UNCLE OSCAR WILBRAHAM stood in the summer sunshine on the edge of the cliff, looking out to sea ; and I, his faithful satellite, sat on a seat near by, gazing at Uncle Oscar.
Every girl has at heart a visionary hero, an ideal of whom she dreams. I was luckier than most girls in that I had always had a real live hero with whom I walked and talked. My hero was Uncle Oscar. I do not pretend that he was a hero by right of great deeds done; or that I knew him for a hero in my girlhood. It was only by very slow degrees that I realized that he was heroic at all. But he was. He was great in self-sacrifice; in the cheerful endurance of a life which was not a man's life, although Uncle Oscar was very much of a man.
We mourn the lot of women whose sad fate it is to be sacrificed by selfish men; women who have never had a chance to follow any single one important bent of their nature; women who, for their individuality, are made to suffer martyrdom in the cruel light of those who care only to have them moulded to their own uses, valuing their tender affection chiefly because it makes them plastic. And we think such a fate is peculiar to women; but occasionally a man is made to suffer so; occasionally a man is so caught by women, and constrained. This was the case with Uncle Oscar. He was my guardian, and I had been brought up in his house as one of the family, the family being Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia, for Uncle Oscar had not married. I was an orphan, rich in property, but poor in relations. My mother died at my birth, my father when I was two years old. Uncle Oscar became my guardian then. My parents had been his dearest friends, and he had accepted the trust from my father on his deathbed, promising that, in so far as it lay in his power to be father and mother to me himself, he would be father and mother—and he had been.
The first thing I remember in this world is sunshine and Uncle Oscar's finger to which I was clinging. It was he who helped me to toddle about the gardens ; and waited patiently on my snail’s pace, ready to catch me if I slipped, when it pleased me to climb upstairs on my hands and knees. It was he who came to the nursery two or three times a day just to see how I was getting on, or to fetch me when there were visitors, and carry me downstairs, all ribbons and lace, to be admired. And when I was in bed once, all hot and horrid, and didn’t want to get up, it was Uncle Oscar, looking very grave, who brought another man to see me, and took him away again, and then came back himself, and sat beside me till I fell asleep, and when I awoke in the night, and was afraid and screamed, because the room looked strange in the lamplight, he was there beside me, and took my little hand and stroked it, and made me feel all nice at once. I always loved his touch.
He taught me to ride, too, trusted me on a thoroughbred of Grandmamma, who said the animal was too valuable to be risked in that way—to which he replied that so long as I ran no risk, and was happy, the animal must take its chance.
Yielding in many respects, Uncle Oscar was always firm where I was concerned. Whatever he considered it right for me to have or to do, I had and I did. There had been a battle about it at first, I believe, and Uncle Oscar must have routed the enemy once for all, for, within my recollection, none of the family had ever ventured to interfere when my interests were in question. When Uncle Oscar chose to fight the family, he was sure to win ; but the trouble was to rouse him to fight. The atmosphere of Seascape was enervating for a man. By the time I grew up, and began to understand, Uncle Oscar had become apathetic, and was inclined for the most part to let things go.
Seascape, the beautiful old family mansion by the sea, the only home I can remember, was his house nominally, his prison virtually, for he was tied to it by Grandmamma, his mother, and Aunt Lucretia, his eldest sister; tied by the bonds of natural affection, as people said admiringly; tied and bound for their own selfish purposes, as I now know, by women in whom self-interest was the predominant passion. To live with Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia was daily to suffer a yoke that was not easy, to bear a burden that was not light—the yoke of their wishes, the burden of their petty exactions. There is no time within my recollection when they did not make me feel the yoke and the burden, and, had it not been for Uncle Oscar, I never could have endured the galling harness in which it was their will to drive me whither they pleased— which was seldom, if ever, in the direction in which it would have pleased me to go. But from the first, in small things as well as in great, Uncle Oscar made life as easy and pleasant for me as it could be made. He was certainly everything to me that the most devoted father could have been.
Never did I find him wanting in any respect; never did he fail me.
Healthy, happy people are not keenly sensitive to the sufferings of others. You may endure a martyrdom of acute mental misery under their eyes, and, so long as you do not complain, they will never perceive that you are suffering. This was my case with regard to Uncle Oscar. It was not until I was quite grown up that I realized all was not well with him. I remember the very moment when I first began to suspect that his life was not all that he would have made of it had he lived for his own happiness. Up to that moment it had not occurred to me that he also was under the yoke. He seemed to have everything that heart of man could desire, and it was not for a thoughtless young girl to perceive that although nominally he possessed so much, in reality he had very little that he could feel to be quite his own to make free with ; all that he possessed being so clogged and encumbered by those exacting women.
I can tell the story now consecutively, but I have had to work back from the end to the beginning to piece it together. It began for me with a flash of insight, one of those flashes that are lit up by a casual remark.
But let me tell you how it was with Uncle Oscar up to the moment when he made that remark. He has told me himself since—everything— many times; so I know.
We had been wandering about the grounds together that morning, as we often did, after he had attended to his correspondence, been to the stables, and gone his usual round of inspection about the place. It was early summer, but somewhat too hot for walking, and I was glad to sit down when we came to that seat on the cliff which commanded the loveliest view of the bay. It was here that we used often station ourselves on fine mornings—I lazily content to do nothing ; he usually smoking a cigarette. He lit one that day, but was holding it between his finger and thumb, as if he had forgotten it.
From an opaline sky the sun beamed down on the sea, and the sea flashed back a smile of delight to the sun. Uncle Oscar, standing on the edge of the cliff, was looking down at the long reach of buff sand up which the little waves came tumbling and bursting, with merry murmurs, as though they were glad to get back to the land. He might have been there to welcome the rising tide, so intent was his gaze at the progress it was making, so absorbed he seemed ; or he might have been watching and waiting for something to come—some expected gift— floating in on the bosom of the sea. So a fanciful person might have supposed, who saw him standing there, standing at ease, with observant eyes, and an expectant face, full of thought. But there again, as usual, appearances would have deceived the fanciful. For Uncle Oscar consciously saw neither sky nor sea nor shore. He was waiting, it is true, but he was merely waiting, as was his wont at that hour on fine days, until it was time to go in to lunch; and he was thinking, but of nothing more romantic than the projected doings of the day in so far as they concerned the claims of his family upon his time. And his family made great claims upon his time, because he was the only man in it. A wife and children would hardly have been so exacting as the mother and sister within his gates, and the rest of his female relations in his immediate neighborhood, who insisted on their right to claim him upon every occasion when a man’s company was essential, whether as an escort, a protection, a help, or for the general purpose of varying the monotony of the feminine point of view. Uncle Oscar was a bachelor of fifty, with seven thousand a year, unencumbered by land; a charming old house, and beautiful pleasure grounds, beautifully tended ; a fine position in the county; and the respect and affection of all who knew him. For he was an attractive man, attractive both to men and women, but especially to women, for his unfailing courtesy and kindness. He was a small, well-made man, always well-dressed; indeed, he only escaped the reproach of dapper by a certain grace of virility in his character which made every outward expression of himself, whether in dress or manner, right with the rightness of manliness. As a baby his nurse had dubbed him “The Little Gentleman,” and “The Little Gentleman” he remained to the end of his days— having inches enough to make the appellation inoffensive.
It was upon this quality of gentlehood that the ladies of his family habitually imposed, exacting from him every sort of service, as though he were theirs by right of purchase to be disposed of as should best suit their convenience at any time. Besides his mother and sister Lucretia, he had a widowed sister living near, and sundry nieces and cousins who, as they grew up, were taught to depend upon Uncle Oscar’s good-nature and Uncle Oscar’s purse in every emergency. And it was also understood that Uncle Oscar’s fortune was for the family, inalienably; but whether it was to be shared amongst them, or left in a mass to some one lucky favorite, remained uncertain — which was a good thing for him in one way, the one thing that made his position pleasant, since it kept all of them alive to the necessity of making themselves agreeable to him to the best of their ability. But in another way it had not been good for him. It never is good for a man to find himself always the centre of everything, continually plied with delicate attentions, in an atmosphere dangerously charged with demonstrations of affection, an atmosphere of feminine cajoleries, far too sweet to be wholesome.
The little waves, tumbling over each other, gambolled up across the last narrow stretch of hard sand, and broke at the foot of the cliff with a shout of laughter. Uncle Oscar threw them the end of his cigarette, twirled the tips of his grey moustache, and, with a last comprehensive glance seaward, turned to go home.
“Come,” he said, and I jumped up at once and hurried to his side.
On every hand the prospect, bathed in brilliant sunshine, was pleasing, and so also should have been the prospect of luncheon, yet there was a shade on Uncle Oscar’s face as we slowly strolled back to the house—not a shade of ill-humor, but of depression. There was no sunshine in Uncle Oscar himself that day, no exhilaration. The weather in his heart was fine, perhaps, but grey, very grey.
