The Independence of Claire
By Mrs George de Horne Vaizey This is a rather typical Horne Vaizey book, about the life led by young well-brought-up women in Edwardian times. Worries about money, about who to marry, whether to go or not to parties to be given by elderly hostesses, about clothes, about hair-styles, and even, as so often in this author's books, with a bit of illness thrown in as well.
There's a time when Claire seems on the way to making a big mistake, but it all gets sorted out in the end. Make an audiobook of this book - that is probably the best way to enjoy it. THE INDEPENDENCE OF CLAIRE
BY MRS. GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
"I'LL HAVE TO DO IT."
Claire Gifford stood in the salon of the Brussels pension which had been her home for the last three years, and bent her brows in consideration of an all-absorbing problem. "Can I marry him?" she asked herself once and again, with the baffling result that every single time her brain answered instantly, "You must!" the while her heart rose up in rebellion, and cried, "I won't!" Many girls have found themselves in the same predicament before and since, but few have had stronger reasons for sacrificing personal inclination on the altar of filial duty than Claire knew at this minute.
To begin with, the relationship between herself and her mother was more intimate than is usually the case, for Claire was an only child, and Mrs Gifford a widow only eighteen years older than herself. Briefly stated, the family history was as follows—Eleanor Guyther had been the only child of stern, old-world parents, and at seventeen had run away from the house which had been more like a prison than a home, to marry a handsome young artist who had been painting in the neighbourhood during the summer months; a handsome merry-faced boy of twenty-one, whose portrait Claire treasured in an old-fashioned gold locket, long since discarded by her mother, who followed the fashion in jewellery as well as in dress. It was strange to look at the face of a father who was no older than oneself, and Claire had spent many hours gazing at the pictured face, and trying to gain from it some idea of the personality of the man of whom her mother persistently refused to speak.
Mrs Gifford shrank from all disagreeables, great and small, and systematically turned her back on anything which was disturbing or painful, so that it was only from chance remarks that her daughter had gained any information about the past. She knew that her father had been a successful artist, although not in the highest sense of the term. He had a trick of turning out pretty domestic pictures which appealed to the taste of the million, and which, being purchased by enterprising dealers, were reproduced in cheap prints to deck the walls of suburban parlours. While he lived he made a sufficient income, and before his death a formal reconciliation had taken place between the runaway daughter and her north-country parents, from whom she later inherited the money which had supported herself and her daughter throughout the years of her widowhood.
Claire had the vaguest idea as to the amount of her mother's means, for until the last few years the question of money had never arisen, they had simply decided what they wished to do, without considering the cost, but of late there had been seasons of financial tightness, and the morning on which this history begins had brought a most disagreeable awakening.
Mrs Gifford was seated in the salon staring disconsolately at a note which had just arrived by the afternoon post. It was a very disagreeable note, for it stated in brief and callous terms that her account at the bank was overdrawn to the extent of three hundred francs, and politely requested that the deficit should be made good. Claire looked flushed and angry; Mrs Gifford looked pathetic and pale.
It seemed, in the first place, quite ludicrous that such a relationship as that of mother and daughter should exist between two women who looked so nearly of an age, and Mrs Gifford's youthful appearance was a standing joke in the Pension. Every new visitor was questioned by Madame as to the relationship between the two English ladies, and never had one of the number failed to reply "sisters," and to be convulsed with astonishment when corrected; and in good truth Mrs Gifford was a wonderful specimen of the prolonged youth which is a phenomenon of the present day.
She was slight, she was graceful, her waving brown hair was as naturally luxuriant as that of a girl, her complexion was smooth and fair, her pretty features were unchanged, she dressed with good taste, and, though secretly proud of her youthful looks, was never so foolish as to adopt kittenish airs to match. Her manner was quiet, gracious, appealing; a little air of pathos enveloped her like a mist; on strangers she made the impression of a lovely creature who had known suffering. Everybody was kind to Mrs Gifford, and she in return had never been known to utter an unkind word. She had been born with the faculty of loving everybody a little, and no one very much, which—if one comes to think of it—is the most powerful of all factors towards securing an easy life, since it secures the owner from the possibility of keen personal suffering.
At the present moment Mrs Gifford did, however, look really perturbed, for, after shutting her eyes to a disagreeable fact, and keeping them shut with much resolution and—it must be added—ease, for many years past, she was now driven to face the truth, and to break it to her daughter into the bargain.
"But I don't understand!" Claire repeated blankly. "How can the money be gone? We have spent no more this year than for years past. I should think we have spent less. I haven't been extravagant a bit. You offered me a new hat only last week, and I said I could do without—"
"Yes, yes, of course. It's quite true, cherie, you have been most good. But, you see, ours has not been a case of an income that goes on year after year—it never was, even from the beginning. There was not enough. And you did have a good education, didn't you? I spared nothing on it. It's folly to stint on a girl's education.—It was one of the best schools in Paris."
"It was, mother; but we are not talking about schools. Do let us get to the bottom of this horrid muddle! If it isn't a case of 'income,' what can it be? I'm ignorant about money, for you have always managed business matters, but I can't see what else we can have been living upon?"
Mrs Gifford crinkled her delicate brows, and adopted an air of plaintive self-defence.
"I'm sure it's as great a shock to me as it is to you; but, under the circumstances, I do think I managed very well. It was only nine thousand pounds at the beginning, and I've made it last over thirteen years, with your education! And since we've been here, for the last three years, I've given you a good time, and taken you to everything that was going on. Naturally it all costs. Naturally money can't last for ever..."
The blood flooded the girl's face. Now at last she did understand, and the knowledge filled her with awe.
"Mother! Do you mean that we have been living all this time on capital?"
Mrs Gifford shrugged her shoulders, and extended her hands in an attitude typically French.
"What would you, ma chere? Interest is so ridiculously low. They offered me three per cent. Four was considered high. How could we have lived on less than three hundred a year? Your school bills came to nearly as much, and I had to live, too, and keep you in the holidays. I did what I thought was the best. We should both have been miserable in cheap pensions, stinting ourselves of everything we liked. The money has made us happy for thirteen years."
Claire rose from her seat and walked over to the window. The road into which she looked was wide and handsome, lined with a double row of trees. The sun shone on the high white houses with the green jalousies, which stood vis-a-vis with the Pension. Along the cobble-stoned path a dog was dragging a milk-cart, the gleaming brass cans clanking from side to side; through the open window came the faint indescribable scent which distinguishes a continental from a British city. Claire stared with unseeing eyes, her heart beating with heavy thuds. She conjured up the image of a man's face—a strong kindly face—a face which might well make the sunshine of some woman's life, but which made no appeal to her own heart. She set her lips, and two bright spots of colour showed suddenly in her cheeks. So smooth and uneventful had been her life that this was the first time that she had found herself face to face with serious difficulty, and, after the first shock of realisation, her spirit rose to meet it. She straightened her shoulders as if throwing off a weight, and her heart cried valiantly, "It's my own life, and I will not be forced! There must be some other way. It's for me to find it!"
Suddenly she whirled round, and walked back to her mother.
"Mother, if you knew how little money was left, why wouldn't you let me accept Miss Farnborough's offer at Christmas!"
For a moment Mrs Gifford's face expressed nothing but bewilderment. Then comprehension dawned.
"You mean the school-mistress from London? What was it she suggested? That you should go to her as a teacher? It was only a suggestion, so far as I remember. She made no definite offer."
"Oh, yes, she did. She said that she had everlasting difficulty with her French mistresses, and that I was the very person for whom she'd been looking. Virtually French, yet really English in temperament. She made me a definite offer of a hundred and ten pounds a year."
Mrs Gifford laughed, and shrugged her graceful shoulders. She appeared to find the proposal supremely ridiculous, yet when people were without money, the only sane course seemed to be to take what one could get. Claire felt that she had not yet mastered the situation. There must be something behind which she had still to grasp.
"Well, never mind the school for a moment, mother dear. Tell me what you thought of doing. You must have had some plan in your head all these years while the money was dwindling away. Tell me your scheme, then we can compare the two and see which is better."
Mrs Gifford bent her head over the table, and scribbled aimlessly with a pen in which there was no ink. She made no answer in words, yet as she waited the blood flamed suddenly over Claire's face, for it seemed to her that she divined what was in her mother's mind. "I expected that you would marry. I have done my best to educate you and give you a happy youth. I expected that you would accept your first good offer, and look after me!"
That was what a French mother would naturally say to her daughter; that was what Claire Gifford believed that her own mother was saying to her at that moment, and the accusation brought little of the revolt which an English girl would have experienced. Claire had been educated at a Parisian boarding school, and during the last three years had associated almost entirely with French-speaking Andrees and Maries and Celestes, who took for granted that their husbands should be chosen for them by their parents. Claire had assisted at betrothal feasts, and played demoiselle d'honneur at subsequent weddings, and had witnessed an astonishing degree of happiness as an outcome of these business-like unions. At this moment she felt no anger against her own mother for having tried to follow a similar course. Her prevailing sensation was annoyance with herself for having been so difficult to lead.
"It must be my English blood. Somehow, when it came to the point, I never could. But Mr Judge is different from most men. He is so good and generous and unmercenary. He'd be kind to mother, and let her live with us, and make no fuss. He is as charming to her as he is to me. Oh, dear, I am selfish! I am a wretch! It isn't as if I were in love with anyone else. I'm not. Perhaps I never shall be. I'll never have the chance if I live in lodgings and spend my life teaching irregular verbs. Why can't I be sensible and French, and marry him and live happily ever after? Pauvre petite mere! Why can't I think of her?"
Suddenly Claire swooped down upon her mother's drooping figure, wrapped her in loving arms, and swung her gently to and fro. She was a tall, strikingly graceful girl, with a face less regularly beautiful than her mother's, but infinitely more piquant and attractive. She was more plump and rounded than the modern English girl, and her complexion less pink and white, but she was very neat and dainty and smart, possessed deep-set, heavily-lashed grey eyes, red lips which curled mischievously upward at the corner, and a pair of dimples on her soft left cheek.
