The Privet Hedge
J. E. BUCKROSE
[Transcriber's note: J. E. Buckrose is the pseudonym for Annie Edith Jameson.]
By the Same Author
THE HOUSE WITH THE GOLDEN WINDOWS YOUNG HEARTS THE GIRL IN FANCY DRESS MARRIAGE WHILE YOU WAIT THE GOSSIP SHOP THE SILENT LEGION THE TALE OF MR. TUBBS THE MATCHMAKERS THE ROUND-ABOUT DOWN OUR STREET A LITTLE GREEN WORLD BECAUSE OF JANE LOVE IN A LITTLE TOWN THE GREY SHEPHERD
Hodder and Stoughton Limited
I THE COTTAGE II CAROLINE III THE PROMENADE IV THE THREE MEN V THE DANCE ON THE PROMENADE VI MORNING CALLS VII SEA-ROKE VIII THE HEIGHT OF THE SEASON IX WEDDING CLOTHES X SUNDAY NIGHT XI THE GALA XII THE END OF THE GALA XIII NEXT MORNING XIV THE CLIFF TOP XV THE CINEMA XVI NEW-COMERS XVII THE BENEFIT CONCERT XVIII UPROOTING XIX A WINDY MORNING XX LEVELLING XXI ST. MARTIN'S SUMMER XXII MORNING XXIII ON THE SHORE
At the far end of Thorhaven towards the north was a little square house surrounded by a privet hedge. It had a green door under a sort of wooden canopy with two flat windows on either side, and seemed to stand there defying the rows and rows of terraces, avenues and meanish semi-detached villas which were creeping up to it. Behind lay the flat fields under a wide sky just as they had lain for centuries, with the gulls screaming across them inland from the mud cliffs, and so the cottage formed a sort of outpost, facing alone the hordes of jerry-built houses which threatened to sweep on and surround it.
The ladies who lived at the Cottage had once been nicknamed the Misses Canute—which showed how plainly all this could be seen, as a sort of symbol, by anyone in the least imaginative; though it was a rather unsatisfactory curate from Manchester who actually gave them the name. No one felt surprised when he afterwards offended his bishop and went into the motor business, for he suffered from that constitutional ability to take people as seriously as they wished to be taken, which is so bad for any career.
Thus the curate departed, but his irreverence lived on after him for quite a long time, because many people like a mild joke which every one must see at once—which is ready-made—and for which they cannot be held responsible. So this became for a little while the family jest of Thorhaven, in no way spoiled by the fact that one sister had married a man called Bradford and was now a widow, while the other retained the paternal Wilson.
The two ladies were walking together on this twenty-sixth of March, by the side of the privet hedge which divided their garden from the large field beyond and hid from them everything which they did not care to see.
Miss Ethel's name was entirely unsuited to her, but she had received it at a period when Ethels were as thick as blackberries in every girls' school of any pretensions; and she was not in the very least like any Miss Amelia out of a book, though she possessed an elder sister and had reached fifty-five without getting married. On the contrary, she carried her head with great assurance on her spare shoulders, put her hair in curling pins each night as punctually as she said her prayers, and wore a well-cut, shortish tweed skirt with sensible shoes. Her face was thin and she had a delicately-shaped, rather long nose, together with a charmingly-shaped mouth that had grown compressed and lost its sweetness. A mole over her right eyebrow accentuated her habit of twitching that side of her face a little when she was nervous or excited.
But she was calm now, walking there with her sister, enjoying the keen air warmed with sunshine which makes life on such a day in Thorhaven sparkle with possibilities.
"I'm glad," she said, "that we decided not to clip the hedge. It has grown up until it hides that odious Emerald Avenue entirely from the garden."
"I can still see it from my bedroom window all the same," said Mrs. Bradford.
"Don't look out of your window, then!" retorted Miss Ethel sharply.
"You take care of that," said Mrs. Bradford. "You have made the short blinds so high that I can scarcely see over them."
"Do you want the people in those awful little houses to see you undressing?" demanded Miss Ethel.
"They couldn't—not unless they used a telescope or opera glasses," said Mrs. Bradford. And she managed to convey, by some subtle inflexion of voice and expression—though she was a dull woman—that if you had been married, you were not so pernickitty about such things; and, finally, that if Emerald Avenue cared to go to that trouble it was welcome, because she remained always invested with the mantle of Hymen.
As a matter of fact, she had—in a way—spent her life for some years in echoing that romantic declaration of the lady in the play: "I have lived and loved." Only she had never said anything so vivid as that—she simply sat down on the fact for the rest of her life in a sort of comatose triumph.
Her husband had been a short, weasely man of bilious temperament; still, he sufficed; and his death at the end of two years from whooping-cough only added to Mrs. Bradford's complacency. She came back home again to the Cottage, feeling as immeasurably superior to her unmarried sister as only a woman of that generation could feel, who had found a husband while most of her female relatives remained spinsters. She at once caused the late Mr. Bradford's photograph to be enlarged—the one in profile where the eyebrows had been strengthened, and the slight squint was of course invisible—and she referred to him in conversation as "such a fine intellectual-looking man." After a while, she began to believe her own words more and more thoroughly, so that at the end of ten years she would not have recognized him at all had he appeared in the flesh.
"At any rate," she remarked, "our field won't be built over."
"No, thank goodness!" assented Miss Ethel emphatically, her left eyebrow twitching a little. "The Warringborns will never sell their land, whatever other people do. I remember grandfather telling us how he was ordered out of the room by old Squire Warringborn when he once went to suggest buying this field. Oh, no; the Warringborns won't sell. Not the least fear of that."
But she only talked in this way because she was afraid—trying to keep her heart up, as she saw in her mind's eye that oncoming horde of yellowish-red houses.
Before Mrs. Bradford could reply about the Warringborns, there came a sound of voices in the great field which stretched park-like beyond the privet hedge. "Butcher Walker putting some sheep in, I expect," said Mrs. Bradford. "He has the lease of it now."
But even as she spoke, her heavy jaw dropped and she stood staring. Miss Ethel swerved quickly round in the same direction, and her pale eyes focused. Neither of them uttered a sound as they looked at the square board which rose slowly above the privet hedge. They could not see the pole on which it was supported from that position in the garden, and so it appeared to them like a banner upheld by unseen hands.
"Well," said Mrs. Bradford at last, "we mustn't clip the hedge this year, that's all. Then——"
"Hedge!" cried Miss Ethel. "What's the use of talking about the hedge when our home is spoilt? Look! Read!" She pointed to that square object which flaunted now in all its glaring black and white newness—a blot against the grey sky.
FOR THE ERECTION OF VILLAS AND BUNGALOWS
APPLY MESSRS. GLATT & WILSON
Miss Ethel could not have felt deeper dismay if the square notice board on the pole had been indeed held aloft by the very Spirit of Change itself, with streaming hair still all aflame from rushing too closely past a bursting sun. Only those who hate change as she did could ever understand her dismay.
"We shall be driven out of our house. We shall have to leave," she said, very pale. "After all these years, we shall have to go. We can't stand all their nasty little back ways!"
"Where are we to go to?" said Mrs. Bradford. She paused a moment. "It's the same everywhere. Besides, the houses are not built yet."
There was nothing for them to do but to turn their backs on the board and walk quietly away, filled with that aching home-sickness for the quiet past which thousands of middle-aged people were feeling at that moment all over Europe. Everything was so different, and the knowledge of it gave to Miss Ethel a constant sense of exasperated discomfort, like the ache of an internal disease which she could not forget for a moment.
"I expect," she said after a while, "that Mrs. Graham will once more tell us to let ourselves go with the tide and not worry. Thank God, I never was a supine jelly-fish, and I can't start being one now."
"She was talking about servants," said Mrs. Bradford, who was troubled, but not so troubled, because she took things differently. "I expect she only meant we should never get another like Ellen; but we can't expect to do so after having her for eleven years."
"No. We are lucky to have Ellen's niece coming. But I wish she were a little older," said Miss Ethel. "Nineteen is very young."
"Yes," replied Mrs. Bradford, letting the conversation drop, for she was not very fond of talking. And in the silence they looked back; and to both of them nineteen seemed a rather ridiculous and foolish age—even for a servant, who is supposed to be rather young.
Then Miss Ethel began again—talking on to try and banish the insistent vision in her mind's eye of that square board over the privet hedge, which she knew herself foolish to dwell upon. "I wish Caroline had not lived with Ellen's sister and gone out as a day-girl to that little grocer's shop in the Avenue. I'm afraid that may have spoilt her. But it is Caroline or nobody. We may want a sensible middle-aged maid, but in these days it isn't what you want—it's what you can get."
Mrs. Bradford nodded; and again they felt all over them that resentful home-sickness for the past.
