O. Douglas.

Penny Plain online

. (page 6 of 21)
Online LibraryO. DouglasPenny Plain → online text (page 6 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

calmly discussing its faults and foibles." She laughed softly. "Lewis
Elliot says Priorsford is made up of three classes - the dull, the daft,
and the devout."

Pamela, looking for the book she wanted to lend to Jean, stopped and
stood still as if arrested by the name.

"Lewis Elliot!"

"Yes, of Laverlaw. D'you know him, by any chance?"

"I used to know a Lewis Elliot who had some connection with Priorsford,
but I thought he had left it years ago."

"Our Lewis Elliot inherited Laverlaw rather unexpectedly some years
ago. Before that he was quite poor. Perhaps that is what makes him so
understanding. He is a sort of distant cousin of ours. Great-aunt Alison
was his aunt too - at least, he called her aunt. It will be fun if he
turns out to be the man you used to know."

"Yes," said Pamela. "Here is the book, Jean. It's been so nice having
you this afternoon. No, dear, I won't go back with you to tea. I'm going
to write letters. Good-bye. My love to the boys."

But Pamela wrote no letters that evening. She sat with a book on her
knee and looked into the fire; sometimes she sighed.


"I have, as you know, a general prejudice against all persons who do
not succeed in the world." - JOWETT OF BALLIOL.

Mrs. Duff-Whalley was giving a dinner-party. This was no uncommon
occurrence, for she loved to entertain. It gave her real pleasure to
provide a good meal and to see her guests enjoy it. "Besides," as she
often said, "what's the use of having everything solid for the table,
and a fine house and a cook at sixty pounds a year, if nobody's any the

It will be seen from this remark that Mrs. Duff-Whalley had not always
been in a position to give dinner-parties; indeed, Mrs. Hope, that
terror to the newly risen, who traced everyone back to their first rude
beginnings (generally "a wee shop"), had it that the late Mr.
Duff-Whalley had begun life as a "Johnnie-a'-things" in Leith, and that
his wife had been his landlady's daughter.

But the "wee shop" was in the dim past, if, indeed, it had ever existed
except in Mrs. Hope's wicked, wise old head, and for many years Mrs.
Duff-Whalley had ruffled it in a world that asked no questions about
the origin of money so obviously there.

Most people are weak when they come in contact with a really
strong-willed woman. No one liked Mrs. Duff-Whalley, but few, if any,
withstood her advances. It was easier to give in and be on calling and
dining terms than to repulse a woman who never noticed a snub, and who
would never admit the possibility that she might not be wanted. So Mrs.
Duff-Whalley could boast with some degree of truth that she knew
"everybody," and entertained at The Towers "very nearly the highest in
the land."

The dinner-party I write of was not one of her more ambitious efforts.
It was a small and (with the exception of one guest) what she called "a
purely local affair." That is to say, the people who were to grace the
feast were culled from the big villas on the Hill, and were not

Mrs. Duff-Whalley was an excellent manager, and left nothing to chance.
She saw to all the details herself. Dressed and ready quite half an hour
before the time fixed for dinner, she had cast her eagle glance over the
dinner-table, and now sailed into the drawing-room to see that the fire
was at its best, the chairs comfortably disposed, and everything as it
should be. Certainly no one could have found fault with the comfort of
the room this evening. A huge fire blazed in the most approved style of
grate, the electric light (in the latest fittings) also blazed, lighting
up the handsome oil-paintings that adorned the walls, the many
photographs, the china in the cabinets, the tables with their silver
treasures. Everywhere stood vases of heavy-scented hothouse flowers.
Mrs. Duff-Whalley approved of hothouse flowers; she said they gave a
tone to a room.

The whole room glittered, and its mistress glittered with it as she
moved about in a dress largely composed of sequins, a diamond necklace,
and a startling ornament in her hair.

She turned as the door opened and her daughter came into the room, and
looked her carefully up and down. She was a pretty girl dressed in the
extreme of fashion, and under each arm she carried a tiny barking dog.

Muriel was a good daughter to her mother, and an exemplary character in
every way, but the odd thing was that few people liked her. This was the
more tragic as it was the desire of her heart to be popular. Her
appearance was attractive, and strangers usually began acquaintance with
enthusiasm, but the attraction rarely survived the first hour's talk.
She was like a very well-coloured and delightful-looking apple that is
without flavour. She was never natural - always aping someone. Her
enthusiasms did not ring true, her interest was obviously feigned, and
she had that most destroying of social faults, she could not listen with
patience, but let her attention wander to the conversation of her
neighbours. It seemed as if she could never talk at peace with anyone
for fear of missing something more interesting in another quarter.

