidden, but everyone did it — and heated up your tea and ate your bacon sandwiches. After dinner you were picking again till five or six in the evening, when the measurer came once more to take your hops, after which you were free to go back to the camp.
Looking back, afterwards, upon her interlude of hop-picking, it was always the afternoons that Dorothy remembered. Those long, laborious hours in the strong sunlight, in the sound of forty voices singing, in the smell of hops and wood smoke, had a quality peculiar and unforgettable. As the afternoon wore on you grew almost too tired to stand, and the small green hop lice got into your hair and into your ears and worried you, and your hands, from the sulphurous juice, were as black as a Negro’s except where they were bleeding. Yet you were happy, with an unreasonable happiness. The work took hold of you and absorbed you. It was stupid work, mechanical, exhausting, and every day more painful to the hands, and yet you never wearied of it; when the weather was fine and the hops were good you had the feeling that you could go on picking for ever and for ever. It gave you a physical joy, a warm satisfied feeling inside you, to stand there hour after hour, tearing off the heavy clusters and watching the pale green pile grow higher and higher in your bin, every bushel another twopence in your pocket. The sun burned down upon you, baking you brown, and the bitter, never-palling scent, like a wind from oceans of cool beer, flowed into your nostrils and refreshed you. When the sun was shining everybody sang as they worked; the plantations rang with singing. For some reason all the songs were sad that autumn — songs about rejected love and fidelity unrewarded, like gutter versions of Carmen and Manon Lescaut. There was:
THERE they GO— IN their joy —
‘APPY girl — LUCKY boy —
But ‘ere am I-I-I —
And there was:
But I’m dan — cing with tears — in my eyes —
‘Cos the girl — in my arms — isn’t you-o-ou!
The bells — are ringing — for Sally —
But no-o-ot — for Sally — and me!
The little gypsy girl used to sing over and over again:
We’re so misable, all so misable,
Down on Misable Farm!
And though everyone told her that the name of it was Misery Farm, she persisted in calling it Misable Farm. The old costerwoman and her granddaughter Rose had a hop-picking song which went:
‘Our lousy ‘ops!
Our lousy ‘ops!
When the measurer ‘e comes round,
Pick ‘em up, pick ‘em up off the ground!
When ‘e comes to measure,
‘E never knows where to stop;
Ay, ay, get in the bin
And take the bloody lot!’
‘There they go in their joy’, and ‘The bells are ringing for Sally’, were the especial favourites. The pickers never grew tired of singing them; they must have sung both of them several hundred times over before the season came to an end. As much a part of the atmosphere of the hopfields as the bitter scent and the blowsy sunlight were the tunes of those two songs, ringing through the leafy lanes of the bines.
When you got back to the camp, at half past six or thereabouts, you squatted down by the stream that ran past the huts, and washed your face, probably for the first time that day. It took you twenty minutes or so to get the coal-black filth off your hands. Water and even soap made no impression on it; only two things would remove it — one of them was mud, and the other, curiously enough, was hop juice. Then you cooked your supper, which was usually bread and tea and bacon again, unless Nobby had been along to the village and bought two pennyworth of pieces from the butcher. It was always Nobby who did the shopping. He was the sort of man who knows how to get four pennyworth of meat from the butcher for twopence, and, besides, he was expert in tiny economies. For instance, he always bought a cottage loaf in preference to any of the other shapes, because, as he used to point out, a cottage loaf seems like two loaves when you tear it in half.
Even before you had eaten your supper you were dropping with sleep, but the huge fires that people used to build between the huts were too agreeable to leave. The farm allowed two faggots a day for each hut, but the pickers plundered as many more as they wanted, and also great lumps of elm root which kept smouldering till morning. On some nights the fires were so enormous that twenty people could sit round them in comfort, and there was singing far into the night, and telling of stories and roasting of stolen apples. Youths and girls slipped off to the dark lanes together, and a few bold spirits like Nobby set out with sacks and robbed the neighbouring orchards, and the children played hide-and-seek in the dusk and harried the nightjars which haunted the camp and which, in their cockney ignorance, they imagined to be pheasants. On Saturday nights fifty or sixty of the pickers used to get drunk in the pub and then march down the village street roaring bawdy songs, to the scandal of the inhabitants, who looked on the hopping season as decent provincials in Roman Gaul might have looked on the yearly incursion of the Goths.
When finally you managed to drag yourself away to your nest in the straw, it was none too warm or comfortable. After that first blissful night, Dorothy discovered that straw is wretched stuff to sleep in. It is not only prickly, but, unlike hay, it lets in the draught from every possible direction. However, you had the chance to steal an almost unlimited number of hop-pokes from the fields, and by making herself a sort of cocoon of four hop-pokes, one on top of the other, she managed to keep warm enough to sleep at any rate five hours a night.
As to what you earned by hop-picking, it was just enough to keep body and soul together, and no more.
The rate of pay at Cairns’s was twopence a bushel, and given good hops a practised picker can average three bushels an hour. In theory, therefore, it would have been possible to earn thirty shillings by a sixty-hour week. Actually, no one in the camp came anywhere near this figure. The best pickers of all earned thirteen or fourteen shillings a week, and the worst hardly as much as six shillings. Nobby and Dorothy, pooling their hops and dividing the proceeds, made round about ten shillings a week each.
There were various reasons for this. To begin with, there was the badness of the hops in some of the fields. Again, there were the delays which wasted an hour or two of every day. When one plantation was finished you had to carry your bin to the next, which might be a mile distant; and then perhaps it would turn out that there was some mistake, and the set, struggling under their bins (they weighed a hundredweight), would have to waste another half-hour in traipsing elsewhere. Worst of all, there was the rain. It was a bad September that year, raining one day in three. Sometimes for a whole morning or afternoon you shivered miserably in the shelter of the unstripped bines, with a dripping hop-poke round your shoulders, waiting for the rain to stop. It was impossible to pick when it was raining. The hops were too slippery to handle, and if you did pick them it was worse than useless, for when sodden with water they shrank all to nothing in the bin. Sometimes you were in the fields all day to earn a shilling or less.
This did not matter to the majority of the pickers, for quite half of them were gypsies and accustomed to starvation wages, and most of the others were respectable East Enders, costermongers and small shopkeepers and the like, who came hop-picking for a holiday and were satisfied if they earned enough for their fare both ways and a bit of fun on Saturday nights. The farmers knew this and traded on it. Indeed, were it not that hop-picking is regarded as a holiday, the industry would collapse forthwith, for the price of hops is now so low that no farmer could afford to pay his pickers a living wage.
Twice a week you could ‘sub’ up to the amount of half your earnings. If you left before the picking was finished (an inconvenient thing for the farmers) they had the right to pay you off at the rate of a penny a bushel instead of twopence — that is, to pocket half of what they owed you. It was also common knowledge that towards the end of the season, when all the pickers had a fair sum owing to them and would not want to sacrifice it by throwing up their jobs, the farmer would reduce the rate of payment from twopence a bushel to a penny halfpenny. Strikes were practically impossible. The pickers had no union, and the foremen of the sets, instead of being paid twopence a bushel like the others, were paid a weekly wage which stopped automatically if there was a strike; so naturally they would raise Heaven and earth to prevent one. Altogether, the farmers had the pickers in a cleft stick; but it was not the farmers who were to blame — the low price of hops was the root of the trouble. Also as Dorothy observed later, very few of the pickers had more than a dim idea of the amount they earned. The system of piecework disguised the low rate of payment.
