Maugham's first published novel - a vividly realistic portrayal of slum life. Down among the drab slums of Lambeth, eighteen-year-old Liza is the darling of Vere Street. Vibrant and bewitching, she has found an adoring if conventional beau in Tom. When she meets Jim Blakeston, a married man new to the area, she is immediately magnetized by his attentions. But the streets are wise to their illicit, passionate affair and before long the secret is out.
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Copyright © 2016 by W. Somerset Maugham
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
IT WAS THE FIRST SATURDAY afternoon in August; it had been broiling hot all day, with a cloudless sky, and the sun had been beating down on the houses, so that the top rooms were like ovens; but now with the approach of evening it was cooler, and everyone in Vere Street was out of doors.
Vere street, Lambeth, is a short, straight street leading out of the Westminster Bridge Road; it has forty houses on one side and forty houses on the other, and these eighty houses are very much more like one another than ever peas are like peas, or young ladies like young ladies. They are newish, three-storied buildings of dingy grey brick with slate roofs, and they are perfectly flat, without a bow-window or even a projecting cornice or window-sill to break the straightness of the line from one end of the street to the other.
This Saturday afternoon the street was full of life; no traffic came down Vere Street, and the cemented space between the pavements was given up to children. Several games of cricket were being played by wildly excited boys, using coats for wickets, an old tennis-ball or a bundle of rags tied together for a ball, and, generally, an old broomstick for bat. The wicket was so large and the bat so small that the man in was always getting bowled, when heated quarrels would arise, the batter absolutely refusing to go out and the bowler absolutely insisting on going in. The girls were more peaceable; they were chiefly employed in skipping, and only abused one another mildly when the rope was not properly turned or the skipper did not jump sufficiently high. Worst off of all were the very young children, for there had been no rain for weeks, and the street was as dry and clean as a covered court, and, in the lack of mud to wallow in, they sat about the road, disconsolate as poets. The number of babies was prodigious; they sprawled about everywhere, on the pavement, round the doors, and about their mothers’ skirts. The grown-ups were gathered round the open doors; there were usually two women squatting on the doorstep, and two or three more seated on either side on chairs; they were invariably nursing babies, and most of them showed clear signs that the present object of the maternal care would be soon ousted by a new arrival. Men were less numerous but such as there were leant against the walls, smoking, or sat on the sills of the ground-floor windows. It was the dead season in Vere Street as much as in Belgravia, and really if it had not been for babies just come or just about to come, and an opportune murder in a neighbouring doss-house, there would have been nothing whatever to talk about. As it was, the little groups talked quietly, discussing the atrocity or the merits of the local midwives, comparing the circumstances of their various confinements.
‘You’ll be ‘avin’ your little trouble soon, eh, Polly?’ asked one good lady of another.
‘Oh, I reckon I’ve got another two months ter go yet,’ answered Polly.
‘Well,’ said a third. ‘I wouldn’t ‘ave thought you’d go so long by the look of yer!’
‘I ‘ope you’ll have it easier this time, my dear,’ said a very stout old person, a woman of great importance.
‘She said she wasn’t goin’ to ‘ave no more, when the last one come.’ This remark came from Polly’s husband.
‘Ah,’ said the stout old lady, who was in the business, and boasted vast experience. ‘That’s wot they all says; but, Lor’ bless yer, they don’t mean it.’
‘Well, I’ve got three, and I’m not goin’ to ‘ave no more bli’me if I will; ‘tain’t good enough—that’s wot I says.’
‘You’re abaht right there, ole gal,’ said Polly, ‘My word, ‘Arry, if you ‘ave any more I’ll git a divorce, that I will.’
At that moment an organ-grinder turned the corner and came down the street.
‘Good biz; ‘ere’s an organ!’ cried half a dozen people at once.
The organ-man was an Italian, with a shock of black hair and a ferocious moustache. Drawing his organ to a favourable spot, he stopped, released his shoulder from the leather straps by which he dragged it, and cocking his large soft hat on the side of his head, began turning the handle. It was a lively tune, and in less than no time a little crowd had gathered round to listen, chiefly the young men and the maidens, for the married ladies were never in a fit state to dance, and therefore disinclined to trouble themselves to stand round the organ. There was a moment’s hesitation at opening the ball; then one girl said to another:
‘Come on, Florrie, you and me ain’t shy; we’ll begin, and bust it!’
The two girls took hold of one another, one acting gentleman, the other lady; three or four more pairs of girls immediately joined them, and they began a waltz. They held themselves very upright; and with an air of grave dignity which was quite impressive, glided slowly about, making their steps with the utmost precision, bearing themselves with sufficient decorum for a court ball. After a while the men began to itch for a turn, and two of them, taking hold of one another in the most approved fashion, waltzed round the circle with the gravity of judges.
