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.
The astounding, the incredible flattery overthrew her completely. He woul_ead to her what he had written to the mistress, doubtless for her approval.
"'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?"
"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.