A Lucky Sixpence by Elizabeth Robins
Printed in The New Review Vol. X. Number 56 (January 1894). Pages 105-126.
Hypertext edition is copyrighted Joanne E. Gates.
Notes: Sue Thomas has an excellent article that clarifies how "A Lucky Sixpence" was identified as Robins' earliest story, "Elizabeth Robins and the New Review" in Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 63-66. Available through JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20082823. To read "'Gustus Frederick" on line go to Google Books New Review 12 (Jan-June 1895; Number 70, March 1895, has index preceding page 225): 270-281. Below the Salt is the title of the English edition of the collection of stories published in America as The Fatal Gift of Beauty. However, it differs from Fatal Gift of Beauty in that it includes, in addition to the listed titles, "'Gustus Frederic" and "A Lucky Sixpence." See WorldCat for availability of copies and preserved editions of Below the Salt.
DID you ring, m' m?"
"Yes. Where are my walking shoes?"
Mrs. Baily stood before her mirror with upraised bare arms, pinning on her hat before putting on the bodice of her dress,--in the amazing fashion of womankind. She would have been pretty, in spite of a somewhat faded, nervous look, but for the settled discontent that had hardened about her mouth. She might have been twenty-seven will ill-health, or thirty-seven with ill-temper.
The childish pink-frocked maid in the doorway would have described herself as eighteen and "a general." She did not look either. A gentle little girl, easily led, you would have said, and you might have wondered at the severity with which her mistress reminded her that the shoes had not been blacked.
The child came into the room and stooped down to bring out the shoes from under the last shelf in the cupboard. She had not spoken, but sent dumb looks of apology towards her mistress.
"Hold this," commanded the lady, giving her the bodice, and turning to thrust her arms in the sleeves. "It's outrageous. You are quite the idlest person I ever had in the house. Don't you know what your duties are yet?"
"Y--yes'm--but you hav'n't been out walking for so long--I thought--"
"You've no business to think. What were you doing when I rang?"
"Brushing the master's clothes."
"H'm! Hurry with those shoes now and don't forget them again." She opened a drawer and selected a handkerchief. "Oh, Hester," she called as the maid hurried out, "don't forget them again." She opened a drawer and selected a handkerchief. "Oh, Hester," she called as the maid hurried out, "don't forget the buttons in your master's white waistcoat."
"No'm, that's done," the girl said, looking back an instant.
"H'm!" again muttered the lady to herself, "They never forget anything a man tells them."
A few minutes later, the maid watched the mistress go down the little paved walk to the gates and disappear. Hester came slowly and warily out to the front door, looked steadily after her mistress, and then, with a quick childish motion, turned and flew like a tropical pink bird into the adjoining house. The front door here was open too, and a postman was demanding from a sturdy middle-aged servant the excess postage on a foreign letter. The two women nodded.
"Can I come in for a bit?"
"Yes; don't make a noise, she's asleep."
"I'm just 'havin' my tea; 'ave you 'ad yours?" She led the way to the kitchen.
"No, Mrs. Baily's gone out, an' 'nless she's home I don't get tea."
"Why don't you tyke it? You're entitled to tea," said the sturdy woman, as who should say, "Briton's never will be slaves!"
"Hav'n't I told you she locks everything up?"
The redoubtable Sarah grunted. She was getting down another cup and saucer from the dresser.
"She's awful cross again to-day," the girl went on, watching the preparation of her cup of tea with a healthy interest.
"Why do y' stay?"
"Got no other place to go to."
"Go to Mrs. Airlie's office and register."
"Yes, I thought o' that a long time ago, when Mrs. Baily kept saying she couldn't pay me my wages till next month; but she said if I went away I'd lose my money and she wouldn't give me a character."
"No character!" Sarah burst out, with the red on her cheekbones deepening. "'Av'n't you slaved for 'er for five months, an' 'alf starved?"
"Well you see I hav'n't exactly starved, and I have broke some things, and I forgot to do her boots to-day."
"You're a fool," Sarah sipped her tea noisily. "There's more gread--go on. If you'd lived out before you wouldn't stand all you do. I wouldn't. Pretty kind of people not to pay their servants."
"Oh, it ain't his fault. He gives her the money and she buys things with it. Our charlady complained to the master last week, and
he said he thought she was paid regular, and he give her two weeks' wages on the spot."
"Why don't you go th him too?"
"Oh!" said Hester, looking shocked and drawing the back of her hand across her mouth, "I wouldn't like to. I--I don't think he's got much money."
"Course 'e 'asn't, or 'e wouldn't love in one 'o'these mangy little 'ouses. Neither 'as my lady, but she pays 'er honest debts."
"How is she?"
"Just the syme; the nurse is always 'ere now. She'll never leave 'er bed in my opinion." Sarah seemed to regard the situation with philosophic cheer. She was a hard-featured, not ill-looking woman, of the kind called "highly respectable"-- she wore her cap and apron with a stolid dignity that became her. If her voice was hard and shrill, and her manner forbidding, it was no sign that she was incapable of very real kindness. She had espoused the cause of "the little fool" next door, from the day she saw her ineffectually scouring Mrs. Baily's brass knocker with polishing paste and tears.
