Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which — a most hateful thing to her — stood almost close to her own hall door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination. She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump as she called it out in the middle of the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post. Her epistle to her sister-in-law, of whom she never spoke otherwise than as Mrs Stanbury, was as follows:
The Close, Exeter, 22nd April, 186
My dear Sister Stanbury,
Your son, Hugh, has taken to courses of which I do not approve, and therefore I have put an end to my connection with him. I shall be happy to entertain your daughter Dorothy in my house if you and she approve of such a plan. Should you agree to this, she will be welcome to receive you or her sister, not her brother, in my house any Wednesday morning between half-past nine and half-past twelve. I will endeavour to make my house pleasant to her and useful, and will make her an allowance of 25 pounds per annum for her clothes as long as she may remain with me. I shall expect her to be regular at meals, to be constant in going to church, and not to read modern novels.
I intend the arrangement to be permanent, but of course I must retain the power of closing it if, and when, I shall see fit. Its permanence must be contingent on my life. I have no power of providing for any one after my death,
I hope the young lady does not have any false hair about her.’
When this note was received at Nuncombe Putney the amazement which it occasioned was extreme. Mrs Stanbury, the widow of the late vicar, lived in a little morsel of a cottage on the outskirts of the village, with her two daughters, Priscilla and Dorothy. Their whole income, out of which it was necessary that they should pay rent for their cottage, was less than 70 pounds per annum. During the last few months a five-pound note now and again had found its way to Nuncombe Putney out of the coffers of the ‘D. R.’; but the ladies there were most unwilling to be so relieved, thinking that their brother’s career was of infinitely more importance than their comforts or even than their living. They were very poor, but they were accustomed to poverty. The elder sister was older than Hugh, but Dorothy, the younger, to whom this strange invitation was now made, was two years younger than her brother, and was now nearly twenty-six. How they had lived, and dressed themselves, and had continued to be called ladies by the inhabitants of the village was, and is, and will be a mystery to those who have had the spending of much larger incomes, but have still been always poor. But they had lived, had gone to church every Sunday in decent apparel, and had kept up friendly relations with the family of the present vicar, and with one or two other neighbours.
When the letter had been read first by the mother, and then aloud, and then by each of them separately, in the little sitting-room in the cottage, there was silence among them for neither of them desired to be the first to express an opinion. Nothing could be more natural than the proposed arrangement, had it not been made unnatural by a quarrel existing nearly throughout the whole life of the person most nearly concerned. Priscilla, the elder daughter, was the one of the family who was generally the ruler, and she at last expressed an opinion adverse to the arrangement. ‘My dear, you would never be able to bear it,’ said Priscilla.
‘I suppose not,’ said Mrs Stanbury, plaintively.
‘I could try,’ said Dorothy.
‘My dear, you don’t know that woman,’ said Priscilla.
‘Of course I don’t know her,’ said Dorothy.
‘She has always been very good to Hugh,’ said Mrs Stanbury.
‘I don’t think she has been good to him at all,’ said Priscilla.
‘But think what a saving it would be,’ said Dorothy. ‘And I could send home half of what Aunt Stanbury says she would give me.’
‘You must not think of that,’ said Priscilla, ‘because she expects you to be dressed.’
‘I should like to try,’ she said, before the morning was over ‘if you and mamma don’t think it would be wrong.’
The conference that day ended in a written request to Aunt Stanbury that a week might be allowed for consideration, the letter being written by Priscilla, but signed with her mother’s name, and with a very long epistle to Hugh, in which each of the ladies took a part, and in which advice and decision were demanded. It was very evident to Hugh that his mother and Dorothy were for compliance, and that Priscilla was for refusal. But he never doubted for a moment. ‘Of course she will go,’ he said in his answer to Priscilla; ‘and she must understand that Aunt Stanbury is a most excellent woman, as true as the sun, thoroughly honest, with no fault but this, that she likes her own way. Of course Dolly can go back again if she finds the house too hard for her.’ Then he sent another five-pound note, observing that Dolly’s journey to Exeter would cost money, and that her wardrobe would want some improvement.
‘I’m very glad that it isn’t me,’ said Priscilla, who, however, did not attempt to oppose the decision of the man of the family. Dorothy was greatly gratified by the excitement of the proposed change in her life, and the following letter, the product of the wisdom of the family, was written by Mrs Stanbury.
‘Nuncombe Putney, 1st May, 186—.
