My Supreme Devotion to Silence
A Story of How a Quiet Member of the Household Had a Rather Sudden but Decidedly Pleasant Awakening.
Owen Oliver in the Royal Magazine
PEOPLE always said that I was a quiet girl, and my half-sisters called me Mother Mouse. They
did not mean it in the least unkindly, for they were very fond of me.
I do not think I was so very quiet naturally. I was not shy, and I thought of plenty of things to say, and sometimes 1 wrote them in my diary afterwards ; but I did not say them unless it was really necessary. Nobody wants to hear girls talk nonsense unless they are pretty, and I was not ; and that was the reason that 1 was a quiet girl.
The people who called me “quiet" and “sensible" would have been surprised if they had known how anxiously I studied my looks in the glass when I was eighteen or nineteen. I tried to be fair to myself, and 1 decided that I was not actually ugly, and that it would be ill-natured to call me such a nasty word as “plain,” especially when I had a little color. I was simply “not good-looking.” So I decided not to make the mistake of thinking that men who were polite to me meant anything, but to be content to become a pleasant old maid, and to speak when I was spoken to. I see now that this was only a disagreeable kind of vanity; but it is the truth.
There was another reason why 1 was quiet. I could not spare very much time from my household duties; and I wanted what I could spare for music. So I did not go om a great deal. I had to manage the house just after I was seventeen. My stepmother died then, and my heart was almost
broken. I always felt as if I were her own child. I suppose that was wrong; but she was the only mother whom I remembered, and no words could tell what a sweet mother she was to me ; a mother and a sister and a friend, all in one. If she had lived she would not have let me grow into my foolish quietness. I know just what she would have said.
“If you don’t think you are attractive enough—but I do—the remedy is to be more attractive, not less !” Oh, how I missed her!
“We’ve loved each other very much, Nan,” she said at the last. “I know you, and I am not afraid for Babs and Molly, only for my Nan. You mustn't sacrifice your young life and become a drudge for them. Remember that it isn’t good for children to be brought up on sacrifice. It makes them selfish. It isn’t even good for them to be mothered too much. We have to grow our own characters. Nan. Don’t do every little thing for them. Teach them to do for themselves; but keep your influence over them. You, and no one else, will induence them as I should have done. Kiss me for true. Nan.”
She always made us promise like that, and we never broke a promise to mother. I kissed her and promised then. So I always felt that it depended on me whether the girls grew up good women. Perhaps that was another reason why I felt old and serious.
They were lovely children, and they grew up very beautiful. They
were as bright and amusing as they were pretty, and people admired them and petted them so much, that they would have been spoiled if they had not been such sterling good girls at heart. They were impetuous and full of mischief, but they were honorable and kind, and they could not have done anything mean if they had tried. I was very pleased with them, and very proud that they were so much admired. I did wish that they were not quite so fond of flirting, and had no^ begun so young; but I thought that I should have done the same at their age if I had been pretty and lively. So I did not blame them, but looked out very carefully that they only knew really nice boys, and I encouraged them to give some of their time to useful things; and especially to music.
They had nice voices, and I persuaded father to let them go on with singing lessons after they left school. We practised a great deal. It improved my own singing, too, because they insisted that I should not do nothing but accompany, and they liked me to show them how their songs ought to go. My voice is not very good. It is too husky; and I could not sing at concerts as they did. But I knew how I wanted to sing, and they were very fond of hearing me.
“Oh, Mousie !” Babs used to say, “you are the nicest singer.” And if I shook my head Molly would seize it, and nod it forcibly. She was as strong as a young lion.
“Your modesty is all pretend,” she teased one day. “You think in your naughty heart that you're clever, and nice, and lovely, and the most wonderful player and singer that ever was ; and you're as vain as vain can be, you artful Mother Mouse.”
Babs watched my struggles—it was no use struggling with that big, wild Molly—and laughed.
“She’s so vain that she won’t even trouble to adorn herself!” she declared. “We won’t put up with it, Moll. We’ll make her adorn, like we have to !”
I believe it was a kind of plot to induce me to make the best of myself.
Anyhow, after that they worried me into having smarter dresses and hats, and did my hair for me, and put flowers in it. They had a natural taste for dress; and they certainly made my lack of looks less obvious. Father abetted them, and 1 am afraid that, in my heart, 1 liked it.
