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Chapter 1 The day before

  • 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.
  • He said:
  • "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?"
  • "Eighteen."
  • "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.
  • "Yes'm."
  • 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.
  • Arb gravely.
  • 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.
  • Earlforward' too."
  • " 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?"
  • "Certainly not."
  • "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.
  • A point in her favour!
  • He switched on the light.