“Homeward, which always makes the spirit tame,” slipped from me involuntarily.
Uncle Oscar acknowledged the aptness of the quotation by flicking the head from a thistle with his stick.
We both knew pretty well what the day had in store for us. There was nothing in the prospect to which we objected, but, at the same time, there was nothing in prospect to which we looked forward with any pleasure; nothing that promised any change from the usual round of little happenings; the dead level of dull monotony only made endurable by habit, or a sense of duty. It was habit in Uncle Oscar’s case, the habit of acquiescence ; but that is not a habit that is bound to persist. To most people there come times of staleness to all accustomed things ; times when our impulse is to break away, to fly, to do something desperate ; times which are a preparation for change—if not actual harbingers of some change near at hand. I know now that it was so with Uncle Oscar just then. He could not have told anyone, because he did not himself realize what was the matter with him. He had come to a loose end suddenly. It was as if he had gone to bed one night a contented man, and had risen next day dissatisfied with himself and everything else, and what he wanted now to enable him to take up the dropped threads of life again satisfactorily, was a radical change.
This was the moment when he made the remark to which I have referred.
There had been intoxication for me in the exquisite air, the lovely peaceful scene, the sense of silence, which was in no way disturbed by the incessant murmur of the sea; and I had given expression to it. At twenty-one our spirits clamour for expression, our moods blatantly claim a response.
“Oh,” I burst out at last, “what a heavenly day ! Uncle Oscar, don’t you love your life?”
“Live just to be alive,” was what I meant; but I seized upon the first phrase that occurred to me, and he gave me no time to correct myself.
“Love my life?” he repeated. “Isn’t it rather a lap-dog sort of life for a man ?”
I was taken aback. He was wont to talk a good deal to me, and of many things, but never before had he said anything so intimate, with regard to himself personally, and I was at a loss for something to say in reply.
We walked on for a little in silence, then at last I ventured to ask: “Why do you call it a lap-dog life? What should you say was a better life for a man in your position? Are you not doing your duty in the state in which it has pleased God to call you?”
“Candidly, no,” he answered. “A man of means, with ample leisure, should be public-spirited-”
“But what could you do?” I broke in. “You might be on the Bench-Why are you not on the Bench, Uncle Oscar?”
“Oh, well—my mother, you see,” he replied. “She objects. She says it would bring disreputable people about the place at all hours, tramps, and policemen, and that sort of thing. And she thinks I should be sure to be drawn into municipal work, and help to spoil the place by doing things which would make it attractive, and bring crowds of visitors to it in the summer. She fears, too, that I should have fads about the housing of the poor, the treatment of paupers and criminals, the water supply, and especially the drainage; and that it would all end in my being made mayor, and having no time to attend to her at all.” He spoke playfully, but there was a shade of apology in his tone, as if he were excusing his mother.
“But surely that would have been the very thing for you?” I said.
“That would have been the very thing for me,” he answered, the lightness of his tone discounted by a smothered sigh.
The sound of the gong rolled out as we crossed the lawn, and we hurried straight into the dining-room by one of the French windows opening on to the terrace, which ran the whole length of the house. We were just two minutes late, and Grandmamma had begun luncheon. She was a severely punctual person, and never waited a moment, even for the master of the house, nor did Aunt Lucretia. Regular habits meant more to them than Christian principles. But neither of them ever expressed disapproval or found fault ; a hurt expression, or a resigned smile, were their favorite weapons. It was the resigned smile they used on this occasion, and Uncle Oscar and I, oppressed with the sense of guilt, would have slunk apologetically to our places had it not been that there was a third person present, whom we were obliged to greet.
This third person was Cecily Carey. She was connected with the family by her late husband’s will, he having made Uncle Oscar sole trustee for the property left her. But the two families had been near neighbors for generations, and Uncle Oscar had known Cecily all her life. At fifteen he had despised her as a baby in long clothes ; at twenty he had patronized her as a little girl ; at thirty-five he had seen her unhappily married to the most notorious scamp in the county; at forty he had had the pleasure of attending the scamp’s funeral; and for the last ten years he had managed all her affairs for her, and generally befriended her like an elder brother. Under the circumstances their intimacy was so natural and inevitable, that everybody countenanced it as a matter of course, and Cecily came and went like one of the family. Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia shed sweetness, mingled with pity, upon her lavishly. The sweetness bore witness to their oft-expressed opinion that she was genuinely nice; the pity they poured upon certain defects, not of character so much as of manner, as they generously allowed.—defects, which they would probably never have discovered had it not been that her maiden name of Brand, with other obvious reasons, had drawn upon her in her childhood the inevitable sobriquet of “Monkey,” and “Monkey” to her intimates she had remained. Not that she was monkey at all in appearance, for her milk-white face was of flower-like sweetness, and in the steady sapphire eyes that shone under her cloudy dark hair, a depth of character was foreshadowed, much at variance with her reputation for monkey tricks ; a depth which to sympathetic insight, would have portended that the thing to expect of her would be the unexpected. It was always a wonder to me how she set at nought the terrible cloying sweetness from which Uncle Oscar and I suffered so helplessly; and said what she thought and did as she intended whatever the opposition. But she did; and her coming acted as a tonic upon both of us. Uncle Oscar’s countenance brightened when he saw her now.
“Money again, I suppose?” he said in mock despair, but with some earnestness in the mockery. She had to draw on her resources through him, and he would have her careful of her money, as he was with his own, and she was not careful. “What a plague you are!”
“It isn’t my fault if I am made a whip to scourge you with,” she protested.
“Why should I be scourged at all ?” he asked, plaintively.
“For leading an idle, useless, purposeless existence,” she hit back, not dreaming that she was hitting hard. She was looking straight at him too, yet did not see that he winced. I should not have seen it either, I suppose, had it not been for the glimpse I had just had of that raw place in his feelings.
He helped himself carefully from a dish a servant handed to him at the moment, and went on with his luncheon as if he had not heard. She looked at him a little more keenly when he made no attempt to retort, for they usually kept up a lively banter between them from the moment they met. This banter was a source of sorrow to Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia. They thought levity in a woman who had her troubles was unbecoming, and they wondered that Uncle Oscar could countenance levity —poor Uncle Oscar, to whom a chance to unbend came so rarely!
Grandmamma had resumed her expression of resignation when the little rally began. She looked very sweet and benevolent, sitting at the end of the table, in silver grey satin and fine, white lace. She wore her beautiful white hair arranged in those rolls the French call anglaises, on each side of her forehead, and had a trick of patting them gently, to gain time to find a reply, or to give a touch of finality to some decree which she had just pronounced. Aunt Lucretia was something like her mother in appearance, but it was the likeness of a bad imitation. Where Grandmamma was graceful in figure, Aunt Lucretia was gaunt. Her hair was of a lifeless, sandy color, which produced no effect of beauty, in spite of its abundance; and, however costly her clothes, there was always something wrong about them, so that she never looked well-dressed. Grandmamma, on the contrary, never looked anything else.
As Uncle Oscar let that little impertinence of Monkey’s pass in silence, Grandmamma took off her resigned expression and put on her look of peace ; and Aunt Lucretia ceased to study the contents of her plate, as if, by concentration thereupon, she could keep herself unspotted from the world. But the silence was becoming oppressive, so I broke it.
“What are we going to do this afternoon?” I asked, generally.
“What would you like to do?” Uncle Oscar replied, with a flash of animation.
“Drive us somewhere,” I said. “It is such a lovely day ! I should like to be out the whole afternoon. Monkey wouldn’t it be nice if Uncle. Oscar drove us on to the wolds ? Let us take a tea-basket, and have a good time.”
“Yes, let us,” she said. “Oscar, it would be delightful.”
“So it would,” he agreed. “What time—
But Grandmamma caught Aunt Lucretia’s eye, and patted her anglaises.
“You cannot take them this afternoon, dear,” she interrupted. “I am sorry, but I want to call on the Merryons, and you must please come too. If Cecily and Beatrice must drive, let Kemp take them.”
“Are you going to the Merryons?” Uncle Oscar asked Aunt Lucretia.
“I am,” she said solemnly, as if she were taking an oath.
“Then won’t my cards do, mother?” he suggested.
“I want you to come yourself,” Grandmamma insisted, as if terrbile things depended upon it.
Uncle Oscar said no more, but the brightness had gone from his face, and Monkey blurted out: “You’re a model son, dear ! What a loss you are to the married profession—if it be true that a good son makes a good husband.”
Grandmamma looked pained at that, as though the doubt suggested were a reproach to Oscar, and Aunt Lucretia, after giving Monkey a rapid glance, set herself hard to reflect; but I had no clue at the moment to the sudden suspicion which had obviously occurred to her.
