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THEY AND I (chapter9)

2006-09-08 21:22

    CHAPTER IX

    Had all things gone as ordered, our arrival at the St. Leonards' on Friday afternoon would have been imposing. It was our entrance, so to speak, upon the local stage; and Robina had decided it was a case where small economies ought not to be considered. The livery stable proprietor had suggested a brougham, but that would have necessitated one of us riding outside. I explained to Robina that, in the country, this was usual; and Robina had replied that much depended upon first impressions. Dick would, in all probability, claim the place for himself; and, the moment we were started, stick a pipe in his mouth. She selected an open landau of quite an extraordinary size, painted yellow. It looked to me an object more appropriate to a Lord Mayor's show than to the requirements of a Christian family; but Robina seemed touchy on the subject, and I said no more. It certainly was roomy. Old Glossop had turned it out well, with a pair of greys——seventeen hands, I judged them. The only thing that seemed wrong was the coachman. I can't explain why, but he struck me as the class of youth one associates with a milk-cart.

    We set out at a gentle trot. Veronica, who had been in trouble most of the morning, sat stiffly on the extreme edge of her seat, clothed in the attitude of one dead to the world; Dick, in lavender gloves that Robina had thoughtfully bought for him, next to her. Ethelbertha, Robina, and myself sat perched on the back seat; to have leaned back would have been to lie down. Ethelbertha, having made up her mind she was going to dislike the whole family of the St. Leonards, seemed disinclined for conversation. Myself I had forgotten my cigar-case. I have tried the St. Leonard cigar. He does not smoke himself; but keeps a box for his friends. He tells me he fancies men are smoking cigars less than formerly. I did not see how I was going to get a smoke for the next three hours. Nothing annoys me more than being bustled and made to forget things. Robina, who has recently changed her views on the subject of freckles, shared a parasol with her mother. They had to hold it almost horizontally in front of them, and this obscured their view. I could not myself understand why people smiled as we went by. Apart from the carriage, which they must have seen before, we were not, I should have said, an exhilarating spectacle. A party of cyclists laughed outright. Robina said there was one thing we should have to be careful about, living in the country, and that was that the strong air and the loneliness combined didn't sap our intellect. She said she had noticed it——the tendency of country people to become prematurely silly. I did not share her fears, as I had by this time divined what it was that was amusing folks. Dick had discovered behind the cushions-remnant of some recent wedding, one supposes——a large and tastefully bound Book of Common Prayer. He and Veronica sat holding it between them. Looking at their faces one could almost hear the organ pealing.

    Dick kept one eye on the parasol; and when, on passing into shade, it was lowered, he and Veronica were watching with rapt ecstasy the flight of swallows. Robina said she should tell Mr. Glossop of the insults to which respectable people were subject when riding in his carriage. She thought he ought to take steps to prevent it. She likewise suggested that the four of us, leaving the Little Mother in the carriage, should walk up the hill. Ethelbertha said that she herself would like a walk. She had been balancing herself on the edge of a cushion with her feet dangling for two miles, and was tired. She herself would have preferred a carriage made for ordinary-sized people. Our coachman called attention to the heat of the afternoon and the length of the hill, and recommended our remaining where we were; but his advice was dismissed as exhibiting want of feeling. Robina is, perhaps, a trifle over-sympathetic where animals are concerned. I remember, when they were children, her banging Dick over the head with the nursery bellows because he would not agree to talk in a whisper for fear of waking the cat. You can, of course, overdo kindness to animals, but it is a fault on the right side; and, as a rule, I do not discourage her. Veronica was allowed to remain, owing to her bad knee. It is a most unfortunate affliction. It comes on quite suddenly. There is nothing to be seen; but the child's face while she is suffering from it would move a heart of stone. It had been troubling her, so it appeared, all the morning; but she had said nothing, not wishing to alarm her mother. Ethelbertha, who thinks it may be hereditary——she herself having had an aunt who had suffered from contracted ligament——fixed her up as comfortably as the pain would permit with cushions in the centre of the back seat; and the rest of us toiled after the carriage.

