or: Mixed Education
By Miss Geneviève Falconer and the Silver Vixen
A tale from written some years ago. © The Golden Order Press 2005. All rights reserved.
PICCADILLY was full of demons. Grotesquely-dressed creatures with spiked or shaven heads and eyes dull and dead, or else quick with animal cunning; yet always devoid of the warm glimmer of intelligence.
Inside, Perdita felt like a small animal, huddled in a corner of herself, covering her eyes against the jangling alienness of it all. A traveller from a gentler, a more ordered time, suddenly pitched into the quagmire of the dying decades of the twentieth century, could not help but reel in shock and confusion.
Perdita was not such a traveller; but that made no difference. She had lived in the modern world for nearly eighteen years and had not begun to get used to It.
Yesterday she had gone up to Oxford. For years she had dreamed of going up to Oxford. She had convinced herself that it would be a place apart from the modern world. A haven of civilisation and intelligence. She pictured the dons in frock coats. Realistically, she would not have expected them to wear frock-coats, but her picture was stronger than reality. For she had needed her picture and had clung on to it as the only refuge of her troubled soul. When the world pressed in on her, or when her warm, gregarious little heart grew weary with the loneliness imposed upon it because she could not make terms with that world, she had whispered to herself:” shall be going up to Oxford. It will be alright when I get to Oxford.”
When she arrived she had first gone into the wrong room. The occupant. who was not there, had already decorated it with dreadful pictures of filthy male pop singers of some sort. Her heart had lurched. It was the first hint of disillusionment, but it carried with it all the rest. With a part of her being she continued to hope against hope, but her fragile shell of self-deception was already cracked beyond repair.
That night there was the “soirée”. How had she pictured the soiree when she had read about it in her freshers’ literature? As always her mind had taken care not to be too specific, but certainly there were hints of crinoline and echoes of Strauss waltzes.
It was a discothèque — or whatever they call them. By the time she arrived, carefully dressed in the gorgeous ball frock she had saved for in secret, she already knew in her heart of hearts that It would be. Never in her life had she attended a discothèque. Never in her life had she willingly subjected herself to the ghastly parody of music which now throbbed about her head. Some young men were twisting and turning with an enormous thing that looked like a huge piece of plastic tubing and seemed to be representing a snake. She did not look entirely out of place in her gown. She did not care. She turned at the door arid fled back to her room. She lay on her bed and cried herself to sleep and the next morning, awakening early, she went to the station and boarded a train to London. She had met nobody at Oxford and wished to meet nobody.
Why London? Who could say? London lay in her way home; but she was not going home. She did not know where she was going. There was nowhere to go. Nowhere to escape the insanity of the Pit. Her outer self did things, as outer selves will. Perdita hardly noticed them. Did she board ’buses and cross roads? Probably. She had no idea where she was going.
She reached the doorway of a church. It smelt cool and musty. She glanced about her at the cork noticeboard from which the assault of the modern world renewed itself in the form of smugly grooshy posters. Slick photographs and sly, weighted words like “justice” and “renewal”. One did not know what they meant — did not even read them — but one could feel that their ultimate meaning was the eradication of the last vestiges of tradition everywhere in the world. There are few spectacles more distasteful than that of a villain waxing righteous over his villainy. Perdita turned to go.
But she did not go. Perhaps it was the smell of stone and of years that enticed her. She pushed open the door and entered the half-light of the temple. Her own religious training had been vague. Her family did not go to church. She believed, in a nebulous sort of way, and said her prayers, though the rest of her family did not, because it seemed right to her to do so. It was not something she ever thought about. There was a statue of the Blessed Virgin before her, and there were some candles in a box. She deposited some newpence and took a candle. It seemed a curious thing to do — foreign and superstitious — but she needed to talk and nobody alive seemed to understand. She thought fleetingly of a priest or a vicar but then she thought of those posters and knew that it would be useless.
She lighted the candle and placed it in one of the holders at the base of the statue.“Mother Mary,” she said. “You understand. You must see how ugly and awful it all is, though nobody else seems to realise it. Oh, Mother Mary, please help me. All my dreams are broken and I feel I have no strength to go on. I feel I cannot bear another hour in this vast madhouse. Please help me, for if you don’t, who will?”
She bowed her head and closed her eyes. Tears welled up inside her, but she was past shedding them. And Mother Mary laid her hand upon Perdita’s shoulder with a touch more gentle than she had ever felt; and she said: “I shall help you. Rise up. Go back about your business. Be brave and help yourself. And I shall help you.”