“It’s the punishment for being too good,” Molly told me; “and there’s worse to come if you sit with your mouth shut in company. I shall say the most awful things, and tell them ‘that's what my beautiful sister says!’”
“They’ll think you mean Babs,” I declared.
“No fear! Babs never said anything wise in her life, did you, old stupid ?”
They always addressed each other like that ; but they were devotedly attached, really.
“Oh, I hope not!” Babs clasped her hands tragically. “Except by comparison with you, silly-billy!” Then they both roared with laughter. They were always so merry. It was not strange that everyone liked them.
When they were nearly nineteen and eighteen (and I was five-andtwenty) several young fellows began to pay them more obvious attentions, and I grew very anxious, for fear that they should slip into an engagement too light-heartedly. It seemed to me that Frank Carter would make just the right husband for Babs ; but his father had heavy losses, and Frank went away to South Africa, and Babs didn't seem to care, except in a sisterly way, though in that way she was very nice to him and tried to cheer him up, and even worked him a pair of slippers, though she hated fancy work.
I had hoped, too, that Tom Briant and Molly’s boy and girl affair would come to something; but they seemed quite content to tease and flirt. They flirted more than I liked. I was almost sure he kissed her down the garden one evening. I should have spoken to her severely, only I recollected that a boy once stole a kiss when he saw me home from a party; and I did not remember that I felt so
very, very angry. It was before I had quite made up my mind to be an old maid.
So I thought perhaps it didn’t matter so very much, if they did not take it too seriously ; but I kept a close watch on Molly. She was always the wilder; and Pahs had grown a good deal more discreet lately.
Towards the end of that summer, however, I saw symptoms of something more serious than a boy and girl affair. Lord Eversby came to stay with the Grants, where the girls went very often, and he took a great deal of notice of them. They were extraordinarily taken with him, though he was a dozen years older— just over thirty—and became ‘chums', as they called it. He was a tall, muscular, bronzed man, and as strong in character as in body. He had been exploring and shooting in Africa, and he was full of stories. When they were funny he never moved a muscle, but his eyes twinkled. He was very likeable. He came to our house almost every day to see “the babies,” as he called them. He was very kind to me, too, and never let me feel that he did not come to see me, too ; and I talked more to him than I did to most people. One afternoon he came when they were out ; and instead of rushing off, as their other admirers would have done, he stayed for cpiite a long time, and persuaded me to sing.
“The babies tell me that there is no singing like yours,” he said.
“I love my songs,”. I owned, “and I try my hardest with my poor voice. It is husky. I think you will try to overlook that, like ‘the babies’ do; and so—I do not usually sing to people, but I will sing to you. Lord Eversby.”
I sat down and sang “She is Ear from the Land,” and “Rose Softly Blooming.” Then he asked for Wagner, and I smiled—T am always pleased when anyone thinks T am worthy to sing Wagner—and sang Elizabeth’s intercession for Tannhauscr, and her prayer. And then he came and put a M.S. piece that he had found upon the piano, and begged me to sing that.
“It is your own,” he said, “isn’t it?”
“Oh, no!” I told him. “It is stolen.” I played a little piece of the accompaniment on the piano and smiled at him.
“Wagner!” he cried. “But-?”
“I found the words in a magazine,” I explained, “and I wanted to sing them, so I put them to this. I adapted it a little. I thought Wagner would forgive me because I love his music so, and I can’t help putting words to it.
Then I sang a pretty song.
He did not speak when I finished ; and I sat playing little snatches on the piano for some time. I cannot sing a song like that without entering into it; and I felt as if I wanted a few minutes to come back to my quiet self.
“You sang that wonderfully,” he said at last. “And yet perhaps it was not so wonderful. I think you are like the girl in the song.”
He always spoke of me as a “girl,” •not a “woman,” as most people did.
That was one of the reasons that I felt my real self with him.
“Oh, no!” I said, “I am not romantic. Or, if I am, it is only for ‘the babies.’ They ought to have romances. They are so beautiful.” “Yes,” he agreed. “They are very beautiful. What dear ‘babies’ they are!" He smiled. “But there is more in their pretty heads than people give them credit for, and more appreciation of their big sister, who is half their size. They are very anxious that other people should appreciate her, too. Do you know—don't betray me—they told me to make you sing that song.”
