“Oh!” Sophia almost shrieked. “Do let’s have mussels and cockles for tea!” And she rushed to the door, and unlocked and opened it, regardless of the risk of draughts to Mr. Povey.
In those days people often depended upon the caprices of hawkers for the tastiness of their teas; but it was an adventurous age, when errant knights of commerce were numerous and enterprising. You went on to your doorstep, caught your meal as it passed, withdrew, cooked it and ate it, quite in the manner of the early Briton.
Constance was obliged to join her sister on the top step. Sophia descended to the second step.
“Fresh mussels and cockles all alive oh!” bawled the hawker, looking across the road in the April breeze. He was the celebrated Hollins, a professional Irish drunkard, aged in iniquity, who cheerfully saluted magistrates in the street, and referred to the workhouse, which he occasionally visited, as the Bastile.
Sophia was trembling from head to foot.
“What are you laughing at, you silly thing?” Constance demanded.
Sophia surreptitiously showed the pliers, which she had partly thrust into her pocket. Between their points was a most perceptible, and even recognizable, fragment of Mr. Povey.
This was the crown of Sophia’s career as a perpetrator of the unutterable.
“What!” Constance’s face showed the final contortions of that horrified incredulity which is forced to believe.
Sophia nudged her violently to remind her that they were in the street, and also quite close to Mr. Povey.
“Now, my little missies,” said the vile Hollins. “Three pence a pint, and how’s your honoured mother to-day? Yes, fresh, so help me God!”
The two girls came up the unlighted stone staircase which led from Maggie’s cave to the door of the parlour. Sophia, foremost, was carrying a large tray, and Constance a small one. Constance, who had nothing on her tray but a teapot, a bowl of steaming and balmy-scented mussels and cockles, and a plate of hot buttered toast, went directly into the parlour on the left. Sophia had in her arms the entire material and apparatus of a high tea for two, including eggs, jam, and toast (covered with the slop-basin turned upside down), but not including mussels and cockles. She turned to the right, passed along the corridor by the cutting-out room, up two steps into the sheeted and shuttered gloom of the closed shop, up the showroom stairs, through the showroom, and so into the bedroom corridor. Experience had proved it easier to make this long detour than to round the difficult corner of the parlour stairs with a large loaded tray. Sophia knocked with the edge of the tray at the door of the principal bedroom. The muffled oratorical sound from within suddenly ceased, and the door was opened by a very tall, very thin, black-bearded man, who looked down at Sophia as if to demand what she meant by such an interruption.