There was a painful cheerfulness about Porline, an inexcusable skittishness that might have hurt finer sensibilities than those common in the bag factory. She made an affectation of being a devil of a fellow, which, taken in conjunction with her manifest disabilities, was quite pitiful, but the hands did not see it in that light.
Her name, Pauline Streeton, would have been a jarring note in the factory if it had been used there, but to Spats’ Beatties she was always Porline or The Man-Eater, and Porline took no exception to the nickname; on the contrary, she accepted it as a compliment to her fatal powers of fascination, and even strained a point to live up to it. Although she had been in the factory some years, nothing was known of Porline’s home life, but because she had little slang, and spoke fairly correct English—a thing generally condemned by the Beauties as a beastly affectation—it was whispered to all new-corners that the Man-Eater’s family had been somebodies. One romancer in a burst of recklessness asserted positively that Porline’s father was an Inspector of Police, but the factory held that there was a medium in all things, and the idea perished of inanition.
Porline affected a youthful style in frocks, and her hats had always a misplaced jauntiness; her feathers were higher than any other girl’s, and particularly vivid, and even at work, when the Beauties discarded sleeves and collars, and all adornment, she loved to flutter bits of cardinal ribbon, and generally wore a wilted artificial rose of extreme redness in her sparse hair.
George H. Mills, alias Jud, alias Feathers, the packer, was supposed to cherish a hopeless passion for Porline. It was part of the poor comedy. Feathers maintained the pose without loss of interest for some years, and Porline’s archness towards the young man, according to the opinion of the judicial Benno, was “the sort iv thing t’ make er dorg ’owl.” She hung upon him, and turned saucy eyes up into his face, and giggled heartlessly, remembering her part as the slayer. Feathers had a formula.
“Look at ’er,” he would say appealingly to anybody or nobody, “ain’t she ther sort what’s fillin’ ther river” It’s them eyes what does it. S’elp me Jimmy Jee she’s rooned my life! Straight—she’s draggin’ me down.”
Then Porline would laugh coquettishly, and skip away to her work. But she was lavish of her attentions, and wasted no little time at Benno’s desk, trying to bewitch him too.
“What I wonder when I see you is that there ain’t more unhappy homes,” said Benno. “Porline, I’d ’a’ bin er better man iv I’d never set eyes on yeh.”
Billy the Boy, on the next flat, murmured with deep feeling: “Oh you little devil!” as Porline went gaily downstairs. The printers cried: “Chase me, Charley!” or affected a great concern about mythical appointments, and the clerks in the warehouse, if the eagle eye of Spats was not upon them, sighed deeply as she pranced in or out, and addressed poetical raptures to the rafters Whereat Porline smiled roguishly upon all, and accented her girlishness of manner. She did everything with a girly air that became grim burlesque in comparison with her years and infirmities. Porline even tried her kittenish graces on the foreman, and had once looked bewitchingly at the fat proprietor himself. Spats backed before the glance like a man menaced by a python, pulled the lift rope with a perk, and shot into the depth, whence he almost immediately sent an order demanding Porline’s instant dismissal. She was saved by Ellis, who assured the “gov’ner” of her harmlessness, and the more cogent fact that she was one of the most profitable hands in the factory.
Tim Moore came to the flat one morning in the capacity of assistant packer. He was a shy young exile of Erin, new to Australia, and the Beauties overwhelmed him. He worked with his back to them in a state of nervous apprehension, and it was noticed that he had not lifted his eyes to the ribald hussies at the pasting boards in a whole week. Porline showed no respect for Tim’s native reserve, however, but beset him with artful wheedling, like the sly minx she affected to be, and poor Tim cowered before her attacks. The woman’s audacity, her boniness, her desiccated charms, and her ridiculous pretensions in the matter of hair, threw him into a sort of helpless amazement.
Feathers was the first to offer a kindly word of warning.
“Yer a young man,” he said, “n’ yeh ain’t got no mother to advise yeh. Take my tip—pluck her out iv yer ’eart.” Tim cast a look of alarm towards Porline’s board, and the packer dropped his voice to an impressive whisper. “We call her ther Man-Eater,” he said. “She’ll bring yeh sorrer ’n’ disgrace. Buck up—tear her himage from yer breast.”
