Dear Julia Knows Best
Wherein a feminine Napoleon meets her Waterloo and an outcast demonstrates the finer points of domestic intrigue
LESLIE GORDON BARNARD
IT WAS Aunt Julia, standing centrally in her own large living room who broached the subject.
Everybody — even old Uncle Gregory, who was of the Randall family through accident of marriage, and could not be counted— knew that it was bound to come.
Every Sunday, for weeks on end now, conversation had skirted the very edge of the pool. They knew that Aunt Julia would take off sooner or later. And Aunt Julia knew that they knew.
“Bella is getting too old to stay there alone.”
Nobody but Aunt Julia would have dared to put it bluntly that way. Come to that, they were all “getting on . . . getting on, you know!” as Uncle Matthew put it.
“Oh, come now, Julia!” protested Uncle Matthew, humorously.
“Well, she is. She's almost as old as you are, Matthew.”
You couldn’t fool with Aunt Julia; it was playing with fire.
So everybody stood around the uncomfortable, stiff room, and was more uncomfortable than usual, because with the exception of Matthew they were not without imagination of a kind, and they were thinking of what it would mean to Aunt Bella. To shatter the awful silence and rob Aunt Julia of at least that much of her triumph, conversation broke out like a rash all over the room in little local eruptions. Aunt Julia moved about with apparent casualness, so presently every little group was saying: “Of course, Julia is perfectly right. She always knows.”
As you can’t go on saying things you don’t believe too long, in time the rash faded and there was the embarrassed silence back again.
And then Gregory spoke. For him to open his mouth at all at these family gatherings, except to perform such social amenities as to say: “Thank you, another cup if you please," or, “Oh, no really, Julia, I can take it quite well with sugar"— except for that kind of thing it was not considered good form. A man should know his place. If he had any perception he would see that Kate in marrying him had gone far beyond her province, and that only Randall loyalty preserved him a cloak of superior respectability most generously thrown about one who, at best, scarcely deserved it. Kate had been dead a good while now,. And they still let him crawl under the cloak.
For him to speak his mind, therefore, w'as unthinkable. For him to speak the secret, collective mind of Randalls, bred in the Aunt Julia tradition . . .
“Bella won’t come. It’d break her heart to leave her little place there.”
Nobody spoke. Uncle Matthew coughed helpfully, to show that everybody was perfectly at ease, and performing everyday functions.
The eyes of all but Gregory rested on Aunt Julia with a startled, expectant horror. Aunt Julia picked up a yellow time-table that she had been studying earlier, and opened it.
“There is a train at nine-five in the morning. I had thought of sending Wilfred down. But I think, after all, I had better go myself.”
A little sigh ran around the room. Old Gregory had been Squashed. Quite right, too! The Randalls, with Aunt Julia as spokesman, knew better than Gregory Clegg, or anyone with a name like that. Nothing euphonious, still less distinctive, about it. Kate Randall. Mrs. Kate Clegg. Fancy him daring to speak—the truth—-that way!
Aunt Julia put the time-table down, just so, on the table. Her glasses—very large, rouxd ones, tied with black ribbon, and held, wThen necessary, on the extreme bridge of her nose—were removed, and replaced with a decisive little click on the clip that was half hidden in her expensive silk.
She glanced only then at old Uncle Gregory.
“I shall certainly go myself and acquaint Bella with our decision.” From his corner Gregory spoke again:
“Then Bella will come, God help her!”
Even Uncle Matthew forgot his everyday functions. No sound was heard in the room. Gregory Clegg, rising, passed, head erect, between two frozen rows of Randalls, seized his hat, his coat, his heavy cane, and stamped out, shutting the street door none too gently. Behind him, in that stricken room, the ghastly silence continued. Everybody thought, hearts beating with angry excitement, and even satisfaction: “Well, that’s the end of him. We’re rid of him.” But nobody spoke. Not even Aunt Julia. Aunt Julia stood with the others, quite at a loss.
ENVELOPING Aunt Julia, like a garment of righteousness as she travelled into the country on the nine-five next morning, was a sense of self-sacrificing mission. She had given up Doth a luncheon and a community bridge. On Saturday she had told Wilfred’s wife—the daughter-in-law who lived with Aunt Julia, because Julia liked to have Wilfred still about the house: “I despise Mrs. Merrithorne’s luncheons. I’d give anything to get out of going.” As for the bridge, Aunt Julia had come out badly lately and wasn’t very keen. She thought now: “I hope Bella appreciates this. But, of course, she wouldn’t understand what it means.”
