A Woman Intervenes by Robert Barr
Although Jennie Brewster arrived in London angry with the world in general, and with several of its inhabitants in particular, she soon began to revel in the delights of the great city. It was so old that it was new to her, and she visited Westminster Abbey and other of its ancient landmarks in rapid succession. The cheapness of the hansoms delighted her, and she spent most of her time dashing about in cabs. She put up at one of the big hotels, and ordered many new dresses at a place in Regent Street. She bought most of the newspapers, morning and evening, and declared she could not find an interesting article in any of them. From her point of view they were stupid and unenterprising, and she resolved to run down the editor of one of the big dailies when she got time, interview him, and discover how he reconciled it with his conscience to publish so dull a sheet every day.
She wrote to her editor in New York that London, though a slow town, was full of good material, and that nobody had touched it in the writing line since Dickens' time; therefore she proposed to write a series of articles on the Metropolis that would wake them up a bit. The editor cabled to her to go ahead, and she went.
Jennie engaged a chaperon, and took great satisfaction in this unwonted luxury. It had been intimated to her that Lady Willow was a sort of society St. Peter, who held keys that would open the gates of the social heaven, if she were sufficiently recompensed. Of all the ancient landmarks of England, none attracted Jennie so much as the aristocracy, and although she had written to New York for letters of introduction that would be useful in London, she was too impatient to await their arrival. Thus she came to secure the services of Lady Willow, the widow of Sir Debenham Willow, who had died abroad, insolvent, some years before, mourned by the creditors he left behind him.
Jennie was suspicious about the title, and demanded convincing proofs of its genuineness before she engaged Lady Willow. She was amazed that any real lady would, as it were, sell her social influence at so much a week; but, as Lady Willow was equally astonished that an American girl earned her livelihood by writing for the papers, the surprise of the one found its counterpart in the wonder of the other.
Lady Willow thought all American girls were born daughters of millionaires, in accordance with some unexplained Western by-law of nature, and imagined that their sole object in desiring to enter London society was to purchase for themselves a more or less expensive scion of the aristocracy; she was therefore inclined to resent meeting a shrewd young woman apparently determined on getting the value for her money.
'It is not my custom to chaffer about terms,' said Lady Willow with much dignity.
'It is mine,' replied Jennie complacently; 'I always like to know what I am buying, and the price I am to pay for it.'
'You are dealing with me,' said the lady, rising indignantly, 'as if you were engaging a cook. I am sure we would not suit each other at all.'
'Please sit down, Lady Willow, and don't be offended. Let us talk it over in an amicable manner, even if we come to no arrangement. I think a cook an exceedingly important person, and I assure you I would treat one in the most deferential manner; while with you, on the other hand, I talk in an open and frank way, as between friend and friend. I take it that you and I are somewhat similarly situated. We are neither of us rich, and so we have each of us to earn the money we need in our own way. It would be dishonest if I pretended to you that I was wealthy, and then couldn't pay what you expected after you had done all you could for me--now, wouldn't it? Very well, if you have anyone else to chaperon who can afford to pay more than I can, you shouldn't bother about me at all, but secure a richer client.'
Lady Willow remembered that this was not the season when rich clients abounded; so she smothered her resentment, and sat down again.
'That's right,' said Jennie; 'we'll have a nice quiet talk, whatever comes of it. Now, if you like, I could write a lovely article about you in the Sunday Argus, and then all rich girls who come over here would go direct to you.'
'Oh dear! oh dear!' cried Lady Willow, evidently inexpressibly shocked at the idea, 'you would surely never do so cruel a thing as that? If my friends knew I chaperoned young ladies and took money for it, I would never be allowed to enter their doors again.'
'Ah, I didn't think of that. Of course it wouldn't do. What a curious thing it is that those who want to be written up in the papers generally never see their names in print; while those who don't want to have anything said about them are the people the reporters are always after.'
'Do you write for the papers, then?'
'For one of them.'
