Fingersmith – 2005
Written By Sarah Waters
My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is. dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me. I was Mrs Sucksby’s child, if I was anyone’s; and for father I had Mr Ibbs, who kept the locksmith’s shop, at Lant Street, in the Borough, near to the Thames.
This is the first time I remember thinking about the world and my place in it.
There was a girl named Flora, who paid Mrs Sucksby a penny to take me begging at a play. People used to like to take me begging then, for the sake of my bright hair; and Flora being also very fair, she would pass me off as her sister. The theatre she took me to, on the night I am thinking of now, was the Surrey, St George’s Circus. The play was Oliver Twist. I remember it as very terrible. I remember the tilt of the gallery, and the drop to the pit. I remember a drunken woman catching at the ribbons of my dress. I remember the flares, that made the stage very lurid; and the roaring of the actors, the shrieking of the crowd. They had one of the characters in a red wig and whiskers: I was certain he was a monkey in a coat, he capered so. Worse still was the snarling, pink-eyed dog; worst of all was that dog’s master—Bill Sykes, the fancy-man. When he struck the poor girl Nancy with his club, the people all down our row got up. There was a boot thrown at the stage. A woman beside me cried out,
‘Oh, you beast! You villain! And her worth forty of a bully like you!’
I don’t know if it was the people getting up—which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes’s feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me. And when the woman who had called out put her arms to me and smiled, I screamed out louder. Then Flora began to weep—she was only twelve or thirteen, I suppose. She took me home, and Mrs Sucksby slapped her.
‘What was you thinking of, taking her to such a thing?’ she said. ‘You was to sit with her upon the steps. I don’t hire my infants out to have them brought back like this, turned blue with screaming. What was you playing at?’
She took me upon her lap, and I wept again. ‘There now, my lamb,’ she said. Flora stood before her, saying nothing, pulling a strand of hair across her scarlet cheek. Mrs Sucksby was a devil with her dander up. She looked at Flora and tapped her slippered foot upon the rug, all the time rocking in her chair—that was a great creaking wooden chair, that no-one sat in save her—and beating her thick, hard hand upon my shaking back. Then,
‘I know your little rig,’ she said quietly. She knew everybody’s rig. ‘What you get? A couple of wipers, was it? A couple of wipers, and a lady’s purse?’
Flora pulled the strand of hair to her mouth, and bit it. ‘A purse,’ she said, after a second. ‘And a bottle of scent.’
‘Show,’ said Mrs Sucksby, holding out her hand. Flora’s face grew darker. But she put her fingers to a tear at the waist of her skirt, and reached inside it; and you might imagine my surprise when the tear turned out to be not a tear at all, but the neck of a little silk pocket that was sewn inside her gown. She brought out a black cloth bag, and a bottle with a stopper on a silver chain. The bag had threepence in it, and half a nutmeg. Perhaps she got it from the drunken woman who plucked at my dress. The bottle, with its stopper off, smelt of roses. Mrs Sucksby sniffed.
‘Pretty poor poke,’ she said, ‘ain’t it?’
Flora tossed her head. ‘I should have had more,’ she said, with a look at me, ‘if she hadn’t started up with the sterics.’
Mrs Sucksby leaned and hit her again.
‘If I had known what you was about,’ she said, ‘you shouldn’t have had none of it at all. Let me tell you this now: you want an infant for prigging with, you take one of my other babies. You don’t take Sue. Do you hear me?’
Flora sulked, but said she did. Mrs Sucksby said, ‘Good. Now hook it. And leave that poke behind you, else I shall tell your mother you’ve been going with gentlemen.’
Then she took me to her bed—first, rubbing at the sheets with her hands, to warm them; then stooping to breathe upon my fingers, to warm me. I was the only one, of all her infants, she would do that for. She said, ‘You ain’t afraid now, Sue?’
But I was, and said so. I said I was afraid the fancy-man would find me out and hit me with his stick. She said she had heard of that particular fancy-man: he was all bounce. She said,
‘It was Bill Sykes, wasn’t it? Why, he’s a Clerkenwell man. He don’t trouble with the Borough. The Borough boys are too hard for him.’
I said, ‘But, oh, Mrs Sucksby! You never saw the poor girl Nancy, and how he knocked her down and murdered her!’
‘Murdered her?’ she said then. ‘Nancy? Why, I had her here an hour ago. She was only beat a bit about the face. She has her hair curled different now, you wouldn’t know he ever laid his hand upon her.’
I said, ‘Won’t he beat her again, though?’
She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco.
She lifted my hair from about my neck and smoothed it across the pillow. My hair, as I have said, was very fair then—though it grew plain brown, as I got older—and Mrs Sucksby used to wash it with vinegar and comb it till it sparked. Now she smoothed it flat, then lifted a tress of it and touched it to her lips. She said, ‘That Flora tries to take you on the prig again, you tell me—will you?’
I said I would. ‘Good girl,’ she said. Then she went. She took her candle with her, but the door she left half-open, and the cloth at the window was of lace and let the street-lamps show. It was never quite dark there, and never quite still. On the floor above were a couple of rooms where girls and boys would now and then come to stay: they laughed and thumped about, dropped coins, and sometimes danced. Beyond the wall lay Mr Ibbs’s sister, who was kept to her bed: she often woke with the horrors on her, shrieking. And all about the house—laid top-to-toe in cradles, like sprats in boxes of salt—were Mrs Sucksby’s infants. They might start up whimpering or weeping any hour of the night, any little thing might set them off. Then Mrs Sucksby would go among them, dosing them from a bottle of gin, with a little silver spoon you could hear chink against the glass.
On this night, though, I think the rooms upstairs must have been empty, and Mr Ibbs’s sister stayed quiet; and perhaps because of the quiet, the babies kept asleep. Being used to the noise, I lay awake. I lay and thought again of cruel Bill Sykes; and of Nancy, dead at his feet. From some house nearby there sounded a man’s voice, cursing. Then a church bell struck the hour—the chimes came queerly across the windy streets. I wondered if Flora’s slapped cheek still hurt her. I wondered how near to the Borough was Clerkenwell; and how quick the way would seem, to a man with a stick.
I had a warm imagination, even then. When there came footsteps in Lant Street, that stopped outside the window; and when the foot-
steps were followed by the whining of a dog, the scratching of the dog’s claws, the careful turning of the handle of our shop door, I started up off my pillow and might have screamed—except that before I could the dog gave a bark, and the bark had a catch to it, that I thought I knew: it was not the pink-eyed monster from the theatre, but our own dog, Jack. He could fight like a brick. Then there came a whistle. Bill Sykes never whistled so sweet. The lips were Mr Ibbs’s. He had been out for a hot meat pudding for his and Mrs Sucksby’s supper.
‘All right?’ I heard him say. ‘Smell the gravy on this …”
Then his voice became a murmur, and I fell back. I should say I was five or six years old. I remember it clear as anything, though. I remember lying, and hearing the sound of knives and forks and china, Mrs Sucksby’s sighs, the creaking of her chair, the beat of her slipper on the floor. And I remember seeing—what I had never seen before—how the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last.—I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.
It was only many years later, when I saw Oliver Twist a second time, that I understood that Nancy of course got murdered after all. By then, Flora was quite the fingersmith: the Surrey was nothing to her, she was working the West End theatres and halls—she could go through the crowds like salts. She never took me with her again, though. She was like everyone, too scared of Mrs Sucksby.
She was caught at last, poor thing, with her hands on a lady’s bracelet; and was sent for transportation as a thief.
We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. If I had stared to see Flora put her hand to a tear in her skirt and bring out a purse and perfume, I was never so surprised again: for it was a very dull day with us, when no-one came to Mr Ibbs’s shop with a bag or a packet in the lining of his coat, in his hat, in his sleeve or stocking.
‘All right, Mr Ibbs?’he’d say.
‘All right, my son,’ Mr Ibbs would answer. He talked rather through his nose, like that. ‘What you know?’
‘Got something for me?’
The man would wink. ‘Got something, Mr Ibbs, very hot and uncommon …”
They always said that, or something like it. Mr Ibbs would nod, then pull the blind upon the shop-door and turn the key—for he was a cautious man, and never saw poke near a window. At the back of his counter was a green baize curtain, and behind that was a passage, leading straight to our kitchen. If the thief was one he knew he would bring him to the table. ‘Come on, my son,’ he would say. ‘I don’t do this for everyone. But you are such an old hand that—well, you might be family’ And he would have the man lay out his stuff between the cups and crusts and tea-spoons.
Mrs Sucksby might be there, feeding pap to a baby. The thief would see her and take off his hat.
All right, Mrs Sucksby?’
All right, my dear.’
All right, Sue? Ain’t you growed!’
I thought them better than magicians. For out from their coats and sleeves would come pocket-books, silk handkerchiefs and watches; or else jewellery, silver plate, brass candlesticks, petticoats—whole suits of clothes, sometimes. ‘This is quality stuff, this is,’ they would say, as they set it all out; and Mr Ibbs would rub his hands and look expectant. But then he would study their poke, and his face would fall. He was a very mild-looking man, very honest-seeming—very pale in the cheek, with neat lips and whiskers. His face would fall, it would just about break your heart.
‘Rag,’ he might say, shaking his head, fingering a piece of paper money. ‘Very hard to push along.’ Or, ‘Candlesticks. I had a dozen top-quality candlesticks come just last week, from a crib at Whitehall. Couldn’t do nothing with them. Couldn’t give them away’
He wo-uld stand, making a show of reckoning up a price, but looking like he hardly dare name it to the man for fear of insulting him. Then he’d make his offer, and the thief would look disgusted.
‘Mr Ibbs,’ he would say, ‘that won’t pay me for the trouble of walking from LondonBridge. Be fair, now.’
But by then Mr Ibbs would have gone to his box and be counting out shillings on the table: one, two, three— He might pause, with the fourth in his hand. The thief would see the shine of the silver—Mr Ibbs always kept his coins rubbed very bright, for just that reason—and it was like hares to a greyhound.
‘Couldn’t you make it five, Mr Ibbs?’
Mr Ibbs would lift his honest face, and shrug.
‘I should like to, my son. I should like nothing better. And if you was to bring me something out of the way, I would make my money answer. This, however’—with a wave of his hand above the pile of silks or notes or gleaming brass—’this is so much gingerbread. I should be robbing myself. I should be stealing the food from the mouths of Mrs Sucksby’s babies.’
And he would hand the thief his shillings, and the thief would pocket them and button his jacket, and cough or wipe his nose.
And then Mr Ibbs would seem to have a change of heart. He would step to his box again and, ‘You eaten anything this morning, my son?’ he would say. The thief would always answer, ‘Not a crust.’ Then Mr Ibbs would give him sixpence, and tell him to be sure and spend it on a breakfast and not on a horse; and the thief would say something like,
‘You’re a jewel, Mr Ibbs, a regular jewel.’
Mr Ibbs might make ten or twelve shillings’ profit with a man like that: all through seeming to be honest, and fair. For, of course, what he had said about the rag or the candlesticks would be so much puff: he knew brass from onions, all right. When the thief had gone, he’d catch my eye and wink. He’d rub his hands again and grow quite lively.
‘Now, Sue,’ he’d say, ‘what would you say to taking a cloth to these, and bringing up the shine? And then you might—if you’ve a moment, dear, if Mrs Sucksby don’t need you—you might have a little go at the fancy work upon these wipers. Only a very little, gentle sort of go, with your little scissors and perhaps a pin: for this is lawn—do you see, my dear?—and will tear, if you tug too hard …”
I believe I learned my alphabet, like that: not by putting letters down, but by taking them out. I know I learned the look of my own name, from handkerchiefs that came, marked Susan. As for regular reading, we never troubled with it. Mrs Sucksby could do it, if she had to; Mr Ibbs could read, and even write; but, for the rest of us, it was an idea—well, I should say, like speaking Hebrew or throwing somersaults: you could see the use of it, for Jews and tumblers; but while it was their lay, why make it yours?
So I thought then, anyway. I learned to cipher, though. I learned it, from handling coins. Good coins we kept, of course. Bad ones come up too bright, and must be slummed, with blacking and grease, before you pass them on. I learned that, too. Silks and linens there are ways of washing and pressing, to make them seem new. Gems I would shine, with ordinary vinegar. Silver plate we ate our suppers off—but only the once, because of the crests and stampings; and when we had finished, Mr Ibbs would take the cups and bowls and melt them into bars. He did the same with gold and pewter. He never took chances: that’s what made him so good. Everything that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to leave it again looking quite another. And though it had come in the front way—the shop way, the Lant Street way—it left by another way, too. It left by the back. There was no street there. What there was, was a little covered passage and a small dark court. You might stand in that and think yourself baffled; there was a path, however, if you knew how to look. It took you to an alley, and that met a winding black lane, which ran to the arches of the railway line; and from one of those arches—I won’t say quite which, though I could—led another, darker, lane that would take you, very quick and inconspicuous, to the river. We knew two or three men who kept boats there. All along that crooked way, indeed, lived pals of ours—Mr Ibbs’s nephews, say, that I called cousins. We could send poke from our kitchen, through any of them, to all the parts of London. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. We could pass ice, in August, before a quarter of the block should have had a chance to turn to water. We could pass sunshine in summer—Mr Ibbs would find a buyer for it.
In short, there was not much that was brought to our house that was not moved out of it again, rather sharpish. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got stuck—one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage of poke— one thing that Mr Ibbs and Mrs Sucksby seemed never to think to put a price to.
I mean of course, Me.
I had my mother to thank for that. Her story was a tragic one. She had come to Lant Street on a certain night in 1844. She had come, ‘very large, dear girl, with you,’ Mrs Sucksby said—by which, until I learned better, I took her to mean that my mother had brought me, perhaps tucked in a pocket behind her skirt, or sewn into the lining of her coat. For I knew she was a thief.—’What a thief!’ Mrs Sucksby would say. ‘So bold! And handsome?’
‘Was she, Mrs Sucksby? Was she fair?’
‘Fairer than you; but sharp, like you, about the face; and thin as paper. We put her upstairs. No-one knew she was here, save me and Mr Ibbs—for she was wanted, she said, by the police of four divisions, and if they had got her, she’d swing. What was her lay? She said it was only prigging. I think it must have been worse. I know she was hard as a nut, for she had you and, I swear, she never murmured—never called out once. She only looked at you, and put a kiss on your little head; then she gave me six pounds for the keeping of you—all of it in sovereigns, and all of ’em good. She said she had one last job to do, that would make her fortune. She meant to come back for you, when her way was clear
So Mrs Sucksby told it; and every time, though her voice would start off steady it would end up trembling, and her eyes would fill with tears. For she had waited for my mother, and my mother had not come. What came, instead, was awful news. The job that was meant to make her fortune, had gone badly. A man had been killed trying to save his plate. It was my mother’s knife that killed him. Her own pal peached on her. The police caught up with her at last. She was a month in prison. Then they hanged her.
They hanged her, as they did murderesses then, on the roof of
the Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Mrs Sucksby stood and watched the drop, from the window of the room that I was born in.
You got a marvellous view of it from there—the best view in South London, everybody said. People were prepared to pay very handsomely for a spot at that window, on hanging days. And though some girls shrieked when the trap went rattling down, I never did. I never once shuddered or winked.
‘That’s Susan Trinder,’ someone might whisper then. ‘Her mother was hanged as a murderess. Ain’t she brave?’
I liked to hear them say it. Who wouldn’t? But the fact is—and I don’t care who knows it, now—the fact is, I was not brave at all. For to be brave about a thing like that, you must first be sorry. And how could I be sorry, for someone I never knew? I supposed it was a pity my mother had ended up hanged; but, since she was hanged, I was glad it was for something game, like murdering a miser over his plate, and not for something very wicked, like throttling a child. I supposed it was a pity she had made an orphan of me—but then, some girls I knew had mothers who were drunkards, or mothers who were mad: mothers they hated and could never rub along with. I should rather a dead mother, over one like that!
I should rather Mrs Sucksby. She was better by chalks. She had been paid to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What’s love, if that ain’t? She might have passed me on to the poorhouse. She might have left me crying in a draughty crib. Instead she prized me so, she would not let me on the prig for fear a policeman should have got me. She let me sleep beside her, in her own bed. She shined my hair with vinegar. You treat jewels like that.
And I was not a jewel; nor even a pearl. My hair, after all, turned out quite ordinary. My face was a commonplace face. I could pick a plain lock, I could cut a plain key; I could bounce a coin and say, from the ring, if the coin were good or bad.—But anyone can do those things, who is taught them. All about me other infants came, and stayed a little, then were claimed by their mothers, or found new mothers, or perished; and of course, no-one claimed me, I did not perish, instead I grew up, until at last I was old enough to go
among the cradles with the bottle of gin and the silver spoon myself. Mr Ibbs I would seem sometimes to catch gazing at me with a certain light in his eye—as if, I thought, he was seeing me suddenly for the piece of poke I was, and wondering how I had come to stay so long, and who he could pass me on to. But when people talked—as they now and then did—about blood, and its being thicker than water, Mrs Sucksby looked dark.
‘Come here, dear girl,’ she’d say. ‘Let me look at you.’ And she’d put her hands upon my head and stroke my cheeks with her thumbs, brooding over my face. ‘I see her in you,’ she’d say. ‘She is looking at me, as she looked at me that night. She is thinking that she’ll come back and make your fortune. How could she know? Poor girl, she’ll never come back! Your fortune’s still to be made. Your fortune, Sue, and ours along with it…”
So she said, many times. Whenever she grumbled or sighed— whenever she rose from a cradle, rubbing her sore back—her eyes would find me out, and her look would clear, she’d grow contented.
But here is Sue, she might as well have said. Things is hard for us, now. But here is Sue. She’ll fix ’em . . .
I let her think it; but thought I knew better. I’d heard once that she’d had a child of her own, many years before, that had been born dead. I thought it was her face she supposed she saw, when she gazed so hard at mine. The idea made me shiver, rather; for it was queer to think of being loved, not just for my own sake, but for someone’s I never kne’V . . .
I thought I knew all about love, in those days. I thought I knew all about everything. If you had asked me how I supposed I should go on, I dare say I would have said that I should like to farm infants. I might like to be married, to a thief or a fencing-man. There was a boy, when I was fifteen, that stole a clasp for me, and said he should like to kiss me. There was another a little later, who used to stand at our back door and whistle The Locksmith’s Daughter’, expressly to see me blush. Mrs Sucksby chased them both away. She was as careful of me in that department, as in all others.
‘Who’s she keeping you for, then?’ the boys would say. ‘Prince Eddie?’
I think the people who came to Lant Street thought me slow.— Slow I mean, as opposed to fast. Perhaps I was, by Borough standards. But it seemed to me that I was sharp enough. You could not have grown up in such a house, that had such businesses in it, without having a pretty good idea of what was what—of what could go into what; and what could come out.
Do you follow?
You are waiting for me to start my story. Perhaps I was waiting, then. But my story had already started—I was only like you, and didn’t know it.
This is when I thought it really began.
A night in winter, a few weeks after the Christmas that marked my seventeenth birthday. A dark night—a hard night, full of a fog that was more or less a rain, and a rain that was more or less snow. Dark nights are good to thieves and fencing-men; dark nights in winter are the best nights of all, for then regular people keep close to their homes, and the swells all keep to the country, and the grand houses of London are shut up and empty and pleading to be cracked. We got lots of stuff on nights like those, and Mr Ibbs’s profits were higher than ever. The cold makes thieves come to a bargain very quick.
We did not feel the cold too much at Lant Street, for besides our ordinary kitchen fire there was Mr Ibbs’s locksmith’s brazier: he always kept a flame beneath the coals of it, you could never say what might not turn up that would need making up or melting down. On this night there were three or four boys at it, sweating the gold off sovereigns. Besides them was Mrs Sucksby in her great chair, a couple of babies in a cradle at her side; and a boy and a girl who were rooming with us then—John Vroom, and Dainty Warren.
John was a thin, dark, knifish boy of about fourteen. He was always eating. I believe he had the worm. This night he was cracking peanuts, and throwing their shells on the floor.
Mrs Sucksby saw him do it. ‘Will you watch your manners?’ she said. ‘You make a mess, and Sue shall have to tidy it.’
John said, ‘Poor Sue, ain’t my heart bleeding.’
He never cared for me. I think he was jealous. He had come to our house as a baby, like me; and like mine, his mother had died and made an orphan of him. But he was such a queer-looking child, no-one would take him off Mrs Sucksby’s hands. She had kept him till he was four or five, then put him on the parish—even then, however, he was a devil to get rid of, always running back from the workhouse: we were forever opening the shop-door and finding him sleeping on the step. She had got the master of a ship to take him at last, and he sailed as far as China; when he came back to the Borough after that, he did it with money, to brag. The money had lasted a month. Now he kept handy at Lant Street by doing jobs for Mr Ibbs; and besides them, ran mean little dodges of his own, with Dainty to help him.
She was a great red-haired girl of three-and-twenty, and more or less a simpleton. She had neat white hands, though, and could sew like anything. John had her at this time stitching dog-skins onto stolen dogs, to make them seem handsomer breeds than what they really were.
He was doing a deal with a dog-thief. This man had a couple of bitches: when the bitches came on heat he would walk the streets with them, tempting dogs away from their owners, then charging a ten pounds’ ransom before he’d give them back. That works best with sporting dogs, and dogs with sentimental mistresses; some owners, however, will never pay up—you could cut off their little dog’s tail and post it to them and never see a bean, they are that heartless—and the dogs that John’s pal was landed with he would throttle, then sell to him at a knocked-down price. I can’t say what John did with the meat—passed it off as rabbit, perhaps, or ate it himself. But the skins, as I have said, he had Dainty stitching to plain street-dogs, which he was selling as quality breeds at the Whitechapel Market.
The bits of fur left over she was sewing together to cover him a greatcoat. She was sewing it, this night. She had the collar done and the shoulders and half the sleeves, and there were about forty different sorts of dog in it already. The smell of it was powerful, before
a fire, and drove our own dog—which was not the old fighter, Jack, but another, brown dog we called Charley Wag, after the thief in the story—into a perfect fever.
Now and then Dainty would hold the coat up for us all to see how well it looked.
‘It’s a good job for Dainty that you ain’t a deal taller, John,’ I said. one time she did this.
‘It’s a good job for you that you ain’t dead,’ he answered. He was short, and felt it. ‘Though a shame for the rest of us. I should like a bit of your skin upon the sleeves of my coat—perhaps upon the cuffs of it, where I wipes my nose. You should look right at home, beside a bulldog or a boxer.’
He took up his knife, that he always kept by him, and tested the edge with his thumb. ‘I ain’t quite decided yet,’ he said, ‘but what I shan’t come one night, and take a bit of skin off while you are sleeping. What should you say, Dainty, if I was to make you sew up that?’ *
Dainty put her hand to her mouth and screamed. She wore a ring, too large for her hand; she had wound a bit of thread about the finger beneath, and the thread was quite black.
‘You tickler!’ she said.
John smiled, and tapped with the point of his knife against a broken tooth. Mrs Sucksby said,
‘That’s enough from you, or I’ll knock your bloody head off. I won’t have Sue made nervous.’
I said at once, that if I thought I should be made nervous by an infant like John Vroom, I should cut my throat. John said he should like to cut it for me. Then Mrs Sucksby leaned from her chair and hit him—just as she had once leaned, on that other night, all that time before, and hit poor Flora; and as she had leaned and hit others, in the years in between—all for my sake.
John looked for a second as if he should like to strike her back; then he looked at me, as if he should like to strike me harder. Then Dainty shifted in her seat, and he turned and struck her.
Beats me,’ he said when he had done it, ‘why everyone is so down on me.’
Dainty had started to cry. She reached for his sleeve. ‘Never mind their hard words, Johnny,’ she said. ‘I sticks to you, don’t I?’
‘You sticks, all right,’ he answered. ‘Like shit to a shovel.’ He pushed her hand away, and she sat rocking in her chair, huddled over the dog-skin coat and weeping into her stitches.
‘Hush now, Dainty,’ said Mrs Sucksby. ‘You are spoiling your nice work.’
She cried for a minute. Then one of the boys at the brazier burned his finger on a hot coin, and started off swearing; and she screamed with laughter. John put another peanut to his mouth and spat the shell upon the floor.
Then we sat quiet, for perhaps a quarter of an hour. Charley Wag lay before the fire and twitched, chasing hansoms in his sleep—his tail was kinked where a cab-wheel had caught it. I got out cards, for a game of Patience. Dainty sewed. Mrs Sucksby dozed. John sat perfectly idle; but would now and then look over at the cards I dealt, to tell me where to place them.
‘Jack of Diggers on the Bitch of Hearts,’ he would say. Or, ‘Lor! Ain’t you slow?’
‘Ain’t you hateful?’ I would answer, keeping on with my own game. The pack was an old one, the cards as limp as rags. A man had been killed once, in a fight over a crooked game that was played with those cards. I set them out a final time and turned my chair a little, so that John might not see how they fell.
And then, all at once, one of the babies started out of its slumber and began to cry, and Charley Wag woke up and gave a bark. There was a sudden gust of wind that made the fire leap high in the chimney, and the rain came harder upon the coals and made them hiss. Mrs Sucksby opened her eyes. ‘What’s that?’ she said.
‘What’s what?’ said John.
Then we heard it: a thump, in the passage that led to the back of the house. Then another thump came. Then the thumps became footsteps. The footsteps stopped at the kitchen door—there was a second of silence—and then, slow and heavy, a knock.
Knock—knock—knock. Like that. Like the knocking on a door in a play, when the dead man’s ghost comes back. Not a thief’s knock,
anyway: that is quick and light. You knew what sort of business it was, when you heard that. This business, however, might be anything, anything at all. This business might be bad.
So we all thought. We looked at one another, and Mrs Sucksby reached into the cradle to draw the baby from it and stop its cries against her bosom; and John took hold of Charley Wag and held his jaws shut. The boys at the brazier fell silent as mice. Mr Ibbs said quietly, ‘Anyone expected? Boys, put this lot away. Never mind your burning fingers. If it’s the blues, we’re done for.’
They began picking at the sovereigns and the gold they had sweated from them, wrapping them in handkerchiefs, putting the handkerchiefs beneath their hats or in their trouser pockets. One of them—it was Mr Ibbs’s oldest nephew, Phil—went quickly to the door and stood beside it, his back flat to the wall, his hand in his coat. He had passed two terms in prison, and always swore he would not pass a third.
The knock came again. Mr Ibbs said, ‘All tidy? Now, be steady, boys, be steady. What do you say, Sue my dear, to opening that door?’
I looked again at Mrs Sucksby, and when she nodded, went and drew back the bolt; the door was flung so quick and hard against me, Phil thought it had been shouldered—I saw him brace himself against the wall, bring out his knife and lift it. But it was only the wind that made the door swing: it came in a rush into the kitchen, blowing half the candles out, making the brazier spark, and sending all my playing-cards flying. In the passage stood a man, dressed dark, wet through and dripping, and with a leather bag at his feet. The dim light showed his pale cheeks, his whiskers, but his eyes were quite hidden in the shadow of his hat. I should not have known him if he had not spoken. He said,
‘Sue! Is it Sue? Thank God! I have come forty miles to see you. Will you keep me standing here? I am afraid the cold will kill me!’
Then I knew him, though I had not seen him for more than a year. Not one man in a hundred came to Lant Street speaking like him. His name was Richard Rivers, or Dick Rivers, or sometimes Richard Wells. We called him by another name, however; and it
was that name I said now, when Mrs Sucksby saw me staring and called, ‘Who is it, then?’
‘It’s Gentleman,’ I said.
That is how we said it, of course: not how a proper gent would say it, using all his teeth on it; but as if the word were a fish and we had filleted it—Ge’mun.
‘It’s Gentleman,’ I said; and Phil at once put his knife away, and spat, and went back to the brazier. Mrs Sucksby, however, turned in her chair, the baby twisting its scarlet face from her bosom and opening its mouth.
‘Gentleman!’ she cried. The baby started shrieking, and Charley Wag, let free by John, dashed barking to Gentleman and put his paws upon his coat. ‘What a turn you gave us! Dainty, take a taper to them candles. Put the water on the fire, for a pot.’
‘We thought you was the blues,’ I said, as Gentleman came into the kitchen.
‘I believe I am turned blue,’ he answered. He set down his bag, and shivered, and took off his sodden hat and gloves and then his dripping greatcoat, which at once began to steam. He rubbed his hands together, then passed them over his head. He kept his hair and whiskers long and now, the rain having taken the kink from them, they seemed longer than ever, and dark, and sleek. There were rings at his fingers, and a watch, with a jewel on the chain, at his waistcoat. I knew without studying them that the rings and the watch were snide, and the jewel a paste one; but they were damn fine counterfeits.
The room grew brighter as Dainty saw to the lights. Gentleman looked about him, still rubbing his hands together and nodding.
‘How do you do, Mr Ibbs?’ he called easily. ‘How do you do, lads?’
Mr Ibbs said, ‘Very well, my tulip.’ The boys did not answer. Phil said, to no-one, ‘Come in the back way, did he?1—and another boy laughed.
Boys like that always think that men like Gentleman are nancies.
John laughed too, but louder than the others. Gentleman looked at him. ‘Hallo, you little tick,’ he said. ‘Lost your monkey?’
John’s cheek being so sallow, everyone always took him for an Italian. Now, hearing Gentleman, he put his finger to his nose. ‘You can kiss my arse,’ he said.
‘Can I?’ said Gentleman, smiling. He winked at Dainty, and she ducked her head. ‘Hallo, charmer,’ he said. Then he stooped to Charley Wag, and pulled his ears. ‘Hallo, you Wagster. Where’s police? Hey? Where’s police? See ’em off!’ Charley Wag went wild. ‘Good boy/ said Gentleman, rising, brushing off hairs. ‘Good boy. That will do.’
Then he went and stood at Mrs Sucksby’s chair.
‘Hallo, Mrs S,’ he said.
The baby, now, had had a dose of gin, and had cried itself quiet. Mrs Sucksby held out her hand. Gentleman caught it up and kissed | it—first at the knuckles, and then at the tips. Mrs Sucksby said,
‘Get up out of that chair, John, and let Gentleman sit down.’
John looked like thunder for a minute, then rose and took Dainty’s stool. Gentleman sat, and spread his legs towards the fire. He was tall, and his legs were long. He was seven- or eight-and-twenty. Beside him, John looked about six.
Mrs Sucksby kept her eyes upon him while he yawned and rubbed his face. Then he met her gaze, and smiled.
‘Well, well,’ he said. ‘How’s business?’
‘Pretty sweet,’ she answered. The baby lay still, and she patted it as she had used to pat me. Gentleman nodded to it.
‘And this little bud,’ he said: ‘is it farm, or is it family?’
‘Farm, of course,’ she said.
‘A he-bud, or a she-bud?’
A he-bud, bless his gums! Another poor motherless infant what I shall be bringing up by hand.’
Gentleman leaned towards her.
‘Lucky boy!’ he said, and winked.
Mrs Sucksby cried, ‘Oh!’ and turned pink as a rose. ‘You saucebox!’
Nancy or not, he could certainly make a lady blush. We called him Gentleman, because he really was a gent—had been,
he said, to a real gent’s school, and had a father and a mother and a
jster__all swells—whose heart he had just about broke. He had had
money once, and lost it all gambling; his pa said he should never have another cent of the family fortune; and so he was obliged to get money the old-fashioned way, by thievery and dodging. He took to the life so well, however, we all said there must have been bad blood way back in that family, that had all come out in him.
He could be quite the painter when ht chose, and had done a little work in the forgery line, at Paris; when that fell through, I think he spent a year putting French books into English—or English books into French—anyway, putting them slightly different each time, and pinning different titles on them, and so making one old story pass as twenty brand-new ones. Mostly, however, he worked as a confidence-man, and as a sharper at the grand casinos—for of course, he could mix with Society, and seem honest as the rest. The ladies especially would go quite wild for him. He had three times been nearly married to some rich heiress, but every time the father in the case had grown suspicious and the deal had fallen through. He had ruined many people by selling them stock from counterfeit banks. He was handsome as a plum, and Mrs Sucksby fairly doted on him. He came to Lant Street about once a year, bringing poke to Mr Ibbs, and picking up bad coin, cautions, and tips.
I supposed he had come bringing poke with him, now; and so, it seemed, did Mrs Sucksby, for once he had grown warm again before the fire and Dainty had given him tea, with rum in it, she placed the sleeping baby back in its cradle and smoothed her skirt across her lap and said,
‘Well now, Gentleman, this is a pleasure all right. We didn’t look for you for another month or two. Have you something with you, as Mr Ibbs will like the look of?’
Gentleman shook his head. ‘Nothing for Mr Ibbs, I am afraid.’
‘What, nothing? Do you hear that, Mr Ibbs?’
‘Very sad,’ said Mr Ibbs, from his place at the brazier.
Mrs Sucksby grew confidential. ‘Have you something, then, for me?’
But Gentleman shook his head again.
‘Not for you, either, Mrs S,’ he said. ‘Not for you; not for Garibaldi here’ (meaning John); ‘not for Dainty, nor for Phil and the boys; nor even for Charley Wag.’
He said this, going all about the room with his eyes; and finally looking at me, and then saying nothing. I had taken up the scattered playing-cards, and was sorting them back into their suits. When I saw him gazing—and, besides him, John and Dainty, and Mrs Sucksby, still quite pink in the face, also looking my way—I put the cards down. He at once reached over and picked them up, and started shuffling. He was that kind of man, whose hands must always be busy.
‘Well, Sue,’ he said, his eyes still upon me. His eyes were a very clear blue.
‘Well, what?’ I answered.
‘What do you say to this? It’s you I’ve come for.’
‘Her!’ said John, in disgust.
Gentleman nodded. ‘I have something for you. A proposal.’
‘A proposal!’ said Phil. He had overheard it. ‘Look out, Sue, he only wants to marry you!’
Dainty screamed, and the boys all sniggered. Gentleman blinked, then took his eyes from me at last, and leaned to Mrs Sucksby to say,
‘Get rid of our friends at the brazier, would you? But keep John and Dainty: I shall want their help.’
Mrs Sucksby hesitated, then glanced at Mr Ibbs; and Mr Ibbs said at once, ‘Right, lads, these sovs is sweated so hard, the poor queen’s quite a shadder. Any more of it, we shall be done for treason.’ He took up a pail, and began to drop the hot coins into the water, one by one. ‘Listen to them yellow boys cry hush!’ he said. ‘The gold knows best. Now, what does the gold know?’
‘Go on, Uncle Humphry,’ said Phil. He drew on his coat and turned up his collar. The other boys did the same. ‘So long,’ they said, with a nod to me, to John and Dainty and Mrs Sucksby. To Gentleman they said nothing. He watched them go by.
‘Watch your back, lads!’ he called, as the door was closed behind them. We heard Phil spit again.
Mr Ibbs turned the key in the lock. Then he came and poured himself a cup of tea—splashing rum in it, as Dainty had for Gentman. The scent of the rum rose on the steam, to mix with the smell of the fire, the sweated gold, the dog-skins, the wet and teaming greatcoat. The rain fell softer upon the grate. John chewed on a peanut, picking shell from his tongue. Mr Ibbs had moved lamps- The table, our faces and hands, showed bright; but the rest of the room was in shadow.
For a minute, no-one spoke. Gentleman still worried the cards, and we sat and watched him. Mr Ibbs watched him hardest of all: his eye grew narrow, and he tilted his head—he might have been lining him up along the barrel of a gun.
‘So, my son,’ he said. ‘What’s the story?’
Gentleman looked up.
‘The story,’ he said. ‘The story is this.’ He took out a card, and laid it, face-up, on the table. It was the King of Diamonds. ‘Imagine a man,’ he said, as he did it. ‘An old man—a wise man, in his own way—a gentleman scholar, in fact; but with curious habits. He lives in a certain out-of-the-way sort of house, near a certain out-of-the-way kind of village, some miles from London—never mind quite where, just now. He has a great room filled with books and prints, and cares for nothing but for them and for a work he is compiling— let’s call it, a dictionary. It is a dictionary of all his books; but he has hopes for the pictures, too—has taken a mind to having them bound in fancy albums. The handling of that, however, is more than he can manage. He places a notice in a newspaper: he needs the services of—here he put down another card, next to the first: Jack of Spades—’a smart young man, to help him mount the collection; and one particular smart young man—being at that time rather too well known at the London gaming-houses, and highly desirous of a little light out-of-the-way sort of employment, bed and board provided—replies to the advertisement, is examined, and found fit.’
‘The smart young man being yourself,’ said Mr Ibbs.
‘The smart young man being me. How you catch on!’
