Joan took two letters from her jacket pocket; one was from Elizabeth, the other from her mother. Aunt Ann had come to the rescue in the end, and Joan and Milly had been sent to the palace during Mrs Ogden’s absence in London; they had been there now for three weeks. There was peace up here in the large, airy bedroom; peace from her dominating, patronizing aunt, peace from the kind, but talkative bishop.
She looked at the letters, undecided as to which to open first. Her fingers itched to open Elizabeth’s, but she put it resolutely aside. Mrs. Ogden wrote from the family hotel in South Kensington where she had taken up her abode.
‘My own darling Joan’, she began. ‘At last I hear from you; I had begun to fear that you must be ill. Surely a postcard every day would not be too much trouble for you to send? If only you knew how I watch and wait for news, you would be more regular in writing, my darling. As for me, I write this from my bed. I am utterly worn out and suppose that my general condition is accountable for my having caught a cold which has gone down on to my chest. The doctor says I must be really careful, and my heart has been troubling me again lately, especially at night when I try to sleep on my left side. I have had the strangest sensation in my throat and all down my left arm. However, I must get up as soon as I feel able to stand, as your poor father has no one else to look after him. I do not myself think the nurses are very kind or the food at all good at the Nursing Home; I spoke to the matron about it just before I went to bed, she is an odious person and was inclined to be offensive. This hotel is very uncomfortable, my bed hard and unsympathetic in the extreme, and the servants far from attentive. I rang my bell six times yesterday before anybody came near me. I shall have to complain. I cannot attempt to eat their eggs, which is very trying as I am kept on a light diet. Your father varies from day to day. The doctor assures me that he is quite satisfied with his progress, but I think the cure altogether too severe. Oh! my Joan, how cruel it seems that there was not enough money for you to come to London with me. I feel that if only I could have you to talk things over with, I could bear it so much better. I am such a child in moments of anxiety, and my loneliness is terrible; I sit alone all the evenings and think of you and of how much I need you — as never before! I feel utterly lost; your poor, little mother in this big, big city, and her Joan so far away and probably not thinking of her mother at all, probably forgetting —’
‘Oh, I can’t read any more now!’ Joan thought desperately. ‘It’s always the same, she’s never contented, and always sees the darkest side of things, and I know there’s nothing really wrong with her heart or her chest!’
Her poor mother, so small and so inadequate! Why did her mother love her so much? She oughtn’t to love her so much; it was all wrong. Or if the love was there, then it ought to be a patient, waiting, unchanging love; the kind that went with making up the fire and sitting behind the tea-tray awaiting your return. The love that wrote and told you that you were expected home for Christmas, and that when you arrived your favourite pudding would be there to greet you. Yes, that was the ideal mother-love; it never waned, but it never exacted. It was a beautiful thing, all of one restful colour. It belonged to rooms full of old furniture and bowls of potpourri; it went with gentle, blue-veined hands and a soft, old voice. It was a love that kissed you quietly on both cheeks, too sure of itself to need undue demonstration. She sighed, and thrusting the letter away, opened Elizabeth’s. She smiled a little as she saw the small, neat handwriting. Elizabeth always left a margin down one side of the paper.
‘Well, Joan, I have been waiting to answer your last letter until I had something of interest to write about. Will you be surprised to hear that I have been up to London? Do you remember my telling you about a friend of mine at Cambridge, Jane Carruthers? Well, I heard from her the other day after having lost sight of her for ages. She has some job or another at the Royal College of Science and lives in London permanently now, and as in her letter she asked me to look her up, I struck while the iron was hot and went straight off, via a cheap excursion.
‘But it’s really about her service flat that I want to tell you. She lives in a large building called “Working Women’s Flats” or “Gentlewomen’s Dwellings”, I can’t remember which, but I prefer the former, in a street just off one of those dignified old squares in Bloomsbury. The street itself is not dignified, but if you walk just to the end of it you are surrounded at once by wonderful Georgian houses with spreading fanlights and link extinguishers and wide shallow front-door steps. They are the most quietly friendly houses in the world, Joan; a little reserved, but then we should like them all the better for that.
‘Jane’s flat is on the fourth floor, so that instead of seeing the undignified street you catch a glimpse of the trees in the square, and of course there are plenty of roofs and chimney-pots, always interesting things, or so I think. Even in London the roofs have character. It’s the most delightful little flat imaginable, two bedrooms with a study in between. She has made it very homey with books and brown walls, and she tells me that it’s cheap as rents go in London; only it’s difficult to get in there at all.
‘Oh, Joan, it’s the very place for you and me. I felt it the moment I set foot inside the front door; don’t think me an idiot, but I felt excited, I felt about fifteen. I could see us established in a flat like Jane’s. The whole time I was trying to discuss tea and cakes I found myself planning a new arrangement of Jane’s bookshelves, the better to hold your books and mine — I should have put the writing-table in the other corner of the room too. I murmured something to this effect just as Jane was expounding some new scientific theory she has hit upon; she looked a little surprised and rather pained, I thought.
‘I asked her about my chances of finding a job in London. I thought I might as well, as it will be very necessary, and she says she thinks that I ought to be able to get quite a decently paid post, with my fairly good Cambridge record.
‘And now for a confession. I have put my name down for one of the flats. I saw the agent and he says that there’s a long waiting list, but we can afford to wait for nearly three years, you and I, and if one is available before that, we must beg, borrow or steal in order to secure it. We might buy some odds and ends of furniture on the hire system and let the place furnished until we want it for ourselves. Jane says the flats let like wildfire, but I think I should try to live there while you were at Cambridge. I’m sure I could make both ends meet, and then you could come there for part of your vacations. But if that were not possible it wouldn’t matter much for I could always put up at Ralph’s.
‘I am beginning to laugh all by myself as I write, for I can see your astonished face. Oh, yes, I know, I have acted on impulse, but it’s glorious to be reckless of consequences sometimes, and then think how unSeabournish I have been. Can you hear Ralph’s consternation if I told him? — which I shan’t. I think we will keep it as a secret between us, at all events for the present. Never cross a Seabourne bridge until you come to it.
‘Joan, I am missing you.’
Joan folded the letter and sat staring in front of her. So it had really come very near; her freedom, her life with Elizabeth. The flat would have a study with shelves for their books; they would go out of it every morning to jostle with crowds, to work and grow tired; and come back to it every evening to talk, study, or perhaps to rest. They would cook their own supper, or sometimes go out to one of the little Italian restaurants that Richard had told her about, queer little restaurants with sanded floors and coarse linen table-cloths. Sometimes, when they could afford it, they would go to cheap seats at the theatre or to the gallery at Covent Garden, and afterwards find their way home in the ‘bus, or the Underground, discussing what they had seen and heard. They would unlock their front door with their own latch-key and hang up their coats in their own front hall; then they would laugh and joke together over the old days in Seabourne, which, by then, would seem very far away.
‘Joan!’ came her aunt’s voice with a note of irritation; ‘Joan, I asked you to do those flowers for the drawing-room. Have you forgotten?’
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:02