On this particular Saturday morning Kitty Coudray had no misgivings. She was wearing the whole of her new summer’s goods for the first time, and went up the front stairs, so that she might have to walk the length of the flat to the dressing-room. Every woman in an astonishing frock is at heart a stage-manager. Kitty’s entrance was a great success, her march down the stage a triumph. She was radiant in blue and white muslin, and a saucy little black hat with white lace and feathers. The girls who had gone before sighed over their little faded glories, and meekly abandoned all pretensions for the time being.
“Oh my, what a turn you’ve give me!” cried the clerk, having fallen off his stool in blind wonder.
Benno’s amazement, if facetious, was flattering, and Kitty smiled on him very sweetly.
The packer barred her way. “Break it t’ me gently,” he said in an awed voice. “Have y’ killed yer rich old uncle ’r embezzled ther fain’ly di’monds?”
Kitty blushingly insisted that it was only a simple bit of a dress for second best—nothing to speak of.
“Yer er fair blaze iv glory,” Mills continued. “Y’ kin do what y’ like with me. I’m done. I’ll never get over this, I know.” He was walking round her, humbly inspecting.
“Yah-h-h,” cried a derisive voice from a distant board, “stick ’er in the bloomin’ winder, ’n’ give ther town er charnce!”
Kitty stiffened at once, her nose went up, and she walked on with an increase of dignity, but not really displeased. That cry had come from a stricken soul. It was really a tribute. She would not have been wholly satisfied had the girls taken it all quite kindly.
The Salvation Army lass at the machine began to sing a plaintive little hymn. The Army had had a revival in the cheap suburbs lately, and had been getting in some good work amongst the factory hands. There were two or three converts in the room. They joined in the hymn. It was the protest of the saints against the vanities of the flesh. Spotty Corbet, the machinist, was intensely “saved”. She came to work in shabby regimentals, and spoke a three minutes’ grace over a “crib” of bread and jam that it took her two minutes to eat. She was a squat, sallow girl of about sixteen, sullen and slovenly, and had a guilty secret. When not observed, she oiled her greasy dark hair with the machine lubricators.
Kitty Coudray had changed and taken her place at the board, when Billy the Boy charged upstairs crimson with information.
“Wipe yer nose ’n’ pull down yer pinny, Mills,” gasped the devil, “here’s her Excellency makin’ er mornin’ call.”
Up the stairs came a faint frou-frou. Feathers cocked his ear. There was no mistaking it. It was the musical rattle of silk. The packer ventured to look over the rail. He blew a long, faint whistle, expressive of profound emotion. He beckoned to Goudy in the manner of a man bereft of speech. There was an apprehensive hush, and the sibilant call of a silk underskirt stole through the factory. All eyes turned to the stairs.
“You’ve done yer dash,” cried Billy, addressing the Beauties. “You kin all git orf ther earth. Twentyman’s got yeh beat.”
“Jimmy Jee!” whispered Mills. “it’s Bland ’Olt’s wicked woman straight from ther halls of gilded vice, with all her clobber on.”
Feathers and the town traveller stood back reverently, giving the newcomer a clear stage, and as Sis Twentyman stepped on to the flat the silence of the factory broke in a long gasp. Nothing like this had ever before been seen at Spats’. The most riotous imagination there had never dreamed of such magnificence in a mere “fact’ry ’and”. Sis was profusely clad in pink silk, billows and billows of it, trimmed with cream lace, and she wore a great black picture hat foaming with feathers, and new glazed shoes with steel buckles. Kitty Coudray, her brush clutched in her frozen hand, gazed at this overwhelming spectacle, her eyes wide, her mouth gaping, transfixed. It was a form of paralysis, and she did not recover consciousness for three minutes.
Sis remained talking with Feathers. It was his duty to keep a record of late arrivals, who were fined according to the length of their transgression. Miss Twentyman made a pretty show of excusing herself, but her late arrival was premeditated malice and Feathers understood the situation. Sis was not merely completing her triumph—she was “rubbing it in”.
“Won thirty thousan’ quid in Tatt’s, ’aven’t yeh?” said the packer, affecting the meekness of the poor and lowly.
“If you had let us know you were coming we’d have had the stair carpet down and the walls decorated,” said the to traveller.
“Excuse yourself, Mister Cloudy,” replied Sis, with a ladylike air of hauteur.
“Who’re yeh ruinin’, Sis?” asked Feathers.
“Not so familiar, Mister Mills, please.”
Sis gathered up her profuse skirt and swept away, and half a dozen of the Beauties, driven from their usual refuge of seeming indifference by such splendour, forsook their work, and clattered after her, shrill with admiration. After these went the anguished foreman, with his feeble but insistent:
“Come, come! Come, come, there. What’s this? What’s this?”
