A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter I
A MARRIAGE BELOW ZERO.
No, I shall not weary you with a long account of my childhood, and all that sort of thing. When I read a story, I always skip the pages devoted to a description of the juvenile days of the hero or heroine. They are generally insufferably uninteresting, or interesting only to the writer, and I can find no excuse for selfishness, with such a weapon as a pen in one's hand.
My mother was left a widow when I was a baby. There is a mournful sound about that piece of intelligence, which is absolutely deceptive. In reality it was a most satisfactory outcome of what I was always told was an extremely unhappy marriage. I heard that my father was a charming man, well read, intellectual, courteous and refined. His death was a happy release for both. Poor papa could not tolerate the shallowness of his spouse's hopes and aspirations; while mamma looked upon her husband as an encumbrance, and an obstacle in the way of her social ambition. A husband is very often unnecessary when you are once in the swim of society. When he has given you the protection of his honorable name, and endowed you liberally with the goods of this world, why, the most delicate thing he can then do, is to cease reminding you of these facts, by taking himself off. At least that is the way a great many people look at the matter, I am told.
I was a year old when papa died. What I was there for, I cannot imagine. There was absolutely no reason for my existence. My mother despised children from the bottom of her heart—or, I might more aptly say, the place where her heart was supposed to be. But I thrived on my bottle. I grew disgracefully fat, and outrageously healthy, and it soon became apparent that there would be no difficulty in rearing me. The only person who could have felt any satisfaction at this was my nurse, who, without me to take care of, would have lost a good situation.
I have promised to say little about my childhood, and I will respect my promise.
I was packed off very young to an extremely aristocratic school, where for years dear mamma left me to myself, pursuing her own sweet course in the labyrinthine mazes of society. She paid my bills regularly, and they were pretty big ones, for nothing that could make me subsequently interesting among mamma's dear friends, was neglected. I was to go into society very young. I think she wanted a little excitement, and imagined that she might get some entertainment from a nice, accomplished daughter. Everybody was aware of the fact that she had one, you see, and also cruelly remembered her real age; so why not use the girl to as much advantage as possible? So, I presume she reasoned.
I was "finished" in the most approved manner. I was taught to play the piano with the most provoking persistence, and made day and night hideous with my frenzied interpretations of things in variations, of pyrotechnical morceaux, and of drawing-room "selections."
I sang songs with roulades which would have frightened Patti, and effective little chansons, with plenty of tra-la-la and tremulo about them. Creatures on whom the education I received would be likely to take effect, ought to be caged up, as dangerous to the community, in my opinion. I spoke villainous French, in order that I might vulgarly interlard my sentences with an occasional Gallic expression. I have done so above. You have Mme. Bobichon, instigated by mamma, to thank for it. A long haired, beery German was going the rounds of the drawing-rooms at this time (I ought to say salons, I suppose), and talking the gullible Londoners into the belief that he was a musical prodigy. I was taught German, I presume, in order that I might be able to tell him, in his own language, how much I adored him. I was very accomplished, in a word—desperately so. I will say this, however: I despised my education. I could see through its superficiality even then.
I enjoyed my school days thoroughly. I liked the society of the merry, laughing, giddy girls I met. Towards the end of my "finishing" period, I went home for a holiday, and the return to school was simply delightful. I dreaded the idea of leaving it for a home which I knew I should detest, and for a mother in whom I had not the faintest interest. At seventeen, however, I was taken into the bosom of my family, and the happiest period of my life came to an abrupt end.
I remained quietly at home for three months before I became that silliest of human beings, a blushing debutante. (She doesn't blush long, poor thing.) I had one dear friend whom I regarded as a sister. Letty Bishop had left school two years before I emerged, so that when I was ready to burst upon the social world, she was already a full-fledged society girl.
I shall always remember the ball mamma gave to introduce me to the world. It was a great event for me, an absolute and utter revelation. I rejoiced at the idea of meeting my old school friends, and of resuming the pleasant relations we had enjoyed, without restriction. I was also particularly anxious to become acquainted with members of the male sex, of whom I had heard so much from my friend. I knew none, except John, the butler, who I cannot say impressed me very favorably.
I supposed that men were nice, sensible, jolly beings, immeasurably superior to girls, and with so many more privileges. They could marry whom and when they chose—I thought it, at least—and had unlimited power over creation in general. I hoped in my heart of hearts that I should soon be chosen, and that some young man would carry me away from mamma to a life which would be more endurable.
As I just said, that ball was an utter revelation to me. I was going to rush at the dear girls I knew, gushingly glad to meet them again after such a long separation, and burningly anxious to take them off to indulge in those nice long talks we had at school.
But when I saw them in my mother's house I hardly recognized them. Could it be possible that these affected, fragile creations, were really the same girls who, only a few months ago, had surreptitiously purchased indigestible cakes, openly read sentimental novels, and enthusiastically sworn eternal friendship the one for the other? Why, they had no eyes for anything female now; all their attentions seemed turned in the direction of the men.
