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Miss Modernity:
Marjorie Bowen:
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Language: English
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Miss Modernity


Marjorie Bowen

Cover Image

Cover based on a painting by Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)

First published in The Windsor Magazine, August 1924

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2023



"Really, Captain Lambton, if I had known that your views were
quite so obsolete—" "Common-sense is never out of fashion," he
retorted briskly, "and what you propose to do is just a piece of folly."

ELIZABETH WHARTON had every inducement to be modern and efficient; she had an active mind, three hundred a year, no responsibilities, a good education, and naturally, as an outcome of all these things, a fairly complete self-assurance. Of course she had not had very much experience, for she was only twenty-three, but she rather despised experience, and she was exceptionally well armed with theories.

Her mother had recently married again and gone to America, and Elizabeth lived with a friend of the same type in rooms, that were fairly cheap and decidedly picturesque, somewhere off the Fulham Road. Elizabeth was studying for the Bar; she had, in fact, only one more examination before her, and she looked on this as an expert rider looks upon the last fence to be leapt before certain victory.

Elizabeth was quite happy in her fairly complete self-assurance; she was young, healthy, and very much in earnest, and though she wore glasses and shingled hair, she had a certain satisfaction—unconscious, perhaps-in the exquisite cut of her one-piece serge frocks, in the perfection of her pale silk stockings, and the gleam of her openwork patent-leather shoes.

If she had not been an efficient young woman, she would have been a pretty young girl, for she did not really need glasses—they were just part of her kit, like an officer's epaulettes—and her hair was the kind that wanted so hard to be long and curly that she had to crop it every week.

Her friend, Connie Smeeton, firmly supported her in her attitude towards life, for Connie could never have been charming. If she had not been efficient, she would have been merely dull and perhaps disagreeable. She intended to be an engineer, and she was a little plain and more than a little dowdy.

Connie was always slightly apprehensive lest Elizabeth should, in some moment of aberration, spoil her career and betray her standard by marriage. "If only you don't fall in love—" she would say, with a sigh.

At which Elizabeth would be serenely amused. Elizabeth knew all about love; she had read quite a number of scientific works on the subject. Marriage she regarded as a pitiful survival of the Middle Ages, all very well, perhaps, for ordinary stupid women, but for anyone like herself or Connie—

"Falling in love," said Elizabeth, "is the last folly of an idle, ill-educated mind feebly searching for diversion, and marriage is the last refuge of all the women who are not any good for anything else."

And then Elizabeth came into a fortune, a real fortune; it was left her by an uncle who had quarrelled with her entirely over her choice of a "career." The old tyrant had actually wanted her to live with him, to pour out his coffee in the morning, his tea in the afternoon, and play cribbage in the evening. On her indignant refusal, he had called her "a hard young fool," but now he had died and left her all he possessed on condition that she managed the property herself and took up residence in the old Manor House; also everything was to go to a distant relation if and when she married.

Elizabeth cried secretly. If the old man had been reasonable, she would have liked him, and she had always fostered the hope that one day she would both startle and win him by some sparkling forensic display when she was a full-fledged barrister.

"Of course it is a challenge," remarked Connie. "The old idiot thought you would make a mess of everything, and that would teach you a lesson."

"I suppose so," returned Elizabeth dubiously. "Poor dear, he was such a hopeless reactionary. I don't think I'll accept; it just means smashing up my life-work," she added with the air of forty-five at least.

But Connie was a shrewd young person. She said: "Elizabeth, you know that you've only got three hundred, and it's really an awful pinch, even the two of us living like this. It is no use just being stiff-necked. You might find a life-work in looking after this place."

"Oh, yes," agreed Elizabeth. "Poor Uncle Joshua ran everything in the most archaic fashion. The place must be chaotic. And of course I know a great deal about property administration, estate work, and model farming."

"Well," replied Connie, who for a long time had seen little prospect of earning either fame or money at engineering, "I think you ought to take this on; it seems, in a way, your job. I can come with you for a bit," she added generously, "to give you moral support."

Elizabeth thanked her, but declared that she was in absolutely no need of moral support, so Connie had to offer her company on the usual terms of a mere guest.

With a great deal of weight and gravity Elizabeth threw herself into her new task. The lawyers informed her of a codicil to the will which gave her a good deal of annoyance. Herein her uncle expressed his wish that she should employ as her bailiff or steward a certain Captain Harry Lambton, who was greatly in need of such a position.

"But suppose the man isn't efficient?" asked Elizabeth.

"Oh, I believe there is no doubt about that, Miss Wharton. Captain Lambton has been farming on his own near Crofton."

