‘Where to, lady?’ snapped the conductor, coming upstairs.
‘Oh, Putney,’ I answered.
A little bell rang and he gave me a ticket. The omnibus was soon full. A woman with a young child shared my seat. But the population of the roof was always changing. I alone remained—so it appeared to me. And we moved interminably forward through the gas-lit and crowded streets, under the mild night. Occasionally, when we came within the circle of an arc-lamp, I could see all my fellow-passengers very clearly; then they were nothing but dark, featureless masses. The horses of the omnibus were changed. A score of times the conductor came briskly upstairs, but he never looked at me again. ‘I’ve done with you,’ his back seemed to say.
The houses stood up straight and sinister, thousands of houses unendingly succeeding each other. Some were brilliantly illuminated; some were dark; and some had one or two windows lighted. The phenomenon of a solitary window lighted, high up in a house, filled me with the sense of the tragic romance of London. Why, I cannot tell. But it did. London grew to be almost unbearably mournful. There were too many people in London. Suffering was packed too close. One can contemplate a single affliction with some equanimity, but a million griefs, calamities, frustrations, elbowing each other—No, no! And in all that multitude of sadnesses I felt that mine was the worst. My loneliness, my fear, my foolish youth, my inability to cope with circumstance, my appalling ignorance of the very things which I ought to know! It was awful. And yet even then, in that despairing certainty of disaster, I was conscious of the beauty of life, the beauty of life’s exceeding sorrow, and I hugged it to me, like a red-hot iron.
We crossed a great river by a great bridge—a mysterious and mighty stream; and then the streets closed in on us again. And at last, after hours and hours, the omnibus swerved into a dark road and stopped—stopped finally.
‘Putney!’ cried the conductor, like fate.
I descended. Far off, at the end of the vista of the dark road, I saw a red lamp. I knew that in large cities a red lamp indicated a doctor: it was the one useful thing that I did know.
I approached the red lamp, cautiously, on the other side of the street. Then some power forced me to cross the street and open a wicket. And in the red glow of the lamp I saw an ivory button which I pushed. I could plainly hear the result; it made me tremble. I had a narrow escape of running away. The door was flung wide, and a middle-aged woman appeared in the bright light of the interior of the house. She had a kind face. It is astounding, the number of kind faces one meets.
‘Is the doctor in?’ I asked.
I would have given a year of my life to hear her say ‘No.’
‘Yes, miss,’ she said. ‘Will you step in?’
Events seemed to be moving all too rapidly.