Jinny wore a bit of stale red ribbon awkwardly knotted in the middle of her swan-like neck, but she was not a girl who put forth any pretensions to style. Her boots were heelless, and their symmetry had been destroyed by bigger feet. Her stockings had many holes. The hat she wore had been a ‘gem’ in its day and generation, but most of the rim was nibbled off by the rats and cockroaches abounding on the factory flat, and its only ornaments were a bootlace and a large brass button. Miss Bitt might have picked up a better hat any day anywhere, but she seemed cheerfully unconscious of this one’s imperfections.
“Thripny looks ez if she was painted on elastic, ’n’ then stretched,” said the packer. The description was apt.
Coffee Morgan was Miss Bitt’s cobber. She was a girl of about the same age, shorter, and fleshy in an unhealthy way. She owed her nick-name to her prevailing tone. Her hair might have been bright red under more favourable conditions, but she oiled it liberally, and it collected the factory dust and assumed the tint of ground coffee. Her complexion was like coffee milked, and her disposition was morose.
Miss Morgan dressed rather better than Miss Bitt, but the Beauties soon discovered that her new dresses were always made of second-hand material, and her latest hats were at least a generation too old for the girl, and had evidently come down to her after seeing long service. From the fact that all her dresses were coffee-coloured, the Beauties rashly concluded that her grandmother was a “Beardie,” a brown sect closely allied to Quakers.
Nearly all the Beauties paired off. Their mateships were close, affectionate, and to some extent secretive. Once the alliance was formed, and while it lasted, the two friends seemed to cherish identical tastes, appetites, and desires. The characteristic is not peculiar to factory hands; it is noticeable in a young ladies’ seminary. This intimacy of Thripny and Coffee Morgan was more quaint than another, because of Thripny’s length and leanness, and Miss Morgan’s shortness and shapelessness, and for the reason that Thripny had the ungainly sprightliness of a half-grown Newfoundland pup, while her cobber was slow, weighty, and depressed in manner. Miss Bitt was shrill and voluble; Miss Morgan talked little, and then in a low, mumbling tone, and with an aggrieved air, as if resenting the task.
The two were typical of the younger hands from the slum suburbs. They served in the lower branches of the game, and were still novices. With experience and increase of income would come something like a sense of decorum, and a passion for fine raiment and brass bangles; but as yet Thripny was an undisciplined rapscallion of a girl, street-bred, unconscious, and with no more restraint than the unowned, shambling, jubilant mongrel you may see brazenly claiming acquaintance with elegant young ladies in public places.
Turned loose from Spats’s, Thripny tore down Egg Lane, her bony knees tossing up her sparse petticoats, her left hand hitching some detached or displaced portion of apparel, her right clutching her battered sugee crib basket, her scrap of a hat dangling from the bootlace, one end of which she always chewed as a precaution against high winds or casual mishaps. Now and again she might look back in her wild career and shout: “Come ’long, Mordie, here’s er jinker!” And Miss Morgan, a bad second, would paddle behind, displaying no manner of interest in anything.
The grease-grimed lads at the egg, ham, and butter market looked out for Thripny, and whooped at her as she passed. The grimier young men in the potato depot assailed her with joyful badinage. Miss Bitt’s troubles—she was bent on catching the first jinker or lorry for home at the Port and had time only for a breathless “Ga-an, get work!” which was no more than the civilities demanded.
If it happened to be a timber jinker Thripny dashed at the protruding beam and scrambled astride, excited and voluble, shouting encouragement to Miss Morgan as the stout girl made clumsy efforts to follow suit. At the rope works they were joined by four or five congenial spirits of their own age, sex and station, and so, triumphantly, with legs a-swing, squealing jubilant impudence at all sorts and conditions of men, the Pagans rode home.
