This year’s summer serial is an unfinished story Harkness contributed to the Labour Elector from June 1893. It ran until the periodical folded in January 1894. At the time of ‘Connie’s appearance, the periodical was again under the editorship of Harkness’s close political and personal acquaintance Henry Hyde Champion. She had previously contributed to the Labour Elector (see, for instance, her article on ‘The Loafer’), but this appears to have been her only serial contribution to the periodical, and the only piece of fiction she produced for it.
The story of Connie, an actress subject to economic as well as sexual exploitation, recalls themes from Harkness’s earlier work, including her descriptions of young women’s working conditions in Toilers in London (1889), and fiction including A City Girl (1887) as well as ‘A Pantomime Child’. Like A City Girl and ‘Roses and Crucifix’, the story explores the power balance in a cross-class relationship. Central to the story is the dependent role into which Connie is forced by late nineteenth-century society: she depends on her employer for the work that she needs to maintain herself financially, and this allows him to exploit her. She also relies, first on her father, and later on other characters, for shelter – a point that is repeatedly emphasised as her shelter and security are arbitrarily taken away from her.
A discussion of ‘Connie’, led by Dr Deborah Mutch, took place as part of the ‘In Harkness’ London’ Symposium held at Birkbeck, University of London, on 22 November 2014. Interested readers will find the discussion questions on the text here.
Source: John Law [Margaret Harkness], ‘Connie’, Labour Elector, August 1893, pp. 12-14. Microfilm available via the British Library.
BY JOHN LAW,
Author of “A City Girl,” “Captain Lobe,” “Little Tim’s Christmas,” “His First Day’s Wages,” etc., etc.
“HAVE you seen la petite danseuse lately?” inquired Mr. Grey.
Humphry Munro did not look up from his breakfast.
“Have you seen the little girl you put into my room a month ago, when I was away in the country?” asked Mr. Grey, helping himself to marmalade while he repeated the question, and speaking with emphasis.
“Oh, yes!” replied Munro. “Pass the toast.”
The two friends were in the little room Connie had admired so much, sitting opposite one another, having breakfast.
“Well, Munro,” said Grey, “it’s foolish.”
“You told me that some time ago, my dear fellow, and we agreed that you were probably right.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because she is a mere child, and has no friend but myself; because I am sorry for her, that’s why. Her father drinks, her mother is dead, and a man of the theatre—the Boss she calls him—will work her some harm if I don’t prevent it.”
“It’s delightful to be young and enthusiastic,’ said Grey, as he got up and stretched himself.
He was tall and slightly built. The features of his pale face were well cut and his manners polished. A pleasant man, and clever, people said, one likely to achieve something before long at the Bar.
A knock at the door, followed by the entrance of the housekeeper with the Times, soon made him forget all about Connie. He threw himself into an armchair with his favourite paper, and dismissed the little danseuse from his mind.
Humphry Munro lingered over his breakfast, ostensibly to feed the parrot. He was young, but few would have accused him of being enthusiastic about women. His friend Grey was a far greater favourite with the ladies. In fact, he did not care much for the society of the fair sex; he declared that girls bored him, and it was no fun to flirt with married women. Connie attracted him because she was so trustful and childlike. It was a perpetual marvel to him how anything so innocent and fresh could have come out of such miserable surroundings. He concluded she must have had a wonderful mother. His own mother having died at his birth, the relationship had for him all the charm of nescience. He felt sure that Connie’s mother could not have been quite like ordinary women.
“And the little thing has pluck,” he said to himself. “When she makes up her mind to do a thing she sticks to it.”
He had now fallen into the habit of going to see Connie every other day. The afternoon, at about five o’clock, was the time he liked best for his visits. Then he found her at tea, or busy preparing her dresses for the theatre. To sit for half-an-hour by the fire in her room, listening to all that she had to tell him, watching while she mended her theatrical dresses, or drinking a cup of tea, gave a domestic touch to his bachelor life. Once or twice he had had supper with her after the theatre, and on such occasions had sent the servant to fetch some small luxuries; but the afternoon was the time he preferred for his calls. Then the kettle sang on the hob, the firelight lit up the little room, and the only entertainment he asked for was Connie’s conversation.
