Read CHAPTER XIX - THE UNEMPLOYED A FAMILIAR FACE of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on

A lodging was found near the Hospital for Dora, who was to stay in town and look out for a situation; and for the next week, a week of hot summer weather, Annie, relieved from her hospital work, because it was her first holiday time, went to and fro, spending as little as possible on omnibus fares, with Dora and May in her train, in search of employment for them. People were beginning to leave town, and the time did not seem propitious. When was it ever propitious for such a pursuit where women are concerned? Even under Annie’s able guidance, with the spirit which she could summon to her aid in all difficulties, the intentional and unintentional rebuffs which the two girl candidates, particularly Dora, got from agents and principals in connection with ladies in want of useful companions and nursery-governesses were innumerable. The swarms of needy, greedy applicants for similar situations whom the Millars were perpetually encountering in their rounds, were enough to cause the stoutest heart to quail, and to sink the most sanguine nature into the depths of despondency.

Dora Millar was not constitutionally sanguine, and she grew more and more nervous and dispirited as the fruitless efforts went on. Her little figure drooped, her eyes had a dejected expression, her lips quivered pathetically without any provocation. Annie was compelled to use strong language. “The idiots!” she exclaimed, apropos of the last persons who had found Dora too young or too old, not strong enough looking, or not lively enough looking ("not as if she could stand a large amount of bullying and worrying,” Annie read between the lines). “What a chance they are letting slip through their fingers of getting the most unexacting, contented creature in the world to minister to their tiresome wants. They will never see her like again; serve them right for their blindness.”

One particularly glaring, airless afternoon, the three sisters were toiling back to Dora’s lodging, with the London pavement like heated iron under the feet of the crowds that trod it, and the cloudless sky, in which the sun blazed a ball of fire, like glowing brass over their heads. Then as the Millars turned a corner and looked longingly at the trees in a square with their leaves already yellowing and shrivelling, May uttered a little shriek of delight and darted forward to greet a familiar figure and face in the stream of strangers. What did it signify that the figure was insignificant by comparison, and the face with nothing distinguished in its pallor, under its red beard and moustache? “a little foxy-headed fellow,” any sharp-tongued bystander might have called him. It was a well-known face where all the others were drearily unknown, a Redcross face in London, the face of a man who might have shown himself an enemy, yet had proved a friend in need; and though there had been presented to the girls the bearing of a Jupiter and the linéaments of an Adonis, they could not have hailed him with greater gladness. If anybody hung back in the general acclamation it was Dora, for Annie did not say a word to rebuke May; she was too anxious to hear the last news of her father.

More than one man among the passers-by, glancing at Tom Robinson surrounded by a group of pretty girls, the two prettiest evidently making much of him and hanging on his words, called him in their minds “lucky dog,” and speculated on the nature of the attraction.

“‘Prope’ty, prope’ty, prope’ty,’” no doubt. It was disgraceful to see how mercenary even quite young women were getting.

Tom received the ovation, at which, by the bye, he was a little taken aback and puzzled, quietly and in a matter-of-fact way, as he received most things. He had had the pleasure of seeing Dr. and Mrs. Millar lately; indeed, he had availed himself of the privileges of an old friend to call on them at once in their new quarters, he told Annie, and he had found them, by their own account, fairly well and comfortable, though the Doctor was still dead lame.

Tom did not tell either Annie, or any one else interested in the information, that he had spent the last few days pushing the circulation of a subscription list, which he had headed with the promise of a handsome sum. It was to provide a testimonial not altogether inadequate to mark the esteem in which the townspeople held their old Doctor for his many virtues, and their sympathy with him in his misfortunes. A liberal offering on the town’s part might do something to relieve the adversity which had befallen a fellow-townsman. The talk a little time ago had been of presenting Dr. Millar with a new brougham and horse, which, as they would have had to be maintained at the charge of a man who had just put down his old brougham as beyond his diminished income, was rather an illogical method of serving him. However, his complete breakdown, with the sale of his practice, had at once knocked that idea on the head, and had given its motive a much wider application. If the little Doctor were to submit to accept help, it must be commensurate with the dignity of Redcross and the county, and with his own professional status and merit.