An hour or two later Benno, primed by the packer, drifted from the room, and loitered at Tim’s bench.
“So,” he said gloomily, “you’re to be her new victim. That’s like her, castin’ her devilish wiles over ther young an’ ther fair. We’ve all yielded to her fatal fascination; her path is strooed with ruined lives. Well, well, iv ther worst comes t’ ther worst, don’t say I never done me juty by yeh.”
Tim’s uneasiness developed into a sort of superstitious awe. He watched Porline’s comings and goings out of the corner of his eyes, with a pathetic trepidation. In the afternoon, Goudy the town traveller, when upstairs picking out an order, led Moore behind a stack of bales. His manner was full of mystery.
“She’s a siren,” he said. Moore did not know what a siren was, but he was impressed. “I’ve got sons of my own, and think it only right to speak ere it is too late. Let her get a hold upon you, and—” Goudy left the rest to Tim’s imagination, but his gesture was eloquent of desolation and despair.
Two hours later Tim stole over to Feathers. “D’ye mind tellin’ me what’s a sireen, at all” he said.
“It’s one iv them things that sings and sucks yer blood,” answered the packer, with the readiness of an expert.
“An’ I t’ought ’twas nothin’ more’n a bit iv a whistle.” Tim allowed his eyes to turn cautiously in Porline’s direction. “Goudy sez she’s wan iv them sireens.”
Feathers nodded gloomily. “She’s bin the blight iv me young life,” he said.
The joke ended there, for when Tim was missed from the flat half an hour later, it was found that he had taken his hat and coat, and stolen off. He did not even return for his pay, and Goudy heard that he shipped West by a boat that left on the following day. The flight was a triumph for Porline. “He told me another week iv it, ’n’ he’d ’a’ bin yours body ’n’ soul,” said the veracious Feathers. Benno confided to her that he had seen Tim passionately kissing an artificial rose she had tossed to him. Porline’s middle-aged diablerie increased, and this success prompted her crowning audacity. She came to the factory the on following Saturday, dressed in her gayest, and leading by the hand a child of about three years of age, a little girl, pretty and fresh as a flower, and caparisoned like the daughter of a duchess. Spats’ Beauties were very partial to kiddies; they deserted their paste boards in a body, and swarmed about the child, gushing rapturously, praising its beauty with longing ecstasies, finding wonders in the tiniest details of its dress, the blueness of its eyes, and the gold of its hair. Porline lifted the little girl to the bench, that all might see, and her own weird sapless ugliness, was in hurtful contrast with the sweetness of the child, but her little, spotty eyes shone with joy.
“Whose kiddy is it” asked Martha, the fat girl.
Porline looked round upon them all. “Whose should she be” she said. “Mine, of course. She’s mine!”
The Beauties, if not particularly keen on morals, were on the side of conventions in their initial impulses. They drew off a step or two.
“But who’s its mother, I mean” said Martha.
“I’m its mother,” answered Porline defiantly. “Pooh!”—she snapped her fingers like the bad female in the drama—”what do I care who knows” Why shouldn’t I acknowledge my child” I don’t give that for your respectables.”
Feathers pursed his mouth and whistled a long tremolo. “Well, iv she ain’t a fair take-down!” gasped Benno. The Beauties did not seem to know what to do in the circumstances, so they laughed, and drifted back to their boards, where they made calculations and compared dates. Circumstantial evidence supported the claim of Porline; amazement possessed the factory. Nobody would have believed it possible—everybody said so.
For a time there was some little inclination to hold off from Porline’s kiddy, but the child’s winsomeness dissipated all pruderies, and the hands would have killed it with kindness had not Porline shown herself as alert and scrupulous as a mothering hen; but the pride she felt in her child lit her up like an inward light, and she paraded the proof of her paganism with a flaunting audacity. The news went through the establishment in a matter of minutes. The printers came up in a procession to see Porline’s “illegim”; the clerks, one after another, found excuse for a visit to the top flat. The fat, bald ledger-keeper, bowed his head upon a stack of nine-pound browns, and sobs shook his frame. The fat ledger-keeper was an instinctive comedian. He had given it out far and wide that Porline was his secret sorrow. All the men reproached Porline, mutely, or with the speech of desolated hearts. Ellis, the dusty foreman, was stunned; hours later he stopped to whisper to Feathers, with the air of a man who’s missed the point of a story.
