Covent Garden at 11.15 p.m. Torrents of heavy summer rain. Cab whistles blowing frantically in all directions. Pedestrians running for shelter into the market and under the portico of St. Paul's Church, where there are already several people, among them a lady and her daughter in evening dress. They are all peering out gloomily at the rain, except one man with his back turned to the rest, who seems wholly preoccupied with a notebook in which he is writing busily.
The church clock strikes the first quarter.
THE DAUGHTER [in the space between the central pillars, close to the one on her left] I'm getting chilled to the bone. What can Freddy be doing all this time? He's been gone twenty minutes.
THE MOTHER [on her daughter's right] Not so long. But he ought to have got us a cab by this.
A BYSTANDER [on the lady's right] He won't get no cab not until half-past eleven, missus, when they come back after dropping their theatre fares.
THE MOTHER. But we must have a cab. We can't stand here until half-past eleven. It's too bad.
THE BYSTANDER. Well, it ain't my fault, missus.
THE DAUGHTER. If Freddy had a bit of gumption, he would have got one at the theatre door.
THE MOTHER. What could he have done, poor boy?
THE DAUGHTER. Other people got cabs. Why couldn't he?
Freddy rushes in out of the rain from the Southampton Street side, and comes between them closing a dripping umbrella. He is a young man of twenty, in evening dress, very wet around the ankles.
THE DAUGHTER. Well, haven't you got a cab?
FREDDY. There's not one to be had for love or money.
THE MOTHER. Oh, Freddy, there must be one. You can't have tried.
THE DAUGHTER. It's too tiresome. Do you expect us to go and get one ourselves?
FREDDY. I tell you they're all engaged. The rain was so sudden: nobody was prepared; and everybody had to take a cab. I've been to Charing Cross one way and nearly to Ludgate Circus the other; and they were all engaged.
THE MOTHER. Did you try Trafalgar Square?
FREDDY. There wasn't one at Trafalgar Square.
THE DAUGHTER. Did you try?
FREDDY. I tried as far as Charing Cross Station. Did you expect me to walk to Hammersmith?
THE DAUGHTER. You haven't tried at all.
THE MOTHER. You really are very helpless, Freddy. Go again; and don't come back until you have found a cab.
FREDDY. I shall simply get soaked for nothing.
THE DAUGHTER. And what about us? Are we to stay here all night in this draught, with next to nothing on. You selfish pig —
FREDDY. Oh, very well: I'll go, I'll go. [He opens his umbrella and dashes off Strandwards, but comes into collision with a flower girl, who is hurrying in for shelter, knocking her basket out of her hands. A blinding flash of lightning, followed instantly by a rattling peal of thunder, orchestrates the incident]
THE FLOWER GIRL. Nah then, Freddy: look wh' y' gowin, deah.
FREDDY. Sorry [he rushes off].
THE FLOWER GIRL [picking up her scattered flowers and replacing them in the basket] There's menners f' yer! Te-oo banches o voylets trod into the mad. [She sits down on the plinth of the column, sorting her flowers, on the lady's right. She is not at all an attractive person. She is perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty, hardly older. She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has long been exposed to the dust and soot of London and has seldom if ever been brushed. Her hair needs washing rather badly: its mousy color can hardly be natural. She wears a shoddy black coat that reaches nearly to her knees and is shaped to her waist. She has a brown skirt with a coarse apron. Her boots are much the worse for wear. She is no doubt as clean as she can afford to be; but compared to the ladies she is very dirty. Her features are no worse than theirs; but their condition leaves something to be desired; and she needs the services of a dentist].
THE MOTHER. How do you know that my son's name is Freddy, pray?
THE FLOWER GIRL. Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy atbaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them? [Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]
THE DAUGHTER. Do nothing of the sort, mother. The idea!
THE MOTHER. Please allow me, Clara. Have you any pennies?
THE DAUGHTER. No. I've nothing smaller than sixpence.
THE FLOWER GIRL [hopefully] I can give you change for a tanner, kind lady.
THE MOTHER [to Clara] Give it to me. [Clara parts reluctantly]. Now [to the girl] This is for your flowers.