‘And the crib in the country,’ said John, taken up in Gentleman’s story despite his sulks, ‘let’s say it’s busting with treasure. And you
mean to force the locks, on all the cabinets and chests. You have come to Mr Ibbs for a loan of nippers and a jilt; and you want Sue—with her innocent eyes, what looks like they ain’t seen butter—for your canary.’
Gentleman tilted his head, drew in his breath and raised a finger, in a teasing sort of way. Then:
‘Cold as ice!’ he said. ‘The crib in the country is a damnable place: two hundred years old, and dark, and draughty, and mortgaged to the roof—which is leaky, by the by. Not a rug or a vase or piece of plate worth forcing so much as a fart for, I’m afraid. The gent eats his supper off china, just like us.’
‘The old hunks!’ said John. ‘But, tight-wads like that, they stash their money in the bank, don’t they? And you have made him write a paper leaving all of it to you; and now you are here for a bottle of poison—’
Gentleman shook his head.
‘Not a ounce of poison?’ said John, looking hopeful.
‘Not an ounce. Not a scruple. And no money in the bank—not in the old man’s name, at least. He lives so quietly and so queerly, he scarcely knows what money’s for. But there, do you see, he doesn’t live alone. Look here, who he keeps for his companion …”
The Queen of Hearts.
‘Heh, heh,’ said John, growing sly. ‘A wife, very game.’
But Gentleman shook his head again.
A daughter, ditto?’ said John.
‘Not a wife. Not a daughter,’ said Gentleman, with his eyes and his fingers on the Queen’s unhappy face. A niece. In years,’ he glanced at me, ‘say Sue’s years. In looks, say handsome. Of sense, understanding and knowledge,’ he smiled, ‘why, let’s say perfectly shy.’
‘A flat!’ said John with relish. ‘Tell me she’s rich, at least.’ ‘She’s rich, oh yes,’ said Gentleman, nodding. ‘But only as a caterpillar is rich in wings, or clover rich in honey. She’s an heiress, Johnny: her fortune is certain, the uncle can’t touch it; but it comes with a queer condition attached. She won’t see a penny till the day she marries. If she dies a spinster, the money goes to a cousin. If she
takes a husband’—he stroked the card with one white finger—’she’s rich as a queen.’
‘How rich?’ said Mr Ibbs. He had not spoken, all this time. Gentleman heard him now, looked up, and held his gaze.
‘Ten thousand in ready,’ he said quietly. ‘Five thousand in the funds.’
A coal in the fire went pop. John gave a whistle through his broken tooth, and Charley Wag barked. I glanced at Mrs Sucksby, but her head was bent and her look was dark. Mr Ibbs took a sip from his tea, in a considering way.
Til bet the old man keeps her close, don’t he?’ he said, when the tea was swallowed.
‘Close enough,’ said Gentleman, nodding, moving back. ‘He’s made a secretary of her, all these years—has her reading to him for hours at a stretch. I think he hardly knows she has grown up and turned into a lady.’ He gave a secret sort of smile. ‘I think she knows it, though. No sooner do I start work on the pictures than she discovers in herself a passion for painting. She wants lessons, with me as her master. Now, I know enough in that line to fake my way; and she, in her innocence, can’t tell a pastel from a pig. But she takes to her instruction—oh, like anything. We have a week of lessons: I teach her lines, I teach her shadows. The second week goes by: we move from shadows to design. Third week—blushing watercolours. Next, the blending of the oils. Fifth week—’
‘Fifth week, you jiggles her!’ said John.
Gentleman closed his eyes.
‘Fifth week, our lessons are cancelled,’ he said. ‘Do you think a girl like that may sit in a room, with a gentleman tutor, alone? We have had her Irish maid sit with us, all this time—coughing and turning red in the face, every time my fingers stray too near her lady’s, or my breath comes too warm upon her little white cheek. I thought her a marvellous prude; it turns out she had the scarlet fever—is at this moment dying of it, poor bitch. Now my lady has no chaperon but the housekeeper—and the housekeeper is too busy to sit at lessons. The lessons, therefore, must end, the paints are left to dry upon their palette. Now I only see Miss at supper, at her
uncle’s side; and sometimes, if I pass her chamber door, I hear her sighing.’
‘And just,’ said Mr Ibbs, ‘as you was getting on so nicely.’
‘Just so,’ said Gentleman. ‘Just so.’
‘Poor lady!’ said Dainty. Her eyes had tears in them. She could cry at anything. ‘And her quite a peach, you say? About the figure and the face?’
Gentleman looked careless. ‘She can fill a man’s eye, I suppose,’ he said, with a shrug.
John laughed. ‘I should like to fill her eye!’
‘I should like to fill yours,’ said Gentleman, steadily. Then he blinked. ‘With my fist, I mean.’
John’s cheek grew dark, and he jumped to his feet. ‘I should like to see you try it!’
Mr Ibbs lifted his hands. ‘Boys! Boys! That’s enough! I won’t have it, before ladies and kids! John, sit down and stop fucking about. Gentleman, you promised us your story; what we’ve had so far has been so much pastry. Where’s the meat, son? Where’s the meat? And, more to our point, how is Susie to help cook it?’
John kicked the leg of his stool, then sat. Gentleman had taken out a packet of cigarettes. We waited, while he found a match and struck it. We watched the flare of the sulphur in his eyes. Then he leaned to the table again and touched the three cards he had laid there, putting straight their edges.
‘You want the meat,’ he said. ‘Very well, here it is.’ He tapped the Queen of Hearts. ‘I aim to marry this girl and take her fortune. I aim to steal her’—he slid the card to one side—’from under her uncle’s nose. I am in a fair way to doing it already, as you have heard; but she’s a queer sort of girl, and can’t be trusted to herself— and should she take some clever, hard woman for her new servant, why then I’m ruined. I have come to London to collect a set of bindings for the old man’s albums. I want to send Sue back before me. I want to set her up there as the lady’s maid, so that she might help me woo her.’
He caught my eye. He still played idly with the card, with one pale hand. Now he lowered his voice.
‘And there’s something else,’ he said, ‘that I shall need Sue’s help with. Once I have married this girl, I shan’t want her about me. I know a man who will take her off my hands. He has a house, where he’ll keep her. It’s a madhouse. He’ll keep her close. So close, perhaps …” He did not finish, but turned the card face down, and kept his fingers on its back. ‘I must only marry her,’ he said, ‘and—as Johnny would say—I must jiggle her, once, for the sake of the cash. Then I’ll take her, unsuspecting, to the madhouse gates. Where’s the harm? Haven’t I said, she’s half-simple already? But I want to be sure. I shall need Sue by her to keep her simple; and to persuade her, in her simpleness, into the plot.’
He drew again upon his cigarette and, as they had before, everyone turned their eyes on me. Everyone that is, save Mrs Sucksby. She had listened, saying nothing, while Gentleman spoke. I had watched her pour a little of her tea out of her cup into her saucer, then swill it about the china and finally raise it to her mouth, while the story went on. She could never bear hot tea, she said it hardened the lips. And certainly, I don’t believe I ever knew a grown-up woman with lips as soft as hers.
Now, in the silence, she put her cup and saucer down, then drew out her handkerchief and wiped her mouth. She looked at Gentleman, and finally spoke.
‘Why Sue,’ she said, ‘of all the girls in England? Why my Sue?’
‘Because she is yours, Mrs S,’ he answered. ‘Because I trust her; because she’s a good girl—which is to say, a bad girl, not too nice about the fine points of the law.’
She nodded. And how do you mean,’ she asked next, ‘to cut the shine?’
Again he looked at me; but he still spoke to her.
‘She shall have two thousand pounds,’ he said, smoothing his whiskers; ‘and shall take any of the little lady’s bits and frocks and jewels that she likes.’
That was the deal. We thought it over. ‘What do you say?’ he said at last—to me, this time. And then,
when I did not answer: ‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘to spring this upon you; but you can see the little time I have had to act in. I must get a girl soon. I should like it to be you, Sue. I should like it to be you, more than anyone. But if it is not to be, then tell me quickly, will you?—so I might find out another.’
‘Dainty will do it,’ said John, when he heard that. ‘Dainty was a maid once—wasn’t you, Daint?—for a lady in a great house at Peckham.’
‘As I recall,’ said Mr Ibbs, drinking his tea, ‘Dainty lost that place through putting a hat-pin to the lady’s arm.’
‘She was a bitch to me,’ said Dainty, ‘and got my dander up. This girl don’t sound like a bitch. She’s a flat, you said so. I could maid for a flat.’
‘It was Sue that was asked,’ said Mrs Sucksby quietly. ‘And she still ain’t said.’
Then, again they all looked at me; and their eyes made me nervous. I turned my head. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It seems a rum sort of plot to me. Set me up, as maid to a lady? How shall I know what to do?’
‘We can teach you,’ said Gentleman. ‘Dainty can teach you, since she knows the business. How hard can it be? You must only sit and simper, and hold the lady’s salts.’
I said, ‘Suppose the lady won’t want me for her maid? Why should she want me?’
But he had thought of that. He had thought of everything. He said he meant to pass me off as his old nurse’s sister’s child—a city girl come on hard times. He said he thought the lady would take me then, for his sake.
He said, ‘We’ll write you a character—sign it Lady Fanny of Bum Street, something like that—she won’t know any better. She never saw Society, doesn’t know London from Jerusalem. Who can she ask?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said again. ‘Suppose she don’t care for you, so much as you are hoping?’
He grew modest. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I think I might be permitted by now, to know when a green girl likes me.’
‘Suppose,’ said Mrs Sucksby then, ‘she don’t like you quite
enough? Suppose she turns out another Miss Bamber or Miss
Miss Bamber and Miss Finch were two of the other heiresses he had almost netted. But he heard their names, and snorted. ‘She won’t,’ he said, ‘turn out like them, I know it. Those girls had fathers—ambitious fathers, with lawyers on every side. This girl’s uncle can see no further than the last page of his book. As to her not liking me enough—well, I can only say this: I think she will.’
‘Enough to do a flit, from her uncle’s house?’
‘It’s a grim house,’ he answered, ‘for a girl of her years.’
‘But it’s the years that will work against you,’ said Mr Ibbs. You picked up bits and pieces of Law, of course, in a line like his. ‘Till she is one-and-twenty, she shall need her uncle’s say. Take her as fast and as quiet as you like: he shall come and take her back again. You being her husband won’t count for buttons, then.’
‘But her being my wife, will.—If you understand me,’ said Gentleman slyly.
Dainty looked blank. John saw her face. ‘The jiggling,’ he said.
‘She shall be ruined,’ said Mrs Sucksby. ‘No other gent will want her, then.’
Dainty gaped more than ever.
‘Never mind it,’ said Mr Ibbs, lifting his hand. Then, to Gentleman: ‘It’s tricky. Uncommonly tricky.’
‘I don’t say it’s not. But we must take our chances. What have we to lose? If nothing else, it will be a holiday for Sue.’
John laughed. A holiday,’ he said, ‘it will be. A fucking long one, if you get caught.’
I bit my lip. He was right. But it wasn’t so much the risk that troubled me. You cannot be a thief and always troubling over hazards, you should go mad. It was only that I was not sure I wanted any kind of holiday. I was not sure I cared for it away from the Borough. I had once gone with Mrs Sucksby to visit her cousin in Bromley; I had come home with hives. I remembered the country as quiet and queer, and the people in it either simpletons or gipsies.
How would I like living with a simpleton girl? She would not be like Dainty, who was only slightly touched and only sometimes
violent. She might be really mad. She might try and throttle me; and there would be no-one about, for miles and miles, to hear me calling. Gipsies would be no use, they were all for themselves. Everyone knows a gipsy would not cross the street to spit on you, if you were on fire.
I said, ‘This girl—what’s she like.” You said she’s queer in her head.’
‘Not queer,’ said Gentleman. ‘Only what I should call fey. She’s an innocent, a natural. She has been kept from the world. She’s an orphan, like you are; but where you had Mrs Sucksby to sharpen you up, she had—no-one.’
Dainty looked at him then. Her mother had been a drunkard, and got drowned in the river. Her father had used to beat her. He beat her sister till she died. She said, in a whisper:
‘Ain’t it terribly wicked, Gentleman, what you mean to do?’ I don’t believe any of us had thought it, before that moment. Now Dainty said it, and I gazed about me, and nobody would catch my eye.
Then Gentleman laughed.
‘Wicked?’ he said. ‘Why, bless you, Dainty, of course it’s wicked! But it’s wicked to the tune of fifteen thousand pounds—and oh! but that’s a sweet tune, hum it how you will. Then again, do you suppose that when that money was first got, it was got honestly? Don’t think it! Money never is. It is got, by families like hers, from the backs of the poor—twenty backs broken for every shilling made. You have heard, have you, of Robin Hood?’ ‘Have I!’ she said.
‘Well, Sue and I shall be like him: taking gold from the rich and passing it back to the people it was got from.’
John curled his lip. ‘You ponce,’ he said. ‘Robin Hood was a hero, a man of wax. Pass the money to the people? What people are yours! You want to rob a lady, go and rob your own mother.’
‘My mother?’ answered Gentleman, colouring up. ‘What’s my mother to do with anything? Hang my mother!’ Then he caught Mrs Sucksby’s eye, and turned to me. ‘Oh, Sue,’ he said. ‘I do beg your pardon.’
‘It’s all right,’ I said quickly. And I gazed at the table, and again everyone grew quiet. Perhaps they were all thinking, as they did on hanging days, ‘Ain’t she brave?’ I hoped they were. Then again, I hoped they weren’t: for, as I have said, I never was brave, but had got away with people supposing I was, for seventeen years. Now here was Gentleman, needing a bold girl and coming—forty miles, he had said, in all that cold and slippery weather—to me.
I raised my eyes to his.
‘Two thousand pounds, Sue,’ he said quietly.
‘That’ll shine very bright, all right,’ said Mr Ibbs.
And all them frocks and jewels!’ said Dainty. ‘Oh, Sue! Shouldn’t you look handsome, in them!’
‘You should look like a lady,’ said Mrs Sucksby; and I heard her, and caught her gaze, and knew she was looking at me—as she had, so many times before—and was seeing, behind my face, my mother’s. Your fortune’s still to be made.—I could almost hear her saying it. Your fortune’s still to be made; and ours, Sue, along with it . . .
And after all, she had been right. Here was my fortune, come from nowhere—come, at last. What could I say? I looked again at Gentleman. My heart beat hard, like hammers in my breast. I said:
‘All right. I’ll do it. But for three thousand pounds, not two. And if the lady don’t care for me and sends me home, I shall want a hundred anyway, for the trouble of trying.’
He hesitated, thinking it over. Of course, that was all a show. After a second he smiled, then he held his hand to me and I gave him mine. He pressed my fingers, and laughed.
John scowled. ‘I’ll give you ten to one she comes back crying in a week,’ he said.
‘I’ll come back dressed in a velvet gown,’ I answered. ‘With gloves up to here, and a hat with a veil on, and a bag full of silver coin. And you shall have to call me miss. Won’t he, Mrs Sucksby?’
He spat. ‘I’ll tear my own tongue out, before I do that!’
‘I’ll tear it out first!’ I said.
I sound like a child. I was a child! Perhaps Mrs Sucksby was
thinking that, too. For she said nothing, only sat, still gazing at me, with her hand at her soft lip. She smiled; but her face seemed troubled. I could almost have said, she was afraid.
Perhaps she was.
Or perhaps I only think that now, when I know what dark and fearful things were to follow.
The bookish old man, it turned out, was called Christopher Lilly. The niece’s name was Maud. They lived west of London, out Maidenhead-way, near a village named Marlow, and in a house they called Briar. Gentleman’s plan was to send me there alone, by train, in two days’ time. He himself, he said, must stay in London for another week at least, to do the old man’s business over the bindings of his books.
I didn’t care much for the detail of my travelling down there, and arriving at the house, all on my own. I had never been much further west before than the CremorneGardens, where I sometimes went with Mr Ibbs’s nephews, to watch the dancing on a Saturday night. I saw the French girl cross the river on a wire from there, and almost drop—that was something. They say she wore stockings; her legs looked bare enough to me, though. But I recall standing on BatterseaBridge as she walked her rope, and looking out, past Hammersmith, to all the countryside beyond it, that was just trees
and hills and not a chimney or the spire of a church in sight—and oh! that was a very chilling thing to see. If you had said to me then, that I would one day leave the Borough, with all my pals in it, and Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs, and go quite alone, to a maid’s place in a house the other side of those dark hills, I should have laughed in your face.
But Gentleman said I must go soon, in case the lady—Miss Lilly—should spoil our plot, by accidentally taking another girl to be her servant. The day after he came to Lant Street he sat and wrote her out a letter. He said he hoped she would pardon the liberty of his writing, but he had been on a visit to his old nurse—that had been like a mother to him, when he was a boy—and he had found her quite demented with grief, over the fate of her dead sister’s daughter. Of course, the dead sister’s daughter was meant to be me: the story was, that I had been maiding for a lady who was marrying and heading off for India, and had lost my place; that I was looking out for another mistress, but was meanwhile being tempted on every side to go to the bad; and that if only some softhearted lady would give me the chance of a situation far away from the evils of the city—and so on.
I said, ‘If she’ll believe bouncers like those, Gentleman, she must be even sillier than you first told us.’
But he answered, that there were about a hundred girls between the Strand and Piccadilly, who dined very handsomely off that story, five nights a week; and if the hard swells of London could be separated from their shillings by it, then how much kinder wasn’t Miss Maud Lilly likely to be, all alone and unknowing and sad as she was, and with no-one to tell her any better?
‘You’ll see,’ he said. And he sealed the letter and wrote the direction, and had one of our neighbours’ boys run with it to the post.
Then, so sure was he of the success of his plan, he said they must begin at once to teach me how a proper lady’s maid should be.
First, they washed my hair. I wore my hair then, like lots of the Borough girls wore theirs, divided in three, with a comb at the back and, at the sides, a few fat curls. If you turned the curls with a very hot iron, having first made the hair wet with sugar-and-water, you
could make them hard as anything; they would last for a week like that, or longer. Gentleman, however, said he thought the style too fast for a country lady: he made me wash my hair till it was perfectly smooth, then had me divide it once—just the once—then pin it in a plain knot at the back of my head. He had Dainty wash her hair, too, and when I had combed and re-combed mine, and pinned and re-pinned it, until he was satisfied, he made me comb and pin hers in a matching style, as if hers was the lady’s, Miss Lilly’s. He fussed about us like a regular girl. When we had finished, Dainty and I looked that plain and bacon-faced, we might have been trying for places in a nunnery. John said if they would only put pictures of us in the dairies, it would be a new way of curdling milk.
When Dainty heard that she pulled the pins from her hair and threw them at the fire. Some had hair still clinging to them, and the flames set it hissing.
‘Can’t you do anything to that girl of yours,’ said Mr Ibbs to John, ‘but make her cry?’
John laughed. ‘I likes to see her cry,’ he said. ‘It makes her sweat the less.’
He was an evil boy, all right.
But he was quite caught up in Gentleman’s plot, despite himself. We all were. For the first time I ever knew, Mr Ibbs kept the blind pulled down on his shop door and let his brazier go cold. When people came knocking with keys to be cut, he sent them away. To the two or three thieves that brought poke, he shook his head.
‘Can’t do it, my son. Not to-day. Got a little something cooking.’
He only had Phil come, early in the morning. He sat him down and ran him through the points of a list that Gentleman had drawn up the night before; then Phil pulled his cap down over his eyes, and left. When he came back two hours later it was with a bag and a canvas-covered trunk, that he had got from a man he knew, who ran a crooked warehouse at the river.
The trunk was for me to take to the country. In the bag was a brown stuff dress, more or less my size; and a cloak, and shoes, and black silk stockings; and on top of it all, a heap of lady’s real white underthings.
Mr Ibbs only undid the string at the neck of the bag, peeped in, and saw the linen; then he went and sat at the far side of the kitchen, where he had a Bramah lock he liked sometimes to take apart, and powder, and put back together. He made John go with him and hold the screws. Gentleman, however, took out the lady’s items one by one, and placed them flat upon the table. Beside the table he set a kitchen chair.
‘Now, Sue,’ he said, ‘suppose this chair’s Miss Lilly. How shall you dress her? Let’s say you start with the stockings and drawers.’ ‘The drawers?’ I said. ‘You don’t mean, she’s naked?’
Dainty put her hand to her mouth and tittered. She was sitting at Mrs Sucksby’s feet, having her hair re-curled.
‘Naked?’ said Gentleman. ‘Why, as a nail. What else? She must take off her clothes when they grow foul; she must take them off to bathe. It will be your job to receive them when she does. It will be your job to pass her her fresh ones.’
I had not thought of this. I wondered how it would be to have to stand and hand a pair of drawers to a strange bare girl. A strange bare girl had once run, shrieking, down Lant Street, with a policeman and a nurse behind her. Suppose Miss Lilly took fright like that, and I had to grab her? I blushed, and Gentleman saw. ‘Come now,’ he said, almost smiling. ‘Don’t say you’re squeamish?’
I tossed my head, to show I wasn’t. He nodded, then took up a pair of the stockings, and then a pair of drawers. He placed them, dangling, over the seat of the kitchen chair.
‘What next?’ he asked me.
I shrugged. ‘Her shimmy, I suppose.’
‘Her chemise, you must call it,’ he said. ‘And you must make sure to warm it, before she puts it on.’
He took the shimmy up and held it close to the kitchen fire. Then he put it carefully above the drawers, over the back of the chair, as if the chair was wearing it.
‘Now, her corset,’ he said next. ‘She will want you to tie this for her, tight as you like. Come on, let’s see you do it.’
He put the corset about the shimmy, with the laces at the back; and while he leaned upon the chair to hold it fast, he made me pull
the laces and knot them in a bow. They left lines of red and white upon my palms, as if I had been whipped.
‘Why don’t she wear the kind of stays that fasten at the front, like a regular girl?’ said Dainty, watching.
‘Because then,’ said Gentleman, ‘she shouldn’t need a maid. And if she didn’t need a maid, she shouldn’t know she was a lady. Hey?’ He winked.
After the corset came a camisole, and after that a dicky; then came a nine-hoop crinoline, and then more petticoats, this time of silk. Then Gentleman had Dainty run upstairs for a bottle of Mrs Sucksby’s scent, and he had me spray it where the splintered wood of the chair-back showed between the ribbons of the shimmy, that he said would be Miss Lilly’s throat.
And all the time I must say:
‘Will you raise your arms, miss, for me to straighten this frill?’ and,
‘Do you care for it, miss, with a ruffle or a flounce?’ and,
‘Are you ready for it now, miss?’
‘Do you like it drawn tight?’
‘Should you like it to be tighter?’-
‘Oh! Forgive me if I pinch.’
At last, with all the bending and the fussing, I grew hot as a pig. Miss Lilly sat before us with her corset tied hard, her petticoats spread out about the floor, smelling fresh as a rose; but rather wanting, of course, about the shoulders and the neck.
John said, ‘Don’t say much, do she?’ He had been sneaking glances at us all this time, while Mr Ibbs put the powder to his Bramah.
‘She’s a lady,’ said Gentleman, stroking his beard, ‘and naturally shy. But she’ll pick up like anything, with Sue and me to teach her. Won’t you, darling?’
He squatted at the side of the chair and smoothed his fingers over the bulging skirts; then he dipped his hand beneath them, reaching high into the layers of silk. He did it so neatly, it looked to me as if he knew his way, all right; and as he reached higher his cheek grew
pink, the silk gave a rustle, the crinoline bucked, the chair quivered hard upon the kitchen floor, the joints of its legs faintly shrieking. Then it was still.
‘There, you sweet little bitch,’ he said softly. He drew out his hand and held up a stocking. He passed it to me, and yawned. ‘Now, let’s say it’s bed-time.’
John still watched us, saying nothing, only blinking and jiggling his leg. Dainty rubbed her eye, her hair half curled, smelling powerfully of toffee.
I began at the ribbons at the waist of the dickies, then let loose the laces of the corset and eased it free.
‘Will you just lift your foot, miss, for me to take this from you?’
‘Will you breathe a little softer, miss? and then it will come.’
He kept me working like that for an hour or more. Then he warmed up a flat-iron.
‘Spit on this, will you, Dainty?’ he said, holding it to her. She did; and when the spit gave a sizzle he took out a cigarette, and lit it on the iron’s hot base. Then, while he stood by and smoked, Mrs Sucksby—who had once, long ago, in the days before she ever thought of farming infants, been a mangling-woman in a laundry— showed me how a lady’s linen should be pressed and folded; and that, I should say, took about another hour.
Then Gentleman sent me upstairs, to put on the dress that Phil had got for me. It was a plain brown dress, more or less the colour of my hair; and the walls of our kitchen being also brown, when I came downstairs again I could hardly be seen. I should have rathered a blue gown, or a violet one; but Gentleman said it was the perfect dress for a sneak or for a servant—and so all the more perfect for me, who was going to Briar to be both.
We laughed at that; and then, when I had walked about the room to grow used to the skirt (which was narrow), and to let Dainty see where the cut was too large and needed stitching, he had me stand and try a curtsey. This was harder than it sounds. Say what you like about the kind of life I was used to, it was a life without masters: I had never curtseyed before to anyone. Now Gentleman had me
dipping up and down until I thought I should be sick. He said curtseying came as natural to ladies’ maids, as passing wind. He said if I would only get the trick, I should never forget it—and he was right about that, at least, for I can still dip a proper curtsey, even now.— Or could, if I cared to.
Well. When we had finished with the curtseys he had me learn my story. Then, to test me, he made me stand before him and repeat my part, like a girl saying a catechism.
‘Now then,’ he said. ‘What is your name?’
‘Ain’t it Susan?’ I said.
‘Ain’t it Susan, what?’
Ain’t it Susan Trinder?’
Ain’t it Susan, sir. You must remember, I shan’t be Gentleman to you at Briar. I shall be Mr Richard Rivers. You must call me sir; and you must call Mr Lilly sir; and the lady you must call miss or Miss Lilly or Miss Maud, as she directs you. And we shall all call you Susan.’ He frowned. ‘But, not Susan Trinder. That may lead them back to Lant Street if things go wrong. We must find you a better second name—’
‘Valentine,’ I said, straight off. What can I tell you? I was only seventeen. I had a weakness for hearts. Gentleman heard me, and curled his lip.
‘Perfect,’ he said; ‘—if we were about to put you on the stage.’
‘I know real girls named Valentine!’ I said.
‘That’s true,’ said Dainty. ‘Floy Valentine, and her two sisters. Lord, I hates those girls, though. You don’t want to be named for them, Sue.’
I bit my finger. ‘Maybe not.’
‘Certainly not,’ said Gentleman. A fanciful name might ruin us. This is a life-and-death business. We need a name that will hide you, not bring you to everyone’s notice. We need a name’—he thought it over—’an untraceable name, yet one we shall remember . . . Brown? To match your dress? Or—yes, why not? Let’s make it, Smith. Susan Smith.’ He smiled. ‘You are to be a sort of smith, after all. This sort, I mean.’
He let his hand drop, and turned it, and crooked his middle
finger; and the sign, and the word he meant—fingersmith—being Borough code for thief, we laughed again.
At last he coughed, and wiped his eyes. ‘Dear me, what fun,’ he said. ‘Now, where had we got to? Ah, yes. Tell me again. What is your name?’
I said it, with the sir after.
‘Very good. And what is your home?’
‘My home is at London, sir,’ I said. ‘My mother being dead, I live with my old aunty; which is the lady what used to be your nurse when you was a boy, sir.’
He nodded. ‘Very good as to detail. Not so good, however, as to style. Come now: I know Mrs Sucksby raised you better than that. You’re not selling violets. Say it again.’
I pulled a face; but then said, more carefully,
‘The lady that used to be your nurse when you were a boy, sir.’
‘Better, better. And what was your situation, before this?’
‘With a kind lady, sir, in Mayfair; who, being lately married and about to go to India, will have a native girl to dress her, and so won’t need me.’
‘Dear me. You are to be pitied, Sue.’
‘I believe so, sir.’
‘And are you grateful to Miss Lilly, for having you at Briar?’
‘Oh, sir! Gratitude ain’t in it!’
‘Violets again!’ He waved his hand. ‘Never mind, that will do. But don’t hold my gaze so boldly, will you? Look, rather, at my shoe. That’s good. Now, tell me this. This is important. What are your duties while attending your new mistress?’
‘I must wake her in the mornings,’ I said, ‘and pour out her tea. I must wash her, and dress her, and brush her hair. I must keep her jewellery neat, and not steal it. I must walk with her when she has a fancy to walk, and sit when she fancies sitting. I must carry her fan for when she grows too hot, her wrap for when she feels nippy, her eau-de-Cologne for if she gets the head-ache, and her salts for when she comes over queer. I must be her chaperon for her drawing-lessons, and not see when she blushes.’
‘Splendid! And what is your character?’
‘Honest as the day’
‘And what is your object, that no-one but we must know?’
‘That she will love you, and leave her uncle for your sake. That she will make your fortune; and that you, Mr Rivers, will make mine.’
I took hold of my skirts and showed him one of those smooth curtseys, my eyes all the time on the toe of his boot.
Dainty clapped me. Mrs Sucksby rubbed her hands together and said,
‘Three thousand pounds, Sue. Oh, my crikey! Dainty, pass me an infant, I want something to squeeze.’
Gentleman stepped aside and lit a cigarette. ‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘Not bad, at all. A little fining down, I think, is all that’s needed now. We shall try again later.’
‘Later?’ I said. ‘Oh, Gentleman, ain’t you finished with me yet? If Miss Lilly will have me as her maid for the sake of pleasing you, why should she care how fined down I am?’
‘She may not mind,’ he answered. ‘I think we might put an apron on Charley Wag and send him, for all she will mind or wonder. But it is not only her that you will have to fool. There is the old man, her uncle; and besides him, all his staff.’
I said, ‘His staff?’ I had not thought of this.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Do you think a great house runs itself? First of all there’s the steward, Mr Way—’
‘Mr Way!’ said John with a snort. ‘Do they call him Milky?’
‘No,’ said Gentleman. He turned back to me. ‘Mr Way,’ he said again. ‘I should say he won’t trouble you much, though. But there is also Mrs Stiles, the housekeeper—she may study you a little harder, you must be careful with her. And then there is Mr Way’s boy Charles, and I suppose one or two girls, for the kitchen work; and one or two parlourmaids; and grooms and stable-boys and gardeners—but you shan’t see much of them, don’t think of them.’
I looked at him in horror. I said, ‘You never said about them before. Mrs Sucksby, did he say about them? Did he say, there will be about a hundred servants, that I shall have to play the maid for?’
Mrs Sucksby had a baby and was rolling it like dough. ‘Be fair now, Gentleman,’ she said, not looking over. ‘You did keep very dark about the servants last night.’
He shrugged. ‘A detail,’ he said.
A detail? That was like him. Telling you half of a story and making out you had it all.
But it was too late now, for a change of heart. The next day Gentleman worked me hard again; and the day after that he got a letter, from Miss Lilly.
He got it at the post-office in the City. Our neighbours would have wondered what was up, if we’d had a letter come to the house. He got it, and brought it back, and opened it while we looked on; then we sat in silence, to hear it—Mr Ibbs only drumming his fingers a little on the table-top, by which I knew that he was nervous; and so grew more nervous myself.
The letter was a short one. Miss Lilly said, first, what a pleasure it was, to have received Mr Rivers’s note; and how thoughtful he was, and how kind to his old nurse. She was sure, she wished more gentlemen were as kind and as thoughtful as him!
Her uncle got on very badly, she said, now his assistant was gone. The house seemed very changed and quiet and dull; perhaps this was the weather, which seemed to have turned. As for her maid— Here Gentleman tilted the letter, the better to catch the light.—As for her maid, poor Agnes: she was pleased to be able to tell him that Agnes looked set not to die after all—
We heard that and drew in our breaths. Mrs Sucksby closed her eyes, and I saw Mr Ibbs give a glance at his cold brazier and reckon up the business he had lost in the past two days. But then Gentleman smiled. The maid was not about to die; but her health was so ruined and her spirits so low, they were sending her back to Cork.
‘God bless the Irish!’ said Mr Ibbs, taking out his handkerchief and wiping his head.
Gentleman read on.
‘I shall be glad to see the girl you speak of,’ Miss Lilly wrote. ‘I should be glad if you would send her to me, at once. I am grateful
to anyone for remembering me. I am not over-used to people thinking of my comforts. If she be only a good and willing girl, then I am sure I shall love her. And she will be the dearer to me, Mr Rivers, because she will have come to me from London, that has you in it.’
He smiled again, raised the letter to his mouth, and passed it back and forth across his lips. His snide ring glittered in the light of the lamps.
It had all turned out, of course, just as the clever devil had promised.
That night—that was to be my last night at Lant Street, and the first night of all the nights that were meant to lead to Gentleman’s securing of Miss Lilly’s fortune—that night Mr Ibbs sent out for a hot roast supper, and put irons to heat in the fire, for making flip, in celebration.
The supper was a pig’s head, stuffed at the ears—a favourite of mine, and got in my honour. Mr Ibbs took the carving-knife to the back-door step, put up his sleeves, and stooped to sharpen the blade. He leaned with his hand on the door-post, and I watched him do it with a queer sensation at the roots of my hair: for all up the post were cuts from where, each Christmas Day when I was a girl, he had laid the knife upon my head to see how high I’d grown. Now he drew the blade back and forth across the stone, until it sang; then he handed it to Mrs Sucksby and she dished out the meat. She always carved, in our house. An ear apiece, for Mr Ibbs and Gentleman; the snout for John and Dainty; and the cheeks, that were the ten-derest parts, for herself and for me.
It was all got, as I’ve said, in my honour. But, I don’t know—perhaps it was seeing the marks on the door-post; perhaps it was thinking of the soup that Mrs Sucksby would make, when I wouldn’t be there to eat it, with the bones of the roast pig’s head; perhaps it was the head itself—which seemed to me to be grimacing, rather, the lashes of its eyes and the bristles of its snout gummed brown with treacly tears—but as we sat about the table, I grew sad. John and Dainty wolfed their dinner down, laughing and quarrelling, now and then firing up when Gentleman teased, and now and then sulking. Mr Ibbs went neatly to work on his plate, and
Mrs Sucksby went neatly to work on hers; and I picked over my bit of pork and had no appetite.
I gave half to Dainty. She gave it to John. He snapped his jaws and howled, like a dog.
And then, when the plates were cleared away Mr Ibbs beat the eggs and the sugar and the rum, to make flip. He filled seven glasses, took the irons from the brazier, waved them for a second to take the sting of the heat off, then plunged them in. Heating the flip was like setting fire to the brandy on a plum pudding—everyone liked to see it done and hear the drinks go hiss. John said, ‘Can I do one, Mr Ibbs?’—his face red from the supper, and shiny like paint, like the face of a boy in a picture in a toy-shop window.
We sat, and everyone talked and laughed, saying what a fine thing it would be when Gentleman was made rich, and I came home with my cool three thousand; and still I kept rather quiet, and no-one seemed to notice. At last Mrs Sucksby patted her stomach and said,
‘Won’t you give us a tune, Mr Ibbs, to put the baby to bed by?’
Mr Ibbs could whistle like a kettle, for an hour at a go. He put his glass aside and wiped the flip from his moustache, and started up with ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket’. Mrs Sucksby hummed along until her eyes grew damp, and then the hum got broken. Her husband had been a sailor, and been lost at sea.—Lost to her, I mean. He lived in the Bermudas.
‘Handsome,’ she said, when the song was finished. ‘But let’s have a lively one next, for heaven’s sake!—else I shall be drove quite maudlin. Let’s see the youngsters have a bit of a dance.’
Mr Ibbs struck up with a quick tune then, and Mrs Sucksby clapped, and John and Dainty got up and pushed the chairs back. ‘Will you hold my earrings for me, Mrs Sucksby?’ said Dainty. They danced the polka until the china ornaments upon the mantelpiece jumped and the dust rose inches high about their thumping feet. Gentleman stood and leaned and watched them, smoking a cigarette, calling ‘Hup!’ and ‘Go it, Johnny!’, as he might call, laughing, to a terrier in a fight he had no bet on.
When they asked me to join them, I said I would not. The dust
made me sneeze and, after all, the iron that had warmed my flip had been heated too hard, and the egg had curdled. Mrs Sucksby had put by a glass and a plate of morsels of meat for Mr Ibbs’s sister, and I said I would carry them up.—All right, dear girl,’ she said, still clapping out the beat. I took the plate and the glass and a candle, and slipped upstairs.
It was like stepping out of heaven, I always thought, to leave our kitchen on a winter’s night. Even so, when I had left the food beside Mr Ibbs’s sleeping sister and seen to one or two of the babies, that had woken with the sounds of the dancing below, I did not go back to join the others. I walked the little way along the landing, to the door of the room I shared with Mrs Sucksby; and then I went up the next pair of stairs, to the little attic I had been born in.