Deep under this cloak of complacency was something much more vital. Bella had never bowed to Julia’s dictums; she had gone her way in life quite outside the circle of Julia’s influence and suzerainty. She treated Julia, indeed, as an ordinary sister, as if they were, intellectually and otherwise, equals. You can’t fight a thing like that. Well, now that Bella was getting
old—she was years ahead of Julia—it was time to end this nonsense.
Aunt Bella was working in her garden as the taxi from the station drew up at the gate in the white picket fence. Aunt Julia said, by way of greeting: “For heaven’s sake, Bella, why don’t you rake up the leaves?” Aunt Bella, who had been kneeling down, examining with microscopic intensity some fancied blight, got up. Her silver hair trailed in wdsps, unkemptly, over her forehead; her plain blouse and stout tweed skirt bore earth stains. ,
“Well, Julia,” she said. And then, placidly: “Would you rake up the leaves as they fell, Julia?”
“I should have it done at once.”
Aunt Bella glanced up at the trees, whispering in a slight breeze above her, and then at the pattern of yellow and brown and faintest crimson on the lawn. “Yes, Julia,” she said evenly, “I believe you would.” Aunt Julia stiffened. She had been prepared to be extremely kind and nice to Aunt Bella. She could see that it was going to be very hard. They went into the house, and Bella took her hat and coat and opened the front parlor for her. Aunt Julia had seen this rocm before, but she was appalled anew at it. Its motifs seemed to be keyed to two pictures, at each end of the room. One was of a very prominent fish, cold in death. The globular eye of this creature regarded Aunt Julia steadily, as few eyes were ever able to do. It was the other picture that upset her, seeming to defy the thing she had said outside a moment ago. It pictured trees in an autumn breeze and the drift of leaves; something of sadness was in it, but more a haunting promise that disturbed Julia because she couldn’t understand it.
“Bella,” she said abruptly, “we’ve decided it’s time you gave up living alone here. Everybody is agreed you must come to town.”
Aunt Bella did not speak. The pink died from her face, one earth-stained hand—“grubby,” thought Aunt Julia—fidgeted with the upholstered top of a stiff old chair. Without conscious cruelty Julia enjoyed the sensation of seeing her sister go limp that way.
“If John had lived,” she said, helpfully, “it would have been different—”
“Yes,” agreed Aunt Bella gently. “It would have been different—”
“Or if you had any children, Bella.”
“Or anything left, Julia,” suggested Aunt Bella, her voice rising a little, “except an old house with a few old things no one else would value, and a . . . a bit of garden untidy with leaves.”
“Please don’t be sentimental, Bella. And don’t imagine,” implored Aunt Julia, “that we haven’t thought it all around. It’s for your sake, Bella, we’re doing it. I’ve got Wilfred and Anna living with me now, but I can furbish up the spare room for you.”
The word seemed to be jerked out of Aunt Bella. She looked frightened.
“It’s good of you, Julia, but . . . I’m very happy here.”
“We’ll try to make it pleasant there. A woman your age, Bella, should have people around - her, a home where she is sure of every care and attention.” Aunt Julia’s eyes roved the room. “We can, of course, sell off whatever is saleable here; it won’t bring much, but still . . . Bella, have you taken to smoking a pipe?”
On a table near by was a much used pipe, and an ash tray with the irregular ends of a dozen burnt matches.
Aunt Julia’s keen eyes rested suspiciously upon her sister; Bella looked confused. “So?” thought Julia. She sniffed; there was still a smell of smoke clinging, a very intimate tobacco fragrance. Bella had been entertaining a man. At her age, too !
Julia had come just in time.
“You know, Bella,” she said, ‘‘you couldn’t live here without papa’s insurance money from the estate. And you forget, perhaps, he directed that we should have charge of it to make sure that you were properly cared for.”
There—that was the trump card!
Years ago, before Thomas Randall died, she had planted that seed. She had dominated him then, as she had dominated all but Bella since.
He had said, as all the family said in matters of the kind:
“Well, you know best, Julia. Do as you think best.” Her husband, John, had left Bella nothing to
speak of; the very cottage was mortgaged; so Bella was in bonds, as it were, to the estate. And the Randall estate executors were under the thumb of Aunt Julia.
“I’ll arrange with Wilfred about your coming in,” Julia said now with a firm sweetness.
