“Ma’am—Mrs. Alston!” So this joke had been passed on even to the servants, and now she was asked to return.
“Go back and tell Lady Linden that I do not understand her message in the least. Kindly say that the person you overtook on the road was Miss Joan Meredyth, who is taking the next train to London.” She bent her head, turned her back on him, and made her way on to the station.
Half an hour later she was leaning back wearily on the dusty seat of a third-class railway carriage, on her way back to the London she hated. Now she was going back again, because she had nowhere else to go. As she sat there with closed eyes, and the tears on her cheeks, she counted up her resources. They were so small, so slender, yet she had been so careful. And now this useless journey had eaten deeply into the little store.
She had no more than enough to keep her for another week, one more week, and then.... She shivered at the thought of the destitution that was before her.
Dinner at the boarding-house was over when she returned, but its unsavoury and peculiar smell still pervaded the place.
“Why, Miss Meredyth, I thought you were away for the week-end, at least,” Mrs. Wenham said. “I suppose you won’t want any dinner?”
“No,” Joan said. “I shall not want anything. I—I—” She paused. “I was obliged to come back, after all. Perhaps you could let me have a cup of tea in my room, Mrs. Wenham?”
“Well, it’s rather inconvenient with all the washing-up to do, and as you know I make it a rule that boarders have to be in to their meals, or go without—still—”
“Please don’t trouble!” Joan said stiffly.
The woman looked up the stairs after the tall, slight figure.
“Very well, then, I won’t!” she muttered. “The airs some people give themselves! Anyone would think she was a lady, instead of a clerk or something.”
There was a letter addressed to Joan waiting for her in her room. She opened it, and read it.
“I suppose you are in a temper with me, and I don’t think you have acted quite fairly. A man can’t do more than ask a girl to be his wife. It is not usually considered an insult; however, I say nothing, except just this: You won’t find it easy to get other work to do, and if you like to come back here on Monday morning, the same as usual, I think you will be doing the sensible thing.
She had never meant to go back. This morning she had thanked Heaven that she had looked her last on Mr. Philip Slotman, and yet a few hours can effect such changes.
The door was open to her; she could go back, and pick up her life again where she had dropped it before her journey to Cornbridge. After all, Slotman was not the only cad in the world. She would find others, it seemed to her, wherever she went.