Heart & Hearth (Short Story Sunday)

Victorian short story

Mrs. Miles hadn’t been raised in the country. Nor had she ever felt any desire until fortune made her a widow, to travel outside London to see for herself any of the beauties that the poets of every generation extolled. Her chief delight was needlework, and luckily or unluckily it was an avocation that she could practice almost anywhere. When Mr. Miles died, she realised quickly enough that she ought to have taken an interest in other matters too. Her mother had instilled in her the importance of keeping out of men’s affairs but times were changing. It now looked possible that women would be able to interfere in men’s affairs at the very highest levels. Mrs. Miles was not sure she liked the thought of being obliged to vote. To her, having an excuse not to interest herself in her husband’s doings had been a great advantage, even when he did not return the favour. Still, on the whole she had had little complaint of his conduct while he was alive, and even less now that he was gone. If he was sometimes rather impatient of her retiring, taciturn nature, he was at other times so full of genuine praise for her embroidery that she suspected that there were depths of feeling and understanding in him which he could not express. These rare glimpses of character, she cherished as she cherished the rare silks her son brought back from India. She took them out, not to show them off to visitors, but in solitary joy, to turn them over and over and wonder at them with a sort of sensual glee. But the glimpses always remained just glimpses, and no attempt she made to catch hold of the thread of feeling and draw out of him whatever was attached to it ever bore fruit. His jaw shut, the thread broke, and the conversation came to an end.

So the years had gone by. Mrs. Miles stitched, her husband and son went daily to their jobs at the bank, and to their clubs in the evenings, and on the weekends. They were neither rich, nor poor. Mr. Miles came from a family of farmers in the north, who had long ago given up the land and taken up jobs in the towns and cities. His father had been a banker, and so Mr. Miles the younger had been a banker, and so his son was now also a banker. She never considered that this unbroken chain might be the fetter that her son would grow eager to break. What they did all day at their workplace, she had no more idea than she might how a jungle native spent his time, for she had never set foot in a bank. Numbers, and by extension money, made her nervous. Although she was sure she kept house frugally, she allowed the housekeeper to sum up the weekly budget, and take it in to Mr. Miles on a Sunday. It was she who told Mrs. Miles whether something was too dear and could be bought cheaper at such and such a market, or whether it was worth paying a little more for a better quality item. Nevertheless, Mrs. Miles felt that she bore the responsibility for these decisions, and took her housework seriously, and if a meal was not to her husband’s liking, or a repair was ill-managed, she shouldered the blame and assured him that she would rectify the situation. This, her husband had early in their marriage inculcated in her, was her duty. In return for being kept in comfort and having the liberty to do as she liked all day while he worked, she must do her part by attending to the little household matters. He had told her this very prettily, in language that suggested that she was the queen of matters domestic, while he was king of matters external.

What had struck her as so charming and delicate then, now filled her with irritation. To Mr. Miles she attached no blame. One simply did as one was brought up to do. One thought the way one was brought up to think. He had intended, as far as his limited model of the world allowed, to gently and flatteringly make his young wife aware of the work required of her. Also to warn her not to be too friendly with the servants, or with their neighbour, Mrs. Abbott, who was a very vulgar woman, or Mrs. Norman, who was a poor widow and would forever be borrowing this or that. He told her these things because he was far more experienced and therefore understood people better, and wished to save her the inconvenience and embarrassment of trying to disentangle herself from an undesirable acquaintance later on. That this admonition left her with no companions did not seem to occur to him. She felt sorry for Mrs. Norman, who was forced to let rooms in her house to alleviate her poverty, and to borrow tea, sugar, and bread from her neighbours almost daily in order to be able to serve breakfast to her tenants. But intent on being the most perfectly-behaved young wife, Mrs. Miles had politely, but firmly, shut the door in the widow’s face. Mrs. Norman had moved away long before Mr. Miles’s death, but had she witnessed the sudden change in Mrs. Miles’s circumstances, she would no doubt have been struck by the irony. Perhaps she would have gloated, but Mrs. Miles had never had the opportunity to know the woman well enough to guess.

She did sometimes envy Mrs. Norman, however. Whatever troubles and degradations the woman suffered through poverty, at least she had work to do, and a purpose to accomplish, and whenever Mrs. Miles spied her through the curtains, she always looked cheerful, with an energy that galvanised her from the trill of her laughter to the flutter of her laces. Meanwhile, Mrs. Miles struggled to make excuses to go out in the morning. While her mother was alive she would go to visit her, and sometimes if that lady was feeling well and the weather was warm, they would take a stroll around the nearby park. But after her mother passed away, this expedient was denied her. For a while she accompanied nurse when she took Jack out to play, braving that woman’s displeasure when her presence kept away the idle gentlemen who loitered in the park. When Mr. Miles sent Jack to boarding school, she was left more alone than ever. Her housekeeper, Miss Morgan, who was a kind and capable person, suggested that she volunteer at a charity, but when Mrs. Miles broached the topic to her husband, he told her that he despised all of those self-righteous women who profited from the poor. For his part, he could think of nothing he would rather do than to remain home instead of going to work, and he hoped that she understood he was doing so for her benefit.