For the first few days, before they could ‘sub’, Dorothy and Nobby very nearly starved, and would have starved altogether if the other pickers had not fed them. But everyone was extraordinarily kind. There was a party of people who shared one of the larger huts a little farther up the row, a flower-seller named Jim Burrows and a man named Jim Turle who was vermin man at a large London restaurant, who had married sisters and were close friends, and these people had taken a liking to Dorothy. They saw to it that she and Nobby should not starve. Every evening during the first few days May Turle, aged fifteen, would arrive with a saucepan full of stew, which was presented with studied casualness, lest there should be any hint of charity about it. The formula was always the same:
‘Please, Ellen, mother says as she was just going to throw this stew away, and then she thought as p’raps you might like it. She ain’t got no use for it, she says, and so you’d be doing her a kindness if you was to take it.’
It was extraordinary what a lot of things the Turles and the Burrowses were ‘just going to throw away’ during those first few days. On one occasion they even gave Nobby and Dorothy half a pig’s head ready stewed; and besides food they gave them several cooking pots and a tin plate which could be used as a frying-pan. Best of all, they asked no uncomfortable questions. They knew well enough that there was some mystery in Dorothy’s life —‘You could see,’ they said, ‘as Ellen had COME DOWN IN THE WORLD’— but they made it a point of honour not to embarrass her by asking questions about it. It was not until she had been more than a fortnight at the camp that Dorothy was even obliged to put herself to the trouble of inventing a surname.
As soon as Dorothy and Nobby could ‘sub’, their money troubles were at an end. They lived with surprising ease at the rate of one and sixpence a day for the two of them. Fourpence of this went on tobacco for Nobby, and fourpence-halfpenny on a loaf of bread; and they spent about sevenpence a day on tea, sugar, milk (you could get milk at the farm at a halfpenny a half-pint), and margarine and ‘pieces’ of bacon. But, of course, you never got through the day without squandering another penny or two. You were everlastingly hungry, everlastingly doing sums in farthings to see whether you could afford a kipper or a doughnut or a pennyworth of potato chips, and, wretched as the pickers’ earnings were, half the population of Kent seemed to be in conspiracy to tickle their money out of their pockets. The local shopkeepers, with four hundred hop-pickers quartered upon them, made more during the hop season than all the rest of the year put together, which did not prevent them from looking down on the pickers as cockney dirt. In the afternoon the farm hands would come round the bins selling apples and pears at seven a penny, and London hawkers would come with baskets of doughnuts or water ices or ‘halfpenny lollies’. At night the camp was thronged by hawkers who drove down from London with vans of horrifyingly cheap groceries, fish and chips, jellied eels, shrimps, shop-soiled cakes, and gaunt, glassy-eyed rabbits which had lain two years on the ice and were being sold off at ninepence a time.
For the most part it was a filthy diet upon which the hop-pickers lived — inevitably so, for even if you had the money to buy proper food, there was no time to cook it except on Sundays. Probably it was only the abundance of stolen apples that prevented the camp from being ravaged by scurvy. There was constant, systematic thieving of apples; practically everyone in the camp either stole them or shared them. There were even parties of young men (employed, so it was said, by London fruit-costers) who bicycled down from London every week-end for the purpose of raiding the orchards. As for Nobby, he had reduced fruit-stealing to a science. Within a week he had collected a gang of youths who looked up to him as a hero because he was a real burglar and had been in jail four times, and every night they would set out at dusk with sacks and come back with as much as two hundredweight of fruit. There were vast orchards near the hopfields, and the apples, especially the beautiful little Golden Russets, were lying in piles under the trees, rotting, because the farmers could not sell them. It was a sin not to rake them, Nobby said. On two occasions he and his gang even stole a chicken. How they managed to do it without waking the neighbourhood was a mystery; but it appeared that Nobby knew some dodge of slipping a sack over a chicken’s head, so that it ‘ceas’d upon the midnight with no pain’— or at any rate, with no noise.
In this manner a week and then a fortnight went by, and Dorothy was no nearer to solving the problem of her own identity. Indeed, she was further from it than ever, for except at odd moments the subject had almost vanished from her mind. More and more she had come to take her curious situation for granted, to abandon all thoughts of either yesterday or tomorrow. That was the natural effect of life in the hopfields; it narrowed the range of your consciousness to the passing minute. You could not struggle with nebulous mental problems when you were everlastingly sleepy and everlastingly occupied — for when you were not at work in the fields you were either cooking, or fetching things from the village, or coaxing a fire out of wet sticks, or trudging to and fro with cans of water. (There was only one water tap in the camp, and that was two hundred yards from Dorothy’s hut, and the unspeakable earth latrine was at the same distance.) It was a life that wore you out, used up every ounce of your energy, and kept you profoundly, unquestionably happy. In the literal sense of the word, it stupefied you. The long days in the fields, the coarse food and insufficient sleep, the smell of hops and wood smoke, lulled you into an almost beastlike heaviness. Your wits seemed to thicken, just as your skin did, in the rain and sunshine and perpetual fresh air.
On Sundays, of course, there was no work in the fields; but Sunday morning was a busy time, for it was then that people cooked their principal meal of the week, and did their laundering and mending. All over the camp, while the jangle of bells from the village church came down the wind, mingling with the thin strains of ‘O God our Help’ from the ill-attended open-air service held by St Somebody’s Mission to Hop-pickers, huge faggot fires were blazing, and water boiling in buckets and tin cans and saucepans and anything else that people could lay their hands on, and ragged washing fluttering from the roofs of all the huts. On the first Sunday Dorothy borrowed a basin from the Turles and washed first her hair, then her underclothes and Nobby’s shirt. Her underclothes were in a shocking state. How long she had worn them she did not know, but certainly not less than ten days, and they had been slept in all that while. Her stockings had hardly any feet left to them, and as for her shoes, they only held together because of the mud that caked them.
After she had set the washing to dry she cooked the dinner, and they dined opulently off half a stewed chicken (stolen), boiled potatoes (stolen), stewed apples (stolen), and tea out of real tea- cups with handles on them, borrowed from Mrs Burrows. And after dinner, the whole afternoon, Dorothy sat against the sunny side of the hut, with a dry hop-poke across her knees to hold her dress down, alternately dozing and reawakening. Two-thirds of the people in the camp were doing exactly the same thing; just dozing in the sun, and waking to gaze at nothing, like cows. It was all you felt equal to, after a week of heavy work.
About three o’clock, as she sat there on the verge of sleep, Nobby sauntered by, bare to the waist — his shirt was drying — with a copy of a Sunday newspaper that he had succeeded in borrowing. It was Pippin’s Weekly, the dirtiest of the five dirty Sunday newspapers. He dropped it in Dorothy’s lap as he passed.
