THE STORY OF AN UNPROTECTED GIRL
Horace W. C. Newte
ONE THE DEVITTS TWO MAVIS KEEVES THREE FRIENDS IN NEED FOUR MAVIS LEAVES HER NEST FIVE BARREN WAYS SIX "DAWES" SEVEN WIDER HORIZONS EIGHT SPIDER AND FLY NINE AWING TEN "POULTER'S" ELEVEN MAVIS'S PRAYER TWELVE MRS HAMILTON'S THIRTEEN MAVIS GOES OUT TO SUPPER FOURTEEN THE SEQUEL FIFTEEN A GOOD SAMARITAN SIXTEEN SURRENDER SEVENTEEN SPRINGTIME EIGHTEEN CHARLIE PERIGAL NINETEEN THE MOON GODDESS TWENTY THE WAY OF ALL FLESH TWENTY-ONE THE AWAKENING TWENTY-TWO O LOVE, FOR DELIGHTS! TWENTY-THREE THE CURSE OF EVE TWENTY-FOUR SNARES TWENTY-FIVE A NEW ACQUAINTANCE TWENTY-SIX TRAVAIL TWENTY-SEVEN THE NURSING HOME TWENTY-EIGHT MISS 'PETT'S APOTHEOSIS TWENTY-NINE THE ORDEAL THIRTY THE "PERMANENT" THIRTY-ONE PIMLICO THIRTY-TWO MISS TOOMBS REVEALS HERSELF THIRTY-THREE AN OLD FRIEND THIRTY-FOUR MAVIS GOES TO MELKBRIDGE THIRTY-FIVE THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW THIRTY-SIX A VISIT THIRTY-SEVEN MAVIS AND HAROLD THIRTY-EIGHT MAVIS'S REVENGE THIRTY-NINE A SURPRISE FORTY A MIDNIGHT WALK FORTY-ONE TRIBULATION FORTY-TWO THE WELL-BELOVED
Everyone at Melkbridge knew the Devitts: they lived in the new, pretentious-looking house, standing on the right, a few minutes after one left the town by the Bathminster road. It was a blustering, stare-one-in-the-face kind of house, which defied one to question the financial stability of its occupants. The Devitts were like their home in being new, ostentatious folk; their prosperity did not extend further back than the father of Montague, the present head of the family.
Montague Devitt did little beyond attending board meetings of the varied industries which his father's energy had called into being. He was a bluff, well-set-up man, who had married twice; both of his wives had brought him money. Each time Montague chose a mate, he had made some effort to follow the leanings of his heart; but money not lying in the same direction as love, an overmastering instinct of his blood had prevailed against his sentimental inclinations; in each case it had insisted on his marrying, in one instance an interest in iron works, in another, a third share of a Portland cement business.
His first wife had borne him two sons and a daughter; his second was childless.
Montague was a member of two or three Bohemian clubs in London, to which, as time went on, he became increasingly attached. At these, he passed as a good fellow, chiefly from a propensity to stand drinks to any and everyone upon any pretence; he was also renowned amongst his boon companions for his rendering of "The Village Blacksmith" in dumb show, a performance greeted by his thirsty audience with thunders of applause.
Harold, his first born, will be considered later.
Lowther, his second son, can be dismissed in a few words. He was a good-looking specimen of the British bounder. His ideas of life were obtained from the "Winning Post," and the morality (or want of it) suggested by musical comedy productions at the Gaiety Theatre. He thought coarsely of women. While spending money freely in the society of ladies he met at the Empire promenade, or in the Cafe d' l'Europe, he practised mean economics in private.
Victoria, Montague's daughter, was a bit of a puzzle to friends and relations alike, all of whom commenced by liking her, a sentiment which, sooner or later, gave place to a feeling of dissatisfaction. She was a disappointment to her father, although he would never admit it to himself; indeed, if he had tried to explain this displeasure, he would have been hard put to it to give a straightforward cause for a distressing effect. On first acquaintance, it would seem as if she were as desirable a daughter as heart of father could want. She was tall, good-looking, well educated; she had abundance of tact, accomplishments, and refinement; she had never given her parents a moment of anxiety. What, then, was wrong with her from her father's point of view? He was well into middle age; increasing years made him yearn for the love of which his life had been starved; this craving would have been appeased by love for his daughter, but the truth was that he was repelled by the girl's perfection. She had never been known to lose her temper; not once had she shown the least preference for any of the eligible young men of her acquaintance; although always becomingly dressed, she was never guilty of any feminine foibles, which would have endeared her to her father. To him, such correctness savoured of inhumanity; much of the same feeling affected the girl's other relatives and friends, to the ultimate detriment of their esteem.
Hilda, Montague's second wife, was the type of woman that successful industrialism turns out by the gross. Sincere, well-meaning, narrow, homely, expensively but indifferently educated, her opinion on any given subject could be predicted; her childlessness accentuated her want of mental breadth. She read the novels of Mrs Humphry Ward; she was vexed if she ever missed an Academy; if she wanted a change, she frequented fashionable watering-places. She was much exercised by the existence of the "social evil"; she belonged to and, for her, subscribed heavily to a society professing to alleviate, if not to cure, this distressing ailment of the body politic. She was the honorary secretary of a vigilance committee, whose operations extended to the neighbouring towns of Trowton and Devizeton. The good woman was ignorant that the starvation wages which her husband's companies paid were directly responsible for the existence of the local evil she deplored, and which she did her best to eradicate.
Miss Spraggs, Hilda Devitt's elder sister, lived with the family at Melkbridge House. She was a virgin with a taste for scribbling, which commonly took the form of lengthy letters written to those she thought worthy of her correspondence. She had diligently read every volume of letters, which she could lay hands on, of persons whose performance was at all renowned in this department of literature (foreign ones in translations), and was by way of being an agreeable rattle, albeit of a pinchbeck, provincial genus. Miss Spraggs was much courted by her relations, who were genuinely proud of her local literary reputation. Also, let it be said, that she had the disposal of capital bringing in five hundred a year.
Montague's eldest son, Harold, was, at once, the pride and grief of the Devitts, although custom had familiarised them with the calamity attaching to his life.
He had been a comely, athletic lad, with a nature far removed from that of the other Devitts; he had seemed to be in the nature of a reversion to the type of gentleman, who, it was said, had imprudently married an ancestress of Montague's first wife. Whether or not this were so, in manner, mind, and appearance Harold was generations removed from his parents and brother. He had been the delight of his father's eye, until an accident had put an end to the high hopes which his father had formed of his future. A canal ran through Melkbridge; some way from the town this narrowed its course to run beneath a footbridge, locally known as the "Gallows" bridge.
It was an achievement to jump this stretch of water; Harold Devitt was renowned amongst the youth of the neighbourhood for the performance of this feat. He constantly repeated the effort, but did it once too often. One July morning, he miscalculated the distance and fell, to be picked up some while after, insensible. He had injured his spine. After many weeks of suspense suffered by his parents, these learned that their dearly loved boy would live, although he would be a cripple for life. Little by little, Harold recovered strength, till he was able to get about Melkbridge on a self-propelled tricycle; any day since the year of the accident his kindly, distinguished face might be seen in the streets of the town, or the lanes of the adjacent country, where he would pull up to chat with his many friends.
His affliction had been a terrible blow to Harold; when he had first realised the permanent nature of his injuries, he had cursed his fate; his impotent rage had been pitiful to behold. This travail occurred in the first year of his affliction; later, he discovered, as so many others have done in a like extremity, that time accustoms the mind to anything: he was now resigned to his misfortune. His sufferings had endowed him with a great tolerance and a vast instinct of sympathy for all living things, qualities which are nearly always lacking in young men of his present age, which was twenty-nine. The rest of the family stood in some awe of Harold; realising his superiority of mind, they feared to be judged at the bar of his opinion; also, he had some hundreds a year left him, in his own right, by his mother: it was unthinkable that he should ever marry. Another thing that differentiated him from his family was that he possessed a sense of humour.
It may be as well to state that Harold plays a considerable part in this story, which is chiefly concerned with a young woman, of whom the assembled Devitts were speaking in the interval between tea and dinner on a warm July day. Before setting this down, however, it should be said that the chief concern of the Devitts (excepting Harold) was to escape from the social orbit of successful industrialism, in which they moved, to the exalted spheres of county society.
Their efforts, so far, had only taken them to certain halfway houses on their road. The families of consequence about Melkbridge were old-fashioned, conservative folk, who resented the intrusion in their midst of those they considered beneath them.
Whenever Montague, a borough magistrate, met the buffers of the great families upon the bench, or in the hunting field, he found them civil enough; but their young men would have little to do with Lowther, while its womenfolk ignored the assiduities of the Devitt females.
The drawing-room in which the conversation took place was a large, over-furnished room, in which a conspicuous object was a picture, most of which, the lower part, was hidden by padlocked shutters; the portion which showed was the full face of a beautiful girl.
The picture was an "Etty," taken in part payment of a debt by Montague's father, but, as it portrayed a nude woman, the old Puritan had employed a Melkbridge carpenter to conceal that portion of the figure which the artist had omitted to drape. Montague would have had the shutters removed, but had been prevailed upon by his wife to allow them to remain until Victoria was married, an event which, at present, she had no justification for anticipating.
