Eulalia was singing as she dried the dishes. She was happy because she had been entrusted with the task, and because the setting sun which shone into the kitchen over the patch of waste ground opposite gave her a pleasant feeling of warmth. Of the song she knew only one line, and of the melody only a few bars, but she was able to fill in the words by adding any others that came into her mind, even though she repeated them over and over again; and she could keep on in an endless up and down rhythm when the few bars of
the music failed her. It was a song that need never finish.
She was twenty-nine, but in mind she was still a child of five or six. She was short and round and very stout, with a large babyish face on which there was almost always a smile of empty content. Her fat hands were clumsy, and she had to dry and polish the dishes very carefully in case one fell from her uncertain grasp and left a wreck on the floor which would be sure to bring down her mother's anger.
As she finished a plate, the door-bell rang. Eulalia opened the door, which led directly to the street, and her beaming smile widened.
"Come in, Aunt Elsie", she said. "My mummy's gone for a message, but she won't be long."
Elsie Shearer stepped into the kitchen with an almost imperceptible shrinking from contact with the idiot girl. She was small and withered, with a worried look permanently, engraved on her face.
"Sit down, auntie", invited Eulalia. "Will I make you a cup of tea?"
"No thank you, Lally", said Mrs.Shearer. She sat down, and, to escape further words for the moment, began to warm her hands at the fire, although the evening was by no means cold.
"Mammy said I should always make a cup of tea", said Eulalia, who was clearly disappointed. "Mammy likes the tea I make."
Mrs. Shearer shuddered slightly. She could never get over her nervousness in Eulalia's presence.
"How's your pussy, Lally?" she asked stiffly.
"Pussy's not well", responded the girl, as if repeating a lesson she had just been taught, and there was silence again, for Elsie Shearer could think of nothing more to say, while Eulalia seemed quite content to go on standing in the middle of the floor and staring at her without a word. After a few minutes a key turned in the lock, and Lally's mother came in.
"Elsie!" she exclaimed in surprise. "Well, you haven't been here for many a day."
"I came to talk with you very privately, May", said Mrs. Shearer, with a glance towards Eulalia which indicated that her presence at this interview was not desired. May looked even more surprised, both at her sister's serious air and at her wish for such excessive privacy. As she gestured meaningly towards Lally, not quite sure if she had really taken up Elsie's meaning correctly, there was a loud crash, and a cup lay shattered on the floor. Lally shrank back guiltily as her mother sprang towards her.
"Careless brat!" said May, and gave her a resounding blow on the head. Lally began to blubber, and went on sulkily with her task.
"I haven't very long to spare", mentioned Mrs. Shearer. "Perhaps Lally would like to go for a walk, or something?"
"She can go down to the grocer's for one or two things", said May, "Wait a minute, I'll write them down."
She hastily tore off a piece from a newspaper, and scribbled something in the margin. Then she took a florin from her purse and wrapped it in the slip. Lally received it beaming, her punishment completely forgotten, and went off, resuming her song as she went.
"She's so stupid", explained her mother. "I can't trust her to remember; sometimes she brings back the wrong thing altogether unless I write it down. I hope she doesn't lose the change.
"She's not much use to you, is she,. May?" asked Mrs. Shearer. "I sometimes think you'd be better off without her. You've a hard enough struggle to feed yourself."
"What can I do?" said May. "I've got to take care of her; after all, she's mine, and nobody else would have her."
"That's what I came to speak about", said Mrs. Shearer. "I know what a hard time you have of it and I have discussed the matter with my husband. He knows of a good home where we could send Lally, a place where she would be well looked after, given some work she can do, and kept out of mischief. You could visit her from time to time, but there's no need to give anything towards keeping her. My husband will see to that."
"But I couldn't let him", said May. "It's too much to expect of Jack. Besides, she does her bit about the place, you know."
"Not at all", said Elsie, ignoring the feeble objection which made itself apparent in the last remark. "My husband is quite willing. And he's your brother-in-lawwe've all got a duty towards our own people."
"It's so sudden", May said hesitantly. "I'm used to Lally; and she does no harm."
"But she doesthat's the trouble", cut in Elsie sharply. "She doesn't know how strong she is. You must have heard some of the complaintsall the children are afraid of her. The least thing puts her in a rage with them, and she's left the mark of her hand many a time. And the shopkeepers say she steals from their doors."