"You look very nice, Muriel! I'm glad I told you to put on that dress,
and that new way of doing your hair is very becoming." One lovable thing
about Mrs. Duff-Whalley was the way she sincerely and openly admired
everything that was hers. "Now, see and do your best to make the evening
go. Mr. Elliot takes a lot of amusing, and the Jowetts aren't very
lively either."

"Is that all that's coming?" Muriel asked.

"I asked the new Episcopalian parson - what's his name? - yes - Jackson - to
fill up."

"You don't often descend to the clergy, mother."

"No, but Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than
Presbyterians, and this young man seems quite a gentleman - such a
blessing, too, when they haven't got wives. Dear, dear, I told Dickie
not to send in any more of that plant - what d'you call it?" (It was a
peculiarity of Mrs. Duff-Whalley that she never could remember the names
of any but the simplest flowers.) "I don't like its perfume. What was I
saying? Of course, I only got up this dinner on the spur of the moment,
so to speak, when I met Mr. Elliot in the Highgate. He comes and goes so
much you never know when he's at Laverlaw; if you write or telephone
he's always got another engagement. But when I met him face to face I
just said, 'Now, when will you dine with us, Mr. Elliot?' and he hummed
and hawed a bit and then fixed to-night."

"Perhaps he didn't want to come," Muriel suggested as she snuggled one
of the small dogs against her face. "And did it love its own mummy,
then, darling snub-nose pet?"

Her mother scouted the idea.

"Why should he not want to come? Do put down those dogs, Muriel. I never
get used to see you kissing them. A good dinner and everything
comfortable, and you to play the piano to him taught by the best
masters - he's ill to please. And he's not very well off, though he does
own Laverlaw. It's the time the family has been there that gives him the
standing. I must say, he isn't in the least genial, but he gets that
from his mother. A starchier old woman I never met. I remember your
father and I were staying at the Hydro when old Elliot died, and his son
was killed before that, shooting lions or something in Africa, so this
Lewis Elliot, who was a nephew, inherited. We thought we would go and
ask if by any chance they wanted to sell the place, so we called in a
friendly way, though we didn't know them, of course. It was old Mrs.
Elliot we saw, and my word, she was cold. As polite as you like, but as
icy as the North Pole. Your father had some vulgar sayings I couldn't
break him off, and he said as we drove out of the lodge gates, 'Well,
that old wife gave us our heads in our laps and our lugs to play wi'.'"

"Why, mother!" Muriel cried, astonished. Her mother was never heard to
use a Scots expression and thought even a Scots song slightly vulgar.

"I know - I know," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley hastily. "It just came over me
for a minute how your father said it. He was a very amusing man, your
father, very bright to live with, though he was too fond of low Scots
expressions for my taste; and he _would_ eat cheese to his tea. It kept
us down, you know. I've risen a lot in the world since your father left
us, though I miss him, of course. He used to laugh at Minnie's ideas. It
was Minnie got us to send Gordon to an English school and then to
Cambridge, and take the hyphen. Your father had many a laugh at the
hyphen, and before the servants too! You see, Minnie went to a
high-class school and made friends with the right people, and learned
how things should be done. She had always assurance, had Minnie. The way
she could order the waiters about in those grand London hotels! And then
she married Egerton-Thomson. But you're better-looking, Muriel."

Muriel brushed aside the subject of her looks.

"What made you settle in Priorsford?" she asked.

"Well, we came out first to stay at the Hydro - you were away at school
then - and your father took a great fancy to the place. He was making
money fast, and we always had a thought of buying a place. But there was
nothing that just suited us. We thought it would be too dull to be right
out in the country, at the end of a long drive - exclusive you know, but
terribly dreary, and then your father said, 'Build a house to suit
ourselves in Priorsford, and we'll have shops and a station and
everything quite near.' His idea was to have a house as like a
hydropathic as possible, and to call it The Towers. 'A fine big red
house, Aggie,' he often said to me, 'with plenty of bow-windows and
turrets and a hothouse off the drawing-room and a sweep of gravel in
front and a lot of geraniums and those yellow flowers - what d'you call
'em? - and good lawns, and a flower garden and a kitchen garden and a
garage, and what more d'you want?' Well, well, he got them all, but he
didn't live long to enjoy them. I think myself that having nothing to do
but take his meals killed him. I hear wheels! That'll be the Jowetts.
They're always so punctual. Am I all right?"

