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May Edginton.

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Julia it was a matter of course, but Marie watched the deft girl who
handled things so swiftly and quietly; she took in the neatness of her
black frock, and the starched whiteness of her laundering; and when
the maid had left them, she turned with an envious, smiling sigh to
Julia, and said:

"The servants here are so nice. I always used to think, when I had a
maid, she'd look like that. We were going to have one, you know, when
Osborn got his first rise after we were married, but George came; and
now - three of them! It'll always be impossible, of course."

"I daresay you'd rather have the children than the maid."

"Of course I would - the priceless things!" Marie cried, her small pale
face warming with maternity.

Julia dispensed tea; and for awhile refused to allow her guest to talk
more until she was refreshed. And when she was refreshed and rested
among the amenities of the mauve room, that absorption in the affairs
around which her whole life moved and had its being grew less keen;
her preoccupations lifted; she left the problem which, even here, had
begun to worry her, as to whether a pound, or three-quarters of a
pound only, of wool would make George a jersey suit, and she turned
her eyes with a kind of wondering recollection upon the world outside.
She began by looking around the room at the many well-dressed, softly
chattering women; at the cut of their gowns and the last thing in
hats; then her look wandered to Julia and took in her freshness, the
beauty of her tailoring, and the expensiveness of her appearance
generally.

"I feel so shabby among you all," she murmured, with a smile which
appeared to Julia as a ghost.

"You look very pretty," said Julia, "as you always do, dear."

"When one is first married," Marie said quietly, "one always imagines
one will never get old and tired and spoiled, as thousands of other
women do; but one does it all the same. One's day is just so full, and
with babies one's night is often so full, too, that there simply isn't
time to fuss over one's own appearance. With three children and no
help, you've got to let something go, and in my case - "

She broke off, to continue: "It's been me."

Julia laid one of her hands over Marie's lying in her lap. Marie's
hands produced the effect of toilers glad to rest. They hardly stirred
under Julia's, even to give an answering squeeze. And Julia felt, with
a burning and angry heart, how rough and tired they were.

"Julia," said Marie, "I've often wanted to ask someone who would be
honest with me - and you're the honestest person I knew - do you think
I - I've let myself go very badly?"

"My dear kiddie!" Julia cried low, "why, you - you've been brilliant."

"Look at me," said Marie, thrusting forward her face.

Julia looked, to see the lines from nostrils to mouth, the lines at
the corners of the eyes, the enervated pallor and the grey hairs among
the golden-brown. She was sorry and bitter.

"You look a dear," she said irresolutely.

Marie sank back upon the fat pillow again with a laugh. It was the
laugh of a woman who was beat and owned it.

"You can't stand up against it," she said. "I don't care who says you
can. Day in, day out; night in, night out; no, you can't stand up
against it. I've often thought it out, and something _has_ to go.
The woman's the only thing who can be let go; the children must be
reared and the man must be fed; but the woman must just serve her
purpose."

Tears swelled in Julia's eyes. "Don't," she begged huskily, "don't get
bitter."

Marie returned her look with the simple and wide-eyed one she
remembered so well. "I'm not," she stated; "I was just thinking, and
it comes to that. You must feed a man and look after him and make him
comfortable, or - or you wouldn't keep him at all."

"What do you mean?"

"Just that. But I sometimes think," she whispered, "if I let myself
go, get plain and drab, will I keep him then?"

"It is in his service," said Julia.

Marie said wisely: "That doesn't count. And often - I get frightened
when he sometimes takes me out, and we dine at a restaurant. I look
round and see the difference between most of the women there and me.
In restaurants one always seems to see such wonderful women - women who
seem as if _their_ purpose was just being taken out to dinner and
to be attractive. I compare my clothes with theirs and my hands with
theirs; and I think: 'Supposing Osborn is comparing me, too?'"

"He wouldn't."

"Not consciously, perhaps. But he is admiring the other women all the
time; I see him doing it. Why shouldn't he? All the women he sees
about him in town - the pretty girls in the streets.... He used to
admire me so much, when I was very pretty ... the - the things he used
to say! But now, I sometimes wonder - "

"What else do you wonder, poor kid?"

"When he goes out alone - sometimes to dinner - in the evenings - "

"Whether he's taking someone - "

Marie nodded. "Someone prettier than I; as I used to be; someone who's
not tired with having children; and who hasn't rusted and got dull and
stupid from thinking of nothing but grocers' bills, and from staying
at home."