"One thing—we must begin as we mean to go on," said Miss Ethel. "If mistresses were only firmer there would never be such ridiculous proceedings as one hears about; but they are so afraid of losing maids that they put up with anything. No wonder the girls find this out and cease to have any respect for them. Look at Mrs. Graham! A latch-key allowed, and no caps or aprons. That's swimming with the tide, with a vengeance."
"There's no fear of Caroline wanting anything of that sort," said Mrs. Bradford. "Ellen's sister, Mrs. Creddle, is as steady as Ellen."
"She'd need to be, with four children on her hands, and a husband like one of those coco-nuts at Hull fair that have the husk partly left on," said Miss Ethel. "I never could understand how a nice-looking girl, such as Mrs. Creddle was then, came to marry such a man."
Mrs. Bradford looked down at her fat hands and smiled a little, seeming to see things in the matrimonial philosophy that no spinster was likely to understand. Then after opening the door they both turned again, from force of long habit, to look across the garden, and saw the square board more plainly now than they had done when close under the hedge. It stood there in the midst of the grass field—as if it were leading on—while in the distance the wind from the east was blowing the smoke like flags from the long row of chimney-tops in Emerald Avenue.
At last Miss Ethel said with a sort of doubtful hopefulness, as if keeping her courage up before those advancing hordes: "Perhaps nobody will want to buy the land there. Always heard it was boggy."
Mrs. Bradford shook her head silently and went in, followed by her sister: in a world where all things were now odiously possible, one had to take what came and make the best of it.
But Miss Ethel already experienced the faint beginning of a state of suspense which was never to cease, day or night, though at times she was not conscious of it. She fancied that every person who crossed the field was an intending buyer, and woke with a start when the old wardrobe gave the sudden "pop!" in the night to which she had been long accustomed, thinking for the moment that she heard the first stroke of a workman's hammer. In truth she was run down with doing most of the work of the house since Ellen's departure to look after an invalid mother, besides suffering from several severe colds during the winter, so that the possibility of new houses being built close at hand had got on her nerves, and gained an almost ridiculous importance.
She and her sister had thought, like so many others, that they could escape change by living in one place, but it had followed them, as it always inexorably does. Shut their eyes as they might, they had to see neighbours leaving, neighbours dying. And even those who remained did not continue the same. One day Miss Ethel was obliged to notice how grey little Mrs. Baker at the newspaper shop was going—and that brought to mind that she had been married thirty years come Christmas. Thirty years! It seemed incredible that so much of life had slipped almost imperceptibly away.
All the same, she ached to stand still. She simply could not realize that perhaps some other generation would look back on hers as she did on the past. One Saturday the following lines in the local corner of the Thorhaven and County Weekly Budget—between an advertisement of a new poultry food and a notice of a fine goat for sale—did express a little of her state of mind, though they were written by a retired schoolmistress in the detested Emerald Avenue—
The world is full of hurry and change, And everything seems so new and strange; But it's stranger still that one of these days They'll call what we're doing, "the dear old ways."
It remained incredible, whatever reason might tell her, that anything more iconoclastic could be hidden in the womb of time than the Warringborns selling their land and Mrs. Graham letting her maid go to dances on the promenade, with a powdered face and a latch-key.
The promenade at Thorhaven was reached by a short, wide street where a wind blew always, even on the stillest days, and the hall in which the young people of the little town danced weekly stood straight in front of the approaching visitor, entirely blocking out the view and the sea. Some people thought this must have happened by accident, but others felt sure that some subtle brain on the Urban District Council had correctly gauged what the cherished Visitor—the Council naturally thought of him or her with a capital letter—really considered a most important feature of an up-to-date seaside resort.
The hall itself was a glass erection, and it was in design so like those miniature forcing-houses placed over cherished plants in a garden border that no one with any imagination could avoid feeling momentarily that it must have been placed there by some good-natured giant—well disposed towards Thorhaven—for the express purpose of making the Visitor "come on" during the seaside holiday.
At the entrance gate stood a sort of sentry-box where two girls sat in turn from ten to ten. These girls were chosen by an optimistic Committee who hoped they would possess amiability, endurance, and particularly a gift for remembering faces: because the inhabitants of Thorhaven felt that their promenade was first of all theirs—and that no assistant employed at the gate had a right not to know them by sight when they entered the precincts for which their own rates and taxes had paid. Therefore—though this led to occasional abuse—it was found necessary to municipal harmony to let inhabitants in "on the nod."
Two young ladies of blameless reputation who were supposed to possess the required gifts had already been engaged for the season. One had filled the post before, and another was new to the job but promising. But time and love wait on the convenience of none—not even so important a body as the Thorhaven Amusements Committee—and girl number one unexpectedly ran away with a ship's engineer, while girl number two developed bronchial tendencies which made the pay-box unsuitable. So there were none.
On this bleak, bright day at the end of March, the pay-box with the wind howling round it did indeed look a bracing place to spend the day in, nor was it by any means an object which any would be likely to watch for five minutes at a stretch in a strong north-easter. But that was exactly what a palish girl with freckles on her nose had been doing for that length of time, and so intent was she on her own thoughts that she held a loose strand of hair in her hand instead of tucking it under her cap while she stood there with eyes fixed intently on the little ticket-window.
Her eyes were light—a greenish-grey flecked with gold—but they were very bright with dark lashes and themselves appeared quite dark when she was moved or excited. Nobody ever seemed to know what colour they were, not even the young fellow with whom she had been "going" ever since she left school, and she was generally considered in Thorhaven to have brown eyes.
After some time she withdrew that eager gaze, swerved round as if on a pivot, and started at a tremendous pace up the short, windy street that led to the main road. "I'll do it!" she said to herself—young lips tightly pressed, and nails biting into her palms even through her gloves. "I don't care what aunt says. It's my life, not hers. It's nobody's business but my own."
At the corner she stood a moment, searching the long grey road that led to the church. After a while she saw a cart in the distance laden with parcels and boxes, and she began to run after it, calling as she went: "Hi! Mr. Willis! Mr. Willis! Please stop! I want my box back. I don't want it taken to Miss Wilson's."
Mr. Willis pulled up and looked back over his shoulder. He had a weather-beaten, humorous face and was very slow in his habit of speech. "Quarrelled with Miss Ethel before you get there?" he said. "That's a bit quicker work than usual. Servant lasses generally let me get their boxes over the doorstep before they want to come away, even nowadays."
"Well, I don't mean to live servant with anybody," said Caroline, frowning. "I've changed my mind all of a sudden because I only heard of another opening this morning. I never wanted to go to the Cottage; it was all Aunt Creddle. She always promised I should, when I got to be nineteen, and I didn't seem as if I could get out of it."
"Well!" He jerked the reins. "Appears to me you might have spread some of your thinking over the last four years instead of doing it all since breakfast this morning." And he added over his shoulder: "I'm to leave your box at Mrs. Creddle's, as I come back, then?"
"Yes, please," said Caroline, fumbling with her purse.
Mr. Willis's face wrinkled up into many little lines and bosses as he looked down at her running beside the cart, with her coppers held out. "No, no. Put it in your pocket. You told me to take your box to Miss Wilson's. I don't want money for work I haven't done." Then he whipped up the horse so that she could not keep pace with it.
She paused to take breath and stood looking after him, thinking it was no wonder Dan Willis had never got on in the world; but she did not know how many things in the world he enjoyed which people who must hunt the last farthing all the time are obliged to miss. He was indeed a happy bachelor, lodging over a little bread shop in the old part of the village, and his sixty years sat lightly on him because he had always found so much to see and to admire in the streets of Thorhaven.
But as Caroline turned to hurry down Emerald Avenue she immediately forgot all about him, for in nearly every house some acquaintance was making ready for the advent of the Visitor—either hanging curtains or washing covers or standing furniture outside to beat—and she could have written a most valuable book entitled "Hint to Lodging Seekers." She possessed recondite, first-hand information, such as no outsider can know; as, for instance, the more white mats, spotless covers and antimacassars in April, the more stains and flies towards the end of August. But fortunately for the few slatterns in Thorhaven, she did not use her power.
Now she was racing in a whirl of emotion down Emerald Avenue and round the next turn into Pearl Terrace, where her aunt Mrs. Creddle lived. Strangers wondered to see the newer streets in Thorhaven all named after precious stones, but the reason was simple enough. A member of the Council had been inspired one warm June evening after three bottles of ginger-beer to name the first of these red rows of houses Cornelian Crescent. But that bold flight of fancy exhausted the afflatus, and it seemed easier to go on to Sapphire Road than to think of anything fresh. Now—after a lapse of years—Thorhaven's city fathers had begun to be proud of this street nomenclature, and to believe they had meant it from the very first.
Number 10 Pearl Terrace was a house on the north side of the road, and Caroline had been "day-girl" with the wife of a small grocer just round the corner from the age of fifteen and a half to the present time. Before she went there at eight and after her return at six, she had helped Mrs. Creddle during the crises constantly recurring in a family of four little girls under twelve years old. Indeed, as her aunt said, she formed another example of good coming out of evil—for evil it seemed, when the Creddles had been obliged to take in Caroline among their increasing brood after the death of her father and mother.
