Harkives Summer Serial: ‘Connie’, Instalment VI

Labour Elector header

This year’s summer serial is an unfinished story Harkness contributed to the Labour Elector from June 1893. It ran until the periodical folded in January 1894. At the time of ‘Connie’s appearance, the periodical was again under the editorship of Harkness’s close political and personal acquaintance Henry Hyde Champion. She had previously contributed to the Labour Elector (see, for instance, her article on ‘The Loafer’), but this appears to have been her only serial contribution to the periodical, and the only piece of fiction she produced for it.

The story of Connie, an actress subject to economic as well as sexual exploitation, recalls themes from Harkness’s earlier work, including her descriptions of young women’s working conditions in Toilers in London (1889), and fiction including A City Girl (1887) as well as ‘A Pantomime Child’. Like A City Girl and ‘Roses and Crucifix’, the story explores the power balance in a cross-class relationship. Central to the story is the dependent role into which Connie is forced by late nineteenth-century society: she depends on her employer for the work that she needs to maintain herself financially, and this allows him to exploit her. She also relies, first on her father, and later on other characters, for shelter – a point that is repeatedly emphasised as her shelter and security are arbitrarily taken away from her.

A discussion of ‘Connie’, led by Dr Deborah Mutch, took place as part of the ‘In Harkness’ London’ Symposium held at Birkbeck, University of London, on 22 November 2014. Interested readers will find the discussion questions on the text here.

 

Source: John Law [Margaret Harkness], ‘Connie’, Labour Elector, November 1893, pp. 10-12. Microfilm available via the British Library.

 

 

CONNIE.

BY JOHN LAW,

Author of “A City Girl,” “Captain Lobe,” “Little Tim’s Christmas,” “His First Day’s Wages,” etc., etc.

CHAPTER XIII. – Continued

“If I could but die!” said Connie. “Our home” he had called the cottage only two nights before, while they were sitting in the arbour looking at the lights in the sitting-room. If she had told him then about her secret, she had put off speaking in the hope that he would guess what the doctor had said to her when she felt ill, and went to fetch some medicine. She had hidden things from him, and he had only noticed that she looked pale and languid. If she had spoken that night while he was talking about their happiness, while she sat on his knee in the arbour, and all seemed so calm and happy around them, perhaps he would not have been so cruel. He had never said anything to her of this lady he was going to marry, this “girl in his own position,” although he had talked to her of his father, his sister, Mr. Grey, and his grand friends and relations. Why had he been silent about her?

“So he did not marry me because he meant to marry her; he only wanted to play with me,” thought Connie. “Why did I trust him? Why was I so foolish”

She looked at the photograph once again, then she went down stairs. The dogs did not at first recognise her in the old dress, but directly she spoke to them they barked and jumped about thinking she was going for a walk. She say down on the lowest step of the staircase, and put her arms around them. They could not speak, and call her their master’s mistress, as his sister had done. Presently she got up, and went quickly out of the door, leaving the dogs barking and whining in the cottage. She unlocked the garden gate, and when she had locked it on the outside she threw the key of it into a rose-bush.

Humphry had his own key, and she did not want to take anything of his away with her. She had not thought of where she would go or what she would do, but she turned her steps towards London. On Kew Bridge she stood still to consider. Alone, without a penny in her purse, what would become of her? Should she go to her father? No! To the landlady with whom she had lodged after leaving him? Yes. The woman had been very kind to her, and would, no doubt, take her in until she could find work. Of course, she could not get a theatrical engagement, but she could go as a matcher to some Jewish tailor, or as a day servant in a shop. It was getting late, so she must hurry on to the lodging-house.

She walked from Kew to Hammersmith, and then to Kensington, feeling faint for she had had no dinner, but without stopping until she reached Piccadilly. The lodging-house was near Leicester Square, in a back street not far from the Alhambra Theatre.

She rang the bell, and then supported herself against the railings until the door was opened. A strange servant came to answer the bell, and the girl said the landlady had left the house, and gone away to the country. The door was shut and she was left on the doorstep.

