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(xiii)

THE mornings came, greeted by locusts. Gradually the air thickened with the scent of hot grass, and clouds which floated above Sydney's hills at the sun's rising sank below them, leaving the sky clear and very pale. This was a month of hot days.




  ― 253 ―

Susan Quaife was beginning to know that true horror of being suddenly pitchforked from one way of life to another, the difficulty of discovering a new endurable routine; lack of occupation beset her, like a foe fighting by the clock, from seven until twelve in the morning. Had it not been for certain expressions in Mr. Adare's letter which she had come to decipher she would have packed up her hair-trunk and gone back to the hot rooms and never-failing occupations of home. Her boredom was such that she had even truckled to Miss Milly, begged for dusters, and received a refusal too civil by half.

“Oh, I couldn't think of it. Ladyship's guest—oh, no. Servants is quite another matter. Unless you was complaining of the dust anywhere. If that's so, point it out, I'll have it seen to, gladly.”

Miss Milly had not forgiven the locked door and the evasion. S. Quaife had not forgiven Miss Milly's attitude at their first colloquy, nor her: Ladyship says she never heard of you. It was as much the wish to give battle, as the desire to come within the shadow of Adare, that kept her in the house. She watched Miss Milly with young eyes that missed nothing and did not know their own cruelty. She tormented her in such ways as suggested themselves, George Street ways, imitating her strut so that the kitchen women could see from their window and laugh, seeking out beetles to put in her slippers. Miss Milly knew well whence the offences came and was silent, taking no measures beyond locking her door, and resolutely wedging her window shut.




  ― 254 ―

Skirmishing thus, Susan made for the kitchen quarters, feeling the sunlight lift and fall like a series of soft blows as she passed one by one the thick wooden supports of the verandah. She looked in at the kitchen window from outside; Miss Milly was not there, old Sal stood by the stove toasting herself a bit of bread, the murderess sat at ease by a basin of water and a heap of potatoes. It was an agreeable picture, and the girl envied both women their air of belonging to the environment, their occupied hands. They spied her head at the window. Old Sal whipped away the bread into a fold of her skirt before she recognized and laughed.

“Cat's away,” said old Sal jovially.

Susan accepted this as an invitation to enter and make one with the kitchen garrison amid its unladylike activities and smells; she began to help with the potatoes.

“You put me in mind of that young gent,” said old Sal, lavishly spreading dripping. “He was a proper nib, what's this his name was, gone off with the blacks somewhere—Adare, that's it.”

“Adare,” echoed S. Quaife, halting her knife. “What about him?”

Old Sal, rocking with pleasure, told how Mr. Adare would come into the kitchen and take a hand in what was going on. Many's the time he had accepted from her just such a slice of nice dripping toast as that which she was preparing. And she recounted the adventure of the poached eggs, pointing in proof to the fly-blown decorations from which three roses still were missing.


  ― 255 ―
S. Quaife looked long at the gaps, and encouraged old Sal.

“Go on. What more did he do?”

“I tell you one thing he did. Got her out of the house.”

Old Sal indicated with her head the slippers, Miss Milly's emblems, now restored to their place. “ ‘She getting your lady the lush,’note he says to the master. ‘If ladyship's on the lush I know who she gets it from.’ He was sharp, Mr. Adare, he was fly to her.”

“What did Mr. Flusky say?”

“Oh, she took herself off, but she left him with a flea in his ear. ‘It's not the lush,’ she says, ‘she's off the lush,’ she says. (And so she was, while Mr. Adare was here.) ‘That's not what you got to look out for,’ she says, ‘it's her dabnote you want to keep your eye on.’ Have a bite of toast, duck?”

S. Quaife, understanding and taken with a horrid sick qualm, yet could not resist the temptation to know more.

“What happened then?”

“Oh, after that ladyship come and give the orders. Him too, Mr. Adare come. ‘Madam Sarah, would you give your attention to the bacon?’ he'd say. ‘Just a glance from those eyes as you dish up, that'll curl it proper.’ He was a nib.”

“Was that right, that about——”




  ― 256 ―

She could not finish the question. Old Sal, however, understood, and rolled her eyes sentimentally.