Not that there had ever been any question about it. "You couldn't let the poor little lass go to the workhouse," said Mrs. Creddle when anyone spoke to her on the subject. "Bless you, we've never missed the bit she used to eat before she began to make aught, and she's earned her keep with us over and over again since then."
Mr. Creddle also expressed the same meaning, though in different terms, when pals ventured with a smile to hint that he had lasses enough under his roof without getting in any from outside. "That's my business," he would say. "I don't see as anybody has a right to pass a remark. I'd rather have four lasses than a red nose, anyway."
If the person addressed happened to possess the outward and visible signs of alcoholic excess, so much the worse for him—Mr. Creddle was touchy on the subject of his family and did not wish to please. His own nose was slightly rubicund, but it was solely owing to the east winds which constantly blew across it as he worked for the Council on the long roads near the sea; for he was a sober man, and when he did have a glass of beer on a Saturday night, he brought it home in a jug to share with his wife.
For years, indeed, when the babies were arriving, that was their only little festival from week's end to week's end. They would stand the jug on the table, and Mrs. Creddle would bring out some freshly baked "pie"; with thick crust above and below, and apples or currants and sugar, or gooseberries inside; and with the house all clean for Sunday, they would take their hour of ease late on Saturday night.
So Caroline had been brought up in an atmosphere of kindness, though Mr. Creddle had once threatened to strap her if she ran about with the lads again after dark. He had caught her racing with streaming hair round some half-built houses in Emerald Avenue, among a party of boys who ought to have been in bed, and his brief comments as he escorted her home were Elizabethan and to the point. Oddly enough, they burnt deeper into her mind than the whole of Mrs. Creddle's cautious advice.
All that, however, was long ago. Now—demure and slim—Caroline would no more have thought of racing round half-built houses at night than Mrs. Creddle herself. But she flung open the front door of Number 10 with the same certainty of warm interest she had always felt on entering that house, for Mrs. Creddle might be "put out," unhappy, anxious—but never coldly indifferent.
"Aunt!" called Caroline from the foot of the stairs in the excited voice which she strove to keep calm.
Mrs. Creddle emerged from a bedroom, with her usual air of being a little too warm, whatever the weather, and her clear-skinned, jolly face a little perturbed. "What's the matter, Carrie? You know Miss Ethel's expecting you. You ought to be there by now."
Caroline drew back a pace, then let her missile fly. "I aren't——" But even in this stress of emotion she paused from force of habit to correct her speech—"I'm not going to Miss Wilson's."
"What!" Mrs. Creddle came down the stairs with the peculiar buoyancy of active stout people. "I've just sent your box. Whatever are you talking about, Carrie?"
"I met Mr. Brook—he's the one that has to do with the Amusements Committee: and he said if I applied for Maggie Wake's job, I should get it. They want somebody steady and respectable that knows how to behave."
"But you can't apply for it!" said Mrs. Creddle, breathing sharply as if from the impact of an actual blow. "You've promised for years to go to Miss Wilson's when Ellen left, and they've waited for you ever since November. You can't behave like this to them now, Carrie. I can understand your being tempted, but you can't do it. You promised faithful."
"No, I didn't," said Caroline. "I never promised anything. It was you that promised for me. And I always hated the thought of living in, and being tied up at nights in their old kitchen; only you and Aunt Ellen fixed it all up when I was a kid, and I somehow never thought of going against you. It seemed one of the things that had to be—like putting your hair up and such like—but I never wanted to do it my own self."
"Well, you can't run back now," said Mrs. Creddle. "After all that Miss Ethel and Mrs. Bradford have done for us in the past, I should be ashamed to think of such a thing. Why, this very dress I have on came from Mrs. Bradford, and your blouse was made from a print skirt of Miss Ethel's. And when you had whooping cough, they sent jelly and oranges and I don't know what. I don't understand how you can want to behave so badly to them, Carrie."
"Oh, I've not forgotten all that!" said Carrie, working herself up into a defiant rage because she wanted to feel a counter-irritant to a secret uneasiness which lurked at the bottom of her mind. "But spare food and old clothes ought not to buy a girl, body and soul. Anyway, I price myself higher than that. I'm not going to sacrifice a job I fancy, and thirty shillings a week, to be general servant to those two old women, and that's flat."
"But the ticket-collecting only lasts until the end of September," urged Mrs. Creddle, flushed and perturbed. "What shall you do then?"
"I don't know," said Caroline. "I mean to learn typewriting and shorthand somehow, and then I shall be a clerk."
"Clerk indeed!" cried Mrs. Creddle, losing her temper. "And what does that lead to, I should like to know? No girl clerk earns enough to buy food and lodging such as you would get at Miss Wilson's. I don't understand where the charm comes in, I'm sure, unless you want to be considered a lady. But you aren't one—and you'll never be one—though you do go out every morning and come back at night, and have a leather bag and a powdered nose instead of a cap and apron."
"Then I can tell you," said Caroline, pale and bright-eyed. "The charm is freedom. I'd starve before I'd ask permission to go to the pillar-box, and spend my nights in that old kitchen by myself."
"You know perfectly well that Miss Ethel would let you go out nearly every night," ejaculated Mrs. Creddle. "You're talking just for the sake of talking." Then she suddenly began to cry. "I can't bear for one of mine to behave like that—and I've always looked on you as my own child," she said, whimpering through a corner of her apron. "I've been poor all my life, but my word's been my bond. I never behaved shabby nor dishonourable to anybody that I knows on."
"I'm sorry, Aunt," said Caroline, flushing with distressful impatience. "But you have to think of yourself in these days, or get left. It's the rule all over the world now. And if everybody did the same, we should be all all right. Don't you see?"
Mrs. Creddle shook her head. "It might work out all right if the pushing-est sort was always the best," she said. Then, after a pause, she added, turning back towards the stairs: "Well, you may go and tell them yourself. I can't!"
"I don't want you to. I'm not afraid of those two old ladies," said Caroline, "if you are. So long!"
But as she went down the terrace again, it was not her own brilliant future which she saw before her mind's eye, but the desponding curve of Mrs. Creddle's figure going upstairs again to finish the bedrooms. Steadfastness, patience, endurance—without being actually aware of it, she saw those things embodied in that middle-aged woman's figure. Then her own spirit revolted from the suggestion. "Aunt doesn't understand," she said, half aloud. "You have to think of yourself first in these days."
Such was her mood as she emerged from Emerald Avenue into the main road, walked past the long field where the square board caught the eye at once amid all that springing verdure, and entered the garden of the Cottage. Immediately afterwards the front door opened and Miss Ethel stepped briskly forth. "Oh, there you are, Caroline. I am very pleased to see you. I suppose Willis will be bringing your box shortly, but in the meantime——"
"I aren't coming. I have only come to say I aren't coming," interrupted Caroline—the measure of her disturbance shown by the fact that she did not correct this lapse into the Holderness dialect. "I'm applying to be ticket collector on the promenade," she added, with a sort of defiant rudeness in her tone. She sub-consciously wanted Miss Ethel to be "horrid," feeling that it would make the situation easier to carry off with satisfaction to herself.
But Miss Ethel had been working since half-past six at unaccustomed blacking of the kitchen stove and such-like tasks in order that the new maid should see how things ought to be kept and maintain the same high standard, and she was too utterly weary and disappointed now, to do anything but reply with a very slight trembling of the lip: "I think you might have let me know before this, Caroline." For she felt that if she let herself go, she might burst into ignoble, undignified tears before this impertinent child—she, who never "gave way" even at a wedding or a funeral.
Caroline's quick eyes, however, had caught that passing quiver of the lips, and for one moment all her dreams of independence trembled in the balance. She was feeling—deeply as even Mrs. Creddle could wish—that she was behaving badly. Then Miss Ethel chanced to notice Caroline's blouse, which was made from her own summer dress of twenty years ago, and an irrepressible wave of hurt exasperation swept over her, rousing her to active resentment. "I must say I think you are treating me abominably, Caroline. Surely your Aunt Creddle is not a party to this?" she said in her sharpest tone. And though she would not have mentioned the blouse or any other benefit bestowed for the world, some thought of it must have rushed along the taut wires between her own mind and Caroline's, for the girl instantly flushed crimson and became defiant again. So the wavering balance crashed down on the side of the job on the promenade. Her whole future course, indeed, was decided in that instant, just by a look and a tone—though neither was aware of what had happened.
"Aunt had no idea I was trying for the place on the prom. until this morning," said Caroline quietly. "She's very upset about it, and tried her best to make me come to live with you after all, only I wouldn't. Nobody can blame her."
Miss Ethel opened her lips to administer a rebuke; then she felt it was no good and stood looking drearily in front of her. In so doing, her glance fell on the square board over the privet hedge, and that seemed somehow the visible sign of everything else that was happening in her life. Everything was changed. Without another word she turned back into the house, telling herself that it was of no use to fight against change; but at the bottom of her soul, she knew she would fight, so long as there was breath left in her.