All at once there was a cry: ‘There’s Liza!’ And several members of the group turned and called out: ‘Oo, look at Liza!’
The dancers stopped to see the sight, and the organ-grinder, having come to the end of his tune, ceased turning the handle and looked to see what was the excitement.
‘Oo, Liza!’ they called out. ‘Look at Liza; oo, I sy!’
It was a young girl of about eighteen, with dark eyes, and an enormous fringe, puffed-out and curled and frizzed, covering her whole forehead from side to side, and coming down to meet her eyebrows. She was dressed in brilliant violet, with great lappets of velvet, and she had on her head an enormous black hat covered with feathers.
‘I sy, ain’t she got up dossy?’ called out the groups at the doors, as she passed.
‘Dressed ter death, and kill the fashion; that’s wot I calls it.’
Liza saw what a sensation she was creating; she arched her back and lifted her head, and walked down the street, swaying her body from side to side, and swaggering along as though the whole place belonged to her.
‘’Ave yer bought the street, Bill?’ shouted one youth; and then half a dozen burst forth at once, as if by inspiration:
‘Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road!’
It was immediately taken up by a dozen more, and they all yelled it out:
‘Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road. Yah, ah, knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road!’
‘Oo, Liza!’ they shouted; the whole street joined in, and they gave long, shrill, ear-piercing shrieks and strange calls, that rung down the street and echoed back again.
‘Hextra special!’ called out a wag.
‘Oh, Liza! Oo! Ooo!’ yells and whistles, and then it thundered forth again:
‘Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road!’
Liza put on the air of a conquering hero, and sauntered on, enchanted at the uproar. She stuck out her elbows and jerked her head on one side, and said to herself as she passed through the bellowing crowd:
‘This is jam!’
‘Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road!’
When she came to the group round the barrel-organ, one of the girls cried out to her:
‘Is that yer new dress, Liza?’
‘Well, it don’t look like my old one, do it?’ said Liza.
‘Where did yer git it?’ asked another friend, rather enviously.
‘Picked it up in the street, of course,’ scornfully answered Liza.
‘I believe it’s the same one as I saw in the pawnbroker’s dahn the road,’ said one of the men, to tease her.
‘Thet’s it; but wot was you doin’ in there? Pledgin’ yer shirt, or was it yer trousers?’
‘Yah, I wouldn’t git a second-’and dress at a pawnbroker’s!’
‘Garn!’ said Liza indignantly. ‘I’ll swipe yer over the snitch if yer talk ter me. I got the mayterials in the West Hend, didn’t I? And I ‘ad it mide up by my Court Dressmiker, so you jolly well dry up, old jellybelly.’
‘Garn!’ was the reply.
Liza had been so intent on her new dress and the comment it was exciting that she had not noticed the organ.
‘Oo, I say, let’s ‘ave some dancin’,’ she said as soon as she saw it. ‘Come on, Sally,’ she added, to one of the girls, ‘you an’ me’ll dance togither. Grind away, old cock!’
The man turned on a new tune, and the organ began to play the Intermezzo from the ‘Cavalleria’; other couples quickly followed Liza’s example, and they began to waltz round with the same solemnity as before; but Liza outdid them all; if the others were as stately as queens, she was as stately as an empress; the gravity and dignity with which she waltzed were something appalling, you felt that the minuet was a frolic in comparison; it would have been a fitting measure to tread round the grave of a première danseuse, or at the funeral of a professional humorist. And the graces she put on, the languor of the eyes, the contemptuous curl of the lips, the exquisite turn of the hand, the dainty arching of the foot! You felt there could be no questioning her right to the tyranny of Vere Street.
Suddenly she stopped short, and disengaged herself from her companion.
‘Oh, I sy,’ she said, ‘this is too bloomin’ slow; it gives me the sick.’
That is not precisely what she said, but it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story, the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue.
‘It’s too bloomin’ slow,’ she said again; ‘it gives me the sick. Let’s ‘ave somethin’ a bit more lively than this ‘ere waltz. You stand over there, Sally, an’ we’ll show ‘em ‘ow ter skirt dance.’
They all stopped waltzing.
‘Talk of the ballet at the Canterbury and South London. You just wite till you see the ballet at Vere Street, Lambeth—we’ll knock ‘em!’
She went up to the organ-grinder.
‘Na then, Italiano,’ she said to him, ‘you buck up; give us a tune that’s got some guts in it! See?’
