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Chapter 3 Preliminary Canter

Peggy’s hair was so thick that she had to wear it in two plaits instead of one; so long that when she sat down and let these fall over her shoulders, their ends curled up in her lap. Nell, whose own hair hung lank and short about her neck, was never tired of playing with them, pushing a finger in and out between twists so sleek and smooth that they felt like a rope come alive.

The two girls were in their favourite place, the hay-loft. For here, if you pulled the ladder up after you, nobody could follow you; though you could see what was going on in the yard below: the men with the horses and carts, or customers taking a short cut to the shop. But you were quite safe from the other girls; and that was what she and Peg wanted — to be alone together. The others teased so that it made you simply furious. F’r instance, once when Peggy said she’d ever so much rather have had fair hair than dark, and she, Nell, cried out at her, the other girls pulled faces, and winked, and turned their eyes up to heaven till you could have killed them.

Here, she and Peg sat with their behinds burrowed into the hay, most comfortable, and all alone.

To-day was rather a special day; for Nell had something in her blazer-pocket so secret and important that it almost burned her through the stuff. This was a present for Peggy, and . . . well, now the moment to give it had come, she was feeling just a teeny bit uneasy. How dreadful if Peg didn’t like it — after all the trouble she had had to buy it. Her pocket-money — she got threepence a week, got it honestly, not like one girl they knew, who sometimes sneaked a threepenny-bit from her father’s till, under the old bookkeeper’s nose. Well, for three whole weeks now, she, Nell, hadn’t spent a penny of HER threepence (instead of at once blueing it on chocs; she’d almost forgotten what they tasted like) and with her savings she’d bought Peggy . . . a hair-slide. Ninepence-halfpenny the exact price was, and she’d been fairly stuck how to raise the extra halfpenny without waiting another week. In the end, there had been nothing for it but to pinch a stamp from her father’s desk, and sell it.

This slide was now in her pocket, neatly wrapped in fine tissue paper. But the longer it stayed there the more unsure she grew. The point was, it was intended for a place on Peggy’s head . . . well, for the one piece of her that wasn’t QUITE as pretty as the rest. This was at the back of her neck where the plaits went off, each on its own side. They seemed to leave such a big gap of white skin showing . . . perhaps because they were so dark themselves. Peggy of course didn’t know this — you couldn’t see yourself behind — but she, Nell, did; and every time the patch caught her eye, it gave her a slight stab that there should be ANYTHING about Peg that wasn’t quite perfect. Once, too, she’d heard Madge Brennan make a simply horrid remark about people who went bald very young. Peggy didn’t understand; but she did, and bled for her. It was then she’d made up her mind to get the slide.

Another worrying thing was that she’d been lured away from the plain, useful one she had gone into the shop meaning to buy, and had taken one set with . . . diamonds. Not REAL diamonds, of course; but they looked just like it. And now she was afraid Peggy might think it too showy for everyday. And not know how to explain it either to her dreadfully big family of brothers and sisters, most of them older than her. They said such rude things sometimes. And her mother, too. One evening when she, Nell, had been waiting in the rightaway, hoping yes, truly, only HOPING Peggy would be allowed out again after tea, the mother, a great big fat woman with an apron over her stomach, had opened the window and called out: “Now then, Nellie Mackensen, just you be off! I won’t have you always hanging about here at mealtimes.” As if she wanted their old tea! Her own mother said Peggy’s mother was cross because there were so many of them and she’d so much to do. But it did make you rather wonder what she’d say to the diamonds. (Perhaps she’d throw them out of the window.) Oh dear, things were most frightfully complicated. It would have’ been much better, she saw it now, if she’d bought, say, a nice little diary-book, that Peggy could have carried in her pocket.

But she hadn’t. And the slide was there. Faint-heartedly she drew it forth.

Peggy, who had been talking all the time — Peg’s pretty mouth was always either talking or laughing — spotted the little parcel at once and said: “Hullo, what’s that,— For me? A present for me? Truly? Let’s see! Oh, Nell, you dear! . . . a brooch . . . just exactly what I’ve wanted.”