"Stop a minute, Miss Ethel," said Caroline. "I am very sorry indeed I couldn't let you know before, and I have nothing against you or the place. It's only that I don't want to be a servant at all. Everybody must do the best they can for themselves in these days."
"I understand that you are like the rest of them. You want to go gadding about every night, no doubt," said Miss Ethel.
"And if I do?" said Caroline. "Where's the harm in it? Of course I want my freedom, Miss Ethel. We all do. That's why there aren't any servants to be had. You're free yourself and always have been. That's why you don't understand."
Miss Ethel felt a groping thought in the back of her mind. She—free! The long chain seemed to rattle through the empty years since childhood as she paused, though she thought she only heard the wind in the branches. "Oh, well; I suppose it is no use my saying any more. I trust for Mrs. Creddle's sake that you may be successful in your new employment. Good morning."
But in going over the threshold she swayed a little, because she had one of her bilious headaches and had eaten nothing since rising. Those headaches had been a feature of the establishment ever since Caroline would remember, and she recalled "Aunt Ellen" arraying a spotless tray in the kitchen while she herself sat eating gingerbread by the table. So all the kindnesses she had experienced in that house came back to war with this new spirit of prickly independence, and as she was fundamentally good-natured, she felt impelled to say impulsively: "Miss Ethel, I'll tell you what I could do. I might sleep here for a week or two and light the fire, and get breakfast ready and do any odd jobs for you. I should have time for that before I went out. One fortnight in the month I should only act as supply during meal hours—and that will leave me a lot of time during the day. I'll be glad to come and do that for my board and lodging, if you like: I'm not a big eater. Only I must have my nights free and no fixed time for getting in, of course."
Miss Ethel put her hand to her swimming head. Even in this extremity she could hardly bring herself to consider such a proposal. But the thought of washing up those greasy dishes after lunch was so intolerable that everything else faded into the background, and she had to humiliate herself for the sake of necessity. "Very well," she said faintly. "I shall be glad to accept your offer for the time being. We will talk about the remuneration later, but I think you can trust Mrs. Bradford and myself not to treat you unfairly."
"I'm not afraid of that," said Caroline, half ashamed: still she had to have it clear about her freedom. "You do understand about the evenings, though? Because I may want to go with Wilf—he's my friend, you know—to one of those dances on the prom., and then I shouldn't be back until after twelve."
"Yes, I understand," said Miss Ethel. "I'm much obliged to you," she forced herself to add, trying to rise above the dizziness which made her unable to think clearly.
"Then I'll be off and see if I can catch Willis with my box," said Caroline, hurrying away down the path.
Miss Ethel watched her go, wondering in a heavy sort of way if the girl would come back. It would not be in the least surprising if she failed to do so. Well, you could only take things as they came. Nothing was as it used to be. You couldn't calculate at all on what would happen in this strange new world. . . .
Caroline, hastening down the road, had the same thought; but to her it brought a glorious sense of fresh vistas opening, of splendid conflicts in which she and her sort were bound to be victorious—she saw already a sun rising which would really warm rich and poor alike, and would make every one in the end happy and good.
No wonder Mr. Willis smiled at her when she went flying after him once more, all wind-blown hair and eyes a-shine; but he pulled up with a pretence of grumpiness, saying over his shoulder: "Well, what is it now? Have you rued throwing up your place?"
"No; I'm only going to help them a bit until they get a girl. You can't help being sorry for Miss Ethel."
"I'm to take your box on to the Cottage after all, then?" he said in a teasing way. "Well, well, it's a queer thing how women like to change their minds. I expect they're made so."
"I'm not," said Caroline. "I knew my own mind right enough: only I couldn't leave Miss Ethel with one of her bad headaches and nobody to do a thing for her. You'd be the first to blame me."
But he had whipped up his horse before she finished her sentence, and was already rattling away in the direction of the Cottage.
Pale blue sky with scudding clouds—a dun sea dappled with pale silver—and that intense greyish-white light on promenade, bleak-fronted houses and sparsely scattered visitors, which always makes everything so distinct as to seem unreal on such a day in Thorhaven—like an old copper-print.
As Caroline sat in her pay-box at the gate of the promenade, she had plenty of time to note these atmospheric conditions, but she only felt them. That grey, clear, windy brightness was mingled for all the rest of her life with what was to happen during the months between this morning and the end of September, when the job would be over. But now she was entirely immersed in her ticket issuing, when there was any to do, and in feeling excited and self-conscious and important when there was not. Book, pencil, pile of tickets were all meticulously ready, and she would not put her window down for a moment despite the north-east wind which swept round the little shelter.
But so early in the season there was scarcely a person to be seen about on the broad, grey stretch of the promenade, and the gardener's back as he worked hard at bedding out plants, looked in some way as if it still belonged to the easy-shirt-sleeved winter time, when Thorhaven was not expecting visitors. At last a little brisk woman with a neat figure came up to the turnstile, and Caroline greeted her with just that surprising warmth shown to casual acquaintances by stall-holders at a bazaar. "A season-ticket? Certainly. A pity not to get all the good out of it you can. Some people silly enough to wait until the season is half over and then pay just the same——" But the woman appreciated this cordiality at its true worth and was unresponsive. "So you've got the job. They'd be sorry to part with Maggie." Then pursing her lips, she placed her season ticket in her purse, and said with condescending asperity: "I want to go through, please."
So Caroline, thus reminded, hastily released the turnstile with her knee from within, and felt momentarily abashed. After a while, however, a solitary visitor approached the little window, and she was doubly brisk and official to make up for it.
"Day-ticket? But are you staying a week? If so, you'll find it much more to your advantage——" Until the visitor, who did not really want a weekly ticket at all, but happened to be of that ever-growing class which is cowed at once by any sign of bureaucratic authority, did as Caroline suggested.
But little by little this first eagerness wore off, and by the time she returned from the tea interval—during which her place had been taken by the girl who acted as "supply"—she had already begun to show faint beginnings of the slightly contemptuous, detached air of the official. She was pleasant still, but as a favour, and with the whole power of the Thorhaven Council at her back "Three in family, I think? I suppose you take one for Mildred?" And she expected Mrs. Creddle's neighbour to feel a little flattered by her remembering the size of the family.
But though justly irritated by that "Three in family, I think"—when Caroline had pulled pigtails with Mildred only yesterday, as it were—the good woman was actually pleased when Caroline "held up" a stout person in a fur coat and a motor veil to add pleasantly: "I suppose you are expecting visitors this week?" Which remark is the recognized conversational small change in Thorhaven, during spring and summer, scarcely more personal than the "Fine day!" of the country labourers who live in the still untouched country beyond the Cottage.
But if Mrs. Creddle's neighbour said to herself that Caroline would soon be too big for her boots, there remained a slight glow of satisfaction in being acknowledged as an old acquaintance while an affluent person from a car was kept waiting. It is therefore not surprising that Wilfred Ball felt the same glow greatly intensified when he strolled up to the pay-box, twirling his walking-stick, to take his stand near by as the future proprietor of the girl inside. Perhaps the young husband of a great prima donna may feel nearly as sophisticated and proud and "in it" when he strolls carelessly into the dressing-room where the bouquets of admirers overflow upon the floor—but this is scarcely likely, for he would not have the morning freshness still on him of a life spent so far between Thorhaven and Flodmouth.
Every now and then he took a little walk up and down the promenade, either alone or with a casual acquaintance, but he soon returned to enjoy close at hand this epoch-making evening. For now, he felt, there was nothing that could keep the Wilfred Balls back from those pinnacles of affluence which a combination of the more easily assimilated comic papers and articles on Self-Help had enabled him to envisage: Self-Help kind showing how a poor man might grow rich, and the comic papers how he might spend his money when he got it.
As the wife of a wealthy man, Caroline would be All Right. He had had his doubts before, at times, because he really felt it was a come-down for a young fellow in a seed-merchant's office to be engaged to a servant. And remorse had something to do now with his ardour, because he really had begun to wonder if he could "keep on" with it, when Caroline was a true servant, living in, like the little maids all up and down the new streets. He had seen himself standing at a corner waiting for her under a lamp-post on her nights out, and had found his faithfulness wavering.
Still, she was Caroline—and they had "gone together" ever since the time when he first perceived that a "girl" was as necessary to man's estate as a dressy lounge suit and a Homburg hat. He did not like to behave badly to her. And now he had been rewarded. He had achieved the difficult feat mentioned in those articles he so casually read in the train, of keeping one eye on the main chance and the other on the example of Sir Galahad. Now he was still engaged to somebody who took tickets on the prom. and was a young lady—and was yet Caroline. No wonder he stood and beamed, and walked away and twirled his stick and cocked his hat, and then came back and beamed again.
