The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXXIII. A Garden-Party
Waymark received with astonishment Maud's letter from Paris. He had seen her only two days before, and their conversation had been of the ordinary kind; Maud had given him no hint of her purpose, not even when he spoke to her of the coming holiday season, and the necessity of her having a change. She confessed she was not well. Sometimes, when they had both sat for some minutes in silence, she would raise her eyes and meet his gaze steadily, seeming to search for something. Waymark could not face this look; it drove him to break the suspense by any kind of remark on an indifferent subject. He remembered now that she had gazed at him in that way persistently on the last evening that they were together. When he was saying good-bye, and as he bent to kiss her, she held him back for a moment, and seemed to wish to say something. Doubtless she had been on the point of telling him that she was going away; but she let him leave in silence.
It was not a long letter that she wrote; she merely said that change had become indispensable to body and soul, and that it had seemed best to make it suddenly.
"I hope," she wrote in conclusion, "that you will see my father as often as you can; he is very much in need of friendly company, and I should like you to be able to send me news of him. Do not fear for me; I feel already better. I am always with you in spirit, and in the spirit I love you; God help me to keep my love pure!"
Waymark put away the letter carelessly; the first sensation of surprise over, he did not even care to speculate on the reasons which had led Maud to leave home. It was but seldom now that his thoughts busied themselves with Maud; the unreal importance which she had for a time assumed in his life was only a recollection; her very face was ghostlike in his mind's eye, dim, always vanishing. If the news of her departure from England moved him at all, it was with a slight sense of satisfaction; it would be so much easier to write letters to her than to speak face to face. Yet, in the days that followed, the ghostlike countenance hovered more persistently before him than was its wont; there was a far-off pleading in its look, and sometimes that shadow of reproach which our uneasy conscience will cast upon the faces of those we have wronged. This passed, however, and another image, one which had ever grown in clearness and persistency of presentment in proportion as Maud's faded away, glided before him in the hours of summer sunlight, and shone forth with the beauty of a rising star against the clouded heaven of his dreams.
Waymark's mood was bitter, but, in spite of himself, it was no longer cynical. He could not indulge himself in that pessimistic scepticism which had aided him in bearing his poverty, and the restless craving of sense and spirit which had accompanied it. His enthusiasm for art was falling away; as a faith it had failed him in his hour of need. In its stead another faith had come to him, a faith which he felt to be all-powerful, and the sole stay of a man's life amid the shifting shadows of intellectual creeds. And it had been revealed too late. Led by perverse motives, now no longer intelligible, he had reached a goal of mere frustration; between him and the true end of his being there was a great gulf fixed.
To Ida, in the meanwhile, these weeks of early summer were bringing health of body and cheerfulness of mind. She spent very much of her time in the open air. Whenever it was possible she and Miss Hurst took their books out into the garden, and let the shadows of the rose-bushes mark the hours for them. Ida's natural vigour throve on the strength-giving properties of sun and breeze the last traces of unwholesome pallor passed from her face, and exercise sent her home flushed like the dawn.
One afternoon she went to sit with her grandfather on a bench beneath an apple-tree. The old man had his pipe and a newspaper. Ida was quiet, and glancing at her presently, Abraham found her eyes fixed upon him.
"Grandfather," she said, in her gentlest voice, "will you let me give a garden-party some day next week?"
"A party?" Mr. Woodstock raised his brows in astonishment. "Who are you going to invite?"
"You'll think it a strange notion.--I wonder whether I can make it seem as delightful to you as it does to me. Suppose we went to those houses of yours, and got together as many poor little girls as we could, and brought them all here to spend an afternoon in the garden. Think what an unheard-of thing it would be to them! And then we would give them some tea, and take them back again before dark."
The proposal filled Mr. Woodstock with dismay, and the habitual hardness of his face suggested a displeasure he did not in reality feel.
"As you say, it's a strange notion," he remarked, smiling very slightly. "I don't know why you shouldn't have your own way, Ida, but--it'll cost you a good deal of trouble, you know."
"You are mistaking me, grandfather. You think this a curious whim I have got into my head, and your kindness would tempt you to let me do a silly thing just for the sake of having my way. It is no foolish fancy. It's not for my sake, but for the children's."