"If they'd let her alone she'd do nothing", answered May hotly. "She maybe takes an apple now and then from Pearson's, or a handful of sweets from the counter when she's in the dairy, but it's no more than the kids round about do. If they wouldn't drive her crazy shouting after her and calling her 'Daft Lally', she'd never touch them."
"It's the nature of children", said Mrs. Shearer, shaking her head. "They don't understand these things as we do. You're her mother, and you are willing to take her side, but you can't deny that there are plenty of complaints. If you don't let us help you she'll be taken away some day, and then think of the shame!"
"Well, maybe. It's hard to decide all at once", May sighed. "And she's another mouth to feed, there's no doubt about that. If she could even help me in the work, or something, it wouldn't be so bad."
"You think it over, May", advised Mrs. Shearer, rising to go now that she had got her sister into a favourable frame of mind.. "And remember, if anything happened to you, Lally would still be all right at the home. We never know what the future holds, do we? Anyway, I'll come down tomorrow, and you can let me know what you decide."
May let her out, and she walked briskly down the street. Two children ran past, and suddenly stopped just behind her. She heard one of them say, "There's Daft Lally!"
Eulalia was coming to meet her, carrying a few packages, and with her change, carefully wrapped by the grocer in the slip of newspaper, clasped tightly in her fat hand. She saw her aunt at once, and approached with a directness which made it impossible to dodge her.
"I was talking to a policeman", she announced importantly, "Do you think my mammy will be angry with me for taking so long?"
"I don't think so, Lally", answered Elsie. "You haven't been so very long, have you?"
"She might hit me", Lally said. "Do you think she will hit me?"
Elsie was conscious of the fact that two of her neighbours were standing across the road, and could have sworn that they were not only watching this interview with eager eyes, but were even estimating and appraising the depths of the blush of shame which flowed into her cheeks. She was burning with impatience to dismiss the idiot, and trembling lest the girl should continue her aimless talk, as she knew her to be quite capable of doing.
"Go home, now, Lally", she said harshly. "I think your mother has something to show you."
Thus provoked to curiosity, Lally hastened on to her home, and Mrs. Shearer quickly turned down a side street where she could be free from the inquisitive following gaze of her acquaintances. She felt stifled with the heat of her anger and shame. Was it not enough that she should be known as the girl's aunt, without having to be stopped in the street and made an exhibition of by her sister's illegitimate daughter? She hated her, and she hated May. All her life it had been the same; always May had been the instrument of her humiliation. May had never been as smart as Elsie, who was nearly three years her junior.
Elsie had been clever about the house, while May was always clumsy. And it was strange that now May should be the one who had to earn her living by washing stairs and doing cleaning, while Elsie had her own home and could even afford a daily help. But it was no thanks to May that she was so well placed; May had almost ruined her chances of a good husband. If she had not been so young at the time, if the scandal had not died down before she reached the age for marriage, then nobody like Jack Shearer would ever have asked her.
Elsie remembered the time well. She had been fourteen, May nearly seventeen. She hadn't quite understood the scenes at home, with May and her mother in tears, and her father
storming with rage. Their mother had seen to it that Elsie went out to play before the discussions began. She only known for a time that May had done something wrong, but there were often rows at home, and she was too glad not to be the cause of all this wrath to care very much. May would tell her about it later on, she supposed.
But May never mentioned it. Even when presently the girls at school began to talk about her sister, Elsie scarcely understood. It was all so obliquejust little remarks that wouldn't have meant much but for the tone in which they were delivered. Elsie never knew whether she guessed for herself, or whether some unusually frank remark brought enlightenment. But when the realization came, she experienced that queer sick sort of shudder she had sometimes felt when a few of the girls got together and discussed in as much detail as they knew the various women in the neighbourhood who were in an interesting condition.
It has not been wholly an unpleasant feeling then; there was a certain amount of excitement in it. Elsie knew that several girls int he surrounding streets had had children before they were married, but it had never occurred to her as a thing which could come so near home. She was afraid to speak to her mother, for she was not supposed to know anything. But when her mother found that she refused to have anything to do with May, avoided her schoolmates, and often wept, the reason could be hidden no longer.
