“TWO WAIFS OF THE CITY”
In this cataclysmic fashion Ione found herself once more at a loose end. The World's Wisdom Emporium had climaxed like a blown soap-bubble. While it lasted Shillabeer's had indeed afforded her a liberal salary, much more than sufficient for her moderate needs. And of that, together with the money she had brought from Switzerland, there remained just forty pounds, which seemed quite enough to live upon till she should find something else to do. Her little fortune she determined to bank at an American Exchange for safe keeping, and to draw enough for her weekly expenses as occasion demanded.
She mentioned her trouble to Jane Allen, though without telling her the whole of the interview with her late principal.
"No," coincided Jane, somewhat wistfully. "I suppose you couldn't marry him. But it's a pity all the same. Up till now I've always been sorry I'm not as pretty as you: but then on the other hand, people don't fall in love with me, so that I've got to give up a good place to keep out of their way. But what are you going to do, Ione? Secretarying is hard to get, and, besides, you have very likely had enough of it. Have you ever acted?"
"Well, yes - " confessed Ione; "that is, I've often played with amateurs. Many of the big hotels abroad have quite nice theatres."
"What have you acted in?"
Let me see, only the usual things for amateurs — Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, and —well, charades."
Jane Allen cried out with sudden laughter.
"I am afraid the Shakespeare women are no good," she said, when she had recovered, "but the charades might help a little. Anyway, you would look all right on the stage. You are too tall for a soubrette though, but you would do famously for a weeper or a leading juvenile."
"But I have had no training, and - "
"Oh, I’ll find out all about that to-day for you — I know a girl who acts at the 'Sobriety.' I don't believe she had as much training as you've had, and I know she drops her 'aitches'!"
"Who? — Madge Tremont .'' queried Ione.
"Well, not quite. My friend isn't exactly the star yet," smiled Jane Allen. "Indeed, she don't often have anything to say; but once she had to cough and knock down a book when she was a waiting maid, so that Madge Tremont would know that she was there, and not be going on too much with her young man."
"Your friend must be getting on in her profession," said Ione.
"Susie La Vallière, yes — I should just say so. Why, she can whistle better than any girl I ever heard — the treble on one side of her mouth, and the bass at the other, as natural as life. And as soon as there's a whistling part at the 'Sobriety,' they're just bound to give it to her. Then she’ll knock the star all to fits. Madge Tremont won't be in it!"
"What is a whistling part, Jane?"
“Oh, sort of song and dance, you know! Dandy nigger boy from Ole Virginia, Alabama Coon with a big hat and trousers made of the stars and stripes. Niggers are rather off just now, but they're sure to come on again before long. I'II run across and talk to Susie today."
Ione had no great faith in the ability of Miss Susie La Vallière to whistle her into a good place at the "Sobriety." Besides which she felt herself quite unable to compete with a gifted lady who could whistle the treble with one side of her mouth, even without taking into account the bass upon the other. Nevertheless she thanked Jane, and intimated her intention of accompanying her into town. Ione was not the girl to sit down and wait (as her father used to say of a lazy man) "for a million a month job at doing nothing to come along."
That afternoon the two girls started together for the American Exchange, to open the wonderful bank account. At the corner of the common it came on to rain, and they boarded a tramcar into which many nurses and children, who had been enjoying a breath of comparatively fresh air, were crowding. Amongst others who made their way in was a strong, dark-browed, country-looking woman, pushing a little girl before her. The child was in the rudest of health. Her face shone round as the full moon — either apple-cheek deeply stained with red. Her eyes, small, beaded, and black as sloes, were fixed on a basket of cherries, from which she was eating steadily, with the most absolute confidence in her powers of digestion.
Just opposite, upon the knee of a young widow in deep mourning, was perched a child of another mould and world. Slight, pale, dainty, and refined, she sat watching with a certain vague wistfulness the operations of the exuberant gourmand.
Once or twice she whispered something to her mother, but the widow shook her head with querulous impatience at the interruption, and continued to stare abstractedly out of the window through the transparent advertisements of soap-extracts and cut tobaccos.
But presently the mother of the cherry-eater, who was jovially talkative and interested in all her neighbours, caught sight of the little girl seated on her mother's knee.
She stooped down and said something to her own daughter, who however only frowned and went on eating.
"Offer some of your cherries to the little lady," she repeated audibly, delivering the sentence as if it had been an actual box on the side of the head instead of only a forewarning of one.
With the sulkiest and most unwilling of airs, the little girl turned over the contents of her basket. With care and deliberation she selected the very smallest and most unripe of her cherries, which she offered to her dainty vis-à-vis seated opposite.
She was thanked with the most charming of smiles, and an inclination of the head which would have done credit to a court. Then the pale face was turned up to the mother for permission to eat the cherry.
"Thank you very much," she said, when this had been safely accomplished. "It is very good, indeed!"