Aunt Bella was beaten. She acknowledged it by offering no further protest. She excused herself, presently, to start arrangements for lunch. Aunt Julia sat in the parlor, savoring her triumph. Then the pipe caught her eye again; she picked it up with delicate fingers and sniffed disapprovingly. She narrowed her lids, considering how she could get a confession out of Bella, and in the end went to offer help in getting lunch. Bella was very quiet. Could she be in the kitchen? It was a sunny place, with growing things all over it. Two canaries sang their hearts out in the light by the window that gave a vista of garden and fields. Aunt Julia was drawn from these things by the sound of subdued grief; in the pantry Aunt Bella, getting down from the shelves china that Julia remembered as a set from Bella’s earliest housekeeping, had evidently been overcome. Aunt Julia tiptoed out again. As well that Aunt Bella should have her tears now, and be done with it. It was all for her own highest good. She would get over it presently.
'"THE day on which Wilfred obediently went down in the car to fetch Aunt Bella up, was a grey, sodden one, with a restless wind, heavy with rain beating against the car. Aunt Bella, huddled in the seat, sat very silent, and the young man beside her remembered the final closing of the house, the last look around the garden, with its fraying remnants of flowers halfbeaten to the earth, and the sodden leaves half-buried in the moist turf and mud.
He said, embarrassedly, at last:
“Town’s not a bad place this weather, Aunt Bella.” When she did not answer, he hurried on: “It’s nice you’re going to stay with us. Anna’ll make you feel at home—and—anything I can do, you know—•”
“Thank you, Wilfred.”
He looked at her, sitting there with her long mackintosh drawn about her, and a squat, bonnet affair covering her head like a basket. He thought: “Good lord, she doesn’t belong. You can’t transplant that kind of thing.” He wondered, too, about tonight.
“The mater’s giving a bit of a rag for you tonight, Aunty. Family affair. The Randalls, their wives and relations. Candles and finger rolls, and squishy things with cream in ’em. That type of racket. You mustn’t take ’em seriously, Aunty; in right perspective they’re funny.”
“They’ll all be there tonight?” asked Aunt Bella faintly.
“All but Uncle Gregory. The old boy ditched himself talking back to the mater.”
Suddenly this member of a younger generation felt a protective tenderness rising in him. Aunt Julia, the Randalls said, knew how to set a good table if anybody did. When any minor crisis arose in their own lesser circles, you would hear Aunt Martha or Cousin Miriam saying: “Now I wonder how that was done at Julia’s.” It would be a very big table, in a very large room, and everybody would be correct and well-dressed and abominably genteel. Into this horrible gentility Aunt Bella would be pitchforked. Being a Randall, they would defend her against the outside world at all costs, but, among themselves thus, she would be butchered to make their holiday. All this they would do so politely, trying in their sweet, delicate way to make poor Aunt Bella feel quite at home on her first night back in the city.
VWTLFRED, turning over Aunt Bella to his mother, went and smoked a cigarette in the warm depths of the bath tub. Julia went up to see dear Bella installed safely in the room that henceforward was to house her frail mortality. It was a room in excellent taste, with not a single detail of furnishing familiar to the guest’s eyes. It gave, unfortunately, on a discouraged prospect of brick walls and a row of meagre, treeless gardens enclosed with hideous high boardings, on which the rain fell pitilessly down, and for which only the growing dusk held any mercy.
Aunt Bella went over and looked out, and then sat on the edge of the bed.
“Let me help you off with your things, Bella.”
Aunt Julia’s mouth threatened a superior firmness, but she decided it was better to humor Bella for the time.
“Well, I’ll leave you,” said Julia. “You’ll find clean towels there, and the bathroom’s the second door to the left. We’re dining at seven-thirty. A few of the family will be in. Could I lend you anything, dear? I think, perhaps, with a stitch here and there we could make it fit.”
“No,” said Aunt Bella again.
“The bell will ring at seven; and again at seven-
thirty.” Aunt Julia told her. “We shall expect you down then, dear.”
She closed the door. Her heart was fluttering. She had Bella at last. Wilfred came downstairs, languidly, as the first guests began to arrive.
‘‘Where’s the Aunt?” he asked.
“I’m not going to trouble her until dinner’s served,” said Julia sweetly.
Uncle Matthew came stamping in then, to declare breezily it was devilish weather for a man to stir out in, and he hoped Julia had something rare good to eat, to compensate; it was an attempt to give a touch of lightness to the stiff moments before dinner was announced, but nobody noticed him, so he subsided into a corner and read the evening paper. He looked up and grumbled to himself: “We’re all here now; time we were getting to table. No, by George, where’s Bella, I’d like to know?”
Other people were asking that discreetly. Aunt Julia
smiled. “Aunt Bella was very tired,” she said. “I’ve given her until the last moment. And I think, perhaps, the poor dear feels a little constraint. Her clothes, you know ...” Aunt Julia shrugged her shoulders. “It isn’t nice to speak of it, but we’re just . her family, after all . . . aren’t we, and you know how it would be? She hasn’t kept very up to date . . down there alone. So we must pretend not to notice anything. I offered her a gown, but she was a bit independent, and you can’t altogether blame her.”
