A Woman of Seasons (Alice MacDonald Fleming, 1893)
"If there were dreams to sell,
What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
Some a light sigh.
That shakes from Life's fresh crown
Only a roseleaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?
SHE came into the room with the air of being exceedingly pretty. She was beautifully dressed; the fire of diamonds flashed from her brow and her bosom ; and it was a surprise to me to find, when I was introduced to her, that she was not in the least a pretty woman: she was only costumed for the part. I looked at her with some curiosity ; her nose was so excellent that the rest of her face appeared mediocre, even shabby by contrast. She was pale ; her eyes were a light grey, with inadequate brows and lashes; and the thoroughly satisfactory-curve of the nose was followed by a large, indefinite mouth, and an inferior chin. The outline of the face was nothing, the admirably arranged hair was a dull brown, the diamond-decked neck and arms lacked distinction in their modelling. She was a failure in the matter of looks, and from her style of dress and carriage a pretentious failure.
I sat opposite to her during dinner, and noticed that she had all the gestures and glances of beauty ; she had learnt the manége, as it were, and it seemed a little pitiful that it should all be so inadequate. Considered from the right point of view, her light eyebrows proclaimed her inherent worth: she had evidently studied her looks, had devoted time and thought to them, and yet had resisted any temptation to tint or to tinsel. She was keenly conscious of her own appearance; her dress, and its every appurtenance, was a trial to less careful and less wealthy women; but she had left her face honest, and washable, in a most praiseworthy way. My neighbours were dull, and I had some time to devote to the consideration of Miss Ellersley-Bollace. She had a great deal to say; she kept herself, and the man to whom she talked, in an excellent semblance of amusement from the soup to the ices--a lengthy interval.
Her pale eyes moved very quickly, and her assumption of being in her element was so absolute that it bordered upon nervousness. I guessed her age between thirty-three and forty, and I had the impression that she considered herself about twenty-seven.
The table was narrow, and without eavesdropping a few of the remarks of Miss Ellersley-Bollace reached my ears : they struck me as admirable. Concise opinions, up-to-date phrases, little flashes of wit, just enough for the occasion, and with it all, sudden darts and droppings of glance which violet eyes and long lashes would have rendered adorable. I fancied that the man to whom this entertainment was exhibited did not appear impressed by it: he had the air of not taking her seriously.
When we went to the drawing-room, she crossed to me, and her manner of moving was estimable. "Come and let us talk," she said, choosing a couch that accorded with her draperies. "Do you know, I shall like you very much: I felt sure that I should all through dinner."
She was watching me steadily, as if to see how this disclosure affected me; I had a keen womanly consciousness that the worst dress in the room was sitting beside the best one, but I did not feel humbled thereby. "How should I answer that?" I asked: "by a deprecating little laugh, or by what I really think?"
"Oh, the real truth," she said, absorbed in the nice conduct of a plumy fan.
"Well, I am indeed out of your world," I said, smiling, "if that is the only thing you can find to say to me."
"Ah, that makes me like you better," and her well-arranged head took a friendly angle; "but it's quaint that I have never met an Anglo-Indian woman before, isn't it? The men are at every corner. Tell me about India."
"Tell me about Europe," I suggested; "the geographical area is smaller, so perhaps it will take less time."
She looked a little surprised, and then she laughed. "I like that," she said.
"I always wanted to meet an Anglo-Indian woman."
"I am a disillusioning presence," I said, a little bitterly; "certainly I am a 'grass-widow,' my husband having sent me home to spend a year with my children, but I am not deliciously wicked. My children had not seen me for six years; they are beginning to grow a little fond of me again, and that is something. I live in lodgings, in Bayswater, and I go about in omnibuses. What more can I tell you?"
"Oh. But about India?"
"The pleasures are too trivial and the pains too real to discuss. Tell me what theatres I ought to go to."
"I hate theatres; I always want to be every one in the play. I will tell you something: you will like me."
"I do thus far," I said, truthfully.
"Come and see me, then. I will come and spend whole days with you in Bayswater, if you refuse."
"It might enlarge your sympathies," I said. "I eat in the room I sit in, and my little girl has a canary."
"I am always at home on Wednesdays," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace; "but all the world comes on that day, and I want to have you to myself. I shall interest you: come often."
"I am always with my children; they take up all my time."
"Oh, I shall interest you more than your children."
Then the men came, and we said no more; but later she came across the room, in shimmer of satin, to say good-night to me.
"It's settled," she said; "you are to come and see me, often."
"But I don't know where you live."
"Oh, addresses are a nuisance, one never remembers them: that's why they are always on the letter-paper; but you'll find me — in the Red Book."
"I don't keep the Red Book."
"Oh, you'll find it —at the Post Office. Good-night!" And she left me with an impression of insolence, and the determination to consult no book as to her whereabouts.
A week later she came to call on me, having learnt my unrecorded address from the lady at whose house we had met. The children had gone out, eleven-year-old Douglas proudly safeguarding nine-year-old Beryl; I had spent sixpence that morning on fresh flowers, and the canary, by special favour of the landlady, was shrilling his ear-piercing rejoicings in the kitchen. My lodging, by happy chance, was at its best, and Miss Ellersley-Bollace was resolutely charmed and charming. Her dress was delightful, and the face that diamonds had rendered insignificant proved itself more worthy of a daintily constructed bonnet. She was dressed for the Park, but did not go there; she stayed with me, drinking Indian tea out of a cheap Japanese cup, and talking about herself; she seemed to find both actions exhilarating.