The dimples were in full play at this moment; the large one was just on the level with the upward curl of the lips, the smaller one nestled close to its side. In repose they were almost unnoticed, but at the slightest lighting of expression, at the first dawn of a smile, they danced into sight and became the most noticeable feature of her face. Claire without her dimples would have been another and far less fascinating personality.
"Mother darling, forgive me! Kiss me, cherie—don't look sad! I have had a good time, and we'll have a good time yet, if it is in my power to get it for you. Cheer up! Things won't be as bad as you fear. We won't allow them to be bad. ... How much does the horrid old bank say that we owe? Three hundred francs. I can pay it out of my own little savings. Does it mean literally that there is nothing more, nothing at all—not a single sou?"
"Oh no. I have some shares. They have been worthless for years, but just lately they have gone up. I was asking Mr Judge about them yesterday. He says I might get between two and three hundred pounds. They were worth a thousand, years ago."
Claire brightened with the quick relief of youth. Two or three hundred English pounds were a considerable improvement on a debit account. With two or three hundred pounds much might yet be done. Thousands of people had built up great fortunes on smaller foundations. In a vague, indefinite fashion she determined to devote these last pounds to settling herself in some business, which would ensure a speedy and generous return. School teaching was plainly out of the question, since two gentlewomen could not exist on a hundred and ten pounds a year. She must think of something quicker, more lucrative.
All through dinner that evening Claire debated her future vocation as she sat by her mother's side, halfway down the long dining-table which to English eyes appeared so bare and unattractive, but which was yet supplied with the most appetising of food. Claire's eyes were accustomed to the lack of pretty detail; she had quite an affection for the Pension which stood for home in her migratory life, and a real love for Madame Dupre, the cheery, kindly, most capable proprietor. Such of the pensionnaires as were not purely birds of passage she regarded as friends rather than acquaintances; the only person in the room to whom she felt any antagonism was Mr Judge himself, but unfortunately he was the one of all others whom she was expected to like best.
As she ate her salad and broke fragments of delicious crusty roll, Claire threw furtive glances across the table at the man who for the last weeks had exercised so disturbing an element in her life. Was it six weeks or two months, since she and her mother had first made his acquaintance at the tennis club at which they spent so many of their afternoons? Claire had noticed that a new man had been present on that occasion, had bestowed on him one critical glance, decided with youthful arrogance: "Oh, quite old!" and promptly forgotten his existence, until an hour later, when, as she was sitting in the pavilion enjoying the luxury of a real English tea, the strange man and her mother had entered side by side. Claire summoned in imagination the picture of her mother as she had looked at that moment, slim and graceful in the simplest of white dresses, an untrimmed linen hat shading her charming face. She looked about twenty-five, and Claire was convinced that she knew as much, and that it was a mischievous curiosity to see her companion's surprise which prompted her to lead the way across the floor, and formally introduce "My daughter!"
Mr Judge exhibited all the expected signs of bewilderment, but he made himself exceedingly amiable to the daughter, and it was not until a week later that it was discovered that he had concluded that the relationship must surely be "step," when fresh explanations were made, and all the bewilderment came over again.
Since then, oh, since then, Claire told herself, there had been no getting away from the man! He was, it appeared, an Indian merchant spending a few months on the Continent, at the conclusion of a year's leave. He had come to Brussels because of the presence of an old school friend—the same friend who was responsible for the introduction at the tennis club—but week after week passed by, and he showed no disposition to move on.
Now Brussels is a very gay and interesting little city, but when Paris looms ahead, and Berlin, Vienna, to say nothing of the beauties of Switzerland and the Tyrol, and the artistic treasures of Italy—well! it did seem out of proportion to waste six whole weeks in that one spot!
At the end of the last fortnight, too, Mr Judge declared that he was sick to death of hotels and lonely evenings in smoking rooms, and approached Madame Dupre with a view to joining the party at Villa Beau Sejour. Madame was delighted to receive him, but Claire Gifford told her mother resentfully that she considered Mr Judge's behaviour "very cool." How did he know that it would be pleasant for them to have him poking about morning, noon, and night?
"It isn't our Pension, darling, and he is very nice to you," Mrs Gifford had said in return, and as it was impossible to contradict either statement, Claire had tossed her head, and relapsed into silence.
For the first weeks of her acquaintance with Mr Judge, Claire had thoroughly enjoyed his attentions. It was agreeable to know a man who had a habit of noting your wishes, and then setting to work to bring them about forthwith, and who was also delightfully extravagant as regards flowers, and seemed to grow chocolates in his coat pockets. It was only when he spoke of moving to the Pension, and her girl friends at the tennis club began to tease, roll meaning eyes, and ask when she was to be congratulated, that she took fright.
Did people really think that she was going to marry Mr Judge?
Lately things had moved on apace, and as a result of the unwelcome revelations of the morning's post, Claire was to-day asking herself a different question. She was no longer occupied with other people; she was thinking of herself... "Am I going to marry Mr Judge? Oh, good gracious, is that My Husband sitting over there, and have I got to live with him every day, as long as we both shall live?"
She shuddered at the thought, but in truth there was nothing to shudder at in Robert Judge's appearance. He was a man of forty, bronzed, and wiry, with agreeable if not regular features. Round his eyes the skin was deeply furrowed, but the eyes themselves were bright and youthful, and the prevailing expression was one of sincerity and kindliness. He wore a loose grey tweed suit, with a soft-coloured shirt which showed a length of brown neck. The fingers of his right band were deeply stained with tobacco. During dejeuner he carried on a conversation with his right-hand companion, in exceedingly bad French, but ever and anon he glanced across the table as though his thoughts were not on his words. Once, on looking up suddenly, Claire found his eyes fixed upon herself, with a strained, anxious look, and her heart quickened as she looked, then sank down heavy as lead.
"It's coming!" she said to herself. "It's coming! There's no running away. I'll have to stay, and see it out. Oh, why can't I be French, and sensible? I ought to be thankful to marry such a kind, good man, and be able to give mother a comfortable home!"
But as a matter of fact she was neither glad nor thankful. Despite her French training, the English instinct survived and clamoured for liberty, for independence. "It's my own life. If I marry at all, I want to choose the man for no other reason than that I love him; not as a duty, and to please somebody else!" Then she glanced at her mother sitting by her side, slim, and graceful, with the little air of pathos and helplessness which even strangers found so appealing, and as she did so, a shiver passed through Claire's veins.
"But I'll have to do it!" she said to herself helplessly. "I'll have to do it!"
The next few days passed by slowly enough. It is a great trial for a young creature to realise that a change is inevitable and, at the same time, that one must be cautious about making it. The impulse is always to rush into action, and it is difficult to sit still and agree with the elderly precept in favour of consideration and delay. If matters had been left to Claire she would have started out forthwith to search for a cheap Pension, and would have also despatched a letter to Miss Farnborough by the first post, to inquire if the school post were still open, but her mother vetoed both proposals, and pleaded so urgently for delay, that there was nothing left but to agree, and compose herself as best she might.
The weather was too hot for tennis, and in truth Claire was not in the mood for games. With every hour she realised more keenly that she had come to the parting of the ways, and in the prospect of a new life old interests lost their savour. Her mother seemed to share her restlessness, but while Claire preferred to stay indoors, in the privacy of her own room, Mrs Gifford seemed to find relief in action, and was often out for hours at a time, without vouchsafing any explanation of her absence.
Claire was not curious. She was content to close the green shutters of her windows, slip into a muslin wrapper, and employ herself at some simple piece of needlework, which kept her hands busy while leaving her thoughts free.
Where would she be this time next year? It was a question which no mortal can answer with certainty, but many of us are happy in the probability that we shall be still living in the same dear home, surrounded by the people and the objects which we love, whereas Claire's one certainty was that she must move on to fresh scenes. Bombay or London—that seemed the choice ahead! Matrimony or teaching. On the one hand a luxurious home, carriages and horses, a staff of servants, and apparently as much society as one desired, with the incubus of a husband whom she did not love, and who was twenty years her senior. On the other hand, work and poverty, with the advantages of freedom and independence.
Claire's eyes brightened at the sound of those two words, for dear as liberty is to the heart of an Englishwoman, it was in prospect dearer still to this girl who had been educated in a country still enslaved by chaperonage, and had never known a taste of real freedom of action. Mrs Gifford had been as strict as or stricter than any Belgian mother, being rightly determined that no breath of scandal should touch her daughter's name; therefore wherever Claire went, some responsible female went with her. She was chaperoned to church, chaperoned on her morning constitutional, a chaperon sat on guard during the period of music and drawing lessons, and at their conclusion escorted her back to the Pension. What wonder that the thought of life as a bachelor girl in London seemed full of a thrilling excitement!
Suppose for one minute that she decided on London—what would become of mother? Again and again Claire asked herself this question, again and again she recalled the interview between herself and the headmistress, Miss Farnborough, when the subject of teaching had been discussed. It had happened one morning in the salon of the Pension, when Claire had been coaching an English visitor in preparation for a French interview which lay ahead, and Miss Farnborough, laying down her book, had listened with smiling interest. Then the Englishwoman left the room, and Miss Farnborough had said, "You did that very cleverly; very cleverly indeed! You have a very happy knack of putting things simply and forcibly. I've noticed it more than once. Have you ever done any teaching?"
"None professionally," Claire had replied with a laugh, "but a great deal by chance. I seem to drift into the position of coach to most of the English visitors here. It pleases them, and it interests me. And I used to help the French girls with their English at school."
Then Miss Farnborough had inquired with interest as to the details of Claire's education, the schools she had attended, the examinations she had passed, and finally had come the critical question, "Have you ever thought of taking up teaching as a profession?"
Claire had never thought of taking up work of any kind, but the suggestion roused a keen interest, as one of the temporary "tight" times was in process, so that the prospect of money-making seemed particularly agreeable. She discussed the subject carefully, and out of that discussion had arisen the final offer of a post.
