The Woman Who Remained
SHE appeared so very urgent in the matter, that her prayer was granted. It was unusual—almost unprecedented, in fact; but her lover had just sailed for the Crimea, and there were so many things for the gods to look after, that they decided, in order to save bother and argument, that she should, as she desired, retain her youth for ever. Miss Rawley, feeling gratified by this, longed greatly to tell her girl companions in Gordon Square of the privilege that had been accorded to her, but this was distinctly prohibited; besides, there appeared to be some fear that they might not believe her. She refrained from informing even her younger sisters; they were all so anxious—the month being November, and the year '54—for news from the south of Russia that they could have taken little interest in any other subject. When Sir James Rawley (who was Miss Rawley's father) came home from the City one evening purple with news of the glorious but costly defence of the heights above Inkermann, Miss Rawley alone took the news coolly.
Said the eldest Miss Rawley, thrumming on her harp in the corner of the room a cheerful air: "My dears, we must do all we can to retain our appearance and our good looks."
"But we shan't," cried the other sisters in chorus, tearfully.
"Crying," said the eldest Miss Rawley, as she twanged a few chords of I Puritani, "crying certainly does nothing to improve them. Jane, get on with your crochet work. Miriam, that embroidery is but half finished. Louisa, dry your eyes, and if you are very good you shall write a page in my confessional album."
Through all that grey and trying winter the lightheartedness of the eldest Miss Rawley was of the greatest use in Gordon Square. A City Sheriff's daughter in Woburn Place did indeed hint that a certain melancholy were more seemly, expressing a fear that the eldest Miss Rawley might never become engaged again after the disappearance of Captain Finlayson; but this was a fear born of hope. The City Sheriffs daughter was herself something of a sham, for she pined in society and went out to dinners in order to decline food in a public and official manner—sitting up late into the night on her return home, and devastating the larder to assuage her appetite. So that one need have no sympathy with her. The younger sisters a year or two later accepted the counsel of Miss Rawley and did recover heart, and thereupon became engaged respectively to an indigo merchant, a middle-aged sergeant-at-law, and an army contractor, and, what was more to the purpose, married them and had started nurseries, before Miss Rawley (naturally in no great haste) began to consider the advisability of saying 'No' with less of decision to her occasional suitors. She read the Times to her father
"The eldest Miss Rawley thrummed on the harp."
every evening in the drawing-room at Gordon Square, when he wanted to sleep, went to the Opera twice in the season, and stood as godmother to the open-eyed babies of her younger married sisters. She was now near to thirty, but everybody assured her that she looked but twenty-four; the ex-City-Sheriffs daughter in Woburn Place, who had now at least two chins and a rather high colour, bought Wilson (who had been Miss Rawley's maid)—bought her at a ruinous price in order to ascertain names of bottles in the secret drawer of Miss Rawley's dressing-table.
"My late mistress, miss," said Wilson primly, as she held up her new mistress's chignon, "never used no powder, never used no wash."
"Wilson," cried the ex-City-Sheriff's daughter appealingly—"Wilson, be a woman and tell me the truth."
"I am a woman, miss," replied the maid with some pride, "and to truth I am a perfect slave. Will you take your port negus now, miss, or when you are in bed?"
"Both," replied the aggrieved lady. "And, Wilson!"
"You can have my blue satin gown if you will only tell me——"
"Miss," said the maid, "if you were to give me forty thousand blue satin gowns I couldn't tell you a lie. I'm a Bible Christian, and——"
"Wilson," screamed the lady, "if you don't tell me this instant, I will box your ears."
"So much as look at em," replied the maid calmly, "and I give you my month's notice. I am not a worm," added Wilson, shivering with pride, "that I should have my ears boxed by people who take seven-and-three-quarters in gloves."
Thus did Miss Rawley's retention of youth commence to make tumult in the hearts of her acquaintances. To herself, as she looked each day in the mirrors of the house (and of these there were plenty), it was a source of inexhaustible delight to find that never a wrinkle came to her young cheeks, never a change arrived to her admirable complexion. Youths of twenty or less, their ambition fired by her youthfulness and gay spirits, brought flowers to Gordon Square and listened infatuatedly to her father's anecdotes for her sake; she was forced to accept so many brooches and earrings that as the years went on she had to give them away to her nieces in order to make room for more. Her ambition rising, she secretly admired a prominent member of Lord Palmerston's Cabinet: she had never met him, but she adored his reputation; and, time being of absolutely no account to her, it really seemed within the limits of possibility that he might, in his turn, present himself.