“Mamma is so nervous in the carriage, you know, dear, when you are not there,” she said to Uncle Oscar, with an affectionate smile.
This clinched the matter in the usual way. Uncle Oscar was condemned to spend the lovely afternoon doubled up on the back seat of the brougham, with one window a little way open; and we might go where we liked for all those gentle ladies cared, so long as we did not trouble them. Oh, that terrible cloying sweetness! If only they had done things disagreeably, it would have roused him, stung him into opposition, and been the making of him. But they always managed so cleverly to make him feel that anything but acquiescence would be boorish and brutal.
Monkey and I gave up the expedition as he could not come, and she immediately took her leave. She was walking, and Uncle Oscar went with her, bareheaded, down the drive.
“Shall you be at home this evening, at the usual time?” he asked her at the door, as he opened her parasol.
I did not hear her reply. But the question satisfied a little piece of curiosity I had sometimes felt. Uncle Oscar often went out immediately after dinner, and I used to wonder where he spent his evenings, but had not asked, of course, or tried to discover. Had he wished me to know, he would have told me. And he did tell me, too, eventually. He made me understand how, after a long day of Grandmamma’s incessant little exactions, enforced by Aunt Lucretia’s tender cajoleries, he had looked to an evening spent in Cecily’s bracing atmosphere as to a means of escape, a safety valve. Without the relief of it, he must have exploded long before he did. If things had been allowed to go on as they were, without interference, he would probably never have exploded at all.
The power of quiet endurance is supposed to be an attribute of woman only, but, like every other attribute, it is common to both sexes. The distinguishing difference lies, not in the possession, but in the way men and women exercise their common attributes. A long-suffering woman makes no pretence of cheerfulness, as a rule; a man when he makes up his mind to endure, does it pleasantly. This was the case with Uncle Oscar. Heredity had been unkind to him, by robbing him of the means of self-defence. Sweetness of manner in the other members of his family cloaked hardness of heart; in him it was a true index of character, which left him open to the assaults of those who did not scruple to impose upon his good nature. Up to this time I had never seen him show impatience, and I used to think that he did not realize the extent to which he was imposed upon. His manner to his mother was perfect, whatever she exacted, and the other members of his family he treated with unvarying kindliness.
Now, however, I began to perceive that something in his habitual courtesy, which, at times, had seemed to me a little exaggerated, was the outcome of suppressed irritation. It was my own suppressed irritation, I suppose, that gave me the clue to his. It seemed to me monstrous of Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia calmly to set aside our plans, as they had done at luncheon, and to carry him off, regardless of his own expressed wishes, to pay an unnecessary call—monstrous selfishness; and I had not recovered my temper when we sat down to dinner that evening.
Aunt Constance, with Cousin Maud, her daughter, and another distant elderly cousin, Grace, were dining with us. Their company meant much melancholy talk about missions, mothers’ meetings, bazaars, and the incorrigible improvidence of the poor. The conduct of one starving woman, in particular, was worrying them just then. She had been given a liberal supply of soup and bread when she first applied for help, but she had the assurance to return again the following week, as hungry as ever. And they couldn't get over it. Good women they were, and charitable, but the kindliness which encourages people to be happy in their own way to do something else, and to do it differently. They insisted that it was the duty of the poor to be satisfied with what their betters thought good enough for them; and tried to make them believe that the power to work long hours for the rich, only eating and sleeping in order to keep up their strength for work, was the highest privilege to which they had any right to aspire.
I was well accustomed to this kind of talk, but it got upon my nerves that evening, and drove me to break in at last with the double purpose of causing a diversion and making myself as disagreeable to them as they were making themselves to me.
My usual seat was next to Uncle Oscar, and we used to talk to each other happily whoever was there, but latterly this had not been allowed. When Aunt Lucretia saw two people happy together, she seemed to suspect that something was wrong, and never rested until she had had the pleasure of making them both miserable. For this reason I had been moved away from Uncle Oscar. But that sort of thing, in those days, only made me the more irrepressible.
“You must have been bored to death in that horrible close carriage this afternoon, Uncle Oscar,” I exclaimed across the distance. “I did pity you ! Especially as there was no necessity for you to go at all. Weren’t you just longing to be out with us all the time, in the fresh air?”
“I hope Uncle Oscar did not suffer more than your dear Grandmamma and myself,” Aunt Lucretia put in, with gentle deprecation.
“Must have,” I said. “You went because you wanted to go. He was dragged off against his will. You don't suppose he liked it—especially when the alternative was Monkey?”
This last shot hit home, I could see. Aunt Lucretia’s set smile went out suddenly, and was only recaptured with an effort. Grandmamma patted her white rolls, first on one side, and then on the other, with quite an agitated touch. Grim Cousin Grace sniffed, and Aunt Constance compressed her lips as if she had something in her mouth that wanted to get out. I did not in the least know what I had hit. and I looked at Uncle Oscar to see if he were better informed, but there was not a hint in the expression of his face to help me.
“I suppose they were out, and you got no tea?” I went on, making another bull’s-eye by accident.
“We had the happy sense of having done the right thing to sustain us,” Grandmamma assured me, with her most seraphic smile.
“I expect Uncle Oscar would have found more stimulant in a cup of tea,” I observed.
There was a momentary faint flicker of amusement on Uncle Oscar’s face. Aunt Lucretia detected it, and blew it out at once.
“Be yourself, Beatrice, dearest,” she said. “The original Monkey leaves much to be desired, but a bad imitation of her, poor dear, is unendurable.”
“Indeed, yes, poor, dear child,” said Grandmamma. “She is much to be pitied. But you have had every advantage, Beatrice, and you really do know better.”
“Better than what?” I wanted to know.
“Never mind, dearest,” said Grandmamma. “It is not a profitable subject.”
She smiled at Uncle Oscar maternally, and rose from the table as she spoke. He hurried to the door, to open it for her and the other ladies. As they left the room, his face brightened for the first time that evening.
I was the last to go, and as I passed him he whispered, “Good-night, Bee. I shall make my escape.”
“Thank goodness for you,” I said. “Good-night !”
When I went into the drawing-room the three elder ladies had got their heads together, and Cousin Maud was looking all out of it, so I took charge of her, to the best of my ability, for she was of an intellectual weight that bowed my spirits to the ground. The only way to entertain her was set her going on a subject in which she was deeply interested, and then to give her head. After that, one could let one’s mind wander at will, so long as one looked her in the face and seemed to be listening. By a stroke of luck I hit upon the resurrection of the body, and got her safely off to Ancient Egypt, where she enjoyed herself thoroughly among the tombs with the mummies, until it was time to go home.
The confab at the other side of the room was being carried on in undertones, but every now and then a distinct phrase caught my wandering attention—if you can call it attention, which takes no interest in what is being said, and would rather not be caught. But Aunt Lucretia, who had been talking hard, as if in an effort to persuade the others to something, all at once wound herself up to a climax, on a high note, which reached me in spite of myself.
“Dearest Constance, I am afraid I am right,” she exclaimed. “Mother dear, you remember what she said about him at luncheon ? She said that he was a loss to the married profession. That was what opened my eyes.
“Not at all a nice thing to say,” grim Cousin Grace observed.
“She is often not nice in her sayings,” Aunt Lucretia sighed ; “and one is forced to remember qui peut tout dire arrive a tout faire. We give her the run of the house, and every opportunity.”
“You will have to be careful.” Aunt Constance warned her. “All that is necessary is to keep them apart. With a little tact, you need never have her here when he is at home.”
“Where is Oscar?” Grandmamma, broke in plaintively. “Beatrice, dearest, where is your Uncle Oscar?”
I turned out my pocket to show that he wasn’t in it, and was reproved for treating a question of Grandmamma’s with unbecoming levity. But I wasn’t going to give Uncle Oscar away—or Monkey either.
Aunt Lucretia left the room to look for him, and returned without him.
“I am afraid he has gone out, mother dearest,” she said, mitigating the blow with a tender kiss.
“It really is a little inconsiderate,” Grandmamma complained. “He must have known I should want him this evening.”
“Never mind, dear,” Aunt Constance said, soothingly; “we all know what men are.”
“It’s that horrid smoking,” Cousin Grace declared. “I don’t believe they would be half so selfish if it were not for that. Once they get together, smoking and talking, they forget everything. I can’t think how they can waste precious time as they do.”
“If only men could be taught to work as you do, Cousin Grace, they would have the same profitable topics of conversation, and they how different they would be !” I ventured. (Hideous little bits of woolwork for bazaars represented the extent of her labors and interests.)
“They would, indeed!” sighed Cousin Grace, complacently.