The junior French mistress in the High School of which Miss Farnborough was head was leaving at midsummer. If Claire wished she could take her place, at a salary beginning at a hundred and ten pounds a year. In Trust Schools, of which Saint Cuthbert's was one, there was no fixed scale of advancement, but a successful teacher could reach a salary of, say, two hundred a year by the time she was thirty-eight or forty, as against the permanent sixty or seventy offered to mistresses in residential schools of a higher grade. Miss Farnborough's mistresses were women trained at the various universities; the school itself was situated in a fashionable neighbourhood, and its pupils were for the most part daughters of professional men, and gentlefolk of moderate incomes. There was no pension scheme, and mistresses had to live out, but with care and economy they could take out some insurance to provide for old age.
Claire took little interest in her own old age, which seemed too far away to count, but she was intensely interested in the immediate future, and had been hurt and annoyed when her mother had waved aside the proposal as unworthy of serious consideration. And now, only three months after Miss Farnborough's departure, the crisis had arisen, and that hundred and ten pounds assumed a vastly increased value. Supposing that the post was accepted, and mother and daughter started life in London with a capital of between two and three hundred pounds, and a salary of one hundred and ten, as regular income—how long would the nest-egg last out?
Judging from the experience of past years, a very short time indeed, and what would happen after that? Claire had read gruesome tales of the struggles of women in like positions, overtaken by illness, losing the salaries which represented their all, brought face to face with actual starvation, and in the midst of the midsummer heat, little shivers of fear trickled up and down her spine as she realised how easily she and her mother might drift into a like position.
Then, on the other hand, Bombay! Indian houses were large; mother could have her own rooms. In the hot weather they would go together to the hills, leaving Mr Judge behind. How long did the hot season last, four or five months? Nearly half the year, perhaps. It would be only half as bad as marrying a man for money in Europe, for you would get rid of him all that time! Claire shrugged her shoulders and laughed, and two minutes later whisked away a tear, dedicated to the memory of girlish dreams. Useless to dream any longer, she was awake now, and must face life in a sensible manner. Her duty was to marry Robert Judge, and to make a home for her mother.
Another girl might have cherished anger against the recklessness which had landed her in such a trap, but after the first shock of discovery there had been no resentment in Claire's heart. She implicitly believed her mother's assurance that according to her light she had acted for the best, and echoed with heartiness the assertion that the money had provided a good time for thirteen long years.
They had not been rich, but there had been a feeling of sufficiency. They had had comfortable quarters, pretty clothes, delightful holiday journeys, a reasonable amount of gaiety, and, over and beyond all, the advantages of an excellent education. Claire's happy nature remembered her benefits, and made short work of the rest. Poor, beautiful mother! who could expect her to be prudent and careful, like any ordinary, prosaic, middle-aged woman?
Even as the thought passed through the girl's mind the door of the bedroom opened, and Mrs Gifford appeared on the threshold. She wore a large shady hat, and in the dim light of the room her face was not clearly visible, but there was a tone in her voice which aroused Claire's instant curiosity. Mother was trying to speak in her ordinary voice, but she was nervous, she was agitated. She was not feeling ordinary at all.
"Claire, cherie, we are going to the forest to have tea. It is impossibly hot indoors, but it will be delightful under the trees. Mr Judge has sent for a fiacre, and Miss Benson has asked to come too. Put on your blue muslin and your big hat. Be quick, darling! I'll fasten you up."
"I'd rather not go, thank you, mother. I'm quite happy here. Don't trouble about me!"
Mrs Gifford was obviously discomposed. She hesitated, frowned, walked restlessly up and down, then spoke again with an added note of insistence—
"But I want you to come, Claire. I've not troubled you before, because I saw you wanted to be alone, but—it can't go on. Mr Judge wants you to come. He suggested the drive because he thought it would tempt you. If you refuse to-day, he will ask you again to-morrow. I think, dear, you ought to come."
Claire was silent. She felt sick and faint; all over her body little pulses seemed to be whizzing like so many alarm clocks, all crying in insistent voices, "Time's up! Time's up! No more lazing. Up with you, and do your duty!" Her forehead felt very damp and her throat felt very dry, and she heard a sharp disagreeable voice saying curtly—
"Oh, certainly, I will come. No need to make a fuss. I can dress myself, thank you. I'll come down when I'm ready!"
Mrs Gifford turned without a word and went out of the room, but Claire was too busy being sorry for herself to have sympathy to spare for anyone else. She threw off her wrapper and slipped into the cool muslin dress which was at once so simple, and so essentially French and up-to- date, and then, throwing open the door of a cupboard, stared at a long row of hats ranged on a top shelf, and deliberately selected the one which she considered the least becoming.
"I will not be decked up for the sacrifice!" she muttered rebelliously, then bent forward, so that her face approached close to the flushed, frowning reflection in the glass. "You are going to be proposed to, my dear!" she said scornfully. "You are going to be good and sensible, and say 'Yes, please!' When you see yourself next, you will be Engaged! It won't be dear little Claire Gifford any more, it will be the horrible future Mrs Robert Judge!"
She stuck hat-pins through the straw hat with savage energy; for once in her life noticed with distinct satisfaction that it was secured at an unbecoming angle, then, hearing through the jalousies the sound of approaching wheels, marched resolutely forth to meet her fate...
In the fiacre Mrs Gifford and Miss Benson took the seats of honour, leaving Claire and Mr Judge to sit side by side, and the one furtive glance which she cast in his direction showed him looking confident and unperturbed. Just like a French pretendu, already assured by Maman that Mademoiselle was meekly waiting to assent to his suit!
"He might at least pay me the compliment of pretending! It is dreadfully dull to be taken for granted," reflected Claire in disgust.
The next hour was a horrible experience. Everything happened exactly as Claire had known it would, from the moment the quartette set forth. Arrived at the forest, they took possession of one of the little tables beneath the trees, and made fitful conversation the while they consumed delicious cakes and execrable tea. Then the meal being finished, Mrs Gifford and her companion announced a wish to sit still and rest, while Mr Judge nervously invited Miss Claire to accompany him in a walk. She assented, of course; what was the use of putting it off? and as soon as they were well started, he spied another seat, and insisted upon sitting down once more.
"Now he'll begin," thought Claire desperately. "He'll talk about India, and being lonely, and say how happy he has felt since he's been here," and even as the thought passed through her mind, Mr Judge began to speak.
"Awfully jolly old forest this is—awfully nice place Brussels, altogether. Nicest place in the world. Never been so happy in my life as I've been the last month. Of course, naturally, you must realise that, when a fellow hangs on week after week, there—er, there must be some special attraction. Not that it isn't a rattling old city, and all that!" Mr Judge was growing a little mixed: his voice sounded flurried and nervous, but Claire was not in the least inclined to help him. She sat rigid as a poker, staring stolidly ahead. There was not the ghost of a dimple in her soft pink cheeks.
"I—er, your mother tells me that she has said nothing to you, but she is sure, all the same, that you suspect. I asked her to let me speak to you to-day. Naturally she feels the difficulty. She is devoted to you. You know that, of course. I have told her that I will make your happiness my special charge. There is nothing in the world I would not do to ensure it. You know that too, don't you, Claire?"
He stretched out his hand and touched her tentatively on the arm, but Claire drew herself back with a prickly dignity. If he wanted to propose at all, he must propose properly; she was not going to commit herself in response to an insinuation.
"You are very kind. I am quite happy as I am."
"Er—yes—yes, of course, but—but things don't go on, you know, can't go on always without a change!"
Mr Judge took off his straw hat, twirled it nervously to and fro, and laid it down on the bench by his side. Claire, casting a quick glance, noticed that his hair was growing noticeably thin on the temples, and felt an additional sinking of spirits.
"Claire!" cried the man desperately, "don't let us beat about the bush. I'm not used to this sort of thing—don't make it harder than you need! You have noticed, haven't you? You know what I want to tell you?"
Claire nodded dumbly. In the case of previous Belgian admirers affairs had been checked before they reached the extreme stage, and she found this, her first spoken proposal much less exciting than she had expected. As a friend pure and simple, she had thoroughly liked Mr Judge, and at the bottom of her heart there lived a lingering hope that perhaps if he loved her very much, and expressed his devotion in very eloquent words, her heart might soften in response. But so far he had not even mentioned love! She was silent for several minutes, and when she did speak it was to ask a side question.
"Is mother willing to go to India?"
She was looking at the man as she spoke, and the change which passed over his face, startled her by its intensity. His eyes shone, the rugged features were transfigured by a very radiance of joy. He looked young at that moment, young and handsome, and blissfully content. Claire stared at him in amazement, not unmingled with irritation. Even if mother were willing, her own consent had still to be obtained. It was tactless to make so sure!
Her own face looked decidedly sulky as she twitched round on her seat, and resumed her stolid staring into space. Again there was silence, till a hand stretched out to clasp her arm, and a voice spoke in deep appealing accents—
"Claire, dear child, you are young; you have never known loneliness or disappointment. We have! Happiness is fifty times more precious, when it comes to those who have suffered. You would not be cruel enough to damp our happiness! You can do it, you know, if you persist in an attitude of coldness and disapproval. I don't say you can destroy it. Thank God! it goes too deep for anyone to be able to do that. But you can rub off the bloom. Don't do it, Claire! Be generous. Be yourself. Wish us good luck!"
"Wish who good luck? What, oh, what are you talking about?" Claire was gasping now, quivering with a frenzy of excitement. Robert Judge stared in return, his face full of an honest bewilderment.
"Of our engagement, of course. Your mother's engagement to me. I have been talking about it all the time!"
