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Chapter VI.

MICHAEL VISITS BETHNAL GREEN

The feeling of depression with which Michael had come back from the fount and origin was somewhat mitigated by letters he was receiving from people of varying classes, nearly all young. They were so nice and earnest. They made him wonder whether after all practical politicians were not too light-hearted, like the managers of music-halls who protected the Public carefully from their more tasteful selves. They made him feel that there might be a spirit in the country that was not really represented in the House, or even in the Press. Among these letters was one which ran:

Sunshine House,

Bethnal Green.

DEAR MR. MONT,

I was so awfully glad to read your speech in The Times. I instantly got Sir James Foggarts book. I think the whole policy is simply splendid. Youve no idea how heart-breaking it is for us who try to do things for children, to know that whatever we do is bound to be snowed under by the life they go to when school age ends. We have a good opportunity here of seeing the realities of child life in London. Its wonderful to see the fondness of the mothers for the little ones, in spite of their own hard livesthough not all, of course, by any means; but we often notice, and I think its common experience, that when the children get beyond ten or twelve, the fondness for them begins to assume another form. I suppose its really the commercial possibilities of the child making themselves felt. When money comes in at the door, disinterested love seems to move towards the window. I suppose its natural, but its awfully sad, because the commercial possibilities are generally so miserable; and the childrens after-life is often half ruined for the sake of the few shillings they earn. I do fervently hope something will come of your appeal; onlythings move so slowly, dont they? I wish you would come down and see our House here. The children are adorable, and we try to give them sunshine.

Sincerely yours,

NORAH CURFEW.

Bertie Curfews sister! But surely that case would not really come to anything! Grateful for encouragement, and seeking light on Foggartism, he decided to go. Perhaps Norah Curfew would take the little Boddicks! He suggested to Fleur that she should accompany him, but she was afraid of picking up something unsuitable to the eleventh baronet, so he went alone.

The house, facing the wintry space called Bethnal Green, consisted of three small houses converted into one, with their three small back yards, trellised round and gravelled, for a playground. Over the door were the words: SUNSHINE HOUSE, in gold capitals. The walls were cream-coloured, the woodwork dark, and the curtains of gay chintz. Michael was received in the entrance-lobby by Norah Curfew herself. Tall, slim and straight, with dark hair brushed back from a pale face, she had brown eyes, clear, straight and glowing.

Gosh! thought Michael, as she wrung his hand. She IS swept and garnished. No basement in her soul!

It WAS good of you to come, Mr. Mont. Let me take you over the house. This is the playroom.

Michael entered a room of spotless character, which had evidently been formed from several knocked into one. Six small children dressed in blue linen were seated on the floor, playing games. They embraced the knees of Norah Curfew when she came within reach. With the exception of one little girl Michael thought them rather ugly.

These are our residents. The others only come out of school hours. We have to limit them to fifty, and thats a pretty good squeeze. We want funds to take the next two houses.

How many of you are working here?

Six. Two of us do the cooking; one the accounts; and the rest washing, mending, games, singing, dancing, and general chores. Two of us live in.

I dont see your harps and crowns.

Norah Curfew smiled.

Pawned, she said.

What do you do about religion? asked Michael, thinking of the eleventh baronets future.

Well, on the whole we dont. You see, theyre none of them more than twelve; and the religious age, when it begins at all, begins with sex about fourteen. We just try to teach kindness and cheerfulness. I had my brother down the other day. Hes always laughed at me; but hes going to do a matinee for us, and give us the proceeds.

What play?

I think its called The Plain Dealer. He says hes always wanted to do it for a good object.

Michael stared. Do you know The Plain Dealer?

No; its by one of the Restoration people, isnt it?

Wycherley.

Oh! yes! Her eyes remaining clearer than the dawn, Michael thought: Poor dear! Its not my business to queer the pitch of her money-getting; but Master Bertie likes his little joke!

I must bring my wife down here, he said; shed love your walls and curtains. And I wanted to ask youYou havent room, have you, for two more little girls, if we pay for them? Their fathers down and out, and Im starting him in the countryno mother.

Norah Curfew wrinkled her straight brows, and on her face came the look Michael always connected with haloes, an anxious longing to stretch good-will beyond power and pocket.

Oh! we must! she said. Ill manage somehow. What are their names?

BoddickChristian, I dont know. I call them by their agesFour and Five.

Give me the address. Ill go and see them myself; if they havent got anything catching, they shall come.

You really are an angel, said Michael, simply.

Norah Curfew coloured, and opened a door. Thats silly, she said, still more simply. This is our mess-room.

It was not large, and contained a girl working a typewriter, who stopped with her hands on the keys and looked round; another girl beating up eggs in a bowl, who stopped reading a book of poetry; and a third, who seemed practising a physical exercise, and stopped with her arms extended.

This is Mr. Mont, said Norah Curfew, who made that splendid speech in the House. Miss Betts, Miss La Fontaine, Miss Beeston.

The girls bowed, and the one who continued to beat the eggs, said: It was bully.

Michael also bowed. Beating the air, Im afraid.

Oh! but, Mr. Mont, it must have an effect. It said what so many people are really thinking.

Ah! said Michael, but their thoughts are so deep, you know.

