THE CUCKOO IN THE NEST
When Ione came to London to begin life on her own account, she obtained a situation with almost suspicious promptitude. Upon her first arrival, she had applied for work to several prominent typewriting agencies. These had no vacancies, but in every case her name was taken, the rate at which she could write shorthand noted and filed, presumably for reference, together with an impromptu specimen of her by no means discreditable performance upon the nearest machine which happened to be disengaged.
Then it came into her head that in the advertisements of the typewriters which she had always used with her father, the purchase of which had been committed to her, she had observed it stated that typewriting in all its branches was carried on by the company. She found the offices of the Gopher & Arlington Company in a new building near the eastern end of the Embankment. The firm was a dignified and exclusive corporation, and the announcement upon the door without simply intimated the fact that the Gopher & Arlington typewriter might be purchased within. But in the hushed yet busy office a score of clicking machines were being driven along at different rates of speed, each shrilling its own peculiar note of irritation as busy girlish fingers tripped lightly over the keys.
At the first mention of her name, Ione March was shown at once to the manager's room. Her heart sank as she entered. She made certain that she had been mistaken for a customer, and now that she was an applicant for work such a supposition was inauspicious. But yet, on the mere declaration of her needs and capacities, she found herself engaged. At least, she was to be accepted on probation, and the wages were a pound a week. In five minutes Ione found herself with her hat and coat off, seated beside a beautiful new machine, close by one of the largest windows of the wide City office.
Her heart beat quickly as after a draught of wine while she fingered the keys and tried the paces of her machine. Definitely this was life at last, she thought. She stole one glance at the busy girls around her, and observing that not one of them paused to lift their eyes or appeared to observe the new-comer, a strange elation and joy pervaded her whole being.
"At last I too am a worker," she said to herself; "I am on the street level of humanity. I am a unit in the great army of those who earn the bread they eat."
Her meditations were cut short by the appearance at her side of a girl with eyes of a faint and cloudy blue and hair rebelliously wispy, which stood out in auburn tufts about her brow. She set a black japanned structure before Ione and was retreating without a word. Ione looked up inquiringly. The girl with the blue tired eyes surveyed her sternly, but when the bright frankness of Ione's glance encountered hers the hard expression melted a little.
"The manager sends you this copy-holder," she said quietly, and forthwith vanished back towards the upper end of the hall, among cashiers' desks and multitudinous obstructions of polished hardwood.
Ione was at first exceedingly grateful, but after she had finished a sheet or two, and was pausing to read her work over, it struck her that she alone of all those bending and clicking workers possessed such a thing as a copy-holder. It was strange, and Ione strove to fathom the meaning of this especial favour. It seemed a singularly delicate compliment to pay to a new-comer.
But the matter did not long disturb her. She was delighted with her new avocation, and tingled with happiness as she touched the keys of the beautiful machine she had been set to "operate." They went down easily as her slim but capable fingers pressed them, and they rose with a fine crisp insurgence which imparted a feeling of life to the keyboard. A corresponding elation took hold of Ione. She had never, she thought, been so happy before. She felt that she could pass her life amid such surroundings.
"How could my father," she meditated, "know the happiness of work himself, and yet deny it to me, his only daughter?"
Promptly at the stroke of one all the girls rose quietly and went to a little dressing-room in the rear of the main building. From this they presently emerged in straggling groups, silent so long as they were upon the premises tenanted by the Gopher & Arlington Company, but (as Ione was enabled to see through her window) voluble enough so soon as they reached the pavement of the dingy little lateral street, on the side-walk of which they formed a troublous eddy, tossed aside, as it were, by the stream of traffic which poured ceaselessly up and down the great thoroughfare in front.
Ione noticed that not a glance betraying the slightest interest was thrown in her direction — not a smile nor so much as a nod was wasted upon her. This, she thought, might be business etiquette, but it did not at all accord with that good comradeship which she had always heard obtained amongst fellow-workers. She had never doubted her power to make people like her; and now, though she would not own it to herself, she was intensely disappointed. Two girls only were left in the working hall after the general exodus — the girl with the pale clever face shaded by the jagged wisps of ruddy hair above her brow, and a dark silent girl who clicked steadily at her machine in a dusky corner near the door of the manager's room.
Ione took a sheet of her manuscript in her hand, and, for the first time in her life, hungry for recognition and sympathy, started towards the dark girl, resolved to ask her a question. But as she went she saw the girl with the blue eyes watching her as a cat watches a mouse. There was something strangely attractive about the face which was turned to her, something of the keenly defensive look of a frightened wild animal that has been hunted and expects to be hunted again. Ione changed her mind, and went towards her instead of in the direction of the dark girl.
She smiled frankly as she advanced — that trustful smile which had enslaved the Sisters of the Convent, and which had never been crossed by ill-success or any angry word.