"Then why didn't my uncle employ him himself?" asked Elizabeth crisply.

"Ah, well, Mr. Wharton always liked to do everything himself, you know."

"So shall I," replied Elizabeth. "I intend to take complete charge of everything."

"Quite so, quite so," agreed the impassive lawyer. "This is a mere suggestion on the part of the late Mr. Wharton, a mere suggestion."

Elizabeth told Connie about it, and Connie thought that Captain Harry Lambton ought to be interviewed, so Elizabeth wrote to him and asked him to call on her soon after her arrival at Crofts.

"But I know what he is like," she told Connie, with the cruelty of her self-assured youth. "Some poor war derelict that one can't help being sorry for, but doesn't want. I suppose he is eking out a pension on a poultry farm."

Elizabeth interviewed Captain Lambton in the large terrace room at Crofts. After the rooms off the Fulham Road, Crofts seemed very large, lofty, and noble. Just at first Elizabeth's composure was a trifle ruffled; she thought that the reflection of herself in the big mirrors showed a creature rather out of place in the grand old house. Somehow that boyish-looking figure with the close aureole of fair hair, in the straight tube frock and the narrow watered silk bow at the throat, did not look quite like that of the mistress of Crofts Manor House.

Realising this, Elizabeth was extraordinarily dignified with Captain Lambton. She put him through his paces with swift precision, and this despite the fact that her heart was discomposingly softened by his very obvious lameness and his very gay and gallant demeanour.

He was a man of about thirty-eight. Very ordinary, Elizabeth told herself quickly—oh, yes, a very ordinary type indeed. Eton, Oxford, the Guards, the War, a poultry farm. He had brown hair with a wave, and a plain, humorous face. He seemed extremely good-natured, and his manner was courteously casual; yet he, too, somehow seemed sure of himself.

"I'm afraid you'll find me thoroughly mid-Victorian, Miss Wharton," he said. "I'm one of the fellows who've rather been left behind in the ditch while progress goes by on the high-road."

"You mean you are one of those who cling to the wheels instead of getting into the cart," said Elizabeth cleverly. "Personally, I'm a great believer, I'm afraid, in efficiency."

"Oh, that! I saw too much of that in the late troubles to be awfully keen," smiled Harry Lambton. He glanced at the slight boyish Elizabeth, and added: "But of course that was all before your time. I dare say efficiency is quite a new game to you, Miss Wharton."

Elizabeth considered this impertinence, but she smiled sweetly to show that it was the impertinence one can condone in an inferior. She was exasperated.

But she engaged Captain Lambton. She was further exasperated when he himself suggested that the salary she offered was far too high, but she coldly agreed to the figure he named, inwardly raging lest he should think it was ignorance that had prompted the extravagance of her first proposal. She was so far from grace that she would rather he had thought it what it really was—an effort of charity.

For Harry Lambton had been quite devastatingly honest about his position. There was an unmarried sister, a younger brother, a married sister none too well off, none trained or efficient.

"Translating and fancy leather work," he had said, and Elizabeth's fine lip had curled. Hence her munificent offer, and hence, on his rejection of this, her remark, resulting from an inward smart: "I thought that was what you wanted the job for?"

"Of course it's for the money I'm taking the place," he assured her cheerfully.

"It could hardly be for anything else," replied Elizabeth unpleasantly. "I know you are the kind of man to hate working under a woman."

He looked at her quizzically.

"Well, now, do you know, I never think of it like that," he smiled. "I suppose because these very efficient modern women don't quite seem to me feminine, one thinks of them as—"

"Freaks?" finished Elizabeth sharply, with a blush that annoyed her intensely. "Well, I am one of them, Captain Lambton. I don't wish you to regard me as anything—feminine."

"I should never dream of taking such a liberty," he answered her gravely.

"I am probably," continued the lady rigidly, "a rather different type from any you have seen before."

"Oh, yes," he agreed. "The post-war flapper is out of date, isn't she? No, I have never had an intimate acquaintance with anyone of your generation."

Elizabeth cruelly seized her opportunity.

"This will hardly be an intimate acquaintance, Captain Lambton. I hope it is completely understood that everything is entirely in my charge, and that you work under my orders?"

She was almost surprised herself, to find how well she did it; it was the manner that she had long practised in secret as that she would use when rising to cross-examine the defendant.

She hoped that he writhed a little, but could not be sure. He merely answered: "Oh, quite!"

Connie said afterwards, "He is quite nice," as she might have spoken of a new dog. "But you'll need to keep him in his place—he has got no end of cheek."

