Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, and Art, April 22, 1920

The Cave is one of our most cosmopolitan institutions. Men of all nations frequent it, and, although lager beer is the premier beverage, drinks of every country can be supplied. It is much illuminated. Two giants in gold-braided uniform guard the doors—though what they are supposed to guard the doors against no one has ever been known to explain. On the ground floor, to the right as you enter, is a drinking bar of the ordinary London type, but if you push through the crowd which continually throngs it, pass between the thick hanging curtains at the back and go down the stairs to the left, you will come to the basement. The basement is the Cave proper, the hotel itself has a much more high sounding name. The walls of the Cave are covered with mirrors and a variety of drink-extolling pictures. At the foot of the stairs and a little to the left is the orchestra of four players; and on the wall over their head is inscribed in heavy gilt letters Luther’s dictum: “Who loves not Woman, Wine and Song, there goes a fool all his life long.”

Right at the back are three alcoves where eight or ten people can sit and drink, partly shut out from the gaze of the throng in the centre of the room.

The Cave is well patronised. Thieves of many nationalities visit it. Service men fraternise across the tables. The harmless slouch of the countryman seeing London is often noticed. Roués, prostitutes and their “protectors” are the most regular customers. Sometimes the Church is represented. The gilded popinjay and the bilge and garbage of the five continents and the seven seas drift into it.

Four waiters hover between the tables and the bar, three of them clean-looking models of Swiss propriety whose voices have only been trained to say “Thank you, sir,” nicely. The fourth is a nasty beast, but he has a quaint unconscious humour which saves his ribs from much violence. He attends to the table which Maisie honoured by her presence, and this story is about Maisie.

She was one of the Demi-monde from Belgium. In the Cave she was called Maisie, her real name was Sophi Warnier, to her landlady she was Miss May, and her pawn tickets were inscribed May Smith. Except for her mouth—she was cursed with the prostitute’s mouth, curious, pitiful and vile—she was very pretty, with flaxen hair and lovely grey eyes, regular features and an ever-ready smile. She lived on beer, swore like a sailor, had drifted from the high estate of a Kensington flat with two servants and was rapidly qualifying for Wapping Dock or the river.

One summer evening the Cave was crowded with foreigners over for the International sports. A party of Swedes were in one alcove and a party of Italians in the next. In the centre of the room Maisie’s particular friend Maude was amusing a crowd of beer-blown Germans by giving them imitations of Cockney newsboy repartee.

Maude is as pretty as apple blossom, and as full of fun and tricks as a kitten. Between her cherry lips she continually grips a cigarette. There is something distinctly cheering about her; she is able to get her mind away from her surroundings and talk of living things, of books and music and the wide laughing world, of summer’s joy and winter’s mystery. She can so far forget the Cave as to rhapsodise over a sprawling, naked baby.

The Germans had a good time with Maudie until she saw me enter the room, then with a “Ta-ta, Sausages,” she flicked her fingers in their faces and came over and led me into the farthest alcove, where, in the far corner against the wall, sat Maisie. Maude laid a pretty hand on her shoulder and spoke.

“Now, now you baby-eyed, straw-haired fool, if the Boy doesn’t yank you out of this, sling you into a cab, take you home, spank you, give you a bottle of milk and put you to bed—may the Devil grill him for a week!’’ And Maude left us.

Maisie made a ghastly attempt to smile. She was very ill, too ill to drink. I tried to cheer her up a little; she falteringly but comprehensively cursed me. I remembered Maude’s advice and tried to persuade her to go home in a cab. I tried hard and long, but she only swore and wept. She was stupid, foolish and contradictory; she would do nothing. In about half an hour she became so ill that I had to unfasten her clothes and take off her corsets without attracting the attention of the waiter—it was a difficult task, she was so limp and lifeless. After another attempt to drink she gave in and I helped her up the stairs. The intricacies of her tapes and buttons had been beyond me, and at every step I was afraid that some piece of feminine attire would be left in our wake.

When we left the hotel and emerged on to the Square I called a cab, but she would not enter it; she would walk on to Piccadilly Circus and go home by ’bus. I left her for a few minutes whilst I called at a chemist’s shop for a bottle of ammoniated tincture of quinine; when I came out she was leaning against the window, half delirious and moaning of many things—of a Belgian Convent and the nuns, of Ostende and the Rue Courte. I led her down the Haymarket and into one of the side streets so as to be away from the Circus theatre crowd. That was a fortunate move, for we had not gone far in the direction of Regent Street before she fainted. I carried her into a dark doorway until she came round, and when she had recovered a little she had a drink from the quinine bottle. Ammoniated tincture of quinine is never nice to take and Maisie spluttered half the contents of the bottle into my sleeve, but she swallowed some of it and revived so wonderfully that her bad temper returned and she refused to let me accompany her home.

