The Canadian Photoplay Title of
THE LAND OF PROMISE
A Novelization of W. Somerset Maugham's Play
Illustrated with Scenes from the Photoplay A Paramount Picture Starring Thomas Meighan
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, New York Made in the United States of America. Copyright, 1914, by Edward J. Clode
THE LAND OF PROMISE
Nora opened her eyes to an unaccustomed consciousness of well-being. She was dimly aware that it had its origin in something deeper than mere physical comfort; but for the moment, in that state between sleeping and wakening, which still held her, it was enough to find that body and mind seemed rested.
Youth was reasserting itself. And it was only a short time ago that she had felt that never, never, could she by any possible chance feel young again. When one is young, one resents the reaction after any strain not purely physical as if it were a premature symptom of old age.
A ray of brilliant sunshine, which found its way through a gap in the drawn curtains, showed that it was long past the usual hour for rising. She smiled whimsically and closed her eyes once more. She remembered now that she was not in her own little room in the other wing of the house. The curtains proved that. How often in the ten years she had been with Miss Wickham had she begged that the staring white window blind, which decorated her one window, be replaced by curtains or even a blind of a dark tone that she might not be awakened by the first ray of light. She had even ventured to propose that the cost of such alterations be stopped out of her salary. Miss Wickham had refused to countenance any such innovation.
Three years before, when the offending blind had refused to hold together any longer, Nora had had a renewal of hope. But no! The new blind had been more glaringly white than its predecessor, which by contrast had taken on a grateful ivory tone in its old age. They had had one of their rare scenes at its advent. Nora had as a rule an admirable control of her naturally quick temper. But this had been too much.
"I might begin to understand your refusal if you ever entered my room. But since it would no more occur to you to do so than to visit the stables, I cannot see what possible difference it can make," Nora had stormed.
Miss Wickham's smile, which at the beginning of her companion's outburst had been faintly ironic, had broadened into the frankly humorous.
"Stated with your characteristic regard for exactitude, my dear Miss Marsh, it would never enter my head to do either. I prefer the white blind, however. As you know, I have no taste for explanations. We will let the matter rest there, if you please." Then she had added: "Some day, I strongly suspect, some man will amuse himself breaking that fiery temper of yours. I wish I were not so old, I think that I should enjoy knowing that he had succeeded." And the incident had ended, as always, with a few angry tears on Nora's part, as a preliminary to the inevitable game of bezique which finished off each happy day!
And this had been her life for ten years! A wave of pity, not for herself but for that young girl of eighteen who had once been herself, that proudly confident young creature who, when suddenly deprived of the protection of her only parent,—Nora's father had died when she was too young to remember him,—had so bravely faced the world, serene in the consciousness that the happiness which was her right was sure to be hers after a little waiting, dimmed her eyes for a moment. The dreams she had dreamed after she had received Miss Wickham's letter offering her the post of companion! She recalled how she had smiled to herself when the agent with whom she had filed her application congratulated her warmly on her good fortune in placing herself so promptly, and, by way of benediction, had wished that she might hold the position for many years. Many years indeed! That had been no part of her plan. Those nebulous plans had always been consistently rose-colored. It was impossible to remember them all now.
Sometimes the unknown Miss Wickham turned out to be a soft-hearted and sentimental old lady who was completely won by her young companion's charm and unmistakable air of good breeding. After a short time, she either adopted her, or, on dying, left her her entire fortune.
Again, she proved to be a perfect ogre. In this variation it was always the Prince Charming, that looms large in every young girl's dreams, who finally, after a brief period of unhappiness, came to the rescue and everything ended happily if somewhat conventionally.
The reality had been sadly different. Miss Wickham had disclosed herself as being a hard, self-centered, worldly woman who considered that in furnishing her young companion with board, lodging and a salary of thirty pounds a year, she had, to use a commercial phrase, obtained the option on her every waking hour, and indeed, during the last year of her life, she had extended this option to cover many of the hours which should have been dedicated to rest and sleep.
All the fine plans that the young Nora had made while journeying down from London to Tunbridge Wells, for going on with her music, improving herself in French and perhaps taking up another modern language, in her leisure hours, had been nipped in the bud before she had been an inmate of Miss Wickham's house many days. She had no leisure hours. Miss Wickham saw to that. She had apparently an abhorrence for her own unrelieved society that amounted to a positive mania. She must never be left alone. Let Nora but escape to her own little room in the vain hope of obtaining a few moments to herself, and Kate, the parlor maid, was certain to be sent after her.
"Miss Wickham's compliments and she was waiting to be read to." "Miss Wickham's compliments, but did Miss Marsh know that the horses were at the door?" "Miss Wickham's compliments, and should she have Kate set out the backgammon board?"
And upon the rare occasions when there was company in the house, Miss Wickham's ingenuity in providing occupation for dear Miss Marsh, while she was herself occupied with her friends, was inexhaustible. In an evil hour Nora had confessed to a modest talent for washing lace. Miss Wickham, it developed, had a really fine collection of beautiful pieces which naturally required the most delicate handling. Their need for being washed was oddly coincident with the moment when the expected guest arrived at the door.
Or, it appeared that the slugs had attacked the rose trees in unusual numbers. The gardener was in despair as he was already behind with setting out the annuals. "Would Miss Marsh mind while Miss Wickham had her little after-luncheon nap——!" Miss Marsh did mind. She loved flowers; to arrange them was a delight—at least it had been once—but she hated slugs. But she was too young and too inexperienced to know how to combat the subtle encroachments upon her own time made by this selfish old woman. And so, gradually, she had found that she was not only companion, but a sort of superior lady's maid and assistant gardener as well. And all for thirty pounds a year and her keep.
And alas! Prince Charming had never appeared, unless—Nora laughed aloud at the thought—he had disguised himself with a cleverness defying detection. With Reginald Hornby, a callow youth, the son of Miss Wickham's dearest friend, who occasionally made the briefest of duty visits; Mr. Wynne, the family solicitor, an elderly bachelor; and the doctor's assistant, a young person by the name of Gard, Nora's list of eligible men was complete. There had been a time when Nora had flirted with the idea of escaping from bondage by becoming the wife of young Gard.
He was a rather common young man, but he had been sincerely in love with her. He was not sufficiently subtle to recognize that it was the idea of escaping from Miss Wickham and the deadly monotony of her days that tempted her. He had laid his case before Miss Wickham. There had been some terrible scenes. Nora had felt the lash of her employer's bitter tongue. Partly because she was still smarting from the attack, and partly because she was indignant with her suitor for having gone to Miss Wickham at all and particularly without consulting her, she, too, had turned on the unfortunate young man. There had been mutual recriminations and reproaches, and young Gard, after his brief and bitter experience with the gentry, had left the vicinity of Tunbridge Wells and later on married a girl of his own class.
But Miss Wickham had been more shaken at the prospect of losing her young companion, who was so thoroughly broken in, than she would have liked to have confessed. She detested new faces about her, and as a matter of fact, she came as nearly caring for Nora as it was possible for her to care for any human being. She had told the girl then that it was her intention to make some provision for her at her death, so that she might have a decent competence and not be obliged to look for another position. There was, of course, the implied understanding that she would remain with Miss Wickham until that lady was summoned to a better and brighter world, a step which Miss Wickham, herself, was in no immediate hurry to take. In the meantime, she knew perfectly well just how often a prospective legacy could be dangled before expectant eyes with perfect delicacy.
It furnished her with an additional weapon, too, against her nephew, James Wickham, and his wife, both of whom she cordially detested, although she fully intended leaving them the bulk of her fortune. The consideration and tenderness she showed toward Nora when Mr. and Mrs. Wickham ran down from London to see their dear aunt showed a latent talent for comedy, on the part of the chief actress, of no mean order. These occasions left Nora in a state of mind in which exasperation and amusement were about equally blended. It was amusing to note the signs of apprehension on the part of Miss Wickham's disagreeable relatives as they noted their aunt's doting fondness for her hired companion. And while she felt that they richly deserved this little punishment, it was humiliating to be so cynically made use of.
And now it was all over. After a year of illness and gradual decline the end had come two days before. Nothing could induce Miss Wickham to have a professional nurse. The long strain and weeks of broken rest had told even on Nora's strength. Kindly Dr. Evans had insisted that she be put immediately to bed and Kate, the parlor maid, who had always been devoted to her, had undressed her as if she had been a baby. For the last two days she had done little but sleep the dreamless sleep of utter exhaustion. And to-day was the day of the funeral. She was just about to ring to find the time, when Kate's gentle knock came at the door.
"Come in. Good morning, Kate. Do tell me the time. Oh! How good it is to be lazy once in a while."
"Good morning to you, Miss. I hope you're feeling a bit rested. It's just gone eleven. Dr. Evans has called, Miss. He told me to see if you had waked."
"How good of him. Ask him to wait a few moments and I'll come right down." 'Coming right down' was not so easy a matter as she had thought. Nora found herself strangely weak and languid. She was still sitting on the edge of her bed, trying to gather energy for the task of dressing, when Kate returned.
"I beg your pardon, Miss, but Dr. Evans says you're not to get up until he sees you. I'm to bring you a bit of toast and your tea and to help you freshen up a bit and then he will come up in twenty minutes. He says to tell you that he has plenty of time."
