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

A Spirit of Mirth, an electronic edition

by Peggy Webling [Webling, Peggy]

date: 1913
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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<< chapter 7 chapter 33 >>

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"I DUNNO what to do—upon my word, I dunno!" said Little Gus.

"What are you talking about, dear?" asked Phosie, turning round from the case where she was arranging Mr Revell's scent bottles.

She had been cleaning the case and was now returning them to their narrow shelves. It was a dainty task and had been the subject of several conversations between Phosie and her guardian. He had always been accustomed to placing the Chinese specimens on the top shelves; she was in favour of giving the quaint English patch-boxes the place of honour.

Mr Revell had gone to his work that morning in a pleasurable state of uncertainty. He had grown to rely on her good taste, but at the same time there was no getting over the fact that the Chinese specimens had looked remarkably handsome on the top shelves!

Little Gus had suddenly appeared at the door, while the important change was in progress, with a book in his hand. He had not overcome the habit of sniffing, perhaps because he always managed to stand in a draught, and was very rarely without a cold, passing off or about to develop.

"I dunno what to make of it. I can't get it fundamentally!"

He said the last word twice, for Little Gus, having got beyond the monosyllabic conversation of his early youth, | | 63 was inclined to repeat any long words he could remember in and out of season. He had heard Mr Revell say "fundamentally" a few days before, asked Phosie to look it out for him in the dictionary, and promptly tried its effect on Mrs Bird by remarking that fundamentally potatoes were more digestible than turnips.

Phosie put down the fine silk handkerchief with which she dusted the shelves, and crossed the room. His book was a small, dog's-eared Primer of English grammar.

"What is it you can't grasp?" she asked, kindly.

Little Gus, who was exactly like the Little Gus of the old days grown taller, dragged his thumb comprehensively down the open page.

"All of it, Phosie, adverbs and aj'tives and this here parsing, can't make head or tail of it. Frin'stance, why don't they tell you when to say 'was' and when to say 'were'?"

"They do tell you, Gus. Let me find the place."

Phosie pulled a couple of chairs close together and they sat down side by side.

It was the quiet hour of the afternoon, devoted by the girl to the care of Mr Revell's little museum, and by the boy to laborious preparation of the lessons she had arranged for him in the morning.

Gus's education had cost her a great deal of thought, for although Mr Revell treated him kindly and he earned his living by steady work in house and garden, Little Gus was an object of indifference, if not of positive dislike, to their patron.

Three years had passed since the flight from Airy Street. Lonely, happy, unchanging years!

Phosie had lived in a world of books. Enchanted as she was by poetry and romance, legend and folk lore, her reading had not been confined to these fascinating subjects. It was characteristic of Mr Revell that he should | | 64 combine the strictest ideas of mid-Victorian propriety concerning the behaviour of young ladies with absolute catholicity in regard to their books.

As Eddy Moore had trusted Phosie not to burn her fingers in lighting the gas, so Mr Revell trusted her not to hurt herself, in a deeper sense, with base or pernicious reading. Humour was the quality, so rarely appreciated by a young girl, which appealed to Phosie in the printed page. It was not that she always wanted to be laughing, but that her amusement was so genuine, so hearty, so quick in response to wit or pleasure, that it struck the keynote of her character.

She had none of the ordinary interests of a girl of her age—games, schoolfellows, dress or accomplishments. Mrs Bird had taught her to cook, but she had long outstripped her mistress, and Mr Revell's menu was no longer confined to chops all the week and a joint of roast mutton on Sunday.

Much of her time was devoted to the garden; at first it seemed a hopeless task, for the unconquerable weeds fought for their existence inch by inch. Little Gus and Euphrosyne, with dogged patience, dug and delved. Their labour was rewarded, the first summer after they lived in The Stroll, by a few handfuls of nasturtiums, a goodly crop of marigolds, and as many pansies and double daisies as six pennyworth of roots could supply.

Mr Revell, the following spring, presented Phosie with a sovereign to spend on garden tools. It was his first gift and it filled her with joyful surprise. Her assistant gardener's pleasure was almost as great.

