Cytherea reigned in Mr. Earlforward's office behind the shop—invisible, bu_he was there—probably reclining—ask not how!—on the full red lips (whic_ascinated Mrs. Arb) of Mr. Earlforward. It was just after four o'clock in th_anuary following their first acquaintance. They sat on opposite sides o_enry's desk, with the electric light extravagantly burning above them. At th_ront of the shop the day was expiring in faint gleams of grey twilight. Dir_as nothing; disorder was nothing; Mr. Earlforward loved. For weeks he ha_een steadfastly intending to put the place to rights for his bride, and h_ad not put it to rights. Dirt and disorder were repugnant to Mrs. Arb, bu_he had said not a word. She would not interfere or even suggest, before th_ime. She knew her place; she was a bit prim. The time was approaching, an_he could wait.
"I suppose we can use that ring," said Henry, pointing to the wedding-ring o_rs. Arb's hand, which lay on the desk like the defenceless treasure of a_nvaded city.
Despite a recent experience, Mrs. Arb was startled by this remark delivered i_ tone so easy, benevolent and matter-of-fact. The recent experience ha_onsisted in Mr. Earlforward's bland ultimatum, after a discussion in whic_rs. Arb had womanishly and prettily favoured a religious ceremony, that the_ould be married at a Registry because it was on the whole cheaper. Upon tha_oint she had taken pleasure in yielding to him. So long as you were genuinel_arried, the method had only a secondary importance. She admitted—t_erself—that in desiring the church she might have been conventional, superstitious. She was eager to yield, as some women are eager to be beaten.
Morbidity, of course! But not wholly. Self-preservation was in it, as well a_oluptuousness. Mr. Earlforward's individuality frightened while enchantin_er. She found she could cure the fright by intense acquiescence. And why no_cquiesce? He was her fate. She would grasp her fate with both hands.
And there was this point: if he was her fate, she was his; she had alread_een married once, whereas he was an innocent; he had to learn. She saw a_dvantage there. Her day was coming—at least, she persuaded herself that i_as.
Thus the question of the wedding ceremony had been quite satisfactoril_issolved; and so well that Mrs. Arb now scorned the notion of marriage in _hurch. But the incident of the ring touched her closer; it touched th_boriginal cave-woman in the very heart of her. Do you know, she had faintl_uspected that to purchase a wedding-ring formed no part of his programme! A_bsurd, an impossible suspicion! How could he espouse without a ring? Bu_here the suspicion had lain! She ought to have been revolted by the idea of _econd husband marrying her with the ring of the first. However, she was not.
Mr. Earlforward's natural, casual tone precluded that. And she answere_uietly, as it were hypnotized, with a smile:
"We can't use this. It won't come off."
She displayed the finger. Obviously the ring would not pass the joint. Mrs.
Arb was slim, but she had been slimmer.
"But you can't be married with that _on._ You can't wear two." (Something o_he cave-creature in him also!)
"I know. But I was going to have it filed off tomorrow morning. There wouldn'_e time to have it made larger."
He took the supine hand and thrilled it.
"I tell you what," said he. "What carat is it?"
"Soft!" he murmured. "I've got a little file. I'll file it off now. I'm rathe_ood at odd jobs. Oh no, I shan't hurt you! I wouldn't hurt you for anything."
He found the file, after some search, in a drawer of his desk.
"It must feel like this to be manicured," she said, with a slight, nervou_iggle, when again he held her hand in his, and began to operate with th_ile.
He had not boasted; he was indeed rather good at odd jobs. Such delicate, small movements! Such patience! He was standing over her. She was hi_risoner, and the ray of the bulb blazed down on the timorous yielded hand. A_he finish the skin was scarcely perceptibly abraded. He pulled apart the end_f the severed band and removed it.
Soft as butter!" he smiled. "Now lend me that other ring of yours, will you?
For size, you know. And I'll just slip across to Joas's in Farringdon Road.
Shan't be long. Will you look after the shop while I'm gone If anyone comes i_nd there's any difficulty, ask 'em to wait. But all the prices are marked.
I'll leave the light on in the shop. You won't feel lonely."
"Oh, but——!" she protested. Leave her by herself in his house—and without th_rotection of the ring! And before marriage! What would people think?
"Well, Elsie'll be here in a minute. So there's nothing to worry over." H_poke most soothingly, as to an irrational child. "I'd better see to it to- night. And they close at six, same as me—except the pawn-broking. No time t_ose!" He was gone.
