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Chapter 3 The message to Violet

  • "I'm raging in my heart! I'm raging in my heart!"
  • Elsie said to herself. "It makes me gnash my teeth!"
  • And she did gnash her teeth all alone in the steadily darkening shop. "I'_hat  _ashamed!_ " she said out loud.
  • The origin of her expostulation was Mr. Earlforward's obstinacy. She wa_umiliated on his behalf by his stupidity, and on her own behalf by he_ailure to get him to the hospital. The incident would certainly become commo_nowledge, and ignominy would fall upon T. T. Riceyman's. What preoccupied he_as less the danger to her employer's health, and perhaps life, than the mora_nd social aspects of the matter. She would have liked to give her master _ood shaking. She was losing her fear of the dread Mr. Earlforward; she wa_reely criticizing and condemning him, and, indeed, was almost ready t_xecute him—she who, under the continuous suggestion of Mrs. Earlforward, ha_itherto fatalistically and uncritically accepted his decrees and decisions a_he decrees and decisions of Almighty God. He had argued with her; he ha_efended himself against her; he had shown tiny glimpses of an apprehensio_hat she might somehow be capable of forcing him to go to the hospital agains_is will. He had lifted her to be nearly equal with him. The relations betwee_hem could never be the same again. Elsie had a kind of intoxication.
  • "Well, anyway, something's got to be done," she said, with a violent gesture.
  • She rushed for her tools and utensils, she found a rough apron and tied i_ightly with a hard, viciously drawn knot over her white one, and began t_lean the shop. If seen by nobody else the shop was seen by her, and she coul_o longer stand the sight of its filth. She ranged about like a beast of prey.
  • She picked up the letters from the floor and ran with them into the office an_ashed them on to the desk. And at that moment a postman outsid_nconsiderately dropped several more letters through the flap. "Of course yo_would!_ "
  • Elsie angrily protested, and picked them up and ran with them into the offic_nd dashed them on to the desk.
  • "Oh! This is no use!" she muttered, after a minute or so of sweeping in th_loom, and she turned on the electric lights. Only two sound lamps were no_eft in the shop, and one in the office. She turned them all on— the one i_he office from sheer naughtiness. "I'll see about his electric light!" sh_aid to herself. "I'll burn his electric light for him—see if I don't!" Sh_as punishing him as she cleaned the shop with an energy and a thoroughnes_nexampled in the annals of charing. This was the same woman who a short whil_go had trembled because she had eaten a bit of raw bacon without authority.
  • And when, having finished the shop, she assaulted the office, she drowned th_loor in dust-laying water, and she rubbed his desk and especially his saf_ith a ferocity calculated to flay them. For there was not only his obstinac_nd his stupidity—there was his brutality. "Then more fool her!" he ha_xclaimed about his wife, soon to be martyrized by an "operation." And he ha_aid nothing else.
  • Then Elsie began to think of Dr. Raste. Of course, she had been mistaken abou_r. Raste. On the pavement in front of his house he had been very harsh, wit_is rules about what he ought to do and what he ought not to do. And befor_hat, long before that, when he had given a careless look at her in the hous_n Riceyman Square upon the occasion of Joe's attack on her—well, he hadn'_eemed very human. A finicking sort of man— that was what she called him —stand-offish, stony. And yet he had got out of bed in the middle of the nigh_or the old miser, and he must have known he could never screw much money ou_f him. And fancy the doctor coming with a taxi himself to take away th_aster Elsie had never heard of such a thing. And him taking the mistres_nstead! It was wonderful. And still more wonderful was the arrival of hi_ittle girl—a little queen she was, and knew her way about. And he'd arrange_hings at the hospital, too. (Oh! As she reflected, her humiliation at th_ailure to " manage" Mr. Earlforward was intensified. She could scarcely bea_o think of it.) No doubt at all she had been mistaken about Dr. Raste. Jo_ad always praised Dr Raste, and she had been putting Joe down for _impleton, as indeed he was; but in this matter Joe had been right and sh_rong. In repentance, or in penance, she extinguished the two lights in th_hop, which she was not using; her mind worked in odd ways, but it ha_ractical logic. The cleaning done, she doffed the rough apron.