Nora made a show of protest. Secretly she was rather glad to give in. She had not reckoned with the weakness following two unaccustomed days in bed. Dr. Evans was a kindly elderly man, whose one affectation was the gruffness which the country doctor of the old school so often assumes as if he wished to emphasize his disapproval of the modern suave manner of his city confrere. He had a sardonic humor and a sharp tongue which had at first quite terrified Nora, until she discovered that they were meant to hide the most generous heart in the world. Many were the kindly acts he performed in secret for the very people he was most accustomed to abuse.
Having felt Nora's pulse and looked at her sharply with his keen gray eyes, he settled the question of her attendance at Miss Wickham's funeral with his accustomed finality.
"You'll do nothing of the sort," he growled. "You may get up after a while and go and sit in the garden a bit; the air is fairly spring-like. But this afternoon you must lie down again for an hour or two. I suppose you'll have to get up to do the civil for James Wickham and his wife before they go back to town. Oh, no! they'll not stay the night. They'll rush back as fast as the train will take them, once they've heard the will read. Couldn't bear the associations with the place, now that their dear aunt has departed!" He gave one of his sardonic chuckles.
"It may be nonsense"—this in reply to Nora's remonstrance—"but I'm not going to have you on my hands next. You'll go to that funeral and get hysterical like all women, and begin to think that you wish her back. I should think this last year would have been about all anyone would want. But you're a poor sentimental creature, after all," he jeered.
"I'm nothing of the sort. But I did feel sorry for her, badly as she often treated me. She was a desperately lonely old soul. Nobody cared a bit about her, really, and she knew it."
"In spite of all her little amiable tricks to make people love her," said the doctor. "Now, remember, the garden for an hour this morning, the drawing-room later in the day, after you've rested for an hour or so. And don't dare disobey me." With that, he left.
It was pleasant in the garden. The air, though chilly, held the promise of spring. Warmly wrapped in an old cape, which the thoughtful Kate had discovered somewhere, with a book on Paris and some Italian sketches to fall back upon when her own thoughts ceased to divert her, Nora sat in a sheltered corner and looked out on the border which would soon be gay with the tulips whose green stocks were just beginning to push themselves up through the brown earth. Poor Miss Wickham! She had been so proud of her garden always. But for her it had bloomed for the last time. Would the James Wickhams take as much pride in it? Somehow, she fancied not. And she? Where would she be a year from now? A year! Where would she be in another month?
The whole world, in a modest sense, would he hers to choose from. While she had no definite notion as to the amount of her legacy, she had understood that it would bring in sufficient income to keep her from the necessity of seeking further employment. Probably something between two and three hundred pounds a year. She had always longed to travel. Italy, France, Germany, Spain, she would see them all. One could live very reasonably in really good pensions abroad, she had been told.
And then, some day, after a few years of happy wandering, she might adventure to that far-off Canada where her only brother was living the life of a frontiersman on an incredibly huge farm. She had not seen him for many years, but her heart warmed at the thought of seeing her only relative again. He was much older. Yes, Eddie must now be about forty. Oh, all of that. She, herself, was almost twenty-eight. But she wouldn't go to him for several years. He had done one thing which seemed to her quite dreadful. He had made an unfortunate marriage with a woman far beneath him socially. Men were so weak! Because they fancied themselves lonely, or even captivated by a pretty face, they were willing to make impossible marriages. Women were different. Still, she had the grace to blush when she recalled the episode of the doctor's assistant.
Yes, she would go out to Eddie after his wife had had the chance to form herself a little more. Living with a husband so much superior was bound to have its influence. And she must have some really good qualities at bottom or she could never have attracted him. There was nothing vicious about her brother. She must write him of Miss Wickham's death. They were neither of them fond of writing. It must be nearly a year since she had heard from him last. And then, it was so difficult to keep up a correspondence when people had no mutual friends and so little in common.
A glance at her watch told her that it must be nearly time for the London Wickhams to arrive. It would be better not to see them, unless they sent for her, until after they had returned from the cemetery. They were just the sort of people to think that she was forgetting her position if she had the manner of playing hostess by receiving them. Thank goodness! she would probably never see them again after to-day.
With a word to Kate that she would presently have her luncheon in her room and then rest for a few hours until the people returned after the funeral, she made her way to her own bare little room. How cold and bare it was! With the exception of the framed pictures of her father and mother and a small photograph of Eddie, taken before he had gone out, there was nothing but the absolutely necessary furniture. Miss Wickham's ideas of what a 'companion's' room should be like had partaken of the austere. And all the rest of the house was so crowded and overloaded with things. The drawing-room had always been an eyesore to Nora, crammed as it was with little tables and cabinets containing china. And in every available space there were porcelain ornaments and photographs in huge silver frames. It was all like a badly arranged museum or a huddled little curio shop. Well, she would soon be done with that, too!
Armed with her portfolio and writing materials Nora returned to the guest chamber, which was her temporary abode. The motherly Kate was waiting with an appetizing lunch on a neat tray. What a good friend she had been. She would be genuinely sorry to part with Kate. She must ask her to give her some address that would always reach her. Who knew, years hence when she returned to England, but what she might afford to set up a modest flat with Kate to manage things for her. She would speak to her on the morrow—after the will was read.
"Ah, Kate, you knew just what would tempt me. Thank you so much! By the way, has Miss Pringle sent any message?"
"Yes, Miss. Miss Pringle stopped on her way to the village a moment ago. She was with Mrs. Hubbard and had only a moment. I was to tell you that she would call this afternoon and hoped you could see her. I told her, Miss, that the doctor had said you were not to go to the burial. She will come while they are away."
"Let me know the moment she comes. I want to see her very much."
Miss Pringle was the only woman friend Nora had made in the years of her sojourn at Tunbridge Wells. They had little in common beyond the fellow-feeling that binds those in bondage. Miss Pringle was also a companion. Her task mistress, Mrs. Hubbard, was in Nora's opinion, about as stolidly brainless as a woman could well be. Miss Pringle was always lauding her kindness. But then Miss Pringle had been a companion to various rich women for thirty years. Nora had her own ideas as to the value of the opinions of any woman who had been in slavery for thirty years.
Having eaten her luncheon and written her letter to her brother, she felt glad to rest once more. How wise the doctor had been to forbid her to go to the funeral, and how grateful she was that he had forbidden it, was her last waking thought.
It was well on to three o'clock when Miss Pringle made her careful way up the path that led to the late Miss Wickham's door.
"How strange it will be not to find her in her own drawing-room!" she reflected. "I don't recall that Nora Marsh and I have ever been alone together for two consecutive minutes in our lives. I simply couldn't have stood it."
"I'll tell Miss Marsh you're here, Miss Pringle," said Kate, at the door.
"How is she to-day, Kate?"
"Still tired out, poor thing. The doctor made her promise to lie down directly after she had had a bite of luncheon. But she said I was to let her know the moment you came, Miss."
"I'm very glad she didn't go to the funeral."
"Dr. Evans simply wouldn't hear of it, Miss."
"I wonder how she stood it all these months, waiting on Miss Wickham hand and foot. She should have been made to have a professional nurse."
"It wasn't very easy to make Miss Wickham have anything she had made up her mind not to, you know that, Miss," said Kate as she led the way to the drawing-room. "Miss Marsh slept in Miss Wickham's room towards the last, and the moment she fell asleep Miss Wickham would have her up because her pillow wanted shaking or she was thirsty, or something."
"I suppose she was very inconsiderate."
Miss Pringle did not in general approve of discussing things with servants. But Nora had told her frequently how faithfully Kate looked after her and, as far as it was possible, made things bearable, so she felt she could make an exception of her.
"Inconsiderate isn't the word, Miss. I wouldn't be a lady's companion," Kate paused, her hand on the doorknob, to make a sweeping gesture, "not for anything. What they have to put up with!"
"Everyone isn't like Miss Wickham," said Miss Pringle, a trifle sharply. "The lady I'm companion to, Mrs. Hubbard, is kindness itself."
"That sounds like Miss Marsh coming down the stairs now," said Kate, opening the door. "Miss Pringle is here, Miss."
As Kate closed the door behind her, Nora advanced to meet her friend from the doorway with her pretty smile and outstretched hand. Miss Pringle kissed her warmly and then drew her down on a large sofa by her side. Her glance had a certain note of disapproval as it took in her friend's black dress, which did not escape that observant young person.
"I was so glad to hear you were coming to me this afternoon; it is good of you. How did you escape the dragon?"
She had long ago nicknamed the excellent Mrs. Hubbard 'the dragon' simply to tease Miss Pringle.
"Mrs. Hubbard has gone for a drive with somebody or other and didn't want me," said Miss Pringle primly. "You haven't been crying, Nora?"
"Yes, I couldn't help it. My dear, it's not unnatural."
Miss Pringle dropped the hand she had been stroking to clasp both her own over the handle of her umbrella. "Well, I don't like to say anything against her now she's dead, poor thing, but Miss Wickham was the most detestable old woman I ever met."
"Still," said Nora slowly, looking toward the French window which opened on the garden, at the sun streaming through the drawn blinds, "I don't suppose one can live so long with anyone and not be a little sorry to part with them forever. I was Miss Wickham's companion for ten years."
