Edward Frederic Benson.

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aunt was an adept at concealing what she longed to
express and cloaking what she pined to exhibit.

And so the dreary game went on, typical to the girl
of her life here, of its unutterable tedium, of its joyless
monotony, of its rare and lugubrious festivities. Tire-
some though it was, she scarcely wished it to be ended,

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because there was nothing coming afterward. She
would hold skeins while Aunt Elizabeth wound them,
there would follow dinner and afterwards she would
observe Aunt Elizabeth vainly wrestling with patience,
while Aunt Cathie dozed over a book, until the clock
on the chimney-piece chimed a querulous ten, as if con-
tradicting someone who denied the fact. They would
all kiss each other and say good-night, and retire with
bed-candles, to recover in sleep from the effects of this
annihilating day, and get strength for the next, which
would be exactly like this.

It all happened as Lucia had foreseen; she only had
not an imagination quite vivid enough to realize the
details of the monotony. Aunt Elizabeth, for instance,
instead of being sour at tea, was bright and agreeable,
but when the cause of her unusual sociability was de-
clared, it seemed to Lucia that she was deadlier than
ever. For it had happened that she had found exactly
the bilious shade necessary for the repair of the head-
rest, and the spilt soup would therefore not stain the
honour of the family for ever, as had once seemed
probable. But this ray of brightness again had been
firmly extinguished when it came to her ears that
Catherine and Lucia had been playing lawn-tennis.

** After your frivolous afternoon, Lucia," she said,
*^ I suppose you would find it intolerable to hold my
skein. I shall be able to manage perfectly well
with two chairs, if you want to amuse yourself

So the lawn-tennis was oflScially amusing I Lucia
felt that irony had said its last word. The infinitesimal
quality of it all crushed her; she almost besought to

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be allowed to hold the dreadful skein. And, as a fa-
vour, she was permitted to do so.

Again after dinner the patience *^ went out '' by 9.23
P.M., which encouraged Aunt Elizabeth to tempt the
laws of chance again. So engrossed was she that for
the first time in Lucia's memory she did not hear the
clock strike ten, while Aunt Cathie, tired with her un-
usual exertions, had fallen into a deeper doze than
usual. So it was a momentous evening and far more
full of incident than usual.

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TUCIA'S room was a big attic at the top of the house
-■— i which she had got possession of not without debate.
It seemed very odd to both her aunts that she should
prefer this isolated room among the roofs to the spare
room on the first floor with its thick carpet, its ubiqui-
tous woollen mats, its impenetrable curtains across the
pitch-pine windows, and the solid suitability of the wal-
nut suite of mid- Victorian date. But Lucia had urged,
not without reason (though her real reasons were
others), that she could not occupy the best spare bed-
room if there was another guest in the house but would
have to transfer her goods on those occasions to the
dressing-room adjoining. But if she might have the
big attic, she would feel it was her own room in a way
that the best spare bedroom could never be. This point
of etiquette about the best spare bedroom, though there
was practically never a guest in the house (during the
last year a cousin of the aunts had spent a night there,
because she missed a train), appealed to them, though
Lucia's preference seemed to them unusual, and they
had certain vague qualms as to whether it was proper
for a girl to be cut off like this. A closer examination
of these scruples showed them to be somewhat phantas-
mal, since the impropriety of Lucia's sleeping there,
with the cook and the housemaid immediately below,
and themselves on the floor below that, could not ex-
actly be defined when the girl pressed for a definition.


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Aunt Elizabeth began several sentences with — ** But

what would you do if " but her imagination was

not equal to framing a contingency which should em-
body her objections.

Lucia's real reason for preferring the attic was sim-
ple enough. She wanted first of all a greater sense of
privacy than could be obtained on the first floor, and
she felt also she would be stifled in the heavy solem-
nities of the best bedroom. She had air and light up-
stairs, and a small sum of money which was left over
after the re-investment of her mother's property, suf-
ficed to furnish it according to her tastes. The furni-
ture was simple enough, but it was characteristically
vivid. The walls were white; there was a crimson
drugget on the floor, a plain apple-green writing-table
in the window, two big basket chairs with green cush-
ions, and a red-lacquer wardrobe. These things, with
the barest apparatus for sleeping and dressing, left
the room fairly empty; it was light, full of colour, airy,
and private.