The way to work in the morning was enlivened by frequent encounters with jocose young milkmen, raucous sand carters, and whimsical butcher’s assistants. Strange though it may seem, it is nevertheless true that no driver of a milk-cart could pass Jinny and Maud without shouting at them some terse sentiment, the humour of which lay in its gratuitous insolence. Thripny usually responded for both with a shrill yell: “A-a-a-h, ’ave it stitched!” or, “Hi, where yer goin’ wi’ the bones?”
The uninitiated might have thought the greeting and the response bitter, even vindictive. They were nothing of the kind. Often they were the preliminaries to an amorous friendship, and led to votive plates of hot peas and sociable rides in the swing-boats at the gay market on Saturdays.
Coffee Morgan and Thripny worked close together at the same board, and when not working they were linked together in an awkward embrace. They were the closest cobbers the factory had known, and yet Maud was never anything but sullen and depressed, whereas the factory often revolted against Jinny’s joyful melodies because of their ‘damnable iteration.’ It needed Maud’s warning growl: “Chuck it, Thripny!” a dozen times a day to repress her musical exuberance.
Then, one morning, Miss Bitt came in alone. “Gor bli!” said the packer, in amazement, “bin a funeral in the family, er what?”
“Speak t’cher equals!” said Thripny, with none of her usual vivacity.
Coffee Morgan came later, looking more morose than ever.
“Split partners, hev yeh, Corfee?” said the packer. “S’pose the dark man’s come between yer?”
“Give yeh swipe cross the jore!” mumbled Miss Morgan.
At their board the pair worked in silence, as far apart as possible. Thripny had no inclination to sing; she was ill at ease. Maud’s face was set sourly over her work, and she never raised her eyes. The Beauties were inquiring and derisive, and Jinny, who had hitherto done all the barracking for herself and Maud, and had always been effective in retort, was silent now. So matters remained till the afternoon, when Feathers intervened.
“It’s like this,” said the packer addressing the factory, “Mord saw ’im first, ’n’ Thripny’s bin ’n’ pinched him. No wonder Morgan’s givin’ ’er brusher—he’s the pride iv the habbattoirs, ain’t he, Mordie?”
Coffee Morgan was slapping paste all over her work, and her small, ‘greenery-yallery’ eyes were turned up vindictively.
“Don’t have him on yer thinker, little sister,” continued Mills, with much sympathy, “he ain’t th’ on’y sardine in the tin. Put on yer spring millin’ry, ’n’ get out after a squatter, why don’t yeh?”
At this point Coffee Morgan’s feelings became too many for her. She uttered a piggish scream of fury, and darted at Thripny. Clutching her bunch of short hair with one hand Maud smote her cobber of yesterday about the face and head with her paste brush, and then, dropping the brush, got at her with the Beauties’ favourite weapons, and scratched like a burrowing terrier.
Borne back against the board, slightly off her perpendicular, Thripny was quite helpless against the fury of her small enemy. She seemed overcome with a great amazement, and stared with wide-eyed, stupid surprise, while Miss Morgan scratched, and tore, and punched. Jinny Bitt’s astonishment was so comical that, tragic as the incident was, the unfeeling Beauties laughed aloud.
The packer went to the rescue, and struggled with Coffee Morgan, while the lean foreman, in his excitement, endeavoured to walk through two pasting boards, and fell three times in ten yards, hastening to quell the riot.
Jinny and Maud were put to work at separate boards. The former did not recover from her surprise for twenty minutes, and then she started to cry, and wept long and bitterly, and her tears ran down the furrows Miss Morgan’s nails had made.
During the following three days Jinny continued silent, and Maud vindictive. There was something of triumph in Jinny’s air, however, that excited Maud beyond bearing. Five times she rushed Jinny with the intention of inflicting liberal bodily harm, but Maud was nowhere in a race with Thripny.
