The Clerk of Assize had to have some way of relieving the tedium of administering the same oath year after year. His habit was to stand for nearly a minute inspecting the jury and weighing it up; then he would administer the oath rather slowly, watching each juror and trying to estimate how well he would do his work. He flattered himself he could always spot the fool or the fanatic who would hold out in a minority of one and prevent a decision.
To-day he paused as usual and looked at the row of respectable persons awaiting his instructions. Two women, one rather handsome man, two rather elderly men—nothing out of the ordinary. A very commonplace jury, he reflected. But there, for that very reason it was probably likely to do all the better. No surprises, and no strange persons on the jury meant no surprises and no freakishness when the verdict came.
He cleared his throat and turned to the first, a severe looking, very plain middle-aged woman in black, wearing glasses. “Victoria Mary Atkins,” he said, “repeat after me…”
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“Oxford and Cambridge are two delightful towns, dominated by the Universities and retaining much of their medieval character.” This is a lie, as you would know if you had lived in Coronation Street, Cambridge, as Victoria Mary Atkins did. The life of the university has, and had when she was born, nothing, nothing whatever, to do with the life of the town—not of such streets as Coronation Street, anyway. And there was nothing medieval about that unbroken line of yellow-brick little houses, flush on the street, and each one identical with the other. Except insofar as wretchedness, darkness and dirt are medieval.
Victoria was the fifth of nine children; her father died when she was eleven. He was an unskilled labourer, and no loss to any one. His wages, when in work, had averaged 21s. a week and he drank. He beat his children, and his wife, with a strap, but Victoria did not hold that against him. Being beaten was after all a natural thing to happen to any child. With a bit of sneaking and slyness you could often enough get bigger children into trouble and see your grudges avenged; an occasional sore behind yourself was a small price to pay. No; it was not the beatings which Victoria held against her father. It was the continual hunger which made her grow pinched and rickety, the shame of existing for months on relief, the worse shame of dressing in rags, and an earlier violence that she could not remember, which had resulted in one of her legs being slightly shorter than another.
Even so, father was a less dangerous enemy than mother. Father was at least away at work sometimes, and sometimes harmlessly drunk or even jolly. Mother was never away for more than a few minutes from the two rooms which were home, and was never anything but sour. Father was not “noticing”; Mother was, and what’s more would twist your arm till you screamed if you sulked and wouldn’t answer.
Two years after her father’s death Victoria slapped her mother’s face, scratched her cheek, and tripped her over the coal scuttle. She had realized that at thirteen she was probably as strong as her mother, and certainty quicker witted. While her mother was picking herself up from the scuttle, she didn’t run away; fists clenched, breathing very fast and a little frightened she stood her ground. When her mother, instead of attacking her began to scream “You wicked, wicked girl!” she knew that she had won. Hence-forward she was free. One of her two elder brothers might perhaps belt her now and again, but that would be all. She could run about the streets like a dog if she chose.
But beyond petty thieving, from which she had never been discouraged, there was not much harm that an ugly little girl could come to in Cambridge in 1911. She was dirty, dressed in patches, with twisted front teeth, a limp, and a hideous slum accent. She was known to have a nasty temper. Naturally she found few companions. The freedom of the streets after a year had become a bore, and she was not really distressed (though she complained on principle) when it was suddenly ended.
Mother collapsed on the stairs one Monday morning. The ambulance fetched her away and her family was told she would never come back; in fact, she died in the infirmary.
The Guardians had resented their statutory obligation to feed and care for this shiftless and overlarge family; they had evaded doing it properly as long as they could; now they could not avoid it any more. But at least they made every effort they could to put the burden elsewhere. They cajoled and bullied Aunt Ethel, a square-shaped woman of nearly forty who kept a shop in Cherry Hinton, to come down to the house with their representative, a bright and experienced woman of middle age. The two found the family, or what was left of it, under the reluctant care of a neighbour, Mrs. Elizabeth Saunders.