“Going?” said Grey, when he at last rose from the table.
“Shall you dine at the Club?”
“I think so.”
“See you at Lady Dacre’s, perhaps?”
“Ta, ta!” jerked out the parrot.
At five o’clock that afternoon Munro went to Connie’s lodgings. The little servant let him in, and he made his way alone upstairs to Connie’s room.
“Come in,” she said when he knocked at the door. She knew who it must be, and her voice trembled with gladness.
The armchair stood ready for him near the fire, and he dropped into it with quite the air of a domestic character. Then Connie brought him some tea, and knelt down beside him while she put the sugar in it. A soft pink colour was on her cheeks, and her eyes had begun to lose some of their wistfulness. She was happy now in her lodgings, and the only thing that troubled her was a vague fear of the uncertain future.
Presently Munro began to talk about himself. He had never done so before, and the things he said were strange to her—stranger than he could imagine, because to him they were so familiar.
“I wish my father would sell our place in the country,” he said; “but the old man’s heart would break if I even suggested we should part with it. I believe he knows and loves every tree on the estate. Besides, I sometimes feel that I’m only fit for the life of a country squire—that I’m no good for the Bar. But I like London, and I dislike the idea of settling down in the country. Still, I can’t make money, it isn’t in me. I can spend right enough, but as to making it—well, money’s an awful nuisance—I mean the want of it.”
“I thought you were so rich,” said Connie.
Then he explained that a man can be a beggar on five thousand a year, and a Croesus on two pounds a week.
“You see, Con,” he said, “it’s a position makes all the difference.”
A feeling of uneasiness came over Connie while he talked thus. What part had she in the country life he was describing? None at all. What were his home and his relations to her? Nothing!
“My sister is such a snob,” he said. “Poverty is bad enough, but being poor need not make one snobbish any more than being rich. I wish she would marry, but I don’t believe any man will be such a fool as to have her.”
Connie looked gravely into the fire. The minutes were quickly passing, and Humphry would soon go away. The present alone was hers, the future she must not even think about. She stirred the fire and made it blaze up the chimney, for she felt she must be doing something. Then she got up and fetched her work-box and upset its contents on the floor, cottons and needles, tapes and scissors.
The noise startled Munro.
“How I have been running on about myself,” he exclaimed, looking at his watch. “Connie, I am going home for Sunday, so I shall not see you again before Monday evening.”
“When do you go?”
“You will be back Monday evening?”
He lifted her up and kissed her.
“Has your father been here again?” he asked.
“No; I send him his ten shillings.”
“Or the ‘Boss’?”
“No; of course not!”
“If I find him here I’ll break every bone in his body!” said Munro as he put on his hat.
“Then,” said Connie, “I shall lose my engagement.”
HUMPHRY MUNRO’S HOME.
“CHATBURY, sir!” said the guard, opening the door of the railway carriage, and touching his hat.
Humphry Munro collected his things together, and stepped on to the platform just as the station-master hurried up to say that “the Squire” was waiting outside in the dog-cart.
He was well known at the little country station. An old woman dropped him a curtsey as he went to find his father, and a red-faced farmer shook his hand, hoping “he found himself well,” and that he had come for a long visit.
“Got a horse for you to look at, Mr. Humphry,” said the farmer. “Come round to-morrow, sir. You’ll excuse its being in its deshabils on a Sunday morning?”
He disengaged himself, and sprang into the dog-cart beside his father, who greeted him with a quiet “Glad to see you, my boy.”
Then the dog-cart rolled quickly away from the station.
Directly they reached the high road the Squire turned to take a long look at his son. The Squire was a handsome old man, but his face showed signs of worry, and his shoulders stooped. His snow-white hair and white moustache made him look older than he really was, and his eyes had a careworn expression.
“Let the farms yet, father?” inquired Humphry.
“No, my boy, no chance of letting them. The lease of the Home farm has just fallen in, and I don’t think I can get a tenant for it.”
“What shall you do?”