Do sit down.

Michael sat on the end of a peacock-blue divan.

I was born in South Africa, said the egg-beater, and I know whats waiting.

My father was in the House, said the girl, whose arms had come down to her splendid sides. He was very much struck. Anyway, were jolly grateful.

Michael looked from one to the other.

I suppose if you dont all believe in things, you wouldnt be doing this? YOU dont think the shutters are up in England, anyway?

Good Lord, no! said the girl at the typewriter; youve only to live among the poor to know that.

The poor havent got every virtue, and the rich havent got every vicethats nonsense! broke in the physical exerciser.

Michael murmured soothingly.

I wasnt thinking of that. I was wondering whether something doesnt hang over our heads too much?

Dyou mean poison-gas?

Partly; and town blight, and a feeling that Progress has been found out.

Well, I dont know, replied the egg-beater, who was dark and pretty and had a slight engaging stammer, I used to think so in the war. But Europe isnt the world. Europe isnt even very important, really. The sun hardly shines there, anyway.

Michael nodded. After all, if the Millennium comes and we do blot each other out, in Europe, itll only mean another desert about the size of the Sahara, and the loss of a lot of people obviously too ill-conditioned to be fit to live. Itd be a jolly good lesson to the rest of the world, wouldnt it? Luckily the other continents are far off each other.

Cheerful! exclaimed Norah Curfew.

Michael grinned.

Well, one cant help catching the atmosphere of this place. I admire you all frightfully, you know, giving up everything, to come and do this.

Thats tosh, said the girl at the typewriter. What is there to give upbunny-hugging? One got used to doing things, in the war.

If it comes to that, said the egg-beater, we admire you much more, for not giving upParliament.

Again Michael grinned.

Miss La Fontainewanted in the kitchen!

The egg-beater went towards the door.

Can youbeat eggs? Dyou mindshant be a minute. Handing Michael the bowl and fork, she vanished.

What a shame! said Norah Curfew. Let me!

No, said Michael; I can beat eggs with anybody. What do you all feel about cutting children adrift at fourteen?

Well, of course, itll be bitterly opposed, said the girl at the typewriter. Theyll call it inhuman, and all that. Its much more inhuman really to keep them here.

The real trouble, said Norah Curfew, apart from the shillings earned, is the class-interference idea. Besides, Imperialism isnt popular.

I should jolly well think it isnt, muttered the physical exerciser.

Ah! said the typist, but this isnt Imperialism, is it, Mr. Mont? Its all on the lines of making the Dominions the equal of the Mother Country.

Michael nodded. Commonwealth.

That wont prevent their camouflaging their objection to losing the childrens wages, said the physical exerciser.

A close discussion ensued between the three young women as to the exact effect of childrens wages on the working-class budget. Michael beat his eggs and listened. It was, he knew, a point of the utmost importance. The general conclusion seemed to be that children earned on the whole rather more than their keep, but that it was very short-sighted in the long run, because it fostered surplus population and unemployment, and a great shame to spoil the childrens chances for the sake of the parents.

The re-entrance of the egg-beater put a stop to it.

Theyre beginning to come in, Norah.

The physical exerciser slipped out, and Norah Curfew said:

Now, Mr. Mont, would you like to see them?

Michael followed her. He was thinking: I wish Fleur had come! These girls seemed really to believe in things.

Down-stairs the children were trickling in from school. He stood and watched them. They seemed a queer blend of anaemia and vitality, of effervescence and obedience. Unselfconscious as puppies, but old beyond their years; and yet, looking as if they never thought ahead. Each movement, each action was as if it were their last. They were very quick. Most of them carried something to eat in a paper bag, or a bit of grease-paper. They chattered, and didnt laugh. Their accent struck Michael as deplorable. Six or seven at most were nice to look at; but nearly all looked good-tempered, and none seemed to be selfish. Their movements were jerky. They mobbed Norah Curfew and the physical exerciser; obeyed without question, ate without appetite, and grabbed at the house-cat. Michael was fascinated.

With them came four or five mothers, who had questions to ask, or bottles to fill. They too were on perfect terms with the young women. Class did not exist in this house; only personality was present. He noticed that the children responded to his grin, that the women didnt, though they smiled at Norah Curfew and the physical exerciser; he wondered if they would give him a bit of their minds if they knew of his speech.

Norah Curfew accompanied him to the door.

Arent they ducks?

Im afraid if I saw much of them, I should give up Foggartism.

Oh! but why?

Well, you see it designs to make them men and women of property.

You mean that would spoil them?

Michael grinned. Theres something dangerous about silver spoons. Heres my initiation fee. He handed her all his money.

Oh! Mr. Mont, we didnt!

Well, give me back sixpence, otherwise I shall have to walk home.

Its frightfully kind of you. Do come again; and please dont give up Foggartism.

He walked to the train thinking of her eyes; and, on reaching home, said to Fleur:

You absolutely must come and see that place. Its quite clean, and the spirits topping. Its bucked me up like anything. Norah Curfews perfectly splendid.

Fleur looked at him between her lashes.

Oh! she said. I will.


Chapter V. PROGRESS OF THE CASE | The Silver Spoon | Chapter VII. CONTRASTS