She had considered this as evidence of his love, and had felt wretchedly ungrateful. She could not explain to someone who had never known prolonged idleness that it was not an easy thing to bear. Even with her needlework to occupy her, she had to make up games to defend herself against the clock. At their usual times she watched the charwomen arriving, the coal being delivered, and the dust carts being filled. Every time the clock struck a quarter she would take a turn about the room, for the space of one minute exactly. In the evening, when her husband sat reading or dozing by the fire, in order not to disturb him she would simply lift her eyes and perform a mental sweep of the drawing room.  By the time she grew to suspect that her husband’s advice, while well-meaning, was not in her best interests, this way of life had become habitual. Being shackled to a routine of housework might have made her feel caged, but bondage suggested a desire for freedom and Mrs. Miles had no idea what freedom would entail. What would she do if she didn’t do this?

Now, only a year after her husband’s death, all of these old beliefs and prejudices had been upended. Here she was, standing in a queue at the bank to withdraw money. After which she would go to the marketplace and haggle for the best price on the week’s meat. The queue moved slowly, but she knew Mr. Barker would keep a choice cut for her. Last week she had given him one of her intricate needlework paintings to gift to his wife on her birthday. It was one of the few possessions that the bailiff had allowed her to keep, thinking it of little value. Mr. Miles would have been horrified, not because of the expense, for when it came to her threads he was always generous, but at the thought of a gift that so flippantly crossed the social boundaries. For a respectable, well-to-do woman to make a present to the butcher in order that he might do his work and sell her the good meat which was her due… Unthinkable! But Mrs. Miles was no longer a respectable town wife, but a country housekeeper, and now that she had some idea what freedom could buy her, she was glad of her diminished station. When Mr. Barker handed her the packet of the week’s meat, she had every reason to feel proud of her resourcefulness, and after the errors she had committed over the last months of service, to see the approval in the cook’s face when she told her the price she had paid, and then to witness Mr. Bind’s own enjoyment when he came home for his dinner… these were greater pleasures than she had ever known in her years in London.

She wondered whether cities were designed to keep people – women especially – in order, that they may never experience the revelation that their troubles, just like all other earthly cares, were transitory – nay ephemeral – and like fairies would vanish if they were to look away for a moment. After Mr. Miles passed, she had felt or suspected something of it, during that long night vigil when he was laid out in the parlour like a distinguished guest. She had spoken to him all of the words he had snipped off when he was alive, too afraid to hear that his wife loved him. Not just tolerated, but for some obscure reason actually loved him. She had not spoken aloud – nervous of being overheard by her son – but she felt sure that her husband listened, in his usual impatient way, brushing aside any compliment with a ghostly hand. Her father had taught her to love, and inadvertently, since he died when she was only seven, to talk to the dead.

Her son woke her in the morning. She had fallen asleep with her cheek against the cold wood of the coffin, but there were the mourners to be dealt with. Their task was not to pay respects to the departed, as people often thought, but to distract the living from their grief. This they did well. Mrs. Miles, hearing her husband’s admonitory voice still in her ear, rushed to attend to every detail and not embarrass him further before his colleagues. Having experienced only her mother’s funeral and that of the late Prince, she couldn’t say if the turnout was fair, but she was pleased to see several strange men who seemed to be acquainted with her son. Jack had arranged everything, and as he took her arm she looked up at him in wonder at how strong and capable he had grown. It had never occurred to her that her little boy would one day become her mainstay. But that feeling of security was short-lived. In the evening, he brought all of loose uncertainty of her new life rushing back like a cold draught. He was leaving. He had never wanted to work in a bank, and his father’s untimely death had made him realise that this was not how he wanted to spend his days on earth. He wanted to see more of the world, and he wanted to try his own resources. He was leaving for America to seek his fortune. He had kept his own vigil last night, and felt certain that his father would have supported his decision. Had he talked to Mr. Miles as she had? What had his father told him?

She didn’t know what to say. Jack had always been a quiet boy. Even when he was a child, he never drew attention to himself or got into the sorts of crying scrapes that other schoolboys seemed to. Whenever Mr. Miles talked to his tutors, they always told him that he was a very well-behaved boy. At least, so her husband had told her. Once her son began school, she saw so little of her boy that at every holiday she felt as if she were reacquainting herself with him. And he, perhaps with her. But this sudden decision to leave not only his steady job, but also his steady life was so out of character for him that she worried that she had never known his character aright after all. What did he and his father talk about on their way to work? Did they share their secret desires with each other, as they never did with her? Did confidences begin as soon as the gate was shut? She couldn’t help a pang of jealousy as she imagined father and son exchanging jokes and anecdotes of a world to which she was an unwelcome stranger.

When would she see him again?

He didn’t know.

He would write, wouldn’t he?

Yes, he would write as soon as he was settled.

He would have said something else, but stopped himself. She wanted to speak too. She wanted to tell him that losing him so soon after she had lost his father would break her heart. And not to go. And not to leave his work, for if he did, how were they to keep the house? She didn’t know what her husband’s finances were like, but he had never given her the impression of plenty. But all of these objections she struck out as selfish. If she had had the opportunity to leave all those years ago, would she not have taken it? Before she discovered needlework and the solace she could find in keeping an orderly home, when she was young and a new mother and didn’t know yet how to cope with the loud ticking and slow, unhurried chimes of the carriage clock? She might have taken the chance. Or she might have done what she always did – meekly stay at home.

“Do whatever makes you happy,” she told her son. It was the best advice she could give, considering her limited experience of life.

