Authors: Winifred Watson
Miss Pettigrew, an approaching-middle-age governess, was accustomed to a household of unruly English children. When her employment agency sends her to the wrong address, her life takes an unexpected turn. The alluring nightclub singer, Delysia LaFosse, becomes her new employer, and Miss Pettigrew encounters a kind of glamour that she had only met before at the movies. Over the course of a single day, both women are changed forever.
iss Pettigrew pushed open the door of the employment agency and went in as the clock struck a quarter past nine. She had, as usual, very little hope, but today the Principal greeted her with a more cheerful smile.
“Ah! Miss Pettigrew. I think we have something for you today. Two came in when I had left last night. Now let me see. Ah yes! Mrs. Hilary, maid. Miss LaFosse, nursery governess. Hmn! You’d have thought it was the other way round. But there! I expect she’s an aunt with an adopted orphan niece, or something.”
She gave Miss Pettigrew particulars.
“There you are then. Miss LaFosse, 5, Onslow Mansions. The appointment is for ten sharp this morning. You’ll make it nicely.”
“Oh thank you,” Miss Pettigrew said weakly, nearly fainting with relief. She clutched the card of particulars firmly in her hand. “I’d nearly given up hope. Not many of my kind of post these days.”
“Not many,” agreed Miss Holt, and, as the door closed behind Miss Pettigrew, “I hope that’s the last I see of her,” thought Miss Holt.
Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.
Miss Pettigrew went to the bus-stop to await a bus. She could not afford the fare, but she could still less afford to lose a possible situation by being late. The bus deposited her about five minutes’ walk from Onslow Mansions, and at seven minutes to ten precisely she was outside her destination.
It was a very exclusive, very opulent, very intimidating block of flats. Miss Pettigrew was conscious of her shabby clothes, her faded gentility, her courage lost through weeks of facing the workhouse. She stood a moment. She prayed silently. “Oh Lord! If I’ve ever doubted your benevolence in the past, forgive me and help me now.” She added a rider to her prayer, with the first candid confession she had ever made to her conscious mind. “It’s my last chance. You know it. I know it.”
She went in. A porter in the hall eyed her questioningly. Her courage failed at ringing for the lift so she mounted the main stairway and looked around until she discovered N°5. A little plate on the door said Miss LaFosse. She looked at her watch, inherited from her mother, waited until it said precisely ten, then rang.
There was no answer. She rang again. She waited and rang again. She was not normally so assertive, but fear gave her the courage of desperation. She rang, off and on, for five minutes. Suddenly the door flew open and a young woman stood in the entry.
Miss Pettigrew gasped. The creature was so lovely she called to mind immediately beauties of the screen. Her golden, curly hair, tumbled untidily about her face. Sleep was still heavy in her eyes, blue as gentians. The lovely rose of youth flushed her cheeks. She wore that kind of foamy robe, no mere dressing-gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films. Miss Pettigrew was well versed in the etiquette of dress and behaviour of young women on the screen.
In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace négligé. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.
But Miss Pettigrew knew fright when she saw it. The young woman’s face, when she opened the door, had been rigid with apprehension. At sight of Miss Pettigrew it grew radiant with relief.
“I have come…” began Miss Pettigrew nervously.
“What time is it?”
“It was prompt ten when I first rang. The hour you named, Miss…Miss LaFosse? I have been ringing for about five minutes. It is now five-past ten.”
Miss Pettigrew’s surprising interrogator swung round and disappeared back into the room. She did not say come in, but for a gentlewoman to face destitution was a very serious crisis: Miss Pettigrew found courage, walked in and shut the door behind her. “At least I shall ask for an interview,” thought Miss Pettigrew.
She saw the whisk of draperies disappear through another door and heard a voice saying urgently, “Phil. Phil. You lazy hound. Get up. It’s half-past ten.”
“Prone to exaggerate,” thought Miss Pettigrew. “Not a good influence for children at all.”
She now had time to take in her surroundings. Brilliant cushions ornamented more brilliant chairs and chesterfield. A deep, velvety carpet of strange, futuristic design, decorated the floor. Gorgeous, breathtaking curtains draped the windows. On the walls hung pictures not…not quite decent, decided Miss Pettigrew. Ornaments of every colour and shape adorned mantelpiece, table and stands. Nothing matched anything else. Everything was of an exotic brilliance that took away the breath.
“Not the room of a lady,” thought Miss Pettigrew. “Not the kind of room my dear mother would have chosen.”
“And yet…why, yes! Quite definitely yes, the kind of room that perfectly suited the lovely creature who had so abruptly disappeared.”
Miss Pettigrew cast a sternly disapproving eye about her, but behind her disapproval stirred a strange sensation of excitement. This was the kind of room in which one did things and strange events occurred and amazing creatures, like her momentary inquisitor, lived vivid, exciting, hazardous lives.
Shocked by such flighty thoughts Miss Pettigrew took her imagination severely in hand and forced it back to the practical.
“Children,” pondered Miss Pettigrew. “Where could one possibly teach or play with children in an impossible room like this? Ink or dirty marks on those cushions would be desecration.”
From behind the door of what was, presumably, the bedroom, Miss Pettigrew could make out a heated altercation in progress. The low, pleasantly grumbling tones of a man’s voice, “Come on back to bed.”
And Miss LaFosse’s high, exhorting voice, “No I won’t. I can’t help it if you’re still sleepy. I’m awake and I’ve got a lot of things to do this morning. I can’t have you lying snoring here all morning, ‘cos I want to get this room tidied.”
