I have wondered sometimes if there are not perhaps some disadvantages in having really blue blood in one’s veins, like grandmamma and me. For instance, if we were ordinary, common people our teeth would chatter naturally with cold when we have to go to bed without fires in our rooms in December; but we pretend we like sleeping in “well-aired rooms”—at least I have to. Grandmamma simply says we are obliged to make these small economies, and to grumble would be to lose a trick to fate.
“Rebel if you can improve matters,” she often tells me, “but otherwise accept them with calmness.”
We have had to accept a good many things with calmness since papa made that tiresome speculation in South America. Before that we had a nice apartment in Paris and as many fires as we wished. However, in spite of the comfort, grandmamma hated papa’s “making” money. It was not the career of a gentleman, she said, and when the smash came and one heard no more of papa, I have an idea she was almost relieved.
We came first over to England, and, after long wanderings backward and forward, took this little furnished place at the corner of Ledstone Park. It is just a cottage—once a keeper’s, I believe—and we have only Hephzibah and a wretched servant-girl to wait on us. Hephzibah was my nurse in America before we ever went to Paris, and she is as ugly as a card-board face on Guy Fawkes day, and as good as gold.
Grandmamma has had a worrying life. She was brought up at the court of Charles X.—can one believe it, all those years ago!—her family up to that having lived in Ireland since the great Revolution. Indeed, her mother was Irish, and I think grandmamma still speaks French with an accent. (I hope she will never know I said that.) Her name was Mademoiselle de Calincourt, the daughter of the Marquis de Calincourt, whose family had owned Calincourt since the time of Charlemagne or something before that. So it was annoying for them to have had their heads chopped off and to be obliged to live in Dublin on nothing a year. The grandmother of grandmamma, Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt, after whom I am called, was a famous character. She was so good-looking that Robespierre offered to let her retain her head if she would give him a kiss, but she preferred to drive to the guillotine in the cart with her friends, only she took a rose to keep off the smell of the common people, and, they say, ran up the steps smiling. Grandmamma has her miniature, and it is, she says, exactly like me.
I have heard that grandmamma’s marriage with grandpapa—an Englishman—was considered at the time to be a very suitable affair. He had also ancestors since before Edward the Confessor. However, unfortunately, a few years after their marriage (grandmamma was really un peu passée when that took place) grandpapa made a bêtise—something political or diplomatic, but I have never heard exactly what; anyway, it obliged them to leave hurriedly and go to America. Grandmamma never speaks of her life there or of grandpapa, so I suppose he died, because when I first remember things we were crossing to France in a big ship—just papa, grandmamma, and I. My mother died when I was born. She was an American of one of the first original families in Virginia; that is all I know of her. We have never had a great many friends—even when we lived in Paris—because, you see, as a rule people don’t live so long as grandmamma, and the other maids of honor of the court of Charles X. were all buried years ago. Grandmamma was eighty-eight last July! No one would think it to look at her. She is not deaf or blind or any of those annoying things, and she sits bolt-upright in her chair, and her face is not very wrinkled—more like fine, old, white kid. Her hair is arranged with such a chic; it is white, but she always has it a little powdered as well, and she wears such becoming caps, rather like the pictures of Madame du Deffand. They are always of real lace—I know, for I have to mend them. Some of her dresses are a trifle shabby, but they look splendid when she puts them on, and her eyes are the eyes of a hawk, the proudest eyes I have ever seen. Her third and little fingers are bent with rheumatism, but she still polishes her nails and covers the rest of her hands with mittens. You can’t exactly love grandmamma, but you feel you respect her dreadfully, and it is a great honor when she is pleased.
I was twelve when we left Paris, and I am nineteen now. We have lived on and off in England ever since, part of the time in London—that was dull! All those streets and faces, and no one to speak to, and the mud and the fogs!
During those years we have only twice had glimpses of papa—the shortest visits, with long talks alone with grandmamma and generally leaving by the early train.
He seems to me to be rather American, papa, and very coarse to be the son of grandmamma; but I must say I have always had a sneaking affection for him. He never takes much notice of me—a pat on the head when I was a child, and since an awkward kiss, as if he was afraid of breaking a bit of china. I feel somehow that he does not share all of grandmamma’s views; he seems, in fact, like a person belonging to quite another world than ours. If it was not that he has the same nose and chin as grandmamma, one would say she had bought him somewhere, and that he could not be her own son.
