She is dozing probably, for she gives no heed to his steps as he comes toward her.
The broken footway is so narrow that when Allan Woodcourt comes to where the woman sits, he has to turn into the road to pass her. Looking down at her face, his eye meets hers, and he stops.
"What is the matter?"
"Can't you make them hear? Do you want to be let in?"
"I'm walting till they get up at another house--a lodging-house-- not here," the woman patiently returns. "I'm waiting here because there will be sun here presently to warm me."
"I am afraid you are tired. I am sorry to see you sitting in the street."
"Thank you, sir. It don't matter."
A habit in him of speaking to the poor and of avoiding patronage or condescension or childishness (which is the favourite device, many people deeming it quite a subtlety to talk to them like little spelling books) has put him on good terms with the woman easily.
"Let me look at your forehead," he says, bending down. "I am a doctor. Don't be afraid. I wouldn't hurt you for the world."
He knows that by touching her with his skilful and accustomed hand he can soothe her yet more readily. She makes a slight objection, saying, "It's nothing"; but he has scarcely laid his fingers on the wounded place when she lifts it up to the light.
"Aye! A bad bruise, and the skin sadly broken. This must be very sore."
"It do ache a little, sir," returns the woman with a started tear upon her cheek.
"Let me try to make it more comfortable. My handkerchief won't hurt you."
"Oh, dear no, sir, I'm sure of that!"
He cleanses the injured place and dries it, and having carefully examined it and gently pressed it with the palm of his hand, takes a small case from his pocket, dresses it, and binds it up. While he is thus employed, he says, after laughing at his establishing a surgery in the street, "And so your husband is a brickmaker?"
"How do you know that, sir?" asks the woman, astonished.
"Why, I suppose so from the colour of the clay upon your bag and on your dress. And I know brickmakers go about working at piecework in different places. And I am sorry to say I have known them cruel to their wives too."
The woman hastily lifts up her eyes as if she would deny that her injury is referable to such a cause. But feeling the hand upon her forehead, and seeing his busy and composed face, she quietly drops them again.
"Where is he now?" asks the surgeon.
"He got into trouble last night, sir; but he'll look for me at the lodging-house."
"He will get into worse trouble if he often misuses his large and heavy hand as he has misused it here. But you forgive him, brutal as he is, and I say no more of him, except that I wish he deserved it. You have no young child?"
The woman shakes her head. "One as I calls mine, sir, but it's Liz's."
"Your own is dead. I see! Poor little thing!"
By this time he has finished and is putting up his case. "I suppose you have some settled home. Is it far from here?" he asks, good-humouredly making light of what he has done as she gets up and curtsys.
"It's a good two or three and twenty mile from here, sir. At Saint Albans. You know Saint Albans, sir? I thought you gave a start like, as if you did."
"Yes, I know something of it. And now I will ask you a question in return. Have you money for your lodging?"
"Yes, sir," she says, "really and truly." And she shows it. He tells her, in acknowledgment of her many subdued thanks, that she is very welcome, gives her good day, and walks away. Tom-all- Alone's is still asleep, and nothing is astir.
Yes, something is! As he retraces his way to the point from which he descried the woman at a distance sitting on the step, he sees a ragged figure coming very cautiously along, crouching close to the soiled walls--which the wretchedest figure might as well avoid--and furtively thrusting a hand before it. It is the figure of a youth whose face is hollow and whose eyes have an emaciated glare. He is so intent on getting along unseen that even the apparition of a stranger in whole garments does not tempt him to look back.