She caught hold of his big hat and squashed it down over his eyes. The man grinned from ear to ear, and, touching the little catch at the side, began to play a lively tune such as Liza had asked for.
The men had fallen out, but several girls had put themselves in position, in couples, standing face to face; and immediately the music struck up, they began. They held up their skirts on each side, so as to show their feet, and proceeded to go through the difficult steps and motions of the dance. Liza was right; they could not have done it better in a trained ballet. But the best dancer of them all was Liza; she threw her whole soul into it; forgetting the stiff bearing which she had thought proper to the waltz, and casting off its elaborate graces, she gave herself up entirely to the present pleasure. Gradually the other couples stood aside, so that Liza and Sally were left alone. They paced it carefully, watching each other’s steps, and as if by instinct performing corresponding movements, so as to make the whole a thing of symmetry.
‘I’m abaht done,’ said Sally, blowing and puffing. ‘I’ve ‘ad enough of it.’
‘Go on, Liza!’ cried out a dozen voices when Sally stopped.
She gave no sign of having heard them other than calmly to continue her dance. She glided through the steps, and swayed about, and manipulated her skirt, all with the most charming grace imaginable, then, the music altering, she changed the style of her dancing, her feet moved more quickly, and did not keep so strictly to the ground. She was getting excited at the admiration of the onlookers, and her dance grew wilder and more daring. She lifted her skirts higher, brought in new and more difficult movements into her improvisation, kicking up her legs she did the wonderful twist, backwards and forwards, of which the dancer is proud.
‘Look at ‘er legs!’ cried one of the men.
‘Look at ‘er stockin’s!’ shouted another; and indeed they were remarkable, for Liza had chosen them of the same brilliant hue as her dress, and was herself most proud of the harmony.
Her dance became gayer: her feet scarcely touched the ground, she whirled round madly.
‘Take care yer don’t split!’ cried out one of the wags, at a very audacious kick.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when Liza, with a gigantic effort, raised her foot and kicked off his hat. The feat was greeted with applause, and she went on, making turns and twists, flourishing her skirts, kicking higher and higher, and finally, among a volley of shouts, fell on her hands and turned head over heels in a magnificent catharine-wheel; then scrambling to her feet again, she tumbled into the arms of a young man standing in the front of the ring.
‘That’s right, Liza,’ he said. ‘Give us a kiss, now,’ and promptly tried to take one.
‘Git aht!’ said Liza, pushing him away, not too gently.
‘Yus, give us a kiss,’ cried another, running up to her.
‘I’ll smack yer in the fice!’ said Liza, elegantly, as she dodged him.
‘Ketch ‘old on ‘er, Bill,’ cried out a third, ‘an’ we’ll all kiss her.’
‘Na, you won’t!’ shrieked Liza, beginning to run.
‘Come on,’ they cried, ‘we’ll ketch ‘er.’
She dodged in and out, between their legs, under their arms, and then, getting clear of the little crowd, caught up her skirts so that they might not hinder her, and took to her heels along the street. A score of men set in chase, whistling, shouting, yelling; the people at the doors looked up to see the fun, and cried out to her as she dashed past; she ran like the wind. Suddenly a man from the side darted into the middle of the road, stood straight in her way, and before she knew where she was, she had jumped shrieking into his arms, and he, lifting her up to him, had imprinted two sounding kisses on her cheeks.
‘Oh, you ——!’ she said. Her expression was quite unprintable; nor can it be euphemized.
There was a shout of laughter from the bystanders, and the young men in chase of her, and Liza, looking up, saw a big, bearded man whom she had never seen before. She blushed to the very roots of her hair, quickly extricated herself from his arms, and, amid the jeers and laughter of everyone, slid into the door of the nearest house and was lost to view.
LIZA AND HER MOTHER WERE having supper. Mrs. Kemp was an elderly woman, short, and rather stout, with a red face, and grey hair brushed tight back over her forehead. She had been a widow for many years, and since her husband’s death had lived with Liza in the ground-floor front room in which they were now sitting. Her husband had been a soldier, and from a grateful country she received a pension large enough to keep her from starvation, and by charring and doing such odd jobs as she could get she earned a little extra to supply herself with liquor. Liza was able to make her own living by working at a factory.
Mrs. Kemp was rather sulky this evening.
‘Wot was yer doin’ this afternoon, Liza?’ she asked.
‘I was in the street.’
‘You’re always in the street when I want yer.’
‘I didn’t know as ‘ow yer wanted me, mother,’ answered Liza.
‘Well, yer might ‘ave come ter see! I might ‘ave been dead, for all you knew.’