I hurried back with Maud to Ancient Egypt for safety, and was resigned to sit there for the rest of the evening, but my heart was with Uncle Oscar. I was glad to think that he was happy with Cecily; but that kind of gladness does not cheer one, and my spirits went down, and down. Then, suddenly, just as they dropped to the lowest depths, I heard something, and up again they flashed to the zenith. It was Uncle Oscar’s step in the hall. In a moment, to my inexpressible pleasure, he appeared at the drawing-room door.
“Beatrice, I want you,” he called to me.
His tone was peremptory, so I knew that he had come to the rescue with something nice in store for me by way of a diversion, for that was the only tone to assume, in order to get me away without opposition. When Uncle Oscar was peremptory,cthe dear ladies always supposed that I had been up to some mischief, and was in for a lecture, a treat of which they would not have deprived me for money, much as they loved it.
Uncle Oscar withdrew when he had spoken, and I ran out to him in the hall.
“It’s a pity to be shut up in that stuffy room this lovely evening,” he said. “Put something on, and we’ll go and see Cecily. Grandmamma has enough of the family to entertain her without us. We shall not be missed.”
The dear one had returned on purpose to rescue me.
Uncle Oscar had never taken me out with him alone before in the evening; but everything had been different that day, and I was not surprised. New departures were in the air—so to speak.
We made for a little side-door; in the wall that fenced the grounds from the high road. It was a short cut across a grassy space, thick-set with fine old trees, beneath which we walked in the soft, deep shadows so noiselessly that we might have been imponderable spirits. I slipped my hand through Uncle Oscar’s arm, a trick of mine, when we were alone together, which he kindly allowed, but did not encourage. It was my wont to do all the caressing, and his to endure it, kindly but stolidly—so stolidly that it was hard to suppose that he was even aware of my customary demonstrations of affection. I loved to hang on his arm, and lean my head against his shoulder. I used to wear low-heeled walking shoes for the purpose, for, with high heels, I was taller than he was ; and it hurt me, somehow, to be taller than Uncle Oscar.
In those days it was easy enough for me to understand what attracted Uncle Oscar to Cecily, for I felt the same attraction myself. Hers was an atmosphere in which my heart, not hopelessly dried and shrivelled, was bound to expand. She was so genuinely sympathetic, so tolerant, so free of all taint of that poison of the mind which blossoms into carping criticism. I never remember to have heard her hard on anybody, and yet she did not shut her eyes. 'She was too intelligent for that, too keenly interested in life in all its phases ; but she never sat in judgment. What she did was to take conduct of all kinds into consideration, and then she tried to account for the different varieties. Kindly accounting for was her speciality. She could account for Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia, and excuse them on occasions when I had been worked up into a frenzy of impotent rage. But those were occasions, as I afterwards came to observe, when nothing affecting her own dignity and pride had occurred.
It was during the first year of her widowhood that Uncle Oscar had formed the habit of spending his evenings with her. The settlement of her husband’s affairs, which had been left in disorder, and the trusteeship of her money, had necessitated many consultations, which it had often suited them both best to hold in the evening. Monkey frankly said that it varied the monotony for her to have him come then, and, when business was done, she would beguile him to stay and talk— if you can call that beguiling, which was too openly proclaimed to leave a doubt of her intentions.
“I’m bored to death, Oscar,” she would say. “I’m sick of myself. Do stay and talk to me, and make me feel human. I do so hate to be alone in the evening.”
And Uncle Oscar had stayed at first with the kindly desire to cheer her. So the habit had been formed. He had not thought of these evenings as of any particular pleasure to himself, or discovered that they were until her mourning was over, when she shut up her house and went abroad. Then he knew by the melancholy blank from which he suffered after her departure what a pleasant difference her society, as a means of escape from his own family, had meant for him.
That was ten years ago, and their close intimacy, coming about, as it had done, insensibly, and as the result of circumstance, had roused neither question nor comment among their friends. Everybody had taken it for granted that it should be so, themselves included.
Uncle Oscar had looked depressed when we left home, but the balmy coolness of the summer night was refreshing, and by the time we reached the old red-brick Georgian house, fronting the street, in which Cecily lived, was whistling to himself softly, a sure sign in him of rising spirits.
Blackwell, the staid old servant who let us in, honored me with a stare of inquiry, but she smiled a cordial welcome to Uncle Oscar, and it was as if, when she relieved him of his cap and coat, she relieved him also of the last of his depression, and some of his years, for his step was buoyant as he mounted the broad, shallow stairs, and the smile with which he responded to Cecily’s greeting was the smile of a happy man.
“I’ve brought Bee,” he said.
Cecily was sitting beside a solid little ebony table, on which stood a shaded lamp. A book lay open on her lap. She put it down when we entered, and rose to receive us, smiling at us both impartially.
“Bee is welcome,” she said. Then she glanced at the clock. “I was beginning to be afraid you could not come,” she said to Uncle Oscar.
“Then you knew I should come if I could?” he answered, catching at the admission. “We had an interminable dinner to-night. I made my escape the moment I could, and was half-way here when I thought of Bee, and went back for her.”
“And, oh, but I was glad to be rescued!” I exclaimed. “You can imagine what it was with Aunt Constance, Cousin Maud and Cousin Grace, added to Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia! And the talk.”
“Mothers’ meetings, I suppose?” she interpreted. “Do sit down.” When we were seated, she observed that they were dear, good, kind, charitable women. We were always reminding each other that they were dear, good, kind, charitable women; it made them easier to bear.
“Yes, they’re all that,” he broke out to my surprise, it was so unlike what I knew of him to criticise his own people harshly; “and enough to make any man shun dear, good kind, charitable women like the plague. Why can’t they leave their dear, good, kind charitableness at home, or keep it for those who care for no other subject; and show an interest in something outside their own petty concerns? The duties of life must be attended to, oí course, but they are none the better done for being discussed ad nauseam. But that is the way with women. They make a man dyspeptic.”
“Sir,” she said, “I am a woman.”
“I don’t believe it,” he rejoined. “You’re a freak — at least, I don’t know another like you.”
There was a faint, momentary quiver about her lips, as of a smile suppressed. She rose, and he made to rise also, but she stopped him: “At your peril,” she said. “You know I like to do things myself.”
Then she fetched a small table, and put it beside him. There were cigarettes and matches on it. “Smoke,” she said.
He took a cigarette, and struck a match aggressively. The reflection of his grievances had ruffled him again; but I could see how grateful were her little, unobstrusive, feminine ministrations, coming, as they did, after a day of fetching and carrying incessantly for selfish, exacting women. After a few whiffs of the cigarette, the tension was relaxed, and he leant back in his chair, his equanimity again restored.
“You do as much as they do but you never talk mothers’ meetings : why should they?” he asked at last, but in an easy, interested tone, not carping.
“I don't talk anything much, do I ?” she asked.
“N—no,” he replied, considering, “yet you are never dull. There is always an atmosphere of pleasant thoughts about you. I feel it the moment I enter the house.”
“That is good to hear,” she said, looking pleased. “But I have always thought it was you who filled my house with a happy atmosphere when you came.”
He let this pass, and smoked for a little in silence, thoughtfully. Afterwards he told me that he was thinking of what she had just said about not talking much, and that it was true in her own house. When she came to us, she was apt to be very much Monkey ; but at home, alone with him, she was grave and quiet, not to say subdued—a nicer, more dignified woman than she never showed herself to any of his family—why ? He suspected that the answer was to be found in the faults of his family.
I wondered. Cecily, as two different women, gave me for the first time a feeling of uncertainty about her that made me uneasy. It was as if I had awakened to the discovery that I did not know my dearest friend at all. Uncle Oscar laughed at the suggestion: “You must not confound tricks of manner with permanent characteristics,” he said. “Our manners, like our moods, are often determined for the moment by the company we are in. Sensitive people of one kind betray involuntarily the feeling set up in them by the person they are with; and there is another sort of sensitive who detects and reflects the feelings of others.”
“Which is Cecily?” I asked.
“Cecily is a mixture,” he answered.
“That is what I feared,” I said.
“But a good mixture,” he maintained,
“Do you know all the ingredients?” I persisted.
“I think so,” he said.
* * * * *
Cecily had rung the bell while he was thinking, and Blackwell had brought in a tray of eatables and drinkables. Uncle Oscar looked at the clock in alarm.
“Is that a hint to go?’’ he asked.
“No,” Cecily answered. “It is a hint to stay late, if you like. I want you to play to me. And I don't want to keep Blackwell up this evening. She has had a rather long, hard day.”
Uncle Oscar’s face had clouded, but it cleared again at this. He went to the tray and helped himself to something-and-soda-water ; then, sitting on the arm of a chair, he finished his cigarette deliberately, as a man does who is contented and at his ease. There was a very much-at-home air about all that he did that night, which it was good to see. In his own family he was usually kept too much on the alert to have time for pleasurable relaxation.
When he had finished his cigarette he went to the piano.
Cecily leant back in her chair and closed her eyes.
