Happy Pollyooly: The Rich Little Poor Girl/Chapter 7

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Mr. Wilkinson had departed, a sadder but very little wiser man, and taken his detective with him; Mrs. Brown had been thanked, paid, and dismissed; and Pollyooly, having sufficiently fondled and kissed the irresponsive but unresisting Lump, went into the kitchen and set about getting ready the Honourable John Ruffin's tea.

She had lighted the gas under the kettle and taken the bread and butter from the cupboard, when he came into the kitchen, wearing an air of the most earnest purpose, and said impressively:

"Genius, Pollyooly—genius is the art of taking infinite pains."

"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly politely.

"That is why you are unsurpassed in the art of grilling bacon; you take infinite pains with it," he went on with the same earnestness.

"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly with more understanding.

"And now I am going to instruct you in the art of making tea," he said proudly. "I only learned yesterday that it was an art. Till then I believed that you merely poured boiling water on tea, and there you were. I have learned that it is not so. Also I have learned that that vegetable which comes from India and Ceylon, and is called tea by those who sell it, is not really tea at all. Tea only comes from China; and I have bought some."

"Yes, sir," said Pollyooly with the air of one receiving information gratefully.

"And now I will teach you the art of making it exactly as it was taught to me," he said with a very schoolmasterly air.

Thereupon, under his instructions, Pollyooly warmed the tea-pot and stood by the tea-caddy ready to put in two teaspoonfuls of tea (one for him, one for the pot) the moment the kettle boiled. The moment it did boil, following his instructions, she put the tea into the pot, and then, tilting the kettle without taking it from the stove, she poured the still boiling water on to it. Then she inverted the little glass egg-boiler and stood ready to bring the infusing tea into his sitting-room as soon as the upper half of it was nearly empty of sand.

Then he said in raised and sonorous tones of profound satisfaction:

"That is the art of making tea. Now that you have once learnt it, I know,—I am sure that very soon you will be not only the finest griller of bacon in England, but also the finest maker of tea."

"I'll try, sir," said Pollyooly cheerfully. "It doesn't seem very difficult."

"To genius nothing is very difficult," said the Honourable John Ruffin impressively. "The difficulty is to stick to it—to go on getting the thing right every time. But you can do it with bacon: why not with tea?"

When the sand had nearly all run out of the upper part of the glass, she took the tray into the sitting-room; he poured out a cup of tea, and declared that it was tea fit for the gods.

Pollyooly smiled at his satisfaction, and then said:

"Please, sir: I should like a note to Madame Correlli to say that I couldn't go to my dancing yesterday because I had to go into the country. She is so particular."

"Certainly; I will write it after tea," said the Honourable John Ruffin amiably.

After he had finished his tea he wrote the note and gave it to her. Then she paid a proud visit to the Post Office Savings Bank and added to her fattening account the sum of twelve pounds. Undoubtedly the Osterley family were valuable acquaintances.

Fortified by the exculpatory note from the Honourable John Ruffin, Pollyooly went next morning to her dancing class with an easy mind.

It had been clear to her friends that the career of housekeeper, admirably as she discharged its duties, was far inferior to her abilities; it did not give them nearly full scope. Those friends were young, and they were alive, keenly alive, to the fact that there is a steady demand for angels in that sphere of British and German industry curiously known as musical comedy. They could not conceive that, since she had to work for a living, Pollyooly's natural grace and the agility she had acquired in her earlier childhood, at the village of Muttle Deeping, and still retained, could be put to more agreeable and profitable use than that of helping to supply this demand for angels, and so help to raise the British ideal of womanly beauty.

For three mornings in the week therefore, Pollyooly, taking the Lump with her, went to Madame Correlli's dancing class in Soho; and thanks to her active early life at Muttle Deeping, was esteemed by that accomplished lady one of her most promising pupils. It is no wonder that Pollyooly and her young friend and fiancé Lord Ronald Ricksborough, the heir of the Duke of Osterley, looked forward with confidence to the day when she should be a shining light of musical comedy and the proper wife for a British nobleman.

Madame Correlli read the Honourable John Ruffin's note with indulgence, accepted the excuse, and set Pollyooly to work.