My dear Sister Stanbury,
We are all very thankful for the kindness of your offer, which my daughter Dorothy will accept with feelings of affectionate gratitude. I think you will find her docile, good-tempered, and amiable; but a mother, of course, speaks well of her own child. She will endeavour to comply with your wishes in all things reasonable. She; of course, understands that should the arrangement not suit, she will come back home on the expression of your wish that it should be so. And she will, of course, do the same, if she should find that living in Exeter does not suit herself.’ (This sentence was inserted at the instance of Priscilla, after much urgent expostulation.) ‘Dorothy will be ready to go to you on any day you may fix after the 7th of this month.
Believe me to remain,
Your affectionate sister-in-law,
‘She’s going to come,’ said Miss Stanbury to Martha, holding the letter in her hand.
‘I never doubted her coming, ma’am,’ said Martha.
‘And I mean her to stay, unless it’s her own fault. She’ll have the small room upstairs, looking out front, next to mine. And you must go and fetch her.’
‘Go and fetch her, ma’am?’
‘Yes. If you won’t, I must.’
‘She ain’t a child, ma’am. She’s twenty-five years old, and surely she can come to Exeter by herself, with a railroad all the way from Lessboro’.’
‘There’s no place a young woman is insulted in so bad as those railway carriages, and I won’t have her come by herself. If she is to live with me, she shall begin decently at any rate.’
Martha argued the matter, but was of course beaten, and on the day fixed started early in the morning for Nuncombe Putney, and returned in the afternoon to the Close with her charge. By the time that she had reached the house she had in some degree reconciled herself to the dangerous step that her mistress had taken, partly by perceiving that in face Dorothy Stanbury was very like her brother Hugh, and partly, perhaps, by finding that the young woman’s manner to herself was both gentle and sprightly. She knew well that gentleness alone, without some back-bone of strength under it, would not long succeed with Miss Stanbury. ‘As far as I can judge, ma’am, she’s a sweet young lady,’ said Martha, when she reported her arrival to her mistress, who had retired upstairs to her own room, in order that she might thus hear a word of tidings from her lieutenant, before she showed herself on the field of action.
‘Sweet! I hate your sweets,’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘Then why did you send for her, ma’am?’
‘Because I was an old fool. But I must go down and receive her, I suppose.’
Then Miss Stanbury went down, almost trembling as she went. The matter to her was one of vital importance. She was going to change the whole tenor of her life for the sake—as she told herself—of doing her duty by a relative whom she did not even know. But we may fairly suppose that there had in truth been a feeling beyond that, which taught her to desire to have some one near her to whom she might not only do her duty as guardian, but whom she might also love. She had tried this with her nephew; but her nephew had been too strong for her, too far from her, too unlike to herself. When he came to see her he had smoked a short pipe, which had been shocking to her, and he had spoken of Reform, and Trades’ Unions, and meetings in the parks, as though they had not been Devil’s ordinances. And he was very shy of going to church, utterly refusing to be taken there twice on the same Sunday. And he had told his aunt that owing to a peculiar and unfortunate weakness in his constitution he could not listen to the reading of sermons. And then she was almost certain that he had once kissed one of the maids! She had found it impossible to manage him in any way; and when he positively declared himself as permanently devoted to the degrading iniquities of penny newspapers, she had thought it best to cast him off altogether. Now, thus late in life, she was going to make another venture, to try an altogether new mode of living—in order, as she said to herself, that she might be of some use to somebody—but, no doubt, with a further unexpressed hope in her bosom, that the solitude of her life might be relieved by the companionship of some one whom she might love. She had arrayed herself in a clean cap and her evening gown, and she went downstairs looking sternly, with a fully-developed idea that she must initiate her new duties by assuming a mastery at once. But inwardly she trembled, and was intensely anxious as to the first appearance of her niece. Of course there would be a little morsel of a bonnet. She hated those vile patches—dirty flat daubs of millinery as she called them, but they had become too general for her to refuse admittance for such a thing within her doors. But a chignon, a bandbox behind the noddle, she would not endure. And then there were other details of feminine gear, which shall not be specified, as to which she was painfully anxious, almost forgetting in her anxiety that the dress of this young woman whom she was about to see must have ever been regulated by the closest possible economy.
The first thing she saw on entering the room was a dark straw hat, a straw hat with a strong penthouse flap to it, and her heart was immediately softened.
‘My dear,’ she said, ‘I am glad to see you.’
Dorothy, who, on her part, was trembling also, whose position was one to justify most intense anxiety, murmured some reply.
‘Take off your hat,’ said the aunt, ‘and let me give you a kiss.’