The late afternoon post had brought a letter for Mrs Devitt, which gave rise to something of a discussion.
"Actually, here is a letter from Miss Annie Mee," said Mrs Devitt.
"Your old schoolmistress!" remarked Miss Spraggs.
"I didn't know she was alive," went on Mrs Devitt. "She writes from Brandenburg College, Aynhoe Road, West Kensington Park, London, asking me to do something for her."
"Of course!" commented the agreeable rattle.
"How did you know?" asked Mrs Devitt, looking up from the letter she was reading with the help of glasses.
"Didn't you know that there are two kinds of letters: those you want and those that want something?" asked Miss Spraggs, in a way that showed she was conscious of saying a smart thing.
"I can hardly believe human nature to be so depraved as you would make it out to be, Eva," remarked Mrs Devitt, who disliked the fact of her unmarried sister possessing sharper wits than her own.
"Oh! I say, is that your own?" guffawed Devitt from his place on the hearthrug.
"Why shouldn't it be?" asked Miss Spraggs demurely.
"Anyway," continued Mrs Devitt impatiently, "she wishes to know if I am in want of a companion, or anything of that sort, as she has a teacher she is unable to keep owing to her school having fallen on bad times."
"Then she's young!" cried Lowther, who was lolling near the window.
"'Her name is Mavis Keeves; she is the only daughter of the late Colonel Keeves, who, I believe, before he was overtaken by misfortune, occupied a position of some importance in the vicinity of Melkbridge,'" read Mrs Devitt from Miss Annie Mee's letter.
"Keeves! Keeves!" echoed her husband.
"Do you remember him?" asked his wife.
"Of course," he replied. "He was a M.F.H. and knew everyone" (everyone was here synonymous with the elect the Devitts were pining to meet on equal terms). "His was Sir Henry Ockendon's place."
The prospects of Mavis Keeves securing employment with the Devitts had, suddenly, increased.
"How was it he came 'down'?" asked the agreeable rattle, keenly interested in anything having to do with the local aristocracy, past or present.
"The old story: speculatin' solicitors," replied Montague, who made a point of dropping his "g's." "One week saw him reduced from money to nixes."
Mrs Devitt raised her eyebrows.
"I mean nothin'," corrected Devitt.
"How very distressing!" remarked Victoria in her exquisitely modulated voice. "We should try and do something for her."
"We will," said her father.
"We certainly owe a duty to those who were once our neighbours," assented Miss Spraggs.
"Do you remember her?" asked Mrs Devitt of her husband.
"Of course I do, now I come to think of it," he replied.
"What was she like?"
He paused for a moment or two before replying.
"She'd reddy sort of hair and queer eyes. She was a fine little girl, but a fearful tomboy," said Devitt.
"Pretty, then!" exclaimed Mrs Devitt, as she glanced apprehensively at her step-daughter.
"She was then. It was her hair that did it," answered her husband.
"H'm!" came from his wife.
"The pretty child of to-day is the plain girl of to-morrow" commented Miss Spraggs.
"What was her real disposition?" asked Mrs Devitt.
"I know nothin' about that; but she was always laughin' when I saw her."
"Frivolous!" commented Mrs Devitt.
"Perhaps there's more about her in the letter," suggested Lowther, who had been listening to all that had been said.
"There is," said his step-mother; "but Miss Mee's writing is very trying to the eyes."
Montague took the schoolmistress's letter from his wife's hand. He read the following in his big, blustering voice:
"'In all matters affectin' Miss Keeves's educational qualifications, I find her comme il faut, with the possible exception of freehand drawing, which is not all that a fastidious taste might desire. Her disposition is winnin' and unaffected, but I think it my duty to mention that, on what might appear to others as slight provocation, Miss Keeves is apt to give way to sudden fits of passion, which, however, are of short duration. Doubtless, this is a fault of youth which years and experience will correct.'"
"Rebellious!" commented Mrs Devitt.
"Spirit!" said Harold, who all this while had been reclining in his invalid chair, apparently reading a review.
Mrs Devitt looked up, as if surprised.
"After all, everything depends on the point of view," remarked Miss Spraggs.
"Is there any more?" asked Harold.
By way of reply, his father read from Miss Mee's letter:
"'In conclusion, I am proud to admit that Miss Keeves has derived much benefit from so many years' association with one who has endeavoured to influence her curriculum with the writin's of the late Mr Ruskin, whose acquaintance it was the writer's inestimable privilege to enjoy. With my best wishes for your welfare, I remain, dear Madam, your obedient servant, Annie Allpress Mee.' That's all," he added, as he tossed the letter on to the table at his wife's side.
"Did she know Ruskin?" asked Harold.
"When I was at her school—it was then at Fulham—she, or her sister, never let a day go by without making some reference to him," replied his step-mother.
"What are you going to do for Miss Keeves?" asked Harold.
"It's so difficult to decide off-hand," his step-mother replied.
"Can't you think of anything, father?" persisted Harold.
"It's scarcely in my line," answered Montague, glancing at his wife as he spoke.
Harold looked inquiringly at Mrs Devitt.
"It's so difficult to promise her anything till one has seen her," she remarked.
"Then why not have her down?" asked Harold.
"Yes, why not?" echoed his brother.
"She can get here and back again in a day," added Harold, as his eyes sought his review.
"Very well, then, I'll write and suggest Friday," said Mrs Devitt, not too willingly taking up a pen.
"You can always wire and put her off, if you want to do anything else," remarked her sister.
"Won't you send her her fare?" asked Harold.
"Is that necessary?" queried Mrs Devitt.
"Isn't it usual?"
"I can give it to her when she comes," said Mrs Devitt, who hated parting with money, although, when it was a question of entertaining the elect of Melkbridge, she spent her substance lavishly.
Thus it came about that a letter was written to Miss Annie Mee, Brandenburg College, Aynhoe Road, West Kensington Park, London, W., saying that Mrs Devitt would expect Miss Keeves, for an interview, by the train that left Paddington for Melkbridge at ten on Friday next; also, that she would defray her third-class travelling expenses.
The following Friday morning, Mavis Keeves sprang from bed on waking. It was late when she had gone to sleep the previous night, for she had been kept up by the festivities pertaining to breaking-up day at Brandenburg College, and the inevitable "talk over" the incidents of the event with Miss Helen and Miss Annie Mee, which conversation had been prolonged till nearly twelve o'clock; but the excitement of travelling to the place of her birth, and the certainty of getting an engagement in some capacity or another (Mavis had no doubt on this point) were more than enough to curtail her slumbers. She had fallen asleep laughing to herself at the many things which had appealed to her sense of humour during the day, and it was the recollection of some of these which made her smile directly she was awake. She tubbed and dressed quickly, although she had some bother with her hair, which, this morning, seemed intent on defying the efforts of her fingers. Having dressed herself to her somewhat exigent satisfaction, she went downstairs, passing the doors of those venerable virgins, the Misses Helen and Annie Mee, as she descended to the ground-floor, on which was the schoolroom. This was really two rooms, but the folding doors, which had once divided the apartment, had long since been removed from their hinges; they were now rotting in the strip of garden behind the house.
The appearance of Brandenburg College belied its pretentious name. Once upon a time, its name-plate had decorated the gates of a stately old mansion in the Fulham of many years ago; here it was that Mrs Devitt, then Miss Hilda Spraggs, had been educated. Since those fat days, the name-plate of Brandenburg College had suffered many migrations, always in a materially downward direction, till now it was screwed on the railings of a stuffy little road in Shepherd's Bush, which, as Mavis was in the habit of declaring, was called West Kensington Park for "short."
The brass plate, much the worse for wear, told the neighbourhood that Brandenburg College educated the daughters of gentlemen; perhaps it was as well that this definition, like the plate, was fallen on hard times, inasmuch as it was capable of such an elastic interpretation that it enabled the Misses Mee to accept pupils whom, in their prosperous days, they would have refused. Mavis looked round the familiar, shabby schoolroom, with its atmosphere of ink and slate pencil, to which she was so soon to say "good-bye."
It looked desolate this morning, perhaps because there leapt to her fancy the animated picture it had presented the day before, when it had been filled by a crowd of pupils (dressed in their best), their admiring parents and friends.
Yesterday's programme had followed that of all other girls' school breaking-up celebrations, with the difference that the passages selected for recital had been wholly culled from the writings of Mr Ruskin. Reference to the same personage had occurred in the speech to the prize-winners (every girl in the school had won a prize of sorts) made by Mr Smiley, the curate, who performed this office; also, the Misses Mee, when opportunity served, had not been backward in making copious references to the occasion on which they had drunk tea with the deceased author. Indeed, the parents and friends had breathed such an atmosphere of Ruskin that there were eight requests for his works at the local free library during the following week.
"Good old Ruskin!" laughed Mavis, as she ran downstairs to the breakfast room, which was situated in the basement. Here, the only preparation made for the meal was a not too clean table-cloth spread upon the table. Mavis went into the kitchen, where she found Amelia, the general servant, doing battle with a smoky kitchen-fire.