I was touched by this manifestation of her desire to make my acquaintance; for what means had I, in Bayswater, of contributing to the pleasure of Miss Ellersley-Bollace in Albert Gate? She evidently sought me for myself alone. She was still with me when Douglas and Beryl returned, flushed with adventurous roaming in Westbourne Grove, and with their tales of travel stricken dumb upon their lips by the sight of the stranger. She looked at them with vaguely humane eyes, and placed the conventional perfunctory kiss of greeting on my daughter's round cheek. Douglas shook hands with her at the full stretch of his arm, fearing similar advances.
"You are coming to see me very soon," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace, assuming the air of departure. "If you would come to lunch, you know, we could do things in the afternoon: there is always the Park. I've got a lady staying with me, but she always takes the brougham."
"That must be a little trying this warm weather," I suggested.
"Oh," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace, "it's all right ; she's a sort of relation. Mind you come soon; and wouldn't you like to have tickets sometimes?"
"For soup?" I asked bluntly, for her voice was patronising.
"Oh, no: matinees and things; Ibsen. Good-bye."
I found her at home one afternoon, not a Wednesday, in one of those narrow, old-fashioned houses, which have been overtaken in the whirl of London, and appear there very much as a real great-grandmother's dress does at a fancy ball. There were the habitual white and yellow window flowers, and her room was as I had expected—conventionally unconventional, containing all the right things. It was like the dress she wore —very simple, and exceedingly expensive. The lady who stayed with her had gone out in the brougham, and Miss Ellersley-Bollace was free to talk. It was a long talk, with interludes of tea and strawberries, an accompaniment of rolling carriages, and a background of the green trees in the Park, seen through a glass door, beyond a slim strip of garden ground. The talk was interesting because it enlightened me as to the reason for her advances to me. I realised that the same instinct which compelled her to glance at any mirror she passed impelled her to talk of herself to any one who would listen. Experience had probably taught her the unwisdom of wearying her own set with too frequent reiteration; the lady who stayed with her was either unsympathetic or an exhausted receiver of confidences; and a new listener, an ignorant person from a far land, was true treasure trove. I was strengthened in this conclusion by the resident lady herself, who returned in the brougham at tea-time, addressed Miss Ellersley-Bollace once as "my dear," in exactly the right tone for a "sort of relation" to use, and effaced herself soon after with a smile in my direction, which I am sure would have expressed understanding, had her manners been less faultless.
Miss Ellersley-Bollace returned my visit with startling promptness, and then followed a time when she expounded herself to me almost daily, and at great length. I think she considered her conversations with me, or rather her monologues to me, first as a luxury, then as a necessity of life: they became a habit with her. She used to come to me in the morning, to the indignation of Douglas and Beryl, to implore me to help her shop in various aristocratic regions, or to take me to see select and expensive pictures, that lived, each one in its temple, in Bond Street. If I pleaded business, she came with me while I bought groceries in the Westbourne Grove, confusing sadly all my previous schemes of vegetables and mutton chops with her ceaseless flow of speech. Sometimes I drove with her in the Park, feeling a little like a child at a show, and certain that I was surrounded by celebrities, if only Miss Ellersley-Bollace would take the trouble to point them out to me; but this she could never spare time to do. Instead of thus enlightening me, she told me tales, long tales, of herself and her family.
They were all rich; wealth had been the condition of the Ellersley-Bollaces since the happy day when Grandfather Bollace, not then Ellersley, invented some improvement in the machine at which he worked. His descendant skated lightly over this part of the story: I certainly did not learn from her that her ancestor's hands were seamed and oily and grimed with honest toil, yet this impression was strong upon me. I know, however, as a fact, that this fortunate inventor's only son married well, and Miss Ellersley-Bollace was his youngest daughter, the youngest of his five children. He was not sufficiently aristocratic to leave all his money to his eldest son; he had dowered his daughter handsomely, and after his death she had chosen her own paths, unguided by the rest of the family. She told me a great deal about her elder sister: I gathered that she was exceedingly like Miss Ellersley-Bollace herself, and well understood the lack of sympathy that she deplored. There must always be one that speaks and one that lends an ear; Miss Ellersley-Bollace had ears—she wore diamond solitaires in them —but none for lending.
It seemed necessary for Miss Ellersley-Bollace to remind a great many people that she had the right of regulating her own actions: indeed, every one who differed from her in the least degree was thus reminded. Her tales dealt almost entirely with what "I said" and what "she said": what "he said" was very meagrely represented, conspicuous indeed by its absence. The histories of petty squabbles, small ambitions, bygone social gratifications and disappointments, with which she entertained me were very trivial; but they were in better taste than if she had exhumed the dry bones of dead love affairs, for a ghoul feast. I expected this at first, but it did not arrive, and in its place came an infinite deal of nothing.
She had a wonderful memory: she described to me every smallest detail of the dress she had worn when she was first presented, and though she was careful not to tell me the year of its creation, it savoured of a far-away fashion; but I was neither clever enough nor malicious enough to be able to date it. She certainly kept her promise of interesting me, though not in the way that she intended; for I found her amusing, and she took herself very seriously. There were times when she tired me dreadfully; but she was a kind creature, and helped me to pass days that, in spite of Douglas and Beryl, would have been very lonely. I was learning, what every woman who returns "home" after a long absence needs must learn, that my best friends lived their lives very pleasantly and happily without me. They were kind when I appeared again, but I had no place, no part in their lots—that which had been mine existed no longer; I was of yesterday, and though they tried to fit me into to-day, the visible effort pained me. The very newness of Miss Ellersley-Bollace endeared her to me; she did not feel it her duty to seek me for old sake's sake. My children looked askance at her, considering her an interloper; I think she was vaguely conscious of this, for she showered hampers and boxes of sweets upon them, --recondite confections from those shops that bewail (and advertise) themselves in black and purple sugars when a great man dies. Even these offerings did not appease my savages. "It's like feeding beasts at the Zoo every time she comes," growled Douglas. This was an ungracious way of putting it, but I think Miss Ellersley-Bollace imagined every child to be, like Mr. Ruskin's bird, "a fat, happy little stomach," and not much else. My children were clever, and they smarted under a sense of unrecognised individuality.