Her eyes were aglow with earnestness, and her voice trembled.
"Do you think they'd care for it?" asked her grandfather, impressed by something in her which he had never seen before.
"Care for it!--Imagine a poor little thing that has been born in a wretched, poverty-stricken, disorderly home, a home that is no home, and growing up with no knowledge of anything but those four hateful walls and the street outside. No toys, no treats, no change of air; playing in the gutter, never seeing a beautiful thing, never hearing of the pleasures which rich people's children would pine and die without And a child for all that."
Mr. Woodstock cleared his throat and smoothed the newspaper upon his knee.
"How will you get them here, Ida?"
"Oh, leave that to me! Let us choose a day; wouldn't Saturday be best! I will go there myself, and pick out the children, and get their mothers to promise to have them ready. Then I'll arrange to have one of those carts you see at Sunday-school treats. Why, the ride here, that alone! And you'll let me have tea for them,--just bread and butter and a bun,--it will cost not half as much as my new dress this week, not half as much--"
"Come, come, I can't stand this!" growled out Abraham, getting up from the seat. "I'd give them the garden, for good and all, rather than see you like that. Say Saturday, if it's fine; if not, Monday, or when you like."
On the following morning the details were arranged, and the next day Ida went to Litany Lane. She preferred to go alone, and on this errand Mr. Woodstock would have found a difficulty in accompanying her. Ida knew exactly the nature of the task she had taken in hand, and found it easier than it would have been to the ordinary young lady. She jotted down the names of some twenty little girls, selecting such as were between the ages of eight and twelve, and obtained promises that all should be ready at a fixed hour next Saturday. She met with doubts and objections and difficulties enough, but only failed in one or two instances. Then followed fresh talks with her grandfather, and all the details were arranged.
There was rain on the Thursday and Friday, but when Ida drew up her blind at six o'clock on Saturday morning, the sky gave promise of good things. She was walking in the garden long before breakfast-time, and gladdened to rapture as she watched the sun gain power, till it streamed gloriously athwart cloudless blue. By one o'clock she was at the end of Litany Lane, where the cart with long seats was already waiting; its arrival had become known to the little ones, and very few needed summoning. Of course there were disappointments now and again. In spite of mothers' promises, half the children had their usual dirty faces, and showed no sign of any preparation. Five or six of them had nothing to put on their heads; two had bare feet. It was too late to see to these things now; as they were, the children clambered, or were lifted, on to the cart, and Ida took her seat among them. Then a crack of the driver's whip, and amid the shouts of envious brothers and sisters, and before the wondering stare of the rest of the population, off they drove away.
"Who'd like an apple?" Ida asked, as soon as they were well clear of the narrow streets. There was a general scream of delight, and from a hamper by her side she brought out apples and distributed them. Only for a minute or two had there been anything like shyness in Ida's presence; she knew how to talk and behave to these poor little waifs. Her eyes filled with tears as she listened to their chatter among themselves, and recognised so many a fragment of her own past life. One child, who sat close by her, had been spending the morning in washing vegetables for the Saturday-night market. Did not that call to mind something?--so far off; so far, yet nearer to her than many things which had intervened. How they all laughed, as the big, black houses gave way to brighter streets, and these again began to open upon glimpses of field or garden! Not one of them had the slightest conception of whither they were being taken, or what was to happen to them at length. But they had confidence in "the lady." She was a sorceress in their eyes; what limit could there be to her powers? Something good and joyous awaited them; that was all they knew or cared; leagues of happiness, stretching away to the remote limits of the day's glory; a present rapture beyond knowledge, and a memory for ever.
Mr. Woodstock stood within the gate of the garden, his hands in his pockets, and as the vehicle came in sight he drew just a little back.
They streamed along the carriage-drive, and in a minute or two were all clustered upon the lawn behind the house. What was expected of them? Had an angel taken them by he hand and led them straight from Litany Lane through the portals of paradise, they could not have been more awed and bewildered. Trees and rose-bushes, turf and beds of flowers, seats in the shade, skipping-ropes thrown about on the open--and there, hark, a hand-organ, a better one than ever they danced to on the pavement, striking up to make them merry. That was the happiest thought! It was something not too unfamiliar; the one joyful thing of which they had experience meeting them here to smooth over the first introduction to a new world. Ida knew it well, the effect of that organ; had it not lightened her heart many and many a time in the by-gone darkness? Two of the girls had caught each other by the waist at the first sounds. Might they? Would "the lady" like it?