    I should not like to say for certain that horses have a sense of humour, but I sometimes think they must. I had a horse years ago who used to take delight in teasing girls. I can describe it no other way. He would pick out a girl a quarter of a mile off; always some haughty, well-dressed girl who was feeling pleased with herself. As we approached he would eye her with horror and astonishment. It was too marked to escape notice. A hundred yards off he would be walking sideways, backing away from her; I would see the poor lady growing scarlet with the insult and annoyance of it. Opposite to her, he would shy the entire width of the road, and make pretence to bolt. Looking back I would see her vainly appealing to surrounding nature for a looking-glass to see what it was that had gone wrong with her.

    "What is the matter with me," she would be crying to herself; "that the very beasts of the field should shun me? Do they take me for a gollywog?"

    Halfway up the hill, the off-side grey turned his head and looked at us. We were about a couple of hundred yards behind; it was a hot and dusty day. He whispered to the near-side grey, and the near-side grey turned and looked at us also. I knew what was coming. I've been played the same trick before. I shouted to the boy, but it was too late. They took the rest of the hill at a gallop and disappeared over the brow. Had there been an experienced coachman behind them, I should not have worried. Dick told his mother not to be alarmed, and started off at fifteen miles an hour. I calculated I was doing about ten, which for a gentleman past his first youth, in a frock suit designed to disguise rather than give play to the figure, I consider creditable. Robina, undecided whether to go on ahead with Dick or remain to assist her mother, wasted vigour by running from one to the other. Ethelbertha's one hope was that she might reach the wreckage in time to receive Veronica's last wishes.

    It was in this order that we arrived at the St. Leonards'. Veronica, under an awning, sipping iced sherbet, appeared to be the centre of the party. She was recounting her experiences with a modesty that had already won all hearts. The rest of us, she had explained, had preferred walking, and would arrive later. She was evidently pleased to see me, and volunteered the information that the greys, to all seeming, had enjoyed their gallop.

    I sent Dick back to break the good news to his mother. Young Bute said he would go too. He said he was fresher than Dick, and would get there first. As a matter of history he did, and was immediately sorry that he had.

    This is not a well-ordered world, or it would not be our good deeds that would so often get us into trouble. Robina's insistence on our walking up the hill had been prompted by tender feeling for dumb animals: a virtuous emotion that surely the angels should have blessed. The result had been to bring down upon her suffering and reproach. It is not often that Ethelbertha loses her temper. When she does she makes use of the occasion to perform what one might describe as a mental spring-cleaning. All loose odds and ends of temper that may be lying about in her mind-any scrap of indignation that has been reposing peacefully, half forgotten, in a corner of her brain, she ferrets out and brushes into the general heap. Small annoyances of the year before last——little things she hadn't noticed at the time——incidents in your past life that, so far as you are concerned, present themselves as dim visions connected maybe with some previous existence, she whisks triumphantly into her pan. The method has its advantages. It leaves her, swept and garnished, without a scrap of ill-feeling towards any living soul. For quite a long period after one of these explosions it is impossible to get a cross word out of her. One has to wait sometimes for months. But while the clearing up is in progress the atmosphere round about is disturbing. The element of the whole thing is its comprehensive swiftness. Before they had reached the summit of the hill, Robina had acquired a tolerably complete idea of all she had done wrong since Christmas twelvemonth: the present afternoon's proceedings—— including as they did the almost certain sacrificing of a sister to a violent death, together with the probable destruction of a father, no longer of an age to trifle with apoplexy——being but a fit and proper complement to what had gone before. It would be long, as Robina herself that evening bitterly declared, before she would again give ear to the promptings of her better nature.

    To take next the sad case of Archibald Bute: his sole desire had been to relieve, at the earliest moment possible, the anxieties of a sister and a mother. Robina's new hat, not intended for sport, had broken away from its fastenings. With it, it had brought down her hair. There is a harmless contrivance for building up the female hair called, I am told, a pad. It can be made of combings, and then, of course, is literally the girl's own hair. He came upon Robina at the moment when, retracing her steps and with her back towards him, she was looking for it. With his usual luck, he was the first to find it. Ethelbertha thanked him for his information concerning Veronica, but seemed chiefly anxious to push on and convince herself that it was true. She took Dick's arm, and left Robina to follow on with Bute.