"He won't dare show any to me," said Elizabeth severely. "And I must say I didn't notice any 'cheek.' Of course, Connie, if you make yourself cheap bandying jokes with him—"

There was a great deal to do at Crofts, and Elizabeth tackled so many reforms at once and with such swift zeal that she found herself uncomfortably occupied. It was incredibly more difficult to produce model farms, cottages, water-supply and drainage than she would have believed, and much more hopeless a task to start village clubs, recreation rooms, and playgrounds than would ever have occurred to her. Theory went to the wind in a thousand, thousand fragments.

"The amount of stupidity, prejudice, and ignorance that one has to combat!" exclaimed Elizabeth.

"Don't give up, dear, for a lot of duds," advised Connie, who was enjoying her stay at Crofts. "Every reformer has had these difficulties to contend with. Think of Joan of Arc, of Florence Nightingale!"

"Don't be an idiot," said Elizabeth sharply.

"Well," replied Connie, "if the whole thing is too much for you—"

"Nothing is too much for me. Of course I am enjoying the work. It just hurts me to think how much wrong thinking there is about." But, in spite of this valiant disclaimer, Elizabeth began to look very worried and fine-drawn and pale.

By now she was intensely unpopular, had quarrelled with most of her neighbours, and was on the verge of law-suits with two of them, besides being entangled in legal difficulties with the local Borough Council. Very few of the tenants and villagers had responded to her efforts on their behalf, and her many improvements seemed to raise more ridicule than praise. Besides, she had been on more than one occasion very notably "done" by crafty rogues who had played up to her ideas, and the estate was becoming unpleasantly burdened.

Elizabeth had discovered, not without bitterness, how much easier it is to manage three hundred a year than ten thousand, and how much more satisfactory to be a law unto a few rooms off the Fulham Road than to a big house, three villages, and many acres, a host of dependents, servants, workmen and acquaintances, all critical and some hostile.

"You've one comfort," said Connie cheerfully (Connie, after all, wasn't concerned very much), "that Lambton man doesn't make a bore of himself. I should think he must be a sort of Robot. He doesn't appear to have two ideas in his head. Two? Not even one!"

"Captain Lambton," retorted Elizabeth acidly, "is doing exactly as I asked him, acting under me and offering no advice or suggestion."

The new steward was, indeed, keeping exactly to his bond. Elizabeth would never have admitted to anyone, not even to Connie, not even to herself, that she sometimes longed for him to throw aside his good-humoured composure and say or do—well, anything that showed some interest in her affairs. He was exactly what she had asked him to be—the perfect paid servant—and this exasperated Elizabeth very much.

She even, as she got deeper and deeper into difficulties, more and more disliked and opposed, more and more nerve-racked and anxious, tried to challenge Harry Lambton into crossing or criticising her will. She wanted him, really, as a whipping boy; the least word from him would have been the signal for a passionate defence of her own actions, a haughty exposition of her own ideals, a flagellation of his outworn creeds, provincial viewpoint and middle-class prejudice.

But he never gave her the chance. He took all she did for granted, and his cheerful "Right!" in reply to the most preposterous of her suggestions began to irritate her beyond endurance. She found herself casting about for something that would rouse Harry Lambton, some absolute dynamite of a proposal that would bring him out into the open.

Now here Connie came in useful. Connie had put in for the job of doing the village water-supply and drainage, which had gone hopelessly wrong. Elizabeth knew quite well that Connie was incapable of doing this work, and was secretly annoyed that she had had the cheek to ask, but she saw here a golden opportunity for exploding the calm of Captain Lambton.

On the first chance she intended to inform him that Connie had got the work in hand. So impatient was she that she telephoned him to come up to Crofts Manor House.

When she went down to meet him in the big terrace room, she found him gazing at a large picture of her great-great-grandmother that hung over the black-and-white marble mantelpiece.

"Isn't she jolly?" he said enthusiastically. "I think I fell in love with her the moment I saw her."

"I am having the picture removed," cut in Elizabeth. "It is rather a bad Winter-halter, and out of period with the room."

"But she is such a dear," persisted Harry Lambton. "She never could be out of period with anything."

Elizabeth glanced coldly at the painting, which represented a young woman in a white silk pelisse, with a large Leghorn straw bonnet, filled with blue flowers, that just showed the smooth bands of her fair hair. She wore a blue sarcenet gown, and carried a tiny little parasol with a heavy fringe. The fair smooth face was set in a smile of ideal sweetness.

"What a pity she can't come to life!" smiled Harry Lambton.