Looking back, she wished she had said more – not to advise him, as she had thought a mother aught, but simply to tell him that she understood, that he was not alone in feeling the way he did – confused, afraid of missing everything essential. And more than that, she wished she had given him a strong embrace. Instead, dreadfully practical, she had unfastened the silver locket that hung around her neck and handed it to him, saying he might pawn it if he needed the money. He opened it. Inside was a lock of his baby hair, and a tendril of his father’s dark brown hair that had faded to a dull grey. It was from before they were married. She had begged it of him, thinking she was very romantic to ask for a lock of hair rather than a jewel or a trinket. He had obliged her – though even then he could ill afford it – but given her the trinket anyway, inscribed with their names and the date. It was her most valued possession.

Her son closed the locket and handed it back to her, saying it was too precious. He had enough saved up to buy passage and live frugally until he found some other work. She wondered now, as she noted down the morning’s expenses in her logbook, whether Jack had thought she didn’t value the locket. She clasped it and lightly ran her thumb across the etching. It was a habit, and lately she had noticed that the writing had become harder to discern.

A year had passed, and still there was no letter from her son, although she had registered her forwarding address at the post office, and had even written a desperate letter to America, hoping against hope that it might find its way into his hands. He had left the very next day after his father’s funeral; a haste which once again frightened her with its unfamiliarity. He had looked tense and anxious, yet at the same time young and eager, as if heading out on an adventure. Something in him reminded her of her father, and before she knew it, she was weeping. The neighbours saw her. Jack tried desperately to soothe her, and she tried desperately to stop, but it was too late. She couldn’t remember much that passed after that. She thought that someone had helped carry her back into the house, and given her a dose of laudanum, but when she awoke she was alone, sitting in her usual chair by the fire which had died down to an ember. She watched it disappear, and allowed the darkness to build around her, and listened to her old enemy, the carriage clock, with its loud tick and even louder tock, and that sound it made preparatory to striking, as if drawing in its breath to boom as loud and irrefutably as possible.

In hindsight she could laugh at her black premonition of the uneventful years ahead of her. Only two days later Miss Morgan had ushered in a young man from her husband’s bank. Mrs. Miles thought he was there to offer his condolences, but no, he was there to tell her, couched in many legal terms which she couldn’t begin to understand, that she was not only penniless but would shortly lose her home. Mr. Bind had quizzed her on this episode. What had the man said? Had there been investments that had fallen through? Had Mr. Miles frequently been in debt? Where had his income gone? Did he gamble? Was the house mortgaged? Even now that she understood banks and money-matters better, she couldn’t say. Perhaps the young man had been purposefully vague, or perhaps she was still recovering from the shock of losing her husband and parting with her son, but she could recall nothing except her befuddlement, and then a sinking, numb acceptance and lack of surprise that this too, was to be taken away from her. She had lost the thread.

She closed the log-book and stood up. While cook prepared dinner, she went upstairs to fold and check the clean laundry. Then she made Mr. Bind’s bed, and dusted the furniture and windowsills. The house was not a large one, but it was more than one maid could manage. In London, Mrs. Miles had had three maids to a smaller house, but apparently her husband had earned more than a country solicitor. Or had he? Was it possible that even with their modest lifestyle, they had lived beyond their means? She had no way of knowing. Not unless Jack could tell her anything.

The bedroom in order, she went back downstairs to see if Mrs. Bridge needed any assistance and to ask her where the chair covers were kept. Mrs. Bridge looked so approving that she wondered whether she had passed an unknown trial, either by the quality of her morning’s purchases, or by caring for the preservation of the furniture. The slip-covers were in the cupboard under the stairs, and as the maid was busy scrubbing potatoes, the task of taking them out and finding to which chairs they belonged, fell to Mrs. Miles. By the time she finished it was almost midday, and she set the table for Mr. Bind’s lunch. Since his office was a short walk away, he always returned home for his midday meal, although he was rarely punctual.He loved to touch and smell the herbs in the kitchen garden, and almost daily startled Mrs. Bridge by bursting in at the door to her domain, and didn’t scruple to irritate her further by peering into the pots and sometimes even into the oven to see what was cooking. He had once admitted to Mrs. Miles that he had a great desire to learn the culinary arts, but suspected that this would be an offence Mrs. Bridge would never forgive.

“Ah, the covers. A necessity, and yet, I always hope the good housekeeper will forget them,” he said, noticing the changed aspect of the drawing room as he passed through.

She had learned that Mr. Bind was always very forthright about his feelings, and saw no need to conceal or make light of them as the English did. Mrs. Bridge so frequently expressed her embarrassment of his declarations that Mrs. Miles was certain that she took great enjoyment in them. For her part she admired his honesty, and the revelations about his inner life. It astonished her that he could not only tell his cook or housekeeper without hesitation that he loved them, but that he was as ready to admit to less admirable feelings. One day, with uncharacteristic brusqueness, he had shut the door in the face of a sad mendicant. Later he had told Mrs. Miles that he had felt jealous of the man’s good looks, and that he was immediately ashamed of his behaviour. Mrs. Miles heard from Mrs. Bridge that when he had seen the mendicant in town the next day, he had more than made up for his rudeness, a circumstance which greatly irritated the cook who was always chafing against Mr. Bind’s generosity to other people. Mrs. Miles knew that he paid her very little, considering the work she had to do with only one day maid to help. The maid received even less, and to his housekeeper he was several months in arrears, although she could not discount his provision of board and fare. Possibly he was not aware of the oversight, and  she thought, smiling, he would not appreciate her delicacy in not reminding him of it.