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Dear Julia Knows Best
Continued from page 15
“Now I call that decent of Julia,” boomed Uncle Matthew, coming up behind in time to hear. “Besides—”
What more Uncle Matthew intended j to say is problematical. His mouth remained open. Aunt Julia herself was moved by the sight of his face, to turn her own gaze.
Aunt Julia gave a little stifled cry, staring at the severely boyish cut of Aunt Bella’s white hair. Below that was a face fixed in a most obvious manner to conceal age. Below that again was a décolleté gown, an audacious thing of jade, sequin trimmed, and two silk-stockinged, neatlyshod legs, exposed almost to the knee.
Uncle Matthew looked about desperately but found no inspiration. Nature came to the rescue; he was standing near some of Julia’s flowers and suddenly he sneezed.
“H-h-hay fever,” cried Uncle Matthew, clutching madly at a handkerchief. “It’s your darned old flowers, Julia.” Everybody agreed afterward that for once Matthew had done the right thing, said the right word. Wilfred guffawed and slapped Uncle Matthew on the back; though inwardly he was saying: “Hay fever! Oh, my hat! The hayfields win this time. She’s knocked ’em for a goal.”
Aunt Julia took command at last; they were all looking at her now, as Aunt Bella came forward to greet them. “We will go into dinner,” said Aunt Julia. “We—we will go in to dinner now.”
>^OBODY could quite fathom Aunt Bella. Everybody, of course, said: "Well, Julia will know what to do.” But, as the weeks went by, Julia neither found out nor knew what to do. She admitted this to no one but herself, yet she could see the others were getting impatient, as waiting friends may do when a trusted doctor seems at a loss in the matter of diagnosis. The odd thing was that when you talked to Aunt Bella she seemed like the timid country mouse she should have been. There were times when Julia had her way with her sister, and decided that she had been brought to heel at last. And then Bella would take it into her head to go off shopping or something, alone. You couldn’t always go with her; and these solitary trips seemed to go to her head. When she came back she’d be a different Aunt Bella; mysterious, inwardly smiling, almost assured. It was most trying. Then one lunch hour Uncle Matthew had an amazing experience, and on the very next Sunday Aunt Bella was, for the first time since her advent to the city, missing from the usual Sunday afternoon gathering at Aunt Julia’s.
Everybody said, at last, and quite naturally: “Where’s dear Bella?”
Aunt Julia said: “She’s gone out”— with a snap like a person with nerves; which wasn’t like Julia, and brought an instant impasse in the shape of one of those awful family silences.
Uncle Matthew immediately was aware that his hour had come. The thing had to be said sooner or later; he had hugged the secret until the guilt of it became his own; besides, it was news that would bring him quick importance. He had thought it over every way, and decided that his natural rôle of humorist must not, even now, be abandoned. It would, he decided, take the hasty edge off the thing, and be kinder to poor Bella.
“Well,” he said ponderously, one pudgy hand rubbing the other nervously, “why shouldn’t a girl go out with her best fellow on Sunday afternoon!”
A pained look ran around the room, touched every face, and found a quick reflection in Uncle Matthew’s own. They thought it was one of his jokes—no more. Aunt Julia said: “I don’t think that’s in very good taste, Matthew.”
Uncle Matthew grimaced—right at Aunt Julia in her own house. You could see what the family was coming to. First, old Gregory, then Aunt Bella, and now Uncle Matthew! The fountains of the deep were being broken up.
On top of Uncle Matthew’s grimace came his rumbling protest:
“Humph, you don’t, Julia? Well, you may think I’m joking, but I’m not.”
He was instantly sorry. He had no intention of baldly “telling on Bella,” but his reputation was at stake now, so he plunged on:
“I presume it’s the same man.”
“She was lunching with a fellow last Tuesday. I happened to be a few tables away.”
He let that sink in. The silence of this absorption gratified Uncle Matthew.
Aunt Julia rallied to take command. “Lunching?” she repeated. “Where?” “At Tobley’s. I usually go there.”
Aunt Julia’s lips quivered, but she rallied again.
“Was . . . he . . . young or old?” “About her age, I should say.”
“You don’t know him?”
“Never saw him before.”
Aunt Julia thought, with annoyance that she had so long forgotten it, of the pipe, the ashes, the burnt matches. She felt impelled to ask:
“Did they seem . . . very friendly?” Now Uncle Matthew hadn’t really seen very well that day, because his glasses were being repaired for a broken spring during the lunch hour. But a desire to further petrify them came to him.