"Oh !” I blushed a little. “They think too much of my singing.” “They think much of it ; but it wasn’t quite that. They said—‘they’ is correct, because they were so enthusiastic that they both talked at once—’‘Mother Mouse isn’t a mouse at all, really. She only makes out that she is. It’s a pattern for us, we expect !’ I couldn't help laughing at that. They added that ‘She can’t pretend when she sings. You make her sing “A Heart” to you. Then you’ll hear the real Nan.’ I’m glad that I’ve heard, Miss Nan, and Í want to be friends with—the real Nan!”
“I don’t admit that I am such a sentimental person,” I said ; “but I am pleased to be friends; very pleased, Lord Eversby.”
After that he paid me so much attention that I was quite sure that he was in love with one of the girls, but T was utterly puzzled which it was. I could not make out whether either was in love with him, and sometimes I was afraid that both might be, for they certainly were delighted to meet him, and they were always praising him to me. I was so alarmed at the idea that I spoke to father about it, but he only laughed.
“But it’s a very serious thing, daddy,” I protested. “He wouldn’t come here so constantly if he did not mean something. He is not that sort of man. What do you think, really?” “I think he is going to marry one of my charming daughters,” father said.
“But suppose she doesn't accept him?” I said.
"She will," father declared.
"Oh—h ! ’ I said. “You know which it is?”
“Of course I do! You’re as blind as a bat. Mother Mouse.”
“Which, daddy?” I asked eagerly.
“The one he pays all his attentions to!" father told me, and then he laughed and went off gardening. I followed him and teased him to tell me, but he wouldn’t. I had only to notice and I should see for myself, he declared.
I watched most carefully, but I could not see that he treated one differently from the other. If he gave Babs sweets, or flowers, or theatre tickets, or books, or music, he gave them to Molly, too. Indeed, he always gave me some as well. And if he took Molly motoring one day, he took Babs the next, and he took me with both of them.
I did not like to speak to them about it for fear of putting wrong ideas into their heads ; but Í thought it was not quite right of him not to make his intentions more clear. So I talked a great deal to him myself, and kept him away from them as much as I could. They called me “a greedy old pig of a Mouse” to steal their “nice, big, ugly man”—they always said silly things like that—but they seemed more pleased that he was kind to me than annoyed about it. So I began to think that neither was in love, and then I felt very sorry for him, and I thought it a great pity, because I considered him the best man I had ever known, and I believed that he would be an ideal husband.
One morning I was walking down the High Street with Mrs. Green, the vicar’s wife, and he stopped and talked, and when we were going he touched my arm and whispered :
“Will you be in this afternoon, Nan?” he asked. (He had dropped the “Miss” lately.) “I am going away soon, and I want to ask you something very important.”
“I will stay in,” I promised.
“And send the babies out? Just for
half-an-hour? I want to speak to you alone.”
“If you'll come at half-past three,” I promised. “They will insist on coming in to tea at four. They are hungry babies!”
“Half-past three,” he said. “It is very important to me, Nan. You won’t fail me?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I've promised !"
I hoped it was Rabs he was going to ask about, because Molly was so young and wild; but whichever it was I did not know what to say. So after lunch I took them into father’s study, and sat down with an arm round each, and spoke to them very seriously.
“Girls,” I said, “you are getting dreadfully grown up now. I don’t know if it has occurred to you that somebody might—might propose to
They actually laughed—laughed right out loud, as if it were a good joke.
“The possibility has occurred to us,” Rabs said solemnly, and then they laughed again as if they would never leave off.
“It isn’t quite a laughing matter, dears,” I reminded them. “T didn't want vou to be taken by surprise.”
“Rabs has had the subject under consideration since she was six,” Molly assured me.
“Since Tom. first proposed to
Molly,” Babs explained. “I think that was the first time; wasn’t it, reprehensible one ?”
“I forget,” said Molly; “But I know that I’ve accepted him three times and refused him three times, and the seventh is to be final. That's why he hangs back. Mean old thing!”
“My dears,” I said decidedly, “don’t talk any more nonsense. Lord Eversby is coming to see me this afternoon to—well, I have every reason to suppose that it is to speak to me about one of you.”
“Lord Eversby!” Babs cried.
“One of us!” Molly almost screamed.
“Yes, dears,” I said, “one of you, and I don't know which. I thought that perhaps you-”
“It is monstrous!” Babs cried. She seemed quite angry.