    As I explained to him afterwards, had he stopped to ask my advice I should have counselled his leaving the job to Dick, who, after all, was only thirty seconds behind him. As regarded himself, I should have suggested his taking a walk in the opposite direction, returning, say, in half an hour, and pretending to have just arrived. By that time Robina, with the assistance of Janie's brush and comb, and possibly her powder-puff, would have been feeling herself again. He could have listened sympathetically to an account of the affair from Robina herself——her version, in which she would have appeared to advantage. Give her time, and she has a sense of humour. She would have made it bright and whimsical. Without asserting it in so many words, she would have conveyed the impression——I know her way——that she alone, throughout the whole commotion, had remained calm and helpful. "Dear old Dick" and "Poor dear papa"——I can hear her saying it——would have supplied the low comedy, and Veronica, alluded to with affection free from sentimentality, would have furnished the dramatic interest. It is not that Robina intends to mislead, but she has the artistic instinct. It would have made quite a charming story; Robina always the central figure. She would have enjoyed telling it, and would have been pleased with the person listening. All this——which would have been the reward of subterfuge——he had missed. Virtuous intention had gained for him nothing but a few scattered observations from Robina concerning himself; the probable object of his Creator in fashioning him-his relation to the scheme of things in general: observations all of which he had felt to be unjust.

    We compared experiences over a pipe that same evening; and he told me of a friend of his, a law student, who had shared diggings with him in Edinburgh. A kinder-hearted young man, Bute felt sure, could never have breathed; nor one with a tenderer, more chivalrous regard for women; and the misery this brought him, to say nothing of the irritation caused to quite a number of respectable people, could hardly be imagined, so young Bute assured me, by anyone not personally acquainted with the parties. It was the plain and snappy girl, and the less attractive type of old maid, for whom he felt the most sorrow. He could not help thinking of all they had missed, and were likely to go on missing; the rapture——surely the woman's birthright——of feeling herself adored, anyhow, once in her life; the delight of seeing the lover's eye light up at her coming. Had he been a Mormon he would have married them all. They too——the neglected that none had invited to the feast of love——they also should know the joys of home, feel the sweet comfort of a husband's arm. Being a Christian, his power for good was limited. But at least he could lift from them the despairing conviction that they were outside the pale of masculine affection. Not one of them, so far as he could help it, but should be able to say:

    "I——even I had a lover once. No, dear, we never married. It was one of those spiritual loves; a formal engagement with a ring would have spoiled it——coarsened it. No; it was just a beautiful thing that came into my life and passed away again, leaving behind it a fragrance that has sweetened all my days."

    That is how he imagined they would talk about it, years afterwards, to the little niece or nephew, asking artless questions——how they would feel about it themselves. Whether law circles are peculiarly rich in unattractive spinsters, or whether it merely happened to be an exceptional season for them, Bute could not say; but certain it was that the number of sour-faced girls and fretful old maids in excess of the demand seemed to be greater than usual that winter in Edinburgh, with the result that young Hapgood had a busy time of it. He made love to them, not obtrusively, which might have laid them open to ridicule——many of them were old enough to have been his mother——but more by insinuation, by subtle suggestion. His feelings, so they gathered, were too deep for words; but the adoring eyes with which he would follow their every movement, the rapt ecstasy with which he would drink in their lightest remark about the weather, the tone of almost reverential awe with which he would enquire of them concerning their lesser ailments——all conveyed to their sympathetic observation the message that he dared not tell. He had no favourites. Sufficient it was that a woman should be unpleasant, for him to pour out at her feet the simulated passion of a lifetime. He sent them presents-nothing expensive——wrapped in pleasing pretence of anonymity; valentines carefully selected for their compromising character. One carroty-headed old maid with warts he had kissed upon the brow.