THE FLOWER GIRL. Thank you kindly, lady.
THE DAUGHTER. Make her give you the change. These things are only a penny a bunch.
THE MOTHER. Do hold your tongue, Clara. [To the girl]. You can keep the change.
THE FLOWER GIRL. Oh, thank you, lady.
THE MOTHER. Now tell me how you know that young gentleman's name.
THE FLOWER GIRL. I didn't.
THE MOTHER. I heard you call him by it. Don't try to deceive me.
THE FLOWER GIRL [protesting] Who's trying to deceive you? I called him Freddy or Charlie same as you might yourself if you was talking to a stranger and wished to be pleasant. [She sits down beside her basket].
THE DAUGHTER. Sixpence thrown away! Really, mamma, you might have spared Freddy that. [She retreats in disgust behind the pillar].
An elderly gentleman of the amiable military type rushes into shelter, and closes a dripping umbrella. He is in the same plight as Freddy, very wet about the ankles. He is in evening dress, with a light overcoat. He takes the place left vacant by the daughter's retirement.
THE GENTLEMAN. Phew!
THE MOTHER [to the gentleman] Oh, sir, is there any sign of its stopping?
THE GENTLEMAN. I'm afraid not. It started worse than ever about two minutes ago. [He goes to the plinth beside the flower girl; puts up his foot on it; and stoops to turn down his trouser ends].
THE MOTHER. Oh, dear! [She retires sadly and joins her daughter].
THE FLOWER GIRL [taking advantage of the military gentleman's proximity to establish friendly relations with him]. If it's worse it's a sign it's nearly over. So cheer up, Captain; and buy a flower off a poor girl.
THE GENTLEMAN. I'm sorry, I haven't any change.
THE FLOWER GIRL. I can give you change, Captain,
THE GENTLEMEN. For a sovereign? I've nothing less.
THE FLOWER GIRL. Garn! Oh do buy a flower off me, Captain. I can change half-a-crown. Take this for tuppence.
THE GENTLEMAN. Now don't be troublesome: there's a good girl. [Trying his pockets] I really haven't any change — Stop: here's three hapence, if that's any use to you [he retreats to the other pillar].
THE FLOWER GIRL [disappointed, but thinking three halfpence better than nothing] Thank you, sir.
THE BYSTANDER [to the girl] You be careful: give him a flower for it. There's a bloke here behind taking down every blessed word you're saying. [All turn to the man who is taking notes].
THE FLOWER GIRL [springing up terrified] I ain't done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman. I've a right to sell flowers if I keep off the kerb. [Hysterically] I'm a respectable girl: so help me, I never spoke to him except to ask him to buy a flower off me. [General hubbub, mostly sympathetic to the flower girl, but deprecating her excessive sensibility. Cries of Don't start hollerin. Who's hurting you? Nobody's going to touch you. What's the good of fussing? Steady on. Easy, easy, etc., come from the elderly staid spectators, who pat her comfortingly. Less patient ones bid her shut her head, or ask her roughly what is wrong with her. A remoter group, not knowing what the matter is, crowd in and increase the noise with question and answer: What's the row? What she do? Where is he? A tec taking her down. What! him? Yes: him over there: Took money off the gentleman, etc. The flower girl, distraught and mobbed, breaks through them to the gentleman, crying mildly] Oh, sir, don't let him charge me. You dunno what it means to me. They'll take away my character and drive me on the streets for speaking to gentlemen. They —
THE NOTE TAKER [coming forward on her right, the rest crowding after him] There, there, there, there! Who's hurting you, you silly girl? What do you take me for?
THE BYSTANDER. It's all right: he's a gentleman: look at his boots. [Explaining to the note taker] She thought you was a copper's nark, sir.
THE NOTE TAKER [with quick interest] What's a copper's nark?
THE BYSTANDER [inept at definition] It's a — well, it's a copper's nark, as you might say. What else would you call it? A sort of informer.
THE FLOWER GIRL [still hysterical] I take my Bible oath I never said a word —
THE NOTE TAKER [overbearing but good-humored] Oh, shut up, shut up. Do I look like a policeman?