This room was always cold. Tonight there was a breeze up, the window was loose, and it was colder than ever. The floor was plain boards, with strips of drugget on it. The walls were bare, but for a bit of blue oil-cloth that had been tacked to catch the splashes from a wash-stand. The stand, at the moment, was draped with a waistcoat and a shirt, of Gentleman’s, and one or two collars. He always slept here, when he came to visit; though he might have made a bed with Mr Ibbs, down in the kitchen. I know which place I would have chosen. On the floor sagged his high leather boots, that he had scraped the mud from and shined. Beside them was his bag, with more white linen spilling from it. On the seat of a chair were some coins from his pocket, a packet of cigarettes, and sealing-wax. The coins were light. The wax was brittle, like toffee.
The bed was roughly made. There was a red velvet curtain upon it, with the rings taken off, for a counterpane: it had been got from a burning house, and still smelt of cinders. I took it up and put it about my shoulders, like a cloak. Then I pinched out the flame of my candle and stood at the window, shivering, looking out at the roofs and chimneys, and at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol where my mother was hanged.
The glass of the window had the first few blooms of a new frost upon it, and I held my finger to it, to make the ice turn to dirty water. I could still catch Mr Ibbs’s whistle and the bounce of
Dainty’s feet, but before me the streets of the Borough were dark. There was only here and there a feeble light at a window like mine, and then the lantern of a coach, throwing shadows; and then a person, running hard against the cold, quick and dark as the shadows, and as quickly come and gone. I thought of all the thieves that must be there, and all the thieves’ children; and then of all the regular men and women who lived their lives—their strange and ordinary lives—in other houses, other streets, in the brighter parts of London. I thought of Maud Lilly, in her great house. She did not know my name—I had not known hers, three days before. She did not know that I was standing, plotting her ruin, while Dainty Warren and John Vroom danced a polka in my kitchen.
What was she like? I knew a girl named Maud once, she had half a lip. She used to like to make out that the other half had been lost in a fight; I knew for a fact, however, she had been born like that, she couldn’t fight putty. She died in the end—not from fighting, but through eating bad meat. Just one bit of bad meat killed her, just like that.
But, she was very dark. Gentleman had said that the other Maud, his Maud, was fair and rather handsome. But when I thought of her, I could picture her only as thin and brown and straight, like the kitchen chair that I had tied the corset to.
I tried another curtsey. The velvet curtain made me clumsy. I tried again. I began to sweat, in sudden fear.
Then there came the opening of the kitchen door and the sound of footsteps on the stair, and then Mrs Sucksby’s voice, calling for me. I didn’t answer. I heard her walk to the bedrooms below, and look for me there; then there was a silence, then her feet again, upon the attic stairs, and then came the light of her candle. The climb made her sigh a little—only a little, for she was very nimble, for all that she was rather stout.
‘Are you here then, Sue?’ she said quietly. ‘And all on your own, in the dark?’
She looked about her, at all that I had looked at—at the coins and the sealing-wax, and Gentleman’s boots and leather bag. Then she
came to me, and put her warm, dry hand to my cheek, and I said— just as if she had tickled or pinched me, and the words were a chuckle or a cry I could not stop—I said:
‘What if I ain’t up to it, Mrs Sucksby? What if I can’t do it? Suppose I lose my nerve and let you down? Hadn’t we ought to send Dainty, after all?’
She shook her head and smiled. ‘Now, then,’ she said. She led me to the bed, and we sat and she drew down my head until it rested in her lap, and she put back the curtain from my cheek and stroked my hair. ‘Now, then.’
‘Ain’t it a long way to go?’ I said, looking up at her face.
‘Not so far,’ she answered.
‘Shall you think of me, while I am there?’
She drew free a strand of hair that was caught about my ear.
‘Every minute,’ she said, quietly. ‘Ain’t you my own girl? And won’t I worry? But you shall have Gentleman by you. I should never have let you go, for any ordinary villain.’
That was true, at least. But still my heart beat fast. I thought again of Maud Lilly, sitting sighing in her room, waiting for me to come and unlace her stays and hold her nightgown before the fire. Poor lady, Dainty had said.
I chewed at the inside of my lip. Then: ‘Ought I to do it, though, Mrs Sucksby?’ I said. ‘Ain’t it a very mean trick, and shabby?’
She held my gaze, then raised her eyes and nodded to the view beyond the window. She said, ‘I know she would have done it, and not given it a thought. And I know what she would feel in her heart—what dread, but also what pride, and the pride part winning—to see you doing it now.’
That made me thoughtful. For a minute, we sat and said nothing. And what I asked her next was something I had never asked before—something which, in all my years at Lant Street, amongst all those dodgers and thieves, I had never heard anyone ask, not ever. I said, in a whisper,
‘Do you think it hurts, Mrs Sucksby, when they drop you?’
Her hand, that was smoothing my hair, grew still. Then it started up stroking, sure as before. She said,
‘I should say you don’t feel nothing but the rope about your neck. Rather ticklish, I should think it.’
‘Say then, pricklish.’
Still her hand kept smoothing.
‘But when the drop is opened?’ I said. ‘Wouldn’t you say you felt it then?’
She shifted her leg. ‘Perhaps a twitch,’ she admitted, ‘when the drop is opened.’
I thought of the men I had seen fall at Horsemonger Lane. They twitched, all right. They twitched and kicked about, like monkeys on sticks.
‘But it comes that quick at the last,’ she went on then, ‘that I rather think the quickness must take the pain clean out of it. And when it comes to dropping a lady—well, you know they place the knot in such a way, Sue, that the end comes all the quicker?’
I looked up at her again. She had set her candle on the floor, and the light striking her face all from beneath, it made her cheeks seem swollen and her eyes seem old. I shivered, and she moved her hand to my shoulder and rubbed me, hard, through the velvet.
Then she tilted her head. ‘There’s Mr Ibbs’s sister, quite bewildered again,’ she said, ‘and calling on her mother. She has been calling on her, poor soul, these fifteen years. I shouldn’t like to come to that, Sue. I should say that, of all the ways a body might go, the quick and the neat way might, after all, be best.’
She said it; and then she winked.
She said it, and seemed to mean it.
I do sometimes wonder, however, whether she mightn’t only have said it to be kind.
But I didn’t think that then. I only rose and kissed her, and made my hair neat where she had stroked it loose; and then came the thud of the kitchen door again, and this time heavier feet upon the stairs, and then Dainty’s voice.
‘Where are you, Sue? Ain’t you coming for a dance? Mr Ibbs has got his wind up, we’re having a right old laugh down here.’
Her shout woke half the babies, and that half woke the other. But
Mrs Sucksby said that she would see to them, and I went back down, and this time I did dance, with Gentleman as my partner. He held me in a waltz-step. He was drunk and held me tight. John danced again with Dainty, and we bumped about the kitchen for a half-an-hour—Gentleman all the time still calling, ‘Go it, Johnny!’ and ‘Come up, boy! Come up!’, and Mr Ibbs stopping once to rub a bit of butter on his lips, to keep the whistle sweet.
Next day, at midday, was when I left them. I packed all my bits of stuff into the canvas-covered trunk and wore the plain brown dress and the cloak and, over my flat hair, a bonnet. I had learned as much as Gentleman could teach me after three days’ work. I knew my story and my new name—Susan Smith. There was only one more thing that needed to be done, and as I sat taking my last meal in that kitchen—which was bread and dried meat, the meat rather too dried, and clinging to my gums—Gentleman did it. He brought from his bag a piece of paper and a pen and some ink, and wrote me out a character.
He wrote it off in a moment. Of course, he was used to faking papers. He held it up for the ink to dry, then read it out. It began:
‘To whom it might concern. Lady Alice Dunraven, of Whelk Street, May fair, recommends Miss Susan Smith’—and it went on like that, I forget the rest of it, but it sounded all right to me. He placed it flat again and signed it in a lady’s curling hand. Then he held it to Mrs Sucksby.
‘What do you think, Mrs S?’ he said, smiling. ‘Will that get Sue her situation?’
But Mrs Sucksby said she couldn’t hope to judge it.
‘You know best, dear boy,’ she said, looking away.
Of course, if we ever took help at Lant Street, it wasn’t character we looked for so much as lack of it. There was a little dwarfish girl that used to come sometimes, to boil the babies’ napkins and to wash the floors; but she was a thief. We couldn’t have had honest girls come. They would have seen enough in three minutes of the business of the house to do for us all. We couldn’t have had that.
So Mrs Sucksby waved the paper away, and Gentleman read it through a second time, then winked at me, then folded it and sealed it and put it in my trunk. I swallowed the last of my dried meat and bread, and fastened my cloak. There was only Mrs Sucksby to say good-bye to. John Vroom and Dainty never got up before one. Mr Ibbs was gone to crack a safe at Bow: he had kissed my cheek an hour before, and given me a shilling. I put my hat on. It was a dull brown thing, like my dress. Mrs Sucksby set it straight. Then she put her hands to my face and smiled.
‘God bless you, Sue!’ she said. ‘You are making us rich!’
But then her smile grew awful. I had never been parted from her before, for more than a day. She turned away, to hide her falling tears.
‘Take her quick,’ she said to Gentleman. ‘Take her quick, and don’t let me see it!’
And so he put his arm about my shoulders and led me from the house. He found a boy to walk behind us, carrying my trunk. He meant to take me to a cab-stand and drive me to the station at Paddington, and see me on my train.
The day was a miserable one. Even so, it was not so often I got to cross the water, and I said I should like to walk as far as SouthwarkBridge, to look at the view. I had thought I should see all of London from there; but the fog grew thicker the further we went. At the bridge it seemed worst of all. You could see the black dome of St Paul’s, the barges on the water; you could see all the dark things of the city, but not the fair—the fair were lost or made like shadows.
‘Queer thing, to think of the river down there,’ said Gentleman, peering over the edge. He leaned, and spat.
We had not bargained on the fog. It made the traffic slow to a crawl, and though we found a cab, after twenty minutes we paid the driver off and walked again. I had been meant to catch the one o’clock train; now, stepping fast across some great square, we heard that hour struck out, and then the quarter, and then the half—all maddeningly damp and half-hearted, they sounded, as if the clap-
pers and the bells that rung them had been wound about with flan-
‘Had we not rather turn around,’ I said, ‘and try again tomorrow?’
But Gentleman said there would be a driver and a trap sent out to Marlow, to meet my train there; and I had better be late, he thought, than not arrive at all.
But after all, when we got to Paddington at last we found the trains all delayed and made slow, just like the traffic: we had to wait another hour then, until the guard should raise the signal that the Bristol train—which was to be my train as far as Maidenhead, where I must get off and join another—was ready to be boarded. We stood beneath the ticking clock, fidgeting and blowing on our hands. They had lit the great lamps there, but the fog having come in and mixed with the steam, it drifted from arch to arch and made the light very poor. The walls were hung with black, from the death of Prince Albert; the crape had got streaked by birds. I thought it very gloomy, for so grand a place. And of course, there was a vast press of people beside us, all waiting and cursing, or jostling by, or letting their children and their dogs run into our legs.
‘Fuck this,’ said Gentleman in a hard peevish voice, when the wheel of a bath-chair ran over his toe. He stooped to wipe the dust from his boot, then straightened and lit up a cigarette, then coughed. He had his collar turned high and wore a black slouch hat. His eyes were yellow at the whites, as if stained with flip. He did not, at that moment, look like a man a girl would go silly over.
He coughed again. ‘Fuck this cheap tobacco, too,’ he said, pulling free a strand that had come loose on his tongue. Then he caught my eye and his face changed. ‘Fuck this cheap life, in all its forms—eh, Suky? No more of that for you and me, soon.’
I looked away from him, saying nothing. I had danced a fast waltz with him the night before; now, away from Lant Street and Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs, amongst all the men and women that were gathered grumbling about us, he seemed just another stranger, and I was shy of him. I thought, You’re nothing to me. And again I almost said that we ought to turn round and go home; but I knew
that if I did he would grow more peevish and show his temper; and so, I did not.
He finished his smoke, then smoked another. He went off for a piddle, and I went off for a piddle of my own. I heard a whistle blown as I was tidying my skirts; and when I got back, I found the guard had sent out the word and half the crowd had started up and was making in a great sweating rush for the waiting train. We went with them, Gentleman leading me to a second-class coach, then handing up my trunk to the man who was fixing the bags and boxes on the roof. I took a place beside a white-faced woman with a baby on her arm; across from her were two stout farmer-types. I think she was glad to see me get on, for of course, me being dressed so neat and comely, she couldn’t tell—ha ha!—that I was a thieving Borough girl. Behind me came a boy and his old dad, with a canary in a cage. The boy sat beside the farmers. The old dad sat by me. The coach tilted and creaked, and we all put back our heads and stared at the bits of dust and varnish that tumbled from the ceiling where the luggage thumped and slithered about above.
The door hung open another minute and then was closed. In all the fuss of getting aboard I had hardly looked at Gentleman. He had handed me on, then turned to talk with the guard. Now he came to the open window and said,
‘I’m afraid you may be very late, Sue. But I think the trap will wait for you at Marlow. I am sure it will wait. You must hope that it will’
I knew at once that it would not, and felt a rush of misery and fear. I said quickly,
‘Come with me, can’t you? And see me to the house?’
But how could he do that? He shook his head and looked sorry. The two farmer-types, the woman, the boy and the old dad all watched us—wondering I suppose what house we meant, and what a man in a slouch hat, with a voice like that, was doing talking to a girl like me about it.
Then the porter climbed down from the roof, there came another whistle, the train gave a horrible lurch and began to move off.
Gentleman lifted up his hat and followed until the engine got up its speed; then he gave it up—I saw him turn, put his hat back on, twist up his collar. Then he was gone. The coach creaked harder and began to sway. The woman and the men put their hands to the leather straps; the boy put his face to the window. The canary put its beak to the bars of its cage. The baby began to cry. It cried for half an hour.
‘Ain’t you got any gin?’ I said to the woman at last.
‘Gin?’ she said—like I might have said, poison. Then she made a mouth, and showed me her shoulder—not so pleased to have me, sitting by her, the uppity bitch, after all.
What with her and the baby, and the fluttering bird; and the old dad—who fell asleep and snorted; and the boy—who made paper pellets; and the farmer-types—who smoked and grew bilious; and the fog—that made the train jerk and halt and arrive at Maidenhead two hours later than its time, so that I missed one Marlow train and must wait for the next one—what with all that, my journey was very wretched. I had not brought any food with me, for we had all supposed I should arrive at Briar in time to take a servant’s tea there. I had not had a morsel since that dinner of bread and dried meat, at noon: it had stuck to my gums then, but I should have called it wonderful at Maidenhead, seven hours later. The station there was not like Paddington, where there were coffee-stalls and milk-stalls and a pastry-cook’s shop. There was only one place for vittles, and that was shut up and closed. I sat on my trunk. My eyes stung, from the fog. When I blew my nose, I turned a handkerchief black. A man saw me do it. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said, smiling.
‘I ain’t crying!’ I said.
He winked, then asked me my name.
It was one thing to flirt in town, however. But I wasn’t in town now. I wouldn’t answer. When the train came for Marlow I sat at the back of a coach, and he sat at the front, but with his face my way— he tried for an hour to catch my eye. I remembered Dainty saying that she had sat on a train once, with a gentleman near, and he had opened his trousers and showed her his cock, and asked her to hold it; and she had held it, and he had given her a pound. I wondered
what I would do, if this man asked me to touch his cock—whether I would scream, or look the other way, or touch it, or what.
But then, I hardly needed the pound, where I was headed!
Anyway, money like that was hard to move on. Dainty had never been able to spend hers for fear her father should see it and know she’d been gay. She hid it behind a loose brick in the wall of the starch works, and put a special mark on the brick, that only she would know. She said she would tell it on her death-bed, and we could use the pound to bury her.
Well, the man on my train watched me very hard, but if he had his trousers open I never saw; and at last he tilted his hat to me and got off. There were more stops after that, and at every one someone else got off, from further down along the train; and no-one got on. The stations grew smaller and darker, until finally there was nothing at them but a tree—there was nothing to see anywhere, but trees, and beyond them bushes, and beyond them fog—grey fog, not brown—with the black night sky above it. And when the trees and the bushes seemed just about at their thickest, and the sky was blacker than I should have thought a sky naturally could be, the train stopped a final time; and that was Marlow.
Here no-one got off save me. I was the last passenger of all. The guard called the stop, and came to lift down my trunk. He said,
‘You’ll want that carrying. Is there no-one come to meet you?’
I told him there was supposed to be a man with a trap, to take me up to Briar. He said, Did I mean the trap that came to fetch the post? That would have been and gone, three hours before. He looked me over.
‘Come down from London, have you?’ he said. Then he called to the driver, who was looking from his cab. ‘She’ve come down from London, meant for Briar. I told her, the Briar trap will have come and gone.’
‘That’ll have come and gone, that will,’ called the driver. ‘That’ll have come and gone, I should say three hours back.’
I stood and shivered. It was colder here than at home. It was colder and darker and the air smelt queer, and the people—didn’t I say it?—the people were howling simpletons.
I said, Ain’t there a cab-man could take me?’
A cab-man?’ said the guard. He shouted it to the driver. ‘Wants a cab-man!’
They laughed until they coughed. The guard took out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth, saying, ‘Dearie me, oh! dearie, dearie me. A cab-man, at Marlow!’
‘Oh, fuck off,’ I said. ‘Fuck off, the pair of you.’
And I caught up my trunk and walked with it to where I could see one or two lights shining, that I thought must be the houses of the village. The guard said, ‘Why, you hussy—! I shall let Mr Way know about you. See what he thinks—you bringing your London tongue down here—!’
I can’t say what I meant to do next. I did not know how far it was to Briar. I did not even know which road I ought to take. London was forty miles away, and I was afraid of cows and bulls.
But after all, country roads aren’t like city ones. There are only about four of them, and they all go to the same place in the end. I started to walk, and had walked a minute when there came, behind me, the sound of hooves and creaking wheels. And then a cart drew alongside me, and the driver pulled up and lifted up a lantern, to look at my face.
‘You’ll be Susan Smith,’ he said, ‘come down from London. Miss Maud’ve been fretting after you all day.’
He was an oldish man and his name was William Inker. He was Mr Lilly’s groom. He took my trunk and helped me into the seat beside his own, and geed up the horse; and when—being struck by the breeze as we drove—he felt me shiver, he reached for a tartan blanket for me to put about my legs.
It was six or seven miles to Briar, and he took it at an easy sort of trot, smoking a pipe. I told him about the fog—there was still something of a mist, even now, even there—and the slow trains.
He said, ‘That’s London. Known for its fogs, ain’t it? Been much down to the country before?’
‘Not much,’ I said.
‘Been maiding in the city, have you? Good place, your last one?’ ‘Pretty good,’ I said.
‘Rum way of speaking you’ve got, for a lady’s maid,’ he said then. ‘Been to France ever?’
I took a second, smoothing the blanket out over my lap. ‘Once or twice,’ I said.
‘Short kind of chaps, the French chaps, I expect? In the leg, I mean.’
Now, I only knew one Frenchman—a housebreaker, they called him Jack the German, I don’t know why. He was tall enough; but I said, to please William Inker, ‘Shortish, I suppose.’ ‘I expect so,’ he said.
The road was perfectly quiet and perfectly dark, and I imagined the sound of the horse, and the wheels, and our voices, carrying far across the fields. Then I heard, from rather near, the slow tolling of a bell—a very mournful sound, it seemed to me at that moment, not like the cheerful bells of London. It tolled nine times.
‘That’s the Briar bell, sounding the hour,’ said William Inker. We sat in silence after that, and in a little time we reached a high stone Wall and took a road that ran beside it. Soon the wall became a great arch, and then I saw behind it the roof and the pointed windows of a greyish house, half-covered with ivy. I thought it a grand enough crib, but not so grand nor so grim perhaps as Gentleman had painted it. But when William Inker slowed the horse and I put the blanket from me and reached for my trunk, he said,
‘Wait up, sweetheart, we’ve half a mile yet!’ And then, to a man who had appeared with a lantern at the door of the house, he called: ‘Good night, Mr Mack. You may shut the gate behind us. Here is Miss Smith, look, safe at last.’
The building I had thought was Briar was only the lodge! I stared, saying nothing, and we drove on past it, between two rows of bare dark trees, that curved as the road curved, then dipped into a kind of hollow, where the air—that had seemed to clear a little, on the open country lanes—grew thick again. So thick it grew, I felt it, damp, upon my face, upon my lashes and lips; and closed my eyes.
Then the dampness passed away. I looked, and stared again. The road had risen, we had broken out from between the lines of trees into a gravel clearing, and here—rising vast and straight and stark out of the woolly fog, with all its windows black or shuttered, and its walls with a dead kind of ivy clinging to them, and a couple of its chimneys sending up threads of a feeble-looking grey smoke—here was Briar, Maud Lilly’s great house, that I must now call my home.
We did not cross before the face of it, but kept well to the side, then took up a lane that swung round behind it, where there was a muddle of yards and out-houses and porches, and more dark walls and shuttered windows and the sound of barking dogs. High in one of the buildings was the round white face and great black hands of the clock I had heard striking across the fields. Beneath it, William Inker pulled the horse up, then helped me down. A door was opened in one of the walls and a woman stood gazing at us, her arms folded against the cold.
‘There’s Mrs Stiles, heard the trap come,’ said William. We crossed the yard to join her. Up above us, at a little window, I thought I saw a candle-flame shine, and flutter, and then go out.
The door led to a passage, and this led to a great, bright kitchen, about five times the size of our kitchen at Lant Street, and with pots set in rows upon a whitewashed wall, and a few rabbits hanging on hooks from the beams of the ceiling. At a wide scrubbed table sat a boy, a woman and three or four girls—of course, they looked very hard at me. The girls studied my bonnet and the cut of my cloak. Their frocks and aprons being only servants’ wear, I didn’t trouble myself to study them.
Mrs Stiles said, ‘Well, you’re about as late as you could be. Any longer and you should’ve had to stay at the village. We keep early hours here.’
She was about fifty, with a white cap with frills and a way of not quite looking in your eye as she spoke to you. She carried keys about her, on a chain at her waist. Plain, old-fashioned keys, I could have copied any one of them.
I made her half a curtsey. I did not say—which I might have— that she should be thankful I had not turned back at Paddington;
that I wished I had turned back; and that for anyone to have had the time that I had had, in trying to get forty miles from London, perhaps went to prove that London wasn’t meant to be left—I did not say that. What I said was:
‘I’m sure, I’m very grateful that the trap was sent at all.’ The girls at the table tittered to hear me speak. The woman who sat with them—the cook, it turned out—got up and set about making me a supper-tray. William Inker said,
‘Miss Smith’ve come from a pretty fine place in London, Mrs Stiles. And she’ve been several times in France.’ ‘Has she,’ said Mrs Stiles.
‘Only one or two times,’ I said. Now everyone would suppose I had been boasting.
‘She said the chaps there are very short in the leg.’ _ Mrs Stiles gave a nod. The girls at the table tittered again, and one of them whispered something that made the boy grow red. But then my tray was made, and Mrs Stiles said,
‘Margaret, you can carry this through to my pantry. Miss Smith, I suppose I should take you to where you might splash your hands and face.’
I took this to mean that she would show me to the privy, and I said I wished she would. She gave me a candle and took me down another short passage, to another yard, that had an earth closet in it with paper on a spike.
Then she took me to her own little room. It had a chimney-piece with white wax flowers on it, and a picture of a sailor in a frame, that I supposed was Master Stiles, gone off to Sea; and another picture, of an angel, done entirely in black hair, that I presumed was Mr Stiles, gone off to Glory. She sat and watched me take my supper. It was mutton, minced, and bread-and-butter; and you may imagine that, being so hungry as I was, I made very short work of it. As I ate, there came the slow chiming of the clock that I had heard before, sounding half-past nine. I said, ‘Does the clock chime all night?’
Mrs Stiles nodded. ‘All night, and all day, at the hour and the half. Mr Lilly likes his days run very regular. You’ll find that out.’
‘And Miss Lilly?’ I said, picking crumbs from the corner of my mouth. ‘What does she like?’
She smoothed her apron. ‘Miss Maud likes what her uncle likes,’ she answered.
Then she rearranged her lips. She said,
‘You’ll know, Miss Smith, that Miss Maud is quite a young girl, for all that she’s mistress of this great house. The servants don’t trouble her, for the servants answer to me. I should have said I had been a housekeeper long enough to know how to secure a maid for my own mistress—but there, even a housekeeper must do as she is bid, and Miss Maud’ve gone quite over my head in this matter. Quite over my head. I shouldn’t have thought that perfectly wise, in a girl of her years; but we shall see how it turns out.’
I said, ‘I am sure whatever Miss Lilly does must turn out well.’
She said, ‘I have a great staff of servants, to make sure that it does. This’is a well-kept house, Miss Smith, and I hope you will take to it. I don’t know what you might be used to in your last place. I don’t know what might be considered a lady’s maid’s duties, in London. I have never been there’—she had never been to London!—’so cannot say. But if you mind my other girls, then I am sure they will mind you. The men and the stable-boys, of course, I hope I shall never see you talking with more than you can help
She went on like that for a quarter of an hour—all the time, as I have mentioned, never quite catching my eye. She told me where I might walk in the house, and where I must take my meals, and how much sugar I should be allowed for my own use, and how much beer, and when I could expect my underclothes laundered. The tea that was boiled in Miss Maud’s teapot, she said, it had been the habit of the last lady’s maid to pass on to the girls in the kitchen. Likewise the wax-ends from Miss Maud’s candle-sticks: they were to be given to Mr Way. And Mr Way would know how many wax-ends to expect, since it was him who doled out the candles. Corks went to Charles, the knife-boy. Bones and skins went to Cook.
‘The pieces of soap that Miss Maud leaves in her wash-stand, however,’ she said, ‘as being too dry to raise a lather from: those you may keep.’
Well, that’s servants for you—always grubbing over their own little patch. As if I cared, about candle-ends and soap! If I had never quite felt it before, I knew then what it was, to be in expectations of three thousand pounds.
Then she said that if I had finished my supper she would be pleased to show me to my room. But she would have to ask me to be very quiet as we went, for Mr Lilly liked a silent house and couldn’t bear upset, and Miss Maud had a set of nerves that were just like his, that wouldn’t allow of her being kept from her rest or made fretful.
So she said; and then she took up her lamp, and I took up my candle, and she led me out into the passage and up a dark staircase. ‘This is the servants’ way,’ she said, as we walked, ‘that you must always take, unless Miss Maud directs you otherwise.’
Her voice and her tread grew softer the higher we went. At last, when we had climbed three pairs of stairs, she took me to a door, that she said in a whisper was the door to my room. Putting her finger before her lips, she slowly turned the handle.
I had never had a room of my own before. I did not particularly want one, now. But, since I must have one, this one I supposed would do. It was small and plain—would have looked better, perhaps, for a paper garland or two, or a few plaster dogs. But there was a looking-glass upon the mantel and, before the fire, a rug. Beside the bed—William Inker must have brought it up—was my canvas trunk.
Near the head of the bed there was another door, shut quite tight and with no key in it. ‘Where does that lead?’ I asked Mrs Stiles, thinking it might lead to another passage or a closet.
‘That’s the door to Miss Maud’s room,’ she said.
I said, ‘Miss Maud is through there, asleep in her bed?’
Perhaps I said it rather loud; but Mrs Stiles gave a shudder, as if I might just have shrieked or sprung a rattle.
‘Miss Maud sleeps very poorly,’ she answered quietly. ‘If she wakes in the night, then she likes her girl to go to her. She won’t call out for you, since you are a stranger to her now: we will put Margaret in a chair outside her door, and Margaret shall take her
her breakfast tomorrow, and dress her for the day. After that, you ust be ready to be called in and examined.’ She said she hoped Miss Maud would find me pleasing. I said I
She left me, then. She went very softly, but at the door she paused, to put her hand to the keys at her chain. I saw her do it, and grew quite cold: for she looked all at once like nothing so much as the matron of a gaol. I said, before I could stop myself:
‘You’re not going to lock me in?’
‘Lock you in?’ she answered, with a frown. ‘Why should I do
I said I didn’t know. She looked me over, drew in her chin, then shut the door and left me.
I held up my thumb. Kiss that! I thought.
Then I sat upon the bed. It was hard. I wondered if the sheets and blankets had been changed since the last maid left with the scarlatina. It was too dark to see. Mrs Stiles had taken her lamp and I had set my candle down in a draught: the flame of it plunged about and made great black shadows. I unfastened my cloak, but kept it draped about my shoulders. I ached, from the cold and the travelling; and the mince I had eaten had come too late—it sat in my stomach and hurt. It was ten o’clock. We laughed at people who went to bed before midnight, at home.
I might as well have been put in gaol, I thought. A gaol would have been livelier. Here, there was only an awful silence: you listened, and it troubled your ears. And when you got up and went to the window and looked outside, you nearly fainted to see how high you were, and how dark were the yard and the stables, how still and quiet the land beyond.
I remembered the candle I had seen, fluttering at a window as I walked with William Inker. I wondered which room it was that that light had shone from.
I opened my trunk, to look at all the things that I had brought with me from Lant Street—but then, none of them were really mine, they were only the petticoats and shimmies that Gentleman had made me take. I took off my dress, and for a second held it
against my face. The dress was not mine, either; but I found the seams that Dainty had made, and smelled them. I thought that her needle had left the scent there, of John Vroom’s dog-skin coat.
I thought of the soup that Mrs Sucksby would have made, from the bones of that pig’s head; and it was quite as strange as I knew it would be, to imagine them all sitting eating it, perhaps thinking of me, perhaps thinking of something else entirely.
If I had been a crying sort of girl, I should certainly have cried then, imagining that.
But I was never a girl for tears. I changed into my nightgown, put my cloak back on above it, and stood in my stockings and my unbuttoned shoes. I looked at the shut door at the head of the bed, and at the key-hole in it. I wondered if Maud kept a key on her side and-had it turned. I wondered what I would see, if I went and bent and looked—and who can think a thing like that, and not go and do it? But when I did go, on tiptoe, and stoop to the lock, I saw a dim light, a shadow—nothing clearer than that, no sign of any kind of sleeping or wakeful or fretful girl, or anything.
I wondered, though, if I might hear her breathing. I straightened up, and held my breath, and put my ear flat to the door. I heard my heart-beat, and the roaring of my blood. I heard a small, tight sound, that must have been the creeping of a worm or a beetle in the wood.
Beyond that, there was nothing—though I listened for a minute, maybe two. Then I gave it up. I took off my shoes and my garters and got into bed: the sheets were cold and felt damp, like sheets of pastry. I put my cloak over the bed-clothes—for extra warmth; and also so that I might quickly seize it, if someone came at me in the night and I wanted to run. You never knew. The candle I left burning. If Mr Way was to complain that that was one stub less, too bad.
Even a thief has her weak points. The shadows still danced about. The pastry sheets stayed cold. The great clock sounded half-past ten—eleven—half-past eleven—twelve. I lay and shivered, and longed with all my heart for Mrs Sucksby, Lant Street, home.
They woke me at six in the morning. It seemed still the middle of the night to me, for my candle of course had burned to nothing, and the window-curtains were heavy and kept the thin light out. When the maid, Margaret, came knocking at my door, I thought I was in my old room at Lant Street. I was sure she was a thief, broke out from gaol and needing her fetters filed free by Mr Ibbs. That happened, sometimes; and sometimes the thieves were kind men, who knew us, and sometimes they were desperate villains. Once a man put a knife to Mr Ibbs’s throat, because he said the file went too slow. So, hearing Margaret’s knock now, I started from the bed, crying out, ‘Oh! Hold!’—though what I meant to be held, and who ought to have done it, I could not tell you; and neither, I suppose, could Margaret. She put her face about the door, whispering, ‘Did you call, miss?’ She had a jug of warm water for me, and she came and set my fire; then she reached beneath the bed and took the chamber-pot, and emptied it into her bucket of
slops, and wiped it clean with a damp cloth that hung against her apron.
I had used to wash the chamber-pots, at home. Now, seeing Margaret tip my piddle into her bucket, I was not sure I liked it. But I said, ‘Thank you, Margaret’—then wished I hadn’t; for she heard it and tossed her head, as if to say, Who did I think I was, thanking her?
Servants. She said I should take my breakfast in Mrs Stiles’s pantry. Then she turned and left me—getting a quick look, I thought, at my frock and my shoes and my open trunk, on the way.
I waited for the fire to take, then rose and dressed. It was too cold to wash. My gown felt clammy. When I drew the window-curtain back and let the daylight in, I saw—what I had not been able to see the night before, by the candle—that the ceiling was streaked brown with damp, and the wood at the walls stained white.
From the next-door room there came the murmur of voices. I heard Margaret saying, ‘Yes, miss.’ Then there was the shutting of a door.
Then there was silence. I went down to my breakfast—first losing my way among the dark passages at the bottom of the servants’ stairs, and finding myself in the yard with the privy in it. The privy, I saw now, was surrounded by nettles, and the bricks in the yard broken up with weeds. The walls of the house had ivy on them, and some of the windows wanted panes. Gentleman was right, after all, about the place being hardly worth cracking. He was right, too, about the servants. When I found Mrs Stiles’s pantry at last there was a man there, dressed in breeches and silk stockings, and with a wig on his head with powder on it. That was Mr Way. He had been steward to Mr Lilly for forty-five years, he said; and he looked it. When a girl brought the breakfasts, he was served first. We had gammon and an egg, and a cup of beer. They had beer with all their meals there, there was a whole room where it was brewed. And they say Londoners can lush!
Mr Way said hardly a word to me, but spoke to Mrs Stiles about the running of the house. He asked only after the family I was supposed to have just left; and when I told him, the Dunravens, of
Whelk Street, Mayfair, he nodded and looked clever, saying he thought he knew their man. Which goes to show you what a humbug he was.
He went off at seven. Mrs Stiles would not leave the table before he got up. When she did she said,
‘You will be glad to hear, Miss Smith, that Miss Maud slept well.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. She went on, anyway:
‘Miss Maud rises early. She has asked that you be sent to her. Should you like to wash your hands before you go up? Miss Maud is like her uncle, and particular.’
My hands seemed clean enough to me; but I washed them anyway, in a little stone sink she had there in the corner of her pantry.
I felt the beer I had drunk, and wished I had not drunk it. I wished I had used the privy when I came across it in the yard. I was certain I should never find my way to it again.
I was nervous.
She took me up. We went, as before, by the servants’ stairs, but then struck out into a handsomer passage, that led to one or two doors. At one of these she knocked. I didn’t catch the answer that came, but suppose she heard it. She straightened her back and turned the iron handle, and led me in.
The room was a dark one, like all the rooms there. Its walls were panelled all over in an old black wood, and its floor—which was bare, but for a couple of trifling Turkey carpets, that were here and there worn to the weave—was also black. There were some great heavy tables about, and one or two hard sofas. There was a painting of a brown hill, and a vase full of dried leaves, and a dead snake in a glass case with a white egg in its mouth. The windows showed the grey sky and bare wet branches. The window-panes were small, and leaded, and rattled in their frames.
There was a little spluttering fire in a vast old grate, and before this—standing gazing into the weak flames and the smoke, but turning as she heard my step, and starting, and blinking—there was Miss Maud Lilly, the mistress of the house, that all our plot was built on.
I had expected her, from all that Gentleman had said, to be quite out of the way handsome. But she was not that—at least, I did not think her so as I studied her then, I thought her looks rather commonplace. She was taller than me by an inch or two—which is to say, of an ordinary height, since I am considered short; and her hair was fairer than mine—but not very fair—and her eyes, which were brown, were lighter. Her lip and her cheek were very plump and smooth—she did lick me there, I will admit, for I liked to bite my own lip, and my cheeks had freckles, and my features as a rule were said to be sharp. I was also thought young-looking; but as to that—well, I should have liked the people who thought it to have studied Maud Lilly as she stood before me now. For if I was young, then she was an infant, she was a chick, she was a pigeon that knew nothing. She saw me come, and started, as I have said; and she took a step or two to meet me, and her pale cheek fired up crimson. Then she stopped, and put her hands before her, neatly, at her skirt. The skirt—I had never seen such a thing before, on a girl her age— the skirt was full and short and showed her ankles; and about her waist—that was astonishingly narrow—there was a sash. Her hair was caught in a net of velvet. On her feet were slippers, of red prunella. Her hands had clean white gloves upon them, buttoned up tight at the wrist. She said,
‘Miss Smith. You are Miss Smith, I think? And you have come to be my maid, from London! And may I call you Susan? I hope you shall like it at Briar, Susan; and I hope you shall like me. There is not much to like, in either case. I think you might do it very easily— very easily, indeed.’