    All this he did out of his great pity for them. It was a beautiful idea, but it worked badly. They did not understand——never got the hang of the thing: not one of them. They thought he was really gone on them. For a time his elusiveness, his backwardness in coming to the point, they attributed to a fit and proper fear of his fate; but as the months went by the feeling of each one was that he was carrying the apprehension of his own unworthiness too far. They gave him encouragement, provided for him "openings," till the wonder grew upon them how any woman ever did get married. At the end of their resources, they consulted bosom friends. In several instances the bosom friend turned out to be the bosom friend of more than one of them. The bosom friends began to take a hand in it. Some of them came to him with quite a little list, insisting——playfully at first—— on his making up his mind what he was going to take and what he was going to leave; offering, as reward for prompt decision, to make things as easy for him as possible with the remainder of the column.

    It was then he saw that his good intentions were likely to end in catastrophe. He would not tell the truth: that the whole scheme had been conceived out of charity towards all ill-constructed or dilapidated ladies; that personally he didn't care a hang for any of them; had only taken them on, vulgarly speaking, to give them a treat, and because nobody else would. That wasn't going to be a golden memory, colouring their otherwise drab existence. He explained that it was not love——not the love that alone would justify a man's asking of a woman that she should give herself to him for life——that he felt and always should feel for them, but merely admiration and deep esteem; and seventeen of them thought that would be sufficient to start with, and offered to chance the rest.

    The truth had to come out. Friends who knew his noble nature could not sit by and hear him denounced as a heartless and eccentric profligate. Ladies whose beauty and popularity were beyond dispute thought it a touching and tender thing for him to have done; but every woman to whom he had ever addressed a kind word wanted to wring his neck.

    He did the most sensible thing he could, under all the circumstances; changed his address to Aberdeen, where he had an aunt living. But the story followed him. No woman would be seen speaking to him. One admiring glance from Hapgood would send the prettiest girls home weeping to their mothers. Later on he fell in love——hopelessly, madly in love. But he dared not tell her——dared not let a living soul guess it. That was the only way he could show it. It is not sufficient, in this world, to want to do good; there's got to be a knack about it.

    There was a man I met in Colorado, one Christmas-time. I was on a lecturing tour. His idea was to send a loving greeting to his wife in New York. He had been married nineteen years, and this was the first time he had been separated from his family on Christmas Day. He pictured them round the table in the little far-away New England parlour; his wife, his sister-in-law, Uncle Silas, Cousin Jane, Jack and Willy, and golden-haired Lena. They would be just sitting down to dinner, talking about him, most likely; wishing he were among them. They were a nice family and all fond of him. What joy it would give them to know that he was safe and sound; to hear the very tones of his loved voice speaking to them! Modern science has made possible these miracles. True, the long-distance telephone would cost him five dollars; but what is five dollars weighed against the privilege of wafting happiness to an entire family on Christmas Day! We had just come back from a walk. He slammed the money down, and laughed aloud at the thought of the surprise he was about to give them all.

    The telephone bell rang out clear and distinct at the precise moment when his wife, with knife and fork in hand, was preparing to carve the turkey. She was a nervous lady, and twice that week had dreamed that she had seen her husband without being able to get to him. On the first occasion she had seen him enter a dry-goods store in Broadway, and hastening across the road had followed him in. He was hardly a dozen yards in front of her, but before she could overtake him all the young lady assistants had rushed from behind their counters and, forming a circle round her, had refused to let her pass, which in her dream had irritated her considerably. On the next occasion he had boarded a Brooklyn car in which she was returning home. She had tried to attract his attention with her umbrella, but he did not seem to see her; and every time she rose to go across to him the car gave a jerk and bumped her back into her seat. When she did get over to him it was not her husband at all, but the gentleman out of the Quaker Oats advertisement. She went to the telephone, feeling——as she said herself afterwards——all of a tremble.