‘Have a read of that, kid,’ he said generously.
Dorothy took Pippin’s Weekly and laid it across her knees, feeling herself far too sleepy to read. A huge headline stared her in the face: ‘PASSION DRAMA IN COUNTRY RECTORY.’ And then there were some more headlines, and something in leaded type, and an inset photograph of a girl’s face. For the space of five seconds or thereabouts Dorothy was actually gazing at a blackish, smudgy, but quite recognizable portrait of herself.
There was a column or so of print beneath the photograph. As a matter of fact, most of the newspapers had dropped the ‘Rector’s Daughter’ mystery by this time, for it was more than a fortnight old and stale news. But Pippin’s Weekly cared little whether its news was new so long as it was spicy, and that week’s crop of rapes and murders had been a poor one. They were giving the ‘Rector’s Daughter’ one final boost — giving her, in fact, the place of honour at the top left-hand corner of the front page.
Dorothy gazed inertly at the photograph. A girl’s face, looking out at her from beds of black unappetizing print — it conveyed absolutely nothing to her mind. She re-read mechanically the words, ‘PASSION DRAMA IN COUNTRY RECTORY’, without either understanding them or feeling the slightest interest in them. She was, she discovered, totally unequal to the effort of reading; even the effort of looking at the photographs was too much for her. Heavy sleep was weighing down her head. Her eyes, in the act of closing, flitted across the page to a photograph that was either of Lord Snowden or of the man who wouldn’t wear a truss, and then, in the same instant, she fell asleep, with Pippin’s Weekly across her knees.
It was not uncomfortable against the corrugated iron wall of the hut, and she hardly stirred till six o’clock, when Nobby woke her up to tell her that he had got tea ready; whereat Dorothy put Pippin’s Weekly thriftily away (it would come in for lighting the fire), without looking at it again. So for the moment the chance of solving her problem passed by. And the problem might have remained unsolved even for months longer, had not a disagreeable accident, a week later, frightened her out of the contented and unreflecting state in which she was living.
The following Sunday night two policemen suddenly descended upon the camp and arrested Nobby and two others for theft.
It happened all in a moment, and Nobby could not have escaped even if he had been warned beforehand, for the countryside was pullulating with special constables. There are vast numbers of special constables in Kent. They are sworn in every autumn — a sort of militia to deal with the marauding tribes of hop-pickers. The farmers had been growing tired of the orchard-robbing, and had decided to make an example, in terrorem.
Of course there was a tremendous uproar in the camp. Dorothy came out of her hut to discover what was the matter, and saw a firelit ring of people towards which everyone was running. She ran after them, and a horrid chill went through her, because it seemed to her that she knew already what it was that had happened. She managed to wriggle her way to the front of the crowd, and saw the very thing that she had been fearing.
There stood Nobby, in the grip of an enormous policeman, and another policeman was holding two frightened youths by the arms. One of them, a wretched child hardly sixteen years old, was crying bitterly. Mr Cairns, a stiff-built man with grey whiskers, and two farm hands, were keeping guard over the stolen property that had been dug out of the straw of Nobby’s hut. Exhibit A, a pile of apples; Exhibit B, some blood-stained chicken feathers. Nobby caught sight of Dorothy among the crowd, grinned at her with a flash of large teeth, and winked. There was a confused din of shouting:
‘Look at the pore little b — crying! Let ‘im go! Bloody shame, pore little kid like that! Serve the young bastard right, getting us all into trouble! Let ‘im go! Always got to put the blame on us bloody hop-pickers! Can’t lose a bloody apple without it’s us that’s took it. Let ‘im go! Shut up, can’t you? S’pose they was YOUR bloody apples? Wouldn’t YOU bloodiwell —’ etc., etc., etc. And then: ‘Stand back mate! ‘Ere comes the kid’s mother.’
A huge Toby jug of a woman, with monstrous breasts and her hair coming down her back, forced her way through the ring of people and began roaring first at the policeman and Mr Cairns, then at Nobby, who had led her son astray. Finally the farm hands managed to drag her away. Through the woman’s yells Dorothy could hear Mr Cairns gruffly interrogating Nobby:
‘Now then, young man, just you own up and tell us who you shared them apples with! We’re going to put a stop to this thieving game, once and for all. You own up, and I dessay we’ll take it into consideration.’
Nobby answered, as blithely as ever, ‘Consideration, your a —!’
‘Don’t you get giving me any of your lip, young man! Or else you’ll catch it all the hotter when you go up before the magistrate.’
‘Catch it hotter, your a —!’
Nobby grinned. His own wit filled him with delight. He caught Dorothy’s eye and winked at her once again before being led away. And that was the last she ever saw of him.
There was further shouting, and when the prisoners were removed a few dozen men followed them, booing at the policemen and Mr Cairns, but nobody dared to interfere. Dorothy meanwhile had crept away; she did not even stop to find out whether there would be an opportunity of saying goodbye to Nobby — she was too frightened, too anxious to escape. Her knees were trembling uncontrollably. When she got back to the hut, the other women were sitting up, talking excitedly about Nobby’s arrest. She burrowed deep into the straw and hid herself, to be out of the sound of their voices. They continued talking half the night, and of course, because Dorothy had supposedly been Nobby’s ‘tart’, they kept condoling with her and plying her with questions. She did not answer them — pretended to be asleep. But there would be, she knew well enough, no sleep for her that night.
The whole thing had frightened and upset her — but it had frightened her more than was reasonable or understandable. For she was in no kind of danger. The farm hands did not know that she had shared the stolen apples — for that matter, nearly everyone in the camp had shared them — and Nobby would never betray her. It was not even that she was greatly concerned for Nobby, who was frankly not troubled by the prospect of a month in jail. It was something that was happening inside her — some change that was taking place in the atmosphere of her mind.
It seemed to her that she was no longer the same person that she had been an hour ago. Within her and without, everything was changed. It was as though a bubble in her brain had burst, setting free thoughts, feelings, fears of which she had forgotten the existence. All the dreamlike apathy of the past three weeks was shattered. For it was precisely as in a dream that she had been living — it is the especial condition of a dream that one accepts everything, questions nothing. Dirt, rags, vagabondage, begging, stealing — all had seemed natural to her. Even the loss of her memory had seemed natural; at least, she had hardly given it a thought till this moment. The question ‘WHO AM I?’ had faded out of her mind till sometimes she had forgotten it for hours together. It was only now that it returned with any real urgency.
For nearly the whole of a miserable night that question went to and fro in her brain. But it was not so much the question itself that troubled her as the knowledge that it was about to be answered. Her memory was coming back to her, that was certain, and some ugly shock was coming with it. She actually feared the moment when she should discover her own identity. Something that she did not want to face was waiting just below the surface of her consciousness.
