The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter XVII

The District-Visitor in Palmyra Square

During the last fortnight a new figure had begun to appear in Palmyra Square. I do not know if Macgillivray’s watchers reported its presence, for I saw none of their reports, but they must have been cognisant of it, unless they spent all their time in the nearest public-house. It was a district-visitor of the familiar type — a woman approaching middle age, presumably a spinster, who wore a plain black dress and, though the weather was warm, a cheap fur round her neck, and carried a rather old black silk satchel. Her figure was good, and had still a suggestion of youth, but her hair, which was dressed very flat and tight and coiled behind in an unfashionable bun, seemed — the little that was seen of it — to be sprinkled with grey. She was dowdy, and yet not altogether dowdy, for there was a certain faded elegance in her air, and an observer might have noted that she walked well. Besides the black satchel she carried usually a sheaf of papers, and invariably and in all weathers a cheap badly-rolled umbrella.

She visited at the doctor’s house with the brass plate, and the music-teacher’s, and at the various lodging-houses. She was attached, it appeared, to the big church of St. Jude’s a quarter of a mile off, which had just got a new and energetic vicar. She was full of enthusiasm for her vicar, praised his earnestness and his eloquence, and dwelt especially, after the way of elderly maiden ladies, on the charm of his youth. She was also very ready to speak of herself, and eager to explain that her work was voluntary — she was a gentlewoman of modest but independent means, and had rooms in Hampstead, and her father had been a clergyman at Eastbourne. Very full of her family she was to those who would hear her. There was a gentle simplicity about her manners, and an absence of all patronage, which attracted people and made them willing to listen to her when they would have shut the door on another, for the inhabitants of Palmyra Square are not a courteous or patient or religious folk.

Her aim was to enlist the overworked general servants of the Square in some of the organisations of St. Jude’s. There were all kinds of activities in that enlightened church — choral societies, and mothers’ meetings, and country holiday clubs, and classes for adult education. She would hand out sheaves of literature about the Girls’ Friendly Society, and the Mothers’ Union, and such-like, and try to secure a promise of attendance at some of the St. Jude’s functions. I do not think she had much success at the doctor’s and the music-teacher’s, though she regularly distributed her literature there. The wretched little maids were too downtrodden and harassed to do more than listen dully on the doorstep and say “Yes’m.” Nor was she allowed to see the mistresses, except one of the lodging-house keepers, who was a Primitive Methodist and considered St. Jude’s a device of Satan. But she had better fortune with the maid at No. 4.

The girl belonged to a village in Kent, and the district-visitor, it seemed, had been asked to look her up by the rector of her old parish. She was a large flat-faced young woman, slow of speech, heavy of movement, and suspicious of nature. At first she greeted the district-visitor coldly, but thawed at the mention of familiar names and accepted a copy of the St. Jude’s Magazine. Two days later, when on her afternoon out, she met the district-visitor and consented to walk a little way with her. Now the girl’s hobby was dress, and her taste was better than most of her class and aspired to higher things. She had a new hat which her companion admired, but she confessed that she was not quite satisfied with it. The district-visitor revealed a knowledge of fashions which one would have scarcely augured from her own sombre clothes. She pointed out where the trimming was wrong, and might easily be improved, and the girl — her name was Elsie Outhwaite — agreed. “I could put it right for you in ten minutes,” she was told. “Perhaps you would let me come and see you when you have a spare half-hour, and we could do it together. I’m rather clever at hats, and used to help my sisters.”

The ice was broken and the aloof Miss Outhwaite became confidential. She liked her place, had no cause to complain, received good wages, and above all was not fussed. “I minds my own business, and Madame minds ‘ers,” she said. Madame was a foreigner, and had her queer ways, but had also her good points. She did not interfere unnecessarily, and was not mean. There were handsome presents at Christmas, and every now and then the house would be shut up and Miss Outhwaite returned to Kent on generous board wages. It was not a hard billet, though of course there were a lot of visitors, Madame’s clients. “She’s a massoose, you know, but very respectable.” When asked if there were no other inmates of the house she became reticent. “Not what you would call reg’lar part of the family,” she admitted. “There’s an old lady, Madame’s aunt, that stops with us a but, but I don’t see much of ‘er. Madame attends to ‘er ‘erself, and she ‘as her private room. And of course there’s . . . ” Miss Outhwaite seemed suddenly to recollect something, and changed the subject.

The district-visitor professed a desire to make Madame’s acquaintance, but was not encouraged. “She’s not the sort for the likes of you. She don’t ‘old with churches and God and such-like — I’ve ‘eard ‘er say so. You won’t be getting ‘er near St. Jude’s, miss.”

“But if she is so clever and nice I would like to meet her. She could advise me about some of the difficult questions in this big parish. Perhaps she would help with our Country Holidays.”

