The Frobishers/Chapter 12

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Joan's sitting-room, converted into a workshop in which, under Polly Myatt's instruction, she mastered the technicalities of painting on biscuit, by little and little became in the evening a place of rendezvous for girls.

At first they came shyly, on various excuses, and only such appeared as could claim intimacy with Polly. But these brought others, and a speaking acquaintance with Polly soon served as an introduction. What began by little and hesitatingly, grew to be accepted and customary. Joan refused none; she was pleased to see them drop in, linger, and gladly accept an invitation to stay. They sat about the fire, they talked, joked, asked questions, and passed opinions.

They were good-natured, simple, and wholesome-minded girls, whom it was impossible not to like. Their manners were brusque, but this only showed the clearer how sound at heart they all were. Their conversation was largely composed of banter, and what was not banter concerned their work and their associates.

Joan was adaptable, and easily fell in with the prevalent tone. She played her small jokes on each, and this readily dissolved restraint, and put all on terms of easy friendship.

There were differences in character among the girls. Some were still and self-contained. Such was Cissie Averill, who liked to sit on a stool in a corner, with her oxlike eyes fixed on Joan, and could hardly be induced to speak. But then she was white and frail in health.

Others were somewhat noisy in talk and laughter—as Bessie Callear, a girl with a round, rosy face and dancing eyes, who could hardly keep her hair tidy, and who had the pleasantest dimples, that were incessantly forming in her laughing cheeks. And others, again, were prim and formal in mind and manners and person, as Margaret Pointon, a handler. Perhaps incessant daily, hourly forming of one sort of article, the handles of teacups, had made her a mere creature of routine.

"You've got a sister, Polly says," observed Bessie. "Is she older or younger than you? and is she jolly?

"She is younger, only eighteen; as to whether she is jolly, judge for yourself—a sister is partial."

"Is she going into the bank?"

"I do not know."

A slight shade came over Joan's face. Sibylla was a cause to her of much anxiety. How would her sister endure such a change in her circumstances, when that change was brought home to her in a way words could not effect? Sibylla knew that she and Joan were poor, knew that they could no longer live in luxury, but she had not realised in the smallest degree what poverty meant, nor nerved herself to endure hardship. How would she comport herself towards these new and strange associates whom she would probably despise?

"But she is coming here, I suppose?" said the girl Pointon.

"Yes, we have no home other than this. She must live with me."

"She might be worse off. I think this vastly fine," said Bessie; "and it's so clean."

"Why is she not here now?" inquired another.

"Because I am earning nothing yet, and she is staying in the house of friends who have kindly taken her in till I should be suited with a house and had got into work."

"When she comes here, she will work also?"

"I hope so."

"But she must. You ain't going to keep her in idleness, and work for both. You can't do it. You'll not earn enough as an apprentice."

"My word!" exclaimed Bessie, "if your sister thinks to live here and not work, I'll shake her."

"But," explained Joan, "I may require her at home to look after the house."

"Oh, the house with only two in it don't want so much looking after. Can she paint?"

"Then," said Maggie Pointon, "let her do the handling."

"No," exclaimed another. "She shall go into the transfer business."

"Polly," Joan asked of her friend one day, "are all the girls as nice as those you have brought here?"

"Well, now," replied the cripple, "I can't say that honestly. There are girls and girls. Some are wild, and some few are downright bad. The wild ones mostly mean no harm, but they're flighty and don't look where they're going, and before they are aware, down they are in the mud on their noses. And some have bad fathers and mothers and no peace at home, but quarrelling and drinking—and they go out because they can't bide there. There's a lot of excuse for them if they do go a bit off the line. And there's some know they've a short life, and will get poisoned and be good for naught in a few years, and so they try to get the most of pleasure out of the little time they have to enjoy themselves—and they ain't as partic'lar as they might be where they go, and with whom they go pleasure-hunting. But there's an excuse for them, poor things — and at bottom they don't mean harm."

"By the way, Polly, I think you maligned your father. You told me that he was uproarious at times, when he had taken a drop in excess. And you feared it would inconvenience me, as there is a partition of one brick thick alone between us."

Polly laughed.

