Auntie and her Darling.
“Don’t eat too much marmalade, Sydney dear. It may make you bilious.”
“Oh, no, auntie dear, I’ll be careful.”
“You have a great deal of butter on your bread, dear?”
“Yes, auntie; that’s the beauty of it Miller says—”
“Who is Miller, Syd dear?”
“Our chemistry chap at Loamborough. He shows us how when you mix acids and alkalis together they form new combinations which go off in gas.”
“Indeed, dear! Your studies must be very interesting.”
“Oh, they are, auntie—awfly. That’s how it is with the marmalade and the fresh butter—this is real fresh butter, isn’t it?”
“Of course, dear. Whatever did you think it was?”
“Dab, aunt dear. Margarine. That wouldn’t do, of course; but the marmalade’s nearly all sugar—that’s carbon—and the butters all carbon, too; and then there’s a lot of acid in the oranges, and it all combines, and one kills the other and does you good. It never hurts me. Shall I give you some game pie, auntie?”
“Thank you, no, my dear, but you may pass me the dry toast. Thanks. Pass your cup, my child.”
Sydney Smithers, who, to use his own term, had been “going in” deeply for the marmalade, went backwards in his arrangement of the breakfast comestibles, and helped himself liberally to the game pie, especially the gelatinous portion, glancing once at the pale, handsome, sedate-looking lady presiding at the head of the table ready to meet his eyes and bestow a smile upon the dear child, her nephew, who made the Denes his home, when he was not at Loamborough spending his last terms before commencing a college career.
“Such a dear, sweet boy,” Lady Lisle often said to herself, as she beamed upon him blandly with thirty-five-year-old eyes, and idolised him, as she had no children of her own, and he was her own special training.
“At it again,” said the boy to himself, as he glanced at the lady furtively; “more letters. Lady doctors, lady barristers. Blest if I don’t think she means to go in for a lady parson! More meetings to go to, auntie dear?” he said aloud.
“Yes, my darling,” replied the lady, with a sigh and another affectionate beam upon the plump-looking darling intent upon the game pie. “The calls made upon my time are rather heavy. By and by, when you have grown up, I hope you will be able to help me.”
“Why, of course I will, auntie. Didn’t I want to write that answer for you yesterday?”
“Um—er—yes, my dear; but we must wait a little first. Your writing is not quite what I should like to see.”
“No, auntie; it is a bit shaky yet. We don’t go in for writing much at Loamborough; we leave that to the Board School cads.”
“And I should like you to be a little more careful over your spelling.”
“Oh, Mullins, M.A., says that’ll all come right, auntie, when we’ve quite done with our classics.”
“I hope so, my darling, and then you shall be my private secretary. I did hope at one time that I should win over your uncle to a love for my pursuits. But alas!”
“Don’t seem in uncle’s way much, auntie, but he means right, uncle does. You wait till he’s in the House—he’ll make some of ’em sit up.”
“I hope not, my dear child. I rather trust to his brother members leading him into a better way.”
“Ah, I don’t think you ought to expect that, auntie,” said the “dear boy,” using his serviette to remove the high-water mark of coffee from an incipient moustache. “They go in for all-night sittings, you know.”
“Yes, my dear, but only on emergencies, and for their country’s good.”
“Walker!” said the “dear boy,” softly.
“I used to think at one time that I should be able to wean him from his bad habit of lying in bed so late. If he would only follow your example of getting up early enough for a long walk or ride before breakfast!”
“Nicest part of the day, auntie.”
“Yes, my dear.”
Lady Lisle sighed, and went on eating crumblets of dry toast and sipping her tea, as she opened and examined a pile of letters, many of which had a very charitable-institution-like look about them; and Sydney Smithers, her nephew, toiled pleasantly on at taking in stores, till his aunt sighed, glanced at the door, then at the clock, and then at her nephew.
“Have you finished, Syd, my dear?”
“Yes, auntie, quite.”
“Ha!” sighed the lady, gathering up her letters, the boy springing up to assist her in carrying them to the side-table in the embayed window of the handsome room. “You will, I know, take advantage of your being with us, my dear, to avoid those of your poor dear uncle’s habits which your own good sense will teach you are not right.”
“Oh, of course, auntie dear.”
“And to follow those which are estimable.”
“To be sure, auntie dear.”
“For your uncle is at heart a noble and generous gentleman.”
“Regular brick in some things, auntie,” said the “dear boy,” and Lady Lisle winced.
“Try not to make use of more of those scholastic words, Syd dear, than you can help.”
“All right, auntie, I won’t; but brick is right enough. Mullins, M.A., says it’s so suggestive of solidity and square firmness.”
“Yes, my dear, of course, and I wish you to be firm; but, above all, be a gentleman, and—er—careful in your selection of your friends.”
“Oh, yes, auntie; I am.”
“You see, my dear, it is our misfortune that the Denes is situated here.”
“But, auntie, it’s a jolly place.”
“Yes, my dear; but it was quite a wreck from neglect till your uncle married me, and he—er—we restored the place—his ancestral home—to what it is.”
