Part I: Miss. Lord
Chapter 2
 

Ada brooded over her wrongs; Beatrice glanced over The Referee. Fanny, after twirling awhile in maiden meditation, turned to the piano and jingled a melody from 'The Mikado.' She broke off suddenly, and, without looking round, addressed her companions.

'You can give the third seat at the Jubilee to somebody else. I'm provided for.'

'Who are you going with?' asked Ada.

'My masher,' the girl replied with a giggle.

'Where?'

'Shop-windows in the Strand, I think.'

She resumed her jingling; it was now 'Queen of my Heart.' Beatrice, dropping her paper, looked fixedly at the girl's profile, with an eyelid droop which signified calculation.

'How much is he really getting?' she inquired all at once.

'Seventy-five pounds a year. "Oh where, oh where, is my leetle dog gone?"'

'Does he say,' asked Mrs. Peachey, 'that his governor will stump up?'

They spoke a peculiar tongue, the product of sham education and mock refinement grafted upon a stock of robust vulgarity. One and all would have been moved to indignant surprise if accused of ignorance or defective breeding. Ada had frequented an 'establishment for young ladies' up to the close of her seventeenth year; the other two had pursued culture at a still more pretentious institute until they were eighteen. All could 'play the piano;' all declared--and believed--that they 'knew French.' Beatrice had 'done' Political Economy; Fanny had 'been through' Inorganic Chemistry and Botany. The truth was, of course, that their minds, characters, propensities had remained absolutely proof against such educational influence as had been brought to bear upon them. That they used a finer accent than their servants, signified only that they had grown up amid falsities, and were enabled, by the help of money, to dwell above-stairs, instead of with their spiritual kindred below.

Anticipating Fanny's reply, Beatrice observed, with her air of sagacity:

'If you think you're going to get anything out of an old screw like Lord, you'll jolly soon find your mistake.'

'Don't you go and make a fool of yourself, Fanny,' said Mrs. Peachey. 'Why, he can't be more than twenty-one, is he?'

'He's turned twenty-two.'

The others laughed scornfully.

'Can't I have who I like for a masher?' cried Fanny, reddening a little. 'Who said I was going to marry him? I'm in no particular hurry to get married. You think everybody's like yourselves.'

'If there was any chance of old Lord turning up his toes,' said Beatrice thoughtfully. 'I dare say he'll leave a tidy handful behind him, but then he may live another ten years or more.'

'And there's Nancy,' exclaimed Ada. 'Won't she get half the plunder?'

'May be plenty, even then,' said Beatrice, her head aside. 'The piano business isn't a bad line. I shouldn't wonder if he leaves ten or fifteen thousand.'

'Haven't you got anything out of Horace?' asked Ada of Fanny. 'What has he told you?'

'He doesn't know much, that's the fact.'

'Silly! There you are. His father treats him like a boy; if he talked about marrying, he'd get a cuff on the ear. Oh, I know all about old Lord,' Ada proceeded. 'He's a regular old tyrant. Why, you've only to look at him. And he thinks no small beer of himself, either, for all he lives in that grubby little house; I shouldn't wonder if he thinks us beneath him.'

She stared at her sisters, inviting their comment on this ludicrous state of things.

'I quite believe Nancy does,' said Fanny, with a point of malice.

'She's a stuck-up thing,' declared Mrs. Peachey. 'And she gets worse as she gets older. I shall never invite her again; it's three times she has made an excuse--all lies, of course.

'Who will she marry?' asked Beatrice, in a tone of disinterested speculation.

Mrs. Peachey answered with a sneer:

'She's going to the Jubilee to pick up a fancy Prince.'

'As it happens,' objected Fanny, 'she isn't going to the Jubilee at all. At least she says she isn't. She's above it--so her brother told me.'

'I know who wants to marry her,' Ada remarked, with a sour smile.

'Who is that?' came from the others.

'Mr. Crewe.'

With a significant giggle, Fanny glanced at the more sober of her sisters; she, the while, touched her upper lip with the point of her tongue, and looked towards the window.