She spoke in a soft, sweet, halting voice, tilting her head, hardly looking at me, still quite crimson at the cheek. I said, ‘I am sure I shall like you, miss.’ Then I remembered all my work at Lant Street, and gripped my skirt and made a curtsey. And when I rose from it she smiled, and came and took my hand in hers.
She looked at Mrs Stiles, who had kept behind me at the door.
‘You need not stay, Mrs Stiles,’ she said nicely. ‘But you will have been kind to Miss Smith, I know.’ She caught my eye. ‘You’ve heard, perhaps, that I am an orphan, Susan, like you. I came to
Briar as a child: very young, and with no-one at all to care for me. I cannot tell you all the ways in which Mrs Stiles has made me know what a mother’s love is, since that time.’
She smiled and tilted her head. Mrs Stiles would not catch her
gaze, but a bit of colour struggled into her cheeks, and her eye-lids fluttered. I should never have put her down as the motherly sort, myself; but servants grow sentimental over the swells they work for, like dogs grow fond of bullies. You take my word for it.
Anyway, she blinked and looked modest another minute; and then she left us. Maud smiled again, and led me to one of the hard-backed sofas, that was close to the fire. She sat beside me. She asked after my journey—’We supposed you lost!’ she said—and after my room. Did I like my bed? Did I like my breakfast?
And have you really,’ she said, ‘come from London?’ That was all that anyone had been asking, since I left Lant Street—as if I might have come from anywhere else! But then again, I thought she asked it in a different sort of way: not in a gaping country way, but in a noticing, hungryish manner—as if London was something to her, and she longed to hear of it.
Of course, I thought I knew why that was.
Next she told me all the duties I should have to do, while I was her maid: the chief of these being, as I also knew, to sit with her and keep her company, and walk with her about the park, and tidy her gowns. She lowered her eyes.
‘You’ll see we are rather out of the way of fashion, here at Briar,’ she said. ‘It matters little, I suppose, since we have so few callers. My uncle only likes to see me neat. But you, of course, will be used to the great styles of London.’
I thought of Dainty’s hair, John’s dog-skin coat. ‘Pretty used,’ I said.
And your last mistress,’ she went on then, ‘she was quite a fine lady? She would laugh to look at me, I expect!’
She coloured still harder as she said that, and again looked from me; and again I thought, ‘You pigeon!’
But what I said was, that Lady Alice—who was the mistress that Gentleman had faked up for me—was too kind to laugh at anyone,
and would anyway know that grand clothes meant nothing, since it was the person inside the clothes that ought to be judged. All in all, I thought, it was a pretty clever thing to say; and she seemed to think so too, for when I had said it she looked at me in a new way and her colour went down, and she took my hand again, saying, ‘You are a good girl, Susan, I think.’ I said, ‘Lady Alice always said so, miss.’
Then I remembered the character that Gentleman had written for me, and thought this might be the moment to present it. I took it from my pocket and handed it over. She rose and broke the wax, then walked to the window to hold the paper to the light. She stood a long time looking at the curling hand, and once sneaked a glance at me; and my heart beat a little fast then, to think she might have noticed something queer there. But it was not that: for I saw at last that her hand, which held the paper, trembled; and I guessed that she had no more idea what a proper character was like than I did, and was only figuring out what she should say.
I thought it almost a shame, guessing that, that she had no mother.
‘Well,’ she said, folding the paper very small and putting it inside her own pocket, ‘Lady Alice does indeed speak highly of you. I think you must have been sorry to leave her house.’
‘Pretty sorry, miss,’ I said. ‘But then, you see, Lady Alice has gone to India. I think I should have found the sun there rather fierce.’
She smiled. ‘Will you prefer the grey skies of Briar? You know, the sun never shines here. My uncle has forbidden it. Strong light, you see, fades print.’
She laughed and showed her teeth, which were small and very white. I smiled, but kept my lips shut—for my own teeth, that are yellow now, were I am afraid to say quite yellow even then; and seeing hers made me fancy them yellower.
She said, ‘You know my uncle is a scholar, Susan?’ I said, ‘I heard it, miss.’
‘He keeps a great library. The largest library, of its kind, in all of England. I dare say you will see it soon.’
‘That will be something, miss, I’m sure.’
She smiled again. ‘You like to read, of course?’
I swallowed. ‘To read, miss?’ She nodded, waiting. ‘Pretty much,’ I said at last. ‘That is, I am sure I should, if I was ever much in the way of books and papers. By which I mean’—I coughed—’if I was to be shown.’
‘To learn, I mean,’ I said.
She stared, even harder; and then she gave a short, disbelieving sort of laugh. ‘You are joking,’ she said. ‘You don’t mean, you cannot read? Not really? Not a word, not a letter?’ Her smile became a frown. There was, beside her, a little table with a book upon it. Still half smiling, half frowning, she took the book up and handed it to me. ‘Go on,’ she said kindly. ‘I think you are being modest. Read me any part, I shan’t mind if you stumble.’
I held the book, saying nothing; but beginning to sweat. I opened it and looked at a page. It was full of a close black print. I tried another. That one was worse. I felt Maud’s gaze, like a flame against my hot face. I felt the silence. My face grew hotter. Take a chance, I thought.
‘Our Father,’ I tried, ‘which art in heaven—’
But then, I forgot the rest. I closed the book, and bit my lip, and looked at the floor. I thought, very bitterly, ‘Well, here will all our scheming end. She won’t want a maid that can’t read her a book, or write fancy letters in a curling hand!’ I lifted my eyes to hers and said,
‘I might be taught it, miss. I am that willing. I’m sure I could learn, in half a wink—’
But she was shaking her head, and the look on her face was something.
‘Be taught?’ she said, coming close and gently taking back the book. ‘Oh, no! No, no, I shouldn’t allow it. Not read! Ah, Susan, were you to live in this house, as the niece of my uncle, you should know what that meant. You should know, indeed!’
She smiled. And while she still held my gaze, still smiling, there came the slow and heavy tolling of the great house-bell, eight times; and then her smile fell.
‘Now,’ she said, turning away, ‘I must go to Mr Lilly; and when the clock strikes one I shall be free again.’
She said that—sounding, I thought, just like a girl in a story. Aren’t there stories, with girls with magic uncles—wizards, beasts, and whatnots? She said,
‘Come to me, Susan, at my uncle’s chamber, at one.’
‘I will, miss,’ I said.
She was looking about her, now, in a distracted kind of way. There was a glass above the fire and she went to it, and put her gloved hands to her face, and then to her collar. I watched her lean. Her short gown lifted at the back and showed her calves.
She caught my eye in the glass. I made another curtsey.
‘Shall I go, miss?’ I said.
She stepped back. ‘Stay,’ she said, waving her hand, ‘and put my rooms in order, will you?’
She went to the door. At the handle, however, she stopped. She said,
‘I hope you will be happy here, Susan.’ Now she was blushing again. My own cheek cooled, when I saw that. ‘I hope your aunt, in London, will not miss you too greatly. It was an aunt, I think, that Mr Rivers mentioned?’ She lowered her eyes. ‘I hope you found Mr Rivers quite well, when you saw him?’
She let the question fall, like it was nothing to her; and I knew confidence men who did the same, dropping One good shilling among a pile of snide, to make all the coins seem honest. As if she gave a fig, for me and my old aunty!
I said, ‘He was very well, miss. And sent his compliments.’
She had opened the door now, and half-hid herself behind it. ‘Did he truly?’ she said.
She put her brow against the wood. ‘I think he is kind,’ she said softly.
I remembered him squatting at the side of that kitchen chair, his hand reaching high beneath the layers of petticoat, saying, You sweet bitch.
‘I’m sure he’s very kind, miss,’ I said.
Then, from somewhere in the house there came the quick, peevish tinkling of a little hand-bell, and, ‘There’s Uncle!’ she cried, gazing over her shoulder. She turned and ran, leaving the door half-closed. I heard the slap of her slippers and the creaking of the stairs as she went down.
I waited a second, then stepped to the door, put my foot to it, and kicked it shut. I went to the fire and warmed my hands. I do not think I had been quite warm since leaving Lant Street. I lifted my head and, seeing the glass that Maud had looked in, rose and gazed at my own face—at my freckled cheek and my teeth. I showed myself my tongue. Then I rubbed my hands and chuckled: for she was just as Gentleman had promised, and clearly tit over heels in love with him already; and that three thousand pounds might as well have been counted and wrapped and had my name put on it, and the doctor be standing ready with a strait-coat at the madhouse door.
That’s what I thought, after seeing her then.
But I thought it in a discontented sort of way; and the chuckle, I have to admit, was rather forced. I could not have said quite why, though. I supposed it was the gloom—for the house seemed darker and stiller than ever, now that she had gone. There was only the dropping of ash in the grate, the bumping and rattling of panes of glass. I went to the window. The draught was awful. There had been little red sand-bags laid upon the sills to keep it out, but they didn’t work; and they had all got wet, and were mouldy. I put my hand to one, and my finger came away green. I stood and shivered, and looked at the view—if you could call it a view, that was just plain grass and trees. A few black birds pulled worms from the lawn. I wondered which way London was.
I wished hard to hear an infant cry, or Mr Ibbs’s sister. I would have given five pounds for a parcel of poke or a few bad coins to tarnish.
Then I thought of something else. Put my rooms in order, Maud had said; and here was only one room, that I supposed must be her parlour; so somewhere else must be another, where she slept in her bed. Now, the walls in that house were all of dark oak panelling,
very gloomy on the eye and very baffling, for the doors were set so pat in their frames, you could not spot them. But I looked hard and, in the wall across from where I stood, I saw a crack, and then a handle; and then the shape of the door sprung at me, plain as daylight.
It was the door to her bedroom, just as I had supposed; and of course, this room had another door in it, that was the door to my own room, where I had stood the night before and listened for her breaths. That seemed a very foolish thing to have done, now that I saw what was on the other side of it. For it was only an ordinary lady’s room—not very grand, but grand enough, with a faint, sweet smell to it, and a high four-posted bed with curtains and a canopy of old moreen. I was not sure that sleeping in a bed like that wouldn’t make me sneeze: I thought of all the dust and dead flies and spiders that must be gathered in the canopy, that looked as though it hadn’t been taken down in ninety years. The bed had been made, but a night-dress lay upon it—I folded this up and put it beneath the pillow; and there were one or two fair hairs there that I caught up and took to the grate. So much for maiding. Upon the chimney-breast there was a great aged looking-glass, shot through like marble, with silver and grey. Beyond it was a small old-fashioned press, that was carved all over with flowers and grapes, quite black with polish, and here and there split. I should say that ladies wore nothing but leaves in the day it was built, for it had six or seven slight gowns laid carelessly in it now, that made the shelves groan, and a crinoline cage, against which the doors could not be fastened. Seeing that, I thought again what a shame it was that Maud had no mother: for she would certainly have got rid of ancient stuff like this and found her daughter something more up to the minute and dainty.
But one thing a business like ours at Lant Street teaches you is, the proper handling of quality goods. I got hold of the gowns—they were all as odd and short and girlish as each other—and shook them out, then laid them nicely back on their shelf. Then I wedged a shoe against the crinoline to hold it flat; after that, the doors closed as they were meant to. This press was in one alcove. In another was a
dressing-table. That was strewn about with brushes and bottles
and pinst—I tidied those, too—and fitted beneath with a set of fancy
drawers. I opened them up. They held—well, here was a thing. Thev all held gloves. More gloves than a milliner’s. White ones, in the top drawer; black silk ones in the middle; and buff mittens in
They were each of them marked on the inside at the wrist with a crimson thread that I guessed spelled out Maud’s name. I should have liked to have a go at that, with scissors and a pin.
I did no such thing, of course, but left the gloves all lying neatly, and I went about the room again until I had touched and studied it all There was not much more to look at; but there was one more curious thing, and that was a little wooden box, inlaid with ivory, that sat upon a table beside her bed.
The box was locked, and when I took it up it gave a dull sort of rattle. There was no key handy: I guessed she kept it somewhere about her, perhaps on a string. The lock was a simple one, however, and with locks like that, you only have to show them the wire and they open themselves, it’s like giving brine to an oyster. I used one of her hairpins.
The wood turned out to be lined with plush. The hinge was of silver, and oiled not to squeak. I am not sure what I thought to find in there—perhaps, something from Gentleman, some keepsake, some letter, some little bill-and-coo. But what there was, was a miniature portrait, in a frame of gold hung on a faded ribbon, of a handsome, fair-haired lady. Her eyes were kind. She was dressed in a style from twenty years before, and the frame was an old one: she did not look much like Maud, but I thought it a pretty safe bet that she was her mother.—Though I also thought that, if she was, then it was queer that Maud kept her picture locked up in a box, and did not wear it.
I puzzled so long over this, turning the picture, looking for marks, that the frame—which had been cold when I took it up, like everything there—grew warm. But then there came a sound, from somewhere in the house, and I thought how it would be, if Maud— or Margaret, or Mrs Stiles—should come to the room and catch me
standing by the open box, the portrait in my hand. I quickly laid it back in its place, and made it fast again.
The hairpin I had bent to make a pick-lock with, I kept. I shouldn’t have liked Maud to have found it and thought me a thief.
There was nothing to do, after I had done that. I stood some more at the window. At eleven o’clock a maid brought up a tray. ‘Miss Maud isn’t here,’ I said, when I saw the silver tea-pot; but the tea was for me. I drank it in fairy-sips, to make it last the longer. Then I took the tray back down, thinking to save the maid another journey. When they saw me carrying it into the kitchen, however, the girls there stared and the cook said,
‘Well, I never! If you think Margaret ain’t quick enough coming, you must speak to Mrs Stiles. But I’m sure, Miss Fee never called anyone idle.’
Miss Fee was the Irish maid who had got sick with the scarlatina. It seemed very cruel to be supposed prouder than her, when I was only trying to be kind.
But I said nothing. I thought, ‘Miss Maud likes me, if you don’t!’ For she was the only one, of all of them, to have spared me a pleasant word; and suddenly I longed for the time to pass, not for its own sake, but as it would take me back to her.
At least at Briar you always knew what hour it was. The twelve struck, and then the half, and I made my way to the back-stairs and hung about there until one of the parlourmaids went by, and she showed me the way to the library. It was a room on the first floor, that you reached from a gallery overlooking a great wood staircase and a hall; but it was all dark and dim and shabby, as it was everywhere in that house—you would never have thought, looking about you there, that you were right in the home of a tremendous scholar. By the door to the library, on a wooden shield, hung some creature’s head with one glass eye: I stood and put my fingers to its little white teeth, waiting to hear the clock sound one. Through the door came Maud’s voice—very faint, but slow and level, as though she might be reading to her uncle from a book.
Then the hour sounded, and I lifted my hand and knocked. A man’s thin voice called out for me to enter.
I saw Maud first: she was sitting at a desk with a book before her, her hands upon the covers. Her hands were bare, she had her little white gloves laid neatly by, but she sat beside a shaded lamp, that threw all its light upon her fingers, and they seemed pale as ashes upon the page of print. Above her was a window. Its glass had yellow paint upon it. All about her, over all the walls of the room, were shelves; and the shelves had books on—you never saw so many. A stunning amount. How many stories does one man need? I looked at them and shuddered. Maud rose, closing the book that was before her. She took up the white gloves and drew them back on.
She looked to her right, to the end of the room that, because of the open door, I could not see. A cross voice said,
‘What is it?’
I pushed the door further, and saw another painted window, more shelves, more books, and a-second great desk. This one was piled with papers, and had another shaded lamp. Behind it sat Mr Lilly, Maud’s old uncle; and to describe him as I saw him then, is to tell everything.
He wore a velvet coat, and a velvet cap, that had a stub of red wool jutting from it where a tassel might once have hung. In his hand there was a pen, that he held clear of the paper; and the hand itself was dark, as Maud’s was fair—for it was stained all over with India ink, like a regular man’s might be stained with tobacco. His hair, however, was white. His chin was shaved bare. His mouth was small and had no colour, but his tongue—that was hard and pointed—was almost black, from where he must have given a lick to his finger and thumb, when turning pages.
His eyes were damp and feeble. Before them he had a pair of glasses, shaded green. He saw me and said,
‘Who the devil are you?’
Maud worked at the buttons at her wrist.
‘This is my new maid, Uncle,’ she said quietly. ‘Miss Smith.’
Behind Mr Lilly’s green glasses, I saw his eyes screw themselves up and grow damper.
‘Miss Smith,’ he said, looking at me but talking to his niece. ‘Is she a papist, like the last one?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Maud. ‘I have not asked her. Are you a papist, Susan?’
I didn’t know what that was. But I said, ‘No, miss. I don’t think so.’
Mr Lilly at once put his hand across his ear.
‘I don’t care for her voice,’ he said. ‘Can’t she be silent? Can’t she be soft?’
Maud smiled. ‘She can, Uncle,’ she said.
‘Then why is she here, disturbing me now?’
‘She has come to fetch me.’
‘To fetch you?’ he said. ‘Did the clock sound?’
He put his hand to the fob of his waistcoat and drew out an ancient great gold repeater, tilting his head to catch the chime, and opening his mouth. I looked at Maud, who stood, still fumbling with the fastening of her glove; and I took a step, meaning to help her. But when he saw me do that, the old man jerked like Mr Punch in the puppet-show, and out came his black tongue.
‘The finger, girl!’ he cried. ‘The finger! The finger!’
He held his own dark finger to me, and shook his pen until the ink flew: I saw later that the piece of carpet underneath his desk was quite black, and so guessed he shook his pen rather often. But at that moment he looked so strange, and spoke so shrilly, my heart quite failed me. I thought he must be prone to fits. I took another step, and that made him shriek still harder—at last Maud came to me and touched my arm.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said softly. ‘He means only this, look.’ And she showed me how, at my feet, there was set into the dark floorboards, in the space between the doorway and the edge of the carpet, a flat brass hand with a pointing finger.
‘Uncle does not care to have servants’ eyes upon his books,’ she said, ‘for fear of spoiling them. Uncle asks that no servant advance further into the room than this mark here.’
She placed the toe of her slipper upon the brass. Her face was smooth as wax, her voice like water.
‘Does she see it?’ said her uncle.
‘Yes ‘ she answered, drawing back her toe. ‘She sees it very well. She will know next time—shan’t you, Susan?’
‘Yes, miss,’ I said—hardly knowing what I should say, or how or who I should look at; for it was certainly news to me, that gazing at a line of print could spoil it. But what did I know, about that? Besides which, the old man was so queer, and had given me such a turn, I thought that anything might have been true. ‘Yes, miss,’ I said, a second time; and then: ‘Yes, sir.’
Then I made a curtsey. Mr Lilly snorted, looking hard at me through his green glasses. Maud fastened her glove, and we turned to leave him.
‘Make her soft, Maud,’ he said, as she pulled the door behind us.
‘I will, Uncle,’ she murmured.
Now the passage seemed dimmer than ever. She took me round the gallery and up the staircase to the second floor, where her rooms were. Here there was a bit of lunch laid out, and coffee in another silver pot; but when she saw what Cook had sent up, she made a face.
‘Eggs,’ she said. ‘Done soft, like you must be. What did you think of my uncle, Susan?’
I said, ‘I’m sure he’s very clever, miss.’
‘And writing, I believe, a great big dictionary?’
She blinked, then nodded. A dictionary, yes. A great many years’ labour. We are presently at F.’
She held my gaze, as if to see what I thought of that.
‘Astonishing,’ I said.
She blinked again, then put a spoon to the side of the first of the eggs and took its head off. Then she looked at the white and yellow mess inside it and made another face, and put it from her. ‘You must eat this for me,’ she said. ‘You must eat them all. And I shall have the bread-and-butter.’
There were three eggs there. I don’t know what she saw in them, to be so choosy over. She passed them to me and, as I ate them, she sat watching me, taking bites of bread and sips of coffee, and once
rubbing for a minute at a spot upon her glove, saying, ‘Here is a drop of yolk, look, come upon my finger. Oh, how horrid the yellow is, against the white!’
I saw her frowning at that mark, then, until the meal was finished. When Margaret came to take the tray away, she rose and went into her bedroom; and when she came back her gloves were white again—she had been to her drawer and got a new pair. The old ones I found later, as I put coal on her bedroom fire: she had cast them there, at the back of the grate, and the flames had made the kid shrink, they looked like gloves for a doll.
She was certainly, then, what you would call original. But was she mad, or even half-way simple, as Gentleman said at Lant Street? I did not think so, then. I thought her only pretty lonely, and pretty bookish and bored—as who wouldn’t be, in a house like that? When we had finished our lunch she went to the window: the sky was grey and threatening rain, but she said she had a fancy to go out walking. She said, ‘Now, what shall I wear for it?’, and we stood at the door of her little black press, looking over her coats, her bonnets and her boots. That killed nearly an hour. I think that’s why she did it. When I was clumsy over the lacing of her shoe, she put her hands upon mine and said,
‘Be slower. Why should we hurry? There is no-one to hurry for, is there?’
She smiled, but her eyes were sad. I said, ‘No, miss.’
In the end she put on a pale grey cloak, and over her gloves she drew mittens. She had a little leather bag kept ready, that held a handkerchief, a bottle of water, and scissors: she had me carry this, not saying what the scissors were for—I supposed she meant to cut flowers. She took me down the great staircase to the door, and Mr Way heard us and came running to throw back the bolts. ‘How do you do, Miss Maud?’ he said, making a bow; and then: And you, Miss Smith.’ The hall was dark. When we went outside we stood blinking, our hands at our eyes against the sky and the watery sun. The house had seemed grim when I first saw it, at night, in the
fog and I should like to say it seemed less grim when you saw it by daylight; but it seemed worse. I suppose it had been grand enough once, but now its chimneys were leaning like drunks, and its roof was green with moss and birds’ nests. It was covered all over with a dead kind of creeper, or with the stains where a creeper had long ago crept; and all about the foot of the walls were the chopped-off trunks of ivy. It had a great front door, split down the middle; but rain had made the wood swell, they only ever opened up one half. Maud had to press her crinoline flat, and walk quite sideways, in order to leave the house at all.
It was odd to see her stepping out of that gloomy place, like a pearl coming out of an oyster.
It was odder to watch her going back in, and see the oyster shell open, then shut at her back.
But there was not much to stay for, out in the park. There was that avenue of trees, that led up to the house. There was the bare bit of gravel that the house was set in. There was a place they called a herb-garden, that grew mostly nettles; and an overgrown wood with blocked-off paths. At the edge of the wood was a little stone win-dowless building Maud said was an ice-house. ‘Let us just cross to the door and look inside,’ she would say, and she’d stand and gaze at the cloudy blocks of ice until she shivered. At the back of the icehouse there started a muddy lane, that led you to a shut-up old red chapel surrounded by yews. This was the queerest, quietest place I ever saw. I never heard a bird sing there. I didn’t like to go to it, but Maud took that way often. For at the chapel there were graves, of all the Lillys that had come before her; and one of these was a plain stone tomb, that was the grave of her mother.
She could sit and look at that for an hour at a time, hardly blinking. Her scissors she used, not for gathering flowers, but only for keeping down the grass that grew about it; and where her mother’s name was picked out in letters of lead she would rub with her wet handkerchief to take off stains.
She would rub until her hand shook and her breath came quick. She would never let me help her. That first day, when I tried, she said,
‘It is a daughter’s duty, to tend to the grave of her mother. Walk off a while, and don’t watch me.’
So I left her to it, and wandered among the tombs. The ground was hard as iron and my boots made it ring. I walked and thought of my own mother. She didn’t have a grave, they don’t give graves to murderesses. They put their bodies in quicklime.
Did you ever pour salt on the back of a slug? John Vroom used to do it, and then laugh to see the slug fizz. He said to me once,
‘Your mother fizzed like that. She fizzed, and ten men died that smelt it!’
He never said it again. I took up a pair of kitchen shears and put them to his neck. I said, ‘Bad blood carries. Bad blood comes out.’ And the look on his face was something!
I wondered how Maud would look, if she knew what bad blood flowed in me.
But she never thought to ask. She only sat, gazing hard at her mother’s name, while I wandered and stamped my feet. Then at last she sighed and looked about her, passed her hand across her eyes, and drew up her hood.
‘This is a melancholy place,’ she said. ‘Let’s walk a little further.’
She led me away from the circle of yews, back down the lane between the hedges, then away from the wood and the ice-house, to the edge of the park. Here, if you followed a path that ran alongside a wall, you reached a gate. She had a key for it. It took you to the bank of a river. You could not see the river from the house. There was an ancient landing-place there, half rotted away, and a little upturned punt that made a kind of seat. The river was narrow, its water very quiet and muddy and filled with darting fish. All along the bank there grew rushes. They grew thick and high. Maud walked slowly beside them, gazing nervously into the darkness they made where they met the water. I supposed she was frightened of snakes. Then she plucked up a reed and broke it, and sat with the tip of it pressed against her plump mouth.
I sat beside her. The day was windless, but cold, and so quiet it hurt the ears. The air smelled thin.
‘Pretty stretch of water,’ I said, for politeness’ sake.
A barge went by. The men saw us and touched their hats. Iwaved.
Bound for London,’ said Maud, looking after them.
She nodded. I didn’t then know—for, who would have guessed it?—-that that trifling bit of water was the Thames. I thought she meant the boat would join a bigger river further on. Still, the idea that it would reach the city—maybe sail under LondonBridge— made me sigh. I turned to watch it follow a bend in the water; then it passed from sight. The sound of its engine faded, the smoke from its chimney joined the grey of the sky and was lost. The air was thin again. Maud still sat with the tip of the broken reed against her lip, her gaze very vague. I took up stones and began to throw them into the water. She watched me do it, winking at every splash. Then she led me back up to the house.
We went back to her room. She got out a bit of sewing—a colourless, shapeless thing, I don’t know if it was meant to be a tablecloth, or what. I never saw her working on anything else. She sewed in her gloves, very badly—making crooked stitches and then ripping half of them out. It made me nervous. We sat together before the spluttering fire, and talked in a weak kind of way—I forget what of—and then it grew dark, and a maid brought lights; and then the wind picked up and the windows began to rattle worse than ever. I said to myself, ‘Dear God, let Gentleman come soon! I think a week of this will kill me’; and I yawned. Maud caught my eye. Then she also yawned. That made me yawn harder. At last she put her work aside and tucked up her feet and laid her head upon the arm of the sofa, and seemed to sleep.
That’s all there was to do there, until the clock struck seven. When she heard that she gave a bigger yawn than ever, put her fingers to her eyes, and rose. Seven o’clock was when she must change her dress again—and change her gloves, for ones of silk—to have supper with her uncle.
She was two hours with him. I saw nothing of that, of course, but took my dinner in the kitchen, with the servants. They told me
that, when he had eaten, Mr Lilly liked his niece to sit and read to him in the drawing-room. That was his idea of fun, I suppose, for they said he hardly ever had guests, and if he did then they were always other bookish gentlemen, from Oxford and London; and it was his pleasure, then, to have Maud read books to them all. ‘Does she do nothing, poor girl, but read?’ I asked. ‘Her uncle won’t let her,’ said a parlourmaid. ‘That’s how much he prizes her. Won’t hardly let her out—fears she’ll break in two. It’s him, you know, that keeps her all the time in gloves.’
‘That’s enough!’ said Mrs Stiles. ‘What would Miss Maud say?’ Then the parlourmaid fell silent. I sat and thought about Mr Lilly, with his red cap and his gold repeater, his green eye-glasses, his black finger and tongue; and then about Maud, frowning over her eggs, rubbing hard at her mother’s grave. It seemed a queer kind of prizing, that would make a girl like her, like that.
I thought I knew all about her. Of course, I knew nothing. I had my dinner, listening to the servants talk, not saying much; and then Mrs Stiles asked me, Should I like to come and take my pudding with her and Mr Way, in her own pantry? I supposed I ought to. I sat gazing at the picture made all of hair. Mr Way read us pieces from the Maidenhead paper, and at every story—that were all about bulls breaking fences, or parsons making interesting sermons in church—Mrs Stiles shook her head, saying, ‘Well, did you ever hear the like?’ and Mr Way would chuckle and say, ‘You’ll see, Miss Smith, that we are quite a match for London, news-wise!’
Above his voice came the faint sound of laughter and scraping chairs, that was Cook and the scullery-maids and William Inker and the knife-boy, enjoying themselves in the kitchen.
Then the great house clock struck, and immediately after it the servants’ bell sounded; and that meant that Mr Lilly was ready to be seen by Mr Way into his bed, and that Maud was ready to be put by me into hers.
I almost lost my way again, on my way back up; but even so, when she saw me she said,
‘Is that you, Susan? You are quicker than Agnes.’ She smiled. ‘I think you are handsomer, too. I don’t think a girl can be hand-
some—__do you?—with red hair. But nor with fair hair, either. I
should like to be dark, Susan!’
She had had wine with her supper, and I had had beer. I should
ay we were both, in our own ways, rather tipsy. She had me stand
beside her at the great silvery glass above her fireplace, and drew my
head to hers, to compare the colours of our hair. ‘Yours is the
darker,’ she said.
Then she moved away from the fire, for me to put her into her nightgown.
It was not much like undressing the chair in our old kitchen, after all. She stood shivering, saying, ‘Quick! I shall freeze! Oh, heavens!’—for her bedroom was as draughty as everywhere else there, and my fingers were cold and made her jump. They grew warm, though, after a minute. Stripping a lady is heavy work. Her corset was long, with a busk of steel; her waist, as I think I have said, was narrow: the kind of waist the doctors speak against, that gives a girl an illness. Her crinoline was made of watchspring. Her hair, inside its net, was fixed with half a pound of pins, and a comb of silver. Her petticoats and shimmy were calico. Underneath it all, however, she was soft and smooth as butter. Too soft, I thought her. I imagined her bruising. She was like a lobster without its shell. She stood in her stockings while I fetched her nightgown, her arms above her head, her eyes shut tight; and for a second I turned, and looked at her. My gaze was nothing to her. I saw her bosom, her bottom, her feather and everything and— apart from the feather, which was brown as a duck’s—she was as pale as a statue on a pillar in a park. So pale she was, she seemed to shine.
But again, it was a troubling kind of paleness, and I was glad to cover her up. I tidied her gown back into the press and jammed closed the door. She sat and waited, yawning, for me to come and brush her hair.
Her hair was good, and very long let down. I brushed it, and held it, and thought what it might fetch.
‘What are you thinking of?’ she said, her eyes on mine in the glass. ‘Of your old mistress? Was her hair handsomer?’
‘Her hair was very poor,’ I said. And then, feeling sorry for Lady Alice: ‘But she walked well.’ ‘Do I walk well?’ ‘You do, miss.’
She did. Her feet were small, her ankles slender like her waist. She smiled. As she had with our heads, she made me put my foot beside hers, to compare them.
‘Yours is almost as neat,’ she said kindly.
She got into her bed. She said she didn’t care to lie in darkness. She had a rush-light in a tin shade kept beside her pillow, the kind old misers use, and she made me light it from the flame of my candle; and she wouldn’t let me tie the curtains of her bed, but had me pull them only a little way shut, so that she might see into the room beyond.
‘And you will not, will you, quite close your door?’ she said. ‘Agnes never used to. I didn’t like it, before you came, having Margaret in a chair. I was afraid I would dream and have to call her. When Margaret touches, she pinches. Your hands, Susan, are hard as hers; and yet your touch is gentle.’
She reached and put her fingers quickly upon mine, as she said this; and I rather shuddered to feel the kid-skin on them—for she had changed out of her silk gloves, only to button another white pair back on. Then she took her hands away and tucked her arms beneath the blanket. I pulled the blanket perfectly smooth. I said, ‘Shall that be all, miss?’
‘Yes, Susan,’ she answered. She moved her cheek upon her pillow. She didn’t like the prickling of her hair against her neck: she had put it back, and it snaked away into shadow, straight and dark and slender as a rope.
When I took my candle off, the shadow spread across her like a wave. Her room was dimly lit by the lamp, but her bed was in darkness. I half-closed my door, and heard her lift her head. A little wider,’ she called softly, so I opened it further. Then I stood and rubbed my face. I had been at Briar only a day; but it was the longest day of my life. My hands were sore from pulling laces. When I closed my eyes, I saw hooks. Undressing myself had no fun in it, now I had undressed her.
At last I sat and blew out my candle; and heard her move. There wasn’t a sound in the house: I heard her, very clearly, rise from her pillow and twist in her bed. I heard her reach and draw out her key, then put it to the little wooden box. At the click of the lock, I got up. I thought, ‘Well, I can be silent, if you can’t. I am softer than you or your uncle know’; and I made my way to the crack of the door and peeped through. She had leaned out of the curtained bed, and had the portrait of the handsome lady—her mother—in her hand. As I watched, she raised the portrait to her mouth, kissed it, and spoke soft, sad words to it. Then she put it from her with a sigh. She kept the key in a book beside her bed. I hadn’t thought to look in there. She locked the box back up, set it neatly on the table— touched it once, touched it twice—and then moved back behind the curtain and was still.
I grew too tired to watch her, then. I moved back, too. My room was dark as ink. I reached with my hands and found the blanket and sheets, and pulled them down. I got beneath them; and lay cold as a frog in my own narrow lady’s maid’s bed.
I cannot say how long I slept for then. I could not say, when I woke up, what awful sound it was that had woken me. I did not know, for a minute or two, whether my eyes were open or closed—for the darkness was so deep, there was no difference—it was only when I gazed at the open door to Maud’s room and saw the faint light there, that I knew I was awake and not dreaming. What I had heard, I thought, was some great crash or thud, and then perhaps a cry. Now, in the instant of my opening my eyes, there was a silence; but as I lifted my head and felt my heart beat hard, the cry came again. It was Maud, calling out in a high, frightened voice. She was calling on her old maid:
‘Agnes! Oh! Oh! Agnes!’
I didn’t know what I would see when I went in to her—perhaps, a busted window and a burglar, pulling at her head, cutting the hair off. But the window, though it still rattled, was quite unbroken; and there was no-one there with her, she had come to the gap in her bed-curtains with the blankets all bunched beneath her chin and her
hair flung about, half covering her face. Her face was pale and strange. Her eyes, that I knew were only brown, seemed black Black, like Polly Perkins’s, as the pips in a pear. She said again, ‘Agnes!’ I said, ‘It’s Sue, miss.’
She said, ‘Agnes, did you hear that sound? Is the door shut?’ ‘The door?’ The door was closed. ‘Is someone there?’ A man?’ she said. A man? A burglar?’
At the door? Don’t go, Agnes! I’m afraid he’ll harm you!’ She was afraid. She was so frightened, she began to frighten me. I said, ‘I don’t think there’s a man, miss.’ I said, ‘Let me try and light a candle.’
But have you ever tried to light a candle from a rush-light in a tin shade? I could not get the wick to catch; and she kept on, weeping and calling me Agnes, until my hand shook so much I could not hold the candle steady.
I said, ‘You must be quiet, miss. There’s no man; and if there is, then I shall call for Mr Way to come and catch him.’
I took up the rush-light. ‘Don’t take the light!’ she cried at once. ‘I beg you, don’t!’
I said I would only take it to the door, to show her there was no-one there; and while she wept and clutched at the bed-clothes I went with the light to the door to her parlour and—all in a flinching, winking kind of way—I pulled it open.
The room beyond was very dark. The few great bits of furniture sat humped about, like the baskets with the thieves in, in the play of AH Baba. I thought how dismal it would be if I had come all the way to Briar, from the Borough, to be murdered by burglars. And what if the burglar proved to be a man I knew—say, one of Mr Ibbs’s nephews? Queer things like that do happen.
So I stood gazing fearfully at the dark room, thinking all this, half-inclined to call out—in case there were burglars there—that they should hold their hands, that I was family; but of course, there was no-one, it was quiet as a church. I saw that, and then went quickly to the parlour door, and looked into the passage; and that
was dark and quiet, too—there was only the ticking of some clock, far-off and more rattling windows. But after all it was not quite Pleasant, standing in a night-dress, with a rush-light, in a great dark silent house that, though it didn’t have thieves in, might cer-
tainly have ghosts. I closed the door quick, and went back to Maud’s oom and closed that door, and stepped to the side of her bed and put the light down.
She said, ‘Did you see him? Oh, Agnes, is he there?’
I was about to answer, but then I stopped. For I had looked towards the corner of the room, where the black press was; and there was something strange there. There was something long and white and gleaming, that was moving against the wood . . . Well, I have said, haven’t I, that I’ve a warm imagination? I was certain that the thing was Maud’s dead mother, come back as a ghost to haunt me. My heart leapt so hard into my mouth, I seemed to taste it. I screamed, and Maud screamed, then clutched at me and wept harder. ‘Don’t look at me!’ she cried. And then: ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!’