"How you stood it! Exacting, domineering, disagreeable!"
"Yes, I suppose she was. Because she paid me a salary, she thought I wasn't a human being. I certainly never knew anyone with such a bitter tongue. At first I used to cry every night when I went to bed because of the things she said to me. But I got used to them."
"I wonder you didn't leave her. I would have." Miss Pringle attempting to delude herself with the idea that she was a mettlesome, high-spirited person who would stand no nonsense, was immensely diverting to Nora. To hide an irrepressible smile, she went over to a bowl of roses which stood on one of the little tables and pretended to busy herself with their rearrangement.
"Posts as lady's companions are not so easy to find, I fancy. At least I remember that when I got this one I was thought to be extremely lucky not to have to wait twice as long. I don't imagine things have bettered much in our line, do you?"
"That they have not," rejoined Miss Pringle gloomily. "They tell me the agents' books are full of people wanting situations. Before I went to Mrs. Hubbard I was out of one for nearly two years." Her voice shook a little at the recollection. Her poor, tired, weather-beaten face quivered as if she were about to cry.
"It's not so had for you," said Nora soothingly. "You can always go and stay with your brother."
"You've a brother, too."
"Ah, yes. But he's farming in Canada. He has all he could do to keep himself. He couldn't keep me, too."
"How is he doing now?" asked Miss Pringle, to whom any new topic of conversation was of interest. She had so little opportunity for conversation at the irreproachable Mrs. Hubbard's, that lady having apparently inherited a limited set of ideas from her late husband, 'as Mr. Hubbard used to say' being her favorite introduction to any topic. Miss Pringle saw herself making quite a little success at dinner that night—there was to be a guest, she believed—by saying: "A friend of mine has just been telling me of the success her brother is having way out in Canada." "He is getting on?" she asked encouragingly.
"Oh, he's doing very well. He's got a farm of his own. He wrote over a few years ago and told me he could always give me a home if I wanted one."
"Canada's so far off," observed Miss Pringle deprecatingly. Her tone seemed to imply that there were other disadvantages which she would refrain from mentioning.
Now while Nora had always had the same vague feeling that Canada, in addition to being an immense distance off, was not quite, well, it wasn't England—that was indisputable—she found herself unreasonably irritated by her friend's tone.
"Not when yon get there," she replied sharply.
Miss Pringle evidently deemed it best to change the subject. "Why don't you draw the blinds?" she asked after a moment.
"It is horrid, isn't it? But somehow I thought I ought to wait till they came back from the funeral. But just see the sunlight; it must be beautiful out of doors. Why don't we walk about in the garden? Do you care for a wrap? I'll send Kate to fetch you something, if you do."
Miss Pringle having decided that her coat was sufficiently warm if they did not sit anywhere too long and just walked in the paths where it was sure not to be damp, they went out of the gloomy drawing-room into the bright afternoon sunshine.
"Don't you love a garden when things are just beginning to show their heads? I sometimes think that spring is the most beautiful of all the seasons. It's like watching the birth of a new world. I think the most human thing about poor Miss Wickham was her fondness for flowers. She always said she hoped she'd never die in winter."
To Miss Pringle, the note of regret which crept now and again into Nora's voice when she spoke of her late employer was a continual source of bewilderment. Here was a woman who she knew had a quick temper and a passionate nature speaking as if she actually sorrowed for the tyrant who had so frequently made her life unbearable. She was sure that she couldn't have felt more grieved if Providence had seen fit to remove the excellent Mrs. Hubbard from the scene of her earthly activities. Poor Miss Pringle! She did not realize that after thirty years of a life passed as a hired companion that she no longer possessed either sensibility or the power of affection. To her, one employer would be very like another so long as they were fairly considerate and not too unreasonable. It would be tiresome, to be sure, to have to learn the little likes and dislikes of Mrs. Hubbard's successor. But what would you? Life was filled with tiresome moments. Poor Miss Pringle!
Her next remark was partly to make conversation and partly because she might obtain further light upon this perplexing subject. She made a mental note that she must not forget to speak to Mrs. Hubbard of Nora's grief over Miss Wickham's death. Naturally, she would be gratified.
"Well, it must be a great relief to you now it's all over," she said.
"Sometimes I can't realize it," said Nora simply. "These last few weeks I hardly got to bed at all, and when the end came I was utterly exhausted. For two days I have done nothing but sleep. Poor Miss Wickham. She did hate dying."
Miss Pringle had a sort of triumph. She had proved her point. Even Mrs. Hubbard could not doubt it now! "That's the extraordinary part of it. I believe you were really fond of her."
"Do you know that for nearly a year she would eat nothing but what I gave her with my own hands. And she liked me as much as she was capable of liking anybody."
"That wasn't much," Miss Pringle permitted herself.
"And then I was so dreadfully sorry for her."
"She'd been a hard and selfish woman all her life, and there was no one who cared for her," Nora went on passionately. "It seemed so dreadful to die like that and leave not a soul to regret one. Her nephew and his wife were just waiting for her death. It was dreadful. Each time they came down from London I could see them looking at her to see if she was any worse than when last they'd seen her."
"Well," said Miss Pringle with a sort of splendid defiance, "I thought her a horrid old woman, and I'm glad she's dead. And I only hope she's left you well provided for."
"Oh, I think she's done that," Nora smiled happily into her friend's face. "Yes, I can be quite sure of that, I fancy. Two years ago, when I—when I nearly went away, she said she'd left me enough to live on."
They walked on for a moment or two in silence until they had reached the end of the path, where there was a little arbor in which Miss Wickham had been in the habit of having her tea afternoons when the weather permitted.
"Do you think we would run any risk if we sat down here a few moments? Suppose we try it. We can walk again if you feel in the least chilled. I think the view so lovely from here. Besides, I can see the carriage the moment it enters the gate."
Miss Pringle sat down with the air of a person who was hardly conscious of what she was doing.
"You say she told you she had left you something when you nearly went away," she went on in the hesitating manner of one who has been interrupted while reading aloud and is not quite sure that she has resumed at the right place. "You mean when that assistant of Dr. Evans wanted to marry you? I'm glad you wouldn't have him."
"He was very kind and—and nice," said Nora gently. "But, of course, he wasn't a gentleman."
"I shouldn't like to live with a man at all," retorted Miss Pringle, with unshakable conviction. "I think they're horrid; but of course it would be utterly impossible if he weren't a gentleman."
Nora's eyes twinkled with amusement; she gave a little gurgle of laughter. "He came to see Miss Wickham, but she wouldn't have anything to do with him. First, she said she couldn't spare me, and then she said that I had a very bad temper."
"I like her saying that," retorted her listener.
"It's quite true," said Nora with a deprecating wave of her hand. "Every now and then I felt I couldn't put up with her any more. I forgot that I was dependent on her, and that if she dismissed me, I probably shouldn't be able to find another situation, and I just flew at her. I must say she was very nice about it; she used to look at me and grin, and when it was all over, say: 'My dear, when you marry, if your husband's a wise man, he'll use a big stick now and then.'"
"I should like to see any man try it," said Nora with emphasis.
Miss Pringle dismissed the supposition with a wave of her hand. "How much do you think she's left you?" she asked eagerly.
"Well, of course I don't know; the will is going to be read this afternoon, when they come back from the funeral. But from what she said, I believe about two hundred and fifty pounds a year."
"It's the least she could do. She's had the ten best years of your life." Nora gave a long, happy sigh. "Just think of it! Never to be at anybody's beck and call again. I shall be able to get up when I like and go to bed when I like, go out when I choose and come in when I choose. Think of what that means!"
"Unless you marry—you probably will," said Miss Pringle in a discouraging tone.
"What do you purpose doing?"
"I shall go to Italy, Florence, Rome; oh, everywhere I've so longed to go. Do you think it's horrible of me? I'm so happy!"
"My dear child!" said Miss Pringle with real feeling.
At that moment the sound of carriage wheels came to them. Turning quickly, Nora saw the carriage containing Mr. and Mrs. Wickham coming up the drive. "There they are now. How the time has gone!"
"I'd better go, hadn't I?" said Miss Pringle with manifest reluctance.
"I'm afraid you must: I'm sorry."
"Couldn't I go up to your room and wait there? I do so want to know about the will."
Nora hesitated a moment. She didn't want to take Miss Pringle up to her bare little room. A sort of loyalty to the woman who was, after all, to be her benefactress—for was she not, after all, with her legacy, going to make the happy future pay rich interest for the unhappy past?—made her reluctant to let anyone know how poorly she had been lodged.
"No," she said; "I'll tell you what, stay here in the garden. They want to catch the four-something back to London. And, later, we can have a cozy little tea all by ourselves."
"Very well. Oh, my dear," said Miss Pringle with emotion, "I'm so sincerely happy in your good luck!"
Nora was genuinely moved. She leaned over and kissed Miss Pringle, her eyes filling with quick tears.
Then she went into the house. The Wickhams were already in the drawing-room. Mrs. James Wickham was a pretty young woman, a good ten years younger than her unattractive husband. Of the two, Nora preferred Mr. Wickham. There was a certain cynicism about her insincerity which his, somehow, lacked. Even now, they wore their rue with a difference.