My share in Miss Ellersley-Bollace's generosity was flowers. I think she had considered what she might safely give me without fear of offence, and the results of her meditations were roses —roses all the way. Once or twice I fancy she was on the verge of suggesting a new bonnet, or half a dozen pairs of gloves, but happily she never did. As a rule I evaded dining with her; the children served as excuse, but my real reason was that I did not like the people I met at her house. I had an idea that the lady who stayed with her (she changed in the course of two months, and became some one who was not a relation) looked suspiciously at me, as at a possible rival for the brougham; and I was not favourably impressed by her friends. They had always the air of not taking her seriously, and that vexed me. Of course she had her faults, and some very irritating peculiarities, but she was very likeable, and at times she touched me; I longed to be able to put her back to the beginning of her life, and find some influence that could induce her to make more worthy work of it. Her personality pleased me: the invariable perfection of her dress, even the studied graces of her attitudes and gestures, and what I could only call her "beauty glances," attracted me a little. When I refused to go to her house as frequently as she wished, she came constantly to my lodging. She often arrived, after the children had gone to bed, exquisitely dressed and more or less bejewelled, on her way to various entertainments, to which as a rule she did not go on. She seemed to prefer staying with me, talking until the night grew late; still talking while we supped on biscuits and cheap claret out of the rosewood chiffonier, in whose distorting patches of looking-glass she frankly watched her bedizened head. On these occasions her chaperon was to go on and wait for her, or she was to meet a sister-in-law or one of her most intimate enemies. I wondered how long they waited for her, and whether her apparent lack of friends was to be explained by her capriciousness.
It was during one of these midnight sittings that I asked, what I had long wished to know, where the other elements of her life were. Surely there were other topics than those she discussed so freely: did her social and family likings and dislikings fill the whole of her thoughts? Were there no deeper interests? I knew the extent of her limitations in art and music: she had a certain fashionable superficial acquaintance with instruments and decorative crafts, enough to show that she cared nothing for any one of them ; she did not ride, or play any sort of game; and to judge from her talk, literature did not exist for her. My questions were not framed thus bluntly, but I think I conveyed the impression that I considered her life a very barren one. I hope I did not preach, but I felt so strongly that she had deliberately shut herself from most of the purpose and beauty of life, that I must have been perilously near a sermon. I am afraid I ended with a timeworn allusion to Vanity Fair, of which I am certainly ashamed. She listened to me with her head prettily bent, and the smile I liked best on her lips; as I finished the smile grew vague. "Oh, I see what you mean, — I understand; but it's the season now, don't you see?"
I did not feel finally answered, but a little later she shook out graceful skirts and took herself and her treasures of millinery and diamonds away, and our talk was not renewed.
It was about this time that she suggested that I should be the lady who stayed with her; she had some sketchy, impossible scheme for benevolently disposing of the children meanwhile. I explained, through laughter, that my husband would never hear of such a thing, seeing that I had come home for the sake of those very children from whom she proposed to divide me; and, besides, I had the greatest dislike to broughams. She seemed to attach more importance to my second objection than to my first. "We'll only use it for going out at night," she urged; "I shall always want you to come out with me."
The emphasis was flattering, but the plan was impossible.
Soon after this I took the children into the country, to a peaceful place where they lived in happy fellowship with a whole farmyard, and became brothers to pigs and companions to cows, and were very well and riotously content; but for me the time passed slowly, and London seemed full of possibilities when we returned late in October.
I had received several letters from Miss Ellersley-Bollace, written on exactly the notepaper that the fashion prints reported as being the latest. There was nothing in these letters; the wonder was that she should have remembered or troubled to write to me. I did not know if she was in town, but, finding myself near her door one grey afternoon, I knocked to inquire. Miss Ellersley-Bollace was at home (the double name is cumbrous, but the use of it was a most stringent condition of her friendship — I am sure she would not have wished me even to think of her as "Miss Bollace"), but I waited for a long time in the drawing-room before she came to
me. The room had a bleak, flowerless look: I decided that she could only just have
come back from the country.
She entered with a rush — never had I seen her move in such an unstudied manner—and gave me an unwontedly firm grasp of the hand. " We won't stay here," she said at once: "come into my own room ; this one looks silly now, — I never have time to sit in it."
She led me into a room which I had known before as a home of beginnings, an allegory of unfinished things, of unsustained efforts, littered with Miss Ellersley-Bollace's various musical instruments and the implements of her artistic experiments. Now a sharp, decisive tapping came through the opened door, an unexpected sound,— the voice of the typewriter. The room was changed: the guitar, the zither, the mandolin —all had gone; an easel stood banished in one corner, a length of coarse flannel flung across it ; there was a huge writing-table running over with papers, and at one end of it a lady worked a typewriter with great swiftness.
"There are five more ready for you to sign," she said, without lifting her head. "I have brought you a helper," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace to her; then to me,
"This is Miss Cresseck, of whom I know you have often heard ; she has been good enough to come and stay with me and let me give her what little help I can. We can all do something, and it is such a privilege."