At half past five she got up and groped for her shoes as usual. She went outside, got the fire going, and stuck the can of water among the hot embers to boil. Just as she did so a memory, seeming irrelevant, flashed across her mind. It was of that halt on the village green at Wale, a fortnight ago — the time when they had met the old Irishwoman, Mrs McElligot. Very vividly she remembered the scene. Herself lying exhausted on the grass, with her arm over her face; and Nobby and Mrs McElligot talking across her supine body; and Charlie, with succulent relish, reading out the poster, ‘Secret Love Life of Rector’s Daughter’; and herself, mystified but not deeply interested, sitting up and asking, ‘What is a Rector?’
At that a deadly chill, like a hand of ice, fastened about her heart. She got up and hurried, almost ran back to the hut, then burrowed down to the place where her sacks lay and felt in the straw beneath them. In that vast mound of straw all your loose possessions got lost and gradually worked their way to the bottom. But after searching for some minutes, and getting herself well cursed by several women who were still half asleep, Dorothy found what she was looking for. It was the copy of Pippin’s Weekly which Nobby had given her a week ago. She took it outside, knelt down, and spread it out in the light of the fire.
It was on the front page — a photograph, and three big headlines. Yes! There it was!
PASSION DRAMA IN COUNTRY RECTORY
PARSON’S DAUGHTER AND ELDERLY SEDUCER
WHITE-HAIRED FATHER PROSTRATE WITH GRIEF
(Pippin’s Weekly Special)
‘I would sooner have seen her in her grave!’ was the heartbroken cry of the Rev. Charles Hare, Rector of Knype Hill, Suffolk, on learning of his twenty-eight-year-old daughter’s elopement with an elderly bachelor named Warburton, described as an artist.
Miss Hare, who left the town on the night of the twenty-first of August, is still missing, and all attempts to trace her have failed. [In leaded type] Rumour, as yet unconfirmed, states that she was recently seen with a male companion in a hotel of evil repute in Vienna.
Readers of Pippin’s Weekly will recall that the elopement took place in dramatic circumstances. A little before midnight on the twenty-first of August, Mrs Evelina Semprill, a widowed lady who inhabits the house next door to Mr Warburton’s, happened by chance to look out of her bedroom window and saw Mr Warburton standing at his front gate in conversation with a young woman. As it was a clear moonlight night, Mrs Semprill was able to distinguish this young woman as Miss Hare, the Rector’s daughter. The pair remained at the gate for several minutes, and before going indoors they exchanged embraces which Mrs Semprill describes as being of a passionate nature. About half an hour later they reappeared in Mr Warburton’s car, which was backed out of the front gate, and drove off in the direction of the Ipswich road. Miss Hare was dressed in scanty attire, and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol.
It is now learned that for some time past Miss Hare had been in the habit of making clandestine visits to Mr Warburton’s house. Mrs Semprill, who could only with great difficulty be persuaded to speak upon so painful a subject, has further revealed —
Dorothy crumpled Pippin’s Weekly violently between her hands and thrust it into the fire, upsetting the can of water. There was a cloud of ashes and sulphurous smoke, and almost in the same instant Dorothy pulled the paper out of the fire unburnt. No use funking it — better to learn the worst. She read on, with a horrible fascination. It was not a nice kind of story to read about yourself. For it was strange, but she had no longer any shadow of doubt that this girl of whom she was reading was herself. She examined the photograph. It was a blurred, nebulous thing, but quite unmistakable. Besides, she had no need of the photograph to remind her. She could remember everything — every circumstance of her life, up to that evening when she had come home tired out from Mr Warburton’s house, and, presumably, fallen asleep in the conservatory. It was all so clear in her mind that it was almost incredible that she had ever forgotten it.
She ate no breakfast that day, and did not think to prepare anything for the midday meal; but when the time came, from force of habit, she set out for the hopfields with the other pickers. With difficulty, being alone, she dragged the heavy bin into position, pulled the next bine down and began picking. But after a few minutes she found that it was quite impossible; even the mechanical labour of picking was beyond her. That horrible, lying story in Pippin’s Weekly had so unstrung her that it was impossible even for an instant to focus her mind upon anything else. Its lickerish phrases were going over and over in her head. ‘Embraces of a passionate nature’—‘in scanty attire’—‘under the influence of alcohol’— as each one came back into her memory it brought with it such a pang that she wanted to cry out as though in physical pain.
After a while she stopped even pretending to pick, let the bine fall across her bin, and sat down against one of the posts that supported the wires. The other pickers observed her plight, and were sympathetic. Ellen was a bit cut up, they said. What else could you expect, after her bloke had been knocked off? (Everyone in the camp, of course, had taken it for granted that Nobby was Dorothy’s lover.) They advised her to go down to the farm and report sick. And towards twelve o’clock, when the measurer was due, everyone in the set came across with a hatful of hops and dropped it into her bin.
When the measurer arrived he found Dorothy still sitting on the ground. Beneath her dirt and sunburn she was very pale; her face looked haggard, and much older than before. Her bin was twenty yards behind the rest of the set, and there were less than three bushels of hops in it.
‘What’s the game?’ he demanded. ‘You ill?’
‘Well, why ain’t you bin pickin’, then? What you think this is — toff’s picnic? You don’t come up ‘ere to sit about on the ground, you know.’
‘You cheese it and don’t get nagging of ‘er!’ shouted the old cockney costerwoman suddenly. ‘Can’t the pore girl ‘ave a bit of rest and peace if she wants it? Ain’t ‘er bloke in the clink thanks to you and your bloody nosing pals of coppers? She’s got enough to worry ‘er ‘thout being —— about by every bloody copper’s nark in Kent!’
‘That’ll be enough from you, Ma!’ said the measurer gruffly, but he looked more sympathetic on hearing that it was Dorothy’s lover who had been arrested on the previous night. When the costerwoman had got her kettle boiling she called Dorothy to her bin and gave her a cup of strong tea and a hunk of bread and cheese; and after the dinner interval another picker who had no partner was sent up to share Dorothy’s bin. He was a small, weazened old tramp named Deafie. Dorothy felt somewhat better after the tea. Encouraged by Deafie’s example — for he was an excellent picker — she managed to do her fair share of work during the afternoon.
She had thought things over, and was less distracted than before. The phrases in Pippin’s Weekly still made her wince with shame, but she was equal now to facing the situation. She understood well enough what had happened to her, and what had led to Mrs Semprill’s libel. Mrs Semprill had seen them together at the gate and had seen Mr Warburton kissing her; and after that, when they were both missing from Knype Hill, it was only too natural — natural for Mrs Semprill, that is — to infer that they had eloped together. As for the picturesque details, she had invented them later. Or HAD she invented them? That was the one thing you could never be certain of with Mrs Semprill — whether she told her lies consciously and deliberately AS lies, or whether, in her strange and disgusting mind, she somehow succeeded in believing them.
Well, anyway, the harm was done — no use worrying about it any longer. Meanwhile, there was the question of getting back to Knype Hill. She would have to send for some clothes, and she would need two pounds for her train fare home. Home! The word sent a pang through her heart. Home, after weeks of dirt and hunger! How she longed for it, now that she remembered it!
A chilly little doubt raised its head. There was one aspect of the matter that she had not thought of till this moment. COULD she, after all, go home? Dared she?