Crushed and wretched under her humiliation as the sister of a "bad" girl, Elsie cried out that she would not stay in the same house as May, that the other girls laughed at her, that she couldn't stand it any longer. There was another scene. Elsie had memories of May sobbing begging not to be sent away, crying out that she couldn't help it, she hadn't meant to, and her mother telling her bitterly that she knew well enough to be careful. The result was that May went off to an aunt who lived in a distant part of the city, and who disliked all young people intensely but was willing to have her work done for no more than a little food.
Elsie was unable to face a return to school, and found work in a factory. She grew into a winsome girl, lively, fresh and rosy, soon to be one of the most popular at the local dances and parties. When she was nineteen she married her foreman, and from then on her position was established.
She had scarcely ever seen May and the child; their mother went occasionally to visit the aunt and at the same time saw her daughter. She had told Elsie that the child was a girl, and that May wanted to call her "Eulalia". Elsie scoffed. What a name! Like some of the things you got at school, she thought. May thought it sounded like the pictures, which encouraged her mother to repeat a favourite remark of hers to the effect that the pictures were the ruin of many a senseless girl. She was proud of Elsie when she made a successful match, even though Jack sometimes came home a bit cheery on a Saturday night.
It had been inevitable, of course, that Jack Shearer should know about May and Eulalia, but it did not matter so much when they were at a distance. Elsie had been married for some years, and was rejoicing in the birth of her third child and first daughter, when her mother died, and May came with Lally to stay in the two-roomed house where been brought up. It was unfortunately near Elsie's home, for by some oversight the little row of cottages had been left standing in a district where tall new tenements-were being built. May kept herself to herself, and the child Lally was carefully pushed into the background. This was not so difficult when she turned out to be a backward child, who never went out to play but sat either in the house or on the doorstep when she came back from her special school.
May was meek and uncomplaining, and Elsie was not eager to establish friendly relations. Life flowed very smoothly for Elsie, busy as she was with her house, her family, her husband, and her friends. Her three sons grew up, studied, and settled into good jobs, while Mary, her twenty-year-old daughter, was a typist, and very friendly with her chiefso friendly that Elsie had decided hopes of repeating her own success in her daughter. It had all been quite serene until the day when she had met May and Lally in the street. May had a bad look; she looked very frail, and the exertion of climbing the sloping street made her pant and gasp for breath.
She must be working too hard, thought Elsie, as they talked, with Lally gyrating impatiently around them, she was trying to think of some way in which she could help. It was hardly fair that May should be visited so mercilessly by the mistake of her youth, and she could easily afford to do something. But it was difficult to just how to do it. The shabbiness of May's cheap coat struck her suddenly.
"I'm sure you won't mind, May", she said" but I've got a I coat haven't worn muchit would would fit you, and would save you buying one for the winter. Would you like to try it on? I assure it's just wasted lying at home."
Strange, she thought now, that so much trouble could come of act of simple kindness. It almost as if you weren't meant to interfere. If May had come up then for the coat, everything would have been all right. But May was in a hurry; she had some cleaning to do, and could not disappoint her employer. She suggested that Lally should go with her aunt, and take the coat back to the house. Lisle never failed to feel creepy with Lallythere was something so horrible, she thought, in the sight of this woman of thirty who acted as if she were only a childbut there was no drawing back now.
Lally proudly took her arm, and they went off, Elsie walked as fast as she could so that the hot weight leaning on her arm should be removed as soon as possible. Her house as a source of wonder and delight to Lally, who had never been in a place like it before. She touched everything, was amazed at the canary who sang above the kitchen sink, and greedy at the sight of the cake which stood on the dresser. Elsie was too glad to get rid of her to deny her a slice of the cake, and Lally went away happily munching.
It was only to be expected, Elsie realized clearly, that the memory of the wonderful house, and especially the attraction of the cake, should bring about what had happened. Yet at the time she had never dreamt of it. A few days later Lally knocked at her door in the middle of the morning. Thinking she brought some message from May, Elsie invited her into the kitchen, where Lally immediately seated herself and began her interminable meaningless conversation. She asked the same foolish questions over and over again, and looked always at the spot where the cake had lain on her last visit.
"What is it you've come for, Lally?" Elsie asked at last in desperation. "Is it something your mother wants?"