Miss Outhwaite primmed her lips and didn’t think so. “You’ve got to be ill and nervy for Madame to have an interest in you. I’ll take in your name if you like, but I expect Madame won’t be at ‘ome to you.”

It was eventually arranged that the district-visitor should call at No. 4 the following afternoon and bring the materials for the reconstructed hat. She duly presented herself, but was warned away by a flustered Miss Outhwaite. “We’re that busy today I ‘aven’t a minute to myself.” Sunday was suggested, but it appeared that that was the day when the district-visitor was fully occupied, so a provisional appointment was made for the next Tuesday evening.

This time all went well. Madame was out, and the district-visitor spent a profitable hour in Miss Outhwaite’s room. Her nimble fingers soon turned the hat, purchased in Queen’s Crescent for ten and sixpence, into a distant imitation of a costlier mode. She displayed an innocent interest in the household, and asked many questions which Miss Outhwaite, now in the best of tempers, answered readily. She was told of Madame’s habits, her very occasional shortness of temper, her love of every tongue but English. “The worst of them furriners,” said Miss Outhwaite, “is that you can’t never be sure what they thinks of you. Half the time I’m with Madame and her aunt they’re talking some ‘eathen language.”

As she departed the district-visitor was given a sketch of the topography of the house about which she showed an unexpected curiosity. Before she left there was a slight contretemps. Madame’s latch-key was heard in the door and Miss Outhwaite had a moment of panic. “Here, miss, I’ll let you out through the kitchen,” she whispered. But her visitor showed no embarrassment. “I’d like to meet Madame Breda,” she declared. “This is a good chance.”

Madame’s plump dark face showed surprise, and possibly annoyance, as she observed the two. Miss Outhwaite hastened to explain the situation with a speed which revealed nervousness. “This is a lady from St. Jude’s, Madame,” she said. “She comes ’ere districk-visiting and she knows the folk in Radhurst, where I comes from, so I made bold to ask her in.”

“I am very glad to meet you, Madame Breda,” said the district-visitor. “I hope you don’t mind my calling on Elsie Outhwaite. I want her to help in our Girls’ Friendly Society work.”

“You have been here before, I think,” was the reply in a sufficiently civil tone. “I have seen you in the Square sometimes. There is no objection on my part to Outhwaite’s attending your meetings, but I warn you that she has very little free time.” The woman was a foreigner, no doubt, but on this occasion her English showed little trace of accent.

“That is very good of you. I should have asked your permission first, but you were unfortunately not at home when I called, and Elsie and I made friends by accident. I hope you will let me come again.”

As the visitor descended the steps and passed through the bright green gate into the gathering dusk of the Square, Madame Breda watched her contemplatively from one of the windows.

The lady came again four days later — it must, I think, have been the 29th of May. Miss Outhwaite, when she opened the door, looked flustered. “I can’t talk to you to-night, miss. Madame’s orders is that when you next came you was to be shown in to her room.”

“How very kind of her!” said the lady. “I should greatly enjoy a talk with her. And, Elsie — I’ve got such a nice present for you — a hat which a friend gave me and which is too young — really too young — for me to wear. I’m going to give it you, if you’ll accept it. I’ll bring it in a day or two.”

The district-visitor was shown into the large room on the right-hand side of the hall where Madame received her patients. There was no one there except a queer-looking little girl in a linen smock, who beckoned her to follow to the folding-doors which divided the apartment from the other at the back. The lady did a strange thing, for she picked up the little girl, held her a second in her arms, and kissed her — after the emotional habit of the childless dévote. Then she passed through the folding-doors.

It was an odd apartment in which she found herself — much larger than could have been guessed from the look of the house, and, though the night was warm, there was a fire lit, a smouldering fire which gave off a fine blue smoke. Madame Breda was there, dressed in a low-cut gown as if she had been dining out, and looking handsome and dark and very foreign in the light of the shaded lamps. In an armchair by the hearth sat a wonderful old lady, with a thing like a mantilla over her snow-white hair. It was a room so unlike anything in her narrow experience that the newcomer stood hesitating as the folding-doors shut behind her.

“Oh, Madame Breda, it is so very kind of you to see me,” she faltered.

“I do not know your name,” Madame said, and then she did a curious thing, for she lifted a lamp and held it in the visitor’s face, scrutinising every line of her shabby figure.

“Clarke — Agnes Clarke. I am the eldest of three sisters — the other two are married — you may have heard of my father — he wrote some beautiful hymns, and edited —”

“How old are you?” Madame broke in, still holding up the lamp.

The district-visitor gave a small nervous laugh. “Oh, I am not so very old — just over forty — well, to be quite truthful, nearly forty-seven. I feel so young sometimes that I cannot believe it, and then — at other times — when I am tired — I feel a hundred. Alas! I have many useless years behind me. But then we all have, don’t you think? The great thing is to be resolved to make the most of every hour that remains to us. Mr. Empson at St. Jude’s preached such a beautiful sermon last Sunday about that. He said we must give every unforgiving minute its sixty seconds’ worth of distance run — I think he was quoting poetry. It is terrible to think of unforgiving minutes.”

