A SOCIALIST

It was a bright, perfectly clear, moonlight night, one of those nights
in which there seems to be no atmosphere, in which the smallest
architectural details of every building show with even a greater
distinctness than in mid-sunshine. The great full moon and the vast
unfathomable expanse overhead seemed to have cast a spell of their own
peace over even London’s unpeaceful heart. The streets were empty,
for the night had worn itself away to the only hour at which they are
really deserted.

The clocks had just expressed their different views on the subject of
two A.M. The night was so clear that Alice Hatfield, though her eyes
were smarting and aching, thought she could see the hands on the big
clock of St Paul’s as she came on to Blackfriars’ Bridge. She walked
slowly, and when she reached the second arch she stopped and leaned
her elbows on the parapet. How still the night was! The tide was high,
and had just started on its journey seawards; it seemed to flow in
one unbroken sheet save for the stir and fret that it made round the
supports of the bridge. The lights along the Embankment, with their
perfect reflections, might have seemed almost Venetian to anyone
inclined to take a more rose-coloured view of things than she. To her
they only brought a maddening remembrance of the time when she–not
alone then–had first seen them from the windows of the Arundel Hotel.
The noise of the water against the bridge was very like the sound of
the waters rushing round the stones in the Derbyshire streams–only
those waters had always made a song that was to be enjoyed, not
understood–and this dark tide, as it broke against the stone,
seemed to be whispering constantly some message to her, which she as
constantly, but vainly, tried to catch.

It made her shiver. She turned and leaned back against the parapet. The
other side of the bridge was in the ruthless hands of the paviors, who
had literally left no stone unturned in order to produce that utter
chaos in which the heart of the contractor delighteth. The large slabs
of paving-stones, standing and lying about in all sorts of positions,
made the place look–ugh!–like a graveyard, and the displaced earth
and heaps of sand looked like half-made graves, in which the spade and
pick of the sexton had ceased to clink. There was a bright red spot of
fire about a hundred yards from her–someone was comfortable beside it,
she supposed–and somehow she hated that patch of red light more than
anything else in the whole picture.

Alice had found a fresh lodging easily enough, and this time she had
adopted the badge of marital servitude, and had taken another name.
The new room struck her as cheerless and unwelcoming, and her poor
possessions looked less friendly than they had done in the old attic at
Spray’s Buildings. Her bundle of work had been brought with the rest,
but she seemed to have no heart to begin it, nor yet to get herself
food, and she sat on there, hour after hour, till the sense of complete
isolation grew too much for her. At Spray’s Buildings she had had no
friends, and had valued her few acquaintances but slightly, and she did
not realise the amount of comfort that could be got out of a chance
meeting with Miss Fludger on the stairs until such meetings were things
of the past.

‘I will go out,’ she had said, rising at last with a feeling that
even in strange and unregarding faces there would be companionship of
a kind. So she had left her room and had wandered about, passing more
than one spot hung thickly round with memories of her short day of
sunshine. Then when night fell she felt that she _could not_ go back to
that new inhospitable room of hers.

She pictured it dark, cheerless, and cold, shuddered as she thought of
the broad streak of moonlight which would come through the uncurtained
window, and lie on that bare floor. How dark the corners of the room
would be. So she wandered on, and the people grew scarcer and scarcer,
and she grew fainter and fainter. She would have been glad of food now,
but all the shops were shut, and when she came to Blackfriars’ Bridge
she was too tired to go any further. And as she stood and looked at the
river gleaming in the moonlight, the question came into her mind.

‘Need she go further? Was not this the fitting end for such as she?’

A spasm of madness caught her. What an easy way out of all her
troubles; what an obvious solution of all her difficulties!

She walked straight before her, stooping to pass under the protecting
pole in the middle of the road, falling once over a block of stone and
cutting her hands, she thought. She climbed the tomb-like stones, and
in a moment was on her hands and knees partly on the parapet and partly
on some stones that leaned against it. She looked over without changing
her attitude for quite a minute. It made her giddy to look down. She
could not stand up, as she had pictured herself doing when that madness
first came upon her.

She could drop over, though, and she would. Courage! In another minute
it would all be over.

She had made a movement to turn her feet towards the water, when her
shoulders were caught by two hands, and she was lifted bodily back on
to the bridge.

‘You little fool!’ said the owner of the hands, which gave her a little
shake before they loosened their hold of her. ‘What do you want to go
drinking of that poison for? It ain’t fit to drown a cat in, let alone
a human woman female.’

Alice’s face was in her hands. She had sunk down against the stones on
which she had climbed before. She shivered.

‘Oh, I am so cold!’ she said, almost in a whisper, without taking her
hands away. The madness had died out of her completely.

‘You’d have been colder if it hadn’t been for me; and oh, the taste in
your mouth would have been something dreadful. Come and have a drop of
my missus’s coffee, by my fire; it’s a deal sweeter than wot you was
after. The Government ought to take it up,’ he said, sententiously, but
whether he meant the river, the coffee, or the fire, he did not explain.

