The Interrupted Reign of Mrs. Linton-Ward
The Interrupted Reign of Mrs. Linton-Ward
By E. R. PUNSHON
MOST people regard a London suburban boarding-house as but a cheerless and chilly abode, but Mrs. Linton-Ward gazed on hers with real affection as she approached it this evening on her return from the City. Indeed, she felt for it much more affection and interest than she had always experienced towards her own home during the life of that excellent but somewhat dull personality, the late Mr. Linton-Ward.
But now on her return to it she always felt a sense of real home-coming. It had become for her the centre of so much that was fresh and interesting and exciting. Like Africa, from it there proceeded always something new, and no wonder, considering that the other occupants of the house consisted of some eight or ten young men, all from twenty to twenty-five years of age, and all possessing boisterous health and spirits, and to all of whom she felt, collectively and individually, like a mother, or, at any rate, like an older and wiser and infinitely more experienced sister.
Insensibly her step quickened and her expression brightened as she drew near. Her day in the City had been trying. She occupied the generally not too exacting post of head of the typing room of the Oxford Patent Polish Company, with twenty girls under her, and when one has been with twenty girls all the long day, the company of eight or ten young men falls to be appreciated. Of course, they were very nice girls, and she got on very well with them, though they sometimes a little less well with her; but still, at their best they remained girls, and twenty of them at that. Not that this made her any the less grateful to her brother-in-law, chairman of the Company, who had secured her the post, but then he, too, to-day had been trying. The other directors wanted to appoint as sales representative in Paris a young man of whom the chairman did not approve, and he had been unable to suggest a satisfactory alternative. Consequently his temper had suffered—so had the staff.
But now the worries and trials of the day were forgotten as she ran up the steps leading to the front door. There would be before her a busy and interesting evening. The boys would have need of her in a score of different ways, and in helping them she would be able to feel, too, that she was guiding them and moulding them.
"A woman's influence," she thought, "they need it."
And they were so frank with her, so confiding; they told her all about everything; there was not one of them who had a secret from her. She liked it when they came timidly to tell her things. She liked it when they came shyly to her at the last moment—it was awful cheek, they knew, but a button had just come off the only clean shirt they had, and would she? She would. She liked it when they were frivolous, and she found herself participating, protestant but effective, for she was of hefty build, in some boisterous rag. She liked it still more when they came to her, as they sometimes did, with their love affairs, and it was her task to pour balm on their frequently lacerated hearts. She liked, in fact, her general rôle of guardian angel to the ten, and on their side they said she was a jolly good sport and the real stuff, and that gratified her immensely. Besides, as the late Mr. Linton-Ward had been, not too successfully, in the motor business, she could talk motor quite intelligently, and was even able to offer sound advice and criticism on difficult problems connected with that pursuit which now has solved the age-long problem of the aim of man, by the simple reply, to mote.
And when, as happened on an average once a week or so, one of them was in a scrape with the authorities of the house because he had upset his water-jug in the middle of his bedroom floor, or was a little more than usual behind with his bill, or had come home at two in the morning with less precaution of silence than those small hours demand, to whom but to Mrs. Linton-Ward did it fall to smooth the troubled waters?
To-night in especial she knew she would have a busy time. Johnny Gilroy was going out to a dance, and he would probably discover at the last moment that he had no clean collar—he seldom had—and he would certainly be unable to tie his bow. But Mrs. Linton-Ward kept by her a supply of clean collars for the use of hard-pressed young men, and she was an expert at tying dress bows. Then Dicky King was desperately in love with the senior typist in his office, and she had just become engaged to the manager. Dicky had therefore a broken heart, and it would be her task after dinner—she knew by experience, for it had happened before—to kindle afresh in his darkened soul a new light of faith in human nature. Then Will Wickham would almost certainly—this also had happened before—be unable this week to meet both his bill and the instalment due on his motor-cycle, and since necessities like motor-cycles must come before mere accessories like board and lodging, most likely it would be her task to placate the landlady. Then little Alf Wilson would want her to look over his French composition—he was quite good at French, but she had lived in Paris, and spoke French like a native—and between dear young Bobby Abel and herself was the closest bond of all, for he wrote poetry, and she let him read it to her while she rested with closed eyes in the twilight and murmured how sweet it was. Odd how different men were, she mused, for her dominion over Charlie Simpson had been secured by teaching him the right way to eat grape-fruit and inducting him into the mysteries of the chafing-dish. And very likely one or other of the other boys would want the help, the advice, or the simple friendly intercourse she was always ready to give them, thus forming and moulding them and leading them to higher things, just as a mother or, rather, a wiser and infinitely more experienced elder sister might have done, had she possessed the tact and skill of Mrs. Linton-Ward.
"A woman's influence …" she mused again, as she entered the hall.
There she came face to face with Johnny Gilroy, hurrying towards the door, his collar perfectly clean, his dress bow tied by the hand of a true artist.