Uncle Oscar struck a chord here and there, considering; then ran his fingers lightly over the keys. “What shall I play?” he asked.
“Something—something uplifting,” she said. “Take me right away up— out of all this-”
It was not a thing that I should have thought that he had in him to do, although I knew that he played well; and the request gave me another uneasy feeling—I don’t know why uneasy, but it was ; the feeling that Cecily knew more of him than I did. I told myself that it was natural that she should, and right, and good for him; but all the same I did not like it. And when he began to play as I had never heard him play before, I was not uplifted, whatever Cecily was; on the contrary, I was deeply depressed.
He played on, wandering from one thing to another, apparently without requiring from her any “Thank you !” or “How lovely !” or “What is that?” for his encouragement ; she never once interrupted him ; but her countenance, while he was playing, expressed all and more than could have been said; and in her sigh, when at last he closed the piano, there was the best praise and thanks.
“One more cigarette, if I may, before we go,” he said, returning to his untouched something-and-soda-water.
“By all means,” she replied. “Come, Bee, come and have something to eat.” She rose as she spoke, and held out her hand to pull me up out of my chair. “What is the programme for to-morrow?” she asked, when we had joined him at the tray.
“The usual thing in the morning, I suppose,” he said, with a shrug. “I shall have to act as escort to that horrible bazaar in the afternoon. Shall you be there?”
“I don’t know about the evening. What are you going to do? Can’t you come to dinner?”
“If I’m wanted?”
“What do you mean by that?” he said, sharply. “You are always wanted.”
“Tell me what you mean by that?” he urged.
But she put the question by, with another little laugh.
Uncle Oscar had no clue to what was in her mind, but I had; for I had become aware of a difference in her reception at Seascape lately, a something indefinable, but enough, if she noticed it, to make her feel that it was no longer possible to run in and out, as she had always been accustomed to do, just when she liked, without any special invitation from the ladies of the family.
Uncle Oscar did not press her again to explain, and she let him go—with his thoughts in a tangle of puzzled conjecture.
There was that big, boring Charity Bazaar next day, to which we were dragged, Uncle Oscar and I. He made no objection. He never did. If a thing had to be done, he did it pleasantly. But I grumbled and, with my usual bad taste, as Lucretia said.
“I don’t see why we should have to go to a beastly bazaar,” I protested.
“It is right that we should go, dearest child,” Grandmamma admonished me.
“But why can’t you and Aunt Lucretia go, and do what is right for the whole family?” I persisted. “You think it right, because you want to go---"
“That will do dear,” Aunt Lucretia interrupted.
The carriage was pulling up at the Public Hall, and Uncle Oscar hastily alighted and gave his arm to his mother.
For half an hour he patiently piloted her from stall to stall, and at each she made liberal purchases for which he paid. She had quite a high reputation for the generous support she gave to all deserving charities, and this was the way she earned it. People said it was such a charming sight to see her with her beautiful white hair and fascinating smile, sacrificing herself on a hot afternoon by setting such an example for the benefit of the cause. But she was not sacrificing herself at all. She enjoyed every moment of such occasions, and sacrificed us that her goodness might be vouched for by the devotion of her family, the public display of which was needed to heighten the illusion.
Uncle Oscar not only had to complete Grandmamma’s purchases by paying for them, but he had to do the porterage. I helped him with that, and we were soon covered with all sorts of horrors, chiefly woolly, which Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia declared would be just the thing to send to some other bazaar.
Aunt Constance and a sheaf of cousins had joined us, so that we formed quite an imposing family procession. At last, however, Grandmamma proclaimed herself exhausted, and sat down. I pitched the things I was carrying on the floor beside her, and snatched Uncle Oscar’s load to throw on the heap, but was not reproved, for the collection made a goodly pile in full view of the whole assembly, and could not but help to redound to the credit of Grandmamma’s generosity.
I wanted to secure Uncle Oscar for myself and get away with him, but he was immediately despatched by Aunt Lucretia to get tea for their dear mother. “And Oscar, dear,” she added, as an afterthought, “you had better get some for us all. It will help the good work.”
While he was away, Cecily came up to speak to us for a minute, with a big doll in her arms, and a little child by the hand.
“I have charge of these two pretty things,” she said, “and must take them to a place of safety out of the crowd. I shan’t see you again, probably. But I’ll come and dine with you this evening or to-morrow, if I may.”
The proposition was received in dead silence. Cecily thought they had not heard: “I want to come and dine with you this evening, or to-morrow, if I may,” she repeated.
Not a word. She looked in surprise from one to the other. Then a faint flush appeared on her sensitive whiterose face. Grandmamma patted her anglaises, and Aunt Lucretia stooped on the pretence of rearranging the heap of purchases. Aunt Constance was, apparently, in difficulties with her glove buttons. I would have said something, but, like Cecily herself, I was taken aback, and before I could recover myself she had gone. Immediately afterwards Uncle Oscar returned, carrying a table, and followed by sundry damsels with cups and saucers and cakes and tea. Then other people joined us, and general chitter-chatter became the next distraction. When at last we departed, and Uncle Oscar had put us in the carriage, he excused himself, and sent us home alone; and I did not see him again until we met in the drawing-room just before dinner, and then I had no opportunity of saying a word to him in private. Not that I had a word to say, for I did not understand what was going on at all.
He came down just before the gong sounded, and glanced round the drawing-room.
“Where is Cecily?” he asked.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” Grandmamma answered, looking vaguely about her, as if Cecily had been there and had suddenly concealed herself.
“I had no time to talk to her at the bazaar,” he said. “But I understood that she was coming to-night.”
“So did we,” said Aunt Lucretia. “But we only saw her for a moment.”
“She had time enough to say that she would come to dinner to-night, or to-morrow night, if she might,” I put in maliciously.
“And what did you say?” Uncle Oscar asked Aunt Lucretia, with a shade of suspicion in his voice.
“We left it to her,” Aunt Lucretia replied, sweet as ever. “It makes no difference to us, you know, dear. She always comes and goes as she likes.”
Uncle Oscar gave his arm to his mother and took her in to dinner. There was a fifth cover laid, which Aunt Lucretia ordered to be removed when we had taken our seats.
“She won’t come now, I’m sure,” she said. “We must expect her tomorrow.”
Uncle Oscar made no remark upon this, and all through the meal, although he talked as usual, I could see that his thoughts were elsewhere.
I hoped he would escape after dinner, but Grandmamma captured him for cribbage before we left the table, and kept him prisoner for the rest of the evening.
Uncle Oscar was in good spirits when we met next day, but I did not see much of him, for Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia had a ladies’ luncheon party, from which he was saved by his sex, and so left free to make off for a reviving day on some distant golf links. He would have saved me, too, if I had been by way of taking advantage of his good-nature; but I knew that his day would have been spoilt by the jar attendant on the inevitable struggle he would have had to go through in order to rescue me, and I refused. If I had not, Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia would not have let him go in peace, for they were bound to have at least one victim, especially after a bazaar.
The bad air, general discomfort, and crowding at bazaars, which exhaust most people, only stimulated these admirable women, and made them more actively exacting than usual; so that the release of one of us by the blessed accident of the luncheon party happening the next day, was an exhilarating relief, even to me, who had, for a holiday task, to help to entertain a party of ladies ail suffering from a chronic sniff, brought on by the habit of disparaging everybody. But it did me good to think of Uncle Oscar out on the breezy links with nothing to trouble him, and something to look forward to. For I knew that he would be thinking, as I was, of Cecily, and this evening, which must surely bring her back to us.
Evening came, and Uncle Oscar returned. I heard him go to his room, whistling to himself softly. And dinner-time came—but no Cecily.
When dinner was announced, Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia would have gone in to the moment, as usual, but Uncle Oscar stopped them.
“Stay a minute,” he said to old Johns, our butler.
Johns stayed by the door.
Then Uncle Oscar turned to his mother, and there was enough in his face to set her patting her anglaises quickly, first on one side, and then on the other.
“Where is Cecily?” he said.
“Really, Oscar, dear-’’Aunt Lucretia interposed.
“It was my mother to whom I spoke,” he said, silencing her.
Then he waited, and Johns waited, and I waited, all looking at Grandmamma; and Grandmamma rose to the occasion, calm and smiling.
“You were asking about Cecily, dear?” she said. “Do you know if she is coming, Lucretia?”
“I do not,” Aunt Lucretia said, speaking, as usual in times of trial, as if she were answering upon oath.
“What did Cecily say yesterday?” Uncle Oscar asked me;
“Cecily said: ‘I’ll come and dine with you this evening, or to-morrow, if I may,’ ” I answered ; speaking also, involuntarily, as if I were upon oath, and devoutly thankful that I was not one of the culprits.
