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- The Odd Women - 2/90 -


volume, and he selected 'The Lotus-Eaters.' The girls grouped themselves about him, delighted to listen. Many an hour of summer evening had they thus spent, none more peaceful than the present. The reader's cadenced voice blended with the song of a thrush.

'"Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast, And in a little while our lips are dumb. Let us alone. What is it that will last? All thing' are taken from us--"'

There came an interruption, hurried, peremptory. A farmer over at Kingston Seymour had been seized with alarming illness; the doctor must come at once.

'Very sorry, girls. Tell James to put the horse in, sharp as he can.

In ten minutes Dr. Madden was driving at full speed, alone in his dog-cart, towards the scene of duty.

About seven o'clock Rhoda Nunn took leave, remarking with her usual directness, that before going home she would walk along the sea-front in the hope of a meeting with Mr. Smithson and his daughter. Mrs. Nunn was not well enough to leave the house to-day; but, said Rhoda, the invalid preferred being left alone at such times.

'Are you sure she prefers it?' Alice ventured to ask. The girl gave her a look of surprise.

'Why should mother say what she doesn't mean?'

It was uttered with an ingenuousness which threw some light on Rhoda's character.

By nine o'clock the younger trio of sisters had gone to bed; Alice, Virginia, and Gertrude sat in the parlour, occupied with books, from time to time exchanging a quiet remark. A tap at the door scarcely drew their attention, for they supposed it was the maid-servant coming to lay supper. But when the door opened there was a mysterious silence; Alice looked up and saw the expected face, wearing, however, so strange an expression that she rose with sudden fear.

'Can I speak to you, please, miss?'

The dialogue out in the passage was brief. A messenger had just arrived with the tidings that Dr. Madden, driving back from Kingston Seymour, had been thrown from his vehicle and lay insensible at a roadside cottage.

* * *

For some time the doctor had been intending to buy a new horse; his faithful old roadster was very weak in the knees. As in other matters, so in this, postponement became fatality; the horse stumbled and fell, and its driver was flung head forward into the road. Some hours later they brought him to his home, and for a day or two there were hopes that he might rally. But the sufferer's respite only permitted him to dictate and sign a brief will; this duty performed, Dr. Madden closed his lips for ever.

CHAPTER II

ADRIFT

Just before Christmas of 1887, a lady past her twenties, and with a look of discouraged weariness on her thin face, knocked at a house-door in a little street by Lavender Hill. A card in the window gave notice that a bedroom was here to let. When the door opened, and a clean, grave, elderly woman presented herself, the visitor, regarding her anxiously, made known that she was in search of a lodging.

'It may be for a few weeks only, or it may be for a longer period,' she said in a low, tired voice, with an accent of good breeding. 'I have a difficulty in finding precisely what I want. One room would be sufficient, and I ask for very little attendance.'

She had but one room to let, replied the other. It might be inspected.

They went upstairs. The room was at the back of the house, small, but neatly furnished. Its appearance seemed to gratify the visitor, for she smiled timidly.

'What rent should you ask?'

'That would depend, mum, on what attendance was required.'

'Yes--of course. I think--will you permit me to sit down? I am really very tired. Thank you. I require very little attendance indeed. My ways are very simple. I should make the bed myself, and--and, do the other little things that are necessary from day to day. Perhaps I might ask you to sweep the room out--once a week or so.'

The landlady grew meditative. Possibly she had had experience of lodgers who were anxious to give as little trouble as possible. She glanced furtively at the stranger.

'And what,' was her question at length, 'would you be thinking of paying?'

'Perhaps I had better explain my position. For several years I have been companion to a lady in Hampshire. Her death has thrown me on my own resources--I hope only for a short time. I have come to London because a younger sister of mine is employed here in a house of business; she recommended me to seek for lodgings in this part; I might as well be near her whilst I am endeavouring to find another post; perhaps I may be fortunate enough to find one in London. Quietness and economy are necessary to me. A house like yours would suit me very well--very well indeed. Could we not agree upon terms within my--within my power?'

Again the landlady pondered.

'Would you be willing to pay five and sixpence?'

'Yes, I would pay five and sixpence--if you are quite sure that you could let me live in my own way with satisfaction to yourself. I--in fact, I am a vegetarian, and as the meals I take are so very simple, I feel that I might just as well prepare them myself. Would you object to my doing so in this room? A kettle and a saucepan are really all--absolutely all--that I should need to use. As I shall be much at home, it will be of course necessary for me to have a fire.'

In the course of half an hour an agreement had been devised which seemed fairly satisfactory to both parties.

'I'm not one of the graspin' ones,' remarked the landlady. 'I think I may say that of myself. If I make five or six shillings a week out of my spare room, I don't grumble. But the party as takes it must do their duty on _their_ side. You haven't told me your name yet, mum.'

'Miss Madden. My luggage is at the railway station; it shall be brought here this evening. And, as I am quite unknown to you, I shall be glad to pay my rent in advance.'

'Well, I don't ask for that; but it's just as you like.'

'Then I will pay you five and sixpence at once. Be so kind as to let me have a receipt.'

So Miss Madden established herself at Lavender Hill, and dwelt there alone for three months.

She received letters frequently, but only one person called upon her. This was her sister Monica, now serving at a draper's in Walworth Road. The young lady came every Sunday, and in bad weather spent the whole day up in the little bedroom. Lodger and landlady were on remarkably good terms; the one paid her dues with exactness, and the other did many a little kindness not bargained for in the original contract.

Time went on to the spring of '88. Then, one afternoon, Miss Madden descended to the kitchen and tapped in her usual timid way at the door.

'Are you at leisure, Mrs. Conisbee? Could I have a little conversation with you?'

The landlady was alone, and with no more engrossing occupation than the ironing of some linen she had recently washed.

'I have mentioned my elder sister now and then. I am sorry to say she is leaving her post with the family at Hereford. The children are going to school, so that her services are no longer needed.'

'Indeed, mum?'

'Yes. For a shorter or longer time she will be in need of a home. Now it has occurred to me, Mrs. Conisbee, that--that I would ask you whether you would have any objection to her sharing my room with me? Of course there must be an extra payment. The room is small for two persons, but then the arrangement would only be temporary. My sister is a good and experienced teacher, and I am sure she will have no difficulty in obtaining another engagement.'

Mrs. Conisbee reflected, but without a shade of discontent. By this time she knew that her lodger was thoroughly to be trusted.

'Well, it's if _you_ can manage, mum,' she replied. 'I don't see as I could have any fault to find, if you thought you could both live in that little room. And as for the rent, _I_ should be quite satisfied if we said seven shillings instead of five and six.'

'Thank you, Mrs. Conisbee; thank you very much indeed. I will write to my sister at once; the news will be a great relief to her. We shall have quite an enjoyable little holiday together.'

A week later the eldest of the three Miss Maddens arrived. As it was quite impossible to find space for her boxes in the bedroom, Mrs.


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