Horace W.C. Newte.

Sparrows: the story of an unprotected girl online

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Horace W. C. Newte





Everyone at Melkbridge knew the Devitts: they lived in the new,
pretentious-looking house, standing on the right, a few minutes after
one left the town by the Bathminster road. It was a blustering,
stare-one-in-the-face kind of house, which defied one to question the
financial stability of its occupants. The Devitts were like their home
in being new, ostentatious folk; their prosperity did not extend
further back than the father of Montague, the present head of the

Montague Devitt did little beyond attending board meetings of the
varied industries which his father's energy had called into being. He
was a bluff, well-set-up man, who had married twice; both of his wives
had brought him money. Each time Montague chose a mate, he had made
some effort to follow the leanings of his heart; but money not lying in
the same direction as love, an overmastering instinct of his blood had
prevailed against his sentimental inclinations; in each case it had
insisted on his marrying, in one instance an interest in iron works, in
another, a third share of a Portland cement business.

His first wife had borne him two sons and a daughter; his second was

Montague was a member of two or three Bohemian clubs in London, to
which, as time went on, he became increasingly attached. At these, he
passed as a good fellow, chiefly from a propensity to stand drinks to
any and everyone upon any pretence; he was also renowned amongst his
boon companions for his rendering of "The Village Blacksmith" in dumb
show, a performance greeted by his thirsty audience with thunders of

Harold, his first born, will be considered later.

Lowther, his second son, can be dismissed in a few words. He was a
good-looking specimen of the British bounder. His ideas of life were
obtained from the "Winning Post," and the morality (or want of it)
suggested by musical comedy productions at the Gaiety Theatre. He
thought coarsely of women. While spending money freely in the society
of ladies he met at the Empire promenade, or in the Cafe d' l'Europe,
he practised mean economics in private.

Victoria, Montague's daughter, was a bit of a puzzle to friends and
relations alike, all of whom commenced by liking her, a sentiment
which, sooner or later, gave place to a feeling of dissatisfaction. She
was a disappointment to her father, although he would never admit it to
himself; indeed, if he had tried to explain this displeasure, he would
have been hard put to it to give a straightforward cause for a
distressing effect. On first acquaintance, it would seem as if she were
as desirable a daughter as heart of father could want. She was tall,
good-looking, well educated; she had abundance of tact,
accomplishments, and refinement; she had never given her parents a
moment of anxiety. What, then, was wrong with her from her father's
point of view? He was well into middle age; increasing years made him
yearn for the love of which his life had been starved; this craving
would have been appeased by love for his daughter, but the truth was
that he was repelled by the girl's perfection. She had never been known
to lose her temper; not once had she shown the least preference for any
of the eligible young men of her acquaintance; although always
becomingly dressed, she was never guilty of any feminine foibles, which
would have endeared her to her father. To him, such correctness
savoured of inhumanity; much of the same feeling affected the girl's
other relatives and friends, to the ultimate detriment of their esteem.

Hilda, Montague's second wife, was the type of woman that successful
industrialism turns out by the gross. Sincere, well-meaning, narrow,
homely, expensively but indifferently educated, her opinion on any
given subject could be predicted; her childlessness accentuated her
want of mental breadth. She read the novels of Mrs Humphry Ward; she
was vexed if she ever missed an Academy; if she wanted a change, she
frequented fashionable watering-places. She was much exercised by the
existence of the "social evil"; she belonged to and, for her,
subscribed heavily to a society professing to alleviate, if not to
cure, this distressing ailment of the body politic. She was the
honorary secretary of a vigilance committee, whose operations extended
to the neighbouring towns of Trowton and Devizeton. The good woman was
ignorant that the starvation wages which her husband's companies paid
were directly responsible for the existence of the local evil she
deplored, and which she did her best to eradicate.