And Perdita rose up and curtseyed deeply to that sentimental statue that had heard so many prayers; and she left that church, with her little candle burning; and, though her heart ached with a real and bodily ache, she felt brave.
“Go about my business’,” she thought. “Well, my only business is to go to Oxford, so I shall do that.”
Part of her was sceptical and accused her of inventing this sentimental nonsense to comfort herself. Part of her argued that she was inventing a new self-deceit to replace the one that had been shattered; but strangely it was only a very small part. She felt a deep confidence that she was being looked after.
Perdita found her way to the station and bought her ticket. She located the right platform (all these things were difficult to her at the best of times). She tried to ignore all the various degrees of modern silliness she saw walking about her. She had not left much time to spare. Her train was there and passengers were getting into it. She walked down its length, trying to find a nice, quiet carriage. Suddenly she stopped short. Her mouth went dry, her heart pounded violently. “This must be it,” she thought.
Before her stood a small group consisting of a woman of about forty-five in a full-length black coat trimmed with fur, her hair swept up beneath a wide-brimmed hat. One can wear practically anything without notice in London these days, but this woman looked so utterly Edwardian that she would have attracted stares even without the two girls she was accompanying. The girls were perhaps eighteen and twenty-two. Both had their hair closely bobbed, with small. tight curls about the forehead. Both looked as if they might have stepped from a fashion-plate of the 1930s. All three carried themselves with what was, by contrast with all about them, a startling erectness and composure. though there was, perhaps, the hint of a tear in the eyes of the older woman. The two girls boarded the train and stood talking through the window to the woman. Perdita entered the next carriage and sat down. In a few minutes the train departed and, when she was sure that the two girls were settled, Perdita moved into their carriage and sat opposite them.” ‘Be brave and help yourself’,” she repeated. She knew this must be it, but she hardly knew what to do.
She took stock of the carriage. She and the girls were alone but for one other passenger in the far corner; a funny little woman — really only a girl of the age of the elder of the two —who sat reading a large heavy book and continually twitching her nose like a rabbit. It seemed to be some sort of nervous tic. It did little for Perdita’s own nerves. She looked at the girls, trying not to stare; though it seemed it would hardly have mattered If she had stared. They seemed completely sealed in a bubble of their own and quite oblivious to anybody else. They both wore calf-length coats, one red and fur-trimmed, the other In a striking. diagonal, black-and-white stripe with large triangular pockets. The one with the red coat wore something like a shiny black silk tam-o-shanter, the other wore a neat, small-brimmed hat with a feather. One wore black gloves, the other white. They talked loudly and in clear, clipped voices.
“What a beastly crimp.”
“Utter and entire.”
“We could run away.”
They lapsed into momentary silence. The elder produced an ivory cigarette holder and fitted a cigarette into it with the studied nonchalance of one who does not often get the chance to do it. Perdita plunged in before she could have second thoughts.
“Please,” she said to the elder, “May I speak to you?” She wondered if that immaculately plucked and pencilled eyebrow would rise in disdain. It did not. Nothing happened. The girl lit her cigarette precisely as if she had heard nothing. It was the perfect snub.
But Perdita must not be stopped. She trod on her pride. “Please,” she said again, “May I speak to you?” This time the eyebrow moved just a fraction. The girl drew on her cigarette and exhaled a scented cloud of Turkish smoke.
“May I?” said Perdita again. The girl turned to her companion.
“Did you hear something?” she said.
“Oh, don’t,” said the other. “She seems quite desperate. Do let her speak.”
The elder girl turned to Perdita. “Speak, then,” she said resignedly.
It was not easy. Perdita had no real idea what she was to say. “I am going up to Oxford,” she said. “But I don’t want to because I can’t get along with the modern world at all. It’s all so ugly and horrible.”
“Fascinating,” said the girl in a tone which implied the reverse.
The younger girl looked at her more kindly. “We each have our burden to bear,” she said. “I am going to a stuffy old house with a woman I’ve never met and who thinks time stopped in 1914. I am going to be bullied by a dreadful old governess who has been specially selected to lick me into shape because I’m too much of a handful at home. Would you like that better?”
“Oh yes,” replied Perdita. “I think I should love It.”
The girl sat in silence for a moment, then asked, “Have you met anybody from your college?”
