BY THE AUTHOR OF "ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN"
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY LONDON: MACMILLAN & CO., Ltd. 1901
All rights reserved
Copyright, 1901, By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Norwood Press J. S. Gushing & Co.—Berwick & Smith Norwood Mass. U.S.A.
Man bedarf der Leitung Und der maennlichen Begleitung.
When Anna Estcourt was twenty-five, and had begun to wonder whether the pleasure extractable from life at all counterbalanced the bother of it, a wonderful thing happened.
She was an exceedingly pretty girl, who ought to have been enjoying herself. She had a soft, irregular face, charming eyes, dimples, a pleasant laugh, and limbs that were long and slender. Certainly she ought to have been enjoying herself. Instead, she wasted her time in that foolish pondering over the puzzles of existence, over those unanswerable whys and wherefores, which is as a rule restricted, among women, to the elderly and plain. Many and various are the motives that impel a woman so to ponder; in Anna's case the motive was nothing more exalted than the perpetual presence of a sister-in-law. The sister-in-law was rich—in itself a pleasing circumstance; but the sister-in-law was also frank, and her husband and Anna were entirely dependent on her, and her richness and her frankness combined urged her to make fatiguingly frequent allusions to the Estcourt poverty. Except for their bad taste her husband did not mind these allusions much, for he considered that he had given her a full equivalent for her money in bestowing his name on a person who had practically none: he was Sir Peter Estcourt of the Devonshire Estcourts, and she was a Dobbs of Birmingham. Besides, he was a philosopher, and philosophers never mind anything. But Anna was in a less agreeable situation. She was not a philosopher, she was thin-skinned, she had bestowed nothing and was taking everything, and she was of an independent nature; and an independent nature, where there is no money, is a great nuisance to its possessor.
When she was younger and more high-flown she sometimes talked of sweeping crossings; but her sister-in-law Susie would not hear of crossings, and dressed her beautifully, and took her out, and made her dance and dine and do as other girls did, being of opinion that a rich husband of good position was more satisfactory than crossings, and far more likely to make some return for all the expenses she had had.
At eighteen Anna was so pretty that the perfect husband seemed to be a mere question of days. What could the most desirable of men, thought Susie, considering her, want more than so bewitching a young creature? But he did not come, somehow, that man of Susie's dreams; and after a year or two, when Anna began to understand what all this dressing and dancing really meant, and after she had had offers from people she did not like, and had herself fallen in love with a youth of no means who was prudent enough to marry somebody else with money, she shrank back and grew colder, and objected more and more decidedly to Susie's strenuous private matrimonial urgings, and sometimes made remarks of a cynical nature to her admirers, who took fright at such symptoms of advancing age, and fell off considerably in numbers.
It was at this period, when she was barely twenty-two, that she spoke of crossings. Susie had seriously reproved her for not meeting the advances of an old and rich and single person with more enthusiasm, and had at the same time alluded to the number of pounds she had spent on her every year for the last three years, and the necessity for putting an end, by marrying, to all this outlay; and instead of being sensible, and talking things over quietly, Anna had poured out a flood of foolish sentiments about the misery of knowing that she was expected to be nice to every man with money, the intolerableness of the life she was leading, and the superior attractions of crossing-sweeping as a means of earning a livelihood.
"Why, you haven't enough money for the broom," said Susie impatiently. "You can't sweep without a broom, you know. I wish you were a little less silly, Anna, and a little more grateful. Most girls would jump at the splendid opportunity you've got now of marrying, and taking up a position of your own. You talk a great deal of stuff about being independent, and when you get the chance, and I do all I can to help you, you fly into a passion and want to sweep a crossing. Really," added Susie, twitching her shoulder, "you might remember that it isn't all roses for me either, trying to get some one else's daughter married."
"Of course it isn't all roses," said Anna, leaning against the mantelpiece and looking down at her with perplexed eyebrows. "I am very sorry for you. I wish you weren't so anxious to get rid of me. I wish I could do something to help you. But you know, Susie, you haven't taught me a trade. I can't set up on my own account unless you'll give me a last present of a broom, and let me try my luck at the nearest crossing. The one at the end of the street is badly kept. What do you think if I started there?" What answer could anyone make to such folly?
By the time she was twenty-four, nearly all the girls who had come out when she did were married, and she felt as though she were a ghost haunting the ball-rooms of a younger generation. Disliking this feeling, she stiffened, and became more and more unapproachable; and it was at this period that she invented excuses for missing most of the functions to which she was invited, and began to affect a simplicity of dress and hair arrangement that was severe. Susie's exasperation was now at its height. "I don't know why you should be bent on making the worst of yourself," she said angrily, when Anna absolutely refused to alter her hair.
"I'm tired of being frivolous," said Anna. "Have you an idea how long those waves took to do? And you know how Hilton talks. It all gets whisked up now in two minutes, and I'm spared her conversation."
"But you are quite plain," cried Susie. "You are not like the same girl. The only thing your best friend could say about you now is that you look clean."
"Well, I like to look clean," said Anna, and continued to go about the world with hair tucked neatly behind her ears; her immediate reward being an offer from a clergyman within the next fortnight.
Peter Estcourt was even more surprised than his wife that Anna had not made a good match years before. Of course she had no money, but she was a pretty girl of good family, and it ought to be easy enough for her to find a husband. He wished heartily that she might soon be happily married; for he loved her, and knew that she and Susie could never, with their best endeavours, be great friends. Besides, every woman ought to have a home of her own, and a husband and children. Whenever he thought of Anna, he thought exactly this; and when he had reached the proposition at the end he felt that he could do no more, and began to think of something else.
His marriage with Susie, a person of whom no one had ever heard, had brought out and developed stores of unsuspected philosophy in him. Before that he was quite poor, and very merry; but he loved Estcourt, and could not bear to see it falling into ruin, and he loved his small sister, who was then only ten, and wished to give her a decent education, and what is a man to do? There happened to be no rich American girls about at that time, so he married Miss Dobbs of Birmingham, and became a philosopher.
It was hard on Susie that he should become a philosopher at her expense. She did not like philosophers. She did not understand their silent ways, and their evenness of temper. After she had done all that Peter wanted in regard to the place in Devonshire, and had provided Anna with every luxury in the shape of governesses, and presented her husband with an heir to the retrieved family fortunes, she thought that she had a right to some enjoyment too, to some gratification from her position, and was surprised to find how little was forthcoming. Really no one could do more than she had done, and yet nothing was done for her. Peter fished, and read, and was with difficulty removable from Estcourt. Anna was, of course, too young to be grateful, but there she was, taking everything as a matter of course, her very unconsciousness an irritation. Susie wanted to get on in the world, and nobody helped her. She wanted to bury the Dobbs part of herself, and develop the Estcourt part; but the Dobbs part was natural, and the Estcourt superficial, and the Dobbses were one and all singularly unattractive—a race of eager, restless, wiry little men and women, anxious to get as much as they could, and keep it as long as they could, a family succeeding in gathering a good deal of money together in one place, and failing entirely in the art of making friends. Susie was the best of them, and had been the pretty one at home; yet she was not in the least a success in London. She put it down to Peter's indifference, to his slowness in introducing her to his friends. It was no more Peter's fault than it was her own. It was not her fault that she was not pretty—there never had been a beautiful Dobbs—and it was not her fault that she was so unfortunately frank, and never could and never did conceal her feverish eagerness to make desirable acquaintances, and to get into desirable sets. Until Anna came out she was invited only to the big functions to which the whole world went; and the hours she passed at them were not among the most blissful of her life. The people who were at first inclined to be kind to her for Peter's sake, dropped off when they found how her eagerness to attract the attention of some one mightier made her unable to fix her thoughts on the friendly remarks that they were taking pains to make. In society she was absent-minded, fidgety, obviously on the look-out for a chance of drawing the biggest fish into her little net; but, wealthy as she was, she was not wealthy enough in an age of millionnaires, and not once during the whole of her career was a big fish simple enough to be caught.
After a time her natural shrewdness and common sense made her perceive that her one claim to the scanty attentions she did receive was her money. Her money had bought her Peter, and a pleasant future for her children; it had converted a Dobbs into an Estcourt; it had given her everything she had that was worth anything at all. Once she had thoroughly realised this, she began to attach a tremendous importance to the mere possession of money, and grew very stingy, making difficulties about spending that grieved Peter greatly; not because he ever wanted her money now that Estcourt had been restored to its old splendour and set going again for their boy, but because meanness about money in a woman was something he could not comprehend—something repulsive, unfeminine, contrary to her nature as he had always understood it. He left off making the least suggestion about Anna's education or the household arrangements; everything that was done was done of Susie's own accord; and he spent more and more time in Devonshire, and grew more and more philosophical, and when he did talk to his wife, restricted his conversation to the language of abstract wisdom.
Now this was very hard on Susie, who had no appreciation of abstract wisdom, and who lived as lonely a life as it is possible to imagine. Peter kept out of her way. Anna was subject to prolonged fits of chilly silence. Susie used, at such times, to think regretfully of the cheerful Dobbs days, of their frank and congenial vulgarity.
