Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

Babes in the Wood, an electronic edition

by B. M. Croker [Croker, B.M. (Bithia Mary), d.1920]

date: 1914
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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THE two ladies started involuntarily, as there was the sound of rapid footsteps, and silken rustling, then a tall girl, wearing an immense black hat, literally flew into the room.

'Mother' she exclaimed, and before that elegant personage, struggling with a tight glove, was aware, she was in her arms.

'My dear Milly!' she gasped, as she hastily extricated herself and patted her hair. 'Oh, darling,how you have grown!' and she contemplated her for a moment in expressive silence.

Yes, Milly was as tall as herself, and resembled her closely--not merely in height alone. Mrs. Trafford's critical gaze instantly perceived the delicate features, exquisite skin, and truly wonderful eyes--eyes that were an idealized copy of her own. Undoubtedly the girl had developed rapidly, and was now a brilliantly lovely young woman! A young woman who was to sleep in the box-room, and wear her mother's altered gowns; a young woman who was to make herself useful, dust the best china, arrange flowers, go messages, write notes, and entertain the bores. This Milly was, to say the least of it, unexpected. Here was a beauty and a personality that could not be set aside or concealed.

Aloud her mother merely said--

'Darling, I do hope you won't be hurt, will you? but to-night I've an engagement--such a bore!' (Her engagements were invariably bores.) 'I've to dine with Lady Foxrock; she would not let me off, as she is expecting Prince Hertenstein, so I must leave you--but only for three hours. Here,' indicating her companion with a wave of her hand, 'is | | 178 Mrs. Wallingford, who will keep you company, and be my understudy.'

Mrs. Wallingford, who had meanwhile remained petrified on the rug, now rose to her feet.

'You remember her, don't you?'

'Why, of course I do,' turning round eagerly; 'you gave me heaps of delicious cream chocolates,' said Milly, in a high, clear voice. 'How I loved sweets, especially marrons glacé--Oh, I was such a greedy pig!'

'Greedy or not, you will be glad of your dinner, Milly,' said Mrs. Wallingford, a little awestruck by this girl's radiant youth and beauty; 'you and I will be tête-à-tête when your mother is out, and I shall expect you to tell me all your secrets.'

'That is an easy matter,' she answered gaily, taking the pins out of her hat, and flinging it on the sofa. 'I have not a single secret in the world! I am all on the surface, as you will soon see, and just bubbling over with a frantic desire to come out and enjoy myself!'

Mrs. Trafford's expression as she listened became a little fixed; she was confronted with the vision of her own youth, full of the joie de vivre, and the vision affected her painfully. However, this was no time for sentimental reflection. The announcement, ' The brougham is at the door,' summoned her forth, and bestowing an eloquent glance on Mrs. Wallingford, and an affectionate pat on Milly's shoulder, with,.'Mind you make yourself at home, darling!' she passed out, her long, grey velvet train trailing languidly behind her.

. . . . . . .

Mrs. Trafford returned at half-past eleven (actually driven home, no, not by yearning, maternal affection, but by sheer anxiety and curiosity), and discovered her friend and representative extended at full length on the sofa, a cigarette between her lips, and the novel in her hands.

| | 179

'Well?' she exclaimed, or rather interrogated, throwing off her opera cloak, and sinking into a chair.

'Oh, so you are back' looking up; 'this is a poisonous book! It is well. She dined, she was tired, she adores her mother, and she has gone up to bed in the box-room.'

'How you do harp upon that box-room' protested Mrs. Trafford impatiently. 'I've made it quite pretty, with white paint, chintz, and new paper.

'Yes, but you cannot make it, with all your good will, any bigger than a cupboard to swing a kitten; the window is in the slates, and there is no fire-place.'

'I know. It's impossible to make this house elastic, or blow it out like an air cushion. Milly must just take what there is.'

'She seemed a little surprised to be going aloft among the servants.'

'Was she, poor darling? I'm afraid many surprises are in store for her! How did you get on?'

'Admirably; I don't think you need be uneasy. Milly will soon make a great match--she knows her way about.'

'What--that child!'

'Yes, that child--and she is a child. She is just the unexpected sort of girl that will have a furore. She does not play bridge, she has never smoked, she has not embarked on any social questions--she does not talk slang.'

'And what does she do? A girl in these days, no matter what her looks may be, must have some label. She must specialize.'

'I don't know quite yet. I think she can perhaps hold her tongue!'

'And use her eyes?' supplemented her mother quickly.

'Not in the way you think; but from one or two of her remarks I gathered that she is observant.'

| | 180

'How do you mean?'

'Well, I fancy she looks about her, and sees things. For instance, I should not be surprised if she observed that Lady Lucas relates risky stories, that Harry Villiers drinks, that Bluff the millionaire tells awful lies, that Lord Bobby is a shocking snob, and that General Morland and Sir Lucas Wakefield both want to marry you.'

'My dear, what nonsense! You talk as if she was forty.'

'No, I talk of heredity. She has your face, your brains, and your extraordinary instinct for people; but she has, what you have not--a heart.'

'Then, so much the worse for her! Hearts are an encumbrance, and entirely out of date.'