It was a knocker that was seldom lifted by any hand but the postman's, or an irate tradesman's with a bill. This little row of toy houses (part of whose address read Regent's Park, for some non-geographical reason) seemed the chosen haunt of the unwordly, the exclusive. Hester's opinion was that everybody in the row had "seen better times," like her own mistress. No doubt they too had a crest on their fragments of plate, and perhaps gold egg-spoons too, and maybe even a diamond brooch in a blue satin case, put away in a box that locked. Hester thought at first that when the rude butcher was not paid it was because of a kind of splendid scorn for her inferiors, which marked Mrs. Baily for the great lady that she evidently was. It couldn't be that she was poor! Why, there was the dazzling brooch upstairs, and the gold spoons below. No, she clearly wanted to punish the butcher for his bad manners. It was not until Hester overheard Mr. Baily say to her mistress that they'd have bailiffs in the house next month "if the luck didn't turn," that she felt that in ready cash, at least, the Bailys were not so rich after all. It was after breakfast that same day that Hester, carrying out the tray, tripped on the rug and fell to the floor. Bu a kind of miracle, nothing was broken but a cup handle; but Mrs. Baily's wrath at "such clumsiness" knew no bounds. She threw down her
novel with an exclamation of nervous rage, and for fully an hour made the little servant's life as intolerable as only a woman can. Hester escaped at last from "tidying-up" and bed-making to the comparative peace of the doorstep, and watered the little brass fittings with her tears. Sarah, a few feet away, was "doing steps."
"What's the matter?" she said, glancing through the iron railing that separated the two front entrances. Hester turned with a start.
"Oh, good mornin'. I--I--" she began to cry again.
"What 'a they done to yer?" demanded Sarah, pausing in her vigorous work.
"Nothin'-- it's me. I've broke a--ho, dear!" with another sob-- "a cup handle." She's awful angry."
"Nothin' but a cup 'andle?"
"Well, there's tea spilt on the rug too!"
"Law! tea don't 'urt a carpet. Tell 'er plenty o' folks spring cleans with tea--brings up the pattern!" But Hester seemed to get little comfort from the suggestion. She wiped her eyes on the corner of her apron; they filled again--the big round tears, catching the sunshine, ran over her pink cheeks like swift drops of quicksilver.
"Oh!" she burst out suddenly, "I know!--I'll buy her a new cup. Will they be more 'n sixpence?" She thrust her stained little fingers down the neck of her dress, and pulled up a narrow piece of tape that had a sixpence dangly on it locket-wise. " He gave it to me," she said, coming closer to the iron railing. "I don't want to spend it. Will you keep it for me, and lend me a common sixpence till I get my wages?" She held the strung with its swinging pendant over the railing. Sarah got up off her knees.
"Who gave it you?"
"Why he did, Mr. Baily."
"Oh, it was a long time ago--nearly four months. Mrs. Baily was awful angry because I'd burnt the omelette, and she--she said things. I cried, an' I was goin' away, but master came into the kitchen for to burn some papers, an' he spoke very kind an' gave me a lucky sixpence with a hole in it." She looked lovingly across at the coin, now in Sarah's big red hands. "Have you got a common sixpence?" she added.
"Don't you go and myke a fool o' yourself, buyin' cups, when you
ain't got your wyges," said Sarah. "Keep your sixpence for something else, an' I'll chynge it for you if you like." She handed it back. Hester's face fell.
"You won't do it now?" she said.
"No, I ain't goin' to encourage such foolishness." Sarah fell to again, and rasped and grated horribly with the sandstone. Hester put the string over her head and tucked it down her neck. She finished rubbing up the bell and knocker, and gathered up her little discoloured rags.
"You'd better come and 'av tea with me me to-dye," said Sarah, with a kind of ungracious bluntness that made any verbal kindness of hers sound curiously like an attack.
"Oh, I'd like to," said Hester, with the door-knob in her hand, and dropping her voice, "She's goin' out to-day. She ain't been out to tea three times since I come."
It was so the friendship began. Sarah was soon aware that the principles of good and evil were personified to Hester as Mr. and Mrs. Baily.
"I'm sorry for him. Think of him havin' such a wife," Hester said, on one occasion.
"Oh, I daresye it's six o' one and 'alf-dozen o' t' other," responded Sarah.
"Indeed it isn't," Hester said, with her brown eyes shining; "he's awful good to her, to everybody."
"What's 'e do for 'is livin'?"
"He's in a stockbroker's office, and he's been very rich, but he's always losin'."
"H'm! What does she do all dye?"
"Lies on a sofa and reads books, French books. She knows a lot, that's one thing," she added meditatively.
If Hester's life was in some respects hard, it was in many ways a rich and varied joy. Did not Mr. Baily say a kind word to her every now and then? Did she not have his "Thank you, Hester!" for a thousand little services? Did she not, in her own mind, do everything "for him"--from whitening the steps that he must read on to making the coffee that he had praised? Did she not have the right to touch the things he had used, to sew on his buttons, to brush and fold his clothes, to lay out the clean things carefully in an even, symmetrical row, and put a splendid shine on his small narrow shoes! To Hester everything about this gentleman was bewilderingly fine, and
full of a vague suggestion of elegance. Even after that terrible hint about the bailiffs he used "O dee Colone" in his bath.
"That was because he was a gentleman; he couldn't get on without that," Hester explained to herself. She had improved marvellously in her cooking; but it was not for her mistress's sake that she had at last learned to make a savoury, and could bring in "the best coffee this side of Paris," when Mr. Bailly lit his cigarette after dinner.
