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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 6/65 -
Feather clutched the door handle because she felt herself swaying.
"Away! Away!" the words were a faint gasp.
"She packed her trunk yesterday and carried it away with her on a four-wheeler. About an hour ago, ma'am." Feather dropped her hand from the knob of the door and trailed back to the chair she had left, sinking into it helplessly.
"Who--who will dress me?" she half wailed.
"I don't know, ma'am," replied the young footman, his excellent manner presuming no suggestion or opinion whatever. He added however, "Cook, ma'am, wishes to speak to you."
"Tell her to come to me here," Feather said. "And I--I want a cup of beef tea."
"Yes, ma'am," with entire respect. And the door closed quietly behind him.
It was not long before it was opened again. "Cook" had knocked and Feather had told her to come in. Most cooks are stout, but this one was not. She was a thin, tall woman with square shoulders and a square face somewhat reddened by constant proximity to fires. She had been trained at a cooking school. She carried a pile of small account books but she brought nothing else.
"I wanted some beef tea, Cook," said Feather protestingly.
"There is no beef tea, ma'am," said Cook. "There is neither beef, nor stock, nor Liebig in the house."
"Why--why not?" stammered Feather and she stammered because even her lack of perception saw something in the woman's face which was new to her. It was a sort of finality.
She held out the pile of small books.
"Here are the books, ma'am," was her explanation. "Perhaps as you don't like to be troubled with such things, you don't know how far behind they are. Nothing has been paid for months. It's been an every-day fight to get the things that was wanted. It's not an agreeable thing for a cook to have to struggle and plead. I've had to do it because I had my reputation to think of and I couldn't send up rubbish when there was company."
Feather felt herself growing pale as she sat and stared at her. Cook drew near and laid one little book after another on the small table near her.
"That's the butcher's book," she said. "He's sent nothing in for three days. We've been living on leavings. He's sent his last, he says and he means it. This is the baker's. He's not been for a week. I made up rolls because I had some flour left. It's done now--and HE'S done. This is groceries and Mercom & Fees wrote to Mr. Gareth-Lawless when the last month's supply came, that it would BE the last until payment was made. This is wines--and coal and wood--and laundry--and milk. And here is wages, ma'am, which CAN'T go on any longer."
Feather threw up her hands and quite wildly.
"Oh, go away!--go away!" she cried. "If Mr. Lawless were here--"
"He isn't, ma'am," Cook interposed, not fiercely but in a way more terrifying than any ferocity could have been--a way which pointed steadily to the end of things. "As long as there's a gentleman in a house there's generally a sort of a prospect that things MAY be settled some way. At any rate there's someone to go and speak your mind to even if you have to give up your place. But when there's no gentleman and nothing--and nobody--respectable people with their livings to make have got to protect themselves."
The woman had no intention of being insolent. Her simple statement that her employer's death had left "Nothing" and "Nobody" was prompted by no consciously ironic realization of the diaphanousness of Feather. As for the rest she had been professionally trained to take care of her interests as well as to cook and the ethics of the days of her grandmother when there had been servants with actual affections had not reached her.
"Oh! go away! Go AWA-AY!" Feather almost shrieked.
"I am going, ma'am. So are Edward and Emma and Louisa. It's no use waiting and giving the month's notice. We shouldn't save the month's wages and the trades-people wouldn't feed us. We can't stay here and starve. And it's a time of the year when places has to be looked for. You can't hold it against us, ma'am. It's better for you to have us out of the house tonight--which is when our boxes will be taken away."
Then was Feather seized with a panic. For the first time in her life she found herself facing mere common facts which rose before her like a solid wall of stone--not to be leapt, or crept under, or bored through, or slipped round. She was so overthrown and bewildered that she could not even think of any clever and rapidly constructed lie which would help her; indeed she was so aghast that she did not remember that there were such things as lies.
"Do you mean," she cried out, "that you are all going to LEAVE the house--that there won't be any servants to wait on me--that there's nothing to eat or drink--that I shall have to stay here ALONE--and starve!"
"We should have to starve if we stayed," answered Cook simply. "And of course there are a few things left in the pantry and closets. And you might get in a woman by the day. You won't starve, ma'am. You've got your family in Jersey. We waited because we thought Mr. and Mrs. Darrel would be sure to come."
"My father is ill. I think he's dying. My mother could not leave him for a moment. Perhaps he's dead now," Feather wailed.
"You've got your London friends, ma'am--"
Feather literally beat her hands together.
"My friends! Can I go to people's houses and knock at their front door and tell them I haven't any servants or anything to eat! Can I do that? Can I?" And she said it as if she were going crazy.
The woman had said what she had come to say as spokeswoman for the rest. It had not been pleasant but she knew she had been quite within her rights and dealt with plain facts. But she did not enjoy the prospect of seeing her little fool of a mistress raving in hysterics.
"You mustn't let yourself go, ma'am," she said. "You'd better lie down a bit and try to get quiet." She hesitated a moment looking at the pretty ruin who had risen from her seat and stood trembling.
"It's not my place of course to--make suggestions," she said quietly. "But--had you ever thought of sending for Lord Coombe, ma'am?"
Feather actually found the torn film of her mind caught for a second by something which wore a form of reality. Cook saw that her tremor appeared to verge on steadying itself.
"Coombe," she faintly breathed as if to herself and not to Cook.
"His lordship was very friendly with Mr. Lawless and he seemed fond of--coming to the house," was presented as a sort of added argument. "If you'll lie down I'll bring you a cup of tea, ma'am--though it can't be beef."
Feather staggered again to her bed and dropped flat upon it--flat as a slim little pancake in folds of thin black stuff which hung and floated.
"I can't bring you cream," said Cook as she went out of the room. "Louisa has had nothing but condensed milk--since yesterday--to give Miss Robin."
"Oh-h!" groaned Feather, not in horror of the tea without cream though that was awful enough in its significance, but because this was the first time since the falling to pieces of her world that she had given a thought to the added calamity of Robin.
If one were to devote one's mental energies to speculation as to what is going on behind the noncommittal fronts of any row of houses in any great city the imaginative mind might be led far.
Bricks, mortar, windows, doors, steps which lead up to the threshold, are what are to be seen from the outside. Nothing particular may be transpiring within the walls, or tragedies, crimes, hideous suffering may be enclosed. The conclusion is obvious to banality--but as suggestive as banal--so suggestive in fact that the hyper-sensitive and too imaginative had better, for their own comfort's sake, leave the matter alone. In most cases the existing conditions would not be altered even if one knocked at the door and insisted on entering with drawn sword in the form of attendant policeman The outside of the slice of a house in which Feather lived was still rather fresh from its last decorative touching up. It had been painted cream colour and had white and windows and green window boxes with variegated vinca vines trailing from them and pink geraniums, dark blue lobelia and ferns filling the earth stuffed in by the florist who provided such adornments. Passers-by frequently glanced at it and thought it a nice little house whose amusing diminutiveness was a sort of attraction. It was rather like a new doll's house.
No one glancing at it in passing at the closing of this particular day had reason to suspect that any unaccustomed event was taking place behind the cream-coloured front. The front door "brasses" had been polished, the window-boxes watered and no cries for aid
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