"Think what we can do with twenty shillings!" said Phosie.

Little Gus proposed building a hothouse, refusing to see any difficulty in supplying Covent Garden with grapes and tomatoes.

Shortly afterwards, without any preliminary remark, | | 65 Mr Revell put two more golden coins into Phosie's hand.

"Buy yourself a new jacket!" he said, and hurried away, before she could thank him.

Mr Revell meant to include all necessary garments in the word "jacket."

From that time forward he gave her five shillings every week, but as she had to clothe Little Gus as well as herself, for it never occurred to their protector to give anything to the boy, it was impossible for her to save any money. But that did not trouble Phosie in the least, for she had inherited none of her father's dread of poverty.

She had no friends, except the little girl next door, a round-faced, flaxen-haired doll of a child, several years younger than herself, whom she admired and loved. Her name was Lily Parlow. The only child of middle-aged parents, she was a spoilt, selfish little creature, to whom her mother talked as if she were a woman, who read the newspapers aloud to her father, and who possessed an amazing knowledge of the names and private affairs of popular actors and actresses. Mrs Parlow reminded Phosie of poor Mrs Simmons of Airy Street in her passion for the theatre.

The days followed one another, at the gloomy house in The Stroll, like sombre beads slipping down a string, every one just like the last.

Phosie rose early and helped Mrs Bird, breakfasted with Mr Revell, when he usually held forth on such topics as Evolution, Egyptian Mythology, the recent discoveries in chemistry, or the early history of the Christian Church; and spent the remainder of the morning in housework, teaching Gus, and gardening.

In the afternoon she read and went for a walk, unless there was any sewing to be done or Lily Parlow wanted to be amused. When Mr Revell returned he always found her waiting for him, a quiet, attentive listener, quick of step and soft of voice.

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They dined together, and in the evening Phosie read aloud, or they played chess, or she wrote from his dictation—long, discursive letters to his two old college friends in France and Surrey.

There was no variety in Mr Revell's letters; they always began in the same way, "My dear Joe" to the business man in France, and "My dear Herbert" to the professional man in Surrey, and ended with the cold words, "Yours faithfully, Henry R. Revell."

He was never demonstrative. Phosie had insensibly adapted her character to his, suppressing her natural gaiety as much as she possibly could, and trying to look at the world as he did through his gold-rimmed spectacles as a great museum, a school of thought, a grave old world full of records of the past.

She was never unhappy, or even melancholy, but at times she was conscious of a subtle restraint, as if her spirit—the spirit of the innermost—were lost in a grey mist.

Little Gus, as he pored over his English grammar on the summer afternoon when Phosie was arranging Mr Revell's scent-bottles, looked, as he felt, a hopeless failure. Three years of good living and care had indeed improved his appearance; he was not so thin; the haggard, unboyish expression had left his face; but his weak eyes and narrow brow, his mouth always a little open, and the vague, questioning, puzzled lines on his forehead, were all suggestive of the undeveloped, narrow mind.

There was no obstinacy in Gus and no imagination. Mr Revell, as has been said already, ignored his existence. Mrs Bird treated him like a child, and even Miss Lily Parlow snubbed and laughed at him.

Although he was growing quickly, like one of his own unsuccessful, weedy sunflowers, all stalk and no beauty, everybody called him "Little Gus." Phosie, on discovering that he did not remember, if he had ever known, his surname, had decided to choose one for him. | | 67 She found it difficult to make up her mind whether it should be Stewart or Cromwell, her admiration being divided at the time between Charles I. and the Lord Protector.

Gus was quite indifferent, and after his suggestion of Potts as an alternative—his former master, the butcher, had been Mr.Potts—he meekly agreed to adopting both names, and learned the meaning of the hyphen.

"Augustus Stewart-Cromwell" was pleasing to Phosie's ear and her sense of humour, while Little Gus himself spent many happy hours in filling a penny copybook with his imposing signature.

"I dunno what to make of grammar," he said, for the third time. "I dunno why they invented it."

