Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

Ten Degrees Backward online

. (page 14 of 22)
Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerTen Degrees Backward → online text (page 14 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


down one of the green aisles of the fruit garden.

"Yes. I have been rather seedy - overdone, you know, with trying to get
more out of life than there was in it, and pretending to Paul that the
Golden Age was going to begin next week, because he minded so
dreadfully when he thought it wasn't - so the doctors ordered me to take
draughts of the Elixir of East Coast air in order to get young again."

"I am sorry - very sorry - to hear you haven't been well. I know of old
how you have always hated to be _hors de combat_."

"And I hate it still - especially when Paul is in Office, and I want to
stand by him and help him. But for a long time I, who so wanted to
'serve,' was obliged - like Milton - to 'stand and wait': and even that I
had to do lying down! But now I am all right again, and we are going
to have a permanent country house, so that the next time I have to
'stand and wait' I can do it in the garden."

"And where is the desirable site?" I cried.

She named a place about twenty miles from Restham.

"Oh, what luck for us!" I cried. "You will be within easy motoring
distance."

"Yes, easy enough when you want to see us, and not too easy if you
don't. We seem to want a house of our own in which to spend our
declining years, surrounded by all the fads that we most affect: and we
can't find them quite all in houses built by other people. Of course
we shan't find them all in the house we build ourselves, but then we
shall only have ourselves to blame, and that makes one so much more
merciful and lenient. We couldn't get a freehold site that was exactly
what we both wanted, and as we have no children it doesn't signify: as
a matter of fact, a leasehold peerage would have done just as well for
us."

I noted the faint quiver in her voice with a pang of sympathy. I too
felt that life would never be quite complete as long as Ponty reigned
alone in the old nursery at Restham.

"I was saying the other day to a woman I know that we had taken the
place on a ninety-nine years' lease," Isabel went on, "and she said,
'Only ninety-nine years, Lady Chayford? I heard it was nine hundred
and ninety-nine!' 'Well,' I answered, 'you see my husband and I are no
longer young: had we been, of course we should have taken it on a nine
hundred and ninety-nine years' lease, as you suggest: but at our age we
think ninety-nine will see us out.' Did you ever know such an ass?"

I laughed. "People really are very idiotic. It is a pity we can't
tell them so, and then they might improve. Nobody tells us of our
faults after we grow up, so how can we be expected to cure them?"

"Don't they?" said Isabel. "Wait till you've been married a little
longer."

"I see you are as great a cynic as ever," I retorted. "Time doesn't
seem to have mellowed you at all! But, joking apart, I do think it is
a pity that grown-up people won't stand being told of their faults."

"But they do stand it quite well - in fact, they rather enjoy it;
provided, of course, that you never tell them of those they've really
got. For instance, I was quite pleased when you said Time hadn't
mellowed me - knowing all the while that my heart is really of the
consistency of an over-ripe banana."

Again I laughed with pleasure to find her so little altered by time and
circumstance, and then we ceased to talk of our private affairs and
turned our attention to the affairs of our neighbours, discussing what
had happened respecting them since we saw each other last - who had died
and who had lived, and who had married wisely and who not so well. And
then we went on to public events, and discussed the divisions in our
midst at home, and the war-clouds already gathering in the skies abroad.

"Yes, we live in stirring times," said Lady Chayford, as we retraced
our steps homewards through the Garden of Dreams, having settled the
fate of nations: "and I'm afraid they are going to stir more and more.
I don't like living in stirring times. They don't suit me at all. I
am getting too old for them, I suppose."

"I don't agree with you," I replied, "either about you being too old or
the times being too stirring. We live in great times, and there are
still greater ones coming."

Isabel shook her head. "I dare say: but they'll smell awfully of
machinery. The world is growing far too mechanical and scientific, and
is always inventing new diseases and fresh sources of danger. I wish
I'd lived before aeroplanes and pyorrhoea were invented! Nobody ever
heard of such things when I was a girl."

"I envy the people who are young nowadays," I admitted, with a sigh.