Mrs. Miles didn’t mind. Several weeks after her arrival he had noticed the frayed and faded threads she used for her embroidery. Alone in her room of an evening she had taken apart one of the completed needlework paintings she had secreted from the bailiffs, and begun to use the silks to embroider a new design. Like Penelope, she unpicked more than she stitched, since it was the work she enjoyed. By the time Mr. Bind thought to invite her to sit with him by the fire in his little study of an evening, the threads had become so worn that most of her time was spent hiding the frayed tendrils. The very next day he had made her a present of some new skeins. They were very fine, and she wondered where he had found the money to buy them, when she noticed that he was wearing a very plain pair of cufflinks, and that his gold pair were not in the little dish on his dresser where he usually kept them. Feeling quite ashamed, she had even ventured to open the top drawer and peek inside. There were his shaving things, a hair brush, and a few buttons and tarnished pins. A wave of tenderness washed over her when she saw these simple possessions. She wondered whether Mr. Miles had had to make such sacrifices for her. Did he truly only go to work because he wished her to live comfortably? If only he had allowed her some occupation and some company, how much more she could have appreciated the life she had led. Why had she never insisted on it? He may have been cross for some time, but surely when he saw how happy it made her to have some purpose, he would have understood.

It had taken her a long time to learn that the men did not know what they doing any more than she did. Mr. Miles had tried to keep up a semblance of sapience that Mr. Bind destroyed by being so eager to point out his own faults. Mrs. Bridge, who would defend her employer fiercely out of his hearing, could not forbear complaining loudly of his misplaced generosity when she thought he might hear. These criticisms he took cheerfully, but one evening when Mrs. Bridge had gone home to her husband, and she was alone with Mr. Bind, he asked her whether she thought the cook truly disliked him. She assured him that Mrs. Bridge was his staunchest supporter.

“And you?” he asked, catching her off guard with the sincerity in his tone.

She stammered. Yes, she thought he was the most amiable and generous man she had known. That is… she did not wish to suggest that her late husband was ungenerous, but he was more… cautious.

“I see,” said Mr. Bind.

She could tell he was thinking, and she was afraid that he would take her words to mean that she thought him incautious. She hastened to thank him again for his generous present. She was sure it had cost him too much.

“Oh, stop thanking me for it, Mrs. Miles,” he said, waving aside her comment. “I do not think anything bought with money can match a thing bought with the heart.”

She didn’t know what reply to make to that. Much as she admired his forthrightness, she couldn’t match it.

He sighed. “I have forgotten to thank you, Mrs. Miles,” he said. “You do your work admirably, as I said you would. Even Mrs. Bridge has admitted it. Ha! Yes, I got it out of her. She conceded.”

He slapped the chair arm in triumph.

She couldn’t help smiling. When she first arrived at the house, Mrs. Bridge had been rightly skeptical of her abilities as a housekeeper, and had made her opinion known to Mr. Bind.

“She will learn,” he had said.

Mrs. Bridge was outraged. A housekeeper could order her about, tell her what to cook and how to cook it; a housekeeper could receive better wages and do less work. It wasn’t right to hire a woman without any experience, without so much as a letter of introduction. There were many people who looked respectable but turned out to be thieves or murderers.

But Mr. Bind’s mind was made up. Waiting outside the door to the study, she heard him say, “I trust my instincts, Mrs. Bridge. I think Mrs. Miles will work hard, and as you know, I cannot pay well enough to hire a housekeeper who will run a house with just one maid.”

Mrs. Bridge said something she couldn’t hear.

“Would you prefer to leave the cooking to Mrs. Miles while you do the housekeeping?” he asked.

To this Mrs. Bridge made no answer, but stomped out of the room and down the stairs, pausing only to glare at the new housekeeper. Mr. Bind called Mrs. Miles inside, and when the cook’s retreating footsteps had died down, he welcomed her to the house, holding out his hand to shake on it. It was the first time she had shaken hands with a man.

When Mrs. Bridge realised how far Mrs. Miles was from being able to order her about, and how willingly she accepted guidance, she softened. She sympathised with the widow, and said that just showed how much better the country was than the city, for here people looked out for each other, and no one would countenance a poor lady being left out on the street. Mrs. Miles had her doubts about this. At least London had its institutions and workhouses, although she had heard that their conditions were very bad. When she first found herself standing on the pavement outside her old home, with a small trunk on one side, and Miss Morgan rubbing her shoulder on the other, she had assumed that she would be taken to some such establishment for impoverished women. But Miss Morgan, who had some experience of these matters, told her on no account to consider it. Had she no relatives with whom she could stay? What about her sister-in-law? No, her husband’s sister, whom she had never met, had emigrated. Her own parents and her only sibling were dead, and she didn’t know of any extended family. Then Miss Morgan had astonished her by tucking a few coins into her mistress’s hand. It was not much, but it would help get her lodging for a week or two. She was sorry she could not do more, but she would have to seek a position herself. She had earlier asked Mrs. Miles to write her a letter of reference, and they had sat in the half-emptied drawing room, and Miss Morgan had somehow found a pen and ink and paper, and Mrs. Miles, trying to master a hand that shook with cold as well as fatigue, had written down what her housekeeper dictated.

It was Miss Morgan’s idea that she take a train out of London and start afresh somewhere new. Mrs. Miles had protested that she knew nowhere else. Then she was to take the train north, and jump off at the first quaint town that felt right to her. Mrs. Miles had never been on a train, but Miss Morgan assured her there was nothing to it. She accompanied her mistress to the station, bought her a ticket, and before Mrs. Miles knew what was happening, had helped her into a carriage and was saying her goodbyes. How Miss Morgan would have liked to leave London! But she had to work to help support her sister and her two little nephews who had no father. Mrs. Miles had never inquired into Miss Morgan’s home life, and as the train pulled away, she felt ashamed at this oversight. As soon as she had some money, she would send her old housekeeper the money she had been lent.