The following evening I sought Maisie’s “home,” which I knew was a single room in a mean street behind Lambeth Palace called Upmark.

After knocking at half the doors in the street I came to a house with a brass plate on the door. This plate informed me in rather vague letters that Mr. Plenty lived there and that he was a theatrical property maker.

As the name Plenty seemed somehow familiar to me I pushed open the door and stumbled over the step. The door closed silently, and gradually my eyes became accustomed to the gloom. I was in a long, dark passage. On the left at the far end was a thin streak of light coming from under a closed door. I knocked on the wall and a woman of about forty appeared. She had long, black, dishevelled hair and a wide mouth. Only one of her ears was to be seen, and that stuck out from her head like the handle of a jug. Her face was greasy and repulsive; her filthy bodice was open, showing her dirty breasts. In her left hand was a guttering tallow candle which flickered in the draught, whilst in her right swung a baby. A piece of rag was wrapped round its waist and tied at the back. She gripped the knot and the baby spun round like a plummet at the end of a line. It was the same colour as the candle and seemed to have the same difficulty in keeping alive.

“Is Miss May at home, Mrs. Plenty?’’ I hazarded. She nodded in the affirmative and gave me a rather superfluous invitation to come in.

A subdued conversation was proceeding in the room on the left. I looked inquiringly at the door and Mrs. Plenty informed me in the best language at her command that the doctor was with Miss May. Trimming the drooping candle with her fingers she invited me to step upstairs into the “office.”

The office was a curious little room. Under the window a battered old rooster was perched on the bough of a mouse-gnawed tree, his beak open as though to challenge some feathered rival. On the wall over the fireplace were a number of drawings of various parts of the human frame. Etchings of clowns and harlequins were mixed with picture postcards of music-hall celebrities; these and a few play bills monopolised the wall on the left. From another corner a most realistic “made” gorilla glared horribly with open mouth, his left hand grasping a thick cudgel. I sat down on a chair—to find that it had only three legs, and one of these was shorter than the other two. When seated I turned round and looked up to get another view of this small chamber of incongruities; all I saw were four plaster casts of diabolic expression.

The fetid atmosphere of the street drifted in through the open window, which I closed, and as there was no catch, I propped up the top portion with a wire leg covered with fleshings.

At that moment the outer door banged and the doctor coughed on the step. In two minutes Maisie appeared, dressed in a long diaphanous garment through which the flesh showed in graceful curves. She was inclined to be peevish and nasty, so I steadied her down on to the three-legged chair and enquired as to the nature of her illness.

“What does the doctor say, Maisie?”

“Say? He says it’s a bad attack of influenza and he says I’m to have eggs and milk and stay in bed; and he says I’m to be careful and get round; and he says I’m to wear warmer clothes; and he says the damndest most ridiculous things anybody can say—to a girl on the game. Isn’t it damned rot to tell me all that?”

I agreed and we talked of other things. A month’s rent was owing and Mrs. Plenty had threatened to turn her out if it was not paid in a few days. The only reason why I had been admitted to the sanctuary was that Maisie had promised her a few shillings which she knew I would bring.

She sat cursing creation for a few minutes; she anathematised doctors, bishops, upmarkers, policemen and politicians; but on politicians her curses were rather weak—she had only met one, and he was kind to her.

We then communed with the gorilla and the rusty fowl, and went over the catalogue of her aches and pains before she went to bed and I interviewed Mrs. Plenty.

Three days later I sat on the only chair in Maisie’s room and smoked hard, whilst the denizens of the neighbourhood discoursed in sulphurous tones beneath the window.

Maisie was very white and worn, her hair strayed over her sunken cheeks as if to hide the ravages of illness and time.

We talked of Belgium and London and compared them, greatly to London’s disadvantage. We told each other stories and I laboriously worked up to a joke and a smile; but after two hours of incessant smoking I had to go.

Four days later I again visited Maisie. It was afternoon. The heat sizzled the asphalt on the pavement. Embankment loiterers hung limply over the parapet, languidly gazing into the sluggish water. The very river seemed to be furtively dozing, whilst most of its population were lying a-sprawl on the motionless craft. Even the city’s ceaseless roar was muffled, swathed in an all-embracing sheet of sunshine. The atmosphere was a quivering haze.

When I turned into Upmark the footpaths were littered with children and dogs, all asleep. Half clad men and women snored in concert sitting on the steps at the entrance to the houses.

At the house of the gorilla maker there were signs of unusual activity; and two or three frightened children rushed out of the door as I entered. Mr. Plenty stood in the passage; he gazed helplessly into my face, his mouth and eyes wide open. But before I could speak Maisie’s door was flung open and Mrs. Plenty flustered out and hurled at us:

“And the she-devil died owing me nineteen bob, damn her!”  

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