"You must try not to think - "

"But I do think. Men are like that; men hate being annoyed and want to
be amused. They get to - to - marriage is funny; Osborn seems to get to
look upon me as someone who's always going to _ask_ for
something. I - I know when he had a nice commission the other day, he
didn't tell me about it, in case there was something for the children
I'd be asking him for."

"Oh!"

"It hurts," said Marie, "always to be considered an asker; but of
course men don't think of it like that."

"They ought to think, then."

"Men aren't like women. They set their own lines of conduct."

"What's that in the marriage service," Julia inquired, "about
bestowing upon a woman all a man's worldly goods?"

"Ah, well, you think all those things at the time; but they don't work
out, really."

"As I always thought," said Julia.

Marie was still away upon her trail. "I don't really let myself go as
much as you might think. I'm always dressed for breakfast, if I've
been up half the night; I don't allow myself to be slovenly. And
however I've had to hurry over putting the children to bed, and
cooking dinner and things, I always change my blouse and put on my
best slippers before Osborn comes in. I feel - at home I feel as if I
look quite nice; but when I come out of it" - she indicated her
surroundings - "I realise I'm just a dowd who's fast losing what looks
she had. When I come out, and see others, I - I know I can't compete.
It makes you almost afraid to come out. And Osborn - while I'm at home,
plodding along, you see, he's out, seeing the others all the time. He
sees them in the restaurants, and they pass him in the street - girls
as I used to be."

"You must leave all these thoughts alone."

"Girls, Julia, as - as I could be again, if I had the chance."

"Would you like a cigarette?" Julia asked abruptly; "if so, we'll go
to the smoke-room."

"I'd love it; it's ages since I smoked. But I haven't time. I must be
going."

"Already?"

"It'll be the children's bedtime, and mother can't manage them alone."

"Oh, of course, dear," Julia said. "How stupid of me!" She folded very
tenderly round Marie's neck the stole which had been star turn in the
trousseau six years ago, and very tenderly she pressed her hands.

"Don't make the jersey suit for George; I want to give it to him for
Christmas!"

"Oh, Julia, I couldn't!"

"Yes, you could and will."

"You're an old darling."

"That's all right, Mrs. Osborn Kerr. Now I'll take you as far as your
Tube or 'bus. Which is it?"

Marie went home the warmer for Julia's companionship and her visit to
the most up-to-date women's club in town; she looked almost girlish
again when she stepped into No. 30 Welham Mansions, to relieve Grannie
Amber of the onerous responsibilities which she undertook so gladly.

"Well, duck," said Mrs. Amber, coming out with her funny walk, which
was at once a waddle, because of her weight, and a trip, from the
energy of her disposition, "have you had a lovely day?"

"Such a nice time, thank you, mother. Babes been good?"

"Perfect little angels!" Mrs. Amber lied with innocent sincerity.

"I'll begin putting them to bed directly I've laid down these parcels.
I've got the cream socks and the flannel for baby's new petticoats,
but the jersey suits were too dear. Julia's going to give George one
for Christmas."

"That's very kind of her, love. I always think she has a good heart,
though I don't like her opinions. The bath water's hot, my duck, and
baby's in bed, and the others are undressed, all ready, waiting for
you."

"You _are_ a good grannie!"

Grannie Amber stayed a while longer to watch the two elder children's
bathing; she squeezed her plump form alongside Marie in the tiny
bathroom, and from time to time emitted laughs and cries of fond
delight. She made herself busy, when the matter was over, in folding
towels and wiping up the pools of water which the rampant children had
splashed upon the floor. She followed them with her waddling trip
along the corridor to see them snugly tucked up in their beds in what
had been Osborn's dressing-room, and at last, having murmured, "God
bless you all, ducks!" her good work accomplished, she stole away.

The flush of exertion stained Marie's pale cheeks now; it was 6.15,
and there was no time for anything but to fly to the kitchen. It was
always so, but happily there was seldom time to think about it. If you
began to question why, the potatoes boiled dry in immediate protest
against your discontent. By the time Marie had set the gas-stove going
full blast the very tips of her nose and ears were crimson. Without
pause she ran back into her bedroom to put on her best slippers, the
only evening toilet she had time to make. She stood a few seconds
leaning towards the glass, as she had stood that birthday night after
her husband had taken her to dine at the Royal Red, and she fingered
her blouse, her hair, her manicure tools passionately, sadly and
appealingly, as if she begged them: "Do your best." The underlying
anxiety which her confidences to Julia had awakened looked haggardly
from her face.

