Henry sighed. The birds were flown again. He was left with the blue-flecked sky and the grey houses that stood around the gardens like beasts about a water-pool. The sun (a red disc) peered over their shoulders. He went, with his mother within doors. Instantly on his entrance the house began to rustle and whisper.
Mrs. Slater, although an amiable and kind-hearted human being who believed with confident superstition in a God of other people’s making, did not, on the whole, welcome her lady friends with much cordiality. It was not, as she often explained, as though she had her own house into which to ask them. Her motto was, “Friendly with All, Familiar with None,” and to this she very faithfully held. But in her heart there was reason enough for this caution; there had been days—yes, and nights too—when, during her lamented husband’s lifetime, she had “taken a drop,” taken it, obviously enough, as a comfort, and a solace when things were going very hard with her, and “‘Enery preferrin’ ’er to be jolly ’erself to keep ’im company.” She had protested, but Fate and Henry had been too strong for her. “She had fallen into the habit!” Then, when No. 21 had come under her care, she had put it all sternly behind her, but one did not know how weak one might be, and a kindly friend might with her persuasion——
Therefore did Mrs. Slater avoid her kindly friends. There was, however, one friend who was not so readily to be avoided; that was Mrs. Carter. Mrs. Carter also was a widow, or rather, to speak the direct truth, had discovered one morning, twenty years ago, that Mr. Carter “was gone”; he had never returned. Those who knew Mrs. Carter intimately said that, on the whole, “things bein’ as they was,” his departure was not entirely to be wondered at. Mrs. Carter had a temper of her own, and nothing inflamed it so much as a drop of whisky, and there was nothing in the world she liked so much as “a drop.”
To meet her casually, you would judge her nothing less than the most amiable of womankind—a large, stout, jolly woman, with a face like a rose, and a quantity of black hair. At her best, in her fine Sunday clothes, she was a superb figure, and wore round her neck a rope of sham pearls that would have done credit to a sham countess. During the week, however, she slipped, on occasion, into “déshabille,” and then she appeared not quite so attractive. No one knew the exact nature of her profession. She did a bit of “char”; she had at one time a little sweetshop, where she sold sweets, the Police Budget, and—although this was revealed only to her best friends—indecent photographs. It may be that the police discovered some of the sources of her income; at any rate the sweetshop was suddenly, one morning, abandoned. Her movements in everything were sudden; it was quite suddenly that she took a fancy to Mrs. Slater. She met her at a friend’s, and at once, so she told Mrs. Slater, “I liked yer, just as though I’d met yer before. But I’m like that. Sudden or not at all is my way, and not a bad way either!”