Then Claire threw up both her hands, and burst into a wild peal of laughter. Peal after peal rang out into the air, she rocked to and fro on her seat, her eyes disappeared from view, her teeth shone, her little feet in their dainty French shoes danced upon the ground; she laughed till the tears poured down her cheeks, and her gloved hands pressed against her side where a "stitch" was uncomfortably making itself felt. Stout Belgian couples passing past the end of the avenue, looked on with indulgent smiles, a little shocked at so much demonstration in public, but relieved to perceive that une Anglaise could laugh with such abandon. Monsieur they observed looked not sympathetic. Monsieur had an air injured, annoyed, on his dignity. On his cheeks was a flush, as of wounded pride. When at length the paroxysm showed signs of lessening, he spoke in cold stilted tones.
"You appear to find it ridiculous. It seems to amuse you very much. I may say that to us it is a serious matter!"
"Oh no! You don't understand—you don't understand!" gasped Claire feebly. "I am not laughing at you. I'm laughing at myself. Oh, Mr Judge, you'll never guess, it's too screamingly funny for words. I thought all this time, from the very beginning I thought, it was me!"
"You thought it was—you thought I wanted—that I was talking of—that I meant to propose to—"
"Yes! Yes! Yes! Me! Me! Me! Of course I did. I've been thinking it for weeks. Everyone thought so. They've teased me to death. You were attentive to me, you know you were. You were always giving me things ..."
"Well, of course!" Poor Mr Judge defended himself with honest indignation. "What else could I do? I could not give them to her! And I wanted—naturally I wanted, to get you on my side. You were the difficulty. I knew that if she had only herself to consider I could win her round, but if you ranged yourself against me, it would be a hard fight. Naturally I tried to ingratiate myself. It appears that I have rather overdone the part, but I can't flatter myself," his eyes twinkled mischievously, "that I've been too successful! You don't appear exactly overcome with disappointment!"
They laughed together, but only for a moment. Then he was serious again, appealing to her in earnest tones.
"You won't range yourself against me, Claire? You won't dissuade her.— I love her very dearly, and I know I can make her happy. You won't make it hard for us?"
"Indeed, I won't! Why should I?" Claire cried heartily. "I'm only too thankful. Mother needs someone to look after her, and I'd sooner you did it than anyone else. I like you awfully—always did, until I began to be afraid—I didn't want to marry you myself, but if mother does, I think it's a splendid thing."
"Thank you, dear, thank you a thousand times. That's a great relief." Robert Judge stretched himself with a deep breath of satisfaction. Then he grew confidential, reviewing the past with true lover-like enjoyment.
"I fell in love with her that first afternoon at the tennis club. Thought Bridges introduced her as Miss Gifford, put her down at twenty- five, and hoped she wouldn't think me a hopeless old fogey. Never had such a surprise in my life as when she introduced you. Thought for a time I should have to give it up. Then she asked my advice on one or two business matters, and I discovered—" He hesitated, flushing uncomfortably, and Claire finished the sentence.
"That we are coming to the end of our resources?"
Mr Judge nodded.
"And so, of course," he continued simply, "that settled it. I couldn't go away and leave her to face a struggle. I was jolly thankful to feel that I had met her in time."
"I think you are a dear, good man. I think mother is very lucky. Thank you so much for being my step-papa!" cried Claire, her grey eyes softening with a charming friendliness as they dwelt on the man's honest face, and he took her hand in his, and squeezed it with affectionate ardour.
"Thank you, my dear. Thank you! I shall be jolly proud of having such a pretty daughter. I'm not a rich man, but I am comfortably well- off, and I'll do my best to give you a good time. Your mother feels sure she will enjoy the Indian life. Most girls think it great fun. And of course I have lots of friends."
Claire stared at him, a new seriousness dawning in her eyes. She looked very pretty and very young, and not a little pathetic into the bargain. For the first time since the realisation of her mistake the personal application of the situation burst upon her, and a chill crept through her veins. If she herself had married Robert Judge, her mother would have made her home with them as a matter of course; but it was by no means a matter of course that she should make her home with her mother. She stared into the honest face of the man before her—the man who was not rich, the man who was in love for the first time in his life, and a smile twisted the corner of her lips.
"Mr Judge, if I ask you a question, will you promise to give me an absolutely honest answer?"
"Yes, I will."
"Well, then, will you like having a third person living with you all the time?"
Up to the man's forehead rushed the treacherous blood. He frowned, he scowled, he opened his lips to protest; but that flush had answered for him, and Claire refused to listen. "No, no—don't! Of course you wouldn't. Who would, in your place? Poor darlings—I quite understand. You are middle-aged, you know, though you feel about nineteen, and mother is prettier and more charming than half the girl brides. And you will want to be just as young and foolish as you like, not to be obliged to be sensible because a grown-up daughter is there all the time, staring at you with big eyes? I should be in the way, and I should feel in the way, and—"
Mr Judge interrupted in an urgent voice:
"Look here, Claire, I don't think you ought to corner me like this. It's not fair. I've told you that I am prepared to do everything for your happiness. You ought surely to realise that I—"
"And you ought to realise that I—" Claire broke off suddenly, and held out her hand with a charming smile. "Oh, but there's plenty of time—we can arrange all that later on. Let's go and find mother and put her out of her misery. She will be longing to see us come back."
They walked down the avenue together, and, as they went, Claire turned her head from side to side, taking in the well-known scene with wistful intensity. How many times would she see it again? As she had said, many discussions would certainly take place as to her future destination, but she knew in her heart that the result was sure. Providence had decided or her. The future was London and work!
MRS. GIFFORD IS MARRIED.
Claire lost no time in writing to Miss Farnborough to apply for the post of French mistress if it were still vacant, and by return of post received a cordial reply. Several applications had been received, but no appointment had been made, and the Head was pleased to confirm her previous offer of a commencing salary of a hundred and ten pounds, and would expect Miss Gifford to take up her duties at the beginning of the autumn term. She congratulated her on her decision, and felt sure she would never regret devoting her life to so interesting and valuable a work, instead of being content to waste it in the pursuit of idle pleasure.
Poor Claire looked a little dubious as she read those last words. The pursuit of pleasure does not as a rule begin to pall at twenty-one; and the old life looked very sweet and pleasant viewed from the new standpoint of change. She put on a bright face, however, and sternly repressed all signs of depression in discussing the matter with her mother and Mr Judge. Her determination evoked the expected opposition, but slowly and surely the opposition decreased, and her arguments were listened to with increasing respect. The lovers were sincerely desirous of securing the girl's happiness, but middle-aged though they were, they were deeply in love, and felt a natural desire to begin their married life without the presence of a third person, however dear that person might be.
Mr Judge applauded Claire's spirit, and prophesied her rapid success as a teacher. Mrs Gifford murmured sweetly, "And if you don't like it, dear, you can always come out by the next boat. Try it for a year. It will be quite an amusing experience to live the life of a bachelor girl. And, of course, in a year or two we'll be coming home. Then you must spend the whole leave with us. We'll see, won't we? We won't make any plans, but just be guided by circumstances. If you want somewhere to go in the holidays, there's my old Aunt Mary in Preston, but you'd be bored to sobs, darling. No doubt Miss Farnborough will introduce you to lots of nice people in London, and you will have all the fifteen other mistresses to take you about. I expect you'll be quite gay! ... Claire, darling, would you have gold tissue under this ninon, or just a handsome lace?"
For the next few weeks things moved quickly. In answer to inquiries about lodgings, Miss Farnborough wrote a second time to say that Miss Rhodes, the English mistress, had comfortable rooms which she was sharing with the present French teacher. She was willing to continue the arrangement, and, as a stranger in town, Claire would doubtless find it agreeable as well as economical. The letter was entirely business- like and formal, and, as such, a trifle chilling to Claire, for Miss Farnborough had been so warm in her spoken invitation that Claire had expected a more cordial welcome. Could it be that the shadow of officialdom was already making itself felt?
The next few weeks were given up to trousseau-hunting and farewell visits, and no girl could have shown a livelier interest in the selection of pretty things than did this bride of thirty-nine. Claire came in for a charming costume to wear at the wedding, and for the rest, what fitted her mother fitted herself, and as Mrs Gifford said sweetly, "It would be a sin to waste all my nice things, but they're quite unsuitable for India. Just use them out, darling, for a month or two, and then get what you need," an arrangement which seemed sensible enough, if one could only be sure of money to supply that need when it arose!
The day before her marriage Mrs Gifford thrust an envelope into her daughter's hand, blushing the while with an expression of real distress.
"I'm so sorry, darling, that it's so little. I've tried to be careful, but the money has flown. Going out to India one needs so many clothes, and there were quite a number of bills. I'll send more by and by, and remember always to say if you run short. I want you to have plenty for all you need. With what you have, this will see you nicely through your first term, and after that you'll be quite rich."
Claire kissed her, and was careful not to look at the cheque until she was alone. She had counted on at least a hundred to put in the bank as a refuge against a rainy day. Surely at this parting of the ways mother would wish her to have this security; but when she looked at her cheque, it was to discover that it was made out for fifty pounds—only half that sum. Claire felt sore at that moment, and for the first time a chill of fear entered into her anticipations. Fifty pounds seemed a dreadfully small sum to stand between herself and want. A hundred might be only twice its value, but its three figures sounded so much more substantial. She struggled hard to allow no signs of resentment to be seen, and felt that virtue was rewarded, when late that evening Mr Judge presented her with yet another envelope, saying awkwardly—
"That's—er—that's the bridesmaid's present. Thought you'd like to choose for yourself. Something to do, you know, some fine half-holiday, to go out and look in the shops. I've no views—don't get jewellery unless you wish. Just—er—'blew it' your own way!"
Claire kissed him, and remarked that he was a sweet old dear; and this time the opening of the envelope brought a surprise of an agreeable nature, for this cheque also was for fifty pounds, so that the desired hundred was really in her possession. No jewellery for her! Into the bank the money should go—every penny of it, and her bridesmaid present should be represented by peace of mind, which, after the financial shock of the last month, seemed more precious than many rubies.
Mr and Mrs Judge were married at the Embassy, and afterwards at an English church, the bride looking her most charming self in a costume of diaphanous chiffon and lace and the most fascinating of French hats, and the bridegroom his worst in his stiff conventional garments. They were a very radiant couple, however, and the dejeuner held after the ceremony at the "Hotel Britannique" was a cheerful occasion, despite the parting which lay ahead.