"She is the type you admire?" asked Elizabeth, adjusting her glasses. "A simpering, cloying doll?"

"I love her," he returned, unabashed. "Do you know that the whole kit is upstairs in the chest in the big bedroom? Mr. Wharton showed it to me. He used to regret that there was no woman nowadays with so small a waist and foot."

"I haven't had time for frivolities," said Elizabeth sweetly. "The costume is most unhygienic, isn't it?"

Then, turning her back on her great-great-grandmother and looking down at the formal bunch of papers in her hand, she sprung her mine.

"I'm really very bothered about this water and drainage question, and I've decided to put the work into the hands of my friend Miss Smeeton."

"Miss Smeeton?"

"She is a qualified engineer, you know," smiled Elizabeth, "and really first-class."

She had done it at last; his nice plain face lost the look of indifferent good humour and became perplexed, angry.

"You don't realise how serious it is," he said. "You've fooled enough already, Miss Wharton. You ought to have a first-class firm of engineers down at once—"

"My friend is a first-class engineer," interrupted Elizabeth.

"Nonsense!" he answered briskly. "Nonsense, Miss Wharton! This experiment will cost you thousands."

She had brought him to the attack now, her mine had drawn him from his fortress, and he was doing battle, foot and horse, in the open. Elizabeth was enjoying herself.

"Really, Captain Lambton, if I had known that your views were quite so obsolete—"

"Common-sense is never out of fashion," he retorted briskly, "and what you propose to do is just a piece of folly."

"You know nothing whatever of Miss Smeeton's qualifications."

"Neither do you, Miss Wharton. But I know this, that if she is going to monkey about with this water and drainage, you'll get into serious trouble—worse than you're in now," he added, bringing up his heavy guns.

"Oh, you think I'm in trouble, do you?" She pounced on that, rather losing her icy self-control.

"I know you're in a nice old mess. Of course, it isn't part of my job to tell you so, but I can't allow this."

Elizabeth now swept her big artillery into action.

"Oh, indeed! I suppose you forget that I am entirely my own mistress in the matter?"

"But you aren't," he assured her. "You've no right to start typhus in the place, and that is what it will be, if things aren't looked to soon. Sanitation is beastly difficult, and you ought to have left the people alone, unless you had a good scheme to offer. They're almost without water now, and there's a nasty feeling in the place. I suppose Miss Smeeton won't expect bouquets—won't mind a few stones?"

He looked so very angry and stern, as he said this, that Elizabeth surrendered, bag and baggage, and employed, curiously enough, feminine tactics.

"I think it is perfectly horrid of you to speak to me like that," she declared. "I can't think how you can be so unkind! You know that I have been doing my very best for the place."

The victor was not to be appeased by this white flag.

"You've done your very worst," he said unkindly. "It would take ten years' work to put right the damage you'd have done if I hadn't kept my eye on things a bit."

This furled the white flag out of sight.

"Oh, indeed!" cried Elizabeth furiously. "So you haven't been carrying out my orders?"

He gave her a disarming grin.

"Well, some of them were too idiotic," he admitted, "and I thought if I could just keep things going for a bit until you found your feet—"

Elizabeth collapsed into one of the big tapestry chairs; she really couldn't hold herself upright any longer. So this was what had been behind his pleasant reserve, his immovable good humour, his ready acquiescence! He had been treating her as a joke, as a little fool who had to "find her feet," perhaps—oh, very likely!—making a jest of her behind her back.

She had not been able to rest until she had probed behind his mask, and now that she had done so she was shattered by her knowledge. But she bore herself bravely.

"How amusing!" she said in a voice that was almost steady. "I really thought you were serving me loyally, Captain Lambton. This discovery is very unpleasant."

"It was the best loyalty that I could think of," he answered simply.

"To make me a laughing stock by accepting my orders, then not executing them?"

"But no one knew," he said. "Of course you don't think that I told people? You jumped it out of me, you know. I never meant to tell you. I only just tried what I could to keep you out of a mess, and I'm afraid that I haven't been very successful."

Elizabeth sat still. She was trying hard to make an effort to compose something bitter, cutting, and conclusive with which to dismiss the wretched man; she wanted to be very dignified and not in the least agitated. But during the seconds that she was pulling herself together he upset all her calculations by an absurd remark.

He had been looking at her very intently, and he suddenly, in a different kind of voice, said:

"What do you wear those glasses for? I'm sure your eyes are quite good. And without them you would be just like great-great-grandmother."

Elizabeth looked up, really furious, in quite a school girlish sort of way, but she contrived to cling to her woman-of-the-world manner.