“Then — if you really mean it — we could change places. I’ll take up your place at Oxford and you” — she giggled — “you can go to my governess. You wouldn’t really want to, would you?”
“Yes,” said Perdita firmly. “I’ll do it. Let’s shake hands on it.”
“Done,” said the girl, grasping her hand. “And you’d better tell me your name — or rather my name.”
“Perdita,” said Perdita. “Perdita Carmody.”
“Sarah Pemberton,” said the other, pronouncing it Sah-ra’. “And this is my sister, Lucy. Now, what should we do next? We had better get off the train at the next stop. We shall have to get your hair cut.”
“Oh, bother, I wish I could come.” said Lucy.
“There’s only one place at Oxford,” said Sarah.
“Yes, but I could camp in your rooms for a bit. I’d tell fortunes the way Aunt Belinda did when they were down on their luck. She went a whizz as a psychic consultant,”
“Well, why don’t you?” said Perdita encouragingly.
“Because, my dear child, I already have a post. I am to be a governess to two dreadful brats. I shall be expected to discipline them and keep them in check when all the time I’d probably prefer to join their mischief. It’s a case of curing the wolf by making her a sheepdog. I shall be expected to be fearfully strict and I shall hate it, but what can one do?”
“Well, you could just not go. Disappear. People do.”
“No, no. It is all part of an elaborate system of exchanges. My sister’s place — or rather yours — depends on it, though I don’t suppose they would actually kick her out. And anyway——” The ‘anyway’ was not stated, but it was clear that while the sisters were game for a jink, they did not want to burn any boats. “If only I could find somebody to take my place.”
“I-I will t-t-take it, if y-y-you wi-wish.” They all looked round in astonishment, The speaker was the funny little woman in the corner of the carriage. She had looked up from her book, which she had evidently not been reading. Her small, black eyes were bright and glistening. Her nose was twitching ferociously.
In the ensuing silence, the woman got up and took the seat beside Perdita, facing the other two. “My-my n-name is Ja-Ja-Jane Somerton,” she said. “I have just f-f-f-f-finished my teaching p-p-p-practice and I am abou-about to take up a position in a small p-p-private schoo-school. I am n-not happy about it. One is not allowed to disci-discipline ch-children properly these days. They are 1-1-little say-savages. If it is tr—true that y-y-y-you are taking a teaching p-p-post where you are b-b-both al-low-lowed and expected to ex-exercise proper d-d-discipline, I-I shall be glad t-t-to take it in your stead. My school will ea-easily r-r-replace me and in any case I feel no ob-obli-obligation t-to these f-f-f-foo-foolish p-people.” Following this supreme vocal effort. her nose relapsed into an agony of twitching.
“There wont be a salary, you know,” said Lucy. “It isn’t that kind of job. Bonded service, you know. Board and L. Bit of pocket money. Dedication to the family. Terribly feudal.”
“Ver-very proper, t-t-t-too.”
“Well,” said Lucy, grasping her hand. “Done, then.”
The next two hours were busy ones. Perdita and Jane Somerton had their hair cut in exact copies of the styles of Sarah and Lucy (Perdita had to steel herself to this, for she was proud of her long. luxuriant hair, and although the sisters looked very striking, she did not feel the style was hers). They changed clothes In the powder room of a large hotel. The sisters showed their counterparts how to make themselves up and keep their stocking seams straight. They insisted on buying hats for themselves.
“There really isn’t any need,” said Perdita. “You’ll look more believable without hats.” But they could not contemplate being out of doors without hats. They also needed gloves. Sarah bought a beret to go with Perdita’s simple coat and skirt (how lucky, Perdita thought. that she had resisted all pressures to wear jeans. The whole scheme might have broken down if Sarah had had to contemplate wearing them). Lucy bought a tiny pill—box with a lace veil to go with Jane Somerton’s frilled blouse and navy skirt and jacket.
All the time each kept remembering fresh details about herself that her alter ego should know. “We must write letters telling each other our news,” said Sarah. “Then we can write letters home using the information and send them to each other to post on.” She took a positive delight in the niceties of deception.