Other youths of her acquaintance, or enterprising strangers going through the barrier, had to content themselves with a "Good evening, miss," or at most some more or less dashing remark about the weather; but he was the one to help her on with her coat when the brilliant shades of blue and yellow on the sentry-box had faded into grey: it was his privilege to walk her off with a hand through her arm, feeling sure that the three elderly spinsters and the one middle-aged gentleman who chanced to be about just there wondered who that gay dog was, and thought him no end of a fellow.
"Well, Carrie, how did you like it?" he said as they went along.
"Oh, it was all right," said Caroline in an off-handed fashion—but she also had an elated consciousness of being important, and did not care a bit though her feet were stone-cold from sitting still in the sentry-box.
So talking eagerly, they went down the main road until the last avenue was left behind and the loneliness of stars and sea-wind fronted them. Only one light glimmered above the privet hedge from an upper room in the Cottage.
At the gate they stopped to kiss and say good night as usual, but the excitement of a new experience had stirred Caroline's emotions, and Wilf's pride in her had also roused the possessive instinct in him, so that the kiss they exchanged was a little different from the almost passionless salute to which they had long grown accustomed. Wilf's eyes shone and Caroline's cheeks were flushed when they drew back from each other. She began to speak quickly, nervously. "Well, so long! They'll think I'm never coming."
"Here! Hold on a minute." He caught her round the waist. "I say, Carrie, it's rotten you having to go in, and me stopping outside. I wish you'd never promised to."
"It wouldn't have made any difference if I had been staying at Uncle Creddle's. They wouldn't want company at this time of night," she answered, peering up at him uneasily through the starry twilight.
"Carrie!" He held her closer, his thin, boyish arms trembling a little. "I wish to goodness we could have a home of our own. There's some houses going to be built in that field there. I wish we could apply for one of them."
"Well, we can't," said Caroline, touched by some wistful tone in the lad's voice to a deeper tenderness for him than she had hitherto known. "We have nothing to get married on. People would only laugh at us."
"But you wish it, same as me, Carrie? If I was one of them rich young chaps that can plank down the money for a half-year's rent and a mahog'ny suite, like I do for a packet of cigs., you'd be ready to get married, Carrie?"
It was the first time they had seriously talked of marriage, though they had been "going together" ever since Caroline knew that a 'boy' was as essential to her grown-up panoply as hairpins, and she felt something indefinable at the back of her mind which was not pleasure; and yet it was not fear—— She turned from her own emotions with a sort of relief. "Goodness! There's the church clock striking a quarter to eleven. We must have been three-quarters of an hour coming from the prom. here. I know Miss Ethel goes to bed at ten, and she'll have been sitting up for me."
"Never mind. You're only stopping to oblige. They ought to be jolly thankful to you, whatever time you turn up," babbled Wilf—all impatient excitement. "Carrie, just one more. I must——"
He clung to her, then let her go. She ran up the path towards the house while he stood there, listening to her footsteps and yet restraining himself from following her, as a matter of course. For the idea of running after her and holding her in his arms by force, as he wanted to do, simply never entered his mind. Despite that dark lane and the evening hour, the chivalry of the ordinary decent Anglo-Saxon man—which some races are unable to understand—stood like a sentinel at the door of his desires.
Caroline entered the door of the Cottage in a state of hurry and excitement; but the empty kitchen seemed to act on it like a sort of emotional cold douche. The varnished walls, the neatly set chairs, the clock ticking so loudly above the mantel-shelf, all seemed somehow unnatural, with the unnaturalness of empty houses where steps go echoing—echoing—though nobody is there.
She hastily put the kettle on the gas-ring, then prepared a glass for Miss Ethel's hot water and two cups for Mrs. Bradford's cocoa and her own. But as the water would not boil all at once she stood there watching the little blue and yellowish flames of that unsatisfactory Thorhaven gas splutter under the kettle. All sorts of thoughts went scurrying about her mind as the clock measured the seconds—tick-tock! tick-tock!—over her head.
How silly of Wilf to begin to talk about marrying at all. But, of course, if you were engaged—only she and Wilf weren't engaged. They'd been "going together," of course, but she had no ring. She had never considered herself really engaged. Neither had Aunt Creddle——
But the kettle suddenly boiled over, so she filled the glass and the cups, and hurried off with the tray, her head still so full of her own engrossing thoughts that she did not become aware that visitors were present until she was well inside the room.
"Oh, Caroline, you can just put the tray down on the round table," said Miss Ethel, high and cool. It was plain that she thought the hour very late, and that Caroline's red cheeks, disordered hair and hat rakishly on one side did not please her.
Caroline's face became still more flushed and she flung up her head as she crossed the room, then put down the tray with a considerable clatter. But the clatter was unintentional—though Miss Ethel would not have believed this—and was due to a small piece of needlework on the table which caused the cup and glass to stand unevenly on the tray. Caroline heard the sharp indrawing of Miss Ethel's breath on the way to the door, and her whole being was in a prickly heat of defiance and embarrassment—"Only wait until to-morrow morning! To-morrow morning, they would just hear about it. They might look somewhere else for a girl who would let herself be spoken to as if she was something unpleasant that crawled——"
But through the fiery mist that seemed to blind her as she re-crossed the room, she heard another voice speaking: "Good evening, Miss Raby. How did you like your first day at the promenade?"
It was a lovely voice, clear yet mellow, and Caroline, despite all her anger and wounded pride, felt obliged to answer civilly: "Oh, I liked it all right, Miss Temple, thank you."
The door closed; there was a pause while Caroline's high heels clacked faintly across the tiled floor of the hall, and then a sound burst forth like the sudden chattering of rooks when they are startled in their nests by a shot fired close at hand.
"Well, I never! Coming in at a quarter to eleven and taking that attitude!" said Mrs. Bradford, in her heavy wheezy contralto.
"It's the same in everything. The world's upside down," jerked out Miss Ethel, flushed and tight-lipped. "Oh, we little knew what a lovely world we lived in twenty years ago. We took it all for granted. Good servants: low prices. People knowing their duty."
"Did they, though?" said Laura Temple. "I think it must have been perfectly horrid to be a maid-servant in those days. Only out one night a week, and once on Sunday at most, and kept as close during the rest of the time as if you were in a nunnery."
"They were happy, though," said Miss Ethel. "Happier, I think, than these girls are now. Look at Ellen! Wasn't she the picture of content?"
Then Mrs. Graham's high voice shrilled across the buzz of talk. "Mine actually wears silk stockings on her evenings out—silk stockings!"
"What I say," boomed Mr. Graham soothingly, "best make up your minds to let things go. You can't alter them. My wife here worked herself up into such a state of nerves during the war that she had to take bromide for months, and I'm not going to let that happen again. I don't allow any discussion of national difficulties, either at home or abroad. We read the head-lines in the newspaper so that we know what has actually happened, and we leave other people's speculations about things alone. Only way to go on living with any comfort."
Mrs. Graham looked across at her husband with affection, and murmured aside to Laura Temple: "It is really on Arthur's account that we have banned discussion on strikes and Ireland and so on. He gets indigestion if he dwells on painful topics. So I just make things as comfortable as I can in our own house, and let the world take care of itself. A wife's first duty is to make her husband happy, as you will find out before long, my dear."
Laura smiled back at Mrs. Graham, with the colour deepening a shade under the soft brown eyes which exactly matched her voice.
"There's no idea of our being married yet, Mrs. Graham," she said. "For one thing, our house will not be ready for some time." But behind her quiet words she was saying to herself that never, never would she and Godfrey emulate Mr. and Mrs. Graham's system of guarding the common existence from anything found disturbing to comfort, with a tame good conscience ready to call it conjugal devotion.
"I expected to see Mr. Wilson with you to-night," murmured Mrs. Graham: then she leaned nearer to Laura and said in a still lower tone: "I suppose he is in disgrace here for being the agent for the sale of that field beyond the privet hedge?"
"Yes. They think he might somehow have avoided selling it because he is a connection of theirs," replied Laura. "But the Warringborns would only have taken their business to another firm, of course. Godfrey says a man must look after himself in these days. You can't afford to offend a valuable client for the sake of a second cousin."
"Ridiculous!" said Mrs. Graham. Then she paused a moment until her husband's voice again made confidences possible. "Oh, they will get used to the idea of houses being built there in time. Look how disturbed they were about Emerald Avenue when it was first started."
"Yes." Laura paused, her charming, irregular face with its creamy complexion and frame of brown wavy hair turned to the speaker, and her broad forehead wrinkled a little, as it was when she was puzzled or perturbed. "But I really am sorry for them now. You see, the privet hedge hid all those streets from the garden. They could forget there were any there. Now they won't be able to forget." She paused. "I simply daren't tell them who has bought Thorhaven Hall. I know it gave even me a shock, because I always used to feel an awed sensation—the sort you have going into a strange church or a museum when you are little—whenever I called at the Hall. It was so dark and big and quiet, and the old butler took your name as if you were at a funeral, and ought to be awfully honoured to have been asked to attend. I simply can't imagine the Perritt's there."
