When the sun shone, as it did with unusual brightness that Christmas week, it revealed much that was faded and not altogether well-kept-up in Stogdon House and its grounds. In truth, Sir Francis had retired from service under the Government of India with a pension that was not adequate, in his opinion, to his services, as it certainly was not adequate to his ambitions. His career had not come up to his expectations, and although he was a very fine, white-whiskered, mahogany-colored old man to look at, and had laid down a very choice cellar of good reading and good stories, you could not long remain ignorant of the fact that some thunder-storm had soured them; he had a grievance. This grievance dated back to the middle years of the last century, when, owing to some official intrigue, his merits had been passed over in a disgraceful manner in favor of another, his junior.
The rights and wrongs of the story, presuming that they had some existence in fact, were no longer clearly known to his wife and children; but this disappointment had played a very large part in their lives, and had poisoned the life of Sir Francis much as a disappointment in love is said to poison the whole life of a woman. Long brooding on his failure, continual arrangement and rearrangement of his deserts and rebuffs, had made Sir Francis much of an egoist, and in his retirement his temper became increasingly difficult and exacting.
His wife now offered so little resistance to his moods that she was practically useless to him. He made his daughter Eleanor into his chief confidante, and the prime of her life was being rapidly consumed by her father. To her he dictated the memoirs which were to avenge his memory, and she had to assure him constantly that his treatment had been a disgrace. Already, at the age of thirty-five, her cheeks were whitening as her mother’s had whitened, but for her there would be no memories of Indian suns and Indian rivers, and clamor of children in a nursery; she would have very little of substance to think about when she sat, as Lady Otway now sat, knitting white wool, with her eyes fixed almost perpetually upon the same embroidered bird upon the same fire-screen. But then Lady Otway was one of the people for whom the great make-believe game of English social life has been invented; she spent most of her time in pretending to herself and her neighbors that she was a dignified, important, much-occupied person, of considerable social standing and sufficient wealth. In view of the actual state of things this game needed a great deal of skill; and, perhaps, at the age she had reached—she was over sixty—she played far more to deceive herself than to deceive any one else. Moreover, the armor was wearing thin; she forgot to keep up appearances more and more.
The worn patches in the carpets, and the pallor of the drawing-room, where no chair or cover had been renewed for some years, were due not only to the miserable pension, but to the wear and tear of twelve children, eight of whom were sons. As often happens in these large families, a distinct dividing-line could be traced, about half-way in the succession, where the money for educational purposes had run short, and the six younger children had grown up far more economically than the elder. If the boys were clever, they won scholarships, and went to school; if they were not clever, they took what the family connection had to offer them. The girls accepted situations occasionally, but there were always one or two at home, nursing sick animals, tending silkworms, or playing the flute in their bedrooms. The distinction between the elder children and the younger corresponded almost to the distinction between a higher class and a lower one, for with only a haphazard education and insufficient allowances, the younger children had picked up accomplishments, friends, and points of view which were not to be found within the walls of a public school or of a Government office. Between the two divisions there was considerable hostility, the elder trying to patronize the younger, the younger refusing to respect the elder; but one feeling united them and instantly closed any risk of a breach—their common belief in the superiority of their own family to all others. Henry was the eldest of the younger group, and their leader; he bought strange books and joined odd societies; he went without a tie for a whole year, and had six shirts made of black flannel. He had long refused to take a seat either in a shipping office or in a tea-merchant’s warehouse; and persisted, in spite of the disapproval of uncles and aunts, in practicing both violin and piano, with the result that he could not perform professionally upon either. Indeed, for thirty-two years of life he had nothing more substantial to show than a manuscript book containing the score of half an opera. In this protest of his, Katharine had always given him her support, and as she was generally held to be an extremely sensible person, who dressed too well to be eccentric, he had found her support of some use. Indeed, when she came down at Christmas she usually spent a great part of her time in private conferences with Henry and with Cassandra, the youngest girl, to whom the silkworms belonged. With the younger section she had a great reputation for common sense, and for something that they despised but inwardly respected and called knowledge of the world—that is to say, of the way in which respectable elderly people, going to their clubs and dining out with ministers, think and behave. She had more than once played the part of ambassador between Lady Otway and her children. That poor lady, for instance, consulted her for advice when, one day, she opened Cassandra’s bedroom door on a mission of discovery, and found the ceiling hung with mulberry-leaves, the windows blocked with cages, and the tables stacked with home-made machines for the manufacture of silk dresses.
“I wish you could help her to take an interest in something that other people are interested in, Katharine,” she observed, rather plaintively, detailing her grievances. “It’s all Henry’s doing, you know, giving up her parties and taking to these nasty insects. It doesn’t follow that if a man can do a thing a woman may too.”