"Good gracious, Reggie, I don't! I pity them because they never knew
the glories of the 'eighties and the 'nineties: those dear old
frivolous, uneventful days, when everybody thought that the last word
had been said about everything, and that a further extension of the
franchise was the only weapon still left in Fate's armoury: when we
fondly believed that wars had died with the Napoleons, and invasions
had gone out of fashion with the curfew-bell and William the Conqueror.
Yet as soon as the sky grew pink with dawn of a new century, that
tiresome South African War began: and now scaremongers introduce an
invasion of England into the realm of practical politics!"

"But there were wars even in those days," I argued.

"Yes; but only 'old, unhappy, far-off things,' that confined themselves
to the newspapers. We never knew the real taste of war - at least, I
didn't - until the South African tragedy: and now everybody seems to
think there'll be a great European War before very long, with us in the
thick of it, and the German Emperor trying to be William the Conqueror
the Second. Oh, Reggie, don't you wish we could go back to the dear
old comfortable, self-satisfied 'eighties?"

"Certainly not: I wouldn't do so for worlds. My wife wasn't born in
those days, and I should hate to miss her."

"Dear me, how procrastinating of her! She made a mistake to put things
off for so long. But I don't mind giving up the 'eighties for the sake
of you and your unborn wife, and only going back as far as the
'nineties. As a matter of fact, the 'nineties were even jollier than
the 'eighties, and had a fuller flavour."

I shook my head. "No: Fay was only a child in the 'nineties, and I
want her as a woman. Besides, I didn't know of her existence then."

"Then if you didn't know of her existence you couldn't mind missing
her. But have it your own way. Revel in your seething young century
as much as you like, but leave me my beloved Nineteenth. I was what
used to be called _fin de siècle_ in those days, and a jolly nice thing
it was to be!"

"It is strange how there always do seem to be wars and tumults and
things of that kind at the beginning of a century," I said; "as if
centuries experienced the symptoms of youth and age, as we do."

"Then let me again be _fin de siècle_ in my next incarnation!"
exclaimed Isabel. "I shall avoid having an incarnation when there is a
new century, just as in the country one avoids having a party when
there is a new moon."

"But you want to go on somewhere, don't you - either here or elsewhere?"

"Of course I do: I have not the slightest intention of fizzling out. I
shall have 'To be continued' engraved upon my tombstone. And I really
don't feel that I've had half enough out of this life yet: I should
like one or two more turns before I go off to something
higher - provided, of course, that they are not put in at the beginning
of a century. And now we are back among the haunts of men, and the
ruins of extinct tea-tables," added Isabel, as we ascended the steps
from the sunk garden and came back to the group assembled on the lawn:
"so you must introduce me to your wife at once, and let me tell her how
unlucky she is to have missed the 'eighties, and how lucky she is to
have found you."

Which I accordingly did, and was rejoiced to see that my old friend and
my new wife got on together like a house on fire.

The friendship between the two progressed so rapidly that when I was
obliged to return home the following week in order to attend to some
rather important business connected with the Kent County Council, Fay
stayed on for a few days with the Chayfords in their cottage at
Bythesea. I did not like being separated from my darling even for that
short time; but I felt that no young woman at the outset of life could
have a wiser or a better friend than she whom I had first known as
Isabel Carnaby.

When I reached home I found Annabel established there to welcome me:
but whether this premature return from Scotland proved that she loved
the Macdonalds less or me more, I was not able to determine.

She was naturally immensely interested in my meeting with the
Chayfords, and very anxious to know how Time had dealt with Isabel and
her husband.

"I never altogether approved of that marriage," she remarked; "it was
one of those love-in-a-cottage sort of affairs which are so apt to turn
out uncomfortable and inconvenient."

"Still, the cottage happened to be a good-sized house in Prince's Gate,
if you remember."

"I know that: but all the same Isabel had much better have married Lord
Wrexham when she had the chance. I always thought him such a very
pleasant person besides being a Prime Minister, and so much more suited
to her than Mr. Seaton. And she behaved so badly to him too, which was
so very wrong of her. I never cared much for Mr. Seaton myself; but
then I never do care much for people with long noses.

"I suppose that Isabel, though she didn't love it little, loved it
long," I said feebly.

"Oh, Reggie, what a silly joke! And all the same, I don't think you
cared much for Mr. Seaton, either."