"I'm just off," he said to her beamingly. "Never been ready in such good time before. My word!"
He vanished, leaving her standing gazing incredulously after him, as though she had seen a vision and a portent, as indeed she had. It was, in fact, inconceivable. And she had actually lingered a trifle—the merest trifle—on her way home, so that he might be in a suitable state of agitation when she arrived, and suitably grateful for her assistance, and now he had departed, punctual and smart, just as if she did not even exist.
It was a blow of which the mystery heightened the effect, and as she stood and puzzled, vaguely afraid, she heard a low continuous murmur coming from the dining-room. She listened—she could not help. It was—yes, it was her favourite, dear young Bobby Abel, and he was sitting there in the twilight, reading his poems aloud. No doubt someone was listening with closed eyes, someone who would presently murmur: "How sweet!"
It was too much for her. She was a woman of action. She pushed open the door and called brightly: "Hullo! Anyone there?"
The sound of the reading ceased. Bobby Abel appeared, carrying in his hand one of those rolls of MS. she knew so well.
"Oh, good evening," he said. He held up the MS. "I'm just going to post this," he said. "Someone's been telling me the magazines ought to jump at it. Thought I would try, anyhow."
He laughed nervously. He ran up the stairs. He had not even offered to read her so much as one line. She looked thoughtful and followed him upstairs. Why, she had been keeping that in reserve—the encouragement to offer his work to editors, for which she knew well he pined, but which she thought best to hold back a while. It was to have been the tit-bit of their private chats, and someone else had been beforehand. Who?
She reached her room without further adventure, thoughtfully removed her outdoor things, and was busy effacing all signs of the toils and labours of the day, when she heard familiar sounds of scuffling on the landing outside.
"A rag starting," she thought smilingly. "Those dreadful boys! I must stop it."
The general procedure was for her to appear when it was at its height, to begin by a protest, and to be drawn into vigorous participation, and she was about to sally forth as usual, when the sounds of scuffling suddenly changed into a yell and a burst of laughter; and when Mrs. Linton-Ward opened her door, there was one of her young friends on the floor, hugging to himself a very large and very wet sponge that had apparently taken him full in the chest, while opposite to him another young gentleman swayed to and fro in fits of Homeric laughter.
"Loveliest shot ever I saw," ejaculated this young man. "Shouldn't have thought anyone could have brought it off like that. A real sport—the real stuff," he said. "Oh, Mrs. Linton-Ward," he added, seeing her, "were we making an awful row? I am sorry."
The rag was over, and she was being treated, not as a party to it, but as one to whom it had to be excused. That was bitter. And who—who had thrown that wet sponge with so expert an aim as to call forth such equally expert applause? Who?
Someone, apparently, who was a "real sport" and the "real stuff," and to hear those cherished names thus applied to another—ah, that was more bitter still!
"The more noise there is outside my door, the more I like it," she said crossly, and she saw the two youths look at each other and wink, and she knew she had made it all ever so much worse, She had made herself, as it were, at a stroke, a senior instead of an accomplice.
She went back into her room in a temper, and when she was ready she came out and descended the stairs. At their foot, in the hall, she met the mistress of the house.
"We've a new boarder to-day," remarked that estimable lady brightly, "thanks to Mr. Wickham."
"And don't you forget it," said the voice of Willie Wickham from behind, "or that that makes it all right about my bill till next week. A fellow can't pay bills and meet his motor-cycle instalments the same day."
The landlady suggested that he had better give up his cycle if he couldn't afford it, and passed on, and Mr. Wickham, smiling a little at the extravagance of this suggestion, remarked that he was glad he had smoothed over the always delicate question of his bill, for that week at least.
"You managed very well," agreed Mrs. Linton-Ward, not without bitterness, and moved on into the drawing-room.
What she found there hardly surprised her. She had expected it. That dressed-up chit of a child, with the obviously permanently waved hair, was all her deepest instincts had bidden her prepare for. But, all the same, she had not been prepared to find this chit of a child instructing the deeply-interested Mr. Simpson in the art of eating grape-fruit.
"They are ever so nice and ever so wholesome," she was saying, "only no one seems to know how to eat them properly. Of course I mean you to add only a tiny drop of liqueur."
Mrs. Linton-Ward remembered that she, for her part, had recommended cream-cream.
"I'll try that," declared the faithless Charlie Simpson with enthusiasm, and when he saw Mrs. Linton-Ward looking at him, he had not even the grace to blush.
Instead he simply rose to his feet and introduced Mrs. Billington-Shaw. Not even a "miss," it will be seen, no inexperienced girl, but a widow, no doubt, like Mrs. Linton-Ward herself, and one who knew it all, and who had also a hyphen to her name as well as an extra syllable in addition.
"I've just been telling Mrs. Billington-Shaw," added the egregious Simpson, "that I'm rather a dab hand with the chafing-dish, and she's going to show me some of the very latest."
"Some I learnt when I was living in France," observed the newcomer amiably.