"How long before breakfast is ready?" asked Mavis.
"Is that you, miss? Oi can't see you properly," said Amelia, as she turned her head. "This 'ere smoke had got into my best oye."
Amelia spoke truly; there was a great difference between the seeing capacity of her two eyes, one of these being what is known as "walled." Amelia was an orphan; she had been dragged up by the "Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants," known to its familiars as the "Mabys," such designation being formed by the first letter of each word of the title. Every week, dozens of these young women issued from the doors of the many branches of this institution, who became, to their respective mistresses, a source of endless complaint; in times of domestic stress, one or two of these "generals" had been known to keep their situations for three months. Amelia was a prodigy of success, a record in the annals of the society, inasmuch as she had been at Brandenburg College for two years and a half. She kept her situation because she was cheap; also, because she did her best to give satisfaction, as she appreciated the intellectual atmosphere of the place, which made her hope that she, too, might pick up a few educational crumbs; moreover, she was able to boast to her intimates, on the occasions when she visited her parent home, how her two mistresses could speak four languages, which was certainly true.
"Wasn't it all beautiful, miss?" asked Amelia, who had listened to yesterday's entertainment halfway down the stairs leading to the basement.
"Wonderful," replied Mavis, as she tied on a kitchen apron, a preliminary to giving Amelia a helping hand with the breakfast.
"And the 'reverend'! He did make me laugh when he gave four prizes to fat Miss Robson, and said she was a good all round girl."
This joke had not been intentional on Mr Smiley's part; he had been puzzled by the roar of laughter which had greeted his remark; when he divined its purport, he was quite willing to take credit for having deliberately made the sally.
"You managed to hear that?" asked Mavis.
"Yes, miss; an' what the 'reverend' said about dear Mr Fuskin. I 'eard that too."
"Ruskin," corrected Mavis, as she set about making coffee.
Amelia, with a hurt expression on her face, turned to look at Miss Keeves, who, noticing the girl's dejection, said:
"Call him what you like, Amelia. It's only the Miss Mees who're so particular."
"Dear gentleman," continued Amelia. "Next to being always with you, miss, I should like to have been with 'im."
"I'm afraid you can't even be with me. I have to earn my own living."
"Yes, miss; but when you marry a rich gentleman, I should like to come with you as 'general.'"
"Don't talk nonsense, Amelia."
"But it ain't, miss; didn't the music master, 'im with the lovely, long, shiny 'air, promise me a shillin' to give you a note?"
"Did he?" laughed Mavis. "It's nearly eight: you'd better take in the breakfast things."
"Oh, well, if I can't be here, or with you, I'd sooner be with that dear Mr—"
"Ruskin, Amelia," interrupted Mavis. "Try and get it right, if only for once."
Amelia took no notice of the interruption, but went on, as she dusted the cups, before putting them on the tray:
"Dear Mr Fuskin! 'Ow I would have looked after 'im, and 'ow carefully I'd 'ave counted 'is washing!"
Punctually, as the clock struck eight, the two Miss Mees entered the breakfast room; they kissed Mavis on the cheek before sitting down to the meal. They asked each other and Mavis how they had slept, as was their invariable custom; but the sensitive, observant girl could not help noticing that the greetings of her employers were a trifle less cordial than was their wont. Mavis put down this comparative coldness to their pride at the success of yesterday's festival.
To the indifferent observer, the Miss Mees were exactly alike, being meagre, dilapidated, white-haired old ladies, with the same beaked noses and receding chins; both wore rusty black frocks, each of which was decorated with a white cameo brooch; both walked with the same propitiatory shuffle. They were like a couple of elderly, moulting, decorous hens who, in spite of their physical disabilities, had something of a presence. This was obtained from the authority they had wielded over the many pupils who had passed through their hands.
Nearer inspection showed that Miss Annie Mee was a trifle stouter than her sister, if this be not too robust a word to apply to such a wisp of a woman; that her eyes were kinder and less watery than Helen's; also, that her face was less insistently marked with lines of care.
The Miss Mees' dispositions were much more dissimilar than their appearance. Miss Helen, the elder, loved her home and, in her heart of hearts, preferred the kitchen to any other part of the house. It was she who attended to the ordering of the few wants of the humble household; she arranged the meals, paid the bills, and generally looked after the domestic economy of the college; she took much pride in the orderliness of her housekeeper's cupboard, into which Amelia never dared to pry. In the schoolroom, she received the parents, arranged the fees and extras, and inflicted the trifling punishment she awarded to delinquents, which latter, it must be admitted, gave her a faint pleasure.
Annie Mee, her sister, had a natural inclination for the flesh-pots of life. She liked to lie abed on Sunday and holiday mornings; she spread more butter on her breakfast toast than Helen thought justified by the slenderness of their resources; she was indulgent to the pupils, and seized any opportunity that offered of going out for the evening. She frequented (and had been known to enjoy) entertainments given in schoolrooms for church purposes she welcomed the theatre or concert tickets which were sometimes sent her by the father of one of the pupils (who was behind with his account), when, however paltry the promised fare, she would be waiting at the door, clad in her faded garments, a full hour before the public were admitted, in order not to miss any of the fun. Mavis usually accompanied her on these excursions; although she was soon bored by the tenth-rate singers and the poor plays she heard and saw, she was compensated by witnessing the pleasure Miss Annie Mee got from these sorry dissipations.
The two sisters' dispositions were alike in one thing: the good works they unostentatiously performed. The sacrifices entailed by these had much contributed to their declining fortunes. This unity of purpose did not stay them from occasionally exchanging embittered remarks when heated by difference of opinion.
When they sat down to breakfast, Helen poured out the coffee.
"What day does the West London Observer come out?" asked Annie, presently, of Mavis.
"Friday, I believe."
"There should be some account of yesterday's proceedings," said Miss Helen. "The very proper references which Mr Smiley made to our acquaintance with the late Mr Ruskin are worthy of comment."
"I have never known the applause to be so hearty as it was yesterday," remarked Annie, after she had eaten her first piece of toast.
"What is the matter, Mavis?" asked Miss Helen.
"A crumb stuck in my throat," replied Mavis, saying what was untrue, as she bent over her plate. This action was necessary to hide the smile that rose to her lips and eyes at the recollection of yesterday's applause, to which Miss Annie had referred. It had amused Mavis to notice the isolated clapping which followed the execution of an item, in the programme by a solitary performer; this came from her friends in the room. The conclusion of a duet would be greeted by two patches of appreciation; whilst a pianoforte concerto, which engaged sixteen hands, merged the eight oases of applause into a roar of approval.
"How do you get to Paddington, Mavis?" asked Miss Helen, after she had finished her meagre breakfast.
"From Addison Road," replied Mavis, who was still eating.
"Wouldn't Shepherd's Bush be better?" asked Annie, who was wondering if she could find accommodation for a further piece of toast.
"I always recommend parents to send their daughters from Paddington via Addison Road," remarked Helen severely.
"There are more trains from Shepherd's Bush," persisted Annie.
"Maybe, dear Annie" (when relations between the sisters were strained, they made use of endearing terms), "but more genteel people live on the Addison Road connection."
"But, Helen dear, the class of residence existing upon a line of railway does not enable a traveller to reach his or her destination the quicker."
"I was not aware, dear Annie, that I ever advanced such a proposition."
"Then there is no reason, dearest Helen, why Mavis shouldn't reach Paddington by going to Shepherd's Bush."
"None, beyond the fact that it is decided that she shall travel by way of Addison Road. Besides, Addison Road is nearer, dear."
"But the exercise of walking to Shepherd's Bush would do Mavis good after the fatigues of yesterday, Helen."
"That is altogether beside the point, dear Annie."
"I am never listened to," complained her sister angrily.
"You argue for the sake of talking," replied the other crossly.
They continued in that strain for some moments, and were still at it when Mavis went upstairs to put on her hat; here, she gave a last look at herself in the glass.
"I wonder if I'll do?" she thought, as she dealt with one or two strands of tawny coloured hair, which were still inclined to be rebellious.
"I wonder if I'll meet anyone who remembers me?" she thought, as she left the room.
Downstairs, the two old ladies were awaiting her in the hall. Miss Helen was full of good advice for the journey, whilst Miss Annie dangled a packet of sandwiches, "In case dear Mavis should need refreshment on the way."
"Thanks so much," said Mavis, as she took the little packet, the brown-paper covering of which was already grease-stained from the fat of the sandwiches.
"Don't fail to remember me to Mrs Devitt," urged Helen.
"I won't forget," said Mavis.
"I put salt and mustard in the sandwiches," remarked Annie.
"Thanks so much," cried Mavis, as she opened the front door.
"And don't forget to be sure and travel in a compartment reserved for ladies," quavered Helen.
"I won't forget; wish me luck," answered Mavis.
"We do; good-bye," said the two old ladies together.
Directly the door was closed, Miss Annie, followed at a distance by Miss Helen, hurried into the schoolroom, where, pulling aside the Venetian blind of the front window, they watched the girl's trim figure walk down the street. The two old ladies were really very fond of her and not a little proud of her appearance.