"Your help and generous sympathy are most valuable," answered Miss Cresseck, still typing, after a swift nod and smile to me.
I sat down wondering. Miss Cresseck was not the type of woman whom I should have expected to find among Miss Ellersley-Bollace's friends. She had a fine face, with a strong forehead and a square chin, and she wore her brown hair very smoothly and flatly; she looked benevolent and capable, the sort of person who has purposes, not impulses, and the power of curbing wandering enthusiasms to suit and serve useful ends. It had never struck me before that Miss Ellersley Bollace had any superfluous enthusiasm needing regulation. What did it all mean? and why had she called me "a helper "?
"I have been meaning to write to you," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace, " but one has so much to do the days are not long enough." She was leaning forward as she spoke, her hands resting between her knees in a very ungraceful fashion.
"I thought there was nothing going on in town now," I said innocently; "I fancied, indeed, that you had not come back yet."
"Oh, of course there is nothing going on of the frivolous sort," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace, with her strange new decision of manner; "but there are a thousand real things to do. We are ceaselessly busy; one needs to get things into working order before the winter, and that will be on us so soon now."
Her words puzzled me less than her appearance, which I had observed with increasing surprise: it was not only her dress, though that was a black serge with a simplicity of make and lack of style astounding in Miss Ellersley-Bollace; but her hair was packed into a plain knot, without a single curl or ripple; she wore no rings, she who had a passion for trinkets ; and a watch in a leather strap sat upon her wrist. Where was the daintily jewelled wristlet I had never before seen her without ? Even her face was not the same : the little graces and affectations were gone, forgotten ; a vehement, awkward woman sat talking to me, often passing her hand over her brow and smooth, straight hair. The clicking snap of the typewriter formed a fitting accompaniment to her altered speech. "I am sure you are interested in charities," she said; "if you are not, we will convert you, won't we, Miss Cresseck?" Miss Cresseck nodded as she slid back the carriage and started a fresh line. "It is enthralling work ; it will absorb you, and you will be able to give us so much help. You have old boots and children's shoes, haven't you?"
"I don't think so," I said feebly. It was truly the unexpected happening when Miss Ellersley-Bollace asked for my old boots.
"Oh, do try and find some ; the children must wear out lots, and we need them so urgently for our jumble sales. The people do not like them new; they say they are so uncomfortable, and they suspect them of being shoddy too, though the new ones I sent to the last sale were a very good quality. Oh, perhaps—your children" (I saw her try hard to remember their names) "would not mind —would you mind their wearing some of them rather roughly for a few weeks? just to take the new look off, you know : it would make such a difference."
I saw Miss Cresseck frown over her clashing keys.
"Well, at any rate you will give us personal help : you are one of those people born with an influence ; that must be such a happy thing. Now, I am only just acquiring an influence; Miss Cresseck is helping me."
"Tell me more," I said. "I hardly understand what you are doing."
She spoke very eagerly, she told me a great deal, the typewriter clicked and snapped, and I listened with a vague, foolish feeling that I must have come to the wrong house. It was a breathless tale, told in the Ellersley-Bollace voice without one of the Ellersley-Bollace gestures, —stories of various organisations dying for lack of funds or interest, or struggling into feeble life on stony ground; well founded, noble charities, that it was an honour to be associated with, and others of ill repute, where the light of truth showed unsavoury ways, and something was urgently needed to bring good out of evil ; tales of sorrow and suffering and
sin, told quite without any "I said " and "she said"; strange things, strangely blent; here a scheme whereby the hearts and souls of men and women might be redeemed, there a plan for giving toys to children. As the eager words grew quicker the typewriter ceased, and Miss Cresseck sat listening, with a shadow of the look I had so often seen before, that of not taking Miss Ellersley-Bollace seriously. The speaker seemed conscious of this; she stopped in mid sentence, and turned appealingly to me :
"Miss Cresseck says I have a tendency to be too diffuse; but in matters of this kind how can one ever be diffuse enough?
One can do so little after all, and if one keeps that little to one channel." Then she glanced at the leather strap on her wrist. "I had no idea it was so late," she cried. " No, you must not go; stay and have tea with us: we must go out directly after. We are going to (what is the name of the place, Miss Cresseck ?) —ah, yes, Poplar, for one of our happy evenings. Is it children or factory girls
to-night ? Yes, of course—children. You will come with us ? Oh, you must; you will love to help amuse them."
I said that it was my duty to go home and make a happy evening for Douglas and Beryl. I could see that she wondered for a minute who they were, and then she led me forcibly into her pretty dining-room, where a nondescript meal was waiting, I think that meal must have been ordered by Miss Cresseck, and I wondered what the cook thought of it : there were cold meats, and eggs, and I watched Miss Ellersley-Bollace hurriedly eating jam and buns, and marvelled at the change that had been wrought.
I marvelled more as time went on. I saw much less of her than I had done during the season ; but she came to me sometimes, leaving Miss Cresseck at home typewriting, I suppose, and swept me off my feet in a flood of talk. " Happy Evenings," "Happy Days," "Friday to Monday in the Country," "Free Breakfasts," "Clothing Schemes," "Prevention Homes," " Boot Clubs," " The Wasted Wealth of
King Demos," "Newspaper Missions," "Jumble Sales,'' "Penny Dinners," "Maternity Bags," and countless things that I cannot remember, were mingled in her talk, with now and again a piece of sound good sense, or some excellent suggestion, which I suspected to be one of the latest utterances of Miss Cresseck.
