THE THIRD MISS SYMONS
F. M. Mayor
With a Preface by John Masefield
First published in Great Britain 1913
Copyright F. M. Mayor 1913
Miss Mayor's story is of a delicate quality, not common here, though occurring at intervals, and always sure of a choice, if not very large, audience among those who like in art the refined movement and the gentle line. Her subject, like her method, is one not commonly chosen by women writers; it is simply the life of an unmarried idle woman of the last generation, a life (to some eyes) of wasted leisure and deep futility, but common enough, and getting from its permitted commonness a justification from life, who is wasteful but roughly just. Miss Mayor tells this story with singular skill, more by contrast than by drama, bringing her chief character into relief against her world, as it passes in swift procession. Her tale is in a form becoming common among our best writers; it is compressed into a space about a third as long as the ordinary novel, yet form and manner are so closely suited that all is told and nothing seems slightly done, or worked with too rapid a hand. Much that is tiresome in the modern novel, the pages of analysis and of comment, the long descriptions and the nervous pathology, are omitted by Miss Mayor's method, which is all for the swift movement and against the temptations to delay which obstruct those whose eyes are not upon life; she condenses her opportunities for psychology and platitude into a couple of shrewd lines and goes on with her story, keeping her freshness and the reader's interest unabated. The method is to draw the central figure rapidly past a succession of bright lights, keeping the lights various and of many colours and allowing none of them to shine too long. This comparatively passive creative method suits the subject; for her heroine has the fate to be born in a land where myriads of women of her station go passively like poultry along all the tramways of their parishes; life is something that happens to them, it is their duty to keep to the tracks, and having enough to eat and enough to put on therewith to be content, or if not content, sour, but in any case to seek no further over the parochial bounds. Her heroine, born into such a tradition, continues in it, partly by the pressure of custom and family habit, both always very powerful and often deadly in this country, and partly from a want of illumination in herself, her instructors, and in the life about her. The latter want is the fatal defect in her: it is the national defect, "the everlasting prison remediless" into which so many thousands of our idle are yearly thrown; it is from this that she really suffers; it is to this that she succumbs, while the ivy of her disposition grows over and smothers whatever light may be in her. Like water in flood-time revolving muddily over the choked outlet, her life revolves over the evil in it without resolution or escape; her brain, like so many of the brains in civilization, is but slightly drawn upon or exercised; she is not so much wasted as not used. Having by fortune and tradition nothing to do, she remains passive till events and time make her incapable of doing, while the world glitters past in its various activity, throwing her incapacity into ever stronger relief, till her time is over and the general muddle is given a kind of sacredness, even of beauty, by ceasing. She has done nothing but live and been nothing but alive, both to such passive purpose that the ceasing is pitiful; and it is by pushing on to this end, instead of shirking it, and by marking the last tragical fact which puts a dignity upon even the meanest being, that Miss Mayor raises her story above the plane of social criticism, and keeps it sincere. A lesser writer would have been content with less, and having imagined her central figure would have continued to stick pins into it, till the result would have been no living figure, but a record of personal judgments, perhaps even, as sometimes happens, of personal pettiness, a witch's waxen figure plentifully pricked before the consuming flame. Miss Mayor keeps on the side of justice, with the real creators, to whom there is nothing simple and no one unmixed, and in this way gets beauty, and through beauty the only reality worth having.
In a land like England, where there is great wealth, little education and little general thought, people like Miss Mayor's heroine are common; we have all met not one or two but dozens of her; we know her emptiness, her tenacity, her futility, savagery and want of light; all circles contain some examples of her, all people some of her shortcomings; and judgment of her, even the isolation of her in portraiture, is dangerous, since the world does not consist of her and life needs her. In life as in art those who condemn are those who do not understand; and it is always a sign of a writer's power, that he or she keeps from direct praise or blame of imagined character. Miss Mayor arrives at an understanding of her heroine's character by looking at her through a multitude of different eyes, not as though she were her creator, but as if she were her world, looking on and happening, infinitely active and various, coming into infinite contrast, not without tragedy, but also never without fun. The world is, of course, the comparatively passive feminine world, but few modern books (if any) have treated of that world so happily, with such complete acceptance, unbiassed and unprejudiced, yet with such selective tact and variety of gaiety. She comes to the complete understanding of Henrietta by illuminating all the facets in her character and all the threads of her destiny, and this is an unusual achievement, made all the more remarkable by a brightness and quickness of mind which give delightful life to a multitude of incidents which are in themselves new to fiction. Her touch upon all her world is both swift and unerring; but the great charm of her work is its brightness and unexpectedness; it lights up so many little unsuspected corners in a world that is too plentifully curtained.
JOHN MASEFIELD, 1913
THE THIRD MISS SYMONS
Henrietta was the third daughter and fifth child of Mr. and Mrs. Symons, so that enthusiasm for babies had declined in both parents by the time she arrived. Still, in her first few months she was bound to be important and take up a great deal of time. When she was two, another boy was born, and she lost the honourable position of youngest. At five her life attained its zenith. She became a very pretty, charming little girl, as her two elder sisters had done before her. It was not merely that she was pretty, but she suddenly assumed an air of graciousness and dignity which captivated everyone. Some very little girls do acquire this air: what its source is no one knows. In this case certainly not Mr. and Mrs. Symons, who were particularly clumsy. Etta, as she was called, was often summoned from the nursery when visitors came; so were Minna and Louie her elder sisters, but all the ladies wanted to talk to Etta. Minna and Louie had by this time, at nine and eleven, advanced to the ugly, uninteresting stage, and they owed Henrietta a grudge because she had annexed the petting that used to fall to them. They had their revenge in whispering interminable secrets to one another, of which Etta could hear stray sentences. "Ellen says she knows Arthur was very naughty, because ... But we won't tell Etta." She was very susceptible to notice, and the petting was not good for her.
When she was eight her zenith was past, and her plain stage began. Her charm departed never to return, and she slipped back into insignificance. At eight she could no longer be considered a baby to play with, and a good deal of fault-finding was deemed necessary to counteract the previous spoiling. In Henrietta's youth, sixty years ago, fault-finding was administered unsparingly. She did not understand why she was more scolded than the others, and decided that it was because Ellen and Miss Weston and her mother had a spite against her.
Mrs. Symons was not fond of children, and throughout Henrietta's childhood she was delicate, so that Henrietta saw very little of her. Her chief recollections of her mother were of scoldings in the drawing-room when she had done anything specially naughty.
If she had been one of two or one of three in a present-day family she would have been more precious. But as one of four daughters—another girl was born when she was eight—she was not much wanted. Mr. Symons was a solicitor in a country town, and the problem of providing for his seven, darkened the years of childhood for the whole Symons family. The children felt that their parents found them something of a burden, and in those days there was no cult of childhood to soften the hard reality.
The two older boys had a partnership together, into which they occasionally admitted Minna and Louie. Minna and Louie had, beside their secrets, a friend named Rosa. Harold, the youngest boy, did not want any person—only toy engines. He and Etta should have been companions, but he said she cried and told tales, though she told no more tales than he did.
A large family should be such a specially happy community, but it sometimes occurs that there is a girl or boy who is nothing but a middle one, fitting in nowhere. So it was with Henrietta, till the youngest child was born.
Unfortunately she had an almost morbid longing, unusual in a child, to be loved and of importance. Now she would have given anything to have heard Minna and Louie's secrets, not for the sake of the secrets, but as a sign that she was thought worthy of confidence. She ran everyone's errands continually, but she broke the head off Arthur's carnation as she was bringing it from his bedroom to the garden, and she let out William's secret, which he had told her in an unusual fit of affability, in order that she might curry favour with Minna. This infuriated William, and did not conciliate Minna. She grew fast and was a little delicate. It made her irritable, but her brothers and sisters, who were all growing with great regularity, could not be expected to understand delicacy. She always said she was sorry after she had been cross, but they, who did not have tempers, could not see that that made things any better.
In her loneliness she made for herself, like many other forlorn children, a phantom friend. It was a little girl two years older than she was, for Henrietta preferred to look up, and be herself in an inferior position. For this reason she did not much care for dolls, where she was decidedly the superior. She called her friend Amy. Amy slept with her, helped her with her lessons, told her secrets perpetually, and grumbled about the other children.
One day they all had a game at Hide and Seek. The lot fell on her and William, now fourteen, to hide. They ensconced themselves in a dark spot in a little grove at the end of the garden. The others could not find them, and there was plenty of time for talk. William was a kind boy and rather a chatterbox, ready to expand to any listener, even a sister of nine. Henrietta never knew how it was that she told him about Amy. It had always been her firm resolve that this was to be her own dead secret, never revealed. But the unusual warmth of the interview went to her head. It was in a kind of intoxication of happiness that she poured out her confidence. The shrubbery was so dark that William's face could not be seen, but he began fidgeting, and soon broke in: "I say, what hours the others are, it must be tea-time. Let's go and find them."