Mrs. Wickham's mourning was as correct and elegant as a fashionable dressmaker could make it; the very latest thing in grief. Mr. Wickham was far less sumptuous. Beyond the customary band on his hat and a pair of black gloves conspicuously new, he had apparently made little expenditure on his costume. As Nora entered, Mrs. Wickham was pulling off her gloves.
"How do yon do?" she said carelessly. "Ouf! Do put the blinds up, Miss Marsh. Really, we needn't be depressed any more. Jim, if you love me, take those gloves off. They're perfectly revolting."
"Why, what's wrong with them! The fellow in the shop told me they were the right thing."
"No doubt; I never saw anyone look quite so funereal as you do."
"Well," retorted her husband, "you didn't want me to get myself up as if I were going to a wedding, did you?"
"Were there many people?" said Nora hastily.
The insolence of Mrs. Wickham's glance was scarcely veiled.
"Oh, quite a lot," she drawled. "The sort of people who indulge in other peoples' funerals as a mild form of dissipation."
"I hope Wynne will look sharp," said her husband hastily, looking at his watch. "I don't want to miss that train."
"Who were all those stodgy old things who wrung your hand afterwards, Jim?" asked his wife. She was moving slowly about the room picking up the various little objects scattered about and examining the contents of one of the cabinets with the air of an appraiser.
"I can't think. They did make me feel such a fool."
"Oh, was that it?" laughed his wife. "I saw you looking a perfect owl and I thought you were giving a very bad imitation of restrained emotion."
"Dorothy!" in a tone of remonstrance.
"Would you care for some tea, Mrs. Wickham?" Nora broke in. To her the whole scene was positively indecent. She longed to make her escape, but felt that it would be considered part of her duty to remain as long as the Wickhams stayed. As she was about to ring the bell, Mrs. Wickham stopped her with a gesture.
"Well, you might send some in so that it'll be ready when Mr. Wynne comes. We'll ring for you, shall we?" she added. "I dare say you've got one or two things you want to do now."
"Very good, Mrs. Wickham."
Nora could feel her cheeks burn as she left the room. But she was thankful to escape. Outside the door she hesitated for a moment. There was no good in rejoining Miss Pringle as yet. She had no news for her. She hoped Mr. Wynne would not be delayed much longer. The Wickhams could not possibly be more anxious to get back to London than she was to have them go. How gratuitously insolent that woman was. Thank Heaven, she need never see her again after to-day. Of course, she was furious because she suspected that the despised companion was to be a beneficiary under the will. How could anyone be so mean as to begrudge her her well-earned share in so large a fortune! Well, the coming hour would tell the tale.
On the table in her room was the letter to her brother which she had forgotten to send to the post. Slipping down the stairs again, she went in search of Kate to see if it were too late to send it to the village. Now that it was written, she had almost a superstitions feeling that it was important that it should catch the first foreign mail.
As she passed the door of the drawing-room, she could hear James Wickham's voice raised above its normal pitch. Were they already quarreling over the spoils!
Nora's surmise had been very nearly correct; the Wickhams were quarreling, but not, as yet, over the spoils. James Wickham had waited until the door had closed behind his aunt's companion to rebuke his wife's untimely frivolity.
"I say, Dorothy, you oughtn't to be facetious before Miss Marsh. She was extremely attached to Aunt Louisa."
"Oh, what nonsense!" jeered Mrs. Wickham, throwing herself pettishly into a chair. "I find it's always a very good rule to judge people by oneself, and I'm positive she was just longing for the old lady to die."
"She was awfully upset at the end, you know that yourself."
"Nerves! Men are so idiotic. They never understand that there are tears and tears. I cried myself, and Heaven knows I didn't regret her death."
"My dear Dorothy, you oughtn't to say that."
"Why not?" retorted his wife. "It's perfectly true. Aunt Louisa was a detestable person and no one would have stood her for a minute if she hadn't had money. I can't see the use of being a hypocrite now that it can't make any difference either way. Oh, why doesn't that man hurry up!" She resumed once more her impatient walk about the room.
"I wish Wynne would come," said her husband, glad to change the subject, particularly as he felt that he had failed to be very impressive. "It'll be beastly inconvenient if we miss that train," he finished, glancing again at his watch.
"And another thing," said Mrs. Wickham, turning sharply as she reached the end of the room, "I don't trust that Miss Marsh. She looks as if she knew what was in the will."
"I don't for a moment suppose she does. Aunt Louisa wasn't the sort of person to talk."
"Nevertheless, I'm sure she knows she's been left something."
"Oh, well, I think she has the right to expect that. Aunt Louisa led her a dog's life."
Mrs. Wickham made an angry gesture. "She had her wages and a comfortable home. If she didn't like the place, she could have left it," she said pettishly. "After all," she went on in a quieter tone, "it's family money. In my opinion, Aunt Louisa had no right to leave it to strangers."
"I don't think we ought to complain if Miss Marsh gets a small annuity," said her husband soothingly. "I understand Aunt Louisa promised her something of the sort when she had a chance of marrying a couple of years ago."
"Miss Marsh is still quite young. It isn't as if she had been here for thirty years," protested Mrs. Wickham.
"Well, anyway, I've got an idea that Aunt Louisa meant to leave her about two hundred and fifty a year."
"Two hundred and fif—— But what's the estate amount to; have you any idea?"
"About nineteen thousand pounds, I believe."
Mrs. Wickham, who had seated herself once more, struck her hands violently together.
"Oh, it's absurd. It's a most unfair proposition. It will make all the difference to us. On that extra two hundred and fifty a year we could keep a car."
"My dear, be thankful if we get anything at all," said her husband solemnly. For a moment she stared at him aghast.
"Jim! Jim, you don't think—— Oh! that would be too horrible."
"Hush! Take care."
He crossed to the window as the door opened and Kate came in softly with the tea things.
"How lucky it is that we had a fine day," he said, endeavoring to give the impression that they had been talking with becoming sobriety of light topics. He hoped his wife's raised voice had not been heard in the passageway.
But Mrs. Wickham was beyond caring. Her toneless "Yes" in response to his original observation betrayed her utter lack of interest in the subject. But as Kate was still busy setting out the things on a small table, he continued his efforts. Really, Dorothy should 'play up' more.
"It looks as if we were going to have a spell of fine weather."
"It's funny how often it rains for weddings."
"The tea is ready, sir."
As Kate left the room, Mrs. Wickham crossed slowly over to where her husband was standing in front of the window leading to the garden. Her voice shook with emotion. It was evident that she was very near tears. He put his arm around her awkwardly, but with a certain suggestion of protective tenderness.
"I've been counting on that money for years," she said, hardly above a whisper. "I used to dream at night that I was reading a telegram with the news of Aunt Louisa's death. And I've thought of all we should be able to do when we get it. It'll make such a difference."
"You know what she was. She didn't care twopence for us. We ought to be prepared for the worst," he said soberly.
"Do you think she could have left everything to Miss Marsh?"
"I shouldn't be greatly surprised."
"We'll dispute the will," she said, once more raising her voice. "It's undue influence. I suspected Miss Marsh from the beginning. I hate her. Oh, how I hate her! Oh, why doesn't Wynne come?"
A ring at the bell answered her.
"Here he is, I expect."
"The suspense is too awful."
"Pull yourself together, old girl," said Wickham, patting his wife encouragingly on the shoulder. "And I say, look a bit dismal. After all, we've just come from a funeral."
Mrs. Wickham gave a sort of suppressed wail. "Oh, I'm downhearted enough, Heaven knows."
"Mr. Wynne, sir," said Kate from the doorway.
Mr. Wynne, the late Miss Wickham's solicitor, was a jovial, hearty man, tallish, bald and ruddy-looking. In his spare time he played at being a country gentleman. He had a fine, straightforward eye and a direct manner that inspired one with confidence. He was dressed in complimentary mourning, but for the moment his natural hearty manner threatened to get the better of him.
"Helloa," he said, holding out his hand to Wickham. But the sight of Mrs. Wickham, seated on the sofa dejectedly enough, recalled to him that he should be more subdued in the presence of such genuine grief. He crossed the room to take Dorothy's hand solemnly.
"I didn't have an opportunity of shaking hands with you at the cemetery."
"How do you do," she said rather absently.
"Pray accept my sincerest sympathy on your great bereavement."
Mrs. Wickham made an effort to bring her mind back from the all-absorbing fear that possessed her.
"Of course the end was not entirely unexpected."
"No, I know. But it must have been a great shock, all the same."
He was going on to say what a wonderful old lady his late client had been in that her faculties seemed perfectly unimpaired until the very last, when Wickham interrupted him. Not only was he most anxious to hear the will read himself and have it over, but he saw signs in his wife's face and in the nervous manner in which she rolled and unrolled her handkerchief, that she was nearing the end of her self-control, never very great.
"My wife was very much upset, but of course my poor aunt had suffered great pain, and we couldn't help looking upon it as a happy release."
"Naturally," responded the solicitor sympathetically. "And how is Miss Marsh?" He was looking at James Wickham as he spoke, so that he missed the sudden 'I told you so' glance which Mrs. Wickham flashed at her husband.