But from the donor there came no response. Her anguish of mind was extreme. In trembling haste lest her mother should insist on further generosity, she began to cram the remaining cherries into her mouth literally by handfuls, till even Jane Allen grew alarmed.
"That child will for a certainty choke herself on the stones, if she is allowed to go on shovelling the cherries into her mouth like that!" she whispered to Ione.
"Perhaps like your whistling friend, she keeps one side of her mouth for the cherry, and the other for the stone," returned Ione.
"Oh, will you just look?" murmured Jane Allen, in an awed whisper, catching her companion by the wrist. "Ione, it is quite true. She is dropping the stones into her lap as she eats — three or four at a time — what a perfect little pig!"
Just then the epicure reached the bottom of her basket, and it was with an absolute sigh of relief that the last cherry disappeared down her throat. Not one more could possibly be torn from her. And now with all anxieties past she sat eyeing the interloper, as if mentally hoping that the one ravished cherry might disagree with her.
The widow and the little girl made ready to get out at the end of the tramway line. Jane and Ione followed them. As they did so a gentleman came forward and lifted his hat to the widow. It was Keith Harford. A vivid blush rose to Ione's face and she turned sharply round, hoping to escape unnoticed by the other side of the car. But she was too late, Keith Harford had spied her; and with the slightest elevation of eyebrow, he lifted his hat to her also.
"Miss March," he cried, after he had shaken hands with the young widow; "you are not going to run off without speaking to me. I am surprised to see you in this part of London. I did not even know that you were in England."
Ione nodded with some vexation, knowing that the colour was rising to her neck, and would before long be beaconing agitation from her cheeks.
"I came over some months ago," she answered curtly enough.
"Will you allow me to introduce my sister-in-law, Mrs. Vincent Harford," he said, "and also my pet sweetheart, Angel?"
"I like you," cried the pale little girl impulsively, running up and taking hold of Ione's hand. "I loved you in the car, and I'm so glad you are a friend of Uncle Keith's. I like your friend, too!" she added, with instinctive courtesy, anxious not to leave any one out.
She looked after the retreating figure of Jane Allen, who was walking on with infinite dignity in the stiffness of her figure.
"Jane," said Ione, "do come here!"
Very unwillingly Jane stopped, turned, and came slowly back. Ione introduced her, but she suffered rather than responded to the ceremony. A princess in her own right could not have bowed with more of protest in her manner, if in private life she had been introduced to her grocer. Ione was much vexed. She even said to herself that she could have cuffed Jane Allen.
"My friend and I are about to take the train here for Victoria Station, and I fear we must bid you good-bye!" said lone.
"My sister also is going to Victoria," said Keith Harford, smiling pleasantly; "perhaps we might all go together!"
Then Ione could have bitten her tongue out for having spoken so hastily. She could so easily have parted from them at the entrance to the station, and taken a 'bus into the City. Now, however, it was too late, especially as Mrs. Vincent, with an expression on her face not too friendly, was compelled to echo her brother's hope.
Keith Harford asked where they were going, that he might take tickets for them.
"I am very poor these days," he added, smiling, "so they will be third class."
Ione laughed with more pleasure than she had yet shown.
“We are all poor, and the tickets would have been third in any case."
"I can quite well pay for my own ticket, thank you!" said Jane Allen aggressively, at the same time bending down to the wired wicket. "Single to the Temple, please!"
"No, Jane," said Ione, "you know you have to go to Victoria first."
Keith Harford smiled calmly down upon Jane Allen.
"Certainly you can pay me," he said, "but you might at least let me get the ticket for you."
Finally Jane consented to alter her destination to Victoria, but as they passed down the steps, and while Keith was showing the tickets to the gate-keeper, she leaned towards Ione.
"You are making it up with him," she hissed; "and after what you promised, too. I’ll never speak to you again as long as I live!"
Ione stared, bewildered. What could the girl mean, and why did she hold herself as stiff as if she had fastened in Mrs. Adair's kitchen poker along with her stays?
But she had no time for questioning or argument. For till Victoria was reached, it took all her powers of fence to answer satisfactorily the innocent questions of Keith Harford and his sister-in-law. Little Angel, who had taken a child's sudden fancy for Ione, sat stroking her glove and looking fondly up into her face.
As they came out of the station, Keith Harford signalled a hansom and leaned forward to open it for his sister. A little spasm of discontent and dislike passed across her face.
"Come away, Angel!" she said pointedly. "Uncle Keith wishes to get rid of us; we won't keep him from his friends!"
The cab drove off before any one had time to say a word, and Ione turned about to take Jane Allen's arm and coax her into a better frame of mind. Keith was by her side, but Jane Allen had vanished.
"Did you see anything of my friend?" she asked of Harford a little breathlessly.
"She certainly was here a moment ago. Can she have gone into a shop?" said Keith, looking about him however, with no great eagerness or alacrity. But neither in shop nor yet on street did they see any more of Jane Allen that day.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.