Could she face Knype Hill after everything that had happened? That was the question. When you have figured on the front page of Pippin’s Weekly —‘in scanty attire’—‘under the influence of alcohol’— ah, don’t let’s think of it again! But when you have been plastered all over with horrible, dishonouring libels, can you go back to a town of two thousand inhabitants where everybody knows everybody else’s private history and talks about it all day long?
She did not know — could not decide. At one moment it seemed to her that the story of her elopement was so palpably absurd that no one could possibly have believed it. Mr Warburton, for instance, could contradict it — most certainly would contradict it, for every possible reason. But the next moment she remembered that Mr Warburton had gone abroad, and unless this affair had got into the continental newspapers, he might not even have heard of it; and then she quailed again. She knew what it means to have to live down a scandal in a small country town. The glances and furtive nudges when you passed! The prying eyes following you down the street from behind curtained windows! The knots of youths on the corners round Blifil-Gordon’s factory, lewdly discussing you!
‘George! Say, George! J’a see that bit of stuff over there? With fair ‘air?’
‘What, the skinny one? Yes. ‘Oo’s she?’
‘Rector’s daughter, she is. Miss ‘Are. But, say! What you think she done two years ago? Done a bunk with a bloke old enough to bin ‘er father. Regular properly went on the razzle with ‘im in Paris! Never think it to look at ‘er, would you?’
‘She did! Straight, she did. It was in the papers and all. Only ‘e give ‘er the chuck three weeks afterwards, and she come back ‘ome again as bold as brass. Nerve, eh?’
Yes, it would take some living down. For years, for a decade it might be, they would be talking about her like that. And the worst of it was that the story in Pippin’s Weekly was probably a mere bowdlerized vestige of what Mrs Semprill had been saying in the town. Naturally, Pippin’s Weekly had not wanted to commit itself too far. But was there anything that would ever restrain Mrs Semprill? Only the limits of her imagination — and they were almost as wide as the sky.
One thing, however, reassured Dorothy, and that was the thought that her father, at any rate, would do his best to shield her. Of course, there would be others as well. It was not as though she were friendless. The church congregation, at least, knew her and trusted her, and the Mothers’ Union and the Girl Guides and the women on her visiting list would never believe such stories about her. But it was her father who mattered most. Almost any situation is bearable if you have a home to go back to and a family who will stand by you. With courage, and her father’s support, she might face things out. By the evening she had decided that it would be perfectly all right to go back to Knype Hill, though no doubt it would be disagreeable at first, and when work was over for the day she ‘subbed’ a shilling, and went down to the general shop in the village and bought a penny packet of notepaper. Back in the camp, sitting on the grass by the fire — no tables or chairs in the camp, of course — she began to write with a stump of pencil:
Dearest Father — I can’t tell you how glad I am, after everything that has happened, to be able to write to you again. And I do hope you have not been too anxious about me or too worried by those horrible stories in the newspapers. I don’t know what you must have thought when I suddenly disappeared like that and you didn’t hear from me for nearly a month. But you see —’
How strange the pencil felt in her torn and stiffened fingers! She could only write a large, sprawling hand like that of a child. But she wrote a long letter, explaining everything, and asking him to send her some clothes and two pounds for her fare home. Also, she asked him to write to her under an assumed name she gave him — Ellen Millborough, after Millborough in Suffolk. It seemed a queer thing to have to do, to use a false name; dishonest — criminal, almost. But she dared not risk its being known in the village, and perhaps in the camp as well, that she was Dorothy Hare, the notorious ‘Rector’s Daughter’.
Once her mind was made up, Dorothy was pining to escape from the hop camp. On the following day she could hardly bring herself to go on with the stupid work of picking, and the discomforts and bad food were intolerable now that she had memories to compare them with. She would have taken to flight immediately if only she had had enough money to get her home. The instant her father’s letter with the two pounds arrived, she would say good-bye to the Turles and take the train for home, and breathe a sigh of relief to get there, in spite of the ugly scandals that had got to be faced.
On the third day after writing she went down the village post office and asked for her letter. The postmistress, a woman with the face of a dachshund and a bitter contempt for all hop-pickers, told her frostily that no letter had come. Dorothy was disappointed. A pity — it must have been held up in the post. However, it didn’t matter; tomorrow would be soon enough — only another day to wait.
The next evening she went again, quite certain that it would have arrived this time. Still no letter. This time a misgiving assailed her; and on the fifth evening, when there was yet again no letter, the misgiving changed into a horrible panic. She bought another packet of notepaper and wrote an enormous letter, using up the whole four sheets, explaining over and over again what had happened and imploring her father not to leave her in such suspense. Having posted it, she made up her mind that she would let a whole week go by before calling at the post office again.
This was Saturday. By Wednesday her resolve had broken down. When the hooter sounded for the midday interval she left her bin and hurried down to the post office — it was a mile and a half away, and it meant missing her dinner. Having got there she went shame- facedly up to the counter, almost afraid to speak. The dog-faced postmistress was sitting in her brass-barred cage at the end of the counter, ticking figures in a long shaped account book. She gave Dorothy a brief nosy glance and went on with her work, taking no notice of her.
Something painful was happening in Dorothy’s diaphragm. She was finding it difficult to breathe, ‘Are there any letters for me?’ she managed to say at last.
‘Name?’ said the postmistress, ticking away.
The postmistress turned her long dachshund nose over her shoulder for an instant and glanced at the M partition of the Poste Restante letter-box.
‘No,’ she said, turning back to her account book.
In some manner Dorothy got herself outside and began to walk back towards the hopfields, then halted. A deadly feeling of emptiness at the pit of her stomach, caused partly by hunger, made her too weak to walk.
Her father’s silence could mean only one thing. He believed Mrs Semprill’s story — believed that she, Dorothy, had run away from home in disgraceful circumstances and then told lies to excuse herself. He was too angry and too disgusted to write to her. All he wanted was to get rid of her, drop all communication with her; get her out of sight and out of mind, as a mere scandal to be covered up and forgotten.
She could not go home after this. She dared not. Now that she had seen what her father’s attitude was, it had opened her eyes to the rashness of the thing she had been contemplating. Of COURSE she could not go home! To slink back in disgrace, to bring shame on her father’s house by coming there — ah, impossible, utterly impossible! How could she even have thought of it?
What then? There was nothing for it but to go right away — right away to some place that was big enough to hide in. London, perhaps. Somewhere where nobody knew her and the mere sight of her face or mention of her name would not drag into the light a string of dirty memories.
As she stood there the sound of bells floated towards her, from the village church round the bend of the road, where the ringers were amusing themselves by ringing ‘Abide with Me’, as one picks out a tune with one finger on the piano. But presently ‘Abide with Me’ gave way to the familiar Sunday-morning jangle. ‘Oh do leave my wife alone! She is so drunk she can’t get home!’— the same peal that the bells of St Athelstan’s had been used to ring three years ago before they were unswung. The sound planted a spear of homesickness in Dorothy’s heart, bringing back to her with momentary vividness a medley of remembered things — the smell of the glue-pot in the conservatory when she was making costumes for the school play, and the chatter of starlings outside her bedroom window, interrupting her prayers before Holy Communion, and Mrs Pither’s doleful voice chronicling the pains in the backs of her legs, and the worries of the collapsing belfry and the shop-debts and the bindweed in the peas — all the multitudinous, urgent details of a life that had alternated between work and prayer.