It was kind of William to snub her confidence so gently, but the disappointment was cruel. She had been lifted up to such a height of happiness. When Ellen brushed her hair at night she noticed her dismal looks, and being really concerned at Henrietta's want of control, she said bracingly that little girls must never be whiney-piney. When the lamp was put out, Henrietta sobbed herself to sleep, and she looked back on that evening as the most miserable of her childhood.
It was not long after this that the last child was born, the baby girl. They had all been sent away, and Henrietta, who had gone by herself to an aunt, came back later than the others; they had seen the new arrival, and had got over their very moderate excitement. Ellen asked Henrietta if she would like to have a peep at her little sister. When Henrietta saw it, she determined that it should be her own baby. "Oh, you little darling, you darling, darling baby!" she murmured over and over again.
"Now you are happy, aren't you, Miss Etta?" said Ellen; she had always felt sorry for Henrietta out in the cold.
The baby very much improved Etta's circumstances. Ellen allowed her to help, and she had something to care for, so she had less occasion for interviews with her phantom friend. As she grew older the baby Evelyn requited her affection with a gratifying preference, but she was very sweet-natured and would like everybody, and not make a party against Minna and Louie as Henrietta desired. She came to the pretty age, and was prettier and more charming than any of them. When the pretty age ought to have passed she remained as attractive as ever, and continued to enjoy a universal popularity. This was disappointing to Henrietta; she would have preferred them to be pariahs together. Still, it was always Etta that Evelyn liked best.
When Evelyn was four and Henrietta thirteen, Evelyn was given a canary. It never became interesting, for it would not eat off her finger, but she cared for it as much as a child of four can be considered to care for anything. The canary died and was buried when Evelyn had a cold and was in bed, and Henrietta went by herself into the town, contrary to rules, and spent all her savings at a little, low bird-shop getting a mangey canary. She brought it back and put it into the cage, and when Evelyn, convalescent, came into the nursery, she attempted to palm off the new canary as Evelyn's original bird. This strange behaviour brought her to great disgrace. Her only explanation was, "I didn't want Evelyn to know that Dickie was dead. I think death is so dreadful, and I don't want her to know anything dreadful." Mrs. Symons and the governess thought this most inexplicable.
"Etta is a very difficult child," said Mrs. Symons; "she always has been so unlike the others, and now this dreadful untruth. I always feel an untruth is very different from anything else. Going into that horrid, dirty little shop! You must watch her most carefully, Miss Weston, and let me know if there is any further deceit."
"I never had noticed anything before, Mrs. Symons, but I will be particularly careful." And Miss Weston took the most elaborate precautions that there should be no cheating at lessons, which Henrietta resented keenly, having, like the majority of girls, an extreme horror of cheating.
Soon after the incident of the canary, the three older girls went to school. When her first home-sickness was passed, Henrietta enjoyed the life. It was strict, but home had been strict, and there was much more variety here. She was clever, and took eager delight in her lessons; dull, stupid Miss Weston had found her beyond her.
She would have liked school even more if her temper had been under better control. But at thirteen she had settled down to bad temper as a habit. She did not exactly put her feelings into thoughts, but there was an impression in her mind that as she had been out of it so much of her life she should be allowed to be bad-tempered as a consolation. This brought her into constant conflicts, which made no one so unhappy as herself.
She had two great interests at school, Miranda Hardcastle and Miss Arundel. Miranda was the kind of girl whom everybody is always going to adore, very pretty, very amusing, and with much cordiality of manner. Henrietta fell a victim at once, and Miranda, who drank in all adoration, gave Henrietta some good-natured friendship in return. Henrietta fagged for her, did as many of her lessons as she could, applauded all her remarks, amply rewarded by Miranda's welcoming smile and her, "I've been simply pining for you, my child; come and hear me my French at once, like a seraphim."
This happy state of things continued until unfortunately Henrietta's temper, over which she had kept an anxious guard in Miranda's presence, showed signs of activity. The first time this occurred Miranda opened her large eyes very wide and said, "What's come over my young friend, has it got the hydrophobia? I shall try and cure it by kindness and give it some chocolate."
Henrietta's clouds dispersed, but she was not always so easily restored to good-humour; and Miranda, with the whole school at her feet, was not going to stand bad temper, the fault on the whole least easily forgiven by girls. Henrietta had a heartrending scene with her: at fifteen she liked heartrending scenes. Miranda was too fond of popularity to give Henrietta up entirely, so the two remained friendly, but they were no longer intimate.
Miss Arundel was the head-mistress's sister, and undertook all the serious teaching that was not in the hands of masters. She did not have many outward attractions of face and form, but schoolgirls will know that that is not of much importance. She was adored, possibly because she had a bad temper (bad temper is an asset in a teacher), which was liable to burst forth unexpectedly; then she was clever and enthusiastic, and gave good lessons. She marked out Henrietta, and it came round that she had said, "Etta Symons is an interesting girl, she has possibilities. I wonder how she will turn out." It came round also that Miss Arundel had said, "I only wish she had more control and tenacity of purpose," but this sentence Henrietta put out of her head. The first sentence she thought of for hours on end, and set to work to be more interesting than ever; in fact for some days she was so affected and exasperating that Miss Arundel could hardly contain herself. Still, even Miss Arundel's sarcasm was endurable, anything was endurable, after that gratifying remark.
When Miranda ceased to be her special friend, she transferred her whole heart and soul to Miss Arundel. She waylaid her with flowers, hung about in the passage on the chance of seeing her walk by, and waited on her as much as she dared. Some teachers apparently enjoy girl adorations, and even take pains to secure them. Miss Arundel had had enough of them to find them disagreeable. She therefore gave out in the presence of two or three of Henrietta's circle that she thought it was a pity Etta Symons wasted so much of her pocket-money on buttonholes which gave very little pleasure to anyone, certainly not to her, who particularly disliked strong scents; she thought the money could be much better expended.
Jessie Winsley repeated this speech to Henrietta, little thinking what anguish it would cause. Henrietta had very little pride, very little proper pride some people might have said; she did not at all mind giving a great deal more than she got. But this speech, which was not, after all, so very malignant, drove her to despair. She went to Miranda, who hugged her, and said: "Old cat! barbaric old cat! Never think of her again, she isn't worth it. Try dear little Stanley, he's a pet; men are much nicer." Stanley was the drawing-master.
But after all one must have a little encouragement to start an adoration, and as Henrietta never could draw, she got none from Stanley. Besides she was constant, so instead, she brooded over Miss Arundel. She had not been so unhappy, when she had her Miranda and her Arundel. Now she had lost them both. Miss Arundel, with her cool, unaffectionate interest, had, of course, never been "had" at all, but Henrietta had imagined that when Miss Arundel said "Yes, quite right, that's a good answer," it was a kind of beginning of friendship. She, Henrietta, small and insignificant, was singled out for Miss Arundel's friendship; that was what she thought. She did not realize that it was possible to care merely for intellectual development.
When she was prepared for Confirmation, there were serious talks about her character. The Vicar, whose classes she attended, was mostly concerned with doctrines, and Mrs. Marston with what one might call a list of ideal vices and temptations which pupils must guard themselves against. Miss Arundel talked to her about her untidy exercise books, her unpunctuality, her loud voice in the corridor, and her round shoulders, and explained very properly that inattention in these comparatively small matters showed a general want of self-control. She did not speak about bad temper, for Henrietta was much too frightened of her to show any signs of temper in her proximity. Miss Arundel did not give her an opportunity of unburdening herself of the problem that weighed on her mind, not that she would have taken the opportunity if it had occurred, not after that speech about the buttonholes. This was the problem: Why was it that people did not love her?—she to whom love was so much that if she did not have it, nothing else in the world was worth having. There had been Evelyn, it is true, but now Evelyn did lessons with a little friend of her own age, and she and the friend were all in all, and did not want Henrietta in the holidays. Henrietta reflected that she was not uglier, or stupider, or duller than anyone else. There was a large set at school who were ugly, stupid, and dull, and they were devoted to one another, though they none of them cared about her. Why had God sent her into the world, if she was not wanted? She found the problem insoluble, but a certain amount of light was thrown on it by one of the girls.
She had been snarling with two or three of her classmates over the afternoon preparation, and had flounced off in a rage by herself. She felt a touch on her arm, and turning round saw Emily Mence, a rather uncouth, clever girl, whom she hardly knew.