The meaning Uncle Oscar put into that word made me quail, although I had nothing to fear. I had no idea that he could speak like that. But those two sweet women met the attack with innocent, uncomprehending smiles.
“That was all, dear,” Grandmamma said. “That was all I think?” she said turning to Aunt Lucretia.
“Yes, that was all,” Aunt Lucretia declared.
“Nothing else was said?” Uncle Oscar asked, looking from one to the other suspiciously.
“No, nothing,” Grandmamma answered instantly, not seeing, in her haste, all that the answer implied; but Uncle Oscar saw.
“I understand,” he said. “Cecily asked if she might come to dinner, and neither of you said a word.”
But Grandmamma was one of the dear, good, sweet, womanly women of a bygone day, who made a fine living by managing men. Those that are left of her way of thinking nowadays are anti-suffragist. Uncle Oscar, with his simple directness, was no match for one so well versed in the art of cajolery; give her time, and she would wriggle out of anything.
“No, dear,” she replied, still smiling, but sighing at the same time wearily; “we neither of us said anything. There was no need. Silence gives consent, you know. A nod and a smile is enough for a child of the house like Cecily. You would not have us begin to treat her formally now, surely? It would quite alter our relations.” Her voice was flagging.
“You are exhausted, mother, dear,” Aunt Lucretia exclaimed. “Oscar, how can you keep her here waiting for dinner until she faints ! Cecily asked herself to dinner, and she has not come, nor has she been polite enough to send an excuse. This is the second evening I told Johns to expect her. She is really too casual. She has forgotten all about us, probably, and gone off somewhere else. We might drop the subject now, I think, and go in to dinner.”
Uncle Oscar gave his arm to his mother. He had not looked either at her or Aunt Lucretia while they were speaking, but at me, keenly. It was not possible for him to cast a doubt upon the veracity of his mother and sister by asking for my version of the story, nor for very shame could I speak and show them both disingenuous ; but he must have seen enough in my face to be sure that he was being cajoled, for, although he let the subject drop, he was evidently not satisfied.
During dinner Grandmamma said she would like him to play cribbage with her when he had had his cigarette.
“I am sorry I cannot,” he answered, shortly. “Lucretia must play with you to-night. I am going out.”
“But I play so badly,” Aunt Lucretia remonstrated plaintively.
“You will improve if you practise,” he said.
Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia exchanged disconcerted glances.
“But I would rather play with you, dear,” Grandmamma persisted.
“I am sorry, mother,” he answered, with decision. “I am going out directly after dinner.”
The shock of this announcement silenced them, and I also was surprised, but I was glad too, very glad. The worm had turned. Uncle Oscar was for going his own way at last.
In the drawing-room, after dinner, there was no question of cribbage.
Grandmamma patted an intermittent accompaniment to her thoughts on the arms of her chair. Aunt Lucretia knitted fiercely. She was in the habit of putting the energy into her work which, in other people, would have resulted in a display of anger or agitation very damaging to a reputation for sweetness and self-control. Their few remarks to each other bore reference to something that had been already well discussed. They spoke out before me, not caring, as I thought, whether I overheard them or not. Afterwards, however, it appeared that they had forgotten me. It was easy enough to do so in that big room, for I was sitting apart, beyond their circle of light, in the seat I preferred when I wanted to be quiet and read in the evening. Not that I was reading. I had tried, but I could not concentrate my attention. The scene before dinner had been unprecedented in my experience, and I still felt that there was agitation in the atmosphere. For the first time since I had lived with them, there seemed to be a difference of opinion between Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia, and presently something like an altercation began, a thing startling enough in itself to attract my shocked attention, even if I had had no special interest in the subject.
“It is quite possible,” Grandmamma was saying, “that you and Constance are mistaken. You neither of you pretend to be infallible, I suppose. And certainly the result of your diplomacy was far from happy this evening.”
“I am not mistaken,” Aunt Lucretia answered emphatically. “Surely there was proof enough of that in what happened this evening? Would he have been so put out if it had been anybody else? She is not nice, and I have always said so. And I have always said that she was designing, but you would not listen to me.”
“I have always heard you tell everybody that she is delightful, charming —I don’t know what,” Grandmamma querulously objected.
“To other people, yes,” snapped Aunt Lucretia, unabashed. “So she is, in a way. But that only makes her all the more dangerous. She has set herself to fascinate him, and she will do it if we let her have the opportunity.”
“But if this had been going to happen it would have happened long ago,” Grandmamma argued.
“Not necessarily,” Aunt Lucretia maintained. “And, at any rate, it did not happen long ago. It is only lately that there has been any change in their attitude towards each other. And the thing must be stopped”—her knitting needles flew—“or, just think what the loss will be to the family !”
“But his happiness,” Grandmamma feebly protested.
“Bother his happiness,” Aunt Lucretia burst out, forgetting herself completely for once. “I mean---’’ She pulled herself up short. “He is happy enough. And, certainly she would not make him any happier. It would be altogether a most unsuitable thing---”
At this moment I thought I heard Uncle Oscar come in, and jumped up to go and meet him.
Aunt Lucretia and Grandmamma started guiltily. “Is that you, Bee?” Aunt Lucretia exclaimed. “What are you doing there?”
“Attending to the conversation,” I replied.
“It was not intended for your ears,” she said. “We did not know that you were there.”
“I am sorry I did not know that you did not know. I came in after you, as usual,” I explained.
“You are not speaking to your aunt in at all a proper tone,” said Grandmamma. “You heard what we were talking about? Well, I must request you not to repeat the conversation.”
“There is a great deal at stake,” Aunt Lucretia supplemented, “and the loss may be as much yours as anybody’s.”
“If you mean money by that, Aunt Lucretia,” I answered, “I have enough of my own, thank you. And, if I hadn't, I should not intrigue against the happiness of anybody in the hope of securing some of theirs.”
“Intrigue! What do you mean?” Aunt Lucretia demanded.
But I would not answer. I just gave her a look and stalked out of the room.
In the hall I met Uncle Oscar.
“Have you seen Cecily?” I whispered.
“No,” he answered, “Blackwell said that she was not at home.”
“She refused to see you!” I exclaimed.
He shrugged his shoulders and went into the library. I followed him and shut the door.
“What does all this mean, Bee?” he demanded in a disheartened voice. “Why doesn’t Cecily come as usual? Why did she refuse to see me tonight?”
“If you had seen the family at the bazaar, you’d know!” I exclaimed. “The way they looked at her! And the dead silence in which they received her suggestion that she should come to dinner! I don’t believe she’ll ever come into your house again. I wouldn’t !”
“But why on earth should they insult Cecily? Why should she be driven out of my house?”
“They’ve got it into their heads that you’re in love with each other,” I blurted out.
Uncle Oscar looked stunned. Such a notion had evidently never suggested itself to him for a moment.
“That—we are—in love—with each other,” he repeated. “Cecily—in love —with me !”
He looked in my face for a moment in his bewilderment, and then he began to walk up and down the room ; and as he did so his countenance gradually changed. The trouble passed from his face, and was succeeded by an expression that was new to me, an expression that wiped out years of his age, and changed him for the better, to an extent that I could not have believed possible had I not seen the change occur.
“But why should they object?” he said, stopping at last in his walk, and looking at me with a queer, embarrassed smile.
“Oh, your money, of course,” I answered flatly. “They don’t want to lose your money. And Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia would hate to turn out for Cecily. They’ve a fine position at Seascape so long as you’re a bachelor you know.”
“My happiness doesn’t count then, I suppose,” he said bitterly.
“Aunt Lucretia says you're happy enough.”
“Bother Aunt Lucretia,” he said; “there’s one little person in the house, at all events, upon whom I can count to be disinterested. You don’t know what you’ve done for me, Bee, you don’t know what it means to me--”
His voice broke, and I ran out of the room for fear of seeing more of his emotion.
Uncle Oscar was up and out as usual early next morning, exercising his thoroughbreds. We all breakfasted at different times, which meant breakfasting alone, a privilege which Uncle Oscar and I valued dearly. He was always up and had breakfasted, and gone out to exercise his horses, before anybody else was down. Grandmamma breakfasted in bed, I in my own sitting-room, and Aunt Lucretia downstairs in the breakfast-room: “Not for my own pleasure, dearest, but that discipline may be maintained in the household,” as she explained to me.
That was to make me feel ignoble, because I had just been clamoring for a sitting-room and the right to as much privacy in my life as I required.
Those two dear women did give us a time about that sitting-room, but that was nothing new, for they were always in opposition to everything, and they never played fair. They knew it would make Uncle Oscar feel mean if they drove him to put down his foot as master of the house for my benefit, yet they did drive him to it, and I not only got a sitting-room, but the one I wanted, with the right to furnish it as I chose. Why they should have objected I cannot imagine. There was room enough in the place for us all to camp apart, with a separate retinue. It was change of any kind, I suppose, that they dreaded. They made me feel quite uncomfortable when I had to have my hair done up, and my dresses lengthened, they so evidently disapproved of my growing up at all.