'How dreadful!' said Lady Willow, rising again, with an air of finality about her movement. It was evident that any dealings with this American girl were out of the question.
'Do sit down again, Lady Willow. We will take it that I am hopelessly ineligible, and so say no more about it; but I do want to have a talk with you.'
'But you will write something----'
'I shall not write a word about you or about anything you tell me. You see, your profession is as strange to me as mine is to you.'
'My profession? I have none.'
'Well, whatever you call it. I mean the way in which you make your money.'
Lady Willow sighed, and the tears came into her eyes.
'You little know, my child, to what straits one may come who is left unprovided for, and who has to do the best to keep up appearances.'
Jennie sprang up instantly and took the unresisting hand of the elder woman, smoothing it with her own caressingly.
'Why, of course I know,' she cried, with a little quaver in her voice; 'and there is nothing more terrible on earth than lack of money. If there was a single really civilized country in existence, it would make provision for its women. Every woman should be assured enough to live on, merely because she is a woman. If England had put aside as much for its women as it has spent in the last hundred years on foolish wars, or if America had made a fund of what its politicians have been allowed to steal, the women of both barbarous countries might have been provided with incomes that would at least keep them from the fear of want.'
Lady Willow seemed more alarmed than comforted by the vehemence of Miss Brewster. She said hesitatingly:
'I'm afraid you have some very strange ideas, my dear.'
'Perhaps; but I have one idea that isn't strange: it is that you are going to take charge of a lonesome, friendless girl for a few weeks at least--until the rich pork-packer's daughter from Chicago comes along, and she won't be here for a month or two yet. We won't say a word about terms; I'll pay you all that's left over from my hansom fares.'
'I shall be very happy to do what I can for you, my dear.'
Lady Willow had softened towards her fair client, and had now adopted a somewhat motherly tone with her, which Jennie evidently liked.
'I will try and be very little trouble to you, although I shall probably ask you ever so many questions. All I really want is merely to see the Zoo, hear the animals roar, and watch them being fed. I have no ambition to steal any of them.'
'Oh, that will be easily done,' said Lady Willow in surprise. 'We can get tickets from one of the Fellows of the Zoological Society which will admit us on Sunday, when there are but few people there.'
Jennie laughed merrily.
'I mean the social Zoo, Lady Willow; I have visited the other already. Please do not look so shocked at me, and don't be afraid; I really talk very nicely when I am in society, and I am sure you will not be in the least ashamed of me. You see, I haven't had a soul to speak with since I came to London, so I think I ought to be allowed a little latitude at first.'
Lady Willow so far relaxed her dignity as to smile, although a little dubiously; and Jennie joyfully proclaimed that their compact was sealed and that she was sure they would be great friends.
'Now you must tell me what I am to do,' she continued. 'I suppose dresses are the most important preliminaries when one is meditating a siege on society. Well, I've ordered ever so many, so that's all right. What's the next thing?'
'Yes, dress is important; but I think the first thing to do is to choose pleasant rooms somewhere. You can't stay at this hotel, you know; besides, it must be very expensive.'
'Yes, it is rather; but it is so handy and central.'
'It is not central for society.'
'Oh, isn't it? I was thinking of Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square, and that sort of thing. Besides, there's always a nice hansom right at the door whenever one wants to go out.'
'Oh, but you mustn't ride in hansoms, you know!'
'Why? I thought the aristocracy--the very highest--rode in hansoms.'
'Some of them have private hansoms; but that's a very different thing.'
'And I heard somewhere that most of the hansoms in London are owned by the aristocracy. I am sure I rode in one belonging to the Marquis of Something--I forget his name. I don't suppose the Marquis himself drove it. Perhaps it was driven by his hired man; but the driver was such a nice young fellow, and he gave me a lot of information. He told me that the Marquis owned the hansom; for I asked him whose it was. I thought perhaps it belonged to the driver. I'll give up the hotel willingly, but I don't know about hansoms. I'm afraid to promise; for I feel sure I'll hail a hansom automatically the moment I go out alone. So we will postpone the hansom question until later. Now, where would you recommend me to stay while in London?'