“It was quite a public place,” said Uncle Matthew, coughing behind his hand, “but—”
He stopped there, because he couldn’t think quite what was best to say; and then a slow realization came to him that his bombshell had effectively been thrown. Aunt Bella! If this ever got around! What in the world had Julia ever wanted to bring her from the country for?
They didn’t say that; but it was in their eyes, which were directed accusingly at Julia. Aunt Julia’s inward wiring quivered with these messages of disloyalty.
“This is nonsense,” she declared decisively. “Matthew never was gifted with powers of accurate observation. As if dear Bella . . .”
Had Aunt Bella been hanging around outside the portières waiting for this chance? Nobody could say. Certainly, as if this was a cue, she entered now.
“I’m sorry,” said Aunt Bella, meekly but not quite meekly enough, “to be late. I had an engagement I couldn’t very well miss. Isn’t it lovely weather for the end of November? Quite like Indian summer?”
As she walked, some trailing accusation went with her. Aunt Julia was the first to discover it, but in an instant the roomful had it. Trailing with Aunt Bella, as she moved about, was the intimate and clinging smell of tobacco, very strong tobacco such as only a man would use.
SOME pride in Aunt Julia prevented her from facing Bella with a direct accusation. She had a very certain feeling that to do so was to provoke a repulse that would lower her own prestige. She must take other methods. Aunt Bella, as if aware of espionage, covered her tracks perfectly. Once, Aunt Julia, growing desperate, had the embarrassment of tracing her sister to “Tobley’s,” to find Bella sitting at a table, quite alone.
“I was down shopping and dropped in. It’s rather a nice place, isn’t it? But I thought I heard you ordering lunch at home, Julia?” Aunt Julia took just a cup of tea, and went home fuming. This was the last straw. The family were laughing at her; now Bella was laugning at her.
Next morning she said blandly:
“I’ve put the house in the hands of real estate agents.”
Aunt Bella looked up from her egg. “My house?”
“Yes. It’s time we did something about it.”
“It’s . . . my house,” protested Aunt Bella faintly.
“You forget, my dear Bella, the interest the estate has in it, and the provisions of papa’s will.”
A little yellow trickle of egg flowed down the side of the shell as Aunt Bella’s spoon clattered to the plate. She stood up, wiping her mouth with her napkin in a funny, mechanical way.
Aunt Julia had her moment of triumph. “She’s crushed,’’ was her thought. “That’s all that was needed. Something to put her in her place. She knows I mean it. She knows I’ll carry it through.” Aunt Bella went from the room with the step of a very ol’d woman. The halfyouthful styles she had effected, in the face of Julia’s opposition, looked no longer ridiculous—merely pathetic. Aunt Julia had a single magnanimous moment. But her victory was too sweet. And she told herself, within a week, that it was best all round. Aunt Bella’s revolt was over. Whatever it was, the affair had blown away. Winter came on, and Aunt Bella kept quietly to the house. Winter exhausted itself and waned, giving place to spring. Some poplars down the lane, visible from Aunt Bella’s bedroom window if she leaned out, had changed their tips from bronze yellow to promising green. Aunt Bella, on the first really warm day, went down town alone; Julia had no fears of her now. 'It was on this very day that the news came; Aunt Julia broke it to her when she reached home.
“Bella, there’s someone taken an option on your place. The agents feel almost certain he will buy.”
Aunt Bella, who had sat down heavily, as if tired from her shopping, stood up. Again Aunt Julia felt a prick of compunction. She remembered something else to say. “Oh, there was a box came for you. It looks like flowers. It came just a few minutes ago. I’ll have Daisy bring it up.” She rang the bell.
With fingers that shook a little, Aunt Bella opened the long green box. There were masses of jonquils, of daffodils, of tulips, and, peeping out among them, a few crocuses. Fragrance of spring filled the room. Aunt Julia had an uncomfortable idea that the spirit of Aunt Bella’s garden had come to haunt them there. There was a card in it, but what it said Aunt Julia coulfl not manoeuvre herself so as to read. Aunt Bella caught up the flowers and began to cry in little irrational sobs. To Aunt Julia’s intense relief she presently left the room hastily. Aunt Julia went quickly to the box, rummaging among the flowers, but it was of no use. The envelope wa? there, but the card was gone.
Aunt Julia called Daisy to arrange the flowers. She wondered, when the dinner gong sounded, if she should send Bella’s meal up to her room. But Aunt Bella was omy a minute behind Anna and Wilfred. Aunt Julia gave a little start; Anna caught Wilfred’s arm. Not since that first awful night had Aunt Bella worn that short, glittering evening dress.