Phosie, also for the third time, told him to close the book and not to worry any more that day. She had gone back to her work. Gus still sat on the edge of his chair, fingering the Primer.

"But a feller has got to learn," he said. "A feller ought to know, fundamentally, all this sort o' thing, Phosie."

"You're quite right, Gus," agreed Phosie, absently, admiring a dainty Italian patch-box in rock crystal which lay in her palm.

"Then why can't I manage it? What's the matter with me?" said Gus.

Phosie, restoring the patch-box to its nook and taking out a bloodstone scent-bottle, mounted in gold, only shook her head, smiling at him. She had rarely seen him so serious.

"I want to learn! I want to be more like you!" he blurted out. "I know he thinks I'm only a fool—"

"Do you mean Mr Revell?" she interrupted.

"Yes. But I'm not a fool. I want to learn. I try hard, but it's no use. I can't get the hang of things. I don't understand half what people say, but I suppose I'm all right—ain't I?—fundamentally?"

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Little Gus clung to his word, and once more repeated it, taking a step towards Phosie, with his hands stretched out.

She turned her back to the case and looked at him in surprise.

The light from a window fell on his face. It gave her a shock, for she suddenly realised that Little Gus was growing up. He was trying to understand his own deficiencies, and she saw the pain and doubt of his groping mind struggling for expression.

"Dear!" she said affectionately. "Of course you are all right, but you must be patient. You can't learn easily, and the books—"

"Oh, I don't mean book learning!" he interrupted. "I mean—I mean I want to be clever, Phosie. I want to be like other fellers. I'm no good to nobody. They wouldn't care if I was dead!"

"I should care!" cried Phosie. "Don't you talk such nonsense."

She put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a little shake. Then she tilted up his chin with one finger and laughed at him.

That was the best way to treat Little Gus. Phosie's intuition served her in better stead than other people's reason. To argue with him and endeavour to sharpen his wits by discussion, or to encourage introspection, would have only deepened his trouble. She had helped him in childhood by her courage and decision; she helped him now by her praise and approbation. He was not born to buffet with the strong winds and rough seas of life. He was only happy in soft sunshine and pleasant breezes.

The straining look in his face died away. His moment of bitterness was forgotten.

He gaily offered to help her dust the scent-bottles and powder-boxes. The mere suggestion would have made Mr Revell shudder. Phosie only smiled, bending over | | 69 a blue Persian perfume sprinkler. She tactfully rejected his help, and Gus returned to the attack on his English grammar.

Phosie finished her work with great satisfaction to herself. There was only one thing in the house that she liked better than the case of scent-bottles, and that was a drawer in Mr Revell's desk which contained a box of quaint old rings. It was kept locked, but he trusted her with the key.

They were valuable posy rings, singularly attractive to Phosie. She was never tired of slipping them on to her fingers, although they were nearly all too big for her, and reading the fond, quaint inscriptions—

"Accept this gift of honest love
That never could nor can remove."
"My promise past
Shall always last."
"In constancie
I live and die."

Her favourite was made of little gold hearts, set with turquoise, and engraved "You have me hart." It happened to fit the third finger of her left hand. A heavy Russian ring of chased silver looked very handsome on her thumb, and the greatest treasure of all, a dull gold duplex hoop faintly engraved with palm leaves, she always placed on the first finger.

The rings set with precious stones were kept in a box at the back of the drawer. Phosie was also entrusted with the key of this box. There was only one diamond, but exactly a dozen other gems of equal beauty, if lesser value—a too pale ruby, a moss agate, a soft beryl, a fiery opal, a deep garnet, a cloudy moonstone, a gleaming cats eye, a sapphire that mirrored a star, a gorgeous topaz, a Mysterious chalcedony, a severe onyx, and a beamy pearl.

"I love them all!" said Euphrosyne to Mr Revell.

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"You can play with them whenever you like," he answered.

His absolute trust in her care of his treasures was the greatest proof he ever gave, year after year, that the loving girl had won a place in his heart.

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