THE FLOWER GIRL
The room in which Ione found herself was not a large one, but it wore an aspect somewhat unfamiliar within a few hundred feet of the murky Tamesis. On the walls were framed engravings — Washington crossing the Delaware occupying the place of honour above the mantlepiece. The Declaration of Independence was being signed on the wall over against the window. Prints of Faneuil Hall and the Old South Meeting-House occupied niches near the fireplace. In one corner there was a sort of shrine composed of American flags, framed and glazed, the Stars glittering on top, and the Stripes descending perpendicularly to the bottom of the frame. Opposite was another glass-case, in which hung an old blue coat with shoulder-straps of rusty gold, together with an officer's sword suspended by a waist-belt.
A thin-faced old lady, with a sedately placid expression and the whitest hair in the world, was knitting by the window, her fingers never resting for a moment as the nimble thread wove out and in. She pulled at the wool ball in her large apron-pocket every minute or two with that automatic hitch which tells of a lifetime of practice.
"Miss March, this is my mother," said Seth Livingston; "she is quite the latest and most satisfactory thing in mothers, too, and always comes home to tea. Mother, this is Miss March, with whom I am permitted to make you acquainted, and she is the daughter of Governor March of Callibraska."
"My dear!" said the old lady, rising and holding out one hand, while she conserved her knitting with the other. "Why, I've heard of your father as much as a million times! Indeed, he got all my spring chickens for two whole years to melt into bullets to help end the dreadful war! — and — and I gave him two of my sons as well."
She cast a look at the blue coat which hung limply opposite the trophy of flags.
"Mother," said Seth, "do give Miss March some tea, before you get talking about the War. There's nothing so thirsty as talking about the War. It's as bad as lunching with three brigadier-generals at the Union Club."
"Don't you mind Seth, Miss March," said the gracious old lady, smiling placidly at her guest; "when you've lived as long as I have with joking men, you’ll know that more than half the time they are the only ones to see their own fun."
"Say it, mother!" said her son provokingly.
"Well, I will, Seth." She nodded a little defiantly at him. "He wants me to say that I wouldn't be as funny as he is for a farm. He says that that makes him feel as if he were right down by Boston Harbour. It seems curious they don't say a simple thing like that over here."
"Yes, mother," he answered; "whenever you get to saying that, I can smell the South Bay and hear the N. Y. express sail through to Matapan just a-whooping!"
By this time the tea was poured out, and the old lady produced from a wall-press sundry cakes and mysterious condiments, which she set on the table with great complacency.
"Do you know, I just can't take to these stiff English afternoon teas. They are no better than the departed spirits of square meals," said Mrs. Livingston vigorously; "and so every morning I go and buy in all the nice American-tasting things I can find, and then Seth and I have them in the afternoon."
"She is a real moral old lady, my mother!" mused Seth, to the electric-light fittings —"teaching me to swindle my own hotel, and bribing me by offering to share the proceeds of the crime. Did you ever happen to read that notice, mother?" He pointed to a card tacked on the wall.
No Meals to be Partaken of
in the Apartments
Without Special Arrangement
with the Direction
of the Syndicate Hotels.
"Well, sonny," said his mother, "aren't you the ‘Direction of the Hotels’? At any rate, you've been telling me nothing else ever since I came over in the Circassia. I wouldn't be as - "
"No, mother, not again quite so soon. Do give Miss March a rest!" said Seth, putting his hands dejectedly into the pockets of his coat. What he felt there made his lip suddenly quiver. He had forgotten the crushing sorrow which was waiting for this girl at the end of their light talk. At any rate, he would get her launched upon her work before she heard the news, and the necessities of her new position might perhaps help her not to break down under the blow which, sooner or later, must fall upon her.
"Mother," he said, "this young lady knows all about Mamie in Salem - "
"I guess you've been telling her yourself, then," cried Mrs. Livingston; "you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Seth. Miss March, he can't keep from telling every one he meets about little Mamie Grove. He generally gets there within ten minutes. How long was he with you? You look so sweet and sympathetic, that I shouldn't blame him if he got to Salem within a minute and a half."
"Mother, you are really the most unscrupulous person. And yet they say that the great American lie is going out! They should just hear my mother abusing and slandering her only son! But the truth is, that with Miss March alongside, most men would forget to mention Salem at all!"
"Well, Seth, if you could be sensible for five minutes, perhaps you would tell us how you propose to attach Miss March to the service of your Hotels?"