I regret now that I did not accompany Miss Ellersley-Bollace on any of her charitable expeditions, —it would have been interesting to see how she impressed the people she was so eager to benefit ; but I felt that I could imagine their attitude of
mind. I learnt that she hoped that Miss Cresseck would stay with her "always": she was such a noble woman that it did one good to breathe the same air with her.
I fancied that one of her minor aims now was to do me good, and Miss Ellersley-Bollace as a moral missionary was an exceedingly quaint picture. More than once I tried to beguile her into talk on the old topics, but she was no longer interested in
them, and though I respected her for this detachment, it puzzled me.
Miss Ellersley-Bollace had always seemed to me a woman whose charity would take the form of subscriptions, and of nothing else; and I was astounded, and a little ashamed, when I found that she gave up her whole time, and all that had previously made life pleasant to her, in its service. Personally I preferred her as she had been in the summer, but one could not doubt that the enthusiast she had become in the autumn was the worthier woman. In theory I admired her intensely, but still there seemed to be something unstable in her talk, — "the lady did protest too much ": I feared that I too was falling into the world's error of not taking Miss Ellersley-Bollace seriously.
I should have thought more on this subject, had the weather not grown alarmingly bad—a series of grey fogs that deepened to black, a horror of great darkness, peculiarly terrible to my unaccustomed eyes. It was unendurable ; and as I was not compelled to endure it, I took the children down to Bournemouth, and it was the early spring before I heard from or of Miss Ellersley-Bollace.
Then a letter came which surprised me very much. "I am all alone," she wrote, " alone and very lonely. Do come and stay with me. You must want to see your dressmaker, or your dentist, or somebody in town; or if you don't, in charity come and see me. I
have been trying to make up my mind to leave this chilly, miserable place, and go in search of the sun, but I am too lazy to make the effort. Do come to me."
And where was Miss Cresseck, with her resources of energy? and what had become of the life's work to which Miss Ellersley-Bollace had consecrated herself? These were questions I could not ask in a letter; but the invitation having come in happy time, as I had some business to do in London, I arranged to leave the children for a few days, and went up to town a week later.
It was a bleak and chilly evening when I reached Albert Gate, and Miss Ellersley-Bollace received me with enthusiasm in a warm, perfumed, dusky atmosphere : she had never kissed me before, but now she almost flung herself into my arms. The drawing-room looked more lived-in than ever before ; there was a new piece of furniture near the fire, too comfortable to be called a sofa, too poetic to be either divan or couch, that tempted one to reside on it permanently, and I told its mistress so.
"I almost do," she said ; "it is horrible to go out on these biting days. And I have nothing to do; I lie here for hours, my dreams and I."
"And does Miss Cresseck dream too?" I asked : "she did not look like a dreamer of dreams."
The room was too shadowed for me to see her face clearly, but she answered, in her old, slightly languid voice, " Oh, Miss Cresseck: she went away long ago, ages ago —before Christmas, I think. She was rather a fatiguing woman—didn't she strike you so ?—though so good. I gave her the typewriter ; it was a very good one— a beauty. But it clicked : didn't it click? Such a wearing sound!"
"And have you been alone since the New Year?""
"Yes, all alone, my dreams and I. Chichester —my oldest brother, you know— wanted me to go to them, but I preferred to stay here and live my own life; and those other Ellersley-Bollaces —the younger branch, you know" (I did not know, but I nodded) — "simply wearied me to go with them to the south of France, but I could not. I made my sunshine and my happiness here for myself, with music and flowers and books." It was new that Miss Ellersley-Bollace should speak of books in such a tender tone. My eyes were growing used to the firelit dusk, and I noticed various volumes lying about— yellow-backed ones chiefly, with the portly figures and bad binding that denote the French novel, and a few others that I recognised as good editions of modern poets. The piano stood open, with a pile of music upon it, and the guitar case lay near.
During dinner — a meal which was good enough for the most fastidious man, though Miss Ellersley-Bollace complained that the claret had not been properly warmed, and that there was too much vanille in the souffle— I had a better opportunity of studying the change in her.
It pleased me in many ways; the old studied graces had returned with reactionary force, and some added ones of languor. Her dress was exquisite— the ideal tea-gown of fiction, whose silken folds reveal even while they conceal the figure. There was a certain poetic feeling about it, which had before been lacking in her fashionable raiment. For a time I could not "place" it; it suggested something to my mind, but I could not quite tell what ; then I knew it was not only the tea-gown of fiction, it was that ideal garment worn by the beautiful bad women of fiction.
"Have you been trying a new dressmaker?" I asked.
Miss Ellersley-Bollace glanced complacently down at her flowing folds.
"No, it's the same woman. Do you like this ? I designed it, and made her make it exactly as I wanted it to be."
"It's quite lovely," I said. " And you really designed it yourself? How clever of you! I did not know that you possessed that talent."
"At all times men are not still the same," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace. This sounded like a quotation ; and that she should either quote, or say anything that could be mistaken for a quotation, was equally amazing.
At dessert appeared a little silver box, lined with cedar.
"Do you never smoke?" said Miss Ellersley-Bollace, lighting a cigarette with an accustomed air.
"No; and I did not know that you did."
"It is a fact that I should never obtrude on my friends; but when I am alone, or with some one who is really sympathetic, why should I not smoke? I find it soothes my nerves." It was again a new light to me that Miss Ellersley-Bollace suffered from nerves.
I had considered her enviably free from the modern curse; indeed, I had not thought her clever enough to be afflicted by them.