  • She was somewhat out of breath, and she seated herself in the master's chai_t his desk. An audacious proceeding, but who could say her nay? She looke_tartlingly out of place in the sacred chair as she gazed absently at th_acred desk. The mere fact that nobody could say her nay filled her wit_adness. Tragedy pressed down upon her. Life was incomprehensible, and she sa_o relief anywhere in the world. That man upstairs might be dying, probabl_as dying. And no one knew what was his disease, and no one could help hi_ithout his permission. He lay over the shop-ceiling there, and there wa_othing to be done. As for mistress, the case of her mistress touched her eve_ore closely. Mistress was a woman, and she was a woman. She had known a doze_uch cases. Women fought their invisible enemy for a time. Then they dropped, and they were swept off to a hospital, and the next thing you heard they wer_ead… . Mrs. Earlforward alone in a hospital—all rules and regulations! An_er husband very ill in bed at home here! Nobody to say a word to Mrs.
  • Earlforward about home, and she fretting her heart away because of master, an_he operation to-morrow morning and all!  _He_  was very ill, and people wer_ften queer while they were ill. They weren't rightly responsible; yo_ouldn't really blame them, could you? He must be terribly worried abou_verything. It was a pity he was obstinate, but there you were. Elsie wa_verwhelmed with affliction, misery, anguish. Her features were most painfull_iscomposed under the lamp.
  • But when Mr. Earlforward, answering her tap at the bedroom-door, rouse_imself to make a fresh and more desperate defence against a powerfu_ntagonist who was determined to force him to act contrary to his inclinatio_nd his judgment, he saw, as soon as his eyes had recovered from the dazzle o_he sudden light, a smiling, kind and acquiescent face. His relief wa_ntense, and it flowered into gratitude. He thought: "She promised she woul_ever desert me, and she won't." He was weak from his malady and from lack o_ourishment; he was in pain; he had convinced himself that he was better, bu_e could not deny that he was still very ill—and Elsie was all he had. Sh_ould make his existence heaven or hell; he perceived that she meant to mak_t as nearly heaven as she could. She was not going to bully him. She had n_ntention of disputing his decision about the hospital business. She ha_ccepted her moral defeat, and accepted it without reserve and without ill- will. She was bringing liquid food for him, in an attractive white basin. H_ad, as usual, little desire for food, but the sight of the basin and th_leaming spoon on the old lacquer tray tempted him, and he reflected that eve_n abortive attempt at a meal would provide a change in the awful monotony o_is day. Moreover, he wanted to oblige her.
  • As, angelically smiling, she walked round the bed to his side and stood clos_o him, a veil fell from his eyes, and for the first time he saw her, not as _harwoman turned servant, but as a girl charged with energetic life; and he_enevolence had rendered her beautiful. He envied her healthy vigour. H_elied on it. The moment was delicious in the silent and curst house.
  • "I'll try," he said pleasantly, raising his body up and gazing at her.
  • "Why!" she exclaimed. " If you haven't been making your bed!"
  • No disapproval in her voice. No warning as to the evil consequences of thi_ad escapade of making his bed.
  • "Any more letters?" he inquired, after he had swallowed a mouthful.
  • "I believe there was one," she answered vivaciously.
  • "Shall I run and get it for you?" Down she ran and picked up a letter a_andom off the desk in the office. And she brought back also a sheet o_otepaper and an envelope, a millboard portfolio and a pencil.
  • "What's all that?" he asked mildly, opening the letter.
  • "Well, you want to write to missis, don't you?"
  • "Um!" he murmured as he read the letter, affecting not to have heard her. H_as ashamed and selfconscious because he had not himself had the idea o_riting to Violet.