Miss Spraggs, Hilda Devitt's elder sister, lived with the family at
Melkbridge House. She was a virgin with a taste for scribbling, which
commonly took the form of lengthy letters written to those she thought
worthy of her correspondence. She had diligently read every volume of
letters, which she could lay hands on, of persons whose performance was
at all renowned in this department of literature (foreign ones in
translations), and was by way of being an agreeable rattle, albeit of a
pinchbeck, provincial genus. Miss Spraggs was much courted by her
relations, who were genuinely proud of her local literary reputation.
Also, let it be said, that she had the disposal of capital bringing in
five hundred a year.

Montague's eldest son, Harold, was, at once, the pride and grief of the
Devitts, although custom had familiarised them with the calamity
attaching to his life.

He had been a comely, athletic lad, with a nature far removed from that
of the other Devitts; he had seemed to be in the nature of a reversion
to the type of gentleman, who, it was said, had imprudently married an
ancestress of Montague's first wife. Whether or not this were so, in
manner, mind, and appearance Harold was generations removed from his
parents and brother. He had been the delight of his father's eye, until
an accident had put an end to the high hopes which his father had
formed of his future. A canal ran through Melkbridge; some way from the
town this narrowed its course to run beneath a footbridge, locally
known as the "Gallows" bridge.

It was an achievement to jump this stretch of water; Harold Devitt was
renowned amongst the youth of the neighbourhood for the performance of
this feat. He constantly repeated the effort, but did it once too
often. One July morning, he miscalculated the distance and fell, to be
picked up some while after, insensible. He had injured his spine. After
many weeks of suspense suffered by his parents, these learned that
their dearly loved boy would live, although he would be a cripple for
life. Little by little, Harold recovered strength, till he was able to
get about Melkbridge on a self-propelled tricycle; any day since the
year of the accident his kindly, distinguished face might be seen in
the streets of the town, or the lanes of the adjacent country, where he
would pull up to chat with his many friends.

His affliction had been a terrible blow to Harold; when he had first
realised the permanent nature of his injuries, he had cursed his fate;
his impotent rage had been pitiful to behold. This travail occurred in
the first year of his affliction; later, he discovered, as so many
others have done in a like extremity, that time accustoms the mind to
anything: he was now resigned to his misfortune. His sufferings had
endowed him with a great tolerance and a vast instinct of sympathy for
all living things, qualities which are nearly always lacking in young
men of his present age, which was twenty-nine. The rest of the family
stood in some awe of Harold; realising his superiority of mind, they
feared to be judged at the bar of his opinion; also, he had some
hundreds a year left him, in his own right, by his mother: it was
unthinkable that he should ever marry. Another thing that
differentiated him from his family was that he possessed a sense of

It may be as well to state that Harold plays a considerable part in
this story, which is chiefly concerned with a young woman, of whom the
assembled Devitts were speaking in the interval between tea and dinner
on a warm July day. Before setting this down, however, it should be
said that the chief concern of the Devitts (excepting Harold) was to
escape from the social orbit of successful industrialism, in which they
moved, to the exalted spheres of county society.

Their efforts, so far, had only taken them to certain halfway houses on
their road. The families of consequence about Melkbridge were
old-fashioned, conservative folk, who resented the intrusion in their
midst of those they considered beneath them.

Whenever Montague, a borough magistrate, met the buffers of the great
families upon the bench, or in the hunting field, he found them civil
enough; but their young men would have little to do with Lowther, while
its womenfolk ignored the assiduities of the Devitt females.

The drawing-room in which the conversation took place was a large,
over-furnished room, in which a conspicuous object was a picture, most
of which, the lower part, was hidden by padlocked shutters; the portion
which showed was the full face of a beautiful girl.

The picture was an "Etty," taken in part payment of a debt by
Montague's father, but, as it portrayed a nude woman, the old Puritan
had employed a Melkbridge carpenter to conceal that portion of the
figure which the artist had omitted to drape. Montague would have had
the shutters removed, but had been prevailed upon by his wife to allow
them to remain until Victoria was married, an event which, at present,
she had no justification for anticipating.

The late afternoon post had brought a letter for Mrs Devitt, which gave
rise to something of a discussion.

"Actually, here is a letter from Miss Annie Mee," said Mrs Devitt.