"Yes, I did. I own I did not like him as much as I liked Isabel, but I
had a great admiration for his abilities and a great respect for his
character."

But Annabel shook her head. "He was too clever: I never could
understand what he was talking about: he was far too clever for you and
me."

"Thank you," I retorted; "speak for yourself." But I knew what Annabel
meant.

The day of Fay's return came at last: and I decided to meet her at
Liverpool Street Station with the car, and motor her down home in the
cool of the evening, as it was a lovely ride when once you had left
London behind you, and I knew my darling would enjoy it.

Strange to say the same idea occurred to Annabel. "Why don't you motor
up to town yourself and call at Gamage's for some things I want for the
Sunday-school Prize-giving, and then Fay could motor back with you, and
her maid could bring the luggage on by train? I like the prizes I get
at Gamage's better than any I get anywhere else. I could give you the
list of exactly what I want, and it wouldn't take you long to select
them."

I duly obeyed my sister's behest, and went on to meet Fay at Liverpool
Street. Her dear face lighted up with joy at the sight of me, and the
train had hardly stopped before she was out of her carriage and into my
arms.

"Oh, Reggie, how darling of you to come all this way to meet me, and
what a heavenly drive home we shall have together!" she exclaimed,
fairly hugging me with delight when I had expounded to her my plan.
"It was just like you to contrive such a lovely treat for me!"

I felt this was an auspicious occasion to put in a word for my sister.
"It was Annabel's idea," I said (as indeed it was, as well as my own);
"she thought you would enjoy the motor ride more than the railway
journey." I saw no necessity for diminishing the credit due to Annabel
by dragging in any mention of the Sunday-school prizes.

Fay turned away so quickly to see if her maid had got all the packages
safe that she hardly seemed to hear what I had said. At any rate, she
made no reply to it, so I concluded she had not heard.

Annabel's motor ride did not turn out such a great success after all.
I suppose it was too tiring for my fragile darling after her journey,
and her joy at the sight of me was so exuberant that I did not realise
at first how done-up she was. During the long drive home she hardly
spoke, and her weary little face grew whiter and whiter, until when at
last we did reach Restham Manor she insisted on going straight to bed,
whilst Annabel and I had a dreary dinner by ourselves downstairs.




CHAPTER XIV

ANNABEL'S WARNING

We had a very quiet and peaceful autumn after Frank went back to
Oxford. But that Fay missed him I am sure, as she was not nearly so gay
and light-hearted as she had been during the long vacation. But
although this grieved me, I was not surprised at it: after all, Annabel
and I were but dull old fogies compared with Frank and Fay.

The autumn was always a pleasant time to me, as I was extremely fond of
both shooting and hunting: and now that Fay as well as Annabel was
sitting by the fireside that beckoned me home after my long day's
sport, my contentment was great indeed. My happiness would have been
complete if only I had felt equally sure of Fay's.

That want of self-confidence which I must have inherited from my
mother, since neither my father nor Annabel ever had a trace of it,
made it impossible for me to believe in my own power of filling my
young wife's life with joy and interest; but I had great faith in the
soothing powers of Annabel, to say nothing of the increasingly
absorbing little pleasures and interests which go to make up the sum of
country life. Surely all these were enough to make any woman content.
And in the depths of my soul I cherished an unspoken hope that there
was a greater and more satisfying joy still in store for Fay in the dim
and distant future - that highest joy of all, without which no woman's
life is complete, and the lack of which had created the only cloud that
ever dimmed the brightness of Isabel Chayford's blue eyes.

So I possessed my soul in patience, and prayed that in the years to
come my darling might be as happy as she deserved and as I desired her
to be. And I loved her so well that I was content to stand aside, if I
thought others could succeed where I had failed. I only prayed that
she might be happy: I never added a petition that her happiness might
be found in me. It would have seemed to me presumption to do so.

Perhaps I was wrong in this: I dare say I was, as I nearly always am.
It is the people who make the greatest demands that get the largest
supplies. But it was not in me either to make the one or to claim the
other; and we can only act according to our kind.