The gathering was quite a large one, for Mr Judge had insisted upon inviting all the friends who had been kind to his fiancee and her daughter during their three years' sojourn in the city, while the pensionnaires at "Villa Beau Sejour" came en masse, headed by Madame herself, in a new black silk costume, her white transformation elaborately waved and curled for the occasion.
There were speeches, and there were toasts. There were kindly words of farewell and cheerful anticipations of future meetings, there were good wishes for the bride and bridegroom, and more good wishes for the bridesmaid, and many protestations that it was "her turn next."
Then the bride retired to change her dress. Claire went with her, and tried valiantly not to cry as she fastened buttons and hooks, and realised how long it might be before she next waited on her mother. Mrs Judge was tearful, too, and the two knew a bitter moment as they clung together for the real farewell before rejoining the guests.
"I've been careless; I've made a mess of things. I've not been half as thoughtful as I should have been," sobbed the bride, "but I have loved you, Claire, and this will make no difference! I shall love you just the same."
Claire flushed and nodded, but could not trust herself to speak. The love of a mother in far-off India could never be the same as the love of the dear companion of every day. But she was too generous to add to her mother's distress by refusing to be comforted, and the bride nervously powdered her eyes, and re-arranged her veil before descending to the hall, anxious as ever to shelve a painful subject, and turn her face to the sun.
Five minutes later Mr and Mrs Judge drove away from the door, and the girl who was left behind turned slowly to re-enter the hotel. It was very big, and fine, and spacious, but at that moment it was a type of desolation in Claire's eyes. With a sickening wave of loneliness she realised that she was motherless and alone!
A FELLOW TRAVELLER INTRODUCES HERSELF.
The next afternoon Claire started on her journey to London. She had spent the night with friends, and been seen off at the station by quite a crowd of well-wishers. Little souvenirs had been showered upon her all the morning, and everyone had a kindly word, and a hopeful prophecy of the future. There were invitations also, and promises to look her up in her London home, and a perfect shower of violets thrown into the carriage as the train steamed out of the station, and Claire laughed and waved her hand, and looked so complacent and beaming that no one looking on could have guessed the real nature of her journey. She was not pretending to be cheerful, she was cheerful, for, the dreaded parting once over, her optimistic nature had asserted itself, and painted the life ahead in its old rosy colours. Mother was happy and secured from want; she herself was about to enjoy a longed-for taste for independence; then why grumble? asked Claire sensibly of herself, and anything less grumbling than her appearance at that moment it would be hard to imagine.
She was beautifully dressed, in the simplest but most becoming of travelling costumes, she was agreeably conscious that the onlookers to her send-off had been unanimously admiring in their regard, and, as she stood arranging her bags on the rack overhead, she saw her own face in the strip of mirror and whole-heartedly agreed in their verdict.
"I'm glad I'm pretty! It's a comfort to be pretty. I should grow so tired of being with myself if I were plain!" she reflected complacently as she settled herself in her corner, and flicked a few grains of dust from the front of her skirt.
She had taken a through first-class ticket from sheer force of habit, for Mrs Gifford had always travelled first, and the ways of economy take some time to acquire. In the opposite corner of the carriage sat an elderly woman, obviously English, obviously also of the grande dame species, with aquiline features, white hair dressed pompadour fashion, and an expression compounded of indifference and quizzical good humour. The good humour was in the ascendant as she watched the kindly Belgians crowd round her fellow-passenger, envelop her in their arms, murmur tearful farewells, and kiss her soundly on either cheek. The finely marked eyebrows lifted themselves as if in commiseration for the victim, and as the door closed on the last farewell she heaved an involuntary sigh of relief. It was evident that the scene appealed to her entirely from the one standpoint; she saw nothing touching about it, nothing pathetic; she was simply amused, and carelessly scornful of eccentricities in manner or appearance.
On the seat beside this imposing personage sat a young woman in black, bearing the hall mark of lady's maid written all over her in capital letters. She sat stiffly in her seat, one gloved hand on her knee, the other clasped tightly round the handle of a crocodile dressing-bag.
Claire felt a passing interest in the pair; reflected that if it were her lot in life to be a maid, she would choose to live on the Continent, where an affectionate intimacy takes the place of this frigid separation, and then, being young and self-engrossed, promptly forgot all about them, and fell to building castles in the air, in which she herself lived in every circumstance of affluence and plenty, beloved and admired of all. There was naturally a prince in the story, a veritable Prince Charming, who was all that the most exacting mind could desire, but the image was vague. Claire's heart had not yet been touched. She was still in ignorance as to what manner of man she desired.
Engaged in these pleasant day-dreams Antwerp was reached before Claire realised that half the distance was covered. On the quay the wind blew chill; on the boat itself it blew chillier still. Claire became aware that she was in for a stormy crossing, but was little perturbed by the fact, since she knew herself to be an unusually good sailor. She tipped the stewardess to fill a hot bottle, put on a cosy dressing-jacket, and lay down in her berth, quite ready for sleep after the fatigue and excitement of the past week.
In five minutes the ship and all that was in it was lost in dreams, and, so far as Claire was concerned, it might have been but another five minutes before the stewardess aroused her to announce the arrival at Parkeston Pier. The first glance around proved, however, that the other passengers had found the time all too long. The signs of a bad crossing were written large on the faces of her companions, and there was a trace of resentment in the manner in which they surveyed her active movements. An old lady in a bunk immediately opposite her own seemed especially injured, and did not hesitate to put her feelings into words, "You have had a good enough night! I believe you slept right through... Are you aware that the rest of us have been more ill than we've ever been in our lives?" she asked in accusing tones. And Claire laughed her happy, gurgling little laugh, and said—
"I'm so sorry, but it's all over, isn't it? And people always say that they feel better afterwards!"
The old lady grunted. She certainly looked thoroughly ill and wretched at the moment, her face drawn and yellow beneath her scanty locks, and her whole appearance expressive of an extremity of fatigue. It seemed to her that it was years since she had left the quay at Antwerp, and here was this young thing as blooming as though she had spent the night in her own bed! She hitched a shawl more closely over her shoulders, and called aloud in a high imperious tone—
"Mason! Mason! You must really rouse yourself and attend to me. We shall have to land in a few minutes. Get up at once and bring me my things!"
The covering of another bunk stirred feebly, and two feet encased in black merino stockings descended slowly to the floor. A moment later a ghastly figure was tottering across the floor, lifting from a box a beautifully waved white wig, and dropping it carefully over the head of the aggrieved old lady of the straggly locks.
It was all that Claire could do to keep from exclaiming aloud, as it burst upon her astonished senses that this poor, huddled creature was none other than the grande dame of the railway carriage, the haughtily indifferent, cynically amused personage who had seemed so supremely superior to the agitations of the common ruck! Strange what changes a few hours' conflict with the forces of Nature could bring about!
Ill as the mistress was, the maid was even worse, and it was pitiful to see the poor creature's efforts to obey the exigent demands of her employer. In the end faintness overcame her, and if Claire had not rushed to the rescue, she would have fallen on the floor.
"It's no use struggling against it! You must keep still until the boat stops. You'll feel better at once when we land, and you get into the air." Claire laid the poor soul in her bunk, and turned back to the old lady who was momentarily growing younger and more formidable, as she continued the stages of her toilette.
"Can I help you?" she asked smilingly, and the offer was accepted with gracious composure.
"Please do. I should be grateful. Thank you. That hook fastens over here, and the band crosses to this side. The brooch is in my bag—a gold band with some diamonds—and the hat-pins, and a clean handkerchief. Can you manage? ... The clasp slides back."
Claire opened the bag and gazed with admiration at a brown moire antique lining, and fittings of tortoiseshell, bearing raised monograms in gold. "I shall have one exactly to match, when I marry my duke!" was the mental reflection, as she selected the articles mentioned and put the final touches to the good lady's costume.
Later on there was Mason to be dressed; later on still, Claire found herself carrying the precious dressing-bag in one hand, and supporting one invalid with the other, while Mason tottered in the wake, unable for the moment to support any other burden than that of her own body.
Mrs Fanshawe—Claire had discovered the name on a printed card let into the lining of the bag—had no sympathy to spare for poor Mason. She plainly considered it the height of bad manners for a maid to dare to be sea-sick; but being unused to do anything for herself, gratefully allowed Claire to lead the way, reply to the queries of custom-house officials, secure a corner of a first-class compartment of the waiting train, and bid an attendant bring a cup of tea before the ordinary breakfast began.
Mason refused any refreshment, but Mrs Fanshawe momentarily regained her vigour, and was all that was gracious in her acknowledgment of Claire's help. The quizzical eyes roved over the girl's face and figure, and evidently approved what they saw, and Claire, smiling back, was conscious of an answering attraction. Thoughtless and domineering as was her behaviour to her inferior, there was yet something in the old lady's personality which struck an answering chord in the girl's heart. She was enough of a physiognomist to divine the presence of humour and generosity, combined with a persistent cheerfulness of outlook. The signs of physical age were unmistakable, but the spirit within was young, young as her own!
The mutual scrutiny ended in a mutual laugh, which was the last breaking of the ice.
"My dear," cried Mrs Fanshawe, "you must excuse my bad manners! You are so refreshing to look at after all those horrors on the boat that I can't help staring. And you've been so kind! Positively I don't know how I should have survived without you. Will you tell me your name? I should like to know to whom I am indebted for so much help."
"My name is Claire Gifford."
"Er—yes?" Plainly Mrs Fanshawe felt the information insufficient. "Gifford! I knew some Giffords. Do you belong to the Worcestershire branch?"
Claire hitched her shoulders in the true French shrug.
"Sais pas! I have no English relations nearer than second cousins, and we have lived abroad so much that we are practically strangers. My father died when I was a child. I went to school in Paris, and for the last few years my mother and I have made our headquarters in Brussels. She married again, only yesterday, and is going to live in Bombay."