Hephzibah says he is good-natured, so perhaps that is why he made a bêtise in South America. One ought never to be called good-natured, grandmamma says—as well write one’s self down a noodle at once. While we were in Paris we hardly ever saw papa either; he was always out West in America, or at Rio, or other odd places. All we knew of him was, there was plenty of money to grandmamma’s account in the bank.
Grandmamma has given me most of my education herself since we came to England, and she has been especially particular about deportment. I have never been allowed to lean back in my chair or loll on a sofa, and she has taught me how to go in and out of a room and how to enter a carriage. We had not a carriage, so we had to arrange with footstools for the steps and a chair on top of a box for the seat. That used to make me laugh!—but I had to do it—into myself. As for walking, I can carry any sized bundle on my head, and grandmamma says she has nothing further to teach me in that respect, and that I have mastered the fact that a gentlewoman should give the impression that the ground is hardly good enough to tread on. She has also made me go through all kinds of exercises to insure suppleness, and to move from the hips. And the day she told me she was pleased I shall never forget.
There are three things, she says, a woman ought to look—straight as a dart, supple as a snake, and proud as a tiger-lily.
Besides deportment I seem to have learned a lot of stuff that I am sure no English girls have to bother about, I probably am unacquainted with half the useful, interesting things they know.
We brought with us a beautifully bound set of French classics, and we read Voltaire one day, and La Bruyère the next, and Pascal, and Fontenelle, and Molière, and Fénelon, and the sermons of Bossuet, and since I have been seventeen the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld. Grandmamma dislikes Jean Jacques; she says he helped the Revolution, and she is all for the ancien régime. But in all these books she makes me skip what I am sure are the nice parts, and there are whole volumes of Voltaire that I may not even look into. For herself grandmamma has numbers of modern books and papers. She says she must understand the times. Besides all these things I have had English governesses who have done what they could to drum a smattering of everything into my head, but we never were able to afford very good ones after we left Paris.
There is one thing I can do better than the English girls—I am English myself, of course, on account of grandpapa—only I mean the ones who have lived here always—and that is, embroider fine cambric. I do all our underlinen, and it is quite as nice as that in the shops in the Rue de la Paix. Grandmamma says a lady, however poor, should wear fine linen, even if she has only one new dress a year—she calls the stuff worn by people here “sail-cloth”! So I stitch and stitch, summer and winter.
I do wonder and wonder at things sometimes: what it would be like to be rich, for instance, and to have brothers and sisters and friends; and what it would be like to have a lover à l’anglaise. Grandmamma would think that dreadfully improper until after one was married, but I believe it would be rather nice, and perhaps one could marry him, too. However, there is not much chance of my getting one, or a husband either, as I have no dot.
We have an old friend, the Marquis de Rochermont, who pays us periodical visits. I believe long ago he was grandmamma’s lover. They have such beautiful manners together, and their conversation is so interesting, one can fancy one’s self back in that dainty world of the engravings of Moreau le Jeune and Freudenberg which we have. They are as gay and witty as if they were both young and his feet were not lumpy with gout and her hands crooked with rheumatism. They discuss morals and religion, and, above all, philosophy, and I have learned a great deal by listening. And for morals, it seems one may do what one pleases as long as one behaves like a lady. And for religion, the first thing is to conform to the country one lives in and to conduct one’s self with decency. As for Philosophy (I put a great big “P” to that, for it appears to be the chief)—Philosophy seems to settle everything in life, and enables one to take the ups and downs of fate, the good and the bad, with a smiling face. I mean to study it always, but I dare say it will be easier when I am older.
On the days when Monsieur de Rochermont comes grandmamma wears the lavender silk for dinner and the best Alençon cap, and Hephzibah stays so long dressing her that I often have to help the servant to lay the table for dinner. The Marquis never arrives until the afternoon, and leaves within a couple of days. He brings an old valet called Theodore, and they have bandboxes and small valises, and I believe—only I must not say it aloud—that the bandboxes contain his wigs. The one for dinner is curled and scented, and the travelling one is much more ordinary. I am sent to bed early on those evenings.
Each time the Marquis brings a present of game or fine fruit for grandmamma and a box of bonbons for me. I don’t like sweets much, but the boxes are charming. These visits happen twice a year, in June and December, wherever we happen to be.
The only young men in this part of the world are the curate and two hobbledehoys, the sons of a person who lives in the place beyond Ledstone, and they are common and uninteresting and parvenu. All these people came to call as soon as we arrived, and parsons and old maids by the dozen, but grandmamma’s exquisite politeness upsets them. I suppose they feel that she considers they are not made of the same flesh and blood as she is, so we never get intimate with anybody whatever places we are in.