“Farm it myself. It’s the only thing to do.”
The Squire touched up the horse as he said this, and then flicked its ears with the whip.
“I don’t know what’s come over farmers,” he remarked, after a short silence. “They are all taking their capital out of land and putting it into business. Labour is cheap enough, cheaper than ever it was, yet the land don’t pay.”
“How many farms have you on your hands?”
“Four large ones and two small ones. I never had such bad luck.”
“Things have been bad ever since I can remember,” his son ruminated.
It was a chilly grey afternoon towards the end of February. The boughs of the trees stood black and bare against the dull sky, not a leaf showed in the hedges; flat fields stretched on either side of the road with here and there a clump of trees, or a solitary cottage. The high road was almost deserted. A mile from the station they passed a waggon loaded with food for cattle; a man walked beside the hose and a small boy was perched on the top of the turnips. Farther on they met two old women carrying bundles of sticks, and three or four school-children.
“I want to show you some timber I have just sold,” the Squire said. “Are you in a hurry to get home?”
“No. How’s Di?”
“Oh, she’s all right. Sir George McCannon has been over several times lately.”
Humphry drew his cigar case out of his pocket and held it out to the Squire.
“No, thank you, my boy. Di doesn’t like me to smoke.”
“You give in to Di in everything.”
“Well, you see, I have to live with her,” said the Squire, with a quiet smile. “There’s the copse, and there’s the timber. I have sold it just as it stands.”
He stopped the dog-cart beside a wood, and pointed out some trees marked with a red cross. Then he said with a sigh,
“I remember when the wood was planted. If I could have let the Home farm that copse should not have been touched. It was Di who made me sell the wood, but she’s quite right, Humphry, quite right. She’s a fine woman, is Di. I sometimes think she ought to have been a man, then she would have had more scope.”
The dog-cart rolled on down a hill, passed a farm-house, where a clergyman stood at a gate talking to a woman.
The Squire called out “Good evening!”
“That’s the new curate,” he explained to Humphry. “Di does not like him. She says he ‘interferes’ in the parish.”
“I believe,” said the Squire, “he spends too much on blankets. You know Di is very economical. I don’t know where the place would be but for her. When she marries I don’t know what I shall do, unless—”
The Squire stopped, and Humphry did not finish the sentence.
“How long can you stay with us?” the Squire asked presently.
“Till Monday, father.”
“No. But I’ll come down soon for a fortnight.”
It was dark by the time they reached the lodge, and drove through the open gates into the park. The lights of the house glimmered in the distance; the two men did not talk any more. Humphry smoked, and the Squire devoted himself to the horse. They were both, however, thinking the same thoughts, and that was, probably, why they kept silence.
“He could help me so much here,” the Squire thought, “and he would not want such a heavy allowance if he lived at home.”
“I could be of use to the old man here; but I can’t leave London,” thought Humphry.
Then the younger man felt about for the papers he had brought with him from town, and satisfied himself that he had not left them in the railway carriage.
“Here we are!” said the Squire, as they drew up before an old-fashioned house with a large entrance. “You’ll be glad of your tea. Your room’s all right. I went to have a look at it before I left. I’m going to the stables for a few minutes. You’ll find your sister at home.”
The old butler came out, leaving the hall door open, and greeted Humphry with:
“Hope you’re quite well, Master Humphry. Miss Diana’s in the drawing-room, sir,” he added.
Humphry went into the hall and took off his overcoat.
Then he stopped to warm himself. He chatted with the old butler about the village—who was dead and who was married. The hall was a big place with many doors, and a broad flight of steps leading to a gallery. Huge logs blazed on a wide hearth, and by the fire Humphry lingered, heedless of the butler’s warning that the tea would be cold if he did not make haste to join Miss Diana. He watched the flickering light playing on the skins of bears and tigers, on family portraits, old-fashioned firearms, and curiosities of all sorts.
He liked the old hall better than any other part of the house, it was so quaint and home-like.
