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In which I come home again; accustom myself to going to bed hungry; and have an unexpected encounter with my father.
As I sat there in the sunshine eating the hokey-pokey for which I had spent my only penny all my old dreams came back to me. I imagined myself rich and famous, bowing before cheering audiences, wearing a tall silk hat and a cane, and buying my mother a silk dress.
It was a rough dirty street, swarming with ragged children and full of heavy vans driven by swearing drivers, but reality did not interfere with my dreams. It never has.
When I had licked the last sweetness of the cream from my fingers I rose and walked with a haughty swagger, raising my eyebrows disdainfully. It was difficult to look down on a person whose waistband was on a level with my eyes, but I managed it. Then I amused myself walking behind people and imitating them, until I heard a barrel organ and followed it, dancing with the other children.
I was adventurous and gay that morning, with no cares in the world. What did it matter that I had no food nor shelter nor friends in all London? I did not think of that.
It was late that afternoon, and I had wandered a long way, when my increasing hunger began to damp my spirits. My feet dragged before the windows of pastry shops, and the fruit on the street stands tempted me. When it grew dark and the gas lamps were lighted I felt very little and lonely again and longed to cry. The streets were crowded with people hurrying home — women with market baskets, and rough men, but no one noticed me. I was only a ragged hungry child, and there are thousands of them in London.
At last I stood forlorn before a baker's window looking at the cakes and buns inside and wanting them with all my heart. I stood there a long time, jostled by people going by, till a woman stopped beside me to look in also. Something about her skirt and shoes gave me a wild hope, and I looked up. It was my mother. My mother!
I clasped her about the knees and screamed. Then I felt her arms tight about me and she was kneeling beside me while we sobbed together. My mother, my dear mother, at last. She had not gone away; she had not forgotten me; she wanted me as much as ever. I clutched her, shaking and sobbing, as if I could never let go, until, little as she was, she picked me up and carried me home.
She was not living in actors' lodgings any more; she had a poor little room in Palermo Terrace, Kensington — a room little better than the dreadful one where Mr. Hawkins had kept me — but it was like Heaven to me to be there, with my mother. I clung to her a long time, hysterical when she tried to take my arms from her neck, and we laughed and cried together while she petted and comforted me.
Neither my father nor Sidney was there, nor was there any sign that they were expected. When I was quieter, sitting on her lap eating a bun and tea, my mother said that they were gone. On the day I ran away with Mr. Hawkins, Sidney had gone to sea. My mother had a note from him, telling her about his grand place as steward's assistant on a boat going to Africa, and promising to bring her back beautiful presents and money. She had not heard from him again.
She undressed me with her tiny hands that reminded me of birds' claws and tucked me in bed, just as I had dreamed so often, with her soft hair falling over the pillow, and I went to sleep, my heart almost bursting with happiness at being home again.
When I woke in the morning, so early that it was not yet light, I saw her sitting beside a lamp, sewing. All my memories of my mother for weeks after that are pictures of her sitting sewing, her sweet thin face, with dark circles under the eyes, bending over the work and her fingers flying. She was making blouses for a factory. There were always piles of them, finished and unfinished, on the table and bed, and she never stopped work on them. When I awoke in the night I saw her in the lamplight working, and all day long she worked, barely stopping to eat. When she had a great pile of them finished I took them to the factory and brought back more for her to do.
I used to climb the long dark stairs to the factory loft with the bundle and watch the man who took the blouses and examined them, hating him. He was a sleek fat man, with rings on his fingers, and he used to point out every stitch which was not just right, and claim there were spots on the blouses, though there were none at all, and then he kept out some of the money. My mother got half a crown — about fifty cents — for a dozen blouses, and by working all week without stopping a minute she earned about five shillings.
I would keep out three and six for the rent money, and then go bargaining at the market stalls for food. A pound of two-penny bits of meat, with a pennyworth of pot-herbs, made us a stew, and sometimes I got a bit of stale bread besides. Then I came panting up the stairs to my mother with the bundles, and gave her the rent money, warm from being clutched in my hand, and she would laugh and kiss me and say how well I had done.
The stew had to last us the week, and I know now that often my mother made only a pretense of eating, so that there would be more for me. I was always hungry in those days and used to dream of cakes and buns, but we were very happy together. Sometimes I would do an errand for some one and get a penny, and then I proudly brought it to her and we would have buns, or even a herring, for supper.
But she was uneasy when I was away, and wanted me to sit by her and read aloud while she worked, so I did not often leave her.
At this time she was passionately eager to have me study. She had taught me to read before, and now while she sewed she talked to me about history and other countries and peoples, and showed me how to draw maps of the world, and we played little spelling games. She had me read the Bible aloud to her for hours at a time. It was the only book we had. But most of all she taught me acting. I had a great gift for mimicry, and she had me mimic every one I saw in the streets. I loved it and used to make up little plays and act them for her.
Remembering the first time I had danced on the stage, and the money I made, I wanted to go back to the music-halls, but she roused almost into a fury at the idea. All her most painful memories were of the music-hall life, and she passionately made me promise never to act in one. I could not have done it in any case, because at this time there was a law forbidding children under fourteen to work on the stage. I was only eleven.
My mother grew thinner and more tired. She complained sometimes of a pain in her head, and her beautiful hair, like long, fine silk, had threads in it that shone like silver. I loved to watch them when she brushed it at night. But she was always gay and sweet with me, and I adored her. I had no life at all separate from her; all my dreams and hopes were of making her happy and buying her beautiful things, and taking her to a place in the country where she could rest and do nothing but play with me.
Then one day while I was
coming from the factory with the money clutched in my hand I passed a
barroom. I had never been in one, or cared to, but something seemed
to attract me to this one. I stood before the swinging doors,
thinking with a fluttering heart of going in, and wanting to, and not
wanting to, both at once. Finally I timidly pushed the doors apart
and looked in. There, at a little table, drinking with some men, I
saw my father.