'You could stop with me if you liked. I have not a large house; but there is room for one or two friends, and it is in a very good locality.'
'Oh, that will be delightful. I suppose the correct address on one's notepaper is everything, almost as good as a coat-of-arms--if they use coats-of-arms as letter-heads; and there is a difference between Drury and Park when they precede the word "Lane."'
The two ladies speedily came to an understanding that was satisfactory to each of them, and Lady Willow found, to the no small comforting of her dignity, that, although she came to the hotel in the attitude of one who, if it may be so expressed, sought a favour, the impetuous eagerness of the younger woman had so changed the situation that the elder lady now left with the gratifying self complacency of a generous person who has conferred a boon. Nor was her condescension without its reward, both material and intellectual, for not only did Jennie pay her way with some lavishness, but her immediate social success was flattering to Lady Willow as the introducer of a Transatlantic cousin so bright and vivacious.
So great an impression did Jennie make upon the more susceptible portion of the young men she met under Lady Willow's chaperonage, that even the rumour which got abroad, that she had no money, did not damp the devotion of all of them. Lord Frederick Bingham was quite as assiduous in his attentions as if she were the greatest heiress that ever crossed the ocean to exchange dubiously won gold for a title founded by some thief in the Middle Ages, thus bringing ancient and modern villainy into juxtaposition.
Lady Willow saw Lord Frederick's preference with pleasurable surprise. Although she did not altogether approve of the damsel in her care, she had become very fond of her; but she failed to see why Jennie was so much sought after, when other girls, almost as pretty and much more eligible, were neglected. She hinted delicately to the young woman one day that perhaps her visit to England would not be, after all, so futile.
'I don't think I understand you,' said Jennie.
'Well, my dear, with a little tact on your part, I'm not at all sure but Lord Frederick Bingham might propose.'
Jennie, who was putting on her gloves, paused and looked at Lady Willow, with a merry twinkle in her eyes, and a demure smile hovering about the corners of her mouth.
'Do you imagine, then, that I have come over here to ensnare some poor unprotected nobleman--with a display of tact? Oh dear me! As if tact had anything to do with it! Never, never, never, Lady Willow! I wouldn't marry an Englishman if he were the last man left on earth.'
'Many Englishmen are very nice, my dear,' protested Lady Willow gently, with a deep sigh, for she thought of her own husband, who, having been all his life an irreclaimable reprobate, had commanded her utmost affection while he lived, and was the object of her tenderest regret now that he had taken his departure from a world that had never appreciated his talents; although its influence was, in the estimation of the widow, entirely to blame for those shortcomings which Sir Debenham had been unable to conceal.
'And yet,' continued Jennie inconsequently, as she buttoned her glove, 'I do adore a title; I wonder why that is? I suppose no woman is ever at heart a republican, and if the United States is to be wrecked, it is the women who will do the wrecking, and start a monarchy. I have no doubt the men would let us proclaim an empire now if they imagined it would please us.'
"I thought you were all sovereigns over there already,' said Lady Willow.
'Oh, we are, but that's just the trouble. There is too much competition in the queen business; there are too many of us, and so we exchange our sovereignty for the lesser titles of duchesses and countesses and all that.
'"It is no trivial thing, I ween, To be a regular Royal Queen. No half and half affair, I mean, But a right down regular, regular regular regular Royal Queen."
I don't know that the words are right, but the sentiment is there. Oh dear me! I'm afraid I'm becoming quite English, you know.'
'I don't see many signs of it,' said Lady Willow, smiling in spite of herself as her voluble companion sang and danced about the room.
'Come, Lady Willow,' cried Jennie, 'get on your things; I am going to a City bank to cash a cheque, and I warn you that I will take a hansom. Lord Freddie agrees with me that a hansom is the jolliest kind of vehicle: please don't frown at me, Lady Willow--"jolliest" is Lord Freddie's word, not mine.'
