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Norton, Andre - Novel 39 (5 page)

BOOK: Norton, Andre - Novel 39
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"The stupid gel."
The voice that could only be Miss Scrimshaw's boomed clearly. "Working is
not all silk, pearls, and what is to be offered at the buffet supper. I want
that story and she only wants to dabble. But
a story like
this—"

 
          
 
"What story?"

 
          
 
"The one about the Salvation Army—or
whatever they call themselves. I can get a gel into one of their meetings, let
her write it up. By God, Albert, most of the daily papers are writing pure
libel about them. If we can get them a truthful story—that Sir John of
yours—get him to ask a question or two, bring things out into the open. D'you
know
, Albert, that it's said the police have their orders to
stand by and let roughs beat up these people? Is this
England
—or some nasty little state in the East
where no one has any freedom? I want a story, a truthful, eyewitness
story—"

 
          
 
"Which you aren't going to get,
Agatha," the man answered her coldly. "No lady has any business
anywhere near one of those rebellious, unlawful meetings. It dangerously abuts
on treason, you know."

 
          
 
There came a sound that could only have been a
snort. "Don't you start talking such folderol to me,
Albert.
In fact, my boy, aren't you going to do a little investigating yourself? And
one of the latest bits of gossip flying around is that Sir John Dermond is
interested in how the other three quarters of
London
live. Interested enough so that he has sent
you an order to skulk about to see—"

 
          
 
"I shall do—"

 
          
 
"Exactly what you are told, m'boy.
Just the proper gentleman as always.
Come here to the window
with you!"

 
          
 
That order was followed by a creaking as if
some bit of furniture were sturdily resisting any move. "Look down,
Albert—not just at that disgusting mud which laps about the ankles of anyone
who does not have a penny or so for a ride. There are those who are walking.
What about that woman over there who has taken off her shawl to cover what's in
her basket? Proper old hag you'd call her, now wouldn't you? That's Bessie
Fuller. And she doesn't count as many years as you, Albert. She's got an infant
to support, and a drunken horror of a husband who has battered teeth out of her
jaws, given her that permanent lump over one eye—she can't see very well with
that anymore. Look her up and down, Albert.

 
          
 
"Bessie's a decent
woman,
she sells her matches along this street and has for some years now. If she gets
enough some days for a hot tater or a broken pastie she feels she has luck . .
. She's the kind the Army looks for. In fact, she has already asked their
help—so she will not even go on the poor rates, which take a penny or two out
of your pocket. And there are hundreds like her."

 
          
 
"There are charities to which she can
apply—"

 
          
 
Again
came
that
disparaging snort. "Do not prate to me of charities, or workhouses, or all
the other inhuman devices you and yours are so smug about. If you are going to
do a bit of looking around for Sir John Dermond,
do
it
right. Don't wade about the edge of that sea of nastiness out there. Plunge
right in—if you can take it. Personally, I wonder about you, Albert—you need a
good shaking up to lose your ingrained blindness, and really see the world that
lies about you."

 
          
 
"If someone, Aunt Agatha, must go looking
in this evil pit of yours it had better be a man. As I think you will agree,
you can't be wholly lost to all that is right and proper."

 
          
 
"How I get my results is none of your
pompous business. You would do better, much better, Albert, to do a little
straight thinking on your own and not accept the rubbish heard at dinner
parties after ladies have withdrawn and you gentlemen pass a goodly aged bottle
among you."

 
          
 
"Aunt Agatha!" There was real
outrage in his voice now. But Hester lost Miss Scrimshaw's answer because a
side door to the right, which she had not previously noticed, was hurriedly
opened, and another woman entered on the far side of the railing.

 
          
 
Apparently it was customary for females
invading the business world to retain the formality of street attire, for this
pinch-faced lady wore a bonnet and white gloves on about her wrists, the
fingers enrolled across the backs to afford more foom and freer movement for
the digits enclosed within. That she was employed here was evident in her
glance, which betokened a cold recognition of Hester as a stranger. This
guardian of the world beyond the rail made a dramatically better appearance, in
a much smarter walking suit, than Hester when she rose. A gloved hand caught up
a pince-nez dangling on a black ribbon around her neck and settled it firmly on
her nose.

 
          
 
"Well, and what can I do for you?"
Her inquiry had a rude note, as if she were facing Bessie Fuller on the road
below.

 
          
 
"I have an appointment with Miss
Scrimshaw. My name is
Hester Lane
."

 
          
 
"Lane?" There was a moment of
hesitation. Then the guardian went to the door. Noting it was ajar she frowned,
then gripped the knob firmly with one hand as she knocked with the other. At an
indistinct murmur from within, she pushed the door forward, partially opening
it as she spoke.
"
Miss Hester Lane
, Miss Scrimshaw, by
appointment."

 
          
 
"Good—come in, gel."