It was nine o’clock and growing dark when she turned int the Strand and stood outside a shop, looking into the window while she asked herself where she could find a night’s lodging. Anything seemed to be better than her father’s rooms. He would give her a poor welcome if he found out that she had no money in her pocket. Possibly the dresser at the theatre would her; but the woman would not leave the theatre much before midnight, unless some dancer wanted a glass of beer or some fish and potatoes. She could not wait all that time outside the stage door, because the Boss might see her. She would walk up and down in the neighbourhood of the fish shop patronised by the dancers, in the hope that the dresser would be sent on an errand, and at half past eleven, she would go to the stage door. No other plan suggested itself to her, for she was hungry and tired, too exhausted to think much about anything but the quickest way to find a night’s lodging.

Soon she was in the neighbourhood that had been her home from the childhood, Drury Lane. Her father and mother had lived there ever since she could remember; she had grown up in its dingy streets, wandering from house to house, whenever her parents could find lodgings. Bother her father and mother had been in the Profession, and at the time of her birth they had played good parts in the provinces; but their prospects had been spoiled by her father’s drunken habits. She remembered her mother pleading for half the money she brought home from her first pantomime, and her father putting it all into his pocket. Her mother had loved him with a cringing affection, but she had always despised him, although she had helped her mother to keep him out of the workhouse. She had loved her mother, and the saddest day of her life had been when the undertaker’s men dragged her mother’s coffin down the steep stairs of the lodging-house to the hearse. After the funeral her eyes had grown so sad she had been afraid to look at them in the glass. But what she had felt then was sadness, not in the dull despair that had now taken possession of her, but for her mother’s death had had no other bitter memories attached to it.

She went to the fish-shop and walked up and down outside, hoping that the dresser would come to fetch a “snack” for a dancer who needed refreshment between the acts. Not far off was a public-house frequented by the dancers. Men had often offered to treat her there, and they had called her “stuck up” when she refused to drink wth them. They had not known that her home reeked with spirits, that the cupboards of her father’s lodgings were full of empty gin bottles.

Men and women passed in and out of the fish-shop with dishes, and children lingered at the door, hoping that some kindhearted person would give them a farthing to buy some fried potatoes. The smell of fish made her feel sick, for hunger had left her. The dresser did not come, and the last she grew too tired to walk up and down any more; so she sat down on a doorstep between the public house and the fish-shop and laid her head against the wall. People took no notice of her, for they were intent on their own business; they saw a girl in black sitting on a doorstep, and they passed on. The sight was not uncommon.

The clock struck eleven. Then she got up and dragged herself to the stage door of the theatre, and stood not far from it waiting for the dresser. Humphry Munro had often waited for her in the same place at some little distance from the street lamp.

A policeman passed by and he told her to “move on,” but the words fell mechanically from his lips, and he did not wait to see them put into practice. So she stood still until the stage door was thrown open; then she drew near to to scan the faces of the people who were hurrying out of the theatre. She recognised some of the women, but where was her friend the dresser? The woman did not come. At last the door was shut, and she heard someone inside lock and bolt it.

It was useless to wait longer, so she turned away, knowing that she must pass the night out of doors. Should she go to the Thames Embankment and find a seat? No policeman would disturb her there, and she could go to sleep. Yes, she would go there, for she was getting faint, and her feet would not carry her much further.

A church clock struck twelve when she came to Piccadilly Circus, where a crowd of men and women surged up and down, making it difficult for her to keep on the pavement. At the Haymarket she stood still but not for long, for she found a man at her elbow. There was no place where she could rest before reaching the river, so she staggered on without heeding the man who followed her.

At last she came to Charing Cross. She had not far to go then, only down one more street, before coming to the benches. There was nothing to pay for a bed on the Embankment, because it is “The Beggars’ Metropole.”