"I'll tell you the truth about it," said she. "Father is afeared of you, and he's been moderate sober on Saturdays since you came. But he did break out t'other night, and then, mother and me, we put him into my room and turned the key in the door, and we two went into that room nigh yours, so that you mightn't be disturbed."

Joan was touched, and she said as much.

"Oh, it's right enough," remarked Polly. "It answered first-rate. The wonder is we never thought to do it before. You see when mother is not in the same room with him, there's no aggravation, and he just goes to sleep. We'll try it again, if I can persuade mother to let him alone."

One evening, when Joan's little parlour had filled as usual, "What was your father's trade?" asked Bessie Callear.

"He was"—Joan hesitated. "A bit of a farmer."

"Ah!" said Maggie Pointon. "It's bad times for farmers, I've heard tell. I've got an aunt as married a farmer, and he's been in and seen us, and told how all the corn and beef and pork come from America, and the mutton from New Zealand and Australia, and the eggs from France, and the butter from Denmark; and he said as how they could get on when wool was sixpence a pound, but now the general public will have fine merino and won't touch English wool that has fallen to fourpence ha'penny—and what be the farmers to do but go bankrupt?"

"But nothing can beat Cheshire cheese," said one.

"Cheshire ain't all England. It isn't even Staffordshire," said another; then turning to Joan, added, "No wonder your father died badly off."

"I suppose he couldn't leave much?" asked a third.

"Very little indeed," answered Joan. "My sister has never been accustomed to work; that is why I think she will feel it. I would spare her as much as possible."

"You can't cook but what you've got in the larder," said Bessie. "How did you manage all this fine furnishing if your father died bankrupt?"

"I did not say he did that," said Joan. "We have had to sell our little possessions—the horses, and so on."

"Ay," said Margaret Pointon, "the waggons and the plough and those things, and the cattle—but if he were bankrupt, the creditors would take all that."

"There was sufficient left for my sister and me to start us," explained Joan, with a smile.

"I suppose you made the butter?" said Bessie.

"I wouldn't give 'thank you' for salt Irish butter," observed one girl. "Give me what is home-made."

"I'd rather have margarine than salt butter," said another.

"And I—dripping," said a third.

"Give me cheese and bacon; that is a satisfying thing to work on."

"Ay, but you may get stalled on that diet. I say, real yellow country butter, yellow that tells the cows feed on buttercups. That butter is the primest thing on earth."

"I'll tell you what I like," said another girl, thrusting her way to the fire. "Let me have toasting-fork and brown a bit of bread on both sides and while it is hot, clap on a lot of butter and let it melt in."

"Buttered toast is good," said Margaret Pointon. "But it don't do credit to butter. You must eat butter cold. Once melted, then the nature is gone from it for ever."

"Then you must have plenty of it," threw in Polly. "I was out in the country once and went into a farmhouse and asked for tea. The tea I had right enough, and then some fresh bread, and, my word! the woman set butter on it thick as my little finger. It was—it was—oh my!"

"I don't hold," said another girl, "that butter is spoiled when melted. Just think of a mealy potato, and a dab of butter in that. It's not to be beaten by nothing in kings' parlours."

"Ah, butter is sixteenpence a pound," said Cissie, with a sigh, "and half a pound don't go far in a large family. And you can't afford much butter when you are paid a penny or twopence a dozen enamelling prints, and they count eighteen to the dozen."

"It's fine our talking of butter," said Polly; "I'd like to know if that is country butter we get in the shops? It's no more like what that farmer's wife clapped on my slice of bread that chalk is to cheese."

A general grunt of assent, and then ensued a lull. The topic of butter was talked out.

Presently Cissie Averill said to Joan: "What a pretty hand you have got."

Joan extended her hand on the table, and displayed the delicate taper fingers.

"Girls," she said, "I don't call this a pretty hand at all. It has been a useless hand, whereas your hands have earned your daily bread. Such are the truly lovely hands." She looked at her next-door neighbour and friend, and added, "Above all, that of my dear Polly, crippled with cruel poisonous work. That is the hand to love and respect—not the idle hand that has never done aught."

"My word, girls!" exclaimed Bessie, "ain't she now giving us butter?"

"Whatever I am giving you," said Joan, "it is genuine."