When he had said that about Paris, Hester felt that life was indeed worth living. She had a swift sense of being herself travelled, experienced, expert. As she was cleaning away the breakfast things that morning, sh lifted Mr. Baily's cup to her lips and slowly sipped the spoonful of coffee and sugar at the bottom. She put the cup down with a smile. "It's like that in Paris," she said in a whisper, like one who indulges in a delightful remembrance.
Mrs. Baily had come home from her "tea" in the rain, with a pain in her hand and a worse one in her temper. The shiny walking-shoes were muddied and soaked through. There was no danger of Hester's forgetting to clean them this time, they had to be put by the kitchen fire to dry. When the master came home there was a scene. Through the thin partition between the dining-room and the sitting-room, Hester, setting the dinner table, could hear, when stress of feeling raised their voices, angry accusations from the mistress and more or less indignant denials from the master. It was not the first time Hester had been made conscious that all her mistress's irritability was not exhausted on her servant, and this fact made the unspoken bond between her master and herself still stronger. She might not only adore him, but suffer with him too. Mr. Baily came in to dinner alone, telling Hester gravely to make some tea and take it up to her mistress, who had gone to bed with a headache. The little tray was prepared while Mr. Baily was eating his fish, and when Hester came in later with the joint she saw with joy that the cloud had gone from the master's face. She observed, too, that he was not drinking the Australian claret, but that he had opened a bottle labelled Cognac. The dinner was a success. Evidently the master was pleased; he slighted nothing, and he looked in the best of tempers. She brought in a caramel pudding; she brought the brie and biscuits, and lastly she brought the coffee. The master had lit a cigar this evening, and Hester watched furtively the gleam of the ring on the thin brown hand, as he lifted his cup to inhale the aroma of the coffee through the smoke.
"Very good," he said, smiling at her, "Don't take away the brandy." She replaced the bottle, he puffed away at his cigar. She went to the hideous little mantelpiece and brought a small china ash-tray, and made room for it between the centre-dish of antiquated fruit that no one ever ate and the new brandy bottle. He was sipping his coffee again. He put down the cup and looked at her. Suddenly the little maid flushed to the tips of her ears. She looked away. His eyes seemed to burn through her, she felt them whether she met them or not. "Come here," he said softly. She moved towards him on the air. "You're a good little girl," he said, with his hand on her plump shoulder, and he looked at her so strangely that Hester's brown eyes grew misty, but her irregular little white teeth were gleaming through a smile. "Why, you mustn't cry, you know," he said, turning her face towards him with his hand under her chin. Her mouth was very pretty, very appealing, very near. He kissed her. The bell sounded upstairs. Hester flew down to the kitchen with the ready feminine instinct to insure a moment to herself. Mr. Baily sat and smoked imperturbably.
For the next few weeks, Hester lived in a cloud of glory. "He kissed me, he loves me!" sang all day in her heart. There was "an understanding" between them. If his eyes rested on her for the veriest instant, he spoke volumes, and her heart leaped and fluttered before their splendid eloquence. The sound of his voices made the blood sing in her veins, and the mingled smell of Russia-leather, tobacco, and eau-de-Cologne clinging about the clothes she brushed, made her head reel with a kind of sick, luxurious joy. There were times in the night when she would awake with a start and say, "It never happened! Why, he's a gentleman, he couldn't have kissed me. Oh, dear, oh dear! Did I dream it, or am I losing my wits?" Then would come the comfortable day, and as soon as she saw his face again she knew it was true. He had kissed her, kissed her, kissed her! and life was wonderful. About a week after the memorable evening of Mrs. Baily's headache, the master met her in the passage one day at dusk, and pressed her hand. He was going on, but she, with a sudden impulse, tightened her fingers about his, and lifted his hand to her lips; then like a shadow she flitted before him and disappeared.
Hester saw very little of Sarah during these days, and even went the length of declining more than once to come over for a cup of tea. The very centre and innermost heart of life was in the little Baily
house; why should she voluntarily waste a moment in duller places? Even if she sat alone in the tiny kitchen, she could study the cookery book and find new dishes for him, fresh compounds of eggs and milk and adoration. She could sit by the fire and dream, and at any moment the jingling of the bell might summon her to Paradise--for Mr. Baily had taken to coming home to tea, and kept Hester ecstatically busy bringing hot water and "more toast." The change in Hester did not escape Sarah's sharp eyes. She had an uncomfortable habit of questioning that alone would have kept the girl away.
Mrs. Baily had developed a persistent cough since the day she caught the memorable cold, and was more languid and irritable than ever. She was "awful" to her husband, Hester thought, and he nothing less than an angel of forbearance. Here he was trying to devise some little change for her, and in spite of "hard times" was actually insisting she should go to Torquay for a few days. Ah, how good he was! Mrs. Baily didn't seem to care much about going away alone, but he arranged everything, and his active solicitude for her health seemed to soothe and placate her. Hester looked on at his newly-developed tenderness for his wife with a kind of vague complicated jealously and admiration. What was it like to be the wife of such a man? Oh happy, happy Mrs. Baily!
She packed her mistress's black silk dinner dress and best frilled petticoats with full appreciation of their splendour, and cut her luncheon sandwiches beautifully thin.
"The master and I will be alone," she said to herself with a sharp thrill at her heart. "Alone with the master! Oh-h!" The knife had slipped and cut her finger, the blood gushed out over the half-cut slices, and the new bread soaked it up like a sponge. She went to the cupboard to find a bit of rag to ties up the wound, and Mrs. Baily's bell rang. She wound the strip of cotton round and round as she ran upstairs. Mrs. Baily was putting on her travelling dress.