"Do you speak French?" asked little Alf Wilson then from the corner where he had been sitting unobserved. "I'm swotting at it like anything, but I can't get the hang properly."
"We'll talk French half an hour every night, shall we?" asked Mrs. Billington-Shaw, and Alf cried out eagerly—
"Oh, I say, that'll be ripping! Just what I wanted."
Mrs. Linton-Ward had corrected his letters and other writings in French, but she had never gone so far as to offer real French conversation—in point of fact, she had kept that in reserve as a tit-bit to be brought out presently, and now it was too late.
They went in to dinner, and when they were seated, a melancholy wretch crept miserably in. It was the broken-hearted Dicky King, who had no longer faith or trust in heaven above or the world beneath, but when his astonished gaze fell on Mrs. Billington-Shaw he started perceptibly. A new light came into his eyes, he straightened himself, he muttered an incoherent apology, and fled.
When he returned he had changed his collar and tie and put on his new suit, and the manner in which he made play with a new silk handkerchief showed in itself that his broken and lacerated heart was cured. A malicious reference Mrs. Linton-Ward could not help making to the senior typist at his office brought to his features a puzzled frown.
"Oh," he said, remembering then, "you mean the girl that's just got engaged to our manager! Well, I've no sympathy with him—serves him right."
It was a lively, even a boisterous meal. Mrs. Billington-Shaw laughed a good deal, and said she hadn't enjoyed herself so much for ages, and no one even noticed how quiet was Mrs. Linton-Ward. Once or twice she said something, and of course they all listened, but the moment she finished, the incident closed, and they all turned again to Mrs. Billington-Shaw, of whom each tiniest word seemed to set them all talking together.
Afterwards they had music, and Mrs. Billington-Shaw sang—Mrs. Linton-Ward had no voice—and Mrs, Linton-Ward went to bed early. Later certain sounds suggested that in the drawing-room the proceedings had grown a little lively.
"Scandalous—at this hour! I'll complain about it," thought Mrs. Linton-Ward furiously, and then was devastated by the knowledge that if she did, it would fall to the lot of Mrs. Billington-Shaw to smooth the thing over.
Mrs. Linton-Ward wept.
In the morning, the bleak and chill morning, she, feeling very old, and Mrs. Billington-Shaw, looking very young, and with her hair more permanently waved then ever, found themselves at breakfast together.
"What dear fellows these boys do seem to be!" said Mrs. Billington-Shaw.
Mrs. Linton-Ward assented.
"Makes one feel," sighed Mrs. Billington-Shaw, "how much boys all alone in a big town, as these are, have need of a woman's influence to mould, to guide."
Mrs. Linton-Ward continued to assent.
"A sister to them," mused Mrs. Billington-Shaw.
"A mother," suggested Mrs. Linton-Ward.
"You feel that?" murmured Mrs. Billington-Shaw, with a practically imperceptible emphasis on the pronoun.
Mrs. Linton-Ward choked over her coffee, a drop of which had gone "the wrong way."
"When my husband comes——" continued Mrs. Billington-Shaw, and Mrs. Linton-Ward knocked her coffee right over.
"Oh, dear!" she lamented. "And of course it's clean cloth morning. What will they say?"
"I'll invent something to make it all right, shall I, after you've gone?" smiled Mrs. Billington-Shaw, and Mrs. Linton-Ward wondered a little wildly if she also were to be guided, moulded.
"You see, I'm a widow. I lost my husband four years ago," she explained, "and, seeing you alone, I think I supposed——"
"Oh, no, Freddie's very much alive," smiled Mrs. Billington-Shaw. "We've really come to Town so that he can look for work. He was with the Cambridge Shine Company as their representative in Lyons and the South of France, but they've closed down in France, and so he must either find a new post or start himself, and that needs such a lot of capital."
Mrs. Linton-Ward had the narrowest escape in the world of knocking over her new cup of coffee.
It seemed like—Providence.
"I'm with the Oxford Polish people," she said almost tremblingly. "I know they want someone in Paris."
She wished a little it were Jericho, or Central Africa, but, after all, Paris is far more enough for all reasonable purposes.
Mrs. Billington-Shaw was interested, and Mrs. Linton-Ward registered a mental oath that Mr. Billington-Shaw was going to have that post and have it quick, or she would know the reason why—so would her brother-in-law, the chairman.
Indeed, seldom has an appointment been made with greater speed. Mrs. Linton-Ward saw to that. In scarcely more than a week the Billington-Shaws were safely across the Channel, and in Mrs. Linton-Ward's boarding-house once more events pursued their accustomed tenor. Once Johnny Gilroy came timidly to her to have his dress bows tied; once more Dicky King brought her his torn and bleeding heart; once more it was hers to intercede for the impecunious Wickham, to help little Alf Wilson with his French, and to listen with closed eyes in the twilight to Bobby Abel's still unpublished poems—in fact, once more to protect, to guide, to mould.