In looking back on past events I once used to think: "How much better
things would have turned out, if only I had acted differently." But as
I grew older and wiser I changed the formula to: "How much better
things would have turned out, if only I had had the power to act
differently." And at the back of my mind I knew that I never had had
the power.

Of course this does not apply to wrongdoing: we are always able to
avoid that if we wish. We are to blame for our sins, as they are
caused by temptations which are outside us, and therefore possible to
be resisted; but I do not think we are to blame for our blindness and
our blunders, as they arise from our own limitations, which are inside
us and part of ourselves. If I had my life to live over again, I
hope - and believe - that I should not repeat the wrong things I have
done; but I very much fear that I should repeat all the stupid things,
given that I remained myself. Grace and Wisdom are both gifts from on
high: but Grace is a far more common gift than Wisdom.

There was one thing that gave me great pleasure in that autumn, and
that was the increasing friendliness between Fay and Annabel. Now that
Fay was so much quieter, she naturally shocked Annabel much less
frequently than she did in her high-spirited moods, though I adored Fay
when she was wild and reckless and defiant, I knew that such qualities
were far from exercising an ingratiating effect upon Annabel.

But when Frank came home for Christmas things once more began to hum;
and he and Fay threw themselves with great zest into a succession of
theatrical entertainments. Again the Loxleys invaded the house, and
there were plays acted for the villagers and for our personal friends.
And this time the plays were not Shakspere's. Fay and Frank always
took the leading parts, and it amazed me to note how very quickly and
with how little apparent trouble they learnt a new piece. But the
histrionic art was in their blood, and all things connected with acting
came easy to them.

It was the very opposite with Annabel and me. In our early youth
anything connected with the theatre had been _Anathema_ to our
extremely Evangelical parents: and although in later years we so far
broadened down as to be able now and again to attend the theatre in
comparative spiritual comfort, there was always a lurking feeling at
the back of our minds - and in Annabel's mind it frequently did more
than merely lurk - that we were meddling with the accursed thing. Of
course, my mature judgment repudiated and laughed at this archaic idea;
but in nine cases out of ten early training is stronger than mature,
judgment, and I was one of the nine.

Therefore in the secret recesses of my heart there sprang up a tiny
doubt as to whether all this theatrical excitement was good for Fay.
Naturally I did all in my power to trample upon this horrid little
weed, and hid it away in darkness where neither light nor air could
encourage its unhealthy growth; but suddenly Annabel threw all my
precautions to the wind by remarking one day -

"Reggie dear, I don't want to interfere, and I suppose it really is no
concern of mine, although everything that concerns you must concern me:
but do you think it is wise to allow this acting spirit to take such
possession of Fay?"

"I don't know what you mean," I said coldly: although I did know
perfectly well.

"Of course I don't want to say a word against Fay - - "

"Of course not," I interrupted, "and if you did, of course I should not
listen." By this time I was striding up and down the great hall, while
Annabel sat placidly by the fire.

"Now, Reggie, you are losing your temper, and it is such a pity to do
that when I am only speaking for your good and Fay's. But you know as
well as I do that her mother and her mother's people were on the stage."

"I don't see what that has got to do with it," I retorted hotly.

But Annabel remained unperturbed. "Then it is because you won't see.
Everybody knows that what is bred in the bone comes out in the flesh."

"And I think it is horrid of you to throw the poor child's mother in
her teeth in this way," I went on, lashing myself into greater fury.

"I'm not throwing her mother in her teeth - I'm only throwing her into
yours, which is quite a different thing, and can't possibly hurt you as
you never saw her," replied Annabel, with her usual clearness of
thought and confusion of expression. "I shouldn't think of mentioning
her mother's profession to Fay. There's nobody thinks more of the
sacredness of motherhood than I do: I couldn't bear anybody to say even
now that poor mamma hadn't any spirit or any go in her, though you and
I know perfectly well that she hadn't, and that you are exactly like
her in this respect. But I cannot see that there is anything
particularly sacred about a mother-in-law - and especially a
mother-in-law that you have never seen. And although Fay is a married
woman she is really only a child, and an orphan at that: and I cannot
help feeling that you and I, who are so much older, have a sort of
responsibility about her."

"I, perhaps; but hardly you." I was still very angry.

