And now,” asked Miss Forsyth thoughtfully, “and now, my dear Mary, what, may I ask, are you going to do about your good old Anna?”
“Do about Anna?” repeated the other. “I don’t quite understand what you mean.”
In her heart Mrs. Otway thought she understood very well what her old friend, Miss Forsyth, meant by the question. For it was Wednesday, the 5th of August, 1914. England had just declared war on Germany, and Anna was Mrs. Otway’s faithful, highly valued German servant.
Miss Forsyth was one of those rare people who always require an answer to a question, and who also (which is rarer still) seldom speak without having first thought out what they are about to say. It was this quality of mind, far more than the fact that she had been born, sixty years ago, in the Palace at Witanbury, which gave her the position she held in the society of the cathedral town.
But this time she herself went on speaking: “In your place I should think very seriously of sending Anna back to Germany.” There was an unusual[Page 8]note of hesitation and of doubt in her voice. As a rule Miss Forsyth knew exactly what she thought about everything, and what she herself would be minded to do in any particular case.
But the other lady, incensed at what she considered uncalled-for, even rather impertinent advice, replied sharply, “I shouldn’t think of doing anything so unkind and so unjust! Why, because the powers of evil have conquered—I mean by that the dreadful German military party—should I behave unjustly to a faithful old German woman who has been with me—let me see—why, who has been with me exactly eighteen years? With the exception of a married niece with whom she went and stayed in Berlin three autumns ago, my poor old Anna hasn’t a relation left in Germany. Her whole life is centred in me—or perhaps I ought to say in Rose. She was the only nurse Rose ever had.”
“And yet she has remained typically German,” observed Miss Forsyth irrelevantly.
“Of course she has!” cried Mrs. Otway quickly. “And that is why we are both so much attached to her. Anna has all the virtues of the German woman; she is faithful, kindly, industrious, and thrifty.”
“But, Mary, has it not occurred to you that you will find it very awkward sometimes?” Again without waiting for an answer, Miss Forsyth went on: “Our working people have long felt it very hard that there should be so many Germans in England, taking away their jobs.”
“They have only themselves to thank for that,” said Mrs. Otway, with more sharpness than was usual with an exceptionally kindly and amiable nature.[Page 9]“Germans are much more industrious than our people are, and they are content with less wages. Also you must forgive me if I say, dear Miss Forsyth, that I don’t quite see what the jealousy of the average working-man, or, for the matter of that, of the average mechanic, has to do with my good old Anna, especially at such a time as this.”
“Don’t you really?” Miss Forsyth looked curiously into the other’s flushed and still fair, delicately tinted face. She had always thought Mary Otway a rather foolish, if also a lovable, generous-hearted woman. But this was one of the few opinions Miss Forsyth always managed to keep to herself.
“I suppose you mean,” said the other reluctantly, “that if I had not had Anna as a servant all these years I should have been compelled to have an Englishwoman?”
“Yes, Mary, that is exactly what I do mean! But of course I should never have spoken to you about the matter were it not for to-day’s news. My maid, Pusey, you know, spoke to me about it this morning, and said that if you should be thinking of parting with her—if your good old Anna should be thinking, for instance, of going back to Germany—she knew some one who she thought would suit you admirably. It’s a woman who was cook in a very good London place, and whose health has rather given way.”
Miss Forsyth spoke with what was for her unusual animation.
As is always the way with your active, intelligent philanthropist, she was much given to vicarious deeds of charity. At the same time she never spared herself. Her own comfortable house always contained one or[Page 10] more of the odd-come-shorts whom she had not managed to place out in good situations.
Again a wave of resentment swept over Mrs. Otway. This was really too much!
