Lisa of Lambeth


Thus began a time of love and joy. As soon as her work was over and she had finished tea, Liza would slip out and at some appointed spot meet Jim. Usually it would be at the church, where the Westminster Bridge Road bends down to get to the river, and they would go off, arm-in-arm, till they came to some place where they could sit down and rest. Sometimes they would walk along the Albert Embankment to Battersea Park, and here sit on the benches, watching the children play. The female cyclist had almost abandoned Battersea for the parks on the other side of the river, but often enough one went by, and Liza, with the old-fashioned prejudice of her class, would look after the rider and make some remark about her, not seldom more forcible than ladylike. Both Jim and she liked children, and, tiny, ragged urchins would gather round to have rides on the man's knees or mock fights with Liza.

They thought themselves far away from anyone in Vere Street, but twice, as they were walking along, they were met by people they knew. Once it was two workmen coming home from a job at Vauxhall: Liza did not see them till they were quite near; she immediately dropped Jim's arm, and they both cast their eyes to the ground as the men passed, like ostriches, expecting that if they did not look they would not be seen.

'D'you see 'em, Jim?' asked Liza, in a whisper, when they had gone by. 'I wonder if they see us.' Almost instinctively she turned round, and at the same moment one of the men turned too; then there was no doubt about it.

'Thet did give me a turn,' she said.

'So it did me,' answered Jim; 'I simply went 'ot all over.'

'We was bally fools,' said Liza; 'we oughter 'ave spoken to 'em! D'you think they'll let aht?'

They heard nothing of it, when Jim afterwards met one of the men in a public-house he did not mention a meeting, and they thought that perhaps they had not been recognized. But the second time was worse.

It was on the Albert Embankment again. They were met by a party of four, all of whom lived in the street. Liza's heart sank within her, for there was no chance of escape; she thought of turning quickly and walking in the opposite direction, but there was not time, for the men had already seen them. She whispered to Jim:

'Back us up,' and as they met she said to one of the men:

''Ulloa there! Where are you off to?'

The men stopped, and one of them asked the question back.

'Where are you off to?'

'Me? Oh, I've just been to the 'orspital. One of the gals at our place is queer, an' so I says ter myself, "I'll go an' see 'er."' She faltered a little as she began, but quickly gathered herself together, lying fluently and without hesitation.

'An' when I come aht,' she went on, ''oo should I see just passin' the 'orspital but this 'ere cove, an' 'e says to me, "Wot cheer," says 'e, "I'm goin' ter Vaux'all, come an' walk a bit of the wy with us." "Arright," says I, "I don't mind if I do."'

One man winked, and another said: 'Go it, Liza!'

She fired up with the dignity of outraged innocence.

'Wot d'yer mean by thet?' she said; 'd'yer think I'm kiddin'?'

'Kiddin'? No! You've only just come up from the country, ain't yer?'

'Think I'm kidding? What d'yer think I want ter kid for? Liars never believe anyone, thet's fact.'

'Na then, Liza, don't be saucy.'

'Saucy! I'll smack yer in the eye if yer sy much ter me. Come on,' she said to Jim, who had been standing sheepishly by; and they walked away.

The men shouted: 'Now we shan't be long!' and went off laughing.

After that they decided to go where there was no chance at all of their being seen. They did not meet till they got over Westminster Bridge, and thence they made their way into the park; they would lie down on the grass in one another's arms, and thus spend the long summer evenings. After the heat of the day there would be a gentle breeze in the park, and they would take in long breaths of the air; it seemed far away from London, it was so quiet and cool; and Liza, as she lay by Jim's side, felt her love for him overflowing to the rest of the world and enveloping mankind itself in a kind of grateful happiness. If it could only have lasted! They would stay and see the stars shine out dimly, one by one, from the blue sky, till it grew late and the blue darkened into black, and the stars glittered in thousands all above them. But as the nights grew cooler, they found it cold on the grass, and the time they had there seemed too short for the long journey they had to make; so, crossing the bridge as before, they strolled along the Embankment till they came to a vacant bench, and there they would sit, with Liza nestling close up to her lover and his great arms around her. The rain of September made no difference to them; they went as usual to their seat beneath the trees, and Jim would take Liza on his knee, and, opening his coat, shelter her with it, while she, with her arms round his neck, pressed very close to him, and occasionally gave a little laugh of pleasure and delight. They hardly spoke at all through these evenings, for what had they to say to one another? Often without exchanging a word they would sit for an hour with their faces touching, the one feeling on his cheek the hot breath from the other's mouth; while at the end of the time the only motion was an upraising of Liza's lips, a bending down of Jim's, so that they might meet and kiss. Sometimes Liza fell into a light doze, and Jim would sit very still for fear of waking her, and when she roused herself she would smile, while he bent down again and kissed her. They were very happy. But the hours passed by so quickly, that Big Ben striking twelve came upon them as a surprise, and unwillingly they got up and made their way homewards; their partings were never ending—each evening Jim refused to let her go from his arms, and tears stood in his eyes at the thought of the separation.

'I'd give somethin',' he would say, 'if we could be togither always.'

'Never mind, old chap!' Liza would answer, herself half crying, 'it can't be 'elped, so we must jolly well lump it.'