"Is my luncheon ready?"
"All but a couple more sandwiches," said Hester.
"Well, make haste, Mr. Baily is waiting, and--oh, Hester," as she was going "he won't be home to dinner to-night--he will dine at the club."
"Yes'm." The maid turned away with a rather miserable little face.
"Hold my bodice; what's the matter?" said her mistress.
"Yes, something is the matter; what is it?" Her keen eyes fell upon the stained rag about Hester's finger. "Oh, have you cut yourself?"
"Yes'm." Hester looked down at her finger. Her brows were contracted as if in pain.
"You shouldn't be so clumsy; now run and bring up the sandwiches."
As Hester went downstairs she heard Mr. Baily whistling in the dining-room. Did he hear her step that he came to the door? He beckoned her in.
"Better get a chicken for to-night," he whispered, and put a half-sovereign in her hand.
"But are you coming home to dinner?" she said with very wide eyes.
"Sh!" he but his hand on her mouth. "What do you think?" and he turned away to the window, whistling again. She heard Mrs. Baily's step overhead, and ran down for the sandwiches without another word. When she had brought up the luncheon basket, she was sent for a cab, and all in a whirl and a maze she stood by the gate, after handing in the bag, and watch her master and mistress driving away. Mr. Baily glanced back at her through the window with a curious smile. She stood looking after them with very pink cheeks and very shiny eyes, until the hansom turned a corner and was gone.
Sarah came out to take the bread from the baker boy.
"Your people off for a holiday?"
"Only Mrs. Baily."
"Oh! Strikes me a chynge would be good for Mr. Byly. 'E's lookin' a bit yeller an' wizened."
Hester didn't like the way Sarah spoke of Mr. Baily. She shut the gate, and went in without a reply. The little house should be swept from top to bottom. She would have everything bright and shining "against he came home." Her finger smarted and throbbed; but she scarcely noticed it. She wouldn't stop to have luncheon; she ate a chunk of bread and finished the coffee left from breakfast. Oh, it was delightful to have no mistress to scold and direct! She never worked so hard in her life. All the morning she ran up and downstairs, cleaning dusting, polishing, and early in the afternoon went out to
get the chicken and the other things she had decided on for the famous dinner. She was so absorbed in its preparation, she forgot to have tea till it was so late it wasn't worth while, though she did feel a little faint. Never mind, she'd have a nice dinner! Oh, how good the chicken smelt when she opened the oven door! How savoury the soup, and how well the vegetables had come out! The key was turning in the front door. Mr. Baily had come back. It was ten minutes to dinner time. He ran upstairs to wash his hands; she could hear his quick, nervous footfall, all the way up to the top of the little house. She went to the sink and washed her hands, and put on a clean white apron over her freshly-ironed pink cotton gown. She looked in the fragment of looking-glass fastened to the wall with rusty nails. Her cheeks were flaming, she had been so long over the hot fire. She wiped away the little beads of moisture from her upper lip, and touched the brown rings of hair that the heat had curled up above her ears and at the nape of her neck. She was absurdly, pathetically pretty. She flew back to the fire and dished up the soup. She took it upstairs. The dining-room was empty, she went down for the plates. It was just half-past seven. She rang the bell a little timidly, not half as loudly as usual, though the noise seemed deafening. She put the bell down with a scared look. The clapper seemed to be her heart and the sound struck out of her breast-bone. She stood behind the master's chair, holding on to it, till she heard him coming down; then she steadied herself and stood upright. He was coming along the little narrow hall; how loud his footsteps sounded on the linoleum. He was at the door. Hester stood with her eyes fixed on the blue knob of the soup-tureen cover.
"Ha!" said Mr. Baily with an accent of satisfaction.
Hester drew back his chair for him. But he did not sit down. What was the matter? With a start and a sense of effort Hester lifted her eyes. He was standing there by her looking at her, smiling. Hester's fingers tightened on the chair back. Still he didn't sit down; he seemed to enjoy the girl's confusion. Why was she reddening and trying not to let her mouth break into smiling or her eyes shine out with tears? For her life she couldn't have told. But the silence and waiting were terrible. He seemed to have asked her some momentous question, and to be standing there for her answer. She must say something: she lifted her eyes and faltered:
"I--I bought the chicken."
"Ha, ha, ha," the master broke out into a great peal of laughter, and put his arm round her. Hester hid her face against him, with a feeling that the big world was rocking like a cradle. He kissed her; he took off her little white cap and tossed it in the corner; he smoothed her hair and kissed her again.
"What's the matter?" he said, seeing her eyes close and her lips grow white.
"I--I feel--sleepy," said the girl, and she would have fallen if he had not held her firmly. She lay across his right arm, quite limp, while he poured out some of the cognac and put the glass to her lips.
"There! Why, what's the matter, child? You mustn't go fainting about like . . . . I thought you were strong and--"
"So I am," said Hester quickly recovering, and unwilling to fall below his standard; "but I didn't have much lunch, and I forgot my tea, and I've swept all the rooms, and--"
"And you want your dinner, of course; so do I. Sit down here." He put her into his own chair.
"Oh, but master--no--I--"
She was on her feet in an instant.