In an access of enthusiasm over the visit of Garibaldi, Miss Rawley's father died, leaving her the greater part of his fortune and the house in Gordon Square. Miss Rawley was now thirty-four, and her married sisters, aggrieved at the favour shown to her in her father's will, reported that she was thirty-seven, and that she enamelled. This caused some friction, but Miss Rawley's only regret was that she was thus prevented from visiting the houses of her married sisters, and taking toys to her young nieces and nephews; she had a fondness for children that increased with time. As compensation, she did much useful work at the Foundling Hospital in Guilford Street, until two young officials there fell in love with her, and meeting one night at Cremorne Gardens, each being under the influence of wine called champagne, they fought, returning home by hackney coach in such a deplorable state that they were both instantly dismissed from their appointments. It was thereupon intimated to Miss Rawley that her youthful appearance made it undesirable that she should continue her visits to the Institution: similar objections were made when she endeavoured to undertake active Church work in St. Pancras. Society of an agreeable kind was denied to her, for an attractive young woman in those days could not entertain at Gordon Square without exciting remark, and alone she could not with propriety visit even the Lyceum theatre to see Fechter. The habit of proposing for her hand was discontinued by the moneyed youth of Bloomsbury, then much occupied by affairs in the City, and when the Cabinet minister ran away with an old lady, great fear came upon Miss Rawley that with all her special gifts she might remain unmarried.
"If only Finlayson were here!" she cried.
Miss Rawley was certainly a most fortunate woman. By the post at the beginning of May '66, she received a letter in handwriting the sight of which made her young figure tremble. Within was a letter from Captain Finlayson. He had been taken prisoner at Inkermann; by a clerical error on the part of a careless Russian clerk he had not been released at the end of the war, but had been deported to Siberia, where he had remained for near upon twelve years. He wrote from Marseilles:—
"A Russian Grand Duke came to inspect the village where I had worked all these years, always, thank God, retaining my excellent health, and fortunately remembered having met me in London. The Russian Government has apologised in the most handsome manner, and my place has been taken by the clerk who made the deplorable blunder. I am now on my way back to England, a middle-aged man, but my mature heart still full of affection for my dear one. Heaven grant that she is still free—free to accept the respectful love of her Ronald."
Miss Rawley waltzed around the drawing-room with ecstatic delight, and sent out gold to some street singer in the Square. At last evening was coming right; at last all was sunshine. She drove instantly to the new station recently opened at Charing Cross, and dispatched a telegram to Ronald Finlayson at the hotel in the Rue St. Honoré mentioned in his note.
"I am free, and so very happy to welcome my dearest."
That day was May 11th. It was Friday—in itself an unfortunate circumstance—and the City found itself buffeted and boxed and strained and distracted. Overend & Gurney's Bank smashed, a number of minor firms were broken: Miss Rawley was only one of the many who awakened on the day prosperous, and retired to rest almost penniless. She sent a note the next morning to meet Finlayson on his arrival at Charing Cross, informing him of this disastrous change in her fortunes, and the same messenger brought back a hastily scribbled reply:—
"I think I am almost glad of this. We meet now on equal terms. I only want my sweetheart as she was in the days of long, long ago. I shall wait upon her in two hours."
This gratified Miss Rawley extremely. She dressed herself in her most youthful attire: a white muslin frock, sandals, a flower in her hair, which hung down over her young shoulders. She pirouetted before the glass, laughing girlishly as she thought of the delighted astonishment which her Finlayson would express. When the knocker at the front door announced his arrival, she dared not look out of the window: her heart beat wildly, and she was blushing with confusion.
"Go' bless my soul!" cried Captain Finlayson, as he hobbled across the room, "what a most remarkable likeness, to be sure! My dear, I want to see your aunt."
"I am my aunt," she said confusedly.
He tried to find his spectacles, but failed. "My eyesight is not what it was," he said; "but surely——"
"Ronald," she said, "I have, as you hoped, not changed in the least. I am still the young girl whom you left in '53, and——"
"Are you certain?"
"Surely," she said, rather testily, "surely I ought to know!"
"Yes," he said pointedly, "you ought to know. May I sit down?"
"See," she went on, as she placed a hassock for his lame foot, "here is the coral necklace that you once gave me, Ronald."
"I think," he said doubtfully, "that a coral necklace is not evidence."
"Here is the ring; here is the half of the split fourpenny-bit——"
"My dear, my dear!" he interrupted. "I've had a good deal to put up with during the last thirteen years, and perhaps I'm not quite so alert as I used to be. But I expected to find some one here of what I may term a comfortable age; some one who would make an appropriate partner for a man of my time of life. Instead of which——"
"So I should, so I should, my dear, if I had kept young also. But"—here he glanced in the mirror—"I've not."
