THE PROFESSIONAL AUNT
By Mary C. E. Wemyss
A boy's profession is not infrequently chosen for him by his parents, which perhaps accounts for the curious fact that the shrewd, business-like member of a family often becomes a painter, while the artistic, unpractical one becomes a member of the Stock Exchange, in course of time, naturally.
My profession was forced upon me, to begin with, by my sisters-in-law, and in the subsequent and natural order of things by their children—my nephews and nieces.
Zerlina says it is the duty of one woman in every family to be an aunt. By that she means of course a professional aunt. She says she does not understand the longing on the part of unattached females—the expression is hers, not mine—for a larger sphere of usefulness than that which aunt hood offers. She considers that it affords full scope for the energies of any reasonably constituted woman; and no doubt, if the professional aunt was all that Zerlina says she should be, she would have her time fully occupied in the discharging of her duties.
Zerlina cannot see that it is not exactly a position of a woman's own choosing, although under strong pressure she has been known to admit that there have been cases in which women have been made aunts whether they would or no; and she thinks it is perhaps by way of protest against such usage that they so shamefully neglect their duties in that walk of life to which their bothers and sister-in-law have seen fit to call them.
Of course, when an aunt marries, she loses at once all the perfecting of the properly constituted aunt; and that is a thing to be seriously considered. Is she wise in leaving a profession for which all her sisters-in-law think she is admirably fitted, for one which the most experienced pronounce a lottery?
This is all of course written from Zerlina's point of view. She requires of a professional aunt many things. She must, to begin with, remember the birthdays of all her nephews and nieces, of Zerlina's children in particular. If she remembers their birthdays, it stand to reason, Zerlina's reason, that the sequence of thought is—presents.
The really successful aunt knows the particular taste of each nephew and niece. She knows, moreover, the exact moment at which the taste changes from a love for woolly rabbits to a passion for steam engines. Instinct tells her at what age a child maybe promoted, with safety, from wool to paint, and she knows the critical moment in a boy's life when a Bible should be bestowed. It usually, or perhaps I should say my experience is that it usually, follows the first knife, an ordinary two-bladed knife, and comes the birthday before a knife—"with things in it." The real boy must have a knife with things in it: a corkscrew,—I wonder why a corkscrew?—a buttonhook, a thing to take stones out of horses' hoofs, a thing to mend traces with—I know I am ignorant of the technical terms—but the hardest-hearted shop-assistant will never fail to help a professional aunt in the choice of a knife, unless by chance he should be unhappy enough never to have been a boy, and such cases are rare.
I used often to wonder why boys wanted all these things. Now I know, because I asked Dick and he said, "You see, Aunt Woggles, I use them for other things." I am not sure that most of us don't do the same thing with many of our most cherished possessions in life.
As regards steam-engines Zerlina lays down a distinct law. They must never burst—that is an injury no sister-in-law would ever forgive—and paint must never come off. If Zerlina had known and loved the taste of crimson lake in the days of her youth, she would never draw so hard and fast a line.
From the earliest moment in a baby's career, the professional aunt takes upon herself serious responsibilities. She may not, for instance, like any ordinary aunt, pass the baby in his perambulator, out walking. Any other aunt may, with perfect propriety, say, "Hullo, duckie, where's auntie?" and pass on. She knows the danger of stopping, and seeks to avoid it. Not so the professional aunt. She realizes the danger and faces it. She knows she will have to wait, for the sake of the child's character, until he shall choose to say, "Ta-ta."
He will probably, if he is a healthy child, say everything he knows but that. He will go through his limited vocabulary in a pathetically obliging manner, making the most beautiful "moo-moos" and "quack-quacks," but he will not say, "Ta-ta." Why should he? On persuasion, and more especially if the interview should take place at a street-corner on a windy March day, he will repeat the "moo-moos" and "quack-quacks" even more successfully than before, and he will wonder in what way they fall short of perfection, since he earns no praise. He likes to be rewarded with, "Kevver boy." We all do, just as a matter of form, if nothing else. Surely ordinary politeness demands it.
He will not say, "Ta-ta," though. Who knows but what it is innate politeness on his part and his way of saying, "Oh, don't go! What a flying visit!"
However, the professional aunt cannot be sure of this, although she can guess; so she must wait patiently, for the sake of Baby's morals and nurse's feelings, until he does say, "Ta-ta." We may suppose that he at last loses his temper and says it, meaning, no doubt, "For goodness sake, go!" if not something stronger. The nurse is satisfied, the aunt is released, and the conscientious objector is wheeled away.
Besides ministering to the soul of a baby the aunt must tend to its bodily needs, and for this reason she must be a good needlewoman.
Before the arrival of the first nephew or niece, when she is very unprofessional, she will hastily put her work under the sofa or behind the cushion when any one comes into the room. As she grows older and more professional, and the nephews and nieces become more numerous, she will give up hiding her work. People who are intimately connected with the family will show no surprise, and to inquisitive strangers, unless she is very religious, she can murmur something about a creche, so long, of course, as Zerlina is not there.
The really successful aunt, one who is at the top of her profession, can perfectly well be trusted to take all the children to the Zoo alone; that is to say, without a nurse, and of course without the mother. The mother knows how pleased and gratified an aunt feels on being given the entire charge of the children. The nurse is gratified too; in fact every one is pleased, with perhaps the exception of the aunt. But it is against professional etiquette for her to say so. She only wonders why mothers think a privilege they hold so lightly—taking the children to the Zoo—should be so esteemed by other women. But as the old story goes, "Hush, darling, hush, the doctor knows best," so must we say,—"Mothers know best."
Another qualification in a professional aunt, desirable if not indispensable, is tact. If she should be possessed of ever so little, it will save her a considerable amount of bother. She won't, in a moment of mental aberration, praise dark-eyed children to Zerlina, whose children have blue eyes. Should she do so, by some unlucky chance, it would take several expeditions to the Zoo, and probably one to Kew, before things were as they were. If Zerlina, however, should, by the expedition of the aunt and children to Kew, be enabled to do something she very much wanted to do, and couldn't, because the nurse's father was ill, and the nursery-maid anemic, the little misunderstanding will have disappeared by the time the aunt returns from Kew, and Zerlina will say, after carefully counting the children,—it is this mathematical tendency in mothers that hurts an aunt,—"I do trust you implicitly with the children, dear. You know that; it isn't every one I could trust; you are so capable! I wish I were, but one can't be everything. Of course you don't understand a mother's feelings."
I sometimes wonder why Zerlina always says this to me. I have never pretended to be anything but an aunt.
But to return to my profession. As the children grow older the duties of the aunt become more arduous. For the benefit of schoolboy nephews with exeats, she must have an intimate acquaintance with the Hippodrome, any exhibition going, every place of instruction, of a kind, or amusement. She must be thoroughly up in matinees, and know what plays are frightfully exciting, and she must have a nice taste in sweets. She need not necessarily eat them; it is perhaps better if she does not. But she must know where the very best are to be procured. She must never get tired. She must love driving in hansoms and going on the top of 'buses. She must know where the white ones go, and where the red ones don't, although a mistake on her part is readily forgiven, if it prolongs the drive without curtailing a performance of any kind. This requires great experience. She must set aside, moreover, a goodly sum every year for professional expenses.
The foregoing are a few of the qualifications which Zerlina thinks essential in aunts. There are others, and the greatest of them is love. Zerlina forgot to mention that.
But Diana! That is another story. Open the windows wide, let in the fresh air, the whispering of trees, the song of the birds, and all that is good and beautiful in nature. The very thought of Diana is sunshine. She is as God meant us to be, happy and good, believing in the goodness of others, slow to find evil in them, quick to forgive it, infinitely pitiful of the sorrows of the suffering. This is Diana, and she has three children, Betty, Hugh, and Sara. Allah be praised!
You do not imagine that I dislike Zerlina, do you? I should be sorry to give that impression. But a professional aunt must be above all things absolutely straightforward and truthful.
I had been engaged for weeks to go to Hames for the first shoot, and an urgent telegram from Zerlina, followed by a feverish letter, failed to move me from my purpose. The telegram, by the way, ran as follows: "Can you Tuesday for fortnight. Do. Urgent. ZERLINA." I wondered why Zerlina elected to leave out "come." If I had been strictly economizing, I should have saved on the "do." The letter followed in due course of time:—
Dear Betty, I have just sent a wire in frantic haste asking you to come [that was exactly what she had not done] on Tuesday for a fortnight. I should so much like you to see something of the children, and Baby really is very fascinating. She is such a fat child, much fatter than Muriel's baby, who is six months older. The fact is, Jim is rather run down; nothing much, of course, but I think a change would do him good, and the Staveleys have asked us to go to them, and I don't like to refuse, and we thought it would be such a good opportunity to have my bedroom re-papered and painted. I don't believe you would smell the paint, and in any case I believe there is some new kind of paint which smells delicious, like stephanotis, I am told, so I will order that. I would not ask you to come just as we are going away, because I should like to be at home to see you, but I could go away so happily if you were with the children; I often think for a woman without children, you are so wonderfully understanding, about children, I mean. You could manage nurse, too, I am sure. She is in one of her moods just now, and I feel I must get away from all worries for a little.
P. S.—Jim is so well, and would send his love if he were here.
I telegraphed back, of course, directly I got Zerlina's telegram, saying I could not come, and answered the letter at leisure. It is as a sister-in-law in relation to the aunt that Diana particularly shines. This aunt she looks upon as something more than useful, and asks her to stay at other times than when the children have measles, and whooping-cough, or the bedroom is to be re-papered. Zerlina perhaps is unfortunate. She says, "Have you ever noticed how the children always have something when you come to stay?" Zerlina is quite pretty when she puts her head on one side. I answer, "Yes, Zerlina, I have noticed it curiously enough," but I do not say that I suspect that at the very first sound of a cough, at the very first appearance of a rash, this aunt is urged to come and stay.