"I am growing very old," she thought, terrified. "I am growing much
older than thirty-one. I look older than Osborn."

She was quivering to woman's ageless problem, the problem of the body,
the problem of the tired brain and the driven heart; the problem of
the great and cruel competition between the woman of pleasure and the
woman of toil.

While she still stood there, she heard her husband's key in the lock.

She put up her hands to smooth the worry away from her face and, with
the impress of her fingers white on her flushed cheeks, stared at
herself again. Surely that was better? She wore a smile, the smile of
the Wise Wives, and went out to meet him. He was shedding his
overcoat, and as he hung it up he whistled a tune with joy in it. She
was struck instantly by something about him, a tiny but material
change, which she could not fathom.

"Hallo, old girl!" he turned to say cheerfully.

"Hallo, dear!" she replied.

"Dinner ready?"

"Quite! I'll bring it in."

He went into the dining-room and stood on the hearth in the attitude
long appropriate to a master of the house. His eyes were shining,
though his brow still wore its habitual creases as if he were thinking
very carefully. He stared before him, but without noting anything.
They still had a pretty dinner-table, a dinner-table almost, if not
quite, up to early-married standards, and the shaded candles were
lighted and beneath them there were cut flowers. He never wondered how
Marie managed to stretch that weekly thirty-two and sixpence to cover
the cost of a third baby, occasional new candle-shades and perpetual
flowers. It was better not to inquire. Inquiry raised ideas and
suggestions and requests. He could not afford to inquire. It struck
him vaguely this evening, as he stood looking out somewhere beyond the
dining-room and whistling his happy tune, that everything was very
fairly comfortable.

His wife came in with a big tray and arranged the dinner temptingly
upon the table. When it was all ready he drew up his chair and sat
down with an air of appetite. And he talked; it was as if he exerted
himself to interest her and to be interested, himself, in all that she
said. He listened and commented upon her day's shopping, asked where
she lunched, heard about her visit to Julia at a chic club, and
observed lightly how fashionable she was getting.

He said she looked tired to-night, and must take care of herself.

He was going to stay at home this evening, to sit by the fire and talk
to her; his manner was almost loverlike, and her heart thrilled to it
as she had not thought it could thrill again. She looked at him with
eyes in which her wonder showed; and in her quietened body her passion
seemed to raise its subdued head again, sweet and strong and young.

"I shan't be two minutes clearing away," she said, when they rose. She
felt no more fatigue, but piled all the things on the big tray and
carried it out to the kitchen almost like a feather-weight, and in
less than the two minutes she had assigned, she was back again with
the coffee things, her feet light and her eyes dreaming. She drew her
chair nearer his before the hearth, and stretched out her hand to him,
hungering across the space. He squeezed and dropped it, and leaned
forward, clearing his throat as if he were going to speak words of
moment.

He checked himself and obviously said something else.

"Your coffee is good, dear; you do look after me in a simply tophole
way."

His words were like the prelude of a song to her. She listened for
more, with a smile, a real smile, no more wise, but foolish. It had
the foolishness of all love in it, so easily and completely could he
give her pain, or pleasure.

He answered the smile with one of constraint.

Feeling in the pocket of his lounge coat, he uttered abruptly:

"I brought you a few sweets, dear; passed a shop on my way; thought - "

He handed over a packet of chocolates and sat back with a sigh
expressive of satisfaction, while, with a cry of delight and
gratitude, she untied the ribbons.

"You are a dear!" she said tremulously. "I must share them with the
children; and this pink ribbon - pink for a girl, blue for a boy! It'll
do for baby's bonnet. What lovely ribbon, silk all through!"

"Oh, well, they weren't cheap chocolates," Osborn observed.

"I see that. They're delicious." She broke one slowly between her
teeth. Sweets! They brought back those dear old spoiled-girl days to
her; precious days which no woman values till she has lost them, and
the prize of which no man understands.

