Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Miss Simms
The little girl was too charming to be resisted. In vain I called to my aid all the gravity and soberness that beseemed my age. In vain I held up myself to myself as a person already within the verge of old fogydom. In vain I propounded and solved elaborate arithmetical problems as to the variable proportions which sixteen would assume to forty at advanced stages of life. I know that last sentence is not correctly expressed, but let it pass. Thus stood the case; Charlotte was sixteen and I forty, and I, more than double Lotty’s age—almost old enough to be her respectable papa—I found myself irretrievably enslaved by that young person, and trotting captive at her chariot-wheels,—or, more properly, the wheels of her infantine go-cart. I had nursed Lotty, she had ridden a cock-horse upon my knee. I had kissed her moist lips when kissing was a ceremony performed rather for the sake of politeness to mamma than for any pleasantness in itself. I had made Lotty ill with surreptitious sugar-plums; I had presented her with Christmas-boxes of the most astonishing toys; I had assisted in the instilling of the alphabet into her youthful mind by means of highly-coloured pictures, in a painful state of alliteration; I had begged Lotty out of the corner, where she stood obstinate, finger in mouth, and with a general humidity of countenance. I had thought Lotty a dirty child when I saw her paddling with her little fat hands in a puddle, or with traces of lollipops about her innocent mouth. I had execrated Lotty as a nuisance and a bore when she would poke her pug nose into my flirtation with Miss Mirables (who married afterwards Lord Methuselah). And at last, it had come to this! We had changed places. I was the child now, and Miss Lotty was mistress over me, and she knew it. She threw me a sugar-plum when she so pleased; she taught me a letter of some sweet sibillating alphabet when she had nothing better to do; she patronised me, and began to take an interest in my temper and morals; she petted me when she lacked amusement, and when she was otherwise engaged gave me to understand in the plainest manner that I was a consummate bore, and an unmitigated nuisance—that I was.
Miss Lotty knew all about it. In vain I tried to treat her as a child. She laughed in my face at the transparent absurdity of the pretence. In vain I affected indifference. She exacted attention, and would not be snubbed. She flirted with small boys for the express purpose of vexing me, and knew that I was vexed, and I knew that she knew it.
In what manner, or at what precise time she left off being a child, and began to be a woman I do not know. She passed out of the nursery by no sensible transition and took to her Missdom quite naturally. Juliet of the house of Capulet, brought out by her provident mother at the age of fourteen, did not assume her new honours with a more perfect coolness.
This, then, was the state of the case. I, who had overlived all my youthful heart-weaknesses, who prided myself on being safe henceforth from the subtlest fascinations of the female sex, fell into captivity at the hands of a little girl just out of the nursery. Having struggled in vain, I succumbed, and began to think seriously whether sixteen and forty were, after all, such incompatible ages. It was not quite a case of January and May. If I had been sixty, and a lord, there would have been nothing unusual in the notion. If I had been a widower, and possessed of a daughter a little older than Lotty, the match would have been perfectly en règle. The difference was on the right side. It was not as bad as if I had married my first love, who was forty when I was sixteen.
Let still the woman take
An elder than herself; so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband’s heart.
So I ceased to compare myself with the small boys with whom Lotty flirted, I turned a blind eye on the budding obesity of my figure, and began to consider the matter as an accomplished fact.
Miss Lotty had an aunt—a very respectable person—of mature age. Miss Simms was the name of this lady, and Miss Simms and I had always been great friends. She was a gushing person, strongly sympathetic, and given to the study of the minor poets of the last generation. We had often exchanged sympathies, had often discoursed together on the affections after a diluted Platonic manner, and she was accustomed to apply to me for explanations of namby-pamby passages of her favourite poets.
Miss Simms occupied that place in the family which maiden aunts so often fill. To make things generally pleasant, to be a general go-between, the friend of everybody, the deliverer of messages, the arranger of the delicate amenities of social life—such was Miss Simms’ mission.
Her age was certainly verging towards fifty. She was well-preserved; had expressive eyes, hair scrupulously neat, but very thin, white, angular hands, a sweet, faint smile, and a purring sort of voice.