“You did it up beautifully, auntie.”
“Well, I hope I did, my dear child, but I have often regretted the money that was spent over a place situated as it is.”
“Situated, auntie? Why, it’s lovely.”
“Lovely by nature, my dear, but tainted and made ugly by the surroundings of the society which affects the district.”
“Is it, auntie?”
“Yes, my dear. I never could understand why it should be selected by those dreadful people for their sports and pastimes.”
“You mean the racing, auntie?”
“Yes, my dear”—with a shudder. “Tilborough has become a den of infamy—a place which attracts, so many times a year, all the ruffiandom of London, to leave its trail behind. The late Lord Tilborough used to encourage it with his stablings and horses, and—yes, it’s a great pity: the sweet innocency of the neighbourhood is destroyed.”
“Of course, Lady Tilborough calls occasionally, and I am compelled to be civil to her; but I wish you to avoid all communication with her and her friends as much as possible.”
“Oh, I never see her, auntie, except when she’s driving. I’ve met her sometimes when I’ve been out with uncle.”
Lady Lisle winced. “Not lately, Sydney dear?” she said after a pause.
“Not very lately, auntie. Last time it was when Dr Granton—”
“That person who comes and stays at Tilborough?”
“Yes, auntie; uncle’s old friend.”
Lady Lisle winced again.
“He’s an awfully jolly chap. You like him, auntie?”
“No, my child, I do not. Your uncle’s old friends of his bachelor days belong to quite a different world from mine.”
“But he’s a clever doctor, auntie. Done uncle no end of good. Proper sort of chap to know.”
“How can you judge as to that, my dear?” said the lady, sternly.
“Well, you see, auntie, one does get a bit queer sometimes. I had such a headache the other day when he called to see uncle, and he laughed at me, and took me over to the hotel and gave me a dose of stuff that cured it in half an hour.”
“Sydney, my dear, I beg that you will never go to that hotel again. Avoid Tilborough as much as you would any other evil place. The next time you have a headache either go and see Dr Linnett or come to me, and I will give you something out of the medicine-chest. Dr Granton cannot be an experienced practitioner.”
“Why, they say, auntie, he’s wonderfully clever over accidents in the hunting field.”
“Yes, in the hunting field,” said the lady, sarcastically; “but a medical man’s practice should be at home, and in his own neighbourhood. A man who attends grooms at racing stables is to my mind more of what is, I believe, called a veter—”
“That’s right, auntie—a vet.”
“Than a family practitioner,” continued the lady, sternly; “and it is a source of great trouble to me that your uncle does not give up his society. I desire that you avoid him.”
“All right, auntie; I will.”
“Always bear in mind, my dear, that it is easier to make acquaintances than to end them.”
“Yes, auntie; I found that out in Loamborough. Some of the fellows will stick to you.”
“Say adhere, my child.”
“Always bear in mind what a great future you have before you. Some day—I sincerely hope that day is far distant—your dear grandfather must pass away, and then think of your future and the position you must hold. A title and a princely income.”
“Oh, yes; I often think of it all, auntie. I say, though, I wish the chaps wouldn’t be quite so fond of chaffing a fellow about the old guv’nor buying his title.”
“He did not buy it, Sydney, my dear,” said Lady Lisle, with a faint colour coming into her cheeks.
“Didn’t he, auntie? They say so.”
“The truth of the matter is, my dear, that the party—”
“Good old party!” said the “dear boy” to himself.
“The party was pressed for money to carry on the Parliamentary warfare, and, with your dear grandpapa’s noble generosity, he placed his purse at the party’s disposal.”
“Keeps it pretty close when I want a few dibs,” said the “dear boy” to himself.
“And the baronetcy was the very least return that the retiring Prime Minister could make him.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it, auntie?”
“Yes, my dear,” said the lady, laying down one of her secretarial appeals she had that morning received from the enterprising dun of the Society for the Propagation of Moral Maxims. “Yes,” she said, with some show of animation, “the title was honourably earned and bestowed, and some day, Syd, my dear boy, you will be very proud of it. New? Yes, of course it is new.”
“And it’ll grow old, won’t it, auntie?”
“Of course, my dear. And the Lisles, your dear uncle’s people, need not be so proud of their old family title. The Lisle, your uncle’s ancestor, was only a wealthy country gentleman, who bought his baronetcy of King James the First.”
“For a thousand quid, auntie?”
“A thousand pounds, my dear,” said the lady, looking at him wonderingly.
“Yes, auntie; but he was a gentleman.”
“And so is your grandfather, Sydney, my child,” said the lady, rather austerely.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said the “dear boy,” rather sulkily. “The fellows at Loamborough are always chucking the ‘Devil’ in my face.”
“They do, auntie—it’s the machine that tears up the old shreds at the mills—and saying grandpa ought to have been made Baron Shoddy.”
“My dear Syd!”
“And do you know what they call me?”
“No, no; and I don’t want to know, sir.”
“Young Devil’s Dust,” snarled the boy.
“Indeed!” said the lady, indignantly. “Loamborough was selected for your education because the pupils were supposed to be young gentlemen—aristocrats.”