  • "You'll be sending a note to missis at the hospital. It'll give her a goo_ift-up to hear from you."
  • "Yes," he said. "I was going to write."
  • "Here! I'll take that letter. You can do with some of this food. I shouldn'_ike you to let it get cold."
  • She stayed near him and held a corner of the insecure tray firmly. "You can'_ake any more? All right."
  • She removed the tray, and replaced it by the portfolio which was to serve as _riting-desk on the bed. It was always marvellous to Elsie to see the eas_ith which her master wrote. She admired. And she was almost happy because sh_ad resolved to smile cheerfully and give in to him and do the best she coul_or him on his own lines and be an angel.
  • "Shall I read you what I've written?" he suggested, with a sudden upwar_lance.
  • "Oh, sir!"
  • The astounding, the incredible flattery overthrew her completely. He woul_ead to her what he had written to the mistress, doubtless for her approval.
  • She blushed.
  • "'My dear Wife,—As you may guess, I am torn with anxiety about you. It was _evere shock when Elsie told me the doctor had taken you off to the hospita_ithout a moment's delay. However, I know you are very brave and have a_xcellent constitution, and I feel sure that before a week is out you will b_eeling better than you have done for months. And, of course, the hospital i_ very good one, one of the best in London, if not the best. It has bee_stablished for nearly eight hundred years. If it was only to be under th_ame roof as you I should have come to the hospital myself to-day, but I fee_o much better that really it is not necessary, and I feel sure that if yo_ere here to see me you would agree with me. There is the business to b_hought of. I am glad to say that Elsie is looking after me splendidly, but, of course, that does not surprise me. Now, my dear Violet, you must get bette_uickly for my sake as well as your own. Be of good courage and do not worr_bout me. My little illness is nothing. It is your illness that has made m_ealize that.—Your loving Husband, H. EARLFORWARD.'"
  • He read the letter in a calm and even but weak voice, addressed the envelope, and then lay back on the pillows. (He was now—since he had made the bed—usin_iolet's pillow as well as his own.) He did not finish his food. He left Elsi_o fold the letter, stick it in the envelope, and lick and fasten th_nvelope. She did these things with a sense of the honour bestowed upon her.
  • It was a wonderful letter, and he had written it right off. No hesitation. An_t was so nice and thoughtful; and how it explained everything. She had t_elieve for a moment that her master really was better. The expressions abou_erself touched her deeply, and yet somehow she would have preferred them no_o be there. What touched her most, however, was the mere thought of the fac_hat once, and not so long ago either, her master had been a solitary singl_an, never troubling himself about women and no prospect of such; and here h_as wrapped up in one, and everything so respectable and nice… . But he wa_ery ill. His lips and cheeks were awful. Elsie recalled vividly the full ric_ed lips he once had.
  • She had moved away from the bed, taking the basin and putting it on the ches_f drawers. The contents of her master's pockets were on the chest of drawers, where he laid them every night, in order better to fold his carefully crease_lothes.
  • "I do fancy I haven't got any money," she said diffidently, after a littl_hile.
  • "Why, it isn't your wages day—you don't mean?"
  • "Oh, no, sir."
  • She had deposited nearly all her cash in the Post Office Savings Bank durin_er afternoon out, and the bit kept in hand had gone to pay for the unuse_axi.
  • "Why, Elsie! You must be a rich woman," said Mr. Earlforward. "What with you_ages and your pension!" He spoke without looking at her, in a rather dream_one, but certainly interested.
  • "Well, sir," Elsie replied, "it's like this. I give my pension to my mother.
  • She's a widow, same as me, and she can't fend for herself."
  • "All of it? Your mother?"
  • "Yes, sir."
  • "How much is your pension?"
  • "Twenty-eight shillings and elevenpence a week, sir."
  • "Well, well." Mr. Earlforward said no more. He had often thought about her wa_ension, but never about any possible mother or other relative. He had neve_eard mention of her mother. He thought how odd it was that for years she ha_een giving away a whole pension and nobody knew about it in Riceyman Steps.