Soon the door opened and Miss LaFosse appeared again, almost immediately followed by a man, clad in a dressing-gown of such brilliantly coloured silk Miss Pettigrew blinked.
She stood apprehensive, clutching her handbag in quivering fingers, awaiting the chilling inquiry of what her presence meant. Hot waves of nervous dread made her perspire just a little. She was always at her worst at interviews. Suddenly she felt terrified, defeated, forlorn, before ever the battle commenced. People like these…any kind of employer…would never again pay her for her services. She stood as dignified as possible, stoical, terrified, awaiting her dismissal.
The young man glanced at her amiably, without a trace of surprise.
“Good morning,” said Miss Pettigrew.
She felt so weak she simply sat down bang on a chair.
“Did she rout you out of bed as well?”
“No,” said Miss Pettigrew.
“A wonder. Early to be abroad and fully clad, isn’t it?”
“It is thirteen minutes past ten,” said Miss Pettigrew severely.
“Ah! Up all night. Don’t believe in these all-night binges myself. I like my sleep. Dead all day if I don’t get it.”
“I have not been up all night,” said Miss Pettigrew, beginning to feel bewildered.
“I always did admire women.”
Miss Pettigrew gave it up. These conversational pyrotechnics were beyond her. She stared at him. He was dapper, neat, brisk, with brilliant, liquid brown eyes and dark hair. He had a jutting nose, a full-lipped mouth and a look about him that said he was not a man to play tricks with, yet a hint he could be pleasant enough if folks were pleasant with him.
“And yes,” thought Miss Pettigrew; “somewhere in his ancestry there has been a Jew.”
He said in a conversational tone to no one in particular, “Well, you may be in a hurry and satisfied with orange juice, but I’m not. I’m hungry. I want my breakfast.”
“Breakfast?” gasped Miss LaFosse. “Breakfast! You know my maid’s left. I can’t cook. I can’t cook anything but a boiled egg.”
“I hate boiled eggs.”
Miss LaFosse’s eyes swivelled round to Miss Pettigrew. Her expression became imploring, beseeching.
“Can you cook?”
Miss Pettigrew stood up.
“When I was a girl,” said Miss Pettigrew, “my father said that after my dear mother I was the best plain cook he knew.”
Miss LaFosse’s face became illumined with joy.
“I knew it. The minute I laid eyes on you I knew you were the kind of person to be relied on. I’m not. I’m no use at all. The kitchen’s through that door. You’ll find everything there. But hurry. Please hurry.”
Flattered, bewildered, excited, Miss Pettigrew made for the door. She knew she was not a person to be relied upon. But perhaps that was because hitherto every one had perpetually taken her inadequacy for granted. How do we know what latent possibilities of achievement we possess? Chin up, eyes shining, pulse beating, Miss Pettigrew went into the kitchen. Behind her Miss LaFosse’s voice carried on, “Now you go and get shaved and dressed, Phil, and by the time you are ready breakfast will be ready. I can set the table.”
In the kitchen Miss Pettigrew looked about her. Everything was up to date. Tiled walls, refrigerator, electric oven, pantry stocked to overflowing, but, “oh dear, how untidy,” thought Miss Pettigrew! “And yes, not clean. Whoever had charge here was a…a slut.”
She took off her coat and hat and set to work. Soon the blissful aroma of fried ham and eggs and coffee filled the air. She discovered an electric toaster. Toast took its correct place. She went back into the room.
“Everything is ready, Miss LaFosse.”
Miss LaFosse’s face took on a brilliant smile of thanks. Her hair was now brushed and her lips carmined and a faint film of powder gave bloom to her face. She still wore the gorgeous, silk négligé that made her look so breathtakingly lovely that Miss Pettigrew thought, “No wonder Phil wanted her to go back to bed.” Then blushed a painful, agonizing red of aghast shame that such a thought could even touch the fringe of her virgin mind. And then…and then she thought, “Miss LaFosse. It couldn’t be.”
“There,” said Miss LaFosse solicitously. “You’ve gone all red. It’s cooking over a hot stove. That’s why I’ve never cultivated the art. It simply ruins the complexion. I’m terribly sorry.”
“It’s all right,” said Miss Pettigrew with resignation. “I’ve reached the age when…when complexions don’t matter.”
“Not matter!” said Miss LaFosse, shocked. “Complexions always matter.”
Phil came back into the room. He was now fully dressed and wore a lot of rings with very shining stones. Miss Pettigrew privately shook her head.
“Not in good taste,” she thought. “Gentlemen never wear all those rings.”
“Ha!” ejaculated Phil. “My nose smells breakfast and my stomach says its waiting for it. Stout woman.”
Miss Pettigrew smiled happily.
“I do hope it’s cooked to your satisfaction.”
“Sure to be. My hostess is a useless hussy. I’m glad she has useful friends.”
He beamed amiably. Then abruptly, boldly, frankly, Miss Pettigrew acknowledged to herself that she liked him.
“I do,” she apostrophized her shocked other self determinedly. “I don’t care. I do. He’s not quite…quite delicate. But he’s nice. He doesn’t care whether I’m shabby and poor. I’m a lady, so he’s polite in his way to me.”
Perhaps it was because he was different from any other man she had ever met. He was not a gentleman, yet there was something in his cheerful pleasantries that suddenly made her feel more comfortably happy and confident than all the polite, excluding courtesies that had been her measure from men all her life. Miss LaFosse was speaking to her.
“I’ve set a place for you. Even if you’ve had your breakfast a cup of nice coffee never comes amiss at this time.”