It was here that she went to-night with a certain
eagerness to be alone at the unusual hour of half -past
ten. The process of self-realization which she had
spoken of to Maud the night before was like ferment-
ing wine in her brain, and she and this stranger, who
was yet herself, were going to be alone together and
make their plans. She slipped off her dress, and let
her hair make cataracts down her back, and then, set-
ting the window looking over the garden wide open,
she lit all the candles she had in the room. That was
purely instinctive ; she scarcely knew she was doing it,
conscious only that she wanted air and light. Then,
still instinctively expressing herself, she put on a

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Japanese kimono of old gold and scarlet and threw
open the door to this engrossing stranger, herself,
whom she was beginning to know. Then suddenly her
own image in the glass, brilliant, vivid, gloriously
youthful, struck her, and, candle in hand, she went
close up to it, looking at her face slightly flushed, the
liquid fire of her eyes, the golden fire of her hair. It
was no motive of vanity that dictated this, for vanity,
even the most deep-seated, is but a shallow emotion;
it was the most intense and eager interest in herself.
She looked long and gravely, enthralled at what she
saw just because it was herself. Then she said out

'' Yes, that's me.''

She wanted, she wanted passionately. She wanted
to have everything — ^wealth, position, rank, to have the
world at her feet, to be gazed at, admired, envied, and
had Mephistopheles, or his feminine counterpart, come
in at the moment, the bargaiji would have been struck
the moment he proposed it. As for love, she was quite
willing to take it ; more than that, she even wanted to
be loved with the same passionateness that she wanted
everything else ; but as for feeling it, or for giving it,
she was truly not aware whether it was in her powei*
to do any such thing. Marriage, of course, was neces-
sary for the accomplishment of her desire, and no
doubt that she should have children would add to the
fulfilment of her avarice, but she wanted neither hus-
band nor babies in themselves. They, too, like danc-
ing and diamonds, were to be part of her parure, not
part of herself.

Nor was her scheme to lack its intellectual triumphs.
She must have wit, so that the world hung on her

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words as it must hang upon her beauty, and she must
make la phiie et le beau temps in the world of art, by
her approval or censure, just as she must set the
fashions by her gowns. It would be musicians whom
she would ask to her opera-box, who came with her for
love of music, just as in the theatre she would be the
centre of those of critical and dramatic acumen. In
the intoxication of ambition that was on her at the mo-
ment she felt herself despising the ordinary women of
the world, to whom a quantity of smart gowns worn
at a quantity of smart parties is suflScient to make a
success of a season, those who went from party to
party with nothing in their heads but what they were
going to do next. She would be kind, too, philan-
thropic, ready to place herself and her time at the serv-
ice of suffering, since it was undeniably in the fashion
to work hard and to be charitable. Besides, she felt
that if she really had all she wanted, she would be kind
in nature, not only for show. Happiness, the gratifica-
tion of ambition, the gaining what one wants, she was
convinced, was a great softener of the heart.

Then for a moment a shadow fell across the pro-
jected path — what afterwards! What when she had
got all she desired, when age began to tarnish the gold
of her youth, when the leanness of accomplished ambi-
tions began to wrinkle her soul? But the doubt was
no more than the shade cast by a passing cloud on a
day of windy spring, and it had gone almost before
she knew it was there. It would be early enough to
think of that at the end of fifty years; it was sheer
waste of time to consider it now. Besides, she felt she
would pay any price for what she meant to have, pro-

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vided only the bill was sent in afterwards, presented
to her at the end of life, as the waiter brings the ac-
count at the end of dinner. She would have dined, that
was all that mattered, and in whatever form the waiter
came, and whatever astounding indebtedness he
brought with him, it could not but be cheap. Only let
her have everything, and she would pay whatever was