The hat was taken off and the kiss was given. There was certainly no chignon there. Dorothy Stanbury was light haired, with almost flaxen ringlets, worn after the old-fashioned way which we used to think so pretty when we were young. She had very soft grey eyes, which ever seemed to beseech you to do something when they looked at you, and her mouth was a beseeching mouth. There are women who, even amidst their strongest efforts at giving assistance to others, always look as though they were asking aid themselves, and such a one was Dorothy Stanbury. Her complexion was pale, but there was always present in it a tint of pink running here and there, changing with every word she spoke, changing indeed with every pulse of her heart. Nothing ever was softer than her cheek; but her hands were thin and hard, and almost fibrous with the working of the thread upon them. She was rather tall than otherwise, but that extreme look of feminine dependence which always accompanied her, took away something even from the appearance of her height.
‘These are all real, at any rate,’ said her aunt, taking hold of the curls, ‘and won’t be hurt by a little cold water.’
Dorothy smiled but said nothing, and was then taken up to her bed-room. Indeed, when the aunt and niece sat down to dinner together Dorothy had hardly spoken. But Miss Stanbury had spoken, and things upon the whole had gone very well.
‘I hope you like roast chicken, my dear?’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘Oh, thank you.’
‘And bread sauce? Jane, I do hope the bread sauce is hot.’
If the reader thinks that Miss Stanbury was indifferent to considerations of the table, the reader is altogether ignorant of Miss Stanbury’s character. When Miss Stanbury gave her niece the liver-wing, and picked out from the attendant sausages one that had been well browned and properly broken in the frying, she meant to do a real kindness.
‘And now, my dear, there are mashed potatoes and bread sauce. As for green vegetables, I don’t know what has become of them. They tell me I may have green peas from France at a shilling a quart; but if I can’t have English green peas, I won’t have any.’
Miss Stanbury was standing up as she said this, as she always did on such occasions, liking to have a full mastery over the dish.
‘I hope you like it, my dear?’
‘Everything is so very nice.’
‘That’s right. I like to see a young woman with an appetite. Remember that God sends the good things for us to eat; and as long as we don’t take more than our share, and give away something to those who haven’t a fair share of their own, I for one think it quite right to enjoy my victuals. Jane, this bread sauce isn’t hot. It never is hot. Don’t tell me; I know what hot is!’
Dorothy thought that her aunt was very angry; but Jane knew Miss Stanbury better, and bore the scolding without shaking in her shoes.
‘And now, my dear, you must take a glass of port wine. It will do you good after your journey.’
Dorothy attempted to explain that she never did drink any wine, but her aunt talked down her scruples at once.
‘One glass of port wine never did anybody any harm, and as there is port wine, it must be intended that somebody should drink it.’
Miss Stanbury, as she sipped hers out very slowly, seemed to enjoy it very much. Although May had come, there was a fire in the grate, and she sat with her toes on the fender, and her silk dress folded up above her knees. She sat quite silent in this position for a quarter of an hour, every now and then raising her glass to her lips. Dorothy sat silent also. To her, in the newness of her condition, speech was impossible.
‘I think it will do,’ said Miss Stanbury at last.
As Dorothy had no idea what would do, she could make no reply to this.
‘I’m sure it will do,’ said Miss Stanbury, after another short interval. ‘You’re as like my poor sister as two eggs. You don’t have headaches, do you?’
Dorothy said that she was not ordinarily affected in that way.
‘When girls have headaches it comes from tight-lacing, and not walking enough, and carrying all manner of nasty smells about with them. I know what headaches mean. How is a woman not to have a headache, when she carries a thing on the back of her poll as big as a gardener’s wheel-barrow? Come, it’s a fine evening, and we’ll go out and look at the towers. You’ve never even seen them yet, I suppose?’
So they went out, and finding the verger at the Cathedral door, he being a great friend of Miss Stanbury, they walked up and down the aisles, and Dorothy was instructed as to what would be expected from her in regard to the outward forms of religion. She was to go to the Cathedral service on the morning of every week-day, and on Sundays in the afternoon. On Sunday mornings she was to attend the little church of St. Margaret. On Sunday evenings it was the practice of Miss Stanbury to read a sermon in the dining-room to all of whom her household consisted. Did Dorothy like daily services? Dorothy, who was more patient than her brother, and whose life had been much less energetic, said that she had no objection to going to church every day when there was not too much to do.
‘There never need be too much to do to attend the Lord’s house,’ said Miss Stanbury, somewhat angrily.
‘Only if you’ve got to make the beds,’ said Dorothy.
‘My dear, I beg your pardon,’ said Miss Stanbury. ‘I beg your pardon, heartily. I’m a thoughtless old woman, I know. Never mind. Now, we’ll go in.’
Later in the evening, when she gave her niece a candlestick to go to bed, she repeated what she had said before.
‘It’ll do very well, my dear. I’m sure it’ll do. But if you read in bed either night or morning, I’ll never forgive you.’
This last caution was uttered with so much energy, that Dorothy gave a little jump as she promised obedience.
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26