"Glad you like them," he said, looking at her with a strange, an
almost guilty softness. "I like you to have things that you enjoy. You
know that, don't you?"

"Of course I do, dear."

Osborn cleared his throat and leaned forward again, his clasped hands
between his knees. He looked down at the hands attentively, appearing
to take an undue interest in them.

He began slowly:

"Er - speaking of things you'd enjoy, old girl, we - we've often talked
about - wondered when - my ship would be coming in. Grand to see her,
wouldn't it be, steaming into harbour, fine as paint, full cargo and
all?"

He choked slightly over his words, as with excitement, and that
shining in his eyes intensified. She caught it as for a moment he
lifted them, and it took her breath away, but in the same instant she
knew that this shining was not for her.

"Osborn!" she uttered, and could say no more.

He continued: "I've got something to tell you."

"I felt it when you first came in. Oh, Osborn, darling, don't keep me
waiting. What is it?"

"Well - in a way - it's what we've both been thinking of - "

"The ship's - come in!"

As she breathed rather than spoke the words she sank back in her
chair; her conviction was so sure that she could have shrieked with
ecstasy; yet at the same time it came with such an overpowering relief
that she had the sensation of one kept too long from sleep lying down
at last to rest. She would have been content to wait, until after a
long dreamful contemplation of the news, for detail and description of
the voyage and adventure of the most elusive craft in the world, only
that, once off, Osborn plunged on as if he would have her know all as
soon as might be.

He started again, with scarcely a pause, after just a nod to confirm
her exclamation.

"I'll begin at the beginning. That's the best way, eh, old girl? I see
it's staggered you as it staggered me. Woodall - you've heard me speak
of Woodall, one of our travellers? - was just about to start for a long
trip - New York, Chicago, then Montreal and all over Canada,
California, then New Zealand; it was a fine trip, selling our Runaway
two-seater. Well, when I got to our place this morning the boss sent
for me at once, and told me the news about poor old Woodall - knocked
down by a taxi in the street last night, and now in hospital for they
don't know how long. The tickets were bought and the tour arranged,
and - and - in short, you see, they'd got to pick another man at a
moment's notice, to go instead. And so - "

The wife leaned forward, her eyes opened wide and warily on her
husband's face. Not looking at her, he rattled on:

"So the boss offered it to me. You don't need telling that I accepted,
do you?"

She replied, "No," in a quiet voice.

"I knew you'd think I ought to take it," he said, with a swift glance
at her. "Of course, it mayn't be permanent, but I think it's up to me
to make it so. I guess I can hold down a job of that kind as well as
anyone else, if I've the chance. It's a fine chance! Do you know what
it means?"

She uttered a questioning sound.

"Five hundred a year," he said huskily, "with a good commission and
all expenses paid. The expenses are - are princely. You see, a fellow
selling motors isn't like a fellow selling tea. He's got to do the
splendid - get among the right people; among all sorts of people. Oh,
it'll be life!"

Passion was subdued again in her; it was old and drowsy and quiet.
Knitting her fingers tightly round her knee, she rocked a little, and
asked:

"When do you start?"

"Of course it's rather sudden - "

"So I understood from what you said. When will it be, Osborn?"

"To-morrow."

She stared into his face, unbelieving.

"To-morrow?" she whispered.

He got up hurriedly and fumbled about the mantel-piece in a fake
search for cigarettes.

"You see, I've got to follow out Woodall's programme exactly; he would
have started to-morrow."

"How - how long will you be away?"

"A year."

"A year!" she half screamed. "Oh, no! no! no!"

He looked at her with something of fear and something of sulkiness. He
was on the defensive, willing to be very kind, but resolute not to be
nagged nor argued with. "Don't," he protested, "don't take it like
that."

"I'm sorry, dear," she said more quietly. "It hit me, rather.
To-morrow is so soon, and a year is such a long, long time."

"Not so very. A year's nothing. Besides, I've got to go; it's no use
making a fuss, is it?"

"I won't make a fuss."

"There'll be a good deal to do. I wanted you to look over my things
to-night. I'll help you carry them in here, shall I?"

She rose mechanically and went into the erstwhile dressing-room
quietly, so as not to disturb the sleeping children. He waited in the
doorway, and she handed out to him pile after pile of his underwear,
following the last consignment by carrying out a big armful herself.
They returned to the dining-room and laid the garments on the table.

