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ELLEN

    SHE had now been a waitress at the little café off Cheapside for some-
thing over two years ; her circumstances had not changed during that
time ; she herself had scarcely changed ; her features had, perhaps, developed
a little and become more defined, her manner less hesitating—and that was
all.  That was all, at least, that was noticeable.  A great change, however,
had occurred in her between then and now that was not noticeable ; that
silent, miraculous change, so imperceptible, so profound, which works in a
woman between the ages of eighteen and twenty.

    She had come during those two years to have an exaggerated, almost a
morbid idea of her own want of good looks ; she had observed that regular
frequenters of the café—young city-clerks, journalists and the rest—avoided
the series of marble-topped tables at which she served for those which were
attended by other girls smarter and prettier ; she rarely received the little
attentions which the other girls among themselves proclaimed.  It was the
stray customer, the bird of passage, who kept her busy.  But, as a matter
of fact, it was not her want of good looks that kept the younger men aloof;
it was something in her manner, an absence, perhaps, of that fictitious spirit
of gaiety, of that alert responsiveness, which men find so arresting in
women.  Really, she was not at all bad-looking.

    Still, this neglect ate into her heart a little.  She regretted her want
of adaptability, of the faculty of being able to assume all those charming (as
they seemed to her) little airs and graces, partly natural, partly cultivated,
which so became the other girls ; she, it is true, rather despised these
coquetries of her companions, but her own deficiencies of the sort made her
feel at times particularly dull and stupid and angry with herself.  One or
two of the girls at the café had, during her time, married one or two of the

104                              THE SAVOY

young men who came there, and would afterwards pay an occasional visit
to the place, certainly in pretty frocks, and, to all appearance, radiant and
happy.  But these girls were fortunate.  Others, again, had suddenly dis-
appeared, and none knew whither ; but as their disappearance happened to
be simultaneous with a break in the regular attendance of certain customers,
dark stories were whispered to which the non-appearance of the missing
ones seemed to lend colour.

     After a while, Ellen did not mind so much being neglected ; the smart
of the sting became less and less painful, till finally, she rather, if anything,
preferred escaping the attentions which fell to the share of the other girls.
This may have been partly owing to the view which she came to take of
men ; her position had provided her with opportunities for arriving at a
generalisation, and she came to think of men as either silly or wicked—silly,
when they were attracted by the trivial insincerities of the girls in the café ;
wicked, when they took advantage of their rarer simplicity.  She did not
conceive, now, that she would ever fall in love, that anyone would ever fall
in love with her.
    All the same, as the two years advanced, Ellen began to feel a curious
isolation of the heart, an emptiness which she never attributed to the absence
of a lover.  Besides, she had an intuitive suspicion that she possessed qualities
which would be fatal to her retaining the affections of a husband, that there
would be little joy for her in the companionship which would place her in the
position of a wife.  Not that she thought anything very clearly about these
things ; the vague emotions and sensations which moved her, the detached
things which floated in her mind had not yet found the relief which comes
with realisation ; her impulses were not remotely guided by self-consciousness.
A sense of loneliness oppressed her, which was not diminished by the com-
panionship of her fellow servants at the café, and she wanted companionship
of some sort.  It was dreadful for her at times to feel so much alone, to feel
that there was nothing in the world, in this great London, which she really
cared for ; that there was no one, since the death of her father and mother,
who really cared for her.

                                        Ellen                                    105

    She had this sense of loneliness even in the busiest time of the day,
when an enormous wave of traffic swept by outside the café, and, inside, all
was stir and movement.  Even amid all this stir and din, when she was
occupied in flitting from one tabic to another, in taking orders and attending
to them, even at such moments her thoughts would be playing to another
tune, her soul would be filled with unrest and impatience.  Life, indeed,
became a great struggle for her.  Sometimes she said to herself that she
would run away—from she knew not what, where she knew not to ; and
sometimes she wished very sincerely that she were dead.

       .   .   .   She had seen many strange faces during those two years ;
at last it began to dawn upon her that one of these faces which had
been strange was becoming familiar : a face with a fair, pointed beard and
blue eyes.  Beyond, however, merely ordering what he wanted, he had not
spoken to her ; it was improbable that he had noticed her ; but his regular
attendance at the tables at which she served began to attract the attention
of the other girls, who derived some entertainment from hinting to Ellen
that she was carrying on a flirtation, a suggestion which happened to be
sufficiently inappropriate to appeal to their sense of humour.  It was in
keeping with Ellen’s temperament that no romantic ideas entered her head
at this point, where, possibly, the least susceptible of her companions would —
as women will—have woven a complete fabric of foolish sentiment.  Still, as
he continued to come regularly, she began involuntarily to feel a certain
liking for him ; the fact of his never attempting to enter into any sort of
conversation with her had its not unpleasant side for her.  So, by-and-by,
they both seemed to begin to know each other in this silent way.  And yet
there came moments when Ellen felt somehow that she would like to talk
to him, like to tell him all about herself, and what she felt.  His presence
accentuated a dimly-realised need for self-expression, of pouring into some ear
the flood of vague sentiments which possessed her.  She could not talk to the
other girls ; they would not understand, or they would laugh at her ; but she
could, she felt, talk to this fair-bearded man with the blue eyes.  But not at
the café ; she would rather remain silent for ever than do that.  Then, how ?