"Why, mother. Miss March is already engaged to arrange flowers on the dining-tables at half a guinea for each set-out; and as we have many special dinners, I think she may count on at least three or four in an evening. And of course, as the thing has to be done quickly, we will stand cab fares between the hotels."
"Dear me!" said Ione, smiling gladly; "you are quite a fairy prince with a magic wand. Why, I shall be a millionairess, and have money to burn! But perhaps, after they see me start in to do one table, the Direction will shut down on me, and say, 'Flowers is off; please help lay the cloths — it is all you are good for!'"
"And a very nice thing too," said Mrs. Livingston; "I just ache to show these lazy good-for-nothing German waiters how cloths are laid in New England!"
"I think there is not the least doubt that Miss March will succeed," said Seth. "I'll take her round right now, and introduce her to our Manager. Don't tell him that you haven't had fifty years' experience! Go to the stalls in the court-yard and get what flowers you want. They all belong to the Syndicate. The Manager doesn't know beans about decoration anyway, and the head waiters don't go beyond sticking a score of roses in a glass pail, like so many cigarette spills. So you have carte-blanche and my blessing. You will get your money every night from the cashier, or have your cash made up each Saturday, if that suits you better."
"I don't know how to thank you, Mr. Livingston; I don't know what I can do - " Ione began, a little hard knot coming suddenly in her throat. After all, it was a great thing that this young American was doing for her so lightly.
"You can give my mother a kiss, if you like," laughed Seth; "I know she would like it, and she's just particular nice to kiss. And as for me, why, you can get that car-girl to make room for me beside her again, next time I am down on my luck and riding on the bottom step of a Pullman."
* * * * *
With characteristic readiness to adapt herself to the business in hand, Ione instantly pulled off her gloves and ran out to the nearest ladies' shop to buy a white linen "Squire" collar, such as school-boys and nurses wear, and a pair of white turned-back cuffs to match. These she fitted over her black dress with the old lady's assistance, and in ten minutes she had extemporised a completely suitable costume. In a quarter of an hour Seth Livingston was informed that his new recruit was ready to begin work.
His mother had accompanied the transformation with approving and patriotic murmurs.
"American? Well, I should say so! They don't breed your kind over here, my dear. It comes of generations of huskings and quiltings, and of doing one full share of man's work and taking two shares of man's responsibility."
She paused a little, contemplating the completion of Ione's swift arrangements. "What State did your father come from?" she asked.
"Well, as you know," answered Ione, looking up, "he was Governor of Callibraska during the War, but by birth he was an Ohio man - "
"The step-mother of Presidents," commented Seth from the sitting-room; "she smacked them for their good all the time they were little, and stood around with her hands in her pockets taking the credit of them after they got big!"
His mother looked through the doorway at him as he lounged against the mantelpiece with his hands in his pockets.
"I wouldn't be - "
"Yes, mother, I know; but really, really — that's the third time! But about Ohio, it's the frozen truth, any way."
"Good-bye, my dear," said the white-haired old lady. "I don't know what he means; nor does he, half the time. But run in here and see me often, and tell me how you are getting on. I don't know anything about dressing up tables with flowers, but if I could come and hold the string and the wire fixings for you - "
"Well, mother, you just can't — else you'd be sitting up half the night with your cough. So take your bonnet and go out and see if you can't buy better buckwheat than the second-hand sawdust you got last time in that shop in Regent Street. I can't have two such tearing beauties going about the tables in the restaurant and into the private dining-rooms, disorganising the waiters and reducing the call-boys to more than their ordinary level of drivelling idiocy."
Ione had many a time decorated dinner-tables for her father. It had been one of his greatest pleasures to watch her nimble fingers moving among the rich blooms of the Mediterranean sea-board. But she had no conventions, and her creations were by no means in accordance with the traditions. Her manner was quiet and assured; and even on this first night she achieved some quite remarkable successes.
Her experience, from the point of view of a diner, had informed her that, before all things, people desire to be able to see each other without gazing through a tangled tropical forest of ferns and sprays, or playing bo-peep round a palm. She found also that most of the stands and epergnes were too stiff for the smaller tables; but with yards of trailing smilax and delicately wreathed lilac-blossomed wistaria, she toned down the harshness of their outlines.
Ione endeavoured to treat each table as a distinct picture, making of one an arrangement in rich red tones, culminating in the splendid crimson of the Bolivian sage and the scarlet of that imperial martagon lily to which even King Solomon in all his glory was not like.
"Was the young man who ordered this table dark or fair?" she asked suddenly of the chief steward of the restaurant. That Parisian elegant looked somewhat astonished, but answered, smiling and twirling his moustache, "Mees, he was blonde."