"Would you mind telling me, please," she said, "how I should do this note? Ought I to put it at the foot of the page under a line, or place it here in the margin?"
The girl averted her eyes, so that she should not look Ione in the face.
"I am not here to teach other people their work!" she replied brusquely, and forthwith turned to her own machine.
For a moment Ione was stunned. Tears rose involuntarily in her eyes. She was turning away, when it suddenly struck her that there must be a misunderstanding somewhere.
"Do you know, that was not very kindly said," she answered slowly; "I am a new-comer. We would not do that to you if you came to my country."
"Yes, you would," answered the girl defiantly, "if I came to your country as you have come to ours."
"I think there must be some mistake," said Ione, faltering a little; "I am an American girl. I came to London simply to earn my bread."
The girl darted an angry look at her, and not even the anger of dark eyes is so wounding as the steely glitter when kindly blue ones glance suddenly keen as rapiers.
"Earn your bread!" she said scornfully. "Oh, yes; we know all about your bread."
"Indeed," said Ione, in some distress; "then you know more than I do. For it will be a week before I touch a penny of my wages."
The girl with the pale face shook her head angrily, so that the ruddy elf-locks stood out more belligerently than ever. Ione was turning away sadly, but with an instinct for the right word at the right moment, which never deserted her in an emergency, she sent back a Parthian shot over her shoulder.
"I am sorry that you are unkind. I was sure from the first that you would like me!"
The girl looked up quickly, and turned her head very slightly to see whether the dark girl was listening. She was clicking steadily and sullenly, in the dim corner by the manager's door. Then, with the slightest movement of her head, she recalled Ione to her side. And the daughter of the millionaire went with gratitude and joy.
"When you get out, go up the side street out there," she said. "Meet me at the east corner, behind the office, at half-past two, and I will talk to you."
The sullen girl had lifted her head and was looking at them with a peculiar expression on her face. Ione's companion, observing this, shrugged her shoulders and tossed her head.
"I have nothing further to say to you, miss!" she said loudly to Ione, as if she had been answering a question or refusing an appeal.
Whereat, understanding that she was dismissed, Ione returned to her place.
Precisely as the clock struck the hour, the girls began to return in twos and threes. As they entered, they went first to the cloak-room, and then, as directly as a homing bee, each returned to her own work. No one stole a glance in her direction, and Ione understood that this inexplicable lack of interest meant that for some unknown offence she had been sent to the typists' Coventry, for her intrusion upon the offices of the Gopher & Arlington Corporation.
"Never mind," so she comforted herself; "the pale girl will tell me all about it, and I shall know how to make it all right with them. They shall like me before I have done with them."
It was her first rebuff, and it came specially hard upon lone just when her heart yearned wildly to be friendly with all her fellow-workers.
Exactly at half-past two she was at the east corner of the side street so lucidly designated by the girl of the revolutionary love-locks. She was not to be seen. Ione walked two or three times backward and forward, growing gradually conscious of the eyes which followed her from first-floor offices, where young gentlemen with pens in their hands called each other forward to look at her. Just as she was beginning to fear that she might have mistaken the place or gone to the wrong corner, her arm was seized from the dark of a doorway beside a little pork shop, and she was pulled inside. She found herself face to face with the pale girl. Without speaking a word, they went up the stairs to a barren little landing paved with stone flags round which closed and grimy doors frowned at the two girls, as if demanding their business there.
"I am glad you have come," said Ione, without circumlocution; "now tell me, what have I done wrong that the girls do not like me?"
"They think you are a 'cuckoo,' " answered the pale girl promptly.
"'A cuckoo'!" said Ione, bewildered. "Is this a joke?"
"You will find it no joke!" said her companion, nodding somewhat truculently, yet with an obvious effort, and she averted her face as often as she met the honest forth-looking eyes of lone March.
“Why, then, do you call me a 'cuckoo'?" said Ione.
"You want me to tell you — then I will!" burst out the pale girl. "You are a 'cuckoo' because you have been 'planted' upon us. Oh, we know all about it at the Gopher & Arlington. We've been there before. You don't earn your own living. A gentleman came and arranged about you with the manager. He, and not the company, pays your wages. That isn't any pound-a-week dress. These aren't pound-a-week shoes! No, nor what you have got at the end of that gold chain under your dress — that's no pound-a-week locket. I don't ask what it is. Maybe I don't quite blame you as the rest of the girls do. But just the same, you are a 'cuckoo.' If you are square, then you don't need the work. Or else you come to improve, so that you may undersell us, and cut our rates for the sake of a little extra pocket-money. You take the bread out of somebody's mouth—you that don't need it. And you are so good-looking that you’ll be sent to all the fat jobs. You’ll have the nicest letters to write and all the easiest pickings—just as you've got the new machine and a copy-holder. Look here, did you see that girl in the dark corner? Well, she was told to give up her seat near the window to you, and her eyes are weak. Isn't that enough reason why you are a 'cuckoo'?"