Being about London with the Pemberton sisters was an education to Perdita. The ugliness of the modern world seemed hardly to affect her. She was within the bubble that enclosed them at all times. They scarcely saw the Pit at all. It was not real to them. It was hard to say exactly how they saw it. To some extent they did not fully understand it, and interpreted it in terms of their own world. So far as they could really see it. they seemed to place it at a distance, or in inverted commas. It was amusing because it was silly and vulgar and not real, like a circus or a pantomime. Or again, perhaps they were like old colonials, surrounded by the life of the natives, but never fully understanding it or thinking it to be serious and real in the way that their own life of dressing for dinner — albeit in the middle of the jungle — was serious and real. In fact they sometimes referred to modern people as “the natives”.
Perdita gathered something of the sisters’ background as they talked. They had never been to school, but had been taught by a governess in their own house. The Edwardian-looking lady was their mother. She wondered how they would react to actually living in the Pit. But perhaps they were not capable of really living in it.
Jane Somerton seemed to have a constant need to explain and excuse herself. “I sup-suppose you are w-w-w-wondering about my stut-stutter. I h-h-have n-not always had it. I spo-spoke very well as a ch-ch-child. But when I went at el-eleven to b-b-b-boarding school, well, it w-was very m-m-m-modern and lib-liberal. Chaotic and undis-disciplined. It just made me so very ner-ner-nerv-nervous that my s-stutter came on and I have nev-never been able to g-g-get ri-rid of it.” Perdita understood, Lucy and Sarah did not.
With the Pit neutralised, Perdita enjoyed herself more than she could remember for years. The sisters were wonderful fun, though Perdita was not sure that she actually liked them. They talked about hot music and the dullness of their elders in a way which did not seem to her to strike the right note.
Everyone was a little nervous. Each felt that her counterpart could have no real idea of what a dreadful life she was letting herself in for; and the timorous Jane Somerton was a constant source of anxiety, It was very difficult to imagine her going through with it. Every time her nose went into a violent spasm of twitching (which was often) they all thought she was about to back out of it.
She did not, however, and when she left the train at Lucy’s station an almost audible wave of relief ran through the carriage. The Pemberton sisters began to giggle.
“Imagine that funny little thing trying to deal with the Morville twins,” said Sarah.
“Do you know them?’ asked Perdita.
“Of course not,” said Lucy. “But we’ve heard all about them. They’ll massacre her.” She giggled again.
Sarah giggled too. “They’ll eat her for breakfast and ask if there’s kedgeree to follow.”
Cicely, Lady Devenish took afternoon tea, as always, at four o’clock.
“G . K. Chesterton,” she said, once wrote that people living in cities have a narrower experience of life than those living in the country. In a village one must mix with every type of person for there are so few to choose from. In the city one tends only to move among a like-minded minority which one has chosen for oneself.” She buttered a scone with the skill which a lesser person might lavish upon a work of art.
Miss Lindendorf adjusted the gold-rimmed monocle she occasionally affected in combination with a severely-cut country-tweed coat-and-skirt. It was dangerous to advance an opinion before this grande dame because it was apt to be instantly and with the greatest finesse, cut to pieces; but one could not let the conversation languish. “We live in the country,” she said, “yet are we not like Chesterton’s city-dwellers? Do we not move among a like-minded minority of our own choosing?”
“I think it is rather the reverse,” said Lady Devenish. “We move among the handful of civilised people left in the world, which is rather like living in a village. Civilisation is not a great deal to have in common with someone. Or rather it is too great a deal. It is like being human. It is too large to be a common interest. Yet we must mix, willy-nilly and often on intimate terms, with other people simply because they are civilised. With the real village being destroyed, we are the last true village-dwellers. We may travel the world, but we are born and we die without leaving the parish boundaries.
“Take the case of this Pemberton girl. I do not know her and I doubt if I shall like her, but because she is, figuratively speaking, the second cousin of the girl next door, I invite her into my house for an indefinite period.”
“We may like her,’ said Miss Pymm, the governess — a little hopefully.
“It is, I fear, to be doubted. From all accounts she is rebellious, deceitful and rather odd. Her mother writes that she once caught her talking to a Punk.”
“What on earth is a Punk?”
“I believe it is a young type who admires a singing group from the Merseyside called the Bootles.”
“Beetles, surely,” said Miss Lindendorf.
“Bootle is far more probable on geographical grounds. ‘Beetle’ is simply the way modern wireless announcers pronounce the word. You know how these solecisms pass into common usage.”
A maid entered. “Miss Pemberton has arrived, ma’am,” she said.
“Show her in, Tillie, show her in.”