“So they are,” grumbled the boy, “and that’s the worst of them. Stink with pride.”
“From envious poverty, Sydney, my child.”
“Oh, yes, they’re poor enough, some of ’em, and glad enough to borrow my tin.”
“Of course,” said the lady, bitterly. “The Lisles, too, have shown me a good deal of haughtiness, but they were not too proud to see the representative of their family form an alliance with the Smitherses.”
“When uncle had been sold up two or three times.”
“Don’t allude to such matters, Sydney, my child,” said the lady, sternly.
“Can’t help it,” grumbled the boy, sourly, as if his breakfast had not agreed with him, consequent upon his making improper combinations of carbon, acid, and alkali—“it stings a bit. The fellows say uncle wouldn’t have married you if it hadn’t been for the dibs.”
“Sydney, my dear boy, you can afford to look down with contempt upon such evil, envious remarks. Your dear uncle fell deeply in Jove with me, and I with him, and we are extremely happy. The only trouble I have is to combat—er—er—certain little weaknesses of his, and yearnings for the—er—er—the—”
“Turf, auntie. Yes, I know.”
“The racing and the gambling into which he had been led by dissolute companions. But enough of this, my dear. I find I am being unconsciously led into details of a very unsavoury nature. Your uncle is now completely weaned from his old pursuits, and happy as a model country gentleman.”
The “dear boy” winked solemnly at the bronze bust of a great Parliamentary leader on the chimney-piece, and the lady continued—
“In a few days he will address his constituents at the head of the poll as member for Deeploamshire.”
“What price Watcombe?” said the “dear boy,” sharply.
“I do not understand your metaphor, Sydney, my child,” said the lady, coldly.
“I mean, suppose Watcombe romps in at the race.”
“Race! Oh, my dear boy, pray do not use that word. If you mean suppose his adversary should be at the head, pray dismiss the thought. Your dear uncle must win and take his seat in the House. Some day I shall see his nephew, my dear child, following his example—the second baronet of our family. Think of this, Sydney, and learn to feel proud of descending from one of the manufacturing commercial princes of the Midlands, whose clever ingenuity resulted in the invention of a complicated instrument—”
“Improved devil,” said the “dear boy” to himself.
“For tearing up old and waste woollen fragments into fibre and dust.”
“Devils dust,” said Sydney, silently.
“The former being worked up again into cloth—”
“Shoddy,” muttered Sydney.
“And the latter utilised for fertilising the earth and making it return a hundredfold.”
“Gammon,” said Syd.
“The whole resulting in a colossal fortune.”
“Which the old hunks sticks to like wax,” said Syd to himself.
“And of which you ought to be very proud, my dear.”
“Oh, I am, auntie. But I say, how was it pa and ma went off to Australia?”
“Pray do not revive old troubles, my dear. My brother never agreed with your grandfather. I grieve to say he was very wild, and given to horse-racing. Then he grievously offended your grandfather in the marriage he made clandestinely. Let it rest, my dear boy. Papa behaved very handsomely to John, and gave him ample funds to start a fresh career at the Antipodes, leaving you to my care—to be my own darling boy—to make you a true English gentleman; and I feel that I have done my duty by you.”
“Oh, auntie, you are good,” said the “dear boy.” “I’m sure I try to do what you wish.”
“Always, my darling, with a few exceptions. I have found out that.”
“What, auntie?” said the “dear boy,” changing colour.
“That my darling is a leetle disposed to be vulgar sometimes.”
“Ha!” sighed the lad, with a look of relief.
“But he is going to be as good as gold, and grow into a noble gentleman, of whom his country will be proud. There, now we understand each other. Mr Trimmer is late this morning.”
“Scissors! How she made me squirm!” muttered the boy, who had risen and walked to the window as if to hide his emotion with the scented white handkerchief he drew from his pocket. “He isn’t late, auntie—just his usual time.”
“Dear, dear, and your uncle not yet down!”
“Shall I go and rout him out, auntie?”
“No, my dear,” said the lady, sternly, “I will speak to him when he comes down.”
“Do, auntie. Tell him he loses all the fresh morning air,” said the boy, demurely, feeling in the breast-pocket of his jacket the while, and causing a faint crackling sound as of writing-paper, while he noted that the lady was resuming her perusal of the morning’s letters.
Just then the breakfast-room door opened and a pretty little dark-eyed parlourmaid entered the room.
“Mr Trimmer is in the libery, my lady.”
“Show him in here, Jane,” said Lady Lisle, without raising her eyes, “and tell Mark to have the pony-carriage round in half an hour.”
“Yes, my lady.”
The girl turned to go, her eyes meeting those of the “dear boy,” who favoured her with a meaning wink, receiving by way of reply a telegraphic wrinkling up of the skin about a saucy little retroussé nose.
“Little minx,” said the “dear boy” to himself.
“Young impudence,” said the girl, and she closed the door, to return in a few minutes to show in Mr Trimmer, her ladyship’s confidential bailiff and steward of the estate.
Categories: English Literature