Encouraged by her success with the butcher, she thought she might be able to make some money with her needlework, and Mrs. Bridge, when she told her, said she would ask a seamstress she knew if she might be able to offer her some work. This she did, and a week later the cook handed Mrs. Miles two gowns tightly wrapped in a bundle, with threads and a paper pattern to embroider on the bodices. She worked in every spare moment she had from doing household chores, and although she would have preferred to keep her occupation secret from Mr. Bind, she was obliged to sew in the evening while she sat with him by the study fire, in order that she might not waste candles in her own room. This had the effect of reminding him of the wages he owed her.

Although Mr. Bind’s payments remained sporadic, combined with the modest earnings from her embroidery, within a few months she had saved what felt to her, who had never had any of her own money, like a sizeable sum. Every week she deposited her earnings in the bank, as Mr. Bind had taught her.

“You must take an interest in your interest,” he had said, and she had smiled at the pun even though she didn’t fully understand it.

The bank was diagonally opposite Mr. Bind’s offices, and one day, exiting the bank and glancing across to the office building as was her custom, she saw Mr. Bind warmly clasping the hand of a strange woman. As Mrs. Miles watched, he put his arm around the strange woman’s shoulders and drew her inside. With some of the candour that she had picked up from Mr. Bind, she admitted to herself that her first reaction was one of jealousy. A moment’s calm reflection as she turned to head for home, however, told her that Mr. Bind would hardly embrace a lover out in the street where he might be observed. The strange woman was most likely a family member. Mrs. Bridge had told her that Mr. Bind had a sister who lived in London, and an aunt and uncle who lived in Wales. His sister, then. And yet, this explanation did nothing to alleviate the unease she felt at the thought of having a mistress at the house; being ousted from her place by Mr. Bind’s fire, and no longer being in control of the running of the house and of her own day.

I can leave, she thought with relief, looking at the bank slip in her hand. I have some money saved up. I know how to earn my keep. I don’t have to rely on any man.

The thought quieted her worries. What had she to fear? She had lost everything and found herself, and should she need to, she could do it again. She hoped that Jack, wherever he was, felt the same strength in his own abilities, for if he did, she was sure he would be safe.

She became aware of footsteps hurrying behind her, and a familiar voice called her name.

“Mrs. Miles!”

It was Mr. Bind.

He had seen her from the window and come rushing out after her. He wanted her to meet his sister.  “I know you’re very busy, but won’t you step up to my office for a few moments? It would please me immensely to introduce you to each other.”

“To your office?” she asked. “Surely she will be coming to visit you at home?”

She would need to discuss the meals with Mrs. Bridge and order more meat for the unexpected visitor. The second bedroom was clean, thankfully. She and the maid had aired and swept it only the day before, which was fortunate, as it had lain empty since she started work.

“She will stay with us for a few days, I hope, but I would prefer you to meet her alone,” he said, which puzzled her. Did he mean to leave them alone in the room?

“Yes, of course,” she said.

As she followed him up the stairs, she did her best to arrange her clothes and smooth her hair. She had never been to his offices before, and never imagined she would be allowed into this male sanctum. Mr. Bind led her to the second floor, through a waiting room where he took her shopping basket and laid it safely on a chair, and into his own room where his sister was waiting.

“Ernie, where is your secretary?” she asked, as soon as the door opened. Then, “Mrs. Miles, how do you do? I’m Mrs. Arnold, Mr. Bind’s sister.”

There was none of the hint of foreignness in her accent that there was in her brother’s. She took Mrs. Miles’s hand in a firm, friendly clasp.

“How good to meet you,” said Mrs. Miles. In the relief of learning that the woman was married, she added, “I hope you will make a long stay.”

“Oh, not long,” she said. “There is a meeting in a few days that I must attend. Ernie, you have not answered my question.”

Mr. Bind sighed and sank wearily into the chair behind his desk. The room was not a large one. It was dominated by a large mahogany bureau, somewhat worn at the corners and needing a polish. There were two chairs for clients, also needing reupholstering. With a housekeeper’s eye, Mrs. Miles saw that the side of the curtains that faced the window had faded, and no doubt the back of Mr. Bind’s chair, which caught the sunlight directly, was in similar state. The shelves and cabinets that lined the walls were untidy, and only the lower shelves had been dusted. Her fingers itched to give the whole a thorough clean.

“The fact of the matter is, I had to let the boy go,” admitted Mr. Bind.

“How could you?” demanded Mrs. Arnold. “What kind of solicitor has no secretary?”

“A poor country solicitor who can’t afford one,” he said.

“Nonsense, you have plenty of loyal clients. You simply don’t charge them enough.”

“They don’t pay enough.”

“Did you know that some of them don’t pay at all?” Mrs. Arnold asked her. “My brother has inherited our family’s crippling generosity.”

Although it was delivered in a jocular tone, this criticism brought out a protective impulse in Mrs. Miles. It was unjust that both his sister and Mrs. Bridge should rake him for being kind-hearted. She remembered how Mr. Miles had convinced her to shut the door Mrs. Norman’s face, and the absurd fear he had instilled in her that their neighbour would impose upon them.

“I admire Mr. Bind’s generosity more than anything,” she said, and had the pleasure of seeing the smile that spread across his face. “I think it takes courage to give when you have little yourself. But, forgive my impertinence, I also think that Mr. Bind could be more generous if he had more money.”

