A young woman suffering a betrayal lends a helping hand to a neighbour in need. (This short story appeared in The Australasian in 1926.)
The young man in the next room coughed — a hard, racking cough that seemed to tear him to pieces and leave him breathless. She could hear him gasping painfully, then silence.
Half raising herself on her elbow, Joyce Anstruther turned, frowning through the darkness. This incessant coughing was beginning to worry her. She had heard it all last night, and now again tonight. Besides she knew he had not been out for two days, and as he never cook-ed food in his room — being apparently one of the lucky ones who could afford to dine outside, and did not have to exist on stale eggs bought from the grocer’s, or dubious-looking ham from the shop next door — she wondered what he was doing for his meals. If he were ill and helpless, even dying, there was no one in that huge mausoleum of a place to care. Often she had pictured herself in such straits.
“Why,” she said aloud, speaking vehemently into the darkness, across which the open window with the swaying curtain cast a faint glimmer of light, and the cheap furniture made grotesque shadows in the further corner, “I don’t believe they’d even give him a drink of water if he was dying.”
She was very young, only twenty-two, and at the time very, very bitter.
She listened intently, but hearing no sound, lay back again. She had never seen the young man in the room next to hers, but she knew his footsteps; strong, sturdy footsteps tramping up the echoing stairs; soft footsteps — this with evident desire not to disturb his neighbors — moving quietly about his room, and his cheery whistle, though often, on a high note, he would check himself abruptly. Evidently a thoughtful young man, but so far as Joyce Anstruther was concerned, he could whistle as often and as loudly as he pleased. On nights when she was feeling particularly lonely and afraid of the great city which had proved so unexpectedly unkind, that cheery, kindly sound had made her feel less alone. She tried to imagine what he was like … a keen brown face and clear, steady eyes — blue, she hoped, with fair hair brushed straight back from his forehead. She searched her memory. Why did that seem so familiar. Why, of course, she remembered now! There had been that boy she had met years ago, coming home from school. He carried, her books for her, and they had picked blackberries together … seventeen and going to the war. He had kissed her at parting, very shyly and very gravely, and asked her not to forget him. She remembered he had waved his cap at the turn of the road, and the sun caught the gold of his hair. She could see him now, waving his cap at the bend of the road, and the sun shining in his hair.
She frowned restlessly. What had happened to him, she wondered? Dead, very probably, and she had never known his name, nor he hers.
Well, she knew the name of the young man next door — Arthur Middleton — for he had written it on an envelope and pinned it above the number of his room. This had struck her as a good idea, and she had done the same with hers, hoping this might induce someone to speak to her — at that time she had simply hungered for a kindly word. But no one ever did, and she had ceased to expect, or even wish it now. Sunk into a state of dull inertia, she was content to be left alone, and she sometimes felt there was not much difference to spare between her and the pale, nerveless women she passed in the long corridor with its jealously-closed doors, women she had pitied for the grey hopelessness of their lives, creeping out to do their scanty shopping or scurrying to their rooms like frightened rabbits to a burrow. She wondered what he was doing in such a category. Probably, though his situation was the same as her own -: the mausoleum, as she called its was cheap.
The bout of coughing seemed to have passed for the time being, and presently her thoughts returned to her-self. Three hundred pounds, and with the exception of about ten pounds less this month’s rent, it was all gone. Three hundred pounds which her mother had scraped together, year by year, so that on her death her father-less child might have something to start with in life. Three hundred pounds, She trembled at the thought of it. Now that it was gone, and only a few pounds stood between her and destitution, it seemed a tremendous sum. They had warned her before she left home that she would be robbed in the city, but the business offered her had seemed so splendid, the prospects so glowing, and the idea owning it so intoxicating, that gaily and lightheartedly she had paid over all of her capital. Of course, the whole thing had been a fraud. She and her three hundred pounds must have seemed like a fit sent straight from Heaven. Why, you could hardly blame them for taking her in. She had been asking for it.
The crash had not been long in coming. The smart milliner’s shop had been in existence a week before she bought it. Without experience, without money, without customers, except an occasional one who drifted in, it had lasted perhaps a month longer. Then someone offered her thirty pounds, at which the value of the stock was assessed, and she had taken it. Since then she had been looking unsuccessfully, for work. No one seemed to want her services. Other girls could get work, but not her.
How she hated the city, and the people in it; cruel, hard and unfriendly. Up at home now the orchards were in bloom, and soon the fruit would be dropping to the ground; windfalls, which she had often gathered on her way home from school; golden apricots, red-cheeked apples, luscious peaches — and there would be green, green fields, and when the rains came, the smell of the warm sweet earth. In her little garden the primroses and the cowslips would be out. Last year she had planted a whole bed of them just near the gate. Now someone else would pluck them.