"Do as I say." He had drawn forward another chair, and lifted the tureen cover. The steaming savoury smell came to Hester's nostrils with delicious promise, and the raw brandy hummed in her head. The Master was getting up for something: another soup-plate. He was kissing her on the mouth and saying, "Eat, my dear, or I shall be very angry." And so dinner began. After the soup, Hester cleared away, and brought up the chicken and vegetables. The master carved and laughed and talked, helped her to delicious bits of white meat, and made her have some wine--different wine from any she'd seen. Where did it come from?
"Oh, how pretty!" she cried out, as it foamed and danced in the glass; "Where did it come from?"
"Aha! where do you think? Now, how do you like it?" Hester's little crimson mouth clung to the glass, and the dancing amber slipped between her hot lips, cooling and tickling them.
"Oh, oh!" she said, with deep little sounds of satisfaction; "ain't it awful good, but--" She sat back blinking and smiling.
"But what?" demanded the master.
Oh, I love it!" said Hester, "but it does prickle on the way down." He laughed again as he had done when she said she had bought the
chicken. "It's his wife makes him sad; he ain't so naturally," thought Hester. She had never heard him laugh so before. She changed the plates again, and then again, but the pudding was a little burnt. She was ashamed to come in with it, and stood an instant hesitating miserably at the door. The master looked at her over his glass.
"Oh! it's burnt, Master!"
"Come, let's see."
Very ruefully she came to him with the hot dish held in a tea-cloth, and put it before him. He drew her down on his knee.
"Doesn't matter! never mind." He put his glass of wine to her lips and made her finish it. He laid his thin brown hand about her slender throat, holding up her face like a flower on its stem.
"Aren't you glad I thought of the Torquay dodge?" he said.
"You think it'll be good for her?" answered Hester hesitating.
"I think it'll be good for us," he said, laughing coarsely; "Kiss me!"
Three months had gone by since Mrs. Baily's visit to Torquay. Twice in the last week, Mr. Baily had not come home to dinner, and Mrs. Baily was more than usually irritable and out of sorts. She lay on the sofa all day in the dining room, and read and endless succession of, yellow-backed novels. The day before, Mr. Baily had remonstrated when a new package had come from Kolckmann's, and said something about the expense.
"Well as long as it's my money that pays for them and supplies the table as well, you needn't complain," the mistress had said. Mr. Baily got up from the breakfast table and left the house. He didn't come home till the small hours of the morning. Hester, lying awake with wonderful hopes and fears for company, heard him coming upstairs, "so slowly, so slowly." Was he carrying something heavy? What had changed the master? Was he ill? Was he frightened at what Hester had told him that day that she had met him by appointment in the City? Hester was horribly frightened, but he had said "It was all nonsense." When she got home Mrs. Baily was angry at Hester's staying so long "at her dressmaker's, forsooth!" and Hester, tired and harassed, answered more rudely than every she had done in her life. She went away to her own room, and took off her
things, and then very wearily she came downstairs and made tea. Hester knew the master wasn't coming home to dinner, so she loitered and slighted it. Mrs. Baily, already annoyed at her husband's non-appearance, flew into a rage when Hester brought in the underdone veal and scorched tomatoes. But Hester hardly heard what she said, she was thinking "He didn't kiss me to-day, and there wasn't anybody there either."
"What's the matter with you?" Her mistress was looking at her intently.
"Nothing." But Hester's look fell.
Mrs. Baily said no more, but kept her eyes fixed on the maid's face.
"I believe you're in trouble. I've been watching you for weeks past. I believe you;re not fit to live under the same roof with decent people; and if you don't confess what the matter is I'll tell your master."
"Oh, you won't do that!"
Hester turned with a face of horror and a quick gesture that brought instant conviction to her mistress's mind.
"I'll tell him this very night." She gave Hester a look of contempt and went upstairs.
That evening, after she had washed up, Hester, without permission, went over to see Sarah. She had been there surreptitiously, for flying moments, during the past month, or for whole hours, with Mrs. Baily's consent; and Sarah's rough kindness had more than once brought the girl to the verge of confession of her predicament. To-night she felt she must tell someone who was a little her friend, or she should die. Sarah was darning stockings under the lamp by the immaculate dresser, and grunted a stolid welcome as Hester came in, without knocking, by the area door. Hester sat down heavily.
Long pause--such a vacuum as cannot exist in the atmosphere of the drawing-room, but is still refreshingly frequent in the society of the kitchen.
"H'm!" Another pause. Sarah threaded her needle afresh.
"Something terrible has happened, and Mrs. Baily has found it out." Sarah put down her hand with the stocking stretched over it.
Hester laid her head on the edge of the dresser and began to cry, not passionately but quietly, dully, as if from her weakness more than pain; and in half-an-hour Sarah had heard the story.
"It's no use your callin' him names." Hester got up and put her little screwed-up ball of a handkerchief in her pocket. "He's been awful kind. Nobody was ever so kind to me before."
"No," said Sarah grimly, "I 'ope not. Wot ye goin' to do?"
"I don't know."
"You've only got an aunt to go to."
"Aunt Ellen! Good Lord, no! She couldn't abide me when-- when I was all right. She wouldn't take me in."
"W'ere'll ye go?"
"I don't know."
"Mr Byly'll 'ave to look after ye."
"Oh, he means to--and he will if--if he can."
"If 'e can? Wot's to prevent 'im?" Hester sighed weakly.
"I don't know!" She leaned against the wall.
"I felt sure somethin' was the matter; ye don't look the syme girl as two months back."
