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I entered, and found her as I had expected. Her hands were folded over the book on her lap, and she sat, with a peculiar boltuprightness, in a small armchair near the window. I knew that the only way to prevent her from becoming immediately irritable was to attack the subject I wished to discuss at once.
"Do I intrude, Aunt Emma ?"
"What do you want?"
"You have sanctioned Kate's marriage. I want to thank you for her," I said, with a hypocritical instinct of conciliation.
"Couldn't she thank me herself?-I think she did."
"The interests of my sister, Aunt Emma, are mine: her hopes, her happiness, her dignity, are my own.'
My aunt raised her eyebrows.
"Aunt," I exclaimed, "you will not let her marry without some small preparation ?"
"What do you mean by some small preparation '?”
"There will be a little breakfast; a few friends asked; some small exhibition of kindly interest in her embarkation on the strange sea of the future."
"This comes of reading novels," said my aunt.
"It does not. You have been a girl yourself. You know the significance a woman attaches to her bridal preparations."
"What significance? Do you think men care for it? If they think it's the peel that makes the apple sweet they are bigger fools than I take them to be. If the men do not care for it, why should women make their parents or guardians spend their money on eatables and Brussels lace? Women don't make a parade for each other."
"I would wish to see Kate started in life like a lady. A good deal of a husband's respect hangs upon these first steps of a woman." "Oh, that's your creed, is it? You have profited from your reading, I must confess." Then, becoming suddenly angry, she exclaimed: "As to Kate's starting in life like a lady-who's to pay for it?"
I was silent. I knew the game was lost, now that she had touched upon the monetary aspect of the affair. I had hoped that a moment of good temper would have betrayed her into a concession.
"If you think I'm rich, you are mistaken," she went on shrilly. "I'm poor, poorer than I need be. If you want to know my income. I tell you it is not enough to give my son-my own flesh and blood -a start in life. Don't talk to me of your sister when I see my boy George without a prospect."
There was a dead pause. I looked towards the door.
"As for you," she said after a little, fixing her eyes, lively with irritability, on my face, "knowing what you owe to me, your pride, or a proper sense of obligation, ought certainly to have kept you dumb
in this matter. Pray confine your romantic dreams to the libraries; don't intrude them upon me, who am too poor to support them."
I held my peace.
"I gave you credit for some sense. You have a mind; but you let it lie like a flat stone; whenever it is turned over I see no end of wriggling things beneath it. Let in more sunshine-real sunshine I mean. The maggots that prey upon your reason would soon die of light."
"Well, aunt," I ventured to exclaim, "all that need be said has been said. The subject shall be dead for me." And with this I left the room-peevish, wearied, disgusted.
On cool reflection, however, I began to think that Aunt Emma was right in her resolution to have the marriage a private one. Her means were undoubtedly small. Kate would want, too, her help towards a wardrobe. These things I had forgotten. I was a foolish country girl-how often do the turns in this narrative drive me into this confession!-with sensibilities heightened by my aunt's conduct; so that a fancied slight or insult made my blood curdle and my heart leap up like it would through a fright. True to my nature, I had interpreted this private marriage into another humiliation to be put upon Kate and myself. I had somehow got the notion into my head that a private marriage-private as Kate's would be-was the greatest indignity that could, with any show of reason, be imposed upon a bride. It was a novelistic theory, pure and simple; so was my idea that if ever a woman stood in need of adventitious dignity, by which I mean the glory of apparel and the splendour of ceremony, it was when she knelt at the altar. My fixed belief was that nine-tenths of men were altogether influenced by the externals of feminine life. "If," I said to myself, "a woman wants to preserve a man's good opinion of her, her first care should be to start with the means of securing his admiration." It requires more shrewdness to believe in plausible nonsense than in truth; for the simplicity of truth yields no occupation to the mind. I believed firmly in my false estimates of human character; estimates which, like charades, bring out only fragments of an idea at a time. But I have lived my reading out; and my knowledge got from the red-lettered folio of humanity sets me laughing at my girlish eagerness to procure a respectable wedding for Kate.
I had no opportunity until the evening of talking with my sister. My aunt had placed a pile of grey worsted stockings before me, and these protectors against the coming snows wanted a vast amount of darning. Industry was not to be simulated at Ivy Lodge. If I ceased my work for a few minutes Aunt Emma would look at me out of the corners of her eyes. The pupil showed but the fragment of an optic, but it was a wonderfully expressive fragment.