Prayer! For a very short time, a minute perhaps, the thought arrested her. Prayer — in those days it had been the very source and centre of her life. In trouble or in happiness, it was to prayer that she had turned. And she realized — the first time that it had crossed her mind — that she had not uttered a prayer since leaving home, not even since her memory had come back to her. Moreover, she was aware that she had no longer the smallest impulse to pray. Mechanically, she began a whispered prayer, and stopped almost instantly; the words were empty and futile. Prayer, which had been the mainstay of her life, had no meaning for her any longer. She recorded this fact as she walked slowly up the road, and she recorded it briefly, almost casually, as though it had been something seen in passing — a flower in the ditch or a bird crossing the road — something noticed and then dismissed. She had not even the time to reflect upon what it might mean. It was shouldered out of her mind by more momentous things.
It was of the future that she had got to be thinking now. She was already fairly clear in her mind as to what she must do. When the hop-picking was at an end she must go up to London, write to her father for money and her clothes — for however angry he might be, she could not believe that he intended to leave her utterly in the lurch — and then start looking for a job. It was the measure of her ignorance that those dreaded words ‘looking for a job’ sounded hardly at all dreadful in her ears. She knew herself strong and willing — knew that there were plenty of jobs that she was capable of doing. She could be a nursery governess, for instance — no, better, a housemaid or a parlourmaid. There were not many things in a house that she could not do better than most servants; besides, the more menial her job, the easier it would be to keep her past history secret.
At any rate, her father’s house was closed to her, that was certain. From now on she had got to fend for herself. On this decision, with only a very dim idea of what it meant, she quickened her pace and got back to the fields in time for the afternoon shift.
The hop-picking season had not much longer to run. In a week or thereabouts Cairns’s would be closing down, and the cockneys would take the hoppers’ train to London, and the gypsies would catch their horses, pack their caravans, and march northward to Lincolnshire, to scramble for jobs in the potato fields. As for the cockneys, they had had their bellyful of hop-picking by this time. They were pining to be back in dear old London, with Woolworths and the fried-fish shop round the corner, and no more sleeping in straw and frying bacon in tin lids with your eyes weeping from wood smoke. Hopping was a holiday, but the kind of holiday that you were glad to see the last of. You came down cheering, but you went home cheering louder still and swearing that you would never go hopping again — until next August, when you had forgotten the cold nights and the bad pay and the damage to your hands, and remembered only the blowsy afternoons in the sun and the boozing of stone pots of beer round the red camp fires at night.
The mornings were growing bleak and Novemberish; grey skies, the first leaves falling, and finches and starlings already flocking for the winter. Dorothy had written yet again to her father, asking for money and some clothes; he had left her letter unanswered, nor had anybody else written to her. Indeed, there was no one except her father who knew her present address; but somehow she had hoped that Mr Warburton might write. Her courage almost failed her now, especially at nights in the wretched straw, when she lay awake thinking of the vague and menacing future. She picked her hops with a sort of desperation, a sort of frenzy of energy, more aware each day that every handful of hops meant another fraction of a farthing between herself and starvation. Deafie, her bin-mate, like herself, was picking against time, for it was the last money he would earn till next year’s hopping season came round. The figure they aimed at was five shillings a day — thirty bushels — between the two of them, but there was no day when they quite attained it.
Deafie was a queer old man and a poor companion after Nobby, but not a bad sort. He was a ship’s steward by profession, but a tramp of many years’ standing, as deaf as a post and therefore something of a Mr F.‘s aunt in conversation. He was also an exhibitionist, but quite harmless. For hours together he used to sing a little song that went ‘With my willy willy — WITH my willy willy’, and though he could not hear what he was singing it seemed to cause him some kind of pleasure. He had the hairiest ears Dorothy had ever seen. There were tufts like miniature Dundreary whiskers growing out of each of his ears. Every year Deafie came hop-picking at Cairns’s farm, saved up a pound, and then spent a paradisiac week in a lodging-house in Newington Butts before going back to the road. This was the only week in the year when he slept in what could be called, except by courtesy, a bed.
The picking came to an end on 28 September. There were several fields still unpicked, but they were poor hops and at the last moment Mr Cairns decided to ‘let them blow’. Set number 19 finished their last field at two in the afternoon, and the little gypsy foreman swarmed up the poles and retrieved the derelict bunches, and the measurer carted the last hops away. As he disappeared there was a sudden shout of ‘Put ‘em in the bins!’ and Dorothy saw six men bearing down upon her with a fiendish expression on their faces, and all the women in the set scattering and running. Before she could collect her wits to escape the men had seized her, laid her at full length in a bin and swung her violently from side to side. Then she was dragged out and kissed by a young gypsy smelling of onions. She struggled at first, but she saw the same thing being done to the other women in the set, so she submitted. It appeared that putting the women in the bins was an invariable custom on the last day of picking. There were great doings in the camp that night, and not much sleep for anybody. Long after midnight Dorothy found herself moving with a ring of people about a mighty fire, one hand clasped by a rosy butcher-boy and the other by a very drunk old woman in a Scotch bonnet out of a cracker, to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
In the morning they went up to the farm to draw their money, and Dorothy drew one pound and fourpence, and earned another fivepence by adding up their tally books for people who could not read or write. The cockney pickers paid you a penny for this job; the gypsies paid you only in flattery. Then Dorothy set out for West Ackworth station, four miles away, together with the Turles, Mr Turle carrying the tin trunk, Mrs Turle carrying the baby, the other children carrying various odds and ends, and Dorothy wheeling the perambulator which held the Turles’ entire stock of crockery, and which had two circular wheels and two elliptical.
They got to the station about midday, the hoppers’ train was due to start at one, and it arrived at two and started at a quarter past three. After a journey of incredible slowness, zigzagging all over Kent to pick up a dozen hop-pickers here and half a dozen there, going back on its tracks over and over again and backing into sidings to let other trains pass — taking, in fact, six hours to do thirty-five miles — it landed them in London a little after nine at night.
Dorothy slept that night with the Turles. They had grown so fond of her that they would have given her shelter for a week or a fortnight if she had been willing to impose on their hospitality. Their two rooms (they lived in a tenement house not far from Tower Bridge Road) were a tight fit for seven people including children, but they made her a bed of sorts on the floor out of two rag mats, an old cushion and an overcoat.
In the morning she said good-bye to the Turles and thanked them for all their kindness towards her, and then went straight to Bermondsey public baths and washed off the accumulated dirt of five weeks. After that she set out to look for a lodging, having in her possession sixteen and eightpence in cash, and the clothes she stood up in. She had darned and cleaned her clothes as best she could, and being black they did not show the dirt quite as badly as they might have done. From the knees down she was now passably respectable. On the last day of picking a ‘home picker’ in the next set, named Mrs Killfrew, had presented her with a good pair of shoes that had been her daughter’s, and a pair of woollen stockings.