The morning was sufficiently bright to make the chairs and sofas in Lady Otway’s private sitting-room appear more than usually shabby, and the gallant gentlemen, her brothers and cousins, who had defended the Empire and left their bones on many frontiers, looked at the world through a film of yellow which the morning light seemed to have drawn across their photographs. Lady Otway sighed, it may be at the faded relics, and turned, with resignation, to her balls of wool, which, curiously and characteristically, were not an ivory-white, but rather a tarnished yellow-white. She had called her niece in for a little chat. She had always trusted her, and now more than ever, since her engagement to Rodney, which seemed to Lady Otway extremely suitable, and just what one would wish for one’s own daughter. Katharine unwittingly increased her reputation for wisdom by asking to be given knitting-needles too.
“It’s so very pleasant,” said Lady Otway, “to knit while one’s talking. And now, my dear Katharine, tell me about your plans.”
The emotions of the night before, which she had suppressed in such a way as to keep her awake till dawn, had left Katharine a little jaded, and thus more matter-of-fact than usual. She was quite ready to discuss her plans—houses and rents, servants and economy—without feeling that they concerned her very much. As she spoke, knitting methodically meanwhile, Lady Otway noted, with approval, the upright, responsible bearing of her niece, to whom the prospect of marriage had brought some gravity most becoming in a bride, and yet, in these days, most rare. Yes, Katharine’s engagement had changed her a little.
“What a perfect daughter, or daughter-in-law!” she thought to herself, and could not help contrasting her with Cassandra, surrounded by innumerable silkworms in her bedroom.
“Yes,” she continued, glancing at Katharine, with the round, greenish eyes which were as inexpressive as moist marbles, “Katharine is like the girls of my youth. We took the serious things of life seriously.” But just as she was deriving satisfaction from this thought, and was producing some of the hoarded wisdom which none of her own daughters, alas! seemed now to need, the door opened, and Mrs. Hilbery came in, or rather, did not come in, but stood in the doorway and smiled, having evidently mistaken the room.
“I never SHALL know my way about this house!” she exclaimed. “I’m on my way to the library, and I don’t want to interrupt. You and Katharine were having a little chat?”
The presence of her sister-in-law made Lady Otway slightly uneasy. How could she go on with what she was saying in Maggie’s presence? for she was saying something that she had never said, all these years, to Maggie herself.
“I was telling Katharine a few little commonplaces about marriage,” she said, with a little laugh. “Are none of my children looking after you, Maggie?”
“Marriage,” said Mrs. Hilbery, coming into the room, and nodding her head once or twice, “I always say marriage is a school. And you don’t get the prizes unless you go to school. Charlotte has won all the prizes,” she added, giving her sister-in-law a little pat, which made Lady Otway more uncomfortable still. She half laughed, muttered something, and ended on a sigh.
“Aunt Charlotte was saying that it’s no good being married unless you submit to your husband,” said Katharine, framing her aunt’s words into a far more definite shape than they had really worn; and when she spoke thus she did not appear at all old-fashioned. Lady Otway looked at her and paused for a moment.
“Well, I really don’t advise a woman who wants to have things her own way to get married,” she said, beginning a fresh row rather elaborately.
Mrs. Hilbery knew something of the circumstances which, as she thought, had inspired this remark. In a moment her face was clouded with sympathy which she did not quite know how to express.
“What a shame it was!” she exclaimed, forgetting that her train of thought might not be obvious to her listeners. “But, Charlotte, it would have been much worse if Frank had disgraced himself in any way. And it isn’t what our husbands GET, but what they ARE. I used to dream of white horses and palanquins, too; but still, I like the ink-pots best. And who knows?” she concluded, looking at Katharine, “your father may be made a baronet to-morrow.”
Lady Otway, who was Mr. Hilbery’s sister, knew quite well that, in private, the Hilberys called Sir Francis “that old Turk,” and though she did not follow the drift of Mrs. Hilbery’s remarks, she knew what prompted them.
“But if you can give way to your husband,” she said, speaking to Katharine, as if there were a separate understanding between them, “a happy marriage is the happiest thing in the world.”