Muriel assured her that nothing was wrong or lacking, and they waited
for the guests.

The door opened and a servant announced, "Mr. and Mrs. Jowett."

Mrs. Jowett walked very slowly and delicately, and her husband pranced
behind her. It might have been expected that in their long walk together
through life Mr. Jowett would have got accustomed to his wife's
deliberate entrances, but no - it always seemed as if he were just on the
point of giving her an impatient push from behind.

She was a gentle-looking woman with soft, white hair and a
pink-and-white complexion - the sort of woman one always associates with
old lace. In her youth it was said that she had played the harp, and one
felt that the "grave, sweet melody" would have well become her. She was
dressed in pale shades of mauve, and had a finely finished look. The
Indian climate and curries had affected Mr. Jowett's liver, and made his
temper fiery, but his heart remained the sound, childlike thing it had
always been. He quarrelled with everybody (though never for long), but
people in trouble gravitated to him naturally, and no one had ever
asked him anything in reason and been refused; children loved him.

Mr. Jackson, the Episcopalian clergyman, followed hard behind the
Jowetts, and was immediately engaged in an argument with Mr. Jowett as
to whether or not choral communion, which had recently been started and
which Mr. Jowett resented, as he resented all new things, should be

"Ridiculous!" he shouted - "utterly ridiculous! You will drive the people
from the church, sir."

Then Mr. Elliot arrived. Mrs. Duff-Whalley greeted him impressively, and
dinner was announced.

Lewis Elliot was a man of forty-five, tall and thin and inclined to
stoop. He had shortsighted blue eyes and a shy, kind smile. He was not a
sociable man, and resented being dragged from his books to attend a
dinner-party. Like most people he was quite incapable of saying No to
Mrs. Duff-Whalley when that lady desired an answer in the affirmative,
but he had condemned himself roundly to himself as a fool as he drove
down the glen from Laverlaw.

Mrs. Duff-Whalley always gave a long and pretentious meal, and expected
everyone to pay for their invitation by being excessively bright and
chatty. It was not in the power of the present guests to be either the
one thing or the other. Mrs. Jowett was pensive and sweet, and inclined
to be silent; her husband gave loud barks of disagreement at intervals;
Mr. Jackson enjoyed his dinner and answered when spoken to, while Lewis
Elliot was rendered almost speechless by the flood of talk his hostess
poured over him.

"I'm very sorry, Mr. Elliot," she remarked in a pause, "that the people
I wanted to meet you couldn't come. I asked Sir John and Lady Tweedie,
but they were engaged - so unfortunate, for they are such an acquisition.
Then I asked the Olivers, and they couldn't come. You would really
wonder where the engagements come from in this quiet neighbourhood." She
gave a little unbelieving laugh. "I had evidently chosen an unfortunate
evening for the County."

It was trying for everyone: for Mr. Elliot, who was left with the
impression that people were apt to be engaged when asked to meet him;
for the Jowetts, who now knew that they had received a "fiddler's
bidding," and for Mr. Jackson, who felt that he was only there because
nobody else could be got.

There was a blank silence, which Lewis Elliot broke by laughing
cheerfully. "That absurd rhyme came into my head," he explained. "You

"'Miss Smarty gave a party,
No one came.
Her brother gave another,
Just the same.'"

Then, feeling suddenly that he had not improved matters, he fell silent.

"Oh," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley, rearing her head like an affronted hen,
"the difficulty, I assure you, is not to find guests but to decide which
to select."

"Quite so, quite so, naturally," murmured Mr. Jackson soothingly; he
had laughed at the rhyme and felt apologetic. Then, losing his head
completely under the cold glance his hostess turned on him, he added,
"Go ye into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in."

Mrs. Jowett took a bit of toast and broke it nervously. She was never
quite at ease in Mrs. Duff-Whalley's company. Incapable of an unkind
thought or a bitter word, so refined as to be almost inaudible, she felt
jarred and bumped in her mind after a talk with that lady, even as her
body would have felt after bathing in a rough sea among rocks. Realising
that the conversation had taken an unfortunate turn, she tried to divert
it into more pleasing channels.