He helped her to rise, took her by the elbow in a sort of
amateur-constable way, and led her over and round the snares and
pitfalls which lay between them and that red eye which had seemed to
watch them.

It was a sort of openwork iron pot, full of hot coals, and a species
of shelter was contrived round it by means of a judicious arrangement
of paving stones and tarpaulin. When he had made her sit down on an
inverted basket placed in the warmest corner by the fire, she glanced
at him for the first time. He was a big, burly, black-bearded man; he
had a kindly expression, and merry eyes, with a sort of cast in one of
them which made it difficult to be sure which way he was looking.

‘Still cold?’ he asked, with one eye on her and the other apparently on
the pole star. ‘Have this coat; I’m warm enough. I had to hurry up so
to catch you, young woman.’

He threw a rough pea-jacket round her as she said, looking down,–

‘How did you catch me? Where did you come from?’

‘Where did I come from? Why, from here. Directly I saw you cross the
road I knew what was up. I never would let anyone go into that ditch if
I could help it. It ought to belong to the Commissioners of Sewers,’ he
ended, having apparently changed his mind concerning the administrative
functions of ‘Government.’

‘The question is,’ he went on, ‘where did you come from, and what did
you come for?’

‘I’ve come from Gray’s Inn Road,’ she said.

‘How lucky, now. I live that way. I shall be able to see you home in an
hour or two, when my mate comes to take his turn. You’ll just have time
to get warm. Here, drink this coffee. Had any tea?’

She shook her head.

‘Any dinner?’

‘No.’

‘Nor any breakfast neither, I’ll back. I suppose you’re hard up; that’s
enough to make anyone go anywhere but into that,’ with a backward jerk
of his thumb towards what seemed to be his pet aversion. He was a man
whose occupation caused him to pass a good deal of his time on bridges,
and he knew the river and the smells thereof.

‘No,’ said Alice, ‘I’m not very hard up, and I’m in work, too; but I
moved into a new place to-day, and I felt too lonely to bother about
dinner or anything, and I expect going without made me a bit wild and
soft like.’

‘Have some of this,’ was his answer, and soon Alice began to feel a
returning sense of physical comfort steal through her, as she sat
resting by the cheering fire, drinking the hot coffee from a tin mug,
with a slice of bread and cheese on her knee, while her companion
kept up a constant ripple of somewhat inconsequent talk, which was
his notion of ‘making conversation’ for his guest. She took her part
in the dialogue with an ease which surprised herself. It seems very
strange that people should not be more affected than they generally
are by having been face to face with death. The fact is, that it is so
impossible to realise subjectively what death is, that people feel less
awestruck at having been so near it than they do at having been within
an ace of having their leg broken, or of being marked with small-pox.
Perhaps this is why so many men sleep sound sleeps and eat hearty
breakfasts just before execution.

It was a long time since anyone had thought it worth while to talk so
much to Alice, and she felt so interested, and withal so comfortable,
that it never occurred to her that this interlude of warmth and
companionship must soon be over, and that then she would have to
face the desolate streets and that cheerless room. Of seeking again
the chill refuge from which her new acquaintance had saved her she
certainly never thought. That madness was over.

Her black-bearded preserver was in the midst of an economic
dissertation of a somewhat confused character on the reasons of hard
times and bad wages, when a black shadow falling on a moonlit slab of
stone close by them made them both look up.

‘Why, if it isn’t Mr Peter Hitch,’ said the pavior. ‘So you’re out
again, sir? Chilly night, ain’t it? Come and have a warm. This young
woman’s had a warm, and she feels better for it, I’ll be bound.’

The new-comer sat down on some boards near the fire with a graceful
salutation towards Alice.

‘It _is_ cold,’ he said, with a distinctly foreign accent. ‘You are the
lucky one, Mr Toomey, with your warm fire.’

Alice glanced furtively at the stranger. He was tall, and was not
dressed as she would have expected Mr Toomey’s friends to be. He wore
a grey military cloak with a high collar, and a large soft felt hat.
The brim was turned up in a rather unusual way in front, and leaving
exposed as it did a broad, well-shaped forehead and piercing grey eyes,
gave to the whole face a bold and daring look. He did not seem to look
at Alice at all, and yet he had hardly been seated a minute before he
turned to her and said,–




‘Forgive me, but I feel as if you were a sort of acquaintance already.
I sat just behind you at a lecture in Soho last night. I am not
mistaken–you were there, weren’t you?’

The introduction of a third person to the enjoyment of the fire and
shelter had brought back to Alice the full consciousness of her
position, but the new-comer spoke to her so deferentially, and treated
her so exactly as if they had met in quite an ordinary way, and there
were nothing unusual in the situation, that she felt herself grow a
little more at ease again as she answered, ‘Yes; I was there.’

‘Why, I’m blest if I wasn’t there, too,’ broke in Toomey, ‘and a rare
good ‘un he was as spoke. Countryman o’ yours too, eh, Mr Peter Hitch?
By the way,’ he added, as the other nodded assent, ‘I was wanting to
have a word or two with you, if miss here will excuse us. It’s on the
subject as you knows on,’ he explained, seeing the other’s look of
surprise, and embellishing his speech by sundry winks, to which his
visual peculiarities imparted an unusually enigmatical character.