“Ah, I don't blame nobody. When a woman follers her heart——”

“No, but was it?”

“He never,” said the murderess unexpectedly from among her potatoes, “for all Mr. Flusky thought so. I was housemaid, used to make the beds then, and I'd take my oath——” She stabbed ferociously with her knife in the direction of the slippers. “It was her. She want a man herself, for all her tex's. She didn't care for to see ladyship getting right.”

“Nor didn't Mr. Flusky, come to that. Well, he was jealous, oh, something terrible. Put me in mind of Mr. Vaux one day when I'd been out with a friend, one of the family—But I won't say he had any reason. No, you don't catch me talking ill of the dead, it's unlucky for one thing.”

“Who's dead?”

“This Mr. Adare's dead, you wasn't listening. Mr. Flusky, he fixed up a rig with Ketch the black, and this poor young feller Adare, he was a go-alonger, why you could gammon him a penny was a dollar by daylight——” Old Sal sighed sharply, and sucked dripping off her toast. “Off he went.”

“But Ladyship's had a letter. She's read it to me. He's all right——”

“Well, she may. I don't say no. But Mr. Flusky, he's not one to put his hand to the plough—chah, I'm talking


  ― 257 ―
like Milly. He's not one to slip up. If he says croak,note croak it is. Ladyship or no ladyship, letter or no letter, Mr. Flusky didn't want him, and he's gone. Same as that Winter.” She ate her toast luxuriously, dipping the crust in a cup of water to soften it. “But it's Milly at the bottom of it. He gets his way, so does she.” Old Sal winked above chumping jaws. “You'll see, once Ladyship's gone, somebody'll be in her shoes.”

At that, her sharp ears catching a warning jangle in the passage she thrust the remains of her bread into the fire, smeared her mouth with the heel of her hand, and became attentive to a seething pot. Miss Milly, entering, observed Susan Quaife by the table and ignored her.

“Ladyship's tray. Ladyship won't be down to-day.”

Susan Quaife had learned a good deal. One of the things learned had sunk already below the surface of her mind, where it ached—Adare's presumed death, and the reason for it. A violent anger, the alternative to tears, possessed her, together with a feeling of powerlessness. She dropped her potato knife deliberately, and went across the kitchen to where Miss Milly's slippers, stately twins, reposed under their chair. She picked them up, dressed her hands in them, and made them scamper ridiculously over the chair-back.

“Pardon me. That's my property you're making so free with.”

Susan Quaife did not answer, beyond obliging the left


  ― 258 ―
slipper to perform a pirouette. She heard behind her back one of the women snort.

“You heard what I said—miss.” The right-hand slipper gave a kick and came down in the fifth dancing position. “Will you kindly put them shoes down? I'm asking you. I shan't ask twice.”

Susan Quaife, letting her shod hands fall by her sides, turned to face Miss Milly.

“If I don't, what'll you do?”

“Never you mind.”

Susan Quaife laughed offensively at a retort which revealed that the threatener had no further plan.

“Who are you, I'd like to know, coming into my kitchen and taking up my property as if it belonged to you?”

“You've got to call me Miss, anyway,” Susan Quaife answered, clapping the slippers against her thighs.

“And a right Miss you are, too. Jest not with a rude man, it is written; nor girl neither. I know my place, if you don't know yours.”

“Why don't Ladyship come down?” Susan Quaife asked, defiantly.

“Because she don't choose. She's took ill again.”

“Whose fault's that?”

“Ah, there I wouldn't like to say.” Miss Milly put off the shrew, and chose another manner from her armoury; that of the preoccupied housewife, too busy to attend to children. “Now you put down them slippers and run along. And keep quiet.”

Susan Quaife hesitated a moment, dropped the


  ― 259 ―
slippers, and marched out. It was not the retreat of a beaten army, but rather of one outmanœuvred, which must seek another position, more favourable, before challenging again.

But at two o'clock as usual, most punctually, Lady Henrietta did come down; restless, her hands quivering, she descended to the drawing-room and the lessons began, Susan sitting at the desk, her legs gathered ladylike under her. She worked a while to the pointing of a pencil, then observing how the other's hand now and then dropped like a dead creature, said in a burst:

“Don't go on. You're sick.”

