Suddenly there was an irruption. One of the assistants sprang instinctively to the gas; but on perceiving that the disturber of peace was only a slatternly girl, hatless and imperfectly clean, she decided to leave the gas as it was, and put on a condescending, suspicious demeanour.
“If you please, can I speak to the missis?” said the girl, breathlessly.
She seemed to be about eighteen years of age, fat and plain. Her blue frock was torn, and over it she wore a rough brown apron, caught up at one corner to the waist. Her bare forearms were of brick-red colour.
“What is it?” demanded the assistant.
Miss Insull looked over her shoulder across the shop. “It must be Maggie’s—Mrs. Hollins’s daughter!” said Miss Insull under her breath.
“What can she want?” said Constance, leaving the desk instantly; and to the girl, who stood sturdily holding her own against the group of assistants: “You are Mrs. Hollins’s daughter, aren’t you?”
“What’s your name?”
“Maggie, mum. And, if you please, mother’s sent me to ask if you’ll kindly give her a funeral card.”
“A funeral card?”
“Yes. Of Mr. Povey. She’s been expecting of one, and she thought as how perhaps you’d forgotten it, especially as she wasn’t asked to the funeral.”
The girl stopped.
Constance perceived that by mere negligence she had seriously wounded the feelings of Maggie, senior. The truth was, she had never thought of Maggie. She ought to have remembered that funeral cards were almost the sole ornamentation of Maggie’s abominable cottage.
“Certainly,” she replied after a pause. “Miss Insull, there are a few cards left in the desk, aren’t there? Please put me one in an envelope for Mrs. Hollins.”
She gave the heavily bordered envelope to the ruddy wench, who enfolded it in her apron, and with hurried, shy thanks ran off.
“Tell your mother I send her a card with pleasure,” Constance called after the girl.
The strangeness of the hazards of life made her thoughtful. She, to whom Maggie had always seemed an old woman, was a widow, but Maggie’s husband survived as a lusty invalid. And she guessed that Maggie, vilely struggling in squalor and poverty, was somehow happy in her frowsy, careless way.
She went back to the accounts, dreaming.
When the shop had been closed, under her own critical and precise superintendence, she extinguished the last gas in it and returned to the parlour, wondering where she might discover some entirely reliable man or boy to deal with the shutters night and morning. Samuel had ordinarily dealt with the shutters himself, and on extraordinary occasions and during holidays Miss Insull and one of her subordinates had struggled with their unwieldiness. But the extraordinary occasion had now become ordinary, and Miss Insull could not be expected to continue indefinitely in the functions of a male. Constance had a mind to engage an errand-boy, a luxury against which Samuel had always set his face. She did not dream of asking the herculean Cyril to open and shut shop.