It was not until the evening that Dorothy managed to find herself a room. For something like ten hours she was wandering up and down, from Bermondsey into Southwark, from Southwark into Lambeth, through labyrinthine streets where snotty-nosed children played at hop-scotch on pavements horrible with banana skins and decaying cabbage leaves. At every house she tried it was the same story — the landlady refused point-blank to take her in. One after another a succession of hostile women, standing in their doorways as defensively as though she had been a motor bandit or a government inspector, looked her up and down, said briefly, ‘We don’t TAKE single girls,’ and shut the door in her face. She did not know it, of course, but the very look of her was enough to rouse any respectable landlady’s suspicions. Her stained and ragged clothes they might possibly have put up with; but the fact that she had no luggage damned her from the start. A single girl with no luggage is invariably a bad lot — this is the first and greatest of the apophthegms of the London landlady.
At about seven o’clock, too tired to stand on her feet any longer, she ventured into a filthy, flyblown little cafe near the Old Vic theatre and asked for a cup of tea. The proprietress, getting into conversation with her and learning that she wanted a room, advised her to ‘try at Mary’s, in Wellings Court, jest orff the Cut’. ‘Mary’, it appeared, was not particular and would let a room to anybody who could pay. Her proper name was Mrs Sawyer, but the boys all called her Mary.
Dorothy found Wellings Court with some difficulty. You went along Lambeth Cut till you got to a Jew clothes-shop called Knockout Trousers Ltd, then you turned up a narrow alley, and then turned to your left again up another alley so narrow that its grimy plaster walls almost brushed you as you went. In the plaster, persevering boys had cut the word —— innumerable times and too deeply to be erased. At the far end of the alley you found yourself in a small court where four tall narrow houses with iron staircases stood facing one another.
Dorothy made inquiries and found ‘Mary’ in a subterranean den beneath one of the houses. She was a drabby old creature with remarkably thin hair and face so emaciated that it looked like a rouged and powdered skull. Her voice was cracked, shrewish, and nevertheless ineffably dreary. She asked Dorothy no questions, and indeed scarcely even looked at her, but simply demanded ten shillings and then said in her ugly voice:
‘Twenty-nine. Third floor. Go up be the back stairs.’
Apparently the back stairs were those inside the house. Dorothy went up the dark, spiral staircase, between sweating walls, in a smell of old overcoats, dishwater and slops. As she reached the second floor there was a loud squeal of laughter, and two rowdy- looking girls came out of one of the rooms and stared at her for a moment. They looked young, their faces being quite hidden under rouge and pink powder, and their lips painted scarlet as geranium petals. But amid the pink powder their china-blue eyes were tired and old; and that was somehow horrible, because it reminded you of a girl’s mask with an old woman’s face behind it. The taller of the two greeted Dorothy.
‘You new ‘ere? Which room you kipping in?’
‘God, ain’t that a bloody dungeon to put you in! You going out tonight?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Dorothy, privately a little astonished at the question. ‘I’m too tired.’
‘Thought you wasn’t, when I saw you ‘adn’t dolled up. But, say! dearie, you ain’t on the beach, are you? Not spoiling the ship for a ‘aporth of tar? Because f’rinstance if you want the lend of a lipstick, you only got to say the word. We’re all chums ‘ere, you know.’
‘Oh. . . . No, thank you,’ said Dorothy, taken aback.
‘Oh, well! Time Doris and me was moving. Got a ‘portant business engagement in Leicester Square.’ Here she nudged the other girl with her hip, and both of them sniggered in a silly mirthless manner. ‘But, say!’ added the taller girl confidentially, ‘ain’t it a bloody treat to ‘ave a good night’s kip all alone once in a way? Wish I could. All on your Jack Jones with no bloody great man’s feet shoving you about. ‘S all right when you can afford it, eh?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy, feeling that this answer was expected of her, and with only a very vague notion of what the other was talking about.
‘Well, ta ta, dearie! Sleep tight. And jes’ look out for the smash and grab raiders ‘bout ‘ar-parse one!’
When the two girls had skipped downstairs with another of their meaningless squeals of laughter, Dorothy found her way to room number 29 and opened the door. A cold, evil smell met her. The room measured about eight feet each way, and was very dark. The furniture was simple. In the middle of the room, a narrow iron bedstead with a ragged coverlet and greyish sheets; against the wall, a packing case with a tin basin and an empty whisky bottle intended for water; tacked over the bed, a photograph of Bebe Daniels torn out of Film Fun.
The sheets were not only dirty, but damp. Dorothy got into the bed, but she had only undressed to her chemise, or what was left of her chemise, her underclothes by this time being almost entirely in ruins; she could not bring herself to lay her bare body between those nauseous sheets. And once in bed, though she was aching from head to foot with fatigue, she could not sleep. She was unnerved and full of forebodings. The atmosphere of this vile place brought home to her more vividly than before the fact that she was helpless and friendless and had only six shillings between herself and the streets. Moreover, as the night wore on the house grew noisier and noisier. The walls were so thin that you could hear everything that was happening. There were bursts of shrill idiotic laughter, hoarse male voices singing, a gramophone drawling out limericks, noisy kisses, strange deathlike groans, and once or twice the violent rattling of an iron bed. Towards midnight the noises began to form themselves into a rhythm in Dorothy’s brain, and she fell lightly and unrestfully asleep. She was woken about a minute later, as it seemed, by her door being flung open, and two dimly seen female shapes rushed in, tore every scrap of clothing from her bed except the sheets, and rushed out again. There was a chronic shortage of blankets at ‘Mary’s’, and the only way of getting enough of them was to rob somebody else’s bed. Hence the term ‘smash and grab raiders’.
In the morning, half an hour before opening time, Dorothy went to the nearest public library to look at the advertisements in the newspapers. Already a score of vaguely mangy-looking people were prowling up and down, and the number swelled by ones and twos till there were no less than sixty. Presently the doors of the library opened, and in they all surged, racing for a board at the other end of the reading-room where the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns from various newspapers had been cut out and pinned up. And in the wake of the job-hunters came poor old bundles of rags, men and women both, who had spent the night in the streets and came to the library to sleep. They came shambling in behind the others, flopped down with grunts of relief at the nearest table, and pulled the nearest periodical towards them; it might be the Free Church Messenger, it might be the Vegetarian Sentinel — it didn’t matter what it was, but you couldn’t stay in the library unless you pretended to be reading. They opened their papers, and in the same instant fell asleep, with their chins on their breasts. And the attendant walked round prodding them in turn like a stoker poking a succession of fires, and they grunted and woke up as he prodded them, and then fell asleep again the instant he had passed.