“And glad I am to see you,” said Mrs. Saunders. “Not one minute longer will I stay with such a dirty and disagreeable lot of children. There are very few would be so Christian as to look after them as I have done, with no obligations whatever. And now you have come, I’ll leave you with them and nothing more will I do.”
Surprised at this vehemence, the Guardians’ lady began to say she was sure every one was very grateful, and much appreciated all that Mrs. Saunders—but she realized she was speaking to a departing back and gave it up.
“Now, my dears,” she said briskly, “your Aunt Ethel has very kindly come in from Cherry Hinton, and we must all get together and have a nice comfy talk and settle what to do while your poor Mummy is ill. I thought there would be some older children here,” she added inquiringly. “Are you Violet?” she said to the one who appeared to be the eldest.
The girl addressed dribbled and made a kind of mooing noise.
“That’s Lily,” said Aunt Ethel. “Lacking. Always was. Ought to be in a ’sylum. Violet’s in service in Cottenham and it’s not her day off. She gets 5s. 6d. a week and lucky to get it. You won’t get any help from her.”
“Oh, I see. Dear me. Well, there’s Edward—no, of course, he went away three years ago. But where’s Robert?”
Victoria piped up, delighted to offer bad news. “You won’t find ’im. ’E went to ve stition vis morning; saw ’im. Soon as ’e ’eard Ma was gorn ’e said ’e was off. Not going to be responsible for us lot, ’e said, not —— likely.” There was a participle before the last word which is even now not widely used by young women, and the Guardians’ lady and Aunt Ethel glared.
Victoria stared back: it took more than a glare to discompose her. In that moment Aunt Ethel took a resolution: she would not let that foul-mouthed child into her house. The Guardians’ lady was talking to her, but she did not listen. She broke into her suggestions without ceremony.
“You’ll have to take poor Lily where she belongs. You know quite well what your obligations are, miss. As for these poor orphans, I’ll take these three into my home and look after them and be glad.” She pointed to the three younger children—two boys and the baby May. “Victoria can’t come. There’s no room for her, and she’s too old. She’s a bad girl and a bad influence already.”
Nothing would shift her from this decision, and in the end the Guardians’ lady took Victoria with her, to be put in a Home.
Now a Home for Girls, even before the war, even in the provinces, was not always one of the hellholes which realistic writers will describe for you. The West Fen Home did the best that could be done for Victoria, and if it did no better it was because she came to it too late. It fed her properly for the first time in her life, gave her glasses which were approximately what her eyes needed, and provided a built-up boot for her left leg. It clothed her drably, but sufficiently and warmly. It taught her to speak correctly and modified her abominable accent. Since she had benefited scarcely at all from her interrupted attendances at the Board school it taught her properly reading, writing and arithmetic, and to read the Bible.
More than that, she was taught thoroughly the art of being a domestic servant. She could wash, clean rooms, make beds, blacklead grates, sew and do plain cooking with unsurpassed thoroughness. If drilling could make one, she was the perfect maid; moreover, she was respectful. The staff would have been kind to her as well as strict if she had responded to kindness; as she did not, it was satisfied by her covering up with an impassive and silent manner her undiminished bad temper and spite. It would have been very surprised to know her real opinion both of itself and of the rare adults from outside whom she met.
In 1915, it sent her out from the Home into a good position with the wife of a don. She kept her place for six months and left, with an excellent reference, to go into munitions. She moved to London and saved all that she could; by the end of the war, when the factory closed down, she had just over £200. She was parsimonious, had few friends, and dressed always in black: she was not attractive, but after the war mistresses could not be too particular. Servants were too rare. A girl with such excellent references and so universally competent about the house was a treasure; and at least there would be no trouble with “followers”. All the same Victoria did not keep her situations long. One she left under a strong suspicion of stealing, though when her mistress threatened not to give her a reference she enforced one with well informed and vitriolic threats. One she left after a fierce quarrel with the cook, and in another she poured boiling water over the arm and hand of the parlourmaid. In 1923, she lost all her money, which she had invested in cotton shares: she visited the office of the defaulting company and opened the face of the unhappy reception-clerk from mouth to eye with a blow from the ferrule of her umbrella. The magistrate reprimanded her severely but did not sentence her as it was her first offence and she had undoubtedly a real grievance. She was out of work for several weeks afterwards.