Liza said nothing.
‘My rheumatics was thet bad to-dy, thet I didn’t know wot ter do with myself. The doctor said I was to be rubbed with that stuff ‘e give me, but yer won’t never do nothin’ for me.’
‘Well, mother,’ said Liza, ‘your rheumatics was all right yesterday.’
‘I know wot you was doin’; you was showin’ off thet new dress of yours. Pretty waste of money thet is, instead of givin’ it me ter sive up. An’ for the matter of thet, I wanted a new dress far worse than you did. But, of course, I don’t matter.’
Liza did not answer, and Mrs. Kemp, having nothing more to say, continued her supper in silence.
It was Liza who spoke next.
‘There’s some new people moved in the street. ‘Ave you seen ‘em?’ she asked.
‘No, wot are they?’
‘I dunno; I’ve seen a chap, a big chap with a beard. I think ‘e lives up at the other end.’
She felt herself blushing a little.
‘No one any good you be sure,’ said Mrs. Kemp. ‘I can’t swaller these new people as are comin’ in; the street ain’t wot it was when I fust come.’
When they had done, Mrs. Kemp got up, and having finished her half-pint of beer, said to her daughter:
‘Put the things awy, Liza. I’m just goin’ round to see Mrs. Clayton; she’s just ‘ad twins, and she ‘ad nine before these come. It’s a pity the Lord don’t see fit ter tike some on ‘em—thet’s wot I say.’
After which pious remark Mrs. Kemp went out of the house and turned into another a few doors up.
Liza did not clear the supper things away as she was told, but opened the window and drew her chair to it. She leant on the sill, looking out into the street. The sun had set, and it was twilight, the sky was growing dark, bringing to view the twinkling stars; there was no breeze, but it was pleasantly and restfully cool. The good folk still sat at their doorsteps, talking as before on the same inexhaustible subjects, but a little subdued with the approach of night. The boys were still playing cricket, but they were mostly at the other end of the street, and their shouts were muffled before they reached Liza’s ears.
She sat, leaning her head on her hands, breathing in the fresh air and feeling a certain exquisite sense of peacefulness which she was not used to. It was Saturday evening, and she thankfully remembered that there would be no factory on the morrow; she was glad to rest. Somehow she felt a little tired, perhaps it was through the excitement of the afternoon, and she enjoyed the quietness of the evening. It seemed so tranquil and still; the silence filled her with a strange delight, she felt as if she could sit there all through the night looking out into the cool, dark street, and up heavenwards at the stars. She was very happy, but yet at the same time experienced a strange new sensation of melancholy, and she almost wished to cry.
Suddenly a dark form stepped in front of the open window. She gave a little shriek.
‘’Oo’s thet?’ she asked, for it was quite dark, and she did not recognize the man standing in front of her.
‘Me, Liza,’ was the answer.
It was a young man with light yellow hair and a little fair moustache, which made him appear almost boyish; he was light-complexioned and blue-eyed, and had a frank and pleasant look mingled with a curious bashfulness that made him blush when people spoke to him.
‘Wot’s up?’ asked Liza.
‘Come aht for a walk, Liza, will yer?’
‘No!’ she answered decisively.
‘You promised ter yesterday, Liza.’
‘Yesterday an’ ter-day’s two different things,’ was her wise reply.
‘Yus, come on, Liza.’
‘Na, I tell yer, I won’t.’
‘I want ter talk ter yer, Liza.’ Her hand was resting on the window-sill, and he put his upon it. She quickly drew it back.
‘Well, I don’t want yer ter talk ter me.’
But she did, for it was she who broke the silence.
‘Say, Tom, ‘oo are them new folk as ‘as come into the street? It’s a big chap with a brown beard.’
‘D’you mean the bloke as kissed yer this afternoon?’
Liza blushed again.
‘Well, why shouldn’t ‘e kiss me?’ she said, with some inconsequence.
‘I never said as ‘ow ‘e shouldn’t; I only arst yer if it was the sime.’
‘Yea, thet’s ‘oo I mean.’
‘’Is nime is Blakeston—Jim Blakeston. I’ve only spoke to ‘im once; he’s took the two top rooms at No. 19 ‘ouse.’
‘Wot’s ‘e want two top rooms for?’
‘’Im? Oh, ‘e’s got a big family—five kids. Ain’t yer seen ‘is wife abaht the street? She’s a big, fat woman, as does ‘er ‘air funny.’
‘I didn’t know ‘e ‘ad a wife.’
There was another silence; Liza sat thinking, and Tom stood at the window, looking at her.
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