Perdita was led by the crisply-uniformed maid into the presence of her hostess. She saw the small party seated in the French window. She felt nervous, certainly, but beneath her superficial nervousness was an overwhelming sense of relief, She was in the presence of sanity.
Miss Lindendorf rose as she entered the room. Her hostess spoke. “Miss Sarah Pemberton, this is Miss Di Culver, Miss Pym, your new governess, and I am Lady Devenish.”
Perdita curtsied, hoping it was the right thing to do. Miss Lindendorf kissed her hand. Se had a slight foreign accent. “I am charmed. It is not often I make the acquaintance of a girl so beautiful.” Perdita was nonplussed. “Why. Miss Lindendorf, I am sure you say that to every girl.”
“Indeed. How refreshing, then. when I know that I have not perjured myself by a comma.”
“Really, Miss Lindendorf,” said Lady Devenish. “Do you mean to turn the child’s head? Come here, child. Turn about. What do you think, Miss Pym? You have very nice hair, my child. You should never have cut it off.”
Perdita experienced a sharp pang. “I will grow it, ma’am,” she said.
“Good girl. Perhaps we shall get on better than I had hoped.’
There were so many things to get used to, yet all of them seemed solid and familiar. Of course a new house is always strange, but it was not as strange to her as the most familiar parts of the Pit. She adored her bedroom with its brass bedstead and faded prints. She was terrified by her first interview with Miss Pym, but it seemed to her a legitimate terror — almost a friendly terror compared wtth the faceless and chaotic terrors of the modern world.
“So you are Sarah Pemberton?’ said that towering figure in black bombasine.
“Sah-ra,’ corrected Perdita, less because she wished to imitate what she thought the real Sarah’s manner would have been than because she did not wish to tell an outright lie in that place.
Miss Pym lowered her spectacles. “That is your first piece of impertinence in this house and if you are wise, it will be your last. We are both aware of why you have been sent here. I wish to make a suggestion. I suggest that we both forget it. Let us put it out of our minds and make a new beginning. I shall not look at you in the light of the things I have been told, and you need not feel bound to act up to your past reputation. I think this will be easiest for all of us.
“Of course, if you prefer to have things otherwise, there are other means of dealing with the situation.” Perdita’s eyes strayed to the long, slender cane hanging from a hook on the schoolroom wall. Miss Pym’s tone was not harsh or threatening. It was reasonable, matter-of- fact and quietly confident. Her eyes were frank and unwavering, her mouth friendly but firm. Perdita liked her. “Well, my dear, which is it to be?”
Perdita smiled. “I shall do everything in my power to please you, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Mother, for bringing me here,” said Perdita fervently that night.
The next morning brought fresh explorations. Her luggage had been unpacked by a maid, and the drawers and wardrobe of her room were full of Sarah’s things. She loved the silk underwear and stockings, the striking dresses and coats. She felt glad about her ball frock. At least she had left Sarah one thing worth wearing.
She approached her lessons without trepidation. She had been to a good school and had worked hard for Oxford. She felt confident that she would be well above the standard expected of her and wondered whether she should not hold herself back a bit at first. She was quite wrong. Miss Pym expected a proficiency In Greek and Latin far beyond anything she had done at school. She sat her at a piano and asked her to show what she could do. Perdita had not touched a piano for years. She managed a rather jerky rendition of ‘Chopsticks’.
Miss Pym did not know quite what to make of the child. Outwardly she seemed cheerful, good-natured and eager to please; but this was in such marked contrast to what she had been led to expect that she could not help wondering whether her apparent lack of all the expected accomplishments was some form of practical joke. Her terrible deportment seemed suspiciously like calculated impudence, but she did respond very well to training.
It was a few weeks before she really felt she could trust the girl, but in the end she was convinced by her hard work and frank, friendly manner. She decided that her deficiencies were due to extreme idleness in the past and that, removed from her indulgent parents and the baneful influence of her elder sister, she had genuinely decided to reform. Even so, she did seem occasionally to act as if she had something to hide.
For her part, Perdita quickly found herself absorbed, heart and soul, into her new life. Her lessons with Miss Pym were a source of delight. She found the governess intelligent and amusing. She was quietly erudite in a surprising range of subjects and taught Perdita to understand things from a point of view that at last helped her to make some sense of the world. Her calm, unhesitant strictness and her insistence on many of the drier parts of education as a useful discipline for the soul seemed to Perdita refreshingly sane.