"She has deportment," remarked Helen, as Mavis disappeared from their ken.
"Scarcely that—distinction is more the word," corrected Annie.
"I fear for her in the great world," declared Helen with trembling lips; "they say that good looks are a girl's worst enemy."
"But Mavis has profited by the example of our lives, Helen."
"There is much in that, Annie. Also, she should have derived much benefit from being, in school hours, and often out of them, in an atmosphere influenced by the writings of the late Mr Ruskin."
With these consolations, the two old ladies toiled upstairs, and set about packing for a fortnight's stay they proposed making with an old friend at Worthing, for which place they proposed starting in two days' time.
Meanwhile, the subject of their thoughts was walking to Addison Road Station, happily ignorant of the old ladies' fears concerning the perils of her path. To look at her, she seemed the least likely girl in London who was about to take a journey on the chance of obtaining a much-needed engagement. Her glowing eyes, flushed cheeks, and light step were eloquent of a joyousness not usually associated with an all but penniless girl on the look-out for something to do. Her clothes, also, supported the impression that she was a young woman well removed from likelihood of want. She was obliged to be careful with the few pounds that she earned at Brandenburg College: being of an open-handed disposition, this necessity for economy irked her; but however much she stinted her inclinations in other directions, she was determined, as are so many other young women who are thrown on their own resources, to have one good turn-out in which to make a brave show to the world. Not that Mavis spent her money, shop-girl fashion, in buying cheap flummery which was, at best, a poor and easily recognisable imitation of the real thing; her purchases were of the kind that any young gentlewoman, who was not compelled to take thought for the morrow, might becomingly wear. As she walked, most of the men she met looked at her admiringly; some turned to glance at her figure; one or two retraced their steps and would have overtaken her, had she not walked purposefully forward. She was so used to these tributes to her attractiveness, that she did not give them heed. She could not help noticing one man; he glanced at her and seemed as if he were about to raise his hat; when she looked at him to see if she knew him, she saw that he was distinguished looking, but a stranger. She hurried on; presently, she went into a draper's shop, where she bought a pair of gloves, but, when she came out, the good-looking stranger was staring woodenly at the window. She hastened forward; turning a corner, she slipped into a tobacconist's and newsagent's, where she bought a packet of her favourite cigarettes, together with a box of matches. When she got to the door, her good-looking admirer was entering the shop. He made way for her, and, raising his hat, was about to speak: she walked quickly away and was not troubled with him any more. When she got to Paddington, she disobeyed Miss Helen's injunctions to travel in a compartment reserved for ladies, but went into an ordinary carriage, which, by the connivance of the guard, she had to herself. When the train left Paddington, she put her feet on the cushions of the opposite seat, with a fine disregard of railway bye-laws, and lit a cigarette.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that the girl's thoughts should incline to the time and the very different circumstances in which she had last journeyed to Melkbridge. This was nine years ago, when she had come home for the holidays from Eastbourne, where she had been to school. Then, she had had but one care in the world, this on account of a jaundiced pony to which she was immoderately attached. Then she suffered her mind to dwell on the unrestrained grief with which she had greeted her favourite's decease; as she did so, half-forgotten fares, scenes, memories flitted across her mind. Foremost amongst these was her father's face—dignified, loving, kind. Whenever she thought of him, as now, she best remembered him as he looked when he told her how she should try to restrain her grief at the loss of her pet, as her distress gave him pain. She had then been a person of consequence in her little world, she being her father's only child; she had been made much of by friends and acquaintances, amongst whom, so far as she could recollect, no member of the Devitt family was numbered. Perhaps, she thought, they have lately come to Melkbridge. Then aspects of the old home passed through her mind. The room in which she used to sleep; the oak-panelled dining-room; the garden, which was all her very own, passed in rapid review; then, the faces of playmates and sweethearts, for she had had admirers at that early age. There was Charlie Perigal, the boy with the steely blue eyes and the pretty curls, with whom she had quarrelled on the ground that he was in the habit of catching birds in nasty little brick traps; also, because, when taxed with this offence, he had defended his conduct and, a few moments later, had attempted to stone a frog in her highly indignant presence.
Then there was Archie Windebank, whose father had the next place to theirs; he was a fair, solemn boy, who treated her with an immense deference; he used to blush when she asked him to join her in play. The day before she had left for school, he had confessed his devotion in broken accents; she had thought of him for quite a week after she had left home. How absurd and trivial it all seemed, now that she was to face the stern realities of life!
The next thing she recalled was the news of her father's ruin. This calamity was more conveyed to her by the changed look in his face, when she next saw him, than by anything else.
She had been, at once, taken away from the expensive school at which she was being educated and had been sent to Brandenburg College, then languishing in Hammersmith Terrace, while her father went to live at Dinan, in Brittany, where he might save money in order to make some sort of a start, which might ultimately mean a provision for his daughter.
Next, she remembered—this she would never forget—the terrible day on which Miss Helen Mee had called her into the study to tell her that she would never again see her dear father in this world. Tears came to Mavis's eyes whenever she thought of it. Orphaned, friendless, with no one to give her the affection for which her lonely soul craved, Mavis had stayed on at Brandenburg College, where the little her father had left sufficed to pay for her board and schooling. This sum lasted till she was sixteen, when, having passed one or two trumpery examinations, she was taken on the staff of the college. The last few months, Mavis's eyes had been opened to the straitened circumstances in which her employers lived; she had lately realised that she owed her bread and butter more to the kindness of the Miss Mees, than to the fact of her parts as a teacher being in request at the school. She informed the kind ladies that she was going to seek her bread elsewhere; upon their offering the mildest of protests, she had made every effort to translate her intentions into performance.
This was by no means an easy matter for a comparatively friendless girl, as Mavis soon discovered. Her numerous applications had, so far, only resulted in an expenditure of stationery and postage stamps. Then, Miss Annie Mee kindly volunteered to write to the more prosperously circumstanced of the few one-time pupils with whom she had kept up something of a correspondence. Those who replied offered no suggestion of help, with the exception of Mrs Devitt. So much for the past: the future stretched, an unexplored country, before her, which, to one of her sanguine disposition, seemed to offer boundless opportunities of happiness. It appeared a strange conjunction of circumstances that she should have been sent for by a person living in her native place. It seemed fortuitous to Mavis that she should earn her bread in a neighbourhood where she would be known, if only because of the high reputation which her dear father had enjoyed. It all seemed as if it had been arranged like something out of a book. Amelia's words, referring to the certainty of her marrying, came into her mind; she tried to dismiss them, but without success. Then, her thoughts flew back to Charlie Perigal and Archie Windebank, youthful admirers, rivals for her favours. She wondered what had become of them; if she should see them again: a thousand things in which she allowed her imagination to wing itself in sentimental flight.
She was of an ardent temperament; men attracted her, although, since she had been grown up, she had never exchanged anything that could be construed into a love passage with a member of the opposite sex, opportunities for meeting those whom she considered her equals being wanting in her dull round of daily teaching. Sometimes, a face she had seen in the street, or a character she encountered in a book attracted her, when she would think of her hero, allowing her mind to place him in tender situations with herself, for the few hours her infatuation lasted, showing her to be of an impressionable and romantic disposition. Although she often felt her loneliness, and the consequent need of human companionship, her pride would never suffer her to take advantage of the innumerable facilities which the streets of London offer a comely girl to make chance friendships, facilities which, for thousands of friendless young women in big towns, are their only chance for meeting the male of their species.
Mavis's pride was not of the kind with which providence endows millions of foolish people, apparently by way of preventing them from realising their insignificance, or, at the worst, making their smallness tolerable. It arose from knowledge of the great and inexhaustible treasure of love which was hers to bestow; so convinced was she of the value of this wealth, that she guarded it jealously, not permitting it to suffer taint or deterioration from commerce with those who, if only from curiosity, might strive to examine her riches.
She feared with a grave dread the giving of the contents of this treasure house, knowing full well that, if she gave at all, she would bestow with a lavish hand, believing the priceless riches of her love to be but a humble offering upon the shrine of the loved one.
For all this consciousness that she would be as wax in the hands of the man she would some day love, she had much of a conviction that, somehow, things would come right.
Beyond thanking the Almighty for the beauties of nature, sunlight, and the happiness that danced in her veins, she did not bother herself overmuch with public religious observances. She had a fixed idea that, if she did her duty in life, and tried to help others to the best of her small ability, God would, in some measure, reward her very much as her dear father would have done, if he had been spared; also, that, if she did ill, she would offend Him and might be visited with some sign of His displeasure, just as her own father might have done if he had been still on earth to advise and protect her.
Then, all such thoughts faded from her mind; she looked out of the carriage window as the train rushed through Didcot Junction. She felt hungry after the meagre breakfast she had made; she remembered the sandwiches, and, untying the greasy little parcel, was glad to eat them. When she had finished the sandwiches, she lit another cigarette; after smoking this, she closed her eyes the better to reflect.