"Oh, she's very well," she managed to say with a careless air.
"I'm glad to learn that she is not completely prostrated," said Mr. Wynne warmly. "Her devotion to Miss Wickham was perfectly wonderful. Dr. Evans—he's my brother-in-law, you know—told me no trained nurse could have been more competent. She was like a daughter to Miss Wickham."
"I suppose we'd better send for her," said Mrs. Wickham coldly.
"Have you brought the——" Wickham stopped in embarrassment.
"Yes, I have it in my pocket," said the solicitor quickly. He had noted before now how awkward people always were about speaking of wills. There was nothing indelicate about doing so. Heavens, all right-minded persons made their wills and they meant to have them read after they were dead. Everybody knew that, and yet they always acted as if it were indecent to approach the subject. He had no patience with such nonsense.
With an eloquent look at her husband, Mrs. Wickham slowly crossed the room to the bell.
"I'll ring for Miss Marsh," she said in a hard voice.
"I expect Mr. Wynne would like a cup of tea, Dorothy."
She frowned at her husband behind the solicitor's broad back. More delays. Could she bear it? "Oh, I'm so sorry, I quite forgot about it."
"No, thank you very much, I never take tea," protested that gentleman. He took from his pocket a long blue envelope and slowly drew from it the will, which he smoothed out with a deliberation which was maddening to Mrs. Wickham. She could hardly tear her fascinated eyes away from it long enough to tell the waiting Kate to ask Miss Marsh to be good enough to come to them.
"What's the time, Jim?" she asked nervously.
"Oh, there's no hurry," he said, looking at his watch without seeing it. Then turning to Wynne, he added: "We've got an important engagement this evening in London and we're very anxious not to miss the fast train."
"The train service down here is rotten," said Mrs. Wickham harshly.
"That's all right. The will is very short. It won't take me two minutes to read it," Mr. Wynne reassured them.
"What on earth is Miss Marsh doing?" said Mrs. Wickham, half to herself. An endless minute passed.
"How pretty the garden is looking now," said the solicitor cheerfully, gazing out through the window.
"Very," Wickham managed to say.
"Miss Wickham was always so interested in her garden."
"My own tulips aren't so advanced as those."
"Aren't they?" Wickham's tone suggested irritation.
Mr. Wynne addressed his next observation to Mrs. Wickham.
"Are you interested in gardening?"
"No, I hate it. At last!"
The exclamation was called forth by the appearance of Nora in the doorway. The two men both, rose; Wynne to go forward and shake Nora's hand with unaffected cordiality, Wickham to whisper in his wife's ear, beseeching her to exercise more self-control.
"How do you do, Miss Marsh? I'm rejoiced to see you looking so fit."
"Oh, I'm very well, thank you. How do you do?"
"Will you have a cup of tea?" asked Wickham in response to what he thought was a signal from his wife.
But Mrs. Wickham had reached the point where further waiting was simply impossible.
"Jim," she remonstrated, "Miss Marsh would much prefer to have tea quietly after we're gone."
Nora understood and for the moment found it in her heart to be sorry for the woman, much as she disliked her.
"I won't have any tea, thank you," she said simply.
"Mr. Wynne has brought the will with him," explained Mrs. Wickham. Her tone was almost appealing as if she begged Nora if she knew of its contents to say so without further delay.
Nothing should induce her to show such agitation as this woman did. She managed to assume an air of polite interest and find a chair for herself quite calmly. And yet she was conscious that her heart was beating wildly beneath her bodice. But she would not betray herself, she would not. And yet her stake was as great as any. Her whole future hung on the contents of that paper Mr. Wynne was caressing with his long fingers.
"Miss Marsh," questioned Mr. Wynne as soon as she was seated, "so far as you know there is no other will?"
"How do you mean?"
"Miss Wickham didn't make a later one—without my assistance, I mean? You know of nothing in the house, for instance?"
"Oh, no," said Nora positively. "Miss Wickham always said you had her will. She was extremely methodical."
"I feel I ought to ask you," the solicitor went on with unwonted gentleness, "because Miss Wickham consulted me a couple of years ago about making a new will. She told me what she wanted to do, but gave me no actual instructions to draw it. I thought perhaps she might have done it herself."
"I heard nothing about it. I am sure that her only will is in your hands."
"Then I think that we may take it that this——"
Mrs. Wickham's set face relaxed. The light of triumph was in her eyes. She understood.
"When was that will made?" she asked eagerly.
"Eight or nine years ago. The exact date was March 4th, 1904."
The date settled it. Nora, too, realized that. She was left penniless. What a refinement of cruelty to deceive—but she must not think of that now. She would have all the rest of her life in which to think of it. But here before that woman, whose searching glance was even now fastened on her face to see how she was taking the blow, she would give no sign.
"When did you first come to Miss Wickham?" Mrs. Wickham's voice was almost a caress.
"At the end of nineteen hundred and three." There was no trace of emotion in that clear voice. After a moment Mr. Wynne spoke again.
"Shall I read it, or would you just like to know the particulars? It is very short."
"Oh, let us know just roughly." Mrs. Wickham was still eager.
"Well, Miss Wickham left one hundred pounds to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and one hundred pounds to the General Hospital at Tunbridge Wells, and the entire residue of her fortune to her nephew, Mr. James Wickham."
Mrs. Wickham drew her breath sharply. Once more she looked at her late aunt's companion, but nothing was to be read in that calm face. She was a designing minx, none the less. But she did yield her a grudging admiration, for her self-control in the shipwreck of all her hopes. Now they could have their car. Oh, what couldn't they have! She felt she had earned every penny of it in that last dreadful half hour.
"And Miss Marsh?" she heard her husband ask.
"Miss Marsh is not mentioned."
Somehow, Nora managed a smile. "I could hardly expect to be. At the time that will was drawn I had been Miss Wickham's companion for only a few months."
"That is why I asked whether you knew of any later will," said Mr. Wynne almost sadly. "When I talked to Miss Wickham on the subject she said her wish was to make adequate provision for you after her death. I think she had spoken to you about it."
"Yes, she had."
"She mentioned three hundred a year."
"That was very kind of her." Nora's voice broke a little. "I'm glad she wished to do something for me."
"Oddly enough," continued the solicitor, "she spoke about it to Dr. Evans only a few days before she died."
"Perhaps there is a later will somewhere," said Wickham.
"I honestly don't think so."
"Oh, I'm sure there isn't," affirmed Nora.
"Dr. Evans was talking to Miss Wickham about Miss Marsh. She was completely tired out and he wanted Miss Wickham to have a professional nurse. She told him then that I had the will and that she had left Miss Marsh amply provided for."
"That isn't legal, of course," said Mrs. Wickham decidedly.
"I mean no one could force us—I mean the will stands as it is, doesn't it?"
"Certainly it does."
"I'm afraid it's a great disappointment to you, Miss Marsh," Wickham said, not unkindly.
"I never count my chickens before they're hatched." This time Nora smiled easily and naturally. The worst was over now.
"It would be very natural if Miss Marsh were disappointed in the circumstances. I think she'd been led to expect——" Mr. Wynne's voice was almost pleading.
Mrs. Wickham detected a certain disapproval in the tone. She hastened to justify herself. He might still be useful. When the estate was once settled, they would of course put everything in the hands of their London solicitor. But it would be better not to antagonize him for the moment.
"Our aunt left a very small fortune, I understand, and I suppose she felt it wouldn't be fair to leave a large part of it away from her own family."
"Of course," said her husband, following her lead, "it is family money. She inherited it from my grandfather, and—but I want you to know, Miss Marsh, that my wife and I thoroughly appreciate all you did for my aunt. Money couldn't repay your care and devotion You've been perfectly wonderful."
"It's extremely good of you to say so."
"I think everyone who saw Miss Marsh with Miss Wickham must be aware that during the ten years she was with her she never spared herself." Mr. Wynne's eyes were on Mrs. Wickham.
"Of course my aunt was a very trying woman——" began James Wickham feebly. His wife headed him off.
"Earning one's living is always unpleasant; if it weren't there'd be no incentive to work."
This astonishing aphorism was almost too much for Nora's composure. She gave Mrs. Wickham an amused glance, to which that lady responded by beaming upon her in her most agreeable manner.
"My wife and I would be very glad to make some kind of acknowledgment of your services."
"I was just going to mention it," echoed Mrs. Wickham heartily.
Mr. Wynne's kindly face brightened visibly. He was glad they were going to do the right thing, after all. He had been a little fearful a few moments before. "I felt sure that in the circumstances——"
But Mrs. Wickham interrupted him quickly.
"What were your wages, may I ask, Miss Marsh?"
"Thirty pounds a year."
"Really?" in a tone of excessive surprise. "Many ladies are glad to go as companion without any salary, just for the sake of a home and congenial society. I daresay you've been able to save a good deal in all these years."
"I had to dress myself decently, Mrs. Wickham," said Nora frigidly.
Mrs. Wickham was graciousness itself. "Well, I'm sure my husband will be very glad to give you a year's salary, won't you, Jim?"
"It's very kind of you," replied Nora coldly, "but I'm not inclined to accept anything but what is legally due to me."