Pollyooly was disinclined to make friends, close friends, of the other little girls in her class. She was indeed very civil to them, like the well-mannered child she was; but they did not greatly attract her. Belonging to hard-working, dancing families, they talked a great deal in their high-pitched, twanging voices about their friends and relations who danced at the Varolium, Panjandrum, and other music halls, friends of whom, since she herself aspired to higher things, Pollyooly had but a poor opinion. Moreover, many of them powdered their little faces, penciled their eyebrows, and deepened the roses in their cheeks with rose-carmine or rouge; and to Pollyooly, a daughter of Muttle Deeping, these practices were repugnant.

But she had formed one friendship among them, a friendship born of her protective instinct, with Millicent Saunders, a frail, pale wisp of a child, whose black eyes looked very big indeed in her thin face, framed in a mass of black hair. The other pupils were apt to look down on Millicent, because, though few of them ran to finery, Millicent was shabby indeed. Pollyooly was quite unaffected by this, for in the days when she had lived in the dreadful fear that she and the Lump might be driven by necessity into the workhouse, she had gone shabby herself. She knew that Millicent's mother, who had once been a dancer, was now a charwoman, often out of work, and in feeble health. It was Millicent's perpetual complaint that she herself was so slow growing up to the age at which she would be earning money and supporting her ailing mother. Down the vista of the future she saw a splendid vision in which her mother should always have a bloater with her tea. To Pollyooly Millicent always looked hungry.

It was Millicent's great pleasure to sit with the Lump on her knee in the intervals of their work, mothering him as long as he would suffer it; and it was her privilege to take his left hand as Pollyooly led him from Soho, across the dangerous crossings to the safe stretch of the embankment from Charing-Cross to the Temple. As they went Pollyooly and Millicent talked of the price of provisions and the trials of housekeeping.

But for the whole week before Pollyooly's trip to Devon Millicent had not been to the class. Pollyooly enquired and Madame Correlli enquired the reason for her absence, but none of the other pupils could tell them. It was now ten days since Pollyooly had seen her, and she was feeling anxious indeed about her.

Then, after the class was over, as she was leading the Lump down St. Martin's Lane on their way to the embankment he projected an arm and broke his placid and perpetual silence with one of his rare, but pregnant grunts. Pollyooly looked where he pointed, saw Millicent on the island in the middle of the roadway, and called to her.

Millicent turned her head and looked at them with somewhat dazed eyes. Her face did not as usual light up at the sight of the Lump. She crossed the road to them feebly.

"How are you? Why haven't you come to the classes for so long?" said Pollyooly.

"Mother's dead," said Millicent dully; and her big eyes which had been so dull, shone suddenly bright with tears.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" said Pollyooly pitifully; and as she gazed anxiously at Millicent's seared and miserable face, her eyes grew moist with tears of sympathy.

Millicent stooped and kissed the Lump listlessly, almost mechanically.

"And what are you going to do?" said Pollyooly with grave anxiety.

She understood fully the seriousness of Millicent's plight.

"I'm going to the workhouse," said Millicent dully.

Pollyooly clutched her arm. It was impossible for her to turn pale for she was always of a clear, camelia-like pallor; but that pallor grew a little dead as she cried in a tone of horror:

"Oh, no! You can't go to the workhouse! You mustn't!"

Millicent looked at her with the lack-lustre eyes of the vanquished, and said in the same dull, toneless voice:

"I've got to. There's nowhere else for me to go to."

The tears in Pollyooly's eyes brimmed over in her dismay and horror at this dreadful fate of her friend; and she, the dauntless, Spartan heroine of a hundred fights with the small boys of Alsatia, was fairly crying.

"You mustn't go! You mustn't!" she cried.

"I didn't want to. I was trying not to," said Millicent slowly. "After mother's funeral yesterday Mrs. Baker, that's our landlady, said the relieving officer was coming round this morning to take me to the workhouse; and I ran away."

"Yes: that was the right thing to do," said Pollyooly in firm approval.

"Yes: I got up very early—just when it was light," said Millicent; and her voice grew a little firmer. "And I packed my clothes"—she gave the little bundle she was carrying a shake—"and then I sneaked down-stairs and out of the house. And oh, the trouble the front door gave me! You wouldn't believe! First it wouldn't open; and then when it did, it made noise enough to wake the whole house."

Pollyooly nodded with an air of ripe experience.

"I made sure they'd wake up and catch me and stop me. But they didn't; and I got out and ran hard out of the street. Then I walked about and then I sat on the embankment trying to think what to do and where to go. And two coppers wanted to know what I was doing all alone on my own."

"They would," said Pollyooly in a tone of deep hostility to the police force of London.