Then she remembered nothing till the calling of "Melkbridge!" "Melkbridge!" seemed to suffuse her senses. She awoke with a start, to find that she had reached her destination.
FRIENDS IN NEED
Mavis scrambled out of the train, just in time to prevent herself from being carried on to the next stopping—place. She smoothed her ruffled plumage and looked about her. She found the station much smaller than she had believed it to be; she hardly remembered any of its features, till the scent of the stocks planted in the station-master's garden assisted her memory. She gave up her ticket, and looked about her, thinking that very likely she would be met, if not by a member of the Devitt family, by some conveyance; but, beyond the station 'bus and two or three farmers' gigs, there was nothing in the nature of cart or carriage. She asked the hobbledehoy, who took her ticket, where Mrs Devitt lived, at which the youth looked at her in a manner that evidently questioned her sanity at being ignorant of such an important person's whereabouts. Mavis repeated her question more sharply than before. The ticket-collector looked at her open—mouthed, glanced up the road and then again to Mavis, before saying:
"Here her be."
"Noa. The trap. Mebbe your eyes hain't so 'peart' as mine."
The grating of wheels called her attention to the fact that a smart, yellow-wheeled dogcart had been driven into the station yard by a man in livery.
"Be you Miss Keeves, miss?" asked the servant.
"Then you're for Melkbridge House. Please get in, miss."
Mavis clambered into the cart and was driven quickly from the station. At the top of the hill, they turned sharp to the right, and rolled along the Bathminster road. Mavis first noticed how much the town had been added to since she had last set foot in it; then she became conscious that distances, which in her childhood had seemed to be considerable, were now trivial.
The man driving her had been a gentleman's servant; seeing that Mavis belonged to a class of life which he had been accustomed to serve, he treated her with becoming respect. Mavis incorrectly argued from the man's deference that it had been decided to secure her services: her heart leapt, her colour heightened at her good fortune.
If a few moments of pleasure are worth purchasing at a cost of many hours of crowded disappointment, it was as well that Mavis was ignorant of the way in which her prospects had been prejudiced by the trend of events at Melkbridge House since Mrs Devitt had replied to Miss Mee's letter. To begin with, Mavis's visit had been within an ace of being indefinitely postponed; it was owing to Harold's expressed wish that the original appointment had been allowed to stand. The reason for this indifference to Mavis's immediate future was that, the day after the schoolmistress had written, Harold had been seriously indisposed. His symptoms were so alarming that his doctor had insisted on having a further opinion; this was obtained from a Bathminster physician, who had confirmed the local medical man's diagnosis; he had also advised Harold a month's rest on his back, this to be followed by a nine months' residence abroad. As if this were not enough to interfere with Mavis's visit, Montague Devitt had met young Sir Archibald Windebank, the bachelor owner of Haycock. Abbey, when going to discharge his duties as borough magistrate, the performance of which he believed might ease his mind of the pain occasioned by his son's illness.
After he had told Windebank his bad news, and the latter had expressed his genuine concern, Devitt had said:
"Do you remember Keeves—Colonel Keeves?"
"Of Melkbridge Court? Of course. Why?"
"I heard something of his daughter the other day."
"She's big Mavis now," remarked Devitt.
"Have you seen her?" asked Windebank eagerly.
"Not yet, but I may very soon."
"She promised to be an awfully pretty girl. Is she?"
"I haven't seen her. But if she comes down you might care to call."
"Thanks," replied Windebank. "When you see her, you might mention I asked after her."
"Although I don't suppose she'll remember me after all these years."
Devitt had left Windebank and gone about his business. When he came out of the court house, and was about to get into his motor, Windebank again approached him, but in such a manner that made Devitt wonder if he had been hanging about on purpose to speak to him.
Windebank made one or two remarks about nothing in particular. Devitt was about to start, when the other said:
"By the way, when you do see Miss Keeves, you might tell her that the mater and my sister will be down here next week and that they'll be awfully pleased to see her, if she'd care to come and stay."
"I won't forget," replied Devitt dryly.
"Tell her to come for as long as she cares to, as the mater and Celia were always fond of her. None of us could ever make out what became of her."
"I won't forget," said Devitt again.
Montague told his wife of this; she had replied:
"We will decide nothing till we see her," which meant that, if Mavis had not fulfilled the promise of her childhood, and had grown up plain, there would be some prospect of her being engaged in some capacity in the Devitt family, as her acquaintance with the big people about Melkbridge might result in introducing Victoria within the charmed circle, without prejudicing the latter's chances of making a brilliant match. Mrs Devitt's words likewise meant that, if Mavis were charming or pretty, her prospects of securing an engagement would be of the slenderest.
Mavis, ignorant of these considerations, was driven to the door of Melkbridge House. On getting out of the cart, the front door was opened by Hayter, the fat butler, who showed her into the drawing-room. Left to herself, Mavis looked about the expensively furnished room. Noticing a mirror, she walked to it in order to see if hair or hat had been disarranged by her journey and drive; as she looked at her comely reflection, she could not help seeing with a thrill of satisfaction that already the change of air, together with the excitement of the occasion, had flushed her cheeks with colour; she was looking her best. She walked to the window and looked in the direction of her old home, which was on a slight eminence about a mile from where she stood: were the time of year other than summer, its familiar outlines would not have been obscured by foliage. Mavis sighed, turned her back on the window and walked towards the fireplace; something moving in the cool, carefully shaded room caught her eye. It was the propitiatory wagging of a black, cocker spaniel's tail, while its eyes were looking pleadingly up to her. Mavis loved all animals; in a moment the spaniel was in her lap, her arms were about its neck, and she was pressing her soft, red lips to its head. The dog received these demonstrations of affection with delight; although it pawed and clawed the only decent frock which Mavis possessed, she did not mind a bit.
"I shall be here a long time and we shall always be the best of friends," murmured Mavis, as she pressed the affectionate animal to her heart.
Mavis waited half an hour in the drawing-room before anyone came.
Victoria was the first to join her; she entered the room with a frank smile, together with an apology for having kept Mavis waiting. The latter took to Miss Devitt at once, congratulating herself on her good fortune at the prospect of living with such congenial companions as Miss Devitt and the dog. Victoria explained that her brother's illness was responsible for Mavis having been treated with apparent neglect.
"I am so sorry," replied Mavis. "Is it serious?"
"Not at present, but it may be."
"How dreadful it must be for you, who love him!"
"We are all of us used to seeing my brother more or less ill; he has been a cripple for the last eight years."
"How very sad! But if your brother is worse, why didn't you wire and put me off?"
"You would have been disappointed if we had."
"I should have understood."
Then, after making further sympathetic reference to Harold's condition, Mavis said:
"What a dear dog this is! Is he yours?"
"It's Harold's. She's no business to be in here. She'll dirty your dress."
"I don't mind in the least."
"Let me turn her out," said Victoria, as she rose from her seat.
"Please don't. I love to have her with me," pleaded Mavis, adding, as Victoria acceded to her request:
"Don't you like dogs?"
"In their proper place. Jill wouldn't be allowed in at all if Harold didn't sometimes wish it."
"If I had a house, it should be full of dogs," remarked Mavis.
"I understand that you were born near here."
"Yes, at Melkbridge Court."
"I don't know what time you go back, but, after luncheon—of course you'll stay—you might take the opportunity of your being down here to have a look at the old place."
"I—I might," faltered Mavis, who suddenly felt as if all the happiness had been taken out of her life; for Miss Devitt's words hinted that her family was not going to keep Mavis at Melkbridge House.
She looked regretfully at the dog, then inquiringly at Victoria, when Mrs Devitt came into the drawing-room.
Her eyes at once fell on Mavis's comeliness; looking at her step-daughter, she found herself comparing the appearance of the two girls. Before she had offered her hand to Mavis, she had decided that, beside her, Victoria appeared at a disadvantage.
Although Mavis's hair and colouring might only appeal to a certain order of taste, the girl's distinction, to which one of the Miss Mees had alluded earlier in the day, was glaringly patent to Mrs Devitt's sharp eyes; beside this indefinable personal quality, Mrs Devitt observed with a shudder, Victoria seemed middle-class. Mavis's fate, as far as the Devitts were concerned, was decided in the twinkling of an eye. For all this decision, so suddenly arrived at, Mrs Devitt greeted Mavis kindly; indeed, the friendliness that she displayed caused the girl's hopes to rise.
"Luncheon will be ready directly. We are only waiting for my husband," said Mrs Devitt.
"You must be hungry after your journey," added Victoria.
"I've always a healthy appetite, whatever I do," remarked Mavis, who was fondly regarding the black spaniel.
Then Montague Devitt, Lowther, and Miss Spraggs entered the drawing-room, to all of whom Mavis was introduced.
The men were quite cordial, too cordial to a girl who, after all, was seeking a dependant's place, thought Mrs Devitt.
Already she envied Mavis for her family, the while she despised her for her poverty.
The attentions that her husband and stepson were already paying her were a hint of what Mrs Devitt might expect where the eligible men of her acquaintance were concerned. She felt the necessity of striking a jarring note in the harmony of the proceedings. Jill, the spaniel, who, at that moment, sprang upon Mavis's lap, supplied the means.