"Oh, I may be all right to-morrow and everything'll be happy again. I say that to myself every night when I go to bed."
"You're a fool!" Sarah darned away vigorously. "D'ye think Mrs. Byly'll tell that 'usband o' ers to'night?"
"I don't know."
"Wot d'ye think 'e'll sye?"
"I don't know." Another longest pause of all and then Hester roused herself.
"Good night. I must get along.
One might have wondered what counsel or comfort could have come out of such a conference; but it is certain that Hester went home feeling relieved--befriended.
Hester believed she should never have got through the following week but for Sarah. Not that the latter was able to save her from any of the abuse Mrs. Baily chose to inflict on her, but that Sarah's kitchen was a refuge, and Sarah's self a rough-tongued but kindly confidant. Her "You're a fool," was like a caress after Mrs. Baily's bitter scourging.
"She says master told her to turn me out. Of course he didn't,"
said Hester, one rainy evening when, in spite of the weather, Mrs. Baily had gone to meet her husband, and dine out with him.
"'Ave you talked to 'im lyteley?" asked Sarah.
"No." Hester sat huddled together on a stool before the fire.
"Ain't 'e said anything to yer?"
"Wot did ye sye w'en she said 'e wanted ye turned out?"
"I didn't say anything."
"You're a fool. Next time just tell 'er to give you your back wages an' ye'll go. Ye can't go on like this. Ye're ill now. Ye ain't fit to work, an' that devil of a woman keeps ye all of a tremble from mornin' till night."
"She won't pay me. I did ask her, and she says I'll never get a character from her, and that I'll go to the dogs. Goodness!" Hester shivered and drew near the fire. "I should be awful 'fraid if he wasn't so good and--"
"Good and fiddlesticks!" Hester got up, but Sarah went on unmoved by her dumb reproach. "I met 'er at the gyte yesterday evenin' as I was comin' in from the post. "Is 'Ester with you?' she said. 'No,' says I. 'She's a dreadful gad-about,' says she. 'I don't mind w'en she's with you--I think you may 'ave a restrainin' influence on 'er. She's not the girl as I 'oped.' 'Indeed!' says I. 'No; she 'as deceived us dreadful. I almost wonder a respectable woman lik you is willin' to myke a friend of 'er.' 'Oh! says I, 'I s'pose I can put up with things the syme as my nighbours.' Then she says, 'I don't think ye know her condition.' 'Yes, I do.' says I. 'Well, for a respectable woman ye're very easy on 'er,' says she. 'Per'aps,' I says; 'but I wouldn't be easy on the one as myde all the trouble, if I 'ad a 'old of 'im,' and I slammed the gyte and left 'er standin' there starin'."
"Goodness!" said Hester, twisting her fingers; "I wish you wouldn't talk like that. Please don't say anything more to Mrs. Baily. I'd never forgive you if you did. You're the only friend I've got; but I'd never forgive you if--"
"Don't be a fool!"
Hester went home that night with a fresh access of misery in her heavy young heart.
It was late in the evening, two days after this, that Hester stood at Mrs. Baily's window putting up the fresh dimity curtains. Mrs. Baily
had dined early, for the master was not coming home, and when Hester brought in the pudding she said--
"Have you put up my curtains?"
"No'm, I ain't had time," said the maid.
"You'll have time before it gets dark if you go now. I won't have the coffee till late. I shall sit up for Mr. Baily." So Hester went upstairs and set to work, feeling faint and dinnerless. She heard the front door open, and looking out, saw Mrs. Baily at the gate. "Without gloves," thought Hester. "To the post, then." No, she was turning into the next house; she was knocking at the front door. Sarah must have opened it, for Mrs. Baily disappeared.
What did it mean? Hester left the white stuff dangling awry from one end of the rod, and sat down on the floor. Mrs. Baily had tried again that morning to get the girl to confess the origin of her trouble, and had said more terrible things than Hester cared to remember, but without even faintly suspecting the truth. That was Hester's one comfort. All conscience, all responsibility, all her life seemed centered in this one aim and steadfast plan of silence. To hold to it was the one thing left her to do for him, and the pain it cost was the nearest thing to pleasure left in the long day. For he dared not meet her again away from home; he dared not come down to the kitchen "to burn his papers"; he dared not speak to her or smile at her.
"He is afraid Mrs. Baily will suspect," Hester said to herself, "and I must help him. He loves me, but we must live past these hard times, and then things will come right."
All the strength and courage of the poor little nature were engrossed in "keeping the secret," and bearing the heavy yoke of service uncomplainingly. But what was Mrs. Baily doing at Sarah's? She had no acquaintance with the invalid mistress and no business with the maid, except--except-- The girl got up from the floor and supported herself against the window frame. the window was open, the half-hung curtain swayed solemnly. "Will she question Sarah? Will Sarah tell?" The brown eyes were wide with terror, the little hands twisted convulsively in the pink cotton gown. The light began to fade. The wind blew in more strongly; in the draught the curtain unfurled like a white flag of distress--it flew out straight into the room. Mr. Baily's pongee silk jacket hanging on the door began to sway in the air current. It took on a look of sentient life; it became a filmy yellow phantom of the
wearer. Hester thought of the possible revelation next door, shuddered, and turned away from the ghostly presentment of "The Master." Her frightened eyes fell on his slippers in the corner by the bed. Ugh! their toes were turned in. She left the window and knelt down absently by the bed, turning them daintily out as the Master's feet would have done. There was the outline of his foot in the morocco-- the place where the great toe came, a little scuffed and faded. What was Mrs. Baily asking Sarah? Hester pressed her temples between her cold hands. Oh, why couldn't she think! Everything seemed whirling and spinning like the long white banner at the window. This was where he slept; the very air smelt of him, for he smoked here sometimes too. What would he do if the truth came out? The very jacket seemed to shrink and shiver at the thought. The curtain flapped wildly. "Oh, Sarah's telling on the Master, I know it! I feel it. Oh God! Oh God!" She wrung her small hands and rocked to and fro. "What can I do? what can I do?" she whispered. A stronger gust of wind whipped down the half hung curtain and blew out the sleeves of the jacket. They were like two spectral arms helt out in appeal. The girl rushed across the room and buried her face in the jacket.