Tom Robinson looked at the girls as two of them looked at him. “It is tiring weather,” he suggested hesitatingly; “is it wise of you to walk out in the heat?”

“Oh! Mr. Robinson,” cried May effusively, “we are so tired just dead beat though Annie there does not like me to talk slang but it is so expressive, don’t you think so? It is not to-day only, but yesterday and the day before, we have been hunting for situations, and have not found them yet. Do you know, Dora and I are going to take situations immediately if we can get them?”

His face changed, and he knit his brow involuntarily.

“What a magpie it is!” said Annie, impatiently. “But, of course, you have heard all about the turn father’s affairs have taken since this bad rheumatic attack, which he does not believe he can shake off. It need not be any secret that my sisters are looking out for situations.”

He did not answer; he was prevented by the painful consciousness that Dora appeared ready to sink into the ground.

“Won’t you avail yourself of my arm, Miss Dora? Won’t you let me see you home?” he proposed hurriedly.

She could not refuse; indeed, she was only too thankful for the offered support, though she murmured a protest against troubling him and taking him out of his way. And she could not altogether conceal how put out as well as weary she was, so that the little hand, which just touched his coat-sleeve, fluttered on its resting-place like a newly-caught bird.

He hailed a cab, and wished to put them all into it.

“I dare say it would be better,” said Annie, glancing at Dora’s white face, with the new trick of quivering which the lips had acquired. As the cab was driving up, she gave Tom Robinson their address “17, Little St. Ebbe’s Street,” with the amount of the fare, looking at him almost fiercely while she took the money from her purse. “Will you be good enough to direct the man and pay him for us?” she said, and he dared not dispute her will.

But when he yielded, she seemed to think his friendliness and power of comprehension deserved something better than they had got. “Will you come with us?” Annie invited him; and when she softened, it was always in such a bright frank way that it was hard to resist her. “We’ll be very pleased to give you a cup of tea at Dora’s lodging at least we can do that for you, and it may be acceptable on such an oppressive afternoon.”

He, a guest at a lodging of Dora Millar’s: it sounded odd enough!

“Do come, Mr. Robinson,” his friend May was imploring, while Dora, sensible that something was due from her as the ostensible mistress of the lodging, echoed shyly, without raising her eyes to his face, “Yes, come, please.”

Did she remember the last time she gave him tea in the drawing-room of the Old Doctor’s House, where they were not likely to meet again? How awkward they found the tete-a-tete. How they shrank from their hands touching, while he reproached her for aiding and abetting May in trying to shirk going to St. Ambrose’s; and she had borne his reproaches and admitted the reasonableness of his arguments, with all the meek candour of Dora, while still making a last stand for May.

He went with the girls as if he were in a dream; but he was not left to dream in Dora’s very plain lodging, where Annie and not the mistress of the lodging poured out tea, and May insisted on helping him to bread and butter. He saw Rose, too, who had been awaiting the return of her sisters. It sent another pang to his brotherly heart to discover that Rose also was subdued and well-nigh careworn. She still wrinkled her forehead and crumpled up her nose, but it was no longer in the old saucy way; it was under her share of the heavy burden of trouble which had fallen on these dauntless girls and might end by crushing them.

May was not to be kept from the immense solace of making a clean breast to her former ally of her stupid dawdling and trifling, and the retribution which had at once befallen her. “Did father tell you, Mr. Robinson, that I have failed in my examination?” she began plaintively. “Yes, I have, and it was all my own fault. I was too silly; I would not pull myself together and work hard from the first. Now it will never be in my power to go back to St. Ambrose’s. I’ll not be able to atone for my folly by showing that everybody was not wrong when it was believed that I might be a fair scholar, win a scholarship, and rise to be classical mistress in a girls’ school.” At the announcement of the disastrous failure, by her own deed, of all the ambitious plans for her, May threatened to break down, springing up and turning away, her shoulders heaving in a paroxysm of mortification and grief.

