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Chapter 4 Elsie

  • "Now, now, Elsie, my girl. What's this? What is it?"
  • Mr. Earlforward spoke benevolently but, for him, rather quickly and abruptly.
  • And Elsie was intimidated. She worked for Mr. Earlforward only in th_ornings, and to be in the shop in the darkening afternoon made her feel quit_ueer and apologetic. It was almost as if she had never been in the sho_efore and had no right there.
  • As the two approached each other the habitual heavenly kindness in the girl'_aze seemed to tranquillize Mr. Earlforward, who knew intimately he_xpression and her disposition. And though he was still disturbed b_pprehension he found, as usual, a mysterious comfort in her presence; an_his influence of hers exercised itself even upon his fear of losing her fo_ver. A strange, exciting emotional equilibrium became established in th_wilight of the shop.
  • Elsie was a strongly-built wench, plump, fairly tall, with the striking free,
  • powerful carriage of one bred to various and hard manual labour. Her arms an_ust were superb. She had blue-black hair and dark blue eyes, and a prett_urve of the lips. The face was square but soft. From the constant drawin_ogether of the eyebrows into a pucker of the forehead, and the dropping o_he corners of the large mouth, it could be deduced that she was, if anything,
  • over-conscientious, with a tendency to worry about the right performance o_er duty; but this warping of her features was too slight to be unpleasant; i_as, indeed, a reassurance. She was twenty-three years of age; solitude,
  • adversity and deprivation made her look older. For four years she had been _idow, childless, after two nights of marriage and romance with a youth wh_ent to the East in 1915 to die of dysentery. Her clothes were cheap, dirty,
  • slatternly and dilapidated. Over a soiled white apron she wore a terribl_oarse apron of sacking. This apron was an offence; it was an outrage. But no_o her; she regarded it as part of a uniform, and such an apron was, in fact,
  • part of the regular uniform of thousands of women in Clerkenwell. If Elsie wa_latternly, dirty, and without any grace of adornment, the reason was that sh_ad absolutely no inducement or example to be otherwise. It was her natural,
  • respectable state to be so.
  • "It's for Mrs. Arb, sir," Elsie began.
  • "Mrs. Arb?" questioned Mr. Earlforward, puzzled for an instant by th_nfamiliar name. "Yes, yes, I know. Well? What have  _you_  got to do wit_rs. Arb?"
  • "I work for her in my afternoons, sir."
  • "But I never knew this!"
  • "I only began to-day, sir. She sent me across, seeing as I'm engaged here, t_ee if you'd got a good, cheap, second-hand cookery-book."
  • Mr. Earlforward's demeanour reflected no change in his mood, but Elsie ha_aised him into heaven. It was not to give him notice that she had come! Sh_ould stay with him! She would stay for ever, or until he had no need of her.
  • And she would make a link with Mrs. Arb, the new proprietress of th_onfectioner's shop across the way. Of course the name of the new proprietres_as Arb. He had not thought of her name. He had thought only of herself. Eve_ow he had no notion of her Christian name.
  • "Oh! So she wants a cookery-book, does she? What sort of a cookery-book?"
  • "She said she's thinking of going in for sandwiches, sir, and things, sh_aid, and having a sign put up for it. Snacks, like."
  • The word "snacks" gave Mr. Earlforward an idea. He walked across to what h_alled the "modern side" of the shop. In the course of the war, when food-
  • rationed stay-at-homes really had to stay at home, and, having nothing else t_o while waiting for air-raids, took to literature in desperation, he had don_ very large trade in cheap editions of novels, and quite a good trade i_heap cookery-books that professed to teach rationed house-wives how to mak_ubstance out of shadow. Gently rubbing his little beard, he stood and gaze_ather absently at a shelf of small paper-protected volumes, while Elsi_aited with submission.
  • Silence within, but the dulled and still hard rumble of ceaseless motio_eyond the book-screened windows! A spell! An enchantment upon these two huma_eings, both commonplace and both marvellous, bound together and yet incuriou_ach of the other and incurious of the mysteries in which they and all thei_ellows lived! Mr. Earlforward never asked the meaning of life, for he had _ifelong ruling passion. Elsie never asked the meaning of life, for she wa_ominated and obsessed by a tremendous instinct to serve. Mr. Earlforward,
  • though a kindly man, had persuaded himself that Elsie would go on charin_ntil she died, without any romantic recompense from fate for her earl_ragedy, and he was well satisfied that this should be so. Because the resul_ould inconvenience him, he desired that she should not fall in love again an_arry; he preferred that she should spend her strength and youth and shoul_row old for him in sterile celibacy. He had absolutely no eye for th_xciting effect of the white and the brown apron-strings crossing an_ecrossing round her magnificent waist. And Elsie knew only that Mr.
  • Earlforward had material wants, which she satisfied as well as she could. Sh_id not guess, nor come within a hundred miles of guessing, that he wa_ubject to dreams and ideals and longings. That the universe was enigmatic ha_ot even occurred to her, nor to him; they were too busy with their share i_orking it out.
  • "Now here's a book that ought to suit Mrs. Arb," said Mr. Earlforward, pickin_ volume from the shelf and moving towards the entrance, where the clea_aylight was. "'Snacks and Titbits.' Let me see. Sandwiches." He turned ove_eaves. "Sandwiches. There's nearly seven pages about sandwiches."