"You must remember," went on Mrs. Wickham, "that there'll be very heavy death duties to pay. They'll swallow up the income from Miss Wickham's estate for at least two years, won't they, Mr. Wynne?"
"I quite understand," said Nora.
"Perhaps you'll change your mind."
"I don't think so."
There was an awkward pause. Mr. Wynne rose from his seat at the table. His manner showed unmistakably that he was not impressed by Mrs. Wickham's great generosity.
"Well, I think I must leave you," he said, looking at Nora. "Good-by, Miss Marsh. If I can be of any help to you I hope you'll let me know."
"That's very kind of you."
Bowing slightly to Mrs. Wickham and nodding to her husband, he went out.
"We must go, too, Dorothy," said James uneasily.
Mrs. Wickham began drawing on her gloves. "Jim will be writing to you in a day or two. You know how grateful we both are for all you did for our poor aunt. We shall be glad to give you the very highest references. You're such a wonderful nurse. I'm sure you'll have no difficulty in getting another situation; I expect I can find you something myself. I'll ask among all my friends."
Nora made no reply to this affable speech.
"Come on, Dorothy; we really haven't any time to lose," said Wickham hurriedly.
"Good-by, Miss Marsh."
"Good-by," said Nora dully. She stood, her hands resting on the table, her eyes fastened on the long blue envelope which Mr. Wynne had forgotten. From a long way off she heard the wheels of the cab on the driveway.
"I thought they were never going. Well?"
It was Miss Pringle who had come in from her retreat in the garden, eager to hear the news the moment she had seen the Wickhams driving away. Nora turned and looked at her without a word.
Miss Pringle was genuinely startled at the drawn look on her face.
"Nora! What's the matter? Isn't it as much as you thought?"
"Miss Wickham has left me nothing," said Nora in a dead voice.
Miss Pringle gave a positive wail of anguish. "Oh-h-h-h."
"Not a penny. Oh, it's cruel!" the girl said, almost wildly. "After all," she went on bitterly, "there was no need for her to leave me anything. She gave me board and lodging and thirty pounds a year. If I stayed it was because I chose. But she needn't have promised me anything. She needn't have prevented me from marrying."
"My dear, you could never have married that little assistant. He wasn't a gentleman," Miss Pringle reminded her.
"Ten years! The ten best years of a woman's life, when other girls are enjoying themselves. And what did I get for it? Board and lodging and thirty pounds a year. A cook does better than that."
"We can't expect to make as much money as a good cook," said Miss Pringle, with touching and unconscious pathos. "One has to pay something for living like a lady among people of one's own class."
"Oh, it's cruel!" Nora could only repeat.
"My dear," said Miss Pringle with an effort at consolation, "don't give way. I'm sure you'll have no difficulty in finding another situation. You wash lace beautifully and no one can arrange flowers like you."
Nora sank wearily into a chair. "And I was dreaming of France and Italy—I shall spend ten years more with an old lady, and then she'll die and I shall look out for another situation. It won't be so easy then because I shan't be so young. And so it'll go on until I can't find a situation because I'm too old, and then some charitable people will get me into a home. You like the life, don't you?"
"My dear, there are so few things a gentlewoman can do."
"When I think of those ten years," said Nora, pacing up and down the length of the room, "having to put up with every unreasonableness! Never being allowed to feel ill or tired. No servant would have stood what I have. The humiliation I've endured!"
"You're tired and out of sorts," said Miss Pringle soothingly. "Everyone isn't so trying as Miss Wickham. I'm sure Mrs. Hubbard has been kindness itself to me."
"I don't know what you mean by 'considering.'"
"Considering that she's rich and you're poor. She gives you her old clothes. She frequently doesn't ask you to have dinner by yourself when she's giving a party. She doesn't remind you that you're a dependent unless she's very much put out. But you—you've had thirty years of it. You've eaten the bitter bread of slavery till—till it tastes like plum cake!"
Miss Pringle was distinctly hurt. "I don't know why you say such things to me, Nora."
"Oh, you mustn't mind what I say; I——"
"Mr. Hornby would like to see you for a minute, Miss," said Kate from the doorway.
"I told him I didn't think it would be very convenient, Miss, but he says it's very important, and he won't detain you more than five minutes."
"What a nuisance. Ask him to come in."
"Very good, Miss."
"I wonder what on earth he can want."
"Who is he, Nora?"
"Oh, he's the son of Colonel Hornby. Don't you know, he lives at the top of Molyneux Park? His mother was a great friend of Miss Wickham's. He comes down here now and then for week-ends. He's got something to do with motor cars."
"Mr. Hornby," said Kate from the door.
Reginald Hornby was evidently one of those candid souls who are above simulating an emotion they do not feel. He had regarded the late Miss Wickham as an unusually tiresome old woman. His mother had liked her of course. But he could hardly have been expected to do so. Moreover, he had a shrewd notion that she must have been a perfect Tartar to live with. Miss Marsh might be busy or tired out with the ordeal of the day, but as she also might be leaving almost immediately and he wanted to see her, he had not hesitated to come, once he was sure that the Wickham relatives had departed. That he would find the late Miss Wickham's companion indulging in any show of grief for her late employer, had never entered his head.
He was a good-looking, if rather vacuous, young man with a long, elegant body. His dark, sleek hair was always carefully brushed and his small mustache trimmed and curled. His beautiful clothes suggested the fashionable tailors of Savile Row. Everything about him—his tie, his handkerchief protruding from his breast pocket, his boots—bore the stamp of the very latest thing.
"I say, I'm awfully sorry to blow in like this," he said airily.
He beamed on Nora, whom he had always regarded as much too pretty a girl to be what he secretly called a 'frozy companion' and sent a quick inquiring glance at Miss Pringle, whom he vaguely remembered to have seen somewhere in Tunbridge Wells. But then Tunbridge Wells was filled with frumps. Oh, yes. He remembered now. She was usually to be seen leading a pair of Poms on a leash.
"You see, I didn't know if you'd be staying on here," he went on, retaining Nora's hand, "and I wanted to catch you. I'm off in a day or two myself."
"Won't you sit down? Mr. Hornby—Miss Pringle."
"How d'you do?"
Mr. Hornby's glance skimmed lightly over Miss Pringle's surface and returned at once to Nora's more pleasing face.
"Everything go off O. K.?" he inquired genially.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Funeral, I mean. Mother went. Regular outing for her."
Miss Pringle stiffened visibly in her chair and began to study the pattern in the rug at her feet with an absorbed interest. Nora was conscious of a wild desire to laugh, but with a heroic effort succeeded in keeping her face straight out of deference to her elderly friend.
"Really?" she said, in a faint voice.
"Oh, yes," went on young Hornby with unabated cheerfulness. "You see, mother's getting on. I'm the child of her old age—Benjamin, don't you know. Benjamin and Sarah, you know," he explained, apparently for the benefit of Miss Pringle, as he pointedly turned to address this final remark to her.
"I understand perfectly," said Miss Pringle icily, "but it wasn't Sarah."
"Wasn't it? When one of her old friends dies," he went on to Nora, "mother always goes to the funeral and says to herself: 'Well, I've seen her out, anyhow!' Then she comes back and eats muffins for tea. She always eats muffins after she's been to a funeral."
"The maid said you wanted to see me about something in particular," Nora gently reminded him.
"That's right, I was forgetting."
He wheeled suddenly once more on Miss Pringle, who had arrived at that stage in her study of the rug when she was carefully tracing out the pattern with the point of her umbrella.
"If Sarah wasn't Benjamin's mother, whose mother was she?"
"If you want to know, I recommend you to read your Bible," retorted that lady with something approaching heat.
Mr. Hornby slapped his knee. "I thought it was a stumper," he remarked with evident satisfaction.
"The fact is, I'm going to Canada and mother told me you had a brother or something out there."
"A brother, not a something," said Nora, with a smile.
"And she said, perhaps you wouldn't mind giving me a letter to him."
"I will with pleasure. But I'm afraid he won't be much use to you. He's a farmer and he lives miles away from anywhere."
"But I'm going in for farming."
"You are? What on earth for?"
"I've jolly well got to do something," said Hornby with momentary gloom, "and I think farming's about the best thing I can do. One gets a lot of shooting and riding yon know. And then there are tennis parties and dances. And you make a pot of money, there's no doubt about that."
"But I thought you were in some motor business in London."
"Well, I was, in a way. But—I thought you'd have heard about it. Mother's been telling everybody. Governor won't speak to me. Altogether, things are rotten. I want to get out of this beastly country as quick as I can."
"Would you like me to give you the letter at once?" said Nora, going over to an escritoire that stood near the window.
"I wish you would. Fact is," he went on, addressing no one in particular, as Nora was already deep in her letter and Miss Pringle, having exhausted the possibilities of the rug, was gazing stonily into space, "I'm broke. I was all right as long as I stuck to bridge; I used to make money on that. Over a thousand a year."
Horror was stronger than Miss Pringle's resolution to take no further part in the conversation with this extraordinary and apparently unprincipled young man.
"Playing regularly, you know. If I hadn't been a fool I'd have stuck to that, but I got bitten with chemi."
"With what?" asked Nora, over her shoulder.
