"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?"
"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."
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.