And then I saw what the white thing really was, and hopped from foot to foot and almost laughed.
For it was only the cage of her crinoline, sprung out from where I had jammed it on the shelf with one of her shoes. The door of the press had swung open and hit the wall: that was the noise that had woken us. The crinoline was hanging from a hook, and quivering. My footsteps had made the springs bounce.
I saw it, as I say, and almost laughed; but when I looked again at Maud, her eyes were still so black and wild and her face so pale, and she clutched at me so hard, I thought it would be cruel to let her see me smile. I put my hands across my mouth, and the breath came out between my jumping fingers, and my teeth began to chatter. I was colder than ever.
I said, ‘It’s nothing, miss. After all, it’s nothing. You was only dreaming.’
She put her head against my bosom, and shook. I smoothed her hair back from her cheek, and held her until she grew calm.
‘There,’ I said then, ‘Shall you sleep again now? Let me put the blanket about you, look.’
But when I made to lay her down, she gripped me harder. ‘Don’t leave me, Agnes!’ she said again.
I said, ‘It’s Sue, miss. Agnes had the scarlatina, and is gone back to Cork. Remember? You must lie down now, or the cold will make you ill, too.’
She looked at me then, and her gaze, that was still so dark, seemed yet a little clearer.
‘Don’t leave me, Sue!’ she whispered. ‘I’m afraid, of my own dreaming!’
Her breath was sweet. Her hands and arms were warm. Her face was smooth as ivory or alabaster. In a few weeks’ time, I thought— if our plot worked—she would be lying in the bed of a madhouse. Who would there be to be kind to her, then?
So I put her from me, but only for a moment; and I clambered over her and got beneath the blankets at her side. I put my arm about her, and at once she sank against me. It seemed the least that I could do. I pulled her closer. She was slender as anything. Not like Mrs Sucksby. Not like Mrs Sucksby, at all. She was more like a child. She still shivered a little, and when she blinked I felt the sweep of her lashes against my throat, like feathers. In time, however, the shivering stopped, and her lashes swept again and then were still. She grew heavy, and warm.
‘Good girl,’ I said, too softly to wake her.
Next morning I woke a minute before she did. She opened her eyes, saw me, looked troubled, and tried to hide it.
‘Did my dreams wake me in the night?’ she said, not meeting my gaze. ‘Did I say foolish things? They say I speak nonsense, in my sleep, as other girls snore.’ She blushed, and laughed. ‘But how good you were, to come and keep me company!’
I didn’t tell her about the crinoline. At eight o’clock she went off to her uncle, and at one I went to fetch her—taking care, this time, to mind the pointing finger on the floor. Then we walked in the park, to the graves and the river; she sewed, and dozed, and was
rung to her supper; and I sat with Mrs Stiles until half-past nine, when it was time to go back up and put her to bed. It was all just the first day, over again. She said, ‘Good-night,’ and laid her head upon her pillow; then I stood in my room and heard her little box unlocked, and peeped through the door to watch her take up the portrait, kiss it, then put it away.
And then, I had not put out my candle two minutes, before her voice came calling softly: ‘Sue—!’
She said she could not sleep. She said she was cold. She said she would like to keep me close to her again, in case she woke up frightened.
She said the same thing the next night; and the night after that. ‘You don’t mind?’ she asked me. She said Agnes never minded. ‘Did you never,’ she said, ‘sleep with Lady Alice, at Mayfair?’
What could I tell her? For all I knew, it might have been an ordinary thing, for a mistress and her maid to double up like girls.
It was ordinary at first, with Maud and me. Her dreams never bothered her. We slept, quite like sisters. Quite like sisters, indeed. I always wanted a sister.
Then Gentleman came.
He came, I suppose, about two weeks afiter I got there. It was only two weeks and yet, the hours at Briar were such slow ones, and the days—being all quite the same—were so even and quiet and long, it might have been twice that time.
It was long enough, anyway, for me to find out all the peculiar habits of the house; long enough for me to get used to the other servants, and for them to get used to me. For a while, I didn’t know why it was they did not care for me. I would go down to the kitchen, saying, ‘How do you do?’ to whoever I met there: ‘How do you do, Margaret? All right, Charles?’ (That was the knife-boy.) ‘How are you, Mrs Cakebread?’ (That was the cook: that really was her name, it wasn’t a joke and no-one laughed at it.) And Charles might look at me as if he was too afraid to speak; and Mrs Cakebread would answer, in a nasty kind of way, ‘Oh, I’m sure I’m very well, thank you.’
I supposed they were peeved to have me about, reminding them
of all the flash London things they would never, in that quiet and out-of-the-way place, get a look at. Then one day Mrs Stiles took me aside. She said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, Miss Smith, if I have a little word? I can’t say how the house was run in your last place—’ She started everything she said to me with a line like that.—’I can’t say how you did things in London, but here at Briar we like to keep very mindful of the footings of the house …”
It turned out that Mrs Cakebread had fancied herself insulted, by my saying good-morning to the kitchen-maid and the knife-boy before I said it to her; and Charles thought I meant to tease him, by wishing him good-morning at all. It was all the most trifling sort of nonsense, and enough to make a cat laugh; but it was life and death to them—I suppose, it would be life and death to you, if all you had to look forward to for the next forty years was carrying trays and baking pastry. Anyway, I saw that, if I was to get anywhere with them, I must watch my steps. I gave Charles a bit of chocolate, that I had carried down with me from the Borough and never eaten; I gave Margaret a piece of scented soap; and to Mrs Cakebread I gave a pair of those black stockings that Gentleman had had Phil get for me from the crooked warehouse.
I said I hoped there were no hard feelings. If I met Charles on the stairs in the morning, then, I looked the other way. They were all much nicer to me after that.
That’s like a servant. A servant says, All for my master,’ and means, All for myself. It’s the two-facedness of it that I can’t bear. At Briar, they were all on the dodge in one way or another, but all over sneaking little matters that would have put a real thief to the blush—such as, holding off the fat from Mr Lilly’s gravy to sell on the quiet to the butcher’s boy; which is what Mrs Cakebread did. Or, pulling the pearl buttons from Maud’s chemises, and keeping them, and saying they were lost; which is what Margaret did. I had them all worked out, after three days’ watching. I might have been Mrs Sucksby’s own daughter after all. Mr Way, now: he had a mark on the side of his nose—in the Borough we should have called it a gin-bud. And how do you think he got that, in a place like his? He had the key to Mr Lilly’s cellar, on a chain. You never saw such a
shine as that key had on it! And then, when we had finished our meals in Mrs Stiles’s pantry, he would make a great show of loading up the tray—and I’d see him, when he thought no-one was looking, tipping the beer from the bottom of all the glasses into one great cup, and lushing it away.
I saw it—but, of course, I kept it all to myself. I wasn’t there to make trouble. It was nothing to me, if he drank himself to death. And I passed most of my time, anyway, with Maud. I got used to her, too. She had her finicking ways, all right; but they were slight enough, it didn’t hurt me to indulge them. And I was good at working hard, on little things: I began to take a kind of pleasure in the keeping of her gowns, the tidying of her pins and combs and boxes. I was used to dressing infants. I grew used to dressing her.
‘Lift your arms, miss,’ I’d say. ‘Lift your foot. Step here. Now, here.’
‘Thank you, Sue,’ she would always murmur. Sometimes she would close her eyes. ‘How well you know me,’ she might say. ‘I think you know the turning of all my limbs.’
I did, in time. I knew all that she liked and hated. I knew what food she would eat, and what she’d leave—and when Cook, for instance, kept sending up eggs, I went and told her to send soup instead.
‘Clear soup,’ I said. ‘Clear as you can make it. All right?’ She made a face. ‘Mrs Stiles,’ she said, ‘won’t like it.’ ‘Mrs Stiles don’t have to eat it,’ I answered. ‘And Mrs Stiles ain’t Miss Maud’s maid. I am.’
So then she did send soup. Maud ate it all up. ‘Why are you smiling?’ she said, in her anxious way, when she had finished. I said I wasn’t. She put down her spoon. Then she frowned, like before, over her gloves. They had got splashed.
‘It’s only water,’ I said, seeing her face. ‘It won’t hurt you.’ She bit her lip. She sat another minute with her hands in her lap, stealing glances at her fingers, growing more and more restless. Finally she said:
‘I think the water has a little fat in it…”
Then, it was easier to go into her room and get her a fresh pair of
aloves myself, than to sit and watch her fret. ‘Let me do it,’ I said, undoing the button at her wrist; and though at first she wouldn’t let me touch her bare hands, in time—since I said I would be gentle— she began to let me. When her fingernails grew long I cut them, with a pair of silver scissors she had, that were shaped like a flying bird. Her nails were soft and perfectly clean, and grew quickly, like a child’s nails. When I cut, she flinched. The skin of her hands was smooth—but, like the rest of her, too smooth to be right, I never saw it without thinking of the things—rough things, sharp things— that would mark or hurt it. I was glad when she put her gloves back on. The slivers of nail that I had cut away I would gather up out of my lap and throw on the fire. She would stand and watch them turn black. She did the same with the hairs I drew from her brushes and combs—frowning while they wriggled on the coals, like worms, then flared and turned to ash. Sometimes I’d stand and look with
For there weren’t the things to notice, at Briar, that there were at home. You watched, instead, things like that: the rising of smoke, the passing of clouds in the sky. Each day we walked to the river, to see how it had lifted or dropped. ‘In the autumn, it floods,’ Maud said, ‘and all the rushes are drowned. I don’t care for that. And some nights a white mist comes creeping from the water, almost to the walls of my uncle’s house . . .’ She shivered. She always said, my uncle’s, she never said my. The ground was crisp, and when it gave beneath our boots she said: ‘How brittle the grass is! I think the river will freeze. I think it is freezing already. Do you see how it struggles? It wants to flow, but the cold will still it. Do you see, Sue? Here, among the rushes?’
She gazed, and frowned. I watched the movement of her face. And I said—as I had said about the soup: ‘It’s only water, miss.’
‘You are cold,’ I said then. ‘Come back, to the house. We’ve been out too long.’ I put her arm about mine. I did it, not thinking; and her arm stayed stiff. But then, the next day—or perhaps, the day
after that—she took my arm again, and was not so stiff; and after that, I suppose we joined arms naturally … I don’t know. It was only later that I wondered about it and tried to look back. But by then I could only see that there was once a time when we had walked apart; and then a time when we walked together.
She was just a girl, after all; for all that they called her a lady. She was just a girl that had never known fun. One day I was tidying one of her drawers and found a deck of cards in it. She said she thought they must have been her mother’s. She knew the suits, but that was all—she called the jacks, cavaliers!—so I taught her one or two soft Borough games—All-fours, and Put. We played for matches and spills, at first; then we found, in another drawer, a box of little counters, made of mother-of-pearl and shaped like fish and diamonds and crescent moons; and after that, we played for them. The mother-of-pearl was very sweet and cool on the hand.—My hand, I mean; for Maud of course still wore her gloves. And when she put down a card she put it down neatly, making the edges and corners match with the ones below. After a while I began to do that, too.
While we played, we talked. She liked to hear me talk of London. ‘Is it truly so large?’ she’d say. And there are theatres? And what they call, fashion-houses?’
And eating-houses. And every kind of shop. And parks, miss.’
‘Parks, like my uncle’s?’
A little like,’ I’d say. ‘But filled with people, of course.—Are you low, miss, or high?’
‘I am high.’ She set down a card.’—Quite filled, would you say?’
‘I am higher. There. Three fish, to your two.’
‘How well you play!—Quite filled, you say, with people?’
‘Of course. But dark. Will you cut?’
‘Dark? Are you sure? I thought London was said to be bright. With great lamps fired—I believe—with gas?’
‘Great lamps, like diamonds!’ I said. ‘In the theatres and halls. You may dance there, miss, right through the night—’
‘Dance, miss.’ Her face had changed. I put the cards down. ‘You like to dance, of course?’
‘I—’ She coloured, and lowered her gaze. ‘I was never taught it. Do you think,’ she said, looking up, ‘I might be a lady, in London— that is,’ she added quickly, ‘if I were ever to go there.—Do you think I might be a lady in London, and yet not dance?’
She passed her hand across her lip, rather nervously. I said, ‘You might, I suppose. Shouldn’t you like to learn, though? You could find a dancing-master.’
‘Could I?’ She looked doubtful, then shook her head. ‘I am not sure . . .’
I guessed what she was thinking. She was thinking of Gentleman, and what he might say when he found out she couldn’t dance. She was thinking of all the girls he might be meeting in London, who could.
I watched her fret for a minute or two. Then, ‘Look here,’ I said, getting up. ‘It is easy, look—’
And I showed her a couple of steps, to a couple of dances. Then I made her rise and try them with me. She stood in my arms like wood, and gazed, in a frightened sort of way, at her feet. Her slippers caught on the Turkey carpet. So then I put the carpet back; and then she moved more easily. I showed her a jig, and then a polka. I said, ‘There. Now we’re flying, ain’t we?’ She gripped my gown until I thought it should tear. ‘This way,’ I said. ‘Now, this. I am the gentleman, remember. Of course, it will go much better, with a real gent—’
Then she stumbled again, and we flew apart and fell into separate chairs. She put her hands to her side. Her breath came in catches. Her colour was higher than ever. Her cheek was damp. Her skirt stuck out like a little Dutch girl’s on a plate.
She caught my eye, and smiled; though she still looked frightened.
‘I shall dance,’ she said, ‘in London. Shan’t I, Sue?’
‘You shall,’ I said. And at that moment, I believed it. I made her rise and dance again. It was only afterwards, when we had stopped and she had grown cool, and stood before the fire to warm up her cold hands—it was only then that I remembered that, of course, she never would.
For, though I knew her fate—though I knew it so well, I was helping to make it!—perhaps I knew it rather in the way you might know the fate of a person in a story or a play. Her world was so queer, so quiet and shut-up, it made the proper world—the ordinary, double-dealing world, where I had sat over a pig’s head supper and a glass of flip while Mrs Sucksby and John Vroom laughed to think what I would do with my share of Gentleman’s stolen fortune—it made that world seem harder than ever, but so far off, the hardness meant nothing. At first I would say to myself, ‘When Gentleman comes I’ll do this’; or, ‘Once he gets her in the madhouse, I’ll do that.’ But I’d say it, then look at her; and she was so simple and so good, the thought would vanish, I would end up combing her hair or straightening the sash on her gown. It wasn’t that I was sorry—or not much, not then. It was just I suppose that we were put together for so many hours at a time; and it was nicer to be kind to her and not think too hard about what lay before her, than to dwell on it and feel cruel.
Of course, it was different for her. She was looking forwards. She liked to talk; but more often she liked to be silent, and think. I would see her face change, then. I would lie at her side at night, and feel the turning, turning of her thoughts—feel her grow warm, perhaps blush in the dark; and then I knew she was thinking of Gentleman, working out how soon he’d come, wondering if he was thinking of her.—I could have told her, he was. But she never spoke of him, she never said his name. She only asked, once or twice, after my old aunty, that was supposed to be his nurse; and I wished she wouldn’t, for when I spoke of her I thought of Mrs Sucksby; and that made me home-sick.
And then there came the morning when we learned he was coming back. It was an ordinary morning, except that Maud had woken and rubbed her face, and winced.—Perhaps that was what they call, a premonition. I only thought that later, though. At the time, I saw her chafing her cheek and said, ‘What’s the matter?’
She moved her tongue. ‘I have a tooth, I think,’ she said, ‘with a point that cuts me.’
‘Let me see,’ I said.
I took her to the window and she stood with her face in my hands
and let me feel about her gum. I found the pointed tooth almost at
‘Well, that is sharper— 1 began.
‘Than a serpent’s tooth, Sue?’ she said.
‘Than a needle, I was going to say, miss,’ I answered. I went to her sewing-box and brought out a thimble. A silver thimble, to match the flying scissors.
Maud stroked her jaw. ‘Do you know anyone who was bitten by a snake, Sue?’ she asked me.
What could you say? Her mind ran to things like that. Perhaps it was the country living. I said I didn’t. She looked at me, then opened her mouth again and I put the thimble on my finger and rubbed at the pointed tooth until the point was taken off. I had seen Mrs Sucksby do it many times, with infants.—Of course, infants rather wriggle about. Maud stood very still, her pink lips parted, her face put back, her eyes at first closed then open and gazing at me, her cheek with a flush upon it. Her throat lifted and sank, as she swallowed. My hand grew wet, from the damp of her breaths. I rubbed, then felt with my thumb. She swallowed again. Her eyelids fluttered, and she caught my eye.
And, as she did, there came a knock upon the door; and we both jumped. I stepped away. It was one of the parlourmaids. She had a letter on a tray. ‘For Miss Maud,’ she said, with a curtsey. I looked at the hand, and knew at once that it must be Gentleman’s. My heart gave a dip. So did Maud’s, I think.
‘Bring it here, will you?’ she said. And then: ‘Will you pass me my shawl, also?’ The flush had gone from her face, though her cheek was still red where I had pressed it. When I put the shawl across her shoulders, I felt her trembling.
I watched her then, seeming not to, as I moved about her rooms, taking up books and cushions, putting away the thimble and closing her box. I saw her turn the letter and fumble with it—of course, she could not tear the paper, with her gloves on. So then she sneaked a look at me, and then she lowered her hands and—still trembling,
but making a show of carelessness, that was meant to say it was nothing to her, yet showed that it was everything—she unbuttoned one glove and put her finger to the seal, then drew the letter from the envelope and held it in her naked hand and read it.
Then she let out her breath in a single great sigh. I picked up a cushion and hit the dust from it.
‘Good news, miss, is it?’ I said; since I thought I ought to.
She hesitated. Then: ‘Very good,’ she answered, ‘—for my uncle, I mean. It is from Mr Rivers, in London; and what do you think?’ She smiled. ‘He is coming back to Briar, tomorrow!’
The smile stayed on her lips all day, like paint; and in the afternoon, when she came from her uncle, she wouldn’t sit sewing, or go for a walk, would not even play at cards, but paced about the room, and sometimes stood before the glass, smoothing her brows, touching her plump mouth—hardly speaking to me, hardly seeing me at all.
I got the cards out anyway, and played by myself. I thought of Gentleman, laying out the kings and queens in the Lant Street kitchen while he told us all his plot. Then I thought of Dainty. Her mother—that had ended up drowned—had been able to tell fortunes from a pack of cards. I had seen her do it, many times.
I looked at Maud, standing dreaming at the mirror. I said,
‘Should you like to know your future, miss? Did you know that you can read it, from how the cards fall?’
That made her turn from looking at her own face, to look at mine. She said after a moment,
‘I thought it was only gipsy women could do that.’
‘Well, but don’t tell Margaret or Mrs Stiles,’ I said. ‘My grandmother, you know, was a gipsy-princess.’
And after all, my granny might have been a gipsy-princess, for all I knew of it. I put the cards together again, and held them to her. She hesitated, then came and sat beside me, spreading her great skirt flat, saying, ‘What must I do?’
I said she must sit with her eyes closed for a minute, and think of the subjects that were nearest her heart; which she did. Then I said she must take the cards and hold them, then set out the first seven
of them, face down—which is what I thought I remembered Dainty’s mother doing; or it might have been nine cards. Anyway, Maud set down seven.
I looked her in the eye and said, ‘Now, do you really want to know your fortune?’
She said, ‘Sue, you are frightening me!’
I said again, ‘Do you really want to know it? What the cards teach you, you must obey. It is very bad luck to ask the cards to show you one path, then choose another. Do you promise to be bound by the fortune you find here?’
‘I do,’ she answered quietly.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘Here is your life, laid all before us. Let us see the first part of it. These cards show your Past.’
I turned over the first two cards. They were the Queen of Hearts, followed by the Three of Spades. I remember them because of course, while she had been sitting with her eyes tight shut, I had sprung the pack; as anyone would have I think, being in my place then.
I studied them and said, ‘Hmm. These are sad cards. Here is a kind and handsome lady, look; and here a parting, and the beginning of strife.’
She stared, then put her hand to her throat. ‘Go on,’ she said. Her face was pale now.
‘Let us look,’ I said, ‘at the next three cards. They show your Present.’
I turned them over with a flourish.
‘The King of Diamonds,’ I said. ‘A stern old gentleman. The Five of Clubs: a parched mouth. The Cavalier of Spades—’
I took my time. She leaned towards me.
‘What’s he?’ she said. ‘The Cavalier?’
I said he was a young man on horseback, with good in his heart; and she looked at me in such an astonished believing sort of way, I was almost sorry. She said, in a low voice, ‘Now I am afraid! Don’t turn over the next cards.’
I said, ‘Miss, I must. Or all your luck will leave you. Look here. These show your Future.’
I turned the first. The Six of Spades.
‘A journey!’ I said. ‘Perhaps, a trip with Mr Lilly? Or perhaps, a journey of the heart…”
She didn’t answer, only sat gazing at the cards I had turned up. Then: ‘Show the last one,’ she said in a whisper. I showed it. She saw it first.
‘Queen of Diamonds,’ she said, with a sudden frown. ‘Who’s she?’
I did not know. I had meant to turn up the Two of Hearts, for lovers; but after all, must have muddled the deck.
‘The Queen of Diamonds,’ I said at last. ‘Great wealth, I think.’
‘Great wealth?’ She leaned away from me and looked about her, at the faded carpet and the black oak walls. I took the cards and shuffled them. She brushed at her skirt and rose. ‘I don’t believe,’ she said, ‘that your grandmother really was a gipsy. You are too fair in the face. I don’t believe it. And I don’t like your fortune-telling. It’s a game for servants.’
She stepped away from me, and stood again before the glass; and though I thought she would turn and say something kinder, she didn’t. But as she went, she moved a chair: and then I saw the Two of Hearts. It had fallen on the floor—she had had her slipper on it, and her heel had creased the pips.
The crease was a deep one. I always knew that card, after that, in the games we played, in the weeks that followed.
That afternoon, however, she made me put the cards away, saying the sight of them made her giddy; and that night she was fretful. She got into bed, but had me pour her out a little cup of water; and as I stood undressing I saw her take up a bottle and slip three drops from it into the cup. It was sleeping-draught. That was the first time I saw her take it. It made her yawn. When I woke next day, though, she was already awake, lying with a strand of her hair pulled to her mouth, and gazing at the figures in the canopy over the bed.
‘Brush my hair hard,’ she said to me, as she stood for me to dress her. ‘Brush it hard and make it shine. Oh, how horrid and white my cheek is! Pinch it, Sue.’ She put my fingers to her face, and pressed
them ‘Pinch my cheek, don’t mind if you bruise it. I’d rather a blue cheek than a horrid white one!’
Her eyes were dark, perhaps from the sleeping-drops. Her brow was creased. It troubled me to hear her talk of bruises. I said,
‘Stand still, or I shan’t be able to dress you at all.—That’s better. Now, which gown will you have?’
‘The grey’s too soft on the eye. Let’s say, the blue . . .’
The blue brought out the fairness of her hair. She stood before the glass and watched as I buttoned it tight. Her face grew smoother, the higher I went. Then she looked at me. She looked at my brown stuff dress. She said,
‘Your dress is rather plain, Sue—isn’t it? I think you ought to change it.’
I said, ‘Change it? This is all I have.’
‘All you have? Good gracious. I am weary of it already. What were you used to wearing for Lady Alice, who was so nice? Did she never pass any of her own dresses on to you?’
I felt—and I think I was right in feeling it—that Gentleman had let me down a bit here, sending me off to Briar with just the one good gown. I said,
‘Well, the fact is, miss, Lady Alice was kind as an angel; but she was also rather near. She kept my frocks back, to take to India for her girl there.’
Maud blinked her dark eyes and looked sorry. She said,
‘Is that how ladies treat their maids, in London?’
‘Only the near ones, miss,’ I answered.
Then she said, ‘Well, I have nothing to be near for, here. You must and shall have another gown, to spend your mornings in. And perhaps another besides that, for you to change into when— Well, say we ever had a visitor?’
She hid her face behind the door of her press. She said,
‘Now, I believe we are of a similar size. Here are two or three dresses, look, that I never wear and shan’t miss. You like your skirts long, I see. My uncle does not care to see me in a long skirt, he believes long skirts unhealthy. But he shan’t mind, of course, about
you. You need only let down this hem a little here. You can do that, of course?’
Well, I was certainly used to taking stitches out; and I could sew a straight seam when I needed to. I said, ‘Thank you, miss.’ She held a dress before me. It was a queer thing of orange velvet, with fringes and a wide skirt. It looked like it had been blown together by a strong wind in a ladies’ tailor’s. She studied me, and then said,
‘Oh, try it, Susan, do! Look, I shall help you.’ She came close, and began to undress me. ‘See, I can do it, quite as well as you. Now I am your maid, and you are the mistress!’
She laughed, a little nervously, all the time she worked. ‘Why, look here in the glass,’ she said at last. ‘We might be sisters!’
She had tugged my old brown dress off me and put the queer orange one over my head, and she made me stand before the glass while she saw to the hooks. ‘Breathe in,’ she said. ‘Breathe harder! The gown grips tight, but will give you the figure of a lady.’
Of course, her own waist was narrow, and she was taller by an inch. My hair was the darker. We did not look like sisters, we just both looked like frights. My dress showed all my ankle. If a boy from the Borough had seen me then, I should have fallen down and died.
But there were no Borough boys to see me; and no Borough girls, either. And it was a very good velvet. I stood, plucking at the fringes on the skirt, while Maud ran to her jewel box for a brooch, that she fastened to my bosom, tilting her head to see how it looked. Then there came a knock on the parlour door.
‘There’s Margaret,’ she said, her face quite pink. She called, ‘Come here to the dressing-room, Margaret!’
Margaret came and made a curtsey, looking straight at me. She said,
‘I have just come for your tray, mi— Oh! Miss Smith! Is it you, there? I should never have known you from the mistress, I’m sure!’
She blushed, and Maud—who was standing in the shadow of the bed-curtain—looked girlish, putting her hand before her mouth. She shivered with laughter, and her dark eyes shone.
‘Suppose,’ she said, when Margaret had gone, ‘suppose Mr Rivers were to do what Margaret did, and mistake you for me? What would we do, then?’
Again she laughed and shivered. I gazed at the glass, and smiled.
For it was something, wasn’t it, to be taken for a lady?
It’s what my mother would have wanted.
And anyway, I was to get the pick of all her dresses and her jewels, in the end. I was only starting early. I kept the orange gown and, while she went to her uncle, sat turning the hem down and letting out the bodice. I wasn’t about to do myself an injury, for the sake of a sixteen-inch waist.
‘Now, do we look handsome?’ said Maud, when I fetched her back. She stood and looked me over, then brushed at her own skirts. ‘But here is dust,’ she cried, ‘from my uncle’s shelves! Oh! The books, the terrible books!’
She was almost weeping, and wringing her hands.
I took the dust away, and wished I could tell her she was fretting for nothing. She might be dressed in a sack. She might have a face like a coal-heaver’s. So long as there was fifteen thousand in the bank marked Miss Maud Lilly, then Gentleman would want her.
It was almost awful to see her, knowing what I knew, pretending I knew nothing; and with another kind of girl, it might have been comical. I would say, ‘Are you poorly, miss? Shall I fetch you something? Shall I bring you the little glass, to look at your face in?’—and she would answer, ‘Poorly? I am only rather cold, and walking to keep my blood warm.’ And, ‘A glass, Sue? Why should I need a glass?’
‘I thought you were looking at your own face, miss, more than was usual.’
‘My own face! And why should I be interested in doing that?’
‘I can’t say, miss, I’m sure.’
I knew his train was due at Marlow at four o’clock, and that William Inker had been sent to meet it, as he had been sent for me. At three, Maud said she would sit at the window and work at her sewing there, where the light was good. Of course, it was nearly dark then; but I said nothing. There was a little padded seat beside the rattling panes and mouldy sand-bags, it was the coldest place in the room; but she kept there for an hour and a half, with a shawl about her, shivering, squinting at her stitches, and sneaking sly little glances at the road to the house.
I thought, if that wasn’t love, then I was a Dutchman; and if it was love, then lovers were pigeons and geese, and I was glad I was not one of them.
At last she put her fingers to her heart and gave a stifled sort of cry. She had seen the light coming, on William Inker’s trap. That made her get up and come away from the window, and stand at the fire and press her hands together. Then came the sound of the horse on the gravel. I said, ‘Will that be Mr Rivers, miss?’ and she answered, ‘Mr Rivers? Is the day so late as that? Well, I suppose it is. How pleased my uncle will be!’
Her uncle saw him first. She said, ‘Perhaps he will send for me, to bid Mr Rivers welcome.—How does my skirt sit now? Had I not rather wear the grey?’
But Mr Lilly did not send for her. We heard voices and closing doors in the rooms below, but it was another hour again before a parlourmaid came, to pass on the message that Mr Rivers was arrived.
‘And is Mr Rivers made comfortable, in his old room?’ said Maud.
And Mr Rivers will be rather tired, I suppose, after his journey?’
Mr Rivers sent to say that he was tolerable tired, and looked forward to seeing Miss Lilly with her uncle, at supper. He would not think of disturbing Miss Lilly before then.
‘I see,’ she said when she heard that. Then she bit her lip. ‘Please to tell Mr Rivers that she would not think it any sort of disturbance, to be visited by him, in her parlour, before the supper-hour came . . .’
She went on like this for a minute and a half, falling over her words, and blushing; and finally the parlourmaid got the message and went off. She was gone a quarter of an hour. When she came back, she had Gentleman with her.
He stepped into the room, and did not look at me at first. His eyes were all for Maud. He said,
‘Miss Lilly, you are kind to receive me here, all travel-stained and tumbled as I am. That is like you!’
His voice was gentle. As for the stains—well, there wasn’t a mark upon him, I guessed he had gone quickly to his room and changed his coat. His hair was sleek and his whiskers tidy; he wore one modest little ring on his smallest finger, but apart from that his hands were bare and very clean.
He looked what he was meant to be—a handsome, nice-minded gentleman. When he turned to me at last, I found myself making him a curtsey and was almost shy.
And here is Susan Smith!’ he said, looking me over in my velvet, his lip twitching towards a smile. ‘But I should have supposed her a lady, I am sure!’ He stepped towards me and took my hand, and Maud also came to me. He said, ‘I hope you are liking your place at Briar, Sue. I hope you are proving a good girl for your new mistress.’
I said, ‘I hope I am too, sir.’
‘She is a very good girl,’ said Maud. ‘She is a very good girl, indeed.’
She said it in a nervous, grateful kind of way—like you would say it to a stranger, feeling pushed for conversation, about your dog.
Gentleman pressed my hand once, then let it fall. He said, ‘Of course, she could not help but be good—I should say, no girl could help but be good, Miss Lilly—with you as her example.’
Her colour had gone down. Now it rose again. ‘You are too kind,’ she said.
He shook his head and bit at his lip. ‘No gentleman could but be,’ he murmured, ‘with you to be kind to,’
Now his cheeks were pink as hers. I should say he must have had a way of holding his breath to make the blood come. He kept his eyes upon her, and at last she gazed at him and smiled; and then she laughed.
And I thought then, for the first time, that he had been right. She was handsome, she was very fair and slight—I knew it, seeing her stand beside him with her eyes on his.
Pigeons and geese. The great clock sounded, and they started and looked away. Gentleman said he had kept her too long. ‘I shall see you at supper, I hope, with your uncle?’
‘With my uncle, yes,’ she said quietly.
He made her a bow, and went to the door; then, when he was almost out of it he seemed to remember me, and went through a kind of pantomime, of patting at his pockets, looking for coins. He came up with a shilling, and beckoned me close to take it.
‘Here you are, Sue,’ he said. He lifted my hand and pressed the shilling in it. It was a bad one. ‘All well?’ he added softly, so that Maud should not overhear.
I said, ‘Oh, thank you, sir!’ And I made another curtsey, and winked.—Two curious things to do together, as it happened, and I would not recommend you try it: for I fear the wink unbalanced the curtsey; and I’m certain the curtsey threw off the wink.
I don’t think Gentleman noticed, however. He only smiled in a satisfied way, bowed again, and left us. Maud looked once at me, then went silently to her own room and closed the door—I don’t know what she did in there. I sat until she called me, a half-hour later, to help her change into her gown for dinner.
I sat and tossed the shilling. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘bad coins will gleam as well as good.’
But I thought it in a discontented sort of way; and didn’t know why.
That night she stayed an hour or two after supper, reading to her uncle and to Gentleman in the drawing-room. I had not seen the drawing-room then. I only knew what she did when I wasn’t with her, through Mr Way or Mrs Stiles happening to remark on it as we took our meals. I still passed my evenings in the kitchen and in Mrs Stiles’s pantry; and pretty dull evenings they generally were. This night, however, was different. I went down to find Margaret with two forks in a great piece of roasting ham, and Mrs Cakebread spooning honey on it. Honeyed ham, said Margaret, plumping up her lips, was Mr Rivers’s favourite dish. Mr Rivers, said Mrs Cakebread, was a pleasure to cook for.
She had changed her old wool stockings for the black silk pair I had given her. The parlourmaids had changed their caps, for ones with extra ruffles. Charles, the knife-boy, had combed his hair flat, and made the parting straight as a blade: he sat whistling, on a stool beside the fire, rubbing polish into one of Gentleman’s boots.
He was the same age as John Vroom; but was fair, where John was swarthy. He said, ‘What do you say to this, Mrs Stiles? Mr Rivers says that, in London, you may see elephants. He says they keep elephants in pens in the parks of London, as we keep sheep; and a boy can pay a man sixpence, and ride on an elephant’s back.’
‘Well, bless my soul!’ said Mrs Stiles.
She had fastened a brooch at the neck of her gown. It was a mourning brooch, with more black hair in it.
Elephants! I thought. I could see that Gentleman had come among them, like a cock into a coop of roosting hens, and set them all fluttering. They said he was handsome. They said he was better-bred than many dukes, and knew the proper treating of a servant. They said what a fine thing it was for Miss Maud that a clever young person like him should be about the house again. If I had stood up and told them the truth—that they were a bunch of flats; that Mr Rivers was a fiend in human form, who meant to marry Maud and steal her cash, then lock her up and more or less hope she died—if I had stood and told them that, they should never have believed it. They should have said that I was mad.
They will always believe a gentleman, over someone like me.
And of course, I wasn’t about to tell them any such thing. I kept my thoughts to myself; and later, over pudding in her pantry, Mrs Stiles sat, fingering her brooch, and was also rather quiet. Mr Way took his newspaper away to the privy. He had had to serve up two fine wines with Mr Lilly’s dinner; and was the only one, out of all of us, not glad that Gentleman had come.
At least, I supposed I was glad. ‘You are,’ I told myself, ‘but just don’t know it. You’ll feel it, when you’ve seen him on his own.’—I thought we would find a way to meet, in a day or two. It was almost another two weeks, however, before we did. For of course, I had no
reason for wandering, without Maud, into the grand parts of the house. I never saw the room he slept in, and he never came to mine. Besides, the days at Briar were run so very regular, it was quite like some great mechanical show, you could not change it. The house bell woke us up in the mornings, and after that we all went moving on our ways from room to room, on our set courses, until the bell rang us back into our beds at night. There might as well have been grooves laid for us in the floorboards; we might have glided on sticks. There might have been a great handle set into the side of the house, and a great hand winding it.—Sometimes, when the view beyond the windows was dark or grey with mist, I imagined that handle and thought that I could almost hear it turning. I grew afraid of what would happen if the turning was to stop.
That’s what living in the country does to you.
When Gentleman came, the show gave a kind of jog. There was a growling of the levers, people quivering for a second upon their sticks, the carving of one or two new grooves; and then it all went on, smooth as before, but with the scenes in a different order. Maud did not go to her uncle, now, to read to him while he took notes. She kept to her rooms. We sat and sewed, or played at cards, or went walking to the river or to the yew trees and the graves.
As for Gentleman: he rose at seven, and took his breakfast in his bed. He was served by Charles. At eight o’clock he began his work on Mr Lilly’s pictures. Mr Lilly directed him. He was as mad over his pictures as he was over his books, and had fitted up a little room for Gentleman to work in, darker and closer even than his library. I suppose the pictures were old and pretty precious. I never saw them. Nobody did. Mr Lilly and Gentleman carried keys about with them, and they locked the door to that room whether they were out of it or in it.
They worked until one o’clock, then took their lunch. Maud and I took ours alone. We ate in silence. She might not eat at all, but only sit waiting. Then, at a quarter to two, she would fetch out drawing-things—pencils and paints, papers and cards, a wooden triangle—and she would set them ready, very neatly, in an order that was always the same. She would not let me help. If a brush fell and
I caught it, she would take everything up—papers, pencils, paints, triangle—and set it out all over again.