His sister laughed. “Well said, Mrs. Miles.”

Mr. Bind looked contemplative. “I had not thought of it in that way,” he said.

“You wouldn’t,” said his sister, severely, “for you haven’t an ounce of common sense.”

Again Mrs. Miles came to his defence. “I think if I were to clean your offices, polish the furniture, and replace these worn chairs with a couple from your house, the place would look a lot more respectable, and you would be in a better position to charge your clients more,” she suggested.

Mrs. Arnold exchanged a look with her brother. “I can see why you like her,” she said. “She is quite as generous with her time as you are.”

“Mrs. Miles, I couldn’t ask so much of you,” said Mr. Bind. “You already work so hard.”

She tried to make light of the matter. “I hope your house will not suffer too much by my absence,” she joked.

But Mr. Bind took the comment rather more literally. “We would all suffer by your absence, Mrs. Miles,” he said.

She felt the cowardly instinct to hide, but only a moment before she had praised Mr. Bind for the courage of generosity. “As you said, Mr. Bind, what is bought with the heart is far more valuable,” she said.

He sprang up from his chair and strode to her. For a moment she thought he would embrace her, but he only clasped her hands in his, and when she looked up she saw that his eyes glistened with tears.

“Thank you,” he said.

What wouldn’t she do for this dear, sweet man?

“We will all help!” declared Mr. Bind. “I will close up the offices for a few days so we can get it in order.”

“I can go through your books and send reminders to any clients who have forgotten to pay,” said Mrs. Arnold. “I keep the society’s books now, you know. I’ve got rather good at it.”

“My sister is a suffragette,” explained Mr. Bind, as he searched in his desk drawer for a piece of paper. “Now you may decide for yourself which of us is more ‘cripplingly generous’.”

“Oh, do not look so alarmed, Mrs. Miles,” said Mrs. Arnold with a laugh.

She had read her expression correctly. Mrs. Miles had never taken an interest in politics, but Mr. Miles had always spoken with utmost contempt of the suffrage movement. To him, it was a betrayal not only of the gentle feminine nature, but also of the men who did everything in their power to protect it. Mrs. Miles had formed a very different picture of a suffragette to that which this woman’s tidy appearance and friendly speech presented to her.

“We merely wish to live by our own rules,” continued Mrs. Arnold. “You know a thing or two about the law, Ernie. Don’t you agree that women are sentient enough to have a say in its making?”

“Indubitably,” said Mr. Bind. He had sat down with paper and pencil and she saw him scrawl a large “closed” across the top of the page.

“There, you see. Any sensible man must agree. Women should have the right to vote.”

Mr. Bind paused. “Curious, is it not, Mrs. Miles, that I am only ‘sensible’, when I agree with my sister, and at any other time I haven’t ‘an ounce of common sense’?” he remarked.

Mrs. Miles laughed. “I believe that is politics,” she said.

They began work that afternoon and worked late into the night, cleaning and sorting. Mrs. Miles, whose own brother had been much older than her, thought it was the most companionable time she had spent, and safe in the knowledge that neither Mr. Bind nor Mrs. Arnold would think her too candid, she said as much.

“If you consider all this hard labour ‘companionable’, I suppose you will say that an outing is nothing short of ‘intimate’. And yet I would dearly love a day at the seaside after all this dust. What do you say?”

It didn’t matter what Mrs. Miles said, for her objections were overridden when it was discovered that she had never seen the sea.

Early the next morning Mrs. Arnold marched them off to the railway station, and refusing contributions from both her brother and Mrs. Miles, bought them all tickets for the day. Mrs. Bridge didn’t come in until the afternoon on a Sunday, and Mr. Bind, reminded of this fact, had left the cook a note that they had left on an expedition and would not be back until late. Mrs. Miles felt sorry that Mrs. Bridge could not join them, but she didn’t feel that it was her place to invite her.

It was a warm and beautiful spring day, and her first sight of the sea was one that Mrs. Miles would not forget for the rest of her life. Nothing could equal the fresh breeze, the call of gulls, and the vast prospect of the shining waters. They walked along the promenade, and Mrs. Arnold took her arm.

“By the by, what is your first name? I asked Ernie but he didn’t know. It seems stupid calling each other Mrs. this and Mrs. that when we may soon… What I mean is when we are so intimately acquainted.”

Mrs. Miles smiled. “It’s Constance,” she said. “I’ve never much liked it.”

“I think it is very suitable. I’m Rosemary. Where has my brother got to? I’m parched. Ah, I think he has given up his place to that old woman.” She sighed. “He likes you very much, you know,” she said lightly, after a pause. “Now, I know you will protest and say he is very generous, but I think you underestimate yourself. And furthermore, I think you are a very sensible woman, and a very good influence on him, and I want you to know that if you were to… that I would give you my blessing. And it’s no use pointing out that I have only just met you, because I have an eye for these things and I can tell. That’s one thing my brother and I have in common. Now, hush, here he comes.”

This speech was delivered in such a rapid whisper that Mrs. Miles barely had time to hear and understand it, much less to think of a reply. Mr. Bind returned bearing refreshments, and if he noticed her distraction for the remainder of the trip, he didn’t quiz her. But to herself Mrs. Miles was not so kind, and an interminable catechism took place in her mind until long after she had returned home, crawled into her bed, and shut her eyes to go to sleep. Every time she tried to ask Mr. Miles whether he thought her wicked for being in love with Mr. Bind, he was stubbornly silent. Was it because she had not spoken to him in so long? But she had been so busy! She had to work hard, surely he saw that. Didn’t he think she deserved a little happiness after all of the difficulties she had overcome? Wouldn’t he want someone to look after her? To love her?