“How would such a woman as you describe—a cook who has been in a good London place, and who has lost her health—work into our—mine and Rose’s—ways? Why, we should both be afraid of such a woman! She would impose on us at every turn. If you only knew, dear Miss Forsyth, how often, in the last twenty years, I have thanked God—I say it in all reverence—for having sent me my good old Anna! Think what it has been to me”—she spoke with a good deal of emotion—“to have in my tiny household a woman so absolutely trustworthy that I could always go away and leave my child with her, happy in the knowledge that Rose was as safe with Anna as she was with me——”
Her voice broke, a lump came into her throat, but she hurried on:[Page 11] “Don’t think that it has all been perfect—that I have lain entirely on a bed of roses! Anna has been very tiresome sometimes; and, as you know, her daughter, to whom I was really attached, and whom I regarded more or less as Rose’s foster-sister, made that unfortunate marriage to a worthless London tradesman. That’s the black spot in Anna’s life—I don’t mind telling you that it’s been a blacker spot in mine than I’ve ever cared to admit, even to myself. The man’s always getting into scrapes, and having to be got out of them! Why, you once helped me about him, didn’t you? and since then James Hayley actually had to go to the police about the man.”
“Mr. Hayley will be busier than ever now.”
“Yes, I suppose he will.”
And then the two ladies, looking at one another, smiled one of those funny little smiles which may mean a great deal, or nothing at all.
James Hayley, the son of one of Mrs. Otway’s first cousins, was in the Foreign Office; and if he had an inordinate opinion of himself and of his value to his country, he was still a very good, steady fellow. Lately he had fallen into the way of coming down to Witanbury exceedingly often; but when doing so he did not stay with the Otways, in their pretty house in the Close, as would have been natural and as would also naturally have made his visits rather less frequent; instead, he stayed in lodgings close to the gateway which divided the Close from the town, and thus was able to be at the Trellis House as much or as little as he liked. It was generally much. Mrs. Otway wondered whether the war would so far affect his work as to keep him away from Witanbury this summer. She rather hoped it would.
“I’m even more sorry than usual for Jervis Blake to-day!” and this time there was a note of real kindness in Miss Forsyth’s voice. “I shouldn’t be surprised if he enlisted.”
“Oh, I hope he won’t do that!” Mrs. Otway was shocked at the suggestion. Jervis Blake was a person for whom she had a good deal of tolerant affection. He was quite an ordinary young man, and he had had the quite ordinary bad luck of failing to pass successive Army examinations. The news that he had failed again had just become known to his friends, and unluckily it was his last chance, as he was now[Page 12] past the age limit. The exceptional feature in his very common case was that he happened to be the only son of a distinguished soldier.
“I should certainly enlist if I were he,” continued Miss Forsyth thoughtfully. “He wouldn’t have long to wait for promotion from the ranks.”
“His father would never forgive him!”
“The England of to-day is a different England from the England of yesterday,” observed Miss Forsyth drily; and as the other stared at her, genuinely astonished by the strange words, “Don’t you agree that that is so, Mary?”
“No, I can’t say that I do.” Mrs. Otway spoke with greater decision than was her wont. Miss Forsyth was far too fond of setting the world to rights.
“Ah! well, I think it is. And I only wish I was a young man instead of an old woman! I’m sorry for every Englishman who is too old to take up arms in this just cause. What must be Major Guthrie’s feelings to-day! How he must regret having left the Army to please his selfish old mother! It’s the more hard on him as he always believed this war would come. He really knows Germany.”
“Major Guthrie only knows military Germany,” said Mrs. Otway slowly.
“It’s only what you call military Germany which counts to-day,” observed Miss Forsyth quickly; and then, seeing that her friend looked hurt, and even, what she so very seldom was, angry too, she held out her hand with the words:[Page 13] “And now I must be moving on, for before going to the cathedral I have to see Mrs. Haworth for a minute. By the way, I hear that the Dean intends to give a little address about the war.” She added, in a different and a kindlier tone: “You must forgive me, Mary, for saying what I did about your good old Anna! But you know I’m really fond of you, and I’m even fonder of your sweet Rose than I am of you. I always feel that there is a great deal in Rose—more than in any other girl I know. And then—well, Mary, she is so very pretty! prettier than you even were, though you had a way of making every one think you lovely!”
Mrs. Otway laughed. She was quite mollified. “I know how fond you are of Rose,” she said gratefully,[Page 14] “and, of course, I don’t mind your having spoken to me about Anna. But as to parting with her—that would mean the end of the world to us, to your young friend Rose even more than to me. Why, it would be worse—far worse—than the war!”
Categories: English Literature