Diana accepts such services; the mother of such creatures as Betty, Hugh, and Sara is forced to do so by very reason of their existence. But those services she accepts with generous appreciation; not that an aunt wants thanks, but being human, pitifully so, even the most professional of them, she is conscious where they are not expressed, in some form or other. A smile is enough.
So to Hames I went, in spite of Zerlina's appeal, with treasures deep down in my box for Betty, Hugh, and Sara. Sara is of all babes in the world the most fascinating, say sisters-in-law other than Diana what they will. As a tribute to this fascination, the largest white rabbit, woolly to a degree undreamed of—at least I hoped so—in Sara's world, was carefully packed in my box, wrapped cunningly in tissue-paper, and guarded on all sides by clothing of a soft description. I have known a chiffon skirt put to strange uses in the interests of Sara.
I found the carriage waiting for me, and was touched to see that Croft, the old coachman, had come to meet me himself. It is an honor he does the family with perhaps two or three exceptions. When he comes to meet me, there is a regular program to be gone through. It varies only in a very slight degree and begins like this:—
I say, "Well, Croft, it is very nice to see you," and he says, "The same to you, miss, and many of them." He then begins to "riminize"; the word is his own. He begins with the auspicious day on which I was born, and describes how he himself went to fetch the doctor in the dead of the night. He describes minutely his costume and the part the elements played on the occasion; they were evidently very much upset. He then goes on to say how he held me on my first pony, and taught me to ride and drive. Having finally certificated me as competent to drive a pair of horses under any circumstances, I ask how the children are, Sara in particular. Here Croft looks heavenward, and says she looks a picture, and adds that she looks very like me. The footman knows that here the program is at an end, Croft having no greater praise to bestow on mortal woman, and he opens the carriage door and I get in.
Diana knows what it is to travel t he distance of three miles in the suffocating embraces of Hugh and Betty; otherwise she would probably have sent the children to meet me.
The smell of the brougham brought my childhood vividly back to me. I shut my eyes and instinctively put out my hand; and that hand that was always held out to us as children took mine in its loving clasp, and I was a child again, home from a visit, so glad to feel that hand again and to see that mother from whom it was agony to be parted, for even a short space of time.
When I arrived at Hames, Diana, tall, fair, and beautiful as a Diana should be, was on the doorstep to meet me. Diana, by the way, had been christened "Diana Elizabeth," in case she should have turned out short and dumpy and, by some miraculous chance, dark. I looked for Sara in the tail of Diana's gown,—I am afraid this is a literary license, as Diana does not wear tails to her gowns in the country as a rule,—but Sara was not there.
"She is not there," said Diana. "The children are in the wildest state of excitement, and will you faithfully promise to go up and see them directly you have had tea?"
I would willingly have gone then and there, and murmured something about my box, and Diana said she hoped I had not brought them anything.
"Oh! nothing," I said; "only the smallest things possible"; knowing all the time that the woolly rabbit was, of its kind, unrivaled. But these are professional expenses, and what I spend does not afterwards give me a moment's worry. I have seen David, on the other hand, speechlessly miserable after buying a mezzotint, for the time being only, of course; the joy cometh in the morning, when Diana proves to him that it was the only thing to do, and that it was really quite wonderful, the way in which he was led to buy it. He had had no idea of doing so. Not the slightest! And yet something within him urged him to buy it. Absolutely urged him!
Then, Diana said, it was clearly meant. If a man deliberately set out on a fine morning, bent on spending more than he could afford, then—! Diana's "then" is always so comforting.
I am so afraid you will spoil the children, she said; "they expect presents, which is so dreadful. Hugh bet sixpence at lunch that you would bring him something, and he said to poor Mr. Hardy, You didn't."
"But he will next time, Diana," I said.
"Of course he will; that is the dreadful part of it."
It is right that Diana should feel like that. A mother's point of view and another's, an aunt's, for instance, are totally different things, and I told Diana that, while fully appreciating her anxieties regarding the characters of her children, considered that to destroy a child's faith in an aunt was little short of criminal. But I promised that the next time I came I would, perhaps, not bring them anything. "But I shall give them fair warning."
Diana admitted the justice of this, and she said, with a sigh of relief, "I can't bear the children to be disappointed; a disappointed Sara is—"
"Diana," I interrupted, "is it wise to begin Saraing at this time of day?"
In reality the woolly rabbit was tugging at my heartstrings and clamoring to be unpacked. After a hurried tea, which I was obliged to have for the sake of Bindon's feelings, I went upstairs, resolved to disinter at all costs, without delay, the rabbit. I felt great anxiety lest in transit the machinery which made the rabbit squeak in a way that surely no rabbit, mechanical or otherwise,—particularly the otherwise, I hoped,—had ever squeaked before, might be impaired; happily it was not.
Having carefully shut the door and silenced the attendant housemaid, I took the precaution of burying the rabbit partially under the eider-down quilt before testing the squeak, so that no noise should reach the children. I am afraid I "mothered" the squeak of that rabbit if I imagined it could reach anywhere so far; it was in reality such a very small one. But such as it was, it was perfect, in spite of the deadening effect of the quilt, and I pictured Sara's dimples dimpling. How she would love it! The treasure was carefully wrapped up again, and I tried hard to make it look like anything rather than a rabbit, in case Sara should try, by feeling it, to discover its nature.
Jane, the housemaid, said that no one could tell, no matter how much they tried; if they tried all day, they wouldn't, that she knew for sure; which was very consoling.
I then examined Hugh's train and Betty's cooking-stove, and found them intact, with, the exception of a saucepan lid. This, after a search, we found under the wardrobe. Why do things always go under things? Jane didn't know—she only knew they did. Then I opened the door and called.
Suddenly I heard a noise unearthly in its shrillness: it was Hugh calling his Aunt Woggles. He threw himself into my arms, keeping one eye, I could not help noticing, on the parcels. During the hug, which gave him plenty of time to make up his mind, he evidently decided which was for him; for he relaxed his hold and went to the table by the window, on which the parcels lay, whistling in as careless a manner as a boy bursting with excitement could do. First of all he stood on one leg, then on the other, and looked knowingly at me out of the corner of his eye. He was too honest to pretend that he thought the parcel was for some other boy, since there was no other. When the excitement became more than he could bear, he sang in a sing-song voice, "I see it, I see it!"
"Open it, then," I said, which he proceeded to do with great energy, if with little success.
"I b'lieve it's a knife with things in it," he said.
My heart sank. "Oh, it's much too big for a knife, Hugh," I replied.
"I 'spect it is, all the same," he said with a nod; "you've made it big on purpose; I positively know you have."
At last it was opened, and I said, aunt-like, "Do you like it, Hugh?"
"Awfully, thanks." Then he added a little wistfully, "Tommy's got a knife with things in it, a button'ook."
Perhaps he saw I looked disappointed, for he added magnanimously, "I like trains next best, Aunt Woggles; only you see I didn't exactly pray for a train, that's why. What's Betty's?"
"Betty must open it herself."
"Don't you suppose," he said, "that she would like me to open it for her, because it is a hard thing opening parcels—and Betty says I may always open all her parcels when she is out."
"Hugh!" I exclaimed.
He rushed to the door. "Come on, Betty," he shouted. "Aunt Woggles wants you."
If Betty's entrance was less tempestuous than Hugh's, her embrace was not less ecstatic. She put her arms round my neck and took her legs off the ground,—a quite simple process, and known to most aunts, I expect. The ultimate result would, no doubt, be strangulation. No one knows, of course, but among aunts it is a very general belief. Unlike Hugh, Betty kept her eyes religiously away from parcels, and she got very pink when I drew her attention to the very nobly one which was hers. Hugh stood by, urging her to open it, and offering to help her; but this Betty would not allow, and she opened it, her lips trembling with excitement.
"Is it for my very own?" she whispered.
"Absolutely for your very own, Betty," I answered.
"Oh!" said Betty. "Hugh, it's all for my very, very own; Aunt Woggles says so; but you may play with it when you are very good."
This in Hugh's eyes seemed so remote a contingency as to be scarcely worth consideration.
When the cooking-stove stood revealed in all its glory, Betty was silent for a moment; then she said in a voice choked with emotion, "I shall cook dinners for you, all for your very own self—nobody else."
My heart sank. "You will eat the things, won't you?" she asked, "if I make proper things, just like real things?"
"Of course," I said. "Where's Sara?"
"She wouldn't have her face washed," said Betty, "so she's waiting till she's good."
Poor Sara! A strict disciplinarian is Betty!
The regeneration of Sara was evidently a matter of moments only, for the words were hardly out of Betty's mouth when Sara, in all her clean, delicious dumpiness, appeared in the doorway. If there is one thing more delicious than a grubby Sara, it is a clean Sara. Sara after gardening is delicious, but Sara clean is assuredly the cleanest thing on God's earth. I have never seen a child look so new, and so straight out of tissue-paper, as Sara can look. She stared solemnly at her Aunt Woggles, and then proceeded to walk away in the opposite direction, which was an invitation on her part to me to follow and snatch her up in my arms. She bore the hug stoically for a reasonable time, and then said, "Oo 'urt."
I realized, with the agony of remorse, that a very large aunt can by means of a brooch inflict exquisite torture on a very small niece.
She wriggled herself free and began to rearrange her ruffled garments. "Yaya's got noo soos," she announced; "ved vuns."
"No, blue, darling," I said.
"Ved," said Sara.
"No, sweetest, blue," I repeated in a somewhat professional but wholly affectionate manner.
"Ved," said Sara with great decision; so I gave it up.
"Sara always thinks blue is red," said Betty; "don't you, darling?"
"No, boo," replied Sara; so the matter dropped.