Meanwhile a battle was raging round the advertisement board, everybody struggling to get to the front. Two young men in blue overalls came running up behind the others, and one of them put his head down and fought his way through the crowd as though it had been a football scrum. In a moment he was at the board. He turned to his companion: ‘‘Ere we are, Joe — I got it! “Mechanics wanted — Locke’s Garage, Camden Town.” C’m on out of it!’ He fought his way out again, and both of them scooted for the door. They were going to Camden Town as fast as their legs would carry them. And at this moment, in every public library in London, mechanics out of work were reading that identical notice and starting on the race for the job, which in all probability had already been given to someone who could afford to buy a paper for himself and had seen the notice at six in the morning.
Dorothy managed to get to the board at last, and made a note of some of the addresses where ‘cook generals’ were wanted. There were plenty to choose from — indeed, half the ladies in London seemed to be crying out for strong capable general servants. With a list of twenty addresses in her pocket, and having had a breakfast of bread and margarine and tea which cost her threepence, Dorothy set out to look for a job, not unhopefully.
She was too ignorant as yet to know that her chances of finding work unaided were practically nil; but the next four days gradually enlightened her. During those four days she applied for eighteen jobs, and sent written applications for four others. She trudged enormous distances all through the southern suburbs: Clapham, Brixton, Dulwich, Penge, Sydenham, Beckenham, Norwood — even as far as Croydon on one occasion. She was haled into neat suburban drawing-rooms and interviewed by women of every conceivable type — large, chubby, bullying women, thin, acid, catty women, alert frigid women in gold pince-nez, vague rambling women who looked as though they practised vegetarianism or attended spiritualist seances. And one and all, fat or thin, chilly or motherly, they reacted to her in precisely the same way. They simply looked her over, heard her speak, stared inquisitively, asked her a dozen embarrassing and impertinent questions, and then turned her down.
Any experienced person could have told her how it would be. In her circumstances it was not to be expected that anyone would take the risk of employing her. Her ragged clothes and her lack of references were against her, and her educated accent, which she did not know how to disguise, wrecked whatever chances she might have had. The tramps and cockney hop-pickers had not noticed her accent, but the suburban housewives noticed it quickly enough, and it scared them in just the same way as the fact that she had no luggage had scared the landladies. The moment they had heard her speak, and spotted her for a gentlewoman, the game was up. She grew quite used to the startled, mystified look that came over their faces as soon as she opened her mouth — the prying, feminine glance from her face to her damaged hands, and from those to the darns in her skirt. Some of the women asked her outright what a girl of her class was doing seeking work as a servant. They sniffed, no doubt, that she had ‘been in trouble’— that is, had an illegitimate baby — and after probing her with their questions they got rid of her as quickly as possible.
As soon as she had an address to give Dorothy had written to her father, and when on the third day no answer came, she wrote again, despairingly this time — it was her fifth letter, and four had gone unanswered — telling him that she must starve if he did not send her money at once. There was just time for her to get an answer before her week at ‘Mary’s’ was up and she was thrown out for not paying her rent.
Meanwhile, she continued the useless search for work, while her money dwindled at the rate of a shilling a day — a sum just sufficient to keep her alive while leaving her chronically hungry. She had almost given up the hope that her father would do anything to help her. And strangely enough her first panic had died down, as she grew hungrier and the chances of getting a job grew remoter, into a species of miserable apathy. She suffered, but she was not greatly afraid. The sub-world into which she was descending seemed less terrible now that it was nearer.
The autumn weather, though fine, was growing colder. Each day the sun, fighting his losing battle against the winter, struggled a little later through the mist to dye the house-fronts with pale aquarelle colours. Dorothy was in the streets all day, or in the public library, only going back to ‘Mary’s’ to sleep, and then taking the precaution of dragging her bed across the door. She had grasped by this time that ‘Mary’s’ was — not actually a brothel, for there is hardly such a thing in London, but a well-known refuge of prostitutes. It was for that reason that you paid ten shillings a week for a kennel not worth five. Old ‘Mary’ (she was not the proprietress of the house, merely the manageress) had been a prostitute herself in her day, and looked it. Living in such a place damned you even in the eyes of Lambeth Cut. Women sniffed when you passed them, men took an offensive interest in you. The Jew on the corner, the owner of Knockout Trousers Ltd, was the worst of all. He was a solid young man of about thirty, with bulging red cheeks and curly black hair like astrakhan. For twelve hours a day he stood on the pavement roaring with brazen lungs that you couldn’t get a cheaper pair of trousers in London, and obstructing the passers-by. You had only to halt for a fraction of a second, and he seized you by the arm and bundled you inside the shop by main force. Once he got you there his manner became positively threatening. If you said anything disparaging about his trousers he offered to fight, and weak-minded people bought pairs of trousers in sheer physical terror. But busy though he was, he kept a sharp eye open for the ‘birds’, as he called them; and Dorothy appeared to fascinate him beyond all other ‘birds’. He had grasped that she was not a prostitute, but living at ‘Mary’s’, she must — so he reasoned — be on the very verge of becoming one. The thought made his mouth water. When he saw her coming down the alley he would post himself at the corner, with his massive chest well displayed and one black lecherous eye turned inquiringly upon her (‘Are you ready to begin yet?’ his eye seemed to be saying), and, as she passed, give her a discreet pinch on the backside.
On the last morning of her week at ‘Mary’s’, Dorothy went downstairs and looked, with only a faint flicker of hope, at the slate in the hallway where the names of people for whom there were letters were chalked up. There was no letter for ‘Ellen Millborough’. That settled it; there was nothing left to do except to walk out into the street. It did not occur to her to do as every other woman in the house would have done — that is, pitch a hard-up tale and try to cadge another night’s lodging rent free. She simply walked out of the house, and had not even the nerve to tell ‘Mary’ that she was going.
She had no plan, absolutely no plan whatever. Except for half an hour at noon when she went out to spend threepence out of her last fourpence on bread and margarine and tea, she passed the entire day in the public library, reading weekly papers. In the morning she read the Barber’s Record, and in the afternoon Cage Birds. They were the only papers she could get hold of, for there were always so many idlers in the library that you had to scramble to get hold of a paper at all. She read them from cover to cover, even the advertisements. She pored for hours together over such technicalities as How to strop French Razors, Why the Electric Hairbrush is Unhygienic, Do Budgies thrive on Rapeseed? It was the only occupation that she felt equal to. She was in a strange lethargic state in which it was easier to interest herself in How to strop French Razors than in her own desperate plight. All fear had left her. Of the future she was utterly unable to think; even so far ahead as tonight she could barely see. There was a night in the streets ahead of her, that was all she knew, and even about that she only vaguely cared. Meanwhile there were Cage Birds and the Barber’s Record; and they were, strangely, absorbingly interesting.
At nine o’clock the attendant came round with a long hooked pole and turned out the gaslights, the library was closed. Dorothy turned to the left, up the Waterloo Road, towards the river. On the iron footbridge she halted for a moment. The night wind was blowing. Deep banks of mist, like dunes, were rising from the river, and, as the wind caught them, swirling north-eastward across the town. A swirl of mist enveloped Dorothy, penetrating her thin clothes and making her shudder with a sudden foretaste of the night’s cold. She walked on and arrived, by the process of gravitation that draws all roofless people to the same spot, at Trafalgar Square.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12