But for a moment more the shadow gave her pause,
and she thought more closely to see whether in her
heart of hearts she reserved anything, or whether, like
Faust, she would sign her very self away. But she
found nothing which really seemed to her to weigh as
heavily as what she wanted, her success, her happiness.
She was not cruel, yet if it was necessary that the un-
happiness of others was the coin by which she pur-
chased her own, she would pay it. She would not like
sacrificing others — she would hate it — but if someone
had to suffer to enable her to enjoy, she knew that she
would not forego her chance. If Aunt Catherine or
Aunt Elizabeth, for instance, had, by some mysterious
bargain, to pay for her pleasures . . . well, they had
had their lives, they had had their chances too, at the
best there were but a few grey years remaining for
them; and they were not very happy, probably, even
as it was. ... Or if, in the same way, her own gain
had to be anybody else's loss, she knew really what her
choice would be, even if the loss was to one she really
was devoted to — even if it were Maud's loss, for in-
stance? Then she swept these thoughts away; they
were but figments of imagination. Yet, in spite of that,
she knew that morally, potentially, she had chosen.
Her thoughts, it may be, had been talking nonsense to

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her: asking Eer child-questions — ^** What would you
do if " and then putting some outrageous contin-
gency before her ; but for the moment, at any rate, she
had taken these child-questions seriously, and an-
swered them to the best of her ability.

A light wind blew in from the garden bearing with
it the warm scent of night-smelling flowers from some
garden that had prospered better than that of Fair-
view, and she paused by the window looking out on to
the darkness. At first, her eyes, accustomed to the il-
lumination in her room and its white reflecting walls,
could see nothing but the large empty darkness; but
soon forms of things defined themselves and took shape
and a little colour. Above in the velvet vault the stars
burned hot and close in the warm air, below the lon^
railway embankment made a sharp black line across
the sky. On each side stretched parallel brick walls;
enclosing strips of garden belonging to neighbouring
houses, all just alike, all narrow aiid confined. But of
them all the one immediately below seemed to her most
intolerably tedious. She knew every inch of it, and
it was all dull and unlovely. The flower-bed under the
wall was black, the lawn was black, but across it in a
curve stretched the white line at the top of the tennis
net, and the post showed black across the gray of the
gravel walk. From the house itself there shone a pale
glimmer of light from Aunt Elizabeth's window, and
even as she looked it was extinguished. Aunt Eliza-
beth had gone to bed. And in the morning Aunt Eliza-
beth would get up, and do her worsted work, and live
over again the triumph over the Demon. In a month's
time there would be the unparalleled excitement of al-
ternate Tuesdays, and then they would go to Little-

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stone. And in a few years' time everybody would be

The rattling on of an approaching train, getting
rapidly louder, caught her ear, and next moment with
a shriek, the engine belching fire, followed by its train
of illuminated carriages, tore past along the embank-
ment, swift and alive, carrying its fortunate freight
at top speed by the sleepy town. That was the contrast
Lucia wanted; even though the tennis net drooped in
the garden, and Aunt Elizabeth had gone to bed, out
in the world there was life and movement day and

Though it was late before she went to bed, she woke
next morning very early, and found that her mind flew
back like an uncoiled spring to the train of thought and
that study of herself which had so occupied her the
night before. Already, by that strange assimilative
process of the mind which goes on in sleep, that which
had been almost revelation to her the night before was
familiar now, and part of her, and those flashes of con-
sciousness of herself and her own nature had passed
into the very tissues of her brain. The feverish ex-
citement of her discoveries was over, and in the cool
pearliness of dawn she thought of it all quietly, and
turned her mind to the practical considerations which
it suggested. And the first practical consideration was
this :

Opportunities, occasions of being able to realize
one's desires, she saw, certainly came from without, but
she had hitherto neglected to be at home, so to speak,
to opportunities. Narrow and tedious as she felt her
life here to be, she had herself assisted in adding to

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the tediousness at which she so rebelled, by, making
the worst of it, not only in mental attitude, but in her
practical aloofness from such humdrum life as there
was. She must change all that, for she, whose deter-
mination now was to get from life all that life had to
offer, had up till now been doing the very opposite
down in Brixham, and, having assumed that it offered
nothing at all, it was not surprising that she found
nothing there. She had not troubled to look and search
in this room, simply because she had believed it to be
quite dark. She had been so occupied in wondering
at the futilities in which Aunt Elizabeth's days were
passed that her own had been just as futile. That was
bad practice for one who was going to press the last
ounce of pleasure out of life. Besides — though it ap-
peared wildly improbable — little opportunities which
might lead to the big opportunities might be floating
about even here ; she must be on the look-out for every-
thing, snatch everything — no, that was not the word,
put out her hand to everything very gently and then
catch hold of it very tight.