"You can scarcely blame me for that."
"I blame no one. I only want to avoid making myself look damnably ridiculous."
"Captain Finlayson! Such language——"
"My dear, pray excuse me. I have undergone so much that it is a wonder I remember any language at all."
She took another hassock and sat near to him, stroking his hand affectionately. He patted her head in a paternal manner, and presently found his spectacles. With the aid of these he peered curiously into her attractive face.
"The very image!" he cried amusedly. "Begad! a devilish amusing comedy. My dear, how dare you impose upon a middle-aged gentleman in this manner, you little witch, you? You're twelve or thirteen years too young. Now, if you had made up with a line or two here and a little excess of plumpness——"
"Ronald! Ronald!" she cried distractedly, "how short-sighted you are!"
"I can manage pretty well with my glasses."
"I am, on my honour I am, the same girl to whom you said good-bye before that dreadful Crimea. I am always going to be the same. I shall never change."
"Is that so?"
"Well," said Finlayson thoughtfully, "if this be a trick that you are playing, it is a trick—if you will allow me to say so—in rather doubtful taste. But if be not a trick, then it is a most unfortunate piece of business and one that will require the greatest consideration. If I were to marry you, and I every day increased in age and in appearance of age whilst you remained obstinately youthful, it is clear to me that sooner or later I should become the laughing-stock of London."
"Let them laugh!"
"But not at me," he said firmly: "I would rather have remained in Siberia. There were many drawbacks there, but I was not——"
"I can see how it is," she cried, with girlish impetuosity. "This is only an excuse for not renewing our engagement. It is really because of my change of fortune; because I am without a friend; because I have now but just enough to live upon——"
"Miss Rawley," he said, standing up stiffly, "I have the honour to request your hand in marriage."
"Captain Finlayson," she answered, "I regret that I am unable to accept your offer."
Miss Rawley lost no time in facing the situation caused by the loss of her fortune. She invested her small remaining capital in a boarding-house in Gower Street, near to Torrington Place, and endeavoured to distract her mind from thoughts of her middle-aged lover by setting about with great show of businesslike manners to organise an establishment where boarders could be accepted at thirty shillings per week.
Domestic work was the only occupation for which she was fitted (by this time the harp had gone out of fashion), and with the optimism of youth she decided that her future in spite of all was to have success about it. Unfortunately the gods, who had once done so much for her, appeared now to be taking no trouble in her regard. Some boarders came, attracted by her appearance, and made such fierce love to her that she was obliged to go about from one floor to another armed with a fork; others of the more desirable and reputable sort no sooner met her in the hall than they decided hastily that a young woman of her age could not possibly know even the first page of the cookery book, retiring instantly to find a plainer landlady whose appearance inspired confidence. Thus it was presently that, what with boarders whom she was obliged to eject and those who backed out into Gower Street at the sight of her, her apartments were nearly always empty and the card in the fanlight over the front door took quite a brown complexion from continued exposure. Her old maid Wilson, now near to fifty years, had come back (the ex-Sheriff's daughter having grown so stout that Wilson could no longer stay with her), and Wilson was a woman of resource. It was Wilson who, on one desolate July evening, when all the other boarding-houses in Bloomsbury were clattering and steaming and crackling with the dinner-hour offered a suggestion to which poor young Miss Rawley lent her pretty ears.
"Miss," said Wilson, in the front room of the first floor, "I've been thinking."
"There is little else to do," declared Miss Rawley dolefully.
"We shall have to make a change," went on Wilson. "Me and you have known each other for near upon twenty year, and plain speaking is best. We must change places."
"Far be it from me," said the maid steadily, "to wish to 'old up my 'ead 'aughty, but there's a time to speak and a time to be quiet, and this is a time to speak. If I was mistress and you was the servant we should 'ave the 'ouse full before you could say 'knife.’"
"Wilson! There's something in what you say."
"Miss," said Wilson, "there's more'n something: there's everything. Let's argue it out."
The result of argument appeared the next day, when Miss Wilson assumed the position of landlady, and a fresh card being placed over the front door, Miss Wilson met applications with the stony demeanour which was expected; the maid appeared to be a neat and tidy girl; boarders came and stayed and sent for all their
"He patted her head in a paternal manner."
friends. A dignity of manner on the part of the young maid checked the ardour of emotional gentlemen-boarders, but gave keen annoyance to the tradesmen's lads of the neighbourhood.
"If she was a lady born and bred," said a youth from the grocer's in Francis Street aggrievedly to the lady of the area next door, "she couldn't be 'ortier in her manners."