Mrs. Graham rose. "Oh, I believe the Perritt children are very sweet. And there is something rather nice about Mrs. Perritt, I'm told."
Miss Ethel looked across the room, and it was evident that she heard the last remark, for she said in a dry tone: "Lots of people would discover something sweet about me if I came into ten thousand a year; nothing like money for enabling the eye to detect hidden charms."
Mrs. Graham laughed somewhat uneasily. "How amusing you are, Miss Ethel! I often tell Arthur it is quite refreshing to have a chat with you." But for all that, she began to move towards the door.
Laura also rose, and it could be now seen that her tall figure was a trifle angular and immature, and must remain so, for she was already twenty-eight years old. "I will come as far as your house, Mrs. Graham," she said. "Godfrey promised to call for me there."
"Well! No good crying over spilt milk," said Mr. Graham, standing and shaking down his trousers—after a habit he had—with his hands in his pockets. "Things will never be the same again in our day, Miss Ethel."
"No." Mrs. Bradford, who had been silent, as she often was, unexpectedly entered the conversation, saying in her heavy voice: "Things will never be the same again." And a brief silence followed her words. You could fancy them echoing in every heart there.
"I remember getting oranges twelve a penny in Flodmouth," continued Mrs. Bradford, stirred to unwonted intellectual effort. "Twelve a penny! Perhaps you don't believe me, but I did."
No one taking up the gage which Mrs. Bradford thus threw down, the guests said farewell and then went out into the starlight.
As they walked along, all Laura's thoughts were about the lover waiting for her; but Mr. and Mrs. Graham could not get rid of that slight sense of inward discomfort—stirred afresh by Mrs. Bradford's first remark—which many middle-aged people experience as a result of Fate's ruthlessly quick forcing of new wine into old bottles.
As they passed the new streets there was an odd light here and there in the shadowy rows of houses, and when they turned the corner the sea-wind was full in their faces. The glass roof of the Promenade Hall glimmered faintly under the immense sweep of starlit sky, and the quiet waves drew away—"C-raunch! C-r-raunch!"—from the piece of gravelled shore which the tide had reached. The good-sized, semi-detached houses built in a row opposite the promenade stood all so black and lifeless that Mr. Graham's click of the iron gate sounded quite roistering on the still night. Then the front door opened and light streamed out, illuminating the figure of a man of medium height, rather stockily built, who came quickly down the little path, calling out as he approached: "I'd almost given you up, Laura. I should have fetched you from the Cottage, only I thought the old girls would cut up rough. I suppose they haven't forgiven me for that notice board yet? They think I'm a low fellow, I know."
"No, no," said Laura, smiling. "A man with the Wilson blood in his veins couldn't be really low, Godfrey—only misguided. You know they think even a bad Wilson must after all be slightly better at the bottom than other people."
"Jolly good theory," he said, throwing out his broad chest and laughing down at his lady, who had slipped her hand through his arm. "I hope they converted you."
Then they all laughed—though there was nothing at all amusing in his remark—simply because he was so sure of himself and seemed to expect it, Laura glanced up at his large-featured face with soft brown eyes full of admiring affection, and the scar on his cheek from a shrapnel wound still had power to move her. For he had "done splendidly" in the war, enlisting in 1915 and showing marked courage, though his very highly-developed instinct for self-preservation had enabled him to escape dangers where some men might have been caught. No wonder that as Laura stood there with her hand through his strong arm, she thrilled to the certainty that he would break with ease through every obstacle in life, both for himself and her.
"I'm sorry to have kept you so long," she said. "But I think we have fixed up everything about the Fete for the Women's Convalescent Home now. We are so short of funds that we must do something."
"Yes," said Mr. Graham, "the people who used to support it haven't the money to give any longer; and those who have it, won't give, I suppose."
"Oh, don't let us start that all over again," said Mrs. Graham. "Arthur, you will take cold standing here in the night air. Laura, won't you come in for a few minutes?"
But Laura had no desire to share that cosy half-hour by the fire during which Mr. Graham would press his Lizzie to pile on coal and put more sugar in her cocoa for the good of her health, and she would press him to take a little whisky and hot water—in spite of the high price—for the same reason.
The Three Men
Miss Ethel glanced out of the bedroom window next morning as she was opening it more widely, and suddenly, as she looked, every muscle stiffened. What were those three men doing a few yards beyond the privet hedge? But her reason refused to let in the thought that followed. It was preposterous to imagine they would start building there first, with all the field to choose from. Besides, she had never heard of the land being sold—the board was still in its place. Of course, if the land had been sold, the board would have been removed.
She knelt down to say her prayers, beginning with the very same which she used to repeat when she was a little girl by her mother's knee: only the numbers of near relatives then mentioned by name had since dwindled, one by one, as they passed over that bridge from life to eternal life. Then "Our Father"—but the thought of the three men came in between, and she found herself saying "Amen" without having prayed at all. Then she started over again. "Thy kingdom come." But her mind shot away at once from that image of divine order to the unrest by which she was troubled. Pictures of strikes—staring headlines—these crowded in upon her as she knelt, and she rose from her knees still without having really prayed to God.
Then she came downstairs to breakfast to find that Caroline had cleaned the room and had set the breakfast with a certain daintiness, while leaving dust thick on the corners of the floor and under the clock on the mantel-piece. Still, it was such a relief not to have to get up and prepare the breakfast and light the fire that Miss Ethel tried to forget the dust. Of course, after Caroline had gone out, she could go round with a brush and duster, but it was a great rest in the meantime not to start the day with tasks too arduous for her strength and her unaccustomed muscles.
Mrs. Bradford, however, who never felt able to help in the house-work herself, owing to something obscure about the legs, would persist in talking all breakfast time about the dust and Caroline's other shortcomings. "Never know when you have her. This week she is eating at all sorts of hours because she has to go to the promenade and free the other girl at meal times; then next week she will be here at meals only. It is your affair, Ethel. When I came back I let you go on doing the housekeeping, though I am a married woman. But I know when I had a house to manage myself, I should never have put up with such goings-on."
"It's all very well to talk. Neither should I, five years ago," retorted Miss Ethel. "In fact, I should not do so now if there were any alternative. But you know perfectly well that we could not afford to keep a good maid at the present rate of wages, even if we could get one."
Mrs. Bradford contented herself with peering irritatingly through her spectacles at the dusty places after that, because Miss Ethel's statement admitted of no argument; for Mr. Bradford left his widow the honour and glory of the conjugal state and practically nothing more tangible. But to Miss Ethel's generation the mere fact of being married meant more than the present one can understand, and she was accustomed to acquiesce in her sister's air of heavy superiority, though she knew herself to be much the more intelligent of the two.
Still her temper felt so rasped as she went out into the kitchen carrying a tray of crockery that she was in no mood to receive kindly any more new suggestions made to her, and when Caroline asked for a latch-key as a matter of course, she replied stiffly: "I'm sorry, but I could not think of such a thing, Caroline. I must say I rather wonder at your asking it. Your aunt Ellen——"
"Aunt Ellen lived in different times," said Caroline, flushing and throwing up her head. "I am going to a dance with my boy at the Promenade Hall, and it doesn't finish till twelve. I didn't want you to sit up so late for me, that was all."
Miss Ethel also flushed a little on her thin cheekbones, while the left side of her face twitched a little as it did when she was agitated; but that was all the sign she gave of the tumult of irritation, impatience and hurt pride which surged within her. That Ellen's niece should dare to speak to her like that! Still, she knew that she was worn out and could not go on doing all the work of the house, and they would never get anyone else to help them who would be as cheap and respectable as Caroline; so she must put up with it. By a great effort, she managed to control her temper and to say, almost agreeably: "Does Mrs. Creddle know you are going to this dance with a young man?"
"Of course she does," said Caroline, still rather defiant. "I'm not ashamed of it. There's nothing between me and Wilf that I should want to hide from Aunt Creddle."
For without knowing it, Miss Ethel had touched upon a delicate point which Caroline was far more sensitive about than Laura—for instance—would have been; because girls of Caroline's sort have to guard their chastity themselves, while those like Laura are careless, because it has always been guarded for them by somebody else. Still Miss Ethel saw that Caroline was offended, so added after a pause: "If Mrs. Creddle approves of your going, of course it is not my affair. But you must see for yourself that I could not let a girl under my roof stay out until midnight without asking the question. That would be fair neither to you nor to myself."
"No," muttered Caroline. "I didn't mean anything either. Only it has been such a—a rotten thing in the past for every one to think that servant girls must be misbehaving themselves if they stopped out after half-past ten."
"They often were," said Miss Ethel grimly. "Because if they weren't, they remembered it was time to come in and came. But here is your latch-key." And she went out of the kitchen, not daring to trust herself to say any more for fear she should offend Caroline and be left without any help in the house.