 
          
 
The gloved guardian nodded at Hester, opening the
door wider to permit her passage. The young man who had been standing before
the desk stepped back and to one side as she entered, but it was Miss Scrimshaw
who commanded Hester's attention at the moment.

 
          
 
The woman enshrined behind the large desk,
whose top was entirely covered with a thick drift of papers, might be an earl's
granddaughter, but she also might well be as much of a sight as the match
seller on the street below. The vast curves of her body stretched a purplish
serge gown almost dangerously, and she too wore a bonnet, which bore a curl of
purple feathers constantly aquiver. Her complexion was a pallid, yellowish
white, while the wide expanse of flesh held features that seemed too small for
the rest of her.

 
          
 
Her button eyes might be smallish when
compared to the two broad chins and the side dewlaps she attempted to control
with a dog collar of reddish-purple stones, matching a large cross resting on
her shelflike bosom, but for all their lack of size they were very keen. Hester
felt she was being examined, weighed, and measured with no little skill.

 
          
 
Though she was looking straight at Hester,
Miss Scrimshaw's hands were scrabbling in the drift of paper on her desk. They
retrieved a rather battered document Hester recognized as the letter she had
written to ask for this interview. Miss Scrimshaw's right hand went searching
again, while with the left she held Hester's letter almost to the full length
of her massive arm. Then she produced a lorgnette out of the flood and held it
up, bringing the letter back into focus.

 
          
 
"What makes you think,
gel,
that
you would be of service to B.L. here?" was her opening.

 
          
 
Hester hoped her face remained passive and
gave away nothing of the nervousness she really felt.

 
          
 
"Come, come, gel! Whose servants might be
made to talk secrets with you?" She was no longer staring at Hester in
that measuring fashion but looking over the girl's shoulder, presumedly at the
young man. "That's what's expected of us, you know. Our readers want neat
little paragraphs of stories about milady's parties, the coming out of highborn
misses, and all the rest of such stuff. Ladies do not fret their minds about
other things—they have no brains in their heads, or so is the general opinion,
ain't it, Albert?"

 
          
 
"Aunt Agatha!" The protest came
loudly from the corner.

 
          
 
"Albert, you may do as you wish under
your own roof— this happens to be my domain. Come out of hiding there and meet
Miss—
Miss
Lane
.
She's from the colonies—
Canada
.
Miss Lane
, this is my cousin Albert Prothore."

 
          
 
Hester had half turned so that she could
acknowledge this strange introduction. The young man's face was flushed, and
she noted that his hand was gripping his hat brim with force enough to rend
that article of clothing in two were he to follow the dictates of temper.

 
          
 
"Albert,
Miss Lane
, is parliamentary secretary to Sir John
Dermond, and a very good one too, I have heard. He'd be even better if he shook
some of the cobwebs off him.

 
          
 
"Now."
Once
more her attention fastened on Hester. The girl had murmured something in reply
to that introduction, but the awkwardness of the situation embarrassed her. She
had turned her head away quickly but she had heard no acknowledgment from him.

 
          
 
"—if you are willing—"

 
          
 
Hester blinked and hoped she had not colored.
She had been thinking how pompous this Albeit Prothore was in spite of his
youth and in so doing had missed something undoubtedly important.

 
          
 
"You can't!" That was Prothore.
"You know how unfitting, how even dangerous such action can be!"

 
          
 
Miss Scrimshaw's small mouth showed how far it
could enlarge when necessary. And surely that expansion was meant to be a grin.

 
          
 
"Now, Albert, do not make decisions for
others." She nodded and the tuft of feathers on her bonnet bobbed back and
forth as if in a stiff breeze. "You may
decide,
gel. I'll give it to you on simple terms. This can be a story that will make
your name famous—"

 
          
 
"Infamous!" challenged Prothore.

 
          
 
"Albert!" The smile became that of a
frog about to close on a fly. "This is a matter of business—but then you
don't even know what that word means." Once more she turned back to
Hester, waving a mittenlike hand, which displayed a pair of gold rings mounted
with reddish-purple stones similar to those on her collar and cross. "We
have a
London
out there unknown to readers of the B.L.—a
London
that others are trying to change for the
better. If what I have heard is true, they are beginning to make some headway.
Have you heard of the Salvation Army, gel?"

 
          
 
"No."

 
          
 
As Hester replied she was again conscious of
Mr. Prothore's anger. For years she had been attuned to this—rage sensed in
silence. How many times had she been the butt of that particular treatment when
dealing with her father?

 
          
 
"Well," Miss Scrimshaw was
continuing, "there is an organization working with and for the poor. They
have persisted in the face of persecution and all kinds of opposition. The time
has
come,
it is even a little past, to tell of what
the Salvation Army has done for those we do not want to notice. Their work
should be explained simply and earnestly to people such as our readers who have
no connection at all with the depths of depravity, do not even know what
exists.

BOOK: Norton, Andre - Novel 39
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