'Unfortunately, hers is an extra large size, and it is full of her own dear, sweet, beautiful, darling mother--and the glorious time they are to spend together!'

'Good Heavens! Glorious time indeed! a time of incessant hard labour. I shall present her at a May Court, take her to the Kingstons for Ascot--I have about six engagements a day--and a share of an opera box. I shall have her photo done by Flatterette, and send it to the best weekly papers. Mrs. Puff will write me nice little paragraphs--I've put some things in her way. Of course, I shall get Milly's frocks at Rookes', her hats at Wiked's-and I ask you, could any mother do more?'

'To launch a daughter on the market? Well--no.'

'Lally, you really are a little beast!'

'I rather wish she were my girl. What would you think of giving her to me--I'm next door, I have a nice large bedroom, a middle-sized heart, and a big motor.'

'Don't be ridiculous! I shall give a few dinners here, and at Hurlingham--never more than eight--eight is the perfect number.'

| | 181

'Yes, and with eligible guests--bien entendu.'

Mrs. Trafford nodded assent.

'I shall ask Algy Bullfit, he is dull, but he has no near relatives, and £30,000 a year.'

'They say he spends every penny of that-and more.'

'Lord Falcombe--'

'Too poor; his mother is looking for an heiress--home industries preferred.'

'Jones ap Jones--'

'He was a pit boy; naturally his bride must be a lady of title.'

'I see,' in the voice of a patient sufferer, 'there is no talking to you, Lally; you are impossible.'

'Just one word before I go. Don't invite pretty, smart married women to your little dinners--give the poor child a chance! I shall follow her course with the deepest sympathy, interest, and good will. The girl is wonderfully pretty, Valeria, with a wild sort of spirit, a warm heart, and at the back of all there is a trace of the Puritan!'

'The Puritan!' in a shocked voice. 'My dear Lally, how could she possibly be that?'

'She does not inherit that strain from you, I admit--her Irish blood and her Irish grandmother have something to say to it. Now, she is about to plunge into the great whirlpool of London Society. I wonder how she will emerge at the end of a season? A little battered--clutching a coronet? or just her simple original self?'

'Lally, I wonder you can lie there, talking such arrant nonsense at this hour of the night!'

But Mrs. Wallingford merely waved a lily-white hand and continued--

'Let me remind you, Valeria, that during the last few years girls have emancipated themselves; they march with the times, and are none the worse for it. They have pursuits, clubs, professions and latch-keys.'

| | 182

'Horrible, unfeminine creatures!' exclaimed Mrs. Trafford (who smoked and betted), with an expression of profound disgust.

'Well, do not keep your girl too tightly in hand, my dear, that is all I can say.'

'Milly adores me,' declared her mother; 'and will do exactly as she is told.'

'Dear, sweet old-fashioned daughter! Do you suppose she has no bent--no individuality--no--' and she paused, 'lover?'

'Good Heavens, no! I don't believe the child knows a man under sixty.'

'There is Big Ben tolling midnight, and I must be off,' said Mrs. Wallingford, rising from the sofa with a great yawn. 'Remember, if I can be of any help, shopping, chaperoning, gooseberry-picking, you have only to telephone next door. Don't trouble to move--my furs are in the hall--night-night'

The lady at the moment descending the stairs was Mrs. Trafford's next-door neighbour, and an old school-fellow (the wealthy widow of a City man, nearly thirty years her senior, who had died of gout in the stomach), had neither the brains, the wide reach, nor the ambition of her friend Valeria. Fashionable functions bored her, as did visits, card-leaving, and note-writing--in short, the 'hard labour' of society. She was, however, a bridge fanatic, and belonged to several smart clubs, enjoyed the theatres, a good dinner, and loved dogs.'

Small 'Chows' were her particular extravagance, and it was whispered that one of her blinking, helpless pets had cost a thousand pounds. All the same, her ready hand was ever extended to help the poor, and not a few dumb animals had good cause to thank the tender heart of Lalla Wallingford. In her way, Mrs. Wallingford was a philosopher, an acute ironical observer, took life as it came, and was under no delusions respecting her attractive neighbour, whom she both liked and admired. She was aware that, | | 183 were she to die, Valerie Trafford would not experience the slightest regret, merely heave a passing sigh for the loss of certain conveniences, such as the loan of a motor or a man-servant. Poor Valeria! never was any one more wanting in love and human sympathy. She could not help herself; she was born so. At school, when the sudden death of her mother was broken to her with tears, she confessed to her friend, 'Of course I ought to be very sorry, and I would be if I could; but I can't! I don't mind; and I know, I shall have mother's watch and all the diamonds.'

But Valeria's girl was totally different--a beautiful impulsive nature, overflowing with love and tenderness. Poor child!

. . . . . . .

For nearly an hour after the departure of her guest, Mrs. Trafford sat alone beside the dying fire. She was thinking profoundly, and a wintry look had crept into her face--for the thoughts that swarmed about her were not only unwelcome, but strange. As Ross, entering to extinguish the lights and close the house, disturbed these morbid reflections, she rose, collected her cloak and gloves, and wearily ascended to the best front bedroom.

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