They greeted me with chilling politeness, and turned from me with ill-concealed haste to salute members of the other sex. Of course I had no doubt that they were as eager to meet men as I was. Still, I was not prepared to be treated in this way.
If the behavior of my feminine friends surprised me, I was completely astounded, before the evening was over, at that of the other sex. Why, it was impossible to talk sensibly to these men. They made silly speeches, and showered compliments upon me in a manner that simply caused me consternation and hurt my self respect. I could not imagine what they meant by being so personal. It would have only been after years of familiar intercourse that a girl would have ventured to talk to me as did these men, whom I had never seen before, and with the utmost assurance. It seemed to me that when strangers gave utterance to such ridiculous remarks, they were guilty of nothing less than impertinence.
When they were not unpleasantly self-satisfied, they were absurdly bashful. No girl is ever so contemptuously ill at ease as a bashful man, for whom I have never been able to feel any compassion.
One of our young hereditary legislators asked me to dance, and willing to put him at his ease, for his arms seemed to embarrass him, and his blushes amounted to a positive infirmity, I consented. He seemed to me to be a foolish young peacock, one of those men who Carlyle says attain their maximum of detestability at twenty-five, and ought to be put in a glass case until that period, after which they are supposed to improve. He danced well. I have since learned that most social peacocks do. The poetry of motion seems to accompany lack of brains. When once my lord had disposed of his arm around my waist, he was another being, oh, so much improved!
When the dance was over, he led me into the refreshment room, and brought me an ice. I needed it. I had danced boisterously because I was young enough to enjoy the exercise for itself alone. I could have passed a much pleasanter time, however, had my partner been my one friend and confidante, Letty Bishop, than I had done with the gawky arms of young my lord encircling my waist.
"What a delightful waltz," sighed my lord, as he watched me greedily eating my ice. He was no longer embarrassed, my efforts had been successful.
"Yes," I replied, "I love dancing, and I think you waltz nearly as well as even Miss Bishop, that pretty girl sitting over there."
I pointed to a chair where Letty was reclining, surrounded by, I believe I counted seventeen young men. I thought I had paid him a great compliment. I had enjoyed my dance, and felt in a better humor. My lord did not seem at all elated, however. He became silent, and eyed me sentimentally
"Why don't you have an ice?" I asked, presently, feeling annoyed at his stupidity. "This pineapple is very good—there are real pieces of fruit in it."
"Ah, Miss Bouverie," said he, "I am not in an ice humor."
"Ha, Ha! what a good pun!" I laughed flippantly, wishing he would remove his eyes. "You ought to keep me in countenance, though. I always think people look so gluttonous eating by themselves."
My lord took a chair and an ice at the same time, and sat down beside me. He spoke very little, which I ascribed to the fact that he was enjoying his ice. When he had finished, he asked me if I had any more dances to give him. I looked at my programme. I had none. My lord scowled.
"Miss Bouverie," he said, "you are the only girl here I care about dancing with. All these belles of sixteen seasons weary me," languidly, "and you give me only one meagre waltz."
"I think you are very rude to my guests," I answered, vexed. "They are nearly all young girls, and most of them are nice ones, too. I would as soon dance with you as with anybody, but as this is my mother's party, I believe I am not allowed to choose. I must take everybody who asks me, I suppose. Not that it matters much, however," I added indifferently. "I can't see that a partner makes much difference as long as he dances well. One has no time to talk."
My lord looked surprised. "You are too young," he said, with what I considered unpardonable frankness. Then in a low tone, "Miss Bouverie, I am so glad you are now 'out.' I shan't refuse any more invitations. I've been sending refusals to everybody lately, you know."
Lucky people, I thought. I rose in disgust, and left him. I felt sick at heart. I had been dancing all the evening, and all my partners annoyed me. They appeared to imagine that I was a doll, and condescended to play with me. Was that the way men always treated girls, I asked myself? A long time has elapsed since that evening, but though I have since learned that a man who never says a pretty thing, is an abnormal being who will ultimately sink into obscurity, I wonder that it should be so.
I was completely disappointed. Even Letty Bishop seemed to view me with less interest, while the men were around. She had known me longer than she had known them, and surely I ought to have been considered first.
I felt that I could never like the other sex if at were composed exclusively of creatures like those with whom I had danced, under the most favorable circumstances too, namely, in my mother's house. From what I had seen, I judged that in the social world, women must be the sworn enemies of women, and men the everlasting foes of men. Girls I had heard declare themselves to be eternal friends, never spoke to each other during the evening, and I failed to notice a man address a word to one of his own sex, which would indicate any friendly interest in it.
I wept bitterly as I cast aside my fine feathers that night. My self-respect was wounded. Men had treated me as though I were a silly toy, and I had expected so much from them, and had thought they would be even more companionable than women.
Companionable! Great goodness!
You will probably have arrived at the conclusion by this time, dear readers, that I was a fool. If, however, I possessed no peculiarities, I should not venture to be sitting here. Indeed, I suppose I should be a respectable British matron, with half-a-dozen sturdy children, and—let me see, it is ten o'clock—I might now be ordering a boiled leg of mutton with caper sauce for my little olive-branches' dinner.