Lucia smiled to herself as she made this verbal al-
teration in her thought, and got out of bed, for she
was too wide-awake to care to go through drowsy proc-
esses to make her sleepy again, and tip-toed downstairs
to her bath, putting her sponge at the bottom below
the tap, so that the noise of the water splashing in
should not rouse the aunts. Yet it was not quite kind-
ness or the desire not to break their rest that dictated
the consideration of this; she wanted the sense that
nobody else was awake.

She dressed quickly and went out, feeling a thrill
of delight in the fact of being alone and awake in this

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translucent dawn, while the sleepy town still dozed
abed, and her quickened perception of herself seemed
to have vivified her all through, so that it was with an
unsealed and kindled eye that she saw the familiar
places at which she had looked a hundred times with-
out seeing them. She turned her back on the town,
and struck upward across a couple of fields that led
to the great hump of down that overlooked the city.
Here in the meadows the grass was still covered with
the seed-pearls of the dew, though the sun was risen,
and as she walked there was thrown round the shadow
of her head a pale iridescence that accompanied her as
she moved. Buttercups spread their gold on the green
velvet of the fields, and in the hedges the leaves of the
hawthorn were varnished with the dew, and cascades
of starry blossom, vigorous and refreshed by the
night, were spilled and sprayed over them. Then still
mounting, she came to the down, all carpeted with
thyme and cushions of rockrose, and stiff and springy
to the feet with its short close-growing grasses. Hare-
bells trembled on wire-like stalks, and over all had
been thrown the magic shuttle of the gossamer webs.
Then turning round, Lucia looked over the hollow that
held the town itself. Night-mists and the lighting of
early fires half shrouded it in skeins of bluish vapour,
but the taller houses and spires pricked through this
covering and stood gilded with the early sunlight.
Even as she looked the veils of vapour got gradually
more and more suffused with the Eastern fire until
they were withdrawn, and vanished in the glory of the
mounting sun.

The same awakened perceptions which had shown
her herself made her more alert to see these things.

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During this last year her mind had dozed, partly from
laziness, partly from the conviction that everything
here was grey and unprofitable, partly, perhaps, her
spirit had been like one enjoying the last minutes of
sleep and knowing, though instinctively and uncon-
sciously, that the hour of awakening is close at hand.
Alert and alive now she certainly was, and she judged
and condemned herself for this somnolent year. To
make herself complete, to be ready for the fulfilment of
her desires, she saw now that this torpor would never
do. She had dropped all her Girton studies, she had
let herself grow rusty in languages, she had scarcely
touched the piano in all these months. And worse than
all, she had largely lost interest in people; she had
labelled Brixham as a town full of ** Empties " with-
out really ever troubling to look inside it and see.
Very likely she was right, very likely they had all
turned into cabbages in this Sleepy Hollow, but what
she had not reckoned with was the risk of turning into
a cabbage too.

Lucia had, in addition to the wonderful charm and
beauty of bodily presence, a mental gift which is second
to none in the securing of a person ^s aims; she knew
her own mind with precision, and had a quiet obstinacy
that wore down opposition and obstacles by its un-
wearying pertinacity. It was not a quality that she
wore on her sleeve for all the world to see; on the
contrary, she concealed it, showing on the surface only
her vivid vitality, her exuberance of spirit which had
so charmed Maud, and indeed charmed any to whom
she chose to exhibit it. But the unwearying obstinacy
was there below it, never asserting itself, never being
violent, but being always quite hard and firm, like the

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stone of some soft plum with smooth bloom on its skin
and golden ripeness within. It was only when you bit
to the centre, so to speak, that you found it at all. And
this morning, standing hatless on the dewy down, in
the dawn of the day and the dawn of her womanhood,
she bit deep into herself, and found it there, hard and