But notwithstanding all their precautions people in Vere Street appeared to know. First of all Liza noticed that the women did not seem quite so cordial as before, and she often fancied they were talking of her; when she passed by they appeared to look at her, then say something or other, and perhaps burst out laughing; but when she approached they would immediately stop speaking, and keep silence in a rather awkward, constrained manner. For a long time she was unwilling to believe that there was any change in them, and Jim who had observed nothing, persuaded her that it was all fancy. But gradually it became clearer, and Jim had to agree with her that somehow or other people had found out. Once when Liza had been talking to Polly, Jim's daughter, Mrs. Blakeston had called her, and when the girl had come to her mother Liza saw that she spoke angrily, and they both looked across at her. When Liza caught Mrs. Blakeston's eye she saw in her face a surly scowl, which almost frightened her; she wanted to brave it out, and stepped forward a little to go and speak with the woman, but Mrs. Blakeston, standing still, looked so angrily at her that she was afraid to. When she told Jim his face grew dark, and he said: 'Blast the woman! I'll give 'er wot for if she says anythin' ter you.'

'Don't strike 'er, wotever 'appens, will yer, Jim?' said Liza.

'She'd better tike care then!' he answered, and he told her that lately his wife had been sulking, and not speaking to him. The previous night, on coming home after the day's work and bidding her 'Good evenin',' she had turned her back on him without answering.

'Can't you answer when you're spoke to?' he had said.

'Good evenin',' she had replied sulkily, with her back still turned.

After that Liza noticed that Polly avoided her.

'Wot's up, Polly?' she said to her one day. 'You never speaks now; 'ave you 'ad yer tongue cut aht?'

'Me? I ain't got nothin' ter speak abaht, thet I knows of,' answered Polly, abruptly walking off. Liza grew very red and quickly looked to see if anyone had noticed the incident. A couple of youths, sitting on the pavement, had seen it, and she saw them nudge one another and wink.

Then the fellows about the street began to chaff her.

'You look pale,' said one of a group to her one day.

'You're overworkin' yerself, you are,' said another.

'Married life don't agree with Liza, thet's wot it is,' added a third.

''Oo d'yer think yer gettin' at? I ain't married, an' never like ter be,' she answered.

'Liza 'as all the pleasures of a 'usband an' none of the trouble.'

'Bli'me if I know wot yer mean!' said Liza.

'Na, of course not; you don't know nothin', do yer?'

'Innocent as a bibe. Our Father which art in 'eaven!'

''Aven't been in London long, 'ave yer?'

They spoke in chorus, and Liza stood in front of them, bewildered, not knowing what to answer.

'Don't you mike no mistake abaht it, Liza knows a thing or two.'

'O me darlin', I love yer fit to kill, but tike care your missus ain't round the corner.' This was particularly bold, and they all laughed.

Liza felt very uncomfortable, and fiddled about with her apron, wondering how she should get away.

'Tike care yer don't git into trouble, thet's all,' said one of the men, with burlesque gravity.

'Yer might give us a chanst, Liza, you come aht with me one evenin'. You oughter give us all a turn, just ter show there's no ill-feelin'.'

'Bli'me if I know wot yer all talkin' abaht. You're all barmy on the crumpet,' said Liza indignantly, and, turning her back on them, made for home.

Among other things that had happened was Sally's marriage. One Saturday a little procession had started from Vere Street, consisting of Sally, in a state of giggling excitement, her fringe magnificent after a whole week of curling-papers, clad in a perfectly new velveteen dress of the colour known as electric blue; and Harry, rather nervous and ill at ease in the unaccustomed restraint of a collar; these two walked arm-in-arm, and were followed by Sally's mother and uncle, also arm-in-arm, and the procession was brought up by Harry's brother and a friend. They started with a flourish of trumpets and an old boot, and walked down the middle of Vere Street, accompanied by the neighbours' good wishes; but as they got into the Westminster Bridge Road and nearer to the church, the happy couple grew silent, and Harry began to perspire freely, so that his collar gave him perfect torture. There was a public-house just opposite the church, and it was suggested that they should have a drink before going in. As it was a solemn occasion they went into the private bar, and there Sally's uncle, who was a man of means, ordered six pots of beer.

'Feel a bit nervous, 'Arry?' asked his friend.

'Na,' said Harry, as if he had been used to getting married every day of his life; 'bit warm, thet's all.'

'Your very good 'ealth, Sally,' said her mother, lifting her mug; 'this is the last time as I shall ever address you as miss.'

'An' may she be as good a wife as you was,' added Sally's uncle.

'Well, I don't think my old man ever 'ad no complaint ter mike abaht me. I did my duty by 'im, although it's me as says it,' answered the good lady.

'Well, mates,' said Harry's brother, 'I reckon it's abaht time to go in. So 'ere's to the 'ealth of Mr. 'Enry Atkins an' 'is future missus.'

'An' God bless 'em!' said Sally's mother.

Then they went into the church, and as they solemnly walked up the aisle a pale-faced young curate came out of the vestry and down to the bottom of the chancel. The beer had had a calming effect on their troubled minds, and both Harry and Sally began to think it rather a good joke. They smiled on each other, and at those parts of the service which they thought suggestive violently nudged one another in the ribs. When the ring had to be produced, Harry fumbled about in different pockets, and his brother whispered:

'Swop me bob, 'e's gone and lorst it!'

However, all went right, and Sally having carefully pocketed the certificate, they went out and had another drink to celebrate the happy event.

In the evening Liza and several friends came into the couple's room, which they had taken in the same house as Sally had lived in before, and drank the health of the bride and bridegroom till they thought fit to retire.

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