So the debate went on, in a kind of all-night sitting. At half-past five she started for the offices again, sleepless and undecided.
That afternoon she went to the relieving officer at the workhouse. Two days later she was waiting among other “cases” in a passage there, under an illuminated text: “I have not seen the righteous forsaken.” In her turn she was ushered into the presence of the Board from behind a black screen. A few questions were put with all the delicacy which time and custom allowed. There was a brief discussion.
“Quite a simple case,” said the chairman. “My good woman, the Guardians will undertake to relieve you of two children to prevent the whole lot of you coming on the rates. Send the two eldest to the House at once, and they will be drafted into our school in due course. Good morning to you. Next case, please.”
She could do nothing but obey. Alfred and Lizzie were duly delivered at the gate. Bewildered and terrified, hoping every hour to be taken home, they hung about the workhouse, and became acquainted with the flabby pallor and desperate sameness of the pauper face. After two days they were whirled away, they knew not where, in something between a brougham and an ambulance cart.
“You lay, Liz, they’re goin’ to make us Lord Mayors of London, same as Whittington, and we’ll all ride in a coach together,” said Alfred, excited by the drive, and amazed at the two men on the box. Then they both laughed with the cheerful irony of London children.
It was an afternoon in early October, the day after Alfred and Lizzie had been removed from the workhouse. They were now in the probation ward of one of the great district schools. Lizzie was sitting in the girls’ room, whimpering quietly to herself, and every now and then saying, “I want my mother.” To which the female officer replied, “Oh, you’ll soon get over that.”
Alfred was standing on the outside of a little group of boys gathered in idleness round a stove in a large whitewashed room on the opposite side of the building. Nearest the warmth stood Clem Bowler, conscious of the dignity which experience gives. For Clem had a reputation to maintain. He was a redoubtable “in and out.” Four times already within a year his parents had entrusted themselves and him to the care of the State, and four times, overcome by individualistic considerations, they had recalled him to their own protection. His was not an unusual case. The superintendent boasted that his “turn-over” ran to more than five hundred children a year. But there was distinction about Clem, and people remembered him.
“You ’ear, now,” he said, looking round with a veteran’s contempt upon the squad of recruits in pauperism, “if none on yer don’t break out with somethink before the week’s over, I’ll flay the lot. I’m not pertikler for what it is. Last time it was measles first, and then ringworm. Nigh on seven weeks I stopt ’ere with nothink to do only eat, and never got so much as a smell of the school. What’s them teachers got to learn me, I’d like to know?”