But she suffered an almost physical ache from the readjustment of her behaviour to the changed conditions of life as she went upstairs to her bedroom. It was constantly happening like that—there was no time for the irritation to subside before something roused it again. And Miss Ethel took no comfort from the fact that all over the world people were more or less suffering in the same way, because she only vaguely realized that this was so.
She knew, however, that she felt humiliated as she handed over the latch-key to Caroline, contrary to all her own principles, just before the girl went out to collect tickets on the promenade during the dinner interval.
The morning was cold for the first week in June, but a brief spell of August weather in May had acted as a bait to the visitors that Thorhaven lived on now, just as it used to live on the crabs and mackerel and codling and shrimps caught in the bay. But that time was so entirely over and done with that there were not enough real fishermen left to man the lifeboat, and the smell of fish and brine had departed, even from the narrow alleys in the old part of the town where it had been for hundreds of years. Now the owners of the smallest and most inconvenient cottages hung clean curtains, put "To Let, Furnished" bills in the windows, and went off to camp in booths, tents, out-houses or in any place where they could find shelter.
So this morning, though it was still so early in the year, provident mothers with little children, and others bent on a cheaper holiday than August could afford, were walking in light dresses about the roads, emerging gaily from little front gates, clustering round the little bright shops with their piles of fruit and cakes and sweets. It was a bright-coloured company that Caroline saw about the streets as she went along the road towards the familiar row of yellowish-red houses where the Creddles lived.
Mrs. Creddle was ironing, and she looked up from the board almost in tears as her niece entered the kitchen. "Oh, Carrie," she began at once, "I thought you'd be coming. I am in such a way. I don't know whatever you'll say to me, but I've burnt a great place on the front width of your dress. I was pressing it out, because you'd got it all crumpled up in your drawer upstairs, and then Winnie tumbled down on the fender and made her nose bleed. You never saw such a sight. So somehow in my fluster I left the iron on the dress. I can't think how I ever came to do such a thing."
Caroline looked from the burnt front breadth to Mrs. Creddle's agitated face and said nothing. Her disappointment was so great that she must have "told Aunt Creddle off" if she had opened her lips, and she did not want to do that, because she could see the poor woman was distressed enough already.
"Oh, well; never fret!" she managed to say at last. "Plenty more dances before I'm dead. We won't make a trouble about this one."
"But I do," said Mrs. Creddle, dissolving into tears at this kindly address. "Me—that always wants you to enjoy yourself while you can—to have gone and spoilt your only party dress! I could hit myself, I could, if it would do any good."
Upon this little Winnie, still tearful from past sorrows, began to cry loudly again. "You shan't hit yourself, Mummy. I won't let you hit yourself."
"Here!" said Caroline, putting a parcel down on the table. "I got some kippers as I came past the fish shop. I know Uncle Creddle fancies one with his tea."
"You shouldn't have done that, Carrie," said Mrs. Creddle, wiping her eyes. "Kippers is dear nowadays, and I'm sure you have plenty to do with your money."
"Nonsense!" said Caroline. "I'm rolling in riches. You see my keep costs me nothing, and I have all I earn to spend." She went towards the door, saying over her shoulder: "Now, don't you worry about the dress. I can easily get another, and you may cut this up into a Sunday frock for Winnie."
"That I never shall——" began Mrs. Creddle: then her round face became suddenly illuminated. "Why, yes, so I will. And then you can have the one Miss Temple gave me to make into something for the children. It's a queer sort of colour—neither red nor yellow—but it looks all right by night. She said Mr. Wilson didn't like to see her in it. Of course, she's bigger than you, but they wear things so short and loose nowadays that I dare say if I hem the bottom up it will be all right. My word, I am glad I thought of it. I hate keeping you away from the dance."
Caroline paused on the threshold. "I don't like wearing other people's clothes," she said doubtfully.
"No; but Miss Temple's different. She gives things with such a good heart and she never talks about what she does. I can't see that you need mind her," urged Mrs. Creddle. "There's no time to get another dress. It's that, or stopping away from the dance."
Still Caroline hesitated, standing there on the blue linoleum with the bright light shining through the open door on her face. "Oh! all right," she exclaimed finally, then glanced at the clock. "Goodness, I shall be late! You can measure the dress against my old frock. I haven't a minute." And she was out, banging the door behind her.
But before she was many yards away, the door burst open again and Mrs. Creddle's anxious face looked out. "Carrie! Carrie! You don't want to tell your uncle if you come across him. He'd have a fit if he knew you were going to the dance on the prom., let alone wearing that fine frock. You know what he is!"
"Don't I just!" responded Caroline, her spirits beginning to rise again. "Well, what he doesn't know he can't grieve about, so you keep a still tongue in your head and I'll run round for the dress when I leave the prom. after tea." Then at last she was running along the grey pavements with the clean wind blowing towards her from the sea.
In her haste she almost ran into three men who were coming along from the direction of the Cottage with measuring tapes and other appliances in their hands, but she took no particular notice of them, never dreaming that these three commonplace looking men in ordinary dark clothes could even now be haunting another person's imagination with the sinister effect of birds of prey who mark the approach of an invading horde.
But Miss Ethel had seen them from her upper window, and the sight of them walking about in the field had produced an acute physical feeling of nausea and faintness; for her fear lest the field should be built upon and the last seclusion spoilt, had already made one of those deep ruts in the mind along which every thought runs when not actually driven in another direction. And each time Miss Ethel's thoughts passed that way, the rut was bound to become deeper. Though she imagined herself so self-controlled, and seemed so safe as she went quietly about her work removing the dust from corners where Caroline had left it, she was indeed a woman in real danger, still fighting all the great forces of change arrayed against her, and which she must give in to or be destroyed.
The Dance on the Promenade
A night in June brings to the mind of most people soft airs—the scent of roses—a time when the young can sit out-of-doors in the moonlight, and the middle-aged may venture forth without risk of catching cold. But even on such a night in Thorhaven there is a nipping freshness at sunset which keeps the mind alert instead of lulling the senses—giving an exquisite clearness to the thoughts of lovers: at any rate, to the thoughts of lovers like Laura Temple.
But visitors did not realize this, only remarking to each other with disapproval that it was much colder than in Flodmouth, and that you always needed a thick coat in the evening at Thorhaven, whatever the time of year. At the present moment, however, most of them were hurrying away from the wide expanse of shore and sea that glimmered under the reflection of the sunset, for dancing was to start at half-past eight in the glass hall which filled the centre of the promenade.
The girl in charge of the pay-box was busier than usual, and Caroline stood at a little distance taking a professional interest in the number of tickets sold. Her first feeling of importance had worn off, but she had the correct official air of detachment, glancing at the throng which hurried through the barrier with a sort of indulgent superiority, while the band under the glass roof of the hall tootled faintly against the deep roll of the waves. The immensity of the arched sky above, with the dim, flat land on one side, and the expanse of darkening sea on the other, seemed to give to those dance tunes an indescribable melancholy. They seemed to epitomize all the shortness and futility of the little lives which had flickered for a few years on the edge of that sea and then gone out.
Not that Caroline thought of this, being a normal, healthy girl, but a shadow of the thought fell across her bright path and she shivered slightly, drawing her coat closer round her throat. "Come on," she said, turning to Wilf, who stood near waiting for her. "That band gives me the pip, hearing it from the outside. You want something louder than that near the sea."
"Well, you had the steam roundabouts on Bank Holiday, and you didn't like that," said Wilf cheerfully. "Some folks are never satisfied."
"Look!" said Caroline. "There's that friend of Miss Laura Temple's."
Wilf turned to watch a group coming through the barrier. They were young people from some of the larger houses that had been built to accommodate business people from Flodmouth, but evidently not of the sort that desires constant gaiety, or they would not have lived in Thorhaven. Now they had made up a little party to come and dance in the promenade hall, with the simple object of enjoying a fair floor and a band that played in tune.
As they passed Wilf and Caroline, one said eagerly to the other: "Where's Laura Temple? I don't see anything of her. She and Godfrey Wilson were to have waited here for us."
"Oh, didn't you know? Got a sore throat and can't——"
They went on, and Caroline breathed again. She had never thought of Laura being at a dance on the promenade, and the sudden idea of meeting the original owner of the flame-coloured dress gave her a little shock. The whole situation, as it might have been, opened out in front of her for a moment or two, bristling with unpleasantnesses, and she glanced down at the edge of colour appearing under her coat with a distinct regret that she had been persuaded by Mrs. Creddle into wearing the dress. Better far to have stopped at home.
Then there was Wilf, taking her arm with cool possessiveness. "Come on, Carrie! I aren't going to stop here all night while you think over your sins." He laughed and the two girls standing near him laughed too—not that they felt amused, but because laughter was the accepted accompaniment to such conversations.