She spent a restless night, and was not prepared to hear Mrs. Bridge echo her own doubts as soon as she arrived in the kitchen the next morning.

“A trip to the seaside!” exclaimed the cook, tying on her apron. What was a respectable widow, still in deep mourning, doing going to the seaside with her employer? It wasn’t decent.

Mrs. Miles pointed out that Mr. Bind’s sister had accompanied them, but Mrs. Bridge was not mollified. It was the principle of the matter, she said.

Mrs. Miles couldn’t argue. She felt the same scruples herself. She clasped the locket around her neck and ran her finger across the etching. In London, a year had felt a very short time, despite the daily tedium. The changing seasons were heralded only by the change from winter linen to spring, and the special meals prepared for red-letter days; whereas in the country there was a wealth of change in just one week, from the first peeks of yellow to the rush of rose bush after rose bush. What might not happen in a whole year? She might only be halfway through her mourning period, but Mrs. Miles no longer felt like a widow, or even like Mrs. Miles.

“Good morning, Constance,” said Mrs. Arnold, when she descended to breakfast.

Mrs. Miles had not heard her name in so long that it felt new, and light.

“Good morning,” she said. “Is there anything else you would like? I believe we also have some marmalade, though Mr. Bind doesn’t care for it.”

“Everything is perfect, thank you. But aren’t you joining us?” asked Mrs. Arnold, evidently forgetting that she was the housekeeper.

“No, thank you. I have had my breakfast,” she said.

“Well then you must have a cup of tea while we talk about our improvements to the office. I had the most brilliant idea when I woke up this morning.”

Mrs. Miles decided to bear Mrs. Bridge’s censure, and sat down obligingly. Mrs. Arnold was just beginning to tell her about her plan when Mr. Bind joined them, beaming with the benefits of his day off.

“That was a good idea of my sister’s,” he said. “I can’t remember when last I slept so well.”

“Good morning, Ernie. As it happens, I have another good idea I was just about to tell Constance.”

“My sister is always full of ideas, Mrs. Miles. No, please don’t get up. I don’t need anything.”

Mrs. Bridge entered the room just then on the pretext of wanting help with the jelly she was preparing for dinner, “special for Mrs. Arnold”, but if Mrs. Miles was too busy, she wouldn’t dream of imposing.

“Couldn’t it wait, Mrs. Miles?” asked Rosemary, disregarding the cook. “We were just discussing our plans.”

But Mrs. Miles knew that Mrs. Bridge would complain bitterly if the jelly didn’t set properly, which no doubt it wouldn’t if she didn’t help. She had wanted to ask Mrs. Bridge if the maid could help them with clearing out the office, but she could see that the cook had taken it into her head to prepare something special for the guest, and her irritation at the previous day’s activities was compounded by the irritation of learning that Mrs. Miles would absent herself to work on clearing out Mr. Bind’s office. To learn that the upstart housekeeper had been invited into the master’s workplace, which she herself had never seen, was the final insult, and Constance now felt that the woman was ranged against her as she had been on her arrival.

She went about helping Mrs. Bridge but her thoughts were on what Rosemary had told her, all in a whisper on the previous day. She seemed to consider her marriage to Mr. Bind a certainty. Was he in love with her? It seemed impossible, and yet, there had been many small signs, from inviting her into his study, to buying her silks, to showing her his workplace, and introducing her to his sister… It had grown so slowly and naturally as to be almost imperceptible, like the fruit trees that bloomed in the garden. One noticed the first few blossoms, and then one woke to find them frothing with flowers and bees. It was difficult for her to compare her feelings for Mr. Bind with those that she had felt for Mr. Miles, for her ideas then had been so different, and her vision so unclear. She had never truly seen the man she was to marry. Whereas now she felt that she did see Mr. Bind, and what was more important, she saw herself with a greater honesty than ever before. She could admit to herself that in addition to her love for Mr. Bind, she would enjoy calling his home her own, and not being left in a limbo between the master and the servants. She could put Mrs. Bridge in her place. She could do so now. It would feel disloyal, after all the assistance that the woman had rendered her, but Mrs. Bridge’s outspoken disapproval of her conduct had broken the trust between them. The cook’s comments made it plain that her objection went beyond Mrs. Miles’s widowhood – she was jealous that Mrs. Miles had not only been promoted to housekeeper, but would thence rise to the status of mistress of the house. Such little regard for her feelings, or for those of Mr. Bind made her feel as though she were the one who had been betrayed.

Mrs. Bridge slammed the filled jelly mould against the kitchen table, but Constance found herself impervious to the woman’s anger. People could say what they liked. Her heart rose above it.

When she returned to the dining room, the siblings had finished breakfast, and she had the feeling that they had been speaking of her. She smiled at them, and began clearing the table, and Rosemary stood up to help her, and Mr. Bind followed suit.

“Really, there’s no need, you’re our – you’re a guest,” said Constance, feeling her cheeks redden at the mistake. “Mr. Bind, please, let me.”

She took the plates from him and hurried out of the room, but Rosemary followed her with the tea things.

“Are you still coming to help us with the clearing, Constance?” she asked, entering the kitchen in her wake.

“Yes, of course,” she said, then turning to the maid, “would you bring out the bucket and mop, and the box of dust rags, please Martha? You can set them by the door.”