Meanwhile I noticed a change in her manners towards Kate. I
cannot better describe the alteration than by asking you to recall the conduct of your schoolmistress towards you after your mamma had informed her that you were leaving school for good next half. It was a struggle between the sense of a necessity for politeness, since independence is claimed, and a habit of treatment which is not to be readily dismissed. The opposing forces propelled my aunt's mind. into an attitude of stiff condescension; a compromise between politeness and contempt.
As I went upstairs for the night I turned into Kate's room.
"Sit down, Maggie," she said, "and let me lock the door. I feel my own mistress now, and you cannot guess what an immense contempt the feeling gives me for Aunt Emma."
I, who was not leaving, felt boundless contempt too. Poor wretches! contempt was our only weapon. It gave as much pain to our tyrant as the arrow of a Lilliputian would give darted at the hide of a Brobdignagian rhinoceros.
I had hurriedly told Kate of my interview with Aunt Emma. "It is not wise," I now said, "to anger her by any protests. You must remember Kate, that you have to look to her for your wedding-dress and trousseau, or at least a portion of it."
"Indeed I have not," she answered. "That is what I have been waiting to tell you. Aunt informed Major Rivers, in her peevish decided way, that she was too poor to provide me with even a petticoat." "And what did Major Rivers say?"
"My dear Mrs. Gordon, I will supply Kate with every requisite. Neither she nor I could dream of intruding on your generosity after your great liberality in presenting me with her hand.'
I hoped she writhed beneath the sarcasm, feeble as it was." "Not she. She screwed up her face into a look as much as to say, 'I quite deserve your thanks.""
"Well!" I exclaimed, with the passive accent of helpless desperation, "matters are now at the worst. You are represented as an egregious pauper. Aunt Emma can't degrade us beyond that."
I did not want her to notice the tears that filled my eyes, so I went over to the window under the pretence of looking out.
"And when do you think I am to be married, Maggie?"
Very shortly, I hope."
"In three weeks."
"Better had it been in three days."
"I could not name an earlier time. He wanted it to be on the 1st of November; I said the 1st of December. We at length split the difference, and called it the 15th of November. I wanted time to prepare."
"To prepare what ?"
"Where is it to come from?"
"I am to write to a London dressmaker, whose name and address he has given me, and tell her to come down here. When she arrives I am to give her what orders I choose."
"A princely bridegroom!"
"But I shall be economical, Maggie, just to show him that I marry him for love, and not for what I can get."
I smiled and remained silent.
"At the same time I want to look well, although I am to be married in a bonnet. To-morrow, Maggie, he is going to take me to Lorton, to buy materials for making up into good wearing dresses. Oh! I shall be very busy. You must help me, darling. There are lots of things you can do for me. I shall want . . ."
She commenced an enumeration of her wants, which, enlarged by my suggestions, lasted some minutes.
"Has he named any place of residence ?" I inquired.
"Yes. He is going to give up his house here, and travel for six or eight months on the continent. During his absence an agent of his will see to the furnishing of a house for us at Newton."
"Where is that?"
"A few miles out of London, he tells me. Fancy, Maggie, my going to Switzerland and Italy! It will be the coming true of my brightest dreams. We shall go to the Swiss lakes, and to Venice, and home through France. I am dying to see Paris! Oh! Maggie, my happiness would be complete if you were only going to be with us, or if you were to be married yourself to some one you dearly loved."
"Never mind me, Kate. All that we have to do for the present is to think of you. One at a time."
"But you will come and see us, Maggie, often; and stay with us for days together ?"
"All in good time. Wait till you're settled."
She became endearing. She pushed her chair near me and folded her arms around my neck.
"I cannot bear the thought of leaving you, dearest. We have been so much together. Do you remember when we first came to Ivy Lodge?-how we used to play together in the arbour where we three sat this afternoon?-how George used to teach us to smoke, and how we both cried when he cut the tongue of his blackbird the wrong way, because he wanted it to talk? We were tiny things then, Maggie. How little we knew the life that was in store for us!"
I compressed my brows to keep back my tears.
"What a long time we seem to have lived, Maggie! I sometimes think that we must be older than we are. It seems such a long long while ago since we first came here."
There was a pause. Presently she said, in a low voice: L
"When I am married I mean to ask my husband's permission to visit our parents' graves. Devonshire is not very far when you have money to reach it with. I should like to go with you, Maggie, and pray there. I wish I could say one little prayer there before I am
"Their spirits are near us, Kate, darling. We can pray to them here anywhere."
"The new life I am about to enter," she went on, "will be so strange to me. Oh! Maggie, a girl misses her mother when she is going to change her life. I want advice, and the kisses which are like a blessing."
I pressed my lips close to hers, yearning to administer the benediction which I knew her young spirit craved for. But a sister's lips are not those of a mother.