Nell felt herself go red as a beetroot. “Well, no, not a BROOCH, Peg,” she said in a small voice. “It’s a . . . it’s for your hair . . . behind . . . a hair-slide.”

Peggy’s enthusiasm fizzled out. “A slide?” she echoed disappointedly. “But — what for? Wherever could I wear a slide?”

The fatal moment had come. Nell swallowed hard. “Why, I thought . . . you see, I thought it would look most awfully nice, Peg, if you . . . put it on at the back . . . I mean on your neck where the hair leaves off.”

But all Peggy said, and as disbelievingly as before, was: “On my NECK? Gracious! I should never be able to make it stick. Besides, every time I move my head it ‘ud run into me.”

“Then you don’t like it?”

“Oh, yes, it’s all right. But whatever made you think of a slide, Nell?” pressed Peggy, and reflected peevishly: just fancy going and buying a thing like that, when there are such squads of things I really do want.

Nell’s voice was abject with apology as she replied: “Well, you know, Peg darling, I’ve always meant to give you something — something private . . . for yourself . . . from me. And — But oh, you don’t like it, I can see you don’t,” and her lips began to tremble.

“Of course I do, silly! But what I’m asking you is, WHY a hair-slide?” persisted Peggy, with a doggedness of which only she was capable.

There was nothing for it: the truth had to come out. “Well . . . I don’t think you know, Peg, but — well, just at the back of you . . . where there isn’t any more hair . . . just there, it sometimes looks so bare.”

Now it was Peggy’s turn to crimson. Very angrily. “WHAT? So that’s it, is it? I suppose what you mean to say is I’m going bald?”

“Oh no, no, indeed I don’t . . I DON’T . . . mean ANYthing like that.”

“Well, I don’t believe you. And I think you’re simply horrid.”

“I DON’T! It wasn’t me at all. It was Madge Brennan — I heard her . . . say something. And I thought . . . oh, I thought . . .” But here Nell fairly broke down and put her knuckles to her eyes.

“WHO? Madge Brennan? That pig-eyed sausage? Said that about me? That I was getting bald? Well, of all the FILTHY cheek!” And, everything else forgotten over the personal injury, Peggy went off into one of her hard white rages, when you might as well have tried to melt a stone. “Oh, I’ll pay her out for it, I’ll pay her out!”

Nell’s cheeks were beginning to get a gloss on them with tears. “Oh, now . . . you’re so mad . . . you can only think about her. And when I haven’t spent a penny — I mean I haven’t tasted a choc — not for donkey’s years. I’ve done nothing but save and save. But you don’t care . . . you don’t care a bit.”

But Peggy had been too badly stung to resist stinging in her turn. “Well, if you must know, I think it was perfectly ridiklous doing all that, just to buy something so — so RUDE. Why not find out first what I really wanted?— instead of listening to Madge Brennan. That’s not how to give a present . . . to somebody you make out to be fond of. Oh, I say, hang it, don’t bellow like that!” For Nell had flung herself face-downwards in the hay, and was sobbing convulsively. All her money gone; and Peggy offended and furious. She hadn’t meant to say one word about the baldness: it had just been dragged out of her. “And now you’ll never, never forgive me!”

“Rot. Though I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to like you QUITE so much again. As for this, of course I’ll keep it; but it’ll have to stay in a drawer. I’d sooner be hung than wear it, as long as THAT putty-faced Jane’s about!” said Peggy, and gave the slide such a vicious jerk that it fell to the floor. But even as she spoke she was wondering if, since she had prepared the way for its disappearance, she couldn’t exchange it on the sly for something else. What about a nice silk handkerchief, with a coloured border, to be worn in the breast-pocket of her blazer?

“But not altogether, Peg?— you won’t leave off caring altogether?” wept the gift-giver, callous now to any but the deeper issue. “For oh, I do love you so.”

“No, of course, not altogether.” But Peggy wasn’t really thinking what she said; for she didn’t stop to swallow before she added, in a kind of stiff, iron voice: “I shall make my mother buy me a hair-restorer right away.”