“How am I supposed to cook dinner without anyone to help me?” asked Mrs. Bridge, peevishly.

“You will have Martha to help you, as always, Mrs. Bridge. We will return for luncheon at midday as usual.”

Mrs. Bridge noticed her authoritative tone, and gave her a dark look.

Constance ignored her. She told Rosemary that she would be back down in a moment. She went up to her room and before she could second-guess herself, she took off her black dress, and put on the only other dress she owned. It smelled a little musty, but she was going to spend the day cleaning, after all. She would purchase a new one as soon as she had a chance. She folded away her mourning, and hesitated. Then she unclasped the locket from around her neck, and laid it among the folds. It would be safer there.

When she went back downstairs, she found that Martha had done as she had asked. The cleaning things were piled up beside the kitchen door. Mrs. Bridge stared when she saw the change in her dress.

“Well I never,” she said, flinging down the saucepan she had been stirring. “What has the world come to? Your poor husband must be turning in his grave. To think that this is the way you repay all of our kindness in taking you in and teaching you the running of the household. Have you no shame?”

“That’s enough, Mrs. Bridge.”

The voice was familiar, but the tone was one that Constance had never imagined Mr. Bind could utter. There was no arguing with it.

“Mrs. Miles, have you given instructions for lunch?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. Bind.”

“Good, good, then let us get to work, and leave Mrs. Bridge to hers.”

She ushered her to the door, picking up the bucket and mop as he went.

“Mr. Bind, surely you don’t wish to be seen in the town like that, let Martha carry those,” said Mrs. Bridge.

“Not at all. I know she is indispensable to you, Mrs. Bridge. I am not ashamed to be seen with a bucket and mop. Some might say I was improving myself. Good day.”

Rosemary was waiting for them at the garden gate. Together the three of them walked up the lane towards the main street, enjoying the warm sun and the breathing deeply of the scent of lilacs.

“You never told me your brilliant idea,” said Constance.

“That’s right! I must warn you, Ernie did not think you would like it, and I will not be at all offended if you don’t, but I was just thinking how insufferable Mrs. Bridge is, and well, wouldn’t it be nice, if you wanted to get out of the house, if you worked as Ernie’s secretary. At least for a while, to see if you liked it.”

She was turning the idea over in her mind when Mr. Bind spoke.

“Before you make your decision, Mrs. Miles, I wish to put another proposition before you.”

He stopped, and the ladies stopped also.

“My idea is that… instead of being my secretary, you may become my wife,” he said.

The declaration was so sudden that Rosemary chortled. “Really, Ernie, of all the graceless ways to ask a woman to marry you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask you here and now, but it just sort of bubbled up. I’m afraid I have no experience in these matters.”

Constance smiled up at him. The dear, kind, generous, man. “You’ll learn,” she said.

THE END.


Notes

You can watch me start writing this story in Write Along #2. I created a Heroine Frame to develop Mrs. Miles and continued writing her story in Write Along #3. If you’re enrolled in How to be the Heroine of Your Own Story or The One Page Novel, you can find the finished sheet in the course forums.

Genre

I’m not sure how correct I am in categorising this story as “domestic fiction”, but I couldn’t find a more suitable genre. It’s certainly inspired by Victorian heroines and “domestics”, but without any historical emphasis. My main inspiration was the writings of Dorothy Whipple and Elizabeth Taylor, whose novels are categorised in Amazon under “classics”, and “literary fiction” – not very helpful!

Making changes

I considered making Mrs. Miles good with numbers and money from the start, because it seemed unlikely that she would get a job as a housekeeper without being able to budget and buy things at a good price. But looking at the Heroine Frame it’s easy to see that this would have several consequences:

  1. It would bring Mrs. Miles closer to her Resolution state, thereby contracting her development arc.
  2. It would somewhat undermine her Stasis state of being disinterested in her husband’s work.
  3. It would take away from the work she has to put in during the Quest.

Therefore, I decided that it would be a better option to write in a reason why Mrs. Miles was able to get a job as a housekeeper, despite some unsuitability to the work. It’s in this sort of back-and-forth decision-making process that the Heroine Frame can really save you time and energy by giving you an overview of the consequences that a change will have on your character.

That said, I’d like to strengthen the development of this ART in edits!

Show your working

If you have space, sometimes it’s useful to cross items out instead of erasing them. Your decision-making process can also become your character’s. I found this when I was considering what jobs Mrs. Miles might be able to take on in order to support herself.

Non-linear narrative

Since the narrative isn’t chronological, I found that checking off scenes as I wrote about them really helped me remember what I’d covered.

Indirect speech

I used indirect speech for every character for the beginning of the story, until Mr. Bind broke through. Mrs. Miles’s speech and thoughts are also indirectly related until near the end of the story when she finds her voice. My intention was to convey Mrs. Miles’s detachment, as if there’s something muffling her perception of the world. Of course, this also gives her more control as the narrator, so I’m not sure how effective it is.

Unreliable Characters

I decided to make Mrs. Bridge a “bridge character”, helping Mrs. Miles to attain her Resolution state, but later changing to a Stasis character opposed to Mrs. Miles’s happy ending. I think the contradiction this creates makes her more three-dimensional (see The Simple Trick to Three-Dimensional Characters).

Edits

I would love to develop this story slower and with fewer “skips”. I think a story like this makes the reader feel the character’s change in part by the time spent reading it, so I would love to expand it and pay more attention to developing the ARTs step-by-step. Also, as always, the end feels rather rushed because of the time constraint!

WORD COUNT: 9170


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