I respected Miss Simms immensely, I had a great friendship for her. The idea struck me that I would make her my confidant with regard to Lotty. She was the very person for a confidant. I could not, for the life of me, have broken the subject to papa or mamma. Lotty was a child to them still, and I felt that it would scarcely have seemed more ridiculous to them for me to confess a tender passion for the infant in long clothes than to hint the state of my heart towards Lotty. I had determined to make some move, and the aunt appeared to me the very medium through whom to make it. The familiar friend of Lotty, to whom that little maiden confessed all her innocent secrets—the companion and fellow-counsellor of Lotty’s parents—this aunt was just the confidant I wanted.
But, beyond this, I felt sure that the state of the case had not altogether escaped the sympathetic penetration of Miss Simms. That faint smile of hers, that wistful look in her fine eyes, a playful shake of the head sometimes, the pressure of a kind hand—these signs had not been lost upon me. Often, when my eyes had been following against their will the graceful buoyant figure of Lotty, recalled, they would meet the eyes of Miss Simms; and as I smiled and half-blushed at being thus caught, Miss Simms would smile and half-blush likewise. Often, when I had been leaning over Lotty at her book, admiring the downward contour of the soft cheek, or the luxuriance of the glossy hair, lifting my eyes, they would again meet Miss Simms’ eyes, and Miss Simms would turn her head away with an expression of countenance which spoke volumes. Once, when I was shaking Miss Simms’ hand on departure, I could not restrain myself from whispering “Qu’elle est charmante?” Why I spoke in French I cannot tell. Miss Simms’ knowledge of that language was imperfect, while Lotty’s exceeded my own—so that it could not have been an aside from Lotty. But such French sentences are generally spoken without there being any satisfactory reason why they should not be uttered in English. However, to my exclamation, Miss Simms had rejoined, “Hush!” with an upraised bony finger, and an arch smile.
In breaking the matter to Lotty’s aunt, then, I did not anticipate very much difficulty. She certainly had observed my admiration of her niece; and even had it been otherwise, the ready sympathy of this kind, estimable woman would have interpreted my meaning from a word or look.
I chose my time. I was copying some music for Lotty. Lotty and her mamma were going forth on the business of card-leaving.
As I took them down to the carriage, Lotty said:
“You will finish my music?” And she made the prettiest beseeching moue, and lifted up her face, just as when a child she had lifted it up to be kissed. “We shall soon be back, and you can stay to dinner. You must stay to dinner. The evenings are so dull and stupid, and then you can sing that duet with me. Now, go back and finish the music. You and Aunt Sarah can talk poetry, you know, till I come back.”
Yes, Miss Lotty, I had that very intention of talking poetry with Aunt Sarah—the sweetest poetry in the world—yourself the theme.
Returned to Miss Simms and the music-copying, I made a crotchet—“Miss Simms,” I said—then two semiquavers and a rest, then three blank bars—
“Miss Simms,” I said, “I hope you will not see anything absurd in what I am about to—to—to lay before you—” crescendo, written in neat italics.
“Dear me!” cried Miss Simms.
“My heart, my dear Miss Simms, may be of a soft and foolish texture—yes, texture.” (I had screwed myself up to the mark, and chose my language with deliberation.) “It may be soft, I say, but, upon my soul, I do not think it is. I think no man, the most insensate, could have seen daily, as I have seen, this sweet girl” (con molto spirito) “and have resisted her attractions. It does not lie within the power of human nature to resist them.”
I was silent for a few minutes, and steadily continued my copying. I had determined to discuss the subject in the calmest and most reasonable manner. I confess the dots were scarcely circular, and the strokes scarcely straight, but I completed a most prodigious series of running notes ad libitum before I recommenced. I dared not look at Miss Simms.
“That there is disparity in age I cannot deny. Some people would call it a great disparity—”
“Sir!” cried Miss Simms, with some warmth.
“Yes, my dear madam, I am not surprised at that tone. But I feel that I must bring this into prominence, and consider it judicially. I am not a young man. I cannot hide it from myself, even if I would—I am no longer young. Perhaps I have an appearance of age, a gravity, beyond my actual years. I entreat you not to forget that point—it is a point that we must fully grasp—and I wish to impress it on your mind that I have thoroughly weighed this, and thrown every possible argument into the scale that opposes me. This is but just.”