Madame did not appear to be listening. She said something to the older lady in a foreign tongue.

“May I sit down, please?” the visitor asked. “I have been walking a good deal today.”

Madame waved her away from the chair she seemed about to take. “You will sit there, if you please,” she said, pointing to a low couch beside the old woman.

The visitor was obviously embarrassed. She sat down on the edge of the couch, a faded nervous figure compared to the two masterful personages, and her fingers played uneasily with the handle of her satchel.

“Why do you come to this house?” Madame asked, and her tone was almost menacing. “We have nothing to do with your church.”

“Oh, but you live in the parish, and it’s such a large and difficult parish, and we want help from everyone. You cannot imagine how horrible some of the slums are — what bitter poverty in these bad times — and the worn-out mothers and the poor little neglected children. We are trying to make it a brighter place.”

“Do you want money?”

“We always want money.” The district-visitor’s face wore an ingratiating smile. “But we want chiefly personal service. Mr. Empson always says that one little bit of personal service is better than a large subscription — better for the souls of the giver and the receiver.”

“What do you expect to get from Outhwaite?”

“She is a young girl from a country village and alone in London. She is a good girl, I think, and I want to give her friends and innocent amusement. And I want her help too in our work.”

The visitor started, for she found the hand of the old woman on her arm. The long fingers were running down it and pressing it. Hitherto the owner of the hand had not spoken, but now she said:

“This is the arm of a young woman. She has lied about her age. No woman of forty-seven ever had such an arm.”

The soft passage of the fingers had suddenly become a grip of steel, and the visitor cried out.

“Oh, please, please, you are hurting me. . . . I do not tell lies. I am proud of my figure — just a little. It is like my mother’s, and she was so pretty. But oh! I am not young. I wish I was. I’m afraid I’m quite old when you see me by daylight.”

The grip had relaxed, and the visitor moved along the couch to be out of its reach. She had begun to cry in a helpless silly way, as if she were frightened. The two other women spoke to each other in a strange tongue, and then Madame said:

“I will not have you come here. I will not have you meddle with my servants. I do not care a fig for your church. If you come here again you will repent it.”

Her tone was harsh, and the visitor looked as if her tears would begin again. Her discomposure had deprived her of the faded grace which had been in her air before, and she was now a pathetic and flimsy creature, like some elderly governess pleading against dismissal.

“You are cruel,” she sighed. “I am so sorry if I have done anything wrong, but I meant it for the best. I thought that you might help me, for Elsie said you were clever and kind. Won’t you think of poor Elsie? She is so young and far from her people. Mayn’t she come to St. Jude’s sometimes?”

“Outhwaite has her duties at home, and so I dare say have you, if truth was spoken. Bah! I have no patience with restless English old maids. They say an Englishman’s house is his castle, and yet there is a plague of barren virgins always buzzing round it in the name of religion and philanthropy. Listen to me. I will not have you in this house. I will not have you talking to Outhwaite. I will not have an idle woman spying on my private affairs.”

The visitor dabbed her eyes with a wisp of handkerchief. The old woman had stretched out her hand again and would have laid it on her breast, but she had started up violently. She seemed to be in a mood between distress and fear. She swallowed hard before her voice came, and then it quavered.

“I think I had better go. You have wounded me very deeply. I know I’m not clever, but I try so hard . . . and . . . and — it pains me to be misunderstood. I am afraid I have been tactless, so please forgive me . . . I won’t come again . . . I’ll pray that your hearts may some day be softened.”

She seemed to make an effort to regain composure, and with a final dab at her eyes smiled shakily at the unrelenting Madame, who had touched an electric bell. She closed the folding-doors gently behind her, like a repentant child who has been sent to bed. The front room was in darkness, but there was a light in the hall where Miss Outhwaite waited to show her out.

At the front door the district-visitor had recovered herself.

“Elsie,” she whispered, “Madame Breda does not want me to come again. But I must give you the hat I promised you. I’ll have it ready by Thursday night. I’m afraid I may be rather late — after eleven perhaps — but don’t go to bed till I come. I’ll go round to the back door. It’s such a smart pretty hat. I know you’ll love it.”

Once in the Square she looked sharply about her, cast a glance back at No. 4, and then walked away briskly. There was a man lounging at the corner to whom she spoke; he nodded and touched his hat, and a big motor car, which had been waiting in the shadows on the other side, drew up at the kerb. It seemed a strange conveyance for the district-visitor, but she entered it as if she were used to it, and when it moved off it was not in the direction of her rooms in Hampstead.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32