When Anna was eighteen, Susie's prospects brightened for a time. Doors that had been shut ever since she married, opened before her on her appearing with such a pretty debutante under her wing, and she could enjoy the reflected glory of Anna's little triumphs. And then, without any apparent reason, Anna had altered so strangely, and had disappointed every one's expectations; never encouraging the right man, never ready to do as she was told, exasperatingly careless on all matters of vital importance, and ending by showing symptoms of freezing into something of the same philosophical state as Peter. Their mother had been German——a lady-in-waiting to one of the German princesses; and their father had met her and married her while he was secretary at the English Embassy in St. Petersburg. And Susie, who had heard of German philosophy and German stolidity, and despised them both with all her heart, concluded that the German strain was accountable for everything about Peter and Anna that was beyond her comprehension; and sometimes, when Peter was more than usually wise and unapproachable, would call him Herr Schopenhauer—which had an immediate effect of producing a silence that lasted for weeks; for not only did he like her least when she was playful, but he had, as a matter of fact, read a great deal of Schopenhauer, and was uneasily conscious that it had not been good for him.
While Peter fished, and meditated on the vanity of human wishes at Estcourt, Anna, with rare exceptions, was wherever Susie was, and Susie was wherever it was fashionable to be. For a week or two in the summer, for a day or two at Easter, they went down to Devonshire; and Anna might wander about the old house and grounds as she chose, and feel how much better she had loved it in its tumble-down state, the state she had known as a child, when her mother lived there and was happy. Everything was aggressively spruce now, indoors and out. Susie's money and Susie's taste had rubbed off all the mellowness and all the romance. Anna was glad to leave it again, and be taken to Marienbad, or any place where there was royalty, for Susie loved royalty. But what a life it was, going round year after year with Susie! London, Devonshire, Marienbad, Scotland, London again, following with patient feet wherever the unconscious royalties led, meeting the same people, listening to the same music, talking the same talk, eating the same dinners—would no one ever invent anything new to eat? The inexpressible boredom of riding up and down the Row every morning, the unutterable hours shopping and trying on clothes, the weariness of all the new pictures, and all the concerts, and all the operas, which seemed to grow less pleasing every year, as her eye and ear grew more critical. She knew at last every note of the stock operas and concerts, and every note seemed to have got on to her nerves.
And then the people they knew—the everlasting sameness of them, content to go the same dull round for ever. Driving in the Park with Susie, neither of them speaking a word, she used to watch the faces in the other carriages, nearly all faces of acquaintances, to see whether any of them looked cheerful; and it was the rarest thing to come across any expression but one of blankest boredom. Bored and cross, hardly ever speaking to the person with them, their friends drove up and down every afternoon, and she and Susie did the same, as silent and as bored as any of them. A few unusually beautiful, or unusually witty, or unusually young persons appeared to find life pleasant and looked happy, but they avoided Susie. Her set was made up of the dull and plain; and all the amusing people, and all the interesting people, turned their backs with one accord on her and it.
These were the circumstances that drove Anna to reflect on the problems of life every time she was beyond the sound of Susie's voice.
She passionately resented her position of dependence on Susie, and she passionately resented the fact that the only way to get out of it was to marry. Every time she had an offer, she first of all refused it with an energy that astonished the unhappy suitor, and then spent days and nights of agony because she had refused it, and because Susie wanted her to accept it, and because of an immense pity for Susie that had taken possession of her heart. How could Peter live so placidly at Susie's expense, and treat her with such a complete want of tenderness? Anna's love for her brother diminished considerably directly she began to understand Susie's life. It was such a pitiful little life of cringing, and pushing, and heroically smiling in the face of ill-treatment. No one cared for her in the very least. She had hundreds of acquaintances, who would eat her dinners and go away and poke fun at her, but not a single friend. Her husband lived on her and hardly spoke to her. Her boy at Eton, an amazing prig, looked down on her. Her little daughter never dreamed of obeying her. Anna herself was prevented by some stubborn spirit of fastidiousness, evidently not possessed by any of her contemporaries, from doing the only thing Susie had ever really wanted her to do—marrying, and getting herself out of the way. What if Susie were a vulgar little woman of no education and no family? That did not make it any the more glorious for the Estcourts to take all they could and ignore her existence. It was, after all, Susie who paid the bills. Anna pitied her from the bottom of her heart; such a forlorn little woman, taken out of her proper sphere, and left to shiver all alone, without a shred of love to cover and comfort her.
It was when she was away from Susie that she felt this. When she was with her, she found herself as cold and quiet and contradictory as Peter. She used, whenever she got the chance, to go to afternoon service at St. Paul's. It was the only place and time in which all the bad part of her was soothed into quiet, and the good allowed to prevail in peace. The privacy of the great place, where she never met anyone she knew, the beauty of the music, the stateliness of the service offered every day in equal perfection to any poor wretch choosing to turn his back for an hour on the perplexities of life, all helped to hush her grievances to sleep and fill her heart with tenderness for those who were not happy, and for those who did not know they were unhappy, and for those who wasted their one precious life in being wretched when they might have been happy. How little it would need, she thought (for she was young and imaginative), to turn most people's worries and sadness into joy. Such a little difference in Susie's ways and ideas would make them all so happy; such a little change in Peter's habits would make his wife's life radiant. But they all lived blindly on, each day a day of emptiness, each of those precious days, so crowded with opportunities, and possibilities, and unheeded blessings, and presently life would be behind them, and their chances gone for ever.
"The world is a dreadful place, full of unhappy people," she thought, looking out on to the world with unhappy eyes. "Each one by himself, with no one to comfort him. Each one with more than he can bear, and no one to help him. Oh, if I could, I would help and comfort everyone that is sad, or sick at heart, or sorry—oh, if I could!"
And she dreamed of all that she would do if she were Susie—rich, and free from any sort of interference—to help others, less fortunate, to be happy too. But, since she was the very reverse of rich and free, she shook off these dreams, and made numbers of good resolutions instead—resolutions bearing chiefly on her future behaviour towards Susie. And she would come out of the church filled with the sternest resolves to be ever afterwards kind and loving to her; and the very first words Susie uttered would either irritate her into speeches that made her sorry, or freeze her back into her ordinary state of cold aloofness.
If Susie had had an idea that Anna was pitying her, and making good resolutions of which she was the object at afternoon services, and that in her eyes she had come to be merely a cross which must with heroism be borne, she probably would have been indignant. Pitying people and being pitied oneself are two very different things. The first is soothing and sweet, the second is annoying, or even maddening, according to the temperament of the patient. Susie, however, never suspected that anyone could be sorry for her; and when, after a party, before they went to bed, Anna would put her arms round her and give her a disproportionately tender kiss, she would show her surprise openly. "Why, what's the matter?" she would ask. "Another mood, Anna?" For she could not know how much Anna felt the snubs she had seen her receive. How should she? She was so used to them that she hardly noticed them herself.
It was when Anna was twenty-five, and much vexed in body by efforts to be and to do as Susie wished, and in soul by those unanswerable questions as to the why and wherefore of the aimless, useless existence she was leading, that the wonderful thing happened that changed her whole life.
There was a German relation of Anna's, her mother's brother, known to Susie as Uncle Joachim. He had been twice to England; once during his sister's life, when Anna was little, and Peter was unmarried, and they were all poor and happy together at Estcourt; and once after Susie's introduction into the family, just at that period when Anna was beginning to stiffen and put her hair behind her ears.
Susie knew all about him, having inquired with her usual frankness on first hearing of his existence whether he would be likely to leave Anna anything on his death; and upon being informed that he had a family of sons, and large estates and little money, looked upon it as a great hardship to be obliged to have him in her London house. She objected to all Germans, and thought this particular one a dreadful old man, and never wearied of making humorous comments on his clothes and the oddness of his manners at meals. She was vexed that he should be with them in Hill Street, and refused to give dinners while he was there. She also asked him several times if he would not enjoy a stay at Estcourt, and said that the country was now at its best, and the primroses were in full beauty.
"I want not primroses," said Uncle Joachim, who seldom spoke at length; "I live in the country. I will now see London."
So he went about diligently to all the museums and picture-galleries, sometimes alone and sometimes with Anna, who neglected her social duties more than ever in order to be with him, for she loved him.
They talked together chiefly in German, Uncle Joachim carefully correcting her mistakes; and while they went frugally in omnibuses to the different sights, and ate buns in confectioners' shops at lunch-time, and walked long distances where no omnibuses were to be found—for besides having a great fear of hansoms he was very thrifty—he drew her out, saying little himself, and in a very short time knew almost as much about her life and her perplexities as she did.