"Oo's tummin' to see Yaya's toys," said Sara.
"Am I, darling? When?"
"But Aunt Woggles has got something for you," I said in a triumphant voice.
Sara showed no interest and pulled me by the hand toward the door.
"Hand me that, Betty," I said, pointing to the parcel on the table.
Betty handed it to me.
"Here, Sara," I said, "I have got a darling white rabbit for you! Sara! A bunny!"
"Yaya's got a blush upstairs, a lubbly blush," she said, disdaining even to look at the parcel. I held it toward her, undid it, I squeaked the squeak, I called the rabbit endearing names; but to no purpose. Sara looked the other way. A look I at last persuaded her to bestow upon the rabbit; but she gazed at its charms, unmoved.
"Yaya doesn't yike nasty bunnies, only nice blushes," she said.
"It's a hearth-brush dressed up," whispered Betty, "and it's dressed up in my dolly's cape, at least in one of my dolly's capes; she loves it. Aunt Woggles, do you think it is a good thing to make hearth-brushes say their prayers? Sara does."
I followed Sara disconsolately to the nursery and was shown the beauties of the "lubbly blush."
Nannie bemoaned her darling's taste, and the nursery-maid blushed for very shame.
"Not but what it's quite clean, miss," Nannie said; "it's been thoroughly washed in carbolic."
Meanwhile Sara was rocking herself backward and forward in a manner truly maternal and singing her version of "Jesus Tender" to her "lubbly blush."
"I thought she would love the rabbit," I said, and Nannie, by way of consolation, assured me that there was really nothing Sara loved so much as a rabbit. I suppose Nannie knew, and that it was only another instance of the folly of judging from appearances.
"You will love your bunny, won't you, darling?" said Nannie; "nice bunny!"
"Nasty bunny," said Sara with great decision.
"That's naughty, baby," said Nannie; "nice bunny!"
"Naughty bunny," said Sara, "vake Yaya's yubbly vitty blush." And she resumed her singing with religious fervor.
Nannie was really quite upset, and apologized for her charge. I accepted the apology and resolved then and there to send the despised rabbit to the Children's Hospital by the next post. Have you ever given a toy-balloon to a child, and had the child say, "Balloons don't amuse?" I have.
Nannie then, by way of consolation, suggested that Sara should say her prayers at my knee. It was the greatest compliment she could pay any one. Sara consented after much pressure, and she knelt down and proceeded to pack up her face. No other word to my mind describes the process. First of all she shut her eyes tight. To keep them tight seemed to require a great physical effort; this was done by tightly screwing up her nose. Next she proceeded to gather her eyebrows into the smallest possible compass, and then she drew a deep breath, folded her small hands, and started off at a terrific pace, "Gaw bess parver yan muvver yan nannie yan hughyan betty yan dicky an aunt woggles yan ellen yan emma yan croft—yan blusby yan all ve vitty children yan make dem velly good boys yan make my nastyole bunnyagoodgirl. May Yaya get up?"
"Not yet, baby, think," said Nannie.
Sara thought, and then with a fresh access of solemnity repeated an entirely new version of the Lord's Prayer. Nannie understood it evidently, for at a point quite unintelligible to me, Nannie said, "Good girl!" and Sara jumped up.
Nannie told me that nothing would induce Sara to pray that she might be made good. She was always very ready to make such petitions on the behalf of Betty and Hugh, but for herself, no. She is not like Betty, who at her age prayed, "Dear God, please make me a good little girl, but if you can't manage it, don't bother about it; Nannie will soon do it."
Difficult and tedious as the task may have appeared to Betty, I think it was assuredly within the power of God to make her good without the intervention of Nannie. Dear Betty!
Sara was then put to bed, and while Nannie brushed her hair, Sara brushed the hearth-brush's hair. Sara was very anxious to have it in her bath with her, but here Nannie was firm.
Later the hearth-brush was dressed in a nightgown and laid beside Sara in her little bed. The last thing she did before going to sleep was to gaze at her darling "blush" with rapture and say, "Nasty—'ollid—bunny!"
Her eyelashes fluttered and then gently fell on her cheek, as a butterfly hovers and then settles on the petal of a rose.
"Leave it here, miss," said Nannie; "she'll see it when she wakes."
I left the despised bunny and went to dress for dinner. Betty was waiting for me outside. "Is the cooking-stove for my very own self, Aunt Woggles?"
"Absolutely, Betty. Why?"
"Only because Hugh wondered if it wasn't or him, too. He only wondered, and I said I didn't suppose one present could be for two people, because then it wouldn't be such a very real present, would it?"
I said, "Of course not"; and I told her the story of the two men who owned one elephant, and one man said to the other: "I don't know what you are going to do with your half; I am going to shoot mine!"
"And did he, Aunt Woggles?" asked Betty, her eyes wide with horror.
"I wonder," I said. "I'll race you to the end of the passage."
"I won," cried Betty. "No, we both of us did," she added, slipping her hand into mine.
That evening Diana told me that a few days before, she had heard the following conversation between Hugh and Betty:
"I am going to shoot my cock."
"Hugh!" said Betty, "don't, it's a darlin' cock."
"But it doesn't lay eggs," said Hugh.
"I don't think cocks are supposed to lay eggs," said Betty thoughtfully.
"Well, I don't see why they shouldn't," said Hugh; "widowers have children."
Suppose all aunts, that is to say, all professional aunt, know what it is to be visited at seven o'clock in the morning by nephews and nieces, fresh, vigorous, and rosy after a night's rest. Fresh, and oh! so vigorous and deliciously rosy were Hugh and Betty when they appeared at my bedside at seven o'clock the next morning.
"Hullo!" said Hugh, "we've come. May we get into your bed? I'll get up steam and take a long run and jump in. Shall I?"
I braced myself up for the shock. There is no need to go through the morning's program; I suppose every aunt knows it. Bears, camel-rides, robbers, and various other things, all of a distinctly energetic nature. At half past seven-you see it doesn't take long, any aunt can bear half an hour—Nannie appeared, carrying a deliciously rosy Sara with her hair done on the top, which makes her more than ever fascinating; and in her arms she carried her bunny—Sara's arms, I mean, of course. "Nice bunny," she said.
"Who gave you your bunny?" I asked.
"Jesus!" said Sara, triumphantly nodding her head and opening her eyes very wide. "Jesus makes all ve bunnies, and all ve vitty dickey birds, and all ve vitty fowers, and all ve big fowers and all ve ponge cakes, and Yaya."
"And what is Sara going to do with her bunny?" I asked.
"Vuv it," she said with ecstasy.
"Shall I leave her?" asked Nannie.
"What a foolish question, Nannie!" I said. "Could any one send away a blue dressing-be-gowned Sara?"
"And shall I take the others, miss?"
"Do," I replied.
They went and left me in sole possession of Sara.
"Shall I tell Sara a story?" I said. She nodded her head.
"A storlie all about bunnies."
So I began, "Once upon a time there was a big bunny."
"A vitty bunny," said Sara.
"A little bunny," I said. "Once upon a time there was a little bunny."
"A velly, velly vitty bunny," said Sara.
"Once upon a time there was a very, very little bunny," I repeated, emphasizing the "very, very little," as Sara had done. She cuddled into the bedclothes, evidently quite satisfied with the beginning as it now stood. "And the very, very little bunny lived in a nice hole—"
"A nice bed," said Sara, "a velly nice bed and not in a vitty bed, but in a velly big bed, a velly, velly big bed with Aunt Woggles."
"In a nice big bed with Aunt Woggles," I said, "and he was a very good little bunny."
At this Sara rose in the bed and looked at me very severely.
"Did he say his palayers eberly day?" she asked.
"No, not prayers, darling. Bunnies don't say prayers; children say prayers."
"Naughty bunnies!" said Sara with great severity.
Dreading a religious discussion, which Sara loves, I proposed changing the story to "The Three Bears." She acquiesced with jumps of joy up and down, just where one would not choose to be jumped upon, and said, "Ve felee belairs."
Here I fared no better: my version of the story was so hopelessly wrong, and I received such crushing correction at the hands of Sara, that I was glad to relinquish my office of story-teller and suggested that she should tell a story instead.
This was evidently what she had wanted to do all along, for she began at once. She tells a story very much as she says her prayers, at the same terrific pace certainly. First of all she swallowed and took a deep breath, then she began, "Vunce there was a vitty blush—and not a bad nasty blush—it said its palayers ebery morning an nannie said good girly an then the blush vent to sleep in a vitty bed with Yaya."
"Go slower, darling," I said. "Aunt Woggles can't quite understand."
"Yan—ven—Yaya—voke up ve vitty—belush said, 'Good-morning,' yan Yaya said, 'Good-morning,' yan it was a nice bunny yan not a nasty bunny any more."
Here Sara's thoughts were distracted, and the story ended abruptly for want of breath, or possibly of story. She refused to go on, and when pressed said with great decision, "Dey's all dead."
She then had her share of camel-rides and bears, and by the time Nannie came I began to feel that I had earned my breakfast. I was one of the first down, and Bindon was evidently waiting for me, because as I went into the dining-room he took up his position behind a certain chair, which action on his part plainly indicated that I was to sit there. I wondered why. Could it be that I had arrived at the age when it is advisable for a woman to sit back to the light at breakfast? Was this only another instance of Bindon's devotion to us all? That the credit of the family is paramount in his mind, I know! All this flashed through my mind, but I saw a moment later that it was not of my complexion that Bindon thought, for on a plate before the chair behind which he stood, lay a small dark gray wad about the size of a five-shilling piece. I hesitated, and Bindon said in an undertone, "Miss Betty made it." Not a muscle of his face moved.