I learned not to touch. Only to watch. And then we would both listen, as the clock struck two. And at a minute after that there would come Gentleman, to teach her her day’s lesson.
At first, they kept to the parlour. He put an apple, a pear and a water-jug upon a table, and stood and nodded while she tried to paint them on a card. She was about as handy with a paint-brush as she would have been with a spade; but Gentleman would hold up the messes she made and tilt his head or screw up his eye and say,
‘I declare, Miss Lilly, you are acquiring quite a method.’ Or,
‘What an improvement, on your sketches from last month!’
‘Do you think so, Mr Rivers?’ she would answer, all in a blush. ‘Is not the pear a little lean? Had I not ought to practise my perspective?’
‘The perspective is, perhaps, a little at fault,’ he’d say. ‘But you have a gift, Miss Lilly, which surpasses mere technique. You have an eye for an essence. I am almost afraid to stand before you! I am afraid of what might be uncovered, were you to turn that eye upon me.’
He would say something like that, in a voice that would start off strong and then grow sweet, and breathless, and hesitating; and she would look as though she were a girl of wax and had moved too near to a fire. She would try the fruit again. This time the pear would come out like a banana. Then Gentleman would say that the light was poor, or the brush a bad one.
‘If I might only take you to London, Miss Lilly, to my own studio there!’
That was the life he had faked up for himself—an artist’s life, in a house at Chelsea. He said he had many fascinating artist friends. Maud said, ‘Lady artist friends, too?’
‘Of course,’ he answered then. ‘For I think that’—then he shook his head—’well, my opinions are irregular, and not to everyone’s taste. See here, try this line a little firmer.’
He went to her, and put his hand upon hers. She turned her face to his and said,
‘Won’t you tell me what it is you think? You might speak plainly. I am not a child, Mr Rivers!’
‘You are not,’ he said softly, gazing into her eyes. Then he gave a start. ‘After all,’ he went on, ‘my opinion is mild enough. It concerns your—your sex, and matters of creation. There is something, Miss Lilly, I think your sex must have.’
She swallowed. ‘What is that, Mr Rivers?’
‘Why, the liberty,’ he answered gently, ‘of mine.’
She sat still, then gave a wriggle. Her chair creaked, the sound seemed to startle her, and she drew her hand away. She looked up, to the glass, and found my eyes on her, and blushed; then Gentleman looked up too, and watched her—that made her colour still harder and lower her gaze. He looked from her to me, then back to her again. He lifted his hands to his whiskers and gave them a stroke.
Then she put her brush to the picture of the fruit, and—’Oh!’ she cried. The paint ran like a tear-drop. Gentleman said she must not mind it, that he had worked her quite enough. He went to the table, took up the pear and rubbed the bloom from it. Maud kept a little pen-knife with her brushes and leads, and he got this out and cut the pear into three wet slices. He gave one to her, kept one for himself, and the last he shook free of its juice and brought to me.
‘Almost ripe, I think,’ he said, with a wink.
He put his slice of pear to his mouth and ate it in two sharp bites. It left beads of cloudy juice on his beard. He licked his fingers, thoughtfully; and I licked mine; and Maud, for once, let her gloves grow stained, and sat with the fruit against her lip and nibbled at it, her look a dark one.
We were thinking of secrets. Real secrets, and snide. Too many to count. When I try now to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin.
At last he said she might try painting from nature. I guessed at once what that meant. It meant that he could take her wandering about the park, into all the shady, lonely places, and call it instruction. I think she guessed it, too. ‘Will it rain today, do you think?’
she asked in a worried sort of way, her face at the window, her eyes on the clouds. This was the end of February, and still cold as anything; but just as everyone in that house perked up a bit to see Mr Rivers come back to it again, so now even the weather seemed to lift and grow sweet. The wind fell off, and the windows stopped rattling. The sky turned pearly instead of grey. The lawns grew green as billiard tables.
In the mornings, when I walked with Maud, just the two of us, I walked at her side. Now, of course, she walked with Gentleman: he would offer her his arm and, after a show of hesitation, she would take it; I think she held it more easily, through having grown used to holding mine. She walked pretty stiffly, though; but then, he would find little artful ways to pull her closer. He would bend his head until it was near hers. He would pretend to brush dust from her collar. There would start off space between them, but steadily the space would close—at last, there would only be the rub of his sleeve upon hers, the buckling of her skirt about his trousers. I saw it all; for I walked behind them. I carried her satchel of paints and brushes, her wooden triangle, and a stool. Sometimes they would draw away from me, and seem quite to forget me. Then Maud would remember, and turn, and say,
‘How good you are, Sue! You do not mind the walk? Mr Rivers thinks another quarter of a mile will do it.’
Mr Rivers always thought that. He kept her slowly walking about the park, saying he was looking for scenes for her to paint, but really keeping her close and talking in murmurs; and I had to follow, with all their gear.
Of course, I was the reason they were able to walk at all. I was meant to watch and see that Gentleman was proper.
I watched him hard. I also watched her. She would look sometimes at his face; more often at the ground; now and then at some flower or leaf or fluttering bird that took her fancy. And when she did that he would half turn, and catch my eye, and give a devilish kind of smile; but by the time she gazed at him again his face would be smooth.
You would swear, seeing him then, that he loved her.
You would swear, seeing her, that she loved him.
But you could see that she was fearful, of her own fluttering heart. He could not go too fast. He never touched her, except to let her lean upon his arm, and to guide her hand as she painted. He would bend close to her, to watch her as she dabbled in the colours, and then their breaths would come together and his hair would mix with hers; but if he went a little nearer she would flinch. She kept her gloves on.
At last he found out that spot beside the river, and she began a painting of the scenery there, adding more dark rushes each day. In the evening she sat reading in the drawing-room, for him and Mr Lilly. At night she went fretfully to her bed, and sometimes took more sleeping-drops, and sometimes shivered in her sleep.
I put my hands upon her, when she did that, till she was still again.
I was keeping her calm, for Gentleman’s sake. Later on he would want me to make her nervous; but for now I kept her calm, I kept her neat, I kept her dressed very handsome. I washed her hair in vinegar, and brushed it till it shone. Gentleman would come to her parlour and study her, and bow. And when he said, ‘Miss Lilly, I believe you grow sweeter in the face with every day that passes!’, I knew he meant it. But I knew, too, that he meant it as a compliment not to her—who had done nothing—but to me, who did it all.
I guessed little things like that. He couldn’t speak plainly, but made great play with his eyes and with his smiles, as I have said. We waited out our chance for a talk in private; and just as it began to look as though that chance would never come, it did—and it was Maud, in her innocent way, who let us have it.
For she saw him one morning, very early, from the window of her room. She stood at the glass and put her head against it, and said,
‘There is Mr Rivers, look, walking on the lawn.’
I went and stood beside her and, sure enough, there he was, strolling about the grass, smoking a cigarette. The sun, being still rather low, made his shadow very long.
Ain’t he tall?’ I said, gazing sideways at Maud. She nodded. Her breath made the glass mist, and she wiped it away. Then she said,
‘Oh!’—as if he might have fallen over—’Oh! I think his cigarette has gone out. Poor Mr Rivers!’
He was studying the dark tip of his cigarette, and blowing at it; now he was putting his hand to his trouser pocket, searching for a match. Maud made another swipe at the window-glass.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘can he light it? Has he a match? Oh, I don’t believe he does! And the clock struck the half, quite twenty minutes ago. He must go to Uncle soon. No, he does not have a match, in all those pockets …”
She looked at me and wrung her hands, as if her heart was breaking.
I said, ‘It won’t kill him, miss.’
‘But poor Mr Rivers,’ she said again. ‘Oh, Sue, if you are quick, you might take a match to him. Look, he is putting his cigarette away. How sad he looks now!’
We didn’t have any matches. Margaret kept them in her apron. When I told Maud that she said,
‘Then take a candle! Take anything! Take a coal from the fire! Oh, can’t you be quicker?—Don’t say I sent you, mind!’
Can you believe she had me doing that?—tripping down two sets of stairs, with a lighted coal in a pair of fire-tongs, just so a man might have his morning smoke? Can you believe I did it? Well, I was a servant now, and must. Gentleman saw me stepping across the grass to him, saw what I carried, and laughed.
I said, All right. She has sent me down with it for you to light your cigarette from. Look glad, she is watching. But make a business of it, if you want.’
He did not move his head, but raised his eyes to her window.
‘What a good girl she is,’ he said.
‘She is too good for you, that I do know.’
He smiled. But only as a gentleman should smile to a servant; and his face he made kind. I imagined Maud, looking down, breathing quicker upon the glass. He said quietly,
‘How do we do, Sue?’
‘Pretty well,’ I answered.
‘You think she loves me?’
‘I do. Oh, yes.’
He drew out a silver case and lifted free a cigarette. ‘But she hasn’t told you so?’
‘She don’t have to.’
He leaned close to the coal. ‘Does she trust you?’
‘I think she must. She has nobody else.’
He drew on the cigarette, then breathed out in a sigh. The smoke stained the cold air blue. He said, ‘She’s ours.’
He stepped back a little way, then gestured with his eyes; I saw what he wanted, let the coal fall to the lawn, and he stooped to help me get it. ‘What else?’ he said. I told him, in a murmur, about the sleeping-drops, and about her being afraid of her own dreams. He listened, smiling, all the time fumbling with the fire-tongs over the piece of coal, and finally catching it up and rising, and placing my hands upon the handle of the tongs and pressing them tight.
‘The drops and the dreams are good,’ he said quietly. ‘They’ll help us, later. But you know, for now, what you must do? Watch her hard. Make her love you. She’s our little jewel, Suky. Soon I shall prise her from her setting and turn her into cash.—Keep it like this,’ he went on, in an ordinary voice. Mr Way had come to the front door of the house, to see why it was open. ‘Like this, so the coal won’t fall and scorch Miss Lilly’s carpets . . .’
I made him a curtsey, and he moved away from me; and then, while Mr Way stepped out to bend his legs and look at the sun and push back his wig and scratch beneath it, he said in one last murmur:
‘They are placing bets on you, at Lant Street. Mrs Sucksby has five pounds on your success. I am charged to kiss you, in her behalf.’
He puckered up his lips in a silent kiss, then put his cigarette into the pucker and made more blue smoke. Then he bowed. His hair fell over his collar. He lifted up his white hand to brush it back behind his ear.
From his place on the step, I saw Mr Way studying him rather as the hard boys of the Borough did—as if not quite sure what he wanted to do most: laugh at him, or punch his lights out. But
Gentleman kept his eyes very innocent. He only lifted his face to the sun, and stretched, so that Maud might see him better from the shadows of her room.
She stood and watched him walk and smoke his cigarette, every morning |ifter that. She would stand at the window with her face pressed to the glass, and the glass would mark her brow with a circle of red—a perfect circle of crimson in her pale face. It was like the spot upon the cheek of a girl with a fever. I thought I saw it growing darker and fiercer with every day that passed.
Now she watched Gentleman, and I watched them both; and the three of us waited for the fever to break.
I had thought it might take two weeks, or three. But two weeks had gone by already, and we had got nowhere. Then another two passed, and it was all just the same. She was too good at waiting, and the house was too smooth. She would give a little jump out of her groove, to be nearer to Gentleman; and he would sneak a little way out of his, to be closer to her; but that would only make new grooves for them to glide in. We needed the whole show to go bust.
We needed her to grow confiding, so that I could help her on her way. But, though I dropped a thousand little hints—such as, what a kind gentleman Mr Rivers was; and how handsome and how well-bred; and how her uncle seemed to like him; and how she seemed to like him, and how he seemed to like her; and if a lady ever thought of marrying, didn’t she think a gent like Mr Rivers might be just the gent for the job?—though I gave her a thousand little chances like that, to open up her heart, she never took one. The weather turned cold again, then grew warmer. It got to March. Then it was almost April. By May, Mr Lilly’s pictures would all be mounted, and Gentleman would have to leave. But still she said nothing; and he held back from pressing her, out of fear that a wrong move would frighten her off.
I grew fretful, waiting. Gentleman grew fretful. We all grew nervy as narks—Maud would sit fidgeting for hours at a trot, and when the house clock sounded she would give a little start, that
would make me start; and when it came time for Gentleman to call on her, I would see her flinching, listening for his step—then his knock would come, and she would jump, or scream, or drop her cup and break it. Then at night, she would lie stiff and open-eyed, or turn and murmur in her sleep.
All, I thought, for love! I had never seen anything like it. I thought about how such a business got worked out, in the Borough. I thought of all the things a girl could ordinarily do, when she liked a fellow that she guessed liked her.
I thought of what I would do, if a man like Gentleman liked me.
I thought perhaps I ought to take her aside and tell her, as one girl to another.
Then I thought she might think me rude.—Which is pretty rum, in light of what happened later.
But something else happened first. The fever broke at last. The show went bust, and all our waiting paid off.
She let him kiss her.
Not on her lips, but somewhere altogether better.
I know, because I saw it.
It was down by the river, on the first day of April. The weather was too warm for the time of year. The sun shone bright in a sky of grey, and everyone said there would be thunder.
She had a jacket and a cloak above her gown, and was hot: she called me to her, and had me take away the cloak, and then the jacket. She was sitting at her painting of the rushes, and Gentleman was near her, looking on and smiling. The sun made her squint: every now and then she would raise her hand to her eyes. Her gloves were quite spoiled with paint, and there was paint upon her face.
The air was thick and warm and heavy, but the earth was cold to the touch: it had all the chill of winter in it still, and all the dampness of the river. The rushes smelt rank. There was a sound, as of a locksmith’s file, that Gentleman said was bullfrogs. There were long-legged spiders, and beetles. There was a bush, with a show of tight, fat, furry buds.
I sat beside the bush, on the upturned punt: Gentleman had carried it there for me, to the shelter of the wall. It was as far away from him and Maud as he dared place me. I kept the spiders from a basket of cakes. That was my job, while Maud painted, and Gentleman looked on, smiling, and sometimes putting his hand on
She painted, and the queer hot sun went lower, the grey sky began to be streaked with red, and the air grew even thicker. And then I slept. I slept and dreamt of Lant Street—I dreamt of Mr Ibbs at his brazier, burning his hand and shouting. The shout woke me up. I started from the punt, not knowing for a second where. I was. Then I looked about me. Maud and Gentleman were nowhere to be seen.
There was her stool, and there the terrible painting. There were her brushes—one was dropped upon the ground—and there her paints. I went over and picked up the fallen brush. I thought it would be like Gentleman, after all, to have taken her back to the house and left me to come up, sweating, with everything behind them. But I could not imagine that she would go with him, alone. I felt almost afraid for her. I felt almost like a real maid, worried for her mistress.
And then I heard her voice, murmuring. I walked a little way, and saw them.
They had not gone far—only just along the river, where it bent about the wall. They did not hear me come, they did not look round. They must have walked together along the line of rushes; and then I suppose he had spoken to her at last. He had spoken, for the first time, without me to overhear him—and I wondered what words he had said, that could make her lean against him, like that. She had her head upon his collar. Her skirt rose at the back, almost to her knees. And yet, her face she kept turned hard from his. Her arms hung at her side, like a doll’s arms. He moved his mouth against her hair, and whispered.
Then, while I stood watching, he lifted one of her weak hands and slowly drew the glove half from it; and then he kissed her naked palm.
And by that, I knew he had her. I think he sighed. I think she sighed, too—I saw her sag still closer to him, then give a shiver. Her skirt rose even higher, and showed the tops of her stockings, the white of her thigh.
The air was thick as treacle. My gown was damp where it gripped. A limb of iron would have sweated, in a dress on such a day. An eye of marble would have swivelled in its socket to gaze as I did. I could not look away. The stillness of them—her hand, so pale against his beard, the glove still bunched about her knuckles, the lifted skirt—it seemed to hold me like a spell. The purr of the bullfrogs was louder than before. The river lapped like a tongue among the rushes. I watched, and he dipped his head, and softly kissed her again.
I should have been glad to see him do it. I was not. Instead, I imagined the rub of his whiskers upon her palm. I thought of her smooth white fingers, her soft white nails.—I had cut them, that morning. I had dressed her and brushed her hair. I had been keeping her, neat and in her looks—all for the sake of this moment. All for him. Now, against the dark of his jacket and hair, she seemed so neat—so slight, so pale—I thought she might break. I thought he might swallow her up, or bruise her.
I turned away. I felt the heat of the day, the thickness of the air, the rankness of the rushes, too hard; I turned, and stole softly back to where the painting was. After a minute there came thunder, and another minute after that I heard the sound of skirts, and then Maud and Gentleman walked quickly about the curving wall, she with her arm in his, her gloves buttoned up and her eyes on the ground; him with his hand upon her fingers, his head bent. When he saw me he gave me a look. He said,
‘Sue! We didn’t like to wake you. We have been walking, and lost ourselves in gazing at the river. Now the light is all gone, and we shall have rain, I think. Have you a coat for your mistress?’
I said nothing. Maud, too, was silent, and looked nowhere but at her feet. I put her cloak about her, then took the painting and the paints, the stool and the basket, and followed her and Gentleman back, through the gate in the wall, to the house. Mr Way opened the
door to us. As he closed it the thunder came again. Then the rain began to fall, in great, dark, staining drops.
‘Just in time!’ said Gentleman softly, gazing at Maud and letting her draw her hand from him.
It was the hand he had kissed. She must have felt his lips there still, for I saw her turn from him and hold it to her bosom, and stroke her fingers over her palm.
The rain fell all that night. It made rivers of water that ran ^y beneath the basement doors, into the kitchen, the still-room and the pantries. We had to cut short our supper so that Mr Way and Charles might lay down sacks. I stood with Mrs Stiles at a backstairs window, watching the bouncing raindrops and the flashes of lightning. She rubbed her arms and gazed at the sky.
‘Pity the sailors at sea,’ she said.
I went up early to Maud’s rooms, and sat in the darkness, and when she came she did not know, for a minute, that I was there: she stood and put her hands to her face. Then the lightning flashed again, and she saw me, and jumped.
‘Are you here?’ she said.
Her eyes seemed large. She had been with her uncle, and with Gentleman. I thought, ‘She’ll tell me now.’ But she only stood gazing at me, and when the thunder sounded she turned and moved away. I went with her to her bedroom. She stood as weakly for me to
undress her as she had stood in Gentleman’s arms, and the hand he had kissed she held off a little from her side, as if to guard it. In her bed she lay very still, but lifted her head, now and then, from her pillow. There was a steady drip, drip in one of the attics. ‘Do you hear the rain?’ she said; and then, in a softer voice: ‘The thunder is moving away
I thought of the basements, filling with water. I thought of the sailors at sea. I thought of the Borough. Rain makes London houses groan. I wondered if Mrs Sucksby was lying in bed, while the damp house groaned about her, thinking of me.
Three thousand pounds! she had said. My crikey!
Maud lifted her head again, and drew in her breath. I closed my eyes. ‘Here it comes,’ I thought.
But after all, she said nothing.
When I woke, the rain had stopped and the house was still. Maud lay, as pale as milk: her breakfast came and she put it aside and would not eat it. She spoke quietly, about nothing. She did not look or act like a lover. I thought she would say something lover-like soon, though. I supposed her feelings had dazed her.
She watched Gentleman walk and smoke his cigarette, as she always did; and then, when he had gone to Mr Lilly, she said she would like to walk, herself. The sun had come up weak. The sky was grey again, and the ground was filled with what seemed puddles of lead. The air was so washed and pure, it made me bilious. But we went, as usual, to the wood and the ice-house, and then to the chapel and the graves. When we reached her mother’s grave she sat a little near it, and gazed at the stone. It was dark with rain. The grass between the graves was thin and beaten. Two or three great black birds walked carefully about us, looking for worms. I watched them peck. Then I think I must have sighed, for Maud looked at me and her face—that had been hard, through frowning—grew gentle. She said,
‘You are sad, Sue.’
I shook my head.
‘I think you are,’ she said. ‘That’s my fault. I have brought you to
this lonely place, time after time, thinking only of myself. But you have known what it is, to have a mother’s love and then to lose it.’
I looked away.
‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
She said, ‘You are brave …”
I thought of my mother, dying game on the scaffold; and I suddenly wished—what I had never wished before—that she had been some ordinary girl, that had died in a regular way. As if she guessed it, Maud said quietly now,
‘And what—it doesn’t trouble you, my asking?—what did your mother die of?’
I thought for a moment. I said at last that she had swallowed a pin, that had choked her.
I really did know a woman that died that way. Maud stared at me, and put her hand to her throat. Then she gazed down at her own mother’s tomb.
‘How would you feel,’ she said quietly, ‘if you had fed her that pin yourself?’
It seemed an odd sort of question; but, of course, I was used by now to her saying odd sorts of things. I told her I should feel very ashamed and sad.
‘Would you?’ she said. ‘You see, I have an interest in knowing. For it was my birth that killed my mother. I am as to blame for her death as if I had stabbed her with my own hand!’
She looked strangely at her fingers, that had red earth at the tips. I said,
‘What nonsense. Who has made you think that? They ought to be sorry.’
‘No-one made me think it,’ she answered. ‘I thought it myself.’
‘Then that’s worse, because you’re clever and ought to know better. As if a girl could stop herself from being born!’
‘I wish I had been stopped!’ she said. She almost cried it. One of the dark birds started up from between the stones, its wings beating the air—it sounded like a carpet being snapped out of a window. We both turned our heads to see it fly; and when I looked at her again, her eyes had tears in them.
I thought, ‘What do you have to cry for? You’re in love, you’re in love.’ I tried to remind her.
‘Mr Rivers,’ I began. But she heard the name and shivered.
‘Look at the sky,’ she said quickly. The sky had grown darker. ‘I think it will thunder again. Here is the new rain, look!’
She closed her eyes and let the rain fall on her face, and after another second I could not have said what were raindrops, and what tears. I went to her and touched her arm.
‘Put your cloak about you,’ I said. Now the rain fell quick and hard. She let me lift her hood and fasten it, as a child might; and I think, if I had not drawn her from the grave, she would have stayed there and been soaked. But I made her stumble with me to the door of the little chapel. It was shut up fast with a rusting chain and a padlock, but above it was a porch of rotted wood. The rain struck the wood and made it tremble. Our skirts were dark with water at the hems. We stood close to one another, our shoulders tight against the chapel door, and the rain came down—straight down, like arrows. A thousand arrows and one poor heart. She said,
‘Mr Rivers has asked me to marry him, Sue.’
She said it in a flat voice, like a girl saying a lesson; and though I had waited so hard to hear her say it, when I answered my words came out heavy as hers. I said,
‘Oh, Miss Maud, I am gladder than anything!’
A drop of rain fell between our faces.
Are you truly?’ she said. Her cheeks were damp, her hair clinging to them. ‘Then,’ she went on miserably, ‘I am sorry. For I have not told him yes. How can I? My uncle— My uncle will never give me up. It wants four years until I am twenty-one. How can I ask Mr Rivers to wait so long?’
Of course, we had guessed she’d think that. We had hoped that she would; for in thinking it she’d be all the more ready to run and be married in secret. I said, carefully, Are you sure, about your uncle?’
She nodded. ‘He will not spare me, so long as there are books still, to be read and noted; and there will always be those! Besides, he is proud. Mr Rivers, I know, is a gentleman’s son, but—’
‘But your uncle won’t think him quite enough a swell?’
She bit her lip. ‘I’m afraid that if he knew Mr Rivers had asked for my hand, he would send him from the house. But then, he must go anyway, when his work here is finished! He must go—’ Her voice shook. ‘And how will I see him, then? How may you keep a heart, for four years, like that?’
She put her hands to her face and wept in earnest. Her shoulders jumped. It was awful to see. I said, ‘You mustn’t cry.’ I touched her cheek, putting the damp hair from it. I said, ‘Truly, miss, you mustn’t cry. Do you think Mr Rivers will give you up now? How could he? You mean more to him than anything. Your uncle will come round, when he sees that.’
‘My happiness is nothing to him,’ she said. ‘Only his books! He has made me like a book. I am not meant to be taken, and touched, and liked. I am meant to keep here, in a dim light, for ever!’
She spoke more bitterly than I had ever heard her speak before. I said,
‘Your uncle loves you, I’m sure. But Mr Rivers—’ The words got caught in my throat, and I coughed. ‘Mr Rivers loves you, too.’
‘You think he does, Sue? He spoke so fiercely yesterday, beside the river, while you slept. He spoke of London—of his house, his studio—he says he longs to take me there, not as his pupil, but as his wife. He says he thinks of nothing but that. He says he thinks that to wait for me will kill him! You think he means it, Sue?’
She waited. I thought, ‘It’s not a lie, it’s not a lie, he loves her for her money. I think he would die if he lost it now.’ I said,
‘I know it, miss.’
She looked at the ground. ‘But, what can he do?’
‘He must ask your uncle.’
‘Then’—I drew in my breath—’you must find another way.’ She said nothing, but moved her head. ‘You must do that.’ Still nothing. ‘Isn’t there,’ I said, ‘another way you might take . . .?’
She lifted her eyes to mine and blinked back her tears. She looked anxiously to left and to right, then drew a little closer. She said, in a whisper:
‘You’ll tell no-one, Sue?’
‘Tell them what, miss?’
She blinked again, hesitating. ‘You must promise not to tell. You must swear it!’
‘I swear!’ I said. ‘I swear!’—all the time thinking, Come on, say it Now!—for it was dreadful, seeing her so afraid to give up her secret, when I knew what the secret was.
Then she did say it. ‘Mr Rivers,’ she said, more quietly than ever, ‘says we might go away, at night.’
‘At night!’ I said.
‘He says we might be privately married. He says my uncle might try to claim me then; but he does not think he will. Not once I am a—a wife.’
Her face, as she said the word, grew pale, I saw the blood fall out of her cheek. She looked at the stone on her mother’s grave. I said,
‘You must follow your heart, miss.’
‘I am not sure. After all, I am not sure.’
‘But to love, and then to lose him!’ Her gaze grew strange. I said, ‘You love him, don’t you?’
She turned a little, and still looked queer, and would not answer. Then she said,
‘I don’t know.’
‘Don’t know? How can you not know a thing like that? Doesn’t your blood beat hard when you see him coming? Doesn’t his voice thrill in your ears, and his touch set you shaking? Don’t you dream of him, at night?’
She bit her plump lip. And those things mean I love him?’
‘Of course! What else could they mean?’
She did not answer. Instead, she closed her eyes and gave a shiver. She put her hands together, and again she stroked the spot upon her palm where he had yesterday touched his lips.
Only now I saw, she was not stroking the flesh so much as rubbing at it. She was not nursing the kiss. She felt his mouth like a burn, like an itch, like a splinter, and was trying to rub the memory of it away.
She didn’t love him at all. She was afraid of him.
I drew in my breath. She opened her eyes and held my gaze.
‘What will you do?’ I said, in a whisper.
‘What can I do?’ She shivered. ‘He wants me. He has asked me. He means to make me his.’
‘You might—say no.’
She blinked, as if she could not believe I had said it. I could not believe it, either.
‘Say no to him?’ she said slowly. ‘Say no?’ Then her look changed. ‘And watch him leave, from my window? Or perhaps when he goes I shall be in my uncle’s library, where the windows are all dark; and then I shan’t see him leave at all. And then, and then—oh, Sue, don’t you think I should wonder, over the life I might have had? Do you suppose another man will come visiting, that will want me half as much as he? What choice have I?’
Her gaze, now, was so steady and so bare, I flinched from it. I did not answer for a moment, but turned and gazed down at the wood of the door we stood against, and the rusting chain that held it closed, and the padlock. The padlock is the simplest kind of lock. The worst are the kind that keep their business parts guarded. They are devils to crack. Mr Ibbs taught me that. I closed my eyes and saw his face; and then, Mrs Sucksby’s. Three thousand pounds—.’ I drew in my breath, looked back to Maud, and said,
‘Marry him, miss. Don’t wait for your uncle’s word. Mr Rivers loves you, and love won’t harm a flea. You will learn to like him as you ought, in time. Till then go with him in secret, and do everything he says.’
For a second, she looked wretched—as if she might have been hoping I would say anything but that; but it was only for a second. Then her face grew clear. She said,
‘I will. I’ll do it. But, I can’t go alone. You mustn’t make me go with him, quite on my own. You must come with me. Say you will. Say you’ll come and be my maid, in my new life, in London!’
I said I would. She gave a high, nervous laugh and then, from having wept and been so low, she grew almost giddy. She talked of the house that Gentleman had promised her; and of the fashions of London, that I would help her choose; and of the carriage she
would have. She said she would buy me handsome gowns. She said she wouldn’t call me her maid then, but her companion. She said she would get me a maid of my own.
‘For you know I shall be very rich,’ she said simply, ‘once I am married?’
She shivered and smiled and clutched at my arm, and then she drew me to her and put her head against mine. Her cheek was cool, and smooth as a pearl. Her hair was bright with beads of rainwater. I think she was weeping. But I did not pull away to try and find out. I did not want her to see my face. I think the look in my eyes must have been awful.
That afternoon she set out her paints and her painting, as usual; but the brushes and the colours stayed dry. Gentleman came to her parlour, walked quickly to her, and stood before her as if he longed to pull her to him but was afraid. He said her name—not Miss Lilly, but Maud. He said it in a quiet, fierce voice, and she quivered, and hesitated once, then nodded. He gave a great sigh, seized her hand and sank before her—I thought that was pushing it a bit, myself, and even she looked doubtful. She said, ‘No, not here!’ and gazed quickly at me; and he, seeing her look, said, ‘But we may be quite free, before Sue? You’ve told her? She knows all?’ He turned to me with an awkward gesture of his head, as if it hurt his eyes to look at anything but her.
Ah, Sue,’ he said, ‘if you were ever a friend to your mistress, be her friend now! If you ever looked kindly on a pair of foolish lovers, look kindly on us!’
He gazed hard at me. I gazed hard back.
‘She has promised to help us,’ said Maud. ‘But, Mr Rivers—’
‘Oh, Maud,’ he said at that. ‘Do you mean to slight me?’
She lowered her head. She said, ‘Richard, then.’
He was still on his knee, with his face tilted upwards. She touched his cheek. He turned his head and kissed her hands, and then she drew them quickly back. She said,
‘Sue will help us all she can. But we must be careful, Richard.’
He smiled and shook his head. He said,
‘And you think, seeing me now, I shall never be that?’ He rose and stepped from her. He said, ‘Do you know how careful my love will make me? See here, look at my hands. Say there’s a cobweb spun between them. It’s my ambition. And at its centre there’s a spider, of the colour of a jewel. The spider is you. This is how I shall bear you—so gently, so carefully and without jar, you shall not know you are being taken.’
He said that, with his white hands cupped; and then, as she gazed into the space between them, he spread his fingers and laughed. I turned away. When I looked at her again, he had taken her hands in his and was holding them loosely, before his heart. She seemed a little easier. They sat, and talked in murmurs.
And I remembered all she had said at the graves, and how she had rubbed her palm. I thought, ‘That was nothing, she has forgotten it now. Not love him, when he’s so handsome and seems so kind?’
I thought, ‘Of course she loves him.’ I watched as he leaned to her and touched her and made her blush. I thought, ‘Who wouldn’t?’
Then he raised his head and caught my gaze and, stupidly, I blushed, too. He said,
‘You know your duties, Sue. You’ve a careful eye. We shall be glad of that, in time. But today—well, have you no other little business, that will take you elsewhere?’
He gestured with his eyes to the door of Maud’s bedroom.
‘There’s a shilling in it for you,’ he said, ‘if you do.’
I almost stood. I almost went. So used had I got, to playing the servant. Then I saw Maud. The colour had quite gone from her face. She said, ‘But suppose Margaret or one of the girls should come to the door?’
‘Why should they do that?’ said Gentleman. And if they do, what will they hear? We shall be perfectly silent. Then they will go again.’ He smiled at me. ‘Be kind, Sue,’ he said slyly. ‘Be kind, to lovers. Did you never have a sweetheart of your own?’
I might still have gone, before he said that. Now I thought suddenly, Who did he think he was? He might pretend to be a lord; he
was only a con-man. He had a snide ring on his finger, and all his coins were bad ones. I knew more than he did about Maud’s secrets. I slept beside her in her own bed. I had made her love me like a sister; he had made her afraid. I could turn her heart against him if I wanted to, like that! It was enough that he was going to marry her at last. It was enough that he could kiss her, whenever he liked. I wouldn’t leave her now to be tugged about and made nervous. I thought, ‘Damn you, I’ll get my three thousand just the same!’
So I said, ‘I shan’t leave Miss Lilly. Her uncle wouldn’t like it. And if Mrs Stiles was to hear of it, then I should lose my place.’
He looked at me and frowned. Maud did not look at me at all; but I knew she was grateful. She said gently,
After all, Richard, we shouldn’t ask too much of Sue. We shall have time enough to be together, soon—shan’t we?’
He said then that he supposed that that was true. They kept close before the fire, and after a while I went and sat and sewed beside the window and let them gaze at one another’s faces undisturbed. I heard the hiss of his whispers, the rush of his breath as he laughed. But Maud was silent. And when he left, and took her hand and pressed it to his mouth, she trembled so hard, I thought back to all the times I had watched her tremble before, and wondered how I had ever mistaken that trembling for love. Once the door was closed she stood at the glass, as she often did, studying her face. She stood there for a minute, then turned. She stepped very slowly and softly, from the glass to the sofa, from the sofa to the chair, from the chair to the window—she moved, in short, across the whole of the room, until she reached my side. She leaned to look at my work and her hair, in its net of velvet, brushed my own.
‘You sew neatly,’ she said—though I had not, not then. I had sewn hard, and my stitches were crooked.
Then she stood and said nothing. Once or twice she drew in her breath. I thought there was something she longed to ask me, but dared not. In the end she moved away again.
And so our trap—that I had thought so lightly of, and worked so hard to lay—was finally set; and wanted only time to go quickly by
and spring it. Gentleman was hired to work as Mr Lilly’s secretary until the end of April, and meant to stay out his contract to the last—’So that the old man won’t have the breaking of that to charge me with,’ he said to me, laughing, ‘alongside the breaking of certain other things.’ He planned to leave when he was meant to—that is, the evening of the last day of the month; but, instead of taking the train for London, he would hang about, and come back to the house at the dead of night, for me and Maud. He must steal her away and not be caught, and then he must marry her—quick as he could, and before her uncle should hear of it and find her and take her home again. He had it all figured out. He could not fetch her in a pony and cart, for he should never have got it past the gate-house. He meant to bring a boat and take her off along the river, to some small out-of-the-way church where she would not be known as Mr Lilly’s niece.
Now, to marry a girl at any church you must have been living in the parish of it for fifteen days; but he fixed that up, as he fixed everything. A few days after Maud had promised him her hand, he found some excuse and took a horse and went riding off to Maidenhead. He got a special licence for the wedding there—that meant they should not have to put out the banns—and then he went about the county, looking out for the right kind of church. He found one, in a place so small and broken-down it had no name—or anyway, that’s what he told us. He said the vicar was a drunkard. Hard by the church there was a cottage, owned by a widow who kept black-faced pigs. For two pounds she said she would keep him a room and swear to whoever he liked that he had lived there a month.
Women like that will do anything for gentlemen like him. He got back to Briar that night looking pleased as a weasel, and handsome than ever; and he came to Maud’s parlour and sat us down anc spoke to us in murmurs of all he had done.
When he had finished, Maud looked pale. She had begun to leave off eating, and was grown thin about the face. Her eyes were dark at the lids. She put her hands together.
‘Three weeks,’ she said.
I thought I knew what she meant. She had three weeks left to
make herself want him. I saw her counting the days in her head, and thinking.
She was thinking of what was coming at the end of them.
For, she never learned to love him. She never grew to like his kisses or the feel of his hand upon hers. She still shrank from him in a miserable fright—then nerved herself to face him, let him draw her close, let him touch her hair and face. I supposed at first he thought her backwards. Then I guessed he liked her to be slow. He would be kind to her, then pressing, and then, when she grew awkward or confused he would say,
‘Oh! now you are cruel. I think you mean only to practise on my love.’
‘No indeed,’ she would answer. ‘No, how can you say it?’
‘I don’t think you love me as you ought.’
‘Not love you?’
‘You won’t show it. Perhaps’—and here he’d give a sly glance, to catch my eye—’perhaps there’s someone else you care for?’
Then she would let him kiss her, as if to prove that there was not. She would be stiff, or weak as a puppet. Sometimes she would almost weep. Then he would comfort her. He would call himself a brute that did not deserve her, that ought to give her up to a better lover; then she would let him kiss her again. I heard the meeting of their lips, from my cold place beside the window. I heard the creeping of his hand upon her skirt. Now and then I would look—just to be sure he had not put her in too much of a fright. But then, I didn’t know what was worse—seeing her face shut up, her cheek made pale, her mouth against his beard; or meeting her eye as the tears were pressed from it and came spilling.
