THE CUCKOO LEAVES THE NEST
Next morning Ione was first of all the girls at the office. The manager only was before her. He stood at his desk in the inner office arranging the work for the day, and looking over the pile of letters requiring attention. Ione went up to him with her usual light, quick, decisive step.
"I am obliged to you, sir, for your courtesy to me, and for the attention which you were good enough to pay to my father's wishes," she said; "but you will not be surprised that when I know the facts I cannot continue to accept work on these conditions. I shall have to give up my position here."
The manager was a young man still, though lifelong absorption in a rushing business had aged him before his time.
"Miss March," he said earnestly enough, "I hope you will not do that. Apart altogether from your father's wishes, you do your work very well. Yesterday you read that difficult scientific manuscript, after two others had failed. We cannot afford to do without you."
He smiled and resumed the scrutiny of his letters, as if he considered the matter at an end. But Ione had no intention that it should be settled so easily.
"I am indeed sorry, sir, that I cannot agree with you. You mean it in the kindest way, I know. But by receiving wages on the conditions which my father arranged with you I am keeping some one else out of an excellent position. I am usurping some other girl's place. Be good enough to inform me what notice I must give to the Company, in order that I may make other arrangements."
"I trust you will see things differently and remain with us," said the manager, coming round from his desk, and standing up (as he did to a good customer) with his hand on the ledge of his bureau. "The girls will soon get over any little feeling they may have at present, and I can assure you that you will find yourself better off in a large and well-appointed office than elsewhere."
Ione shook her head and smiled at him.
"I did not propose, when I left home and undertook to earn my living, that my father should pay my wages."
"I assure you, madam," said the manager emphatically, "that, though we were certainly glad to oblige a man so well known and influential as Governor March, we should be sorry to lose your services for their own sake."
"Thank you," said Ione; "but, nevertheless, I should like, if possible, to leave to-night."
The manager was more and more anxious to get back to his correspondence. He had been casting furtive glances at it over the corner of his desk. He had done his best. The daughter of the rich war governor was well enough, but, after all, he had a long and complicated day's work before him. In a few minutes his town travellers upon commission would be upon him, and he did not yet know how many machines he had received from New York ready to be put upon the London market.
"I am indeed sorry," he said, bowing to the girl with an air of finality, "if it is your intention to leave us. But, of course, so far as the Gopher & Arlington Company is concerned, you are at liberty to come and go at your pleasure."
Ione thanked him cordially, and was turning away.
"Miss March," he continued, "if you wish at any time a testimonial from us to enable you to obtain another situation, I shall be glad to be of any service to you. I am sure you will find such a guarantee almost essential."
"I should like to take one now," said practical Ione, smiling upon him.
The manager gasped and started, glancing piteously at the pile of letters still unopened before him.
"Very well," he said; "I shall make a note of the matter and dictate you a certificate in the course of the day."
Ione went to her place. The girls were already passing in, and with business-like quickness arranging their work upon their little tables. One or two of them even glanced distantly in her direction. Jane Allen walked directly up to Ione and shook hands.
"Good-morning," she said. "I am glad to see you. And so will all the other girls be soon. They are coming round."
"It will have to be very soon, then," said Ione, smiling, "for the nest will be empty this evening at six. The 'cuckoo' is going to fly sharp at that hour."
"You are not leaving?" queried the girl, astonished.
Ione smiled and nodded as she inserted more sheets of "scientific" in her copy-holder.
"My dear," she said, "what I told you is true. You believe it, but the girls might not. Besides, when you leave home to earn your own living, you don't want your father to help pay your wages."
There was a flush of reproach on the pale face of Jane Allen.
"You are not going to make it up with him?" she whispered suspiciously, with an accent on the pronoun which showed that she did not refer to Governor March.
This time Ione laughed outright.
"There is no fear of that!" she said, smiling down at the fierce impetuosity of her companion.
"Ah, you never know," said the pale girl, speaking in a low, intense whisper, "when they come excusing and explaining, and coaxing and petting. At first you tell him that you hate the sight of him. But if he catches you round the waist (as he will be sure to do if he knows his business), then sharp little strings begin to tug about your heart that you never knew were there before — why, then there is no saying what you may be fool enough to do."
And again the blue eyes filled with fire, burning with a dry and tearless flame, which lighted up the pale face with a certain fierce dignity.
"Do not be afraid," said Ione gently, putting a hand on her arm; "he will never come back, nor trouble me any more."
At that moment the manager came out of the inner office, and the girls were soon clicking away for dear life. Jane Allen went to her place, and began to rattle faster than any of them, as if to work off some hidden emotion. Only once she leaned over to her neighbour with a paper in her hand, as if to ask a question. When she returned to her work the fluttering sheet had disappeared.
Instantly a leaven of interest and kindliness began to spread about the room, washing unregarded round the window-seat where Ione sat, unconscious of all save her task. Soon the girls no longer avoided the place. One came and asked the loan of the office dictionary, "if Miss March was quite sure she was not using it?" Another took one of two damask roses from her bosom and laid it on Ione's desk as she passed.
“It's rather faded," she whispered, "but it has a nice enough scent, and it will suit your colour of hair."
As Ione thanked her, with the smile which had been as irresistible to women as to men, she became conscious of the new atmosphere which had begun to pervade the large workroom, and of course put the change down to the beneficent influence of Jane Allen.