The air began to grow cold, for much ran had fallen, and a chilly wind met her as she came near the river. She wrapped the cloak closely round her while she walked slowly down the street to the Embankment. There she laid her head on the stone parapet, for she was overcome with dizziness. A man with white hair spoke to her and he would not go away, so she crept to a bench where an old woman had taken refuge, and there she sat down, thinking that she would go to sleep and gorget her wretchedness.

But sleep would not come at her bidding. Her aching limbs might rest, but her memory grew active while her body rested. She had trusted Humphry Munro and staked her happiness on his word, believing in his faithfulness. He had gone away, leaving her to face the future by herself, a future that terrified her with its strangeness. However long the night might be, morning must come, and then she must go on again and walk about until she found some sort of employment. She knew this, and in sharp contrast to the future came a vision of the cottage at Kew where she had been so happy with Humphry.

Above her was a cloudy sky, no stars could be seen in the heavens, for another storm was coming. Heavy drops of rain began to fall, and the wind died away. She put the hood of her cloak over her head and curled herself up on the seat beside the old woman.

Soon a shower came, and the ran soaked through the cloak, wetting her to her skin. The old move moved uneasily, but did not wake up, and Connie wished that sleep would visit her as it had done her neighbour.

The city became quiet; only now and then the rumble of a cab could be heard or the noise of a shrill whistle. The strokes of Big Ben came in solemn tones up the river. The lamps grew dim, and a glimmer of daylight appeared in the east. She dozed for an hour, and when she opened her eyes it was early morning. Then she sat up, racked with pain, and wondering where she was and what happened.

She left the bench and went to the stone parapet. There she laid her head down and began to cry. Tears came fast, for she was exhausted, hot tears that seemed to burn her face and hands.

“Dear, what is it?” someone asked.

She looked up, and saw a smartly-dressed girl standing beside her.

“Why are you crying?” the girl asked Connie.

“Because I have no money to pay for a night’s lodging,” Connie answered.

“Oh, I’m sorry! Come home with me,” the girl said. “You’ll catch your death of cold in these wet clothes. I’ll give you a bed, dear, at all events.”

Connie did not answer.

“Won’t you come?” the girl asked again. Connie tried to speak, but no words left her lips; she swooned, and fell heavily against the stone parapet.

CHAPTER XIV

BESS AND FLORA

When she came to herself it was midday. She had been dimly conscious of a cab jolting a long distance and of a cabman who carried her up some steps; then she had forgotten everything, for she had fallen fast asleep. She had slept for hours; so at last when she opened her eyes, it was twelve o’clock.

Not far from her two girls were sitting speaking in whispers. A bottle of champagne was on a table, and while they talked the girls filled their glasses. They looked from time to time at Connie, and directly she opened her eyes they came to bed.

“How are you now, dear?” asked the dark, handsome girl who had spoken to her on the Embankment.

Connie tried to raise herself in bed, but fell back upon the pillows.

“Fetch a cup of tea,” the eldest girl said to her companion.

The younger girl left the room so quickly, Connie could not see what she looked like.

“You must not talk,” the eldest girl told Connie; “you must lie down and wait till Flora comes back. My name is Bess.”

Connie slipped back into bed, and lay watching Bess, who returned to her seat. On the table beside the champagne bottle was a large white rat whisking its tail between the glasses.

“A medical student gave this rat to Flora,” explained Bess. “It has been vivisected. Look, it has lost an ear, and its head is full of holes. Flora loves it more than any of her pets; she has a whole menagerie downstairs.”

Flora came back with a teapot in her hand, and a small mongrel dog under her arm She poured some tea into a cup and brought it to Connie. Bess propped Connie up with pillows, and the two girls sat on the bed, helping their visitor to milk and sugar. The white rat ran down the table on to the floor and up Flora’s dress. It settled itself on her shoulder, and whisked its tail round its pink ears.

“Isn’t it a pretty beast?” Flora asked Connie.

Then she made the mongrel show Connie its tricks, and fed it with bits of sugar.

“What sort of a god is it?” Connie asked.

“I don’t know,” answered Flora. “But I know it’s a very purse breed; the man who gave it to me said so.”