The factory was enjoying itself, but the lean foreman was thrown into pathetic distress of mind. Spats’s was short-handed. If Fuzzy Ellis sacked a girl the authorities below would bound on him, and break his heart with duplicated abuse; and, on the other hand, if knowledge of the disturbance above came to the powers below, they would unite to abase and abuse him. That was what he was there for. Several stout pasters were posted between the foes to intercept and overcome Coffee Morgan when wrought too far by silent contemplation of her wrongs.
On Monday morning there was a new development. Maud came upstairs smiling, actually smiling. The Beauties squealed, Feathers cried “Wow!” and the town traveller collapsed on a stack of bags. Maud had not been known to smile even in the old happy days.
Jinny Bitt came up a few minutes later. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she was the picture of misery. The Beauties greeted her with a shout that broke her up, and, mopping her tears with the front of her jacket, she bellowed dismally on her way round to the changing-room.
There was a silence of seven minutes, and then a yell announced the outbreak of hostilities. The packer rushed, but was just too late. Thripny had struck Maud on the head with the hot, iron pasteladle, and Maud was thinking it over on the floor.
Now, the difficulty was to keep Jinny Bitt off Coffee Morgan. Jinny, as the turned worm, was much more ferocious than Maud had been. She had a tongue, too, and before noon the factory had Maud’s history, and the history of Maud’s mother, who, it appeared, once cleaned skins at a sausage mill, and of Maud’s father, who had to be treated in gaol for a morbid habit of gathering bags of hens from other people’s roosts at unseemly hours.
“’N’ she cracks she’s someone, ’n’ wears asylum ’and-me-downs!” squealed Jinny. “What price pauper ’ats frim the Ladies’ Beneverlent? Anyone kin put on dog when they cadges their rags frim a bloomin’ institoot.”
Coffee Morgan plied her nimble fingers, mumbling sourly all the time, only an occasional word or two like “scrougers,” “sooer rats,” and “low commonies” being articulate.
“I’ll fight yeh,” yelled Thripny defiantly. “I’ll take it outer yeh, any day. Come ’n’ ’it me now, ’n’ y’ll cop yer doss in the Morgue.”
Maud mumbled on, but kept out of range. Thripny’s demonstrations had cowed her.
“So yeh loored him back with yer pretty ways?” said the packer to Coffee Morgan at lunch-time.
“How yer talk!” growled Maud.
“The Pride’s true t’ yeh after all. ‘Come back,’ sez you, ‘’n’ all will be fergot ’n’ forgave, ’n’ no questions arst’; ’n’ now he’s yours for keeps.”
“The lad what’s keepin’ co. with me ain’t got no use fer scrags, if that’s what yer song’s erbout,” said Miss Morgan, almost pertly.
Maud paid dearly for her triumph. Jinny harried her in the factory with hard blows and bitter speech, and she hunted her all the way home in pursuit of her vengeance. The sight of Thripny tearing down Egg Lane after her enemy was a new joy for the lads at the butter mart and the potato depot, and the ‘hoys’ that resulted startled the town.
But another change came within a week. Jinny bobbed up on Friday, radiant.
“’Twiz all a mistook,” she said joyfully to Feathers. “He’s true t’ me. Coffee’s gone t’ the tip.”
“Bli’ me,” said the packer, “Ned’s a bit shifty, ain’t he?”
“Oh, we’re pets now, me ’n’ him. He’s arst me t’ Snadger Halligan’s darnce nex’ month.”
For four days Maud was terribly depressed, and Jinny crowed over her without pity. Once Miss Morgan threw a ladle of hot paste over Thripny, and once the pair fought a destructive two-minute round in the lift corner, but there were many changes before Snadger Halligan’s dance came off. Coffee Morgan came into her own again, and was deposed again. The fluctuations of feeling wrought by the mysterious unknown awakened a hilarious interest amongst the Beauties, and the first question every day was “Who’s got him this mornin’, Thripny?” Through it all Maud and Jinny remained bitterest enemies.
Thripny was in possession of the vagrant fancy of the much beloved, and Snadger Halligan’s dance was only two nights off. Which would have him for the ‘darnce’? The Beauties were much concerned, and betting was rife. Feathers was making a book on the event.