"Your old schoolmistress!" remarked Miss Spraggs.

"I didn't know she was alive," went on Mrs Devitt. "She writes from
Brandenburg College, Aynhoe Road, West Kensington Park, London, asking
me to do something for her."

"Of course!" commented the agreeable rattle.

"How did you know?" asked Mrs Devitt, looking up from the letter she
was reading with the help of glasses.

"Didn't you know that there are two kinds of letters: those you want
and those that want something?" asked Miss Spraggs, in a way that
showed she was conscious of saying a smart thing.

"I can hardly believe human nature to be so depraved as you would make
it out to be, Eva," remarked Mrs Devitt, who disliked the fact of her
unmarried sister possessing sharper wits than her own.

"Oh! I say, is that your own?" guffawed Devitt from his place on the

"Why shouldn't it be?" asked Miss Spraggs demurely.

"Anyway," continued Mrs Devitt impatiently, "she wishes to know if I am
in want of a companion, or anything of that sort, as she has a teacher
she is unable to keep owing to her school having fallen on bad times."

"Then she's young!" cried Lowther, who was lolling near the window.

"'Her name is Mavis Keeves; she is the only daughter of the late
Colonel Keeves, who, I believe, before he was overtaken by misfortune,
occupied a position of some importance in the vicinity of Melkbridge,'"
read Mrs Devitt from Miss Annie Mee's letter.

"Keeves! Keeves!" echoed her husband.

"Do you remember him?" asked his wife.

"Of course," he replied. "He was a M.F.H. and knew everyone" (everyone
was here synonymous with the elect the Devitts were pining to meet on
equal terms). "His was Sir Henry Ockendon's place."

The prospects of Mavis Keeves securing employment with the Devitts had,
suddenly, increased.

"How was it he came 'down'?" asked the agreeable rattle, keenly
interested in anything having to do with the local aristocracy, past or

"The old story: speculatin' solicitors," replied Montague, who made a
point of dropping his "g's." "One week saw him reduced from money to

Mrs Devitt raised her eyebrows.

"I mean nothin'," corrected Devitt.

"How very distressing!" remarked Victoria in her exquisitely modulated
voice. "We should try and do something for her."

"We will," said her father.

"We certainly owe a duty to those who were once our neighbours,"
assented Miss Spraggs.

"Do you remember her?" asked Mrs Devitt of her husband.

"Of course I do, now I come to think of it," he replied.

"What was she like?"

He paused for a moment or two before replying.

"She'd reddy sort of hair and queer eyes. She was a fine little girl,
but a fearful tomboy," said Devitt.

"Pretty, then!" exclaimed Mrs Devitt, as she glanced apprehensively at
her step-daughter.

"She was then. It was her hair that did it," answered her husband.

"H'm!" came from his wife.

"The pretty child of to-day is the plain girl of to-morrow" commented
Miss Spraggs.

"What was her real disposition?" asked Mrs Devitt.

"I know nothin' about that; but she was always laughin' when I saw her."

"Frivolous!" commented Mrs Devitt.

"Perhaps there's more about her in the letter," suggested Lowther, who
had been listening to all that had been said.

"There is," said his step-mother; "but Miss Mee's writing is very
trying to the eyes."

Montague took the schoolmistress's letter from his wife's hand. He read
the following in his big, blustering voice:

"'In all matters affectin' Miss Keeves's educational qualifications, I
find her comme il faut, with the possible exception of freehand
drawing, which is not all that a fastidious taste might desire. Her
disposition is winnin' and unaffected, but I think it my duty to
mention that, on what might appear to others as slight provocation,
Miss Keeves is apt to give way to sudden fits of passion, which,
however, are of short duration. Doubtless, this is a fault of youth
which years and experience will correct.'"

"Rebellious!" commented Mrs Devitt.

"Spirit!" said Harold, who all this while had been reclining in his
invalid chair, apparently reading a review.

Mrs Devitt looked up, as if surprised.

"After all, everything depends on the point of view," remarked Miss

"Is there any more?" asked Harold.