"I just came to say, Why are you such an idiot?"
"Yes, why do you lose your temper like that? All the girls are laughing at you; they always do when you get cross."
"Then I think it's horrid of them."
"Well, you can't be surprised; of course people won't stand you, if you're so cross."
"Won't they?" said Henrietta. "And the one thing I want in the world is to be liked."
"Do you really? Fancy wanting these girls to like you; they're such silly little things."
"I shouldn't mind that if only they liked me."
"I like you," said Emily. "Do you remember you said Charles I. deserved to have his head cut off because he was so stupid, and all the others gushed over him?"
"I don't like the other girls to laugh at you; that's why I thought I would tell you."
They walked up and down the path and talked about Charles I. Here there seemed the beginning of a friendship, but it was nipped in the bud, for Emily left unexpectedly at the end of the term. Henrietta received no further overtures from any of the girls.
Emily's words had made an impression however, and for six weeks Henrietta took a great deal of pains with her temper. For this concession on her part she expected Providence to give her an immediate and abundant measure of popularity. It did not. The Symons family had not the friend-making quality—a capricious quality, which withholds itself from those who have the greatest desire, and even apparently the best right, to possess it. The girls were kind, kinder, on the whole, than the grown-up world, and they were perfectly willing to give her their left arms round the garden, but their right would be occupied by their real friends, to whom they would be telling their experiences, and Henrietta would only come in for a, "Wasn't it sickening, Etta?" now and then. She was disappointed, and she relaxed her efforts. She had missed the excitement of saying disagreeable things. The day had become chilly without them. By the middle of the term she was as disagreeable as ever.
She very rarely received good advice in her life, and now that she had got it, she made no use of it. If she had, it might have changed the whole of her future. But from henceforth, on birthdays, New Year's Eves, and other anniversaries, when she took stock of herself and her character, she ignored her temper, and would not count it as a factor that could be modified. There were others as lonely as herself at school, there are always many lonely in a community; but she did not realize this, and felt herself exceptional. She imagined that she was overwhelmed with misery at this time, but really the life was so busy, and she was so fond of the lessons, and did them so well, that she was not to be pitied as much as she thought.
It was clear she was to be lonely at school and lonely at home. Where was she to find relief? There was a supply of innocuous story-books for the perusal of Mrs. Marston's pupils on Saturday half-holidays, innocuous, that is to say, but for the fact that they gave a completely erroneous view of life, and from them Henrietta discovered that heroines after the sixteenth birthday are likely to be pestered with adorers. The heroines, it is true, were exquisitely beautiful, which Henrietta knew she was not, but from a study of "Jane Eyre" and "Villette" in the holidays, Charlotte Bronte was forbidden at school owing to her excess of passion, Henrietta realized that the plain may be adored too, so she had a modest hope that when the magic season of young ladyhood arrived, a Prince Charming would come and fall in love with her. This hope filled more and more of her thoughts, and all her last term, when other girls were crying at the thought of leaving, she was counting the days to her departure.
Henrietta was eighteen when she left school. Minna and Louie had gone two or three years before, and by the time Henrietta came home, Minna was engaged to be married. There was nothing particular about Minna. She was capable, and clear-headed, and rather good-looking, and could dress well on a little money. She was not much of a talker, but what she said was to the point. On these qualifications she married a barrister with most satisfactory prospects. They were both extremely fond of one another in a quiet way, and fond they remained. She was disposed of satisfactorily.
Louie was prettier and more lively. She was having a gay career of flirtations, when Henrietta joined her. She did not at all want a younger sister, particularly a sister with a pretty complexion. Three years of parties had begun to tell on her own, which was of special delicacy. She and Henrietta had never grown to like one another, and now there went on a sort of silent war, an unnecessary war on Louie's side, for she had a much greater gift with partners than Henrietta, and her captives were not annexed.
But for her complexion there was nothing very taking in Henrietta. Whoever travels in the Tube must have seen many women with dark-brown hair, brown eyes, and too-strongly-marked eyebrows; their features are neither good nor bad; their whole aspect is uninteresting. They have no winning dimples, no speaking lines about the mouth. All that one can notice is a disappointed, somewhat peevish look in the eyes. Such was Henrietta. The fact that she had not been much wanted or appreciated hitherto began to show now she was eighteen. She was either shy and silent, or talked with too much positiveness for fear she should not be listened to; so that though she was not a failure at dances and managed to find plenty of partners, there were none of the interesting episodes that were continually occurring on Louie's evenings, and for a year or two her hopes were not realized. The Prince Charming she was waiting for came not.
Sometimes Louie was away on visits, and Henrietta went to dances without her. At one of these, as usual a strange young man was introduced. There was nothing special about him. They had the usual talk of first dances. Then he asked for a second, then for a third. He was introduced to her mother. She asked him to call. He came. He talked mostly to her mother, but it was clear that it was Henrietta he came to see. Another dance, another call, and meetings at friends' houses, and wherever she was he wanted to be beside her. It was an exquisitely happy month. He was a commonplace young man, but what did that matter? There was nothing in Henrietta to attract anyone very superior. And perhaps she loved him all the more because he was not soaring high above her, like all her previous divinities, but walking side by side with her. Yes, she loved him; by the time he had asked her for the third dance she loved him. She did not think much of his proposing, of their marrying, just that someone cared for her. At first she could not believe it, but by the end of the month the signs clearly resembled those of Louie's young men. Flowers, a note about a book he had lent her, a note about a mistake he had made in his last note; she was sure he must care for her. The other girls at the dances noticed his devotion, and asked Henrietta when it was to be announced. She laughed off their questions, but they gave her a thrill of delight. All must be well.
And if they had married all would have been well. There might have been jars and rubs, with Henrietta's jealous disposition there probably would have been, but they would have been as happy as the majority of married couples; she would have been happier, for to many people, even to some women, it is not, as it was to her, the all-sufficing condition of existence to love and be loved.
At the end of the month Louie came home. Henrietta had dreaded her return. She had no confidence in herself when Louie was by. Louie made her cold and awkward. She would have liked to have asked her not to come into the room when he called, but she was too shy; there had never been any intimacy between the sisters. Mrs. Symons however, spoke to Louie. "A very nice young fellow, with perfectly good connections, not making much yet, but sufficient for a start. It would do very well."
Louie would not have considered herself more heartless than other people, but she was a coquette, and she did not want Henrietta to be settled before her. The next time the young man came, he found in the drawing-room not merely a very much prettier Miss Symons, that in itself was not of much consequence, but a Miss Symons who was well aware of her advantages, and knew moreover from successful practice exactly how to rouse a desire for pursuit in the ordinary young man.
Henrietta saw at once, though she fought hard, that she had no chance.
"Are you going to the Humphreys to-morrow?" he said to Louie.
"If Henrietta's crinoline will leave any room in the carriage," answered Louie, "I shall try to get a little corner, perhaps under the seat, or one could always run behind. I crushed—see, what did I crush?—a little teeny-tiny piece of flounce one terrible evening; didn't I, Henrietta? And I was never allowed to hear the last of it."
She smiled a special smile, only given to the most favoured of her partners. The young man thought how pretty this sisterly teasing was on the part of the lovely Miss Symons; Henrietta saw it in another light.
"My crinolines are not larger than yours, you know they are not."
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much, don't you, Mr. Dockerell?"
"And you always take the best seat in the carriage, so it is nonsense to say ..."
He noticed for the first time how loud her voice was.
"Please let us change the conversation," said Louie gently, "it can't be at all interesting for Mr. Dockerell. I am ready to own anything you like, that you don't wear crinolines at all, if that will please you."
"If there is any difficulty, could not my mother take one of you to-morrow night?" (It was Louie he looked at.) "She is staying with me for a week. Couldn't we call for you? It would be a great pleasure."
"Oh, thank you," began Henrietta.
"Really," said Louie, "you make me quite ashamed of my poor little joke. I don't think we have come quite to such a state of things that two sisters can't sit in the same carriage. I hear you are a most alarmingly good archer, Mr. Dockerell, and I want to ask you to advise me about my bow, if you will be so kind." To be asked advice, of course, completed the conquest.
Mr. Dockerell had not been so much in love with Etta as with marrying. It took him a very short time to change, but when he had made his offer and Louie had discovered that he was too dull a young man for her, he did not transfer his affections back to Henrietta. She would gladly have taken him if he had. He left the neighbourhood, and not long after married someone else.