"Well, I said I was going to my aunt in Southwark. I had an aunt in Southwark once—only she's dead. But I couldn't think of anywhere to go—there didn't seem to be anywhere. So I thought I'd better go back to Mrs. Baker's and let them take me to the workhouse. At any rate she'll give me something to eat."

Pollyooly's tears had dried as she listened to her friend's tale; she wore an alert and able air which went but ill with her delicate beauty. She said quickly:

"Haven't you had anything to eat either?"

Millicent shook her head and said somewhat faintly:

"Not since supper last night. And I didn't eat much then—I wasn't hungry—not after the funeral."

"You wouldn't be," said Pollyooly sympathetically.

"And I hadn't any money. The funeral took all the money," Millicent added.

"Then the first thing to do is to get a bun," said Pollyooly in a tone of relief at seeing her way to do something. "Then you can come and have dinner with us."

"Thank you," said Millicent.

Her lips worked, as a hungry child's will, at the thought of food; and a faint colour came into her white cheeks.

Pollyooly started across the road with the Lump, and Millicent took his other hand.

On the other side of the road Pollyooly said firmly:

"You can't go to the workhouse. You mustn't. But we'll wait till we get home before we talk about that. But there must be some way for you not to go to it. We didn't."

They led the Lump down to the Strand; and at the first confectioner's shop Pollyooly bought Millicent a bun. The hungry child ate the first two mouthfuls ravenously; then she paused to break off a piece and give it to the Lump.

"No, no!" said Pollyooly quickly. "You eat it all yourself. You want it. He'll have his dinner as soon as he gets home."

"Oh, let me give him just a little piece," said Millicent.

"No: you're to eat it all," said Pollyooly firmly.

Most children of three would have burst into a roar on hearing this cruel prohibition. The placidity of the Lump was proof even against so severe a blow. He merely went on his way with a saddened air. Millicent ate the rest of the bun with eager thankfulness, brightening a little as the food heartened her.

They went down Villiers Street to the safe stretch of the embankment; and then Pollyooly, her brow knitted in a thoughtful frown, began to talk of Millicent's plight. The workhouse was so burning a subject that she could not wait to discuss it at home.

"You can't go to the workhouse; you can't really," she said. "If you could stay with us for a little while, you might find something to do. But it's for Mr. Ruffin to say whether you can stay with us. We live in his chambers, you know. I'm his housekeeper."

"Oh, if I could!" said Millicent wistfully.

"He might let you. He's very kind," said Pollyooly hopefully. "And if he did, I wonder what kind of a job you could get. What kind of work can you do?"

"I can do housework," said Millicent eagerly. "I always did our room—all of it. And I cooked all our meals. Mother went out such a lot, you know."

"It's something," said Pollyooly soberly. "But I expect you've got a lot to learn. You see I learnt a lot at Muttle Deeping. Aunt Hannah had a whole house there—before she lost all her savings in a gold mine and came to London. And she had everything like the gentry have—pictures, and plate, and brass candle-sticks—only not so much of them; and I learnt to clean them all. But I expect you'd learn too quickly enough."

"I'm sure I'd try," said Millicent.

"Yes. If Mr. Ruffin would let you stay for a week or two, I could teach you a lot," said Pollyooly hopefully.

For the rest of the way to the Temple they discussed in detail Millicent's accomplishments. They were few and limited; but to her willingness to work there were no bounds.

As soon as they reached the Temple they set about getting dinner. Fortunately Pollyooly had in her larder half a cold chicken; for, as was his practice, the Honourable John Ruffin had three days before ordered a cold chicken from the kitchen of the Inner Temple, had made a pretence of eating some of it at his breakfast, and then had bidden her never let him see it again. This was one of his ways of making sure that she and the Lump were properly fed, without weakening her independence by sapping her belief that she really supported the two of them.

Accordingly Millicent made an excellent meal; and it restored her strength and her spirits. She was surprised by the fact that the Lump had a whole mugful of milk with his dinner, for she was unused to this lavishness with that luxury in a child's diet. Pollyooly explained that it had been an article of faith with her Aunt Hannah that a young child needed a pint of milk a day; therefore the Lump always had one. Millicent was deeply impressed: this was indeed affluence.

She helped Pollyooly wash up after their dinner; and then Pollyooly suggested that it would be well for her to look very clean indeed when she was presented to Mr. Ruffin.

"He's so particular about children being clean. Mr. Gedge-Tomkins isn't nearly so particular," she said apologetically. "I work for him, too, you know. He lives across the landing."

