A Daughter of To-day - Cover

A Daughter of To-day

Copyright© 2011 by Sara Jeannette Duncan

Chapter 4

"Three months more," Elfrida Bell said to herself next morning, in the act of boiling an egg over a tiny kerosene stove in the cupboard that served her as a kitchen, "and I will put it to every test I know. Three unflinching months! John Kendal will not have gone back to England by that time. I shall still get his opinion. If he is only as encouraging as Nadie was last night, dear thing! I almost forgave her for being so much, much cleverer than I am. Oh, letters!" as a heavy knock repeated itself upon the door of the room outside.

There was only one; it was thrust beneath the door, showing a white triangle to her expectancy as she ran out to secure it, while the fourth flight creaked under Madame Vamousin descending. She picked it up with a light heart—she was young and she had slept. Yesterday's strain had passed; she was ready to count yesterday's experience among the things that must be met. Nadie had been so sensible about it. This was a letter from home, and the American mail was not due until next day. Inside there would be news of a little pleasure trip to New York, which her father and mother had been planning lately —Elfrida constantly urged upon her parents the necessity of amusing themselves—and a remittance. The remittance would be more than usually welcome, for she was a little in debt—a mere trifle, fifty or sixty francs; but Elfrida hated being in debt. She tore the end of the envelope across with absolute satisfaction, which was only half chilled when she opened out each of the four closely written sheets of foreign letter-paper in turn and saw that the usual postal order was not there.

Having ascertained this however, she went back to her egg; in another ten seconds it would have been hard-boiled, a thing she detested. There was the, egg, and there was some apricot-jam—the egg in a slender-stemmed Arabian silver cup, the jam golden in a little round dish of wonderful old blue. She set it forth, with the milk-bread and the butter and the coffee, on a bit of much mended damask with a pattern of rosebuds and a coronet in one corner. Her breakfast gave her several sorts of pleasure.

Half an hour after it was over she was still sitting with the letter in her lap. It is possible to imagine that she looked ugly. Her dark eyes had a look of persistence in spite of fear, a line or two shot up from between her brows, her lips were pursed a little and drawn down at the corners, her chin thrust forward. Her face and her attitude helped each other to express the distinctest possible negative. Her neck had an obstinate bend; she leaned forward clasping her knees, for the moment a creature of rigid straight lines. She had hardly moved since she read the letter.

She was sorry to learn that her father had been unfortunate in business, that the Illinois Indubitable Insurance Company had failed. At his age the blow would be severe, and the prospect, after a life of comparative luxury, of subsisting even in Sparta on eight hundred dollars a year could not be an inviting one for either of her parents. When she thought of their giving up the white brick house in Columbia Avenue and going to live in Cox Street, Elfrida was thoroughly grieved. She felt the sincerest gratitude, however, that the misfortune had not come sooner, before she had learned the true significance of living, while yet it might have placed her in a state of blind irresolution which would probably have lasted indefinitely. After a year in Paris she was able to make up her mind, and this she could not congratulate herself upon sufficiently, since a decision at the moment was of such vital importance! For one point upon which Mrs. Leslie's letter insisted, regretfully but strongly, was that the next remittance, which they hoped to be able to send in a week or two, would necessarily be the last. It would be as large as they could make it; at all events it would amply cover her passage and railway expenses to Sparta, and of course she would sail as soon as it reached her. It was an elaborate letter, written in phrases which Mrs. Leslie thought she evolved, but probably remembered from a long and comprehensive course of fiction as appropriate to the occasion, and Elfrida read between the lines with some impatience how largely their trouble was softened to her mother by the consideration that it would inevitably bring her back to them. "We can bear it well if we bear it together," wrote Mrs. Bell. "You have always been our brave daughter, and your young courage will be invaluable to us now. Your talents will be our flowers by the way-side. We shall take the keenest possible delight in watching them expand, as, even under the cloud of financial adversity, we know they will."

"Dear over-confident parent," Elfrida reflected grimly at this point, "I must yet prove that I have any."

Along with the situation she studied elaborately the third page of the Sparta Sentinel. When it had arrived, months before, containing the best part of a long letter describing Paris, which she had written to her mother in the first freshness of her delighted impressions, she had glanced over it with half-amused annoyance at the foolish parental pride that suggested printing it. She was already too remote from the life of Sparta to care very much one way or another, but such feeling as she had was of that sort. And the compliments from the minister, from various members of the Browning Club, from the editor himself, that filtered through her mother's letters during the next two or three weeks, made her shrug with their absolute irrelevance to the only praise that could thrill her and the only purpose she held dear. Even now, when the printed lines contained the significance of a possible resource, she did not give so much as a thought to the flattering opinion of Sparta as her mother had conveyed it to her. She read them over and over, relying desperately on her own critical sense and her knowledge of what the Paris correspondent of the Daily Dial thought of her chances in that direction. He, Frank Parke, had told her once that if her brush failed she had only to try her pen, though he made use of no such commonplace as that. He said it, too, at the end of half an hour's talk with her, only half an hour. Elfrida, when she wished to be exact with her vanity, told herself that it could not have been more than twenty-five minutes. She wished for particular reasons to be exact with it now, and she did not fail to give proper weight to the fact that Frank Parke had never seen her before that day. The Paris correspondent of the Daily Dial was well enough known to be of the monde, and rich enough to be as bourgeois as anybody. Therefore some of the people who knew him thought it odd that at his age this gentleman should prefer the indelicacies of the Quartier to those of "tout Paris," and the bad vermouth and cheap cigars of the Rue Luxembourg to the peculiarly excellent quality of champagne with which the president's wife made her social atonement to the Faubourg St. Germain. But it was so, and its being so rendered Frank Parke's opinion that Miss Bell could write if she chose to try, not only supremely valuable to her, but available for the second time if necessary, which was perhaps more important.

There would be a little more money from Sparta, perhaps one hundred and fifty dollars. It would come in a week, and after that there would be none. But a supply of it, however modest, must be arranged somehow—there were the "frais" of the atelier, to speak of nothing else. The necessity was irritatingly absolute. Elfrida wished that her scruples were not so acute about arranging it by writing for the press. "If I could think for a moment that I had any right to it as a means of expression!" she reflected. "But I haven't. It is an art for others. And it is an art, as sacred as mine. I have no business to degrade it to my uses." Her mental position when she went to see Frank Parke was a cynical compromise with her artistic conscience, of which she nevertheless sincerely regretted the necessity.

The correspondent of the Daily Dial had a club for one side of the river and a cafe for the other. He dined oftenest at the cafe, and Elfrida's card, with "urgent" inscribed in pencil on it, was brought to him that evening as he was finishing his coffee. She had no difficulty in getting it taken in. Mr. Parke's theory was that a newspaper man gained more than he lost by accessibility. He came out immediately, furtively returning a toothpick to his waistcoat pocket—a bald, stout gentleman of middle age, dressed in loose gray clothes, with shrewd eyes, a nose which his benevolence just saved from being hawk-like, a bristling white mustache, and a pink double chin. It rather pleased Frank Parke, who was born in Hammersmith, to be so constantly taken for an American—presumably a New Yorker.

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