Authors: Ivy Compton-Burnett
“The person has arrived, ma'am.”
“What person?” said Mrs. Hume.
“The person who was expected, ma'am.”
“And who was expecting her?”
“I supposed it was yourself, ma'am. It would be the assumption.”
“And how would you refer to someone I was expecting?”
“I understood she was to be under consideration, ma'am.”
“Is that an answer to my question?”
“The lady has arrived, ma'am. She has found her way,” said the parlourmaid, with a change in her tone.
“Found her way? What do you mean?”
“Along that road from the station, ma'am. Under the shadow of all those trees. The dusk is already threatening.”
“You can show her in,” said Miranda Hume, not raising her eyes or her hands from the newspaper on her knees. “And you children keep to your side of the room and appear to be occupied. You can stay where you are, my son.”
Two boys and a girl exchanged a glance and moved away, and were actually occupied in giving their attention to the scene. A middle-aged man remained, as directed, in his seat.
The maid ushered in a neatly dressed woman, who
had an appearance of keeping her personality neutral, in case any particular form should be required.
Miranda had no such aspect. Her tall, upright frame, strong, white hair, firm, unremarkable features and small, pale, experienced eyes gave the impression of being what they were and had reason to be.
“Good-morning, MissâBurke,” she said, referring openly to a paper at her hand, and not concerned with the fact that it was afternoon. “It is good of you to come to see an old woman and to think of being her companion. Will you tell me in what ways you are suited to such a post?”
“I am companionable,” said Miss Burke, hesitating in spite of the appositeness of her claim. “And I am interested in other people and their lives.”
Miranda's face showed that something confirmed her expectations.
“What is your age?”
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Hume?”
“How old are you? How many years have you lived?”
“I am over thirty, Mrs. Hume.”
“Yes, so I see. So am I. By how much are you over it?”
“I did not expect to be asked my age.”
“I am under no obligation to consider that.”
“I am not much under forty,” said Miss Burke, changing her tone under Miranda's eye. “I am actually forty-seven.”
“You would pass for less. You could say you were forty-two. It comes of the easy life of a companion.”
“I never tell untruths,” said Miss Burke, her answer seeming to cover the whole of Miranda's speech.
“You can give a wrong impression. You do not mind doing that. It would be your object.”
“It is a disadvantage to be too old, when you are placed as I am.”
“Yes, of course it is,” said Miranda, not without sympathy. “But that makes it more important that the falsehood should be plausible.”
“I should not use the word, âfalsehood',” said Miss Burke, not mentioning the term of her choice.
“What word would you use?”
Miss Burke still did not give it.
“We will not pursue the matter. Indeed I see we cannot. Are you good-tempered in ordinary life?”
“Yes, I think I am. Of course I have my own opinions.”
“Does that mean you would hold to them argumentatively?”
“We cannot alter what we think,” said Miss Burke, not without a touch of this quality.
“Surely we can, if light is thrown on a subject. Do you not try to profit by your employer's companionship?”
“It is my companionship that is the point,” said Miss Burke, causing herself to smile.
“Do you often change your posts?”
“Never, unless there is some reason.”
“Well, I suppose not. Dismissal or your own dissatisfaction. I asked if it was often.”
“Not oftener than is natural.”
“You regard that as an answer?” said Miranda, sending her eyes over Miss Burke's face, as though receiving light on her.
“I have stayed for some time in some cases, and not in others. I suppose that it is how it must be.”
“How it has been with you. So sometimes people do not take to you?”
“Well, sometimes I do not take to them,” said Miss Burke, with some spirit.
Miranda nodded to herself, her eyes still on Miss Burke's face.
“Do you for example take to me?”
“It is difficult to judge on a first impression.”
“Be quiet, boys,” said Miranda, turning and speaking with a hiss in her tone, as there was a sound of mirth. “I think I do not find it so. You would come to me and leave me at your own convenience?”
“Well, you would dismiss me at yours,” said Miss Burke, trying to speak lightly.
“Why did you leave your last situation?” said Miranda, with a note of ruthlessness on the last word.
“I found that things were expected of me, that were not in the arrangement.”
“You mean you were asked to be useful in the house?” said Miranda, raising her eyes.
“Well, housework has nothing to do with companionship.”
“Surely it has, in a case of emergency. If a companion could not rise to that, she would not deserve the name. What did they ask you to do?”
“I need hardly tell you that, Mrs. Hume.”
“You will tell me what I wish to know,” said Miranda, not disguising the range of her own requirements. “Was it something you cannot mention?”
“They asked me to wash up dishes at the sink,” said Miss Burke, in a full tone, as though this idea of Miranda's were not hers.
“Well, where would you wash them? They would not ask you to do so at the piano.”