She was very happy during his visit, and told herself contentedly that blood, after all, was thicker than water. She did not stop to consider what she meant exactly by this, but she had a vague notion that Susie was the water. She felt that Uncle Joachim understood her better than anyone had yet done; and was it not natural that her dear mother's brother should? And it was only after she had taken him to service at St. Paul's that she began to perceive that there might perhaps be points on which their tastes differed. Uncle Joachim had remained seated while other people knelt or stood; but that did not matter in that liberal place, where nobody notices the degree of his neighbour's devoutness. And he had slept during the anthem, one of those unaccompanied anthems that are sung there with what seem of a certainty to be the voices of angels. And on coming out, when a fugue was rolling in glorious confusion down the echoing aisles, and Anna, who preferred her fugues confused, felt that her spirit was being caught up to heaven, he had looked at her rapt face and wet eyelashes, and patted her hand very kindly, and said encouragingly, "In my youth I too cultivated Bach. Now I cultivate pigs. Pigs are better."
Anna's mother had been his only sister, and he had come over, not, as he told Susie, to see London, but to see Susie herself, and to find out how it was that Anna had reached an age that in Germany is the age of old maids without marrying. By the time he had spent two evenings in Hill Street he had formed his opinion of his nephew and his nephew's wife, and they remained fixed until his death. "The good Peter," he said suddenly one day to Anna when they were wandering together in the maze at Hampton Court—for he faithfully went the rounds of sightseeing prescribed by Baedeker, and Anna followed him wherever he went—"the good Peter is but a Quatschkopf."
"A Quatschkopf?" echoed Anna, whose acquaintance with her mother-tongue did not extend to the byways of opprobrium. "What in the world is a Quatschkopf?"
"Quatschkopf is a Duselfritz," explained Uncle Joachim, "and also it is the good Peter."
"I believe you are calling him ugly names," said Anna, slipping her arm through his; by this time, if not kindred spirits, they were the best of friends.
Uncle Joachim did not immediately reply. They had come to the open space in the middle of the maze, and he sat down on the seat to recover his breath, and to wipe his forehead; for though the wind was cold the sun was fierce. "Gott, was man Alles durchmacht auf Reisen!" he sighed. Then he put his handkerchief back into his pocket, looked up at Anna, who was standing in front of him leaning on her sunshade, and said, "A Quatschkopf is a foolish fellow who marries a woman like that."
"Oh, poor Susie!" cried Anna, at once ready to defend her, and full of the kindly feelings absence invariably produced. "Peter did a very sensible thing. But I don't think Susie did, marrying Peter."
"He is a Quatschkopf," said Uncle Joachim, not to be shaken in his opinions, "and the geborene Dobbs is a vulgar woman who is not rich enough."
"Not rich enough? Why, we are all suffocated by her money. We never hear of anything else. It would be dreadful if she had still more."
"Not rich enough," persisted Uncle Joachim, pursing up his lips into an expression of great disapproval, and shaking his head. "Such a woman should be a millionnaire. Not of marks, but of pounds sterling. Short of that, a man of birth does not impose her as a mother on his children. Peter has done it. He is a Quatschkopf."
"It is a great mercy that she isn't a millionnaire," said Anna, appalled by the mere thought. "Things would be just the same, except that there would be all that money more to hear about. I hate the very name of money."
"Nonsense. Money is very good."
"But not somebody else's."
"That is true," said Uncle Joachim approvingly. "One's own is the only money that is truly pleasant." Then he added suddenly, "Tell me, how comes it that you are not married?"
Anna frowned. "Now you are growing like Susie," she said.
"Ach—she asks you that often?"
"Yes—no, not quite like that. She says she knows why I am not married."
"And what knows she?"
"She says that I frighten everybody away," said Anna, digging the point of her sunshade into the ground. Then she looked at Uncle Joachim, and laughed.
"What?" he said incredulously. This pretty creature standing before him, so soft and young—for that she was twenty-four was hardly credible—could not by any possibility be anything but lovable.
"She says that I am disagreeable to people—that I look cross—that I don't encourage them enough. Now isn't it simply terrible to be expected to encourage any wretched man who has money? I don't want anybody to marry me. I don't want to buy my independence that way. Besides, it isn't really independence."
"For a woman it is the one life," said Uncle Joachim with great decision. "Talk not to me of independence. Such words are not for the lips of girls. It is a woman's pride to lean on a good husband. It is her happiness to be shielded and protected by him. Outside the narrow circle of her home, for her happiness is not. The woman who never marries has missed all things."
"I don't believe it," said Anna.
"It is nevertheless true."
"Look at Susie—is she so happy?"
"I said a good husband; not a Duselfritz."
"And as for narrow circles, why, how happy, how gloriously happy, I could be outside them, if only I were independent!"
"Independent—independent," repeated Uncle Joachim testily, "always this same foolish word. What hast thou in thy head, child, thy pretty woman's head, made, if ever head was, to lean on a good man's shoulder?"
"Oh—good men's shoulders," said Anna, shrugging her own, "I don't want to lean on anybody's shoulder. I want to hold my head up straight, all by itself. Do you then admire limp women, dear uncle, whose heads roll about all loose till a good man comes along and props them up?"
"These are English ideas. I like them not," said Uncle Joachim, looking stony.
Anna sat down on the seat by his side, and laid her cheek for a moment against his sleeve. "This is the only good man's shoulder it will ever lean on," she said. "If I were a preacher, do you know what I would preach?"
"Thou art not, and never wilt be, a preacher."
"But if I were? Do you know what I would preach? Early and late? In season and out of it?"
"Much nonsense, I doubt not."
"I would preach independence. Only that. Always that. They would be sermons for women only; and they would be warnings against props."
She sat up and looked at him out of the corners of her eyes, but he continued to stare stonily into space.
"I would thump the cushions, and cry out, 'Be independent, independent, independent! Don't talk so much, and do more. Go your own way, and let your neighbour go his. Don't meddle with other people when you have all your own work cut out for you being good yourself. Shake off all the props——'"
"Anna, thou art talking folly."
"'—shake them off, the props tradition and authority offer you, and go alone—crawl, stumble, stagger, but go alone. You won't learn to walk without tumbles, and knocks, and bruises, but you'll never learn to walk at all so long as there are props.' Oh," she said fervently, casting up her eyes, "there is nothing, nothing like getting rid of one's props!"
"I never yet," observed Uncle Joachim, in his turn casting up his eyes, "saw a girl who so greatly needs the guidance of a good man. Hast thou never loved, then?" he added, turning on her suddenly.
"Yes," replied Anna promptly. If Uncle Joachim chose to ask such direct questions she would give him straight answers.
"He went away and married somebody else. I had no money, and she had a great deal. So you see he was a very sensible young man." And she laughed, for she had long ago ceased to be anything but amused by the remembrance of her one excursion into the rocky regions of love.
"That," said Uncle Joachim, "was not true love."
"Oh, but it was."
"Nay. One does not laugh at love."
"It was all I had, anyhow. There isn't any more left. It was very bad while it lasted, and it took at least two years to get over it. What things I did to please that young man and appear lovely in his eyes! The hours it took to dress, and get my hair done just right. I endured tortures if I didn't look as beautiful as I thought I could look, and was always giving my poor maid notice. And plots—the way I plotted to get taken to the places where he would be! I never was so artful before or since. Poor Susie was quite helpless. It is a mercy it all ended as it did."
"That," repeated Uncle Joachim, "was not true love."
"Yes, it was."
"No, my child."
"Yes, my uncle. I laugh now, but it was very dreadful at the time."
"Thou art but a goose," he said, shrugging his shoulders; but immediately patted her hand lest her feelings should have been hurt. And, declining further argument, he demanded to be taken to the Great Vine.
It was in this fashion, Anna talking and Uncle Joachim making brief comments, that he came to know her as thoroughly as though he had lived with her all his life.
Soon after the excursion to Hampton Court a letter came that hurried his departure, to Susie's ill-concealed relief.
"My swines are ill," he informed her, greatly agitated, his fragile English going altogether to pieces in his perturbation; "my inspector writes they perpetually die. God keep thee, Anna," and he embraced her very tenderly, and bending hastily over Susie's hand muttered some conventionalities, and then disappeared into his four-wheeler and out of their lives.
They never saw him again.
"My swines are ill," mimicked Susie, when Anna, feeling that she had lost her one friend, came slowly back into the room, "my swines perpetually die—"
Anna was obliged to go and pray very hard at St. Paul's before she could forgive her.
The old man died at Christmas, and in the following March, when Anna was going about more sad and listless than ever, the news came that, though his inherited estates had gone to his sons, he had bought a little place some years before with the intention of retiring to it in his extreme old age, and this little place he had left to his dear and only niece Anna.
She was alone when the letters bringing the news arrived, sitting in the drawing-room with a book in her hands at which she did not look, feeling utterly downcast, indifferent, too hopeless to want anything or mind anything, accepting her destiny of years of days like this, with herself going through them lonely, useless, and always older, and telling herself that she did not after all care. "What does it matter, so long as I have a comfortable bed, and fires when I am cold, and meals when I am hungry?" she thought. "Not to have those is the only real misery. All the rest is purest fancy. What right have I to be happier than other people? If they are contented by such things, I can be contented too. And what does a useless being like me deserve, I should like to know? It was detestably ungrateful of me to have been unhappy all this time."