Tom Robinson used to say, afterwards, that he never witnessed a prettier sight than the manner in which the three other girls rallied round their poor “little May,” from Annie downwards. They took off her hat, pulled off her gloves, smoothed her ruffled hair, patted her tear-stained cheeks, seated her in an arm-chair, brought her tea, and made her drink it, bidding her not be too disheartened. They pledged themselves even Dora pledged herself stoutly that, if it rested with them, and they were young and strong, they would find work of one kind or another May should go back to St. Ambrose’s some day and vindicate her scholarliness. Father and mother and all of them would be proud of her.

It rendered the man doubly indignant from that day when he heard scoffers say that there could be no true friendship between women, and that the relation of sisters existed simply for the growth of rivalry and jealousy.

May was still shaking her head disconsolately, and reminding him, “Ah, Mr. Robinson, it would have been better if you had let me stay at home and go into your shop, like Phyllis Carey. I might have done some good there, though you may not believe it, and only feel glad that you got rid of me.”

Then he took her in hand, and administered his consolation. “Nonsense, Miss May,” he said, with sufficient peremptoriness for a man who had been rather accustomed to efface himself in these girls’ presence, “you were not to be suffered to hide your light under a bushel. I wonder to hear you I thought you had more pluck and perseverance. How many times do you think the young fellows at St. Ambrose’s are turned back and have to try again? If I passed in my first exam, it was by the merest fluke, as three-fourths of the men will tell you they pass. As for my degree, I had the common sense and modesty to put off taking it to the last moment, and to stay up two different vacations, ‘sapping’ like a Scotchman, before I ventured to undergo the test. You don’t mean to say you are too proud to do at Rome as the Romans do, that your genius will brook no rejection, and declines to grapple with an obstacle? I’ll tell you what your father proposes for you, and let me say that I believe it would do him a world of good now that he has been forced to give up his patients, and is confined to his chair. He has not lost heart and faith in your powers of course not. He is thinking quite eagerly of brushing up his classics in his enforced leisure, and himself becoming your coach for the next six months. I need not say that any small assistance I can offer is heartily at your service also.”

“Oh!” said May, with wistful brown eyes and a long-drawn sigh, “you are a great deal too good to me, all of you. I don’t deserve it. It would only be too much happiness for me to have father and you to coach me but I know we could not afford it.”

“Wait and see,” said Tom succinctly.

“If I got that situation,” said Dora timidly, “I might do something to help May: I mean the one where the lady said she would take me into consideration, but we thought it would not do, because I should have to go out to Jamaica. On second thoughts, I am not sure that I’d mind so very much going. The lady seemed to consider I might be able to do what she required, and I should only be away for a year or two, since the family are coming back then. The salary was very good.”

Dora go out to Jamaica to help May, or any one else! Not though he had to fling cheques in at the windows, and squeeze Bank of England notes through the keyholes, to prevent it.

“Hester Jennings says she would not be very much surprised if she heard of a buyer for my tulip picture; but I don’t know,” said Rose doubtfully, glancing at the picture, which was on an adjoining table.

“May I look at it?” asked Tom Robinson, jumping up with alacrity, probably to make a diversion in the conversation from the obnoxious topic of Dora’s problematical voyage to Jamaica. He had seen Rose’s work at Redcross, and he could give it as his honest opinion that she had made a great advance in her art, though he did not profess to be a judge. He said, however, that he had a friend, an old St. Ambrose crony, who was an artist. They had happened to be together in Rome at a later date, had been a good deal thrown on each other’s company there, and had continued to keep up a friendly intercourse. He requested permission for his friend to call and look at the little picture. He might be of use to Rose in disposing of it; he was always ready to help a fellow-artist. Tom supposed the Millars had heard his friend’s name, it was pretty well known; indeed they might have seen him, for Pemberton and Lady Mary, his wife, had spent a few days with Tom at Redcross, and had been in church on the Sunday during their visit, the summer before last.

In spite of the obligations of good breeding, the Millars looked at each other in open-mouthed astonishment. Certainly they had heard of Pemberton the distinguished landscape painter, and they had been told that he had married into the peerage, as Aunt Penny had married into the county. The girls also remembered perfectly the quiet-looking young couple who had been noticed walking about with Tom Robinson the July before last. People had wondered languidly who the strangers could be whether they were cousins far removed on Tom’s father’s side of the house, since they did not quite answer to the style of his mother’s yeomen kindred. But it was an effort to the provincial mind to identify the unobtrusive-looking pair with the Pembertons, to realize that Mr. Pemberton and his Lady Mary had actually come and stayed the better part of a week with Tom Robinson. They could hardly have been ignorant of “Robinson’s,” whose master was only received into the upper-class houses of the town on a species of sufferance.