In this grievous trouble Henrietta did not know where to turn for comfort. Mrs. Symons was one of those women who are much more a wife than a mother. She could enter into all Mr. Symons' feelings quite remarkably, even his most out-of-the-way masculine feelings, but her daughters, who on the whole were very ordinary young women, she did not understand. Perhaps Henrietta was not altogether ordinary, but after all it is not exceptional to want to be loved. Nor did Mrs. Symons care particularly for her daughters; she liked her sons much better, she would perhaps have been happier without daughters; and she liked Henrietta the least, connecting her still with those disagreeable childish interviews when Henrietta had been brought down, black and sulky, to be scolded.
Henrietta was now passing through what is not an extraordinary experience in a woman's life. She had loved and been loved, and then had been disappointed. Her mother in her distress was no more comfort than, I was going to say, the servants, but she was much less, for Ellen, now Mrs. Symons' maid, gave poor Henrietta some of the sympathy for which she hungered.
Evelyn was away, her parents had consented to her being educated with the little friend abroad, and if she had been at home, she was only fourteen, too young to be of much use. However Henrietta poured out her bitterness to her in a long letter, and Evelyn wrote back full of loving sentiment and sentimentality. Henrietta wrote also to Miranda, and had a sympathetic letter in answer, most sympathetic, considering that Miranda had just consummated a triumphant engagement to the son of an earl.
Mrs. Symons could not help thinking that Henrietta had stupidly muddled her affairs, and wasted the good chance which had been contrived for her. This was the view she presented to her husband, so that though they tried not to show it in their manner, they both felt a little aggrieved.
It was to William that she turned, though she remembered clearly the disappointing interview of her childhood. William, now a solicitor in London, came home for a few days' holiday. The Sunday of his visit was wet. When Mr. and Mrs. Symons were both asleep in the drawing-room, he and Henrietta sat in the former school-room, and kept up friendly small-talk about the neighbourhood. There was something so solid and comfortable about his face that she felt she must tell him. She wanted to lean on someone; she had not, she never had, any satisfaction, any pride in battling for herself. Yet she knew that William's face was deceptive; it would be much better not to speak. She determined, therefore, that she would say very little, and speak as coolly as she could. She began, but before she could stop herself, the whole story was out, and much more than the story, unbridled abuse of Louie, who was William's favourite sister. She only stopped at last, because her sobs made it impossible to speak.
"It does seem unlucky," said William, "very unlucky. I should talk it over with mother."
"Mother thinks it was my own fault. I know she does."
"Well—um—write to Minna; yes, you might write to Minna."
"Minna is only interested in the baby. She hardly ever writes; besides, she never cared about me at all. She would be glad."
"Oh, well, I shouldn't think it was worth while taking it to heart. Just go out to plenty of dances and be jolly; you mustn't mope. If you can get Aunt Mercer to give you a bed, I'll take you to the play. That will do you all the good in the world."
"It's very kind of you, William."
"Oh, that's all right. Well," going to the window, "it's no good staying in all the afternoon, it makes one so hipped. I shall take a turn and look in on Beardsley on my way back. Tell mother not to wait supper for me."
She knew she had better have said nothing. He hated the recesses of the heart being revealed, particularly those special recesses of a woman's heart; he had thought her unmaidenly. But he was sorry for her; he took her to the play, a rousing farce, for he was one of those who naively consider that two hours of laughing can compensate for months of misery, and even be a remedy. He gave her a brooch also, and said to his mother, "I think Etta gets low by herself, now Minna is married and Louie is away. Why shouldn't she go for some visits?"
It may seem strange that Henrietta should have spread broadcast a grief which most people would keep hidden in their own hearts. But it is one of the saddest things about lonely people, that, having no proper confidant, they tell to all and sundry what ought never to be told to more than one. When, however, the overmastering desire for sympathy had passed, words cannot express her regret that she had spoken. For years and years afterwards it would suddenly come upon her, "I told him and he despised me," and she would beat her foot on the floor with all her might, in a useless transport of remorse.
Both Louie and Henrietta had felt it was wiser not to see too much of one another after Mr. Dockerell's proposal. Louie had gone away for a month or six weeks, and when she came back, Henrietta went for a long visit to Minna.
With two babies, the youngest very delicate, Minna was completely absorbed. She was emphatically Mrs. Willard now, not Minna Symons. Mrs. Symons had told her something of Henrietta's circumstances, and Minna considered that the best balm would be her babies. So they might have been for people with a natural admiration for babies, but this Henrietta had not got. If Minna's children had been neglected she would have loved them dearly, but when they were surrounded by the jealous care of mother, nurse, nursemaid, and (if any space was left for him) father, there was nothing for her but to look on as an outsider.
It was during this visit that she heard of the young man's engagement. She did not realize, till she heard, how tightly she had been clinging to the hope that he might come back. Close following on that came the news that Louie was engaged to a most amiable and agreeable colonel. This made her more bitter, if it was possible to be more bitter, against Louie than before. Louie was not merely let off scot-free for what she did, but was to have every happiness given to her. Why? The old problem of her Confirmation year pressed itself on her, only now she felt less mournful and more acrid.
Her troubles made her peevish and disagreeable, as was apparent from Minna's kindly admonition.
"I think," said she, as they sat sewing one morning, "that I really ought to warn you not to talk quite so loud and so positively. I don't like saying anything, but of course I am older than you, and that is the sort of thing that spoils a girl's chances. Men don't like it. And your temper—even Arthur noticed it, and he is not at all an observant man. I daresay you hardly realize the importance of a good temper, Etta, but in my opinion it makes more difference in life than anything else."
Henrietta came back three days before Louie's wedding. Louie repented the injury she had done, and on the last night she came into Henrietta's room and apologized. "You know, Etty, I am very sorry, very, very sorry. Of course I had no idea how you felt about him. He wasn't the sort of man one could take very seriously, at least that was what I thought. Anyhow I wouldn't worry about it any more, for you know I think he cannot have been very seriously touched, or he would have made some effort to see you again, surely, after his little episode with me."
Louie felt more than her words conveyed, but she could not demean herself to show too much.
"Perhaps you didn't mean it unkindly," said Henrietta; "I shall try to believe you, but you've wrecked my life."
"Etta is so exaggerated and hysterical," said Louie afterwards, talking things over. But as a matter of fact Henrietta spoke only the sober truth.
After Louie's wedding Henrietta went to stay with an aunt, her father's eldest sister, almost a generation older than he was. She lived in a little white house in the country, with a green verandah and French windows. She was a kind, nice old lady, not well off, a humble great-aunt to the whole village. Children continually came to eat her mulberries; girls were found places; sick people were sent jelly, and there was always a great deal of sewing and knitting for poor friends.
She did her best to make the visit pass cheerfully; she had some little scheme of pleasure for each day, and so many people came and went that, though not exciting, the life could not possibly be called dull.
Henrietta did not know whether Mrs. Symons had mentioned her trouble to her aunt; she hoped not. Now that the first shock was over, she had become sensitive on the subject, and did not wish to speak about it. From a little speech her aunt made, it is possible that Mrs. Symons had said something.
One day as they sat talking comfortably and confidentially over the fire, the conversation turned on her aunt's past days. She had been left motherless, the eldest of a large family, when she was nineteen or twenty. It was evidently her duty to devote herself to the younger ones, and when a man presented himself whom she loved and by whom she was loved, she felt that she could not be spared from home.
Henrietta saw that she was bracing herself to say something. At last out it came:
"You know, my dear, I think in spite of—I mean that there are many things besides—though when one has hoped—still life can be very happy, very peaceful, without. Why, there is this garden, and there are those three darling little children next door."
Henrietta knew that this unanalysable sentence was meant to comfort her. She felt grateful, but she was not comforted. Her aunt's life was the sweetest and happiest possible for old age, but could she at twenty settle down to devising treats for other people's children, or sewing garments for the poor? It made her feel sick and dismal to think of it. Besides, their circumstances were not similar. Her aunt, fortified by the spirit of self-sacrifice, had resigned what she loved, but she had the reward of being the most necessary member of her circle. Henrietta had had no scope for self-sacrifice, for she had never had anything to give up. In fact she envied her aunt, for she realized now that Mr. Dockerell could never have cared for her. And far from being the most necessary member of her family, her difficulty was to squeeze into a place at all.
The visit came to an end. She went home, and regular life began again. Since one ordinary young man had been attracted to her when she was twenty, there seemed no reason why other ordinary men should not continue to be attracted. As he had been in love with marrying rather than with her, so she had been in love with being loved rather than with him. She would have accepted almost any pleasant young man, provided he had had the supreme merit of caring for her. But the inscrutable fate which rules these matters, decreed that it was not to be. No other suitor presented himself.