"Master, Master, it isn't my fault. I'd 'a died rather than told. Master, Master, forgive me, forgive me, forgive me!" After a long time, as it seemed to her, she heard through her sobs the sound of her name. Down in the hall Sarah was calling, "Hester, Hester!" The girl opened the door. "Come over and bring some smelling salts, Mrs. Baily's fainted." She heard Sarah rush out again. Mechanically she went to the bureau, and took up a little flat bottle with a saturated sponge showing brown through the glass. She looked round at the slippers. "It ain't my fault," she said to them. "It ain't my fault," she repeated as she reached for the door where the jacket hung. She lifted the limp sleeve and kissed it. "Oh, please believe it ain't my fault!" She opened the door and flew down the stairs. In the unused sitting-room of the next house, she found her mistress lying on the prim sofa with her hair disordered and her dress unbuttoned, Sara standing grimly by her, looking like a wooden image. Hester shivered when she saw her mistress's face. Sarah held the salts to her nostrils, and with a little jerk Mrs. Baily sat up and faced Hester.
"You--!" she hissed something Hester couldn't catch, the
blood was beating so in her ears. "How dare you tell such lies about my husband?"
"I'll never forgive you," said Hester, quietly looking at Sarah.
"Don't be a fool. It was best for her to know that, whoever else might blyme ye, she oughtened to throw her husband's sins in your fyce."
"It's a lie! It's a lie! Don't you see she wants to get money out of him? Why he never so much as looked at the girl." Mrs. Baily stared at Sarah with blood-shot eyes.
"It's true, I tell ye," said Sarah, stoutly, "and it ain't right for 'er to 'ave to shoulder all the blyme. Instead of treatin' 'er like a dog, you ought to try and 'elp 'er bear the trouble your own 'usband 'as brought on 'er."
"It was not my husband! You're a couple of blackmailers, and I'll have you punished." She struggled to her feet and pulled her bodice together. "As for you," she said to Hester, in a shrill, broken voice, "I'll have my husband turn you into the street, where you belong. Go home and pack your things. Not another night shall you sleep under my roof. Go!" Hester turned dumbly and went out, with the sound of two excited voices fretting her ears, but not reaching her brain.
What would the master do? Where should she go? How queer it was she couldn't think a bit. She had got a grease spot on her clean frock; that seemed as important as anything else in life. She looked at it, wondering if she could get it out without washing the whole dress. Now she was going upstairs, --what for? She could wash out the spot at the kitchen sink, and dry it at the fire. She turned to go down. Oh, but she wasn't going to stay here any longer; she had been dismissed. Oh yes; she was on the way to her room; she had to pack her box. Where was she going? Why, there wasn't any place for a girl at night without a character. The master must help her there; he was good and kind, but oh! it was days and days since he had spoken to her.
While she was gathering her "things" together, she heard the door open, and in a few minutes the dining-room bell rang. She went down slowly. She felt sick and unsteady on her feet.
"Clear away the things," said her mistress without looking at her, Hester obeyed. Mechanically she made up the fore downstairs and washed the things. The gate banged--steps--the master had come
home! She ran to the door "I'll see him first, I'll tell him--" Half way up the kitchen stairs she heard his voice; she knew he was taking off his light overcoat, with that familiar circular motion, although she couldn't see him. He was calling to his wife.
"Well, Ethel, I've kept my word, you see! I'm home early," evidently he was in fine spirits. "Very good feeding at Hamilton's, all but the coffee. Got any coffee?" He was going into the dining-room. Hester's knees were shaking; she sat down on the dark little staircase, and a kind of warm sick stupor came over her like a rising tide and blotted out the world. Of the miserable little drama in the dining-room, Hester heard no syllable until, half-an-hour later, the master's voice calling "Hester" at the head of the stairs pierced through the dusky peace that enfolded her. She lifted her head off the step, and heard dimly a protest in her mistress's voice, and the words:--
"I won't stay in the same room with her."
"Yes, stay and hear for yourself," from the master. But the mistress had evidently gone into the sitting-room, the door shut with a sharp sound. Hester stood up. How weak and dizzy she was. Come, she must shake that off! She dragged herself up to the dining-room. The master stood with his back to the fire-place, one heel caught on the brass rod of the fender, his elbows resting on the narrow mantelpiece, and a cigarette smouldering in the right hand. "Bring me some coffee," he said, loud enough to be heard in the next room through the thin partition. Hester looked at him wonderingly. Why, he was just as usual! Had she told him? Had she dreamt the whole thing, out there on the kitchen staircase? She moved towards the ricketty little sideboard on the right of the fireplace, where Mrs. Baily would have put the evening's measure of coffee. Her master's eyes followed her; how they glittered! She shivered a little and dropped her own.