106                              THE SAVOY

    This idea of speaking to him, of sharing with him her whole confidence,
seized upon her, and developed with an intensity which caused her ceaseless
perturbation and pain.

    After a little time, indeed, they drifted, naturally enough, into a con-
ventional intercourse, almost monosyllabic, uninteresting, which seemed to
her hopelessly trivial—but how to advance beyond it !  Once or twice she
thought she observed a look of interrogation in the blue eyes, a look which
invited her confidence, and, at the same time, occasioned her a poignant
feeling of self-consciousness—there, at the café, while meeting the significant
glances, the partly ironical, partly suggestive, glances of her companions.
No ! she could not speak to him there; she had nothing to say to him there.
Yet it was hard to resist the appeal of his eyes.
“You are looking pale.  Do you go out much?” he said to her one day.
“No ; only home and back.”
“Ah ! you should.”
“We don’t close till seven,” she said.  Then, their eyes meeting, she
continued irresistibly : “Will you meet me to-night ?”

    It was not till an hour or so later that she realised that she was to
meet him that evening at the principal entrance to St. Paul’s ; that she
realised that she herself had made the appointment.  She had leapt the
barrier, and was shocked at the extent of her daring, a little humiliated
even ; yet, above everything, singularly elated and careless.  She had never
breathed so freely.

    But when they met, the need for self-expression was no longer apparent ;
she only felt stupid and shy.  He suggested that they should go to a theatre
or to an exhibition at Earl’s Court, but she would not go to either place.
Then they walked along the Embankment, between Blackfriars’ Bridge and
Charing Cross.  He talked a good deal, but she hardly caught or understood
what he said, and was quietly irresponsive.  There was in his manner an
air of familiarity which slightly repelled her ; she began to wish that she had
not, after all, asked him to meet her ; to think of abruptly leaving him.  Once
he put his arm through hers, and was surprised at the startled expression

                                        Ellen                                    107

which sprang to her face as she quickly drew apart from him.  After this
his manner changed, and she felt more at ease.  The incident had defined
her attitude.

    Reaching the gardens on the Embankment, near Charing Cross, they
entered a gate and sat on one of the seats.  There were some children playing
about on the path whose antics amused her, and led her to talk about her
own childhood, to tell him of those dear, half-forgotten things which everyone
remembers so well, of that dim world of curious fancies which all of us at
one time inhabited.  He was sympathetic, and they talked on so in the fading
light until it was time for the gates of the garden to be closed.  As they
passed through them, their intimacy had become as natural and easy as she
could have dared to hope.

    They crossed the Strand and penetrated the maze of streets which lead
in the direction of King’s Cross, where she had her lodging.  And now all
the things that had lain in her mind, all the incoherent emotions that had
possessed her, became coherent and simple, derived shape and form in the
attempt to express them.  She told him all about her present life, about the
other girls in the café and their sentimental episodes.  She told him of the
feeling of loneliness, of abstraction, of the vague itching at her heart which
never ceased.

At last they reached a house in one of the outlying streets of Regent
Square.

    “I don’t know why I asked you to meet me to-night,” she said,
stopping at the door of this house ; “I don’t know what is the matter
with me. But I wanted to speak to someone. And I couldn’t speak to
the other girls ; they would only have made fun of me, I think. I feel
happier now that I have had a nice long talk with someone — still — there
is something—something—” She paused a moment, and then proceeded,
rather abruptly : “I don’t want to be married, the same as most girls do ;
I don’t like men, as a rule—at least, not in that way   .   .   .   besides, I think
I should always be happier remaining as I am at present, working for
myself, independent.”

108                              THE SAVOY

    She gave a little shriek of delight at a thought which suddenly occurred
to her, a flash of mental illumination, which enabled her to divine the source
of all her perplexities, which instantly enabled her to solve the problem of her
happiness ; a thought which filled her poor, empty heart. “I think,” she
said, softly, “if I had a baby, my very own, I should want nothing—nothing
in this world more than that !” Her lips quivered and tears came into her
eyes, exquisitely tender tears.

    She then turned to the door and opened it with a latch-key.
    “Are you living alone ?” he asked.
    “Yes, quite alone,” she said, retreating into the passage without
turning.
    He followed her a couple of paces, and then stood with one foot on
the doorstep.  He looked into the passage, but could not make out whether
she were standing there in the dark or not.  He wondered if she were
standing there.  Then taking the handle of the door he drew it gently to,
and went down the street.

                                                                                                Rudolf Dircks.





MLA citation:

Dircks, Rudolf. “Ellen.” The Savoy, vol. 1 January 1896, pp. 103-108. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv1-dircks-ellen/