"What is Jill doing here?"
"I really don't mind," exclaimed Mavis.
"She shouldn't be in the house. There's no reason for her being here at all, now Harold is ill."
"If you wish her to go," said Mavis ruefully.
Jill was ordered from the room, but refused to quit her new friend's side. Lowther approached the dog; to emphasise his wishes, he kicked her in the side.
Mavis looked up quickly.
"Come along, you brute!" cried Lowther, who seized the spaniel by the ear, and, despite its yell of agony, was carrying it by this means from the room.
Mavis felt the blood rush to her head.
"Stop!" she cried.
Lowther turned to look at her.
"Stop—, please don't," she pleaded, as she went quickly to Jill and caught her in her arms.
Lowther looked down, surprised, into Mavis's pleading, yet defiant face.
"It was all my fault: you're hurting her and she's such a dear," continued Mavis.
"Better let her stay," said Devitt, while Mrs Devitt, seeing the girl's flushed face, recalled the passage in Miss Mee's letter which referred to Mavis's sudden anger.
Mrs Devitt hated a display of emotion; she put down Mavis's interference with Lowther's design to bad form. She was surprised that Lowther and her husband were so assiduous in their attentions to Mavis; indeed, as Mrs Devitt afterwards remarked to Miss Spraggs:
"They hardly ever took their eyes off her face."
"Never trust a man further than you can see him," had remarked the agreeable rattle, who had never had reason to complain of want of respect on the part of any man with whom she may have been temporarily isolated.
"And did you notice how her eyes flashed when she seized Jill from Lowther? They're usually a sort of yellow. Then, as perhaps you saw, they seemed to burst into a fierce glare."
"My dear Hilda, is there anything I don't notice?" Miss Spraggs had replied, a remark which was untrue in its present application, as, at the moment when Mavis had taken Jill's part, Eva Spraggs had been looking out of the window, as she wondered if the peas, that were to accompany a roast duckling at luncheon, would be as hard and as unappetising as they had been when served two days previously.
This was later in the day. Just now, Mavis was about to be taken down to luncheon by Montague Devitt; she wondered if her defence of dear Jill had prejudiced her chance of an engagement.
"What's that picture covered with a shutter for?" asked Mavis, as her eye fell on the padlocked "Etty."
"Oh, well-it's an 'Etty': some people might think it's scarcely the thing for some young people, you know," replied Devitt, as they descended the stairs.
"Really! Is that why it's kept like that?" asked Mavis, who could scarcely conceal her amusement.
Mrs Devitt, who was immediately behind, had detected the note of merriment in Mavis's voice. "Scarcely a pure-minded girl," she said to herself, unconscious of the fact that there is nothing so improper as the thoughts implied by propriety.
It was not a very pleasant time for Mavis. Although the luncheon was a good meal, and served in a manner to which she had been unaccustomed for many years, she did not feel at home with the Devitts. Montague, the head of the house, she disliked least; no one could be long insensible to his goodness of heart. Already, she could not "stand" Lowther, for the reason that he hardly took his eyes from her face. As for the women, she was soon conscious of the social gulf that, in reality, lay between her and them; she was, also, aware that they were inclined to patronise her, particularly Mrs Devitt and Miss Spraggs: the high hopes with which she had commenced the day had already suffered diminution.
"And what are your aims in life?" Miss Spraggs asked presently; she had found the peas to be as succulent as she had wished.
"To earn my own living," replied Mavis, who had seen that it was she to whom the agreeable rattle had spoken.
"But, surely, that doesn't satisfy the young women of today!" continued Miss Spraggs.
"I fear it does me; but then I don't know any young women to be influenced by," answered Mavis.
"I thought every young woman, nowadays, was thirsting with ambition," said Miss Spraggs.
"I suppose everyone, who isn't an idiot, has her preferences," remarked Mavis.
"I don't mean that. I thought every girl was determined on living her own life to the exclusion of everything else," continued Miss Spraggs.
"Really!" asked Mavis in some surprise, as she believed that it was only the plain and unattractive women who were of that complexion of thought.
"Despise marriage and all that," put in Lowther, his eyes on Mavis as he tossed off a glass of wine.
"But I don't despise marriage," protested Mavis.
"Really!" said Mrs Devitt, whose sensibilities were a trifle shocked by this remark.
"If two people are in love with each other, and can afford to marry, it seems a particularly natural proceeding," said Mavis simply.
"One that you would welcome?" asked Miss Spraggs, as she raised her thin eyebrows.
"One that someone else would welcome," put in Devitt gallantly.
But Mavis took no notice of this interruption, as she said:
"Of course. Nothing I should wish for more."
Miss Spraggs made two or three further efforts to take a rise out of Mavis; in each case, such was the younger woman's naturalness and self-possession, that it was the would—be persecutor who appeared at a disadvantage.
After luncheon the womenfolk moved to the drawing room; when Victoria presently went to sit with her invalid brother, Mrs Devitt assumed a business-like manner as she requested Mavis to sit by her. The latter knew that her fate was about to be decided. They sat by the window where, but for the intervening foliage, Mavis would have been able to see her old home.
"This is our best chance of a quiet talk, so I'll come to the point at once," began Mrs Devitt.
"By all means," said Mavis, as Miss Spraggs took up a book and pretended to be interested in its contents.
"How soon do you require a situation?"
"Has Miss Mee applied to anyone else in the neighbourhood on your account?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"And you yourself, have you written to anyone here?"
"There's no one I could write to. There's not one of my father's old friends I've kept up. They've all forgotten my very existence, years ago."
"Who am I to remember?" asked Mavis simply.
It was on Mrs Devitt's lips to give the girl Sir Archibald's message, but the thought of her unmarried step—daughter restrained her. She addressed Mavis rather hurriedly (she tried hard to act conscientiously):
"I may as well say at once that the opportunity that presented itself, when I wrote to Miss Mee, has passed."
The room seemed to move round Mavis. Mrs Devitt continued, as she noticed the look of dismay on the girl's face:
"But I need hardly tell you that I will do all I can to do something for you."
"Thank you," said Mavis.
"Can't you get anything to do in London?"
"Have you tried?"
Mavis felt tears welling into her eyes; she would never have forgiven herself if she had displayed the extremity of weeping before these people, who, after all, were not of her social world. She resolved to change the subject and keep any expression of her disappointment till she was safe from unsympathetic eyes.
"Did you know my father?" she asked.
"I didn't live here, then. I married Mr—my husband six years ago."
"I suppose he knew him?"
"I gather so."
Very soon after, the two men came into the drawing-room, having considerably curtailed the time they usually devoted to their cigars.
"We were discussing getting something to do for Miss Keeves," said Mrs Devitt.
"You haven't thought of anything?" asked her husband.
"Not yet," replied his wife.
"I suppose you wouldn't care to go into an office?" he continued.
"A lot of girls do that kind of thing nowadays," said Mavis.
"Or a shop?" put in Miss Spraggs.
Mavis glanced up.
"I mean a—flower shop," corrected Miss Spraggs, misliking the look in Mavis's yellow eyes.
Mavis looked towards where she could have seen her old home but for the intervening trees.
"I think I'd better see about my train," she said as she rose.
"Must you, dear?" asked Mrs Devitt.
The men pressed her to stay, particularly Lowther.
"I think I'll go. I want to get back in good time," said Mavis.
"I'll drive you to the station, if I may," volunteered Lowther.
"Thank you; if it's giving you no trouble," she replied.
Lowther left the room. Mavis said good-bye to the others, including Victoria, who joined her for this purpose, from whom the girl learned that Harold was asleep.
As Devitt conducted Mavis to the door, which the fat butler held open, she heard the snorting of a motor; the next minute, a superb car, driven by Lowther, pulled up before the front door. Mavis had never before been in a petrol-propelled carriage (automobiles were then coming into use); she looked forward to her new experience.
She got in beside Lowther, waved her hand to Devitt and was gone. She was surprised at the swift, easy motion, but had an idea that, soon after they left the house, Lowther Devitt was not travelling so fast as when they set out.
"How delightful!" she cried.
"I've never been in a motor before."
"I really haven't. Don't talk: I want to enjoy it."
Seeing that the girl was disinclined for speech, he increased the pace. Mavis was quite disappointed at the short time it took to reach the station. They got out, when Mavis learned that she had twenty minutes to wait. She was sorry, as she disliked the ardent way in which Lowther looked at her. She answered his remarks in monosyllables.
"I'm afraid you're no end angry with me," he said presently.
"Why?" she said coldly.
"Because I punished Jill for disobedience."
"It was cruel of you."
"I made sure she was worrying you."
"But it was almost worth while to upset you, you looked so fine when you were angry."
"Did it frighten you?" she asked half scornfully.
"Almost. You looked just like a young tigress."
"I've been told that before."
"Then you often get angry?"
"If I'm annoyed. But it's soon over."
"I go up to town sometimes," he said presently.
"How clever of you!"
"I go up to my club—the Junior Constitutional. May I look you up when I run up next?"
"Here's the train coming in."