She got up aimlessly, and looked out of the window into the sunny street, where the dust was racing by on the gusty March wind, and the women selling daffodils at the corner were more battered and blown about and red-eyed than ever. She had often, in those moments when her whole body tingled with a wild longing to be up and doing and justifying her existence before it was too late, envied these poor women, because they worked. She wondered vaguely now at her folly. "It is much better to be comfortable," she thought, going back to the fire as aimlessly as she had gone to the window, "and it is sheer idiocy quarrelling with a life that other people would think quite tolerable."
Then the door opened, and the letters were brought in—the wonderful letters that struck the whole world into radiance—lying together with bills and ordinary notes on a salver, carried by an indifferent servant, handed to her as though they were things of naught—the wonderful letters that changed her life.
At first she did not understand what it was that they meant, and pored over the cramped German writing, reading the long sentences over and over again, till something suddenly seemed to clutch at her heart. Was this possible? Was this actual truth? Was Uncle Joachim, who had so much objected to her longing for independence, giving it to her with both hands, and every blessing along with it? She read them through again, very carefully, holding them with shaking hands. Yes, it was true. She began to cry, sobbing over them for very love and tenderness, her whole being melted into gratitude and humbleness, awestruck by a sense of how little she had deserved it, dazzled by the thousand lovely colours life, in the twinkling of an eye, had taken on.
There were two letters—one from Uncle Joachim's lawyer, and one from Uncle Joachim himself, written soon after his return from England, with directions on the envelope that it was to be sent to Anna after his death.
Uncle Joachim was not a man to express sentiment otherwise than by patting those he loved affectionately on the back, and the letter over which Anna hung with such tender gratitude, and such an extravagance of humility, was a mere bald statement of facts. Since Anna, with a perversity that he entirely disapproved, refused to marry, and appeared to be possessed of the obstinacy that had always been a peculiarity of her German forefathers, and which was well enough in a man, but undesirable in a woman, whose calling it was to be gentle and yielding (sanft und nachgiebig), and convinced from what he had seen during his visit to London that she could never by any possibility be happy with her brother and sister-in-law, and moreover considering that it was beneath the dignity of his sister's daughter, a young lady of good family, for ever to roll herself in the feathers with which the middle-class goose-born Dobbs had furnished Peter's otherwise defective nest, he had decided to make her independent altogether of them, numerous though his own sons were, and angry as they no doubt would be, by bestowing on her absolutely after his death the only property he could leave to whomsoever he chose, a small estate near Stralsund, where he hoped to pass his last years. It was in a flourishing condition, easy to manage, bringing in a yearly average of forty thousand marks, and with an experienced inspector whom he earnestly recommended her to keep. He trusted his dear Anna would go and live there, and keep it up to its present state of excellence, and would finally marry a good German gentleman, of whom there were many, and return in this way altogether to the country of her forefathers. The estate was not so far from Stralsund as to make it impossible for her to drive there when she wished to indulge any feminine desire she might have to trim herself (sich putzen), and he recommended her to begin a new life, settling there with some grave and sober female advanced in years as companion and protectress, until such time as she should, by marriage, pass into the care of that natural protector, her husband.
Then followed a short exposition of his views on women, especially those women who go to parties all their lives and talk Klatsch; a spirited comparing of such women with those whose interests keep them busy in their own homes; and a final exhortation to Anna to seize this opportunity of choosing the better life, which was always, he said, a life of simplicity, frugality, and hard work.
Anna wept and laughed together over this letter—the tenderest laughter and the happiest tears. It seemed by turns the wildest improbability that she should be well off, and the most natural thing in the world. Susie was out. Never had her absence been terrible before. Anna could hardly bear the waiting. She walked up and down the room, for sitting still was impossible, holding the precious letters tight in her little cold hands, her cheeks burning, her eyes sparkling, in an agony of impatience and anxiety lest something should have happened to delay Susie at this supreme moment. At the window end of the room she stopped each time she reached it and looked eagerly up and down the street, the flower-women and the blessedness of selling daffodils having within an hour become profoundly indifferent to her. At the other end of the room, where a bureau stood, she came to a standstill too, and snatching up a pen began a letter to Peter in Devonshire; but, hearing wheels, threw it down and flew to the window again. It was not Susie's carriage, and she went back to the letter and wrote another line; then again to the window; then again to the letter; and it was the letter's turn as Susie, fagged from a round of calls, came in.
Susie's afternoon had not been a success. She had made advances to a woman of enviably high position with the intrepidity that characterised all her social movements, and she had been snubbed for her pains with more than usual rudeness. She had had, besides, several minor annoyances. And to come in worn out, and have your sister-in-law, who would hardly speak to you at luncheon, fall on your neck and begin violently to kiss you, is really a little hard on a woman who is already cross.
"Now what in the name of fortune is the matter now?" gasped Susie, breathlessly disengaging herself.
"Oh, Susie! oh, Susie!" cried Anna incoherently, "what ages you have been away—and the letters came directly you had gone—and I've been watching for you ever since, and was so dreadfully afraid something had happened——"
"But what are you talking about, Anna?" interrupted Susie irritably. It was late, and she wanted to rest for a few minutes before dressing to go out again, and here was Anna in a new mood of a violent nature, and she was weary beyond measure of all Anna's moods.
"Oh, such a wonderful thing has happened!" cried Anna; "such a wonderful thing! What will Peter say? And how glad you will be——" And she thrust the letters with trembling fingers into Susie's unresponsive hand.
"What is it?" said Susie, looking at them bewildered.
"Oh, no—I forgot," said Anna, wildly as it seemed to Susie, pulling them out of her hand again. "You can't read German—see here——" And she began to unfold them and smooth out the creases she had made, her hands shaking visibly.
Susie stared. Clearly something extraordinary had happened, for the frosty Anna of the last few months had melted into a radiance of emotion that would only not be ridiculous if it turned out to be justified.
"Two German letters," said Anna, sitting down on the nearest chair, spreading them out on her lap, and talking as though she could hardly get the words out fast enough, "one from Uncle Joachim——"
"Uncle Joachim?" repeated Susie, a disagreeable and creepy doubt as to Anna's sanity coming over her. "You know very well he's dead and can't write letters," she said severely.
"—and one from his lawyer," Anna went on, regardless of everything but what she had to tell. "The lawyer's letter is full of technical words, difficult to understand, but it is only to confirm what Uncle Joachim says, and his is quite plain. He wrote it some time before he died, and left it with his lawyer to send on to me."
Susie was listening now with all her ears. Lawyers, deceased uncles, and Anna's sparkling face could only have one meaning.
"Uncle Joachim was our mother's only brother——"
"I know, I know," interrupted Susie impatiently.
"—and was the dearest and kindest of uncles to me——"
"Never mind what he was," interrupted Susie still more impatiently. "What has he done for you? Tell me that. You always pretended, both of you—Peter too—that he had miles of sandy places somewhere in the desert, and dozens of boys. What could he do for you?"
"Do for me?" Anna rose up with a solemnity worthy of the great news about to be imparted, put both her hands on Susie's little shoulders, and looking down at her with shining eyes, said slowly, "He has left me an estate bringing in forty thousand marks a year."
"Forty thousand!" echoed Susie, completely awestruck.
"Marks," said Anna.
"Oh, marks," said Susie, chilled. "That's francs, isn't it? I really thought for a moment——"
"They're more than francs. It brings in, on an average, two thousand pounds a year. Two—thousand—pounds—a—year," repeated Anna, nodding her head at each word. "Now, Susie, what do you think of that?"
"What do I think of it? Why, that it isn't much. Where would you all have been, I wonder, if I had only had two thousand a year?"
"Oh, congratulate me!" cried Anna, opening her arms. "Kiss me, and tell me you are glad! Don't you see that I am off your hands at last? That we need never think about husbands again? That you will never have to buy me any more clothes, and never tire your poor little self out any more trotting me round? I don't know which of us is to be congratulated most," she added laughing, looking at Susie with her eyes full of tears. Then she insisted on kissing her again, and murmured foolish things in her ear about being so sorry for all her horrid ways, and so grateful to her, and so determined now to be good for ever and ever.
"My dear Anna," remonstrated Susie, who disliked sentiment and never knew how to respond to exhibitions of feeling. "Of course I congratulate you. It almost seems as if throwing away one's chances in the way you have done was the right thing to do, and is being rewarded. Don't let us waste time. You know we go out to dinner. What has he left Peter?"
"Peter?" said Anna wonderingly.
"Yes, Peter. He was his nephew, I suppose, just as much as you were his niece."
"Well, but Susie, Peter is different. He—he doesn't need money as I do; and of course Uncle Joachim knew that."
"Nonsense. He hasn't got a penny. Let me look at the letters."
"They're in German. You won't be able to read them."
"Give them to me. I learned German at school, and got a prize. You're not the only person in the world who can do things."
She took them out of Anna's hand, and began slowly and painfully to read the one from Uncle Joachim, determined to see whether there really was no mention of Peter. Anna looked on, hot and cold by turns with fright lest by some chance her early studies should not after all have been quite forgotten.