“All Flora’s friends give her animals,” said Bess, looking affectionately at her friend while she was speaking. “You shall see the menagerie when you get up. She has birds and white mice and pet lizard downstairs.”

Both girls wore smart wrappers, made of bright coloured satin trimmed with lace. Flora was small, and looked delicate; she resembled a wax doll, for she had fluffy hair and blue eyes without any sort of expression in them. Her pouting lips were dyed crimson, and her eyelids were painted black. She had cut her eyelashes, so her eyes seemed to stare out of their lids like a doll’s glass eyeballs. Bess was tall and well moulded, with magnificent arms and bust. She had a defiant expression in her face, a sort of recklessness, and hard lines marked her mouth, although she was still young.

Connie looked at the girls, and they smiled back at her. Flora dropped sugar into her cup, and Bess held the milk jug. They asked her no questions about herself, but talked to her like old acquaintances.

“You’re prettier than ether of us,” said Bess.

“What lovely gold curls you’ve got!” said Flora.

So they chatted to Connie for half an hour; then Bess suggested that they had all better go to sleep.

One girl lay down on a sofa, the other sat in an armchair, and before long they were dozing. Connie watched them. The rat rested on Flora’s shoulder and the mongrel lay in her lap.

Connie closed her eyes, but soon she opened them again and looked around the room. It was very untidy. Clothes lay on the chairs and floor, scraps of food and dirty glasses, bits of cigars and gaudy feather were on the table. Bright crimson curtains shut out the daylight. The room was in some respects comfortable, almost luxurious, but littered about with odds and ends and rubbish.

The girls slept for an hour, then Bess woke up.

“You must be famished,” she said to Connie.

“I’ll go and get some dinner.”

She put on her hat and jacket and went downstairs, telling Flora to get the table ready.

When the front door shut with a bang the little mongrel began to bark.

“He’s hungry, poor beast!” said Flora, “and he thinks it’s the cats’-meat man. Isn’t he beautiful?”

Connie sat up in bed to look at the mongrel. Then for the first time she realised what had happened. She had left the dogs and the cottage!

Tears would come; she could not stop them from rolling down her cheeks, for she was so weak. The room seemed to move round her, and she would have lost consciousness again if Flora had not come quickly to the bed with a glass.

“Here’s some brandy,” said Flora. “Drink it up; you’ll be alright in a minute.”

“You are both so good,” sobbed Connie.

“Good!” cried Flora, laughing. “That’s a joke, isn’t it? Get up and put on a wrapper. You’ll be better when you’ve had something to eat. Believe you’re starved. I know what it is to be hungry myself; nothing makes one feel so miserable as being hungry.”

Soon they had dinner, hot mutton and roast potatoes that Bess brought from an eating-house. The girls drank brandy with their dinner, and afterwards they took “Cognac neat.”

“Now come and see the house,” Bess said after dinner. We have the whole place to ourselves, and the landlady only comes once a week for the rent.”

She led the way, followed by Connie, and Flora came in the rear with the god and the white rat. The house was only partly furnished. Some of the rooms were not used at all. A sitting -room on the ground floor had an unused look, and seemed to be meant more for show than comfort. The most comfortable room was the kitchen.

“We sit here in the winder,” Bess said. “Now it’s too hot.”

In the scullery Flora had her menagerie of white mice and puppies. A tame lizard lived there in a box, and Flora let it wind itself round her wrist. She sat down on the floor to play with the puppies and to feed the mice, calling Connie’s attention to their cleverness and beauty. Bess looked on with a smile that seemed to say: “I put up with these things because they please Flora.”

“I don’t care for animals myself,” she explained to Connie.

The afternoon worse away, and it was dark before they went upstairs again. All this time the girls asked Connie no questions about herself. They waited for her to speak. She was welcome to bed and food because she was in trouble, or she might stay until she was rested and then go silently away if she did not wish to give them her confidence.

“We won’t go out tonight, it’s so wet,” Bess said to Flora.

(To be continued.)

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