"Bother! It's so nice talking to you. I'm no end of sorry the mater isn't taking you on."
"I am too," replied Mavis, who, at once, saw the meaning that Lowther might misread into her words.
"Can I look you up when next I'm in town?" he asked eagerly.
"Oh yes, you can look me up," she replied diffidently.
"We ought to go out to supper one evening."
"I should be delighted."
"You would! Really you would?"
"If you brought your sister. I must find a seat."
"No hurry. It always waits some time here; milk-cans and all that. By Jove! I wish I were going up alone with you. And that's what I meant. I thought we'd go out to supper at the Savoy or Kettner's by ourselves, eh?"
She looked at him coldly, critically.
"Or say the Carlton," he added, thinking that such munificence might dazzle her.
"I'll get in here," she said.
Seeing Mavis select a third-class carriage, his appreciation of her immediately lessened.
"Tell you what," he said to her through the window, "we won't bother about going out to grub; we'll have a day in the country; we can enjoy ourselves just as much there. Eh, dear? Oh, I beg your pardon, but you're so pretty, you know, and all that."
Mavis noticed the way in which he leered at her while he said these words. She bit her lip in order to restrain the words that were on her tongue; it was of no avail.
"I'll tell you something," she cried.
"Yes—yes; quickly, the train is just off."
"If my father had been alive, and we'd been living here, you'd not have dared to speak to me like that; in fact, you wouldn't have had the chance."
It was a crestfallen, tired, and heartsick Mavis who opened the door of Brandenburg College with her latch-key in the evening. The only thing that sustained her was the memory of the white look of anger which appeared in Lowther Devitt's face when she had unmistakably resented his insult.
MAVIS LEAVES HER NEST
Mavis did not tell the whole truth to the two old ladies; they gathered from her subdued manner that she had not been successful in her quest.
The girl was too weary to give explanations, to talk, even to think; the contemplation of the wreck of the castles that she had been building in the air had tired her: she went to bed, resolving to put off further thought for the future until the morrow.
Several times in the night, she awoke with a start, when she was oppressed with a great fear of the days to come; but each time she put this concern from her, as if conscious that she required all the rest she could get, in order to make up her mind to the course of action which she should pursue on the morrow.
When she definitely awoke, she determined on one thing, that, unless pressed by circumstances, she would not ask the Devitts for help.
The old ladies were already down when she went in to breakfast. Miss Annie, directly she saw Mavis, took up a letter that she had laid beside her plate.
"I've heard from Mrs Devitt, dear," she said, after she had asked Mavis, according to custom, how she had slept.
"What does she say?" asked Mavis indifferently.
"That she regrets she is unable to offer you anything at present, but if, at any time, you would take a clerkship in one of the companies in which her husband is interested, they might be able to provide you with a berth," replied Annie.
"Oh!" said Mavis shortly.
"She has also sent me a postal order for your fare," continued Annie.
Mavis made no reply.
The two old maids glanced significantly at one another; presently, Annie Mee was emboldened to ask:
"Do you think you would like to earn your living in the manner indicated?"
"I have decided not to," replied Mavis shortly.
"Of course, if you would prefer to stay with us," began Miss Helen.
"If you have no objection, I will leave for good tomorrow morning," said Mavis.
"Leave for good!" cried the two old ladies together, who, now that they believed Mavis to be going, were dismayed at the prospect of living without her.
"It will be better for all of us," remarked Mavis.
"But have you anything in view, dear?" asked Miss Annie.
"Nothing very definite. But I've every hope of being settled in a day or two."
The two old ladies heaved a sigh of relief; for all their affection for the girl, they found that her healthy appetite made serious inroads into the meager profits of the college. After breakfast, Mavis went upstairs for her hat. She opened the drawers at the base of her old-fashioned looking-glass and counted up her possessions. These amounted to seven pounds, thirteen shillings and sevenpence halfpenny; in addition to which, there was a quarter's salary of four pounds ten shillings due to her; also, there was her fare which Mrs. Devitt had sent, a sum which she was undecided whether or not to accept. At any other time, Mavis would have thought that this money would have been ample provision with which to start life; but her one time ignorance on this matter had been rudely dissipated by her fruitless search after employment, when she had first decided to leave Brandenburg College. Beyond her little store of ready money, she owned a few trinkets which, at the worst, she could sell for a little; but this was a contingency on which she would not allow her mind to dwell just now. One or two things she was determined not to part with; these were her mother's wedding ring, a locket containing a piece of her father's hair, and a bracelet which he had given her. The two old ladies would be leaving for Worthing on the morrow; Amelia was going to Southend-on-Sea for a fortnight. As Mavis had resolved to sever her long connection with the college, it was necessary for her to seek lodging elsewhere.
A few minutes later, she set out upon this wearisome quest: she had never looked for London lodgings before. Although nearly every window in the less frequented streets displayed a card announcing that apartments were to let, she soon discovered how difficult it was to get anything remotely approaching her simple needs. She required a small bedroom in a house where there was a bathroom; also, if possible, she wanted the use of a sitting-room with a passable piano on which she sought permission to give lessons to any pupils whom she might be successful in getting.
Most of the doors she knocked at were answered by dirty children or by dirtier women; these, instinctively, told Mavis that she would get neither cleanliness nor comfort in a house frequented by such folk. When confronted with these, she would make some excuse for knocking at the door, and, after walking on a few yards, would attack the knocker of another house, when, more likely than not, the door would be opened by an even more slatternly person than before. Now and again she would light upon a likely place, but it soon appeared to Mavis that good landladies knew their value and made charges which were prohibitive to the girl's slender resources.
Tired with running up and down so many steps and stairs, Mavis turned into a milk-shop to buy a bun and a glass of milk. She asked the kindly-faced woman who served her if she happened to know of anyone who let clean rooms at moderate charges. The woman wrote down two addresses, said that she would be comfortable at either of these, and told her the quickest way of getting to them. The first name was a Mrs Ellis, who lived at 20 Kiva Gardens. This address proved to be a neat, two-storied house, by the side of which was a road leading to stables and a yard. Mrs Ellis opened the door. Mavis, with a sense of elation, saw that she was a trim, elderly, kindly-looking body.
The girl explained what she wanted. She learned that there was a small bedroom at the back to let; also, that she could have the use of the downstairs sitting-room, in which was a piano.
"Would you very much mind if I had one or two pupils?" asked Mavis.
"Not a bit, miss. I like young people myself, and look on music as company."
"I'd like to see the bedroom."
Mrs Ellis took Mavis upstairs, where the girl was delighted to find that the room was pleasant-looking and scrupulously clean.
"It's only a question of terms," said Mavis hesitatingly.
"You'd better see the sitting-room and try the piano, miss, before you decide," remarked Mrs Ellis.
They went downstairs to another room at the back of the house; this was adequate, although Mavis noticed that it was stuffy. Perhaps the landlady suspected the girl's thoughts on the matter, for she said:
"I have the window shut to keep out dust and smell from the yard, miss."
Mavis, satisfied with this explanation, looked through the window, and saw that the yard was much bigger than she had believed it to be. Three or four men in corduroys were lounging about and chaffing each other.
"You try the piano, miss; I shan't keep you a moment," said Mrs Ellis, who, also, had looked out of the window.
Mavis, left to herself, did as she was bid. She found the piano, although well past its prime, to be better than the generality of those that she had already tried. She got up and again looked out of the window, when she saw that the men, whom she had previously seen idling in the yard, were now hard at work.
The next moment, Mrs Ellis, looking rather hot, re-entered the room.
"I've had to talk to my men," she said.
"You employ them?" asked Mavis.
"Yes, the lazy rascals. It was my husband's business, but since he died I've kept it on."
"You must be very clever."
"It wants managing. You didn't open the window, miss?" This question was asked anxiously.
"How much did you wish to pay, miss?"
Mavis explained that she didn't wish to pay more than five shillings a week for a bedroom, but after some discussion it was agreed that she should pay six shillings a week, which would include the use of the sitting-room, together with a morning bath, bathrooms not having been supplied to Mrs Ellis's house.
"I'm letting it go reasonable to you, miss, because you're a real young lady and not like most who thinks they are."
"Here's my first week's rent in advance. I can't say how long I shall stay, because I may get a place where they may want me to live in the house," said Mavis.
"It isn't the money I want so much as the company. And if you'd like me to supply the meals, we shan't quarrel over L. s. d."
"I'm sure we shan't. I shall come in without fail tomorrow morning."
Mavis then took a bus to Kensington Church; here she got out and walked the few yards necessary to take her to the Kensington Free Library, where she put down the addresses of those advertising situations likely to suit her. This task completed, she walked to Brandenburg College. When dinner was over—the Misses Mee dined midday—Mavis wrote replies to the advertisements. After parting with the precious pennies, which bought the necessary stamps at the post-office, she came home to pack her things. This took her some time, there being so many odds and ends which had accumulated during her many years' association with the college. As it was getting dark, she slipped out to tell the nearest local agent for Carter Paterson to have her boxes removed the first thing in the morning.