“I thought I’d get ready before dinner,” said Aunt Bella quietly. “I have a—a friend calling for me right after. The theatre goes in at eight.” Could this be the same woman? Aunt Julia, supping soup, dosed it twice over with salt, and thought the constriction in her throat was due to Aunt Bella, sitting opposite there. All Bella’s meekness and softness seemed to have oozed out with her recent tears. That man again ! Aunt Julia was sure of it. But she said nothing; she felt she had made sufficient missteps now. When the bell rang, and Daisy came to say there was a gentleman outside with a taxi but he wouldn’t come in, Aunt Julia hurried to the window in time to see them drive off. The man was an indistinguishable figure in the darkness. The old fool, thought Aunt Julia, passionately. She asked Daisy: “What did . . . the gentleman . . . look like?” “Lor’, m’m,” said Daisy, apologetically amused, “I thought at first he was the taxi man, m’m.”
WILFRED had for old Gregory Clegg an admiration that savored of the faintest disloyalty to his mother. So when one spring day he met him on the street, he stopped for a civil word or two.
“Wilfred,” said Uncle Gregory, “what’s all this about your Aunt Bella?”
“It’s no use, Wilfred,” said Uncle Gregory, frowning at the end of his cigar. “We might as well talk plain. There’s no love lost between most of your family and me. I buckled down like whipped cream for years, to keep peace, but the cream turned sour, and there you are! We might as well be frank, Wilfred. Your mother was bound Bella would come; and now Aunt Bella’s runnin’ round town like a two-year-old on a holiday, with a male old enough to know better.” Uncle Gregory took out his cigar and examined the tip. “I saw them at the theatre together the other evening. Has your mother seen him, Wilfred?”
“No. She didn’t know—”
“Wait until she does,” chuckled old Gregory.
“Who is he? Do you know him, Uncle Gregory?”
“Know him? Old Jonathan Craik? Oh, a bit. He’s not—well, not exactly a Randall, if you understand me. The point is, will you tell me how under heaven Aunt Bella met up with a fellow like that? I was going to say, and what she sees in him—but you know there’s no fool like an old one, they say. I thought I’d tip you off. It’s a pity Aunt Julia ever took this notion to transplant Aunt Bella. What’s she going to do about it?” Within an hour Aunt Julia had this information. “It can’t go on,” she said, decisively. “Now we know, we can take steps.”
Aunt Bella gave opportunity that night by going out again. Aunt Julia, like an avenging angel, remained up to have it out with Bella when she got in. Beside the fire she fell asleep, and when she awoke she heard voices. Standing inside the door of the room was Aunt Bella— and her man! That rakish old figure— his clothes looking as though borrowed or rented for this evening occasion; his face seamed and swarthy; his white mustache stained with yellow juice; his cravat under one ear; his shirt front bulging; his voice a booming horror when Aunt Bella, with a quick: “Oh, Julia, are you up? I want you to meet my friend, Mr. Craik. My sister, Jonathan”—introduced them; and he replied: “Pleased, I’m sure, to meet you, ma’am.”
He put out a hand. Aunt Julia tried to ignore it, but felt a morbid compulsion to shake it.
“I’m glad you were up, Julia,” said Aunt Bella, in a small but determined voice. “I was just telling Jonathan he must drop in next Sunday afternoon. We’ll be walking, likely, earlier in the afternoon, and we’ll come back for tea, Julia.”
She smiled at the man beside her. But Jonathan Craik was regarding Aunt Julia.
“I’ll sure be pleased, ma’am,” he said, parrotlike. “I’ll sure be pleased to come and drink tea with the family.”
“So good of you!” murmured Aunt Julia, overcome.
That handy phrase from social usage floated up and she clung to it; its awful significance came later. In saying it she was sealing the most appalling social contract in a long and cautious career.
NO WRIGGLING could save Aunt Julia. She decided in a mad moment to cancel the usual Sunday afternoon affair and be out of town, but, telephoning Martha with the intent of hinting this, she became aware that the invisible family wires had quivered already with some vague excitement. The clan had smelt a rat, and any overt act by Aunt Julia would only have their noses sniffing more fiercely at the rat hole. Aunt Bella had gone into one of her withdrawn, mysterious retreats; turning her sister’s one frontal attack aside by saying simply: “Of course, Julia, if you feel that way, Jonathan wouldn’t wish to come. He’d be the last to wish it. We’ll just drop round and see the family, one at a time.” Aunt Julia went white at that. Whatever happened it must be before her eyes.