‘Let her alone, why don’t you?’ I said to him one day, when she had been called from the room to find a book for her uncle. ‘Can’t you see she don’t care for it, having you pestering her like that?’
He looked at me queerly for a second; then raised his brows. ‘Not care for it?’ he said. ‘She is longing for it.’
‘She is afraid of you.’
‘She is afraid of herself. Girls like her always are. But let them squirm and be dainty as much as they like, they all want the same thing in the end.’
He paused, then laughed. He thought it a filthy kind of joke.
‘What she wants from you is to be taken from Briar,’ I said. ‘For the rest, she knows nothing.’
‘They all say they know nothing,’ he answered, yawning. ‘In their hearts, in their dreams, they know it all. They take it in their milk from the breasts of their mothers. Haven’t you heard her, in her bed? Doesn’t she wriggle, and sigh? She is sighing for me. You must listen harder. I ought to come and listen with you. Shall I do that? Shall I come to your room, tonight? You could take me to her. We could watch to see how hard her heart beats. You could put back her gown for me to see.’
I knew he was teasing. He would never have risked losing everything, for a lark like that. But I heard his words, and imagined him coming. I imagined putting back her gown. I blushed, and turned away from him. I said,
‘You should never find my room.’
‘I should find it, all right. I’ve had the plan of the house, from the little knife-boy. He’s a good little boy, with a chattering mouth.’ He laughed again, rather harder, and stretched in his chair. ‘Only think of the sport! And how would it harm her? I would creep, like a mouse. I am good at creeping. I would only want to look. Or, she might like to wake and find me there—like the girl in the poem.’
I knew many poems. They were all about thieves being plucked by soldiers from their sweethearts’ arms; and one was about a cat being tipped down a well. I didn’t know the one he mentioned now, however, and not knowing made me peevish.
‘You leave her alone,’ I said. Perhaps he heard something in my voice. He looked me over, and his voice turned rich.
‘Oh, Suky,’ he said, ‘have you grown squeamish? Have you learned sweet ways, after your spell with the quality? Who would have said you should take so to serving ladies, with pals like yours, and a home like your home! What would Mrs Sucksby say—and Dainty, and Johnny!—if they could see your blushes now?’
‘They would say I had a soft heart,’ I said, firing up. ‘Maybe I do. Where’s the crime in that?’
‘God damn it,’ he answered, firing up in his turn. ‘What did a soft heart ever do for a girl like you? What would it do, for a girl like Dainty? Except, perhaps, kill her.’ He nodded to the door through which Maud had gone to her uncle. ‘Do you suppose,’ he said, ‘she wants your qualms? She wants your grip, on the laces of her stays— on her comb, on the handle of her chamber-pot. For God’s sake, look at you!’ I had turned and picked up her shawl, and begun to fold it. He pulled it from my hands. ‘When did you become so meek, so tidy? What do you imagine you owe, to her? Listen to me. I know her people. I’m one of them. Don’t talk to me as if she keeps you at Briar for kindness’ sake—nor as if you came out of sweetness of temper! Your heart—as you call it—and hers are alike, after all: they are like mine, like everyone’s. They resemble nothing so much as those meters you will find on gas-pipes: they only perk up and start pumping when you drop coins in. Mrs Sucksby should have taught you that.’
‘Mrs Sucksby taught me lots of things,’ I said, ‘and not what you are saying now.’
‘Mrs Sucksby kept you too close,’ he answered. ‘Too close. The boys of the Borough are right, calling you slow. Too close, too long. Too much like this.’ He showed me his fist.
‘Go and fuck it,’ I said.
At that his cheeks, behind his whiskers, grew crimson, and I thought he might get up and hit me. But he only leaned forward in his seat, and reached to grip the arm of my chair. He said quietly,
‘Let me see you in your tantrums again and I will drop you, Sue, like a stone. Do you understand me? I have come far enough now, to do without you if I must. She will do anything I tell her. And say my old nurse, in London, should grow suddenly sick, and need her niece to tend her? What would you do then? Should you like to put on your old stuff gown again, and go back to Lant Street with nothing?’
I said,’I should tell Mr Lilly!’
‘Do you think he would have you in his room, long enough to hear you?’
‘Then, I should tell Maud.’
‘Go ahead. And why not tell her, while you are about it, that I have a tail with a point, and cloven hooves? So I would have, were I to act my crimes upon the stage. No-one expects to meet a man like me in life, however. She would choose not to believe you. She cannot afford to believe you! For she has come as far as we have, and must marry me now, or be more or less ruined. She must do as I say—or stay here, and do nothing, for the rest of her life. Do you think she’ll do that?’
What could I say? She had as good as told me herself that she would not. So I was silent. But from that point on, I think I hated him. He sat with his hand on my chair, his eyes on mine, for another moment or two; then there came the pat of Maud’s slippers on the stairs, and after a second her face about the door. And then, of course, he sat back and his look changed. He rose, and I rose, and I made a hopeless sort of curtsey. He went quickly to her and led her to the fire.
‘You are cold,’ he said.
They stood before the mantel, but I saw their faces in the glass. She looked at the coals in the hearth. He gazed at me. Then he sighed and shook his hateful head.
‘Oh, Sue,’ he said, ‘you are terribly stern today.’
Maud looked up. ‘What’s this?’ she said.
I swallowed, saying nothing. He said,
‘Poor Sue is weary of me. I’ve been teasing her, while you were gone.’
‘Teasing her, how?’ she asked, half-smiling, half-frowning.
‘Why, by keeping her from her sewing, by talking of nothing but you! She claims to have a soft heart. She has no heart at all. I told her my eyes were aching for want of gazing at you; she told me to wrap them in flannel and keep to my room. I said my ears were ringing, for want of your sweet voice; she wanted to call for Margaret to bring castor-oil to put in them. I showed her this blameless white hand, that wants your kisses. She told me to take it and—’ He paused.
‘And what?’ said Maud.
‘Well, put it in my pocket.’
He smiled. Maud looked once at me, in a doubtful way. ‘Poor hand,’ she said at last.
He lifted his arm. ‘It still wants your kisses,’ he said.
She hesitated, then took his hand and held it in her own two slender ones and touched his fingers, at the knuckles, with her lips.—’Not there,’ he said quickly, when she did that. ‘Not there, but here.’
He turned his wrist and showed his palm. She hesitated again, then dipped her head to it. It covered her mouth, her nose, and half her face.
He caught my eye, and nodded. I turned away and wouldn’t look at him.
For he was right, damn him. Not about Maud—for I knew that, whatever he said about hearts and gas-pipes, she was sweet, she was kind, she was everything that was gentle and handsome and good. But, he was right about me. How could I go back to the Borough, with nothing? I was meant to make Mrs Sucksby’s fortune. How could I go back to her, and to Mr Ibbs—and to John—saying, I had thrown off the plot, let slip three thousand pounds, because—
Because what? Because my feelings were finer than I thought? They would say my nerve had failed me. They would laugh in my face! I had a certain standing. I was the daughter of a murderess. I had expectations. Fine feelings weren’t in them. How could they be?
And then, say I gave it all up—how would that save Maud? Say I went home: Gentleman would go on and marry her, and lock her up anyway. Or, say I peached him up. He would be sent from Briar, Mr Lilly would keep her all the closer—she might as well be put in a madhouse, then. Either way, I didn’t say much to her chances.
But her chances had all been dealt her, years before. She was like a twig on a rushing river. She was like milk—too pale, too pure, too simple. She was made to be spoiled.
Besides, nobody’s chances were good, where I came from. And though she was to do badly, did that mean I must?
I didn’t think it did. So though, as I have said, I was sorry for her,
I was not quite sorry enough to want to try and save her. I never really thought of telling her the truth, of showing up Gentleman as the villain he was—of doing anything, anything at all, that would spoil our plot and keep us from our fortune. I let her suppose he loved her and was kind. I let her think that he was gentle. I watched her try to make herself like him, knowing all the time that he meant to take her, trick her, fuck her and lock her away. I watched her grow thin. I watched her pale and dwindle. I watched her sit with her head in her hands, passing the points of her fingers across her aching brow, wishing she might be anyone but herself, Briar any house but her uncle’s, Gentleman any man but the man she must marry; and I hated it, but turned away. I thought, It can’t be helped. I thought, It’s their business.
But, here was a curious thing. The more I tried to give up thinking of her, the more I said to myself, ‘She’s nothing to you’, the harder I tried to pluck the idea of her out of my heart, the more she stayed there. All day I sat or walked with her, so full of the fate I was bringing her to I could hardly touch her or meet her gaze; and all night I lay with my back turned to her, the blanket over my ears to keep out her sighs. But in the hours in between, when she went to her uncle, I felt her—I felt her, through the walls of the house, like some blind crooks are said to be able to feel gold. It was as if there had come between us, without my knowing, a kind of thread. It pulled me to her, wherever she was. It was like—
It’s like you love her, I thought.
It made a change in me. It made me nervous and afraid. I thought she would look at me and see it—or Gentleman would, or Margaret, or Mrs Stiles. I imagined word of it getting back to Lant Street, reaching John—I thought of John, more than any of them. I thought of his look, his laugh. ‘What have I done?’ I imagined I’d say. ‘I haven’t done anything!’ And I hadn’t. It was only, as I’ve said, that I thought of her so, that I felt her so. Her very clothes seemed changed to me, her shoes and stockings: they seemed to keep her shape, the warmth and scent of her—I didn’t like to fold them up and make them flat. Her rooms seemed changed. I took to going about them—just as I had done, on my first day at Briar—
and looking at all the things I knew she had taken up and touched. Her box, and her mother’s picture. Her books. Would there be books for her, at the madhouse? Her comb, with hairs snagged in it. Would there be anyone to dress her hair? Her looking-glass. I began to stand where she liked to stand, close to the fire, and I’d study my face as I’d seen her studying hers.
‘Ten days to go,’ I would say to myself. ‘Ten days, and you will be rich!’
But I’d say it, and across the words might come the chiming of the great house bell; and then I would shudder to think of our plot being so much as a single hour nearer its end, the jaws of our trap that little bit closer and tighter about her and harder to prise apart.
Of course, she felt the passing hours, too. It made her cling to her old habits—made her walk, eat, lie in her bed, do everything, more stiffly, more neatly, more like a little clockwork doll, than ever. I think she did it, for safety’s sake; or else, to keep the time from running on too fast. I’d watch her take her tea—pick up her cup, sip from it, put it down, pick it up and sip again, like a machine would; or I’d see her sew, with crooked stitches, nervous and quick; and I’d have to turn my gaze. I’d think of the time I had put back the rug and danced a polka with her. I’d think of the day I had smoothed her pointed tooth. I remembered holding her jaw, and the damp of her tongue. It had seemed ordinary, then; but I could not imagine, now, putting a finger to her mouth and it being ordinary . . .
She began to dream again. She began to wake, bewildered, in the night. Once or twice she rose from her bed: I opened my eyes and found her moving queerly about the room. Are you there?’ she said, when she heard me stirring; and she came back to my side and lay and shook. Sometimes she would reach for me. When her hands came against me, though, she’d draw them away. Sometimes she would weep. Or, she would ask queer questions. Am I real? Do you see me? Am I real?’
‘Go back to sleep,’ I said, one night. It was a night close to the end.
I’m afraid to,’ she said. ‘Oh, Sue, I’m afraid . . .’
Her voice, this time, was not at all thick, but soft and clear, and so unhappy it woke me properly and I looked for her face. I could not see it. The little rush-light that she always kept lit must have fallen against its shade, or burned itself out. The curtains were down, as they always were. I think it was three or four o’clock. The bed was dark, like a box. Her breath came out of the darkness. It struck my mouth.
“What is it?’ I said.
She said, ‘I dreamed— I dreamed I was married
I turned my head. Then her breath came against my ear. Too loud, it seemed, in the silence. I moved my head again. I said,
‘Well, you shall be married, soon, for real.’
‘You know you shall. Now, go back to sleep.’
But, she would not. I felt her lying, still but very stiff. I felt the beating of her heart. At last she said again, in a whisper: ‘Sue—’
‘What is it, miss?’
She wet her mouth. ‘Do you think me good?’ she said.
She said it, as a child might. The words unnerved me rather. I turned again, and peered into the darkness, to try and make out her face.
‘Good, miss?’ I said, as I squinted.
‘You do,’ she said unhappily.
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I wish I wasn’t. I wish— I wish I was wise.’
‘I wish you were sleeping,’ I thought. But I did not say it. What I said was, ‘Wise? Aren’t you wise? A girl like you, that has read all those books of your uncle’s?’
She did not answer. She only lay, stiff as before. But her heart beat harder—I felt it lurch. I felt her draw in her breath. She held it. Then she spoke.
‘Sue,’ she said, ‘I wish you would tell me—’
Tell me the truth, I thought she was about to say; and my own heart beat like hers, I began to sweat. I thought, ‘She knows. She has guessed!’—I almost thought, Thank God!
But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t that, at all. She drew in her breath
again, and again I felt her, nerving herself to ask some awful thing. I should have known what it was; for she had been nerving herself to ask it, I think, for a month. At last, the words burst from her.
‘I wish you would tell me,’ she said, ‘what it is a wife must do, on her wedding-night!’
I heard her, and blushed. Perhaps she did, too. It was too dark to see.
I said, ‘Don’t you know?’
‘I know there is—something.’
‘But you don’t know what?’
‘How should I?’
‘But truly, miss: you mean, you don’t know?’
‘How should I?’ she cried, rising up from her pillow. ‘Don’t you see, don’t you see? I am too ignorant even to know what it is I am ignorant of!’ She shook. Then I felt her make herself steady. ‘I think,’ she said, in a flat, unnatural voice, ‘I think he will kiss me. Will he do that?’
Again, I felt her breath on my face. I felt the word, kiss. Again, I blushed.
‘Will he?’ she said. ‘
I felt her nod. ‘On my cheek?’ she said. ‘My mouth?’
‘On your mouth, I should say.’
‘On my mouth. Of course . . .’ She lifted her hands to her face: I saw at last, through the darkness, the whiteness of her gloves, heard the brushing of her fingers across her lips. The sound seemed greater than it ought to have done. The bed seemed closer and blacker than ever. I wished the rush-light had not burned out. I wished—I think it was the only time I ever did—that the clock would chime. There was only the silence, with her breath in it. Only the darkness, and her pale hands. The world might have shrunk, or fallen away.
‘What else,’ she asked, ‘will he want me to do?’
I thought, ‘Say it quick. Quick will be best. Quick and plain.’ But it was hard to be plain, with her.
‘He will want,’ I said, after a moment, ‘to embrace you.’
Her hand grew still. I think she blinked. I think I heard it. She said,
‘You mean, to stand with me in his arms?’
She said it, and I pictured her, all at once, in Gentleman’s grip. I saw them standing—as you do see men and girls, sometimes, at night, in the Borough, in doorways or up against walls. You turn your eyes. I tried to turn my eyes, now—but, of course, could not, for there was nothing to turn them to, there was only the darkness. My mind flung figures on it, bright as lantern slides.
I grew aware of her, waiting. I said, in a fretful way,
‘He won’t want to stand. It’s rough, when you stand. You only stand when you haven’t a place to lie in or must be quick. A gentleman would embrace his wife on a couch, or a bed. A bed would be best.’
A bed,’ she said, ‘like this?’
‘Perhaps like this.—Though the feathers, I think, would be devils to shake back into shape, when you’ve finished!’
I laughed; but the laugh came out too loud. Maud flinched. Then she seemed to frown.
‘Finished . . .’ she murmured, as if puzzling over the word. Then, ‘Finished what?’ she said. ‘The embrace?’
‘Finished it,’ I said.
‘But do you mean, the embrace?’
‘Finished it.’ I turned, then turned again. ‘How dark it is! Where is the light?—Finished it. Can I be plainer?’
‘I think you could be, Sue. You talk instead of beds, of feathers. What are they to me? You talk of it. What’s it?’
‘It is what follows,’ I said, ‘from kissing, from embracing on a bed. It is the actual thing. The kissing only starts you off. Then it comes over you, like—like wanting to dance, to a time, to music. Have you never—?’
‘Never mind,’ I said. I still moved, restlessly. ‘You must not mind. It will be easy. Like dancing is.’
‘But dancing is not easy,’ she said, pressing on. ‘One must be taught to dance. You taught me.’
‘This is different.’
‘Why is it?’
‘There are lots of ways to dance. You can only do this, one way. The way will come to you, when once you have begun.’
I felt her shake her head. ‘I don’t think,’ she said miserably, ‘it will come to me. I don’t think that kisses can start me off. Mr Rivers’s kisses never have. Perhaps—perhaps my mouth lacks a certain necessary muscle or nerve—?’
I said, ‘For God’s sake, miss. Are you a girl, or a surgeon? Of course your mouth will work. Look here.’ She had fired me up. She had wound me tight, like a spring. I rose from my pillow. ‘Where are your lips?’ I said.
‘My lips?’ she answered, in a tone of surprise. ‘They are here.’
I found them, and kissed her.
I knew how to do it all right, for Dainty had shown me, once. Kissing Maud, however, was not like kissing her. It was like kissing the darkness. As if the darkness had life, had a shape, had taste, was warm and glib. Her mouth was still, at first. Then it moved against mine. Then it opened. I felt her tongue. I felt her swallow. I felt—
I had done it, only to show her. But I lay with my mouth on hers and felt, starting up in me, everything I had said would start in her, when Gentleman kissed her. It made me giddy. It made me blush, worse than before. It was like liquor. It made me drunk. I drew away. When her breath came now upon my mouth, it came very cold. My mouth was wet, from hers. I said, in a whisper,
‘Do you feel it?’
The words sounded queer; as if the kiss had done something to my tongue. She did not answer. She did not move. She breathed, but lay so still I thought suddenly, ‘What if I’ve put her in a trance? Say she never comes out? What ever will I tell her uncle—?’
Then she shifted a little. And then she spoke.
‘I feel it,’ she said. Her voice was as strange as mine. ‘You have made me feel it. It’s such a curious, wanting thing. I never—’
‘It wants Mr Rivers,’ I said.
‘I think it must.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’
She spoke, unhappily. But she shifted again, and the shift brought her nearer to me. Her mouth came closer to mine. It was like she hardly knew what she was doing; or knew, but could not help it. She said again, ‘I’m afraid.’
‘Don’t be frightened,’ I said at once. For I knew that she mustn’t be that. Say she got so frightened she cried off marrying him?
That’s what I thought. I thought I must show her how to do it, or her fear would spoil our plot. So, I kissed her again. Then I touched her. I touched her face. I began at the meeting of our mouths—at the soft wet corners of our lips—then found her jaw, her cheek, her brow— I had touched her before, to wash and dress her; but never like this. So smooth she was! So warm! It was like I was calling the heat and shape of her out of the darkness—as if the darkness was turning solid and growing quick, under my hand.
She began to shake. I supposed she was still afraid. Then I began to shake, too. I forgot to think of Gentleman, after that. I thought only of her. When her face grew wet with tears, I kissed them away.
‘You pearl,’ I said. So white she was! ‘You pearl, you pearl, you pearl.’
It was easy to say, in the darkness. It was easy to do. But next morning I woke, saw the strips of grey light between the curtains of the bed, remembered what I had done, and thought, My God. Maud lay, still sleeping, her brows drawn together in a frown. Her mouth was open. Her lip had grown dry. My lip was dry, too, and I brought up my hand, to touch it. Then I took the hand away. It smelt of her. The smell made me shiver, inside. The shiver was a ghost of the shiver that had seized me—seized us both—as I’d moved against her, in the night. Being fetched, the girls of the Borough call it. Did he fetch you—? They will tell you it comes on you like a sneeze; but a sneeze is nothing to it, nothing at all—
I shivered again, remembering. I put the tip of one finger to my tongue. It tasted sharp—like vinegar, like blood.
I grew afraid. Maud made some movement. I got up, not looking
at her. I went to my room. I began to feel ill. Perhaps I had been drunk. Perhaps the beer I had had with my supper had been brewed bad. Perhaps I had a fever. I washed my hands and my face. The water was so cold it seemed to sting. I washed between my legs. Then I dressed. Then I waited. I heard Maud wake, and move; and went slowly in to her. I saw her, through the space between her curtains. She had raised herself up from her pillow. She was trying to fasten the strings of her nightdress. I had untied them in the night.
I saw that, and my insides shivered again. But when she lifted her eyes to mine, I looked away.
I looked away! And she didn’t call me to her side. She didn’t speak. She watched me move about the room, but she said nothing. Margaret came, with coals and water: I stood pulling clothes from the press while she knelt at the hearth, my face blushing scarlet. Maud kept to her bed. Then Margaret left. I put out a gown, and petticoats and shoes. I put out water.
‘Will you come,’ I said, ‘so I may dress you?’
She did. She stood, and slowly raised her arms, and I lifted up her gown. Her thighs had a flush upon them. The curls of hair between her legs were dark. Upon her breast there was a crimson bruise, from where I had kissed too hard.
I covered it up. She might have stopped me. She might have put her hands upon mine. She was the mistress, after all! But, she did nothing. I made her go with me to the silvery looking-glass above her fire, and she stood with her eyes cast down while I combed and pinned her hair. If she felt the trembling of my fingers against her face, she didn’t say. Only when I had almost finished did she lift her head and catch my gaze. And then she blinked, and seemed to search for words. She said,
‘What a thick sleep I had. Didn’t I?’
‘You did,’ I said. My voice was shaking. ‘No dreams.’
‘No dreams,’ she said, ‘save one. But that was a sweet one. I think— I think you were in it, Sue
She kept her eyes on mine, as if waiting. I saw the blood beat in her throat. Mine beat to match it, my very heart turned in my
breast; and I think, that if I had drawn her to me then, she’d have kissed me. If I had said, 1 love you, she would have said it back; and everything would have changed. I might have saved her. I might have found a way—I don’t know what—to keep her from her fate. We might have cheated Gentleman. I might have run with her, to Lant Street—
But if I did that, she’d find me out for the villain I was. I thought of telling her the truth; and trembled harder. I couldn’t do it. She was too simple. She was too good. If there had only been some stain upon her, some speck of badness in her heart—! But there was nothing. Only that crimson bruise. A single kiss had made it. How would she do, in the Borough?
And then, how would / do, back in the Borough with her at my side?
I heard, again, John’s laugh. I thought of Mrs Sucksby. Maud watched my face. I put the last pin to her hair, and then her net of velvet. I swallowed, and said,
‘In your dream? I don’t think so, miss. Not me. I should say— I should say, Mr Rivers.’ I stepped to the window. ‘Look, there he is! His cigarette almost smoked already. You will miss him, if you wait!’
We were awkward with each other, all that day. We walked, but we walked apart. She reached to take my arm, and I drew away. And when, that night, I had put her into her bed and stood letting down her curtains, I looked at the empty place beside her and said,
‘The nights are grown so warm now, miss. Don’t you think you will sleep better on your own . . .?’
I went back to my narrow bed, with its sheets like pieces of pastry. I heard her turning, and sighing, all through the night; and I turned, and sighed, myself. I felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart—so hard, it hurt me. A hundred times I almost rose, almost went in to her; a hundred times I thought, Go to her! Why are you waiting? Go back to her side! But every time, I thought of what would happen if I did. I knew that I couldn’t lie beside her, without wanting to touch her. I couldn’t
have felt her breath come upon my mouth, without wanting to kiss her. And I couldn’t have kissed her, without wanting to save her.
So, I did nothing. I did nothing the next night, too, and the night after that; and soon, there were no more nights: the time, that had always gone so slow, ran suddenly fast, the end of April came. And by then, it was too late to change anything.
Gentleman went first. Mr Lilly and Maud stood at the door to
see him leave, and I watched from her window. She shook his
O’ hand and he made her a bow. Then the trap took him off, to the
station at Marlow. He sat with folded arms, his hat put back, his
face our way, his eyes now on hers, now on mine.
There goes the Devil, I thought.
He made no sort of sign. He did not need to. He had gone over his plans with us and we had them by heart. He was to travel three miles by the train, then wait. We were to keep to Maud’s parlour till midnight, then go. He was to meet us at the river when the clock struck the half.
That day passed just like all the old ones. Maud went to her uncle, as she had used to do, and I went slowly about her rooms, looking over her things—only this time, of course, I was looking out for what we ought to take. We sat at lunch. We walked in the park, to the ice-house, the graves, and the river. It was the final time we
would do it, yet things looked the same as they always had. It was us who had changed. We walked, not speaking. Now and then our skirts came together—and once, our hands—and we started apart, as if stung; but if, like me, she coloured, I don’t know, for I didn’t look at her. Back in her room she stood still, like a statue. Only now and then I heard her sigh. I sat at her table with her box full of brooches and rings and a saucer of vinegar, shining up the stones. I would rather do that, I thought, than nothing. Once she came to look. Then she moved away, wiping her eyes. She said the vinegar made them sting. It made mine sting, too.
Then came the evening. She went to her dinner, and I went to mine. Downstairs in the kitchen, everyone was gloomy.
‘Don’t seem the same, now Mr Rivers has gone,’ they said.
Mrs Cakebread’s face was dark as thunder. When Margaret let a spoon drop, she hit her with a ladle and made her scream. And then, no sooner had we started our dinners than Charles burst out crying at the table, and had to run from the kitchen wiping snot from his chin.
‘He’ve took it very hard,’ said one of the parlourmaids. ‘Had his heart set on going to London as Mr Rivers’s man.’
‘You get back here!’ called Mr Way, standing up, his powder flying. ‘Boy your age, fellow like him, I’d be ashamed!’
But Charles would not come back, not for Mr Way nor anyone. He had been taking Gentleman his breakfasts, polishing his boots, brushing his fancy coats. Now he should be stuck sharpening knives and shining glasses in the quietest house in England.
He sat on the stairs and wept, and hit his head against the banisters. Mr Way went and gave him a beating. We heard the slap of his belt against Charles’s backside, and yelps.
That put rather a dampener on the meal. We ate it in silence, and when we had finished and Mr Way had come back, his face quite purple and his wig at a tilt, I did not go with him and Mrs Stiles to the pantry to take my pudding. I said I had a head-ache. I almost did. Mrs Stiles looked me over, then looked away.
‘How poorly you keep, Miss Smith,’ she said. ‘I should say you must have left your health in London.’
But it was nothing to me, what she thought. I should not see her—or Mr Way, or Margaret, or Mrs Cakebread—ever again.
I said Good-night, and went upstairs. Maud, of course, was still with her uncle. Until she came I did what we had planned, and got together all the gowns and shoes and bits and pieces we had agreed ought to be taken. It was all of it hers. My brown stuff dress I left behind me. I hadn’t worn it in more than a month. I put it at the bottom of my trunk. I left that, too. We could only take bags. Maud had found out two old things of her mother’s. Their leather was damp, with a bloom of white. They were marked, in brass, with letters so bold even I could read them: an M and an L—for her mother’s name, which was like hers.
I lined them with paper, and packed them tight. In one—the heaviest one, which I would carry—I put the jewels I’d shined. I wrapped them in linen, to save them from tumbling about and growing dull. I put in one of her gloves with them—a white kid glove, with buttons of pearl. She had worn it once and supposed it lost. I meant to keep it, to remind me of her.
I thought my heart was breaking in two.
Then she came up from her uncle. She came twisting her hands. ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘How my head aches! I thought he would keep me forever, tonight!’
I had guessed she would come like this; and had got her some wine from Mr Way, as a nerver. I made her sit and take a little, then I wet a handkerchief with it and rubbed at the hollows of her brow. The wine made the handkerchief pink as a rose, and her head, where I chafed it, grew crimson. Her face was cool under my hand. Her eyelids fluttered. When they lifted, I stepped from her.
‘Thank you,’ she said quietly, her gaze very soft.
She drank more of the wine. It was quality stuff. What she left, I finished, and it went through me like a flame.
‘Now,’ I said, ‘you must change.’ She was dressed for her supper. I had set out her walking-gown. ‘But we must leave off the cage.’
For there was no room for a crinoline. Without it, her short dress at last became a long one, and she seemed slenderer than ever. She
had grown thin. I gave her stout boots to wear. Then I showed her the bags. She touched them, and shook her head.
‘You’ve done everything,’ she said. ‘I should never have thought of it all. I should never have done any of it, without you.’
She held my gaze, looking grateful and sad. God knows how my face seemed. I turned away. The house was creaking, settling down as the maids went up. Then came the clock again, chiming half-past nine. She said,
‘Three hours, until he comes.’
She said it in the same slow, flinching way that I had heard her say, once, ‘Three weeks.’
We put the lamp out in her parlour, and stood at her window. We could not see the river, but we gazed at the wall of the park and thought of the water lying beyond it, cool and ready, waiting like us. We stood for an hour, saying almost nothing. Sometimes she shivered. ‘Are you cold?’ I’d say then. But she was not cold. At last the waiting began to tell even on me, and I began to fidget. I thought I might not have packed her bags as I should have. I thought I might have left out her linen, or her jewels, or that white glove. I had put the glove in, I knew it; but I was become like her, restless as a flea. I went to her bedroom and opened the bags, leaving her at the window. I took out all the gowns and linen, and packed them again. Then, as I tightened a strap on a buckle, it broke. The leather was so old it was almost perished. I got a needle, and sewed the strap tight, in great, wild stitches. I put my mouth to the thread to bite it, and tasted salt.
Then I heard the opening of Maud’s door.
My heart gave a jump. I put the bags out of sight, in the shadow of the bed, and stood and listened. No sound at all. I went to the door to the parlour, and looked inside. The window-curtains were open and let the moonlight in; but the room was empty, Maud was gone.
She had left the door ajar. I tiptoed to it and squinted into the passage. I thought there came another noise then, above the ordinary creakings and tickings of the house—perhaps, the opening
and shutting of another door, far-off. But I couldn’t be sure. I called once, in a whisper, ‘Miss Maud!’—but even a whisper sounded loud, at Briar, and I fell silent, straining my ears, looking hard at the darkness, then walking a few steps into the passage and listening again. I put my hands together and pressed them tight, more nervous now than I can say; but I was also, to be honest, rather peeved—for wasn’t it like her, to go wandering off at this late hour, without a reason or a word?
When the clock struck half-past eleven I called again, and took another couple of steps along the passage. But then my foot caught the edge of a rug, and I almost tripped. She could go this way without a candle, she knew it so well; but it was all strange to me. I didn’t dare wander after her. Suppose I took a wrong turning in the dark? I might never make my way out again.
So I only waited, counting the minutes. I went back to the bedroom and brought out the bags. Then I stood at the window. The moon was full, the night was bright. The lawn lay stretched before the house, the wall at the end of it, the river beyond. Somewhere on the water was Gentleman, coming closer as I watched. How long would he wait?
At last, when I had sweated myself into a lather, the clock struck twelve. I stood and trembled at each beating of the bell. The last one sounded, and left an echo. I thought, ‘That’s it.’—And, as I thought it, I heard the soft thud of her boots—she was at the door, her face pale in the darkness, her breaths coming quick as a cat’s.
‘Forgive me, Sue!’ she said. ‘I went to my uncle’s library. I wanted to see it, a final time. But I couldn’t go until I knew he was asleep.’
She shivered. I pictured her, pale and slight and silent, alone among those dark books. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘But, we must be quick. Come here, come on.’
I gave her her cloak, and fastened up mine. She looked about her, at all she was leaving. Her teeth began to chatter. I gave her the lightest bag. Then I stood before her and put a finger to her mouth.
‘Now, be steady,’ I said.
All my nervousness had left me, and I was suddenly calm. I thought of my mother, and all the dark and sleeping houses she
must have stolen her way through, before they caught her. The bad blood rose in me, just like wine.
We went by the servants’ stairs. I had been carefully up and down them the day before, looking for the steps that particularly creaked; now I led her over them, holding her hand, and watching where she placed her feet. At the start of the corridor where there were the doors to the kitchen and to Mrs Stiles’s pantry, I made her stop and wait and listen. She kept her hand in mine. A mouse ran, quick, along the wainscot; but there was no other movement, and no sounds from anywhere. The floor had drugget on it, that softened our shoes. Only our skirts went rustle and swish.
The door to the yard was locked with a key, but the key was left in it: I drew it out before I turned it, and put a little beef fat to the bit; and then I put more fat to the bolts that fastened the door closed at the bottom and the top. I had got the fat from Mrs Cakebread’s cupboard. That was sixpence less she should have from the butcher’s boy! Maud watched me laying it about the locks, with an astounded sort of look. I said softly,
‘This is easy. If we was coming the other way, that would be hard.’
Then I gave her a wink. It was the satisfaction of the job. I really wished, just then, it had been harder. I licked my fingers clean of the fat, then put my shoulder to the door and pressed it tight into its frame: after that, the key turned smoothly and the bolts slid in their cradles, gentle as babies.
The air, outside, was cold and clear. The moon cast great black shadows. We were grateful for them. We kept to the walls of the house that were darkest, going quickly and softly from one to another and then running fast across a corner of lawn to the hedges and trees beyond. She held my hand again, and I showed her where to run. Only once I felt her hesitate, and then I turned and found her gazing at the house, with a queer expression that seemed half-fearful and yet was almost a smile. There were no lights in the windows. No-one watched. The house looked flat, like a house in a play. I let her stand for almost a minute, then pulled her hand.
‘Now you must come,’ I said.
She turned her head and did not look again. We walked quickly to the wall of the park, and then we followed it, along a damp and tangled path. The bushes caught at the wool of our cloaks, and creatures leapt in the grass, or slithered before us; and there were cobwebs, fine and shining like wires of glass, that we must trample through and break. The noise seemed awful. Our breaths came harder. We walked so long, I thought we had missed the gate to the river; but then the path grew clearer, and the arch sprang up, lit bright by the moon. Maud moved past me and took out her key, and let us through it, then made the gate fast at our backs.
Now we were out of the park I breathed a little freer. We set down the bags and stood still in the darkness, in the shadow of the wall. The moon struck the rushes of the further bank, and made spears of them, with wicked points. The surface of the river seemed almost white. The only sound now was the flowing of the water, the calling of some bird; then came the splash of a fish. There was no sign of Gentleman. We had come quicker than we planned for. I listened, and heard nothing. I looked at the sky, at all the stars that were in it. More stars than seemed natural. Then I looked at Maud. She was holding her cloak about her face, but when she saw me turn to her she reached and took my hand. She took it, not to be led by me, not to be comforted; only to hold it, because it was mine.
In the sky, a star moved, and we both turned to watch it.
‘That’s luck,’ I said.
Then the Briar bell struck. Half-past twelve—the chime came clear across the park, I suppose the bright air made it sharper. For a second, the echo of it hung about the ear; and then above it rose another, gentler sound—we heard it, and stepped apart—it was the careful creak of oars, the slither of water against wood. About the bend of the silvery river came the dark shape of a boat. I saw the oars dip and rise, and scatter coins of moonlight; then they were drawn high, and left a silence. The boat glided towards the rushes, then rocked and creaked again as Gentleman half-rose from his seat. He could not see us, where we waited in the shadow of the wall. He could not see us; but it was not me who stepped forward
first, it was her. She went stiffly to the water’s edge, then took the coil of rope he threw and braced herself against the tugging of the boat, until the boat was steady.
I don’t remember if Gentleman spoke. I don’t believe he looked at me, except, once he had helped Maud across the ancient landing-place, to give me his hand and guide me as he had guided her, over the rotten planks. I think we did it all in silence. I know the boat was narrow, and our skirts bulged as we sat—for, when Gentleman took up the oars to turn us, we rocked again, and I grew suddenly frightened of the boat capsizing, imagining the water filling all those folds and frills and sucking us under. But Maud sat steady. I saw Gentleman looking her over. Still no-one spoke, however. We had done it all in a moment, and the boat moved quick. The stream was with us. For a minute, the river followed the wall of the park; we passed the place where I had seen him kiss her hand; then the wall snaked off. There came a line of dark trees instead. Maud sat with her eyes on her lap, not looking.
We went very carefully. The night was so still. Gentleman kept the boat as close as he could to the shadows of the bank: only now and then, when the trees were thinner, did we move in moonlight. But there was no-one about, to watch us. Where there were houses built near to the river, they were shut up and dark. Once, when the river became broad, and there were islands, with barges moored at them, and grazing horses, he stopped the oars and let us glide in silence; but still no-one heard us pass or came to look. Then the river grew narrow again, and we moved on; and after that, there were no more houses and no more boats. There was only the darkness, the broken moonlight, the creaking of the sculls, the dipping and the rising of Gentleman’s hands and the white of his cheek above his whisker.