Hurrying back, she ran into Bella Goss, a pupil at the college, and her father. Mr. Goss was the person who was behindhand with his account; he supplied Miss Annie Mee with the theatre and concert tickets which were the joy of her life.
"There's Miss Keeves!" cried Bella, at which her father raised his hat.
Bella, looking as if she wished to speak to Mavis, the latter stopped; she shook hands with the child and bowed to Mr. Goss.
"You're leaving the college, aren't you, Miss Keeves?" asked Bella.
"Yes, dear," replied Mavis.
"Going to be married?" asked Mr. Goss, who secretly admired Mavis.
"I'm going to earn my living; at least, I hope so," said Mavis.
"Haven't you anything to do, then?" he asked.
"Nothing settled," Mavis answered evasively.
"I suppose you wouldn't care for anything in the theatrical line?"
Mavis did not think that she would.
"Or, if you want anything very badly, I might get you into a house of business."
"Do you mean a shop?" asked Mavis.
"A big one where they employ hundreds," said Goss apologetically.
"It's awfully kind of you. I'll come to you if I really want anything badly."
"Thank you, Miss Keeves. Good night."
"Good night. Good night, Bella."
Mavis hurried home and to bed, to be kept awake for quite two hours by fears of the unknown perils which might menace the independent course which she was about to travel.
Breakfast the next morning was a dismal meal. Mavis was genuinely sorry to leave the old ladies, who had, in a large measure, taken the place of the parents she had lost.
They, on their part, were conscious of the break that Mavis's departure would make in their lives. All three women strove to conceal their distress by an affectation of cheerfulness and appetite. But little was eaten or drunk. Miss Annie Mee was so absent-minded that she forgot to spread any butter upon her toast. The old ladies were leaving for Worthing soon after eleven. Mavis purposed taking leave of them and Brandenburg College as soon after breakfast as she could get away. When she rose from the table, Miss Helen Mee said:
"I should like to see you in my study in five minutes from now."
The study was a small-sized room, which was reached by descending two steps at the end of the hall further from the front door. Mavis presented herself here at the expiration of the allotted time, where she found Miss Helen and Miss Annie solemnly seated behind the book-littered table, which stood in the middle of the room.
"Pray close the door," said Helen.
"Please take a seat," added Annie, when Mavis had obeyed the elder Miss Mee's behest.
The girl sat down and wondered what was coming. It was some moments before Helen spoke; she believed that delay would enhance the impressiveness of the occasion.
"Dear Mavis," she presently began, "before I say a few parting words, in which my sister most heartily joins, words which are not without a few hints of kindly admonishment, that may help you along the path you have—er—elected—yes, elected to pursue, I should like to press on you parting gifts from my sister and myself."
Here she handed Mavis her treasured copy of The Stones of Venice, which contained the great Mr Ruskin's autograph, together with a handsomely bound Bible; this latter was open at the fly-leaf.
"Read," said Helen, as she looked at Mavis over her spectacles.
Mavis read as follows:
"TO DEAR MAVIS, FROM HER FRIEND, HELEN ALLPRESS MEE.
"ARE NOT TWO SPARROWS SOLD FOR A FARTHING? AND ONE OF THEM SHALL NOT FALL ON THE GROUND WITHOUT YOUR FATHER.
"FEAR YE NOT THEREFORE, YE ARE OF MORE VALUE THAN MANY SPARROWS.—St Matthew x. 29, 31."
Mavis thanked Miss Mee and was about to press on her the trinket that she had previously purchased as a parting gift for her old friend; but Helen checked the girl with a gesture signifying that her sister was about to speak.
Mis Annie was less prosy than her sister.
"Take this, dear, and God bless you."
Here she handed Mavis her much-prized copy of Sesame and Lilies, likewise containing the autograph of the great Mr. Ruskin; at the same time, she presented Mavis with a box of gloves.
Mavis thanked the generous old ladies and gave them the little presents she had bought for this purpose. To Miss Helen she handed a quaint old workbox she had picked up in the shop of a dealer in antiquities; to Miss Annie she gave her A three-quarter-length photograph in a silver frame.
The two old ladies' hands shook a little when they took these offerings; they both thanked her, after which Miss Helen rose to take formal farewell of Mavis.
She spoke the words that she always made use of when taking final leave of a pupil; usually, they came trippingly to her tongue, without the least effort of memory; but this morning they halted; she found herself wondering if her dignity were being compromised in Mavis's eyes.
"Dear Mavis," she said, "in—in issuing from the doors—er—portals of Brandenburg College to the new er—er—world that awaits you beyond, you—you may rest assured that you carry—"
The old lady stopped; she did not say any more; she sat down and seemed to be carefully wiping her spectacles. Mavis rose to go, girl-like; she hated anything in the nature of a scene, especially when made over such an insignificant person as herself. At the same time, her farewell of the two old ladies, with whom she had lived for so long, affected her far more than she would ever have thought possible. Halfway to the door, she hesitated; the noise made by Miss Annie blowing her nose decided her. In a moment, she had placed her arms about Miss Helen and Miss Annie, and all three women were weeping to their hearts' content.
Some seventy minutes later, it was two very forlorn-looking old ladies who stumbled into the train that was to take them to Worthing. Meanwhile, Mavis had packed her few remaining things and had gone down to the kitchen to say good-bye to Amelia.
Directly Amelia caught sight of her and she burst into tears. Mavis, somewhat disconcerted by this evidence of esteem, gave Amelia five shillings, at which the servant wept the more.
"Oh, miss! what shall I do without you?"
"You'll get on all right. Besides, you're going for a holiday to Southend."
"Moind you let me come to you when you're married," sobbed Amelia.
"I shouldn't count on that if I were you."
"Do 'ave me, miss. I'll always troi and 'and things so no one sees my bad oye."
"It isn't that I don't want you; but it's so unlikely that I shall ever have a home."
Mavis offered her hand. Amelia wiped her wet hand (she had been washing up) upon her apron before taking it.
"Oh, miss, you are good to me, and you a reel lydy."
"Be a good girl and look after your mistresses."
"That I will, miss. Whatever should I sy to that there Mr. Fuskin, when I meet 'im in 'eaven, if I didn't?"
"There! I forgot," cried Amelia. She went to the drawer of the dresser and brought out something wrapped in tissue paper.
Mavis undid this, to find Amelia's offering to consist of a silver brooch forming the word "May."
"It's the nearest I could get to your nime, miss," she explained.
"Thank you so much."
"It ain't good enough for you: nothin' ain't good enough for you. Wasn't you loved by the music master, 'im who was so lovely and dark?" wept Amelia.
It was with a heavy heart that Mavis left Brandenburg College, the walls of which had sheltered her for so long: she did her best to be self-possessed as she kissed the Misses Mee and walked to her new address, to which her two boxes had been taken the first thing by the carriers.
The rest of the morning, and after the simple meal which Mrs Ellis provided, Mavis unpacked her things and made her room as homelike as possible. While she was doing this, she would now and again stop to wonder if she had heard the postman's knock; although she could hear him banging at doors up and down the street, he neglected to call at No. 20, a fact which told Mavis that so far no one had troubled to seriously consider her applications for employment. A cup of tea with Mrs Ellis put a cheerful complexion upon matters; she spent the next few hours in finishing her little arrangements. These completed to her satisfaction, she leaned against the window and looked hungrily towards the heavens. It was a blue, summer evening; there was not a cloud in the sky.
Although the raucous voices of children playing in the streets assailed her ears, she was scarcely conscious of these, her thoughts being far away. She was always a lover of nature; wildflowers, especially cowslips, affected her more than she would care to own; the scent of hay brought a longing to her heart; the sight of a roadside stream fascinated her. Now, she was longing with a passionate desire for the peace of the country. Upon this July evening, the corn must now be all but ripe for the sickle, making the fields a glory of gold. She pictured herself wandering alone in a vast expanse of these; gold, gold, everywhere; a lark singing overhead. Then, in imagination, she found her way to a nook by the Avon at Melkbridge, a spot endeared to her heart by memories that she would never forget. As a child, she loved to steal there with her picture book; later, as a little girl, she would go there all alone, and, lying on her back, would dream, while her eyes followed the sun. Her fondness for this place was the only thing which she had kept from her father's knowledge. She wondered if this hiding place, where she had loved to take her thoughts, were the same. She could shut her eyes and recall it: the pollard willows, the brown river banks, the swift, running river in which the forget-me-nots (so it appeared to her) never seemed to tire in the effort to see their reflection.
Darkness came out of the east. Mavis's heart went out to the summer night. Then, she was aware of a feeling of physical discomfort. The effort of imagination had exhausted her. She became wearily conscious of the immediate present. The last post, this time, knocked at the door of Mrs Ellis', but it brought no letter for Mavis. It seemed that the world had no need of her; that no one cared what became of her. She was disinclined to go out, consequently, the limitations of her surroundings made her quickly surrender to the feeling of desolation which attacked her. She wondered how many girls in London were, at the present moment, isolated from all congenial human companionship as she was. She declined the landlady's kindly offer to partake of cold boiled beef and spring onions in the status of guest; the girl seemed to get satisfaction from her morbid indulgence in self-pity.