“Worse than monstrous!” Molly cried. “I—I hate him !”
“So do I !” Babs declared. They seemed in quite a passion and went red, and held each other’s arms, as if for protection.
“You have no right to speak of him like that,” I said, “no right at all.” I was really angry with them. “He is the best man I have ever known, and you should feel highly honored—one of you, at least. You don’t care for him, either of you?”
They shook their heads, and suddenly Molly kissed me.
“It’s—Tom,” she said, and ran out of the room, and Babs hugged me and kissed me, too.
“Couldn’t you see, dear?” she said. “There was never anyone but Tom for her, really. He is going to speak to father as soon as he gets the partnership. And as for me—when Frank’s father lost his money, and Frank went away, he asked me to wait for just a year, and I—I said I would wait all time and all eternity. And I will !”
And then she ran out, too.
I cried a little. Tt seemed so good ^ to know that my dear girls had true hearts like that ; but I was very sad about Lord Eversby. I had never liked and esteemed anyone so greatly.
I was a little sad about myself, too,
because I had never been able to get quite rid of a hope that some day someone would care for me and I should care for him ; and they were so young, and I was five-and-twenty, and no one had ever wanted me—at least, no one that I cared for in that way. There had been two who might have asked me, if I had encouraged them, but I was very careful not to. I was very worried about what I should do to avoid any unnecessary suffering to Lord Eversby. I decided that the best way was to forestall his question. I would begin talking very quickly and would not let him get a word in and I would mention in a careless, accidental sort of way that “the babies” were engaged, “in a foolish boy and girl fashion, you know.” Then I would go on directly to Nellie Grant's engagement, and then I would offer to sing a little song that my old master had sent me, and give him time to recover himself ; and when he went—I thought this out very carefully—I would press his hand very tightly, and say that we were all so sorry that he was going, and we should all look upon him always as one of our dearest friends.
“When you are a great man,” I would say, “I shall be very proud to have known you—but not more proud than I am now. There are things that I won't say, only—God bless you, Lord Eversby, and make you happy.”
I was not able to do anything of the sort, for he walked up to me in his resolute way-—the girls always said that he pounced upon us as if we were lions or tigers—and gripped my hands, and said his say before I could begin.
“I love you most dearly. Nan,” he said. “Will you be my wife?”
I sat down on the music-stool and stared at him. I was never so frightened in my life!
“T never thought of such a thing,”
Í told him. ‘T—T never thought -----” T stared at him again.
“Never thought of it !” he cried. He seemed as astonished as I was. “Well”—he looked very angry—“you gave me encouragement enough !”
“Oh, Lord Eversby !” I cried a little. “I didn’t—I wouldn’t—I—I am so used to people admiring the girls, and—they are so different from me, and-”
“What!” He opened his eyes wide. “You thought I wanted to marry one of those babies !”
“Yes,” I owned. “I did, indeed I did. They are young, of course ; but they are so beautiful and bright, and I—do understand, Lord Eversby, I think most highly of you and like you exceedingly, but—but I never dreamed of your caring for me. I'm such —such a dull, plain little thing.”
“Oh, Nan!” he said. “You don’t know what a dear woman you are ; and as for beauty—have you ever looked in the glass when you smile? Won’t you think of it for a little while before you answer? Won’t you, Nan?”
“Yes,” I promised, “I will. I—I couldn’t marry anyone just for friendship or liking, dear Lord Eversby. It would have to be—much more. If— if I could learn to, I—I should be glad. But how can I tell ?”
“You will tell me when you find
out? Or—1 may ask you again in a week ?”
“In a week,” I agreed. “You won’t ask me before, will you?”
“No, dear. You will be friends for a week, won’t you?”
“I shall always be friends,” I said. “I am greatly honored, Lord Eversby, very greatly honored. Now shall we go for a little walk?”
I wanted to make him see that I really liked being friends, and I hoped very much that I should learn to be more, but I did not know.
I went upstairs for my hat. When I walked to the glass I saw myself smiling—and I couldn’t help thinking that 1 seemed just the least bit pretty —and I noticed that I was singing joyously to myself, and then I knew! I ran downstairs directly with my hat in my hand. I could not be so cruel as to keep him in suspense a moment longer, and I made up my mind that I would not let my pride stand in the way, but tell him frankly and make him happy.
So I walked up to him and held out both my hands.
“You may ask me now,” I said.