Lally looked at her vacantly, and said, "I like coming to see you, auntie. Will I bring my mammy next time?"
Elsie saw there was no sense to be got out of her, so she handed her a slice of the cake and Lally went off singing her little song and beaming complacently.
Elsie was furious and embarrassed when the visits became a regular thing. She was nervous of Lally, and her presence in the house kept her in a continual state of tension, to which was added the fear that the clumsy hands might smash some object of value. She contrived to see May and to hint that Lally might be kept under better control. For a while after that the visits ceased, and then one day in early summer the idiot girl, appeared again. Elsie shut the door in her face. It was the last time she dared to do such a thing, for Eulalia began to weep and shout on the stairs, screaming like a child in a temper, until for decency's sake Elsie was forced to take her into the house and quieten her with an orange.
She began to grow peevish, and dreaded that Lally might walk into the house when some of her friends were visiting. It was generally known in the neighbourhood that she was the girl's aunt, but the fact was not encouraged to come to the surface of the local consciousness, until now when Lally seemed determined to assert her claim on her aunt. When she saw Elsie in the street, she always hastened to speak to her. Soon she came to know Mary, who was a nervous girl and even more afraid of the idiot than her mother was. Mary often ran into a shop if she saw Lally coming, and was afraid to come up the stairs when she thought she might meet her.
The climax of the whole affair came when Mary invited her chief to the house for the first time. Elsie felt that this settled the business; he was definitely interested in Mary, and it was her duty as a wise mother to let him see that the girl came from a good and respectable home; that she was, in fact, a girl whom he could ask to be his wife without any misgiving.
Her preparations were almost completed. The table was laid in the sitting-room, with fresh linen and shining cutlery. Fruit and sweetscold meat for the high teaeverything was ready. Elsie was in the kitchen carefully pouring sauce into a dainty sauce-bottle when the door-bell rang. It was Lally. Daft Lally walked into the kitchen and took her usual chair.
"The yellow bird's not singing"; she said, in the thick, blurred voice. "Is he sleeping?"
Elsie looked in horror at the clock. In a few minutes Mary and her friend would arrive. Lally could not be hidden; she would be sure to go out and investigate the new arrivals, and equally sure to greet Mary enthusiastically. What a welcome to a respectable home: Elsie wanted to weep.
"Lally, I want you to run home to your mother right away", she said emphatically. "Your mother wants you.
"I want to see the bird. Is he sleeping?" asked Lally.
"You can't stay here just now, Lally", sai4 Elsie firmly. "Come, now, here's an apple."
Lally took the apple. "Does he sing all night? Why does he not sing just now?" she demanded.
Elsie sat down, suddenly feeling that things had got beyond her. At that moment the outer door was heard to open, and her husband came in. He had seen Lally several times before, and cordially disliked her. Now, at a word from his wife, he took charge of Lally and marched her home. She was always more easily influenced by a man, and followed him without much trouble.
It was after the ensuing discussion with her husband that night that Elsie made her visit to her sister's on the following evening, and the results had been all she had hoped for. May was obviously yielding. It could not be very good for May having that great, idle, useless girl around the house, and with her queer nature there must always be the fear that she would break out sometime. May wouldn't be left entirely alone; there were the neighbours, and she had. the cat to keep her company.
Elsie had noticed that the cat was having kittens, again, and she wondered that May did not have something done about it. But then May never seemed able to control anything; she simply got along and let things happen to her. Elsie was feeling soothed and pleased when she finally reached her own home. It did look as if the rough patch were crossed at last.
The summer was nearly over when Elsie remembered that she had not seen her sister for over a month. At first when Lally had gone away she had been in the habit of slipping down to May's once or twice a week fairly regularly, and had even gone with May at times to visit Lally at the home. It had been rather a nuisance the last time, for May had determined to take Lally the only surviving member of the cat's latest litter, and it had needed all Elsie's tact and firmness to dissuade her. Kittens were not wanted at the home, the inmates were not allowed to have pets.
"Lally loves them," May said. "She's always so gentle with them, and the old cat doesn't mind if she touches them. This is the only one that's left, tooI got the grocer to take the others away. Now this one's old enough to be a companion for Lally."