Millicent accepted the suggestion readily enough, for her mother had been cleaner than her class. Pollyooly helped her wash and dry and brush out her mass of silken hair, and lent her a clean frock of her own. Presently, after the good meal on the top of her fast, Millicent turned very sleepy, and Pollyooly let her sleep. She was still sleeping when the Honourable John Ruffin returned home.

Pollyooly did not at once hurry to him with her news. She cut his bread and butter very thin and nice, and followed his instructions about the making of tea with scrupulous exactness. She carried the tray into his sitting-room and set it beside him. Then she hesitated, looking at him.

He looked up from the evening paper he was scanning, smiled his usual smile of appreciation at her angel face, and said amiably:

"Well, Mrs. Bride: what is it?"

When he did not call her Pollyooly he called her "Mrs." Bride, because they had decided that "Miss" Bride did not sound sufficiently dignified a name for a housekeeper. "Please, sir: I've got a little girl here," said Pollyooly in a somewhat anxious, deprecating tone.

"A little girl?" said the Honourable John Ruffin in a natural surprise.

"Yes, sir. Her mother's dead; and they wanted to send her to the workhouse; but she ran away," said Pollyooly quickly.

"Curious that England's little ones should fly from the home she offers them," said the Honourable John Ruffin in his most amiable tone.

"Yes, sir. And she hadn't had anything to eat and she was very hungry, so I brought her home to dinner," said Pollyooly still quickly.

"A very proper thing to do," said the Honourable John Ruffin.

"And I thought I'd ask you if she could stop here, sir—with me and the Lump—till she gets some work to do. There'd be lots of room for her, sir; and she wouldn't bother you at all," said Pollyooly in a tone of anxious pleading.

"To get work might take a long time," said the Honourable John Ruffin gravely.

"Yes, sir; it might," said Pollyooly no less gravely, for she knew well the difficulty of getting work in London.

"And do you propose to keep her till she finds work?" said the Honourable John Ruffin in the tone of one who finds it difficult to believe his ears.

"Oh, yes, sir. She wouldn't eat much," said Pollyooly in a tone of cheerful serenity.

"Out of the exiguous wages Mr. Gedge-Tomkins and I pay you?"

"Yes, sir. I can do it quite well," said Pollyooly confidently; and then she added hopefully: "And perhaps it wouldn't be for long."

"On the other hand it may be for years and it may be forever," said the Honourable John Ruffin in a despondent tone.

"Oh, no, sir: I'm sure it wouldn't be as long as that," said Pollyooly confidently.

The Honourable John Ruffin looked at her earnest, anxious pleading face for half a minute. Then he said:

"Let's get it quite exact: you want to saddle yourself with the maintenance of a little girl for weeks, or it may be months, or even years, just to save her from the chief of England's representative institutions?"

Pollyooly's anxious frown grew deeper as she said:

"From the workhouse? Yes, sir."

"Where shall the watchful sun,
England, my England,
Match the master-work you've done,
England my own?"

quoted the Honourable John Ruffin with deep feeling. Then he added sententiously: "Well, we must by no means check the generous impulses of the young. But before I decide I should like to see your protégée. I take it that she does not rise to those heights of cleanliness at which you maintain yourself and the Lump; but does she display sufficient of our chief English virtue?"

"Oh, yes, sir: I couldn't have her about with the Lump if she wasn't," said Pollyooly firmly. "But I'll fetch her, sir." She paused, hesitatingly, and added: "She isn't in mourning, sir. The funeral took all the money."

"Then it can not be helped," said the Honourable John Ruffin sadly.

Pollyooly hurried up-stairs to Millicent, awoke her, and helped her tidy her hair. She bade her be sure and curtsey nicely to the Honourable John Ruffin, brought her into the sitting-room, and presented her to him. Millicent's big eyes were shining brightly from her sleep; her silken hair was prettily waved by its so recent washing; and the excitement of this fateful meeting had flushed delicately her pale cheeks. She appealed alike to the Honourable John Ruffin's æsthetic and protective instinct. Only her strong London accent distressed him: he feared lest it might corrupt the speech of Pollyooly and the Lump, which, owing to the care of their Aunt Hannah, who had for many years been housekeeper for Lady Constantia Deeping, was that of gentle-folk.

However, he talked kindly and sympathetically to Millicent, questioned her about her acquirements, and gave her leave to stay.