“I think enough has been said on that part of the subject,” Miss Simms interrupted me. “You lay too much stress on this point, and must be labouring, I think, under some strange misconception. After all, what does age matter—a few months more or less. It is the heart, my dear sir, the heart; the sympathy of affections, the reciprocity of ideas, the congeniality of sentiments—”
“It is like you to say so,” I exclaimed. “I appreciate your kindness. We are old friends, Miss Simms—”
“Friends of long standing,’ Miss Simms agreed, correctively.
“Friends of long standing. I knew that you would understand me. I felt that you were the best person, the only person, to whom I could first break this delicate subject. I knew that you would meet me half-way.”
“Oh! do not say that,” sighed Lotty’s aunt.
“You have seen the truth for some time,” I went on. “In your eyes, in your smiles, I have read that you had discovered my secret. Woman’s insight, the sympathy of a gentle nature—who can disguise such secrets from these? And now, be frank with me. I come to you in my perplexity. Do not pretend to misunderstand me. My tongue is timid. Help me—advise me!”
“Maidenly propriety!” she said, in a low tone.
“Exactly so. Your good sense and instinctive feeling of what is right prompts those words. I anticipated this. But, my dear Miss Simms, I do not wish to make you a conspirator with me. There shall be no secrets. I ask you to confess none to me. All I ask is that, as a friend, you will tell me whether there is any chance for me. You are everybody’s friend—do not deprive me alone of your help.
“Really, I do not know what to say,” Miss Simms whispered, in a voice greatly agitated.
I had all along persevered in my music-copying. I knew that I was making the most astounding blunders, but that was of little consequence. If I left off this accompaniment I felt that my voice would break down, too.
“My dear Miss Simms,” I went on, “I know that your present hesitation proceeds from the best of motives. Do not think I am flattering you, when I say that to your influence I attribute much of the exquisite purity of your charming niece.”
This was not quite true, but I saw that a compliment would be well-timed.
“She is a good child,” said Miss Simms.
“I see,” I continued, “in your present hesitation, precisely that delicacy of decorum which has guarded so constantly the opening leaves of that sweet flower. Ah! what a delightful occupation! To a heart so sensitive as yours, what a labour of love! To watch the birth of new beauties and virtues from day to day—to tend, to foster—to—to—in short—to find, as it were, your own sensibilities reproduced and springing up—like—like objective personifications under your incubative cares.” I was pleased with the sentence, and paused in order that the words might take due effect upon her.
“I, too,” I went on, “have not been blind to this gradual change, to those unfolding beauties. We are old friends, we have known each other many years. You can forgive—nay, you will sympathise with the warmth of my expressions. This gradual growth of love—what a mystery it is! ‘He never loved that loved not at first sight,’ says the poet. What a libel upon human nature, worthy of the gross lips that uttered it! True love is always gradual. The first indifference burgeons into liking, flowers into friendship, fruits into love. We know not where indifference ends and love begins. Ah! my dear Miss Simms, &c &c., &c.”
This sort of thing may be continued ad libitum, through as many pages as my reader pleases. In the heat of my oratory I flung aside my pen, and strode to the fireplace by which Miss Simms was sitting. My oratory must have been moving. Miss Simms was in tears when I next came to a pause.
She lifted her tearful eyes for a moment to mine, as I stood upon the hearth-rug close by her side.
“Oh spare me!” she said. “This tumult of feelings—so painful and yet so delicious! I am but a weak, girlish thing” (she giggled hysterically). “Leave me alone, now. Some other time—some other time. I have been expecting this. I knew it must come.”
“You had discovered my secret, then,” I said. “I knew you had. Long ago, Miss Simms, long ago—did you not?”
“I could not be blind,” she said. “Maiden modesty is very innocent; but could I help seeing?”
“Ah!” I exclaimed. “And there is hope for me?”
“What can I say? Do not press me.”
“I intreat you. Say, at least, there is not despair.”
“No, do not despair,” she said. “I do not wish that.”
We were silent for a minute or so. Miss Simms spoke first.
“You will speak to my brother!” she said, covering her face with her hand.
“Certainly. That is my intention, if you tell me I may do so. Do you think I may?”
Miss Simms looked at me between the fingers of the hand that covered her face.
“Yes,” she said. “I think you may.”
“My dear Miss Simms,” I said. “I can never sufficiently repay the kindness—the sympathy, the great sympathy—you have shown to me, today. I am going to take advantage of this sympathy—”
“Sir!” cried Miss Simms.