I sat down and gazed at the awful result of my present to Betty. The—what shall I call it?—was gray, as I said before; it had a crisscross pattern on it, deeply indented, and snugly sunk in the middle of it was a currant. I sighed. My duty as a professional aunt was clear: had I not in a moment of weakness said I would eat anything Betty made, provided it was a proper thing? Had I here a loophole of escape? No, it was certainly, according to Betty's lights, a most proper thing. But why does dough, in the hands of the cleanest child, become dark gray?
Bindon, having done his duty by Betty, and not being able on this occasion to do it by both of us, made no further explanation. Like the first step, it is no doubt the first bite that costs most dearly; and while I was pondering whether to take two bites or swallow it whole, Mr. Dudley came in and sat down opposite me. He is a young man who thinks that no woman he doesn't know can be worth knowing. When by force of circumstances he comes to know a fresh one, he always tells her he feels as if he had known her all her life, and talks of a previous existence, and so gets over a difficulty. I felt that it was a tribute to Diana that he treated me so kindly, and I earned his gratitude and commanded his respect by refusing food at his hands. I said I liked helping myself at breakfast. He insisted, however, on passing me the toast. This I felt was apart from Diana altogether.
After a few moments the little gray wad attracted his attention, and his eyebrows expressed a wish to know what it was.
"Betty made it," I said.
"And what is it?"
"I wonder!" I said. "I think it must come under the head of black bread."
"What are you going to do with it?" he asked.
I answered, "Why, eat it, of course; only I can't make up my mind how. What should you say, two bites or a swallow?"
His interest was now thoroughly aroused; he had evidently never before met an aunt professionally. He looked at me solemnly and said, "You are going to eat that?"
"I am an aunt, you see," said; "a professional aunt."
"A what?" he asked.
"A professional aunt," I answered. "You are an uncle, I suppose."
"I am constantly getting wires to that effect, but I am hanged if I have ever eaten mud-pies."
"No, that is part of the profession," I said; "you see, I promised Betty."
Mr. Dudley relapsed into silence. I had given him food for reflection.
Here Betty appeared, "not to eat anything," she carefully explained. Hugh came next, followed a moment later by Sara, who was beside herself with excitement, which was centered in the blue ribbon in her hair, to which she had that morning been promoted. A red curl had become more rebellious than its fellows, and it was tied up with a blue ribbon, in the fashion beloved of young mothers. Diana dislikes any reference made to poodles.
"Yaya's got a ved vimvirn in her har," she announced.
We all expressed the keenest interest and unbounded surprise. One very well-meaning person put down his knife and fork and said he was too surprised to eat any more breakfast; whereupon Hugh said, "You needn't be so very funny, because Sara doesn't understand those sort of jokes."
Whether Sara understood it or not, it seemed to encourage her to further revelations, and she announced with bated breath, "Yaya's got ved vimvims in her—" She opened her eyes very wide and nodded very mysteriously, and was about to suit her actions to her words and disclose the ribbons in question, when Diana, with a promptitude quite splendid, administered a banana. Sara ate some with relish, paused, and said in a loud voice, subdued by banana, "jormalies." She was not going to be put off with a banana.
Betty was very much shocked, and with a face of virtuous indignation whispered in my ear, "Sara means-" I hastily stopped Betty because her whispers are louder than Sara's loudest conversation and very much more distinct. And after all there is everything in the way a word is pronounced. Without any context I think "jormalies" might pass anywhere as a perfectly right and proper word, to be used on any occasion.
Hugh, too, had something to say on the absorbing topic of ribbons, and on such a subject I thought he might safely be trusted. On what an unsafe foundation is built the faith of an aunt!
"Aunt Woggles," he said, "has got pink ribbons in her nightie; it's lovely, and she doesn't do her hair in funny little things like—"
Here David distracted Hugh's attention by telling him an absolute untruth concerning a fox to be seen out of the window. The first of April is the only day in the whole year on which the word "fox" won't take him flying to the window.
Betty, perhaps by way of changing the conversation, said, "You did eat my cake, didn't you, Aunt Woggles?"
"Of course I did, Betty."
"Don't you believe it," said Mr. Dudley.
"I always believe my Aunt Woggles," said Betty with infinite scorn. "Was it nice, Aunt Woggles?" Mercifully she didn't wait for an answer, but continued: "I lost the currant three times, but I found it all right. I thought I had trodden on it, but I hadn't, because I looked on the bottom of my shoe and it wasn't there. I did have lots of currants, only when I dropped them Mungo ate them all up, except this one. He didn't eat this one because I stopped him. I said, 'Drop it, Mungo!' and he did. It was a good thing he didn't eat it, wasn't it? I made lines across, did you see? All across the cake! I made those with a hairpin. It was a good plan, wasn't it?"
Somehow or other my breakfast had fallen short of my expectations. But what I had lost in appetite I had perhaps gained in other ways, for I had until then undoubtedly existed in the mind of Mr. Dudley only under the shadow of Diana's charming personality. I now took my stand alone, as the Aunt Woggles who ate mud-pies, I am afraid; but still it is something to have a separate existence. Is it?
Diana's children are of a distinctly religious turn of mind. I think most children are, and what wonderful, curious thing their religion is! Looking back to my own childhood, I remember thinking, or rather knowing, that the Holy Ghost was a Shetland shawl. We called our shawls "comforters"; we wore them when we went to parties in the winter. "I will not leave you comfortless," could mean nothing else. To complete the illusion, we had in the nursery a picture of the Pentecost, the Holy Ghost descending in the form of a cloudy substance, not unlike a Shetland shawl. I was so sure that I was right, that I never thought of asking any one. When I grew older and told my mother, she said, "But why didn't you ask me, darling?" forgetting that when a child knows a thing it never asks; when in doubt it will ask, but not when it knows. It is a difficult and dangerous thing to shake a child's belief, and a pity, too. For if we could all believe as simply as a child does, how different it would make life! If Diana has a fault, it is that she takes her children too seriously. She thinks it is wrong to tell them, "Children should be seen and not heard," simply because they have asked a question she can't answer. Aunts have been known to do it as a last resource, on occasions of great danger.
Hugh wants to know if God put in the quack before he made the duck. It is difficult, isn't it, to answer that sort of question?
On another occasion he asked Betty if God was alive. Betty, eager to instruct, said, "My dear Hugh, God is a Spirit."
"Then we can boil our milk on him." That was a poser for Betty.
Diana was at a loss, too, when Hugh announced his intention of going to Heaven. She asked him what he would do when he got there. I thought the question a little unwise at the time. "Oh!" said Hugh, "stroll round with Jesus, I suppose, and have a shot at the rabbits."
Diana's position was a difficult one. It was this: if she told Hugh there were no rabbits in Heaven, he wouldn't pray to go there; and if she said there was no shooting in Heaven, Hugh would know for certain that his father wouldn't want to go there, and it wouldn't do for Hugh to think his father didn't want to go to Heaven. It was a difficulty, but Hugh's Heaven was or is a very real and very happy place to him. It is strangely like Hames; and isn't the home of every happy child very near to Heaven? Surely it lies at its very gates, which we could see if it was not for the mountains which intervene, those beautiful snow mountains, which foolish grown-ups call clouds.
Diana has come triumphantly out of situations more difficult, and she will no doubt surmount those connected with the spiritual upbringing of Hugh, Betty, and Sara.
It is the custom of Diana to read the Bible every morning with her children, and they resent any deviation from custom.
After breakfast on the particular Sunday over which this shooting-party extended, Hugh marched through the hall (where most of us were assembled) with his Bible under his arm, followed by Betty, carrying a smaller Bible. Hugh's seemed particularly cumbersome. He cast a reproachful glance at his mother and her guests, and said to Betty, "I will teach you, darling."
Betty said, "Can you, Hugh?" and he said, "Rather!"
Into the drawing-room he stumped, followed by the impressed Betty.
"You may come, Aunt Woggles," he said, "if you don't talk."
I promised not to talk, and sat down to write letters.
Hugh sat down on the sofa and Betty plumped down beside him. She carefully arranged her muslin skirts over her long black-stockinged legs, and then told Hugh to begin.
"What's it going to be about?" she asked.
"All sorts of things," said Hugh grandly. "Perhaps about Adam and Eve, and Jonah and the whale, and Samson and Elijah. Do you know the diff'rence between Enoch and Elijah? That's the first thing."
"No, I don't," said Betty reluctantly.
"Well, darling, you must remember the diff'rence is that Enoch only walked with God, but the carriage was sent for Elijah!"
"Was it a carriage and pair, Hugh?"
"More, I expect."
"What next, Hugh?"
"We'll just look until we find something." And Hugh opened the Bible.
"It's upside down," whispered Betty.
Hugh assumed the expression my spaniel puts on when he meets a dog bigger than himself—an expression of extreme earnestness of purpose combined with a desire to look neither to the right nor to the left, but to get along as fast as he can.
Hugh assumed an immense dignity and looked straight in front of him, just to show Betty he was thinking and had not heard what she said, while he turned the Bible round.
"Go on, Hugh," said Betty humbly, feeling it was she who had made the mistake. How often do men make women feel this!
"Now, Betty," he said, "you must listen properly and not talk, because it's a proper lesson, just like mother gives us when visitors aren't here." A pause, then Hugh said in a very solemn voice, "You know, darling, Jesus would have been born in the manger, but the dog in the manger wouldn't let him!"
I stole out of the room.
"You don't disturb us, Aunt Woggles," called out Hugh; "you truthfully don't."
Hugh had evidently told all he knew, for in a few minutes he came out of the drawing-room and joined us in the hall. "We've done!" he exclaimed; "we've had our lesson all the same."
"I am sorry, Hugh," said Diana.
He slipped his hand in hers as a sign of forgiveness, and by way of making matters quite right, I said, "You know, Hugh, mothers must look after their guests. Their children are always with them, but friends only occasionally."
Why do aunts interfere? Retribution speedily follows.