It was at the dinner-hour that these manifestations reached their climax. As the girls were filing out, the dark, sullen girl whom Ione had dispossessed in passing laid a paper on her desk, and without a word or moving a muscle went her way. Ione opened the note, which was folded in the orthodox manner, and written upon a slightly damaged sheet of office paper. It read thus: --
‘ ‘ Gopher & Arlington Type_Writer Co. ,
‘ ‘ 1005, King William Street,
‘ ‘ We, the girls in this office, are sorry for our rudeness to Miss March, the result of a misunderstanding. We beg to offer sincere apologies. We also join in hoping that Miss March will remain among us.’ ’
Then followed a strange variety of marks, asterisks, double hyphens, broken single letters, twenty or thirty in all, arranged at intervals down the page like a Chinese ideograph.
Beneath these was a note written by hand in the upright civil service handwriting authorised by the direction for the insertion of corrections which could not be typewritten:--
" I don’t mind about the table in the window a little bit. I can see just as well where I am. I hope you will stop.
The tears welled up from deep down in Ione's heart. For the first time since she had discovered the hollowness of her life on the Dijon boulevard she felt inclined to cry. She started up impulsively to follow the dark girl. But there was no one in the room except Jane Allen, who as usual took her dinner interval at a later hour than the others.
Ione went over to her with the paper in her hand.
"You did this!" she said, with a kind of uncertainty in her voice, which in another woman would have been the prelude to hysterics.
The pale girl looked up quickly.
"Now, don't," she said, rising to her feet; "that never does any good—except sometimes when he is near and you have a chance to cry your cry out comfortably."
"But what are all these marks?" asked Ione, with a somewhat strained little laugh, in order to change the subject. For Ione had an idea that in talking to the pale girl she was somehow treading perilously near the verges of a tragedy.
"Oh, the things on the paper," said Jane Allen. "These are the girls' own marks — private signatures, that is. You see, all our machines except yours are old ones, and though they look the same, so that most people can't tell one from the other, there's always something different about every typewriter, so that we can distinguish their work. See that capital F — it has got no fore-serif. It's like one of those long s's in old books. That's the typing signature of the tall fair girl, Milly Nunn, who runs machine number ten over there in the corner. That 'period' below the line is mine, and the dagger with the point broken off so close that it looks like a cross is Cissy's, the girl who gave you the paper."
A warmth ran round Ione's heart.
"They are good, kind girls," she said, softly, meditating to herself. "I shall be sorry to leave!"
"Then you won't go?" said Jane Allen, who misinterpreted the signs of resolution.
"No," said Ione, " I must leave all the same. Only now I shall be sorry to go. That is all the difference."
A flash lit up the face of the pale girl — something hopeful and glorifying, as if sudden sunshine had lighted upon her ruddy hair. For the first time it struck Ione that in health and the elation of hope she must have been very pretty. Her hair was of the richest Venetian red, with golden lights and mahogany shadows in it; and it stood out round her face in a misty aureole, all wisps and streaks like a stormy sunset,
"I say," she said eagerly, "if you mean work really, will you room with me? You are a lady. You've lived in hotels and abroad. You've always had pretty things about you, and you don't know a bit what a single room up Clapham-way means. But with me I think you would be fairly comfortable —at least, till you get something better."
Jane Allen had grown suddenly shy, and Ione's pause of silence disconcerted her. "Of course if you 'd rather not " she began.
Ione put her hands on the girl's thin angular shoulders and looked into her eyes.
"Do you know, Jane," she said, "I feel as if my life were just beginning. You and the girls have melted me more than all my past life put together. I am really quite poor. I am stopping at an hotel, which is much dearer than I can afford. I am leaving my situation. I have a quick temper; but if you will have me, I shall be glad to come with you."
Jane Allen threw her arms about Ione's neck.
"Oh," she cried, "don't be alarmed, we’ll knock it out together right enough. Most of us are a pretty decent lot — as good as you can expect for fifteen shillings a week — and overtime. And as for temper, you will find that there's a good deal of that about in the hot weather. I've got a prime sample of my own. Only I don't keep it to myself, nor put it out to nurse. Oh no; it comes away like snow off a roof, and for five minutes every one gets the benefit of it—first come, first served. But you and I will hit it, so long as we agree never to sulk or bear grudges without speaking out."
"Oh, I’ll tell quick enough," said Ione, with that perilously sweet smile which several times had brought her lips into danger in conservatories and upon moonlight promenades. lone had a way of confiding a smile to a spectator as if it were meant as a personal compliment — which is well enough with women, but may be dangerous with men.
"Do you know, Ione (may I call you that?), I'm going to kiss you just once for keeps, and then stop. You’ll think I'm a great one for kissing. Well, I'm not. I have not kissed any one — since — ah, since ever so long ago!"
She caught her hand to her breast quickly, as though a memory took her by the throat.
"But there's something about you. I don't know what it is; but I'm sure if I were your sweetheart I would kiss you hard — yes, hard and often. And yet you never have been kissed?"
A bright and hearty laugh from Jane Allen's new room-mate destroyed the tension of the situation.
"Oh yes, I have!" she cried, with humorous indignation. "Why do you think I've never been kissed?"
The pale girl had the hectic brightness on her cheek-bones now, and her eyes were dark and dewy, the fire in them all quenched in dreamy retrospection.
"Oh, no — you haven't," she said, smiling softly at Ione; "you know nothing about it. But you will, yes, you will — some day!"
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.