At first, Perdita took nursery tea with the children of the house. She liked them. They were lively, enthusistic and possessed of an innocence which one does not see in children today. Flora, the eldest, was fifteen but seemed in many ways — including physically — younger. She was delighted to have another girl In the house. She read Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott and her head was filled with romantic dreams. The two younger girls, Maisie and Estrella, were not old enough for such things, but they were genial company. Flora lent Perdita her books and they talked endlessly over the stories in idle hours by the nursery fire while the little ones were playing together or were abed.
Gradually, the rule which classed Perdita with the children and debarred her from taking dinner with the grown-ups was relaxed. The real reason for its existence had been Lady Devenish’s doubts as to whether she would be fit company, but it became clear that she was an asset to the table; charming. diffident, yet often unexpectedly amusing. When she was not there guests would enquire after her. She could not play, which was disappointing, but she was often called upon to read aloud, which she did in a clear, sweet voice with great depth of feeling and a fascinating range of expression. Even Flora, who was a confirmed solitary reader, sometimes asked Perdita to read a favourite passage aloud to her. Despite her increasingly frequent forays into the adult world of dining room and drawing room, Perdita remained a member of the nursery because Lady Devenish considered that she was good for the children and the children good for her.
On some afternoons Perdita undertook certain secretarial duties for Lady Devenish. who managed a number of business interests quietly but with great skill and, considering that she refused to give them more than two hours a day and often less, with great success. In this way, Perdita came to know her hostess and to realise why her children so adored her. Beneath her somewhat forbidding manner lay a soul both warm and very broad in its understanding of people and things.
So the weeks passed and the autumn days drew in. For longer and longer periods Perdita forgot altogether that she was there under false pretences. She answered to ‘Sarah’ so naturally that she hardly recalled that it was not her name. At first she exchanged regular letters with the real Sarah, according to their plan, but after a short time Sarah’s correspondence petered out. Perdita was not surprised. Sarah had not seemed like the sort of girl who makes a dutiful correspondent. At any rate, no harm seemed to come of it and it was not until late November that the blow fell.
“Are you looking forward to this afternoon, my dear?” asked Miss Pym in the schoolroom one frosty morning.
“Has Lady Devenish not told you? Pauline Reid arrives this afternoon.”
“Try not to be so vague, child. You are making such good progress elsewhere. It is your most persistent bad habit. Pauline Reid. Nurserymaid and general maidservant. You have known her since you were knee-high to a mushroom. You may recall that she left your mother’s service at the same time you left home because there would not be so much to do with you and your sister gone. She spent some time helping out at the house of one of your mother’s friends and now she is coming here for a spell. All part of the exchange.I thought you would be pleased to see her again.”
Whether or not one’s blood can really run cold I do not know. Certainly one’s heart cannot miss a beat. But anyone who pours scorn on these expressions from the point of view of prosaic physiology must have led a life enviably free from nervous shock. They describe precisely the sensations which Perdita felt at this moment.
The morning passed in a state of numb bewilderment. The game was up. In a few hours she would be exposed. It seemed foolish simply to wait and passively allow the event to overtake her, but she could think of nothing else to do. At two-thirty she was invited to the parlour to meet her old nurserymaid. Her throat felt as if she had been trying to swallow marbles and her stomach felt as if she had succeeded.
The maid, still in her travelling clothes, stood up to greet her. She was younger than Perdita had expected, perhaps thirty-five. She was slight and bird-like and when she saw Perdita she just stood and stared, her eyes wide not merely with surprise, but with something that looked like terror. She did not move, nor did she speak. She seemed frozen alive. After what seemed like minutes, Perdita was seized by a wild impulse to brazen it out. She took the little servant in her arms and hugged her like an old comrade and kissed her. She felt the stiff body relax in her arms and at last Pauline Reid found a voice.
“Oh, Miss Sarah, how luvverly to see you again.” And they both burst into tears.
Lady Devenish had been seated in such a position that she could not have seen the queer expression on Pauline’s face, yet there seemed to be a slightly odd tone in her voice as she said, “Well, perhaps I shall leave you in peace to talk over old times.”
As soon as she had left the room the servant began to speak.
“Oh, thank you, Miss Sarah. Thank you for not giving me away.”
“What in the world is going on?” asked Perdita, as much of herself as of Pauline.