“No, they would not,” said Miss Burke, agreeing that this amelioration was not possible.
“What did you say to them?” said Miranda, with the hint of a smile.
“I pointed out that it was not in the arrangement.”
“If an emergency arose here, would you expect me to wash the dishes?”
“No,” said Miss Burke, on an uncertain note, as though feeling that their attitude to the activity had something in common.
“Then would you leave them unwashed?”
“I would help you to wash them,” said Miss Burke, perhaps meaning to strike a companionable note, but doing so too completely.
“Have you a good voice for reading aloud?” said Miranda, in a colder tone.
“It would hardly be different from my ordinary voice.”
“Would you read as if you had written the books yourself, and felt self-conscious about them?”
“No, I should only try to interpret them.”
“You cannot just read simply and clearly what is before your eyes?” said Miranda, giving a sigh.
“Yes, if that is what you want.”
“Well, it naturally is. Why should I wish for your implied opinion? I could ask you for it.”
“Well, I would remember that.”
“And you would not sit as if you had a host of unspoken thoughts seething within you?”
“It is not likely I should have a host of them.”
“Or as if your mind were a blank?”
“I would try to strike the mean.”
“I have no liking for smart answers.”
“You do not seem to have any liking for answers at all,” said Miss Burke, lightening her tone too late.
“Well, I must not waste your time,” said Miranda, in an almost pleasant manner. “It is never a kindness to do that. I will give you your fare and meet any other expenses. It was natural to apply for the post; indeed it shows your sense, as it is a good one. I hope you will find another equal to it.”
“You do not think we should suit each other, Mrs. Hume?”
“I do not think you would suit me,” said Miranda, answering something in the tone. “Our interpretation of companionship is different.”
“Have you ever had a companion before?”
“What makes you think I have not?”
“You seem to expect the impossible.”
“It is what in a sense I do expect, and feel I cannot face,” said Miranda, half to herself. “You will find some tea ready for you in the next room. And this will cover your outlay and give you something over for your time.”
“I do not ask anything but my bare expenses, Mrs. Hume.”
“But you are glad to have something,” said Miranda, handing her an envelope and waiting for her fingers to close on it. “We need not pretend that things are not as they are. I am not a person who does that.”
The truth of this caused another sound of mirth, and Miranda sent a rapid frown in its direction. “I hope you will soon find a suitable position. There are many in which you might be useful; that is, if you do not set your face against being so. The maid who gives you tea will tell you about your trains.”
Miranda offered her hand without raising her eyes, as though to save herself from seeing the effects of the interview. There was nothing about them to disturb her. Miss Burke went to the door with an air of having dealt as she could with another item on her list.
Someone was there before her. The middle-aged man stood ready to open it, and did so with a bowing movement and a faintly grieved expression. As he closed it, he drew himself up and turned to the room.
“A ship that passes in the night,” he said, in deep, almost emotional tones.
“Well, it was better for it to do so quickly. And you need not stand and look after it. It will come to anchor in time.”
“I trust we can rely on it, Mother. I trust that it is the view of the stranger within our gates. There is something troubling in the thought of a woman dealing with such difficulties alone. I admit that my thoughts
are following the little, lonely figure, as it wends its way along the road to the station.”
“It is in the library at the moment. And it is neither lonely nor little. It is of ordinary size and Bates is with it. I heard her go in.”
“Your ears are sharper than mine, Mother; I heard nothing.”
“I am alive to all that happens in my house.”
“And the house is not blind to anything that befalls you, Mother,” said Rosebery, with deliberate mirth.
“Well, a house must have a head.”
“What a pity, when everyone has to live in a house!” said the girl to her brothers.
“And a sad place it would be without one, Mother,” said Rosebery at the same moment.
“What would it be like then?” said the younger boy.
“Someone would become the head,” said his sister. “It is a natural law.”
“It is time for your tea, Aunt Miranda,” said the elder boy. “Is Bates's attention fully occupied?”
“You may ring the bell. No, not you, my son; it is for the boys to do it. They are not here to be looked at and waited on. We have no butler now. Someone has written for Wilson's character. So he will not return.”
“What will you say of him?” said Alice.
“His time here constitutes a character. It is of no good to say anything.”
“Aunt Miranda's tone has a baffled note,” said Francis.
“Have you engaged another?” said Adrian.
“No, I have not. A butler is not a necessity. You had better get those ideas out of your head.”
“Who will do his work?” said Alice.
“Bates. She is equal to it. And she can get another woman. Oh, Bates; I am not replacing Wilson; I am not fit for the change. I am giving you his place. It will mean a rise in wages. What do you say to it?”
“I might be willing to oblige you, ma'am,” Bates said.