For one thing, she went to fewer parties now. After Louie's marriage, Mrs. Symons, who had worked hard in the good cause of finding husbands, began to flag. Henrietta was not so gratifying to take out as Louie had been, particularly as her complexion went off early, and without her complexion she had nothing to fall back on. So Mrs. Symons gave herself up to the luxury of bad health, and said she could not stand late hours. When Henrietta did go out, her experience made her feel that she was unlikely to please; and though no one can define what produces attractiveness, it is safe to say that one of the most necessary elements is to believe oneself attractive.
Mr. Symons had not hitherto taken great interest in his daughters, but when Minna and Louie were married, he became fonder of them. He was one of those men whose good opinion of a woman is much strengthened if confirmed by another man. His daughters' husbands had confirmed his opinion in the most satisfactory way by marrying them, whereas his good opinion of Henrietta, far from being confirmed, had been rather weakened. Minna and Louie's virtues, husbands, and houses were often extolled now, and there was nothing to extol in her. Henrietta felt this continually. Her parents did not speak to her of her misfortunes; she was left alone, which is perhaps what most girls would have liked best. Not so Henrietta.
The three years after Louie's marriage were the most miserable of Henrietta's life. If she did not go out to parties, what was she to do? The housekeeping? The housekeeping, as in many cases, was not nearly enough to provide her mother with occupation. It certainly could not be divided into occupation for two. Nursing her mother? Her mother much preferred that Ellen, on whom she had become very dependent, should do what was necessary, and for companionship she had all she wanted in her husband. He was away for several hours in the day however, and during his absence Henrietta did drive out with her mother, read to her, and sit with her, and as they were so much together and shared the small events of the country town, they were to a certain extent drawn together. But Mrs. Symons always treated Henrietta de haut en bas, and snubbed her when she thought necessary, as if she had been a child of ten, so that Henrietta was constrained and a little timid with her. There was the suggestion of a feeling that Mrs. Symons was to be pitied for having Henrietta still on her hands. If Henrietta had refused to be snubbed, there would have been none of that suggestion. Evelyn was still away at school. There were a certain number of girls of Henrietta's age whom she saw from time to time, but as her mother did not wish to be disturbed by entertaining, they were not asked to the house, and therefore did not ask Henrietta to theirs. Besides, she was sensitive, thinking, truly, that they were discussing her misfortune, and did not want to see them.
In addition to the poignancy of disappointment, of present dulness and aimlessness, Henrietta realized forcibly, though perhaps not forcibly enough for the truth, that the years between eighteen and thirty were her marrying years, which, slowly as they passed from the point of view of her happiness, went only too fast, when she considered that once gone they could never come back, and that as they fled, they took her chances with them.
Fifty years ago the large majority of the girls of her class married early, and the years of home life after school were arranged on the supposition that they were a short period of preparation for marriage. It did not matter to Minna and Louie that they had no interests to fill their days, that their life had been nothing but parties and intervals of waiting for parties, because it had only lasted four or five years. It had done what it was intended to do, it had settled them very comfortably with husbands. But with Henrietta, the condition which was meant to be temporary, seemed spreading itself out to be permanent, and with the parties taken away, she was hard put to it to fill up her days. She longed inexpressibly for school, for its restrictions, its monotony and variety. And to think that when she had the luck to be there, she had counted the days to being a young lady. When she remembered how she had almost wept at Miss Arundel's description of Joan of Arc, her mouth watered for lessons. As for Miss Arundel herself, she hungered and thirsted after her.
At last she had a happy thought; she decided that she would read Italian, read Dante. Miss Arundel had taught her Italian, and she would write to Miss Arundel, and ask her to recommend a good translation. She remembered that Miss Arundel and Mrs. Marston had occasionally had favourite old pupils to stay with them. She imagined how one letter might lead to another, and how at last Miss Arundel might invite her to stay too. She wrote her letter with great care and great delight, constantly changing her words, for none seemed good enough for Miss Arundel, and making a fair copy, as if it were an exercise to be sent up for correction.
Miss Arundel received the letter, read it through, came to the signature, and could not for the life of her remember who Henrietta Symons was. So many girls had passed through her hands, and she lived in the present rather than the past. A teacher was ill, she was very busy, the letter slipped her memory. One evening it came into her head, and she asked her sister, "By the by, who was Henrietta Symons?"
"I recollect the name perfectly," said Mrs. Marston. "Let me see; yes, now I know. There were three of them, one was Minnie, I believe, and I think Etta had a bad headache at the picnic. It was a blazing day that year, the hottest I ever remember, and I had to come back early with her."
"Of course; I remember now," said Miss Arundel. "A girl with very marked eyebrows." And she wrote back a postcard, "Tr. of D.'s D. C. Carey, 2 vols., Ward and Linsell. M. Arundel."
The postcard made Henrietta inclined to back out of Dante. But by this time she had arranged to read with a neighbour, Carrie Bostock, so she had to make a start. They did start, but as they neither understood the Italian, nor the translation, nor the notes, they found continual excuses for not reading, till Carrie boldly suggested "I Promessi Sposi," which went much better. They did not read for long, however, for Carrie became engaged, it seemed to Henrietta that everybody she knew was becoming engaged, and Carrie considered her engagement an occupation which gave her no time for anything else, certainly no time for Italian.
Henrietta found she did not read by herself. The two years away from school made it difficult to start. Perhaps it may seem strange that a girl who had been so eager at school, should not care to work by herself at home. But when there are no competitors and no Miss Arundel, work loses much of its zest for everyone except the real student, who is rarely to be found among men, still more rarely among women. And the last thing Henrietta would ever be was unusual.
Clever, interesting schoolgirls are not at all uncommon, though not so general as clever, interesting children. But there are few who remain clever and interesting when they grow up. Uninspiring surroundings, and contact with life, or mere accumulation of years, take something away. Or perhaps it simply is that when they are grown up they are judged by a more severe standard. Miss Arundel had been disappointed again and again. But she would not have been surprised that Henrietta let everything go, for she had always observed in her an unfortunate strain of weakness.
Besides being weak, Henrietta was always affected by the people she was with, and the atmosphere of home life was not encouraging to study. "Reading Italian, my dear?" her mother would say. "Oh, can't you find anything better to do than that? Surely there must be some mending;" while her father advised her, through her mother, "not to become too clever; it was a great pity for a girl to get too clever."
After all, there seemed no earthly reason why she should read Italian; it gave no pleasure to herself or to anyone else. So she spent most of the long leisure hours sitting by the window and thinking. She often said to herself the verse of a poem then just published by Christina Rossetti. She had seen it on a visit, copied it out, and learned it:
"Downstairs I laugh and sport and jest with all, But in my solitary room above I turn my face in silence to the wall: My heart is breaking for a little love."
It did not quite apply to Henrietta, for she was not sporting and jesting downstairs with anyone, but that verse was the greatest comfort to her of those dreary years. The writer must have been through it all, she thought; she knows what it is. Not to be alone, to have someone, though an unknown one, who could share it, lightened her burden, when she was in a mood that it should be lightened.
She made up verses too, and wrote them in a pretty album she bought for the purpose. They relieved her heart a little—at any rate it was a distraction to think of the rhymes. She would have shown them to Carrie, if she had had the slightest encouragement, but as Carrie gave no encouragement, there was no one to see them.
"While Nature op'ed her lavish hand And fairest flowers displayed, 'Twas his to taste of sunny joys, 'Twas mine to sit in shade.
"Oh, talk not to me of a lasting devotion! It shrivels, it ceases, it fades and it dies. In the heart of a man 'tis a fleeting emotion; Alas, in a woman eternal it lies!"
A poet would have said that anyone capable of writing that was incapable of feeling, but he would have been wrong.
Sometimes Henrietta used to have a phantom lover like the phantom friend of her childhood, but now—had she more or less imagination as a child?—she could not bear it. She imagined the phantom, and then she wanted him so intensely that she had to forget him. The aspect of certain days would be connected with some peculiarly mournful moments. She wondered which was the most depressing, the dark setting in at four o'clock and leaving her seven hours of drawing-room fancy work (for it disturbed her mother if she went to bed before eleven), or the summer sun that would not go down.
If only some kind stroke of misfortune had taken away all Mr. Symons' money. Disagreeable poverty would have been a great comfort to her. She would have been forced to make an effort; not to brood and concentrate herself on her misery. But Mr. Symons, on the contrary, continued to get richer, and throughout her fairly long, dull life, Henrietta was always cursed with her tidy little income.