“Oh, I can explain, Miss. All I want is a chance to explain. My name’s Rosie Maggins, you see, and I used to work in a motorway caffy. Flippin’ rotten it was too, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so, I lived by mysewf in a bedsit, which weren’t much better. Anyway, a bit under two months ago I was on this train an’ I got talking with this girl what turned out to be your Pauline Reid. She was proper devoted to you an’ your sister, she was, and she hated being parted. Anyway, she told me how what she really wanted to do if she couldn’t be with you two was to go back to her old mistress what had said as how she’d always have a place for ’er . only she didn’t Like to let your mother down over the exchange. Anyway she was proper broke up and cryin’ and all.
“Well anyway. to cut a long story short, I said as ‘ow I wouldn’t mind taking her place at the new house she was goin’ to an’ she said there wouldn’t be no wages or nuthink an’ I said ‘ow I was more concerned about having a proper place where I belonged. So I did take her place an’ she went back to ’er old mistress. And I’ve been being her ever since. And I do like the life an’ I really fit in and I couldn’t bear goin’ back to that bedsit again and...”
She was cut short by the opening of the door. Lady Devenish walked in, looking worried and thoughtful, like one who has come uneasily to a decision.
“I am sorry to interrupt this ‘reunion’, but I am afraid, ‘Pauline’, that I must ask you to tell me who you really are.”
For a second time Rosie Maggins told her story. Lady Devenish listened, not unkindly. “Go to your room, Rosie,” she said. “I shall have to think things over.”
Suddenly, Rosle turned to Perdita. “But, Miss. you couldn’t have given me away.”
Lady Devenish answered. “She did not. Not, at any rate, In the way you had feared, Really, you gave yourself away. if you had been Pauline Reid you would have known that this girl is not Sarah Pemberton. Now, go to your room.”
Rosie left, leaving the other two together in an odd silence which was broken at Last by Perdita.
“Then—— you know?”
“The Pemberton sisters returned to their mother over five weeks ago.”
“So you have known since then,”
“For certain, yes; though I suspected it before.”
“Because of my change of character?”
“That — and this.” Lady Devenish took Perdita’s hand and turned it over, revealing the small black digital watch which Perdita had worn for so long that she was scarcely aware of it. It was obviously as out of place on Sarah Pemberton, as it was on her new self.
“What are you going to do about it?”
Lady Devenish smiled. “Buy you a decent silver one, I suppose.”
She tightened her grip reassuringly on Perdita’s arm.
“But why? Why did you keep me here and say nothing?’
“There is a reason, though perhaps you will think it an odd one. The night before you arrived I had a dream. I saw the Blessed Virgin with a baby in her arms, and she gave the baby to me, and I knew that I was to took after it. At the time I thought It meant Sarah. and then, when it appeared that you were not Sarah, I knew that it meant you.”
They sat in silence for some minutes, each thinking her own thoughts. A trace of anxiety crossed Perdita’s face. “You wouldn’t ever send me back there again?”
“What about Rosie?”
“In for a penny, in for a pound. I suppose.”
“And the Pemberton girls: what happened to them?”
‘Nothing, really. They stayed at Oxford for a time. Found it full of grooshers and gloops, as they elegantly phrased it and as anyone could have told them they would. Found that nobody appreciated hot music but listened to the sort of noise that drives one out of pubs. Went home.
“lt would make a fitting end to the story to say that they were profoundly chastened and went home in the spirit of Prodigal Daughters; but in fact they were only profoundly bored and went home in the spirit of Dissatisfied Customers.
“However, it would appear that they have had their come-uppance. Their mother has sent them to study under the most fearsome young dragon of a governess who has had the most extraordinary effect in chastening their spirits and reducing them to meekness. They are already beginning to enter the stage of being better people and much happier for it.
“The governess was recommended because of her success in taming the dreadful Morville twins. Come to think of it, you may know her. Miss Somerton, the girl who took the place of Lucy Pemberton.”
“Not Jane Somerton!” exclaimed Perdita. That funny little thing with the, twitch and the terrible stutter?”
“A twitch and a stutter?” Lady Devenish paused to think, “I am sure Miss Morville would have mentioned that in one of her letters, she is such a gossip. But I do not recall—— Oh yes, she did mention some rather bad nervous mannerisms, but she put them down to the disturbance of taking up a new post. As soon as she was able to get to grips with her new charges, they quite vanished.”
See a whole book by Miss Falconer and the Silver Vixen, authorettes of Perdita