The peerage must have unique rules by which to frame its standards. There was the Hon. Victoria, Mrs. Carey’s niece by marriage, who, when Carey’s Bank was in full bloom, would hardly be seen in the streets of Redcross, and scarcely deigned to acknowledge her own aunt-in-law. As to the familiarity of staying a night in the Bank House, she would never have dreamt of it. In this respect she did little credit to the teaching of her old governess, Miss Franklin, who had shown herself a philosopher in her own person. Perhaps, when it came to stooping at all, the peerage felt it might as soon, and with a still more gracious and graceful effect, bend low as bend slightly. Perhaps in the peerage, as in every other class, there are all sorts and conditions of mind and heart.

A little clue might have been supplied to account for the eccentricity of the Pembertons, and to lessen the shock of their conduct to the Millars, if the latter had been made acquainted with one circumstance. About the time of the stay of the artist and his wife in Rome, where he had been only too glad to run up against a favourite old college chum, when the three had been making a long excursion in company beyond the Campagna, Pemberton had been suddenly attacked in a remote little town with a violent illness.

His poor young wife would have been utterly frightened and forlorn had it not been for the moral courage and untiring good offices of the third person in the company Tom Robinson.

Tom did not appear conscious of the sensation he had created by the mention of his friend. He arranged when Mr. Pemberton should come and view Rose’s picture to suit Rose’s convenience, and not that of the famous and courted artist. Then he explained in all sincerity, before he took his leave, that he, Tom Robinson, was very sorry he could not have the pleasure of bringing Pemberton and introducing him personally, because a business engagement called the master of “Robinson’s” back to Redcross early next morning.

The party he left were quite silent and still for a moment after he had gone, till what she had heard of Mr. Pemberton went to Rose’s head to such a degree that she rose, whirled round on tiptoe, and caused her spread-out frock to perform the feat which children call “making a cheese.”

“Won’t it be delicious to know Mr. Pemberton and get his advice perhaps one day presume to ask him how he does his hay-fields and orchards? What will Hester Jennings say! I say, we’ll have Hester to meet him; she will come for such a painter though the whole peerage would not get her to budge an inch. I wish we could tone her down a little bit, but he must just swallow her whole. She is good and clever enough to be permitted that rugged line of her own. Oh! but isn’t Tom Robinson a trump? I will be slangy, Annie as May says, it is so expressive.”

“Yes, yes,” chimed in May enthusiastically, in reference to the man and not to the slang. “I have known it ever since he came up like a lion why do you laugh, Rose? and rescued Tray don’t you remember, Dora? from that horrid brute of a collie. Tray bit him Mr. Robinson, I mean not knowing that he was his best friend, and he only laughed. He was so kind about my wishing to go into his shop, like Phyllis Carey, though he would not take me. I think it must be a privilege, as Miss Franklin tells Phyllis, to serve him. She says all the nice people in the shop have the greatest regard for him.”

“I am so sorry and ashamed that I ever drew caricatures of him,” said Rose, in pensive penitence. “I think, whenever I am able, I must paint his portrait, as I see him now, to make up for it.”

“And ask him to have it hung above the oak staircase in the shop,” suggested Annie, a little satirically. But she added immediately, “Though it broke no bones to dwell on his lack of height and his foxy complexion, I am rather sorry now that I did it, because I have ceased to think that these objectionable details deserved to be made of any consequence. On the contrary, I own to the infatuation of beginning to see that there is something fine in them. I suppose I shall be calling Tom Robinson’s hair golden, or tawny, or chestnut soon, and his inches the proper height for a man. It is true,” broke off Annie, with sudden, unaccountable perversity, “I do hate great lumbering flaxen-haired giants.” She blushed furiously after she had indulged in the last digression, and hastened to resume the main thread of the conversation. “As for Tom Robinson’s having little to say, I declare that my present impression is that he says quite enough, and very much to the purpose too. It was so nice and like a gentleman of him not to propose immediately to buy Rose’s picture when she talked rashly of her anxiety that it should find a purchaser.”