“Yes; gratitude consists mostly in taking advantage of the people who are kind to you. I am going to ask a still greater favour of you. Will you break this matter to your brother? Will you hint my feelings to Lotty?”
“I see no occasion for that! Why to Lotty!”
“Well; I respect your prudence. No doubt you are right. To your brother, then?”
“Had not you better do that. It is so very awkward.”
“My dear Miss Simms, oblige me in this. I shall be eternally indebted to you.”
Miss Simms gave me her angular white hand. She looked up into my face with an expression of most intense sympathy. “I will do anything you tell me, Henry,” she said—“May I call you Henry?”
“I consider it a most tender mark of your sympathy,” I replied. I really thought her calling me by my Christian name, which she had never done before, a touching proof of her kind friendship.
“And now,” I said, “I had better go. I am not inclined to see any one in the present state of my feelings. When I next see you, Miss Simms, I hope to be received in this house on another—a closer and more intimate footing. I think we fully understand each other?”
“Adieu! God bless you!”
My readers, I have no doubt, see clearly the fix I had got myself into. Will they believe me when I say that I had no notion of it myself! A pre-occupied man assimilates every word that is spoken to the subject of his own pre-occupation. When he enters into tender confidences, he speaks in ambiguously bashful hints, not in that precise language wherewith he would draw up his will.
Do you remember the scene between Bélise and Clitandre in “Les Femmes Savantes.”
“Souffrez,” says Clitandre.
“Souffrez, pour vous parler, madame, qu’un amant
Prenne l’occasion de cet heureux moment,
Et se découvre à vous de la sincère flamme . . .”
"Ah! tout beau;" cries Belise.
Of course she applies the words of Clitandre to herself—what woman would not do so?
I left the house with a feeling of the greatest satisfaction. The first move had been made, and made, I could not but flatter myself, with consummate address, and with a success equal to my highest hopes. This good, kind aunt of Lotty’s, I was deeply grateful to her, and determined that I would make her a handsome present on my wedding.
Everything went well.
The next morning I received a letter from Lotty’s papa.
“I can have no objection, if you have none,” he wrote. “I consent gladly to receive your visits at my house on the footing you desire. Come and dine with us at six, and we will talk it over.”
Miss Simms, how could I feel sufficiently grateful to you! Every difficulty was cleared at once from my path. I saw now how foolish had been my self-depreciatory doubts on the subject of age. My budding obesity no longer gave me a pang. Did Ophelia find Hamlet the less attractive for his fatness?
And Lotty—what did Lotty think of all this? How would she meet me under these new relations? I painted for myself the most delightful picture. The sweet bashfulness, the maiden coyness, the blushes of the charming face, the beatings of the pure little heart, the downcast eyes, the trembling lips. Ah, me!—away with such remembrances!
I confess I was slightly nervous as I knocked at the Simmses’ door. There was a smile on the flunkey’s face and an alacrity in his manner as he let me in. I saw that he knew all about it. What can we hide from these omniscient flunkeys?
Miss Simms happened to be upon the stairs.
“How can I thank you?” I said, grasping her hand with the warmth of friendship. The flunkey had disappeared.
“Oh, Henry!” Miss Simms gasped.
Her feelings were too much for her. What a good heart this woman had to be so moved by the happiness of others. She clung to my hand, to my arm, to my shoulder, for support. She raised her eyes to mine, her face to mine—her lips; by Jove, I thought for a moment the good creature was going to kiss me. Her attitude was the very attitude of Helena lifting beseeching lips to Bertram. “What would you have?” quoth he. She answers:
Something, and scarce so much: nothing, indeed.
I would not tell you what I would, my lord—’faith, yes;—
Strangers and foes do sunder, and not kiss.
But I did gently sunder myself from the weight of Miss Simms without any osculation.
“And how is—is—is she?” I said. “She is not unfavourable, I hope, towards my suit?”
“She is only too much blessed!” Miss Simms replied, with a smile, in which archness blended with sympathy. “Can you doubt it for a moment?”
At last I managed to reach the drawing-room door. Miss Simms would have me enter without her, for what reason I could not understand, but she professed to be too bashful, and said:
“It would look so odd for us to enter together.”