"Sorry to give you so much trouble all at once," he apologised.

He lighted a pipe and sat down again by the fire, while she stood over
the heaps on the table, sorting them with neat fingers that had
learned a very considerable speed in such tasks, and picking out here
and there a shirt or vest which needed further attention. She was
white with a kind of grey whiteness like ashes, and in her heart and
throat heavy weights of tears lay. She talked automatically to keep
herself from exhibition of despair.

"I'll darn that; it's as good as new except for one thin patch. These
shirts have lasted very well, haven't they? The colour's hardly faded
at all. You ought to have had new vests, but I daresay you'll have
ample opportunity for buying them. To-morrow morning I'll sponge your
navy suit with ammonia. What time are you going? _T-t-ten
o'clock_?...

"I'll sponge it before breakfast. You may want to put it on. I'm going
to look for that glove you lost; it was a seven-and-sixpenny pair; we
ought to find it." And things like this she continued to say to him,
lest, the fantastic fancy of her grief whispered to her, he should
hear her heart painfully breaking.

He answered with alacrity, the same alacrity of response which he had
shown, at dinner; and he handed to her the packet of chocolates,
asking jocularly: "Isn't she going to eat her sweets?"

She broke one slowly between her teeth again; it had an extraordinary
bitter taste which remained in the mouth. She hated the packet of
sweets for its smug, silly mission of comfort.

Comfort!

How queer women's lives were!

What did men really think regarding their wives? What did Osborn
think, sitting there in his accustomed chair, with his accustomed pipe
between his teeth and his new and gorgeous plans causing his eyes to
shine?

She knew now the wherefore of his eyes shining. He was looking out at
a wonderful adventure; at freedom.

Freedom!

What right had he to freedom?

She turned to him with a remark so abrupt that it was exclamatory:

"It will be a good holiday for you."

"Great!" he answered, his satisfaction bursting forth, "great!"

"I wish I could come with you."

"Ah," he said, "ah!..." She watched him with a knifelike keenness
while he reflected, and she read the stealthy gratification of the
thought he voiced next: "But you can't, old girl There are the
kiddies."

"Do you suppose I don't know that?"

"Oh, well; I knew you were only joking."

Joking?

What a joke!

"I shall try to save a bit of money for the first time in my life," he
said. "I'll leave you a clear two hundred for yourself and the
kids - that's all right, isn't it? Two hundred, and you won't have my
enormous appetite to cater for! You'll do very well, won't you, Mrs.
Osborn?"

"Thank you. We shall do quite well."

"I'll arrange at the bank, and give you a chequebook."

She said next:

"A whole year! Baby'll forget you."

The remark seemed to him peculiarly womanish and silly. What on earth
did it matter, anyway? But he had patience with her, knowing how
sorely better men than he were tried by their wives.

"Well," he observed, "kids' memories are very short, aren't they?"

Marie went on sorting the clothes; presently she drew a chair to the
table, and began to work with needle and thread, darning, tightening
buttons, performing the many jobs which only a wife would find. As she
sewed she glanced again and again at her husband; he had sunk deep
into his chair in an abandonment of rest, his legs stretched before
him, his pipe between his teeth, his shining eyes fixed upon the fire.
Now and again his lips twitched to a smile over the pipe stem. He was
thinking, imagining, revelling in the freedom of the approaching year.
The marriage task had infinitely wearied him. For a year, with a
well-lined pocket, and a first-class ticket, he was to travel away
from it all. He was deeply allured, and his delight was again young
and robust; he looked forward most eagerly, as a school-boy to a
promising holiday.

After she had sewed awhile with a methodical tightening of all the
buttons, and an unconscious tightening of her lips too, she said:

"Well, you'll come back and find us all the same."

He roused himself slightly.

"I hope so. Take care of yourselves."

She could have screamed at him.

"We shall jog along here," she said.

He looked at her abstractedly. "Take the kids to Littlehampton in the
summer; give yourselves a change. Your mother'll go with you, I
daresay."

"How jolly!"

He took her seriously. He seemed so densely absorbed in what was
coming to him that he only just heard her reply.

He said absently: "I hope it will be; look after yourselves."

She went back, in her busy mind, to the honeymoon adventure on which
they had both embarked six and a quarter years ago. Then they had gone
out hand-in-hand like children into a big dark and they had found


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