We all met at luncheon for the first time that day. Uncle Oscar looked so well that Grandmamma commented upon it, and thought that his ride must have done him good.
“And, oh, by the way, Oscar, dear,’ said Aunt Lucretia, with the air of one who is frothing up things in general, to take the flatness out of them, “I have seen Cecily. It was as I thought. But she is coming to dinner to-night.”
“What was as you thought, Aunt Lucretia?” I asked demurely.
But Aunt Lucretia had a fine flare for an impertinence, especially when to reply would have been to give herself away. She had mastered the useful art of ignoring anything inconvenient that might be said, and she put it in practice now. I longed to look at Uncle Oscar, but forebore, lest she should suspect that there was an understanding between us on the subject.
"I shall miss Cecily this evening,” he said, in his usual quiet way. “I am sorry. I am dining out.”
“Oh, what a pity,” Aunt Lucretia exclaimed—as if she had forgotten.
So that was to be their tactics. Cecily was to be encouraged to come to the house as much as possible when Uncle Oscar was out, and skillfully kept away at other times. And the plan was well worked—so well, that Uncle Oscar himself became uneasy. Things were so arranged that he and I seldom had an opportunity of speaking to Cecily for a moment alone at Seascape, and our visits to her house were made formal by the presence of an invalid friend, a new importation, who seemed likely to become a fixture.
“Why don’t you come as usual?” I heard him question her in an undertone at dinner on one of the now rare occasions when she was with us, and he was at home.
“Don’t I?” she said. “I am constantly here.”
He was not satisfied, I could see, but conversation flagged round the table at the moment, and he could say no more.
On another occasion, when he was putting on her cloak in the hall, he said : “I suppose you will avoid me tomorrow, by not coming to our picnic?”
“I never avoid you, Oscar,” she answered.
“It is odd, then, that I should see so little of you,” he said drily.
“I can’t bear to hurt people,” she pleaded, rather piteously — “people who have been kind to me. I only want to keep the peace. Don’t you understand?”
There was no time for more, for Aunt Lucretia swooped down upon them at that moment, and saw Cecily safely shut up alone and off in the carriage herself.
But Cecily had said enough to ease Uncle Oscar’s mind. He believed that he understood at last, fully ; and after that he was content to wait for a propitious moment. He could not bear to hurt people either, and his hope was that the family attitude would change of itself, in good time, if he waited.
Things went on like this for some few weeks, but it was a happy time for Uncle Oscar. It was delightful to see him, he looked so young, his step was so buoyant, and he became so keen to do things. The dull, apathetic indifference with which he had been wont to acquiesce in the arrangements made for him by his mother and sister was superseded by a lively disposition to resist their incessant exactions. He managed to evade them by making engagements for himself, and at unexpected times he caused consternation by interfering peremptorily in the ordering of his own house. Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia were alarmed by these strange departures at first, but before long they gathered hope from the change, and encouraged him to take up new interests. If his mind were occupied with things in general, they reasoned, it would probably lead to the exclusion of the one thing in particular which they dreaded.
Cecily’s inconvenient invalid left her at last, and Uncle Oscar hoped to be asked to resume his evening visits, but she excused herself—in such a way, however, as to encourage his hopes. She wrote to him on the subject.
“I have not changed,” she said, “but your mother and sister have. You must see that yourself. They would not approve now of your coming to see me at irregular hours, and I cannot allow anything of which they do not approve; so make it easy for me, Oscar, dear, as you have always made everything easy for me for so many years, by agreeing that it is better that you should not come. I shall miss you dreadfully in the evenings, more than I could bear if you did not cordially agree that there is nothing else for it, that it is best for us all that it should be so.”
Uncle Oscar showed me the note with his new young smile of content and happiness. “You see what she says, Bee, that she will miss me dreadfully,” he repeated several times. “But it won’t be for long.”
He went off whistling to himself softly. He was always either singing or whistling now, when he was moving about the house. He made me think of the birds when their songs come back in the spring. Pursuits that he had dropped, he took up again at this time—his piano, for one thing. Latterly, we could scarcely persuade him to touch it, but now he needed no persuasion. He played incessantly, and with such expression as I had only once (that night at Cecily’s) heard him put into his music. Yet those ostrich women neither heard nor saw anything of the difference in him. The symptoms of what was threatening were sufficiently marked, one would have thought, but they remained blind to them, for the most part, and, for the rest, mistook them. Their self-complacency at this time was sickening. They gave the “dear Lord” the discredit of having favored their heartless manœuvrings, and blessed Him on their knees. They talked about healthy natural affection always prevailing in the long run against unwholesome fancies, provided wise friends interfered in time to prevent such fancies going too far; and they congratulated themselves upon being wise friends. What is called natural affection seldom suffices to fill the heart and round life with a satisfying sense of fulness and completion, and no one could say that Uncle Oscar’s life had been so rounded by his relations ; but that they ignored. What was his happiness to them, compared to the run of his beautiful place in the present, and the hope of a share of his fortune eventually?
An obvious change in Cecily’s attitude towards the family also helped to confirm their delusion. She was so often “not at home” when they went to see her, so often “engaged” when they sent her invitations, that it became evident that she was avoiding them and their house.
Gradually, therefore, they concluded that she had given up what they coarsely called “the attempt,” and their suspicions subsided. Thus they left themselves quite unprepared for the blow when it did come, and the effect was crushing—crushing to all of us, for we were all ‘hard hit, and equally unexpectedly, although in different ways. It was a bolt from the blue, with a vengeance. One day, Uncle Oscar lunched with us in the highest spirits; the next he was gone —without warning, without explanation. A curt note to his mother merely to inform her that he would be away for some time, being all the news we had of him for a fortnight. He was the most open of men, and had never left home before, even for a day, without saying where he was going, and why; so that the effect of this new departure upon us all was startling. Aunt Lucretia boldly declared that “that woman had succeeded in her wicked designs, and had carried him off.” She had the carriage out at once, and went to see for herself ; and she found Cecily quietly presiding at a committee meeting in her own dining-room, and was promptly routed for putting in an appearance, as she was not even a member of the society which was holding its session, “The Society for the Suppression of Silent Smiles of Slow Disparagement,” a sub-society which had been formed to carry to completion the work begun by “The Society for the Prevention of Evil Speaking.”
Uncle Oscar put an end to our suspense at last by walking in to dinner one evening, after we were seated, and taking his own seat, with an apology for being late, as if he had never been away. But it was a different Uncle Oscar—an Uncle Oscar whom even Grandmamma knew better than to question. The Uncle Oscar to whom we were accustomed had been genial, good-natured, easy-going to a fault; this was a hard, cold man, against whose stern decision it was plain that it would be useless to appeal.
I cannot remember how we got through that terrible meal ; except that very little was said, and Grandmamma’s fluttering little hand patted her white anglaises, first on one side, and then on the other, incessantly. Aunt Lucretia sat pale and rigid, but made a gallant attempt to eat and talk as usual.
Before we left the table Uncle Oscar signalled the final extinction of their tyrannical sway over me, and the establishment of his own new dispensation.
“Go and get your things on, Beatrice,” he said. “I want you to come out for a walk with me.”
At any previous time such a proposal would have thrown Aunt Lucretia and Grandmamma into immediate opposition; but that night although they exchanged glances expressive of disapproval, they did not dare to say a word.
Once we were out of doors, and alone together, there was no need to tell me that Uncle Oscar was in trouble. I slipped my hand through his arm, and he pressed it to his side ; but he did not speak, and I could not. After the strain of the tension at dinner, I was near to tears.
It was a moonlight night, soft and balmy as the one on which we had gone together to finish the evening with Cecily ; and he started off at once in the same direction. What was his object, I wondered? But I did not care so long as he let me be with him to share it. A sensation of unreality began to lay hold of me as we crossed under the shadowy trees to the little gate in the wall, like shadows ourselves, our steps inaudible on the springy turf.
Uncle Oscar unlocked the gate, and we passed out on to the high road. He drew my hand through his arm again, and we walked on together into the town, the silence still unbroken. So we passed through the quiet streets, until we came to Cecily’s house, opposite to which we stopped. We were on the other side of the road.
“Look!” he said.
I looked up at the drawing-room windows, which were lighted. On the blind of the centre window of the three there was a shadow, a clear black silhouette—of a woman with heaving shoulders and face covered with both hands, a woman sobbing in an agony of grief.
“Oh, come away,” I cried, clasping Uncle Oscar’s arm.
“It has been like that every night since,” he groaned—“since she refused me. I have seen her so. . . .I rode in. . . . I’ve been staying at the Links Hotel. . . . She refused me because of some cursed intrigue that has been going on lately at Seascape to prevent our meeting. She's too proud to enter my family under the circumstances. And that’s what she’s been paying for her pride.”