I looked at her across the flowers, and wondered if it was a deceit of the shaded lamp, or if there was really a tinge of colour on her naturally pale cheeks ; it was colour so exactly in the right place that it roused my suspicions. And surely her brows and lashes had grown darker since October. It struck me, too, that lights were -shining in the hair that used to be so brown ; it had before been devoid of "golden rays," but it certainly had them now. She threw the end of her cigarette into the fire with a free sweep of her arm from the shoulder, and we went into the drawing-room.
"What shall I sing to you ?" she said, going up to the piano.
"I thought you had given up singing," I said, surprised, for she had always refused to sing to me before.
"Give it up !—never while I live : music is the best part of my life to me." And this from a woman who told me that she had spent months without caring to touch a piano, and who I knew had gone to concerts merely because she felt obliged to say that she had heard so-and-so ! I stood amazed ; but she began to sing without waiting for me to speak again. She accompanied herself very badly ; her voice was not disagreeable, though it was neither powerful nor well trained, and her style of singing was exceedingly dramatic. She did not pronounce her words clearly, but now and again a passionate phrase reached me:
"Swept of your wings as you soar,
Trodden perchance of your feet. . . .
He that hath more let him give, . . .
He that hath wings let him soar,
Mine is the heart at your feet,
Here that must love you to live."
She passed from song to song without waiting for thanks or comment from me. Yet I had the impression that she did not sing thus when alone: a suggestion of display crept through it all.
" We'd hunt down love together, . . .
Pluck out his flying feather, . . .
And find his mouth a rein," . . .
sang Miss Ellersley-Bollace fervently. Then the strain changed, blundered among discordant keys, and grew to lengthier cadences, wherein I heard snatches like this:
"Ah, be it light, be it night, 'tis love's hour, . . .
Free love has leaped to the innermost chamber,
Oh, the last time, and the hundred before. . . .
Thy soul is the shade that clings round it to love it,
And tears are its mirror deep down in thy heart."
Her voice died away, and she bent and swayed over the keyboard. Was it possible that this woman, well turned of thirty years, had only just made acquaintance with the poems of Swinburne and Rossetti? were they working like madness in the brain ?
I did not feel for a moment that any personal human influence had wrought this change — it all seemed too unreal ; but truly the woman was changed. She left the piano, and taking up her guitar came to sit near me.
"It is very sweet to have you to sing to again," she said; "and now I am going lo sing you something of my own : those other songs are only mine because I love them; you must tell me what this means to you."
By this time she had tuned the guitar, and arranged herself in a charming attitude with it.
"The words are from one of the most beautiful poems in the whole world," she said, speaking through a jingling prelude — "the 'Triumph of Time'; the music is mine, the setting of the pearl.''
The song began, it went on, it continued ; I suppose it is hardly possible that she could have sung to me the forty-nine verses, the three hundred and ninety-two lines that make up the poem, but I felt as though she were doing so as I listened to her long-drawn notes. She was so near me now that she sang in a species of croon, veiling the words, only laying occasional ferocious stress on such lines as these:
"Sick dreams and dead of a done delight,"
"Tilled from the heart to the lips with love,"
"O love, my live, had you loved but me."
As for the setting of the pearl, I was filled with wonder at her child-like content with her performance ; there was no melody, no rhythm; she picked a few chords on her sounding strings, and clashed a few notes between the verses: there was something very pitiful in such an exhibition, and I was vaguely troubled. She ended with a wailing repetition of the line,
"I shall hate sweet music my whole life long,"
and turned eagerly to me. " How does it affect you ? Tell me your impressions; tell me what you really think of
it, really feel for it."
"It must make you very happy to be able to sing in that way," I said.
She smiled, well pleased. " Yes, it does; though happiness is hardly the word to apply to my feeling, save that all power of expression is happiness. It must be terrible to be voiceless, dumb: what shall I sing to you now, dear one?"
"It is past eleven," I suggested timidly, " and I have had a busy day. May I say good-night?"
She parted from me unwillingly, but she was not offended. "Sleep well," she said, kissing me on both cheeks. "I am so glad to have you here ; you do not know how much good you have done me already; I find your influence so sympathetic."
I was very much occupied all next day, and had only a brief talk with Miss Ellersley-Bollace at lunch-time — long enough to confirm my suspicions that the roses on her cheeks and lips had been planted by her own sweet and cunning hand, not
Nature's. She had certainly planted them well; indeed, it was not till she stood near a window that I was absolutely positive of their artificiality. I regretted it; but, after all, why should she not follow the fashion in this particular point if it pleased her to do so? I rather dreaded the after-dinner time; I thought that perhaps she would sing the " Ballad of Burdens " to me, or large selections from the " House of Life," but she was dreamy and preoccupied, and the piano was untouched. I even asked her to sing, but she smiled sadly. "It is not singing weather with me to-night," she said.
" I want to talk to you, but something ties my tongue." She came with me to my room at half-past ten, and took up a photograph of my husband which I had put upon my writing-table.
"And you love him?" she asked suddenly.
"Well, I married him," I said, half laughing.
"Oh, that proves nothing; there are a thousand reasons for a woman to marry before ever thought or speech of love enters into the matter; and even supposing you loved him once, do you love him now?"
"That is an embarrassing question," I said lightly, for it seemed impossible that she was serious.
"I entreat you to answer me," she said vehemently, putting her hands on my shoulders and looking fixedly into my face. "I have a reason for longing to know. Has your love lasted? can love last? and how is it with him? You are not beautiful; you have been married twelve years: is there still any passion, any warmth of feeling, any real glow? or is it only the miserable pretence of custom and habit, and consideration for your children, that binds you together? Tell me — do tell me."
