Read CHAPTER IV of The Invader A Novel , free online book, by Margaret L. Woods, on

Tims’s programme happened to be full on the following day, so that it was half-past twelve before she knocked at Milly’s door and was admitted. Milly stood in the middle of the room in an attitude of energy, with her small wardrobe lying about her on the floor in ignominious heaps.

“Tell me, Tims,” said Milly, after the first inquiries, “are those positively all the clothes I possess?”

“Of course they are, M. What do you want with more?”

“Are they in the fashion?” asked Milly, anxiously.

Tims stared.

“Fashion! Good Lord, M.! What does it matter whether you look the same as every fool in the street or not?”

“Oh, Tims!” cried Milly, laughing that pretty rippling laugh so strange in Tims’s ears. “I was quite right when I made a mistake, you’re just like a man. All the better. But you can’t expect me not to care a bit about my clothes like you, you really can’t.”

Tims drew herself up.

“You’re wrong, my girl, I’m a deal fonder of frocks than you are. I always think,” she added, looking before her dreamily, “that I was meant to be a very good dresser, only I was brought up too economical.” Generally speaking, when Tims had uttered one of her deepest and truest feelings, she would glance around, suddenly alert and suspicious to surprise the twinkle in her auditor’s eye. But in the clear blue of Milly Flaxman’s quiet eyes, she had ceased to look for that tormenting twinkle, that spark which seemed destined to dance about her from the cradle to the grave.

Presently she found herself hanging up Milly’s clothes while Milly paid no attention; for she alternately stood before the glass in the dark corner, and kneeled on the hearth-rug, curling-tongs in hand. And the hair, the silky soft amber hair, which could be twisted into a tiny ball or fluffed into a golden fleece at will, was being tossed up and pulled down, combed here and brushed there, altogether handled with a zeal and patience to which it had been a stranger since the days when it had been the pride of the nursery. Tims the untidy, as one in a dream, went on tidying the room she was accustomed to see so immaculate.

“There!” cried Milly, turning, “that’s how I wear it, isn’t it?”

“Good Lord, no!” exclaimed Tims, contemplating the transformed Milly. “It suits you, M., in a way, but it looks queer too. The others will all be hooting if you go down-stairs like that.”

Milly plumped into a chair irritably.

“How ever am I to know how I did my hair if I can’t remember? Please do it for me.”

Tims smiled sardonically.

“I’ll lend you my hair,” she said; “the second best. But do your hair! You really are as mad as a hatter.”

Milly shrugged her shoulders.

“You can’t? Then I keep it like this,” she said.

An argument ensued. Tims left the room to try and find a photograph of Milly as she had been.

When she returned she found her friend standing in absorbed contemplation of a book in her hand.

“This is Greek, isn’t it?” she asked, holding it up. Her face wore a little frown as of strained attention.

“Right you are,” shrieked Tims in accents of relief. “Greek it is. Can you read it?”

“Not yet,” replied Milly, flushing with excitement, “but I shall soon, I know I shall. Last night I couldn’t make head or tail of the books. Now I understand right enough what they are, and I know some are in Greek and some in English. I can’t read either yet, but it’s all coming back gradually, like the daylight coming in at the window this morning.”

“Hooray! Hooray!” shouted Tims. “You’ll be reading as hard as ever in a week if I don’t look after you. But see here, my girl, you’ve given me a nasty jar, and I’m not going to let you break your heart or crack your brain in a wild-goose chase. You can’t get that First, you know; you’re on a fairly good Second Class level, and you’d better make up your mind to stay there.”

“A fairly good Second Class level!” repeated Milly, still turning the leaves of the book. “That doesn’t sound very exhilarating and I rather think I shall do as I like about staying there.”

Tims began to heat.

“Well, that’s what Stewart said about you. I don’t believe I told you half plain enough what Stewart did say, for fear of hurting your feelings. He said you are a good scholar, but barring that, you weren’t at all clever.”

Milly looked up from her book; but she was not tearful. There was a curl in her lip and the light of battle in her eye.

“Stewart said that, did he? Now if I were a gentleman I should say ’damn his impudence’ and ‘who the devil is Stewart’; but then I’m not. You can say it.”

Tims stared. “Oh, come, I say!” she exclaimed. “I don’t swear, I only quote. But my goodness, when you remember who Stewart is, you’ll be well, pained to think of the language you’re using about him.”