By way of reply, his father read from Miss Mee's letter:

"'In conclusion, I am proud to admit that Miss Keeves has derived much
benefit from so many years' association with one who has endeavoured to
influence her curriculum with the writin's of the late Mr Ruskin, whose
acquaintance it was the writer's inestimable privilege to enjoy. With
my best wishes for your welfare, I remain, dear Madam, your obedient
servant, Annie Allpress Mee.' That's all," he added, as he tossed the
letter on to the table at his wife's side.

"Did she know Ruskin?" asked Harold.

"When I was at her school - it was then at Fulham - she, or her sister,
never let a day go by without making some reference to him," replied
his step-mother.

"What are you going to do for Miss Keeves?" asked Harold.

"It's so difficult to decide off-hand," his step-mother replied.

"Can't you think of anything, father?" persisted Harold.

"It's scarcely in my line," answered Montague, glancing at his wife as
he spoke.

Harold looked inquiringly at Mrs Devitt.

"It's so difficult to promise her anything till one has seen her," she

"Then why not have her down?" asked Harold.

"Yes, why not?" echoed his brother.

"She can get here and back again in a day," added Harold, as his eyes
sought his review.

"Very well, then, I'll write and suggest Friday," said Mrs Devitt, not
too willingly taking up a pen.

"You can always wire and put her off, if you want to do anything else,"
remarked her sister.

"Won't you send her her fare?" asked Harold.

"Is that necessary?" queried Mrs Devitt.

"Isn't it usual?"

"I can give it to her when she comes," said Mrs Devitt, who hated
parting with money, although, when it was a question of entertaining
the elect of Melkbridge, she spent her substance lavishly.

Thus it came about that a letter was written to Miss Annie Mee,
Brandenburg College, Aynhoe Road, West Kensington Park, London, W.,
saying that Mrs Devitt would expect Miss Keeves, for an interview, by
the train that left Paddington for Melkbridge at ten on Friday next;
also, that she would defray her third-class travelling expenses.



The following Friday morning, Mavis Keeves sprang from bed on waking.
It was late when she had gone to sleep the previous night, for she had
been kept up by the festivities pertaining to breaking-up day at
Brandenburg College, and the inevitable "talk over" the incidents of
the event with Miss Helen and Miss Annie Mee, which conversation had
been prolonged till nearly twelve o'clock; but the excitement of
travelling to the place of her birth, and the certainty of getting an
engagement in some capacity or another (Mavis had no doubt on this
point) were more than enough to curtail her slumbers. She had fallen
asleep laughing to herself at the many things which had appealed to her
sense of humour during the day, and it was the recollection of some of
these which made her smile directly she was awake. She tubbed and
dressed quickly, although she had some bother with her hair, which,
this morning, seemed intent on defying the efforts of her fingers.
Having dressed herself to her somewhat exigent satisfaction, she went
downstairs, passing the doors of those venerable virgins, the Misses
Helen and Annie Mee, as she descended to the ground-floor, on which was
the schoolroom. This was really two rooms, but the folding doors, which
had once divided the apartment, had long since been removed from their
hinges; they were now rotting in the strip of garden behind the house.

The appearance of Brandenburg College belied its pretentious name. Once
upon a time, its name-plate had decorated the gates of a stately old
mansion in the Fulham of many years ago; here it was that Mrs Devitt,
then Miss Hilda Spraggs, had been educated. Since those fat days, the
name-plate of Brandenburg College had suffered many migrations, always
in a materially downward direction, till now it was screwed on the
railings of a stuffy little road in Shepherd's Bush, which, as Mavis
was in the habit of declaring, was called West Kensington Park for

The brass plate, much the worse for wear, told the neighbourhood that
Brandenburg College educated the daughters of gentlemen; perhaps it was
as well that this definition, like the plate, was fallen on hard times,
inasmuch as it was capable of such an elastic interpretation that it
enabled the Misses Mee to accept pupils whom, in their prosperous days,
they would have refused. Mavis looked round the familiar, shabby
schoolroom, with its atmosphere of ink and slate pencil, to which she
was so soon to say "good-bye."

