Virginia's reply to Miss Nunn's letter brought another note next morning—Saturday. It was to request a call from the sisters that same afternoon.
Alice, unfortunately, would not be able to leave home. Her disorder had become a feverish cold—caught, doubtless, between open window and door whilst the bedroom was being aired for breakfast. She lay in bed, and her sister administered remedies of the chemist's advising.
But she insisted on Virginia leaving her in the afternoon. Miss Nunn might have something of importance to tell or to suggest. Mrs. Conisbee, sympathetic in her crude way, would see that the invalid wanted for nothing.
So, after a dinner of mashed potatoes and milk ('The Irish peasantry live almost entirely on that,' croaked Alice, 'and they are physically a fine race'), the younger sister started on her walk to Chelsea. Her destination was a plain, low roomy old house in Queen's Road, over against the hospital gardens. On asking for Miss Nunn, she was led to a back room on the ground floor, and there waited for a few moments. Several large bookcases, a well-equipped writing-table, and kindred objects, indicated that the occupant of the house was studious; the numerous bunches of cut flowers, which agreeably scented the air, seemed to prove the student was a woman.
Miss Nunn entered. Younger only by a year or two than Virginia, she was yet far from presenting any sorrowful image of a person on the way to old-maidenhood. She had a clear though pale skin, a vigorous frame, a brisk movement—all the signs of fairly good health. Whether or not she could be called a comely woman might have furnished matter for male discussion; the prevailing voice of her own sex would have denied her charm of feature. At first view the countenance seemed masculine, its expression somewhat aggressive—eyes shrewdly observant and lips consciously impregnable. But the connoisseur delayed his verdict. It was a face that invited, that compelled, study. Self-confidence, intellectual keenness, a bright humour, frank courage, were traits legible enough; and when the lips parted to show their warmth, their fullness, when the eyelids drooped a little in meditation, one became aware of a suggestiveness directed not solely to the intellect, of something like an unfamiliar sexual type, remote indeed from the voluptuous, but hinting a possibility of subtle feminine forces that might be released by circumstance. She wore a black serge gown, with white collar and cuffs; her thick hair rippled low upon each side of the forehead, and behind was gathered into loose vertical coils; in shadow the hue seemed black, but when illumined it was seen to be the darkest, warmest brown.
Offering a strong, shapely hand, she looked at her visitor with a smile which betrayed some mixture of pain in the hearty welcome.
'And how long have you been in London?'
It was the tone of a busy, practical person. Her voice had not much softness of timbre, and perhaps on that account she kept it carefully subdued.
'So long as that? How I wish I had known you were so near! I have been in London myself about two years. And your sisters?'
Virginia explained Alice's absence, adding,—
'As for poor Monica, she has only Sunday free—except one evening a month. She is at business till half-past nine, and on Saturday till half-past eleven or twelve.'
'Oh, dear, dear, dear!' exclaimed the other rapidly, making a motion with her hand as if to brush away something disagreeable. 'That will never do. You must put a stop to that.'
'I am sure we ought to.'
Virginia's thin, timid voice and weak manner were thrown into painful contrast by Miss Nunn's personality.
'Yes, yes; we will talk about it presently. Poor little Monica! But do tell me about yourself and Miss Madden. It is so long since I heard about you.'
'Indeed I ought to have written. I remember that at the end of our correspondence I remained in your debt. But it was a troublesome and depressing time with me. I had nothing but groans and moans to send.'
'You didn't stay long, I trust, with that trying Mrs. Carr?'
'Three years!' sighed Virginia.
'Oh, your patience!'
'I wished to leave again and again. But at the end she always begged me not to desert her—that was how she put it. After all, I never had the heart to go.'
'Very kind of you, but—those questions are so difficult to decide. Self-sacrifice may be quite wrong, I'm afraid.'
'Do you think so?' asked Virginia anxiously.
'Yes, I am sure it is often wrong—all the more so because people proclaim it a virtue without any reference to circumstances. Then how did you get away at last?'
'The poor woman died. Then I had a place scarcely less disagreeable. Now I have none at all; but I really must find one very soon.'
She laughed at this allusion to her poverty, and made nervous motions.
'Let me tell you what my own course has been,' said Miss Nunn, after a short reflection. 'When my mother died, I determined to have done with teaching—you know that. I disliked it too much, and partly, of course, because I was incapable. Half my teaching was a sham—a pretence of knowing what I neither knew nor cared to know. I had gone into it like most girls, as a dreary matter of course.'
'Like poor Alice, I'm afraid.'