"Visitors are mostly always here," said Hugh plaintively. "When you have children of your own, Aunt Woggles, then—"
"A fox, a fox, Hugh!" cried some one.
He rushed to the window.
"That's two foxes today that weren't there when I looked," said Hugh; "I shan't look next time."
This was a desperate state of affairs; an attack might come at any time, and we should have exhausted our ammunition.
"The best thing," said Diana, "is for those who are going to church to get ready."
Betty and Hugh were of course going; Sara wanted to, but those in authority deemed it wiser that she should wait till she was older. This offended her very much, as did any reference to her age. But the decision was a wise one: she prayed too fervently, she sang too lustily, and she talked too audibly, to admit of reverent worship on the part of the younger members of the congregation, and of the older ones, too, I am afraid.
One memorable Sunday she did go to church, as a great treat; and when the hymn—"Peace, perfect peace" was given out, a beatific smile illumined her face, and with her hymn-book upside-down she was preparing to sing, when Diana said,—whispered rather—You don't know this, darling."
"Yes, I do, mummy, peace in the valley of Bong."
Betty walked to church with me. "Aunt Woggles," she said, "you know the gentleman in the Bible who lived inside the whale?"
"Yes, darling," I said, "I do remember." My heart sank at the difficulties presented by Jonah as gentleman.
"Well," she said, "what dye suppose he did without candles in the dark passages of the whale?"
Betty evidently pictured the dark passages of the whale to be what Haines used to be before electric light was installed. The whale, like a house, must be modernized to meet the requirements of the day. When Betty starts asking questions, she mercifully quickly follows one with another, and does not wait for answers. The interior economy of the whale suggested various trains of thought, and she went skipping along beside me, or rather in front of me, propounding the most astounding theories. I was quite glad when Mr. Dudley and Hugh caught us up.
"You did come along fast, old man," said Mr. Dudley.
"It wasn't me, it was you," panted Hugh. "It truthfully was, Aunt Woggles, and he wasn't going to church at all till I told him you were going. I'm awfully out of breath because he wanted to catch you up, so it wasn't me all the time."
I was sorry Hugh and Mr. Dudley had caught us up.
Mr. Dudley murmured something about "Young ruffian," and I felt it my duty as well as my pleasure to tell Hugh not to talk so much.
"I 'sect you want to sit next my Aunt Woggles, don't you?" said Hugh to Mr. Dudley; "but you can't, because I said, 'bags I sit next Aunt Woggles in church' before she came to stay, ever so long before, before two Christmases ago, I should think it was, or nearly before two Christmases ago!"
Betty's grasp on my hand tightened, and I returned it with a reassuring pressure, as much as to say, "There are two sides to every aunt in church, dear Betty; it is a comfort to know that."
"I may sit next you, mayn't I?"
"Yes, Betty," I said.
"You are very rosy, Aunt Woggles," said Hugh. "Do you love my Aunt Woggles?" he continued, dancing backward in front of Mr. Dudley.
"Of course he does," I said boldly, taking the bull by the horns. "Mr. Dudley loves even his enemies, especially on Sundays."
Hugh looked puzzled, and pondered. Before he had come to any definite conclusion as to how this affected Mr. Dudley's feelings towards me, we reached the lichgate, where we found the rest of the party awaiting us. We all separated: Diana took Betty, who gazed at me mournfully, but was too loyal to her mother to say anything; Hugh gave a series of triumphant jumps, which added pain to Betty's already disappointed expression.
In church I found myself allotted to what we call the overflow pew, which is at right angles to the family pews and in full view of them. It is the children's favorite pew only, I imagine, because they don't always sit there. Hugh sat very close to me, and kept on giving little wriggles and gazing up at me, then at Mr. Dudley, and snuggling closer to me as if to emphasize the superiority of his position over that of Mr. Dudley.
"Hugh," I whispered, "you must behave."
"He didn't sit next you, after all," he whispered.
I say whispered, but must explain that Hugh's whisper is a very far-reaching thing. He loves a victory. I hope that when he grows up he will be a generous victor. He says he is going to be a dangerous man; I can believe it.
Betty, the vanquished one, stared solemnly in front of her, not deigning to notice Hugh's triumph. What pleasure is there to children in sitting next to some particular person in church? I remember, as a child, it was a matter of earnest prayer during the week that on Sunday I might sit next, some particular person in church. "And, O Lord, if it be for my good, let me sit next the door." A child's religion is a very real thing to him, and not only a Saturday-to-Monday thing.
I looked at Betty's serious little face and wished that I could for one moment read her thoughts. Her eyes, such lovely eyes, were fixed on the preacher's face. What did his sermon convey to her? It was a particularly uninteresting one, I remember, an appeal on behalf of the curates' fund. Her eyes never left his face—such solemn, searching, truthful eyes. I think a child like Betty should not be allowed to go to church on such occasions, for what is the use of preaching against matrimony on the one hand, and that, I suppose, is what the moral of such a sermon should be,—and on the other hand holding up an incentive to matrimony in the very alluring shape of Betty? For, personally, I think Betty would be a very wonderful possession for any curate to have.
Hugh was growing restless and I was bearing the brunt of it. Nannie, feeling for me, leaned over from the back pew and said, "Don't rest your head on your Aunt Woggles."
"I came to church on purpose to rest my head on my Aunt Woggles's chest," said Hugh, again in what he calls a whisper. A moment later, he asked, "Is it done?"
It was, and he jumped up.
"May I sit next you next Sunday, Aunt Woggles?" he said, so soon as we got outside the church door.
"No, Hugh," I said.
"I bet I do, all the same," he said.
"Aunt Woggles," said Betty, as we walked home, "I collect for the prevention of children; do you suppose Mr. Dudley would give me a penny?"
"I am sure he would, darling, but it is the prevention of cruelty to children—the prevention of cruelty."
"That's such a long thing to say, Aunt Woggles, don't you suppose he would understand if I did say it a little wrong?"
"Perhaps, darling, but it is always best to say things right."
"Yes, I will, but I was only supposing, supposing I didn't."
At luncheon Diana cautioned Betty against swallowing a fish-bone. "You might die, darling, if you did."
"Then I shall swallow every single bone I can," announced Betty.
"But, darling," said Diana, "why do you say that? You don't want to die. You are quite happy, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm very happy, but I want to die, all the same."
"Oh, darling, don't say that," said Diana; "there is a great deal for you to do in this world before you die."
"Yes, but you see, darling," said Betty, "if I don't die soon, I shall be too old to sit on Jesus' knee."
Diana is very particular about the children's manners, and Hugh came face to face with a great difficulty a moment later, over his ginger beer. "If I don't say I thank you, mother doesn't like it, and if I do say I thank you, Bindon stops pouring."
In answer to a really desperate telegram from Zerlina, I left Hames hurriedly, and arrived at Zerlina's, to find her out and all the children apparently well. I was shown upstairs into the drawing-room. In Diana's house I am never "shown" anywhere; however, in Zerlina's I am, so it is no use discussing that question. The drawing-room into which I was shown was empty of furniture except for the sofas and chairs which were arranged round the room against the wall. As Zerlina's room does not err as a rule on the side of emptiness, I realized that there was going to be a party. I felt like the child who said, "There's been a wedding, I smell rice!" One knows these things by instinct.
The butler solemnly informed me that there was going to be a party, and that Miss Hyacinth would be down in a moment.
I thought it odd that Zerlina should have said nothing about a party; but then she never says anything about measles, or whooping-cough, or re-painting rooms, until I am within the doors and unable to escape. I remembered she had urged me on this occasion to come early. I sat down on a sofa and sadly fixed my gaze on the parquet floor. How different had been my arrival at Hames! My conscience smote me. I had no train, no cooking stove, no woolly rabbit in my box. But then neither was there a Hugh, Betty, and Sara. At Hames should I have sat in the drawing-room? Never! Of course I know what some people will say: that it is my fault; if I had treated the children as I treated Betty, Hugh, and Sara, it would have made all the difference; but it wouldn't, really. It is, the mother of the children who makes the difference; it is her attitude to the aunt which is adopted by the children. If Diana had been out, the house would have resounded with shrieks for Aunt Woggles. But in Zerlina's house children never shriek, people never rush to the nursery. The children are always tidied before they are brought down to see me.
Of course some people will again say, "Quite right"; and it is quite right that for such people they should be tidied; but do those people realize what a wall tidiness builds between child and grown-up? Have they ever thought what a boy feels when his mother comes down to see him at school and the first thing she does when he comes into the room is to say that his collar is dirty, or that his hands want washing? At that moment, perhaps, she lays the first brick in the wall which builds between mother and son. He is a happy boy and she a blessed mother who stand always with no wall between them. All a boy demands of his mother when she comes to see him at school is that she shall behave just like other people, and that she shall dress properly. If she can be beautiful, so much the better: it will redound enormously to his credit. Boys are very sensitive about their belongings, but when praise can be bestowed they bestow it, as in the case of Tommy, who wrote to his father, who had been down to the school to play in a match, Fathers against Sons, "Dear father, you did look odd, but you made the second biggest score."
While I was pondering over these things, the door opened and my niece Hyacinth came in.
"Hullo!" she said; "mum's out."
"So I hear," I said; "won't you kiss me?"
"Oh! I forgot," she said, twirling round on one leg and holding out a cheek to be kissed. "There's going to be a party to it."
"So I see," I said; "what sort of a party?"
"Oh! it's the end-up of the dancing class, four to seven; that's why mum asked you to come early."
"She isn't in yet?" I asked innocently.
"Oh! she's not coming," said Hyacinth, raising her eyebrows and laughing; "she always has something to do on dancing days. The Frauleins get on her nerves. They sit all round the room."
And Hyacinth indicated the position of the Frauleins with a sweep of her arm.