“Oh, but isn't there something to be done?” I cried. “Let us go to her. Surely she loves you?”
“Surely she loves me,” he said. “But she won't marry me. They've treated her like a vulgar adventuress, and she resents it, naturally. Their whole attitude towards her lately has been an insult. She won’t marry me, and she refuses to see me again.”
“That's nonsense,” I exclaimed.
And then I broke away from him, and ran across the road, and rang the door-bell, and pushed past Blackwell when she opened the door, and rushed upstairs.
The drawing-room was empty.
“Cecily! Cecily!” I called to her from the landing outside the drawing room.
But Blackwell interfered. She had followed me upstairs, and spoke with the directness of anger.
“You’ve no call to come forcing your way in like this,” she said; “and me ordered to keep you all out—and quite right too. We don't want any of you. We’ve money enough and to spare.”
“Oh, Blackwell, you know I’m not like that!” I said. “And poor Uncle Oscar, he's broken-hearted.”
“He didn’t ought to have let himself be domineered over, then,” she answered tartly. “A man what’s not master of his own house isn’t the man for us. And you can tell ’im so--”
She stopped short, and looked beyond me. I turned, and found that Cecily had come downstairs from her room. Her face was haggard and white, but she was quite collected.
“Blackwell, you forget yourself,” she said severely. “And you forget yourself, too, Beatrice. You are intruding. Your family has insulted me grossly, and I will not see any of you again.”
“It is Uncle Oscar you are punishing, then,” I said ; “and you are either a mad woman, or a wicked one, to do it. He has always been an angel of goodness to you. But you are all alike, you women, every one of you that he has ever wasted his kindness upon. You’ve sacrificed him, all of you, for your own petty purposes, your own contemptible pride.”
“I hope he may be more fortunate in your affection,” she said nastily.
“I hope he may. And, Cecily,” I blurted out, “when you indulge your feelings in future, don’t do it between the lamp and the window blind."
I had intended to warn her decently, to save her from making a public exhibition of herself, but this was the way it came out in my exasperation.
She colored crimson. “Blackwell,” she ordered, “open the door for this young lady, and show her out.”
And I went without another word, convinced that a stone wall was as likely to be softened by stroking, as her wrong-headed determination to be altered by anything that anybody could say.
Uncle Oscar did not ask me how I had fared. He had walked on, and I had to run to overtake him.
“You are out of breath,” he said. “I am sorry. I didn’t know that I was walking so fast.”
He spoke like himself again, to my great relief. In the short time since I had left him he had pulled himself together. He meant to bury his trouble in his own breast, so that I might not be grieved by the sight of it.
“I must just speak to your Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia,” he said, “and then this must all be forgotten. Nothing will ever be the same again for any of us, but it is best that they should know at once what the change is to be. They will adapt themselves the more easily.”
Many a man would have turned the mischief-makers out of his house, but Uncle Oscar could not do a thing like that. He was above all pettiness. He would not even leave his mother any longer in doubt as to what had happened, lest the suspense should try her. When we got in we went straight to the drawing-room. I had to be present at the interview. He insisted.
Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia looked up at us apprehensively as we entered the room. I sat down. Uncle Oscar remained standing. He began at once. Preliminaries were never much in his line if there were things to be said. All his dealings were characterized by simple directness.
“Mother,” he said, “I wish you to know that I asked Cecily to marry me. She has refused me, not because she does not care for me, but because she is too proud to enter a family which is hostile to the match.”
Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia tried in vain to conceal their relief under an affectation of concern, but their meek Christian spirits were not powerful enough to suppress the symptoms. There was no smile on their lips, but triumph shone in their eyes.
“Dear Oscar,” Grandmamma said sympathetically, “I am sincerely grieved at your disappointment. But I cannot pretend to be sorry for anything else. Women know each other’s true characters better than any man can know them, and, believe me, Cecily has no heart. It grieves me to say it, and you know I always treated her like a daughter of the house until her obvious design to marry you gave me no choice but to discountenance her.”
“How do you reconcile this accusation of a ‘design’ to marry me with the fact that she has refused me?” Uncle Oscar asked.
“I cannot pretend to fathom her motive for that, but, at any rate, my dear son, such a union would have meant nothing but misery for you. Cecily is mercenary. She cares for nothing but money. I have heard you tell her so yourself, again and again.”
“Then she shall have money,” Uncle Oscar declared.
“Wait, wait,” Grandmamma interrupted, lifting her delicate old hand to pat her white hair nervously. “Time and change--”
Uncle Oscar caught up the word: “Change, that is what I came to tell you about—the change I intend to make in my life. I shall travel for a time—go round the world for a change-”
“Yes, do,” Grandmamma said cordially; "go at once. It would do you more good than anything to travel for a time. A change of scene, and new ideas, will make a different man of you.”
“I shall go at once,” he said, “but I shall not return to live at Seascape. You and Lucretia can stay here if you like. You have ample means to keep up the place. I shall spend no more money upon it. I have lived the life of a gentleman-lackey here, dancing attendance upon women. For the future I shall live elsewhere, and differently. And before I go I shall alter my will. I mean to leave all that I have to Cecily unconditionally.”
“That's no use,” I exclaimed.
“Cecily would not take what you left her. She doesn’t want your money.”
Uncle Oscar looked blank upon this. Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia smiled discreetly.
“And what about me, Uncle Oscar?” I went on passionately. “You’re making all your arrangements without any reference to my happiness at all. What is to become of me here alone, when you are gone? It is cowardly of you to desert me.”
“My dear Beatrice,” Grandmamma exclaimed with dignity, “are we nothing to you?”
“Nothing to speak of,” I said sincerely. “Nobody is but Uncle Oscar.” I jumped up, and clasped my hands round his arm. “You can’t go away and leave me here alone,” I pleaded. “Take me with you. Let us make a home together.”
“My dear Beatrice,” Grandmamma put in again with her little air of finality, “you cannot go away alone with Uncle Oscar. You are a grownup young woman now, and he is not related to you.”
I dropped his arm, and recoiled. I had lived in the house since I was two years old. I knew that we were not blood relations, of course, but the fact had lapsed from my consciousness.
My first feeling was consternation, I looked at him. The color had mounted to his forehead, as if he, too, had been taken by surprise, and he was looking at me earnestly, looking at me, I could see, from quite a new point of view.
Suddenly I saw a way out of the difficulty. I was shaken with laughter.
“Oscar!” I burst out.
Grandmamma and Aunt Lucretia jumped in their chairs.
“I shall never call him ‘Uncle’ again,” I cried defiantly. “I don’t want him—for an uncle. Oscar--”
Again I was seized with happy idiotic laughter.
He was smiling, too, in sympathy, he was more than smiling. My thought had reached him. New love, new life !
“Why not?” I hurled at them all. “You must take me,” I said to him. “I cannot live without you.”
And then I ran out of the room.
I took refuge in my own sitting room, and sat on the edge of the sofa, listening. At first I feared he would follow me ; then, as the moments passed, I feared he would not. How awful, if-! I cowered. I covered my eyes and ears with my hands to keep off the dreadful thought. How could I ? How could I ? I writhed in an agony of shame.
Then my hands were gently drawn from before my face. I had to look up.
“Oh, Oscar,” I cried, “what must you think of me?”
“Pride and you have never been friends,” he said. He was laughing at me. “When you wanted a thing, from a child, you always asked for it.”
“And I always got it, too,” I cried.
He sat down beside me, laughed again, and shook his head at me. Then some thought suddenly saddened him.
“I am many years older than you are, Bee,” he said.
“Twenty-nine, exactly. Is that your only objection?” I demanded.
I was in deadly earnest, but everything I said seemed to amuse him. He hesitated a moment now, smiling, then he put his arm round me. I nestled up to him, and laid my head on his shoulder. I was so happy !
“I do love to be near you,” I said. “But, Oscar—Cecily?”
He took my hand, and began to play with my fingers, looking at them one by one.
“Shall you feel false to your love?” I asked, with a pang.
“Do I love her?” he asked himself seriously. The shock of her pride and cruelty was beginning to tell. He sat for a while, playing with my fingers absently, and soberly thinking. At last he said : “There never was such a woman as the Cecily I thought her. The woman I saw was the woman you were always making her out to be. That woman was not Cecily. That woman was yourself, Beatrice.”
“Then don’t let us lose any more precious time,” I burst out eagerly.
At that he laughed, and laughed again, and held me close.
It was late, and he rose to go, and I jumped up too, and kicked off my high-heeled shoes, that I might not be taller than he was, when he kissed me good-night.
“What do they say downstairs?” I asked, with my arms round his neck.
“What does it matter?” he answered. “They will never have any more say in our lives.”**