It was at lunch time. Feathers was sitting on his own bench, finishing his bundle, when an unknown came up the stairs. He was an under-sized, bullet-headed youth of about twenty-four, “ez plain ez a bottle iv pickled mussels,” said the packer to his friend, the town traveller, “’n’ look-in’ like the cockie talker from a tuppeny push. He was jist erbout class ernough t’ be a roustabout et a trainin’ stable fer dogs, ’n’ he ’ad the sting-proof cheek iv a Scotch auctioneer.”
The stranger stopped at the top of the stairs, put his hands to his mouth, and uttered the familiar call of the early morning milkman. That identified him. Then he turned to the packer, and said:
“Got a tom name iv Bitt workin’ ’ere erbart, ain’t yeh?”
“Supposin’?” said the packer, with his mouth full.
“Oh, she’s one of mine, tha’s all.”
“What-o, Billy-be-dam’d, are you it?” said the packer.
“Come orf, I’m no it,” answered the lad. “I’m somethink.”
“Yer dreamin’,” scoffed Feathers.
Thripny had heard the call. She approached diffidently.
“Ello, Danny,” she said. “Who’d’ ’a’ thort?”
“’Ere’s ther bit o’ stick,” said Danny to Feathers, and then he took Jinny aside, and for a few moments they talked in low voices, but with increasing feeling, and from over bales and round stacks the Beauties tittered and giggled at the prize boy who had kept Thripny Bitt and Coffee Morgan at deadly enmity for a month past. Maud stood at a little distance and glowered. It was presently seen that Danny and Miss Bitt were not agreeing too well.
“It’s orf,” said Danny; “I thort I’d tell yeh it’s O double F orf. This is the chuck fer yow, Sticks. I’m otherwise engaged fer the future. Yeh got smoogin’ up ter Gopher Eddie at the Blondin, Chewsdee, ’n’ that’s the last quarter. It’s me takin’ Little Bilk-street ter the darnce at Snadger’s-Bilk-street! Put it in yer book. No more fact’ry rats for Danno.” This was hurled at Maud, who was edging up. Dan threw out his hand, edge on, and wreathed lip and nose contemptuously. “No more rats, d’ y’ ’ear? Both o’ yeh, when yer meets me next, ’ll get brusher.”
Dan had turned at the top of the stairs to deliver the last salute, and a tornado of discarded lunch struck him, and blotted him out. The Beauties considered ‘fact’ry rats’ an offensive phrase.
“Bilk-street!” gasped Thripny.
“It’s Liz Bricky,” mumbled Miss Morgan.
Thripny flew to the balusters, and yelled abuse after Danny. Danny responded in kind as he passed down in a shower of scraps. Mills gave him ‘the order’ most offensively.
“Gar-r-ut, cat’s milk,” cried Miss Bitt. “Wouldn’t be seen with your sort at a bottle-oh’s garding party.”
“Scrouger! Scrouger!” mumbled Coffee Morgan, spitting after the retreating lad. “Who bit the pig?”
“Ever speak t’ me agin ’n’ y’ll cop out,” said Jinny. “I’ll put the John on ter yeh, that’s what.”
“Cat’s milk! Cat’s milk!” said Maud, sullenly. She was not audible five yards off, but wished to keep her end up.
Jinny had the last words, a triumphant yell covering Dan with odium as a stealer of door mats.
“Now yiv done yerselves in, both iv yeh,” said the packer. “Hensforth, Danno’s on’y a cherished mem’ry. Bilk-street’s got him clinched.”
“Our trubs!” answered Thripny, with terrible scorn. She wound a long, thin arm affectionately around Maud. Maud responded in kind.
“Don’ want nothink t’ do with low larrikins like Danno, we don’t,” mumbled Miss Morgan, and the two went down the room, linked lovingly. The entente cordiale was restored.