She was saved from too much reflection by the entry of Elsie. At the sight o_lsie Mrs. Arb's demeanour immediately became normal—that is to say, th_trange enchantment which had held her was dissipated, blown away. She was n_onger morbid; she was not supine. Her body resumed all its active littl_ovements, her glance its authority, cheerfulness, liveliness and variety. Sh_ose from the chair, smoothed her dress, and was ready to deal with th_niverse.
"Oh, Elsie! So you've come! Mr. Earlforward was expecting you. He's jus_lipped out on urgent business for a minute or two, and he said you'd be in t_ttend to customers, and I must say I didn't much fancy being left here alone, because you see— But, of course; business must be attended to. We all kno_hat, don't we?"
She gave a poke to the dull embers of the stove which warmed the shop i_inter; Mr. Earlforward rarely replenished it after four o'clock; he liked i_o be just out at closing time.
Elsie, although wearing her best jacket and hat, and looking rather Sundayish, had carried—not easily—into the shop a sizeable tin trunk with thin handle_hat cut uncomfortably into the hands. This box contained her late husband'_edals, and all that was hers, including some very strange things. The french- polisher's wife, by now quite accustomed to having three infants instead o_wo, had procured for herself a pleasant little change from the monotony o_ome-life by helping Elsie to transport the trunk from Riceyman Square to Mr.
Earlforward's shop-door. The depositing of the dented trunk on the uneve_loor of the shop constituted Elsie's "moving in."
"I'll take this upstairs now, shall I, m'm?" Elsie suggested, somewha_imidly, because she was beginning a new life and didn't quite know how sh_tood.
"Well, it certainly mustn't be here when Mr. Earl-forward returns," said Mrs.
Elsie fully concurred. Masters of households ought not to be offended by th_uasi-obscene sight of the private belongings of servants.
"No! You can't carry it up by yourself. You might hurt yourself. You neve_now. Come, come, Elsie!" as Elsie protested. "Do you suppose I've neve_elped to carry a box upstairs before? Now take the other handle, do! Where'_our umbrella? I know you've got one."
"It's coming to-morrow, 'm. I've lent it."
Mrs. Arb was extremely cheerful, kindly and energetic over the affair of th_runk, and Elsie extremely apologetic.
"Now nip your apron on and come down as quick as you can—there might be _ustomer. You must remember I'm not mistress here until to-morrow. I'm only _isitor." Thus spoke Mrs. Arb gaily and a little breathless at the door of th_mall bedroom which Elsie was to share with a vast collection of variou_ermons in eighty volumes, some State Trials in twenty volumes, and a lot o_ther piled sensationalism.
When Elsie, still impressed by the fact of having a new home and by Mrs. Arb'_enevolent demeanour, came rather self-consciously downstairs in a perfectl_ew apron (bought for this great occasion), Mrs. Arb went to the foot of th_tairs to meet her, and employing a confidential and mysterious tone, said:
"Now don't forget all I told you about that cleaning business to-morrow, wil_ou?"
"Oh, no, 'm. I suppose it will be all right?" Elsie's brow puckered wit_onscientiousness.
Mrs. Arb laughed amiably.
"What do you mean, my girl-'it'll be all right'? You must remember that when _ome back to-morrow I come back Mrs. Earlforward. And you'll call me Mrs.
" I'd sooner call you mum, 'm, if it's all the same to you."
"Of course. But when you're speaking _about_ me."
" I shall have to get into it, 'm."
"Now I expect Mr. Earlforward's settled your wages with you?"
" No, 'm."
"Not said anything at all?"
"No, 'm. But it'll be all right."
Mrs. Arb was once again amazed at Henry's marvellous faculty for lettin_hings go.
"Oh, well, perhaps he was leaving it to me, though I've nothing to do wit_his house till to-morrow. Now, what wages do you want, Elsie?"
"I prefer to leave it to you, 'm," said Elsie diffidently.
"Well, of course, Elsie, being a 'general' is a very different thing fro_eing a char. You have a good home and all your food. And a regular situation.
No going about from one place to another and being told you aren't wanted to- day, or aren't wanted to-morrow, and only half a day the next day and so o_nd so on! A regular place. No worries about shall I or shan't I earn my day'_age to-day… . You see, don't you?"
"Oh yes, 'm."
"I'll just show you what I cut out of the _West London Observer_ yesterday."
She drew her purse from her pocket, and from the purse an advertisement of _omestic Servants' Agency, offering innumerable places.
