She hesitated—and he led the way across the Street, giving her no opportunity to frame a refusal. The little tea-place was warm and cosy. He found a comfortable corner, and took her wet umbrella and cape away.
“I believe,” he said, sitting down opposite her, “that I have saved your life.”
“Then I am not sure,” she answered, “that I feel grateful to you. I ought to have warned you that I am not in the least likely to be a cheerful companion. I have had a most depressing afternoon.”
“You have been to your tailor’s,” he suggested, “and your new gown is a failure—or is it even worse than that?”
She laughed dubiously. Then the tea was brought, and for a moment their conversation was interrupted. He thought her very graceful as she bent forward and busied herself attending to his wants. Her affinity to Selina and Louise was undistinguishable. It was true that she was pale, but it was the pallor of refinement, the student’s absence of colour rather than the pallor of ill-health.
“Mr. Brooks,” she said, presently, “you are busy with this election, and you are brought constantly into touch with all classes of people. Can you tell me why it is that it is so hard just now for poor people to get work? Is it true, what they tell me, that many of the factories in Medchester are closed, and many of those that are open are only working half and three-quarter time?”
“I am afraid that it is quite true, Miss Scott,” he answered. “As for the first part of your question, it is very hard to answer. There seem to be so many causes at work just now.
“But it is the work of the politician surely to analyze these causes.
“It should be,” he answered. “Tell me what has brought this into your mind.”
“Some of the girls in our class,” she said, “are out of work, and those who have anything to do seem to be working themselves almost to death to keep their parents or somebody dependent upon them. Two of them I am anxious about. I have been trying to find them this afternoon. I have heard things, Mr. Brooks, which have made me ashamed—sick at heart—ashamed to go home and think how we live, while they die. And these girls—they have known so much misery. I am afraid of what may happen to them.”
“These girls are mostly boot and shoe machinists, are they not?”
“Yes. But even Mr. Stuart says that he cannot find them work.”
“It is only this afternoon that we have all been discussing this matter,” he said, gravely. “It is serious enough, God knows. The manufacturer tells us that he is suffering from American competition—here and in the Colonies. He tells us that the workpeople themselves are largely to blame, that their trades unions restrict them to such an extent that he is hopelessly handicapped from the start. But there are other causes. There is a terrible wave of depression all through the country. The working classes have no money to spend. Every industry is flagging, and every industry seems threatened with competition from abroad. Do you understand the principles of Free Trade at all?”