"And the table is ordered for three," mused Ione, with her finger to her cheek; "one will be the gooseberry, the other will be her. And if he is fair, it is about four to one that she will be dark. We will give them the red table."
And so indeed it proved; and with her diamond-lit crown of blue-black hair, Ione's flamboyant royal colour harmonised as never table decorations had done before.
When Ione came back the next night, she found that so far as that hotel was concerned, her reputation was made. She had smiled graciously as the dinner-giver anxiously adjusted her opera-cloak, and whispered something in his ear. Then the lover had turned about to say to the deferential manager, "The young lady desires to congratulate you on your table-decorator!"
It was with joy in her heart that Ione returned to the little house, where Jane Allen was sitting up anxiously awaiting her return.
"Wherever have you been, Ione?" she cried, as soon as she had flown into the narrow passage to clutch her friend round the neck. Mrs. Adair came bustling out, her face red from the oven in which she had been preparing a beefsteak-pie to be carried by Tom Adair and his father to the works on the morrow.
Ione told all her tale of Seth Livingston's kindness, and not the least of her joy was the sight of the unselfish rejoicing of these honest hearts.
"So in a week or two I shall be quite rich, and be able to give you all a treat to the Crystal Palace, or even, if you are very good, to Hampton Court on Sunday. Besides" — she turned and put her hand affectionately on the plump matronly shoulder of Mrs. Adair — "it is high time that I paid my debts. I have been expecting, any time these two weeks, that you would be putting me to the door."
John Adair coughed as if he had been about to speak, while his father moved his feet off the kitchen fender noisily and upset the tongs.
"Eh, lassie!" said Mrs. Adair, holding up her hands in protest; "how can ye speak like that? Ye are just like yin o' oorsels, an' were I ever to speak o' siller to ye, ony yin o' thae twa men sittin' aboot the fire wad gie me my head in my hand and my lugs to play wi'!"
It was with moist eyes and trembling lips, to find herself among such simple loving souls, that Ione moved upstairs to her little bedroom. As she did so, Mrs. Adair called after her.
"Miss March," she said, "there was a gentleman here this afternoon. He would not give any message, nor sae muckle as leave his name; but he gied me a letter for you. You will find it on your bedroom table."
"What was the gentleman like?" asked Ione.
"'Deed, I didna tak' muckle notice o' him, for the girdle was on, and the scones readying fine; and wi' thae wig-ma-leeries o' useless English fire-places, that hae nocht but a bit patlid for the lowe to keek up through, ye need to keep your mind on your scones when they are on. But he was a lang lad, gye white and shilpit, and lookin' as if he had clean forgotten what day o' the week it was."
The description of Keith Harford was too clear to be mistaken. Ione ran up to her bedroom with an eagerness which she did not own even to herself.
On the table lay a plain business envelope sealed with a red seal. With fingers that trembled she tore it open, and half a dozen crisp Bank of England notes fluttered out. A scrap of paper accompanied them, with a few words written upon it.
"Dear Miss March, I cannot allow you to suffer through my fault. Pardon this, and do not be angry.
Tears sprang to Ione's eyes, and she patted her shoe on the scrap of carpet which lay in front of the little looking-glass.
"Oh, he ought not to have done this — I cannot take it! I shall go to-morrow and give it back to him."
Then she remembered that she did not know Keith Harford's address. At this moment Jane Allen came in with eager eyes of inquiry. She pounced at once upon the traces of the tears which Ione had hastily endeavoured to wipe away.
"What did I tell you?" she said reproachfully. "I knew how it would be! You should never have let him speak to you again. Men are all vipers, and whenever you give them an inch they will take an ell!"
"But, Jane," said Ione, smiling in rather April fashion, "this is not the man I was once engaged to. I never saw Mr. Harford till I was in Switzerland a year ago."
Jane Allen's eyes danced with a sudden joyous light.
"Why didn't you tell me so before?" she said. "Here I have been just horrid to you for weeks, all because I thought you were taking him on again — and I knew too well what that meant. But, tell me, is he nice? Do you love him?"
"No," said Ione doubtfully; "I do not love him. How should I, after seeing him only half a dozen times? But I am sorry for him. He is ill and poor, and does not know how to look after himself any more than a baby."
Jane Allen did not say a single word, but rose from the side of the bed whereon she had been sitting. She came swiftly and impulsively over to Ione and kissed her. Then, still without a word, she went into her own room.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.