'What I didn't like,' said Lady Willow, with as near an approach to severity as the kindly woman could assume, 'was your calling him Lord Freddie.'
'Oh, that's his phrase, too! He says everybody calls him Lord Freddie. But come along, and I'll call him Lord--Frederick--Bingham,' with a voice of awe and appropriate pauses between the words. 'He always seems so trivial compared with his name; he reminds me of a salesman at a remnant counter, and I don't wonder everybody calls him Lord Freddie. I'm afraid I'm a disappointed woman, Lady Willow. I suppose the men have retrograded since armour went out of fashion; they had to be big and strong then to carry so much hardware. Of course it makes a difference to a man whether his tailor cuts him a suit out of broadcloth or out of sheet iron. Yes, I begin to suspect that I've come to England several centuries too late.'
Lady Willow was too much shocked at these frivolous remarks to make any reply, so, attempting none, she went to her room to prepare for her trip to the City.
Leaving Lady Willow in the hansom, Jennie entered the bank and got the white notes, generally alluded to in fiction as 'crisp,' stuffing them with greater carelessness than their value warranted into her purse. She took from this receptacle of her wealth a bit of paper on which was written an address, and this she looked at for some moments before leaving the bank. On reaching the hansom, she handed up the slip of paper to the driver.
'Do you know where that is?' she asked.
'Yes, miss; it is just round the corner.'
'Well, drive to the opposite side of the street, and stop where I can see the door of No. 23.'
'Very good, miss.'
Arriving nearly opposite No. 23, the driver pulled up. Jennie looked across at the doorway where many hurrying men were entering and leaving. It was a large building evidently filled with offices; the girl drew a deep breath, but made no motion to leave the hansom.
'Have you business here, too?' asked Lady Willow, to whom the City was an unknown land, the rush and noise of which were unpleasantly bewildering.
'No,' said Jennie, with a doleful note in her voice, 'this is not business; it is pleasure. I want to sit here for a few minutes and think.'
'But, my dear child,' expostulated Lady Willow, 'you can't think in this babel; besides, the police will not allow the hansom to stand here unless one of us is shopping, or has business in an office.'
'Then, dear Lady Willow, do go shopping for ten minutes; I saw some lovely shops just down the street. Here are five pounds, and if you see anything that I ought to have, buy it for me. One must think now and then, you know. Our thoughts are like the letters we receive; we need to sort them out periodically, and discard those that we don't wish to keep. I want to rummage over my thoughts and see whether some of them are to be abandoned or not.'
When Lady Willow left her, Jennie sat with her chin in her hands and her elbows on her knees gazing across at No. 23. The faces of none who went in or came out were familiar to her. Frequently glances were cast at her by passers-by, but she paid no heed to the crowd, nor to the fleeting admiration her pretty face aroused in many a flinty stockbroking breast, if, indeed, she was conscious of the attention she received. She awoke from her reverie when Lady Willow stepped into the hansom.
'What, back already?' she cried.
'I have been away for a quarter of an hour,' said the elder woman reproachfully. 'Besides, the money is all spent, and here are the parcels.'
'Money doesn't go far in the City, does it?' said Jennie.
'Why, what's the matter with you, my dear?' asked the elder woman; 'your voice sounds as if you had been crying.'
'Nonsense! What an idea! This street reminds me so of Broadway that I have become quite homesick, that's all. I think I'll go back to New York.'
'Have you met somebody from over there?'
'No, no. I've seen no one I knew.'
'Did you expect to?'
'I didn't know you had any friends in the City.'
'I haven't. He's an enemy.'
'Really? An enemy who was once a friend?'
'Yes. Why do you ask so many questions?'
Lady Willow took the girl's hand, and said soothingly:
'I am sorry there was a misunderstanding.'
'So am I,' agreed Jennie.