Mrs Fanshawe arched surprised brows.
"And you are staying behind?"
"Yes. They asked me to go. Mr Judge is very kind. He is my—er— stepfather!" Claire shrugged again at the strangeness of that word. "He gave me the warmest of invitations, but I refused. I preferred to be left."
Mrs Fanshawe hitched herself into her corner, planted her feet more firmly on the provisionary footstool, and folded her hands on her knee. She had the air of a person settling down to the enjoyment of a favourite amusement, and indeed her curiosity was a quality well-known to all her acquaintances.
"Why?" she asked boldly, and such was the force of her personality that Claire never dreamt for a moment of refusing to reply.
"Because I want to be independent."
Mrs Fanshawe rolled her eyes to the hat-rail.
"My dear, nonsense! You're far too pretty. Leave that to the poor creatures who have no chance of finding other people to work for them. You should change your mind, you know, you really should. India's quite an agreeable place to put in a few years. The English girl is a trifle overdone, but with your complexion you would be bound to have a success. Think it over! Don't be in a hurry to let the chance slip!"
"It has slipped. They sail from Marseilles a week from to-day, and besides I don't want to change. I like the prospect of independence better even than being admired."
"Though you like that, too?"
"Of course. Who doesn't? I'm hoping—with good luck—to be admired in England instead!"
"Then you mustn't be independent!" Mrs Fanshawe said, laughing. "It was the rage a year or two ago; girls had a craze for joining Settlements, and running about in the slums, but it's quite out of date. Hobble skirts killed it. It's impossible to be utilitarian in a hobble skirt... And how do you propose to show your independence, may I ask?"
"I am going to be French mistress in a High School," Claire said sturdily, and hated herself because she winced before the eloquent change of expression which passed over her companion's face.
Mrs Fanshawe said, "Oh, really! How very interesting!" and looked about as uninterested the while as a human creature could be. In the pause which followed it was obvious that she was readjusting the first impression of a young gentlewoman belonging to her own leisured class, and preparing herself to cross-question an entirely different person—an ordinary teacher in a High School! There was a touch of patronage in her manner, but it was still quite agreeable Mrs Fanshawe was always agreeable for choice: she found it the best policy, and her indolent nature shrank from disagreeables of every kind. This pretty girl had made herself quite useful, and a chat with her would enliven a dull hour in the train. Curiosity shifted its point, but remained actively in force.
"Tell me all about it!" she said suavely. "I know nothing about teachers. Shocking, isn't it? They alarm me too much. I have a horror of clever women. You don't look at all clever. I mean that as a compliment—far too pretty and smart, but I suppose you are dreadfully learned, all the same. What are you going to teach?"
"French. I am almost as good as a Frenchwoman, for I've talked little else for sixteen years. Mother and I spoke English together, or I should have forgotten my own language. It seems, from a scholastic point of view, that it's a useful blend to possess—perfect French and an English temperament. 'Mademoiselle' is not always a model of patience!"
"And you think you will be? I prophesy differently. You'll throw the whole thing up in six months, and fly off to mamma in India. You haven't the least idea what you are in for, but you'll find out, you'll find out! Where is this precious school? In town, did you say? Shall you live in the house or with friends?"
"I have no friends in London except Miss Farnborough, the head mistress, but there are fifteen other mistresses besides myself. That will be fifteen friends ready-made. I am going to share lodgings with one of them, and be a bachelor girl on my own account. I'm so excited about it. After living in countries where a girl can't go to the pillar-box alone, it will be thrilling to be free to do just as I like. Please don't pity me! I'm going to have great fun."
Mrs Fanshawe hitched herself still further into her corner and smiled a lazy, quizzical smile.
"Oh, I don't pity you—not one bit! All young people nowadays think they are so much wiser than their parents; it's a wholesome lesson to learn their mistake. You're a silly, blind, ridiculous little girl, and if I'd been your mother, I should have insisted upon taking you with me, whether you liked it or not. I always wanted a daughter like you—sons are so dull; but perhaps it's just as well that she never appeared. She might have wanted to be independent, too, in which case we should have quarrelled.—So those fifteen school-mistresses make up your whole social circle, do they? I wouldn't mind prophesying that you'll never want to speak a word to them out of school hours! I have a friend living in town, quite a nice woman, with a daughter about your age. Shall I ask her to send you a card? It would be somewhere for you to go on free afternoons, and she entertains a good deal, and has a craze for the feminist movement, and for girls who work for themselves. You might come in for some fun."
Claire's flush of gratification made her look prettier than ever, and Mrs Fanshawe felt an agreeable glow of self-satisfaction. Nothing she liked better than to play the part of Lady Bountiful, especially when any effort involved was shifted onto the shoulders of another, and in her careless fashion she was really anxious to do this nice girl a good turn. She made a note of Claire's address in a dainty gold-edged pocket-book, expressed pleasure in the belief that through her friend she would hear reports of the girl's progress, and presently shut her eyes, and dozed peacefully for the rest of the ride.
Round London a fine rain was falling, and the terminus looked bleak and cheerless as the train slowed down the long platform. Mason, still haggard, roused herself to step to the platform and look around as if expecting to see a familiar face, and in the midst of collecting her own impedimenta Claire was conscious that Mrs Fanshawe was distinctly ruffled, when the familiar figure failed to appear. Once more she found herself coming to the rescue, marshalling the combined baggage to the screened portion of the platform where the custom-house officials went through the formalities incidental to the occasion, while the tired passengers stood shiveringly on guard, looking bleached and grey after their night's journey. The bright-haired, bright-faced girl stood out in pleasant contrast to the rest, trim and smart and dainty as though such a thing as fatigue did not exist. Mrs Fanshawe, looking at her, stopped short in the middle of a mental grumble, and turned it round, so that it ended in being a thanksgiving instead.
"Most neglectful of Erskine to fail me after promising he would come... Perhaps, after all, it's just as well he did not."
And at that moment, with the usual contrariety of fate, Erskine appeared! He came striding along the platform, a big, loosely-built man, with a clean-shaven face, glancing to right and left over the upstanding collar of a tweed coat. He looked at once plain and distinguished, and in the quizzical eyes and beetling eyebrows there was an unmistakable likeness to the grande dame standing by Claire's side. Just for a moment he paused, as he came in sight of the group of passengers, and Claire, meeting his glance, knew who he was, even before he came forward and made his greeting.
"Holla, Mater! Sorry to be late. Not my fault this time. I was ready all right, but the car did not come round. Had a good crossing?"
"My dear, appalling! Don't talk of it. I was prostrate all night, and Mason too ill to do anything but moan. She's been no use."
"Poor beggar! She looks pretty green. But— er—" The plain face lighted with an expectant smile as he turned towards the girl who stood by his mother's side, still holding the precious bag. "You seem to have met a friend..."
"Oh—er—yes!" With a gesture of regal graciousness Mrs Fanshawe turned towards the girl, and held out her gloved hand. "Thank you so much, Miss Gifford! You've been quite too kind. I'm really horribly in your debt. I hope you will find everything as you like, and have a very good time. Thank you again. Good-bye. I'm really dropping with fatigue. What a relief it will be to get to bed!" She turned aside, and laid her hand on her son's arm. "Erskine, where is the car?"
Mother and son turned away, and made their way down the platform, leaving Claire with crimson cheeks and fast-beating heart. The little scene which had just happened had been all too easy to understand. The nice son had wished for an introduction to the nice girl who a moment before had seemed on such intimate terms with his mother: the mother had been quite determined that such an introduction should not take place. Claire knew enough of the world to realise how different would have been the proceedings if she had announced herself as a member of the "idle rich," bound for a course of visits to well-known houses in the country. "May I introduce my son, Miss Gifford? Miss Gifford has been an angel of goodness to me, Erskine. Positively I don't know what I should have done without her! Do look after her now, and see her into a taxi. Such a mercy to have a man to help!" That was what would have happened to the Claire Gifford of a week before, but now for the first time Claire experienced a taste of the disagreeables attendant on her changed circumstances, and it was bitter to her mouth. All very well to remind herself that work was honourable, that anyone who looked down on her for choosing to be independent was not worth a moment's thought, the fact remained that for the first, the very first time in her life she had been made to feel that there was a barrier between herself and a member of her own class, and that, however willing Mrs Fanshawe might be to introduce her to a casual friend, she was unwilling to make her known to her own son!
Claire stood stiff and poker-like at her post, determined to make no movement until Mrs Fanshawe and her attendants had taken their departure. The storm of indignation and wounded pride which was surging through her veins distracted her mind from her surroundings; she was dimly conscious that one after another, her fellow-passengers had taken their departure, preceded by a porter trundling a truck of luggage; conscious that where there had been a crowd, there was now a space, until eventually with a shock of surprise she discovered that she was standing alone, by her own little pile of boxes. At that she shook herself impatiently, beckoned to a porter and was about to walk ahead, when an uneasy suspicion made itself felt. The luggage! Something was wrong. The pile looked smaller than it had done ten minutes before. She made a rapid circuit, and made a horrible discovery. A box was missing! The dress-box containing the skirts of all her best frocks, spread at full length and carefully padded with tissue paper. It had been there ten minutes ago; the custom-house officer had given it a special rap. She distinctly remembered noticing a new scratch on the leather. Where in the name of everything that was inexplicable could it have disappeared? Appealed to for information the porter was not illuminating. "If it had been there before, why wasn't it there now? Was the lady sure she had seen it? Might have been left behind at Antwerp or Parkeston. Better telegraph and see! If it had been there before, why wasn't it there now? Mistakes did happen. Boxes were much alike. P'raps it was left in the van. If it was there ten minutes before, why wasn't it—"
Claire stopped him with an imperious hand.
"That's enough! It was there: I saw it. I counted the pieces before the custom-house officer came along. I noticed it especially. Someone must have taken it by mistake."
The porter shook his head darkly.