But interminable as the time seemed, it passed. It passed, so that reading her old journal with the record of her happy month, she found that it had all happened five years ago, and was beginning to be forgotten. She felt as if it had not happened to her, but to some ordinary girl who had ordinary prosperity. At the same time her lot did not seem so bitter as it had done; she had become used to it. Though she herself hardly realized it, and certainly could not have said when the change had come, she was not now particularly unhappy. It was an alleviation that her mother was more of an invalid, so that some of the responsibilities of the household devolved on her, and her mother leaned on her a little. She was certainly not the prop of the house, or the lodestar to which they all turned for guidance, none of the satisfactory things women are called in poetry, but she was not such an odd-man-out as she had been.
And now the even course of Henrietta's life was interrupted. Evelyn returned home. She and her friend were both grown up into young ladies. Many letters had passed between the sisters, but it was so long since they had seen one another that each felt a little shy at the meeting.
Evelyn was very lovely, made to please and be pleased, a regular mid-Victorian heroine, universally courted. Though always courted she was never spoilt, and was a most affectionate sister and daughter. But the old particular bond which had attached her and Henrietta no longer existed. She was equally affectionate to Minna and Louie.
Still, her coming made a great difference to Henrietta. There was a person of her own generation and way of thinking to converse with; they could have jokes together, and Evelyn was still full of schoolgirl enthusiasm. She had numberless schemes of occupation, duets, French readings, and splashwork. And when she went away on visits, there were her letters, much more intimate than those of a year or two earlier, full of allusions to their new occupations, and teasing of a kind, complimentary sort, which was new and very delightful to Henrietta.
They were arranging flowers in the school-room one afternoon, roses which had been brought to Evelyn by an admirer. They dropped some on the floor, both stooped to pick them up, and they knocked their heads together. Evelyn got up laughing, but felt her hand suddenly snatched, and kissed with a long, eager kiss. She turned round, startled. "What is it?" she said.
"I couldn't help it," said Henrietta, half hysterically. "If you knew what it is to me to have you back. I can't tell you."
"Is it, dear?" said Evelyn. "I'm so glad." And she smoothed Henrietta's forehead with a pretty gesture full of sweetness, but with a touch of condescension in it. She had listened already to so many passionate declarations about herself (one that very afternoon) that she was not so much impressed by Henrietta's as most younger sisters would have been. Still she could not help contrasting herself in her triumphant youth with Henrietta, disregarded by everyone and snubbed. Mr. and Mrs. Symons never snubbed Evelyn, and she thought for a moment, "Oh, I'm thankful I'm not her"; but she put the thought away as unkind, and supposed vaguely that Henrietta was so good she did not mind.
Now that Evelyn was come back, Mrs. Symons roused herself from her invalidism to provide amusements for her. So little was possible at home that almost at once a round of gay visits was arranged. Minna was less engrossed now that the babies were older, and took her out to parties; and Louie had all the officers of her husband's regiment at command. These same attractions had been offered to Henrietta. Louie had been most sincerely anxious to atone for the past, and had invited her again and again, but Henrietta had always refused; for though the original wound was healed, she still cherished resentment against Louie.
Evelyn's was a career of triumph. Her letters, and Louie's and Minna's were full of officers and parties. This roused Henrietta's old discontent. Why was Evelyn to have everything and she nothing? She promptly answered herself, "Because Evelyn is so sweet and beautiful, she deserves everything she can get." But the question refused to be snubbed, and asked itself again. She hated herself for envying, and continued to envy.
Evelyn came home from her visits very much excited and interested about herself, but still not unmindful of Henrietta.
"Let me come in to your room, Etty, and tell you everything. I had a perfect time with Louie; she was a dear. She was always saying, 'Now, who shall we have to dinner? You must settle;' so I just gave the word, and whoever I wanted was produced. Louie wishes you would go too. Do go, you would have such fun. She gave me a note for you."
"MY DEAR ETTA," the note ran,
"The 9th is having a dance on the 28th. I wish you would come and stay with us for it. Come, and bring Evelyn. I particularly want to have her for it. There is a special reason. Everyone is enchanted with the dear little thing. I shall be disappointed if you don't come too. It all happened such years ago, surely we may forget it; and Edward is always asking me why I do not have you, and it seems so absurd, when I have no proper reason to give. I shall really think it too bad of you, if you don't come.
Your affec., L. N. CARRINGTON."
Henrietta, thinking over the matter, found there was no reason why she should not go. At twenty-seven she felt herself rather older than this generation at forty-eight, and thought it ridiculous that she should be going to a dance. But once she was there, Louie made her feel so much at home, she found her remarks were so warmly welcomed, and her few hesitating sallies so much enjoyed, that she began to think that after all she was not completely on the shelf.
"Don't go to-morrow, Etta—stay here. There's the Steeplechase on Friday; I want you to see that."
"No, thank you, Louie," said Henrietta; "I can't leave mother longer. It's been very delightful, more delightful than you can realize, perhaps—you're so much accustomed to it; but I must get back."
"Now, that really is nonsense, Etta. Mother has Ellen, and she has father, and she is pretty well for her; you said so yourself."
But Henrietta persisted in her refusal, for she had all the strong, though sometimes unthinking, sense of duty of her generation.
"Well, if you will go, you must. But now you have begun coming, come often. Write a line whenever you like and propose yourself."
As they said good-night, Louie whispered, "Have you forgiven me, Etty?"
"Yes," said Henrietta, "that's all past and gone."
"For a matter of fact," said Louie, "he is not very happy with her; they don't get on. The Moffats know him, and Mrs. Moffatt told me."
"Oh, I am sorry," said Henrietta, but she was not displeased.
Evelyn stayed behind, and Louie talked Henrietta over with her. "Poor," ever since her marriage Henrietta had been "poor" to Louie, "Poor Etta really isn't bad-looking, and when she gets animated she isn't unattractive. If I could have her here often, I believe I could do something for her."
When Evelyn came home a week or so later, she had an announcement to make. She had become engaged to an officer, a friend of the Carringtons, who had been staying in the house. He was delightful, the engagement was everything that was to be desired, and Evelyn was radiant.
Henrietta knew that such an announcement was bound to come sooner or later, but she had so longed for a few years' happy intercourse together. She tried to think only of Evelyn, but she could not keep back all that was in her mind.
"Think of me left all alone. It was so dreary, and when you came you made everything different. Now it will go back to what it was before."
"No, no, Etty darling; you will come and stay with us for months and months."
"No, I shan't. When you have got him you won't want me."
"Yes, I shall. I shall want you all the more. I love you more than I've ever done in my life, my darling sister. We've always been special, we two, haven't we, ever since I can remember?"
Henrietta was a little comforted, and did not realize that though Evelyn's tenderness was absolutely sincere, it came from the strange expansion of the heart which accompanies true love, and was not habitual.
The marriage took place almost at once, for the Captain's regiment was ordered on foreign service, and Evelyn went away to regions where it was not possible for Henrietta to visit her.
But if she had lived in England, Henrietta would not have felt herself at liberty to go away for long. After she got home, she felt glad she had not extended her visit to the Carringtons, for Mrs. Symons was not so well, and she died shortly afterwards, and Henrietta reigned in her stead.
The household changed now; two new elements were introduced: William came from London to be a partner in his father's firm, and lived at home, and Harold, who had been employed by an engineer in the North, found work in the neighbourhood and came back too. So that Henrietta's life became at once much fuller of interest and importance than it had been for years. As the only lady of the house, she was bound to be considered, to make decisions, to have much authority in her own hands, and at twenty-seven she greatly appreciated authority. If she was not to have love, she would at any rate have position, and the servants found her an exacting mistress. Mrs. Symons, though she had given over certain duties to Henrietta, had kept herself head of the house to the time of her death. She had a way with servants: they always liked her, and stayed with her; but latterly she had let things slide, and when Henrietta took her place she found much to criticize. Most of the servants left, but some stayed, and agreed with Ellen that it was "just Miss Henrietta's way; she was funny sometimes." However, they got used to her, and things jogged along pretty quietly.
When Ellen left to be married, and there was no one in the kitchen to make allowances for her, she had much more difficulty, and Mr. Symons was occasionally disturbed in his comfortable library by an indignant apparition, which declared amid gulps that it had "no wish whatever to make complaints, but really Miss Henrietta——!"
Mr. Symons thought this very hard. "Can't you manage to make them decently contented? We never used to have this sort of thing," he would say. Henrietta would defend herself by counter-charges, and on the whole felt the incident was creditable to her, as showing that she was a power, and a rather dreaded power, in the house.