She quivered, hiding her face on her arm. What wouldn’t she give to be back again! The longing was so great that it was almost a physical pain. But she couldn’t return — a failure; besides, her mother was dead now, and nothing would be the same. Who had their old home now, she wondered, and the little orchard where they had grown strawberries and made a small, though comfort-able living. With a man’s help, her mother had said, they could easily have doubled it. Unfortunately the place had not belonged to them, and on her mother’s’ death the owner had put it on to the market.
Joyce had left it, happy enough at the time; excited at the prospect of launching out, on her own, and with three hundred pounds, in the bank. Now everything was lost was lost.
A sound from the room next door startled her. He was coughing again, and this time she distinctly heard him call. She sprang out of bed without pausing to think, and dressed herself hurriedly. She must go and see what he wanted — no one else would bother. She might be doing an unconventional thing, but she did not care. She could not bear to think of him left alone, sick and help-less.
There was no one about; the long passage was deserted, and all the other rooms seemed wrapt in an impenetrable silence. He might have called all night, and no one would have heard. “Come in,” said a husky whisper. Outwardly she was quite calm and self-possessed as she entered the room, but her heart was beating almost to suffocation with suppressed excitement. She had thought to bring both tea and milk with her, and also some quinine tablets, which fortunately she possessed, and with which it was her intention to dose the young man.
An oil lamp, the wick turned too high and smoking the glass, stood on the table. With a business-like air Joyce put the things she had brought on the table, and turned down the wick.
“But — I say!” The young man, his cheeks flushed, his eyes unnaturally bright, was sitting upright in bed, staring at her in amazement.
Joyce looked at him swiftly. With one quick glance she saw that her in tuition had been right. He was as she had hoped he would be; keen, brown face, with clear, blue eyes, his hair growing straight back from his fore-head with the faintest suspicion of a wave in it.
“You called,” she said, in the tone of one stating a fact that cannot be contradicted.
“Yes, I know. But I hoped the chap on the other side would hear me. I never thought — ” He paused in confusion.
“Please don’t talk so much.” Her sang froid was quite equal to the occasion, though with her dark hair cut short to the ears, and wide, serious, brown eyes, she looked hardly more than a child. “What is it you want?”
“Water.” With a sigh the young mail subsided. “I’ve pains all over me — can’t move. A touch of the ‘flu, of course. The water jug’s empty, and I thought the chap next door — ”
With a wave of the hand Joyce commanded him to silence. Taking the jug, she filled it at the bath-room tap, then put the kettle on to boil. The young man watched her with fascinated eyes. Obediently he swallowed the tablets she gave him; indeed, the firmness of her manner was such that he would have swallowed anything she had suggested.
“Are you a trained nurse?” he asked, sitting up to take the tea she handed him. and watching with admiration the way she shook up the pillows beneath his head.
“Well — no,” said Joyce, immensely flattered by this suggestion and reluctant to deny it. “Not exactly.”
“I guess you’re better than any trained nurse,” declared the grateful young man. He drank the tea and grew enthusiastic. “I should say you were better than a hundred trained nurses. This tea is the best I’ve ever tasted.” He leant back on his pillows with a sigh of content, and gazed up at her. “Do you know,” he said suddenly, “what you remind me of. One of those Florentine pages? You know! And imagine you living next door to me all this time, and I never knew.”
“You’re talking too much,” said Joyce severely. Sweet though his words sounded in her ears, she felt this was neither the time nor the place to listen to them. “You must be feverish.” He shook his head, but she insisted. “Two more tablets and then you must try and sleep. You’ll feel ever so much better in the morning.” “You are good to me.” Languidly he smiled at her; his eyes closed, then with an effort he jerked-, himself awake. “Little Florentine page … I used to dream of a girl like you …”
Silently she let herself out as his voice faded away; and silently she stole into her room again. Switching on the light, she looked at her-self long and earnestly in the mirror. A Florentine page … did she look like that? When she slept that night she dreamt of a young man with blue eyes, and orchards heavy with blossom through which they wandered together.
She awoke to the feel of rain upon her cheek. The wind had changed during the night, and was blowing from the south bringing rain with it. Slamming down the window she stood for a moment peering out. The plane trees in the street below were dripping with wet: it ran in tiny rivulets from the spouting and flooded the gutters. The sky was a sullen grey. She shivered suddenly. Her romantic dreams of the night before were at an end. She was merely a modern young woman who must get work at all costs; while he — well he was only an ordinary young man suffering from influenza. She did not want to see him again. She would prepare a tray and leave it at his door and that was the end of it so far as she was concerned.
Her own affairs were of such urgent importance that she had no energy left to worry over the young man next door.