"It's silly of you gentlemen," said the servant, "to worry yourselves about her. 'Tisn't as though she was the only one in Gower Street. Jest because she sounds her aitches she thinks she's everybody."
"She takes no more notice of any one than as though she was talking to a bit of wood," complained the grocer's boy. "A joking remark or a bit of lively chaff's wasted on her."
"Me and cook talk about her pretty loud when she's doin' her steps in the morning. She can't very well be off from 'earin' what we say."
"Does she ever answer you back?"
"That's the worst of it," said the servant wistfully. "She never takes no notice."
"I'm told she used to be the lady of the 'ouse."
"That was before my time, then," remarked the servant. "Must 'ave been over three months ago, because I've been here all that. Longest time I've ever been at one place, it is."
"You don't believe in staying too long with one missis?"
"It spoils 'em," said the servant darkly.
The indignation of the other domestics did nothing to increase happiness in Miss Rawley's life. Money affairs, by the ingenuity of Wilson, were righting themselves; but there was little of company for Miss Rawley until late at night, when Wilson would creep quietly to the servant's bedroom, and discarding the manner of a dogmatic overseer, become again a respectful attendant. In vain Wilson urged with all deference that her young mistress should secure a good husband and start a comfortable married life.
"I never cared for but one man, Wilson," was the answer, "and him I shall never see again."
"What I thought, miss, was," remarked Wilson hesitatingly, "if it isn't taking too much on meself to say so, that 'ere's you specially endowed—to use a common expression—with the gift of perpetual youth, and yet you're takin' no advantage of it. You'll excuse me if I say that it's flying in the face of——"
"In a burst of temper I refused Captain Finlayson. I cannot forgive myself for that, and I can never think of anybody else."
"Well, miss," said Wilson, perturbed, "if it was anybody but you, miss, I should say that was silly talk."
It really seemed that the permanence of youth was to be of no advantage to Miss Rawley. She looked earnestly at herself now in the glass morning and night, in the hope that she might detect some faint sign of increasing age, but turned away always with a sigh of regret. She was still twenty two: she would, it appeared, be always twenty-two. As she watched furtively her old contemporaries growing middle-aged and matronly, and driving down Gower Street with their children, she envied them with all her heart. Sometimes she dreamt that she too had been married, and that she had a daughter who was growing ludicrously older than herself: this was bad, but it was only a dream, and the realities of her life could not be dismissed in this way. No news had come of Finlayson since the day after Black Friday: he had taken his dismissal as irrevocable. She desired intensely to see him again, but she had no address, and it was not until she saw in the Daily News that he was acting as correspondent in the Franco-German war that she knew vaguely of his whereabouts; upon which she wrote a letter full of affection and respect, begging him to renew his offer, to forget her youthfulness and believe in her sincere love, and she was his "affectionate sweetheart, M. A. Rawley." The Commune opened in Paris at about the time that the letter was due there, and a less fortunate communication would have disappeared; but this reached Finlayson, and cheered him as nothing just then but a good meal would have done.
Miss Rawley was on her knees whitening the steps on a spring morning of '73, an occupation shared at about every other house by similarly white-capped, blue-aproned young women; so that the street looked, at the hour of nine, rather like the resort of some new feminine sect which worshipped front doors. Miss Rawley seemed that morning the most youthful of all the kneeling girls. Glancing round as she rose to move the strip of linoleum, her quick eyes saw coming up from Bedford Square way Captain Finlayson, still slightly lame, now greyish of hair, with a general look of appropriate, reasonable middle-age. The delight of seeing him again was checked by the knowledge that his objection to her extreme juvenility would in all probability still exist. Being in a kneeling position, she suddenly bent her head. The gods had been good to her before,—would they be good to her once again? Fearfully and with little hope she looked a moment later into the pail of clear water beside her. Then with a cry of delight she rose to her feet carefully, and went in with the dignity of forty years.
"Mistress's compliments, sir," said Wilson, with nervous gratification, "and she's just changing, and she'll be down in a minute."
"Good!" said Captain Finlayson. "You're looking well, Wilson, but older."
"Like most of the world, sir."
"With the single exception of your mistress, Wilson, I know of no one who is exempt——"
"Excuse me, sir! I think you'll find that mistress looks her age now."
"Damme," cried Finlayson excitedly, "if she does I'll marry her to-morrow!"
And, being a man of his word, he did this. Wilson sold the goodwill of the boarding-house and managed house for them; the married sisters renewed their friendship, and their children welcomed presently a new playmate.
As the children's French story-books say, "Voilà tout le monde content."