The girls buzzed about Sis, deaf to Fuzzy’s orders and his threats, and Spotty Corbet drove her machine fiercely, and piped her hymn of protest once more.
Mills aired his philosophy of clothes to Goudy. “Take it from the man under the bed, Spotty, wimmin’s mostly clothes, an’ ther rest rings an’ things. Man’s what he drinks; woman’s what she wears. Size up this bunch. On ther ordin’ry mornin’s in their secon’ best baggin’, they’re sort iv subdood ’n’ moderate perlite, ’n’ you don’t see ’em buckin’ up, or playin’ ther frivolous ox. Look at ther difference when they get inter ther rags. Then they gets down to it—they’re cobbers with ther rats; ’n’ yer needn’t put much apast ’em. But watch out fer Saturdees when ther latest season’s goods is out fer the air; ’n’ they’re ther real pink, ’n’ yer mustn’t touch ’em with er prop if yer don’t wanter get it cold. Blime, y’d think Spats’ was er select seminary fer young lydies iv gentle birth, ’n’ that ther dorters iv ther aristocracy here t’ get made fit in French, dancin’, haccomplishments, ’n’ perlite conversation. Mop up what’s goin’ when Twentyman comes along in her old stuff.”
When Sis came again, dressed for work, and carying her tub of paste, the packer said:
“S’elp me shicker, Twenty, you was the on’y pebble. F1emin’ton on Cup Day!—don’ mention. Ther Mayor’s ball!—a blessed marine store. Lovely, y’ was, straight!”
“Gar’n! Le’ go me leg!” retorted Miss Twentyman, saucily
“What’d I tell yeh?” said Mills to Goudy.
The Beauties got down to work slowly and reluctantly that morning. There was a still later arrival. Bell Olliver came in quite half an hour behind time, wearing a new blue blouse, a blouse that would have created some little stir on ordinary occasions, but which was received with absolute indifference, coming after the extravagance of Kitty and the magnificence of Sis.
Bell came by the front stairs, radiant with expectation, smiling a self-conscious smile, and blushing brightly. By the time she reached the packer’s board the smile had fled, and Bell’s face had assumed the colour of old dough. She turned down the wing to the dressing-rooms, and as she did not re-appear in the course of a quarter of an hour, the foreman went ambling down the flat, full of zeal, and tripping over his own feet every few yards as usual, in the agonies preceding an encounter with a Beauty of Bell’s argumentative power and uncertain temper.
Fuzzy found Miss Oliver seated behind a stack of straw-boards, wearing her drab working apparel, her little tub of paste between her feet, weeping like a wet day.
“Come, come!” he cried, with tremulous valour. “Come, come! Out o’ this!”
“Gar’n scratch!” retorted the young lady, drearily.
“What’s this? What’s this? This won’t do, you know. Get to work, ’r I’ll fine you a shillin’.”
Miss Olliver jumped up and confronted Fuzzy, suddenly ablaze.
“You tork t’ me!” she screamed. “You, ’r fat old Pig’s Whiskers downstairs, ’r any iv yer rats. Do it! Tork t’ me, monkey face, ’n’ I’ll—”
The foreman recognized the symptoms. He retreated precipitately, but Miss Olliver’s tub of paste took him between the shoulders as he fled, and made his back view absurd for the rest of the day. Saturday morning was a trying time for Fuzzy in many ways.
Bell came to her board when it pleased her. She was an expert paster, and rival firms would have been glad of her services. Fuzzy had to rule her and many like her by a system of judicious submission. For three hours order and industry prevailed on the flat. Bell was in a fit of black sulks; Kitty Coudray was sour and insolent; the other girls had a thoughtful and depressed air. Sis Twentyman alone was gay. She was particularly affectionate towards Kitty, and seemed quite stupidly blind and deaf to Miss Coudray’s coldness and contempt.
Naturally Sis Twentyman was the first in the dressing-room at knock-off time. Her arrival there was signalled by a series of shrieks that stirred the establishment to its lowest depths, galvanized the factory, and brought the printers streaming upstairs. Shrieking was not uncommon on the top flat, but never had such poignant yells pierced its walls. Sis performed like a woman in mortal agony. Feathers, heading the rush, discovered her standing in her petticoats, holding the pink silk skirt out before her, and screaming with all her energies in a stupid, blind, settled way suggestive of madness.
“’Struth, Twenty, what bit yeh?” gasped Mills. He shook her as if expecting to rearrange a disorganized apparatus. “’Ere, ’ere,” he cried, “take er grip on yerself if yeh ain’t fair off yer almond.” But Sis only screamed again, and shook the pink silk skirt, and now the situation became comprehensible. The skirt was an utter ruin; it was torn this way and that, and the frills and the lace hung from it in rags.