"On purpose, more like! Funny people crosses by this route. Funny thing that you didn't notice—"
Claire found nothing funny in the reflection. She was furious with herself for her carelessness, and still more furious with Mrs Fanshawe as the cause thereof. Down the platform she stalked, a picture of vivid impetuous youth, head thrown back, cheeks aflame, grey eyes sending out flashes of indignation. Every porter who came in her way was stopped and imperiously questioned as to his late load, every porter was in his turn waved impatiently away. Claire was growing seriously alarmed. Suppose the box was lost! It would be as bad as losing two boxes, for of what use were bodices minus skirts to match? Never again would she be guilty of the folly of packing bits of the same costumes in different boxes. How awful—how awful beyond words to arrive in London without a decent dress to wear!
Whirling suddenly round to pursue yet another porter, Claire became aware of a figure in a long tweed coat standing on the space beside the taxi-stand, intently watching her movements. She recognised him in a moment as none other than "Erskine" himself, who, having seen his mother into her car, was presumably bound for another destination. But why was he standing there? Why had he been so long in moving away? Claire hastily averted her eyes, but as she cross-questioned porter number four, she was aware that the tall figure was drawing nearer, and presently he was standing by her side, taking off his hat, and saying in the most courteous and deferential of tones—
"Excuse me—I'm afraid something is wrong! Can I be of any assistance?"
Claire's glance was frigid in its coldness; but it was difficult to remain frigid in face of the man's obvious sincerity and kindliness.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "Please don't trouble. I can manage quite well. It's only a trunk..."
"Is it lost? I say—what a fag! Do let me help. I know this station by heart! If it is to be found, I am sure I can get it for you."
This time there was a distinct air of appeal in his deep voice. Claire divined that the nice man was anxious to atone for his mother's cavalier behaviour, and her heart softened towards him. After all, why should she punish herself by refusing? Five minutes more or less on the station platform could make no difference one way or another, for at the end they would wish each other a polite adieu, and part never to meet again. And she did want that box!
She smiled, and sighed, and looked delightfully pretty and appealing, as she said frankly—
"Thank you, I should be grateful for suggestions. It's the most extraordinary and provoking thing—"
They walked slowly down the platform while she explained the situation, and reiterated the fact that she had seen the box ten minutes before. Erskine Fanshawe did not dispute the statement as each porter had done before him; he contented himself with asking if there was any distinctive feature in the appearance of the box itself.
Claire shook her head.
"The ordinary brown leather, with strappings and C.G. on one side. Just like a thousand other boxes, but it had a label, beside the initials. I don't see how anyone can have taken it by mistake." She set her teeth, and her head took a defiant tilt. "There's one comfort; if it is stolen, whoever has taken it will not get much for her pains! There's nothing in it but skirts. Skirts won't be much good without the bodices to match!"
The man looked down at her, his expression comically compounded of sympathy and humour. At that moment, despite the irregularity of his features, he looked wonderfully like his handsome mother.
"Er—just so! Unfortunately, however, from the opposite point of view, you find yourself in the same position! Bodices, I presume, without skirts—"
Claire groaned, and held up a protesting hand.
"Don't! I can't bear it. It's really devastating. My whole outfit—at one fell sweep!"
"Isn't it—excuse my suggesting it—rather a mistake to—er—divide pieces of the same garment, so that if one trunk should be lost, the loss practically extends to two?"
"No, it isn't. It's the only sensible thing to do," Claire said obstinately. "Skirts must be packed at full length, and a dress-box is made for that very purpose. All the same, I shall never do it again. It's no use being sensible if you have to contend with—thieves!"
"I don't think we need leap to that conclusion just yet. You have only spoken to two or three porters. We'd better wait about a few minutes longer until the other men come back. Very likely the box was put on a truck by accident, and if the mistake was discovered before it was put on the taxi, it would be sent back to see if its owner were waiting here. If it doesn't turn up at once, you mustn't be discouraged. The odds are ten to one that it's only a mistake, and in that case when the taxi is unloaded, the box will be sent back to the lost luggage office, or forwarded to your address. Was the full address on the box, by the way?"
Claire nodded assent.
"Oh, yes; I have that poor satisfaction at least. I was most methodical and prudent, but I don't know that that's going to be much consolation if I lose my nice frocks, and am too poor to buy any more."
The last phrase was prompted by a proud determination to sail under no false colours in the eyes of Mrs Fanshawe's son; but the picture evoked thereby was sufficiently tragic to bring a cloud over her face. The memory of each separate gown rose before her, looking distractingly dainty and becoming; she saw a vision of herself as she might have been, and faced a future bounded by eternal blue serge. All the tragedy of the thought was in her air, and her companion cried quickly—
"You won't need to buy them! They'll turn up all right, I am quite sure of that. The worst that can happen is a day or two's delay. After all, you know, there are thousands of honest folk to a single thief, and even a thief would probably prefer a small money reward to useless halves of dresses! If you hear nothing by to-morrow, you might offer a reward."
"Oh, I will!" Claire said gratefully. "Thank you for thinking of it."
No more porters having for the moment appeared in sight, they now turned, and slowly retraced their steps. Claire, covertly regarding her companion, wondered why she felt convinced that he was a soldier; Erskine Fanshawe in his turn covertly regarded Claire, and wondered why it was that she seemed different from any girl he had seen before. Then tentatively he put a personal question.
"Do you know London well, Miss Gifford? My mother told me you were— er—coming to settle—"
"Not at all well, as a whole. I know the little bit around Regent Street, and the Park, and the places one sees in a week's visit, but that's all. We never stayed long in town when we came to England. I shall enjoy exploring on half holidays when I am free from work. I am a school-mistress!" said Claire with an air, and gathered from her companion's face that he knew as much already, and considered it a subject for commiseration. He looked at her with sympathetic eyes, and asked deeply—
"Hate it very much?"
"Not at all. Quite the contrary. I adore it. At least, that's to say, I haven't begun yet, but I feel sure I shall!" Claire cried ardently; and at that they both laughed with a delightful sense of understanding and camaraderie. At that moment Claire felt a distinct pang at the thought that never again would she have the opportunity of speaking and laughing with this attractive, eminently companionable man; then her attention was distracted by the appearance of two more porters, who had each to be interviewed in his turn.
They had no good news to give, however, so the searchers left the platform in disgust, and repaired to the office for lost luggage, where the story of the missing box was recounted to an unsympathetic clerk. When a man spends his whole life listening to complaints of missing property, he can hardly be expected to show a vehement distress at the loss of yet another passenger, but to Claire at this moment there was something quite brutal in his callous indifference. The one suggestion which he had to make was that she could leave her name, and the manner in which it was given was a death-blow to hope.
At this very moment, however, just as Claire was bending forward to dictate the desired information she felt a touch on her arm, and looking in the direction of Mr Fanshawe's outstretched hand, beheld a porter approaching the office, trundling before him a truck on which reposed in solitary splendour, a long brown dress-box, and oh, joy of joys! even at the present distance the white letters C.G. could be plainly distinguished on the nearer side! Claire's dignity went to the winds at that sight, and she dashed forward to meet her property with the joyous impetuosity of a child.
The explanation was simple to a degree, and precisely agreed with Mr Fanshawe's surmise as to what had really happened. During Claire's trance of forgetfulness, the box had been wheeled away, with a large consignment of luggage, and the mistake discovered only when the various items were in process of being packed into a company's omnibus, when, there being no one at hand to claim it, it had been conveyed—by very leisurely stages—to the lost luggage office.
All's well that ends well! Claire gleefully collected her possessions, feeling a glow of delight in the safety which an hour before she would have taken as a matter of course, and stood at attention while each separate item was placed on the roof of the taxi. The little addresses of which she had boasted were duly inserted in leather framings on each box, the delicate writing too small to be deciphered, except near at hand. Claire saw her companion's eyes contract in an evident effort to distinguish the words, and immediately moved her position so as to frustrate his purpose. She did not intend Mr Fanshawe to know her address! When she was seated in the taxi, however, there came an awkward moment, for her companion waved the chauffeur to his seat, and stood by the window looking in at her, with a face which seemed unduly serious and earnest, considering the extremely slight nature of their acquaintance.
"Well! I am thankful the box turned up. I shall think of you enjoying your re-united frocks... Sure you've got everything all right? Where shall I tell the man to drive?"
For the fraction of a second Claire's eyes flickered, then she spoke in decided tones.
"'The Grand Hotel.'"
Mr Fanshawe's eyes flickered too, and turned involuntarily towards the boxes on the roof. What exactly were the words on the labels he could not see, but at least it was certain that they were not "The Grand Hotel!" He turned from the inspection to confront a flushed, obstinate face.
"Do you wish me to give the man that address?"
Very deliberately and quietly Mr Fanshawe stepped back a pace, opened his long coat, and fumbled in an inner pocket for a leather pocket-book; very quietly and deliberately he drew from one bulging division a visiting card, and held it towards her. Claire caught the word "Captain" and saw that an address was printed in the corner, but she covered it hastily with her hand, refusing a second glance. Captain Fanshawe leant his arm on the window sash and said hesitatingly—
"Will you allow me to give you my card! As you are a stranger in town and your people away, there may possibly be—er—occasions, when it would be convenient to know some man whom you could make of use. Please remember me if they do come along! It would be a privilege to repay your kindness to my mother... Send me a wire at any time, and I am at your service. I hope you will send. Good morning!"
"Good-bye!" said Claire. Red as a rose was she at that moment, but very dignified and stately, bending towards him in a sweeping bow, as the taxi rolled away. The last glimpse of Captain Fanshawe showed him standing with uplifted hat, the keen eyes staring after her, with not a glint of humour in their grey depths. Quite evidently he meant what he said. Quite evidently he was as keen to pursue her acquaintance as his mother had been to drop it.
