The mistress ofthe British School stepped down from her school gate, and instead of turning to the left as usual, she turned to the right. Two women who were hastening home to scramble their husbands’ dinners together—it was five minutes to four—stopped to look at her. They stood gazing after her for a moment; then they glanced at each other with a woman’s little grimace.
To be sure, the retreating figure was ridiculous: small and thin, with a black straw hat, and a rusty cashmere dress hanging full all round the skirt. For so small and frail and rusty a creature to sail with slow, deliberate stride was also absurd. Hilda Rowbotham was less than thirty, so it was not years that set the measure of her pace; she had heart disease. Keeping her face, that was small with sickness, but not uncomely, firmly lifted and fronting ahead, the young woman sailed on past the market-place, like a black swan of mournful, disreputable plumage.
She turned into Berryman’s, the baker’s. The shop displayed bread and cakes, sacks of flour and oatmeal, flitches of bacon, hams, lard and sausages. The combination of scents was not unpleasing. Hilda Rowbotham stood for some minutes nervously tapping and pushing a large knife that lay on the counter, and looking at the tall, glittering brass scales. At last a morose man with sandy whiskers came down the step from the house-place.
“What is it?” he asked, not apologizing for his delay.
“Will you give me six-pennyworth of assorted cakes and pastries— and put in some macaroons, please?” she asked, in remarkably rapid and nervous speech. Her lips fluttered like two leaves in a wind, and her words crowded and rushed like a flock of sheep at a gate.
“We’ve got no macaroons,” said the man churlishly.
He had evidently caught that word. He stood waiting.
“Then I can’t have any, Mr Berryman. Now I do feel disappointed. I like those macaroons, you know, and it’s not often I treat myself. One gets so tired of trying to spoil oneself, don’t you think? It’s less profitable even than trying to spoil somebody else. ” She laughed a quick little nervous laugh, putting her hand to her face.
“Then what’ll you have?” asked the man, without the ghost of an answering smile. He evidently had not followed, so he looked more glum than ever.
“Oh, anything you’ve got,” replied the schoolmistress, flushing slightly. The man moved slowly about, dropping the cakes from various dishes one by one into a paper bag.
“How’s that sister o’ yours getting on?” he asked, as if he were talking to the flour scoop.
“Whom do you mean?” snapped the schoolmistress.
“The youngest,” answered the stooping, pale-faced man, with a note of sarcasm.
“Emma! Oh, she’s very well, thank you!” The schoolmistress was very red, but she spoke with sharp, ironical defiance. The man grunted. Then he handed her the bag and watched her out of the shop without bidding her “Good afternoon”.
She had the whole length of the main street to traverse, a half-mile of slow-stepping torture, with shame flushing over her neck. But she carried her white bag with an appearance of steadfast unconcern. When she turned into the field she seemed to droop a little. The wide valley opened out from her, with the far woods withdrawing into twilight, and away in the centre the great pit streaming its white smoke and chuffing as the men were being turned up. A full, rose-coloured moon, like a flamingo flying low under the far, dusky east, drew out of the mist. It was beautiful, and it made her irritable sadness soften, diffuse.