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- The Odd Women - 4/90 -
Nowadays she procured such works from a lending library, on a subscription of a shilling a month. Ashamed at first to indulge this taste before Alice, she tried more solid literature, but this either sent her to sleep or induced headache. The feeble novels reappeared, and as Alice made no adverse comment, they soon came and went with the old regularity.
This afternoon the sisters were disposed for conversation. The same grave thought preoccupied both of them, and they soon made it their subject.
'Surely,' Alice began by murmuring, half absently, 'I shall soon hear of something.'
'I am dreadfully uneasy on my own account,' her sister replied.
'You think the person at Southend won't write again?'
'I'm afraid not. And she seemed so _very_ unsatisfactory. Positively illiterate--oh, I couldn't bear that.' Virginia gave a shudder as she spoke.
'I almost wish,' said Alice, 'that I had accepted the place at Plymouth.'
'Oh, my dear! Five children and not a penny of salary. It was a shameless proposal.'
'It was, indeed,' sighed the poor governess. 'But there is so little choice for people like myself. Certificates, and even degrees, are asked for on every hand. With nothing but references to past employers, what can one expect? I know it will end in my taking a place without salary.'
'People seem to have still less need of _me_,' lamented the companion. 'I wish now that I had gone to Norwich as lady-help.'
'Dear, your health would _never_ have supported it.'
'I don't know. Possibly the more active life might do me good. It _might_, you know, Alice.'
The other admitted this possibility with a deep sigh.
'Let us review our position,' she then exclaimed.
It was a phrase frequently on her lips, and always made her more cheerful. Virginia also seemed to welcome it as an encouragement.
'Mine,' said the companion, 'is almost as serious as it could be. I have only one pound left, with the exception of the dividend.'
'I have rather more than four pounds still. Now, let us think,' Alice paused. 'Supposing we neither of us obtain employment before the end of this year. We have to live, in that case, more than six months--you on seven pounds, and I on ten.'
'It's impossible,' said Virginia.
'Let us see. Put it in another form. We have both to live together on seventeen pounds. That is--' she made a computation on a piece of paper--'that is two pounds, sixteen shillings and eightpence a month--let us suppose this month at an end. That represents fourteen shillings and twopence a week. Yes, we can do it!'
She laid down her pencil with an air of triumph. Her dull eyes brightened as though she had discovered a new source of income.
'We cannot, dear,' urged Virginia in a subdued voice. 'Seven shillings rent; that leaves only seven and twopence a week for everything--everything.'
'We _could_ do it, dear,' persisted the other. 'If it came to the very worst, our food need not cost more than sixpence a day--three and sixpence a week. I do really believe, Virgie, we could support life on less--say, on fourpence. Yes, we could dear!'
They looked fixedly at each other, like people about to stake everything on their courage.
'Is such a life worthy of the name?' asked Virginia in tones of awe.
'We shan't be driven to that. Oh, we certainly shall not. But it helps one to know that, strictly speaking, we are _independent_ for another six months.'
That word gave Virginia an obvious thrill.
'Independent! Oh, Alice, what a blessed thing is independence! Do you know, my dear, I am afraid I have not exerted myself as I might have done to find a new place. These comfortable lodgings, and the pleasure of seeing Monica once a week, have tempted me into idleness. It isn't really my wish to be idle; I know the harm it does me; but oh! if one could work in a home of one's own!'
Alice had a startled, apprehensive look, as if her sister were touching on a subject hardly proper for discussion, or at least dangerous.
'I'm afraid it's no use thinking of that, dear,' she answered awkwardly.
'No use; no use whatever. I am wrong to indulge in such thoughts.'
'Whatever happens, my dear,' said Alice presently, with all the impressiveness of tone she could command, 'we must never entrench upon our capital--never--never!'
'Oh, never! If we grow old and useless--'
'If no one will give us even board and lodging for our services--'
'If we haven't a friend to look to,' Alice threw in, as though they were answering each other in a doleful litany, 'then indeed we shall be glad that nothing tempted us to entrench on our capital! It would just keep us'--her voice sank--'from the workhouse.'
After this each took up a volume, and until teatime they read quietly.
From six to nine in the evening they again talked and read alternately. Their conversation was now retrospective; each revived memories of what she had endured in one or the other house of bondage. Never had it been their lot to serve 'really nice' people--this phrase of theirs was anything but meaningless. They had lived with more or less well-to-do families in the lower middle class--people who could not have inherited refinement, and had not acquired any, neither proletarians nor gentlefolk, consumed with a disease of vulgar pretentiousness, inflated with the miasma of democracy. It would have been but a natural result of such a life if the sisters had commented upon it in a spirit somewhat akin to that of their employers; but they spoke without rancour, without scandalmongering. They knew themselves superior to the women who had grudgingly paid them, and often smiled at recollections which would have moved the servile mind to venomous abuse.
At nine o'clock they took a cup of cocoa and a biscuit, and half an hour later they went to bed. Lamp oil was costly; and indeed they felt glad to say as early as possible that another day had gone by.
Their hour of rising was eight. Mrs. Conisbee provided hot water for their breakfast. On descending to fetch it, Virginia found that the postman had left a letter for her. The writing on the envelope seemed to be a stranger's. She ran upstairs again in excitement.
'Who can this be from, Alice?'
The elder sister had one of her headaches this morning; she was clay colour, and tottered in moving about. The close atmosphere of the bedroom would alone have accounted for such a malady. But an unexpected letter made her for the moment oblivious of suffering.
'Posted in London,' she said, examining the envelope eagerly.
'Some one you have been in correspondence with?'
'It's months since I wrote to any one in London.'
For full five minutes they debated the mystery, afraid of dashing their hopes by breaking the envelope. At length Virginia summoned courage. Standing at a distance from the other, she took out the sheet of paper with tremulous hand, and glanced fearfully at the signature.
'What _do_ you think? It's Miss Nunn!'
'Miss Nunn! Never! How could she have got the address?'
Again the difficulty was discussed whilst its ready solution lay neglected.
'Do read it!' said Alice at length, her throbbing head, made worse by the agitation, obliging her to sink down into the chair.
The letter ran thus:--
'DEAR Miss MADDEN,--This morning I chanced to meet with Mrs. Darby, who was passing through London on her way home from the seaside. We had only five minutes' talk (it was at a railway station), but she mentioned that you were at present in London, and gave me your address. After all these years, how glad I should be to see you! The struggle of life has made me selfish; I have neglected my old friends. And yet I am bound to add that some of _them_ have neglected _me_. Would you rather that I came to your lodgings or you to mine? Which you like. I hear that your elder sister is with you, and that Monica is also in London somewhere. Do let us all see each other once more. Write as soon as you can. My kindest regards to all of you.--Sincerely yours,
'How like her,' exclaimed Virginia, when she had read this aloud, 'to remember that perhaps we may not care to receive visitors! She was always so thoughtful. And it is true that I _ought_ to have written to her.'
'We shall go to her, of course?'
'Oh yes, as she gives us the choice. How delightful! I wonder what she is doing? She writes cheerfully; I am sure she must be in a good
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