Claire Gifford sat bolt upright on her seat, the slip of cardboard clasped within her palms, and as she sat she thought many thoughts. A physiognomist would have been interested to trace the progress of those thoughts on the eloquent young face. There was surprise written there, and obvious gratification, and a demure, very feminine content; later on came pride, and a general stiffening of determination. The spoiled child of liberty and the High School-Mistress of the future had fought a heated battle, and the High School-Mistress had won.
Deliberately turning aside her eyes, so that no word of that printed address should obtrude itself on her notice, Claire tore the card sharply across and across, and threw the fragments out of the window.
A moment later she whistled through the tube, and instructed the chauffeur as to her change of address.
Adieu to the Fanshawes, and all such luxuries of the past. Heigh-ho for hard work, and lodgings at fifteen shillings a week!
MISS RHODES, POISONER.
It is a somewhat dreary feeling to arrive even at a friend's house before seven o'clock in the morning, and be received by sleepy-looking people who have obviously been torn unwillingly from their beds in deference to the precepts of hospitality, but it is infinitely worse to arrive at a lodging-house at the same hour, ring several times at the bell before a dingy servant can be induced to appear, and to realise a moment later that in a tireless parlour you perceive your journey's goal!
Claire Gifford felt a creep of the blood at the sight of that parlour, though if her first introduction had been at night, when the curtains were drawn and the lamps lit, she would have found it cosy enough. There was no sign of her room-mate; perhaps it was too much to expect her to get up at so early an hour to welcome a stranger, but Claire had expected it, felt perfectly sure that—had positions been reversed—she herself would have taken pains to deck both herself and her room in honour of the occasion, and so felt correspondingly downcast.
Presently she found herself following the dingy maid up three separate nights of stairs, and arriving at a tiny box of a bedroom on the top floor. There was a bed, a washstand, a chest of drawers doing service as a dressing-table, two chairs and a sloping roof. Claire would have been quite disappointed if that last item had been missing, for whoever heard of a girl who set out to make her own living who had not slept in a room with a sloping roof? On the whole, despite its tiny proportions, the little room made a pleasant impression. It was clean, it was bright, walls and furniture were alike of a plain unrelieved white, and through the open casement window could be seen a distant slope of green overtopping the intervening chimney tops. Claire's eyes roved here and there with the instinct of a born home-maker, saw what was lacking here, what was superfluous there, grasped neglected possibilities, and mentally re-arranged and decorated the premises before a slower person would have crossed the floor.
Then she took up her stand before the small mirror, and devoted a whole minute to studying her own reflection from the point of view of Captain Erskine Fanshawe of unknown address. By her own deliberate choice she had cut herself off from future chance of meeting this acquaintance of an hour; nevertheless it was distinctly reviving to discern that her hat was set at precisely the right angle, and that for an all-night voyager her whole appearance was remarkably fresh and dainty.
Claire first smiled, and then sighed, and pulled out the hat-pins with impatient tugs. To be prudent and self-denying is not always an exhilarating process for sweet and twenty.
Presently the maid came staggering upstairs with the smaller boxes, and Claire busied herself in her room until the clock had struck eight, when she again descended to the joint sitting-room. This time the fire was lighted, and the table laid for breakfast, and behind the tea-tray sat Miss Rhodes, the English mistress, already halfway through her meal. She rose, half smiling, half frowning, and held out a thin hand in welcome.
"Morning. Hope you've had a good crossing. Didn't know when you'd be down. Do you take coffee?"
"Please!" Claire felt that a cup of coffee would be just what she needed, but missed the familiar fragrant scent. She seated herself at the table, and while Miss Rhodes went on with her preparation, studied her with curious eyes.
She saw a woman of thirty-two or three, with well-cut features, dark eyes, and abundant dark hair—a woman who ought to have been distinctly good-looking but who succeeded in being plain and commonplace. She was badly-dressed, in a utility blouse of grey flannel, her expression was tired and listless, and her hair, though neat, showed obvious lack of care, having none of the silky sheen which rewards regular systematic brushing. So far bad, but, in spite of all drawbacks, it was an interesting face, and Claire felt attracted, despite the preliminary disappointment.
"There's some bacon in that dish. It will be cold, I'm afraid. You can ring, if you like, and ask them to warm it up, but they'll keep you waiting a quarter of an hour out of spite. I've given it up myself."
"Oh, I'm accustomed to French breakfasts. I really want nothing but some bread and coffee." Claire sipped at her cup as she finished speaking, and the sudden grimace of astonishment which followed roused her companion to laughter.
"You don't like it? It isn't equal to your French coffee."
"It isn't coffee at all. It's undrinkable!" Claire pushed away her cup in disgust. "Is it always as bad as that?"
"Worse!" said Miss Rhodes composedly. "They put in more this morning because of you. Sometimes it's barely coloured, and it's always chicory." She shrugged resignedly. "No English landlady can make coffee. It's no use worrying. Have to make the best of what comes."
"Indeed I shan't. Why should I? I shan't try. There's no virtue in drinking such stuff. We provide the coffee—what's to hinder us making it for ourselves?"
"No fire, as a rule. Can't afford one when you are going out immediately after breakfast."
Claire stared in dismay. It had never occurred to her that she might have to be economical to this extent.
"But when it's very cold? What do you do then?"
"Put on a jersey, and nurse the hot-water jug!"
Claire grimaced, then nodded with an air of determination.
"I'll buy a machine! There can be no objection to that. You would prefer good coffee, wouldn't you, if you could get it without any more trouble?"
"Oh, certainly. I'll enjoy it—while it lasts!"
"Why shouldn't it last?"
Miss Rhodes stared across at the eager young face. She looked tired, and a trifle impatient.
"Oh, my dear girl, you're New. We are all the same at first—bubbling over with energy, and determined to arrange everything exactly as we like. It's a phase which we all live through. Afterwards you don't care. You are too tired to worry. All your energy goes on your day's work, and you are too thankful for peace and quietness to bother about details. You take what comes, and are thankful it's not worse."
Claire's smile showed an elaborate forbearance.
"Rather a poor-spirited attitude, don't you think?"
"Wait and see!" said the English mistress.
She rose and threw herself in a chair by the window, and Claire left the despised coffee and followed her example. Through the half-opened panes she looked out on a row of brick houses depressingly dingy, depressingly alike. About every second house showed a small black card on which the word "Apartments" was printed in gilt letters. Down the middle of the street came a fruiterer's cart, piled high with wicker baskets. The cry of "Bananas, cheap bananas," floated raucously on the air. Claire swiftly averted her eyes and turned back to her companion.
"It is very good of you to let me share your appartement. Miss Farnborough said she had arranged it with you, but it must be horrid taking in a stranger. I will try not to be too great a bore!"
But Miss Rhodes refused to be thanked.
"I'm bound to have somebody," said she ungraciously. "Couldn't afford them alone. You know the terms? Thirty-five shillings a week for the three rooms. That's cheap in this neighbourhood. We only get them at that price because we are out all day, and need so little catering." She looked round the room with her tired, mocking smile. "Hope you admire the scheme of decoration! I've been in dozens of lodgings, but I don't think I've ever struck an uglier room; but the people are clean and honest, and one has to put that before beauty, in our circumstances."
"There's a great deal of pattern about. It hasn't what one could call a restful effect!" said Claire, looking across at an ochre wall bespattered with golden scrawls, a red satin mantel-border painted with lustre roses, a suite of furniture covered in green stamped plush, a collection of inartistic pictures, and unornamental ornaments. Even her spirit quailed before the hopelessness of beautifying a room in which all the essentials were so hopelessly wrong. She gave it up in despair, and returned to the question of finance.
"Then my share will be seventeen and six! That seems very cheap. I am to begin at a hundred and ten pounds. How much extra must I allow for food?"
"That depends upon your requirements. We have dinner at school; quite a good meal for ninepence, including a penny for coffee afterwards."
"The same sort of coffee we have had this morning?"
"Practically. A trifle better perhaps. Not much."
"Hurrah!" cried Claire gaily. "That's a penny to the good! Eightpence for me—a clear saving of fivepence a week!"
Miss Rhodes resolutely refused to smile. She had the air of thinking it ribald to be cheerful on the serious question of pounds, shillings and pence.
"Even so, it's three-and-four, and you can't do breakfast and supper and full board on Saturday and Sunday under seven shillings. It's tight enough to manage on that. Altogether it often mounts up to twelve."
"Seventeen and twelve." Claire pondered deeply before she arrived at a solution. "Twenty-nine. Call it thirty, to make it even, and I am to begin at a hundred and ten. Over two pounds a week. I ought to do it comfortably, and have quite a lot over."
Miss Rhodes laughed darkly.
"What about extras?" she demanded. "What about laundry, and fires, and stationery and stamps? What about boot-mending, and Tubes on wet days, and soap and candles, and dentist and medicines, and subs, at school, and collections in church, and travelling expenses on Saturdays and Sundays, when you invariably want to go to the very other side of the city? London is not like a provincial town. You can't stir out of the house under fourpence or sixpence at the very least. What about illness, and amusement, and holidays? What about—"
Claire thrust her fingers in her ears with an air of desperation.
"Stop! Stop! For pity's sake don't swamp me any more. I feel in the bankruptcy court already, and I had imagined that I was rich! A hundred and ten pounds seemed quite a big salary. Everybody was surprised at my getting so much, and I suppose you have even more?"
"A hundred and fifty. Yes! You must remember that we don't belong to the ordinary rut of worker—we are experts. Our education has been a long costly business. No untrained worker could take our place; we are entitled to expert's pay. Oh, yes, they are quite good salaries if you happen to have a home behind you, and people who are ready to help over rough times, instead of needing to be helped themselves. The pity of it is that most High School-mistresses come from families who are not rich. The parents have made a big effort to pay for the girls' education, and when they are fairly launched, they expect to be helped in return. Some girls have been educated by relations, or have practically paid for themselves by scholarships. Three out of four of us have people who are more in need of help than able to give it. I give my own mother thirty pounds a year, so we are practically on the same salary. Have you a home where you can spend your holiday? Holidays run away terribly with your money. They come to nearly four months in the year."