The two men stepped a few paces away, and then Toomey said,–

‘I say, mister, I’m in rather a tight place, and perhaps you can tell
me a way out of it. That there young woman’ (here he lowered his voice)
‘would have been down somewhere off Greenwich by this time if it hadn’t
been for me–the tide was just on the turn. I stopped her going over,
and now I feel responsible, like. I did think of taking her home to the
missus, but my Mary Jane, though she have the kindest heart, has a
sharp tongue, and I don’t know quite how she might take it, nor what
she might say in the first surprise, like, before she could be got to
listen to reason, and that pore young thing’s in trouble enough, I
know, without being jawed at, and I can’t abide jaw myself neither. And
yet I don’t like to lose sight of her just yet, and what am I to do?’

‘I will charge myself with her,’ said the other, without the slightest
hesitation. ‘You can trust her to me, friend Toomey, can you not?’

‘I’d trust you with anything, sir,’ said Toomey.

The other went straight back to the fire where Alice sat, already deep
again in her own bitter thoughts.

‘I am going home now, and as I go I will see you to your house. Come.’

She rose at once, and held out her hand to Mr Toomey.

‘Thank you so much,’ she said, ‘for all your goodness. Good-bye.’

‘Good-bye,’ said Toomey, shaking her hand vigorously. ‘This gentleman
will take good care of you.’

‘Take my arm,’ said her escort, when they got on to the pavement. ‘As
you go to the Agora, I suppose we are interested in the same subjects,
and perhaps know some of the same people. Do many of your friends go
there?’

‘I don’t know anyone who goes there. I’ve never been there before
myself.’

‘Did you go by chance?’

‘No.’ She hesitated a moment. ‘I wanted to hear the lecture.’

‘Then we do take an interest in the same subjects. Which way do you
go?’ he asked, as they reached Ludgate Circus.

‘Straight on; I am living near Gray’s Inn Road.’

‘Are you living with friends?’

‘No, I am living alone.’

‘Are your parents living?’

‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Oh, yes.’

From anyone else she could and would have resented such questioning,
but there was something about this man that compelled her to answer him.

‘Were they unkind to you?’

‘No, no!’ cried Alice. ‘They have always been the best of the best to
me.’

‘Kind parents living,’ he said musingly, ‘and you are not with them.
Our good friend yonder told me how he met you. Tell me–what does it
all mean? It will be to your good to tell me.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Everything.’ He laid his hand on the hand that was on his arm. ‘I know
you will tell me.’

And very much to her own bewilderment, she found herself telling him,
not all, but enough for him to be able easily enough to guess all. She
laid most stress upon the sense of desolation which had come over her
in her new lodgings, and on the resistless impulse that had driven her
out into the streets. When once she had begun to speak, she found a
quite unexpected relief in the telling of this story which had never
passed her lips before.

‘It is the loneliness I mind now,’ she ended; ‘not the work, though
that is hard enough.’

‘The greater part of life is hard,’ said her companion, ‘and the best
thing in it for some of us is to be able to make the lives of others a
little less hard. I think it possible I may be able to make your life
somewhat easier for you. At any rate I think I could manage to get you
work which would be better paid for than your tailors’ sewing.’

‘Thank you,’ was all Alice said. ‘You are very kind.’

‘I shall do that for you with much pleasure, but in return you must do
something for me. I cannot part from you until you have promised me
never again to attempt what you were prevented in to-night.’

‘I cannot promise never to do it. All I can say is, I do not mean to
now.’

‘At any rate, promise that you will do nothing till you have seen me
again.’

‘Yes, I will promise that. I wonder whether the house door will be
unlocked. We are close there now. If it is not, I must walk about till
morning.’

‘I must walk with you in that case, so we will see before I leave you
whether it is or not.’

She looked at him, and for the first time realised that her companion
was not of her own class.

‘No; don’t come further than here. I only came here to-day, you know,
and I must not be seen walking with a–a–_gentleman_.’

‘Am I a gentleman? I am afraid all your countrymen would not give me
that title; men call me a Socialist. Ho-la–you’ve heard that name
before? Does it frighten you?’

‘No, I am not frightened.’

‘I will wait here,’ he said, ’till I see if your house receives you.
If not, come back to me, and we will walk together till it can. I will
come and see you to-morrow–or rather this–evening, and I hope to
bring good news. Do not be down-hearted; things will look brighter this
time to-morrow.’

‘Oh, I must not forget to ask your name. Did Mr Toomey call you right?’

‘Ah, no,’ he said, smiling; ‘our good Toomey is not a linguist. My name
is Petrovitch. What is yours? I must know that, because of asking for
you when I come. I will come in the evening.’

‘My name is–Mrs–Mrs Litvinoff. Good-bye.’

‘Good-bye,’ he said, with a start and quite a new expression on his
face. ‘I will come at _noon_.’