“Why?” asked Milly, her head riding disdainfully on her slender neck.

“Because he’s your tutor and lecturer and a regular tiptop man at Greek and all that and you you respect him most awfully.”

“Do I?” cried Milly “did perhaps in my salad days. I’ve no respect whatever for professors now, my good Tims. I know what they’re like. Here’s Stewart for you.”

She took up a pen and a scrap of paper and dashed off a clever ludicrous sketch of a man with long hair, an immense brow, and spectacles.

“Nonsense!” said Tims; “that’s not a bit like him.”

She held the paper in her hand and looked fixedly at it. Milly had been wont seriously to grieve over her hopeless lack of artistic talent and she had never attempted to caricature. Tims was thinking of a young fellow of a college who had lately died of brain disease. In the earlier stages of his insanity, it had been remarked that he had an originality which had not been his when in a normal state. What if her friend were developing the same terrible disease? If it were so, it was no use fussing, since there was no remedy. Still, she felt a desperate need to take some sort of precaution.

“If I were you, M.,” she said, “I’d go to bed and keep very quiet for a day or two. You’re so so odd, and excited, they’d notice it if you went down-stairs.”

“Would they?” asked Milly, suddenly sobered. “Would they say I was mad?” An expression of fear came into her face, and its strangely luminous eyes travelled around the room with a look as of some trapped creature seeking escape.

There was an awkward pause.

“I’m not mad,” affirmed Milly, swallowing with a dry throat. “I’m perfectly sensible, but any one would be odd and excited too who was was as I am with a number of words and ideas floating in my mind without my having the least idea where they spring from. Please, Tims dear, tell me how I am to behave. I should so hate to be thought queer, wanting in any way.”

Tims considered.

“For one thing, you mustn’t talk such a lot. You never have been one for chattering; and lately, of course, with your overwork, you’ve been particularly quiet. Don’t talk, M., that’s my advice.”

“Very well,” replied Milly, gloomily.

Tims hesitated and went on:

“But I don’t see how you’re going to hide up this business about your memory. I wish you’d let me tell old B., anyhow.”

“I won’t have any one told,” cried Milly. “Not a creature. If only you’ll help me, dear, dear Tims you will help me, won’t you? I shall soon be all right, and no one except you will ever know. No one will be able to shrug their shoulders and say, whatever I do, ’Of course she’s crazy.’ I should hate it so! I know I can get on if I try. I’m much cleverer than you and that silly old Stewart think. Promise me, promise me, darling Tims, you won’t betray me!”

Tims was not weak-minded, but she was very tender-hearted and exceedingly susceptible to personal charms. She ought not, she knew she ought not, to have yielded, but she did. She promised. Yet in her friend’s own interest, she contended that Milly must confess to a certain failure of memory from over-fatigue, if only as a pretext for dropping her work for a while. It was agreed that Milly should remain in bed for several days, and she did so; less bored than might have been expected, because she had the constant excitement of this or that bit of knowledge filtering back into her mind. But this knowledge was purely intellectual. With Tims’s help she had recovered her reading powers, and although she felt at first only a vague recognition of something familiar in the sense of what she read, it was evident that she was fast regaining the use of the treasures stored in her brain by years of dogged and methodical work. But the facts and personalities which had made her own life seemed to have vanished, leaving “not a wrack behind.”

Tims, having primed her well beforehand, brought in the more important girls to see her, and by dint of a cautious reserve she passed very well with them, as with Miss Burt and Miss Walker. Tims seemed to feel much more nervous than Milly herself did when she joined the other students as usual.

There were moments when Tims gasped with the certainty that the revelation of her friend’s blank ignorance of the place and people was about to be made. Then Mildred for so, despising the soft diminutive, she now desired to be called by some extraordinary exertion of tact and ingenuity, would evade the inevitable and appear on the other side of it, a little elated, but otherwise serene. It was generally marked that Miss Flaxman was a different creature since she had given up worrying about her Schools, and that no one would have believed how much prettier she could make herself by doing her hair a different way.