    That you could speak from Colorado to New York she would not then have believed had you told her. The thing was in its early stages, which may also have accounted for the voice reaching her strange and broken. I was standing beside him while he spoke. We were in the vestibule of the Savoy Hotel at Colorado Springs. It was five o'clock in the afternoon, which would be about seven in New York. He told her he was safe and well, and that she was not to fret about him. He told her he had been that morning for a walk in the Garden of the Gods, which is the name given to the local park; they do that sort of thing in Colorado. Also that he had drunk from the silicial springs abounding in that favoured land. I am not sure that "silicial" was the correct word. He was not sure himself: added to which he pronounced it badly. Whatever they were, he assured her they had done him good. He sent a special message to his Cousin Jane——a maiden lady of means——to the effect that she could rely upon seeing him soon. She was a touchy old lady, and liked to be singled out for special attention. He made the usual kind enquiries about everybody, sent them all his blessing, and only wished they could be with him in this delectable land where it seemed to be always sunshine and balmy breezes. He could have said more, but his time being up the telephone people switched him off; and feeling he had done a good and thoughtful deed, he suggested a game of billiards.

    Could he have been a witness of events at the other end of the wire, his condition would have been one of less self-complacence. Long before the end of the first sentence his wife had come to the conclusion that this was a message from the dead. Why through a telephone did not greatly worry her. It seemed as reasonable a medium as any other she had ever heard of——indeed a trifle more so. Later, when she was able to review the matter calmly, it afforded her some consolation to reflect that things might have been worse. That "garden," together with the "silicial springs"-which she took to be "celestial," there was not much difference the way he pronounced it—— was distinctly reassuring. The "eternal sunshine" and the "balmy breezes" likewise agreed with her knowledge of heavenly topography as derived from the Congregational Hymn-Book. That he should have needed to enquire concerning the health of herself and the children had puzzled her. The only explanation was that they didn't know everything, not even up. There——may be, not the new-comers. She had answered as coherently as her state of distraction would permit, and had then dropped limply to the floor. It was the sound of her falling against the umbrella-stand and upsetting it that brought them all trooping out from the dining-room.

    It took her some time to get the thing home to them; and when she had finished, her brother Silas, acting on the impulse of the moment, rang up the Exchange, with some vague idea of getting into communication with St. Peter and obtaining further particulars, but recollected himself in time to explain to the "hulloa girl" that he had made a mistake.

    The eldest boy, a practical youth, pointed out, very sensibly, that nothing could be gained by their not going on with their dinner, but was bitterly reproached for being able to think of any form of enjoyment at a moment when his poor dear father was in heaven. It reminded his mother of the special message to Cousin Jane, who up to that moment had been playing the part of comforter. With the collapse of Cousin Jane, dramatic in its suddenness, conversation disappeared. At nine o'clock the entire family went dinnerless to bed.

    The eldest boy——as I have said, a practical youth——had the sense to get up early the next morning and send a wire, which brought the glad news back to them that their beloved one was not in heaven, but was still in Colorado. But the only reward my friend got for all his tender thoughtfulness was the vehement injunction never for the remainder of his life to play such a fool's trick again.

    There were other cases I could have recited showing the ill recompense that so often overtakes the virtuous action; but, as I explained to Bute, it would have saddened me to dwell upon the theme.

    It was quite a large party assembled at the St. Leonards', including one or two county people, and I should have liked, myself, to have made a better entrance. A large lady with a very small voice seemed to be under the impression that I had arranged the whole business on purpose. She said it was "so dramatic." One good thing came out of it: Janie, in her quiet, quick way, saw to it that Ethelbertha and Robina slipped into the house unnoticed by way of the dairy. When they joined the other guests, half an hour later, they had had a cup of tea and a rest, and were feeling calm and cool, with their hair nicely done; and Ethelbertha remarked to Robina on the way home what a comfort it must be to Mrs. St. Leonard to have a daughter so capable, one who knew just the right thing to do, and did it without making a fuss and a disturbance.