Miss Hurst had come out as soon as the music began, and Ida ran to talk with her. There was whispering between them, and pointing to one and another of the children, and then the governess, with a pleased face, disappeared again. She was away some time, but on her return two of the children were called into the house. Bare-footed they went in, but came forth again with shoes and stockings on, hardly able to comprehend what had happened to them. Then were summoned those who had nothing on their heads, and to each of these a straw hat was given, a less wonderful possession than the shoes and stockings, but a source of gladness and pride.
In the meantime, however, marvels had accumulated on the lawn. Whilst yet the organ was playing, there appeared two men, one of them carrying a big drum, the other hidden under a Punch and Judy show. Of a sudden there sounded a shrill note, high above the organ, a fluting from the bottom to the top of the gamut, the immemorial summons to children, the overture to the primitive drama. It was drowned in a scream of welcome, which, in its turn, was outdone by thunderous peals upon the drum.
Mr. Woodstock said little during the whole afternoon. Perhaps he thought the more.
Tables had been fixed in one part of the garden, and as the drama of Punch drew to an end, its interest found a serious rival in the spectacle of piled plates of cake. But there was to intervene nearly half-an-hour before the tea-urns were ready to make an appearance. The skipping-ropes came into requisition outside, but in the house was proceeding simultaneously a rather more serious pastime, which fell to Ida's share to carry out. Choosing the little girl whose face was the dirtiest and hair the untidiest of any she could see, she led her gently away to a place where a good bowl of warm water and plenty of soap were at hand, and, with the air of bestowing the greatest kindness of all, fell to work to such purpose that in a few minutes the child went back to the garden a resplendent being, positively clean and kempt for the first time in her life.
"I know you'll feel uncomfortable for a little, dear," Ida said, dismissing the astonished maiden with a kiss, "but the strangeness will wear off; and you'll see how much nicer it is."
One after another, all were dealt with in this way, presently with a good-natured servant-girl's assistance, as time pressed. The result was that a transformed company sat down to tea. The feeling wore off, as Ida said, but at first cleanliness meant positive discomfort, taking the form of loss of identity and difficulty of mutual recognition. They looked at their hands, and were amazed at the whiteness that had come upon them; they kept feeling their faces and their ordered hair. But the appetite of one and all was improved by the process.
"How I wish Mr. Waymark was here!" Ida said to her grandfather, as they stood together, watching the feast. "He would enjoy it. We must give him a full account to-morrow, mustn't we?"
"I forgot," replied the other. "I had a note from him this morning, saying he thought he shouldn't be able to come."
The first shadow of disappointment which this day had brought fell upon the girl's countenance. She made no reply, and presently went to help one or the youngest children, who had spilt her tea and was in evident distress.
After tea the organ struck up again, and again there was dancing on the lawn. Then a gathering of flowers by Ida and Miss Hurst, and one given to each of the children, with injunctions to put it in water on reaching home, and keep it as long as possible in memory of the day. Already the sun was westering, and Litany Lane must be reached before dusk.
"Poor children!" Ida sighed to herself. "If they had but homes to go to!" And added, in her thought, "We shall see, we shall see!"
Every bit as joyous as the ride out was the return to town. With foresight, Ida made the two youngest sit on each side of her; soon the little heads were drooping in her lap, subdued by the very weariness of bliss. Miss Hurst had offered to accompany Ida, that she might not have to come back alone, but Ida wanted her friends all to herself, and was rewarded by the familiarity with which they gossipped to her all the way.
"Hands up, all those who haven't enjoyed themselves!" she exclaimed, just as they were entering the noisy streets.
There was a moment's doubt, then a burst of merry laughter.
"Hands up, all those who would like to come again!"
All held up both arms--except the two children who were asleep.
"Well, you've all been good, and I'm very pleased with you, and you shall come again!"
It was the culmination of the day's delight. For the first time in their lives the children of Litany Lane and Elm Court had something to look forward to.