“Yes,” said Katharine, “but—” She did not mean to finish her sentence, she merely wished to induce her mother and her aunt to go on talking about marriage, for she was in the mood to feel that other people could help her if they would. She went on knitting, but her fingers worked with a decision that was oddly unlike the smooth and contemplative sweep of Lady Otway’s plump hand. Now and then she looked swiftly at her mother, then at her aunt. Mrs. Hilbery held a book in her hand, and was on her way, as Katharine guessed, to the library, where another paragraph was to be added to that varied assortment of paragraphs, the Life of Richard Alardyce. Normally, Katharine would have hurried her mother downstairs, and seen that no excuse for distraction came her way. Her attitude towards the poet’s life, however, had changed with other changes; and she was content to forget all about her scheme of hours. Mrs. Hilbery was secretly delighted. Her relief at finding herself excused manifested itself in a series of sidelong glances of sly humor in her daughter’s direction, and the indulgence put her in the best of spirits. Was she to be allowed merely to sit and talk? It was so much pleasanter to sit in a nice room filled with all sorts of interesting odds and ends which she hadn’t looked at for a year, at least, than to seek out one date which contradicted another in a dictionary.
“We’ve all had perfect husbands,” she concluded, generously forgiving Sir Francis all his faults in a lump. “Not that I think a bad temper is really a fault in a man. I don’t mean a bad temper,” she corrected herself, with a glance obviously in the direction of Sir Francis. “I should say a quick, impatient temper. Most, in fact ALL great men have had bad tempers—except your grandfather, Katharine,” and here she sighed, and suggested that, perhaps, she ought to go down to the library.
“But in the ordinary marriage, is it necessary to give way to one’s husband?” said Katharine, taking no notice of her mother’s suggestion, blind even to the depression which had now taken possession of her at the thought of her own inevitable death.
“I should say yes, certainly,” said Lady Otway, with a decision most unusual for her.
“Then one ought to make up one’s mind to that before one is married,” Katharine mused, seeming to address herself.
Mrs. Hilbery was not much interested in these remarks, which seemed to have a melancholy tendency, and to revive her spirits she had recourse to an infallible remedy—she looked out of the window.
“Do look at that lovely little blue bird!” she exclaimed, and her eye looked with extreme pleasure at the soft sky. at the trees, at the green fields visible behind those trees, and at the leafless branches which surrounded the body of the small blue tit. Her sympathy with nature was exquisite.
“Most women know by instinct whether they can give it or not,” Lady Otway slipped in quickly, in rather a low voice, as if she wanted to get this said while her sister-in-law’s attention was diverted. “And if not—well then, my advice would be—don’t marry.”
“Oh, but marriage is the happiest life for a woman,” said Mrs. Hilbery, catching the word marriage, as she brought her eyes back to the room again. Then she turned her mind to what she had said.
“It’s the most INTERESTING life,” she corrected herself. She looked at her daughter with a look of vague alarm. It was the kind of maternal scrutiny which suggests that, in looking at her daughter a mother is really looking at herself. She was not altogether satisfied; but she purposely made no attempt to break down the reserve which, as a matter of fact, was a quality she particularly admired and depended upon in her daughter. But when her mother said that marriage was the most interesting life, Katharine felt, as she was apt to do suddenly, for no definite reason, that they understood each other, in spite of differing in every possible way. Yet the wisdom of the old seems to apply more to feelings which we have in common with the rest of the human race than to our feelings as individuals, and Katharine knew that only some one of her own age could follow her meaning. Both these elderly women seemed to her to have been content with so little happiness, and at the moment she had not sufficient force to feel certain that their version of marriage was the wrong one. In London, certainly, this temperate attitude toward her own marriage had seemed to her just. Why had she now changed? Why did it now depress her? It never occurred to her that her own conduct could be anything of a puzzle to her mother, or that elder people are as much affected by the young as the young are by them. And yet it was true that love—passion—whatever one chose to call it, had played far less part in Mrs. Hilbery’s life than might have seemed likely, judging from her enthusiastic and imaginative temperament. She had always been more interested by other things. Lady Otway, strange though it seemed, guessed more accurately at Katharine’s state of mind than her mother did.
“Why don’t we all live in the country?” exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery, once more looking out of the window. “I’m sure one would think such beautiful things if one lived in the country. No horrid slum houses to depress one, no trams or motor-cars; and the people all looking so plump and cheerful. Isn’t there some little cottage near you, Charlotte, which would do for us, with a spare room, perhaps, in case we asked a friend down? And we should save so much money that we should be able to travel—”
“Yes. You would find it very nice for a week or two, no doubt,” said Lady Otway. “But what hour would you like the carriage this morning?” she continued, touching the bell.
“Katharine shall decide,” said Mrs. Hilbery, feeling herself unable to prefer one hour to another. “And I was just going to tell you, Katharine, how, when I woke this morning, everything seemed so clear in my head that if I’d had a pencil I believe I could have written quite a long chapter. When we’re out on our drive I shall find us a house. A few trees round it, and a little garden, a pond with a Chinese duck, a study for your father, a study for me, and a sitting room for Katharine, because then she’ll be a married lady.”
