“What did you do?” I asked.
The woman laughed—bitterly, terribly.
“Do? Don’t you know?”
I shook my head. The woman looked hard at me, and then at the child.
“Look here—are you a good gel?” she said.
Hardly knowing what she meant I answered that I hoped so
“’Ope? Don’t you know that neither?”
Then I caught her meaning, and answered faintly:
She looked searchingly into my eyes and said:
“I b’lieve you. Some gels is. S’elp me Gawd I don’t know how they done it, though.”
I was shuddering and trembling, for I was catching glimpses, as if by broken lights from hell, of the life behind—the wrecked hope, the shattered faith, the human being hunted like a beast and at last turned into one.
Just at that moment baby awoke and cried again. The woman looked at her with the same look as before—not so much a smile as a sort of haggard radiance.
Then leaning over me she blew puffs of alcoholic breath into baby’s face, and stretching out a coarse fat finger she tickled her under the chin.
Baby ceased to cry and began to smile. Seeing this the woman’s eyes sparkled like sunshine.
“See that,” she cried. “S’elp me Jesus, I b’lieve I could ’ave been good meself if I’d on’y ’ad somethink like this to keer for.”
I am not ashamed to say that more than once there had been tears in my eyes while the woman spoke, though her blasphemies had corrupted the air like the gases that rise from a dust-heap. But when she touched my child I shuddered as if something out of the ’lowest depths had tainted her.
Then a strange thing happened.
I had risen to go, although my limbs could scarcely support me, and was folding my little angel closely in my arms, when the woman rose too and said:
“You wouldn’t let me carry your kiddie a bit, would you?”
I tried to excuse myself, saying something, I know not what The woman looked at me again, and after a moment she said:
“S’pose not. On’y I thought it might make me think as ‘ow I was carryin’ Billie.”
That swept down everything.
The one remaining window of the woman’s soul was open and I dared not close it.
I looked down at my child—so pure, so sweet, so stainless; I looked up at the woman—so foul, so gross, so degraded.
There was a moment of awful struggle and then . . . the woman and I were walking side by side.
And the harlot was carrying my baby down the street.
At five o’clock I was once more alone.
I was then standing (with baby in my own arms now) under the statue which is at the back of Bow Church.
I thought I could walk no farther, and although every penny I had in my pocket belonged to Isabel (being all that yet stood between her and want) I must borrow a little of it if she was to reach Mrs. Oliver’s that night.