Hephzibah has a lover. You can get one in that class no matter how ugly you are, it seems, and he is generally years and years younger than you are. Hephzibah’s is the man who comes round with the grocer’s cart for orders, and he is young enough to be her son. I have seen them talking when I have been getting the irons hot to iron grandmamma’s best lace. Hephzibah’s face, which is a grayish yellow generally, gets a pale beet-root up to her ears, and she looks so coy. But I dare say it feels lovely to her to stand there at the back door and know some one is interested in what she does and says.
Ledstone Park is owned by some people of the name of Gurrage—does not it sound a fat word! They are a mother and son, but they have been at Bournemouth ever since we came, six months ago. It is a frightful place, and although it is miles in the country it looks like a suburban villa; the outside is all stucco, and nasty, common-looking pots and bad statues ornament the drive. They pulled down the smaller original Jacobean house that was there when they bought the place, we have heard. They are coming home soon, so perhaps we shall see them, but I can’t think Gurrage could be the name of really nice people. The parson, of the church came to call at once, but grandmamma nearly made him spoil his hat, he fidgeted with it so, and he hardly dared to ask for more than one subscription—she is so beautifully polite, and she often is laughing in her sleeve. She says so few people can see the comic side of things and that it is a great gift and chases away foolish migraines. I think she has a grand scheme in her head for me, and that is what we are saving up every penny for.
Grandpapa’s people lived in the next county to this, in a place called Dane Mount. He was a younger son and in the diplomatic service before he made his bêtise, but if he was alive now he would be over a hundred years old, so during that time the family has naturally branched off a good deal, and we can’t be said to be very nearly related to them. The place was not entailed, and went with the female line into the Thornhirst family, who live there now. They are rather new baronets, created by George II. However, I believe grandmamma’s scheme is for us to become acquainted with them, and for me to marry whichever of them is the right age. The present baronet’s name is Sir Antony; it is a pretty name, I think. How this is to come about I do not know, and of course I dare not question grandmamma.
How I wish it was summer again! I hate these damp, cold days, and the east winds, and the darkness. I wish I might stay in bed until eleven, as grandmamma does. We have our chocolate at seven, which Hephzibah brings up, and then when I am dressed I practise for an hour; after that there are the finishing touches to be put to our sitting-room, and the best Sèvres and the miniatures to be dusted. Grandmamma would not trust any one to do it but me, but by ten I can get out for a walk.
It used to be dreadfully tiresome until we came here, because I was never allowed to go out without Hephzibah, and she was so busy we never got a chance in the morning, but since we came here I have had such a pleasure. A dear, clever collie for a friend—we got him from the lost dogs’ home, and no one can know the joy he is to me. Grandmamma considers him a kind of chaperon, and I am allowed to go alone for quite long walks now, and when we are out of sight and no one is looking we run, and it is such fun. Yesterday there was an excitement—the hunt passed! It is the first time I have seen one close. That must be delightful to rush along on horseback! I could feel my heart beating just looking at them, and my dear Roy barked all the time, and if I had not held his collar I am sure he would have joined the other dogs to go and catch the fox. Some of the men in their red coats looked so handsome, and there was one all covered with mud; he must have had a tumble. His stirrup-leather gave way just as he got up to the mound where Roy and I were standing, and he was obliged to get off his horse and settle it. I am sure by his face he was swearing to himself at being delayed. His fall had evidently broken some strap and he was fumbling in his pocket for a knife to mend it.
I always wear a little gold chatelaine that belonged to Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt and is marked with her coronet and initials; it has a tiny knife among the other things hanging from it. The muddy hunter could not find one; he searched in every pocket. At last he turned to me and said: “Do you happen to have a knife by chance?” and then when he saw I was a girl he took off his hat. It was gray with clay, and so was half of his face, it looked so comic I could not help smiling as I caught his one eye; the other was rather swollen. The one that was visible was a grayish-greeny-blue eye with a black edge. I quickly gave him my knife and he laughed as he took it. “Yes, I do look a guy, don’t I?” he said, and we both laughed again. Even through the mud one could see he was a gentleman. He fixed his stirrup so quickly and neatly, but it broke the blade of my little gold knife.
He apologized profusely, and said he must have it mended, and where should he send it? but at that moment there was the sound of the hunt coming across a field near again. He had no time for more manners, but jumped on his horse and was off in a few seconds—and alas! my knife went with him! And just as I was turning to go home I picked up the broken blade, which was lying in the road. I hope grandmamma won’t notice it and ask about it. As I said before, there are disadvantages in being well born—one cannot tell lies like servants.
Categories: English Literature