"Here's something about Peter—and me," Susie said suddenly. "At least, I suppose he means me. It is something Dobbs. Why does he call me that? It hasn't been my name for fifteen years."
"Oh, it's some silly German way. He says the geborene Dobbs, to distinguish you from other Lady Estcourts."
"But there are no others."
"Oh, well, his sister was one. Give me the letter, Susie—I can tell you what he says much more quickly than you can read it."
"'Unter der Wuerde einer juenge Dame aus guter Familie,'" read out Susie slowly, not heeding Anna, and with the most excruciating pronunciation that was ever heard, "'sich ewig auf den Federn, mit welchen die buergerliche Gans geborene Dobbs Peters sonst mangelhaftes Nest ausgestattet hat, zu waelzen.' What stuff he writes. I can hardly understand it. Yet I must have been good at it at school, to get the prize. What is that bit about me and Peter?"
"Which bit?" said Anna, blushing scarlet. "Let me look." She got the letter back into her possession. "Oh, that's where he says that—that he doesn't think it fair that I should be a burden for ever on you and Peter."
"Well, that's sensible enough. The old man had some sense in him after all, absurd though he was, and vulgar. It isn't fair, of course. I don't mean to say anything disagreeable, or throw all I have done for you in your face, but really, Anna, few mothers would have made the sacrifices I have for you, and as for sisters-in-law—well, I'd just like to see another."
"Dear Susie," said Anna tenderly, putting her arm round her, ready to acknowledge all, and more than all, the benefits she had received, "you have been only too kind and generous. I know that I owe you everything in the world, and just think how lovely it is for me to feel that now I can take my weight off your shoulders! You must come and live with me now, whenever you are sick of things, and I'll feel so proud, having you in my house!"
"Live with you?" exclaimed Susie, drawing herself away. "Where are you going to live?"
"Why, there, I suppose."
"Live there! Is that a condition?"
"No, but Uncle Joachim keeps on saying he hopes I will, and that I'll settle down and look after the place."
"Look after the place yourself? How silly!"
"Yes, you haven't taught me much about farming, have you? He wants me to turn quite into a German."
"Good gracious!" cried Susie, genuinely horrified.
"He seems to think that I ought to work, and not spend my life talking Klatsch."
"It's what German women apparently talk when they get together. We don't. I'd never do anything with such an ugly name, and I'm positive you wouldn't."
"Where is this place?"
"And where on earth is that?"
"Ah," said Anna, investigating cobwebby corners of her memory, "that's what I should like to be able to remember. Perhaps," she added honestly, "I never knew. Let me call Letty, and ask her to bring her atlas."
"Letty won't know," said Susie impatiently, "she only knows the things she oughtn't to."
"Oh, she isn't as wise as all that," said Anna, ringing the bell. "Anyhow she has maps, which is more than we have."
A servant was sent to request Miss Letty Estcourt to attend in the drawing-room with her atlas.
"Whatever's in the wind now?" inquired Letty, open-mouthed, of her governess. "They're not going to examine me this time of night, are they, Leechy?" For she suffered greatly from having a brother who was always passing examinations and coming out top, and was consequently subjected herself, by an ambitious mother who was sure that she must be equally clever if she would only let herself go, to every examination that happened to be going for girls of her age; so that she and Miss Leech spent their days either on the defensive, preparing for these unprovoked assaults, or in the state of collapse which followed the regularly recurring defeat, and both found their lives a burden too great to be borne.
There was a preliminary scuffle of washing and brushing, and then Letty marched into the drawing-room, her atlas under her arm and deep suspicion on her face. But no bland and treacherous examiner was visible, covering his preliminary movements with ghastly pleasantries; only her mother and her pretty aunt.
"Where's Stralsund?" they cried together, as she opened the door.
Letty stopped short and stared. "What's that?" she asked.
"It's a place—a place in Germany."
"Letty, do you mean to tell me that you don't know where Stralsund is?" asked Susie, in a voice that would have been of thunder if it had been big enough. "Do you mean to say that after all the money I have spent on your education you don't know that?"
Was this a new form of torture? Was she to find the examining spirit lurking even in the familiar and hitherto harmless forms of her mother and her aunt? She openly showed her disgust. "If it's a place, it's in this atlas," she said, "and if this is going to be an examination, I don't think it's fair; and if it's a game, I don't like it." And she threw her atlas unceremoniously on to the nearest chair; for though her mother could force her to do many things, she could never, somehow, force her to be respectful.
"What a horror the child has of lessons!" cried Susie. "Don't be so silly. We only want to see if you know where Stralsund is, that's all."
"Tell us where it is, Letty," said Anna coaxingly, kneeling down in front of the chair and opening the atlas. "Let us find the map of Germany and look for it. Why, you did Germany for your last exam.—you must have it all at your fingers' ends."
"It didn't stay there, then," said Letty moodily; but she went over to Anna, who was always kind to her, and began to turn over the well-thumbed pages.
Oh, what recollections lurked in those dirty corners! Surely it is hard on a person of fourteen, who is as fond of enjoying herself as anybody else, to be made to wrestle with maps upstairs in a dreary room, when the sun is shining, and the voices of the children passing come up joyously to the prison windows, and all the world is out of doors! Letty thought so, and Miss Leech thought it hard on a person of thirty, and each tried to console the other, but neither knew how, for their case seemed very hopeless. Did not unending vistas of classes and lectures stretch away before and behind them, dotted at intervals, oh, so frequent! with the black spots of examinations? Was not the pavement of Gower Street, and Kensington Square, and of all those districts where girls can be lectured into wisdom, quite worn by their patient feet? And then the accomplishments! Oh, what a life it was! A man came twice a week and insisted on teaching her to fiddle; a highly nervous man, who jerked her elbow and rapped her knuckles with his bow whenever she played out of tune, which was all the time, and made bitter remarks of a killingly sarcastic nature to Miss Leech when she stumbled over the accompaniments. On Wednesdays there was a dancing class, where a pinched young lady played the piano with the energy of despair, and a hot and agile master with unduly turned-out toes taught the girls the Lancers, earning his bread in the sweat of his brow. He also was sarcastic, but he clothed his sarcasms in the garb of kindly fun, laughing gently at them himself, and expecting his pupils to laugh too; which they did uneasily, for the fun was of a personal nature, evoked by the clumsiness or stupidity of one or other of them, and none knew when her own turn might not come. The lesson ended with what he called the March of Grace round the room, each girl by herself, no music to drown the noise her shoes made on the bare boards, the others looking on, and the master making comments. This march was terrible to Letty. All her nightmares were connected with it. She was a podgy, dull-looking girl, fat and pale and awkward, and her mother made her wear cheap shoes that creaked. "Miss Estcourt has new shoes on again," the dancing master would say, gently smiling, when Letty was well on her way round the room, cut off from all human aid, conscious of every inch of her body, desperately trying to be graceful. And everybody tittered except the victim. "You know, Miss Estcourt," he would say at every second lesson, "there is a saying that creaking shoes have not been paid for. I beg your pardon? Did you say they had been paid for? Miss Estcourt says she does not know." And he would turn to his other pupils with a shrug and a gentle smile.
On Saturday afternoons there were the Popular Concerts at St. James's Hall to be gone to—Susie regarded them as educational, and subscribed—and Letty, who always had chilblains on her feet in winter, suffered tortures trying not to rub them; for as surely as she moved one foot and began to rub the other with it, however gently, fierce enthusiasts in the row in front would turn on her—old gentlemen of an otherwise humane appearance, rapt ladies with eyeglasses and loose clothes—and sh-sh her with furious hissings into immobility. "Oh, Letty, try and sit still," Miss Leech, who dreaded publicity, would implore in a whisper; but who that has not had them can know the torture of chilblains inside thick boots, where they cannot be got at? As soon as the chilblains went, the Saturday concerts left off, and it seemed as though Fate had nothing better to do than to be spiteful.
It was indeed a dreadful thing, thought Letty, as she bent over the map of Germany, to be young and to have to be made clever at all costs. Here was her aunt even, her pretty, kind aunt, asking her geography questions at seven o'clock at night, when she thought that she had really done with lessons for one more day, and had been so much enjoying Leechy's description of the only man she ever loved, while she comfortably toasted cheese at the schoolroom fire. Anna, who spent such lofty hours of spiritual exaltation at St. Paul's, and came away with her soul melted into pity for the unhappy, and yearned with her whole being to help them, never thought of Letty as a creature who might perhaps be helped to cheerfulness with a little trouble. Letty was too close at hand; and enthusiastic philanthropists, casting about for objects of charity, seldom see what is at their feet.
It was so difficult to find Stralsund that by the time Letty's wandering finger had paused upon it Susie could only give one glance of horror at its position, and hurry away with Anna to dress. Anna, too, would have preferred it to be farther south, in the Black Forest, or some other romantic region, where it would have amused her to go occasionally, at least, for a few weeks in the summer. But there it was, as far north as it could be, in a part of the world she had hardly heard of, except in connection with dogs.