“Of course not, Bella,” said Aunt Julia, crisply. She could only pray that Jonathan might slip and break a leg, or contract some deadly disease before Sunday. Or—could she lure Aunt Bella out of town over the week-end? Get Wilfred to take her down to her house? Bella couldn’t resist a trip like that.
“Dear,” said Aunt Julia, at Saturday morning breakfast, “the papers promise a fine week-end. How would you like Wilfred to run you down to see your cottage tomorrow?”
The eyes of the two sisters met and locked.
Aunt Bella said at last:
“If I go there again, Julia, it’s for good.”
Aunt Bella tapped the top of her egg. “For good,” she repeated firmly.
Aunt Julia was downright mad then. After giving Bella a good home, clothes, attention—everything. Very well, let her go. Let her take herself and her Jonathan off, and bury both in the country. Julia would cover it up with the family somehow; in the end they would say: “Nobody but Aunt Julia would have had force of character enough to send Bella packing.” She addressed herself to her roll and coffee with new zest. From the other end of the table Bella spoke:
“I said for good, Julia.”
“Very well; for good. I appreciate your type of gratitude, Bella.”
Aunt Bella went on with her egg. “There is—the option,” she said at last.
Aunt Julia squirmed. She had forgotten that.
“Of course,” said Bella, “unless that is arranged it would be useless.”
Her calmness made Aunt Julia squirm again. Leaving her rolls and coffee, she went out of the dining room. Wilfred had already gone, taking Anna with him. She telephoned the real estate agents. “The option is still held,” they told her. “We’ll see what can be done.” They rang back in an hour’s time. The holder of the option would relinquish it for a thousand dollars. Aunt Julia said, weakly: “A what? A thousand dollars!” Who was he? Aunt Julia asked. The thief. They couldn’t say. The negotiations took place through another firm of brokers, in whose name the matter stood. Would Aunt Julia send on the cheque? “No,” said Aunt Julia. A thousand dollars! She left the telephone, attempting her morning’s duties. Aunt Bella seemed omnipresent; moving about with her mysterious complacency, her little humming monotone of song.
A thousand dollars! It was a price; but Aunt Julia had spent a thousand dollars on things that gave less peace of mind than this promised. She went to her desk, wrote out the cheque to the firm of brokers the agents had mentioned, signing it with a vicious dig of her pen. She dispatched a special messenger. The Continued Jrom page 57 agents telephoned after a time; they would move about it at once. Half an hour later they telephoned again: they were sorry, but the brokers closed at twelve sharp: they were just too late; they were trying to get in touch with the principal of the firm to consummate the deal, but, of course, it all depended. Should they go ahead trying? Very good; they would let Aunt Julia know what eventuated.
Continued on page 59
By nightfall Aunt Julia was at fever pitch. No word had come.
Aunt Bella asked:
“Have you arranged that, Julia?”
Aunt Julia’s eyes signalled, in an angry appeal: “Come, Bella, be reasonable. You know this is a deal. I’ve tried my best to buy you off. Be generous.” But Aunt Bella merely said, in that appallingly meek way: “You know, Julia, you
shouldn’t really have been so anxious to sell my house.”
Aunt Julia went to a restless sleep, defeated. Beyond the awfulness of the visit of old Jonathan Craik was a further horror: “What if anybody found out about that ghastly cheque?”
UNCLE MATTHEW was the first to arrive on Sunday. Julia could see in his eyes a little gleam that said: “There’s something in the wind! I’m going to be in good time anyhow.” She hated him for it, but gave him a cool, slim hand, saying: “It’s good of you to come so early on such a nice day.” Uncle Matthew, winking at her, suggested on such a day they should all be “meetin’ down at Bella’s place in the country. I hear you’ve as good as sold it, Julia?” She did not answer. He saw he had hit a wrong note, and hastened to improve it by saying: “You’re always such a good business woman, Julia. I’ve always said you’d have made a great success in business.”
“What’s this about business?”
Others had come in. Aunt Julia moved forward to greet them.
“I was just remarkin’ to Julia,” boomed Uncle Matthew, “what a good business head she has. When it comes to managin’ you can’t beat Aunt Julia.”
Would the man never stop? That was like him: get a string that gave him prominence and he’d harp on it for ever. Aunt Julia heard them agreeing. They thought they were chorusing the right thing. She hated them, individually and collectively. If they discovered about that cheque! Where wTas it now?
She wondered when Bella and—that man—would come. Bella had gone off before noon, presumably to have dinner with him. Horrible! She could picture them now, two old fools, walking in the amazingly brilliant sunshine.
Well, the family were all here now. Every last one who by any excuse could crowd in. What brought them here? What did they know? Who had set in motion the invisible family wires? And yet, she realized, they knew nothing definite. That was plain from their vagueness. Somebody had tipped them off that something was going to happen.