“A little nervous,” Lady Henrietta admitted. “It's because I wouldn't take my medicine.”

“You'd ought to take it, then.”

“I don't think so,” said Lady Henrietta, smiling, but uneasily. “I do better, I believe, without it.”

The lesson proceeded. Reading from the Bible, and from a book called Tales, by Miss Edgeworth, whom Lady Henrietta had known in Ireland. It was the phrasing of these pages, perhaps, that touched Susan Quaife, or a description of one of the young men, or the voice of the reader; for after a page had been stumbled through, when Lady Henrietta read it again aloud, to show how it should go, she broke out of a sudden, jumping up from the low chair:

“What's the good?”

Lady Henrietta closed the book, seemed to gather and reserve herself, sitting completely still.




  ― 260 ―

“What's the good, what did I come here for? I knew it was silly, I knew that the first day.”

“Has somebody been unkind?”

“I don't care what they say, it's not that.”

“If you're not happy—— But it is such a pleasure to me to have you with me.”

The girl did not speak, only looked sulkily and long at her feet, as during their first meeting.

“You are so much younger, it is dull for you. I forget that at seventeen one wants to have done with schooling.”

The girl hesitated, and went forward, breasting her trouble.

“That letter—you know.”

“Yes? The letter?”

“Oh,” said Susan Quaife loudly, “what's the good? It's cruel, I call it, when you knew all the time he was dead.”

Lady Henrietta heard herself speaking the truth, slow and hollow, a voice out of a wall.

“I did not wish to know that.”

“I was a proper softy,” the girl went on angrily. “A proper flat. Lessons——” she spurned Miss Edgeworth. “As if it would ever have been any good.”

Lady Henrietta said:

“It was for myself. To keep Charles alive in myself. I can't explain wholly. You are too young.”

Susan, astonished for a moment, went back to her anger and the jealousy that drove it, of whose existence she was not so much as aware.




  ― 261 ―

“Young, am I? Don't you trouble for that. I know all I need to. It was your husband sent him away, wasn't it? What for did he do that?”

“You've been listening to kitchen talk.”

“That's where I belong, the kitchen. That's where I'm best off. I'm not one for drawing-rooms, never could be.”

“His letter——”

“His letter, yes, written just the way he and you talk, so's a person like me can't understand, so's not to mean anything. Rude about my Dad, about my way of speaking——”

Susan Quaife's anger was coming close to tears. Lady Henrietta stood up. She spoke low.

“I have become very fond of you. I never had a child. But you are free, of course.” The girl did not look at her, fighting tears. “When I brought you here it was because your existence, your face—so like as he described it—gave me some kind of assurance that he was not dead. I cannot explain my thoughts very well. Only you must be sure I did not mean to make you unhappy.”

The girl turned away, took up the ivory fan out of its box; the lattice-work was blurred to her eyes. Behind her, painfully, Lady Henrietta's voice went on:

“You spoke of my husband. I don't know what they may have told you. But here is something that I will tell you. Years ago, in Ireland, I shot at a man and killed him. My husband took the blame for it; transportation for seven years, and other punishment besides. I spoke to you of that. So you see——” The voice failed, and


  ― 262 ―
resumed more strongly: “You may think of me what you please. But when you say my husband sent him away, was responsible for his death, that isn't true. That is a thing nobody must say.”

Susan Quaife muttered:

“I never said it was his fault.”

She felt that Lady Henrietta had come behind her; a dry fine hand closed over hers that held the fan's sticks together. She said sharply:

“Don't do that.”

Susan began in good earnest to cry, with a first rasping sob that surprised and dismayed her so that she could make no further resistance. She had a vision of her own hand ridiculously prancing in an embroidered slipper an hour ago, now for no reason brought out of its sphere to lie between these two ivories. She wrenched it away; then, awkwardly turning, with her head sought the comfort of the other woman's warmth. She wept standing, hands by her side, one still clenched upon the fan, while Lady Henrietta held and very gently rocked her, not speaking.

When the tears ended, and she was drawing away ashamed, Lady Henrietta said, not as a question:

“You won't leave me.”

“Not if you want.”

“I do. I do want.”

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