  • "Could you let me have sixpence, sir?" Elsie meekly asked, coming to the poin_f her remark concerning money.
  • "Sixpence? What do you want sixpence for? You surely aren't thinking of buyin_ood to-night!" Mr. Earlforward, who had been lying on his right side, turne_ith a nervous movement on to his back and frowned at Elsie.
  • "I wanted it to give to Mrs. Perkins's boy in the Square to take your lette_own to missis at the hospital."
  • In spite of herself she felt guilty of a betrayal of Mr. Earlforward'_inancial interests.
  • "What next?" he said firmly. "You must run down with it yourself. Won't tak_ou long. I shall be all right."
  • " I don't like leaving you, sir. That's all."
  • "You get off with it at once, my girl."
  • She was reduced to the servant again, she who had just been at the high leve_f a confidante. The invalid turned again to his right side and pushed hi_ose into the pillow, shutting his eyes to indicate that he had had enough o_ords and desired to sleep. His keys were on the chest of drawers and severa_ther things, including three toothpicks, but not money. He seldom went to be_ith money in his pockets.
  • Elsie, with a swift gesture, silently picked up the bunch of keys and left th_oom, a criminal; she had no intention of taking the letter to the hospita_erself. She went downstairs quite cheerful; she still felt happier becaus_he had been smiling and benevolent and yielding after her mood of revolt, an_ecause the letter to Mrs. Earlforward was her own idea. In the office sh_nelt in front of Mr. Earlforward's safe. No fear accompanied the sense o_ower which she felt. There was nobody to spy upon her, to order her to do on_hing, to forbid her to do another. Her omnipotence outside the bedroom coul_ot be disputed.
  • Although she was handling the bunch of keys for the first time, she knew a_nce which of the keys was the safe-key and how to open the safe, from havin_een Mr. Earlforward open and close it. He would have been extremely startle_o learn the extent of her knowledge, not only about the safe, but about man_ther private matters in the life of the household; for Elsie, like mos_ervants, was full of secret domestic information, unused, but ready at an_ime for use. She unlocked the safe and swung open the monumental door of i_nd pulled out a drawer—and drew back, alarmed, almost blinded. The drawer wa_ull of gold coins—full! Her domestic information had not comprised thi_azzling hoard. In all her life Elsie had scarcely ever seen a sovereign.
  • Years ago, in the early part of the war, she had seen a halfsovereign now an_hen. She shut the drawer quickly. Then she looked round, scared of possibl_pies after all. She thought she could hear creepings on the stairs an_tirrings in the black corners of the mysterious shop. Not even when caught i_he act of eating stolen raw bacon had she had such a terrifying sense o_onstrous guilt. Her impulse was to shut the safe, lock it, double-lock it, treble-lock it, and try to erase the golden vision utterly from her memory.
  • She would not on any account have pulled out another drawer.
  • But, lying on the ledge above the nest of drawers, she saw a canvas bag. Thi_ag was familiar to her; it held silver. She loosened its string and dre_orth sixpence. Then she rose, tore the wrapper off a circular among th_orrespondence on the table, wrote on the inside of the wrapper "6d.," and pu_t in the bag. Such was her poor, her one feasible, inadequate precautio_gainst the tremendous wrath to come. She had done a deed unspeakable, and sh_ould perfectly imagine what the consequences of it might be.
  • She was still breathing rapidly when she unbolted the shop-door. Rain wa_alling—rather heavy rain. Securing the door again, she ran upstairs to ge_er umbrella, which lay under her bed wrapped in newspaper. She had to grop_or it in the dark. Roughly she tore off the newspaper. Downstairs again sh_ould not immediately find the door-key and decided to risk leaving the doo_nlocked. She would be back from the Square in a minute, and nobody woul_ream of breaking in. She ran oft and up the Steps towards the Square.