“Does she mean the young un’s really hers” he said.
“Sure pop,” answered the packer. “Hers fer keeps.”
The foreman clicked his tongue for half a minute, looking like a mazed hen. “I been in the thick of ’em here fer more’n twenty-five year,” he said, “an’ my opinion is girls is mad more ’r less most times by reason of the nature of ’em, but I’d never ’a’ suspected anythin’ o’ the like o’ that of ’er.”
“I’d never ’a’ suspected it iv any man,” said Feathers.
Having recovered from his great wonder, the packer resumed the thread of his long joke.
“Yeh might ’a’ broke it to er bloke gently, Porline,” he murmured dolefully. “Iv yeh, can’t return ther haffections iv one what worships ther very old slippers yeh work in, there’s no call t’ go laceratin’ his ‘eart. Girl, girl, ain’t yeh got no ’uman instincts”
“Oh, fritters!” cried Porline vivaciously.
“Can’t yeh be true t’ one what loves yeh fer yerself alone”
“To a dozen,” said Porline.
Feathers wiped away the tears with which he had sprinkled hisface in preparation for the scene. “Leave me t’ me grief,” he “Let me sorrer make me sacred.”
Porline went off jauntily in her character of the heartless foreign female out of the third act, and Feathers stole down for his daily beer like a man driven to it.
After that Porline often brought little Kitty to the factory. The Beauties made a toy of the pretty child, and presently the astonishment passed, and Porline’s motherhood was accepted without remark. The woman was an Ishmaelite, she had no relatives to consider, and keeping no society, was bound to no social observances. How she behaved within the law was own affair; the factory at least pressed no demands.
One week, about two months after the first appearance of the child at Spats’, Porline absented herself from work three days running. She returned on the Friday, coming in late, and the factory gasped at the sight of her. She was changed as if by a visitation, all her jauntiness was gone, she was hopelessly old and withered, the leathery tan had gone from her cheeks, and the folded skin was yellow and blotched, her red-lidded eyes were rimmed with purple—she looked like death in a feathered hat.
She passed through the girls, without a word, deaf to their inquiries. The packer’s joke died on his lips. At her board she worked fiercely, wrapping herself up in the task, and the Beauties looked at her and at each other, and whispered conjectures. Fat Martha worked at the same table, but it was not till an hour and a half had passed that she dared put the question that had been on her lips all along.
“Is—is it somethin’ wrong with Kitty, Porline” she said.
Porline turned on her savagely, raising her brush to strike. “Shut up, you fool!” she cried shrilly. Her voice sank almost to a whisper. “Can’t—can’t you see I’m dying” Her head fell amongst the paper before her, and then she slid to the floor, and lay grovelling, and the sobs that convulsed her beat her face upon the boards until it bled.
The girls rushed about her. Some tried to lift her from the floor, but she boat them off, and lay there writhing in a passion of grief.
“It’s Kitty,” she said presently. “My Kitty, my baby, my beautiful Kitty. They have taken her from me.”
“Who, dear” asked the fat girl, sobbing in sympathy.
“Her mother. I took her when she was a tiny mite, and her own mother was afraid to have her, and she said I could keep her always, and I paid to have her nursed, and I dressed her in all the prettiest things I could buy, and I loved her—I loved her, and she is gone. They have taken her—my baby! my baby!”
Porline struck her bare hands upon the floor, and lying upon her face in the dust, abandoned herself to a grief that was tragic—profound as the human heart—and the Beauties, who caught up emotions as the trees take the winds, cried over her in a woeful chorus.
Feathers broke away, and staring at Benno, and pushing his hands before him, he said brokenly: “I’m beat! I’m beat! Fer God’s sake come ’n’ ’ave er drink I’m fair beat!”