"I wish, mother, you was going to the hospital with me; it would save a lot o_xpense and you'd be better cared for."
"I'd like to be with you, dearie, but I can't leave my 'ome, all these youn_hildren about and no one to give an order. I must stop where I am. But I'v_een intending to tell you—it is time that you was thinking about yer letter."
"What letter, mother?"
"They don't take you without a letter from one of the subscribers. If I was you, now that the weather is fine and you have strength for the walk, I'd go up to Queen Charlotte's. It is up the Edgware Road way, I think.
What do you think about to-morrow?"
"That makes no matter, them horspitals is open."
"I'll go to-morrow when we have washed up."
On Friday Esther had had to give her father more money for drink. She gave hi_wo shillings, and that made a sovereign that he had had from her. On Saturda_ight he had been brought home helplessly drunk long after midnight, and nex_orning one of the girls had to fetch him a drop of something to pull hi_ogether. He had lain in bed until dinner-time, swearing he would brain anyon_ho made the least noise. Even the Sunday dinner, a nice beef-steak pudding, hardly tempted him, and he left the table saying that if he could find To_arter they would take a penny boat and go for a blow on the river. The whol_amily waited for his departure. But he lingered, talked inconsequently, an_everal times Mrs. Saunders and the children gave up hope. Esther sat withou_ word. He called her a sulky brute, and, snatching up his hat, left th_ouse. The moment he was gone the children began to chatter like birds. Esthe_ut on her hat and jacket.
"I'm going, mother."
"Well, take care of yourself. Good luck to you."
Esther smiled sadly. But the beautiful weather melted on her lips, her lung_welled with the warm air, and she noticed the sparrow that flew across th_ab rank, and saw the black dot pass down a mews and disappear under th_aves. It was a warm day in the middle of April, a mist of green had begun i_he branches of the elms of the Green Park; and in Park Lane, in all th_alconies and gardens, wherever nature could find roothold, a spray of gentl_reen met the eye. There was music, too, in the air, the sound of fifes an_rums, and all along the roadway as far as she could see the rapid movement o_ssembling crowds. A procession with banners was turning the corner of th_dgware Road, and the policeman had stopped the traffic to allow it to pass.
The principal banner blew out blue and gold in the wind, and the men that bor_he poles walked with strained backs under the weight; the music changed, opinions about the objects of the demonstration were exchanged, and it wa_ome time before Esther could gain the policeman's attention. At last th_onductor rang his bell, the omnibus started, and gathering courage she aske_he way. It seemed to her that every one was noticing her, and fearing to b_verheard she spoke so low that the policeman understood her to say Charlott_treet. At that moment an omnibus drew up close beside them.
"Charlotte Street, Charlotte Street," said the policeman, "there's Charlott_treet, Bloomsbury." Before Esther could answer he had turned to th_onductor. "You don't know any Charlotte Street about here, do you?"
"No, I don't. But can't yer see that it ain't no Charlotte Street she wants, but Queen Charlotte's Hospital? And ye'd better lose no time in directin_er."
A roar of coarse laughter greeted this pleasantry, and burning with shame sh_urried down the Edgware Road. But she had not gone far before she had to as_gain, and she scanned the passers-by seeking some respectable woman, or i_efault an innocent child.
She came at last to an ugly desert place. There was the hospital, square, forbidding; and opposite a tall, lean building with long grey columns. Esthe_ang, and the great door, some fifteen feet high, was opened by a small boy.
"I want to see the secretary."
"Will you come this way?"
She was shown into a waiting-room, and while waiting she looked at th_eligious prints on the walls. A lad of fifteen or sixteen came in. He said—
"You want to see the secretary?"
"But I'm afraid you can't see him; he's out."
"I have come a long way; is there no one else I can see?"
"Yes, you can see me—I'm his clerk. Have you come to be confined?"
Esther answered that she had.
"But," said the boy, "you are not in labour; we never take anyone in before."
"I do not expect to be confined for another month. I came to mak_rrangements."
"You've got a letter?"
"Then you must get a letter from one of the subscribers."
"But I do not know any."
"You can have a book of their names and addresses."
"But I know no one."
"You needn't know them. You can go and call. Take those that liv_earest—that's the way it is done."
"Then will you give me the book?"
"I'll go and get one."
The boy returned a moment after with a small book, for which he demanded _hilling. Since she had come to London her hand had never been out of he_ocket. She had her money with her; she did not dare leave it at home o_ccount of her father. The clerk looked out the addresses for her and sh_ried to remember them—two were in Cumberland Place, another was in Bryanston_quare. In Cumberland Place she was received by an elderly lady who said sh_id not wish to judge anyone, but it was her invariable practice to giv_etters only to married women. There was a delicate smell of perfume in th_oom; the lady stirred the fire and lay back in her armchair. Once or twic_sther tried to withdraw, but the lady, although unswervingly faithful to he_rinciples, seemed not indifferent to Esther's story, and asked her man_uestions.
"I don't see what interest all that can be to you, as you ain't going to giv_e a letter," Esther answered.
The next house she called at the lady was not at home, but she was expecte_ack presently, and the maid servant asked her to take a seat in the hall. Bu_hen Esther refused information about her troubles she was called a stuck-u_hing who deserved all she got, and was told there was no use her waiting. A_he next place she was received by a footman who insisted on her communicatin_er business to him. Then he said he would see if his master was in. He wasn'_n; he must have just gone out. The best time to find him was before half-pas_en in the morning.
"He'll be sure to do all he can for you—he always do for the good-lookin_nes. How did it all happen?"
"What business is that of yours? I don't ask your business."
"Well, you needn't turn that rusty."
At that moment the master entered. He asked Esther to come into his study. H_as a tall, youngish-looking man of three or four-and-thirty, with bright eye_nd hair, and there was in his voice and manner a kindness that impresse_sther. She wished, however, that she had seen his mother instead of him, fo_he was more than ever ashamed of her condition. He seemed genuinely sorry fo_er, and regretted that he had given all his tickets away. Then a though_truck him, and he wrote a letter to one of his friends, a banker in Lincoln'_nn Fields. This gentleman, he said, was a large subscriber to the hospital, and would certainly give her the letter she required. He hoped that Esthe_ould get through her trouble all right.
The visit brought a little comfort into the girl's heart; and thinking of hi_ind eyes she walked slowly, inquiring out her way until she got back to th_arble Arch, and stood looking down the long Bayswater Road. The lamps wer_eginning in the light, and the tall houses towered above the sunset. Esthe_atched the spectral city, and some sensation of the poetry of the hour mus_ave stolen into her heart, for she turned into the Park, choosing to wal_here. Upon its dim green grey the scattered crowds were like strips of blac_ape. Here and there by the railings the tape had been wound up in a blac_all, and the peg was some democratic orator, promising poor human natur_nconditional deliverance from evil. Further on were heard sounds from _armonium, and hymns were being sung, and in each doubting face there wa_omething of the perplexing, haunting look which the city wore.
A chill wind was blowing. Winter had returned with the night, but the instinc_f spring continued in the branches. The deep, sweet scent of the hyacint_loated along the railings, and the lovers that sat with their arms about eac_ther on every seat were of Esther's own class. She would have liked to hav_alled them round her and told them her miserable story, so that they migh_rofit by her experience.