It did not, however, matter where it was. Uncle Joachim had merely recommended and not enjoined. It would be rather extraordinary for her to go there and set up housekeeping alone. She need not go; she was almost sure she would not go. Anyhow there was no necessity to decide at once. The money was what she wanted, and she could spend it where she chose. Let Uncle Joachim's inspector, of whom he wrote in such praise, go on getting forty thousand marks a year out of the place, and she would be perfectly content.
She ran upstairs to put on her prettiest dress, and to have her hair done in the curls and waves she had so long eschewed. Should she not make herself as charming as possible for this charming world, where everybody was so good and kind, and add her measure of beauty and kindness to the rest? She beamed on Letty as she passed her on the stairs, climbing slowly up with her big atlas, and took it from her and would carry it herself; she beamed on Miss Leech, who was watching for her pupil at the schoolroom door; she beamed on her maid, she beamed on her own reflection in the glass, which indeed at that moment was that of a very beautiful young woman. Oh happy, happy world! What should she do with so much money? She, who had never had a penny in her life, thought it an enormous, an inexhaustible sum. One thing was certain—it was all to be spent in doing good; she would help as many people with it as she possibly could, and never, never, never let them feel that they were under obligations. Did she not know, after fifteen years of dependence on Susie, what it was like to be under obligations? And what was more cruelly sad and crushing and deadening than dependence? She did not yet know what sort of people she would help, or in what way she would help, but oh, she was going to make heaps of people happy forever! While Hilton was curling her hair, she thought of slums; but remembered that they would bring her into contact with the clergy, and most of her offers of late had been from the clergy. Even the vicar who had prepared her for confirmation, his first wife being then alive, and a second having since been mourned, had wanted to marry her. "It's because I am twenty-five and staid that they think me suitable," she thought; but she could not help smiling at the face in the glass.
When she was dressed and ready to go down she was forced to ask herself whether the person that she saw in the glass looked in the least like a person who would ever lead the simple, frugal, hard-working life that Uncle Joachim had called the better life, and in which he seemed to think she would alone find contentment. Certainly she knew him to be very wise. Well, nothing need be decided yet. Perhaps she would go—perhaps she would not. "It's this white dress that makes me look so—so unsuitable," she said to herself, "and Hilton's wonderful waves."
And she went downstairs trying not to sing, the sweetest of feminine creatures, happiness and love and kindness shining in her eyes, a lovely thing saved from the blight of empty years, and brought back to beauty, by Uncle Joachim's timely interference.
Letty and Miss Leech heard the singing, and stopped involuntarily in their conversation. It was a strange sound in that dull and joyless house.
"I don't know what's the matter, Leechy," Letty had said, on her return from the drawing-room, "but mamma and Aunt Anna are too weird to-night for anything. What do you think they had me down for? They didn't know where Stralsund was, and wanted to find out. They pretended they wanted to see if I knew, but I soon saw through that game. And Aunt Anna looks frightfully happy. I believe she's going to be married, and wants to go to Stralsund for the honeymoon."
And Letty took up her toasting fork, while Miss Leech, as in duty bound, refreshed her pupil's memory in regard to Stralsund and Wallenstein and the Hansa cities generally.
Peter, meditating on the banks of the river at Estcourt, came to the conclusion that a journey to London would be made unnecessary by the equal efficacy of a congratulatory letter.
He had been greatly moved by the news of his sister's good fortune, and in the first flush of pleasure and sympathy had ordered his things to be packed in readiness for his departure by the night train. Then he had gone down to the river, and there, thinking the matter over quietly, amid the soothing influences of grey sky, grey water, and green grass, he gradually perceived that a letter would convey all that he felt quite well, perhaps better than any verbal expressions of joy, and as he would in any case only stay a few hours in town the long journey seemed hardly worth while. He sent a letter, therefore, that very evening—a kind, brotherly letter, in which, after heartily congratulating his dear little sister, he said that it would be necessary for her to go over to Germany, see the lawyer, and take possession of her property. When she had done that, and made all arrangements as to the future payment of the income derived from the estate, she would of course come back to them; for Estcourt was always to be her home, and now that she was independent she would no longer be obliged to be wherever Susie was, but would, he hoped, come to him, and they could go fishing together,—"and there's nothing to beat fishing," concluded Peter, "if you want peace."
But Anna did not want peace; at least, not that kind of peace just at that moment. Sitting in a punt was not what she wanted. She was thrilled by the love of her less fortunate fellow-creatures, and the sense of power to help them, and the longing to go and do it. What she really wanted of Peter was that he should take her to Germany and help her through the formalities; for before his letter arrived she too had seen that that was the first thing to be done.
Of this, however, he did not write a word. She thought he must have forgotten, so natural did it appear to her that her brother should go with her; and she wrote him a little note, asking when he would be able to get away. She received a long letter in reply, full of regrets, excuses, and good reasons, which she read wonderingly. Had she been selfish, or was Peter selfish? She thought it all out carefully, and found that it was she who had been selfish to expect Peter, always a hater of business and a lover of quiet, to go all that way and worry himself with tiresome money arrangements. Besides, perhaps he was not feeling well. She knew he suffered from rheumatism; and when you have rheumatism the mere thought of a long journey is appalling.
Susie, whose head was very clear on all matters concerning money, had also recognised the necessity of Anna's going to Germany, and had also regarded Peter as the most natural companion and guide; but she was not surprised when Anna told her that he could not go. "It was too much to expect," apologised Anna. "He often has rheumatism in the spring, and perhaps he has it now."
"The question is," said Anna after a pause, "what am I to do, helpless virgin, in spite of my years,—never able to do a thing for myself?"
"I'll go with you."
"You? But what about your engagements?"
"Oh, I'll throw them over, and take you. Letty can come too. It will do her German good. Herr Schumpf says he's ashamed of her."
Susie had various reasons for offering herself so amiably, one being certainly curiosity. But the chief one was that the same woman who had been so rude to her the day Anna's news came, had sent out invitations to all the world to her daughter's wedding after Easter, and had not sent one to Susie.
This was one of those trials that cannot be faced. If she, being in London at the time, carefully explained to her friends that she was ill that day, and did actually stay in bed and dose herself the days preceding and following, who would believe her? Not if she waved a doctor's certificate in their faces would they believe her. They would know that she had not been invited, and would rejoice. She felt that she could not bear it. An unavoidable business journey to the Continent was exactly what she wanted to help her out of this desperate situation. On her return she would be able to hear the wedding discussed and express her disappointment at having missed it with a serene brow and a quiet mind.
It is doubtful whether she would have gone with Anna, however urgent Anna's need, if she had been included in those invitations. But Anna, who could not know the secret workings of her mind, once more remembered her former treatment of Susie, so kind and willing to do all she could, and hung her head with shame.
They left London a day or two before Easter, Letty and Miss Leech, both of them nearly ill with suppressed delight at the unexpected holiday, going with them. They had announced their coming to Uncle Joachim's lawyer, and asked him to make arrangements for their accommodation at Kleinwalde, Anna's new possession. Susie proposed to stay a day in Berlin, which would give Anna time to talk everything over with the lawyer, and would enable Letty to visit the museums. She had a hopeful idea that Letty would absorb German at every pore once she was in the country itself, and that being brought face to face with the statues of Goethe and Schiller on their native soil would kindle the sparks of interest in German literature that she supposed every well-taught child possessed, into the roaring flame of enthusiasm. She could not believe that Letty had no sparks. One of her children being so abnormally clever, it must be sheer obstinacy on the part of the other that prevented it from acquiring the knowledge offered daily in such unstinted quantities. She had no illusions in regard to Letty's person, and felt that as she would never be pretty it was of importance that she should at least be cultured. She sat opposite her daughter in the train, and having nothing better to do during the long hours that they were jolting across North Germany, looked at her; and the more she looked the more unreasoningly angry she became that Peter's sister should be so pretty and Peter's daughter so plain. And then so fat! What a horrible thing to have to take a fat daughter about with you in society. Where did she get it from? She herself and Peter were the leanest of mortals. It must be that Letty ate too much, which was not only a disgusting practice but an expensive one, and should be put down at once with rigour. Susie had not had such an opportunity of thoroughly inspecting her child for years, and the result of this prolonged examination of her weak points was that she would not let any of the party have anything to eat at all, declaring that it was vulgar to eat in trains, expressing amazement that people should bring themselves to touch the horrid-looking food offered, and turning her back in impatient disgust on two stout German ladies who had got in at Oberhausen, and who were enjoying their lunch quite unmoved by her contempt—one eating a chicken from beginning to end without a fork, and the other taking repeated sips of an obviously satisfactory nature from a big wine bottle, which was used, in the intervals, as a support to her back.
By the time Berlin was reached, these ladies, having been properly fed all day, were very cheerful, whereas Susie's party was speechless from exhaustion; especially poor Miss Leech, who was never very strong, and so nearly fainted that Susie was obliged to notice it, and expressed a conviction to Anna in a loud and peevish aside that Miss Leech was going to be a nuisance.
