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(ii)

ENCOUNTERING Lady Henrietta by chance that same evening, the secretary told her hurriedly what had been determined, noting with unhappy eyes that her gait had taken on something of its old swiftness; a gait like that of a very young child, pressing forward in pursuit of its own centre of gravity. She heard his announcement with that old too gracious inclination of the head, but said nothing. He persisted:

“It cannot be agreeable to you, madam, I know. I thought it might be less shocking—that you might be better prepared if you knew to expect it. I spoke against it so far as my capacity allowed.”

She said, smiling and swaying:

“Good of you, Mr. Winter. Obliged to you. Mistaken, though. You were mistaken. I have no objection to see Milly back. No longer any objection.”

He bowed and could say no more. She did not, however, depart at once. Looking about her, she beckoned him closer.

“Tell me. No news?”

He understood that she spoke of Adare, and answered that so far as he knew there was none. She nodded as


  ― 193 ―
though this were what she had expected to hear. He went on, despite a pang of terror which took him at the thought of Flusky, and Form F lying folded in Flusky's pocket:

“But, madam, don't give up hope. In this country —at this time of year, men don't starve. He's making history, perhaps. Five months is not long.”

“I know,” she answered, as if at random. “He won't come back, though.”

She went away along the corridor dirty still with the dust of a storm that had blown two days ago. The women neglected their work; Winter could not deny it, nor that there was waste, food spoilt, disorder everywhere. His common sense could not blame Flusky for wishing to make an end to such a state of affairs.

Two days later, in a spring cart with three neat small boxes stowed behind the seat, Miss Milly arrived.

She found the household sullen. Having learned, by some keyhole method of their own, that the tyrant was due to reappear, the women had taken their last opportunity. By pledging kitchen implements they had obtained a sufficiency of liquor from the fishermen, and in company with their benefactors caroused till a late hour. Towards two o'clock the secretary, tumbling out of bed, had gone downstairs to quell an outburst of noise, and found the wives from the huts engaged in fighting the female servants with fists, skewers and buckets. Being sober and having right on their side they had soon overcome resistance, and marched their husbands off, swearing and singing, to legitimate beds.


  ― 194 ―
But the kitchen betrayed signs of conflict, a splash of blood here, a plate smashed there, and the tin lid of the fish-kettle, which had been used as a shield, was crumpled like a piece of paper. Amid this disorder the three women slept, and woke unwillingly when the sun already was high to find Miss Milly, bonneted, hands on hips, standing in the doorway.

It was her hour. Scorpions lodged in her tongue, her hand was lifted, she overrode protests as an armed man in his chariot. Old Sal, by virtue of her seniority, and having a better capacity than her juniors to hold and recover from liquor, ventured upon an exchange of abuse. She told the newcomer that the Almighty might like a nose,note and have chosen the Jews for his own people on that account, but that she, Sal, could never feel aught but contempt for one. That if there was a thing she could not endure it was a needling,note nailing,note manchester-wagger,note the mere view of whose mug was enough to knap the devil the glim.note Miss Milly heard Sal out, folding her lips in upon each other; then without any words struck the old woman on the head with a long basting spoon. She added with a kind of humour, as blood started up along the cut:

“I'm ready for the devil, I'd have you know.”

When she had set the rhythm of the kitchen going—it started with surprisingly little trouble, like a good old clock rewound and set—she went over the rest of the


  ― 195 ―
house, noting ravages. It was not only a question of dust. Curtains hung crookedly, with here and there a tear unmended. From furniture in the drawing-room scraps of veneer had been knocked with the broom-head. The beds showed signs of slovenly making, and under them flue lay flaked. She remade the bed in Flusky's room, noting with jealous care an unfamiliar clumsy darn at the back of a sock thrown beneath it. When this room was neat as she could make it she went along the passage and knocked, walking in before there could be any answer.

Lady Henrietta was asleep, though the sun was over her forehead and beginning to shine upon her eyes. This room too was in disorder; Miss Milly, however, had no care for the room. She stood looking at the big woman whose hair strayed to cover her pillow, whose face had grown thinner and clearer in the months since Milly departed. The eyes were hollow, blue-lidded, beautifully framed by their bones. The mouth even in sleep was red. Miss Milly marvelled at this renewal of beauty, hated it, and regarded the bottle upon the table with satisfaction, smelling it for better assurance that it was the right stuff, the wrong stuff, the stuff to do the trick.

“Milly!” She turned, quick as a cat, and slid the bottle down with a hand behind her. Lady Henrietta was awake, gazing at her without surprise.

“It's me all right,” the righteous woman answered, disconcerted.

“Ain't you getting up?” She added, maliciously:


  ― 196 ―
“you're not looking any too well. Any news of Mister Adare?”

“He is dead. We are back where we started from.”

The woman could make nothing of that last sentence. She answered the first.

“And there's fools don't believe in a judgment!”

“Milly, if you please. Will you take over the ordering of the house as you did before?”

“It's time someone took over. Dirt everywhere, those women selling the very saucepans off the stove for drink and their other games.”

“There is some money, I think, in the purse there. Will you take it?”

“I never have and I never will. There's one thing, though, if I'm to take over. The keys.”

Lady Henrietta put a hand under her pillow and pulled out the keys on their ribbon, no longer smooth, no longer the colour of an Irish lawn. Miss Milly took them with a disdainful look, and at once untied the ribbon, picking at it viciously with her strong blunt fingers. Holding one finger hitched through the steel ring she swung them, making them jangle like miniature bells for a victory. Her voice was milder when she spoke again.

“You don't need move for dinner. Bed's more easeful when you're not yourself.”

“You're kind,” Lady Henrietta answered, astonishing the woman by the sincerity in her voice. Easeful; that word came as an echo too. “So very kind.”




  ― 197 ―

“I do my duty,” Miss Milly answered, folding the grass-green ribbon carefully to put it away, “or so I hope.”

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