    Everyone was very nice. Of course we made the usual mistake: they talked to me about books and plays, and I gave them my views on agriculture and cub-hunting. I'm not quite sure what fool it was who described a bore as a man who talked about himself. As a matter of fact it is the only subject the average man knows sufficiently well to make interesting. There's a man I know; he makes a fortune out of a patent food for infants. He began life as a dairy farmer, and hit upon it quite by accident. When he talks about the humours of company promoting and the tricks of the advertising agent he is amusing. I have sat at his table, when he was a bachelor, and listened to him by the hour with enjoyment. The mistake he made was marrying a broad-minded, cultured woman, who ruined him—— conversationally, I mean. He is now well-informed and tiresome on most topics. That is why actors and actresses are always such delightful company: they are not ashamed to talk about themselves. I remember a dinner-party once: our host was one of the best-known barristers in London. A famous lady novelist sat on his right, and a scientist of world-wide reputation had the place of honour next our hostess, who herself had written a history of the struggle for nationality in South America that serves as an authority to all the Foreign Offices in Europe. Among the remaining guests were a bishop, the editor-in-chief of a London daily newspaper, a man who knew the interior of China as well as most men know their own club, a Russian revolutionist just escaped from Siberia, a leading dramatist, a Cabinet Minister, and a poet whose name is a household word wherever the English tongue is spoken. And for two hours we sat and listened to a wicked-looking little woman who from the boards of a Bowery music-hall had worked her way up to the position of a star in musical comedy. Education, as she observed herself without regret, had not been compulsory throughout the waterside district of Chicago in her young days; and, compelled to earn her own living from the age of thirteen, opportunity for supplying the original deficiency had been wanting. But she knew her subject, which was Herself——her experiences, her reminiscences: and bad sense enough to stick to it. Until the moment when she took "the liberty of chipping in," to use her own expression, the amount of twaddle talked had been appalling. The bishop had told us all he had learnt about China during a visit to San Francisco, while the man who had spent the last twenty years of his life in the country was busy explaining his views on the subject of the English drama. Our hostess had been endeavouring to make the scientist feel at home by talking to him about radium. The dramatist had explained at some length his views of the crisis in Russia. The poet had quite spoilt his dinner trying to suggest to the Cabinet Minister new sources of taxation. The Russian revolutionist had told us what ought to have been a funny story about a duck; and the lady novelist and the Cabinet Minister had discussed Christian Science for a quarter of an hour, each under the mistaken impression that the other one was a believer in it. The editor had been explaining the attitude of the Church towards the New Theology; and our host, one of the wittiest men at the Bar, had been talking chiefly to the butler. The relief of listening to anybody talking about something they knew was like finding a match-box to a man who has been barking his shins in the dark. For the rest of the dinner we clung to her.

    I could have made myself quite interesting to these good squires and farmers talking to them about theatres and the literary celebrities I have met; and they could have told me dog stories and given me useful information as to the working of the Small Holdings Act. They said some very charming things about my books——mostly to the effect that they read and enjoyed them when feeling ill or suffering from mental collapse. I gathered that had they always continued in a healthy state of mind and body it would not have occurred to them to read me. One man assured me I had saved his life. It was his brain, he told me. He had been so upset by something that had happened to him that he had almost lost his reason. There were times when he could not even remember his own name; his mind seemed an absolute blank. And then one day by chance——or Providence, or whatever you choose to call it——he had taken up a book of mine. It was the only thing he had been able to read for months and months! And now, whenever he felt himself run down——his brain like a squeezed orange (that was his simile)——he would put everything else aside and read a book of mine—— any one: it didn't matter which. I suppose one ought to be glad that one has saved somebody's life; but I should like to have the choosing of them myself.

    I am not sure that Ethelbertha is going to like Mrs. St. Leonard; and I don't think Mrs. St. Leonard will much like Ethelbertha. I have gathered that Mrs. St. Leonard doesn't like anybody much——except, of course, when it is her duty. She does not seem to have the time. Man is born to trouble, and it is not bad philosophy to get oneself accustomed to the feeling. But Mrs. St. Leonard has given herself up to the pursuit of trouble to the exclusion of all other interests in life. She appears to regard it as the only calling worthy a Christian woman. I found her alone one afternoon. Her manner was preoccupied; I asked if I could be of any assistance.

    "No," she answered, "I am merely trying to think what it can be that has been worrying me all the morning. It has clean gone out of my head."

    She remembered it a little later with a glad sigh.

    St. Leonard himself, Ethelbertha thinks charming. We are to go again on Sunday for her to see the children. Three or four people we met I fancy we shall be able to fit in with. We left at half-past six, and took Bute back with us to supper.

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