"'Generals £20 to £25 a year,'" she read. "Suppose you start with £20? O_ourse it's very high, but wages are high in these days. I don't know why. Bu_hey are. And we have to put up with it."
"Very well, 'm," Elsie agreed gratefully.
Twenty pounds seemed a big lump of money to her, and she could not divide b_ifty-two. Besides, there it was, printed in the paper! No arguing agains_hat. The two talked about washing and the kitchen and the household utensil_hich Mrs. Arb had abstracted from the schedule of possessions sold to th_urchaser of the business opposite. Elsie sold a couple of books. During thi_ransaction Mrs. Arb retired to the office, and after it she refused to tak_harge of the money which Elsie dutifully offered to her.
"Elsie, haven't I just told you I'm not mistress here? You must give the mone_o your master."
Then Mr. Earlforward returned; and Mrs. Arb gave Elsie a sign to withdra_pstairs; and Elsie, having placed the money on the paper containing th_itles of the sold books, went discreetly upstairs.
"I've taken on myself to settle that woman's wages," said Mrs. Arb, whil_enry was removing his overcoat in the back room. "She told me you hadn't sai_nything."
"No, I hadn't."
"Well. I've settled twenty pounds a year."
"Eight shillings a week. Rather less. Anyhow, it's better than half a crow_very morning of your life for half a day's work."
"Did you give her half a crown? I only used to give her two shillings. Did yo_ive her any food?"
"Neither did I. Unless she stayed late."
Mrs. Arb felt upon her Mr. Earlforward's glance of passionate admiration, an_lipped into the enchantment again. She was very content; she was absurdl_ontent. The fact was that Mr. Earlforward had been under the delusion o_aving driven a unique bargain with Elsie in the matter of wages. For he kne_hat the recognized monstrous rate was five shillings a day _and_ food. An_ere this miraculous creature, so gentle, submissive and girlish, had beate_im by sixpence a half-day. What a woman! What a wife! She had every quality.
He gloated over her… . He sat on the desk by her chair, boyishly to watch he_irlishness. Then he interrupted the tête-à-tête to go and turn off the ligh_n the shop—because the light in the office gave sufficient illumination t_how that the shop was open. And he called out to Elsie:
"Elsie, come down and bring the bookstand inside. It ought to have bee_rought in before. It's quite dark—long since… . Oh! She won't look _this_ay," he murmured, with a shrug in answer to Mrs. Arb's girlish alarm as h_at down on the desk by her once more.
"Now here's the ring I've got." He pulled from his waistcoat pocket a hoop o_littering gold. "And here's your finger-ring—keeper, do you call it? See!
They're exactly the same size. It's a very good ring, and it'll last muc_onger than the old one. Harder. Nine carat. Looks better too, _I_ think."
Mrs. Arb, examining the ring, kept a smiling, constrained silence. The nin_arat was a blow to her. But, of course, he was right; he was quite right. H_ut the new ring back in his pocket.
"But where's my old wedding-ring?"
"Oh, I sold that to Joas. Flinty fellow, but I don't mind telling you I sol_t to him for six and sixpence more than what I paid for this one." He spoke, very low—because of Elsie, with a contented and proud calm, his little eye_ixed on her. " I suppose that six and six is by right yours. Here it is." An_e handed her the six and sixpence.
"Oh, that's all right," said Mrs. Arb weakly, as if to indicate that he coul_eep the money.
" Oh, no!" said he. " Right's right."
She put the coins in her purse. Then she said it was time for her to be "goin_cross." (Part of the bargain with the purchaser of her business was that h_hould provide her with a room and food until the day of the wedding.)
"I hope you'll slip in again to-night," he urged.
"Not to-night, Henry. _It's the night before._ It wouldn't be quite nice."
He yielded. They discussed all, the arrangements for the morrow. As they wer_eaving the back-room side by side, Henry switched off the light. Elsie ha_ompleted her task and gone upstairs. Total darkness— for a few moments! Mrs.
Arb felt Henry's rich lips on hers. She was sensible of the mystery of th_vercrowded shop stretching from bay to bay in front of her to the graduall_ppearing yellow twilight from the gas-lamp of Riceyman Steps. She abandone_erself, in an ecstasy that was perhaps less, perhaps more, than what i_alled happiness, to the agitating uncertainties of their joint future.
Useless for her to recall to herself her mature years, her experience, he_orce, her sagacity. She was no better than a raw girl under his kiss. Well, it was a loving kiss. He worshipped the ground she trod on, as the saying was.