Turning to Mr. Jackson, she said: "Such a sad thing happened to-day. Our
dear old dog, Rover, had to be put away. He was sixteen, very deaf and
rather cross, and the Vet. said it wasn't _kind_ to keep him; and of
course after that we felt there was nothing to be said. The Vet. said he
would come this morning at ten o'clock, and it quite spoilt my
breakfast, for dear Rover sat beside me and begged, and I felt like an
executioner; and then he went out for a walk by himself - a thing he
hadn't done since he had become frail - and when the Vet. came there was
no Rover."

"Dear, dear!" said Mr. Jackson, helping himself to an entrée.

"The really dreadful thing about it," continued Mrs. Jowett, refusing
the entrée, "was that Johnston - the gardener, you know - had dug the
grave where I had chosen he should lie, dear Rover, and - you have heard
the expression, Mr. Jackson - a yawning grave? Well, the grave _yawned_.
It was too heartrending. I simply went to my room and cried, and Tim
went in one direction and Johnston in another, and the maids looked too,
and they found the dear doggie, and the Vet. - a most obliging man called
Davidson - came back ... and dear Rover is _at rest_."

Mrs. Jowett looked sadly round and found that the whole table had been
listening to the recital.

Few people have not loved a dog and known the small tragedy of parting
with it when its all too short day was over, and even the "lamentable
comedy" of Mrs. Jowett's telling of the tale made no one smile.

Muriel leant forward, genuinely distressed. "I'm so frightfully sorry,
Mrs. Jowett; you'll miss dear old Rover dreadfully."

"It's a beastly business putting away a dog," said Lewis Elliot. "I
always wish they had the same lease of life as we have. 'Threescore and
ten years do sum up' ... and it's none too long for such faithful

"You must get another, Mrs. Jowett," her hostess told her bracingly.
"Get a dear little toy Pekinese or one of those Japanese
what-do-you-call-'ems that you can carry in your arms: they are so

"If you do, Janetta," her husband warned her, "you must choose between
the brute and me. I refuse to live in the same house with one of those
pampered, trifling little beasts. If we decide to fill old Rover's
place I suggest that we get a rough-haired Irish terrier." He rolled the
"r's" round his tongue. "Something robust that can bark and chase cats,
and not lie all day on a cushion, like one of those dashed Chinese ..."
His voice died away in muttered thunder.

Again Mrs. Duff-Whalley reared her head, but Muriel interposed,
laughing. "You mustn't really be so severe, Mr. Jowett. I happen to
possess two of the 'trifling beasts,' and you must come and apologise to
them after dinner. You can't imagine more perfect darlings, and of
_course_ they are called Bing and Toutou. You won't be able to resist
their little sweet faces - too utterly darling!"

"Shan't I?" said Mr. Jowett doubtfully. "Well, I apologise. Nobody likes
to hear their dog miscalled.... By the way, Jackson, that's an
abominable brute of yours. Bit three milk-girls and devastated the
Scotts' hen-house last week, I hear."

"Yes," said Mr. Jackson. "Four murdered fowls they brought to me, and I
had to pay for them; and they didn't give me the corpses, which I felt
was too bad."

"What?" said Mrs. Duff-Whalley, deeply interested. "Did you actually pay
for the damage done and let them keep the fowls?"

"I did," Mr. Jackson owned gloomily, and the topic lasted until the
fruit was handed round.

"I wonder," said Mrs. Jowett to her hostess, as she peeled a pear, "if
you have met a newcomer in Priorsford - Miss Reston? She has taken Miss
Bathgate's rooms."

"You mean the Honourable Pamela Reston? She is a daughter of the late
Lord Bidborough of Bidborough Manor, Surrey, and Mintern Abbas,
Oxfordshire, and sister of the present peer: I looked her up in Debrett.
I called on her, feeling it my duty to be civil to a stranger, but it
seems to me a very odd thing that a peer's daughter would care to live
in such a humble way. Mark my words, there's something shady about it.
As likely as not, she's an absconding lady's-maid - but a call commits
one to nothing. She was out anyway, so I didn't see her."

"Oh, indeed," said Mrs. Jowett, blushing pink, "Miss Reston is no
impostor. When you have seen her you will realise that. I met her
yesterday at the Jardines'. She is the most delightful creature, _so_
charming to look at, so wonderfully graceful - "

"I think," said Lewis Elliot, "that that must be the Pamela Reston I
used to know. Did you say she was living in Priorsford?"

"Yes, in a cottage called Hillview, next to The Rigs, you know," Mrs.
Jowett explained. "Mhor made friends with her whenever she arrived, and
took her in to see Jean. You can imagine how attractive she found the
whole household."