The pale girl had grown excited with her oratory. Courage had come to her in the act of speech, as, indeed, it has a trick of doing. Her eyes engaged somewhat fiercely those dark ones of Ione's, over which there was now spreading a surface-mist of unshed tears.
But in a moment Ione had commanded herself.
"There is some mistake," she said quickly. "I came to the Gopher & Arlington quite by chance, after trying several other offices. The manager was very kind. He questioned me and asked my name. As soon as I told him, he engaged me at once. But certainly no one came to arrange about me, for I don't know a soul in London at this moment except yourself and the people at the hotel where I have always stayed!"
The girl still regarded her somewhat suspiciously, but Ione's eyes had their wonted effect, and doubt shrank before the level loyalty which shone out of their depths.
"What is your name?" she asked less aggressively.
"My name is Ione March."
"Mine is Jane Allen," volunteered the girl, tacitly acknowledging the courtesy and speaking with more equality than she had yet shown. "I do like you — and if what you tell me is true - "
Ione's eyes were still upon her, and she could not this time drop hers. Jane Allen moved restively and tapped the grimy flags of the landing with her foot.
"You know that what I say is true!" said Ione quietly.
"But there certainly was a gentleman here. We all saw him — very handsome, with grey hair, and he had a long talk with the manager. He brought him a letter of introduction from the manager of the First National Bank of Chicago. I know because Ruth Menks, who is in the private office (she writes ninety words a minute), found the envelope in the waste-paper basket and showed it me. Then, after the gentleman went, when she was called in again, she got orders that Miss Briggs was to give up her table, that a new machine was to be sent there and the place left vacant. These were all signs. We had seen them before. And so the girls nodded to each other and said 'Cuckoo!' Then you came along, and were engaged like a shot."
A sudden thought struck Ione — a thought which heated her cheek, and yet which made her inclined to laugh.
She took a photograph out of a small leather case she carried in her pocket, and handed it to Miss Jane Allen.
"Was that your handsome grey-haired gentleman?" she said.
The girl looked at Ione with a sudden contemptuous sharpening of her features, expressed by a certain narrowing of the eyes, and a quick droop of the muscles at the corner of the nose. "That's the man," she said in a low voice. "I thought so. The girls were right, after all!"
"Open the case at the back," answered Ione calmly, "and read what is written on it."
The girl touched the catch somewhat contemptuously, and pulled open the little leather flap.
"To Ione March, from her affectionate father, Henry Quincy March," she read aloud.
"Is this your father?" she asked; "and are you really called Ione March?"
"That is true," smiled Ione; "I see it all now. My father wished me to get an easy situation; and in his innocence he thought that he would arrange matters quietly — 'man to man,' as he always says. So he went straight to the manager and, well — arranged them with a vengeance."
"Now look here," said Jane Allen, jerking her head emphatically, "of course you might have written the whole thing yourself. I don't know your handwriting. But all the same I believe you, though I warn you the girls may not. But what made you leave home if your father is as rich as all that — the boss seeing him to the door as if he were the Managing Director, and everything arranged in a minute?"
Ione hesitated. It seemed strange that she should be willing to make the most private explanations on the grimy first landing of a dismal London staircase, to a little cockney girl with pale blue eyes and wispy locks of reddish hair beneath her shilling hat. "There was trouble at home," she said slowly, and looked away through the window.
"Ah," said Jane Allen, with the instinctive sympathy of a fellow-sufferer in her voice. She came very quickly a step nearer, and looked piercingly into Ione's eyes. "It was about your young man, wasn't it? Would they not let you have him?"
"Hardly that," said Ione gravely, wondering how she would put the matter. "I — he, that is - "
"He was not true to you?" questioned the pale girl, a light beginning to burn like a lamp in her eyes and a hectic flush beaconing on her cheek; "he went away, didn't he — cast you off, didn't he ? I know them!"
"Not exactly," said Ione, hesitating. "I was engaged to a young man, and — well, I found him out; that's all!"
And a little throb came into her throat which the pale girl mistook for tears. It was really thankfulness.
Jane Allen's eyes blazed. She breathed quick and short and caught Ione by the wrist.
"Thank God for that, Miss March, if you did it in time!"
"So I left home," continued Ione; "I could not stay any longer there: and I came to London to earn my living."
"Of course you couldn't!" cried Jane Allen. "I know!"
Ione held out her hand, but the pale girl, with a quick and lively joy on her face, threw her arms about her neck and kissed her.
"I'm so glad you found him out," she almost sobbed. "I'm so glad you found him out in time!"
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.