So they went along together under the first star that hung high in the green sky, and the Flamborough light trembled across the water just as they entered the hot and crowded hall. The spectators—mostly middle-aged—sat in a solid phalanx round the sides of the room doing knitting or crochet, hoping against hope to see other folks make fools of themselves, or afford a spectacle of some sort that might be worth watching.
Already several couples were whirling round on the polished floor, and Caroline, who had come bare-headed, took off her coat at once, placed it in a corner with Wilf's hat, and swung out into the dance. At first Wilf and she were only conscious of being looked at and anxious to do their steps with credit, but after a little while Wilf became agreeably conscious that people were interested in them. He held his partner more jauntily and redoubled his attention to the dance, occasionally whispering some sally into Caroline's ear to show how much at ease he was, and how dashingly he could "carry it off."
Caroline on her part now felt an exhilarated conviction that her own appearance in the flame-coloured dress was the source of attraction; and every time she passed a certain place where a dark screen hung behind the glass, she glanced at a revolving vision of excited eyes and glowing draperies.
The low rays of the sinking sun struck through the glass panes on the western side of the hall and mingled with the gas, which was already turned on, to create a sort of strange half-light in which nobody seemed quite real. The couples swam round and round in this peculiar radiance, while the heavy figures watching appeared to recede and grow more dense.
The music ceased and they stood still, breathing quickly, hemmed in by a large group of people. After a while Caroline suddenly felt a touch on her shoulder from behind. "I say, Laura, I thought you were not——" And she turned round sharply to see Wilson with outstretched arm peering between heads. "Oh," he exclaimed—"so sorry! I took you for Miss Temple. I only caught a glimpse of your dress."
"It's all right," said Caroline abruptly, crimson to the roots of her hair. Then the music started again and she seized hold of Wilf's arm. "Come along! We don't want to lose any of this."
Wilson was left behind among a group who were not dancing at the moment, but gradually they moved away and he stood there alone, steady on his feet—almost impressively self-reliant and sure of himself, though he was neither tall nor handsome. As he stood idly looking on, he began to notice the flame-coloured dress which had been Laura's flashing in and out of the more sober garments. It displayed a good deal of Caroline's figure, which was slim and clean made—something like a Tanagra statuette, but less curved. He found himself watching for her every time as she came round, and finally a thought darted across his mind—a nymph on fire. Why!—he chuckled softly to himself, pleased by the apt phrase and feeling clever—that was what it was, by gad! But where on earth had she got a gown exactly like the one which had suited Laura so badly?
When the music stopped he moved from his place and walked straight up to Caroline. "I must apologize for having touched you on the arm, but I only caught a glimpse of your dress through the crowd," he said, "and at first I thought you were Miss Temple. She has a dress exactly like the one you are wearing."
"Oh, it's all right," repeated Caroline, beginning to move off. Then she suddenly stopped short. After all, he would get to know. She was not going to look as if she were ashamed of what she had done. "It is the same dress," she said, throwing up her head with a jerk, as she did when she was defiant. "Miss Temple gave it to my aunt, Mrs. Creddle, and I'm wearing it because Aunt burnt a frock of mine."
"Lucky thing she did," said Wilson easily. "I can't quite see Mrs. Creddle in this gown—at least, if she is the lady I have encountered at Miss Wilson's."
"Ha! ha!" laughed Wilf, feeling he owed it to his own dignity to assert himself and join in somehow, but finding a difficulty in beginning.
"Miss Temple didn't mean it to be worn. It was to make best frocks for the little ones or something like that," said Caroline. "But I shan't wear it again, so they'll have the benefit of it all the same."
"Well, I'm sure the original wearer would be delighted if she could see you in it," said Wilson.
"Just what I say," put in Wilf, seizing his chance. "Never saw Carrie look better. She'll be immensely grateful to Miss Temple for the loan of it, of course. Wonderful how the ladies can come to the rescue of each other. Now, we men—it's a queer thing, Mr. Wilson, when you come to think of it, but I don't suppose there's two pairs of legs alike in this hall."
"No?" said Wilson interestedly. "Well, I believe you are right. It is strange what things can be discovered about life by keeping one's eyes open. I daresay you don't let much escape yours."
"Oh, I don't go about with them shut, of course," said Wilf modestly. "But I'm like that. It's no credit to me. Always was from a kid."
Wilson glanced round, letting his gaze pass over the little party from the new villas with whom he was fairly well acquainted, then he turned to Wilf. "I don't seem to see many people I know here. I wonder if you would mind my having a turn with Miss Creddle?" he said. "That is, if she does not object."
"My name isn't Creddle; it's Raby," said Caroline.
"Oh, I don't mind. I'll console myself somehow just for one dance," said Wilf grandly, for he was feeling greatly flattered—first by being regarded as Caroline's keeper, and also by the deferential attitude of this older man who had reached the place in life where he would like to be.
"Will you be so kind, Miss Raby?" said Wilson.
So Caroline, unable to refuse, allowed him to put his arm round her and guide her out into the moving throng. After the first moment or two when she was entirely engrossed in feeling annoyed with Wilf, she began to experience a most peculiar and yet agreeable sensation—as if she need not trouble about anything in the whole world ever any more. She remained aware of the music, of the many-coloured throng going round and round in the last rays of the sunset which mingled so strangely with the artificial light from the roof of the hall—still she seemed to be carried along apart from it all; to be enclosed by something which emanated from the man who held her, and which isolated them both. Once or twice he made some trivial remark, but nothing to need thinking about; and when the music stopped she felt for a second or two a sort of dizziness—like coming too suddenly out of a dim room into a bright sunlight.
"I must have met you somewhere before," he was saying. "I am sure I remember your face."
"Yes." She felt the odd dizziness leaving her. With an effort she forced herself to become alert and keen again. "I expect you've seen me collecting tickets. I and another girl take it in turns."
"Ah! That must be what I am thinking of," he said. But he searched his mind in vain for the recollection of a girl at that little window in the pay-box who could by any magic of clothes and swaying steps be transformed even for five minutes into a nymph on fire.
But Wilf came up and he had to let her go—felt, indeed, no particular desire to detain her; for Caroline greeted her admirer with such real relief that he had no doubt of her feelings. She just caught hold of Wilf's arm and began at once to move in time to the music, while that gratified young man nodded jauntily over her shoulder to Wilson and sailed off, thinking himself very grown-up and experienced and important—a man with a female for whom he was responsible—one of the initiate.
Almost immediately after that Wilson went away, but it was three hours later before Caroline and Wilf, having danced their fill, emerged into the coolness of the midnight air. As they walked down the dim promenade together, Wilf was still talking about Wilson. "Some chaps say he is so stand-offish, but I always hold that people treat you as you treat them. And if the fellows say anything of the sort to me in the train, to-morrow, I shall just tell them they're wrong. Most pleasant, he can be, when he likes."
"Why shouldn't he be?" said Caroline. "You're as good as he is."
"I know that, but I haven't got what he has. You don't understand the world yet, Carrie, my dear," he said largely. "I tell you, that man can smell when there's going to be land in the market, if there's anything to be made out of it. Sort of second smell. Ha! ha!"
Carrie laughed. "Go on! You really are a one, Wilf!" But her encouraging laughter was a veil to hide her thoughts—the old veil used a thousand thousand times since life and love began.
"Look here, Carrie," Wilf began again, suddenly serious. "What man has done, man can do. I didn't mean to tell you yet, but I will." He lowered his voice, glancing round at the calm immensity of the moonlight night lest any one should hear him. "If I go on as I am doing, I shall be worth five thousand pounds before I die."
Carrie clutched his arm, looking into the smooth, boyish face so near her own, with its young curves and sharpnesses made wistful by the moonlight. She did not know why, but was suddenly filled with a sort of aching, protective pity when she heard those words mingling with the sound of the sea. It was Wilf's youngness and littleness in the face of that immensity. "Five thousand pounds before I die!" And the sea beating on the shore just the same——
But out of it all, the only words she found were: "I know you will, Wilf. You'll do more than that. Look how your governor spoke about your shorthand last week."
"And that brings me," continued Wilf, growing more and more solemn and important, "to what I really want to say. I'm going to get the ring to-morrow, Carrie, so you'd better lend me that old one of your mother's you have on, for a measure. I aren't going to ask you what stones you'd like, because I shall get diamonds. A dress ring without diamonds is nothing, and I mean my wife to have the best."
"Diamonds! Oh, Wilf!" said Carrie. But the first glow of surprise and pleasure passed almost before it was there. "Wife!" She didn't want that. She wasn't ready for that. "Don't think of such a thing. We can't be married for years and years. Besides, I don't want a ring. It—it hasn't got so far, yet. We have always been friends, but when it comes to settling down together for life—-"
He swung round. "What on earth do you mean?" he demanded. "Are you keeping a loophole open to throw me over for somebody else?"
"No, no!" she said. "I have never thought of anybody else. I couldn't imagine myself going with anybody but you. Only I don't want to be tied yet. I want to feel free a bit longer."