'Oh, it's a distressing subject. When my mother left me that little sum of money I took a bold step. I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school life. Shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence—I had lessons in them all, and worked desperately for a year. It did me good; at the end of the year I was vastly improved in health, and felt myself worth something in the world. I got a place as cashier in a large shop. That soon tired me, and by dint of advertising I found a place in an office at Bath. It was a move towards London, and I couldn't rest till I had come the whole way. My first engagement here was as shorthand writer to the secretary of a company. But he soon wanted some one who could use a typewriter. That was a suggestion. I went to learn typewriting, and the lady who taught me asked me in the end to stay with her as an assistant. This is her house, and here I live with her.'
'How energetic you have been!'
'How fortunate, perhaps. I must tell you about this lady—Miss Barfoot. She has private means—not large, but sufficient to allow of her combining benevolence with business. She makes it her object to train young girls for work in offices, teaching them the things that I learnt in Bristol, and typewriting as well. Some pay for their lessons, and some get them for nothing. Our workrooms are in Great Portland Street, over a picture-cleaner's shop. One or two girls have evening lessons, but our pupils for the most part are able to come in the day. Miss Barfoot hasn't much interest in the lower classes; she wishes to be of use to the daughters of educated people. And she is of use. She is doing admirable work.'
'Oh, I am sure she must be! What a wonderful person!'
'It occurs to me that she might help Monica.'
'Oh, do you think she would?' exclaimed Virginia, with eager attention. 'How grateful we should be!'
'Where is Monica employed?'
'At a draper's in Walworth Road. She is worked to death. Every week I see a difference in her, poor child. We hoped to persuade her to go back to the shop at Weston; but if this you speak of were possible—how much better! We have never reconciled ourselves to her being in that position—never.'
'I see no harm in the position itself,' replied Miss Nunn in her rather blunt tone, 'but I see a great deal in those outrageous hours. She won't easily do better in London, without special qualifications; and probably she is reluctant to go back to the country.'
'Yes, she is; very reluctant.'
'I understand it,' said the other, with a nod. 'Will you ask her to come and see me?'
A servant entered with tea. Miss Nunn caught the expression in her visitor's eyes, and said cheerfully—
'I had no midday meal to-day, and really I feel the omission. Mary, please do put tea in the dining-room, and bring up some meat—Miss Barfoot,' she added, in explanation to Virginia, is out of town, and I am a shockingly irregular person about meals. I am sure you will sit down with me?'
Virginia sported with the subject. Months of miserable eating and drinking in her stuffy bedroom made an invitation such as this a veritable delight to her. Seated in the dining-room, she at first refused the offer of meat, alleging her vegetarianism; but Miss Nunn, convinced that the poor woman was starving, succeeded in persuading her. A slice of good beef had much the same effect upon Virginia as her more dangerous indulgence at Charing Cross Station. She brightened wonderfully.
'Now let us go back to the library,' said Miss Nunn, when their meal was over. 'We shall soon see each other again, I hope, but we might as well talk of serious things whilst we have the opportunity. Will you allow me to be very frank with you?'
The other looked startled.
'What could you possibly say that would offend me?'
'In the old days you told me all about your circumstances. Are they still the same?'
'Precisely the same. Most happily, we have never needed to entrench upon our capital. Whatever happens, we must avoid that—whatever happens!'
'I quite understand you. But wouldn't it be possible to make a better use of that money? It is eight hundred pounds, I think? Have you never thought of employing it in some practical enterprise?'
Virginia at first shrank in alarm, then trembled deliciously at her friend's bold views.
'Would it be possible? Really? You think—'
'I can only suggest, of course. One mustn't argue about others from one's own habit of thought. Heaven forbid'—this sounded rather profane to the listener—'that I should urge you to do anything you would think rash. But how much better if you could somehow secure independence.'
'Ah, if we could! The very thing we were saying the other day! But how? I have no idea how.'
Miss Nunn seemed to hesitate.
'I don't advise. You mustn't give any weight to what I say, except in so far as your own judgment approves it. But couldn't one open a preparatory school, for instance? At Weston, suppose, where already you know a good many people. Or even at Clevedon.'
Virginia drew in her breath, and it was easy for Miss Nunn to perceive that the proposal went altogether beyond her friend's scope. Impossible, perhaps, to inspire these worn and discouraged women with a particle of her own enterprise. Perchance they altogether lacked ability to manage a school for even the youngest children. She did not press the subject; it might come up on another occasion. Virginia begged for time to think it over; then, remembering her invalid sister, felt that she must not prolong the visit.
'Do take some of these flowers,' said Miss Nunn, collecting a rich nosegay from the vases. 'Let them be my message to your sister. And I should be so glad to see Monica. Sunday is a good time; I am always at home in the afternoon.'
With a fluttering heart Virginia made what haste she could homewards. The interview had filled her with a turmoil of strange new thoughts, which she was impatient to pour forth for Alice's wondering comment. It was the first time in her life that she had spoken with a woman daring enough to think and act for herself.