"What time is it now?" I asked.
"Half past three," she said; "I'm ready."
"I'm not," I said savagely.
I went upstairs, vowing vengeance on Zerlina. I could have shaken Hyacinth, poor child, and why? Because her legs were too long, or her skirts too short, or the bow in her hair too large? What a disagreeable, cross-grained professional aunt I was! Or did I miss the hug Hyacinth might have given me?
I was only just ready when the children began to arrive. I flew downstairs and found not only children in every shape and form, but mothers in big hats and trailing skirts, and Frauleins in small hats and skirts curtailed, mademoiselles and nannies. The nannies I handed over to the nursery department, and the mothers and the Frauleins and the mademoiselles I arranged in a dado round the room, making inappropriate remarks to each in turn. No surprise was expressed at the absence of Zerlina.
The children began to dance. There was a particularly painstaking little boy in a white silk shirt and black velvet knickerbockers, very tight in places, who danced assiduously, looking neither to the right nor to the left. "Right leg, To-mus, left leg, To-mus!" came in stentorian tones from a Fraulein in the corner, who suited her actions to her words by the uplifting of the leg corresponding to that recommended to Tomus's consideration, and bringing it down with emphasis on the parquet floor.
By the sudden quickening of leg-action on the part of my painstaking friend, I knew him to be Tomus, and by that only, so many of the boys looked as if they might be Tomus. The real Tomus asserted himself manfully, however, by using the exactly opposite leg to that ordered by Fraulein. I liked this spirit of independence, and determined to make friends with him so soon as that dance should be over. I took the liberty of introducing myself; he made no remark but took me by the hand and led me out on to the landing, and there he found two chairs in the orthodox position. Into one of these he wriggled himself by a backward and upward movement, and I sat in the other. How absurdly easy it is for a grown-up to sit down! I waited for Thomas to make a remark; I might be waiting still, if I had not made a beginning. He looked at me under his eyelashes, and tried not to smile. It was an effort, I could see, and I could tell just where the dimples would come. When the effort became too great and the dimples asserted themselves beyond recall, he looked away and put out a minute portion of his tongue. Having done that, he subsided into grave self-possession.
I began to feel embarrassed, and asked him how old he was. He smiled. "Do you like dancing, Thomas?" I said.
He looked away, and every time I addressed him he seemed to retreat farther into his chair, until I had fears that he would disappear altogether from my sight. His waist-line seemed to be the vanishing-point. I made no further effort, and relapsed into silence. Thomas continued to gaze at me and smile. At last he extended a fat little hand, uncurled one by one four soft little fingers, and revealed, lying in his palm, a short screw. It was evidently his greatest treasure, for the moment.
"Is that for me, Thomas?" I asked. "Nope," he said, shaking his head.
"Is it your very own?"
"Yeth," said Thomas, drawing in his breath. He shut his little hand, put out his tongue just the smallest bit, and became serious and silent.
"Is it a present?" I asked. Having got so far, it seemed a pity not to go on. He had done me the greatest honor that a small boy can do a woman, which, by the way, was what our Nannie said when she told us that a strange man had proposed to her on a penny steamboat.
Thomas shook his head and said, "Nope."
"Did you find it?" I asked.
He nodded. "I always find fings," he said.
Beyond that I could get nothing out of him. I have not often sat out with a more embarrassing partner. To be continually stared at and never spoken to would, I think, make the boldest woman shy. There was a stolidity about Thomas that promised well for England's future. There was a steady resistance from attack that was really admirable; but I was not altogether sorry when Fraulein pounced upon him. As she led him off I heard him say, "Parties do last a long time, don't they, Leilein?"
Having lost Thomas, I sought a new partner. A tall, fair girl with wide, gray eyes, a pink-and-white complexion, a beautiful mouth, and a delicately refined nose, interested me, as I imagine she has continued to do every one who has met her. She reminded me of spring, with birds singing and flowers flowering and trees bursting, just as Diana does. As it was quite the correct thing for girls to dance with one another, I made so bold as to ask her for a dance. With the timidity of a boy just out of Etons, or perhaps I should say, of a shy boy just out of Etons, I approached her. "Right-o," she said, "let's see."
She puckered her penciled eyebrows and studied her program. "The third after the two next?"
She bowed gravely, and I said, "Thank you." I felt very young and inexperienced as I returned the bow.
"That's all right," she said. "Where shall I find you? It doesn't matter, I shall know you again"; and she had the audacity to write on her program, for I saw her do it, "white dress, red hair."
She was borne off by a triumphant boy, who looked at me as much as to say, "You're jolly well sold if you think you are going to nab this dance."
I asked a hungry-looking boy with many freckles who she was. "Oh! that's Dolly," he said; "she is a flyer, isn't she?"
"Dolly who?" I asked.
"Oh! just Dolly; that does." He looked away, looked back, hesitated, and swallowed. I, feeling that he perhaps needed the assistance a man sometimes requires of a woman, encouragement, smiled at him.
"You wouldn't dance this, I suppose?" he said.
"Certainly," I answered.
We danced. He was a nice boy, very much in earnest, very much afraid of tiring me, very much afraid of letting me go, too shy to stop, until I suggested it, for which act of consideration he seemed grateful.
He told me he had five brothers, all older than himself; that he never had new trousers, always the other boys' cut down; that he liked school; wanted a bicycle more than anything in the world—of his very own, of course; wanted a pony of his very own; wanted a dog of his very own. He hadn't anything of his very own.
I said I supposed he thought his eldest brother very lucky.
"Because of the trousers?" he asked.
I said, "Well, yes, I suppose he has the new ones."
"Well," he said, "you see he doesn't. That's the chowse of the whole thing. He is the eldest, but you see Dick's the biggest, so he gets the new trousers. It is hard, isn't it?"
I said it was indeed.
"The best of it is," he said, "I am catching jackup. He is in an awful wax. I shouldn't be surprised if I were bigger than him next holidays. Do you like dancing? I simply loathe it—not with you, I don't mean I."
He told me many other confidences, and I was really sorry when he remembered, with an evident pang, that he had to dance with that "rum little kid over there."
I was quite certain that he would never break a promise. I could picture him going through life always keeping promises, rashly made, no doubt. I wondered what he would talk to girls about at dances years hence—trousers? Hardly. By that time he would have trousers of his very own, and they would cease, in consequence, to be things of interest.
He would be a soldier—of that I could have no doubt. He was the kind of boy England wants and can still get, thank God! say pessimists what they will.
While I was awaiting my Dolly dance, I came upon a small, disconsolate boy.
"I'm looking for an empty partner," he said.
I captured a passing girl, very small, and they danced away together. The boy I could see was very energetic, the girl was very small and fat. As they passed me I heard her say, "I—can't—go—so—fast!"
"Very sorry," said the small boy, "but I must keep up with the music."
Dolly found me. "I think I had better dance gentleman," she said; "I think I am as tall as you." With a tremendous effort she drew her slim figure to its full height, and, gazing up into my face she had the audacity to say, "Yes, I do just look down upon you; anyhow, men aren't always taller than girls. My cousin says so, and she goes to dances—heaps—and she is six foot."
We started off, I felt at once, on a perilous course. "You see," she said, "I had better—steer—because" (bump we went into somebody), "because—I dance once a week—always" (crash), "sometimes oftener—so I get—plenty of practice" (bang) "in steering, and that helps. I love dancing—don't you? Oh, that's all right—it's—only—the stupid—old mantelpiece—I always go into that—it sticks out so—doesn't it? It is hard—rather!"
Dolly was a flyer and no mistake. I was brought to a standstill at last by colliding with Thomas's Fraulein.
"It's all right," said Dolly generously, "you didn't hurt us!"
Fraulein was hurled on to a sofa and made no remark. She gave up temporarily the management of Thomas's left leg.
"Shall we sit out?" said Dolly. "It is hot, isn't it?"
She fanned herself with a very small program and tossed her hair back from her face. It was such lovely hair.
"Hair is beastly stuff, isn't it?" she said. "Wouldn't you love to be a boy? Oh, I promised mother not to say I 'beastly'; that's one of the things I would like to be a boy for, because boys may do such an awful lot of things."
I soon found out that Dolly liked boys better than girls.
She loved horses and dogs.
She hated and detested bearing-reins.
She didn't want to come out.
She thought grown-ups silly, except some—
She loved the country and strawberry ice.
She hated dull lessons, and I very soon discovered that there were none other than dull.
She collected stamps.
She longed to have a pet monkey or a brother, she didn't much mind which.
At the mention of brothers I looked down at Dolly's slim legs, clothed in fine black silk stockings, at the valenciennes lace on her muslin frock, and I imagined that if she had any brothers, the younger ones would be quite likely to have started life in trousers of their own. Yes, Dolly looked like it. I learned a great deal from her in the time it had taken me to get "yeth" and "nope" out of Thomas.
The energetic boy who had been obliged to keep up with the music at all costs, the little fat girl's in particular, came up to me, and said in an aggrieved voice, "Miss Daly has spoilt my program; she can't write, and she has written big D's all over it. Will you write me out a fresh one?"
Which I, of course, did. Really it was very careless of Miss Daly.
The children danced hard, with intervals for tea and refreshment; and as seven o'clock struck, there was a transformation scene. With conscientious punctuality the party-dressed children turned, into little or big woolen bundles, as the case might be. The last bundle I saw was a pink woolen one, weeping bitterly. My heart was wrung. The noisy crying of a child is bad enough, but when it is the soft weeping of a broken heart, it is unbearable. Of course it was my friend Thomas. I stood on the staircase unable to do anything, for he was quickly borne from the arms of Fraulein by a big footman, and no doubt deposited in a brougham in the outer darkness. Poor Thomas!