"Chemin de fer. Never heard of it? I got in the habit of going to Thornton's. I suppose you never heard of him either. He keeps a gambling hell. Gives you a slap-up supper for nothing, as much pop as you can drink, and cashes your checks like a bird. The result is, I've lost every bob I had and then Thornton sued me on a check I'd given him. The governor forked out, but he says I've got to go to Canada. I'm never going to gamble again, I can tell you that."
"Oh, well, that's something," murmured Nora cheerfully.
"You can't make money at chemi," went on Hornby, relapsing once more into gloom; "the cagnotte's bound to clear you out in the end. When I come back I'm going to stick to bridge. There are always plenty of mugs about, and if you have a good head for cards, you can't help making an income out of it."
"But I thought you said you were never going——" began Miss Pringle, but, thinking better of it, abandoned her sentence in mid-air.
"Here is your letter," said Nora, holding it out to him.
"Thanks, awfully. I daresay I shan't want it, you know. I expect I shall get offered a job the moment I land, but there's no harm having it. I'll be getting along."
"Good-by, then, and good luck."
"Good-by," he said, shaking hands with Nora and Miss Pringle.
"Nora, why don't you go out to Canada?" said Miss Pringle thoughtfully, as soon as the door had closed after young Hornby. "Now your brother has a farm of his own, I should think——"
"My brother's married," interrupted Nora quickly. "He married four years ago."
"You never told me."
"Why? Isn't his wife—isn't his wife nice?"
"She was a waitress at a scrubby little hotel in Winnipeg."
"What are you going to do then?"
"I? I'm going to look out for another situation."
Miss Pringle shook her head sadly.
"Well, I must be going. Mrs. Hubbard will be back from her drive by this time. She's sure to have you in for tea or something before you go. She's always been quite fond of you. At any rate, I'll see you again, of course."
"Oh, yes, indeed."
Nora was thankful to be alone once more. She wanted to think it all out. What a day it had been. Starting with such high hopes to end only in utter disaster. She felt completely exhausted by the emotions she had undergone. Time enough to plan to-morrow. To-night she needed rest.
Two days later, in the late afternoon, she found herself in the train for London, the second journey she had taken in ten years. Once, three years before, Miss Wickham had been persuaded to go up and pay the James Wickhams a short visit and had taken Nora with her.
It could hardly have been described as a pleasure trip. Miss Wickham detested visiting and had only yielded to her nephew's importunities because she had never been in his London house to stay any time and had an avid curiosity to see how they lived. She had of course disapproved of everything she saw about the establishment. But, as it was no part of her purpose to let the fact be known to her relatives, she had in a large measure vented her consequent ill-humor upon her unfortunate companion.
The last few days had seemed full, indeed. No matter how little one may really care for a place, the process of uprooting after ten years is not an easy one. Mr. Wynne had been to see her to renew his offer of assistance and counsel in any plan she might have for the future and she had spent an hour with the good doctor and his wife. The dreaded invitation from Mrs. Hubbard had duly arrived and had turned out to be for dinner, an extraordinary honor. Nora had accepted it entirely on Miss Pringle's account. Mrs. Hubbard had been condescension itself and had even gone the length of excusing Miss Pringle from the evening's game of bezique, in order that she might have a farewell chat with her friend.
She had mildly deprecated Miss Wickham's carelessness in not altering her will, but had reminded Miss Marsh that she should be grateful to her late employer for having had such kindly intentions toward her, vaguely ending her remarks with the statement that as her dear husband had always said in this imperfect world one had often to consider intentions.
It was from her more humble friends that Nora found it hardest to part. She had had tea with the gardener's wife and children of whom she was genuinely fond. But it was the parting from Kate that had brought the tears to her eyes. She had confided to that motherly soul how large she had loomed in the rosy plans she had made while she still had expectations from Miss Wickham, and been assured in turn that Kate couldn't have fancied herself happier than she would have been in looking after her, and the faithful Kate refused to regard the plan as anything more than postponed. It developed that she was an adept in telling fortunes with tea leaves. She hoped her dear Miss Marsh wouldn't consider it a liberty for her to say so, but in every forecast that Kate had made for herself in the last twelfth month, Miss Marsh had always been mixed up, which showed beyond the peradventure of a doubt that they were to meet again.
It was already dusk when London was reached, but Nora had an address of an inexpensive little private hotel which the doctor's wife had given her. She had written ahead to engage a room so that her mind was at ease on that subject. Not knowing exactly where the street might be, further than that it led off the Strand, she indulged herself in the novel luxury of a taxi and drove to her new lodgings in state.
"If it isn't too much out of the way, would you take me by way of Trafalgar Square, please."
The chauffeur touched his cap. His "Yes, Miss," was non-committal.
She was conscious of an unusual feeling of exaltation as she went along. London, while it can be one of the most depressing cities in the world when one is alone and friendless, quickens the imagination. As they went through Trafalgar Square and caught a fleeting glimpse of the National Gallery, Nora resolved that she would give herself a real treat and renew old acquaintance with that institution as well as see the Wallace collection and the Tate Gallery, both of which would be new to her. She realized more poignantly than ever how starved her love of beauty had been for the last ten years. It awoke in her afresh with the thought that for a few days, at least, she could permit herself the luxury of gratifying it.
She was shown to her room by a neat maid who said she would see what might be done in the way of a light tea. As a rule breakfast was the only repast that was supposed to be furnished. But she was quite sure Miss Horn, the proprietor, would, in view of the fact that the young lady was a stranger in London and would hardly know where to go alone for a bite of dinner, make an exception.
Nora thanked her and set about making the bare little room, which was quite at the top of the house, look a little more homelike by unpacking some of her own things. After all, she reflected, it wasn't much less cheerful than the room she had had for ten years. Perhaps her late participation in the splendors of Miss Wickham's guest chamber, which had been part of Dr. Evans' prescription, had spoiled her for simpler joys. She laughed aloud at the thought.
By the time she had had her supper, which was sufficiently good, and written a few notes—one to the doctor's wife to say that she thought she would be quite comfortable in her new quarters, and one to the head of the agency through which she had obtained her post with Miss Wickham—Nora found herself ready for bed.
The next day dawned bright and fine; one of those delightful spring days to which the great city occasionally treats you as if to protest against the injustice of her reputation for being dark and gloomy.
There were a number of pleasant looking people in the coffee room when Nora went down to breakfast, which turned out to be abundant and well cooked. Having inquired her direction—a sense of location was not one of her gifts—she set out gaily enough for a whole day of sightseeing. She might never get another position and have eventually to go out as a charwoman—the detail that she would be illy equipped for any such undertaking she humorously dismissed—but a day or two of unalloyed enjoyment she was going to have, come what might.
The day was a complete success. Having done several of the picture galleries, lunched and dined frugally at one of the A. B. C. restaurants, Nora returned at nightfall, tired but happy. Oh, the blessed freedom of it!
The next morning on coming down stairs she found at her plate a letter from the agency. The management of affairs, it seemed, had passed into other hands. Doubtless Miss Marsh's name would be found on the books of several years back, but it was not familiar to the new director. However, they would, of course, be pleased to put themselves at Miss Marsh's service. If she would be good enough to give them an early call, bringing any and all references she might have, etc., etc.
Miss Marsh tore the note into tiny fragments. The agency could wait, everything could wait, for the moment. She must have her fling, the first taste of freedom in all these years. After that——!
October had come. Nora was no longer in the comfortable little hotel to which the doctor's wife had sent her. Early in July she had thought it wiser to seek cheaper quarters where breakfast was not 'included.' Every penny must be counted now, and by combining breakfast and lunch late in the morning she found she could do quite well until night, besides saving an appreciable sum for the end of the week, when her room must be paid for.
The summer had been one long nightmare of heat. It had been years according to all accounts since the unhappy Londoners had so sweltered beneath the scorching rays of an almost tropic sun. Often, when tossing on her little bed or when seated by her small window which gave on a sort of court, with the forlorn hope of finding some air stirring, had she thought with longing of the pleasant garden at Tunbridge Wells and is perfumed breezes.
So far her search for any position had been fruitless. She had gone to other agencies; to some whose greatly reduced fees were a sure indication that she could hope for nothing so "high class," to use their hateful phrase, as she had been accustomed to. But one must do what one could.
At one establishment, she shuddered to remember, she found that she would be expected to sit in the office, as at the servants' agencies, to be inspected by prospective employers. This, Nora had flatly refused to do and had been coolly informed by the manager, an insufferable young man with a loud voice and a vulgar manner, that in that case he could do nothing for her.
He had at the same time refused to return her fee, which he had providently collected before explaining these conditions, on the ground that they never returned fees. Nora had been glad enough to make her escape from his hateful presence without arguing the matter with him, although she considered that, to all intents and purposes, her pocket had been picked.
Apparently everyone in the world was already supplied with a companion. She had thought of filing an application for the position of nursery governess, only to find that, for a really good post, two modern languages would be required. That, coupled with the fact that she was obliged to confess to absolutely no previous experience in teaching, closed the door to even second-class appointments.
And the desolating loneliness of it all! Only once in all this time had she seen anyone she knew, and that was shortly after her arrival while still in the first flush of her newly regained freedom. She had gone with a young woman who was staying at the hotel for a few days to the gallery of a theater. From her lofty perch she had seen Reggie Hornby with a gay party of young men in the stalls below. Evidently he was making the most of his last hours at home before going into exile.