A hum of respectable conversation ran about the room; the kind of conversation one makes when the mind is too preoccupied to project itself in anything but mechanical speech. Aunt Julia decided she would serve tea and let them occupy their hands with cups and saucers, and their minds with food. She reached out her hand to ring for Daisy; but before she could press it the doorbell rang. Aunt Julia felt faint.
There was a man’s voice, rumbling in the hall. The portières were pressed aside.
“Hullo, Julia. Am I in time for tea?”
It was Uncle Gregory.
No family silence had ever outdone this sensation. But Uncle Matthew was in form today, so he said quickly, in his bright way: “The zoo is about to be fed, Gregory.” He was going to p-ess the metaphor, but the words: “Join the animais, Gregory,” were halted by a sudden notion that Aunt Julia held, in this moment, a very distinct resemblance to a vulture that had once almost bitten Uncle Matthew’s little finger through the bars. Uncle Gregory advanced into the room, as one quite at home. What would Aunt Julia do or say? Nobody knew, least of all Aunt Julia.
Uncle Gregory said, cheerfully: “Well, Julia, I thought I’d drop in and tell you I saw Bella installed safely back in her cottage. What a day for the country!” Aunt Julia’s petrified eyes met Uncle Gregory’s; he was looking at her directly. “We couldn’t get her into the house at first, you know. Couldn’t get her in at all. There she was, running round touching the crocuses and things. Well, there you are! Craik and I had a bite to eat, and then came on. He’s sailin’ for Europe tomorrow, you know. You've met Jonathan Craik, I think, Julia? Nice queer old fellow! Do anything for . . .” he coughed, “an old friend.”
Aunt Julia paled. Then anger overwhelmed her. So that was it? She saw it all now. Gregory from start to finish! Gregory whose pipe she had found down there, w'ho—not a doubt about it—had gone down to warn Aunt Bella in the first place. Gregory whose spring flowers had strengthened and sustained Bella in revolt. Gregory who had induced, doubtless for a financial consideration, this old fellow Craik to play a frightening rôle of lover, frightening to the family, to Aunt Julia; scaring them into an intense desire to see Bella safely back in the quiet country again. Gregory who—but Aunt Julia dared think no further.
She bit her lip. She must make some move. She ordered tea. That would give her time to think. Before them all she must crush Gregory so that he’d not hold up his head here again. The impudence of his coming! If she let him stay without reproach, if she fired no vital shot now, her game was up. The tradition of Aunt Julia would be shattered. She must think quickly. The tea was brought in. That helped.
As if defying her to do anything, Uncle Gregory moved toward her, smilingly, to take his cup. His back was to the others; and suddenly Aunt Julia almost dropped the Crown Derby cup and saucer she was lifting. Before her eyes was the blue cheque she had signed for one thousand dollars to take up that horrible option from the brokers.
"Thanks, Julia,” said Uncle Gregory, accepting the cup. “No sugar, please.” He turned the cheque over. It was endorsed, she saw, by the firm of brokers to the holder of the option; “Pay to the order of Gregory Clegg . . . ” So it was he who squeezed that thousand out of her! “It won’t be used, Julia,” said Uncle Gregory in a low tone, “unless necessity arises.” She understood perfectly. He had her!
"A good business woman,” Uncle Matthew had said. “Such a manager, Julia,” they had all chorused. Uncle Gregory took the cheque and slipped it into his pocket. “Thanks,” he said, “just a . . . wee touch more cream, Julia.” She poured it in, managing somehow not to spill it. They were talking now in the room. So Aunt Bella was back home? Well, Julia did pull surprises! And Uncle Gregory was accepted again, was he? Why? They stared at Uncle Gregory seated there in his usual corner. They looked at Aunt Julia.
Uncle Matthew felt it was time for someone to put it to the touch, and that he was the man.
“Now, how do you suppose Julia managed to get Bella back there?” he addressed the gathering. “From all I could hear Bella had taken pretty strong to town life. Well, Julia always was a good manager.” But Randall suspicion quivered in his tone.
His eyes were turned obliquely at Aunt Julia. It was Uncle Matthew’s supreme moment of perception. Aunt Julia gathered herself for defense of her position. She must say something. She must defeat, at one blow, Aunt Bella, old Gregory, and these suspicious Randalls.
What could she say? Uncle Gregory, watching her, coughed gently in his dark corner, and tapped lightly the breast pocket where lay the thousand dollar cheque.
Aunt Julia said weakly: “Pass your Uncle Gregory the sandwiches, Wilfred dear!”