(Oh, why hadn’t SHE thought of this?) “But you don’t need it, truly you don’t, Peg, it’s as thick as thick . . . all over,” moaned Nell, now only too eager to perjure herself. “It’s just the loveliest hair that ever was.”

“Oh, get out! You only SAY that: you don’t mean it.”

“Honest Injun I do! And I wouldn’t tell you a lie. For I love you better than anybody in the world.”

“More than your mother? Or father?”

“Much more. And there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you, word of honour there isn’t!”

“Well, then, I tell you what. You take this thing back where you got it, and make them give you something, else instead.”

At the cruel suggestion Nell’s heart dropped to her boots. “Oh, Peg!” she wailed, feebly, imploringly.

“There you are! Didn’t I say it was all words?”

“No, it isn’t . . . I . . . I WILL do it!” (Though her little-girl courage shrivelled to the size of a pea, at the thought of facing Mr. Massey the draper over his counter: he had a long angry kind of black beard, and great round spectacles, that gave him enormous fish eyes.) “But then . . . oh, Peg, then you will like me again, won’t you?— as much as before. And like to come up here. You do, don’t you? You’d rather be here than ANYwhere else?”

“Well, do it first, and then I’ll say. But listen! That’s somebody calling. Oh, Nell, it’s Rex — the new man. Come on, let’s go. He jumps us.”

A bass voice shouted: “Now then, you two, what are you up to up there? Oblige me by letting that ladder down at once!”

They hastened to obey, lowering the ladder by its ropes. Then themselves crawled through the trapdoor and climbed down backwards, Peggy leading, fastidiously mindful of her skirts. But when they reached the last rung, some way short of the ground, they faced about to meet two long arms, two big hairy hands, which, gripping each twelve-year-old securely round the middle, swung her high before setting her on her feet. Carelessly now the short skirts fluttered and ballooned.

“Oh, Rex, one more — JUST one!” coaxed Peggy. And up again she flew.

But at the sight of Nell’s swollen eyes and blistery-looking cheeks, the man rubbed the tip of his nose with a finger.

“Hullo! what have you been doing to her? Quarrelling, eh?”

Peggy made her sauciest face, wrinkling her nose, sticking out her chin, showing the tip of her little pink tongue. “Who asks no questions gets told no lies!”

“Eh? What? What’s that?” and with a laugh Rex dived to catch her. She skipped from his reach, there was a chase, a scuffle, and then for the third time up she went. “There!— that’s for you, you little flirt, you!”

Deftly twisting the curls that served her in place of hair-ribbons, Peggy turned, once she and Nell were out of earshot, and said, in her most innocent tones: “I can’t think WHY he called me a flirt, can you?”

Now the correct answer, the wished-for and expected answer was: because you are one. But, though Nell knew this quite well, and at any other time would have given it, partly to please Peg, partly because it made her happy to see Peg happy, to-day she was too numb to care. So her only reply was a flat and toneless: “No.”

Deeply aggrieved, Peggy threw her a side-glance which stood for: oh, very well, my lady! and at once ran on, glibly and enthusiastically: “I DO like Rex, don’t you?— better than any of the other men. He’s got such positively gorgeous eyes — they look as if they could never stop laughing. He’s so strong, too; just like a lion — I believe he could fight lions with his hands. (I say, DID you see the hairs on them?) And when he jumps you, it makes you feel as if you’re never going to come down again — and don’t want to.— Well, I must hop it, or I’ll be late for tea. Now, don’t FORGET— what you promised.‘bye.”

“‘bye,” said Nell limply, and went on walking by herself, heavy of heart and leg. Oh yes, she liked Rex, too, he was so kind and jolly you couldn’t help it; even though she didn’t show off before him, or put on airs so’s to make him notice her. But Peggy — well, there were times . . . and this was one of them . . . when she felt that she didn’t love Peg a bit — no, not the least little tiny bit. Love her? She SIMPLY HATED her.


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