'Does he?' Fanny asked of the ceiling.

'He wants money to float his teetotal drink,' said Beatrice. 'Hasn't he been at Arthur about it?'

'Not that I know,' answered the wife.

'He tried to get round me, but I--'

A scream of incredulity from Fanny, and a chuckle from Mrs. Peachey, covered the rest of the sentence. Beatrice gazed at them defiantly.

'Well, idiots! What's up now?'

'Oh, nothing.'

'There's nobody knows Luckworth Crewe better than I do,' Beatrice pursued disdainfully, 'and I think he knows me pretty well. He'll make a fool of himself when he marries; I've told him so, and he as good as said I was right. If it wasn't for that, I should feel a respect for him. He'll have money one of these days.'

'And he'll marry Nancy Lord,' said Ada tauntingly.

'Not just yet.'

Ada rolled herself from the sofa, and stood yawning.

'Well, I shall go and dress. What are you people going to do? You needn't expect any dinner. I shall have mine at a restaurant.'

'Who have you to meet?' asked Fanny, with a grimace.

Her sister disregarded the question, yawned again, and turned to Beatrice.

'Who shall we ask to take Fan's place on Tuesday? Whoever it 15, they'll have to pay. Those seats are selling for three guineas, somebody told me.'

Conversation lingered about this point for a few minutes, till Mrs. Peachey went upstairs. When the door was open, a child's crying could be heard, but it excited no remark. Presently the other two retired, to make themselves ready for going out. Fanny was the first to reappear, and, whilst waiting for her sister, she tapped out a new music-hall melody on the piano.

As they left the house, Beatrice remarked that Ada really meant to have her dinner at Gatti's or some such place; perhaps they had better indulge themselves in the same way.

'Suppose you give Horace Lord a hint that we've no dinner at home? He might take us, and stand treat.'

Fanny shook her head.

'I don't think he could get away. The guv'nor expects him home to dinner on Sundays.'

The other laughed her contempt.

'You see! What good is he? Look here, Fan, you just wait a bit, and you'll do much better than that. Old Lord would cut up rough as soon as ever such a thing was mentioned; I know he would. There's something I have had in my mind for a long time. Suppose I could show you a way of making a heap of money--no end of money--? Shouldn't you like it better,--to live as you pleased, and be independent?'

The listener's face confessed curiosity, yet was dubious.

'What do you say to going into business with me?' pursued Miss French. 'We've only to raise a little money on the houses, and m a year or two we might be making thousands.'

'Business? What sort of business?'

'Suppose somebody came to you and said: Pay me a sovereign, and I'll make you a member of an association that supplies fashionable clothing at about half the ordinary price,--wouldn't you jump at it?'

'If I thought it wasn't a swindle,' Fanny replied ingenuously.

'Of course. But you'd be made to see it wasn't. And suppose they went on to say: Take a ten-pound share, and you shall have a big interest on it, as well as your dresses for next to nothing. How would you like that?'

'Can it be done?'

'I've got a notion it can, and I think I know two or three people who would help to set the thing going. But we must have some capital to show. Have you the pluck to join in?'

'And suppose I lose my money?'

'I'll guarantee you the same income you're getting now--if that will satisfy you. I've been looking round, and making inquiries, and I've got to know a bit about the profits of big dressmakers. We should start in Camberwell, or somewhere about there, and fish in all the women who want to do the heavy on very little. There are thousands and thousands of them, and most of them'--she lowered her voice--'know as much about cut and material as they do about stockbroking. Do you twig? People like Mrs. Middlemist and Mrs. Murch. They spend, most likely, thirty or forty pounds a year on their things, and we could dress them a good deal more smartly for half the money. Of course we should make out that a dress we sold them for five guineas was worth ten in the shops, and the real cost would be two. See? The thing is to persuade them that they're getting an article cheap, and at the same time making money out of other people.'

Thus, and at much greater length, did Miss. French discourse to her attentive sister. Forgetful of the time, Fanny found at length that it would be impossible to meet Horace Lord as he came out of church; but it did not distress her.