Since leaving the hotel she had exchanged but few words with anyone beyond her landlady, the little slavey and the people at the various agencies. Once, it chanced that for several days in succession she had lunched at the same table in a dingy little restaurant with a fresh, pleasant-looking young girl, who had said 'Good morning' in such a friendly manner on their second encounter that Nora felt encouraged to begin conversation.
Her new acquaintance had the gift of a sympathetic manner and before Nora realized it she found herself relating the story of her failures and disappointments. Miss Hodson—so Nora discovered she was called from the very business-like card she had handed her at the beginning of the repast, with an air which for the moment relapsed from the sympathetic to the professional—had suggested when they had finished their lunch that, as she still had a quarter of an hour to spare, they might go and finish their chat in one of the little green oases abutting on the Embankment. Seated on one of the benches she proceeded to advise her companion to take up stenography and typewriting while she was still in funds.
"There are plenty of chances for a girl who knows her business and you're your own mistress and not at the beck and call of any old cat, who thinks she has bought you outright just because she's paying you starvation wages," she said with a finely independent air. Then in a thoroughly business-like way she went on to give the address of the school at which she had studied herself and had offered to take Nora there any evening the coming week.
In the end, to Nora's great pleasure, she had suggested joining forces for an outing on the coming Sunday. With a gesture that seemed to refer one to her card, she had explained that after typing all week in a stuffy office she always tried to have a Sunday out of doors to get her mind off her work. It was arranged that they should go somewhere together, leaving their destination to be decided when they met. They were to meet in front of the National Gallery at a quarter before ten. But, although poor Nora waited for over an hour, her friend did not turn up, and she had returned sadly to her dreary room. Neither of the girls had thought to exchange addresses. Beyond her name and occupation Miss Hodson's card vouchsafed nothing.
Nor had Nora ever seen her again, although she had returned several times to the restaurant where they had met. She had spent many of the long sleepless hours of the night in speculation as to what had become of her. She was sure that some accident had befallen her or she would have met her again. No one could be so cruel intentionally.
Once again in a tea room she had timidly ventured, prompted by sheer loneliness, to speak to an elderly woman with gray hair. It was a harmless little remark about some flowers in a vase on the counter. The woman had stared at her coldly for a moment before she said:
"I do not seem to recall where I have had the pleasure of seeing you before."
A flash of the old temper had crimsoned Nora's cheek, but she made no reply. Since then, aching as she was for a little human companionship, she had spoken to no one.
She had had two long letters from Miss Pringle, whose star seemed momentarily to be in the ascendant. Mrs. Hubbard had been ordered to the seaside; they were later to take a continental trip. There was even talk of consulting a famous and expensive specialist before returning to the calm of Tunbridge Wells. But prosperity had not made Miss Pringle selfish. In the face of the gift of a costume, which Mrs. Hubbard had actually never worn, having conceived a strong distaste for it on its arrival from the dressmaker, she had time to think of her less fortunate friend.
While waiting for the situation which was sure to come eventually, why didn't Nora run down to Brighton for a week after the terrible London heat? One could get really very comfortable lodgings remarkably cheap at this season. It would do her no end of good and, on the theory that a watched pot never boils, she would be certain to find that there was something for her on her return.
Miss Pringle's brother, it seemed, had had a turn of luck. Just what, she discreetly forbore to mention. Certainly, it could not have been at cards. Nora smiled at the recollection of the horror that Mr. Hornby's remarks as to his earnings from that source had provoked. However, he had most generously sent his sister a ten-pound note as a present. Miss Pringle had, of course, no possible use for it at the time. Also it appeared that the thought of carrying it about with her, particularly as she was going among foreigners, filled her with positive terror. Therefore, she was enclosing it to Nora to take care of. She hoped she would use any part of it or all of it. She could return it after they returned to Tunbridge Wells, provided that Miss Pringle survived the natural perils that beset one who ventured out of England. They would have started on their journey before the receipt of the letter. As to their destination, Miss Pringle said never a word.
A small envelope had fallen into her lap when she opened the letter. With dimmed eyes Nora opened it. It contained the ten-pound note.
It was a week later that it occurred to Nora to answer two advertisements that appeared in one of the morning papers. In each case it was a companion that was wanted. One of the ladies lived at Whitby and pending the answer to her letter she decided to call personally on the other, who lived at Hampstead.
The morning being fine, she decided to make an early start and walk about on Hampstead Heath until a suitable hour for making her call. When she finally arrived before the house, a rather pretentious looking structure in South Hampstead, she was met at the gate by a middle-aged woman of unprepossessing appearance, who inquired rather sharply as to her errand.
"Mrs. Blake's card distinctly said that all applications were to be made in writing," she said disagreeably, in reply to Nora's explanation.
"The one I read did not, at least I don't think it did," said Nora.
"Well, if it didn't, it should have," said the woman tartly.
"May I ask if you are Mrs. Blake?"
"Write and you may find out; although I might as well tell you, you won't answer. Mrs. Blake will be wanting someone of a very different appearance," said the woman rudely.
"I am indeed unfortunate," said Nora with a bow.
The woman closed the gate with a bang and turned toward the house as Nora walked rapidly away. She decided to answer no more advertisements.
One morning, at the end of the week, the post brought her three letters. One from its postmark was clearly from her brother in Canada. She put that aside for the moment to be read at her leisure.
The Yorkshire lady, it appeared, was blind and required a companion to read to her and to assist in preparing some memoirs which her dead brother had left uncompleted. She offered Nora a refined home with every comfort that a lady could desire, but—there was no salary attached to the position. The third was from one of the agencies. A client was prepared to offer a lady companion the magnificent sum of ten shillings a week and her lunch. Out of her salary Nora would be expected, therefore, to find herself a room, clothes, breakfast and supper!
Her brother's letter was, as always, kind and affectionate. He rather vaguely apologized for his delay in replying to hers, written at the time of Miss Wickham's death. He had been frightfully busy, up at dawn and so tired at night that he was glad to tumble into bed right after supper. His wife, too, had had a sharp spell of sickness. However, she was all right again, he was glad to say. Why did not Nora come out to them? They would be glad to offer her a comfortable home, although she must make up her mind to dispense with the luxuries she was accustomed to. But there was always plenty to eat and a good bed, at any rate. He knew she would grow to love the life as he had done. There was a fine freedom about it. For his part, nothing would ever tempt him back to England, except for a visit when he had put by a little more. She would find his wife a good sort. She, too, would welcome her sister-in-law. They would be no end of company for each other during the long days while the men were away. And she would be glad to have someone to lend a hand about the house.
He hoped she had been able to save enough money to pay her passage out. If she hadn't, he would somehow manage to send whatever was necessary. But while he was fairly prosperous, ready money was a little more scarce than usual, for the moment. His wife's illness had been pretty expensive, what with hiring a woman to do all the work, etc., etc.
The letter settled it. On the one hand was this heart-breaking waiting while watching one's little hoard diminish from day to day and always the terrifying and unanswerable question: What is to be done when it is exhausted? On the other, a home and the prospect that she might be able in a measure to pay her way by helping her brother's wife. Nora's housewifely accomplishments were but few, yet she could learn, and while learning she could at least take away the sting of those lonely hours, as her brother had said. On one thing she was resolved: she would let bygones be bygones. She would do everything in her power to win her sister-in-law, forgetting everything but that she was the wife of her only brother.
The next few days were the happiest she had known for a long time. There was a pleasurable excitement in getting ready for so momentous a step. After having paid her passage she found that she had eight pounds in the world, the result of ten years' work as lady's companion. She wrote to let Mr. Wynne know of her decision and enclosed Miss Pringle's banknote to the doctor's wife with an explanatory note asking her to see that it reached her hands safely. Miss Pringle herself should have a long letter from the New World waiting her on her return.
Her last day at home, having satisfied herself that nothing was forgotten, she spent a long hour in the Turner room in the Tate Gallery, drinking it all in for the last time. When she left the building it was with a feeling that the last farewell to the old life was said.
To her great pleasure and a little to her surprise, Nora discovered herself to be a thoroughly good sailor. As a consequence, the voyage to Montreal was quite the most delightful thing she had ever experienced. The boat was a slow one but the time never once seemed long. Indeed, as they approached their destination, she found herself wishing that the Western Continent might, by some convulsion of nature, be removed, quite safely, an indefinite number of leagues farther, or that they might make a detour by way of the antipodes, anything rather than bring the voyage to an end.
There were but few passengers at this season so that beyond the daily exchange of ordinary courtesies, she was able to pass much of the time by herself. The weather was unusually fine for the time of year. It was possible to spend almost all the daylight hours on deck, and with night came long hours of dreamless sleep such as she never remembered to have enjoyed since childhood. As a consequence, it was a thoroughly rejuvenated Nora that landed in Montreal. The stress and strain of the past summer was forgotten or only to be looked back upon as a sort of horrid nightmare from which she had happily awakened.
It was too late in the day after they had landed to think of continuing her journey. Besides, as is often the case with people who have stood a sea voyage without experiencing any disagreeable sensations, Nora found that she still felt the motion of the boat after landing.