We did not keep upon the river for long. At a spot upon the bank, two miles from Briar, he pulled up the boat and moored it. This was where he had started from. He had left a horse there, with a lady’s saddle on it. He helped us from the water, sat Maud upon the horse’s back, and strapped her bags beside her. He said,
‘We must go another mile or so. Maud?’ She did not answer. You must be brave. We are very close now.’
Then he looked at me and nodded. We started off—him leading the horse by the bridle, Maud hunched and stiff upon it, me walking behind. Still we met no-one. Again I looked at the stars. You never saw stars so bright at home, the sky was never so dark and so clear.
The horse was shoeless. Its hooves sounded dull on the dirt of the road.
We went rather slowly—for Maud’s sake, I suppose, so she should not be shaken about and made sick. She looked sick, anyway; and when we came at last to the place he had found—it was two or three leaning cottages, and a great dark church—she looked sicker than ever. A dog came up and started barking. Gentleman kicked it and made it yelp. He led us to the cottage that was nearest the church, and the door was opened, a man came out, and then a woman, holding a lantern. They had been waiting. The woman was the one who had kept the rooms for us: she was yawning, but stretching her neck as she yawned, to get a good look at Maud. She made Gentleman a curtsey. The man was the parson, the vicar— whatever you call him. He made a bow. He wore a gown of dirty white, and wanted shaving. He said,
‘Good-night to you. Good-night to you, miss. And what a fair night, for an escapade!’
Gentleman said only, ‘Is everything made ready?’ He put his arms up to Maud, to help her from the horse: she kept her hands upon the saddle, and slid down awkwardly, and stepped away from him. She did not come to me, but stood alone. The woman still studied her. She was studying her pale, set, handsome face, her look of sickness, and I knew she was thinking—as anyone would think, I suppose—that she was in the family way, and marrying out of fear. Perhaps Gentleman had even made her think it, when he spoke to her before. For it would be all to his advantage, if it came to a challenge by Mr Lilly, for it to seem that he had had Maud in her uncle’s own house; and we could say the baby got miscarried, later.
I would say it, I thought, for five hundred more.
I thought that, even as I stood watching the woman looking at
Maud and hating her for doing it; even as I hated myself, for thinking it. The parson came forward and made another bow.
‘All’s ready indeed, sir,’ he said. ‘There’s only the little matter of— In light of the special circumstances—’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Gentleman. He took the parson aside and drew out his pocket-book. The horse tossed its head, but from one of the other cottages a boy had come over to lead it away. He also looked at Maud; but then he looked from her to me, and it was me he touched his cap to. Of course, he had not seen her in the saddle, and I was dressed in one of her old gowns and must have seemed quite a lady; and she stood in such a mean and shrinking kind of way, that she seemed the maid.
She did not see it. She had her eyes upon the ground. The parson put his money away in some close pocket under his robe, then he rubbed his hands together. ‘Well and good,’ he said. And should the lady like to change her costume? Should she like to visit her room? Or shall we do the joining at once?’
‘We’ll do it at once,’ said Gentleman, before anyone else could answer. He took off his hat and smoothed his hair, fussing a little with the curls about his ears. Maud stood very stiff. I went to her, and put her hood up nicely, and settled the cloak in neater folds; and then I passed my hands across her hair and cheeks. She would not look at me. Her face was cold. The hem of her skirt was dark, as if dipped in a dye for mourning. Her cloak had mud on it. I said, ‘Give me your mittens, miss.’—For I knew that, beneath them, she had her white kid gloves. I said, ‘You had much better go to your wedding in white gloves, than buff mittens.’
She let me draw them from her, then she stood and crossed her hands. The woman said to me, ‘No flower, for the lady?’ I looked at Gentleman. He shrugged.
‘Should you like a flower, Maud?’ he said carelessly. She didn’t answer. He said, ‘Well, I think we shall not mind the absence of a flower. Now, sir, if you will—’
I said, ‘You might at least get her a flower! Just one flower, for her to carry into church!’
I had not thought of it until the woman said it; but now—oh! the
cruelty of taking her, without a bloom, to be his wife, seemed all at once a frightful thing, I could not bear it. My voice came out sounding almost wild, and Gentleman gazed at me and frowned, and the parson looked curious, the woman sorry; and then Maud turned her eyes to me and said slowly,
‘I should like a flower, Richard. I should like a flower. And Sue must have a flower, too.’
With every saying of the one word, flower, it seemed to grow a little stranger. Gentleman let out his breath and began to look about him in a peevish sort of way. The parson also looked. It was half-past one or so, and very dark out of the moonlight. We stood in a muddy kind of green, with hedges of brambles. The hedges were black. If there were flowers in there, we should never have found them. I said to the woman,
‘Haven’t you nothing we might take? Haven’t you a flower in a pot?’ She thought a minute, then stepped nimbly back into her cottage; and what she came out with at last was, a sprig of dry leaves, round as shillings, white as paper, quivering on a few thin stalks that looked ready to snap.
It was honesty. We stood and gazed at it, and no-one would name it. Then Maud took the stalks and divided them up, giving some to me, but keeping the most for herself. In her hands the leaves quivered harder than ever. Gentleman lit up a cigarette and took two puffs of it, then threw it away. It stayed glowing in the darkness. He nodded to the parson, and the parson took up the lantern, and led us through the church gate and along a path between a line of tilting gravestones that the moon gave deep, sharp shadows. Maud walked with Gentleman, and he held her arm in his. I walked with the woman. We were to be witnesses. Her name was Mrs Cream.
‘Come far?’ she said.
I did not answer.
The church was of flint and, even with the moon on it, looked quite black. Inside it was whitewashed, but the white had turned to yellow. There were a few candles lit, about the altar and the pews, and a few moths about the candles, some dead in the wax. We did not try to sit, but went straight to the altar, and the parson stood
before us with his Bible. He blinked at the page. He read, and muddled his words. Mrs Cream breathed hard, like a horse. I stood and held my poor, bent twig of honesty, and watched Maud standing at Gentleman’s side, holding tight on to hers. I had kissed her. I had lain upon her. I had touched her with a sliding hand. I had called her a pearl. She had been kinder to me than anyone save Mrs Sucksby; and she had made me love her, when I meant only to ruin her.
She was about to be married, and was frightened to death. And soon no-one would love her, ever again.
I saw Gentleman look at her. The parson coughed over his book. He had got to the part of the service that asked if anybody there knew any reason as to why the man and woman before him should not be married; and he looked up through his eyebrows, and for a second the church was still.
I held my breath, and said nothing.
So then he went on, looking at Maud and at Gentleman, asking the same thing of them, saying that, on the Day of Judgement they should have to give up all the awful secrets of their hearts; and had much better give them up now, and be done with it.
Again there was a silence.
So then he turned to Gentleman. ‘Will you,’ he said, and all the rest of it—’Will you have her and honour her, for as long as you live?’
‘I will,’ said Gentleman.
The parson nodded. Then he faced Maud, and asked the same thing of her; and she hesitated, then spoke.
‘I will,’ she said.
Then Gentleman stood a little easier. The parson stretched his throat from his collar and scratched it.
‘Who gives this woman to be married?’ he said.
I kept quite still, till Gentleman turned to me; and then he gestured with his head, and I went and stood at Maud’s side, and they showed me how I must take her hand and pass it to the parson, for him to put it into Gentleman’s. I would rather Mrs Cream had done it, than almost anything. Her fingers, without
her glove, were stiff and cold as fingers made of wax. Gentleman held them, and spoke the words the parson read to him; and then Maud took his hand, and said the same words over. Her voice was so thin, it seemed to rise like smoke into the darkness, and then to vanish.
Then Gentleman brought a ring out, and he took her hand again and put the ring over her finger, all the time repeating the parson’s words, that he would worship her, and give her all his goods. The ring looked queer upon her. It seemed gold in the candle-light, but—I saw it later—it was bad.
It was all bad, and couldn’t have been worse. The parson read another prayer, then raised his hands and closed his eyes.
‘These two that God has joined together,’ he said, ‘let no man put in sunder.’
And that was it.
They were married.
Gentleman kissed her and she stood and swayed, as if dazed. Mrs Cream said in a murmur,
‘She don’t know what’ve hit her, look at her. She’ll know it later— plum feller like him. Heh heh.’
I did not turn to her. If I had, I should have punched her. The parson shut his Bible and led us from the altar to the room where they kept the register. Here Gentleman wrote his name and Maud— who was now to be Mrs Rivers—wrote hers; and Mrs Cream and I put ours beneath them. Gentleman had already shown me how to write Smith; but still, I wrote it clumsily and was ashamed.— Ashamed, of that! The room was dark and smelled of damp. In the beams, things fluttered—perhaps birds, perhaps bats. I saw Maud gazing at the shadows, as if afraid the things should swoop.
Gentleman took her arm and held it, and then he led her from the church. There had come clouds before the moon, and the night was darker. The parson shook hands with us, then made Maud a bow; then he went off. He went fast, and as he walked he took his robe off, and his clothes were black beneath it—he seemed to snuff himself out like a light. Mrs Cream took us to her
cottage. She carried the lantern, and we walked behind her, stumbling on her path: her doorway was low, and knocked Gentleman’s hat off. She took us up a set of tilting stairs too narrow for our skirts, and then to a landing, about as big as a cupboard, where we all jostled about for a moment and the cuff of Maud’s cloak got laid upon the chimney of the lantern and was singed.
There were two shut doors there, leading to the two little bedrooms of the house. The first had a narrow straw mattress on a pallet on the floor, and was for me. The second had a bigger bed, an arm-chair and a press, and was for Gentleman and Maud. She went into it, and stood with her eyes on the floor, looking at nothing. There was a single candle lit. Her bags lay beside the bed. I went to them and took her things out, one by one, and put them in the press. Mrs Cream said, ‘What handsome linen!’—-She was watching from the door. Gentleman stood with her, looking strange. It was him that had taught me the handling of a petticoat but now, seeing me take out Maud’s shimmies and stockings, he seemed almost afraid. He said,
‘Well, I shall smoke a final cigarette downstairs. Sue, you’ll make things comfortable up here?’
I did not answer. He and Mrs Cream went down, their boots sounding loud as thunder and the door and the boards and the crooked staircase trembling. I heard him outside then, striking a match.
I looked at Maud. She was still holding the stalks of honesty. She took a step towards me and said quickly,
‘If I should call out to you later, will you come?’
I took the flowers from her, and then the cloak. I said, ‘Don’t think of it; It will be over in a minute.’
She caught hold of my wrist with her right hand, that still had the glove upon it. She said, ‘Listen to me, I mean it. Never mind what he does. If I call out to you, say you’ll come. I’ll give you money for it.’
Her voice was strange. Her fingers shook, yet gripped me hard. The thought of her giving me so much as a farthing was awful. I said,
‘Where are your drops? Look, there’s water here, you might take your drops and they will make you sleep.’
‘Sleep?’ she said. She laughed and caught her breath. ‘Do you think I want to sleep, on my wedding-night?’
She pushed my hand away. I stood at her back and began to undress her. When I had taken her gown and her corset I turned and said, quietly,
‘You had better use the pot. You had better wash your legs, before he comes.’
I think she shuddered. I did not watch her, but heard the splash of water. Then I combed her hair. There was no glass for her to stand at, and when she got into the bed she looked to her side and there was no table, no box, no portrait, no light—I saw her put out her hand as if blind.
Then the house-door closed, and she fell back and seized the blankets and pulled them high about her breast. Against the white of the pillow her face seemed dark; yet I knew that it was pale. We heard Gentleman and Mrs Cream, talking together in the room below. Their voices came clearly. There were gaps between the boards, and a faint light showed.
I looked at Maud. She met my gaze. Her eyes were black, but gleamed like glass. ‘Will you look away, still?’ she said, in a whisper, when she saw me turn my head. Then I turned back. I could not help it, though her face was awful, it was terrible to see. Gentleman talked on. Some breeze got into the room and made the candle-flame dip. I shivered. Still she held my gaze with hers. Then she spoke again.
‘Come here,’ she said.
I shook my head. She said it again. I shook my head again—but then went to her, anyway—went softly to her across the creaking boards, and she lifted her arms and drew my face to hers, and kissed me. She kissed me, with her sweet mouth, made salt with her tears; and I could not help but kiss her back—felt my heart, now like ice in my breast, and now like water, running, from the heat of her lips.
But then she did this. She kept her fingers upon my head and pushed my mouth too hard against hers; and she seized my hand
and took it, first to her bosom, then to where the blankets dipped, between her legs. There she rubbed with my fingers until they burned.
The quick, sweet feeling her kiss had called up in me turned to something like horror, or fear. I pulled from her, and drew my hand away. ‘Won’t you do it?’ she said softly, reaching after me. ‘Didn’t you do it before, for the sake of this night? Can’t you leave me to him now, with your kisses on my mouth, your touch upon me, there, to help me bear his the better?—Don’t go!’ She seized me again. ‘You went, before. You said I dreamed you. I’m not dreaming now. I wish I were! God knows, God knows, I wish I were dreaming, and might wake up and be at Briar again!’
Her fingers slipped from my arm and she fell back and sagged against her pillow; and I stood, clasping and unclasping my hands, afraid of her look, of her words, of her rising voice; afraid she might shriek, or swoon—afraid, God damn me! that she might cry out, loud enough for Gentleman or Mrs Cream to hear, that I had kissed her.
‘Hush! Hush!’ I said. ‘You are married to him now. You must be different. You are a wife. You must—’
I fell silent. She lifted her head. Below, the light had been taken up and moved. Gentleman’s boots came loud again upon the narrow stairs. I heard him slow his step, then hesitate at the door. Perhaps he was wondering if he should knock, as he had used to knock at Briar. At last he slowly put his thumb to the latch, and came in.
‘Are you ready?’ he said.
He brought the chill of the night in with him. I did not say another word, to him or to her. I did not look at her face. I went to my own room and lay upon my bed. I lay, in the darkness, in my cloak and my gown, my head between the pillow and the mattress; and all I heard, each time I woke in the night, was the creeping, creeping of little creatures through the straw beneath my cheek.
In the morning, Gentleman came to my room. He came in his shirtsleeves.
‘She wants you, to dress her,’ he said.
He took his breakfast downstairs. Maud had been brought up a tray, with a plate upon it. The plate held eggs and a kidney; she had not touched them. She sat very still, in the arm-chair beside the window; and I saw at once how it would be with her, now. Her face was smooth, but dark about the eyes. Her hands were bare. The yellow ring glittered. She looked at me, as she looked at everything—the plate of eggs, the view beyond the window, the gown I held up to place over her head—with a soft, odd, distant kind of gaze; and when I spoke to her, to ask her some trifling thing, she listened, and waited, then answered and blinked, as if the question, and the answer—even the movement of her own throat making the words—were all perfectly surprising and strange.
I dressed her, and she sat again beside the window. She kept her hands bent at the wrist, the fingers slightly lifted, as if even to let them rest against the soft stuff of her wide skirt might be to hurt them.
She held her head at a tilt. I thought she might be listening for the chiming of the house-bell at Briar. But she never mentioned her uncle, or her old life, at all.
I took her pot and emptied it, in the privy behind the house. At the foot of the stairs Mrs Cream came to me. She had a sheet over her arm. She said,
‘Mr Rivers says the linen on the bed needs changing.’
She looked as if she would like to wink. I would not gaze at her long enough to let her. I had forgotten about this part. I went slowly up the stairs and she came behind me, breathing harder than ever. She made Maud a kind of curtsey, then went to the bed and drew back the blankets. There were a few spots of dark blood there, that had been rolled upon and smeared. She stood and looked at them, and then she caught my eye—as much as to say, ‘Well, I shouldn’t have believed it. Quite a little love-match, after all!’ Maud sat gazing out of the window. From the room downstairs came the squeak of Gentleman’s knife on his plate. Mrs Cream raised the sheet, to see if the blood had marked the mattress underneath; it hadn’t, and that pleased her.
I helped her change it, then saw her to the door. She had made another curtsey, and seen Maud’s queer, soft gaze.
‘Took it hard, have she?’ she whispered. ‘Maybe missing her ma?’
I said nothing at first. Then I remembered our plot, and what was to happen. Better, I thought drearily, to make it happen soon. I stood on the little landing with her and closed the door. I said quietly,
‘Hard ain’t the word for it. There’s trouble, up here. Mr Rivers dotes on her and won’t bear gossip—he has brought her to this quiet place, hoping the country air will calm her.’
‘Calm her?’ she said then. ‘You mean—? Bless me! She ain’t likely to break out—turn the pigs loose—set the place afire?’
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘She is only—only too much in her head.’
‘Poor lady,’ said Mrs Cream. But I could see her thinking. She hadn’t bargained on having a mad girl in the house. And whenever she brought a tray up then, she looked sideways at Maud and set it down very quick, as if afraid she might get bitten.
‘She doesn’t like me,’ said Maud, after she saw her do that two or three times; and I swallowed and said, ‘Not like you? What an idea! Why should she not like you?’
‘I can’t say,’ she answered quietly, looking down at her hands.
Later Gentleman heard her say it, too; and then he got me on my own. ‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘Keep Mrs Cream in fear of her, and her in fear of Mrs Cream, while seeming not to—very good. That will help us, when it comes time to call in the doctor.’
He gave it a week before he sent for him. I thought it the worst week of my life. He had told Maud they should stay a day; but on the second morning he looked at her and said,
‘How pale you are, Maud! I think you aren’t quite well. I think we ought to stay a little longer, until your strength comes back to you.’
‘Stay longer?’ she said. Her voice was dull. ‘But can’t we go, to your house in London?’
‘I really think you are not well enough.’
‘Not well? But, I am quite well—you must only ask Sue. Sue, won’t you tell Mr Rivers how well I am?’
She sat and shook. I said nothing. ‘Just a day or two more,’ said Gentleman. ‘Until you are rested. Until you are calm. Perhaps, if you were to keep more to the bed—?’
She began to weep. He went to her side, and that made her shudder and weep harder. He said, ‘Oh, Maud, it tears at my heart to see you like this! If I thought it would be a comfort to you, of course I should take you to London at once—I should carry you, in my own arms—do you think I would not? But do you look at yourself now, and still tell me you are well?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said then. ‘It is so strange here. I’m afraid, Richard—’
‘And won’t it be stranger, in London? And shouldn’t you be frightened there, where it’s so loud and crowded and dark? Oh, no, this is the place to keep you. Here you have Mrs Cream, to make you comfortable—’
‘Mrs Cream hates me.’
‘Hates you? Oh, Maud. Now you are growing foolish; and I should be sorry to think you that; and Sue should also be sorry— shouldn’t you, Sue?’ I would not answer. ‘Of course she would,’ he said, with his hard blue eyes on mine. Maud looked at me, too, then looked away. Gentleman took her head in his hands and kissed her brow.
‘There now,’ he said. ‘Let us have no more argument. We’ll stay another day—only a day, until that paleness is driven from your cheek, and your eyes are bright again!’
He said the same thing then, the next day. On the fourth day he was stern with her—said she seemed to mean to disappoint him, to make him wait, when he longed only to carry her back to Chelsea as his bride; then on the fifth day, he took her in his arms and almost wept, and said he loved her.
After that, she did not ask how long they were to stay there. Her cheek never grew rosy. Her eye stayed dull. Gentleman told Mrs Cream to make her every kind of nourishing dish, and what she
brought were more eggs, more kidneys, livers, greasy bacons and puddings of blood. The meat made the room smell sour. Maud could eat none of it. I ate it instead—since somebody must. I ate it, and she only sat beside the window gazing out, turning the ring upon her finger, stretching her hands, or drawing a strand of hair across her mouth.
Her hair was dull as her eyes. She would not let me wash it—she would hardly let me brush it, she said she couldn’t bear the scraping of the comb upon her head. She kept in the gown she had travelled from Briar in, that had mud about the hem. Her best gown—a silk one—she gave to me. She said,
‘Why should I wear it, here? I had much rather see you in it. You had much better wear it, than let it lie in the press.’
Our fingers touched beneath the silk, and we flinched and stepped apart. She had never tried to kiss me, after that first night.
I took the dress. It helped to pass the awful hours, sitting letting out the waist; and she seemed to like to watch me sew it. When I had finished it, and put it on and stood before her, her expression was strange. ‘How well you look!’ she said, her blood rising. ‘The colour sets off your eyes and hair. I knew it would. Now you are quite the beauty—aren’t you? And I am plain—don’t you think?’
I had got her a little looking-glass from Mrs Cream. She caught it up in her trembling hand and came and held it before our faces. I remembered the time she had dressed me up, in her old room, and called us sisters; and how gay she had seemed then, and how plump and careless. She had liked to stand before her glass and make herself look fair, for Gentleman. Now—I saw it! I saw it, in the desperate slyness of her gaze!—now she was glad to see herself grown plain. She thought it meant he would not want her.
I could have told her once that he would want her anyway.
Now, I don’t know what he did with her. I never spoke to him more than I had to. I did everything that was needed, but I did it all in a thick, miserable kind of trance, shrinking from thought and feeling—I was as low, almost, as she was. And Gentleman, to do him justice, seemed troubled on his own account. He only came to
kiss or bully her, a little while each day; the rest of the time he sat in Mrs Cream’s parlour, lighting cigarettes—the smoke came rising through the floor, to mix with the smell of the meat, the chamberpot, the sheets on the bed. Once or twice he went riding. He went for news of Mr Lilly—but heard only that the word was, there was some queer stir at Briar, no-one knew quite what. In the evenings he would stand at a fence at the back of the house, looking over the black-faced pigs; or he would walk a little, in the lane or about the churchyard. He would walk, however, as if he knew we watched him—not in the old, show-off way he had used to stretch and smoke his cigarettes, but with a twitch to his step, as if he could not bear the feel of our gazes on his back.
Then at night I would undress her, and he would come, and I would leave them, and lie alone, with my head between my pillow and my rustling mattress.
I should have said he needed to do it to her only the once. I should have thought he might have been frightened he should get her with child. But there were other things I thought he might like her to do, now he had learned how smooth her hands were, how soft her bosom was, how warm and glib her mouth.
And every morning, when I went in to her, she seemed paler and thinner and in more of a daze than she had seemed the night before; and he caught my eye less, and plucked at his whiskers, his swagger all gone.
He at least knew what a dreadful business he was about, the bloody villain.
At last he sent for the doctor to come.
I heard him writing the letter in Mrs Cream’s parlour. The doctor was one he knew. I believe he had been crooked once, perhaps in the ladies’ medicine line, and had taken to the madhouse business as being more safe. But the crookedness, for us, was only a security. He wasn’t in on Gentleman’s plot. Gentleman wouldn’t have cared to cut the cash with him.
Besides, the story was too sound. And there was Mrs Cream to back it. Maud was young, she was fey, and had been kept from the
world. She had seemed to love Gentleman, and he loved her; but they hadn’t been married an hour before she started to turn queer.
I think any doctor would have done what that one did, hearing Gentleman’s story, and seeing Maud, and me, as we were then.
He came with another man—another doctor, his assistant. You need two doctors’ words to put a lady away. Their house was near Reading. Their coach was odd-looking, with blinds like louvred shutters and, on its back, spikes. They came not to take Maud, though—not that time; only to study her. The taking came later.
Gentleman told her they were two of his painter friends. She seemed not to care. She let me wash her and make her dull hair a little neater, and tidy her gown; but then she kept to her chair, saying nothing. Only when she saw their coach pull up did she stare, and begin to breathe a little quicker—and I wondered if she had noticed the blinds and the spikes, as I had. The doctors got down. Gentleman went quickly out to talk with them, and they shook hands and put their heads together, and looked slyly up at our window.
Then Gentleman came back, and left them waiting. He came upstairs. He was rubbing his hands together and smiling. He said,
‘Well, what do you think! Here are my friends Graves and Christie, come down to visit from London. You remember, Maud, I spoke to you of them? I don’t believe they thought me really married! They have come to see the phenomenon for themselves.’
Still he smiled. Maud would not look at him.
‘Shall you mind it, dear,’ he said, ‘if I bring them to you? I have left them now with Mrs Cream.’
I could hear them, then, in the parlour, talking in low, serious voices. I knew what questions they were asking, and what answers Mrs Cream would make. Gentleman waited for Maud to speak and, when she said nothing, looked at me. He said,
‘Sue, will you come with me a moment?’
He made a gesture with his eyes. Maud gazed after us, blinking. I went with him to the crooked landing, and he closed the door at my back.
‘I think you should leave her with me,’ he said quietly, ‘when they
go to her. I shall watch her, then; perhaps make her nervous. It keeps her too calm, having you always about her.’
I said, ‘Don’t let them hurt her.’
‘Hurt her?’ He almost laughed. ‘These men are scoundrels. They like to keep their lunatics safe. They’d have them in fire-proof vaults if they could, like bullion; and so live off the income. They won’t hurt her. But they know their business, too, and a scandal would ruin them. My word is good, but they shall need to look at her and talk to her; and they shall also need to talk to you. You’ll know how to answer, of course.’
I made a face. ‘Will I?’ I said.
He narrowed his eyes. ‘Don’t make game of me, Sue. Not now we are so close. You’ll know what to say?’
I shrugged, still sulky. ‘I think so.’
‘Good girl. I shall bring them first to you.’
He made to put his hand upon me. I dodged it and stepped away. I went to my little room, and waited. The doctors came after a moment. Gentleman came with them, then closed the door and stood before it, his eyes on my face.
They were tall men, like him, and one of them was stout. They were dressed in black jackets and elastic boots. When they moved, the floor, the walls and the window gave a shudder. Only one of them—the thinner one—spoke; the other just watched. They made me a bow, and I curtseyed.
‘Ah,’ said the speaking doctor quietly, when I did that. His name was Dr Christie. ‘Now, you know who we are, I think? You won’t mind, if we ask you what might seem impertinent questions? We are friends of Mr Rivers’s, and very curious to hear about his marriage, and his new wife.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You mean, my mistress.’
‘Ah,’ he said again. ‘Your mistress. Now, refresh my memory. Who is she?’
‘Mrs Rivers,’ I said. ‘That was Miss Lilly.’
‘Mrs Rivers, that was Miss Lilly. Ah.’
He nodded. The silent doctor—Dr Graves—took out a pencil and a book. The first one went on:
‘Your mistress. And you are—?’
‘Her maid, sir.’
‘Of course. And what is your name?’
Dr Graves held his pencil, ready to write. Gentleman caught my eye, and nodded. ‘Susan Smith, sir,’ I said.
Dr Christie looked at me harder. ‘You seemed to hesitate,’ he said. ‘That is your name, you are quite sure?’
‘I should say I know my own name!’ I said.
He smiled. My heart still beat hard. Perhaps he saw it. He seemed to grow kind. He said,
‘Well, Miss Smith, can you tell us now, how long you have known your mistress . . .?’
It was like the time, at Lant Street, when I had stood before Gentleman and he had put me through my character. I told them about Lady Alice of Mayfair, and Gentleman’s old nurse, and my dead mother; and then about Maud. I said she had seemed to like Mr Rivers but now, a week after her wedding-night, she was grown very sad and careless of herself, and made me afraid.
Dr Graves wrote it all down. Dr Christie said,
Afraid. Do you mean, for your own sake?’
I said, ‘Not for mine, sir. For hers. I think she might harm herself, she is so miserable.’
‘I see,’ he said. Then: ‘You are fond of your mistress. You have spoken very kindly of her. Now, will you tell me this. What care do you think your mistress ought to have, that would make her better?’
I said, ‘I think—’
He nodded. ‘Go on.’
‘I wish you would keep her, sir, and watch her,’ I said in a rush. I wish you would keep her some place where no-one could touch her, or hurt her—’
My heart seemed all at once high in my throat, and my voice was spoiled with tears. Gentleman still had his eyes upon me. The
doctor took my hand and held it, close about the wrist, in a familiar way.
‘There, there,’ he said. ‘You must not be so distressed. Your mistress shall have everything you wish for her. She has been lucky, indeed, to have had so good and faithful a servant, as you!’
He patted and smoothed my hand, then let it go. He looked at his watch. He caught Gentleman’s eye, and nodded. ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘Very good. Now, if you might just show us—?’
‘Of course,’ said Gentleman quickly. ‘Of course. This way’ He opened the door, and they turned their black backs to me and all moved off. I watched them do it, and was gripped suddenly by a feeling—I could not say if it was misery, or fear. I took a step and called out after them.
‘She don’t like eggs, sir!’ I called. Dr Christie half turned. I had lifted my hand. Now I let it fall. ‘She don’t like eggs,’ I said more feebly, ‘in any kind of dish.’
It was all I could think of. He smiled, and bowed; but in a humouring kind of way. Dr Graves wrote—or pretended to write— in his book, Don’t care for eggs. Gentleman led them both across to Maud’s room. Then he came back to me.
‘You’ll keep here, until they’ve seen her?’ he said.
I did not answer. He shut my door. But those walls were like paper: I heard them move about, caught the rumble of the doctor’s questions; then, after a minute or so, came the thin rising and falling of her tears.
They did not stay with her long. I suppose they had all they needed, from me and Mrs Cream. When they had gone I went to her, and Gentleman was standing behind her chair, holding her pale head between his hands. He had been leaning to gaze at her, perhaps to whisper and tease. When he saw me come he straightened and said,
‘Look, Sue, at your mistress. Don’t you think her eyes a little brighter?’
They were bright, with the last of her tears still in them; and they were red at the rims.
‘Are you well, miss?’ I said.
‘She is well,’ said Gentleman. ‘I think the company of friends has cheered her. I think those dear good fellows, Christie and Graves, were quite delighted with her; and you tell me, Sue, when did a lady ever not begin to flourish, under a gentleman’s delight?’
She turned her head and raised her hand, and plucked a little weakly at his pressing fingers. He stood holding her face a moment longer, then stepped away.
‘What a fool I’ve been,’ he said to me. ‘I’ve asked Mrs Rivers to grow strong, in this quiet place, thinking the quietness would help her. Now I see that what she needs is the bustle of the city. Graves and Christie saw it, too. They are so eager to have us join them at Chelsea—why, Christie is giving us the use of his own coach and driver! We are to leave tomorrow. Maud, what do you say to that?’
She had turned her gaze to the window. Now she lifted her head to him, and a little blood struggled into her white cheeks.
‘Tomorrow?’ she said. ‘So soon as that?’
He nodded. ‘Tomorrow we’ll go. To a great house, with fine, quiet rooms, and good servants in it, that waits there just for you.’
Next day she put her breakfast of eggs and meat aside, as usual; but even I could not eat it. I dressed her without looking at her. I knew every part of her. She wore the old gown still, that was stained with mud, and I wore the handsome silk one. She would not let me change out of it, even for travelling, though I knew it would crease.
I thought of wearing it back in the Borough. I could not believe that I would be at home again, with Mrs Sucksby, before it was dark.
I packed her bags. I did it slowly, hardly feeling the things I touched. Into one bag went her linen, her slippers, her sleeping-drops, a bonnet, a brush—that was for her to take to the madhouse. Into the other went everything else. That was for me. Only that white glove I think I have mentioned, did I keep to one side; and when the bags were filled I put it, neatly, inside the bodice of my gown, over my heart.
The coach came, and we were ready. Mrs Cream saw us to the door. Maud wore a veil. I helped her down the tilting staircase, and
she gripped my arm. When we stepped out of the cottage she gripped it tighter. She had kept to her room for more than a week. She flinched from the sight of the sky and the black church, and seemed to feel the soft air hard upon her cheek, even through her veil, like a hand that slapped her.
I put my fingers over hers.
‘God bless you, ma’am!’ cried Mrs Cream, when Gentleman had paid her. She stood and watched us. The boy who had taken our horse, that first night, now appeared again, to see us leaving; and one or two other boys also came to stare, and to stand at the side of the coach, pickingat the doors, where an old gold crest had been painted out black. The driver flicked his whip at them. He fastened our bags upon the roof, then let the steps down. Gentleman handed Maud in, drawing her fingers from mine. He caught my eye.
‘Now, now,’ he said, in a warning sort of way. ‘No time for sentiment.’
She sat and leaned her head back, and he sat beside her. I sat opposite. There were no handles to the doors, only a key, like the key to a safe: when the driver closed them Gentleman made them fast, then put the key in his pocket.
‘How long will we travel?’ asked Maud.
He said, ‘An hour.’
It seemed longer than an hour. It seemed like a life. The day was a warm one. Where the sun struck the glass it made the carriage very hot, but the windows had been fixed not to open—I suppose, so a lunatic should not have the chance to leap out. At last Gentleman pulled a cord to make the blinds close, and we sat jolting in the heat and the darkness, not speaking. In time I began to grow sick. I saw Maud’s head rolling against the padding of the seat, but could not see if her eyes were open or closed. She kept her hands before her, clasped.
Gentleman fidgeted, however, loosening his collar, looking at his watch, plucking at his cuffs. Two or three times he took out his handkerchief and wiped off his brow. Every time the coach slowed, he leaned close to the window to peer through the louvres. Then it
slowed so hard it came almost to a stop, and began to turn: he looked again, sat straight and tightened his neck-tie.
‘We are almost there,’ he said.
Maud turned her head to him. The coach slowed again. I pulled the cord that moved the blinds. We were at the start of a green lane, with a stone arch across it and, beneath that, iron gates. A man was drawing them back. The coach gave a jerk, and we drove along the lane until we reached the house at the end. It was just like at Briar, though this house was smaller, and neater. Its windows had bars on them. I watched Maud, to see what she would do. She had put back her veil and was gazing from the window in her old dull way; but behind the dullness I thought I saw a rising kind of knowledge or dread.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ said Gentleman.
That was all he said. I don’t know if he said it to her, or to me. The coach made another turn, and stopped. Dr Graves and Dr Christie were there, waiting for us, with beside them a great stout woman, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows and her gown covered over with an apron of canvas, like a butcher’s. Dr Christie came forward. He had a key like Gentleman’s, and let up the lock from his side. Maud flinched at the sound. Gentleman put his hand upon her. Dr Christie made a bow.
‘Good day,’ he said. ‘Mr Rivers. Miss Smith. Mrs Rivers, you remember me of course?’
He held out his hand.
He held it to me.
There was a second, I think, of perfect stillness. I looked at him, and he nodded. ‘Mrs Rivers?’ he said again. Then Gentleman leaned and caught hold of my arm. I thought at first he meant to keep me in my seat; then I understood that he was trying to press me from it. The doctor took my other arm. They got me to my feet. My shoes caught upon the steps. I said,
‘Wait! What are you doing? What—?’
‘Don’t struggle, Mrs Rivers,’ said the doctor. ‘We are here to care for you.’
He waved his hand, and Dr Graves and the woman came forward. I said,
‘It’s not me you want! What are you doing? Mrs Rivers? I’m Susan Smith! Gentleman! Gentleman, tell them!’
Dr Christie shook his head.
‘Still keeping up the old, sad fiction?’ he said to Gentleman.
Gentleman nodded and said nothing, as if he were too unhappy to speak. I hope he was! He turned and took down one of the bags—one of Maud’s mother’s bags. Dr Christie held me tighter. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘how can you be Susan Smith, late of Whelk Street, Mayfair? Don’t you know there’s no such place? Come, you do know it. And we shall have you admitting it, though it take us a year. Now, don’t twist so, Mrs Rivers! You are spoiling your handsome dress.’
I had struggled against his grip. At his words, I grew slack. I gazed at my sleeve of silk, and at my own arm, that had got plump and smooth with careful feeding; and then at the bag at my feet, with its letters of brass—the M, and the L.
It was in that second that I guessed, at last, the filthy trick that Gentleman had played on me.
‘You bloody swine!’ I cried, twisting again, and pulling towards him. ‘You fuckster! Oh!’
He stood in the doorway of the coach, making it tilt. The doctor gripped me harder and his face grew stern.
‘There’s no place for words like those in my house, Mrs Rivers,’ he said.
‘You sod,’ I said to him. ‘Can’t you see what he’s done? Can’t you see the dodge of it? It ain’t me you want, it’s—’
I still pulled, and he still held me; but now I looked past him, to the swaying coach. Gentleman had moved back, his hand before his face. Beyond him, the light in bars upon her from the louvred blinds, sat Maud. Her face was thin, her hair was dull. Her dress was worn with use, like a servant’s dress. Her eyes were wild, with tears starting in them; but beyond the tears, her gaze was hard. Hard as marble, hard as brass.
Hard as a pearl, and the grit that lies inside it.
Dr Christie saw me looking.
‘Now, why do you stare?’ he said. ‘You know your own maid, I think?’
I could not speak. She could, however. She said, in a trembling voice, not her own:
‘My own poor mistress. Oh! My heart is breaking!’
You thought her a pigeon. Pigeon, my arse. That bitch knew everything. She had been in on it from the start.