"Lally doesn't need companion; there are plenty of others in the home if, she feels lonely", said Elsie in the sharp tone she often found herself adopting towards her sister. She felt a slight
contempt for a woman who could not bring herself to do the necessary job of drowning an unwanted kitten, and instead had to get the grocer to 'take them away'. In the first place , she thought , the cat should be kept in the house .People should be more careful of bringing life into the world.
After this visit she found herself too busy to see May, although now and then she sent the daily help down with some soup in a can, or a little fruit . Her kindness to May increased, even though she could not feel fond of her. Then there was Mary's wedding. That took up a lot of her time; there was so much to prepare and there were so many things to see to. May, who had been so important, became now a very small figure in Elsie's busy life.
Now, however, she felt that she had been neglecting her duty, and she decided to go down to May's that very evening. It was a cool and bracing day, and very pleasant for walking. Elsie felt a quiet melancholy to watch the dying day as she passed down the street and turned into the long road which would bring her to her sister's.
It was only a fortnight since Mary had gone off on her honeymoon, and just at first there was naturally a difference in the house. Once the young couple came back and settled down, she would be able to see more of Mary. At present, in fact, one might almost say that she and May were in the same positionbut, of course, the idea was absurd. Yet although she dismissed it at once, the passing of the thought lent a tinge of patronizing kindliness to the attitude she was unconsciously assuming for her visit.
She entered the side street, which as usual resounded with the cries of children. Two small boys had captured a kitten, and were trying to adorn it with a paper frill. The little animal struggled, clawed, and tried to run away, only to be hauled back by the tail, while its dirty fur stood on end. Elsie was about to order the boys to let it go, and prepared to accompany her command with a sharp cuff on the ear of the nearest, when she was suddenly pushed roughly against the wall, and a heavy panting, body rushed past her.
She heard the sound of a hard smack, and when she recovered, the boys were running across the street, and the kitten was in the arms of a short stout figure, which was clutching it fiercely and stammering furiously at the retreating boys. They reached the other pavement, and stopped.
"Daft Lally! Da-aft Lally!" they shouted.
Elsie experienced a shock which almost unnerved her, apart from the jostling she had had. She leaned against the wall when Lally came up to her with the usual demonstrations of affection and held out the kitten to be admired.
"Are you coming to see my mammy?" she asked.
"What are you doing here, Lally?" demanded Elsie, forgetting that she could not hope to elicit a sensible reply from the girl.
Lally did not answer, but took her arm, and pressing heavily against her, led her down the street towards the house. The door was open, and they saw May bending over her washing in the sink.
"May", began Elsie at once. "What has happened? Has Lally run away?"
May straightened slowly and painfully, as if her spine had become permanently bent, and she feared it might break if she drew it upright too hastily.
"Sit down, Elsie", she invited. "I'm afraid you'll be sorry, but I brought Lally home with me to-day."
"But, May, I'm bewildered", said Elsie. "I can't understand why you should do such a thing. Lally seemed quite happy."
"I don't know - you never can tell with her", May said. "But well, I found I missed her. Oh, it's not that she's much use, but she's always somebody to talk to, somebody of my own flesh and blood. I just got used to having her in the house, and letting her wash up the dishes, or run a message when I was too tired to go myself. Then I told her about the kitten, and she was daft to see it."
"The kitten!" said Elsie. 'Tell, May, I must say I think you're very foolish. There was Lally nicely settled for life, and you free from trouble, and you've got to go and bring her back. Then you tell me it was because she wanted to see a kitten. It's my belief you're almost as bad as she is."
"I'm sorry, Elsie. I do appreciate your kindnessand Jack's" replied May. "But I'd rather go on as we are. Just think, you've lost your Mary nowyou should know how I feel."
Although the idea had occurred to her vaguely before, it had seemed to Elsie so absurd that she had not entertained it for a moment. There was no comparison, absolutely none, between Mary and Lally; the one a girl from a good comfortable home who had just made an excellent marriage, the other a casual imbecile brat, no use to anyone in this world. Really, May went a bit too far at times. Elsie rose to go.
Eulalia was sitting on the hearth-rug playing with the kitten, which was trying to bite her fingers while she scratched its ears affectionately. She was singing to herself, chanting the same mixture of words and meaningless sounds over and over again to a monotonous little tune.
It was a song that went on for ever, a song that could never finish because it had no need of an end.
from IN PRINT 1939