The Sea Lady/Chapter 4
CHAPTER THE FOURTH
THE QUALITY OF PARKER
She positively and quietly settled down with the Buntings.
beauty and charm and the occasional faint touches of something a little indefinable in her smile, she had become a quite passable and credible human being. She was a cripple, indeed, and her lower limb was most pathetically swathed and put in a sort of case, but it was quite generally understood—I am afraid at Mrs. Bunting's initiative—that presently they—Mrs. Bunting said "they," which was certainly almost as far or even a little farther than legitimate prevarication may go—would be as well as ever.
"Of course," said Mrs. Bunting, "she will never be able to bicycle again——"
That was the sort of glamour she threw about it.
In Parker it is indisputable that the Sea Lady found—or at least had found for her by Mrs. Bunting—a treasure of the richest sort. Parker was still fallaciously young, but she had been maid to a lady from India who had been in a "case" and had experienced and overcome cross-examination. She had also been deceived by a young man, whom she had fancied greatly, only to find him walking out with another—contrary to her inflexible sense of correctness—in the presence of which all other things are altogether vain. Life she had resolved should have no further surprises for her. She looked out on its (largely improper) pageant with an expression of alert impartiality in her hazel eyes, calm, doing her specific duty, and entirely declining to participate further. She always kept her elbows down by her side and her hands always just in contact, and it was impossible for the most powerful imagination to conceive her under any circumstances as being anything but absolutely straight and clean and neat. And her voice was always under all circumstances low and wonderfully distinct—just to an infinitesimal degree indeed "mincing."
Mrs. Bunting had been a little nervous when it came to the point. It was Mrs. Bunting of course who engaged her, because the Sea Lady was so entirely without experience. But certainly Mrs. Bunting's nervousness was thrown away.
"You understand," said Mrs. Bunting, taking a plunge at it, "that—that she is an invalid."
"I didn't, Mem," replied Parker respectfully, and evidently quite willing to understand anything as part of her duty in this world.
"In fact," said Mrs. Bunting, rubbing the edge of the tablecloth daintily with her gloved finger and watching the operation with interest, "as a matter of fact, she has a mermaid's tail."
"Mermaid's tail! Indeed, Mem! And is it painful at all?"
"Oh, dear, no, it involves no inconvenience—nothing. Except—you understand, there is a need of—discretion."
"Of course, Mem," said Parker, as who should say, "there always is."
"We particularly don't want the servants——"
"The lower servants— No, Mem."
"You understand?" and Mrs. Bunting looked up again and regarded Parker calmly.
"Precisely, Mem!" said Parker, with a face unmoved, and so they came to the question of terms. "It all passed off most satisfactorily," said Mrs. Bunting, taking a deep breath at the mere memory of that moment. And it is clear that Parker was quite of her opinion.
She was not only discreet but really clever and handy. From the very outset she grasped the situation, unostentatiously but very firmly. It was Parker who contrived the sort of violin case for It, and who made the tea gown extension that covered the case's arid contours. It was Parker who suggested an invalid's chair for use indoors and in the garden, and a carrying chair for the staircase. Hitherto Fred Bunting had been on hand, at last even in excessive abundance, whenever the Sea Lady lay in need of masculine arms. But Parker made it clear at once that that was not at all in accordance with her ideas, and so earned the lifelong gratitude of Mabel Glendower. And Parker too spoke out for drives, and suggested with an air of rightness that left nothing else to be done, the hire of a carriage and pair for the season—to the equal delight of the Buntings and the Sea Lady. It was Parker who dictated the daily drive up to the eastern end of the Leas and the Sea Lady's transfer, and the manner of the Sea Lady's transfer, to the bath chair in which she promenaded the Leas. There seemed to be nowhere that it was pleasant and proper for the Sea Lady to go that Parker did not swiftly and correctly indicate it and the way to get to it, and there seems to have been nothing that it was really undesirable the Sea Lady should do and anywhere that it was really undesirable that she should go, that Parker did not at once invisibly but effectively interpose a bar. It was Parker who released the Sea Lady from being a sort of private and peculiar property in the Bunting household and carried her off to a becoming position in the world, when the crisis came. In little things as in great she failed not. It was she who made it luminous that the Sea Lady's card plate was not yet engraved and printed ("Miss Doris Thalassia Waters" was the pleasant and appropriate name with which the Sea Lady came primed), and who replaced the box of the presumably dank and drowned and dripping "Tom" by a jewel case, a dressing bag and the first of the Sea Lady's trunks.
On a thousand little occasions this Parker showed a sense of propriety that was penetratingly fine. For example, in the shop one day when "things" of an intimate sort were being purchased, she suddenly intervened.
"There are stockings, Mem," she said in a discreet undertone, behind, but not too vulgarly behind, a fluttering straight hand.
"Stockings!" cried Mrs. Bunting. "But——!"
"I think, Mem, she should have stockings," said Parker, quietly but very firmly.
And come to think of it, why should an unavoidable deficiency in a lady excuse one that can be avoided? It's there we touch the very quintessence and central principle of the proper life.
But Mrs. Bunting, you know, would never have seen it like that.
Let me add here, regretfully but with infinite respect, one other thing about Parker, and then she shall drop into her proper place.
I must confess, with a slight tinge of humiliation, that I pursued this young woman to her present situation at Highton Towers—maid she is to that eminent religious and social propagandist, the Lady Jane Glanville. There were certain details of which I stood in need, certain scenes and conversations of which my passion for verisimilitude had scarcely a crumb to go upon. And from first to last, what she must have seen and learnt and inferred would amount practically to everything.
I put this to her frankly. She made no pretence of not understanding me nor of ignorance of certain hidden things. When I had finished she regarded me with a level regard.
"I couldn't think of it, sir," she said. "It wouldn't be at all according to my ideas."
"But!—It surely couldn't possibly hurt you now to tell me."
"I'm afraid I couldn't, sir."
"It couldn't hurt anyone."
"It isn't that, sir."
"I should see you didn't lose by it, you know."
She looked at me politely, having said what she intended to say.
And, in spite of what became at last very fine and handsome inducements, that remained the inflexible Parker's reply. Even after I had come to an end with my finesse and attempted to bribe her in the grossest manner, she displayed nothing but a becoming respect for my impregnable social superiority.
"I couldn't think of it, sir," she repeated. "It wouldn't be at all according to my ideas."
And if in the end you should find this story to any extent vague or incomplete, I trust you will remember how the inflexible severity of Parker's ideas stood in my way.