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CHAPTER IX

In which I trick a Covent Garden coster; get glorious news from Sidney; and make another sad trip to the hospital.

I SLEPT that night in Covent Garden market, cuddled close to the back of a coster's donkey, which was warm, but caused me great alarm at intervals by wheezing loudly and making as if to turn over upon me. Then I scurried out of the straw and wandered about in the empty, echoing place, feeling very small in the vast dimness among the shadows, until the donkey was quiet again and I could creep back beside.

In the strange eery chill of the morning, while the gas lamps in the streets were still showing dimly through in the fog, the farmers began to come in with their wagons. I hurried about in the darkness of the market, asking each one if I might help him unload the vegetables or hold the horse for a halfpenny, or even for a carrot or raw potato. The horses were large, heavy-footed beasts and their broad, huge-muscled chests towered over me as I held the halters, while every toss of their heads lifted me from the floor. But I held on bravely, very hungry, thinking of the bun I might buy with a halfpenny, and indeed, before the market was light I had two halfpennies and a small assortment of vegetables.

I ate these, and then I went out into the dirty, cobbled streets about the market where the heavy vans were already beginning to rumble by and found an eating-house where, for my penny, I bought not only two buns, but a big mug of very hot coffee as well. As I sat on a stool drinking and taking bites from the buns, the waiter leaned his elbows on the counter and asked me where I had come from and who I was.

"I am an actor," I told him, for this idea was always in the back of my mind. He laughed heartily at this, and I swallowed the rest of the coffee in a hurry, scalding my throat, for I resented his laughing and wished to get away. I put the bits of bun in my pocket and slipped down from the stool, but before I had reached the door the man came around the counter with another bun in his hand.

"'Ere, me pore lad, tike this," he said kindly enough, putting the bun in my pocket. I let him do it, feeling confused and resentful, and ate the bun later, sitting on a box in the market, but I never went back to that eating-house again. I hated to be pitied.

All the months I lived in Covent Garden market I was hungry. I ate eagerly every bit of spoiled fruit or partly decayed vegetable I could find, and sometimes the farmers, amused by my dancing for them while they were eating, would give me crusts from their baskets, but my stomach was never satisfied. The people who came to Covent Garden market were poor, and halfpennies were scarce, though I hunted all day long for small jobs that I could do. Very early in the morning when the farmers first came in was the best time to find them, but sometimes days went by when all I could earn was raw vegetables.

After a time, when the market people knew me, I had permission to sleep in one of the coster's carts, with a sack over me for warmth, but at first I curled up in the straw beside the donkeys. One of the donkeys in particular was quite sleek and fat. His owner took great pride in him, feeding him every day a large portion of carrots, and fondly swearing at him while he ate them. I used to look enviously at that donkey and finally I evolved a great plan.

When the donkey had first begun to munch the carrots, I would scream from the tail of the cart, "Thieves! Thieves! Catch 'im!" and spring away, overturning boxes and making a great commotion. The coster would leave his donkey and come running, excited, and while he was wondering what had happened I would steal slyly up on the other side of the donkey and filch the carrots. The poor beast looked reproachfully at me, wagging his ears and sometimes braying frightfully, but I ran gleefully away, and sitting concealed beneath a wagon, ate his dinner for him to the last bite.

The stupid coster, amazed, would scratch his head and marvel at the donkey's appetite, but I do not remember that he ever failed to run at the cry of "Thieves!" or that I ever failed to make way with the carrots.

Several times that winter I screwed up my courage to attempt getting work on the stage, but after I had walked a long way in the foggy, dripping streets, I would be so cold and wet and so conscious of my rags and of my dirty collar that I turned back to the market again.

Sometimes at long intervals the people at the hospital let me see my mother, but I could not bear to look at her, she was so altered and seemed so strange. She lay quite still, sometimes, and would not speak or answer me when I called to her, so that I thought she was dead, and a great black misery came over me. Sometimes she turned her head from side to side on the pillow and talked to herself in a quick, clear voice about blouses, dozens and dozens of blouses. She never looked at me or seemed to know that I was there, and I came away from the hospital so wretched that I wished never to go back.

Still I went again, as often as they would let me, and one day a marvelous thing happened. The nurse with the flaring white cap took me into a little office and showed me a letter.

"A woman brought it here from the lodgings where your mother lived," she said. "We read it to your mother, but she could not understand, so we saved it for you."

She gave it to me and I read it in great excitement.


"Dear mother," it read. "I am coming back from Africa. I will be home for Christmas Day, with thirty pounds saved, and I am bringing grand presents for you, but I will not tell you what they are. Tell Charlie to look out for his big brother, I have presents for him, too. I will be home two months from to-day, at Waterloo station at nine o'clock. Be sure to have a Christmas pudding ready. Hoping you are all well, I am your dutiful son,

"Sidney.

"Postscript It is a shawl, and there are earrings, too, but I will not tell you what else."


My heart gave a great leap and seemed to choke me, and I trembled so I could not speak. I had not thought of Sidney for a long time, and now he was coming home with money and presents. And thinking of my poor mother, who was so ill and could not, understand the great news, tears came into my eyes so that I had to rub them not to let the nurse see. Then I saw how dirty I was, and ragged, and was ashamed to have Sidney see me.

The nurse kindly told the day, and comparing it with the date of the letter, I saw it was that very evening that Sidney would reach London.

Quivering with excitement, I begged to see my mother again and tell her about it, and when they said I might, I could not walk down the long ward, but must run in my eagerness. "Mother! Mother! Sidney's coming home! With presents for you a shawl, and earrings!" I cried. But it was no use. My mother lay there with her thin drawn face quite still and would not even open her eyes.

So, with a heavy heart, wondering how I was to tell Sidney of all that had occurred, I came out of the hospital and tried to make ready for going to Waterloo station.

I washed my face and hands carefully in a puddle and dried them upon some straw. Then I took some mud and blacked my shoes as well as possible, and the toe which showed so that it would not be so conspicuous. Then my hands must be washed again and my hair combed. I smoothed out my wrinkled clothes as well as I could and tucked in the torn lining of my cap so that it would not show.

All this took much time, so that it was almost dusk before I started to meet Sidney, and I ran most of the way, not to be late, hoping that I would not miss him in all the confusion of the station.


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