“Mr. Pappleworth wants to know how much longer you’re going to be down here playing with the girls, Paul.”
Paul flew upstairs, calling “Good-bye!” and Emma drew herself up.
“It wasn’t me who wanted him to play with the machine,” she said.
As a rule, when all the girls came back at two o’clock, he ran upstairs to Fanny, the hunchback, in the finishing-off room. Mr. Pappleworth did not appear till twenty to three, and he often found his boy sitting beside Fanny, talking, or drawing, or singing with the girls.
Often, after a minute’s hesitation, Fanny would begin to sing. She had a fine contralto voice. Everybody joined in the chorus, and it went well. Paul was not at all embarrassed, after a while, sitting in the room with the half a dozen work-girls.
At the end of the song Fanny would say:
“I know you’ve been laughing at me.”
“Don’t be so soft, Fanny!” cried one of the girls.
Once there was mention of Connie’s red hair.
“Fanny’s is better, to my fancy,” said Emma.
“You needn’t try to make a fool of me,” said Fanny, flushing deeply.
“No, but she has, Paul; she’s got beautiful hair.”
“It’s a treat of a colour,” said he. “That coldish colour like earth, and yet shiny. It’s like bog-water.”
“Goodness me!” exclaimed one girl, laughing.
“How I do but get criticised,” said Fanny.
“But you should see it down, Paul,” cried Emma earnestly. “It’s simply beautiful. Put it down for him, Fanny, if he wants something to paint.”
Fanny would not, and yet she wanted to.
“Then I’ll take it down myself,” said the lad.
“Well, you can if you like,” said Fanny.
And he carefully took the pins out of the knot, and the rush of hair, of uniform dark brown, slid over the humped back.
“What a lovely lot!” he exclaimed.
The girls watched. There was silence. The youth shook the hair loose from the coil.
“It’s splendid!” he said, smelling its perfume. “I’ll bet it’s worth pounds.”
“I’ll leave it you when I die, Paul,” said Fanny, half joking.
“You look just like anybody else, sitting drying their hair,” said one of the girls to the long-legged hunchback.
Poor Fanny was morbidly sensitive, always imagining insults. Polly was curt and businesslike. The two departments were for ever at war, and Paul was always finding Fanny in tears. Then he was made the recipient of all her woes, and he had to plead her case with Polly.
So the time went along happily enough. The factory had a homely feel. No one was rushed or driven. Paul always enjoyed it when the work got faster, towards post-time, and all the men united in labour. He liked to watch his fellow-clerks at work. The man was the work and the work was the man, one thing, for the time being. It was different with the girls. The real woman never seemed to be there at the task, but as if left out, waiting.