It looked desolate this morning, perhaps because there leapt to her
fancy the animated picture it had presented the day before, when it had
been filled by a crowd of pupils (dressed in their best), their
admiring parents and friends.

Yesterday's programme had followed that of all other girls' school
breaking-up celebrations, with the difference that the passages
selected for recital had been wholly culled from the writings of Mr
Ruskin. Reference to the same personage had occurred in the speech to
the prize-winners (every girl in the school had won a prize of sorts)
made by Mr Smiley, the curate, who performed this office; also, the
Misses Mee, when opportunity served, had not been backward in making
copious references to the occasion on which they had drunk tea with the
deceased author. Indeed, the parents and friends had breathed such an
atmosphere of Ruskin that there were eight requests for his works at
the local free library during the following week.

"Good old Ruskin!" laughed Mavis, as she ran downstairs to the
breakfast room, which was situated in the basement. Here, the only
preparation made for the meal was a not too clean table-cloth spread
upon the table. Mavis went into the kitchen, where she found Amelia,
the general servant, doing battle with a smoky kitchen-fire.

"How long before breakfast is ready?" asked Mavis.

"Is that you, miss? Oi can't see you properly," said Amelia, as she
turned her head. "This 'ere smoke had got into my best oye."

Amelia spoke truly; there was a great difference between the seeing
capacity of her two eyes, one of these being what is known as "walled."
Amelia was an orphan; she had been dragged up by the "Metropolitan
Association for Befriending Young Servants," known to its familiars as
the "Mabys," such designation being formed by the first letter of each
word of the title. Every week, dozens of these young women issued from
the doors of the many branches of this institution, who became, to
their respective mistresses, a source of endless complaint; in times of
domestic stress, one or two of these "generals" had been known to keep
their situations for three months. Amelia was a prodigy of success, a
record in the annals of the society, inasmuch as she had been at
Brandenburg College for two years and a half. She kept her situation
because she was cheap; also, because she did her best to give
satisfaction, as she appreciated the intellectual atmosphere of the
place, which made her hope that she, too, might pick up a few
educational crumbs; moreover, she was able to boast to her intimates,
on the occasions when she visited her parent home, how her two
mistresses could speak four languages, which was certainly true.

"Wasn't it all beautiful, miss?" asked Amelia, who had listened to
yesterday's entertainment halfway down the stairs leading to the

"Wonderful," replied Mavis, as she tied on a kitchen apron, a
preliminary to giving Amelia a helping hand with the breakfast.

"And the 'reverend'! He did make me laugh when he gave four prizes to
fat Miss Robson, and said she was a good all round girl."

This joke had not been intentional on Mr Smiley's part; he had been
puzzled by the roar of laughter which had greeted his remark; when he
divined its purport, he was quite willing to take credit for having
deliberately made the sally.

"You managed to hear that?" asked Mavis.

"Yes, miss; an' what the 'reverend' said about dear Mr Fuskin. I 'eard
that too."

"Ruskin," corrected Mavis, as she set about making coffee.

Amelia, with a hurt expression on her face, turned to look at Miss
Keeves, who, noticing the girl's dejection, said:

"Call him what you like, Amelia. It's only the Miss Mees who're so

"Dear gentleman," continued Amelia. "Next to being always with you,
miss, I should like to have been with 'im."

"I'm afraid you can't even be with me. I have to earn my own living."

"Yes, miss; but when you marry a rich gentleman, I should like to come
with you as 'general.'"

"Don't talk nonsense, Amelia."

"But it ain't, miss; didn't the music master, 'im with the lovely,
long, shiny 'air, promise me a shillin' to give you a note?"

"Did he?" laughed Mavis. "It's nearly eight: you'd better take in the
breakfast things."

"Oh, well, if I can't be here, or with you, I'd sooner be with that

Online LibraryHorace W.C. NewteSparrows: the story of an unprotected girl → online text (page 1 of 38)