I hoped that the right sort of mother would be at home to unroll that pink bundle, a mother who would pretend that it could not be her darling who was crying, but a strange little boy with a face quite unknown to her. Where could he have come from? And so on, until Thomas would be ashamed to be seen with a strange face, and would smile, and then his mother would say, "What is it, my darling?" because, of course, it was her own darling who was crying, and she would never rest till she knew why.
I went back to the drawing-room quite happy that Thomas should be unrolled by the right sort of mother, and as I walked across the room, my foot slipped on something. I looked to see what it was I had trodden on. It was a short screw, Thomas's precious possession. "That was why the poor pink bundle was crying!"
"Hyacinth," I said, "who was Thomas?"
"Which one? There was little Thomas and the Thomas who lives a long way off, and then just plain Thomas."
"I mean the fat little Thomas who danced so hard."
"Oh! that's the little Thomas," said Hyacinth.
"Where does he live?" I asked.
"Oh, quite close; when we go to tea there we walk. He hasn't got a mother, so there's no drawing-room. She died," added Hyacinth, as if it was an every-day occurrence that Thomas should be left without a mother, instead of its being a heart-breaking tragedy. A child with no mother, no mother to unwrap the pink bundle, no mother to grieve for the screw, no mother to understand things. Perhaps his mother had been a Diana sort of mother.
"Oh, Thomas," I thought, "I must send you back your screw." I didn't care what any one said—he should have it.
If he had had a mother, it wouldn't have mattered, because she would have known it was a screw he had lost, and she would have known just what comfort he would have needed; whereas a Fraulein would know nothing about a screw, beyond the German for it, and the gender, of course. And of what use is that to a child? It may sound very unconventional, and I suppose it was so, to go to a strange house and ask for Thomas, and my only excuse a small screw. But still I went!
I pictured a lonely child in a large house with a Fraulein and a nurse, perhaps two; those I could face. A tall, sad father I had never thought of! I am afraid I am not suited for the profession, I am too impulsive.
I rang the bell. The door was opened by a solemn man-servant, who did not show the surprise he must have felt when I asked for Master Thomas. Another, still more solemn, showed me into a downstairs room. I refused to give my name, and a very large, serious Thomas rose from a chair as I was ushered in, "A lady to see Master Thomas." So my errand was in part explained, but the part left to tell was by far the most difficult. If only Thomas had lost anything but a screw! No father could be expected to know how it had been treasured. Supposing Thomas had been crying because he had a pain, which sometimes comes to children after tea? Supposing he hadn't been crying for his screw at all? Supposing he repudiated all knowledge of it?
But here I was, screw in hand, and my story to tell. I told it. I was grateful to the tall, sad Thomas for being so solemn, and not even smiling, when I mentioned the screw. He said he was very grateful for my kindness, and he went so far as to say he was sure Thomas had valued the screw.
While some one was coming, for whom he had rung, he told me that when he had taken Thomas to the Zoo, the only thing which he was really excited about was the mouse in the elephant's house! Somehow or other that little story put me at my ease, for it showed that the big Thomas at least understood in part the mind of a child.
A nurse, not sad-looking I was glad to see, came in answer to the bell, and the big Thomas asked if the little Thomas had lost a screw? In that I was disappointed, the best nurse in the world might not know of a screw. But the big Thomas did not wait to hear; he was sure the little Thomas had, and he said we were coming upstairs to restore it to him. Of course I had said by this time that I was Zerlina's sister-in-law.
We went upstairs, I following the tall Thomas, past the drawing-room, past that bedroom whose door I knew was closed. A mother's bedroom is nearly always in the same place in a London house, a child blindfolded could find it, and the handle of a mother's door is always within the reach of the smallest child; and so easily does it turn, that the door opens at the slightest pressure of the smallest fingers.
Up we went to Thomas's own bedroom. There in his bed he sat, no longer crying, but still sad and solemn, with evidences in his face of a sorrow that rankled. He smiled when he saw me, too much of a gentleman to show any surprise at seeing me in his bedroom.
"Thomas," I said, "I have brought you back your screw which you lost." I put it in his outstretched hand, and a smile rippled all over his face.
Suddenly from out the darkness came a stentorian voice, "Right hand, Tomus!" It was Fraulein! Thomas put out his right hand, and I, putting aside all convention, gave him a real "Sara hug" for the sake of that mother whose door was closed. It then began to dawn upon me how very unconventional it was of me to be hugging a comparatively strange child, in a perfectly strange house, and I hastily said good-night to the small Thomas and the big Thomas, nurses and Fraulein, and literally ran downstairs, followed of course by the big Thomas. At the foot of the stairs I ran into the arms of Mr. Dudley.
His exclamation of "Aunt Woggles" was involuntary, I felt sure, and he had every right to visit a sad, tall Mr. Thomas. But I thought Diana ought to have told me that I was likely to meet him at—Well, a stranger's house; so how could she? The only thing that consoled me was that in all probability Mr. Dudley would explain my profession in life, and that I had a screw loose. Yes, that would exactly explain the position. Otherwise I didn't exactly know how he could describe me.
Well, Zerlina of course said I was mad. She didn't agree with me that the screw could not possibly have been sent back in an envelope with a few words of explanation. She said she would have bought a nice toy for the child. What's the good of a toy to a child when he has lost a screw which he found his very own self, any more than a squeaking rabbit is to a child who has a "lubbly blush"? That was a lesson I had lately learned.
I didn't say all that to Zerlina, because, you see, she is a mother, and I couldn't understand these things. She was very much surprised at being late for the party, so surprised. She was full of apologies.
It was so good of me to help her! Had the darling children enjoyed themselves?
I said, yes, they had, and the adorable mothers, and the delicious Frauleins, and the heavenly mademoiselles. At this Zerlina looked a little pained, and I was sorry I was cross, but I felt her want of sympathy for Thomas. But then she had never passed that closed door.
As a professional aunt must live somewhere, if only to simplify the delivery of telegrams, it is as well perhaps to explain where I live and why. The answer to the where, is London, and to the why, because it is the best place for all professionals to live in. Many were the suggestions that I should live in the country. Careful relatives and good housewives saw a chance of cheap and fresh eggs, cheap and large chickens, and cheap and freshly gathered vegetables, which showed, in the words of Dr. Johnson, a triumph of hope over experience, for I have always found that there are no eggs so dear as those laid by the hens of friends, no chickens so thin as those kept by relatives, no vegetables so expensive as those grown by acquaintances. But a professional aunt would of course be expected to make special terms, although her hens, like those of other people, would eat corn, and railways would charge just the same for carrying her goods, whether they were consigned to sisters-in-law or not, and the expense of the carriage is the reason invariably given why things are so dear when bought from friends. Friends, too, have a way of sending chickens with their feathers on, whereas the chickens one knows by sight, laid in rows in poulterers' shops, have no association with feathers. Don't you dislike the country friend who asks you to spend a night, and then tells you at breakfast that the pillow you slept on was filled with the feathers of departed hens known and loved by her?
Then there was Nannie, and my living in London added a great importance to her position. She became at once chaperon, housekeeper, counselor, and friend. It was a great joy to her to think that she shielded me from the dangers of London; and she would willingly have fetched me from dinners and parties generally, and saw nothing incongruous in the announcement, "Miss Lisle's nurse is at the door."
"Not that I should be at the door," said Nannie; "I never go anywhere but what I am asked inside and treated as such." Nannie still thinks of us as children, and will continue to do so, no doubt until she who has rocked so many babies to sleep shall herself be enfolded in the arms of Mother Earth—and tenderly bidden to sleep.
Personally I had a leaning toward a flat, so many of my friends told me of the joys of shutting it up when one goes away, which, by the way, I find they never, or very rarely, do. But Nannie didn't hold with flats. It is curious what things people don't hold with. After reading of a terrible murder in a railway carriage, I cautioned my little housemaid, who was going home one Sunday, to be careful not to be thrown out of a window. She replied, "I don't hold with girls who are thrown out of windows."
Well, Nannie didn't hold with flats. To please me and to show her open-mindedness, she went with me to look at flats, but there was a tactless integrity about her criticism. I discovered that she judged of everything from a nursery point of view; and when I ventured to suggest that, as there were no children, a nursery was not of very great importance, she said, "You never can tell." In this instance I felt I could most distinctly tell, and wondered whether I might too tell Nannie of something I didn't hold with. But I didn't. I remember once long ago one of us asking Nannie if any one could have children without being married, and Nannie answered in a very matter of fact voice, "They can, dear, but it's better not." Anyhow, she didn't hold with flats. "There's the porters for one thing," she said. That, of course, settled it, and we looked at small houses.
"I suppose you will get married one of these days," she said, as we stood on a doorstep waiting to be let in.
"Perhaps no one will have me," I said.
"Well, they might; people marry you least expect to. Look at Maria Dewberry; you would never have—"
The door opened, or we will presume so, as my knowledge of Maria's movements after her surprising marriage is nil.
Looking over houses is not without excitement, and certainly not without surprises; but I was spared the experience some unknown person had who came one day to see our house when we all lived in London, but happened to be away. Having a house in the country, we very often did let the London house, which accounts for the agent's mistake.
One day, just as Archie was going out, he found on the doorstep a charming lady with a very pretty daughter.
"May we see over the house?" she asked.
"Certainly," said Archie.
He showed them all over the house, from cellar to garret. He says he initiated them into the mysteries of the dark cupboard, and he says he showed them everything of historic interest in the family. The daughter, he vows, was tremendously interested. When they had seen everything and Archie had brought them back to the hall, the charming mother said, "And when is the house to let?"
"Oh! it's not to let," said Archie.
He says he assured them it was no trouble at all, etc.!