The sight of her Aunt Ethel made things worse for her: Ethel had sold her Cherry Hinton shop and gone into munitions too (she had been just young enough), but she had kept her money. She had bought houses with it in the Bloomsbury district, and had had sense enough to choose the West side of Gray’s Inn Road. Values had gone up, and now Ethel was comfortably off. She rigidly refused to lend Victoria a penny, but promised to remember her in her will, together with her younger sister, May Ena, and a waif named Irene Olga Hutchins, sole reminder of the two younger male Atkinses…“two” because there was a regrettable doubt which of them was the father, and both were beyond reach of questioners in a Flanders cemetery. Their last letters to the mother had been brief and unfriendly, consisting only of a refusal to pay, couched in identical terms. Irene now did practically all the housework for Great-Auntie, sustained by promises that in due course she would be a rich woman. The figures varied: sometimes it would be three thousand, sometimes five, and once even ten, that Irene was told she could expect as her third share when Great-Auntie passed on. Great-Auntie never spoke so detailedly to Victoria, of course, but Irene naturally told her disagreeable aunt whatever she chose to ask, and there were few things about which she asked more frequently.
So, in 1927, there were only four members of the once numerous Atkins family left, as far as was known, anyway. There were Aunt Ethel, Victoria herself, her sister May, and the small niece, whose unfortunate lack of the surname Atkins was forgotten, as she was invariably called nothing but Young Irene. Of these four, the last three were in indigent circumstances, and the first had plenty of money. This circumstance formed the first and most essential of the facts in a dossier assembled by the police in the winter of that year.
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The next significant fact was an event that the police never noted in their records at all. On a Thursday afternoon in late November, May, who spelt her name Mae even before Miss West wiped out any memory of Princess May, was taking tea with Victoria in Mrs. Mulholland’s boarding-house in Lewisham. It was Victoria’s custom to entertain her sister once a week, more to insist on her rights than from family affection, and also to provide for herself by fair exchange a place to go to on her own afternoon off.
Mae laid down her cup. “Tea’s not up to much,” she said, rather diffidently.
“And that’s a fact,” replied Victoria equably. “The old girl’s mean. I don’t know where she gets the tea; she brings it in herself. Mouse-dirt I found in it last time; inside the packet, mind you. I—Don’t you feel well, Mae?”
“I do seem to have come over queer,” said Mae faintly.
“Are you going to be sick?” said Victoria, with the anxious rising tone in which those words are always said.
“I’m afraid so…”
“Well, for goodness’ sake run quick; you know where the W is,” snapped her elder sister, shooing her out.
Mae was very sick indeed; her sister even relented and came to hold her head, so deplorable were the noises. Actually no harm resulted whatever; Mae’s health was, if anything, improved by the upset, and you might have thought she had merely taken unintentionally a dose of ipecacuanha. But at the moment she felt she was going to die and miserably said so. Her sister was sympathetic, most unusually.
“I don’t like it at all, Mae; I don’t. You look as white as anything. Suppose there is something really wrong. You go straight home this moment and lie down. I’ll come round and see you in the morning, first thing I can. It’s no good my asking the old cat for permission to go out to-night; but I’ll get up early and the moment I’ve laid breakfast I’ll pop across.”
She fussed over her sister and bundled her out, very surprised and a little unwilling. But Mae was a little scared, too: Victoria had never shown anything like this sisterly anxiety. Perhaps she was really ill? Personally, she’d have said it was nothing but Victoria’s nasty tea, and the mention of mouse-dirt in it had been enough to turn any one up. Anyway, she’d better go and if Victoria came round in the morning it couldn’t do any harm.
Victoria watched her sister from the basement window with a curiously pleased expression. She said nothing to Mrs. Mulholland about the incident.