She brought back with her long sprays of the flower-
ing hawthorn, and, before the aunts came down, had
put them in water in the two large cut-glass vases that
stood in the hall, and would certainly have been de-
scribed by an auctioneer as ** very handsome." This,
however, was not a very happy inspiration, for Aunt
Elizabeth was instantly seized with such a violent ac-
cess of hay-fever that the banisters of the stairs as she
came down shook under the tempest of her sneezing,
and Lucia, guessing the cause, took the handsome vases
out into the garden, and came back with smelling salts
and apologies. Aunt Elizabeth, however, was not suffi-
ciently herself to read prayers, which Cathie did in-
stead, declaiming a particularly unchristian psalm
which called down many curses on her enemies, in her
impressive voice, while Elizabeth by degrees grew
quieter. By breakfast time she was so far recovered
as to be able to say what she thought in choked and
quavering utterance.

** It isn't much that you have to remember, Lucia,"
she said, ** nor are there many duties that fall upon
your shoulders. But if you could manage to recollect
that hawthorn is poison to me, I should be grateful.
And unless our eggs are going to be like eggs in
salad, you might be so kind as to put the spirit-lamp

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She unfolded the Daily Telegraph.

^* And I felt so happy and well this morning/' she
added, ** what with getting that shade of wool, and
Demon coming out last night. But no one considers
me, and I'm sure I ought to have got used to it by this

A sudden resolve to shake off her reticence seized
Aunt Cathie. She was sorry for Lucia, and tried to
express it, so as she came back from the side-table
with the probably-salad eggs, she made a fierce kind of
dab at her, the intention being to lay a sympathetic
hand on her arm. Two of the eggs were broken on the
floor, and they were not of the necessary consistency
for salad. Aunt Elizabeth rose, though she had not
begun breakfast.

*^ I will go and lie down," she said. ** Catherine,
please order what you like for lunch, if you are not too
busy to see Mrs. Inglis. And the carpet was laid down
only last winter. ' '

Lucia meantime had been making matters worse on
the floor.

'* Oh, Aunt Elizabeth, I am so sorry! " she said,
*^ but Aunt Cath — but something jogged my arm. It
was most careless of me, and please let me have the
carpet cleaned with my money."

Providence had bestowed the gift of irony on Aunt

* ^ It would be a new use for the coin of the realm to
clean the carpet with it," she said brokenly. *^ If it
is not too much, Lucia, might I ask you not to stamp
above my head as you did all last night, keeping me
awake? Thank you, dear; I shall try to get a little

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Lucia and Aunt Cathie were left alone, and when
the door had closed the latter spoke.

*^ Eat the other egg, Lucia,'' she observed, ** and
don't mind Elizabeth. My belief is she slept like a
top. Heard her snoring myself. And she doesn't
mean anything; cheer up! It was my fault, too.
Stupid old goose! Not you, me! "

Aunt Catherine's teeth were troublesome, and she
dipped her toast in her tea.

'* Poor Elizabeth! " she added. '^ You never can
tell. Besides,- egg comes out. I've spilled egg often,
and not a trace of it. What happens to napkins, eh? "

And all the time the poor soul was yearning to say
tender, womanly things. But she did not know how.
That knowledge was one that had not come to her
with years, but the longing for it had not lessened with
the increase of them.

But Lucia this morning perceived something new
about Aunt Cathie. She saw, and that for the first
time, that Aunt Cathie wanted to say things, whereas
hitherto she had only known that she did not do so.
That dab on her arm which had occasioned the catas-
trophe with the eggs she suddenly perceived had been
an effort, however unsuccessful, to say something, or
if not to say, to express a feeling. She cracked the re-
maining Qggy then stopped.

'' Aunt Cathie, do eat this,'' she said. ^^ I don't
want it a bit. Or I could ring the bell and get an-

'^ Better not," said Aunt Cathie. '' Elizabeth would
ring to find out what you had rung for. Eat it up.
You've been for a walk, I suppose, else where did you
get that unfortunate hawthorn? I haven't."

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Online LibraryEdward Frederic BensonThe climber → online text (page 4 of 32)