In every small house we went, Nannie trudged laboriously up to the top, and I heard her murmuring, "Night, day," as she went backward and forward, from one room to the other. At last we found a small house in Chelsea of which she thoroughly approved. She couldn't exonerate the agent from all blame in saying that there were views of the river from the window. "Not but what there might be if we, leaned out far enough, but we can't because of the bars." It was the very bars that had attracted her in the first instance, from the outside. Bars meant a nursery. Iron bars may not make a cage, but they undoubtedly make a nursery.
She stood at the top window and looked out on the green trees, and a blackbird was obliging enough, at that very moment, to sing a love-song. Perhaps it was about nurseries, and Nannie understood it; at all events she decided there and then to take the house. "Of course," she said, "I know there's no nursery wanted, but I don't hold with houses that can't have nurseries in them, if they want to." That gave me an idea! It came like a flash. Nannie should have her nursery!
Of course this all happened some years ago, when the home at Hames was broken up. With the help of Diana I managed it beautifully. It was kept a dead secret. Diana collected, or rather allowed me to collect, all the things Nannie had specially loved in the home nursery, which I am sure cost Diana a pang, as she was very anxious her children should abide by tradition and grow up among the things their father had loved as a boy; but she sent them all, even the rocking-horse, to me for my nursery.
The walls I had papered just as our nursery had been papered. Even the old kettle was rescued from oblivion, and stood on the hob. It was so old that any jumble sale would have been pleased to have it. The kettle-holder hung on the wall, with its cat on a green ground, which had been lovely in the day of its youth. One of us had worked it; Nannie of course knew which. The tea-set was there with its green, speckled ground.
But while all this was being arranged, Nannie had a very bad time. It was not for long, certainly, but she said it was pretty bad while it lasted. To insure the complete secrecy of our nursery plan, we arranged that she should go to Hames while we were doing it all, never thinking of what she would feel on going into the Hames nursery and finding all her treasures gone, and finding another woman reigning in her place; for all through our grown-up years the nursery had been left for Nannie as it had been when we were children. The nurse in her place hurt most.
"'Mrs.' here and 'Mrs.' there, certificated and teaching. It's all very well, but I'm not sure they don't go too far in this teaching business. No amount of teaching will—Well, it's there, so what's the use? I expect Eve knew how to handle Cain right enough."
"He wasn't very well brought up, though, Nannie," I said.
"Poor child!" said Nannie. "How do we know it wasn't Abel's fault? He may have been an aggravating child; some are born so, and I've seen a child, many a time, go on at another till he's almost worried him into a frenzy just saying, 'I see you,' over and over again, does it sometimes. Children will do it, of course; besides, there were no commandments then, and you can't expect children to do right without rules and regulations. That's all discipline is, rules and regulations, which is commandments, so to speak."
"You think, then, Nannie," I said, "that Eve forgot to tell Cain not to kill Abel?"
"Well," said Nannie, "Eve had a lot to do; we can't blame her. She must have had a lot to do. Think what a worry Adam must have been: he had no experience, no nothing; he couldn't be a help to a woman, brought up as he was, always thinking of himself as first, as of course he was! Now, there's Parker—he is a good husband: he rolls the beef on Sunday to save Mrs. Parker trouble, and prepares the vegetables; he is a good husband, no trouble in the house whatsoever. He never brings in dirt, Mrs. Parker says, wipes his feet ever so before he comes, on the finest day just the same."
I thought the comparison a little hard on Adam, but still I didn't say so, and Nannie reverted to the modern nurse, after informing me that men and horses were sacred beasts!
"Well, about nurses, 'Mrs.' before a nurse's name doesn't soothe a fretful child, nor make her more patient or loving. It might make her less patient, if she took to wishing the 'Mrs.' was real instead of sham; some women are like that, all for marrying. I dare say," said Nannie, when going over her experiences, "my face did look blank when I missed all my treasures, but f said nothing, although it was a blow when I thought of all the lovely times you had had with that rocking-horse. You remember the hole in it? Well, that was cut out solid because of all the things that were inside that rocking-horse; almost all the things that had been lost for years we found in that horse. My gold chain, for one thing, to say nothing of other things. The tail came out, and that is how the things got lost. The boys, always up to mischief, just popped anything they came across down that hole and put in the tail again, so no one knew anything about it. Well, then, your father lost something very special, I forget what, and there was a to-do! And Jane said she believed there was a power of things down that rocking-horse, so we got Jane's sister's young man, who was a carpenter, or by way of being, to come and cut out a square block out of the underneath—well, the stomach—of that horse—and then we found things! Things we had lost for years. Then we put the block back, and no one would have noticed particularly, not unless they had looked. Well, that's what I missed, the rocking-horse, but still I said nothing. Then we had tea out of new cups, and still I said nothing, because tea-cups will get broken, and you can't expect young girls to take care of cups like we did. The kettle-holder was gone! Then Mrs. David came in. Oh! she is lovely and like your mother in some ways,—the ways of going round and speaking to every one,—and she laid her hand on Betty's head, just as I've seen your mother do a hundred times on yours, and that was hard to bear. Anyhow, it's a good thing it wasn't some one else who got Hames. There 's that to be thankful for. It begins with 'Z,' you know."
"Nannie!" I said.
"Z for Zebra," said Nannie.
When the new nursery was all ready, Nannie was sent for. A dozen times that day I ran up that narrow staircase, and in the morning I laid the tea to see how it would look, and it looked so pretty that I left it. At four o'clock the fire was lighted and the kettle was put on to boil. Nannie drove up in a four wheeler. I was in the hall to meet her. She lingered to look at everything. She went round and round the dining-room, up to the drawing-room, even into the spare room, but no word of nursery. "Which is my room?" she said.
"It's upstairs," I said. "Won't you come and look at it?"
"There's no hurry, is there, miss?"
I could see it was the nursery floor she dreaded.
"Well, there is rather a hurry, Nannie," I said. "I am so anxious to see if you like all the house."
At last I got her upstairs. I threw open the nursery door. It was too sudden, no doubt. At the sight of the kettle, the rocking-horse, the tea-set, she burst into tears.
"Dear, dear Nannie," I said, "it is your own nursery; it's all from Hames."
She paused in her sobs. "The robin mug's wrong," she said, and she moved it to the opposite side of the table; "he always sat there." "He" applied to a little brother who had died, not to the mug.
"It's a very small nursery, Nannie," I said apologetically.
"Well, there are no children to make it untidy," she answered.
So Nannie and I settled down in our nursery, and through the darkening of that first evening she talked to me of my mother. It seems to me very wonderful how one woman can so devotedly love the children of another, but was it not greatly for the love of that other woman that Nannie loved us so much? It is her figure, I know, that Nannie sees when she shuts her eyes and re-peoples the nursery in her dreams,—that lovely mother, the center of that nursery and home; that mother so quick to praise, so loath to blame, so ready to find good in everything, so tender to suffering, so pitiful to sin!
"Tell me about her when she was quite young, Nannie," I said.
And Nannie talked on, telling me the stories I knew by heart and loved so dearly; and then, I remember, she started up.
"What is it, Nannie?" I asked.
"I thought she was calling," she replied; "I often seem to hear her voice."
Dear Nannie! I believe she is ready to answer that call at any moment, for all the love of her new nursery.
That is how I came to live in London.
Most people, I imagine, who live in London are asked by their relatives and friends who live in the country to shop for them. My post is often nothing more upsetting than on a very hot summer's morning, or a wet winter's one, to find an envelope on my plate, or beside it, addressed in Cousin Anastasia's large handwriting. "Dearest," the letter inside it begins, "if" (heavily underlined) "you should be passing Paternoster Row, will you choose me a nice little prayer-book, without a cross on it, please; people tell me they are cheaper there than elsewhere, prayer-books, I mean, for Jane, who is going to be confirmed. She is such a nice clean girl. I do hope she will be as clean after her confirmation, but one never can tell. In any case I feel I ought to give her something, and a prayer-book, under the circumstances, seems the most suitable thing."
Jane, I remember, is a kitchen-maid. Of course I never pass Paternoster Row, but that to a country cousin of Anastasia's mental caliber is not worth consideration. She has no knowledge of geography, London's or otherwise, and is doubtless one of those people who think New Zealand is another name for Australia.
On another occasion she writes to say that Martha, the head housemaid, "such an excellent servant," (all heavily under lined), who has been with them seventeen years, is going to marry a nice, clean widower with six children. She must give her a nice present; "nice" is underlined several times. She has heard that in the Edgeware Road there are to be had, complete in case, for three-and-sixpence, excellent clocks. She doesn't know the name of the shop, but she believes it begins with "P," and if I could look in as I pass, she would be most grateful. As will be guessed, Anastasia is a wealthy woman with no sense of humor. She knows she has none, and she says she doesn't know what rich people want it for. Of course for poor people it is an excellent thing, because it enables them to look at the bright side of things; but as Anastasia's things, life in particular, are bright on all sides, she doesn't need that particular sense.
Then there is another country cousin she is so sweet and diffident about asking me to do anything, that I feel I ought willingly to look into every shop window in the Edgeware Road beginning with "P" or any other letter, however wet or hot the day! And I am not sure that I wouldn't! Her writing is as meek as Anastasia's is aggressive, and she never descends to the transparency of an underlined "if." She says, would I mind sending her a book, called so-and-so, by such and such an author, price so much? It is all plain sailing with Cousin Penelope. She knows just what she wants and where to get it; so much so that I sometimes wonder why she doesn't send straight to the shop. But country cousins never do that; for wherein would lie the use of London cousins, if they didn't shop for their country cousins? How would they occupy their time? She would like me please to get it at Bumpus's, because they are so very civil and they knew her dear father. I might mention his name if I thought fit! Now, I know quite well that it is impossible that any one at Bumpus's, be he ever so venerable, can ever have known Cousin Penelope's father. The name, being Smith, may no doubt be familiar. Of course Cousin Penelope would repay any expense I incurred. In fact she must insist on so doing.