"It is strange," thought Anna, as she crept into bed, "how travelling brings out one's worst passions."
It is indeed strange; for it is certain that nothing equals the expectant enthusiasm and mutual esteem of the start except the cold dislike of the finish. Many are the friendships that have found an unforeseen and sudden end on a journey, and few are those that survive it. But if Horace Walpole and Grey fell out, if Byron and Leigh Hunt were obliged to part, if a host of other personages, endowed with every gift that makes companionship desirable, could not away with each other after a few weeks together abroad, is it to be wondered at that weaker vessels such as Susie and Anna, Letty and Miss Leech, should have found the short journey from London to Berlin sufficient to enable them to see one another's failings with a clearness of vision that was startling?
On the lawyer, a keen-eyed man with a conspicuously fine face, Anna made an entirely favourable impression. When he saw this gracious young lady, so simple and so friendly, and looked into her frank and charming eyes, he perfectly understood that old Joachim should have been bewitched. But after a little conversation, it appeared that she had no present intention of carrying out her uncle's wishes, but, setting them coolly aside, proposed to spend all the good German money she could extract from her property in that replete and bloated land, England.
This annoyed him; first because he hated England and then because his father had managed old Joachim's affairs before he himself had stepped into the paternal shoes, and the feeling of both father and son for the old man had been considerably warmer than is usual between lawyer and client. Still he could not believe, judging after the manner of men, that anything so pretty could also be unkind; and scrutinising Lady Estcourt, because she was unattractive and had a sharp little face and a restless little body, he was convinced that she it was who was the cause of this setting aside of a dead benefactor's wishes. Susie, for her part, patronised him because his collar turned down.
Whenever Letty thought afterwards of Berlin, she thought of it as a place where all the houses are museums, and where you drink so many cups of chocolate with whipped cream on the top that you see things double for the rest of the time.
Anna thought of it as a charming place, where delightful lawyers fill your purse with money.
Susie thought of it with satisfaction as the one place abroad where, by dint of sternest economy, walks from sight to sight in the rain, and promiscuous cakes instead of the more satisfactory but less cheap meals Letty called square, she had successfully defended herself from being, as she put it, fleeced.
To Miss Leech, it was merely a place where your feet get wet, and your clothes are spoilt.
Early the next morning they started for Kleinwalde.
Stralsund is an old town of gabled houses, ancient churches, and quaint, roughly paved streets, forming an island, and joined to the mainland by dikes. It looks its best in the early summer, when the green and marshy plains on whose edge it stands are strewn with kingcups, and the little white clouds hang over them almost motionless, and the cattle are out, and the larks sing, and the orange and red sails of the fishing-smacks on the narrow belt of sea that divides the town from the island of Ruegen make brilliant points of contrasting colour between the blue of water and sky. There is a divine freshness and brightness about the surrounding stretches of coarse grass and common flowers at that blest season of the year. The air is full of the smell of the sea. The sun beats down fiercely on plain and city. The people come out of the rooms in which most of their life is spent, and stand in the doorways and remark on the heat. An occasional heavy cart bumps over the stones, heard in that sleepy place for several minutes before and after its passing. There is an honest, tarry, fishy smell everywhere; and the traveller of poetic temperament in search of the picturesque, and not too nice about his comforts, could not fail, visiting it for the first time in the month of June, to be wholly delighted that he had come.
But in winter, and especially in those doubly gloomy days at the end of winter, when spring ought to have shown some signs of its approach and has not done so, those days of howling winds and driving rain and frequent belated snowstorms, this plain is merely a bleak expanse of dreariness, with a forlorn old town huddling in its farthest corner.
It was at its very bleakest and dreariest on the morning that Susie and her three companions travelled across it. "What a place!" exclaimed Susie, as mile after mile was traversed, and there was still the same succession of flat ploughed fields, marshes, and ploughed fields again, with a rare group of furiously swaying pine trees or of silver birches bent double before the wind. "What a part of the world to come and live in! That old uncle of yours was as cracked as he could be to think you'd ever stay here for good. And imagine spending even a single shilling buying land here. I wouldn't take a barrowful at a gift."
"Well, I am taking a great many barrowfuls," said Anna, "and I am sure Uncle Joachim was right to buy a place here—he was always right."
"Oh, of course, it's your duty now to praise him up. Perhaps it gets better farther on, but I don't see how anybody can squeeze two thousand a year out of a desert like this."
The prospect from the railway that day was certainly not attractive; but Anna told herself that any place would look dreary such weather, and was much too happy in the first flush of independence to be depressed by anything whatever. Had she not that very morning given the chambermaid at the Berlin hotel so bounteous a reward for services not rendered that the woman herself had said it was too much? Thus making amends for those innumerable departures from hotels when Susie had escaped without giving anything at all. Had she not also asked, and readily obtained, permission of Susie at the station in Berlin to pay for the tickets of the whole party? And had it not been a delightful and warming feeling, buying those tickets for other people instead of having tickets bought by other people for herself? At Pasewalk, a little town half way between Berlin and Stralsund, where the train stopped ten minutes, she insisted on getting out, defying the sleet and the puddles, and went into the refreshment room, and bought eggs and rolls and cakes,—everything she could find that was least offensive. Also a guidebook to Stralsund, though she was not going to stop in Stralsund; also some postcards with views on them, though she never used postcards with views on them, and came back loaded with parcels, her face glowing with childish pleasure at spending money.
"My dear Anna," said Susie; but she was hungry, and ate a roll with perfect complacency, allowing Letty to do the same, although only two days had elapsed since she had so energetically lectured her on the grossness of eating in trains.
Susie was in a particularly amiable frame of mind, and in spite of the weather was looking forward to seeing the place Uncle Joachim had thought would be a fit home for his niece; and as she and Anna were sitting together at one end of the carriage, and Letty and Miss Leech were at the other, and there was no one else in the compartment, she was neither upset by the too near contemplation of her daughter, nor by the aspect of other travellers lunching. Miss Leech, always mindful of her duties, was making the most of her five hours' journey by endeavouring, in a low voice, to clear away the haze that hung in her pupil's mind round the details of her last winter's German studies. "Don't you remember anything of Professor Smith's lectures, Letty?" she inquired. "Why, they were all about just this part of Germany, and it makes it so much more interesting if one knows what happened at the different places. Stralsund, you know, where we shall be presently, has had a most turbulent and interesting past."
"Has it?" said Letty. "Well, I can't help it, Leechy."
"No; but my dear, you should try to recollect something at least of what you heard at the lectures. Have you forgotten the paper you wrote about Wallenstein?"
"I remember I did a paper. Beastly hard it was, too."
"Oh, Letty, don't say beastly—it really isn't a ladylike word."
"Why, mamma's always saying it."
"Oh, well. Don't you know what Wallenstein said when he was besieging Stralsund and found it such a difficult task?"
"I suppose he said too that it was beastly hard."
"Oh, Letty—it was something about chains. Now do you remember?"
"Chains?" repeated Letty, looking bored. "Do you know, Leechy?"
"Yes, I still remember that, though I confess that I have forgotten the greater part of what I heard."
"Then what do you ask me for, when you know I don't know? What did he say about chains?"
"He said that he'd take the city, if it were rivetted to heaven with chains of iron," said Miss Leech dramatically.
"What a goat."
"Oh, hush—don't say those horrible words. Where do you learn them? Not from me, certainly not from me," said Miss Leech, distressed. She had a profound horror of slang, and was bewildered by the way in which these weeds of rhetoric sprang up on all occasions in Letty's speech.
"Well, and was it?"
"Was it what, my dear?"
"Chained to heaven?"
"The city? Why, how can a city be chained to heaven, Letty?"
"Then what did he say it for?"
"He was using a metaphor."
"Oh," said Letty, who did not know what a metaphor was, but supposed it must be something used in sieges, and preferred not to inquire too closely.
"He was obliged to retire," said Miss Leech, "leaving enormous numbers of slain on the field."
"Poor beasts. I say, Leechy," she whispered, "don't let's bother about history now. Go on with Mr. Jessup. You'd got to where he called you Amy for the first time."
Mr. Jessup was the person already alluded to in these pages as the only man Miss Leech had ever loved, and his history was of absorbing interest to Letty, who never tired of hearing his first appearance on Miss Leech's horizon described, with his subsequent advances before the stage of open courting was reached, the courting itself, and its melancholy end; for Mr. Jessup, a clergyman of the Church of England, with a vicarage all ready to receive his wife, had suddenly become a prey to new convictions, and had gone over to the Church of Rome; whereupon Miss Leech's father, also a clergyman of the Church of England, had talked a great deal about the Scarlet Woman of Babylon, and had shut the door in Mr. Jessup's face when next he called to explain. This had happened when Miss Leech was twenty. Now, at thirty, an orphan resigned to the world's buffets, she found a gentle consolation in repeating the story of her ill-starred engagement to her keenly interested friend and pupil; and the oftener she repeated it the less did it grieve her, till at last she came actually to enjoy the remembrance of it, pleased to have played the principal part even in a drama that was hissed off her little stage, glad to find a sympathetic listener, dwelling much and fondly on every incident of that short period of importance and glory.