While he was listening to an exciting account of an accident the groom had had with a favourite horse, his sister came down the staircase. Her features were very much like his own, but the expression of her face was different. She was decidedly handsome. Her tailor-made dress showed off her tall figure; coils of dark hair were neatly arranged about her head. She lacked the graciousness that made her brother a general favourite; but she had more determination (more character some people call it) written upon her face. Her eyebrows were straight and black, and they gave to her grey eyes a steel-like glance. Smiles seldom parted her lips—lips made to command not to kiss. A whole book might have been written about her chin; it was round and white, but strongly moulded, and when she lifted her face to speak, it showed a neck like a column. Diana Munro was a fine woman, as the Squire said; but he said it with a sigh, for he had lived with her all her life, and now she was nearly twenty-seven.
“Well, Humphry, don’t you want any tea?” she asked.
“I’m coming, Di,” answered her brother.
“I TELL you, Humphry, it is your duty to marry.”
“Thank you, Diana.”
“I mean it. You can’t make money at the Bar, so you must do so in the only way open to a man of your position.”
“You can talk to me like that in ten years’ time, Di; but I am only twenty-four, and I don’t wish to marry.”
“Of course you don’t!”
“Then why should I do it?”
“Because the place is going to ruin for want of money, and you can’t get money in any other way. It’s a duty you owe to your position.”
The brother and sister were walking through the park to church, and the bells could be heard not far off. The Squire would follow later on, for Diana had told him she wanted to have a talk with Humphry.
“You seem to think you have nothing to do but to amuse yourself,” continued Diana, taking advantage of her brother’s silence. “You forget that your position has duties attached to it.”
“It is certainly not my duty to marry for money,” said Humphry. “The first thing a man has to consider in marriage is the prospect of happiness.”
“Happiness!” cried Diana. “Happiness is only an accident, it has nothing to do with marriage. Marriage is a duty you owe to your family, and to Society.”
“Then why don’t you set me an example, my dear Diana?”
“If I marry, I shall certainly take good care not to lose by it,” replied Miss Munro.
Her brother looked critically at her little French bonnet, tailor-made dress, neat gloves and boots, and prayer-book.
“You have no heart, Di,” he said, laughing.
“I am glad to say I have never been troubled with anything so commonplace,” replied his sister. “Seriously, Humphry, you must marry Edith Custance, you really must. She is a very nice girl and will make you a good wife, and her money will keep things together.”
“I don’t want to keep things together. If father died, I should sell the place.”
“Well, I mean it.”
“Give up your position! You, who might one day be Member for the county!”,
“Yes. Father loves the place, because his happiest associations are connected with it, but I have no reason for being sentimental. As to marrying, I won’t do it. Edith Custance is a nice girl, I know, but I won’t marry her or any one else.”
They had reached the churchyard when he said this; and there they waited for the Squire, standing under an old yew tree, amidst mounds of earth covered with grass. Wooden crosses and rude, oblong stones marked the graves of the peasants, and not far from them was the entrance to the vault, whither their mother had been carried when they were little children.
It was not possible to continue the discussion in such a place, so they waited silently for their father. Everything was still and peaceful in the country churchyard. A solitary bell tolled the last five minutes before the service, and some rooks in the neighbouring trees tried to drown its solemn music. Just as the bell stopped and the organ began to play announcing that the clergyman was ready to begin the service, the Squire came up. They followed him into church, and took their places in the family pew. Humphry found his favourite seat under the tablet that the Squire had raised to the memory of his mother. He had sat there ever since he could remember.
During the service he thought of his sister’s words and knew that she had spoken the truth. His home was fast going to ruin. His father’s face showed it.
He knelt down with the congregation, resting his forehead on an old leather prayer-book; and while kneeling thus he thought of Connie. Her golden hair and sad, dark eyes came back to his memory, and he was glad to think that the very next evening he would meet her outside the theatre. He marry Edith Custance, and settle down in the country? Not he!
He raised his head to look at the Squire. His father’s face was partly hidden, but he could see the old man’s white hair and bowed shoulders. Diana had spoken of his duty. Well, he would work harder at the Bar than he had been in the habit of doing. Grey was getting on—why should not he?
(To be continued.)