  • "How much would it be, sir?"
  • "One shilling."
  • "Oh! She said she couldn't pay more than sixpence, sir, she said."
  • Mr. Earlforward looked up with a fresh interest. He was exhilarated, eve_nspired, by the conception of a woman who, wishing to brighten her busines_ith a new line of goods, was not prepared to spend more than sixpence on th_ndispensable basis of the enterprise. The conception powerfully appealed t_im, and his regard for Mrs. Arb increased.
  • "See here, Elsie. Take this over for Mrs. Arb to look at. And tell her, wit_y compliments, that you can't get cookery-books—not any that are any good—fo_ixpence in these days."
  • "Yes, sir."
  • Elsie put the book under her aprons and hurried off.
  • "She sends you  _her_  compliments, and she says she can't pay more tha_ixpence, sir. I'm that sorry, sir," Elsie announced, returning.
  • Mr. Earlforward blandly replaced the book on its shelf, and Elsie waited i_ain for any comment, then left.
  • "I say, Elsie," he recalled her. "It's not raining much, but it might soon. A_ou're here, you'd better help me in with the stand. That'll save me takin_he books out before it's moved, and it'll save you trouble in the morning."
  • "Yes, sir," Elsie eagerly agreed.
  • One at either end of it, they lugged within the heavy bookstand that stretche_long the length of the window on the flagstones outside the shop. The book_howed scarcely a trace of the drizzle.
  • "Thank you, Elsie."
  • "Don't mention it, sir."
  • Mr. Earlforward switched on one electric light in the middle of the shop,
  • switched off the light in his den, and lit a candle there. Then he took _hermos flask, a cup, and two slices of bread on a plate from the interior o_he grandfather's clock, poured steaming tea into the cup, and enjoyed hi_vening meal. When the bell of St. Andrew's jangled six, he shut and darkene_he shop. The war habit of closing early suited him very well for severa_easons. Then, blowing out the candle, he began again to burn electricity i_he den, and tapped slowly and moved to and fro with deliberation, examinin_ook-titles, tapping out lists, tapping out addresses on envelopes, lickin_tamps, and performing other pleasant little tasks of routine. And all th_ime he dwelt with exquisite pleasure on the bodily appearance and astonishin_oral characteristics of Mrs. Arb. What a woman! He had been right about tha_oman from the first glance. She was a woman in a million.
  • At a quarter to seven he put his boots on and collected his letters for th_ost. But before leaving to go to the post he suddenly thought of a ten-
  • shilling Treasury note received from Dr. Raste, and took it from his waistcoa_ocket. It was a beautiful new note, a delicate object, carefully folded b_omeone who understood that new notes deserve good treatment. He put it, wit_ther less brilliant cash, into the safe. As he departed from the shop for th_ost office at Mount Pleasant, he picked out "Snacks and Titbits" from it_helf again, and slipped it into his side-pocket.
  • The rain had ceased. He inhaled the fresh, damp air with an innocent an_enuine delight. Mrs. Arb's shop was the sole building illuminated in Riceyma_teps; it looked warm and feminine; it attracted. The church rose darkly, _ormidable mass, in the opening at the top of the steps. The little group o_welling-houses next to his own establishment showed not a sign of life; the_eldom did; he knew nothing of their tenants, and felt absolutely no curiosit_oncerning them. His little yard abutted on the yard of the nearest house, bu_he wall between them was seven feet high; no sound ever came over it.
  • He turned into the main road. Although he might have dropped hi_orrespondence into the pillar-box close by, he preferred to go to the might_ount Pleasant organism, with its terrific night-movement of vans and flun_ailbags, because it seemed surer, safer, for his letters.
  • Like many people who live alone, he had a habit of talking to himself in th_treet. His thoughts would from time to time suddenly burst almost wit_iolence into a phrase. Then he would smile to himself. "Me at my age!" …
  • "Yes, and of course there's _that_!" … "Want some getting used to!" … He woul_augh rather sheepishly.
  • The vanquished were already beginning to creep into the mazes of Rowton House.
  • They clicked through a turnstile—that was all he knew about existence i_owton House, except that there were plants with large green leaves in th_indows of the common-room. Some of the vanquished entered with boldness, bu_he majority walked furtively. Just opposite Rowton House the wisdom an_nterprise of two railway companies had filled a blank wall with a larg_oster exhibiting the question: "Why not take a winter holiday where sunshin_eigns?" etc. Beneath this blank wall a newsman displayed the posters of th_vening papers, together with stocks of the papers. Mr. Earlforward alway_ead the placards for news. There was nothing much to-night. "Death of a well-
  • known statesman." Mr. Earlforward, as an expert in interpretation, was awar_hat "well-known" on a newspaper placard meant exactly the opposite of what i_eant in any other place; it meant not well-known. The placards always divide_ead celebrities, genuine and false, into three categories. If Blank was _upreme personage the placards said: "Blank dead." Two most impressive words.
  • If Blank was a real personage, but not quite supreme, the placards said:
  • "Death of Blank." Three words, not so impressive. All others nameless were i_he third category of "well-knowns." Nevertheless, Mr. Earlforward walke_riskly back as far as the Free Library to glance at a paper—perhaps no_ecause he was disturbed about the identity of a well-known statesman, bu_ecause he hesitated to carry out his resolution to enter Mrs. Arb's shop.