“I don’t think Cyril Carey, with all his airs, would have shown so much delicacy in the old days,” said Rose.

“Or that Ned Hewett, though Ned has such a kind heart, would have been able to avoid blundering into some such offer,” remarked May.

There was one person who remained absolutely silent while the others sang Tom Robinson’s praises, and it might be her silence which called her sisters’ attention to her.

“I wonder what you would have, Dora?” said Rose, with several shades of superciliousness in her voice and in her lifted-up nose.

“I cannot understand how you could be such a cruel, hard-hearted girl,” May actually reproached her devoted slave.

“There is such a thing as being too particular,” Annie had the coolness to say. “I am sure I do not go in for indiscriminate marriages or for falling in love,” she added with lofty decision. “It has always been a mystery to me what poor Fanny Russell could see to care for, or to do anything save laugh at, in Cyril Carey. I hope the elderly ’competition wallah,’ or commissioner, or whatever he is, whom she is going to marry, has more sense as well as more money. For her marriage was arranged, though the news had not reached England, mother writes, before the tidings of Colonel Russell’s death came. But when a man who can act as Tom Robinson has acted crosses a woman’s path and pays her the compliment of asking her to be his wife, I do think she should be careful what she answers.”

Dora stared as if she were losing her senses. Were they laughing at her still? Could they be in earnest? If so, how was it possible for them to be so flagrantly inconsistent and unjust? She could only utter a single exclamation. But as the worm will turn, the exclamation was emphatic and indignant enough. “Well!” she cried, in utter amazement and incipient rebellion. “Well!” and she returned the challenging gaze of the circle with a counter-challenge, before which all eyes except Annie’s fell.

Annie had the audacity to look Dora in the face and echo the “Well!” nay, to say further, “You never heard of anything so disgraceful as for us to turn upon you and find fault with you for refusing Tom Robinson, when all the time it was we who laughed at him, and scouted his shop, keeping you up to the point of dismissing him without delay? Quite true, Dora, dear; but then it was you, and not us, whom he was proposing to marry! and a girl old enough to receive such a proposal should have the wit to judge for herself should she not? She ought to cultivate the penetration to look beneath the surface in so important a matter, and then fewer lamentable mistakes would be made. However, nobody could expect you to put force on your inclinations, and he does not bear you malice.”

Annie did not regard her share in the matter so cheerfully and lightly when she was in the privacy of a ward of St. Ebbe’s, where she had begged to sit up with an unconscious patient, just to keep her hand in and compose her feelings.

“What mischievous little wretches we were,” she reflected, as she deftly changed the wet cloth on the sick woman’s hot forehead. “How happy he might have made Dora, and how happy she might have made him! She is so single-minded and tender-hearted, that she could hardly have failed to see his merits, if we had given him the chance, let her alone, and left the pair to themselves. Then, if the worst were to come to the worst,” and Annie frowned with anxiety and grief, as well as with wholesome humiliation, “if poor father and mother cannot get along, and none of us girls can help them effectually, his house might have been their home, where he would never have let them feel other than honoured guests. He would have been a son to them. But the mischief is done, and there is no help for it. If Dora and he were an ordinary couple, it might be mended; but now she will not look at him when we none of us have a penny, because she refused him when we were in comfortable circumstances; and he will not renew his suit with the thought in his mind that it would look and feel to her as if any favour he has magnanimously conferred on us, were a mere bribe to compel her to listen to him. So, Annie Millar, this is a pretty kettle of fish, of which you have been chief cook! There is the greater reason for you to make up your mind from this moment to devote yourself wholly to your family, and let nothing nothing,” she protested with suspicious vehemence, “come between you and them.”

“What is it, you poor soul?” the young nurse responded quickly to a movement of the helpless ailing creature beside her. “Do you know there is somebody here? Will it ease you to have your head raised on my arm, do you think? You cannot hear or answer, but we’ll try that, and then it is just possible you may drop asleep.” And for the rest of the watch Annie was absorbed in care for her patient.