I was certainly very nervous. It cannot be expected that I should now relate accurately all that was said to me, and all that I said in return, when at the time itself I had no very clear notion of that same.
I stammered some sort of vague thanks and gratitude to Lotty’s papa; and he said something about congratulating me in return, and then by mutual consent we suffered the conversation to turn on indifferent subjects. Lotty’s mamma helped me out of the difficulties of conversation as only a woman’s fluent tongue can.
Lotty was not in the room.
Soon Miss Simms entered; and afterwards Lotty.
The expression of Lotty’s face surprised me—and her manner still more. There was an angry flush upon her cheeks, a flashing fire in her eyes, an obstinate firmness about her red lips—very different from the signs I had expected to read upon that fair face. When I shook hands with her, she just gave me the tips of her fingers for the fraction of a moment, and pulled them away with a jerk.
“I hope, Lotty,” I whispered, “that you have no objection to receive me in the new character which I take upon me here for the first time?”
“Me?” Lotty said. “Why, on earth, should I have any objection? I wish you joy, I’m sure.”
Lotty carried her little nose high in the air, she tossed her head, she gave utterance to a short, sharp laugh, and looked very much as if she were going to cry. Her manner was most perplexing. Who can interpret the signs of a woman’s face, or predicate the way in which she will act under any given circumstances?
“Henry,” said a mild, purring, sugary voice; “Mr. Jones, I mean—I beg your pardon.”
I crossed over to Miss Simms. She motioned to me to take the chair beside her. I sat down. Lotty remained at the window. Her papa and mamma entered into private and engrossing conversation. Miss Simms and I were, to all intents and purposes, alone together.
Dinner was announced.
Even while I was looking round for Lotty, Miss Simms had seized my arm.
I went down the stairs in a hideous dream—that clinging, angular hand was a special nightmare upon me.
My place at the dinner-table was changed. From the time when Lotty used to appear at dessert-time in a clean white frock and blue sash, her place had always been by me. Now, I and Miss Simms were placed together on one side of the table, and Lotty alone on the other side.
I was perplexed and miserable. Some shadow of the truth—not as yet the terrible truth itself—began to fall upon me.
How I got through that dinner I cannot tell. The chief remembrance I have of it, is of the expression of Lotty’s face. It was precisely the same look that I had seen on it half-a-dozen years before, when a new doll which I had presented to Lotty had been taken away from her in punishment of some childish peccadillo.
I remember that we had champagne, as upon some gala occasion. Lotty’s papa drank Miss Simms’ health and my health together in a humorous manner.
I was in a ghastly dream. Whether I knew the truth or did not know it I cannot tell. The dinner was over at length—the wine was put on. The ladies drank their one glass and left us.
As I opened the door for them Miss Simms whispered: “Do not be long.”
We filled our glasses with claret.
“My dear fellow,” said my host, “this little affair has given me the most entire satisfaction. I had not a suspicion of it. My sister Sarah, though I say it, who shouldn’t, is a most estimable person, a capital housewife, good-tempered, and you and she have always got on very well together in your tastes for poetry and so forth. Ages not unsuitable. You are no longer a chicken, my dear fellow, and if she has a year or two the advantage of you, why that is your affair not mine. That is a matter of taste. Of course you know that her little property amounts to a mere nothing. She has lived with us now for a number of years, and, upon my soul, I shall be sorry to lose her. But we must not be selfish in this world. Yes, I am convinced that Sarah will make you an excellent wife.”
“Sir!” I gasped, “there is some terrible and fatal mistake!”
“Mistake, sir?” cried my host, fiercely; “what do you mean?”
“Your sister is a very respectable person,” I stammered; “but I never had the remotest idea of—of—”
“Of what, sir?”
“The remotest idea of asking her to be my wife.”
“Jones!” he said, solemnly, “I always took you to be a man of honour. The feelings and affections of a woman are not to be played with in this atrocious manner . . . .”
Everything swam before my eyes, the room turned round—the world was resolving itself again into chaos—the final collapse of all things was at hand.
Like Shylock, flung from the height of my certain hopes to ruin irretrievable and blank despair, I turned sick and faint.
“I pray you give me leave to go from hence.
I am not well.”
I rushed from the room—from the house.
That same night I took my passage on board an Ostend steamboat, and floated in the darkness down the Thames, an exile from my native land.