Annabel's temper, however, continued unruffled. "That is so," she
said, "but as you have never accepted your responsibilities, and never
will, I am obliged to take them on to my shoulders, as I always have
done. If Fay were an older woman, I shouldn't bother about her, but
should leave her to shift for herself: and if you had ever managed your
own affairs, I should expect you to manage them now. But as it is, I
cannot see a young girl going into danger and temptation under my own
roof, and not stretch out a helping hand to her."

I jibbed at Annabel's reference to her own roof, but did not say
anything.

"Besides," she went on, "Fay told me that if she hadn't married, she
and Frank would have gone on the stage as soon as they were of age and
independent; and that shows the theatrical craving is in them both."

I wished with all my heart that Fay had confided this idea to me
instead of to Annabel; but it was impossible to teach my darling
wisdom. And even if it had been possible, grey heads on green shoulders
are not an attractive combination. I loved Fay just as she was, and
would not have had her different for anything, but I could not deny
that that particular remark of hers to Annabel might have been omitted
with advantage.

"I am not sure that Frank has a very good influence upon her," my
sister continued, looking thoughtfully into the fire.

"Oh, so it's Frank's turn now," I replied, viciously kicking back a log
of wood that slightly protruded from the hearth: "I thought you were so
fond of Frank." Because I was jealous of Frank, I was all the more
determined to do him justice.

"So I am, Reggie; extremely fond: but being fond of people doesn't
blind me to their faults."

I could testify to the truth of this. "Far from it," I muttered.

"The fact that I am fond of Frank does not prevent my seeing that he is
volatile and flighty and lacking in any sense of responsibility: any
more than the fact that I am fond of you prevents my seeing that you
are over-sensitive and over-indulgent, and have so exaggerated a sense
of responsibility that you are frightened of it, and therefore inclined
to shirk it."

"Pray, don't mind me!" I interrupted, with a harsh laugh. The fact that
I knew my sister was speaking the truth in no way added to my relish
for her remarks.

"Reggie, don't be foolish! I am not thinking about either you or Frank
just now, but about Fay: and I feel bound to say that I do not think it
does her any good to be so much under Frank's influence."

"He provides the only bit of young life she sees, and I want her to
have as much youthful society as she can get. Does it never strike you
that you and I are somewhat old and dull companions for a girl of
nineteen?" I still struggled against my own inclinations.

"Of course it strikes me," replied Annabel in her smooth and even
tones: "it struck me so forcibly at one time, if you remember, that I
tried to dissuade you from marrying her. I thought she was much too
young for you, and said so; and I think so still. But that's all over
and done with. You have married her, and you've got to take the
consequences, just as she has got to take the consequences of marrying
you. You knew you were taking a young wife, and she knew she was
taking a middle-aged husband; and it is nonsense now to be struck all
of a heap with surprise to find that you and she are not identical in
tastes and interests. I knew you wouldn't be, and you ought to have
known it too."

"But it so happened that we loved each other," I retorted drily.

"Of course you did: otherwise you wouldn't have been so foolish as to
marry each other. But marrying one another hasn't altered your own
selves. It always amazes me to see how people imagine that a
quarter-of-an-hour's service in church will entirely change the
characters of a man and a woman. How could it? Especially as they are
generally quite opposite characters, or they wouldn't have fallen in
love with one another at all. You and Fay had the idea that the minute
you put the wedding-ring on to her finger you would become eighteen and
she would become forty-two."

"In which case we should have been exactly as far apart as we are at
present. I cannot see that the fulfilment of that idea would have
mended matters at all."

"Oh, Reggie, how tiresome you are in always tripping people up! You
know perfectly well what I mean. My point is that having persisted, in
opposition to my advice, in marrying a young girl, your duty is to make
her as happy and contented as possible."

I was amazed at the incapacity of the feminine mind to apprehend
justice. "That is what I am trying to do," I replied; "and what you
are abusing me for doing."

"Not at all. You are trying to make her happy apart from you: you are
not trying to make yourself the principal factor in her happiness. You
are blundering - as you have so often blundered - through too great
unselfishness. You are standing aside for fear you should cast a


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerTen Degrees Backward → online text (page 14 of 22)