Miss Burt, however, was somewhat puzzled and uneasy. Although Milly was looking unusually well, it was evident that all was not quite right with her, for she complained of a failure of memory, a mental fatigue which made it impossible for her to go to lectures, and she seemed to have lost all interest in the Schools, which had so lately been for her the “be-all” as well as the “end-all here.” Miss Burt knew Milly’s only near relation in England, Lady Thomson, intimately; and for that reason hesitated to write to her. She knew that Beatrice Thomson had no patience with the talk often silly enough about girls overworking their brains. She herself had never been laid up in her life, except when her leg was broken, and her views on the subject of ill-health were marked. She regarded the catching of scarlet-fever or influenza as an act of cowardice, consumption or any organic disease as scarcely, if at all, less disgraceful than drunkenness or fraud, while the countless little ailments to which feminine flesh seems more particularly heir she condemned as the most deplorable of female failings, except the love of dress.

Eventually Miss Burt did write to Lady Thomson, cautiously. Lady Thomson replied that she was coming up to town on Thursday, and could so arrange her journey as to have an hour and a half in Oxford. She would be at Ascham at three-thirty. Mildred rushed to Tims with the agitating news and both were greatly upset by it. However, Aunt Beatrice had got to be faced sometime or other and Mildred’s spirit rose to the encounter.

She had by this time provided herself with another dress, encouraged to do so by the money in hand left by the frugal Milly the First. She had got a plain tailor-made coat and skirt, in a becoming shade of brown; and with the unbecoming hard collar de rigueur in those days, she wore a turquoise blue tie, which seemed to reflect the color of her eyes. And in spite of Tims’s dissuasions, she put on the new dress on Thursday, and declined to screw her hair up in the old way, as advised.

Accordingly on Thursday at twenty-five minutes to four, Mildred appeared, in answer to a summons, in the quiet-colored, pleasant drawing-room at Ascham, with its French windows giving on to the lawn, where some of the girls were playing hockey, not without cries. Her first view of Aunt Beatrice was a pleasant surprise. A tall, upstanding figure, draped in a long, soft cloak trimmed with fur, a handsome face with marked features, marked eyebrows, a fine complexion and bright brown eyes under a wide-brimmed felt hat.

Having exchanged the customary peck, she waited in silence till Mildred had seated herself. Then surveying her niece with satisfaction:

“Come, Milly,” said she, in a full, pleasant voice; “I don’t see much signs of the nervous invalid about you. Really, Polly,” turning to Miss Burt, “she has not looked so well for a long time.”

“She’s been much better since she dropped her work,” replied Miss Burt.

“Taking plenty of fresh air and exercise, I suppose” Aunt Beatrice smiled kindly on her niece “I’m afraid I’ve kept you from your hockey this afternoon, Milly.”

“Oh no, Aunt Beatrice, certainly not,” replied Milly, with the extreme courtesy of nervousness. “I never play hockey now.”

Lady Thomson turned to the Head with a shade of triumph in her satisfaction.

“There, Polly! What did I tell you? I was sure there was something else at the bottom of it. Steady work, methodically done, never hurt anybody. But of course if she’s given up exercise, her liver or something was bound to get out of order.”

“No, really, I take lots of exercise,” interposed Milly; “only I don’t care for hockey, it’s such a horrid, rough, dirty game; don’t you think so? And Miss Walker got a front tooth broken last winter.”

Lady Thomson looked at her in a surprised way.

“Well, if you’ve not been playing hockey, what exercise have you been taking?”

“Walks,” replied Milly, feebly, feeling herself on the wrong track; “I go walks with Ti with Flora Timson when she has time.”

Aunt Beatrice looked at the matter judicially.

“Of course, games are best for the physique. Look at men. Still, walking will do, if one takes proper walks. I hope Flora Timson takes you good long walks.”

“Indeed she does!” cried Milly. “Immense! She walks a dreadful pace, and we get over stiles and things.”

“Immense is a little vague. How far do you go on an average?”

Mildred’s notions of distance were vague. “Quite two miles, I’m sure,” she responded, cheerfully.

Aunt Beatrice made no comment. She looked steadily and scrutinizingly at her niece, and in a kind but deepened voice told her to go up to her room, whither she, Lady Thomson, would follow in a few minutes, just to see how the Mantegnas looked now they were framed.

As soon as the door had closed behind Mildred, she turned to Miss Burt. “You’re right, in a way, Polly, after all. There is something odd about Milly, but I think it’s affectation. Did you hear her answer? Two miles! When to my knowledge she can easily walk ten.”

Meantime, Mildred mounted slowly to her room. She had tidied it under Tims’s instructions and had nothing to do but to sit down and think until Lady Thomson’s masculine step was heard outside her door.