"Really? I suppose that is your ideal woman, the soft, clinging type, all cotton-wool and toilet vinegar!"

"Oh, yes! I warned you that I didn't get on with efficient women, didn't I?" he said rather forlornly.

"You should not have tried," retorted Elizabeth, slightly mystified. "But I thought you did not admit I was efficient."

He smiled.

"You efficient? Good Heavens, of course you aren't! That is why we have got on so well together. I thought from the first you were just great-great-grandmother over again."

Elizabeth rose.

"I suppose you are trying to be funny," she said icily. "It is so dreadfully out of date, that type of humour."

He protested.

"I'm not joking, really. Every time I look at you I think of great-great-grandmother, and—and—" under her hostile stare he changed the end of his sentence "—how glad I should be if she came to life," he concluded feebly.

"A pity you didn't live in those days, Captain Lambton," said Elizabeth, "isn't it? And I'm afraid, after what has passed, that we can't possibly work together."

"Oh, of course, if that is how you feel about it—"

"I do most decidedly. It is against my principles to employ a man when there are so many women wanting work. I shall have in future a lady bailiff."

She had triumphed. There was no mistaking the dismay in Harry Lambton's nice face. Elizabeth underscored her triumph.

"She may have many faults, but she won't bore me by telling me she has fallen in love with my great-great-grandmother."

"Well, if I bore you—"

"I'm afraid you do." She smiled primly.

I'll clear out, then, at once."

"I don't want you to go at once," said Elizabeth rather lamely. "I mean, not to put yourself to any inconvenience."

"Not in the least," he returned briskly. "Another chap is looking after my little place for me. I thought I should be back there before long."

Well, he went, and Elizabeth was quite free to do exactly as she liked.

The first thing she did was to quarrel with Connie. She told her that it was sheer cheek for her to have asked for the engineering job, and Connie, in a rage, went back to the rooms off the Fulham Road.

Then Elizabeth sat down and thought for quite a long while, and the result of her thinking was that she telephoned to the very firm of engineers Captain Lambton had mentioned in the first place, and asked them to send someone at once.

After that Elizabeth shut herself up in the estate office and tried to impress the clerks that she really knew something of what she was talking about. Curiously enough, she had left off wearing spectacles lately, and found that she could really see quite well without them.

Elizabeth was very lonely now, and she began to find her work dull and uninteresting. She interviewed a great many prospective lady bailiffs and secretaries, and disliked all of them. She invited friends to stay with her, and quarrelled with all of them because they told her that she looked as if she wanted a change.

Once she took the light car out and, quite by accident, of course, ran across Harry Lambton's little farm; she even caught a glimpse of him working in his garden.

It wasn't in the least a model farm, but was rather old-fashioned and ordinary, yet it looked so cosy and comfortable, so peaceful and friendly, that Elizabeth drove home positively hating Crofts Manor House and the thousand complications that it stood for. When she got home she took a long, long look at great-great-grandmother.

Then she went upstairs to the big bedroom and looked in the oak chest, that hitherto she had resolutely refrained from opening. There were the white pelisse, the blue frock, the chip bonnet, the kid slippers and the tiny fringed parasol.

Elizabeth tried them on. She found that the slippers were not too large, and that she could lace her waist in to twenty-two inches, also that the poke bonnet was very becoming, and hid her "shingled" hair completely, showing only two smooth golden bands in front. It was surprising to see how exactly she, the modern efficient young woman, looked like the ethereal girl in the Winter-halter painting. Elizabeth felt a funny little thrill of gratification. She ran down stairs to look again at the portrait, and there, in front of it, was Harry Lambton.

He had seen a pathetic figure flying past in a light car, seen a wistful face turned towards him, and he had come over to Crofts as fast as a push-bike could bring him along, and entered unannounced.

"Great-great-grandmother come to life!" he exclaimed tenderly, as she stood in the doorway.


"Great-great-grandmother come to life!" he exclaimed tenderly.

Elizabeth dropped a curtsy and blushed. Somehow in a pelisse and poke bonnet it was easy to curtsy and blush.


Elizabeth dropped a curtsy and blushed.

"Please, sir," she said in a small voice, "great-great-grandmamma has got into a horrid muddle, and hopes you'll be so kind as to help her a little."

"She knows I've always been in love with her," he answered. Then: "Oh, Elizabeth, why don't you cut it all and marry me? We should have enough to manage on. I know you'll lose Crofts, but please do, Elizabeth, darling!"

Elizabeth sailed to the hearth; she looked as lovely as the portrait that smiled above.

"Wasn't Uncle Joshua a wise old dear?" she said.


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