At this moment Sis Twentyman’s eyes fell upon Kitty Coudray, in whose face was something like a light of elation.
“You!” she shrieked. “You—you—you-” Her passion choked her on the suitable epithet, and she dashed at Kitty with hooked claws, like a ravening lioness. But Feathers and Don clung to the fury and averted manslaughter.
The light of elation had fled suddenly from the eyes of Kitty Coudray. It was succeeded by a poignant apprehension. She darted into the dressing-room, and the next moment her cries added to the general confusion. She came forth carrying her new blue skirt. It was split from waistband to hem, six or seven times and was a hopeless wreck. Kitty glared at Sis in dumb rage for a moment, and all a woman could possibly feel of spite and anguish was in her face.
“She did it!” she cried. “She did it, the devil!” and it took two printers to keep her from Sis Twentyrnan. The Salvation girl was singing “Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea, Jehovah hath triumphed, His people are free.” Spats himself and other authorities had arrived on the scene, but their influence was as nothing in the face of a catastrophe like this. The Beauties swarmed: their indignation was virtuous but virulent. They cried aloud for vengeance on the destroyer. A rush for the dressing-room revealed the fact that no further damage had been done, and slowly the factory simmered down. Sis and Kitty, surrounded by guards, sat apart, and sorrowed over their tattered garments, soaking themselves in tears.
It was Feathers suggested the cat: “Ther Tutsie’s erbout arf ez big ez er bar’l,” he said, “’n’ when he gets out after himself in high pressure hysterics, he fair digs bricks outer ther buildin’. I’ve seen him kick ther hessian off er bale iv paper afore t’ day, ’n’ he ’ad er fit this mornin’. I ’eard him doin ’an’ springs ’n’ fizzin’ like er soda factory back er ther lift.”
The authorities retired to the depths, and slowly the girls dressed and drifted downstairs. Sis and Kitty had come together, mutually forgiving, as sisters in misfortune should be, and they mingled their tears, pending the conclusion of a consultation being held in the boss’s office. Feathers brought the news. The foreman had gone under cover behind his guillotines, overwhelmed by the catastrophe, and knowing that blame, unplaceable elsewhere, invariably fell upon him.
“It’s rybuck, girls,” said Feathers. “Yer on velvet. Ther firm’s willin’ t’ accept responsibility fer ther actions iv it’s dooly accredited cat, ’n’ pays compensation. Yer on’y ’ave t’ put in a claim fer damages ’n’ ther quids is yours.”
Sis and Kitty brightened up wonderfully at this, but not sufficiently to imply that they had wholly parted with their grievance.
“Spats has sent fer er ’ansom, ’n’ yer to be wheeled ’ome et ther firm’s expense,” continued Feathers. Then he cried to Spotty Corbet, the Salvation girl, whom he had requested to stay, pending orders, and who was stealing from behind the bales towards the stairs. “Yeh don’t do er guy jes’ yet, Spot. This is where yer trouble comes. Back in yer cart. I want ter chat yeh.”
The girl came slowly towards them, lowering under her battered Army bonnet, her sallow face smeared with tears and dust, her brief, shabby skirt falling short of its duty. She was an absurd and pitiful figure. Feathers took her by the shoulder:
“Now,” he said, “cough it up. Why’d yeh tear them dresses?”
Sis and Kitty sprang to their feet, their eyes blazed, and they made at Spotty Corbet with bared talons. “’Ere, ’ere,” cried the packer, “keep good. Enough iv it.” He put them back, and addressed Spotty again. “I don’t hear y’ talkin’,” he said. “Y’ know yeh tore them skirts, y’ can’t jolly me. Why’d yeh do it?”
Spotty dug a finger in her mouth, and squirmed for a moment, and then her eyes gleamed and she stood erect for a fine effort.
“They was offensive in the sight of the Lord!’ she said. Then she collapsed again, her finger went back into her mouth, she began to cry, and kicking her old skirt out with her knee, she said with stupid bitterness, “’N’ mine is sich rags.”
“Hum,” said Feathers, philosophically, “I thought I’d fitted yeh. Now do er bunk.”
The packer held the two pasters while Spotty shuffled to the stairs, and went down, snivelling all the way. She did not reappear at Spats’.
“Why didn’t yer let me at her?” said Sis fiercely. “I’d a’ scraped her bones.”
“Garn, Twenty, ain’t yeh got er bit of sav? Make a bustle with her ’n’ ’ave it orl over ther shop she done it, ’n’ ther cat’s been wrongly accused, ’n’ how does yer compensation come in?”
“Oh-o-o-o-!” breathed Sis and Kitty in chorus, very softly.
“Oh-o-o-o!” breathed the packer in mockery, more softly still.
Feathers was a true diplomat, and had a fine contempt for accuracy. “’Onesty,” he said, “is the bust policy.”