Aunt Beatrice came in and laid aside her hat and cloak, showing a dress of rough gray tweed, and short so far a tribute to the practical but otherwise made on some awkward artistic or hygienic principle. Her glossy brown hair was brushed back and twisted tight, as Milly’s used to be, but with different effect, because of its heaviness and length.

“Why have you crammed up one of your windows with a dressing-glass?” asked Aunt Beatrice, putting a picture straight.

“Because I can’t see myself in that dark corner,” returned Mildred, demurely meek, but waiting her opportunity.

“See yourself! My dear child, you hardly ever want to see yourself, if you are habitually neat and dressed sensibly. I see you’ve adopted the mannish style. That’s a phase of vanity. You’ll come back to the beautiful and natural before long.”

Mildred leaned back in her chair and clasped her hands behind her head.

“I don’t think so, Aunt Beatrice. I’ve settled the dress question once and for all. I’ve found a clean, tidy, convenient style of dress and I can’t waste time thinking about altering it again.”

“You don’t seem to mind wasting it on doing your hair,” returned Aunt Beatrice, smiling, but not grimly, for she enjoyed logical fencing, even to her opponent’s fair hits.

“If I had beautiful hair like yours, I shouldn’t need to,” replied Mildred. “But you know how endy and untidy mine always was.”

Aunt Beatrice, embarrassed by the compliment, looked at her watch. “It seems as if we women can’t escape our fate,” she said. “Here we are gabbling about dress when we’ve plenty of important things to talk over. Miss Burt wrote to me that you were overworked, run down, nerves out of order, and all the usual nonsense. I’m thankful to find you looking remarkably well. I should like to know what this humbug about not being able to work means.”

“It means that well, I simply can’t,” returned Mildred, earnestly this time. “I can’t remember things.”

“You must be able to remember; unless your brain’s diseased, which is most improbable. But I ought to take you to a brain specialist, I suppose.”

Milly changed color. “Please, oh please, Aunt Beatrice, don’t do that!”

Lady Thomson, in fact, hardly meant it; for her niece’s appearance was unmistakably healthy. However, the threat told.

“I shall if you don’t improve. I can’t understand you. Either you’re hysterical or you’ve got one of those abominable fits of frivolity which come on women like drink on men, and destroy their careers. I thought we had both set our hearts on your getting another First.”

“But, Aunt Beatrice, they say I can’t. They say I’m not clever enough.”

“Oh, that’s what they say, is it?” Lady Thomson smiled in calm but deep contempt. “How do they explain the idiots who have got Firsts? Archibald Toovey, for instance?” Her eyes met her niece’s, and both smiled.

“Ah, yes! Mr. Toovey,” returned Milly, who had met Archibald Toovey at the Fletchers’, and converted his patronizing courtship into imbecile raptures.

“But that quite explains your losing an interest in your work. Just for once, I should like to take you away before the end of term. We would go straight to Rome next Monday. We shall meet the Breretons there, and go fully over the new excavations and discoveries, besides the old things, which will be new, of course, to you. Then we will go on to Naples, do the galleries and Pompeii, and come back by Florence and Paris before Christmas. By that time you will be ready to settle down to your work steadily again and forget all this nonsense.”

Mildred’s face had lighted up momentarily at the word “Rome.” Then she sucked her under lip and looked at the fire. When Lady Thomson’s programme was ended, she made a pause before she said, slowly:

“Thank you so much, dear Aunt Beatrice. I should love to go, but I don’t think no, I don’t think I’d better. You see, there’s the expense.”

“Of course I don’t expect you to pay for yourself. I take you.”

“How very kind and sweet of you! But well, do you know, you’ve encouraged me so about that. First, I feel now as though I could sit down and get it straight away. I will get it, Aunt Beatrice, if only to make that old Professor look foolish.”

Lady Thomson, though disappointed in a way, felt that Milly Flaxman was doing credit to her principles, showing a spirit worthy of her family. She did not urge the Roman plan; but content with a victory over “nerves and the usual nonsense,” withdrew triumphant to the railway station.

Tims came in when she was gone and heard about the Roman offer.

“You refused, when Aunt Beatrice was going to plank down the dollars? M., you are a fool!”

“No, Tims,” Mildred answered, deliberately; “you see, I don’t feel sure yet whether I can manage Aunt Beatrice.”