"The Jardines are very unconventional," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley, "if you
call that attractive. Jean doesn't know how to keep her place with
people at all. I saw her walking beside a tinker woman the other day,
helping her with her bundle; and I'm sure I've simply had to give up
calling at The Rigs, for you never knew who you would have to shake
hands with. I'm sorry for Jean, poor little soul. It seems a pity that
there is no one to dress her and give her a chance. She's a plain little
thing at best, but clothes might do wonders for her."

"There I totally disagree," shouted Mr. Jowett. "Jean, to my mind, is
the best-looking girl in Priorsford. She walks so well and has such an
honest, jolly look. I'm glad there's no one to dress her and make an
affected doll of her.... She's the kind of girl a man would like to have
for a daughter."

"But what," asked Mrs. Duff-Whalley, "can Miss Reston have in common
with people like the Jardines? I don't believe they have more than £300
a year, and such a plain little house, and one queer old servant. Miss
Reston must be accustomed to things so very different. We must ask her
here to meet some of the County."

"The County!" growled Mr. Jowett. "Except for Elliot here, and the Hopes
and the Tweedies and the Olivers, there are practically none of the old
families left. I tell you what it is - "

But Mrs. Duff-Whalley had had enough for the moment of Mr. Jowett's
conversation, so she nodded to Mrs. Jowett, and with an arch admonition
to the men not to stay too long, she swept the ladies before her to the


"I will the country see
Where old simplicity,
Though hid in grey,
Doth look more gay
Than foppery in plush and scarlet clad."


A letter from Pamela Reston to her brother.

" ... It was a tremendous treat to get your budget this morning after
three mails of silence. I got your cable saying you were back before I
knew you contemplated going, so I never had to worry. I think the War
has shaken my nerves in a way I hadn't realised. I never used to worry
about you very much, knowing your faculty of falling on your feet, but
now I tremble.

"Sikkim must be marvellous, and to try an utterly untried route was
thrilling, but what uncomfortable times men do give themselves! To lie
in a tiny tent in the soaking rain with your bedding crawling with
leeches, 'great, cold, well-nourished fellows.' Ugh! And yet, I suppose
you counted the discomforts as nothing when you gazed at Everest while
yet the dawn 'walked tiptoe on the mountains' (will it ever be climbed,
I wonder!), and even more wonderful, as you describe it, must have been
the vision from below the Alukthang glacier, when the mists slowly
unveiled the face of Pandim to the moon....

"And I shall soon hear of it all by word of mouth. It is the best of
news that you are coming home. I don't think you must go away again
without me. I have missed you dreadfully these last six months.

"Besides, you ought to settle at home for a bit now, don't you think?
First, your long exploring expedition and then the War: haven't you been
across the world, away long enough to make you want to stay at home? You
are one of the very worst specimens of an absentee landlord.... After
profound calculations I have come to the conclusion that you will get
two letters from me from Priorsford before you leave India. I am sending
this to Port Said to make sure of not missing you. You will have lots of
time to read it on board ship if it is rather long.

"Shall I meet you in London? Send me a wire when you get this. What I
should like to do would be to conduct you personally to Priorsford. I
think you would like it. The countryside is lovely, and after a week or
two we could go somewhere for Christmas. The Champertouns have asked me
to go to them, and of course their invitation would include you. They
are second or third cousins, and we've never seen them, but they are our
mother's people, and I have always wanted to see where she was brought
up. However, we can settle all that later on....

"I feel myself quite an old resident in Priorsford now, and have become
acquainted with some of the people - well-to-do, hospitable, not at all
interesting (with a few exceptions), but kind.

"The Jardines remain my great interest. What a blessing it is when
people improve by knowing - so few do. I see the Jardines once every day,
sometimes oftener, and I like them more every time I see them.

"I've been thinking, Biddy, you and I haven't had a vast number of
people to be fond of. There was Aunt Eleanor, but I defy anyone to be
fond of her. Respect her one might, fear her we did, but love her - it
would have been as discouraging as petting a steam road-roller. We
hadn't even a motherly old nurse, for Aunt Eleanor liked machine-made
people like herself to serve her. I don't think it did you much harm,
you were such a sunny-tempered, affectionate little boy, but it made me
rather inhuman.

"As we grew up we acquired crowds of friends and acquaintances, but they

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryO. DouglasPenny Plain → online text (page 6 of 21)