At this Katharine shivered a little, drew up to the fire, and warmed her hands by spreading them over the topmost peak of the coal. She wished to bring the talk back to marriage again, in order to hear Aunt Charlotte’s views, but she did not know how to do this.
“Let me look at your engagement-ring, Aunt Charlotte,” she said, noticing her own.
She took the cluster of green stones and turned it round and round, but she did not know what to say next.
“That poor old ring was a sad disappointment to me when I first had it,” Lady Otway mused. “I’d set my heart on a diamond ring, but I never liked to tell Frank, naturally. He bought it at Simla.”
Katharine turned the ring round once more, and gave it back to her aunt without speaking. And while she turned it round her lips set themselves firmly together, and it seemed to her that she could satisfy William as these women had satisfied their husbands; she could pretend to like emeralds when she preferred diamonds. Having replaced her ring, Lady Otway remarked that it was chilly, though not more so than one must expect at this time of year. Indeed, one ought to be thankful to see the sun at all, and she advised them both to dress warmly for their drive. Her aunt’s stock of commonplaces, Katharine sometimes suspected, had been laid in on purpose to fill silences with, and had little to do with her private thoughts. But at this moment they seemed terribly in keeping with her own conclusions, so that she took up her knitting again and listened, chiefly with a view to confirming herself in the belief that to be engaged to marry some one with whom you are not in love is an inevitable step in a world where the existence of passion is only a traveller’s story brought from the heart of deep forests and told so rarely that wise people doubt whether the story can be true. She did her best to listen to her mother asking for news of John, and to her aunt replying with the authentic history of Hilda’s engagement to an officer in the Indian Army, but she cast her mind alternately towards forest paths and starry blossoms, and towards pages of neatly written mathematical signs. When her mind took this turn her marriage seemed no more than an archway through which it was necessary to pass in order to have her desire. At such times the current of her nature ran in its deep narrow channel with great force and with an alarming lack of consideration for the feelings of others. Just as the two elder ladies had finished their survey of the family prospects, and Lady Otway was nervously anticipating some general statement as to life and death from her sister-in-law, Cassandra burst into the room with the news that the carriage was at the door.
“Why didn’t Andrews tell me himself?” said Lady Otway, peevishly, blaming her servants for not living up to her ideals.
When Mrs. Hilbery and Katharine arrived in the hall, ready dressed for their drive, they found that the usual discussion was going forward as to the plans of the rest of the family. In token of this, a great many doors were opening and shutting, two or three people stood irresolutely on the stairs, now going a few steps up, and now a few steps down, and Sir Francis himself had come out from his study, with the “Times” under his arm, and a complaint about noise and draughts from the open door which, at least, had the effect of bundling the people who did not want to go into the carriage, and sending those who did not want to stay back to their rooms. It was decided that Mrs. Hilbery, Katharine, Rodney, and Henry should drive to Lincoln, and any one else who wished to go should follow on bicycles or in the pony-cart. Every one who stayed at Stogdon House had to make this expedition to Lincoln in obedience to Lady Otway’s conception of the right way to entertain her guests, which she had imbibed from reading in fashionable papers of the behavior of Christmas parties in ducal houses. The carriage horses were both fat and aged, still they matched; the carriage was shaky and uncomfortable, but the Otway arms were visible on the panels. Lady Otway stood on the topmost step, wrapped in a white shawl, and waved her hand almost mechanically until they had turned the corner under the laurel-bushes, when she retired indoors with a sense that she had played her part, and a sigh at the thought that none of her children felt it necessary to play theirs.
The carriage bowled along smoothly over the gently curving road. Mrs. Hilbery dropped into a pleasant, inattentive state of mind, in which she was conscious of the running green lines of the hedges, of the swelling ploughland, and of the mild blue sky, which served her, after the first five minutes, for a pastoral background to the drama of human life; and then she thought of a cottage garden, with the flash of yellow daffodils against blue water; and what with the arrangement of these different prospects, and the shaping of two or three lovely phrases, she did not notice that the young people in the carriage were almost silent. Henry, indeed, had been included against his wish, and revenged himself by observing Katharine and Rodney with disillusioned eyes; while Katharine was in a state of gloomy self-suppression which resulted in complete apathy. When Rodney spoke to her she either said “Hum!” or assented so listlessly that he addressed his next remark to her mother. His deference was agreeable to her, his manners were exemplary; and when the church towers and factory chimneys of the town came into sight, she roused herself, and recalled memories of the fair summer of 1853, which fitted in harmoniously with what she was dreaming of the future.