The men thought also that they were under a needlessly harsh yoke. Henrietta grumbled when they were late for meals, or creased the chintzes, or let the dog in with muddy paws. From a combination of kindness, weakness, and letting things slide, they made no complaints. Mr. Symons always remembered and felt sorry for the episode which Henrietta herself had almost forgotten, and he was determined to make up to her by letting her be as unpleasant as she liked at home.
If only they had spoken strongly while there was yet time. They did not realize, it is difficult for those in the same house to realize, where things were tending. Henrietta's temper became less violent; there are fewer occasions for losing a temper when one is grown up, but she took to nagging like a duck to water.
But if they made no complaints, the men left her to herself. Mr. Symons spent many hours at his club, and her brothers entertained their friends in the smoking-room. She was vaguely disappointed; she had an idea, gleaned from novels and magazines, that as the home daughter to a widowed father, the home sister to two brothers, she would be consulted, leant on, confided in. Mr. Symons missed his wife at every turn, but he never felt Henrietta could take her place. Her nagging shut up his heart against her. He thought it silly, rather unfairly, perhaps, for she inherited the habit from her mother, and he had never thought her nagging silly.
As to William and Harold, they had come to the ages of thirty-five and twenty-six without any wish for confidence, and why should they wish to confide in Henrietta? She was not wise and she was not sympathetic. The mere fact that they lived in the same house with her caused no automatic opening of the heart. Well on in middle life, William became engaged, and suddenly poured out everything to his love, but for the present he and Harold were content to go through life never saying anything about themselves to anybody. In fact, they hardly ever thought of Henrietta. She would have been astonished if she had known what an infinitesimal difference she made in their lives.
As mistress of the house, Henrietta was promoted to the circle of the married ladies, and the happiest hours of her life were spent in visits she and they interchanged, when they talked about servants, arrangements, prices, and health.
They were not intimate friends. Perhaps the women of fifty years ago did not have the faculty of staunch and close friend-making possessed by our generation. And now Henrietta did not very much want to make friends. She would have thought intimacy a little schoolgirlish, a little beneath a middle-aged lady's dignity.
Her parents had been a very ordinary couple in a country town. They and the society they frequented were uncultivated, and uninterested in everything that was going on in the world outside. The men, of course, were occupied with their professions, and almost all the ladies had large growing families, which gave full scope for their energies. Henrietta had not their duties, and was better off than the majority of them, but she did not find time hang heavy on her hands. Long ere this she had learnt the art of getting through the day with the minimum of employment. Now, of course, her various duties gave her a certain amount to do, but not enough to occupy her mind profitably. She often said, "I am so busy I really haven't a moment to spare," and quite sincerely declined the charge of a district, because she had no time. If any visitors were coming to stay, she spoke of the preparations and the work they entailed, as if all was performed by her single pair of hands. "What with Louie and Edward coming to-morrow, and Harold going to the Tyrol on Wednesday, I cannot think how I shall manage, but I suppose," with a resigned smile, "I shall get through somehow." She was persuaded into visiting a small hospital once a fortnight for an hour, and the day and hour were much dreaded by her entourage, so vastly did they loom on the horizon, and so submissively must every other event wait on their convenience.
Minna and Louie often came on visits with their children. The three sisters got on much better than formerly, though Minna and Louie were both too much absorbed in their own interests to give Henrietta a large place in their thoughts. Minna's husband failed early in health, before he had had time to fulfil his promising early prospects, while Louie's Colonel, when he retired from the army, occupied his leisure in speculation, and greatly diminished that attractive fortune of his. All three sisters had a certain amount of money left to them by their mother, but in spite of this Minna and Louie were now both, comparatively speaking, poor, while Henrietta, with no one dependent on her, and a large allowance from her father, was comfortably off. Louie and Minna quite gave up talking of "poor Henrietta," and "Really Henrietta has done very well for herself," was a remark frequently exchanged.
Henrietta had always been generous, and her sisters soon came to expect as a right that she should rescue them in times of domestic need: pay for a nephew's schooling, send a delicate niece to the sea, and give very substantial presents at birthdays and Christmas. Their point of view seemed to be that if anyone had been so lucky as to keep out of the bothers of marriage, the least she could do was to help her unfortunate sisters. Still, they disliked being beholden to Henrietta, and, half intentionally, set their children against her to relieve their feelings. The children were not bad children, but Henrietta found their visits burdensome. She was becoming a little set and unwilling to be disturbed, and she said the children were spoilt. Minna and Louie had determined they would not be the strict parents of the elder generation, whereas Henrietta, who remembered all the snubbing of her youth, wanted to have her turn of giving snubs, and this did not make her popular. She never grew very fond of these children, but kept her affection for something else.
For it is not to be supposed that a heart with such peculiar longing for love was to be satisfied with a life in which feeling played so little part. She had put aside the desire for a lover now. She was not one of the women whom nothing will satisfy but marriage; on the whole she did not care very much for men. She wanted what she had always wanted, something to love and something to love her. And she had good reason to hope that at last that wish might be realized, for it was agreed between her and Evelyn that if there were any children, she was to bring them up while Evelyn was abroad. Round this hope she built many happy schemes.
Henrietta had seen very little of Evelyn all this time—the regiment went from one foreign station to another—but very affectionate letters passed between the two.
For some years no children were born. Then came a little girl. "She is to be called Etta," said Evelyn's letter, "and you know she is your baby as well as ours. Do you remember what you did for me in old days? I think of how you will do the same for baby, and I could not bear for anyone else to do it but you." The baby died in the first year. Then came a little boy, who lived an even shorter time; then another little girl. The parents and Henrietta hardly dared to hope this time. But the perilous first year passed, then, although she was always very delicate, a second, third, and fourth. Then, when the plans were maturing for her coming home, she died too. It seems sometimes as if Death cannot leave a certain family alone, but comes back to it again and again.
"Evelyn is broken-hearted," her husband wrote, "and if she stays in this horrible India I believe I shall lose her too. I am going to exchange if I can to a home regiment, or I shall leave the army. I do not care what we do as long as I get her away. In the midst of it all she keeps thinking of how you will feel it. I believe a good cry with you is the one thing that might comfort her."
Henrietta took this letter to her father, and implored him to let her go out to India at once. But this Mr. Symons, though kind and sympathetic and truly sorry for Evelyn, could not bring himself to allow. He was getting to the age when he shrank from violent upheavals. Herbert said they were leaving India. By the time she arrived they would probably be gone, and then what a wild goose chase it would be. Then, of course, she could not go alone, and who was to go with her? Her brothers could not spare the time, and he did not feel up to going, and she must have a man with her. Edward? No, certainly not. Since his speculations, Edward was in bad odour. No, it would be much better to write a kind letter—he would write too—and drop this really foolish scheme, which would, among other things, be very costly, more costly than he felt prepared to face just then.
She said she would go alone.
"Then you would go entirely without my sanction. It is a perfectly impossible thing for a young lady to contemplate. You have never even been on the Continent, and you think of travelling to India unattended."
She had never acted in opposition to her parents, though she had often been domineering to her father in small matters, when he had not resisted. She was always weak, she could only fight when the other side would not fight back. She said, "Oh, father, I must go," and when he said, "Nonsense, I couldn't think of it," she collapsed, partly from cowardice, partly from duty, though her father was not in the least strong-willed either, and with a little serious resistance would have been made to yield. She felt bitterly the reproach in Evelyn's letter, "If only you could have come."
She did not feel as wildly wretched as fifteen years ago, because now in middle age what she passed through at the moment was not of the same desperate importance; but then she had a small corner of hope hidden away that perhaps something might happen, whereas now she realized clearly that the prospect which had given her her chief interest and delight was destroyed for ever.
The trouble told on her, she caught a chill, which developed into pneumonia. She was dangerously ill for some weeks, and when she was better, she was long in getting up her strength, because she had no wish to get well.
Minna and Louie thought it odd that Henrietta should "fret so much about Evelyn's children whom she had never seen. She has always seemed to make so much more fuss over them than over her own nephews and nieces in England. Of course, it was natural that dear Evelyn herself should be distracted, but for Henrietta it almost seemed a little exaggerated."
When she was well enough to travel, the doctor recommended the South of France for the winter, and she went away with a married friend, the Carrie Bostock of the Italian readings.
It was all very pleasant and entertaining to Henrietta, who had never been abroad, never even away from her own family. In the Riviera she could to a certain extent drown thought, but she counted the days with consternation, as each one in its flight brought her nearer to taking up life again at home.
One afternoon she received a letter from her father.
"MY DEAR HENRIETTA," it ran,
"I do not know if you will be surprised to hear that I am engaged to be married to Mrs. Waters. We have not known one another very long, but I must say I very soon felt that she would be one who could take your dear mother's place. I think it is very possible that you may have observed whither matters were tending. I feel certain that we shall all be very happy together, and I hope you will write her a warm letter of welcome to our family. She will, I am sure, be both mother and sister to you, etc."