It is doubtful whether she would ever have extracted the same amount of pleasure from Mr. Jessup had he remained fixed in the faith of his fathers and married her in due season. By his secession he had unconsciously become a sort of providence to Letty and herself, saving them from endless hours of dulness, furnishing their lonely schoolroom life with romance and mystery; and if in Miss Leech's mind he gradually took on the sweet intangibility of a pleasant dream, he was the very pith and marrow of Letty's existence. She glowed and thrilled at the thought that perhaps she too would one day have a Mr. Jessup of her own, who would have convictions, and give up everything, herself included, for what he believed to be right.
As usual, they at once became absorbed in Mr. Jessup, forgetting in the contemplation of his excellencies everything else in the world, till they were roused to realities by their arrival at Stralsund; and Susie, thrusting books and bags and umbrellas into their passive hands, pushed them out of the carriage into the wet.
Hilton, the maid shared by Susie and Anna, had then to be found and urged to clamber down quickly on to the low platform, where she stood helplessly, the picture of injured superiority, hustled by the hurrying porters and passengers, out of whose way she scorned to move, while Anna went to look for the luggage and have it put into the cart that had been sent for it.
This cart was an ordinary farm cart, used for bringing in the hay in June, but also used for carrying out the manure in November; and on a sack of straw lying in the bottom it was expected that Hilton should sit. The farm boy who drove it, and who helped the porter to tie the trunks to its sides lest they should too violently bump against each other and Hilton on the way, said so; the coachman of the carriage waiting for the Herrschaften pointed with his whip first at Hilton and then at the cart, and said so; the porter, who seemed to think it quite natural, said so; and everybody was waiting for Hilton to get in, who, when she had at length grasped the situation, went to Susie, who was looking frightened and pretending to be absorbed by the sky, and with a voice shaken by passion, and a face changing from white to red, announced her intention of only going in that cart as a corpse, when they might do with her as they pleased, but as a living body with breath in it, never.
Here was a difficulty. And idlers, whose curiosity was not extinguishable by wind and sleet, began to press round, and people who had come by the same train stopped on their way out to listen. The farm boy patted the sack and declared that it was clean straw, the coachman stood up on his box and swore that it was a new sack, the porter assured the Fraeulein that it was as comfortable as a feather bed, and nobody seemed to understand that what she was being offered was an insult.
Susie was afraid of Hilton, who had been in the service of duchesses, and who held these duchesses over her mistress's head whenever her mistress wanted to do anything that was inconvenient to herself; quoting their sayings, pointing out how they would have acted in any given case, and always, it appeared, they had done exactly what Hilton desired. Susie's admiration for duchesses was slavish, and Hilton was treated with an indulgent liberality that was absurd compared to the stinginess displayed towards everyone else. Hilton was not more horrified than her mistress when she saw the farm cart, and understood that it was for the luggage and the maid. It was impossible to take her with them in what the porter called the herrschaftliche Wagen, for it was a kind of victoria, and how to get their four selves into it was a sufficient puzzle. "What shall we do?" said Susie, in despair, to Anna.
"Do? Why, she'll have to go in it. Hilton, don't be a foolish person, and don't keep us here in the wet. This isn't England, and nobody thinks anything here of driving in farm carts. It is patriarchal simplicity, that's all. People are staring at you now because you are making such a fuss. Get in like a good soul, and let us start."
"Only as a corpse, m'm," reiterated Hilton with chattering teeth, "never as a living body."
"Nonsense," said Anna impatiently.
"What shall we do?" repeated Susie. "Poor Hilton—what barbarians they must be here."
"We must send her in a Droschky, then, if it isn't too far, and we can get one to go."
"A Droschky all that distance! It will be ruinous."
"Well, we can't stand here amusing these people for ever."
"Oh, I wish we had never come to this horrible place!" cried Susie, really made miserable by Hilton's rage.
But Anna did not stay to listen either to her laments or to Hilton's monotonous "Only as a corpse, m'lady," and was already arranging with an unwilling driver, who had no desire whatever to drive to Kleinwalde, but consented to do so on being promised twenty marks, a rest and feed of oats for his horses, and any little addition in the shape of refreshment and extra money that might suggest itself to Anna's generosity.
"You know, Anna, you can't expect me to pay for the fly," said Susie uneasily, when the appeased Hilton had been put into it and was out of earshot. "That dreadful cart is your property, I suppose."
"Of course it is," said Anna, smiling, "and of course the fly is my affair. How magnificent I feel, disposing of carts and Droschkies. Now, will you please to get into my carriage? And do you observe the extreme respectfulness of my coachman?"
The coachman, a strange-looking, round-shouldered being, with a long grizzled beard, a dark-blue cloth cap on his head, and a body clothed in a fawn-coloured suit and gaiters, on which a great many tarnished silver buttons adorned with Uncle Joachim's coat of arms were fastened at short intervals, removed his cap while his new mistress and her party were entering the carriage, and did not put it on again till they were ready to start.
"Quite as though we were royalties," said Susie.
"But the rest of him isn't," replied Anna, who was greatly amused by the turn-out. "Do you like my horses, Susie? Or do you suspect them of having been ploughing all the morning? Oh, well," she added quickly, ashamed of laughing at any part of her dear uncle's gift, "I suppose one has to have heavily built horses in this part of the world, where the roads are probably frightfully bad."
"Their tails might be a little shorter," said Susie.
"They might," agreed Anna serenely.
With the aid of the porter, who knew all about Uncle Joachim's will and was deeply interested, they were at last somehow packed into the carriage, and away they rattled over the rough stones, threading the outskirts of the town on the mainland, the hail and wind in their faces, out into the open country, with their horses' heads turned towards the north. The fly containing Hilton followed more leisurely behind, and the farm cart containing the unused sack of straw followed the fly.
"We can't see much of Stralsund," said Anna, trying to peep round the hood at the old town across the lakes separating it from the mainland.
"It's a very historical town," observed Susie, who had happened to notice, as she idly turned over the pages of her Baedeker on the way down, that there was a long description of it with dates. "As of course you know," she added, turning sharply to her daughter.
"Rather," said Letty. "Wallenstein said he'd take it if it were chained to heaven, and when he found it wasn't he was frightfully sick, and went away and left them all in the fields."
Miss Leech, who was on the little seat, struggling to defend herself from the fury of the elements with an umbrella, looked anxious, but Susie only said in a gratified voice, "I'm glad you remember what you've been taught." To which Letty, who was in great spirits, and thought this drive in the wet huge fun, again replied heartily, "Rather," and her mother congratulated herself on having done the right thing in bringing her to Germany, home of erudition and profundity, already evidently beginning to do its work.
The carriage smelt of fish, which presently upset Susie, who, unfortunately for her, had a nose that smelt everything. While they were in the town she thought the smell was in the streets, and bore it; but out in the open, where there was not a house to be seen, she found that it was in the carriage.
She fidgeted, and looked about, feeling with her foot under the opposite seat, expecting to find a basket somewhere, and determined if she found one to push it out quietly and say nothing; for that she should drive for two hours with her handkerchief up to her nose was more than anybody could expect of her. Already she had done more than anybody ought to expect of her, she reflected, in going to the expense of the journey and the inconvenience of the absence from home for Anna's sake, and she hoped that Anna felt grateful. She had never yet shrunk from her duty towards Anna, or indeed from her duty towards anyone, and she was sure she never would; but her duty certainly did not include the passive endurance of offensive smells.
"What are you looking for?" asked Anna.
"Why, the fish."
"Oh, do you smell it too?"
"Smell it? I should think I did. It's killing me."
"Oh, poor Susie!" laughed Anna, who was possessed by an uncontrollable desire to laugh at everything. The conveyance (it could hardly be called a carriage) in which they were seated, and which she supposed was the one destined for her use if she lived at Kleinwalde, was unlike anything she had yet seen. It was very old, with enormous wheels, and bumped dreadfully, and the seat was so constructed that she was continually slipping forward and having to push herself back again. It was lined throughout, including the hood, with a white and black shepherd's plaid in large squares, the white squares mellowed by the stains of use and time to varying shades of brown and yellow; when Miss Leech's umbrella was blown aside by a gust of wind Anna could see her coachman's drab coat, with a little end of white tape that he had forgotten to tie, and whose uses she was unable to guess, fluttering gaily between its tails in the wind; on the left side of the box was a very big and gorgeous coat of arms in green and white, Uncle Joachim's colours; and whichever way she turned her head, there was the overpowering smell of fish. "We must be taking our dinner home with us," she said, "but I don't see it anywhere."
"There isn't anything under the seats. Perhaps the man has got it on the box. Ask him, Anna; I really can't stand it."
Anna did not quite know how to attract his attention. It seemed undignified to poke him, but she did not know his name, and the wind blew her voice back in the direction of Stralsund when she had cleared it, and coughed, and called out rather shyly, "Oh, Kutscher! Kutscher!"