She gave me an insistent little shake. I had no power to feel offended: the fact that Miss Ellersley-Bollace was holding me firmly, gazing into my eyes and demanding urgently to know if my own husband (whose love and goodness were as assured and inevitable necessities to my life and happiness as light and air) really cared for me, was too comic to allow of thought.
"Don't trifle with me — tell me really," pleaded Miss Ellersley-Bollace.
"What can I tell you?" I said." "I am not a woman who talks of such things: they are too real and true, they are too much my life, for me to be able to discuss them lightly."
"Lightly ! who spoke lightly?" cried Miss Ellersley-Bollace passionately. "I ask for help, and you deny me help. Oh, how merciless you good women are!"
"You are overtired," I said : "let me take you to your room. Have you sent your maid away? I will wait on you if you have."
"You persist in misunderstanding me miserably. Good-night." And she flung away from me; I think she sobbed as she went. Next morning she sent me word that she had a bad headache, and after a visit which I proffered had been refused, I went out to transact the last of my business, with the uncomfortable conviction that I had quarrelled with my hostess. I came back in the afternoon, meaning to make my preparations to leave on the following morning, when I was met on the stairs by Miss Ellersley-Bollace's maid, freighted with a tender message from her mistress. I went with her into Miss
Eilersley-Bollace's room— the first time I had done so. Everything that could even suggest dressing was banished from it; and only a poetically ornate bed, which dimly reminded me of French novels, showed that it was not a particularly charming sitting-room. Miss Ellersley-Bollace was lying on a sofa near the fire, dressed in something that was soft and white and warm-looking, and trimmed with fur and lace; a Venice glass, full of lilies-of-the-valley, made the heated air heavy with fragrance. She received me rapturously, referred lightly, though with a graceful apology, to her petulance of the night before, and announced herself better, after a martyrdom of neuralgia, and yearning for my society, friendship and love. I did not speak of my purposed departure then, fearing she might think me offended with her.
I dined alone, on parole to return to Miss Ellersley-Bollace the moment I had finished. I found her pale and pensive, but very talkative. In answering something, I called her by her name.
"Ah ! still that cold formality," she said, with a little shudder : "will you never call me by my real name?"
"But I don't know it," I said; "I only know that your initial is 'B."'
"Guess what it is," she said, smiling faintly, and drawing a spray of lily-of-the-valley across her lips.
"Is it Beatrice?"
"No, not Beatrice —the blessed one; that is too happy a name for your poor friend."
"It is Belle."
"No: try again."
"I cannot ; I give it up. Tell me."
"If I could have chosen my own name I should have been Iseult," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace, making her rings sparkle in the firelight : "you remember beautiful, ill-fated Iseult, of the white hands? But though my name is not lovely in itself, I love it for Shakespeare's sake: it is Blanche," and she murmured dreamily, her eyes on the fire:
"If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,
Where should lie find it fairer than in Blanche?
If zealous love should go in search of virtue,
Where should he find it purer than in Blanche?'"
"Is that from King John? I never can remember," I said, trying not to smile.
"I never try to remember," she answered languidly.
I was sitting in a low chair near her sofa. Suddenly Miss Ellersley-Bollace rose from her pillows and cast herself down, on a cushion, at my feet. I was very much startled.
"I want to talk to you," she said. "I want you to help me: will you help me?"
"I will do anything for you that I can," I said. "Let me rest my head against you," said Miss Ellersley-Bollace, in a very low voice; "let me hide my face. I shall not be able to say a word if I see your eyes,
or if you see mine."
She leaned against my knee, and I looked down upon the new golden lights in her hair. "But you will catch cold if you sit on the floor, dear," I said, prosaically; "do go back to the sofa."
"No, no," said the low voice at my knee. "I want to feel young ; I want to feel like a child again: help and comfort me as though I were a child."
"Tell me what has grieved you," I said.
"First, then, promise that you will not judge me harshly. I know you are a good woman, and I think you are a happy one : surely you will have a little sympathy to spare for me. My heart aches so —my heart aches."
This, I felt, was the confidence coming at last; the old sorrow of her life was waking and crying; now I should hear the romance of her youth, the spoiling of yesterday, which had spoiled all her to-day. I was touched, and bent to listen, laying my hand gently on her hair. The head moved uneasily, and I took my
hand away: perhaps Miss Ellersley-Bollace's hair was not perfectly to be depended upon, under an unforeseen touch.
My memory of what followed is rather confused, I was so astonished by it. I do not know how Miss Ellersley-Bollace began her story; she seemed to plunge into it at once, though I suppose she told me what "he said," and he had said so much. It was not a confidence of long ago, it was entirely in the present —terribly in the present. At first I felt sure that what I dimly imagined wronged her horribly; then she grew more explicit, and I found myself drawing away from her as far as the chair allowed, and saying urgently, " No, no, no, you don't understand what you are saying; you do not mean that."
She caught my hands in a close, hot clasp, but still kept her head turned away. "Yes, I do mean it ; and you understand me, or you would not shrink from me, as you are doing now."
"Let me get up," I said; "this room is so warm, and the lilies seem to stifle me. I want a breath of air."
I opened a window, letting in the cold, foggy night, which seemed deliciously fresh and pure. After a moment I shut it out, and went back to the fading lilies, and the fire, and the painted woman, who sat staring into it with wide eyes and her reddened mouth slightly open.
"Miss Ellersley-Bollace," I said (the silly, pretentious name seemed in itself to disprove the tale of passion and sin she had sobbed out at my feet), "do go to bed: it is dreadfully late, and you look so tired. I know you don't mean all that you have said, and we won't speak of it again. I am sorry that I shall be obliged to leave to-morrow; but I really must not stay away from my children any longer."