She had dressed and set the room to rights when she heard the sound of the postman’s whistle below. There were never any letters for her and it hardly seemed worthwhile looking, but there was always a remote possibility; perhaps someone from home would remember and write to her. Running lightly downstairs, she looked through the pile of letters in the general box. Of course, there was none for her, but there was one ad-dressed to Arthur Middleton. That young man again! Well, it seemed only decent to take it upstairs and slip it under his door.
She could hear him moving about and whistling softly. That meant he was better. Instinctively she looked in the mirror again, and her lip curled. A Florentine page in a shabby blue serge dress and a pull-on hat! He wouldn’t think so if he saw her this morning.
The kettle boiled over and she turned to make the tea. As she did so there was a hasty, imperative knock at the door. She looked round quickly. The bed, half hidden by a screen, was covered with a piece of gay cretonne. A blue and white ginger jar, picked up for six pence on one of her excursions to the markets and treasured greatly, stood on the table. This was filled with yellow poppies. Flowers were the one luxury she allowed herself now; everything else had been ruthlessly cut out of her life.
The room was as presentable as she could make it, clean and fresh, at any rate; but all the same she was ashamed of it; ashamed of the ugly furniture and drab grass mats on the floor, the cheap mirror on the dressing-table, and the rough shelf she had put up herself to hold her few books, old favorites brought from home … a set of Dickens … the poems of Rupert Brooke … a well-thumbed Gordon and Treasury of Australian verse: shabby old books, but well loved, every one. She felt a sudden panic at the thought that they might be exposed to a possibly critical eye.
The knock was repeated again, but louder than before, and, frowning slightly, she opened the door.
His smile disarmed her; that and the sudden conviction which rushed upon her that somewhere and some-time she had known him before. The light shone full upon his face. It was thin, almost haggard: there were tired lines about his mouth, but from his eyes the boy he once had been looked out and smiled at her.
It was impossible! Such a coincidence could not be! Joyce felt a flutter at her heart, and breathlessly fought to regain her poise. She had been led away by a chance resemblance. Life was not kind enough to allow such a miracle to happen to her.
“May I come in for a moment?” he asked. He looked strangely ex-cited and in his hand he carried an open letter. “I hope I’m not a nuisance, but I’ve had such good news that I simply can’t keep it to myself, and you —” He broke off, staring at her. Amazement, then recognition dawned in his eyes.
There was a silence, then he came further into the room.
“Last night I didn’t see you properly,” he whispered: “but now, of course, I know. You were a school girl with two long plaits when I saw you last. Do you remember? I carried your books for you and we picked blackberries. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” she said softly. “And you were a boy … just seventeen, and off to the war. I cried after you left.”
“Did you?” he said. “Did you, Joyce? I know your name now, you see, though all these years I never knew it. But I remembered your eyes and your grave, darling, little face You have it still … Joyce.”
She retreated. He was going too fast for her. She could not bridge the gulf of the years as quickly as he had done. She must have time to pause and consider; to dream, over the wonderful thing that had happened. Her hands, were trembling, and the room seemed full of a strange radiance. Surely the sun was shining? But the rain, was still driving against the window and the wind howling down the chimney.
“Joyce!” he said urgently.
“Please —” she whispered. “Give me time— I can’t think — yet —”
“Of course. I’m rushing you, aren’t I? Poor little girl. I re-member better than you, but then you were only a kid. Just get the idea into your head that we are going to be married, and you’ll be used, to it in no time. The best of it is that yesterday I had nothing to offer you, but now —”
He handed her the open letter. “Read that,” he said simply.
She obeyed him, but she was too ex-cited to take in the meaning of the words. She shook her head helplessly.
He laughed and folded up the letter. “I have,” he said gaily, “what is known in fairy tales as a wicked uncle. For years he has ignored my existence. Now, for some unknown reason, he has made me a man of property. About a year ago he bought a small strawberry farm which came on the market. I don’t know what his idea was, but apparently he could do nothing with it, for he has transferred it to me. The title deeds are at his solicitor’s. Perhaps he hopes I will make a mess of it, but I’ll guarantee to grow strawberries with anyone [at] Hillside!” He smiled and held out his hand to her. “Do you like the name of your future home? We’ll change it if you don’t.”
“Hillside!” she faltered, white to the lips. “It can’t possibly be — Hillside. Why, that was my home. I lived there all my life. That is where we met and picked blackberries together. Don’t you remember?”
“Was it there?” he said slowly. “I had forgotten the place. I only remember you. Joyce … you can’t escape. Fate has meant us for each other.”
She bent her head.
“The boy kissed the girl,” he whispered. “Don’t you think the man might kiss the woman?”
She looked at him with smiling eyes. “I think perhaps he might,” she said.