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- The Odd Women - 6/90 -
'Indeed I ought to have written. I remember that at the end of our correspondence I remained in your debt. But it was a troublesome and depressing time with me. I had nothing but groans and moans to send.'
'You didn't stay long, I trust, with that trying Mrs. Carr?'
'Three years!' sighed Virginia.
'Oh, your patience!'
'I wished to leave again and again. But at the end she always begged me not to desert her--that was how she put it. After all, I never had the heart to go.'
'Very kind of you, but--those questions are so difficult to decide. Self-sacrifice may be quite wrong, I'm afraid.'
'Do you think so?' asked Virginia anxiously.
'Yes, I am sure it is often wrong--all the more so because people proclaim it a virtue without any reference to circumstances. Then how did you get away at last?'
'The poor woman died. Then I had a place scarcely less disagreeable. Now I have none at all; but I really must find one very soon.'
She laughed at this allusion to her poverty, and made nervous motions.
'Let me tell you what my own course has been,' said Miss Nunn, after a short reflection. 'When my mother died, I determined to have done with teaching--you know that. I disliked it too much, and partly, of course, because I was incapable. Half my teaching was a sham--a pretence of knowing what I neither knew nor cared to know. I had gone into it like most girls, as a dreary matter of course.'
'Like poor Alice, I'm afraid.'
'Oh, it's a distressing subject. When my mother left me that little sum of money I took a bold step. I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school life. Shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence--I had lessons in them all, and worked desperately for a year. It did me good; at the end of the year I was vastly improved in health, and felt myself worth something in the world. I got a place as cashier in a large shop. That soon tired me, and by dint of advertising I found a place in an office at Bath. It was a move towards London, and I couldn't rest till I had come the whole way. My first engagement here was as shorthand writer to the secretary of a company. But he soon wanted some one who could use a typewriter. That was a suggestion. I went to learn typewriting, and the lady who taught me asked me in the end to stay with her as an assistant. This is her house, and here I live with her.'
'How energetic you have been!'
'How fortunate, perhaps. I must tell you about this lady--Miss Barfoot. She has private means--not large, but sufficient to allow of her combining benevolence with business. She makes it her object to train young girls for work in offices, teaching them the things that I learnt in Bristol, and typewriting as well. Some pay for their lessons, and some get them for nothing. Our workrooms are in Great Portland Street, over a picture-cleaner's shop. One or two girls have evening lessons, but our pupils for the most part are able to come in the day. Miss Barfoot hasn't much interest in the lower classes; she wishes to be of use to the daughters of educated people. And she is of use. She is doing admirable work.'
'Oh, I am sure she must be! What a wonderful person!'
'It occurs to me that she might help Monica.'
'Oh, do you think she would?' exclaimed Virginia, with eager attention. 'How grateful we should be!'
'Where is Monica employed?'
'At a draper's in Walworth Road. She is worked to death. Every week I see a difference in her, poor child. We hoped to persuade her to go back to the shop at Weston; but if this you speak of were possible--how _much_ better! We have never reconciled ourselves to her being in that position--never.'
'I see no harm in the position itself,' replied Miss Nunn in her rather blunt tone, 'but I see a great deal in those outrageous hours. She won't easily do better in London, without special qualifications; and probably she is reluctant to go back to the country.'
'Yes, she is; very reluctant.'
'I understand it,' said the other, with a nod. 'Will you ask her to come and see me?'
A servant entered with tea. Miss Nunn caught the expression in her visitor's eyes, and said cheerfully--
'I had no midday meal to-day, and really I feel the omission. Mary, please do put tea in the dining-room, and bring up some meat--Miss Barfoot,' she added, in explanation to Virginia, is out of town, and I am a shockingly irregular person about meals. I am sure you will sit down with me?'
Virginia sported with the subject. Months of miserable eating and drinking in her stuffy bedroom made an invitation such as this a veritable delight to her. Seated in the dining-room, she at first refused the offer of meat, alleging her vegetarianism; but Miss Nunn, convinced that the poor woman was starving, succeeded in persuading her. A slice of good beef had much the same effect upon Virginia as her more dangerous indulgence at Charing Cross Station. She brightened wonderfully.
'Now let us go back to the library,' said Miss Nunn, when their meal was over. 'We shall soon see each other again, I hope, but we might as well talk of serious things whilst we have the opportunity. Will you allow me to be very frank with you?'
The other looked startled.
'What could you possibly say that would offend me?'
'In the old days you told me all about your circumstances. Are they still the same?'
'Precisely the same. Most happily, we have never needed to entrench upon our capital. Whatever happens, we must avoid that--whatever happens!'
'I quite understand you. But wouldn't it be possible to make a better use of that money? It is eight hundred pounds, I think? Have you never thought of employing it in some practical enterprise?'
Virginia at first shrank in alarm, then trembled deliciously at her friend's bold views.
'Would it be possible? Really? You think--'
'I can only suggest, of course. One mustn't argue about others from one's own habit of thought. Heaven forbid'--this sounded rather profane to the listener--'that I should urge you to do anything you would think rash. But how much better if you could somehow secure independence.'
'Ah, if we could! The very thing we were saying the other day! But how? I have no idea how.'
Miss Nunn seemed to hesitate.
'I don't advise. You mustn't give any weight to what I say, except in so far as your own judgment approves it. But couldn't one open a preparatory school, for instance? At Weston, suppose, where already you know a good many people. Or even at Clevedon.'
Virginia drew in her breath, and it was easy for Miss Nunn to perceive that the proposal went altogether beyond her friend's scope. Impossible, perhaps, to inspire these worn and discouraged women with a particle of her own enterprise. Perchance they altogether lacked ability to manage a school for even the youngest children. She did not press the subject; it might come up on another occasion. Virginia begged for time to think it over; then, remembering her invalid sister, felt that she must not prolong the visit.
'Do take some of these flowers,' said Miss Nunn, collecting a rich nosegay from the vases. 'Let them be my message to your sister. And I should be so glad to see Monica. Sunday is a good time; I am always at home in the afternoon.'
With a fluttering heart Virginia made what haste she could homewards. The interview had filled her with a turmoil of strange new thoughts, which she was impatient to pour forth for Alice's wondering comment. It was the first time in her life that she had spoken with a woman daring enough to think and act for herself.
In the drapery establishment where Monica Madden worked and lived it was not (as is sometimes the case) positively forbidden to the resident employees to remain at home on Sunday; but they were strongly recommended to make the utmost possible use of that weekly vacation. Herein, no doubt, appeared a laudable regard for their health. Young people, especially young women, who are laboriously engaged in a shop for thirteen hours and a half every weekday, and on Saturday for an average of sixteen, may be supposed to need a Sabbath of open air. Messrs. Scotcher and Co. acted like conscientious men in driving them forth immediately after breakfast, and enjoining upon them not to return until bedtime. By way of well-meaning constraint, it was directed that only the very scantiest meals (plain bread and cheese, in fact) should be supplied
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