"Ah! you are a mother : you can tell me. Don't you think that under any circumstances one would love a child ? 'One's own child' might atone for so much."
"I don't know ; I never thought about it," I said sharply.
"So you deny me even that grain of comfort," moaned the woman who crouched by the fire.
I was only conscious of one desire—to leave her, to consign this talk to the past: I would have hastened time into the next week, or the next month if I had had the power. I did not wish to think of what she had said; and above all I was anxious that she should add nothing that would make me absolutely believe it. There had been a quietness and directness in her tale, when once she had begun it, a certain absence of posing, that terrified me.
"You shall go in a moment," said the woman by the fire, turning round to look at me; "you shall go, and you may imagine that all that I have told you is a bad dream, a fever fancy of mine." Then she sprang up and faced me. "You have heard so much that you shall hear more," she cried : "the man of whom I speak is-----" and she repeated three times a name that is honoured wherever it is known. "Now, now do you blame me? do you blame me as much?"
"I do not feel as though I could speak," I said : "let me go."
"What says the married woman? You may go," she quoted, laughing : "that comes from Antony and Cleopatra — I remember that much. What strange creatures you good people are!"
"Please let me go," I said.
"Oh yes, you shall go. Wouldn't you like some pastilles to fumigate yourself after this?"
"Oh, Blanche," I said—and the name seemed suited to her, when Miss Ellersley-Bollace would have been wildly incongruous —"you must be ill, or you would not talk in this way ; it is so unworthy of you."
"Leave me now," she said, in a changed voice. "You said that kindly: let it be my last memory of you. Good-bye." And as I went away I saw that she fell
weeping on the floor.
I did my packing, with my hands shaking and my head in a whirl. I heard myself saying, " And she has kissed my Beryl so often!— but that was before this."
I found comfort in the thought of the people who did not take Miss Ellersley-Bollace seriously, and I tried not to believe, but through my unbelief came the conviction of her voice and speech, and a superabundance of detail in her story, that I was heart-sick in remembering.
She stayed in her room next morning, and sent me a polite little note of farewell, and I went back to the children and did my best to forget a very unhappy visit. The keen impression of that strange scene soon wore away, and I began to sympathise with the world's attitude towards Miss Ellersley-Bollace ; but still a most unpleasant memory remained, and I was glad when one day this was dissipated. I was looking
over a newspaper, when my eye was caught by that honoured name which had been stained for me by Miss Ellersley-Bollace's story. A little paragraph announced that his health had been much benefited by the winter he had spent in the Riviera, and that he was about to return to London, after an absence of more than six months. More than six months! then he had left England in the autumn: here was confirmation strong of the untruth of what had so much distressed me. Miss Ellersley-Bollace had been precise with her dates ; she had told me a winter's tale, and the hero of it had been abroad all the time. I laughed and was angry in the same breath. Why had she tricked me with this mimic tragedy, this Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark?
I was in town again in May, and Beryl and I, walking in the Park, were accosted by Miss Ellersley-Bollace, who stopped her carriage, beckoning wildly. She shook hands with me, and stooped to Beryl. "Don't kiss her," I said quickly: "she has a cold."
Miss Ellersley-Bollace looked at her with a kind eye, that showed no understanding.
"A cold?— the poor little girl ! We must try and find something to make the cold go away, mustn't we, Beryl?"
She insisted on our driving with her. She was clothed in a most accurately fitting dress, so fashionable that it was absolutely hideous ; she had been staying with her eldest brother, Chichester, and "Bertha —that's my eldest brother's wife, you know "—appeared to have been peculiarly objectionable, even for an Ellersley-Bollace connection. I heard most of the things that she had said, and all that Miss Ellersley-Bollace had said in reply—strange powers of speech ; and then we left the Park, and Beryl was given a birch-bark canoe full of conserved nuts, as balsam for her non-existent cold, and I received, next morning, a pile of flowers and an invitation to dinner.
I wish I could have seen Miss Ellersley-Bollace in the autumn again ; I wanted absolute confirmation of my theory that she changed with the changing year, and that her varying moods and phases and freaks were due to the influence of the seasons and the atmosphere on an idle mind. She had done so little to shape her own life, that her life had revenged itself by shaping her with great severity. I was sorry, too, that I could not talk of her with any one; I did not like the "lady who was staying with her" at that time. I had once been left alone with her, and she had said "poor dear Blanche was sadly eccentric," which made me think her false to the bread she ate. The Jady at whose house I had first met my puzzle was not an intimate friend of mine, and there was a certain treason in seeking to discuss Miss Ellersley-Bollace with people who made fun of her. I should have
liked a talk with Miss Cresseck, but 1 regret to say that I never met that excellent lady again.
I have often wondered what Miss Ellersley Bollace turned to in the later summer : yachting, perhaps, or golf, or country-house flirtations seasoned by theatricals. I should like to meet her again.
I last saw her just before I went back to India. I was obliged to brave the fiery furnace of the Red Sea in June, for my husband had been given an unexpected appointment, which enabled him to stay in the hills, and the chance of keeping Beryl with us for a year or two was too precious to be lost. Miss Ellersley-Bollace sent me a final haystack of flowers, as a suitable cabin plenishing, and Beryl had sweets enough to last her from the Albert Docks to Calcutta. As for my poor Douglas, left behind at school, he wrote to me, with mingled wrath and gratitude, that some one had sent him a great big box full of the silliest sweets he had ever seen: "most of them were violets and rose-leaves, all done up in sugar."
I am sure this was an offering from Miss Ellersley-Bollace.