The news was staggering to Henrietta. She had been so engrossed in her own trouble that she had observed nothing of what was going on around her. Mrs. Waters, a widow, who had lately settled in the neighbourhood, had been several times to their house and had entertained them at hers, but that she should be anything more than a friendly acquaintance had never entered Henrietta's head. She was to be ousted, her mother was to be ousted, and she was to give a warm welcome to the interloper. Her forgotten temper burst forth. She wrote a violent letter to her father, hurling at him all the ridiculous exaggerated things that most people feel at the beginning of a rage, but which few are so mad as to commit to paper. She refused altogether to write to Mrs. Waters.
She also relieved herself by contradicting everything Carrie said, thus giving her a good excuse for those long talks to a third party, which frequently take place when friends have been abroad together, beginning, "I really had no idea she could."
After she had written the letter, as usual she was very much ashamed. She wrote again unsaying all she had said, but her father had been too much wounded to reply.
She came back just a little before the wedding to see him in quite a new light—a lover, for he at sixty-five and Mrs. Waters at forty-seven had fallen in love.
When Henrietta saw more of her stepmother to be, she had in honesty to own that she liked her. She was not only very attractive, but she was so thoroughly nice and kind, so intent on making people happy, so entirely without airs of patronage, and Henrietta could see how everybody warmed under her smile.
Henrietta had settled that she would not live at home after the marriage. Neither she nor her father could forget the letter, it was better that they should part. She had again asked his forgiveness, but neither felt at ease with the other.
She stayed for a few weeks after Mr. and Mrs. Symons came back from the honeymoon, and saw almost with consternation, how the spirit of the house changed. It became peaceful, cordial, harmonious; it would not have been known for the same house. The whole household liked Mrs. Symons; even her own dog deserted Henrietta. It was not that she was ousted from her place, it was that Mrs. Symons created a place, which never had been hers. She had had no idea in all these twelve years how little she had made herself liked. She had had her chance, her one great chance, in life, and she had missed it.
When she went away, there were kind good wishes for her prosperity, interest in her plans, many hopes that she would visit them, but no regret; with a clearness and honesty of sight she unfortunately possessed she realized that—no regret.
What was the use of twelve years in which she had sincerely tried to do her best, if she had not built up some little memorial of affection? It was the old complaint of all her life, "I am not wanted." The anguish she had shared with Evelyn and her husband had been much sharper, but in the midst of it there had been consolation in the exquisite union they had felt with the children and with one another. Here there was nothing to cheer her; there is not much consolation when one fails where it seems quite easy for others to succeed.
Now that it became evident that she would be so little missed, she was in haste to get the parting over and be gone. But her unadventurous spirit shrank from going out in the world to manage by itself. She was very doubtful what she should do. She would not have been welcomed by Minna or Louie, even if she had wished to live with them. Her second brother was in some inaccessible foreign place. Evelyn and Herbert were also far out of reach. He had exchanged into a regiment which was quartered at Halifax, in Canada.
But the distance, however great, might have been faced, if she had not had a miserable quarrel with Herbert. It began with some misunderstanding about the tombstone on the youngest little girl's grave, to which Henrietta had wished to contribute. She had written to Evelyn from the Riviera in all the soreness of worn-out nerves and grief from which the sublimity has gone. The very fact that they had been drawn so close to one another made her specially irritable to Evelyn. After one or two of her letters, an answer came from Herbert:
"Evelyn is very ill from all she has been through, and the doctor says it is most important that she should be kept from every sort of worry. She was so much distressed at your last letter, and answering you took so much out of her, that I have taken the liberty of keeping this one from her. You have no right to write to her in this way, and I must ask you to drop all correspondence for the present if your letters are to be in the same strain."
Henrietta declared that he was trying to come between her and her sister, and that if that was the case she should never trouble them again. She did not write at all for several weeks, then she felt remorseful, but Herbert could not forgive her. He wrote coldly that Evelyn was still so unhinged as to be incapable of receiving letters without undue excitement.
Even now, when there is a certain amount of choice and liberty, a woman who is thrown on her own resources at thirty-nine, with no previous training, and no obvious claims and duties, does not find it very easy to know how to dispose of herself. But a generation ago the problem was far more difficult. Henrietta was well off for a single woman, but she was incapable, and not easy to get on with. She would have thought it derogatory to do any form of teaching—teaching, the natural refuge of a workless woman.
Three or four courses presented themselves. First, philanthropy. She was not really more philanthropic than she had been at twenty, when her aunt had described to her the happiness of living for others. But she felt at nearly forty that charitable work was a reasonable way of filling up her time, on the whole, the most reasonable.
She never had had much to do with poor people. Mrs. Symons had helped the charwoman, and the gardener, and the driver from the livery-stables, when they were in special difficulties, and Henrietta had continued to do so, and had had her hour at the hospital. That was all. There were the servants, of course, but with the exception of Ellen she looked on servants more as machines made for her convenience, liable to get out of order unless they were constantly watched.
Entirely without enthusiasm, and with a dreary fighting against her lot, she made inquiries among her acquaintances as to where she might find charitable work. At length somebody knew somebody, who knew somebody who was working in London under a clergyman. After further inquiries it was found that the somebody was a lady, who would be very glad if Henrietta would come and live with her, while she saw how she liked the work.
The clergyman, the lady, and all the other workers, were earnest, enthusiastic, high-minded, and full of common sense. Henrietta was not one of these things. She was also very inaccurate, unpunctual, and forgetful, and if her failings were pointed out to her in the gentlest way she took offence, not because she was conceited, but because at her age she was beyond having things pointed out. She stayed at the work six months, and during that time she was always offended with somebody, and sometimes with everybody.
The work was conducted more on charity organization lines than was usual in those days; money was not given without due consideration and consultation. This was difficult, and required more thinking than Henrietta cared for, so she saved herself trouble by bestowing five shillings whenever she wanted, feeling at the bottom of her heart that if she could not be liked for herself, she would buy liking rather than not be liked at all. The five shillings, however, did not buy either gratitude or affection. She had always had a grudging way with people of a different class from herself, and a conviction, in spite of indiscriminate alms, that she was being taken in. This infringement of the rules drove the Vicar to exasperation. His whole heart was in his work, and Henrietta's disloyalty hindered him at every turn.
"Can't she be asked to give up meddling in the parish?" he said to his wife.
"No dear, you know she can't, and she is very generous, even if she is tiresome. She has often been very helpful to you. You ought to be grateful."
"I'm not grateful," he said, striding about the room; "and then she is so petty, always these absurd squabbles. She hasn't got a spark of love for God or man. That's at the root of it all. We don't want a person of that sort here. If she cared about the people, even if she did pauperize them, I might think her a fool, but I could respect her; but you know she doesn't care for a soul but herself."
"I don't think it is that, but she's in great trouble, I'm sure she is. When you were preaching about sorrow last Sunday, I saw her eyes were filled with tears."
"Were they?" he said, "I'm sorry. But look here, dear, I don't think this sort of work ought to be used as a soothing syrup, or as a rubbish-shoot for loafers, who don't know what else to do. If people aren't doing it because they think it's the greatest privilege in the world to be allowed to do it, I can't see that they do much good."
"I think you're too hard on her."
"Am I? I expect I am. I know I'm fagged to death. She gives Mrs. Wilkins pounds on the sly, which the old lady's been transforming into gin, and then when I explain the circumstances and implore her to leave well alone, she talks my head off with a torrent of incoherent statements, which have nothing whatever to do with the point."
It certainly was true that Henrietta did not do much good, and no one was more aware of this than herself. She stood outside the community, and looked in at them like a hungry beggar at a feast. How she envied their happiness, but she did not feel that she was, or ever could be, a partaker with them. As months passed on, she drew no nearer to them. They were all so busy, so strong in their union with one another, they did not seem to have time to stretch out a friendly hand to one who was at least as much in need of it as Mrs. Wilkins.
The lady she lived with found her trying. "A very trying person" was the phrase that went the round about her, "always criticizing small arrangements about the meals and the housekeeping," for Henrietta could not at first reconcile herself to having no authority to exert, and this jangling was not a good preparation for sisterly sympathy towards her.
The Vicar's wife might have become friends with her, but during the six months Henrietta was in the parish Mrs. Wharton was ill and hardly able to see anyone. Besides, she was shy, and the only time that Henrietta came to tea they never succeeded in getting beyond a comparison of foreign hotels.