"You've made a damned fool of yourself, and there's nothing for it but for you to say you've been lying. Hear?" Hester looked up with the coffee measure in her hand. He spoke so low even Hester, near as she was, could hardly catch the words. Then very loud he called "Ethel!" and almost before the words left his lips, "Say you've been lying, or by God I'll kill you!" he said in that awful dim whisper that yet seemed to fill the universe. Hester stood rooted by the open sideboard. The master had gone to the door and
called "Ethel" again. He turned back to speak again to Hester, but did not trust himself with words, and yet Hester would have said he had spoken that last time and had sworn again, "By god I'll kill you if you don't take it back." He had gone to the sitting-room to his wife. Hester stood quite still where he left her till he called her sharply from the next room--it might have been half-an-hour, it might have been two minutes, after he had gone out with that awful look in his face. Steadily, quietly the girl obeyed the summons. Mrs. Baily was lying on the sofa with dishevelled hair, and her tear-stained face half concealed in a handkerchief. Mr. Baily stood at the foot of the sofa working nervously at his watch locket, and glancing shiftily now and then at his wife. Hester was the only ineffective person in the scene. She was quiet and unimpressive to the verge of stupidity. She held the little coffee measure quite steadily. If there was anything unusual in her face, it was a kind of childish wonder, until Mr. Baily fixed his restless eyes upon her, and said--
"I have had an extraordinary account of you from your mistress, Hester. She tells me that you--that you--"
"Yes, sir," said Hester, with the instinct of helping him over a verbal difficulty.
"That you are so wicked as to accuse me--"
"No, I didn't tell her myself--" For the first time the girl's face contracted with suffering, and her eyes filled.
"You told the woman next door," he said. Mrs. Baily began to sob convulsively behind her handkerchief.
"Yes, sir," Hester's voice was faint. The master fixed her again with that terrible look that seemed to say once more, "Take it back, or, by God--" Hester shrank away a step or two as if to avoid a blow. She was shaking now, and leaned her back against the wall. The mistress's muffled sobs filled up the pause. They were hard and staccato. The fell on the girl's pulses like little hammers; and the master's eyes--ah! they were terrible.
"Can you look me in the face, Hester, and repeat what you said to this woman next door?" A long pause. Mrs. Baily's weeping was hushed, she dropped her handkerchief and fixed her swollen eyes on the girl. At last came Hester's faint "No, sir." "Why?" came quickly from the master; he felt he was gaining ground. "Why?" Mrs. Baily sat up and held her hands against her heart.
"Why?" he repeated again sharply. "Because" (Hester caught
her breath)-- "because it was a lie." "Ah!" Mrs. Baily was on her feet holding out her hands to her husband. But he motioned her back. "Let us understand thoroughly," he said, with a meaning look at Hester. "Someone has brought trouble upon you, and you falsely accused me of it." A little breathless silence and then--
"My dear," with a low, remorseful cry Mrs. Baily threw her arms round her husband's neck. Hester stood unnoticed, watching him smooth her hair, hearing fragments of low-voiced reconciliation-- wondering dimly at the sight of these two building the foundations of their future on her poor little trembling lie.
Suddenly Mr. Baily looked up over his wife's shoulder and motioned Hester sharply away. She turned a little unsteadily, feeling along the wall like a blind person till she came to the door. She opened it quietly, and, without looking back, went silently out.
Some time later, Hester, in hat and jacket, had put down the coffee tray on the chair just outside the sitting-room door.
"He hates to look at me," she said drearily to herself; "I won't go in."
She had her belongings in an old-fashioned travelling-bag by the front door. The little box she had brought was too heavy for her to lift, and, besides, there was no place to take it to, even if she had money to pay someone to carry it. She leaned against the wall a moment like one out of breath. She put her hand to her neck and drew out the string with the sixpence on it. She closed her fingers round the coin with a muffled sob. "Oh, if I only had a common sixpence," she whispered; "but it mightn't make much difference. Sixpence won't go far--at night--without a character! Sarah might-- no, she made all the trouble; she told on him, she's very false." She groped for the handle of the door, and opened it. As she turned to pick up her bag, the old faintness fell upon her; she put out a hand to steady herself and then dropped noiselessly on the rough brown mat.
"Well, if I'm going to die, sixpence is enough," she thought vaguely and without terror. But the cool air revived her.
"They'll be very angry if they find me here," her thoughts ran on, "But I feel so queer in my ankles. Why, there's that coffee; I might take a little." She came back, walking very softly. At the sitting-room door she heard the low voice of the master so distinctly that she began to tremble and cry softly.
"Forgive me, master!" she said in a faint, faint whisper, "Oh, forgive me telling Sarah! Sarah's a beast! Oh, forgive me, master!" She lifted the coffee-pot mechanically and poured out a tiny cupful. The big tears dropped over the tray, her hand shook.
"It's just like this in Paris," she said under her breath.
As she lifted the cup the dangling sixpence clinked twice against the porcelain. She gave a scared look towards the door and put down the coffee untasted. She held the coin tight against her heart, as a mother might hold the little head of a child, to hush its tell-tale cries.
"I'll have to spend it," she said as she lifted the heavy bag with the other hand, and bent to its weight. "It's very hard to have to spend it."
She went out softly without closing the door.